Later On

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Archive for the ‘Memes’ Category

Facebook dances to the Right’s tune

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Working the refs has long been a GOP standby—and Republicans seem to love misinformation. Craig Timberg reports in the Washington Post:

Facebook created “Project P” — for propaganda — in the hectic weeks after the 2016 presidential election and quickly found dozens of pages that had peddled false news reports ahead of Donald Trump’s surprise victory. Nearly all were based overseas, had financial motives and displayed a clear rightward bent.

In a world of perfect neutrality, which Facebook espouses as its goal, the political tilt of the pages shouldn’t have mattered. But in a videoconference between Facebook’s Washington office and its Silicon Valley headquarters in December 2016, the company’s most senior Republican, Joel Kaplan, voiced concerns that would become familiar to those within the company.

“We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives,” said Kaplan, a former George W. Bush White House official and now the head of Facebook’s Washington office, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships.

When another Facebook staff member pushed for the entire list to be taken down on the grounds that the accounts fueled the “fake news” that had roiled the election, Kaplan warned of the backlash from conservatives.

“They don’t believe it to be fake news,” he said, arguing for time to develop guidelines that could be defended to the company’s critics, including on the right.

The debate over “Project P,” which resulted in a few of the worst pages quickly being removed while most others remained on the platform, exemplified the political dynamics that have reigned within Facebook since Trump emerged as the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee to the White House in 2016. A company led mainly by Democrats in the liberal bastion of Northern California repeatedly has tilted rightward to deliver policies, hiring decisions and public gestures sought by Republicans, according to current and former employees and others who have worked closely with the company.

Trump and other party leaders have pressured Facebook by making unproven claims of bias against conservatives amid rising signs of government action on the issue, including investigations by Congress and the Justice Department. Republicans also have leveraged Facebook’s fears of alienating conservative Americans to win concessions from a company whose most widely shared news content typically includes stories from Fox News and other right-leaning sources.

These sensitivities — in conjunction with the company’s long-standing resistance to acting as “an arbiter of truth” — have affected Facebook’s responses to a range of major issues, from how to address fake news and Russian manipulation of American voters on the platform to, more recently, the advertising policies that have set the political ground rules for the 2020 election, say people privy to internal debates.

Such factors have helped shape a platform that gives politicians license to lie and that remains awash in misinformation, vulnerable to a repeat of many of the problems that marred the 2016 presidential election.

Facebook, unlike Google and Twitter, also has refused calls to restrict politicians’ access to powerful ad-targeting tools — which Trump used with particular relish four years ago — that allow messages to be tailored to individual voters, based on characteristics Facebook has gleaned over years of tracking user behavior.

“I think Facebook is looking at their political advertising policies in explicitly partisan terms, and they’re afraid of angering Republicans,” said Alex Stamos, head of the Stanford Internet Observatory, a research group, and a former Facebook chief security officer. “The Republicans in the D.C. office see themselves as a bulwark against the liberals in California.”

The company says its decisions are guided not by political calculations but by global policy goals of expanding connections among users and protecting them from government overreach, in line with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to allowing speech on the social media platform to remain as unrestricted as possible.

Continue reading. There’s much more.

One comment: chief executive Mark Zuckerber’s commitment is not to “allowing speech on the social media platform to remain as unrestricted as possible,” but rather to increase revenue and profits as much as possible. His concern is money and profit, not the welfare of the community and country.

Later in the article:

Trump already has spent more than $32 million on the platform for his reelection effort, while Democratic candidates, collectively, have spent more than $107 million, according to Facebook’s Ad Library, one of its transparency initiatives. Andrew Bosworth, a top corporate executive considered a confidant of Zuckerberg, said in a post in December that Facebook was “responsible for Donald Trump getting elected” in 2016 through his effective advertising campaign — a comment that underscored the stakes of the company’s policy moves.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 February 2020 at 10:44 am

What Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy can offer in the Anthropocene

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Ed Simon, staff writer at the literary site The Millions and an editor at Berfrois whose latest book is Furnace of This World; or, 36 Observations about Goodness (2019) writes in Aeon:

With our collapsing democracies and imploding biosphere, it’s no wonder that people despair. The Austrian psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl presciently described such sentiments in his book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). He wrote of something that ‘so many patients complain [about] today, namely, the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives’. A nihilistic wisdom emerges when staring down the apocalypse. There’s something predictable in our current pandemics, from addiction to belief in pseudoscientific theories, for in Frankl’s analysis, ‘An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.’ When scientists worry that humanity might have just one generation left, we can agree that ours is an abnormal situation. Which is why Man’s Search for Meaning is the work to return to in these humid days of the Anthropocene.

