Potpourri

I’ve been neglectful of the blog this past week — it’s been five days since the last post. I’ve been busy, but that’s not all of it; there are times when the well just runs dry, and this has been one of them. It certainly isn’t as if there isn’t a lot going on that’s worth commenting on.

So while I’m waiting for the sap to rise, here’s a roundup of miscellaneous items.

‣   According to this item in the Wall Street Journal, the Earth has “lost half its wildlife in the past four decades”. This seems absurd, but I have done no digging into this whatsoever. You’re on your own.

‣   Here’s a clever little video: old footage of a long-ago war with Mars.

‣   Imagine this: the public schools fostering patriotism. Yes, that actually happened, and here’s how they did it.

‣   On the climate front, the sky still refuses to fall.

‣   It’s been twenty years since the publication of The Bell Curve. Charles Murray looks back, and sums up where thing have got to.

‣   In the wake of the witch-burning last spring of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, Molly Hemingway wrote an outstanding essay at The Federalist on same-sex marriage and the suppression of dissent. Read it here.

‣   You’ve probably heard about the giant butt-plug that an American “artist” erected in the Place Vendôme. It has now been destroyed by parties unknown. The whole affair is so distasteful in so many ways that I pass it along without comment.

‣   You’d better sit down for this one: an article at Slate explains that innate ability has a consequential effect on success. That the authors were dragged to this repugnant fact with all the moral revulsion appropriate to goodthinkful Progressives is evident throughout, particularly in their apotropaic paragraph regarding human groups, but to see the thing published at all is a welcome surprise. I should probably give it a post of its own, but for now, you can read it here.

‣   Oh, and of course there’s Ebola. Here are Six Reasons To Panic.

Back soon.

Why Is The Left So Willfully Blind To The Reality of Islam?

As is usually the case on Tuesdays, I’m working late, so “hie thee hence” to the Maverick Philosopher’s website, where our man Bill has put together an excellent post on this vexatious question.

Better yet, Bill has opened the post to comments — a rarity these days — so if any of our liberal readers would like to go over there and shed some light on the matter, I’m sure it would be appreciated. (You know who you are.)

“Greenhouse” Warming In Pacific Northwest? Just Hot Air

The Pacific Northwest has been getting a little warmer over the past century or so. As reported by the New York Times, however, a new (“and”, the Times hastens to add, “most likely controversial”) study shows that this appears not to have been due to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Story here.

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone

In middle age, after a youth of unreflective atheism, I began to have a serious interest in the role of religion in human affairs, and in the doctrine and philosophy of the great religions. I determined to educate myself, with a particular focus on the history and teachings of Christianity and Islam. I’m still an unbeliever, but my fascination with this topic continues to grow, and my view of the importance of religion is very different now.

In my early life I had two tremendous resources, right at home, that I would give almost anything to be able to draw upon now. Sadly, they are both gone.

When my parents moved to Princeton in 1956, two years after emigrating to Canada from the U.K., they became very close friends with two families, the Montgomerys and the Davies. Throughout my childhood, they were my extended family, particularly since we had no relatives living in America.

The partiarch of the Montgomery clan was Robert P. Montgomery, a tall and distinguished-looking man who was Princeton’s most prominent Presbyterian. He had done graduate studies at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate from the seminary at Princeton; he went on to become the chaplain of Princeton University. He also joined the department of philosophy at John Jay College in New York, and was for many years the department chair. To me, however, he was just “Uncle Bob”. He died, too young — he was only 68 or so — in 1987.

I’ll confess that it was not until just recently that I realized the depth of the other great resource I managed so completely to ignore. This was “Uncle Horton” Davies, a soft-spoken, balding Englishman with a kind and serious face. I knew that he taught at Princeton, but what I didn’t know was that Uncle Horton was in fact one of the greatest living scholars of the history of Christianity. He died in 2005. You can read the obituary of this truly remarkable man here.

What I might have learned from these men!

One By One

I’m sorry to see this: Paul Revere, of the 60’s band Paul Revere and the Raiders, has died. Geoffrey Holder, too.

Man, I’m starting to feel old.

The Great Filter

Most of you have likely heard of the ‘Fermi Paradox': the puzzling fact that, despite the uncountable multitudes of stars in the sky, and the overwhelming likelihood that myriads of them have habitable planets, we have never seen any conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life.

Why is this? Given the immense age of the Universe, and the rate at which life got moving here on Earth, it seems the Galaxy should be positively teeming with life. Yet as far as we know, we are alone.

