The result of capitalizing on peak envy

I consider this a worthy follow-up to my post, Our political pathology and its consequences, because it’s looking at a related, pernicious phenomenon that is spreading through organizations of all stripes. The most important thing to get about this is it’s a deliberate strategy of organizational takeover. As these guys discussed, it sounds unbelievable to the uninitiated, but it’s true. If you pay enough attention to what is happening to organizations that are being hit with this, you can see it.

This is from Aug. 9, 2019:

What James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian described is a takeover of administrative positions, using the cudgel of some kind of “justice.” What ensues is the attraction of followers that believe in this particular ideology, and then the “middle” of the organization, which it needs to survive, leaves, because they find the environment uninteresting, and threatening. Then comes either organizational death, or it becomes a client of some wealthy funder that keeps it on life support, and pays the salaries of the people who feed on the carcass, and continue spreading this ideology elsewhere.

The people who promote this have found a formula that works to achieve their aims, and they do it over and over again. What seems to feed it is a) envy of the target organization, and b) the target’s lack of faith in itself. All it needs is some shoving, and it collapses from within. As these people discuss in the above video, this dynamic creates social isolation, though the dream of those who are pursuing this strategy is to create a unified vision in all of the world’s inhabitants. They are utopians. If no one disagrees about anything, the thinking is conflict will end, which will have manifold social benefits. Their strategy is to destroy everything that is not in line with this ideology of “equity,” so it will be the only choice to fulfill people’s needs and desires.

As one can surmise, individual thought and action is sacrificed. Reason, logic, truth, beauty, and all that goes with them, are also sacrificed; no philosophy, no religion, no art, no mathematics, no science, no engineering–with one carve-out: The only moral imperative, the only belief allowed is in malignant indiscriminate neutrality. Applying reason or logic, in any form, in any forum, is to be deemed a hate crime. What’s often added to this is a carve-out for a single identity group, that the privileged identity is the only thing that can’t be criticized. This is an incarnation of identity politics, typically found in organizations colonized by the ideology of intersectionality.

This is being phased in over time. The idea is to eventually dissolve all faith in any system of belief, save this notion of “equity.”

What is being pursued is not achievable. No utopian dream is, though as the panel in the video describes, valuable institutions for our society are being destroyed in the pursuit.

I have sometimes wondered if the reason they are being destroyed is precisely because they are already weak. If this form of destruction did not come for them, then some other would. All of it is avoidable. All I think it really requires is a clarity of understanding what one believes, and why one believes it, and being stubborn enough to say no to what opposes it, and possibly “die on that hill.” Part of what this means is being able to categorize things accurately, and insisting on arguing within strong contexts, which means understanding and valuing those contexts for what they achieve. What I see, though, is this knowledge is very isolated. At best, it’s only in the single digits, percentage-wise, in our population.

The following is from Tim Pool, from August 28, 2019, talking about the cultish nature of this:

Edit 6/22/2020: I decided to add in this video, a conversation with Karlyn Borysenko and Kari Smith, because these are two women who were part of this ideology for many years, and found their way out of it. I thought it was a good talk. If you don’t have time for this, there’s a good (much shorter) excerpt of the same conversation at A former social justice warrior explains why social justice is a toxic, evil ideology. It’s from June 10, 2020.

The following is a conversation between Benjamin Boyce and Simon Chen from 2019. Chen and his parents experienced the Cultural Revolution in China. He sees a very similar pattern of social behavior emerging here.

The following video is from Ben Boyce from May 9, 2018.

The part at the beginning is not what concerns me, but rather the former professor’s message in response to his firing over it. Though it is delivered in the context of a university’s mission, what this professor speaks to is the heart of what is being grappled with here: Civilizational suicide. It has happened before, particularly in the first half of the 20th century, in certain countries in Europe. It can happen here. The only thing that’s missing from this picture is a viable military invader, or paramilitary force, to complete the deed, and effect a military takeover, leading either to dictatorship, or a puppet government. Though, perhaps I’m missing the potential military battlefield.

Our political pathology and its consequences

This is a post I’ve been sitting on for a couple years. The main reason being that the source I use, a YouTuber named Aaron Clarey, makes a prognosis for our society that I wasn’t too sure about, and I don’t like very much. I think we have enough evidence, though, that it’s accurate for the foreseeable future. So, I’m going ahead with it.

This is something I’d been trying to put my finger on for a long time. I feel as though the quality of our political dialogue has fallen off a cliff in the last 14 or so years. What I mean is it’s largely vacuous, cynical, and spiteful, and I can remember a time when it wasn’t like this. I’ve feared that this decline in our dialogue will lead to our society repeating the horrors that have occurred in authoritarian regimes, inside the United States, not necessarily in racial terms (though that could happen), but the same horrors nonetheless. I’ve seen some of the symptoms of this pathology, but I didn’t put the pieces together. The following videos, put together by Aaron Clarey in 2010, seem to paint a coherent picture of this. They cut a bit below the surface, to get at the inner lives of the people who influence our politics, and set government and corporate policies. It is just a hypothesis, but it matches with the symptoms I’ve seen. It is not a clinical study of these influencers. I nevertheless find it compelling.

The topic is on “crusaderism.” Clarey’s introduction was a bit disingenuous, because he said he was going to talk about the problem, “and what can be done about it.” As I get to below, he doesn’t really talk about what can be done about it. I mean, he ticks off some remedies that I strongly agree with, but you can tell his attitude is, “You can do this, but it’s likely going to be for naught. So, don’t bother.” There is reason to believe he was right about that.

He mostly covered the political Left, but he said a similar dynamic has been happening on the Right. His criticism of the Right seemed to match what I’ve seen with people who say they are conservatives, but who can’t justify their positions, or articulate anything about policy.

The short of Clarey’s hypothesis was that there are people who come from wealthy families, and are not willing to struggle, to get their hands dirty, to make a contribution to society. They go to college, get “easy A” degrees, and because they come to realize they can’t add anything of worth to society with what they’ve learned, through some sort of productive occupation, they feel the need to validate their ego. So they enter politics. They look for a cause. It doesn’t matter what it is, and they latch onto it like a dog with a bone. They advocate on behalf of the cause, but it’s really advocacy for themselves. They don’t care about the cause in the sense of trying to help society ameliorate a social or technical problem. The cause is a proxy for their life’s meaning. It’s not for something truly moral, where they’d care if their efforts resulted in some societal improvement. They don’t believe any of what they’re saying, in furtherance of their “cause.” The cause is meaningless. They advocate for it because being active in something that has an effect on society gives their life some meaning. They find purpose in having power over other people, and they use a guise of helpfulness as a shield against the pushback they get. Clarey said they find validation for their ego by being a destroyer of what other people have worked to build, because after all, it’s easier to destroy than create, and it’s affecting something beyond their home life. As I’ll get to later, I think this particular bit of analysis might skim over an underlying cause for “the destructive principle” that Clarey talked about.

His thesis is that this pathology has come to dominate our politics. One reason for this is the activity is well-funded. In some cases, their “causes” serve as paid jobs for them, funded by non-profits, and organizations like the United Nations. In the other cases, they’re “trust fund babies,” and create a “bonfire of their vanity,” using their own money, promoting their “cause.”

Before I continue, I feel it necessary to put a couple disclaimers here:

First, please excuse the typographical errors in Aaron’s presentation.

Second, I don’t agree with a couple of his assertions:

In Part 6, he talked about stats in useful vs. useless college degrees, and claimed that most undergraduates are getting useless degrees. He justified this with a chart, showing degrees in some categories, like arts and humanities vs. engineering. In the stats I’ve looked at, the useful degrees students have been getting outnumber the useless ones (though this may depend on what he and I consider “useful”), though I was looking at these stats several years after he made this. So, they may have changed.

In Part 7, he made a statement about “raising taxes to pay for increased spending.” I would strongly encourage people to look into the analysis that economist Art Laffer did on tax revenue as a percentage of GDP. The results are surprising, and worth looking at.

I looked up the Bob Geldof quote Clarey used in the third video, “We must do something, even if it doesn’t work,” because I was sure readers would find it so nonsensical that they would want to know if he really said it. I found the quote, attributed to Geldof, in a 2014 article, “How Charity Can be Selfish: Father Sirico on bad almsgiving.” from Forbes.com, though the wording is a bit different,

We need to do something, even if it doesn’t work or help.