Already a successful psychotherapist before he was sent to Auschwitz and then Dachau, Frankl was part of what’s known as the ‘third wave’ of Viennese psychoanalysis. Reacting against both Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, Frankl rejected the first’s theories concerning the ‘will to pleasure’ and the latter’s ‘will to power’. By contrast, Frankl writes that: ‘Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life and not a “secondary rationalisation” of instinctual drives.’

Frankl argued that literature, art, religion and all the other cultural phenomena that place meaning at their core are things-unto-themselves, and furthermore are the very basis for how we find purpose. In private practice, Frankl developed a methodology he called ‘logotherapy’ – from logos, Greek for ‘reason’ – describing it as defined by the fact that ‘this striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man’. He believed that there was much that humanity can live without, but if we’re devoid of a sense of purpose and meaning then we ensure our eventual demise.

n Vienna, he was Dr Viktor Frankl, head of the neurology department of the Rothschild Hospital. In Auschwitz, he was ‘number 119,104’. The concentration camp was the null point of meaning, a type of absolute zero for purpose in life. Already having developed his theories about logotherapy, Frankl smuggled a manuscript he was working on into the camp, only to lose it, later forced to recreate it from memory. While in the camps, he informally worked as a physician, finding that acting as analyst to his fellow prisoners gave him purpose, even as he ostensibly assisted others. In those discussions, he came to conclusions that became foundational for humanistic psychology.

One was that the ‘prisoner who had lost faith in the future – his future – was doomed’. Frankl recounts how even in the camps, where suicide was endemic, the prisoners who seemed to have the best chance of survival were not necessarily the strongest or physically healthiest, but those somehow capable of directing their thoughts towards a sense of meaning. A few prisoners were ‘able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom’, and in the imagining of such a space there was the potential for survival.

Frankl imagined intricate conversations with his wife Tilly (who, he later discovered, had been murdered at another camp), or of lecturing a future crowd about the psychology of the camps – which was precisely his work for the rest of his life. Man’s Search for Meaning – with its conviction that: ‘Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions’ – became a postwar bestseller. Translated into more than two dozen languages, selling more than 12 millions copies, and frequently chosen by book clubs and college psychology, philosophy and religion courses, Man’s Search for Meaning has its place in the cultural zeitgeist, with whole university and hospital departments geared around both humanistic psychology and logotherapy. Even though Frankl was a physician, his form of psychoanalysis often seemed to have more in common with a form of secularised rabbinic Judaism than with science.

Man’s Search for Meaning is structured in two parts. The first constitutes Frankl’s Holocaust testimony, bearing similarity to writings by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. In the second part, he elaborates on logotherapy, arguing that the meaning of life is found in ‘experiencing something – such as goodness, truth and beauty – by experiencing nature and culture or … by experiencing another human being in his very uniqueness – by loving him’, not simply in spite of apocalyptic situations, but because of them.

The book has been maligned as superficial pop-existentialism; a vestige of middle-brow culture offering platitudinous New Age panaceas. Such a reading isn’t entirely unfair. And seven decades later, one might blanche at the sexist language, or the hokey suggestion that a ‘Statue of Responsibility’ be constructed on the US West Coast. However, a fuller consideration of Frankl’s concept of ‘tragic optimism’ should give more attention to the former rather than the latter before the therapist is impugned as overly rosy. When he writes ‘Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of. And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake,’ it’s hard to accuse him of being a Pollyanna.

Some critics accuse Frankl of victim-blaming. The American scholar Lawrence Langer in 1982 even wrote that Man’s Search for Meaning is ‘almost sinister’. According to him, Frankl reduced survival to an issue of a positivity; Langer argues that the book does a profound disservice to the millions who perished. A critique such as this has some merit to it, and yet Frankl’s actual implications are different. His book evidences no moralising against those who’d lost a sense of meaning. Frankl’s study doesn’t advocate logotherapy as an ethical but as a strategic response to tragedy.

When identifying meaninglessness, it would be a mistake to find it within the individual who suffers. Frankl’s fellow prisoners weren’t responsible for the concentration camps, just as somebody born into a cycle of poverty isn’t at fault, nor is any one of us (unless you happen to be an oil executive) the cause of our collapsing ecosystem. Nothing in logotherapy implies acceptance of the status quo, for the struggle to alter political, material, social, cultural and economic conditions is paramount. What logotherapy offers is something different, a way to envision meaning, despite things not being in your control. In his preface to the book’s 2006 edition, Rabbi Harold Kushner glosses Frankl’s argument by saying that: ‘Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.’

