Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

Subreddit of the Week: enlightenedcentrism

There is a subreddit devoted to the idea that the claim “but both sides are doing it…” as some sort of above-the-fray stance of moderation is really aligning oneself with the extremist right. It’s called /r/enlightenedcentrism and it freely admits in a reminder on a pinned post that it is left-leaning.

An image taken from a post on /r/enlightenedcentrism.

I bring up this subreddit because I recently read the book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” It’s authors argue that the Republican Party bears the greater responsibility for creating the partisan rift and for disrupting the functioning of government. It’s been their strategy since they started pushing against the New Deal coalition of the Democratic Party, way back when conservative Baby Boomers entered politics. It’s part of their Ayn Rand-ian “no government is good government” agenda. The authors also argue that the problem has been exacerbated by the professional media’s inclination to attempt to report objectively, to treat both sides of the partisan divide fairly. This has obfuscated the truth that one side is deliberately being disruptive and causing damage to the democractic process.

Doesn’t this make sense of recent events surrounding the election of the new President, a Democrat? Let’s face it, being an enlightened centrist isn’t a useful option any more. As Dr. Maggie Gravel says at the end of Death to 2020, “pick a side and hunker down.” Either get on your Russian-hosted social media site with the other red staters and plot against the United States, or join the blue state and the mission of restoring the nation.

2021 State of the Coup

2021 State of the Coup

If you haven’t seen any videos by YouTuber CGP Grey, then you should check them out. I highly recommend them for being engaging and informative, as well as amusing in that they are mostly stick figure animations. Grey is one of those Millennial “explainer” YouTubers; I’ve blogged about them before. What gives these folks the credentials to speak authoritatively about the subject matters they cover? Basically, being intelligent and educated and willing to take the time to do some research and thinking.

I bring up CGP Grey because of this remarkable video of his titled “The Rules for Rulers.” It’s a 20 minute long primer on how to stay in power under various forms of government, including a dictatorship. There’s even an example of a coup which shows a little stick figure mob storming a government building. This is obviously relevant today.

I can’t speak for how accurate Grey’s video is in terms of political theory, but it is certainly compelling. The description of the video indicates that it is adapted from the book “The Dictator’s Handbook“. One of the basic tenets of rulership as described here is that, as a ruler, one must retain influence over the “keys to power.” These are the people/social elements that let you get things done.

We can see in this video that the little stick figure dictator needs the help of other stick figure “keys” that look like they belong to three distinct branches of society: the military, the police, and the business elites. A wannabe dictator pulling off a coup needs these keys. Sending a mob to storm a building is a useful ploy, but only when these keys are in the wannabe dictator’s pocket. The mob itself is not a key to power.

And so you can see the fundamental flaw in the plan of a certain wannabe dictator. He has a violent mob, but he doesn’t have all of those keys in his pocket. He certainly doesn’t have the business elites; they have deplatformed and pulled financial support from him and his political allies. And he doesn’t have the military, as evidenced by the statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in support of the U.S. Constitution and the incoming Biden administration.

Now it’s possible, unfortunately, that the wannabe dictator has some support from the police. It’s been known for a long time that police forces in the United States have been infiltrated by white supremacists. Connecting this fact to a certain leader’s need for keys to power casts a whole new light on the protests against police brutality last summer.

A violent mob and a percentage of rogue law enforcement officers is not enough influence to install a wannabe dictator in power, but is still a danger to the public. We’ve all seen the threatening postings on social media. While the coup has failed, we’re not out of the woods yet.

So be careful out there. Be prepared for some disruption in the days to come. Domestic terrorists can do a lot of harm, but they can’t take down our Republic. Their blind rage alone is powerless to overcome us.

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Covidiots

I still sometimes see people out and about and not masked. I call them “death spreaders” and give them a very wide berth. There was a death spreader at the Post Office over the Christmas holiday. It was in much too close quarters for anyone to be unmasked and it pissed me off. It’s sad that this is still a problem, with the pandemic raging and the numbers just getting worse and worse.