It’s from a collection of short documentary films called “PovertyCure.”

The subject matter that Sirico and Jerry Bowyer talked about in the article, when discussing Geldof, sounds like it would relate to William Easterly’s book, “The Tyranny of Experts,” where Easterly describes the dysfunctional nature of our foreign aid efforts.

A note about Al Gore, since Clarey talked about him. Gore also “tried” with respect to the internet. He sponsored a bill in the late ’80s that ultimately led to the broadband version of the internet that we all eventually came to enjoy. A forward-looking move, though admittedly, he did not work on building the broadband internet. He did not manage the process of building it out, or of actually installing it. Other people at the NSF, various government agencies, and at universities around the country did that, several years before the internet was privatized.

In the segment below, Clarey made some connections between the obtaining of useless degrees and non-productive careers people enter, and the government policies that are enacted, which dampen economic activity. This results in declining wealth in society. Nevertheless, people try to live beyond their means, because they’re not willing to accept a decline in their standard of living. This results in increasing private and public debt. He also explained that this is why we see the rent-seeking that political interests have instituted in government policy. It’s a way of not producing value for society, but getting an income, anyway. This is why if a problem appears to be solved, these people find a new cause to champion. For they must have something to occupy themselves, and give their existence purpose. “The problem” can never really be solved. Otherwise, what would they do with their lives?

It could be easy to dismiss this part of his presentation, but I think if one looks at financial indicators on a societal level, his analysis stands up. There are some critical fiscal problems that are not being addressed at all. As this continues, there will be negative consequences to our economy. That is a sure thing. It’s just a matter of time.

Just a correction to what Clarey said at about 6:15 in the above video. He talked about average annual hours worked per capita, by country, and showed that in the U.S. we’d gone from about 2,000 down to “8,000.” What he meant was “about 1,800,” though by the chart he shows, I’d take it to between 1,700 and 1,800.

We are living a lie. I agree with Clarey that this lie cannot continue, but he said that even as our economic system collapses in the future, it’s unlikely that our society will acknowledge the lie. He talked about an economic model that I think is worth listening to and pondering, not in the sense of advocating for it, but understanding what’s really happening, called “the carrion economy.” Like scavengers, rather than producing wealth, we increasingly feed on the “carcass,” until there’s nothing left. This is not what we should want, but it’s what we as a society have been creating.

This next part got to some hard things to face: What do we do about this? He presented some things you can do, which he called, “The path of most resistance,” because if you do any of these things, you’re going to be swimming against the prevailing tide in our society. However, you can do these things knowing that you are at least promoting the well-being of the next generation. Whether the next generation ends up being better off than the previous one is another matter. These things cannot work to improve our standard of living in isolation.

The other hard part is facing the fact that the odds are against these efforts improving much of anything. So, he closed with what he recommended, which is “do nothing.” Don’t waste your time on a futile effort. Go Galt. He published a book called, “Enjoy The Decline,” where he talked about what’s coming, and what you can do to maximize your enjoyment of life while society grinds itself into the dirt. Of course, this sounds like a terribly immoral course of action. I am resistant to accepting it myself, but he considered it the most likely, and practical.

The reason being that the irony of history is that as a society grows wealthier, it creates this effect he described, in which the elite of society lose their virtue, because the social and economic conditions don’t demand that they maintain it in order for them to gain what they want. They don’t need to work to produce something of value, and so their motivations turn toward the useless, ignorant, and counter-productive. As a consequence of their lazy thought, they become resentful, and attack the very society that has given them all they have. I’ve heard this from multiple sources who are knowledgeable about history. In fact, one historian, Thomas West, reviewed the political theory the Founders had for the United States in his book, “The Political Theory of the American Founding.” He said that many of them pondered in their private writings, “What if our republic succeeds? What do we do then?”, because history had shown that too much wealth in a society leads to its downfall. This was one of their great unanswered questions. What they hoped for was that our society’s cultural institutions would keep us on the right track morally, maintaining our society’s essential character, but it was a vague hope. They really didn’t know what to do about it, since history provided no guidance, only repeated cycles of societal ascension and decline.

Many years ago, I sat through a presentation given by Mike Rosen, who presented a lot of evidence from government statistics, and he concluded the same thing as Clarey did: Our entitlement programs are unsustainable, and they are going to collapse, but not before they collapse our economy, because instead of making them sustainable, which would require some measures the majority of us are not going to like, we’re going to squeeze these programs, until the money runs out, but not before draconian economic measures are exhausted to maintain them. He gave the presentation not to give solutions that might give us hope, because in his view, we passed by our chances to do anything about this. His message instead was, “Prepare for the worst.” Rosen has a background in corporate finance, and I give his analysis credence. Indeed, the die is cast.

The decline is going to take time. We won’t likely see obvious signs of societal decay for a while, perhaps for many years, but as I’ve watched the political decisions our society has made in light of structural problems that I’ve seen unaddressed for decades, I’ve seen us be incapable of having some critical discussions, and making critical decisions, which must be had, and made, if we are to maintain and advance our society into the distant future.

We are a reactionary society. We only deal with crises when they arise, not before. That makes us freak out in the midst of crises, but it’s what we prefer. Arguing for addressing looming crises ahead of time doesn’t go anywhere, because too many people don’t want to focus on it. It doesn’t serve our short-term interests, and it’s too easily dismissed as alarmism promoted by demagogues who are seeking attention, and/or power. So, as I said above, there’s a strong argument for just preparing for the crap to hit the fan, because you can pretty well predict that’s what’s going to happen, no matter what you try to do to avert it.

Getting to a point I made at the beginning about Clarey’s analysis, Stephen Hicks gave a speech covering what Nietzsche saw as an envy dynamic that he predicted would arise in the future (from the perspective of someone in the 19th century). It gets to something that I don’t think Clarey explained that well: Why do our elite attack things that work well in our society, which promote the very things they say they support? Clarey just said that they attack big, obvious targets. Hicks said that there’s a deeper motivation: Envy, due to their sense of weakness. It fits with what Clarey said: They come to realize they can’t do anything that our society values. Yet, they have the expectation of power and prestige, to be someone whom people look up to. The fact that they don’t have anything society values makes them feel worthless. It gnaws at them, and hatred grows within them, because they feel entitled to be given a certain value in society. Nietzsche said, though, that they can’t live with themselves just hating their circumstances, and the society in which they live. They form their own morality that justifies their weakness. Secondly, because of their hatred of the society that does not value them, they attack its strengths, attempting to discredit its worth among as many as they can. As Clarey would say, they don’t care about society. It’s all about them, and their validation.

A YouTuber named Benjamin Boyce I think best summarized the mentality that Aaron Clarey talked about in his video, “Revenge of the Talentless.” He contrasted this with what developing a talent means. I like how he presented it, because it’s basic, true, and approachable; something for which those without a talent can aspire.

A couple of guys on YouTube, calling themselves A Dormant Dynasty, produced the video below, based on an article on “biological Leninism” by a different author, simply named “spandrell”. I’m including it here, because it adds another dimension to the discussion, of the political relationship between the elites that Clarey talked about, and the dependents who support them. A common trait that the elite class described here shares psychologically with the dependent class, in this analysis, is that the dependent class also feels that society does not value them. This elite approaches the dependent, and promises to give them their worth, so long as they grant them their loyalty. What transpires is that the dependent class feels that they only gain their value in society from this association. Without it, they feel worthless and powerless. This creates a powerful coalition structure that is united against the people who know that they have value to society; who seek to increase their standard of living by trading that value for a share of society’s wealth.

One thing I take exception to is these guys don’t always pick the best graphics for presenting their ideas. They have some cleverness, which keeps it entertaining, but at times I think they go over the line into cynicism that detracts from what they’re trying to get across. In this video, they use a graphic that uses the term “unfit” to describe the dependent class. I don’t agree with this terminology, as it makes them seem irredeemable. I’d rather think of them as “unpurposed.”

What I kind of like about the above video is that these guys take a long view with this analysis, that societies go through cycles of growth and decline (on one axis), and cycle through systems of social organization (on another axis), from the feudal, to the totalitarian, to the more liberal (not necessarily in that order).