What this means is that somewhere there is some obstacle, some existential blockade, that has kept extraterrestrial life from getting to the point where we’d notice it from here. This mysterious off-switch has come to be known as the ‘Great Filter’.

Why do we imagine that we’d know it if other races were out there? Because it’s reasonable to think that were they not obstructed in their technical development, they’d start doing things that we’d be able to see. In particular, as civilizations advance, they consume more energy, and so they will progress from consuming whatever’s available on their homeworld to consuming the energy of nearby stars. There’s a ranking system called the Kardashev scale that rates civilizations on just this criterion: a K1 civilization uses all the energy that comes to its planet; a K2 civilization gobbles up everything its star produces; and a K3 civilization consumes the output of its entire galaxy.

When you combine this idea with the obvious attractiveness of expansion through replication — whereby a civilization makes drones that colonize nearby solar systems, harvests those systems’ mass to make more drones, and so on — it becomes clear that given enough time, a sufficiently advanced race should be able to make its presence visible, and most likely palpable, from pretty much everywhere. And time is exactly what we have already had plenty of; thirteen billion years is a very long time indeed. Yet here we are, alone.

So what might the Great Filter be? Perhaps it is that life itself is not at all likely, or that intelligent life is a one-off, and has happened only here on Earth. This would mean that the Filter is behind us, that we are alone because we are the first, the Elder Race.

But maybe not. Maybe life, even intelligent life, is a commonplace. This is a horrifying thought, because it means that the Great Filter lies before us. It is horrifying because the Great Filter, as far as we can tell, is 100% effective. It does not hamper, or hinder; it exterminates. We know this because, having had so much time, it is reasonable to assume that any race that had slipped past it would be everywhere by now.

This has been a lively topic among the ‘transhumanist’ and futurist community that shares some intellectual real-estate with neoreaction, and now that I’ve raised the topic here (and hopefully, piqued your interest), I’m going to send you off to do some reading.

‣   Here is an excellent overview of the Fermi Paradox, the Great Filter, and some reasonable questions and objections.

‣   In this paper, Nick Bostrom explains that finding any sign of life elsewhere in the Solar System would be a very bad thing indeed.

‣   One person who’s thought a lot about this is neoreaction’s own Nick Land. You can read a few of his posts on the topic here and here, and here.

‣   One possibility (perhaps much more than just a possibility) that many have worried about as an existential threat is “unfriendly” artificial intelligence, know for short as UFAI. But as bad as that might be (which is very, very, bad), it’s no Great Filter. See here, for example, and here.

Finally, our man Mangan takes up the topic, and gives us this:

It’s leftism. All civilizations eventually become leftist, and after that they accomplish nothing, or even actively die off.

Merga

If the U.S. is going to be involved at all in the Mideast snake-pit — and it appears that it is — then there is one party that stands out as being worthy of our trust and support, namely the Kurds.

They are currently being exterminated, while we shift from foot to foot, inspect our fingernails, and check our watches. Richard Fernandez explains.

It’s Here Someplace

Given that global surface temperatures haven’t warmed for the past twenty years or so, our minders have been telling us for a while now that the reason is that all that excess heat’s been going into the deep oceans. (Nobody predicted that, but never mind.)

Whoops! Not so, according to NASA. More here.

The Organizing Principle Is Control

Here’s withering essay on homeschooling from NRO’s Kevin Williamson.

I have to say that Mr. Williamson is anomalously forthright and frank for an NRO staffer (see, for instance, this item from a week or two ago). Sooner or later (sooner, by the look of things), he’s going to earn himself a Derb-fenestration, methinks.

This And That

I’m working late tonight — so for now, here’s some Q&A about that “impossible” spaceship drive I mentioned a while back.

Also, here’s one person’s attempt to model the cultural manifold that will provide the context for the next civil war.

I’ll say also, just in passing, how surprised I am that the Supreme Court has, for now at least, decided to punt on reviewing the rash of Federal-court decisions annulling the attempts of various States to define marriage as their citizens see fit. (A nod to our friend Peter, who said this was what would happen.) Given that there is no consistent (or even, I should say, coherent) legal principle upon which these several decisions were based, and given also that there is already a Federal ruling that goes the other way, I think the Court is blatantly abrogating its responsibility here. What we are left with is a hodge-podge of opinions, with state-by-state outcomes now depending on the whim of local judges. More on this as time permits.