When I first observed this phenomenom I called these people Covidiots. Their presence was ominous and invoked the feeling of being in an apocalyptic movie. How can it be getting worse?

We all know the real problem. The pandemic has been politicized. One side of the political divide believes the pandemic is a lie, just as they believe the election is a lie. And now the Covidiots are out on the streets, armed and dangerous, attacking democracy itself.

It’s only going to get worse before it gets better. So get ready for the final chapter in the trilogy, coming soon to a country near you.

What I learned in 2020

What I learned in 2020

Looking back at 2020, it at once one of the most eventful and one of the least eventful years of my life (of all of our lives, I imagine). Mostly we stayed at home and did nothing. Very uneventful. But also, we experienced a once-in-a-century pandemic, and I moved in permanently with my BFF. Absolutely earth-shattering.

And then there was this insane election and this dreadful sense that we might be close to a coup of some sort and the end of democracy in the United States. I believe that danger has passed, but for awhile there I was shaken up.

This year I’ve blogged extensively about both the political divide and the pandemic. On this final day of 2020 I wanted to think a little more about the year’s lessons.

My BFF was telling me that some Trump supporters on her social media feeds have argued that total deaths this past year are actually no different than in past years. It’s not to deny the reality of Covid-19, but to say that because of the lockdowns other causes of death have been reduced (for example, vehicle-related), so it’s evened out. I guess they think this is a reason to open up the economy again, though when I think about it, wouldn’t it make sense to never reopen, even after everyone is vaccinated and Covid is no longer a threat? Then the death rate should really go down!

In all seriousness, I understand that we accept certain levels of risk in our society. There is no way to eliminate altogether the possibility of death or bodily harm. We can’t live our lives at all if we are too cautious about accepting risk. And we have schemes to mitigate risk; we all accept the dangers of automobile use, knowing that our insurance system will absorb the costs, if not guarantee our lives. Less effectively, our health insurance system does the same for medical risks.

The point that anti-shutdowners seem to be missing is that the costs associated with Covid-19 are much too high for our healthcare system to absorb. So just accepting the risk in the way we do with the dangers of automobile use is not a good option. To bolster their arguments, pandemic deniers fall back on questioning the data altogether. It must be that it’s all overblown. And I understand part of the motivation for believing this – for many people, the shutdown has been financially devastating. It is quite a quandary.

So a big lesson of the year is that we need to restore trust in our society, and to heal the political divide. It has been tough living in this time of contentious politics. And we need to reform our fragile system so that when public health demands drastic change, it isn’t quite so destructive of people’s livelihoods. It’s certainly doable, with all the wealth in our country.

And maybe we should have been practicing some of these health measures already – wearing face masks in the flu season, for example. Certainly when we ourselves are symptomatic; this is common practice in other societies.

I know its easy for me to accept the pandemic protocols, since I am a privileged stay-at-home worker. Personally, I’ve had one of the healthiest years of my life, except for a bit of a lack of exercise. Not travelling, and having the boys stay home from school has meant that I haven’t had a cold since early in the year. Usually I get sick a couple of times at least. And not commuting has been a blessing, saving both time and money. But like I said, that’s not an option for everyone.

Ok, I’m rambling. What did I learn this year? That I am very lucky. That what matters is family and loved ones. That we should enjoy life while we have it, because it is very fragile. Our whole world is fragile. Live fully in each day because time always rushes on.

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

Subreddit of the Week: aboringdystopia

I’m sure you’ve heard of the science fiction genre known as cyberpunk. I’m not talking about the recently released video game; I mean science fiction that is high-tech and futuristic in its setting, and politically and socially dystopian in its outlook.

An early example in film was the 1982 movie Blade Runner, based on a Philip K. Dick novel from the 1960s. It was a real trendsetter for the cyberpunk aesthetic – bleak and dark, but also slick and stylish. Like how everybody dressed in the nineties. It promised a future of brutal corporate rule and film noir cool. Did it get that future right? Not really. But as I broke it down in a review of the film and its sequel, science fiction is just modern mythology. Most of it is fantastical and completely unrealistic in its extrapolations; the real point of it is to explore the human psyche and the meaning of life.