This is a theory of the cycles of history, given by the same duo, which I think is worth contemplating, given what we are seeing. It’s a grim prognosis for the foreseeable future. I’m not fatalistic about this, but it may be something to prepare for, in whatever way you see fit.

This video covers some background before getting to that. I’ve skipped over most of it, to get to the point. If you want to see more of it, move the slider back to the beginning.

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—Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com

The cost of deinstitutionalization

I am linking to a video (I can’t embed it here), because it is a comprehensive look at a problem I’ve been seeing for many years; the history of what caused it, and its costs on the cohesion of our society. I am speaking of the societal impact of mental illness, due to the fact that mental institutions have been closed, and that it is much more difficult to institutionalize the mentally ill than it was 65 years ago.

To watch the video, click on this link: The Destruction of America’s Mental Health Care System (and its consequences)

This problem has become closer to top of mind for me since the late ’90s, because of the repeated pattern I’ve seen, where in most cases when a rampage killing spree happens, it is committed by someone with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

In my own mind, it is inhumane that we expect such people to try to make it in our society. They lack mental capacities to govern their own actions, which is a basic, and necessary expectation for those who live in it.

What Stefan Molyneux lays out in great detail is that by shutting down state mental institutions, which has been going on since the late 1950s, we have merely changed the status of those who would have been kept in mental hospitals in the past, into inmates in our prison system, since so many of them end up committing violent crimes, or into homeless people who live and sleep on the streets. The idea that housing them in mental hospitals violates their rights is tragically comical, given this evidence. Neither the streets, nor our prison system is an appropriate place for the mentally ill. What more evidence does one need that these people cannot function in a society?

We can agree that there are mild forms of mental illness that do not warrant institutionalization, such as depression. However, to say that most forms of mental illness do not deserve consideration for it I think does a disservice to the mentally ill themselves, because putting them in prison, or leaving them to the responsibilities and stimuli of society that they struggle to understand and deal with unnecessarily leads them and those they potentially harm into a life of tragedy.

Coming to grips with a frustrating truth

I’d heard about Mensa many years ago, and for many years I was kind of interested in it. Every once in a while I’d see “intelligence quizzes,” which were supposed to get one interested in the group (it worked). Mensa requires an IQ test, and a minimum score, to join. Nevertheless, I looked at some samples of the discussions members had on topics related to societal issues, though, and it all looked pretty mundane. It wasn’t the intelligent discussion I expected, which was surprising. Later, I found out I’m below their entrance threshold. Based on taking a peek, though, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

I came upon a video by Stefan Molyneux recently (it was made in 2012, Update 7/2/2020: It’s now gone), and it seems to explain what I’ve been seeing generally for more than ten years in the same sort of societal discussions (though I can’t say what the IQ level of the participants was). I’ve frequently run into people who seem to have some proactive mental ability, and yet what they come out with when thinking about the society they live in is way below par. I see it on Quora all the time. Most of the answers to political questions are the dregs of the site–really bad. I’ve had no explanation for this inconsistency, other than perhaps certain people with less than stellar intelligence are drawn to the political questions, until I saw this analysis. Molyneux said it’s the result of a kind of cognitive abuse.

The reason I’m bothering with this at all is seeing what he described play out has bothered me for many years, though I’ve assumed it’s due to popular ignorance. It’s part of what’s driven my desire to get into education, though now I feel I have to be more humble about whether that’s really a good answer to this.

I found his rational explanation for this confusing. I needed to listen to it a few times, and take notes. I’ll attempt to summarize.

This is a generalization, but the point is to apply it to people who are more intelligent than average, and refuse to allow inquiry into their beliefs about society:

Children who are in the “gifted” categories of IQ are told a certain moral message when they’re young, about how they are to behave. However, when those same children try to apply that morality to their parents, and the adults around them–in other words, demand consistency–they are punished, humiliated, and/or shamed for it. They eventually figure out that morality has been used to control them, not teach them. (This gave me the thought, based on other material by Molyneux, that perhaps this is one reason atheism is so prevalent among this IQ category. Rather than morality being a tool to uplift people to a higher state of being, it’s seen purely as a cynical means of control, which they understandably reject.) As soon as they try to treat morality as morality, in other words, as a universal set of rules by which everyone in their society is governed, they are attacked as immoral, uncaring, brutish, wrong, and are slandered. This is traumatic to a young mind trying to make sense of their world.

The contradiction they encounter is they’re told they’re evil for not following these rules as a child, and then they’re told they’re evil for attempting to apply those same rules to other adults when they grow up. They are punished for attempting to tell the truth, even though they were told when they were young that telling the truth is a virtue (and that lying is evil). If they attempt to tell the truth about their society, they are punished by the same adults who cared for them.

The image he paints is, to me, analogous to Pavlov’s dog, where all of its attempts to follow its instincts in a productive way are punished, leading to it quivering in a corner, confused, afraid, and despondent, unable to respond at all in the presence of food. In this case, all attempts to apply a moral code consistently are punished, leading to a disabled sense of social morality, and a rejection of inquiry into this battered belief system, in an attempt to protect the wound.

Molyneux comes to an ugly truth of this situation. This inability to question one’s societal beliefs is the product of a master-slave society: In slave societies, rules are applied to the slaves that are not applied to the masters. They operate by a different set of rules. Morality that is dispensed to the ignorant is used as a cynical cover for control. Those subjected to this inconsistent reality deal with it by trying their best to not look at it. Instead of pushing through the shaming, and demanding consistency, risking the rejection that entails from the society in which they grew up, they blindly accept the master-slave dichotomy, and say, “That’s just the way it is.” Those who question it are attacked by these same people, because engaging in that leads them back to the pain they suffered when they did that themselves.

He also addressed a psychological phenomenon called “projection.” He said,

… they must take the horrors of their own soul and project them upon the naive and honest questioner. Every term that is used as an attack against you for engaging in these conversations is an apt and deeply known description of their own souls, or what’s left of them.

Molyneux sort of addressed the evolutionary reasons for motivated reasoning in another video (Update 7/2/2020: Also now gone), but I have liked Jonathan Haidt’s explanation for it better, since he gets into the group dynamic of shared beliefs, and justifies them, saying that they played some role in the survival of our species, up until recently: Those who had this group-belief trait lived to reproduce. Those who did not died out. That isn’t to say that it’s essential to our survival today, but that it deserves our respectful treatment, since it was a trait that got what we are here.

What’s also interesting is that Molyneux related the trait of motivated reasoning to the practice of science, quoting Max Planck (I’ve heard scientists talk about this) in saying that science really only advances when the older generation of scientists dies. This creates room for other ideas, supported by evidence, and critical analysis, to flourish, perhaps setting a new paradigm. If so, it becomes a new sort of orthodoxy in a scientific discipline for another generation or so, until it (the orthodoxy), too, dies away with the scientists who came up with it, repeating the cycle.

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Trying to arrive at clarity on the state of higher education

I’ve been exploring issues in higher education over the last 10 years, trying to understand what I’ve been seeing with both the political discourse that’s been happening in the Western world for the past 12 or so years, and what’s been happening with campus politics for as long, which has been having severe consequences on the humanities, and has been making its way into the academic fields of math and science.

Rob Montz, a Brown University graduate, has done the best job I’ve seen anywhere of both getting deep into a severe problem at many universities, and condensing his analysis down to something that many people can understand. I think there is more to the problem than what Montz has pointed out, but he has put his finger on something that I haven’t seen anyone else talk about, and it really has to do with this question:

Are students going to school to learn something, or are they just there to get a piece of paper that they think will increase their socio-economic status?

I’m not objecting if they are there to do both. What I’m asking is if education is even in the equation in students’ experience. You would think that it is, since we think of universities as places of learning. However, think back to your college experience (if you went to college). Do you remember that the popular stereotype was that they were places to “party, drink, and lose your virginity”? That didn’t have to be your experience, but there was some truth to that perception. What Montz revealed is that perception has grown into the main expectation of going to college, not a “side benefit,” though students still expect that there’s a degree at the end of it. There’s just no expectation that they’ll need to learn anything to get it.