Update, 10/8: Today Justice Anthony Kennedy has issued an order blocking a ruling that overturned a gay-marriage ban in Idaho. What’s going on here?

Finally, Sam Harris reviews his encounter with a hostile panel on the Bill Maher show. (The topic was Islam — and to his credit, Maher has picked the right side on this one.)

Polyphonic Singing

Here.

The Wire-puller

From a book I’m reading:

Political liberty, said Hobbes, is political power. When a man burns to be free, he is not longing for the “desolate freedom of the wild ass”; what he wants is a share of political government. But, in wide democracies, political power is minced into morsels, and each man’s share of it is almost infinitesimally small. One of the first results of this political comminution is described by Mr. Justice [Sir James] Stephen … it is that two of the historical watchwords of Democracy exclude one another, and that, where there is political Liberty, there can be no Equality.

The man who can sweep the greatest number of fragments of political power into one heap will govern the rest. The strongest man in one form or another will always rule. If the government is a military one, the qualities which make a man a great soldier will make him a ruler. If the government is a monarchy, the qualities which kings value in counsellors, in administrators, in generals, will give power. In a pure democracy, the ruling men will be the Wire-pullers and their friends, but they will be no more on an equality with the people than soldiers or ministers of State are on an equality with the subjects of a Monarchy. … In some ages, a powerful character, in others cunning, in others a good hold upon commonplaces and a facility in applying them to practical purposes, will enable a man to climb on his neighbor’s shoulders and direct him this way or that; but under all circumstances the rank and file are directed by leaders of one kind or another who get the command of their collective force.

There is no doubt that, in popular governments resting on a wide suffrage, either without an army or having little reason to fear it, the leader, whether or not he be cunning, or eloquent, or well-provided with commonplaces, will be the Wire-puller. The process of cutting up political power into petty fragments has in him its most remarkable product. In England, they would be largely sold, if the law permitted it; and in the United States they are extensively sold in spite of the law; and in France, and to a less extent in England, the number of “abstentions” shows the small value attributed to votes. But the political chiffonier who collects and utilizes the fragments is the Wire-puller.

… The Wire-puller is not intelligible unless we take into account one of the strongest forces acting on human nature: Party feeling. Party feeling is probably far more a survival of the primitive combativeness of mankind than a consequence of conscious intellectual differences between man and man. It is essentially the same sentiment which in certain states of society leads to civil, tribal, or international war; and it is as universal as humanity…. Party differences, properly so called, are supposed to be intellectual, moral, or historical preferences, but these go a very little way down into the population, and by the bulk of partisans they are hardly understood and soon forgotten. “Guelf” and “Ghibelline” had once a meaning, but men were under perpetual banishment from their native land for belonging to one or another of these parties long after nobody knew in what the difference consisted. Some men are Tories or Whigs by conviction; but thousands upon thousands of electors vote simply for yellow, blue, or purple, caught at most by the appeals of some popular orator.

It is through this great natural tendency to take sides that the Wire-puller works. Without it he would be powerless. His business is to fan its flame;to keep it constantly acting upon the man who has once declared himself a partisan; to make escape from it difficult and distasteful. His art is that of the Nonconformist preacher, who gave importance to a body of commonplace religionists by persuading them to wear a uniform and take a military title;or of the man who made the success of a Temperance Society by prevailing on its members to wear always and openly a blue ribbon. In the long run, these contrivances, cannot be confined only to one party, and their effects on all parties and their leaders, and on the whole ruling democracy, must be in the highest degree serious and lasting.

The first of these effects will be, I think, to make all parties very like one another, and indeed in the end almost indistinguishable, however leaders may quarrell and partisan hate partisan.

In the next place, each party will probably become more and more homogeneous; and the opinion it professes, and the policy which is the outcome of those opinions, will less and less reflect the individual mind of any leader, but only the ideas which seem to that mind to be most likely to win favour with the greatest number of supporters.

Lastly, the wire-pulling system, when fully developed, will infallibly lead to the constant enlargement of the area of suffrage. What is called universal suffrage has greatly declined in the estimation, not only of philosophers who follow Bentham, but of the a priori theorists who assumed that it was the inseparable accompaniment of a Republic, but who found that in practice it was the natural basis of a tyranny. But extensions of the suffrage, though no longer believed to be good in themselves, have now a permanent place in the armoury of parties, and are sure to be a favorite weapon of the Wire-puller.