Cyberpunk took off in the late 1900s, but as the world turned and the real cyberworld evolved, it looked less and less like the jaded, punk settings of the fictional genre. Going into the twenty-first century, cyberreality was becoming helpful and consumer-oriented. A more accurate depiction in dystopian fiction of the world to come was captured in the 2002 movie Minority Report, also based on a Philip K. Dick story. It was quite prescient in its forecast of a society under continuous surveillance and evaluation. The world it envisions even includes targeted advertising, and self-driving cars. The big thing it gets wrong is that, instead of psychics, we use machine learning algorithms to predict human behavior.

Now that we’re one-fifth of the way into the new century, and deep into the Crisis Era, the luster has come off of the consumer-oriented market society. Concerns about wealth and income inequality, and the plight of the underprivileged, have come to the forefront of popular dystopian science fiction. In the 2018 movie Ready Player One, a powerful tech company dominates society and a permanent underclass can only find respite in virtual reality. Sound anything like your life?

In the even higher stakes story of 2013’s Elysium, the Earth inhabited by the poor is almost unlivable, and the privileged middle class has taken to an orbital space habitat, where they enjoy vastly superior lives to those on the planet surface. Clearly this society has not dealt successfully with either climate change or the rising cost of healthcare. As far-fetched as the techonologies may be in the film, the allegory of an elite class that has completely abandoned any sense of social responsibility is unmistakeably relevant.

What kind of harrowing, high-tech dystopia do we actually live in today? That takes me to the title of this post and the subreddit /r/aboringdystopia. Here the teeming digital masses chronicle all the petty injustices and cruelties of the modern world, all the ways the megacorps keep us under their thumbs, all the ways that late stage capitalism is failing us. We did manage to get to a dystopia of oppressive corporate rule after all, it’s just not futuristic or cyberpunk.

Somehow we became an oppressed underclass without keeping any sense of style. We’re sitting in our sweatpants and binge-watching Amazon Prime, not running around in cool leather jackets like Neo and Trinity. But in our own sad way, we’re jacked in to the Matrix and trapped in a dystopia.

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

Book Review: It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined

I just finished this quick read – It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Here’s my review on goodreads:

The Boomer generation is one whose scholars and thinkers (and they are a thinking generation rather than a doing generation) tend towards pessimistic outlooks and dire prognostications. They are also the most politically destructive generation in living memory. The destructiveness the Boomers have wrought in American government is the subject of “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks”, a collaboration by two of their own chorts. While the book isn’t explicitly generational history, the story it tells, of government becoming increasingly partisan and conflict-oriented rather than coalitional and achievement-oriented, clearly coincides with the Boomers’ rise to political power.

The authors trace the beginnings of this trend all the way back to 1978, when Newt Gingrich first took office in the House of Representatives. Before reading this book, I had not realized how far back the inception of the Gingrich Revolution was, or how long it took to come to fruition. It was predicated on a strategy of confrontation and disruption, and of questioning the legitimacy of existing institutions: the Boomer modus operandi since the days of the student movements of the 1960s. By the time of the Obama administration, when this book was first published, the strategy enabled a Republican minority to hold the United States government hostage.

The fundamental problem which Mann and Ornstein diagnose is that parliamentary style political parties do not mesh well with a system of separate branches with checks and balances. A minority party can easily exploit one branch’s power to limit another’s and prevent any governing from happening at all. This suits the ideology of the Republican party, which holds that government is actually undesirable altogether, and their asymmetric use of this strategem against the Democratic party has defined politics in the United States in our time. Generation X politicians in the GOP, like the “Young Guns” of the 2008 election cycle, have been happy to take up the banner of obstructionism in the name of anti-government principles. This alliance between Boomer and Gen X conservatives has wielded considerable power, and clearly marks a generational shift in U.S. politics.