What I asked above is a serious question, because it has profound implications for the kind of society we will live in going forward. A student body and education system that does not care about instilling the ideas that have made Western civilization possible will not live in a free society in the future. This means that we can forget about our rights to live our lives as we see fit, and we can forget about having our own ideas about the world. Further, we can forget about having the privilege of living in a society where our ideas can be corrected through considering challenges to them. That won’t be allowed. How would ideas change instead, you might ask? Look at history. It’s bloody…

We are not born with the ideas that make a free society possible. They are passed down from generation to generation. If that process is interrupted, because society has taken them for granted, and doesn’t want the responsibility of learning them, then we can expect a more autocratic society and political system to result, because that is the kind of society that humans naturally create.

A key thing that Montz talked about is what I’ve heard Alan Kay raise a red flag about, which is that universities are not “guarding their subjects,” by which he means they are not guarding what it means to be educated. They are, in effect, selling undergraduate degrees to the highest bidders, because that’s all most parents and students want. An indicator of this that Kay used is that literacy scores of college graduates have been declining rapidly for decades. In other words, you can get a college degree, and not know how to comprehend anything more complex than street signs, or labels on a prescription bottle, and not know how to critically analyze an argument, or debate it. These are not just skills that are “nice to have.” They are essential to a functioning free society.

What Montz revealed is if you don’t want to learn anything, that’s fine by many universities now. Not that it’s fine with many of the professors who teach there, but it’s fine by the administrations who run them. They’re happy to get your tuition.

Montz has been producing a series of videos on this issue, coming out with a new one every year, starting in 2016. He started his journey at his alma mater, Brown University:

In the next installment, Montz went to Yale, and revealed that it’s turning into a country club. While, as he said, there are still pockets of genuine intellectual discipline taking place there, you’re more likely to find that young people are there for the extracurricular activities, not to learn something develop their minds and character. What’s scandalous about this is that the school is not resisting this. It is encouraging it!

The thing is, this is not just happening at Yale. It is developing at universities across the country. There are even signs of it at my alma mater, Colorado State University (see the video below).

Next, Montz went to the University of Chicago to see why they’re not quite turning out like many other universities. They still believe in the pursuit of truth, though there is a question that lingers about how long that’s going to hold up.

Canadian Prof. Gad Saad describing events at Colorado State University, from February 2017:

Dr. Frank Furedi talked about the attitudes of students towards principles that in the West are considered fundamental, and how universities are treating students. In short, as the video title says, students “think freedom is not a big deal.” They prefer comfort, because they’re not there to learn. Universities used to expect that students were entering adulthood, and were expected to take on more adult responsibilities while in school. Now, he says, students are treated like “biologically mature … clever children.” Others have put this another way, that an undergraduate education now is just an extension of high school. It’s not up to par with what a university education was, say, when I went to college.

Dr. Jonathan Haidt has revealed that another part of what has been happening is that universities that used to be devoted to a search for truth are in the process of being converted into a new kind of religious school that is pursuing a doctrine of politically defined social justice. Parents who are sending their children off to college have a choice to make about what they want them to pursue (this goes beyond the student’s major). However, universities are not always up front about this. They may in their promotions talk about education in the traditional way, but in fact may be inculcating this doctrine. Haidt has set up a website called Heterodox Academy to show which universities are in fact pursuing which goals, in the hopes that it will help people choose accordingly. They don’t just show universities that they might prefer. If you want a religious education, of whatever variety, they’ll list schools that do that as well, but they rank them according to principles outlined by the University of Chicago re. whether they are pursuing truth, or some kind of orthodoxy.

For people who are trying to understand this subject, I highly recommend an old book, written by the late Allan Bloom, called “The Closing of the American Mind.” He doesn’t exactly describe what’s going on now on college campuses, because he wrote it over 30 years ago, but it will sound familiar. I found it really valuable for contrasting what the philosophy of the university was at the time that he wrote the book, as opposed to what it had been in the prior decades. He preferred the latter, though he acknowledged that it was incomplete, and needed revision. He suggested a course of action for revising what the university should be, which apparently modern academics have completely rejected. I still think it’s worth trying.

Edit 6/26/2019: I wrote the paragraph below with the original blog post (which I’ve crossed out). I’ve had second thoughts about it since then. I thought maybe universities could be replaced by online course curricula, but listening to educators, that’s been tried, and the results are not usually up to par. Most people don’t have the discipline at home for the focused learning that’s needed for what a traditional university education requires. So, the only reasonable choice is the universities need to reform themselves, returning to the pursuit of truth. If that doesn’t happen, then the choice is either their orthodoxy takes over, or our society does without them. Both of which are terrible options.

I don’t know if this will come to fruition in my lifetime, but I can see the possibility that someday the physical university as we have known it will disappear, and accreditation will take a new form, because of the internet. In that way, a recovery of the quality of higher education might be possible. I have my doubts that getting the old form back is possible. It may not even be desirable.

Related articles:

Brendan O’Neill on the zeitgeist of the anti-modern West

For high school students, and their parents: Some things to consider before applying for college

Edit 11/6/2018: What Happened to Our Universities?, by Philip Carl Salzman

 

Alan Kay: Rethinking CS education

I thought I’d share the video below, since it has some valuable insights on what computer science should be, and what education should be, generally. It’s all integrated together in this presentation, and indeed, one of the projects of education should be integrating computer science into it, but not with the explicit purpose to create more programmers for future jobs, though it could always be used for that by the students. Alan Kay presents a different definition of CS than is pursued in universities today. He refers to how Alan Perlis defined it (Perlis was the one to come up with the term “computer science”), which I’ll get to below.

This thinking about CS and education provides, among other things, a pathway toward reimagining how knowledge, literature, and art can be presented, organized, dissected, annotated, and shared in a way that’s more meaningful than can be achieved with old media. (For more on that, see my post “Getting beyond paper and linear media.”) As with what the late Carl Sagan often advocated, Kay’s presentation here advocates for a general model for the education of citizens, not just professional careerists.

Another reason I thought of sharing this is several years ago I remember hearing that Kay was working on rethinking computer science curriculum. What he presents is more about suggestion, “Start thinking about it this way.” (He takes a dim view of the concept of curriculum, as it suggests setting students on a rigid path of study with the intent to create minds with a cookie cutter, though he is in favor of classical liberal arts education, with the prescriptions that entails.)

As he says in the presentation, there’s a lot to develop in the practice of education in order to bring this into fruition.

This is from 2015:

I wrote notes below for some of the segments he talks about, just because I think his presentation bears some interpretation for many readers. He uses metaphors a lot.

The bicycle

This is an analogy for how an apparatus, or a subject, is typically modified for education. We take the optimized, or the adult version of something, and add compensators, which make it so that beginners can use it without falling all over themselves. It’s seen as easier to present it this way, and as a skill-building experience, where in order to learn how to do something, you need to use “the real thing.” Beginners can put on a good show of using this sort of apparatus, or modified subject, but the problem is that it doesn’t teach a beginner how to become good at really using the real thing at its full potential. The compensators become a crutch. He said a better idea is to use an apparatus, or a component of the subject, that allows a beginner to get a feel for how to use the thing in a way that gets across significant aspects of its potential, but without the optimizations, or the way adults use it, which make it too complicated for a beginner to use under their own power. In this case, a lowbike is better. This beginner apparatus, or component, is more like the first version of the thing you’re trying to teach. Bicycles were originally more like scooters, without pedals, or a chain, where you’d sit in the seat, push it along with your legs, kind of “running while sitting,” glide, and turn by shifting your weight, and turning into the turn. Once a beginner gets a feel for that, they can deal with the optimized version, or a scaled down adult version, with pedals and a chain to drive the bike, because all that adds is the ability to get more power out of it. It doesn’t change any of the fundamentals of how you use it.

This gets to an issue of pedagogy, that learners need to learn something in components, rather than dealing with the whole thing at once. Once they learn one capacity, they can move on to the next challenge in learning the “whole thing.”

Radiation vs. nouns

He put forward a proposition for his talk, which is that he’s mixing a bunch of ideas together, because they overlap. This is a good metaphor, because most of his talk is about what we are as human beings, and how society should situate and view education. Only a little of it is actually on computer science, but all of it is germane to talking about computer science education.