Far from being obsessed with the meaning of life, logotherapy demands that patients orient themselves to the idea of individual meaning, to ‘think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly’, as Frankl writes. Logotherapy – asking patients to clear an imaginative space to orient themselves towards some higher meaning – provides a response to intolerable situations.

Frankl writes that . . .

Continue reading.

FWIW, Frankl’s book is on the list of books I find myself repeatedly recommending.

Written by LeisureGuy

11 February 2020 at 6:17 pm

Surveillance Capitalism at the Limits to Economic Growth – social controls through digital infrastructures have bio-physical limits

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Brian Davey has a very interesting two-part review of Shoshana Zuboff’s book. Part 1 begins:

Book Review: Shoshana Zuboff. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Profile Books 2019

I am writing this review in two parts.

The first part is my own relatively short summary of the argument of Zuboff’s very large book. This is what is included here. Most of the argument is Zuboff’s.

The second part is a supplementary text to explore the implications and impact of the bio-physical issues that underpin “surveillance capitalism” – its energy intensity, its carbon footprint, the fact that it is trying to sell a consumption lifestyle that is faltering because of resource constraints, pollution and debt and the health and environmental consequences of the radio-frequency electromagnetic fields. All of these are totally neglected by Zuboff but are important to the prospects for “surveillance capitalism”

Part One

Few books have had the scale of impact on me as this one. It took me 5 days to read and revealed a world that was completely unexpected and quite new. Zuboff is aware that what she writes is about something novel and unprecedented. It is unlike what has gone before. That is what makes us vulnerable. She uses the analogy of indigenous people’s in the Caribbean first meeting the Spaniards.

“When the Tainos of the pre-columbian Caribbean islands first laid eyes on the sweating bearded Spanish soldiers trudging across the sand in their brocade and armour, how could they possibly have recognised the meaning and portent of that moment? Unable to imagine their own destruction, they reckoned that these strange creatures were gods and welcomed them with intricate rituals of hospitality”.

In an analogy that will soon become clear we likewise imagine that a flood of computer and smart phone apps and social media platforms are there, free for our use, courtesy of Google, Facebook, Amazon and other Surveillance Capitalists, but do not realise how it comes about that we can get all these things for free. What are these companies selling that is bringing these companies billions?

The answer is that it is a mass of information about us that is on sale – information about our experiences, our lives and those of our friends, colleagues, associates and communities. We imagine we are searching with Google but do not see the extent to which Google is researching us – constructive models of our lives as “life patterns” for targeted marketing.

The lives that we thought of as private are being turned into data about us – like the questions we ask the search engines, like where we are and have been from mobile phone and geolocation data that we use. Then there is information that we machine translate. There is information about us from conversations “overheard” by “Cortana” and “Alexa”, snippets of conversation overheard by smart TVs – “please pass the salt, we’re out of laundry detergent, I’m pregnant, let’s buy a new car, we’re going to the movies now, I have a rare disease, she wants a divorce, he needs a new lunch box”. These snippets of communication overheard by smart machines are sent back to companies that lead in voice recognition to be sold on to third parties for whatever use they have for the information– including companies wanting to market to us…but also insurance companies that want to assess us for risk and the security forces of the state and political parties interested in us as political beings.

This book is full of the way things have already gone and are planned to go further. For example the American Journal of Medicine published a study in 2016 which looked into Android based diabetes apps – examining 211 apps and randomly sampling 65 of them for close analysis of data transmission practices.

The researchers identified a good deal that users were unaware was happening including apps that delete or modify information (64%); read phone status and identity ( 31%); gather location data (27%); view wi fi connections (12%); activate camera to access photos and videos (11%). Between 4 and 6% of the apps went even further: reading contact lists, calling phone numbers found in the device, modifying contacts, reading call logs, activating microphones to record speech. Of the 211 apps 81% did not have privacy policies and of them 76% shared sensitive information with third parties. Even among those who did have privacy policies 79% shared data. As Zuboff argues – what are called “privacy policies” should more appropriately be called “surveillance policies”.

One can go on and on. Take, for example, the technologies to create smart clothing with sensors woven into the fibres that can interpret body movements and gestures – thus enabling the interpretation of emotional reactions alongside the technologies for recognising faces and emotional expressions. The resulting “emotional analytics” is not made by the wearer for their own purposes but unseen organisations for surveillance and marketing purposes.

For years non human wild animals have had sensors and transmitters attached to them to see what they are up to and how they live. Unaware that they are being observed scientists get a genuine picture of the life and behaviour of animals in the wild. Now an analogous process is being done to us humans too. Just as it is important that non human animals are unaware that they are being observed – so too the study of humans is being done as much as possible below the level of their awareness.