Again, the authors don’t explicitly make a generational point. What they do is break down the problem in terms of specific factors and offer some possible remedies. Foremost is improving voter participation and shifting away from winner-take-all electoral processes, which prevent moderate politicians from winning elections. Campaign finance reform is another possible remedy at the electoral level. At the institutional level, reducing the use of the filibuster to obstruct legislation and executive nominations is key. Finally, improving the culture overall is required, to restore public trust and recreate a sense of public space.

The authors released an edition in 2016 with the title updated to “It’s Even Worse Than It Was”; this is the edition I read. In the afterword, Mann and Ornstein acknowledge that nothing improved since 2011, that all the trends of hyperpartisanship and extremism and lack of compromise have worsened. And this was before Trump won the election; I can only guess that a third edition published now would be titled “It’s Even Worse Than You Possibly Could Have Imagined”. The disastrous inability of the government to address the Covid-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates the damage that the insurgent Republican party has done to our political system.

Overall this book is a quick and easy read, and an eye-opening work of political analysis. It explains the changes that have occurred in government since Boomers and Gen Xers have come to dominate in office, and how the confrontational style of parliamentary politics has rendered our constitutional system dysfunctional. It understands that restoring the functioning “normality” of the past, with parties that are adversarial but able to work together, will be difficult. Informed by generational theory, we must recognize that it will take future generations of politicians to get us there.

I’ll just add that, despite the pessimistic title I gave to this blog post, I feel like we might soon be over with this period of hyperpartisanship. I think the worst of the extremists are being discredited, and are being marginalized in the public sphere. Trump’s hopes of a coup of some sort are fading, and Trump supporters are heading for the shadows.

Obviously a lot is riding on the transition to the Biden administration and its first few months. Like all of us, I will watching intently to see if it finally starts getting better.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

Steve Barrera vs. the A.I.

It hasn’t come up much on my blog, but I am actually really into board gaming. It’s odd that I don’t blog about it; maybe I don’t want to mix business and pleasure, I don’t know. But anyway, I have been blogging about these coronavirus times, and how life has changed so much this past year. And one way that it’s changed from my board gaming hobby perspective is that I have fewer opportunities to sit down for tabletop gaming sessions. I haven’t been to a gaming convention since January!

So one way to compensate for that lack of real life gaming is to play digital versions of favorite games. I don’t mean video games; I mean computer programs that simulate board games, and there are actually quite a few good ones. You can play online against other people, or you can play a “local” game – meaning no network required – against the computer itself. You play against simulated “A.I. player” opponents.

Which takes me to the topic of this post, which is the quality of the A.I. opponents. What I have found is that for some games they are very good, and for others – not so much. Some games I win against the A.I.s every time, and others it’s more 50/50. Now there are two possible explanations for this: 1) I am better at some games than at others or 2) the A.I.s are programmed better for some games than for others.

I stole this graphic from a book about
A.I. game programming.

It seems obvious that it’s a bit of both. But then you have to wonder, in the case of both explanations: why?

Is there something about my cognitive psychology that makes some game designs or mechanics easier for me to figure out than others? It honestly seems that way to me. I generally do well at board games, but there are some that I struggle with compared to others. There are some that I have never won playing against other humans, even though I have won against those same people at other games. I’m sure that other board gamers understand the experience. So there must be some correlation between how my intellect works and what sorts of games I am good at.

As for the programmed A.I.s, well, there are two possibilities to consider. It could be that some games are inherently easier to program A.I. players for than others, and it could be that some programmers or programming teams made a better effort at the A.I. programming than others. Let’s face it, these projects have limited timelines and bugdgets, and if the programmers only made the A.I. so good before release day, that’s just the level of A.I. that everyone will have to live with.

A screenshot from Terraforming Mars, one of my favorite digital board games and one where I always beat the A.I.s.

If some games are easier to program A.I.s for than others, then the next question is – what are the parameters that make for a game that can be mastered by A.I.? Probably the most famous example of such a game is Chess: it’s common knowledge that a computer program beat a world Chess champion, back in 1997. And it just keeps getting worse for the humans. Another game that humans might as well retire from is Go.