He also gives a little advice to education reformers. He pointed out what’s wrong with education as it is right now, but rather than cursing it, he said one should make a deliberate effort to “build a tribe” or coalition with those who are causing the problem, or are in the midst of the problem, and suggest ways to bring them into a dignified position, perhaps by sharing in their honors, or, as his example illustrated, their shame. I draw some of this from Plato’s Cave metaphor.

Cooperation and competition in society

I once heard Kay talk about this many years ago. He said that, culturally, modern corporations are like the ancient hunter-gatherers. They exploit the resources of an area for a while, and once it’s exhausted, they move on, and that as a culture, they have yet to learn about democracy, which requires more of a “settlement” mentality toward what they’re doing. Here, he used an agricultural metaphor to talk about a cooperative society that creates the wealth that is then used by competitive forces within it. What he means by this is that the true wealth is the knowledge that’s ultimately used to develop new products and services. It’s not all developed inside the marketplace. He doesn’t talk about this, but I will. Even though a significant part of the wealth (as he said, you can think of it as “potential energy”) is generated inside research labs, what research labs tend to lack is knowledge of what the members of society can actually understand of this developed knowledge. That’s where the competitive forces in society come in, because they understand this a lot better. They can negotiate between how much of the new knowledge to put into a product, and how much it will cost, to reach as many people as possible. This is what happened in the computer industry of the past.

I think I understand what he’s getting at with the agricultural metaphor, though perhaps I need to be filled in more. My understanding of what he means is that farmers don’t just want to reap a crop for one season. Their livelihood depends on maintaining fertility on their land. That requires not just exploiting what’s there season after season, or else you get the dust bowl. If instead, practices are modified to allow the existing land to become fertile again, or, in the case of hunter-gathering, aggressively managing the environment to create favorable grazing to attract game, then you can create a cycle of exploitation and care such that a group can stay in one area for a long time, without denying themselves any of the benefits of how they live. I think what he suggests is that if corporations would modify their behavior to a more settled, agricultural model, to use some of their profits to contribute to educating the society in which they exist, and to funding scientific research on a private basis, that would “regenerate the soil” for economic growth, which can then fuel more research, creating a cycle of renewal. No doubt the idea he’s presenting includes the businesses who would participate in doing this. They should be allowed to profit (“reap”) from what they “sow,” but the point is they’re not the only ones who can profit. Other players in the marketplace can also exploit the knowledge that’s generated, and profit as well. That’s what’s been done in the past with private research labs.

He attributes the lack of this to culture, of not realizing that the economic model that’s being used is not sustainable. Eventually, you use up the “soil,” and it becomes “infertile,” and “blows away,” and, in the case of hunter-gathering, the “good hunting grounds” are used up.

He makes a crucial point, though, that education is not just about jobs and competitiveness. It’s also about inculcating what citizenship really means. I’m sure if he was asked to drill down on this more, he would suggest a classical education for this, along with a modified math and science curriculum that would give students a sense of what those subjects really are like.

The sense I get is he’s advocating almost more of an Andrew Carnegie model of corporate stewardship, who, after he made his money, directed his philanthropy to building schools and libraries. Kay would just add science labs to that mix. (He mentions this later in his talk.)

I feel it necessary to note that not all for-profit entities would be able to participate in funding these cooperative activities, because their profit margins are so slim. I don’t think that’s what he’s expecting out of this.

What we are, to the best of our knowledge

He gives three views into human mental capacity: the way we perceive (theatrical), how much we can perceive at any moment in time (1 ± 2), and how educators should perceive ourselves psychologically and mentally (more primate and mammalian). This relates to neuroscience, and to some extent, evolutionary psychology.

The raison d’être of computer science

The primary purpose of computer science should be developing a science of systems in process, and that means all processes: mechanical processes, technological processes, social processes, biological processes, mental processes, etc. This relates to my earlier post, “Beginning the journey of becoming a computer scientist.” It’s partly about developing a new kind of mathematics for modeling processes. Alan Turing did it, with his Turing Machine concept, though he was trying to model the process of generating mathematical statements, and doing mathematical tests on them.

Shipping the design

Kay talks about how programmers today don’t have access to anything like what designers in other fields have, where they’re able to model their design, simulate it, and then have a machine fabricate a prototype that you can actually show and use.

I want to clarify this one point, because I don’t think he articulated it well (I found out about this because he expressed a similar thought on Quora, and I finally understood what he meant), but at one point he said that students at UCLA, one of the Top 10 CS schools, use “vi terminal emulators” (he sounds like he said “bi-terminal emulators”), emulating punched cards. What he meant by this was that students are logging in to a Unix/Linux system, bringing up an X-Windows terminal window, which is 80 columns wide (hence the punched card metaphor he used, because punch cards were also 80 columns wide), and using the “vi” text editor (or more likely “vim”, which is vi emulated in Emacs) to write their C++ code, the primary language they use.

I had an epiphany about this gulf between the tools that programmers use and the tools that engineers use, about 8 or 9 years ago. I was at a friend’s party, and there were a few mechanical engineers among the guests. I overheard a couple of them talking about the computer-aided design (CAD) software they were using. One talked about a “terrible” piece of CAD software he used at work. He said he had a much better CAD system at home, but it was incompatible with the data files that were used at work. As much as he would’ve loved to use it, he couldn’t. He said the system he used at work required him to group pieces of a design together as he was building the model, and once he did that, those pieces became inflexible. He couldn’t just redesign one piece of it, or separate one out individually from the model. He couldn’t move the pieces around on the model, and have them fit. Once they were grouped, that was it. It became this static thing. He said in order to redesign one piece of it, he had to take the entire model apart, piece by piece, redesign the part, and then redesign all the other pieces in the group to make the new part fit. He said he hated it, and as he talked about it, he acted like he was so disgusted with it, he wanted to throw it in the trash, like it was a piece of garbage. He said on his CAD system at home, it was wonderful, because he could separate a part from a model any time he wanted, and the system would adjust the model automatically to “make sense” out of the part being missing. He could redesign the part, and move it to a different part of the model, “attach it” somewhere, and the system would automatically adjust the model so that the new part would fit. The way he described it gave it a sense of fluidity. Whereas the system he used at work sounded rigid. It reminded me of the programming languages I had been using, where once relationships between entities were set up, it was really difficult to take pieces of it “out” and redesign them, because everything that depended on that piece would break once I redesigned it. I had to go around and redesign all the other entities that related to it to adjust to the redesign of the one piece.

I can’t remember how this worked, but another thing the engineer talked about was the system at work had some sort of “binding” mechanism that seemed to associate parts by “type,” and that this was also rigid, which reminded me a lot of the strong typing system in the languages I had been using. He said the system he had at home didn’t have this, and to him, it made more sense. Again, his description lent a sense of fluidity to the experience of using it. I thought, “My goodness! Why don’t programmers think like this? Why don’t they insist that the experience be like this guy’s CAD system at home?” For the first time in my career, I had a profound sense of just what Alan Kay talked about, here, that the computing field is retrograde. It has not advanced anywhere close to the kind of engineering that exists in other fields, where they would insist on this sort of experience. We accept so much less, whereas modern engineers have a hard time standing for it, because they know they have better options.

Don’t be fooled by large efforts below threshold

Before I begin this part, I want to share a crucial point that Kay makes, because it’s one of the big ones:

Think about what thinking is. Thinking is not being logical. Thinking is choosing the environment that you’re going to think in before you start rationalizing.

Kay had something very interesting, and startling, to say about the Apollo space program, using that as a metaphor for large reform initiatives in education generally. I recently happened upon a video of testimony he gave to a House committee on educational computing back in 1982, chaired by then-congressman Al Gore, and Kay talked about this same example back then. He said that the way the Apollo rockets were designed was a “hack.” They were not the best design for space travel, but it was the most expedient for the mission of getting to the Moon by the end of the 1960s. Here, in this presentation, he talks about how each complete rocket was the height of a 45-story building (1-1/2 football fields in length), most of it high explosives, with only a tiny capsule at the top that could fit 3 astronauts. This is not a model that could scale to what was needed for space travel.