… It is perhaps hoped that this … may be neutralized by ascendancy of instructed leaders. Possibly the proposition would not be very unsafe, that he who calls himself a friend of democracy because he believes that it will always be under wise guidance is in reality, whether he knows it or not, an enemy of democracy. But at all events the signs of our times are not at all of favourable augury for the future direction of great multitudes by statesmen wiser than themselves. … The leaders may be as able and eloquent as ever, and some of them certainly seem to have an unprecedentedly “good hold upon commonplaces, and a facility in applying them”; but they are manifestly listening nervously at one end of a speaking-tube which receives at its other end the suggestions of a lower intelligence.

— From Popular Government, by by Sir Henry James Sumner Maine, 1885.

Welcome To Wal*Mart!

We heard some crowing today about the latest jobs report. What you didn’t hear is who got those jobs. It turns out that all of the gain went to people aged 55 and older, who picked up 230,000 jobs. (You can imagine what sort of jobs those are.) Meanwhile, those in the prime earning years 25-54 lost 10,000 jobs. (These are seasonally adjusted numbers; the raw numbers tell the same story.) You can see all the data at the BLS website.

Zero Hedge sums it all up here.

Scoop!

I see that the Times is laying off another hundred newsroom workers.

Take heart, though: good journalism will live on.

Bouncing The Rubble

The Overton Window never rests. (Or, as Mencius Moldbug put it, Cthulhu always swims left.)

The normalization of same-sex marriage is only a few years old — indeed, in some tenebrous corners of the West the process is still underway — but already it’s boringly mainstream. Once the ancient defining and limiting principle has been abandoned — and so it has, barring a significant reactionary response that shows, as yet, no sign of materializing — the way ‘forward’ is essentially frictionless. And as expected, we now approach the next stop along the buttered slide:

    Incest a ‘fundamental right’, German committee says

Mind you, there may yet come a point at which other natural forces may come into play.

No Resistance To Anything

Here’s a great post by our man Mangan (and, drilling down through links and quotes, by Bruce Charlton as well) on a deadly disease.

I’ve given this thing a name: C.I.V.

That’s No Way To Treat A Lady

We’ve been hearing more about Omar J. Gonzales’s romp through the White house the other day. Apparently he got around inside a good deal more than was initially reported; he made his way all the way into the East Room before he was brought down. In the process, as it turns out, he “overpowered” a female Secret Service agent. This got me thinking the same things that the sight of this police officer did a couple of months ago.

Here’s a thought: mightn’t it make sense to have the special agents guarding the Leader of the Free World be large, strong men, capable of physically impeding the progress of burly intruders?

Well, perhaps, I suppose. But only if one were willing to place the effectiveness of our public institutions at doing the things they were created to do — fighting wars, putting out fires, guarding the President — above the wish to make everybody feel good about themselves, by denying the transparently obvious realities of the actually existing world. And that, of course, would make one a very bad person indeed.

The awkwardness of this exposure of the conflict between these antagonistic aims has not escaped the editors of the Times. Their original story, as cached by Google, began:

An armed man who jumped the White House fence this month made it far deeper into the mansion than previously disclosed, overpowering a female Secret Service agent inside the North Portico entrance…

The word ‘female’ has now been removed. Draw your own conclusions.

Meanwhile, ladies, as for stopping fast-moving intruders, here’s how we guys do it.

Update, 10/2: see the Secret Service’s disparate physical standards here.

Depressive Realism

Sorry — not much to say here the past few days. I’ve been distracted, and the muse is silent. Even the biggish stories — the Holder resignation, for example — have left me flat. (I do hope, however, that somebody is backing up that man’s hard-drive.)

Also, there’s only so much of this vox clamanti in deserto stuff a person can do without a certain weariness setting in; hollering up a drainpipe is hoarsening. Even Cassandra had to give it a rest now and again. The red pill is bracing, and clears the vision as advertised, but it has some debilitating side effects.

Our man Derb expressed this very well indeed in an essay he published this summer. (The penultimate paragraph is an unbeliever’s cri de coeur.) He seemed almost ready to chuck it all, and go live in the Matrix. It was infectiously dispiriting. (Fortunately, he seems still to be under the influence of the carmine lozenge.)

I’m very aware also that the whole tone and content of this blog has changed during the span of my own course of treatment. To those readers who liked it better before, all I can say is that when one awakens from pleasant dreams to find oneself in a burning building, one is likely to focus on rousing the other inhabitants, perhaps even at the expense of pleasanter topics.