Now, Chess and Go are both games that are simple in their rules, but strategically very deep. They also have no random elements, meaning all possible future paths of a game are determined, given the current game state. Computers have an innate advantage over humans in these sorts of games in that they have much more capacity for information storage, which allows for plotting ahead many moves – pretty much the key to winning these kinds of games.

The board games that I prefer have more complicated rules, generally because they are simulating some real life scenario like exploration and development, or world-building. They are what we call heavily thematic games. And they have some randomization to them – typically a deck of cards that are shuffled and dealt out, or drafted, to the players. This means the outcome isn’t deterministic, and there is some luck involved. You can have an advantage by chance, not just because of superior information processing ability.

But you would think that, even then, the A.I.’s would reign supreme. They just have to include the stochastic factor of the game in their algorithms. The only advantage humans should have might come from intuition – the old ‘gut feeling’ that might be able to predict, or even influence, random outcomes. This is a tantalizing possibility based on the idea of primacy of consciousness, but I won’t get into it any further in this post.

Now another thing about Chess and Go is that they are both games where you can be ranked compared to other players. If you are lower ranked than another player, you pretty much have no chance to beat them at the game. Improving your rank requires much practice. This is because of how strategically deep these games are.

The board games I like really aren’t as deep, despite being more complex in terms of total rules. I wonder if it would ever make sense to have rankings for such games; the closest thing to that would be win rates and high scores as tracked on the online gaming platforms. But those statistics alone don’t constitute a ranking in the Chess sense; they aren’t as strong a predictor of who would win a game, in part because of the random element.

Probably ranking systems for all these different board games won’t emerge, because there just isn’t as broad an interest in them as there is in classics like Chess and Go. And probably no A.I. will ever be programmed that plays them perfectly, to prove once and for all how inferior humans are. No one will bother to take the time, given how many of these board games there are and how niche they are.

Maybe when the Singularity comes, the A.I. net will finally get around to mastering every known board game, and put us humans in our place. Hopefully it will let us play against “dumbed down” A.I.s as we while away our pointless lives in our soylent green pods. It will help to pass the time.

The Red-Blue Network-Centric Wars, or, Clash of the Media Bubbles

The Red-Blue Network-Centric Wars, or, Clash of the Media Bubbles

In the late 1990s, with the Cold War just ended and the United States as the world hegemonic “sole superpower”, a new doctrine of warfare called network-centric warfare emerged. The gist of it: “use information networks to get an advantage.” It was an acknowledgement of the growing power of densely networked computers, such as the Internet which we take for granted today.

Meanwhile, a constitutional lawyer named Philip Bobbitt was writing his seminal book The Shield of Achilles, in which he argued that the constitutional order of the industrial nation state was giving way to a new order, which he called the informational market state. Securing opportunity and choice were the new functions of government, over providing welfare and solidarity.

Fast forward to 2020, and we are in the midst of Cold Civil War II, the battle between the red zone and the blue zone that I’ve been blogging about lately. The United States has abandoned the world stage, and is focused internally. A pandemic undermines the legitimacy of the new market state order, by both reducing economic opportunity and creating a public welfare imperative. And the power of the world wide computer network is something to be feared now; it lets bad actors, even foreign powers, manipulate public consciousness. Information runs amok and the Internet is a battlefield in a domestic war, with each side using the network to spread agitprop promoting its particular version of reality.

For example, in the red zone reality bubble, millions of votes cast for Joe Biden in the 2020 Presidential election were fraudulent. Personally, I think that’s BS – if it were true, Trump’s lawyers would explicitly make the claim in court instead of only in media statements. But I am a partisan of the blue zone in this war, so how could my words carry any weight with a partisan of the red zone? It seems we’re at an impasse – and it shows in the paralyzation of our government.

The problem is, with each side convinced of the veracity of its version of the truth, how is the consumer-citizen of the informational market state supposed to know which version is correct? If we are a really in a state, as Bobbitt argues, where we can choose from a menu of informational realities – will that be facebook, or parler, sir? – then how could we ever function as a polity? We need some common ground to stand on.