It became this huge worldwide cultural event when NASA launched it, and landed men on the Moon, but Kay said it was really not a great accomplishment. I remember Rep. Gore said in jest, “The walls in this room are shaking!” The camera panned around a bit, showing pictures on the wall from NASA. How could he say such a thing?! This was the biggest cultural event of the century, perhaps in all of human history. He explained the same thing here: that the Apollo program didn’t advance space travel beyond the mission to the Moon. It was not technology that would get us beyond that, though, in hindsight we can say technology like it enabled launching probes throughout the Solar System.

Now, what he means by “space travel,” I’m not sure. Is it manned missions to the outer planets, or to other star systems? Kay is someone who has always thought big. So, it’s possible he was thinking of interstellar travel. What he was talking about was the problem of propulsion, getting something powerful enough to make significant discoveries in space exploration possible. He said chemical propellant just doesn’t do it. It’s good enough for launching orbital vehicles around our planet, and launching probes, but that’s really it. The rest is just wasting time below threshold.

Another thing he explained is that large initiatives which don’t cross a meaningful threshold can be harmful to efforts to advancing any endeavor, because large initiatives come with extended expectations that the investment will continue to be used, and they must be satisfied, or else there will be no cooperation in doing the initial effort. The participants will want their return on investment. He said that’s what happened with NASA. The ROI had to play out, but that ruined the program, because as that happened, people could see we weren’t advancing the state of the art that much in space travel, and the science that was being produced out of it was usually nothing to write home about. Eventually, we got what we now see: People are tired of it, and have no enthusiasm for it, because it set expectations so low.

What he was trying to do in his House committee testimony, and what he’s trying to do here, is provide some perspective that science offers, vs. our common sense notion of how “great” something is. You cannot get qualitative improvement in an endeavor without this perspective, because otherwise you have no idea what you’re dealing with, or what progress you’re building on, if any. Looking at it from a cultural perspective is not sufficient. Yes, the Moon landing was a cultural milestone, but not a scientific or engineering milestone, and that matters.

Modern science and engineering have a sense of thresholds, that there can come a point where some qualitative leap is made, a new perspective on what you’re doing is realized that is significantly better than what existed prior. He explains that once a threshold has been crossed, you can make small improvements which continue to build on that significant leap, and those improvements will stick. The effort won’t just crash back down into mediocrity, because you know something about what you have, and you value it. It’s a paradigm shift. It is so significant, you have little reason to go back to what you were doing before. From there, you can start to learn the limits of that new perspective, and at some point, make more qualitative leaps, crossing more thresholds.

“Problem-finding”/finding the goal vs. problem-solving

Problem solving begins with a current context, “We’re having a problem with X. How do we solve it?” Problem finding asks do we even have a good idea of what the problem is? Maybe the reason for the problems we’ve been seeing has to do with the fact that we haven’t solved a different problem we don’t know about yet. “Let’s spend time trying to find that.”

Another way of expressing this is a concept I’ve heard about from economists, called “opportunity cost,” which, in one context, gets across the idea that by implementing a regulation, it’s possible that better outcomes will be produced in certain categories of economic interactions, but it will also prevent certain opportunities from arising which may also be positive. The rub is these opportunities will not be known ahead of time, and will not be realized, because the regulation creates a barrier to entry that entrepreneurs and investors will find too high to overcome. This concept is difficult to communicate to many laymen, because it sounds speculative. What this concept encourages people cognizant of it to do is to “consider the unseen,” to consider the possibilities that lie outside of what’s currently known. One can view “problem finding” in a similar way, not as a way of considering the unseen, but exploring it, and finding new knowledge that was previously unknown, and therefore unseen, and then reconsidering one’s notion of what the problem really is. It’s a way of expanding your knowledge base in a domain, with the key practice being that you’re not just exploring what’s already known. You’re exploring the unknown.

The story he tells about MacCready illustrates working with a good modeling system. He needed to be able to fail with his ideas a lot, before he found something that worked. So he needed a simple enough modeling system that he could fail in, where when he crashed with a particular model, it didn’t take a lot to analyze why it didn’t work, and it didn’t take a lot to put it back together differently, so he could try again.

He made another point about Xerox PARC, that it took years to find the goal, and it involved finding many other goals, and solving them in the interim. I’ve written about this history at “A history lesson on government R&D” Part 2 and Part 3. There, you can see the continuum he talks about, where ARPA/IPTO work led into Xerox PARC.

This video with Vishal Sikka and Alan Kay gives a brief illustration of this process, and what was produced out of it.

Erosion gullies

There are a couple metaphors he uses to talk about the lack of flexibility that develops in our minds the more we focus our efforts on coping, problem solving, and optimizing how we live and work in our current circumstances. One is erosion gullies. The other is the “monkey trap.”

Erosion gullies channel water along a particular path. They develop naturally as water erodes the land it flows across. These “gullies” seem to fit with what works for us, and/or what we’re used to. They develop into habits about how we see the world–beliefs, ideas which we just accept, and don’t question. They allow some variation in the path that’s followed, but they provide boundaries that don’t allow the water to go outside the gully (leaving aside the exception of floods, for the sake of argument). He uses this to talk about how “channels” develop in our minds that direct our thinking. The more we focus our thoughts in that direction, the “deeper” the gully gets. Keep at it too long, and the “gully” won’t allow us to see anything different than what we’re used to. He says that it may become inconceivable to think that you could climb out of it. Most everything inside the “gully” will be considered “right” thinking (no reason why), and anything outside of it will be considered “wrong” (no reason why), and even threatening. This is why he mentions that wars are fought over this. “We’re all in different erosion gullies.” They don’t meet anywhere, and my “right” is your “wrong,” and vice-versa. The differences are irreconcilable, because the idea of seeing outside of them is inconceivable.

He makes two points with this. One is that we have erosion gullies re. stories that we tell ourselves, and beliefs that we hold onto. Another is that we have erosion gullies even in our sensory perceptions that dictate what we see and don’t see. We can see things that don’t even exist, and typically do. He uses eyewitness testimony to illustrate this.

I think what he’s saying with it is we need to watch out for these “gullies.” They develop naturally, but it would be good if we had the flexibility to be able to eventually get out of our “gully,” and form a new “channel,” which I take is a metaphor for seeing the world differently than what we’re used to. We need a means for doing that, and what he proposes is science, since it questions what we believe, and tests our ideas. We can get around our beliefs, and thereby get out of our “gullies” to change our perspective. It doesn’t mean we abandon “gullies,” but just become aware that other “channels” (perspectives) are possible, and we can switch between them, to see better, and achieve better outcomes.

Regarding the “monkey trap,” he uses it as a metaphor for us getting on a single track, grasping for what we want, not realizing that the very act of being that focused, to the exclusion of all other possibilities, is not getting us anywhere. It’s a trap, and we’d benefit by not being so dogged in pursuing goals if they’re not getting us anywhere.

Edit 2/9/2019: I highly recommend watching the last episode of a 1985 PBS/BBC mini-series by James Burke, called “The Day The Universe Changed.” The episode is called “Worlds Without End.” Burke gave a nice, long-form exposition of what our “erosion gullies” are like (he called them structures), and made clear that they are a fundamental part of our how brains work. Part of what he demonstrated was the same as what Kay demonstrates about how our perceptual systems distort reality to fit what our brains believe should exist. That’s part of what “erosion gullies” are. We can’t get away from them. Burke also explained that they are the only way that we can understand things. So, the idea is not to reject them, but to understand that they exist, and gain skill in getting out of one and into another one, which is hopefully more accurate, and/or leads to greater human flourishing.

An implication of this is that we can really be certain of nothing, but an important caveat that I can’t stress enough is that we can gain useful knowledge out of that uncertainty that is reliable, within constraints (which is to say “within a structure,” to use Burke’s term, or a “gulley,” using Kay’s term). This is the essence of modern science, and our modern society.

“Fast” vs. “slow”

He gets into some neuroscience that relates to how we perceive, what he called “fast” and “slow” response. You can train your mind through practice in how to use “fast” and “slow” for different activities, and they’re integral to our perception of what we’re doing, and our reactions to it, so that we don’t careen into a catastrophe, or miss important ideas in trying to deal with problems. He said that cognitive approaches to education deal with the “slow” systems, but not the “fast” ones, and it’s not enough to help students in really understanding a subject. As other forms of training inherently deal with the “fast” systems, educators need to think about how the “fast” systems responds to their subjects, and incorporate that into how they are taught. He anticipates this will require radically redesigning the pedagogy that’s typically used.