On the other hand, if anyone ever saw the Matrix for what it was, it was H.L. Mencken — yet he had this to say:

We live in a land of abounding quackeries, and if we do not learn to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm. I have had too good a time in this world to go down that chute. I have witnessed, in my day, the discovery, enthronement and subsequent collapse of a vast army of uplifters and world-savers, and am firmly convinced that all of them were mountebanks. We produce such mountebanks in greater numbers than any other country, and they climb to heights seldom equalled elsewhere. Nevertheless we survive, and not only survive but flourish. In no other country known to me is life as safe and agreeable, taking one day with another, as it is in These States. Even in a Great Depression few if any starve, and even in a great war the number who suffer by it is vastly surpassed by the number who fatten on it and enjoy it. Thus my view of my country is predominantly tolerable and amiable. I do not believe in democracy, but I am perfectly willing to admit that it provides the only really amusing form of government ever endured by mankind.

I dunno. That was a long time ago, and what was local then — a lumpy lymph-node here, a little spot on the X-ray there — is now metastatic, and the prognosis looks grim. But maybe he’s right: maybe that other disease he mentioned, the melancholy one, is what gets you.

Oh well. “Life’s persistent questions”, and all that. Back soon.

Actual Islam

With a hat-tip to Bill Vallicella, here’s a “must-read” on the real nature of the enemy we face.

In The End We Shall Make Thoughtcrime Literally Impossible

At NRO we have an excellent response, by Charles Cooke, to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s egregious illiberality regarding climate heretics.

Longish excerpt:

Were he to have his way, Kennedy admitted, he would cheer the prosecution of a host of “treasonous” figures — among them a number of unspecified “politicians”; those bêtes noires of the global Left, Kansas’s own Koch Brothers; “the oil industry and the Republican echo chamber”; and, for good measure, anybody else whose estimation of the threat posed by fossil fuels has provoked them into “selling out the public trust.” Those who contend that global warming “does not exist,” Kennedy claimed, are guilty of “a criminal offense — and they ought to be serving time for it.”

…Kennedy’s insidious aspirations are the inevitable consequence of his conviction that he is in possession of the truth and that all who have the temerity to question him are, in consequence, wreckers. At the best of times, and on the least shaky of epistemological ground, this is a dangerous instinct. In this area in particular, it is downright frightening. Of late, it has become drearily standard to hear the Kennedys of the world pretend that if one acknowledges basic climate mechanics, one is forced to take notoriously unreliable computer models at face value and, further, to acquiesce in whatever political “solutions” are currently en vogue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever “consensus” can be said to exist in the realm of climatology is largely limited to the presumption that industrial activity is bound by the same chemical, biological, and physical rules as is any other human pursuit, and to the acknowledgement that if one changes the makeup of the atmosphere, the atmosphere will change. Quite how it will change, to what extent, and to what degree any such transmutation represents a problem for life on earth, however, remain open questions. At present, there remain serious disagreements as to what has caused the current “pause” in global warming; as to what accounts for the embarrassing failure of so many of the forecasts on which we are expected to rely; as to how much of an effect modulations in the climate are having on extreme weather events; and as to how much we can possibly know about the future anyhow.

Wide open, too, are the political questions of what exactly can and should be done about any genuine changes in climate — and at what cost; of whether some climatological alterations are in fact a reasonable price to pay for the astonishing improvements in life expectancy and material wellbeing that the industrial revolution has yielded; of whether man is better off attempting to leverage his ingenuity and to outrun Gaia as he has outrun Malthus; and of at what cost to our liberty and our safety any amendments to our way of life might come. When the likes of Robert Kennedy reveal themselves to be the nasty little tyrants that we have always suspected them to be, this lattermost question comes screaming back into focus. If this affair has revealed any “treason” at all, the guilty party is not the skeptical population of the United States, but Robert Kennedy and his enablers. To fantasize about jailing one’s opponents is, I’m afraid, a sure sign of mental imbalance, and a gold-leafed invitation to be quietly excluded from polite society.

Read the rest here.

The Latte Salute

Here’s a video clip that’s been making the rounds: President Obama ‘saluting’ his military honor guards with a disposable coffee cup in his right hand. It has sparked enormous anger among conservatives and patriots.