I am reminded of the time of the French Revolution, when rumors spread readily and people on either side easily believed the worst about the other faction. It was a mindset that pushed the people of that time to extremes of violence. I worried about this earlier in a book review. No, they didn’t have the Internet then, but that’s beside the point. An information network is there, regardless of the technology in use.

Ultimately, the chaos and violence of the French Revolution opened a path for an autocratic ruler to emerge and restore order. The people of the time were just glad for extremists on either side of the partisan divide to be put down. The moderates prevailed, but only because an authoritarian silenced the mobs. Trump might have been like Napolean and achieved this…but as it turned out, he didn’t.

I think the willingness of people to ensconce themselves in their media bubbles and stick with their partisan “zone” reflects a strong need for a consensus narrative, for a sense of collective purpose. We just need that purpose not to be at odds with the vision of a major segment of the populace within our same society. Maybe the United States is paying a price for becoming the sole superpower: there is no external power to unite us, as there was in the last crisis, so we’re left to fight each other. 9/11 might have been like Pearl Harbor…but as it turned out, it wasn’t.

So how will the center hold now? I honestly can’t say, but I suspect we’ll find out in the months to come. This will probably be my last red-vs-blue post for awhile, until some major change breaks. Meanwhile, I certainly will be watching my media bubble feeds with trepidation.

Trump’s Legacy for Good

Trump’s Legacy for Good

While I personally detest President Trump, I’ll give him some credit for what he achieved in his bid for power. It can’t be denied that he has shaken up American politics. Thanks to him, the electorate has become more engaged than at any time in my memory. President-elect Biden is the first candidate to have received over 80 million popular votes. But Trump himself actually holds the next record, beating out Obama’s previous one from 2008. He could actually be proud of this, instead of dwelling on the fact that he lost the 2020 election, especially since he sees Obama as his nemesis.

Trump also forced the Republican Party to confront the fact that its platform does not conform to the needs of the American people. He hijacked the party, and you could say he made it into his own cult, but he also energized a right-wing populism that is likely here to stay. If Trump had been a more competent leader, he might have entrenched that version of populism in power. Instead, he simply gave a pass to the Democrats to attempt a return to the Obama era.

The left-wing version of populism, spearheaded by Bernie Sanders, was not so successful. But now that Covid-19 has taken over daily life, Biden can’t simply turn back the clock to 2016. So by energizing and engaging the populace, and by bungling the pandemic, Trump has had a big impact, which could shake us out of our neoliberal dream and actually take us to a brighter future for all Americans.

World Views on the Web

World Views on the Web

This is to follow up on my last post, where I revisited some Boomer generation founded web sites that were arguably cutting edge “new media” a decade or so in the past, but by now are being submerged by the flood of traffic to social media sites where everyone hangs out today. These Boomer sites are quite clearly split between “red zone” (conservative / traditional / Republican) vs. “blue zone” (liberal / progressive / Democrat) values.

I ended the post by speculating whether the same stark difference would be evident in the web sites founded by younger generations. On the one hand, younger generations aren’t as values-driven as the Boomer generation. On the other hand, they primarily derive their Weltanschauung from the vision of the Boomers, and so that vision should be reflected in their own culture.

Revisiting the sites which I had linked to back in 2014, my impression is that the sites decidedly shift from red to blue as you go from Gen-X to Millennial. However, I would say that the Gen-X red zone sites are less hysterically partisan than the Boomer ones. I mean, Matt Drudge is really a muckraker at heart, not a partisan conservative.

Here’s the list roughly in order from the oldest founder (Newsmax’s Christopher Ruddy, born 1965) to the youngest. Only the founders of Reddit are Millennials; the rest are Gen-Xers. In my judgment there is a shift from the red zone world view to the blue zone world view as you go down the age ladder.

This is true even though the site at the bottom, reddit, accomodates people of all views, in assorted safe spaces called subreddits. They are safe spaces because the admins of the subreddits can ban people who express opposing viewpoints. But, in my judgment at least, the majoritarian perspective on reddit is the blue zone perspective. You can judge for yourself by visiting the sites.