He says that the “fast” systems deal with the “atoms” of ideas that the “slow” system also deals with. By “atoms,” I take it he means fundamental, basic ideas or concepts for a subject. (I think of this as the “building blocks of molecules.”)

The way I take this is that the “slow” systems he’s talking about are what we use to work out hard problems. They’re what we use to sit down and ponder a problem for a while. The “fast” systems are what we use to recognize or spot possible patterns/answers quickly, a kind of quick, first-blush analysis that can make solving the problem easier. To use an example, you might be using “fast” systems now to read this text. You can do it without thinking about it. The “slow” systems are involved in interpreting what I’m saying, generating ideas that occur to you as you read it.

This is just me, but “fast” sounds like what we’d call “intuition,” because some of the thinking has already been done before we use the “slow” systems to solve the rest. It’s a thought process that takes place, and has already worked some things out, before we consciously engage in a thought process.

Science

This is the clearest expression I’ve heard Kay make about what science actually is, not what most people think it is. He’s talked about it before in other ways, but he just comes right out and says it in this presentation, and I hope people watching it really take it in, because I see too often that people take what they’ve been taught about what science is in school and keep reiterating it for the rest of their lives. This goes on not only with people who love following what scientists say, but also in our societal institutions that we happen to associate with science.

…[Francis] Bacon wrote a book called “The Novum Organum” in 1620, where he said, “Hey, look. Our brains are messed up. We have bad brains.” He called the ways of messing up “idols.” He said we get serious errors because of our genetics. We get serious errors because of the culture we’re in. We get serious errors because of the languages we use. They don’t represent what’s actually out there. We get serious errors from the way that academia hangs on to bad ideas, and teaches them over again. These are his four “idols.” Anyone ever read Bacon? He said we need something to get around our bad brains! A set of heuristics, is the term we’d use today.

What he called for was … science, because that’s what “Novum Organum,” the rest of the title, was: “A new way of dealing with knowledge.”

Science is not the knowledge, because knowledge is in this context. What science is is a negotiation between what’s out there and what we can represent.

This is the big idea. This is the idea they don’t teach in school. This is the idea we should be teaching. It’s one of the biggest ideas of all time.

It isn’t the knowledge. It’s the relationship, because what’s out there is only knowable by a phenomena that is being filtered in every possible way. We don’t even know if our brain is capable of representing the stuff.

So, to think about science as the truth is completely wrong! It’s not the right way to look at it. But if you think about it as a negotiation between the best you can do right now and stuff that’s out there, where you’re not completely sure, you’re in a very strong position.

Science has been the most important, powerful thought system humans have ever invented, because it gave up the idea of truth, and it substituted for it a thousand variations of false, some of which are incredibly powerful. This is the big idea.

So, if we’re going to think about computing, this is one way … of thinking about, “Wow! Computers!” They are representers. We can learn about representations. We can simulate ideas. We can get a very good–much better sense of dealing with thinking about these complexities.

“Getting there”

The last part demonstrates what I’ve seen with exploration. You start out thinking you’re going to go from Point A to Point B, but you take diversions, pathways that are interesting, but related to your initial search, because you find that it’s not a straight path from Point A to Point B. It’s not as straightforward as you thought. So, you try other ways of getting there. It is a kind of problem solving, but it’s really what Kay called “problem finding,” or finding the goal. In the process, the goal is to find a better way to get to the goal, and along the way, you find problems that are worth solving, that you didn’t anticipate at all when you first got going. In that process, you’ll find things you didn’t expect to learn, but which are really valuable to your knowledge base. In your pursuit of trying to find a better way to get to your destination, you might even get through a threshold, and find that your initial goal is no longer worth pursuing, but there are better goals to pursue in this new perception you’ve obtained.

Related posts:

Reviving programming as literacy

The necessary ingredients for computer science

Alan Kay’s advice to computer science students

Alan Kay: Basic reading material for computer science students (and programmers)

—Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com

The best summation of what I have hoped for my country

As this blog has progressed, I’ve gotten farther away from the technical, and moved more towards a focus on the best that’s been accomplished, the best that’s been thought (that I can find and recognize), with people who have been attempting to advance, or have made some contribution to what we can be as a society. I have also put a focus on what I see happening that is retrograde, which threatens the possibility of that advancement. I think it is important to point that out, because I’ve come to realize that the crucible that makes those advancements possible is fragile, and I want it to be protected, for whatever that’s worth.

As I’ve had conversations with people about this subject, I’ve been coming to realize why I have such a strong desire to see us be a freer nation than we are. It’s because I got to see a microcosm of what’s possible within a nascent field of research and commercial development, with personal computing, and later the internet, where the advancements were breathtaking and exciting, which inspired my imagination to such a height that it really seemed like the sky was the limit. It gave me visions of what our society could be, most of them not that realistic, but they were so inspiring. It took place in a context of a significant amount of government-funded, and private research, but at the same time, in a legal environment that was not heavily regulated. At the time when the most exciting stuff was happening, it was too small and unintelligible for most people to take notice of it, and society largely thought it could get along without it, and did. It was ignored, so people in it were free to try all sorts of interesting things, to have interesting thoughts about what they were accomplishing, and for some to test those ideas out. It wasn’t all good, and since then, lots of ideas I wouldn’t approve of have been tried as a result of this technology, but there is so much that’s good in it as well, which I have benefitted from so much over the years. I am so grateful that it exists, and that so many people had the freedom to try something great with it. This experience has proven to me that the same is possible in all human endeavors, if people are free to pursue them. Not all goals that people would have in it would be things I think are good, but by the same token I think there would be so much possible that would be good, from which people of many walks of life would benefit.

Glenn Beck wrote a column that encapsulates this sentiment so well. I’m frankly surprised he thought to write it. Some years ago, I strongly criticized Beck for writing off the potential of government-funded research in information technology. His critique was part of what inspired me to write the blog series “A history lesson on government R&D.” We come at this from different backgrounds, but he sums it up so well, I thought I’d share it. It’s called The Internet: What America Can And Should Be Again. Please forgive the editing mistakes, of which there are many. His purpose is to talk about political visions for the United States, so he doesn’t get into the history of who built the technology. That’s not his point. He captures well the idea that the people who developed the technology of the internet wanted to create in society: a free flow of information and ideas, a proliferation of services of all sorts, and a means by which people could freely act together and build communities, if they could manage it. The key word in this is “freedom.” He makes the point that it is we who make good things happen on the internet, if we’re on it, and by the same token it is we who can make good things happen in the non-digital sphere, and it can and should be mostly in the private sector.

I think of this technological development as a precious example of what the non-digital aspects of our society can be like. I don’t mean the internet as a verbatim model of our society. I mean it as an example within a society that has law, which applies to people’s actions on the internet, and that has an ostensibly representational political system already; an example of the kind of freedom we can have within that, if we allow ourselves to have it. We already allow it on the internet. Why not outside of it? Why can’t speech and expression, and commercial enterprise in the non-digital realm be like what it is in the digital realm, where a lot goes as-is? Well, one possible reason why our society likes the idea of the freewheeling internet, but not a freewheeling non-digital society is we can turn away from the internet. We can shut off our own access to it, and restrict access (ie. parental controls). We can be selective about what we view on it. It’s harder to do that in the non-digital world.

As Beck points out, we once had the freedom of the internet in a non-digital society, in the 19th century, and he presents some compelling, historically accurate examples. I understand he glosses over significant aspects of our history that was not glowing, where not everyone was free. In today’s society, it’s always dangerous to harken back romantically to the 19th, and early 20th centuries as “golden times,” because someone is liable to point out that it was not so golden. His point is to say that people of many walks of life (who, let’s admit it, were often white) had the freedom to take many risks of their own free will, even to their lives, but they took them anyway, and the country was better off for it. It’s not to ignore others who didn’t have freedom at the time. It’s using history as an illustration of an idea for the future, understanding that we have made significant strides in how we view people who look different, and come from different backgrounds, and what rights they have.