All of this private human experience transformed into data is then simply declared to be the property of the covert observers. The business mode of the surveillance capitalists like Google and Facebook is thus based on stealing the rights of those whose private experience has been appropriated to decide for themselves what can be done with information that they thought was private to them. The aim for the surveillance capitalists is to share this theft of information about private lives with third parties for money.

Zuboff describes the aim as being to create and sell “prediction products” to the companies who want to market to you – or perhaps to your insurer, health service provider, or police and security services. You can then, for example, be targeted with what are predicted to be appropriate marketing messages for the right products, at the right time and in the right places.

Advertising is thus no longer generic but personalised and to you – indeed just at the time you are passing the shop with the geolocator switched on your smart phone. The smart in your smart phone is not a reference to how clever the phone is in serving your needs. It is smart in its services to the surveillance and marketing sector.

To make is “smarter” still the direction of development is to deploy technologies of behaviour modification – with an increasing range of types of influence available for “nudges” that are ideally not immediately obvious to you.

One such example is the use of mass games like PokemonGo. In this case the “game within the game” (the game that is not obvious to the ordinary players) is about delivering you to bars and restaurants which are part of the market being serviced. In other words the bars and restaurants are Pokemon destinations for people to be herded to with the covert agenda to increase the takings of these businesses for which they pay the surveillance capitalists.

The development of the Internet of Things, for example, in one’s own home, would or will provide more examples where a growing number of household objects are “smart”. This means that the household objects have sensors and transmitters connecting them with the organisations that have brought them to market. The transmitters will reporting back on how and when they are used and the aim is an increasing ability to actively engage with the individuals or households that have acquired them.

“We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance”, an internet of things software developer explains, adding:

“We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way. Context aware data allow us to tie together your emotions, your cognitive functions, your vital signs. Etcetera. We can know if you shouldn’t be driving and we can shut your car down. We can tell the fridge “Hey lock up because he should not be eating” or tell the TV to shut off and make you get some sleep, or the chair to start shaking because you shouldn’t be sitting so long, or the faucet to turn on because you need to drink some water.”

All of which to me sounds like living in an automated psychiatric ward in which it is not the psychiatric staff who know what is best for you but a variety of algorithms of ideal behaviour. In this respect reading Zuboffs text suggests that ideal behaviour would be perfectly predictable – with a set of algorithms to keep any anomalous behaviour in check. In this kind of world the insurance company will not have to worry about things because all the anomalies of ordinary living will arise as problems for you not for the company. An example is would be the car that switches off automatically to give the insurance company the certainty that you will never drive it dangerously.

What makes this so crackpot is that in real life anomalous events are inevitable and ubiquitous – but the working assumption is that surveillance capitalists and customers can automate life in such a way that certainy prevails just like in the operation of a computer programme. For example Zuboff takes to task Hal Varian a senior economist at Google who declares that it a lot easier for insurers when they are able to instruct the vehicular monitoring system not to allow an insured car to be started and to signal where it can be picked up in the types of new contractual systems possible with the internet of things. Zuboff responds:

“ A lot easier for whom?”….in Varian’s scenario, what happens to the driver? What if there is a child in the car? Or a blizzard? Or a train to catch? Or a day care centre drop off on the way to work? A mother on life support in a hospital still miles away? A son waiting to be picked up at school” (p 218 )

So far I have tried to give a thumb nail sketch of the practical issues described in this huge book but I have not covered many conceptual issues. For example  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 February 2020 at 3:45 pm

On games, doorknobs, and general readers

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Jeffrey J. Williams interviews Ian Bogost in Public Books:

Particularly with the advent of the handheld device, digital games now seem a ubiquitous part of our culture. Ian Bogost has examined the life of videogames, considering how they are tools for play and learning. He has done so in the trade book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games (2016), as well as in a series of academic books, including Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007) and How to Do Things with Videogames (2011). In addition, he has been a proponent of object-oriented ontology, notably in Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2012), and he coedits the book series Object Lessons, for Bloomsbury.

Alongside his academic work, Bogost is a game designer and founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. In the past several years, he has also taken a more public role as a contributing editor for The Atlantic, commenting on Silicon Valley, technology, and politics.

This interview took place in Atlanta, GA, on November 9, 2018.


Jeffrey J. Williams (JJW): You’ve written, especially in your recent book, about the power of playing games. What defines a game?

Ian Bogost (IB): To me, a game is like a broken machine, and the thing that you do as a player is fill in for the broken part. You’re there to make it operate—if it’s operating well, then there’s no need for you. One of the strangest things about games is that there’s a kind of mystery to them. There’s a discomfort, not a social or political discomfort but a moment-to-moment material discomfort, like trying to hold a heavy door open or trying to put together an apparatus when the screw is not successfully meshing. What you want in a game is a system that resists you. Inspired by John Ruskin, William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, has a good quote on this: “You can’t have art without resistance in the materials.”