Here’s why. It’s a small thing, I realize — a perfunctory, narcissistic non-salute pales in comparison to the truly grievous harm this president has done to this nation, and still intends to do — but it is deeply revealing of Mr. Obama’s utter disdain for, and disconnection from, core American principles of honor and heritage. What rankles most of all is that it violates the sacred, reciprocal obligations of the hierarchical ordering that sustain an organic society.

These men — these Marines — stand ready, at any moment, to die for that society, and for the man they salute. The members of this consecrated Männerbund place themselves, as a living sword, in the hand of their Commander in Chief; it is only this forswearance of their sovereignty over themselves that protects and guarantees Mr. Obama’s sovereignty of the nation.

In return, the President is bound by duty — and if nothing else, by simple self-interest! — to honor his end of this bargain. Even though he is the commander, with the power of life and death over these men, they deserve his respect, every bit as much as he deserves theirs. (Far, far more so, in his case, but that’s beside the point here.)

This vertical binding, by sacred reciprocal obligations and mutual respect, is essential to the life of any organic, non-coercive hierarchy. This has been understood since ancient times; it was as important in feudal societies as it still is in successful corporations. When the stakes are not mere profits, but the life and death of a nation and people, it becomes a matter of honor.

And that is the problem: for Mr. Obama, and for the Left generally, neither a military Männerbund such as the Marines, nor the American heritage and cultural tradition generally, are suitable objects of honor. For that matter, the very idea of ‘honor’ itself seems quaint, in that it is antithetical to the core ideas of the post-Enlightenment Left: corrosive skepticism and radical non-discrimination.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn understood this very well:

The leftist mind is driven by two conflicting characteristics –an impractical utopian idealism and a lack of a sense of honor. As a rule, idealism and honor are joined. Don Quixote was not practical, but he was a man of honor. Sancho Panza scoffed at honor, but he was a realist. The typical leftist is a dreamer without honor, and that is a troubling combination.

Troubling indeed.

Links

‣   A volcanic blast.

‣   Cyberattacks, worldwide, in real time.

‣   Twitter trends, likewise.

‣   “97%”? Hogwash.

‣  Coming soon to a pizza near you.

‣   The iPhone 6: sexist.

‣   How good are you at recognizing faces?

‣   Fantastic rides.

‣   A disturbing trend in scientific research.

‣   Related.

‣   This. (Somewhere in the empty cockpit of Western civilization, a metallic voice is barking “Terrain! Terrain!”)

‣   Buchanan on our latest adventure.

‣   A classic chess poser from the great Sam Loyd.

‣   Hell freezes over.

‣   Not so fast, California.

It’s On!

We are now active participants in Syria’s civil war. (The poll results must have been irresistible.)

I’m sure everything will go as planned.

Repost: What Is ‘Chi’?

In private correspondence today, I’ve been discussing with an old friend the subject of what practitioners of Chinese martial arts call ‘chi’. It’s a puzzling topic — and so, having no time to write a substantial post tonight, I’m posting a link to something I wrote on this subject about five-and-a-half years ago.

You can read it here.

Ex Cathedra

Here’s a report of a remarkable comment from Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

People seeking clues about how soon the Supreme Court might weigh in on states’ gay marriage bans should pay close attention to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a Minnesota audience Tuesday.

Ginsburg said cases pending before the circuit covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee would probably play a role in the high court’s timing. She said “there will be some urgency” if that appeals court allows same-sex marriage bans to stand. Such a decision would run contrary to a legal trend favoring gay marriage and force the Supreme Court to step in sooner, she predicted.

She said if the appeals panel falls in line with other rulings there is “no need for us to rush.”

In other words, as long as activist courts continue overruling the will of the people in a way that Ms. Ginsburg finds politically congenial, then it’s best if her Court drags its feet as long as possible. Otherwise, she’s got work to do! and no time to waste.

So much for impartial justice, and for the consent of the governed. I’m not surprised to hear that Justice Ginsburg feels this way — we already know how this woman feels about the United States Constitution — but it harrows me that she can be so blasé about fessing up in public. Obviously she knows that she wields great power, and is accountable to absolutely no one.

Pity the laboring American citizen. His vote means almost nothing. He is subject to the tyrannous caprices of a flamboyantly autonomous Executive; to the occult machinations of a vast administrative bureaucracy, sometimes called the ‘Fourth Branch’, for which there is no accountability at all, and upon which he can exert no check whatsoever; and to the ideological whims of a plenipotent judiciary that routinely annuls what little victories of self-determination he occasionally manages to achieve through his state legislatures. Shackled to his oar, he toils and groans to pull the ship forward nevertheless, though the combined tonnage of freight, idle passengers, and stowaways recently brought aboard have sunk it so low in the water that its gunwales are already awash. Should he grumble, or cry out in his exhaustion, he swiftly feels the lash.