The context that Glenn Beck has used over the last 10 years is that history as a barometer on progress is not linear. Societal progress ebbs and flows. It has meandered in this country between freedom and oppression, with different depredations visited on different groups of people in different generations. They follow some patterns, and they repeat, but the affected people are different. The depredations of the past were pretty harsh. Today, not so much, but they exist nevertheless, and I think it’s worth pointing them out, and saying, “This is not representative of the freedom we value.”

The arc of America had been towards greater freedom, on balance, from the time of its founding, up until the 1930s. Since then, we’ve wavered between backtracking, and moving forward. I think it’s very accurate to say that we’ve gradually lost faith in it over the last 13 years. Recently, this loss of faith has become acute. Every time I look at people’s attitudes about it, they’re often afraid of freedom, thinking it will only allow the worst of humanity to roam free, and to lay waste to what everyone else has hoped for. Yes, some bad things will inevitably happen in such an environment. Bad stuff happens on the internet every day. Does that mean we should ban it, control it, contain it? If you don’t allow the opportunity that enables bad things to happen, you will not get good things, either. I’m all in favor of prosecuting the guilty who hurt others, but if we’re always in a preventative mode, you prevent that which could make our society so much better. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like trying to have your cake, and eat it, too. It doesn’t work. If we’re so afraid of the depredations of our fellow citizens, then we don’t deserve what wonderful things they might bring, and that fact is being borne out in lost opportunities.

We have an example in our midst of what’s possible. Take the idea of it seriously, and consider how deprived your present existence would be if it wasn’t allowed to be what it is now. Take its principles, and consider widening the sphere of the system that allows all that it brings, beyond the digital, into our non-digital lives, and what wonderful things that could bring to the lives of so many.

The true promise of Interactive Computing: Leveraging our Collective IQ

The true promise of Interactive Computing: Leveraging our Collective IQ

Christina Engelbart has written an excellent summary of her late father’s (Doug Engelbart’s) ideas, and has outlined what’s missing from digital media.

Collective IQ Review

dce-jcnprofiles-interviewInteractive computing pioneer Doug Engelbart
coined the term Collective IQ
to inform the IT research agenda

Doug Engelbart was recognized as a great pioneer of interactive computing. Most of his dozens of prestigious awards cited his invention of the mouse. But in his mind, the true promise of interactive computing and the digital revolution was a larger strategic vision of using the technology to facilitate society’s evolution. His research agenda focused on augmenting human intellect, boosting our Collective IQ, enhancing human effectiveness at addressing our toughest challenges in business and society – a strategy I have come to call Bootstrapping Brilliance.

In his mind, interactive computing was about interacting with computers, and more importantly, interacting with the people and with the knowledge needed to quickly and intelligently identify problems and opportunities, research the issues and options, develop responses and solutions, integrate learnings, iterate rapidly. It’s about the people, knowledge, and tools interacting, how we intelligently leverage that, that provides the brilliant outcomes we…

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Brendan O’Neill on the zeitgeist of the anti-modern West

I was taken with this interview on Reason.tv with Mr. O’Neill, a writer for Spiked, because he touched on so many topics that are pressing in the West. His critique of what’s motivating current anti-modern attitudes, and what they should remind us of, is so prescient that I thought it deserved a mention. He is a Brit, so his terminology will be rather confusing to American ears.

He called what’s termed “political correctness” “conservative.” I’ve heard this critique before, and it’s interesting, because it looks at group behavior from a principled standpoint, not just what’s used in common parlance. A lot of people won’t understand this, because what we call “conservative” now is in opposition to political correctness, and would be principally called something approaching “liberal” (as in “classical liberal”). I’ve talked about this with people from the UK before, and it goes back to that old saying that the United States and England are two countries separated by a common language. What we call “liberal” now, in common parlance, would be called “conservative” in their country. It’s the idea of maintaining the status quo, or even the status quo ante; of shutting out, even shutting down, any new ideas, especially anything controversial. It’s a behavior that goes along with “consolidating gains,” which is adverse to anything that would upset the applecart.

O’Neill’s most powerful argument is in regards to environmentalism. He doesn’t like it, calling it an “apology for poverty,” a justification for preventing the rest of the world from developing as the West did. He notes that it conveniently avoids the charge of racism, because it’s able to point to an amorphous threat, justified by “science,” that inoculates the campaign from such charges.

The plot thickens when O’Neill talks about himself, because he calls himself a “Marxist/libertarian.” He “unpacks” that, and explains what he means is “the early Marx and Engels,” when he says they talked about freeing people from poverty, and from state diktat. He summed it up quoting Trotsky: “We have to increase the power of man over Nature, and decrease the power of man over man.” He also used the term “progressive,” but Nick Gillespie explained that what O’Neill called “progressive” is often what we would call “libertarian” in America. I don’t know what to make of him, but I found myself agreeing a lot with what he said in this interview, at least. He and I see much the same things going on, and I think he accurately voices why I oppose what I see as anti-modern sentiment in the West.

Edit 1/11/2016: Here’s a talk O’Neill gave with Nick Cater of the Centre for Independent Studies, called, “Age of Endarkenment,” where they contrast Enlightenment thought with what is the concern of “the elect” today. What he points out is the conflict between those who want ideas of progress to flourish and those who want to suppress societal progress has happened before. It happened pre-Enlightenment, and during the Enlightenment, and it will sound a bit familiar.

I’m going to quote a part of what he said, because I think it cuts to the chase of what this is really about. He echoes what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older:

Now what we have is the ever-increasing encroachment of the state onto every aspect of our lives: How well we are, what our physical bodies are like, what we eat, what we drink, whether we smoke, where we can smoke, and even what we think, and what we can say. The Enlightenment was really, as Kant and others said, about encouraging people to take responsibility for their lives, and to grow up. Kant says all these “guardians” have made it seem extremely dangerous to be mature, and to be in control of your life. They’ve constantly told you that it’s extremely dangerous to run your own life. And he says you’ve got to ignore them, and you’ve got to dare to know. You’ve got to break free. That’s exactly what we’ve got to say now, because we have the return of these “guardians,” although they’re no longer kind of religious pointy-hatted people, but instead a kind of chattering class, and Greens, and nanny-staters, but they are the return of these “guardians” who are convincing us that it is extremely dangerous to live your life without expert guidance, without super-nannies telling you how to raise your children, without food experts telling you what to eat, without anti-smoking campaigners telling you what’s happening to your lungs. I think we need to follow Kant’s advice, and tell these guardians to go away, and to break free of that kind of state interference.

And one important point that [John Stuart] Mill makes in relation to all this is that even if people are a bit stupid, and make the wrong decisions when they’re running their life, he said even that is preferable to them being told what to do by the state or by experts. And the reason he says that’s preferable is because through doing that they use their moral muscles. They make a decision, they make a choice, and they learn from it. And in fact Mill says very explicitly that the only way you can become a properly responsible citizen, a morally responsible citizen, is by having freedom of choice, because it’s through that process, through the process of making a choice about your life that you can take responsibility for your life. He says if someone else is telling you how to live and how to think, and what to do, then you’re no better than an ape who’s following instructions. Spinoza makes the same point. He says you’re no better than a beast if you’re told what to think, and told what to say. And the only way you can become a man, or a woman these days as well–they have to be included, is if you are allowed to think for yourself to determine what your thought process should be, how you should live, and so on. So I think the irony of today, really Nick, is that we have these states who think they are making us more responsible by telling us not to do this, and not to do that, but in fact they’re robbing us of the ability to become responsible citizens. Because the only way you can become a responsible citizen is by being free, and by making a choice, and by using your moral muscles to decide what your life’s path should be.

Which computer icons no longer make sense to a modern user?

This question made me conscious of the fact that the icons computer/smartphone and many web interfaces use are a metaphor for the way in which the industry has designed computers for a consumer market. That is, they are to be used to digitize and simulate old media.

For example, the use of the now-obsolete floppy disk to represent “save?”

Which computer icons no longer make sense to a modern user?

The way this question is asked is interesting and encouraging. These icons no longer make sense to modern users. Another interesting question is what should replace them? However, without powerful outlooks, I suspect it’s going to be difficult to come up with anything that really captures the power of this medium that is computing, and we’ll just use the default of ourselves as metaphors.