A game is a system that imposes arbitrary restrictions that the player accepts solely in order to have the experience of facing those arbitrary restrictions. In golf, why would you hit the ball down the fairway trying to get it in a hole? You could just walk up and drop it in.

So, games are not like cinema or novels; they’re doing something very different. They’re more like strange organisms or broken machinery that you’re trying to put back together. To me, what was always interesting is that it’s a problem that you’re trying to solve for which there’s no solution, but you struggle toward solving it anyway. What you realize is not how to solve it, but what it feels like to go through that experience and to have that process made evident.

JJW: It seems like there’s a hopeful aspect to your work about the prospects for games and technology. You criticize techno-libertarians in some places, but you don’t express the common skepticism about games as addictive or the like.

IB: One of the problems I’ve always felt about the humanistic study of cultural forms is that it generally falls into two camps: either we’re desperately in love with our object of study, so we can’t look up from it, even when there’s a reason to question that affinity; or we trash it.

I think that goes for Shakespeare as much as it goes for The Wire. Henry Jenkins has this concept of the “acafan,” a person whose immersion in and love for the work help to produce deep knowledge about it. I think that’s right, up to a point, but if you become too immersed in a subject as a fanatic, you can’t see it as clearly.

At the same time, one of the problems in Silicon Valley–style approaches to solutions is that they don’t necessarily ask, “What is it for?”—because the answer is assumed: it’s either for the pursuit of some technological feat, which is its own end, or else it’s to rapidly create speculative value as a business.

In that respect, I’m very much on board with the kind of critique you would hear in the mainstream humanities. It’s just that that doesn’t mean that all business is evil. There are different kinds of businesses, for different reasons.

JJW: You’ve defended videogames, and one of your main points is that they are distinctive in that they foreground procedures, both formally, in following codes, and thematically, in showing how you might build a world, as in Minecraft, where you build a house or city. So, you call for the study of procedural rhetoric. What is procedural rhetoric?

IB: Back in 2006, when I wrote Persuasive Games, digital rhetoric had become a notion, but no one really knew what it meant. They would say, “Well, blogs are digital, so it’s digital rhetoric.” But the mechanism by which you make an argument with software is different from the way you make one with words or with images, in oral or written or visual rhetoric.

It’s like building a model. One of the examples I use is how planetary motion works; you can demonstrate that by building a model of it rather than describing it. That’s kind of what you’re doing when you make a software program or a game. It is a system that behaves in a way that, its creator contends, some aspect of the world behaves.

JJW: So, it’s a kind of modeling. How is that distinctive to games?

IB: There’s nothing about the concept of procedural rhetoric that is necessarily tied to games or even to software. The term could apply to anything that’s process oriented, that’s about behavior rather than about image or about language.

But one of the points I’m trying to make is that there is something intrinsic to games that’s trying to be creative, or expressive, or to make a cultural mark in the way that other forms—like cinema or like the novel—are trying to do. They’re a computational form that is also an expressive form.

JJW: How did you come to the idea? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

1 February 2020 at 9:55 am

100 Ways To Live Better

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Very interesting list. Some hit home, others missed me, but all are interesting. Jacob Falkovich writes at Putanumonit.com:

A couple of weeks ago Venkatesh challenged his followers to brainstorm at least 100 tweets on a topic via live responses. Since I’m not an expert on anything in particular, I decided to simply see if I can come up with 100 discrete pieces of life advice in a day.

This off-the-cuff game turned into perhaps the most successful creative project I’ve ever done. The thread was viewed by tens of thousands of people, received thousands of likes, and gained me hundreds of Twitter followers. I didn’t know there was such thirst for random life-advice, nor that I would be the one to tap the kegs. And now my blog readers get the expanded, edited, organized, and illustrated collection.

The good life is a frequent subject on Putanumonit. I aimed for this thread to be an inspiration to myself as well, writing down many things that I think I should do but haven’t gotten around to yet. I tried to steer a middle course between over-generalized Navalisms and too-specific tips on the particular brand of chapstick that will change your life. May these inspire you to live your best life or to mock me in funny ways in the comments.

Meta

1

Any life advice that isn’t given to you personally is not designed to be followed to the letter. Try to resonate with the philosophy that generates it instead. Remember that directional advice (e.g., “be more …”) may need to be reversed before consumption.

2

Collect feedback from everybody. Play games with close friends where you have to give each other constructive criticism and ways to improve. Collect anonymous feedback from internet strangers on Admonymous.

3

Stop lurking; write that comment. You know the saying about letting people suspect you’re dumb rather than opening your mouth and removing all doubt? Fuck that. We know you’re dumb. You get less dumb by saying things and getting feedback.

4

Learn some improv, at least to get the basic gist of it. Take a class or read Impro. Improv mindset is a great way to approach many social situations including most interactions on the internet. A good comment/reply often starts with “yes, and”.

5

Don’t nitpick, that’s the opposite of good improv. You think that the categories in this post are arbitrary? A piece of advice doesn’t apply to your special situation? You’re probably right, but writing this in a comment will just make readers annoyed and make you frustrated when nobody responds.

Mind

6

There are more great podcasts than you’ll ever have the time to listen to. If it sucks after 10 minutes, skip half an hour ahead. Still boring? Delete and move on. Obviously, do the same for books.

7

Free will. The anthropic principle. Solipsism. The simulation hypothesis. Moral realism. They’re fun to argue about through the night but don’t judge anyone too much based on the positions they take and don’t treat any of them too seriously as guides to actually living your life. It should all add up to normalcy in the end.

8

Find a medium of expression and express yourself publicly every day for three months. If you’re good with words, write 100 Tweets. An artist — post 100 sketches on Instagram. Music/dance person — 100 TikToks.

9

Tell a bad joke or a pun as soon as you think of it, even if it’s just to your exasperated spouse or coworker. It takes 20 bad jokes to think of a single good one, and you only start making good jokes once you remove the unconscious filter stifling your generative brain.

10

If you can’t give it up completely, try to constrain the bandwidth of how much you hear about politics. Don’t start your day with the front page of the Times. Unfollow anyone whose posts are more than 20% about politics or the outrage du jour. And don’t jump into online arguments, it’s vice masquerading as virtue.

11

Binge a show/video game for a couple of weeks, then take a break from TV for a couple of weeks. Trying to limit yourself to an hour a day is less fun and more addictive.

12

Should you watch that movie / play that game / read that book? The formula is:

[# who rated it 5/5] + [# who rated it 1/5] – [# who rated it 3/5].

This doesn’t apply to everything, but it applies to many things, including media. There are too many options out there to waste time on mediocrity, and everything great will be divisive.

13

Unless one of them is your friend or boss, you should spend 100x less time thinking and talking about billionaires than you currently do.

14

Facebook is for event invites only, not for scrolling. The people you met offline are not going to be the people posting the best stuff online, so the timeline content is worse than what you’d get on Twitter/Reddit/blogs. And the algorithm is designed to fuck with your brain.

15

Don’t keep watching a bad TV show just because your friends are talking about it, it’s a terrible time trade-off. You can read a recap or even better — bring up richer topics of conversations.  And don’t pay money for bad movies just because “everyone is watching them”. Doing so is defecting against your friends since they’ll now have to watch it to not feel left out.

16

Habits are reinforced by your habitual environment. That’s a big part of why retreats work: they take you away from your usual surroundings and people. If you want to start meditating, doing pushups, intermittent fasting, etc, try starting on a vacation where the new circumstances make it easier to integrate new habits.

17 . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 3:56 pm

Civilization & Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life

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Alvaro de Menard writes in Fantastic Anachronism:

[Note: this was originally posted on reddit; people liked it so I’m reposting with some minor fixes]

I first discovered Fernand Braudel when Tyler Cowen answered the question: “whose entire body of work is worth reading?”, placing him next to people like Nietzsche and Hume. It was good advice.

Braudel starts working on his doctoral dissertation in 1923, at age 21, intending to concentrate on the policies of Philip II of Spain in the form of a conventional history. To support himself, he teaches at an Algerian high school for a decade, then at the university of Sao Paulo until 1937. During this period he keeps up with developments in France, especially Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre’s Annales School, which focuses on long-term history and statistical data.

In 1934, 11 years after he began, Braudel starts to find quantitative data. Population figures, ship cargoes, prices, arrivals and departures. These will form the basis of his novel, data-driven approach. Five years later, in 1939, he finally has an outline ready.

Then the Nazis capture him. He spends the next 5 years in a POW camp where he writes the first draft of La Méditerranée without access to any materials, mailing notebooks back to Paris. When the war ends, he becomes the de facto leader of the second generation of the Annales School. An additional four years after that, 26 years after he started working on it, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II is published.

The general argument of this work is that history moves at different speeds, and one must distinguish them: the short term (daily events as perceived by contemporaries), the medium term (‘economic systems, states, societies, civilisations’), and la longue durée – a perspective of centuries or millennia without which the shorter timeframes cannot be understood.

In the preface, Braudel declares: “I have always believed that history cannot be really understood unless it is extended to cover the entire human past.” Civilization and Capitalism is built on similar principles.

The initial seeds for C&C were planted in 1950, when Febvre asked Braudel to contribute to a volume for a series on world history. Braudel would simply provide a summary of existing work on the development of capitalism. But Febvre died before the volume could be completed, and Braudel took responsibility for what turned out to be a three-volume series on capitalism. The first volume came out 17 years after work began, in 1967. The final volume would not be published until 1979.

Reading Braudel one gets the impression of an infinite curiosity at work for decades, mining every source for the tiniest piece of data, and then magisterially combining everything together. Despite fairly brutal editing these notes are still way too long, and yet they struggle to capture even a tiny part of the detail and depth that the book contains.


Vol. I: The Structures of Everyday Life

A good starting point might be what is left out: politics, wars, dynasties, religion, ideology, peoples. The index of maps & graphs gives the reader a taste of what is to come: “Budget of a mason’s family in Berlin about 1800”; “Bread weights and grain prices in Venice at the end of the sixteenth century”; “French Merchants registered as living in Antwerp, 1450-1585”.

The first volume aims to illuminate every aspect of material life: agriculture, food, dress, housing, towns, cities, energy, metals, machines, animals, transportation, money. Braudel’s goal is not simply to examine each of these in isolation, but to show how all the elements of material life interact to form cultures, economies, systems of governance, power structures, long-term cycles or trends. He comes remarkably close to achieving this absurdly ambitious task. For people into worldbuilding this tome is pure gold. The first volume also has the greatest general appeal: unlike the other two which are somewhat esoteric, I think this is a book everyone will love.

In short, at the very deepest levels of material life, there is at work a complex order, to which the assumptions, tendencies and unconscious pressures of economies, societies and civilizations all contribute.

It is here that Braudel shows off his greatest skill, which is the combination of the microscopic with the panoramic. At the top level: Geography. Climate. Land. Crops. ZOOM IN. Trading routes. Piracy. Economy. Cities. Technology. And then zoom into details like the price of wheat relative to oats in 1351 Paris. He shifts effortlessly between the global, long-term perspective and minute, specific data and anecdotes, combining the two to form a coherent understanding.

The Weight of Numbers

Everything, both in the short and long term, and at the level of local events as well as on the grand scale of world affairs, is bound up with the numbers and fluctuations of the mass of people.

The predominant feature of the ancien régime is malthusianism. From the 16th century on, Europe was constantly on the brink of overpopulation. Epidemics and famines established balance, and occasional recessions in population created great wealth for the survivors. “Thus in Languedoc between 1350 and 1450, the peasant and his patriarchal family were masters of an abandoned countryside. Trees and wild animals overran fields that once had flourished.” France had 26 general famines just in the 11th century; 16 in the 18th.

Famine recurred so insistently for centuries on end that it became incorporated into man’s biological regime and built into his daily life. Dearth and penury were continual, and familiar even in Europe, despite its privileged position. […] Things were far worse in Asia, China and India. Famines there seemed like the end of the world. In China everything depended on rice from the southern provinces; in India, on providential rice from Bengal, and on wheat and millet from the northern provinces, but vast distances had to be crossed and this contribution only covered a fraction of the requirements.

Slowly, expansion and improvements in agricultural productivity doubled the global population, which Braudel calls “indubitably the basic fact in world history from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century”.

Almost all of these people lived in the countryside. “The towns the historian discovers in his journeys back into pre-nineteenth-century times are small; and the armies miniature.” The towns were also great population sinks, drawing in men from the countryside and killing them. Wild animals were everywhere, often a real threat. Even in Europe, which was full of wolves and bears.

A lapse in vigilance, an economic setback, a rough winter, and they multiplied. In 1420, packs entered Paris through a breach in the ramparts or unguarded gates. They were there again in September 1438, attacking people this time outside the town, between Montmartre and the Saint-Antoine gate. In 1640, wolves entered Besançon by crossing the Doubs near the mills of the town and ‘ate children along the roads’.

Braudel writes about . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2020 at 2:38 pm

Educated Fools: Why Democratic Leaders Still Misunderstand the Politics of Social Class

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Thomas Geoghegan, author of one of the books I repeatedly find myself recommending (namely,, Which Side Are You On?: Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back), writes in the New Republic:

Here’s a little thought experiment: What would happen if, by a snap of the fingers, white racism in America were to disappear? It might be that the black and Latino working class would be voting for Trump, too. Then we Democrats would have no chance in 2020. We often tell ourselves: “Oh, we lost just the white working class because of race.” But the truth might be something closer to this: “It’s only because of race that we have any part of the working class turning out for us at all.”

How many of us in the party’s new postgraduate leadership caste have even a single friendship, a real one, of two equals, with any man or woman who is just a high school graduate? It’s hard to imagine any Democrat in either House or Senate who did not go beyond a high school diploma. (And no, I am not talking about Harvard dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.)

Still, it’s unthinkable that the college-educated base of the party would trust a high school graduate without a four-year degree to run for or hold a serious office. We don’t trust them, and would never vote for one of them. Why should they trust or vote for one of us?

It used to be otherwise. Yes, in the 1940s and 1950s, many a Democrat in the House or Senate had no four-year diploma: Even a president, Harry S Truman, did not. What’s more, those who did frequently went to night law school, or a teachers’ college, and at least still lived, or had a social life, in neighborhoods where no one over a long stretch of city blocks had college B.A.s. This was true even for the profession now cited as a sort of polemic shorthand for rule by the knowledge elite—the “liberal media.” As late as 1970, my friend Steve Franklin joined a city paper and was surprised to learn that most of the editors had never been to college—and of course they lived in neighborhoods all over the city with people who had gone to the same high schools they had.

Back then, many of these people understood that they could trust the Democratic Party for the same reason they could trust the liberal media. The Democratic Party of the 1950s and 1960s was probably much more corrupt and inept than the Democratic Party of today—but back then it lived in the neighborhood, as it no longer does today. Now the Democratic Party relies on think tanks in elite universities to find out what people back in those neighborhoods are thinking.

In fact, the college graduates who are now the base of the party have moved working people out of the old neighborhoods. I think here of my own city—Chicago—where the members of the City Council whom columnists from Ben Hecht to Mike Royko used to mock now have more degrees than reporters of Hecht’s generation had. Here’s the finding of a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago: In 1970, one half of Chicago by census tract was “middle-income”—that is to say, the people who made up the old working-class machine vote, most of them without four-year college degrees. Now that “middle-income” group is just 16 percent. The bungalows in those formerly middle-income neighborhoods teeming with high school graduates now belong to high-tech entrepreneurs and investors in hedge funds.

I am a labor lawyer and should have known better, but when I ran for Congress in 2009 in my Chicago-area district and knocked on doors, the white working class I imagined to be around me was gone: They had disappeared like the Etruscans. Or they at least had gone somewhere way to the west of I-90 and I-94—the monster expressway known as the Kennedy, which divides the city the way the Mississippi divides America, well out of range of the higher-credentialed and better-capitalized parts of the city where it’s $15 for a glass of wine. We recently elected a new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, and the astonishing thing about her is not that she is female, or black, or gay—such things are routine in Chicago now—but that she is so totally from out of town: not born here, never went to high school or college here, or even in Illinois. She showed up for the first time in law school at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, which once did not count as Chicago at all.

This all fits the claim of the French geographer Christophe Guilluy about his own country in his 2016 book The Twilight of the Elites: Prosperity, the Periphery, and the Future of France. Guilluy describes how the movement, if not the expulsion, of the working class from France’s most prosperous cities incubated the innovation and new modes of production that fuel the growth of the Knowledge Economy. The same thing is happening in places like Chicago and most of the other well-off and innovative capitals of information-age enterprise. Alexis de Tocque­ville blamed the French Revolution in part on the literal physical distance between an aristocracy pulled into Versailles and the rural France they left behind. Now those of us with postgraduate degrees and who are in the elite of the Democratic Party live in our own Versailles, and we don’t know any working-class people either—except perhaps the name of a barista at Starbucks or the woman who comes by at night to clean the office.

For those of us cut off from the white working class, it is easy to think the answer to inequality is: Imitate us. Why can’t they be like we are? I borrow this idea from The Light That Failed by Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev (2019), a book that explains why newly liberated ex-Communist countries turned away from liberal democracies to authoritarian or illiberal ones. Imitate us—be like we are—turns out to be one of the most grating forms of foreign policy on offer in a world of such great income inequality. But imitate us is also grating within a country with income inequality on the scale even of France’s, much less that of the United States. There are other geopolitical reasons beyond my ken for the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia and Viktor Orbán in Hungary, but there is something about imitate us that helps account both for the rise of these forms of illiberal democracy and for the one that’s been hatched here.

The center left and progressive left—or the postgraduates who control both sides in the party’s debate—have a similar answer to inequality. Higher taxes? Yes. More welfare? Yes. And what else?

More college—a lot more college. What to do about lack of mobility? More college. What about competing in the global economy? More college.

Or if a few have started to detect the class snobbery here and added community college, it’s still … well, it’s still in the hope that the upward-striving student population will go on to obtain a four-year college degree. And yes, I know; we are . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s good. And read his book, too

Written by LeisureGuy

30 January 2020 at 2:29 pm

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