Ahead, dark clouds gather.

Och Aye!

Tomorrow’s the big vote in Scotland. I’m all for independence. Nick Land has argued, and I think rightly, that because Scotland pulls farther to the Left than the UK as a whole, its separation would immediately snap the rump UK rightward, while at the same time separation from London’s flowing teat would accelerate the failure of the unsustainable Leftist project in Scotland. This in turn should provoke, after some necessary unpleasantness, a rightward reaction in Scotland as well, and a return to traditional Scottish values — industry, thrift, self-reliance, care for the future, and reluctance to burden others with your troubles — core cultural traits that have melted away after too many years in the warm, stupefacient soak-bath of the British welfare state.

So from a reactionary point of view, it’s a nae-brainer. I think I might even head for Cawdor Castle, my family’s ancestral seat, and see if I can lay claim to the Thanedom.

Update, 9/18, 4 PM EDT: According to this Twitter trend-map, the Ayes are out in force.

Update, 9/18, 11:30 PM EDT: It looks like the Naes are going to carry the day. Oh well.

Mantle Plumes

Here’s a piece from Jay Nordlinger on how hard it is to keep up with what we’re allowed to call things from one day to the next. (I’m old enough now that I’m simply refusing to play along anymore.)

To find out what this has in common with the geology of the Hawaiian Islands, you’ll have to read this post of my own, from 2006.

Crickets

Speaking of the New York Times: still no mention in our “newspaper of record” about the murder of young, white Brendan Tevlin by a black jihadist.

Just a local crime story, I guess. Not fit to print.

The Endarkenment

There’s a fine, gloomy piece by Roger Cohen in the Times today: The Great Unraveling.

The fabric of society frayed. Democracy looked quaint or outmoded beside new authoritarianisms.

…Nobody connected the dots or read Kipling on life’s few certainties: “The Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire / And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire.”

Until it was too late and people could see the Great Unraveling for what it was and what it had wrought.

Now this is something: Rudyard Kipling, quoted with approval on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Do I detect the tendrils of neoreaction?

Welcome, Mr. Cohen. Do come in.

Mr. President, We Are Not Imbeciles

This from Jerry Coyne: If ISIS Is Not Islamic, then the Inquisition Was Not Catholic.

Ice, Ice, Baby

This just in: Antarctic sea ice is at its greatest extent ever recorded.

Choose Up

Here.

Tweet of the Day

ISIS

In trying to catch up on all the stories we missed during our August break, I’d be remiss not to comment on the malevolent Muslim entity calling itself the Islamic State, and what we should do about it. My view is not, in many respects, a mainstream one.

That said, I’ll hasten to align myself with some mainstream opinions: first, that the emergence of ISIS is a horrifying eruption of genuine evil, and second, that it has done everything a regime could possibly do, short of an attack on our own soil, to provoke a vicious military response by the United States. It has overrun territories that we spent long years, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives to secure, capturing huge stockpiles of U.S. weapons and matériel in the process. Even more provocatively, it has publicly and gruesomely executed American civilians. It has massacred and enslaved men, women, and children throughout the region, and wherever it goes it imposes unspeakably barbarous cruelties. If ever there was a foe that all of us can agree deserves utter annihilation, this is it.

In response to this, then, what are we to do? Pundits and politicoes on both sides of the aisle have been bawling for action since midsummer, while President Obama has appeared, until now at least, more concerned with recreation than reprisal, or even reaction. He has now announced his intentions. I am not reassured.

Least reassuring of all in the President’s speech was his assertion, right up front, of a staggeringly disingenuous falsehood: that “ISIS is not Islamic”. If that is the foundation upon which our strategy, both in the Middle East and here at home in the West, is to be based, then we are doomed.

What is that “strategy”? Mr. Obama enumerated four points:

First, airstrikes. Fine with me, but airstrikes by themselves can only do so much. They are effective against supply lines, and against military targets on open ground, but they are problematic wherever the enemy can melt into the civilian background. Unless one has in mind indiscriminate slaughter of both ISIS and their civilian prey — and the West no longer has the stomach for this sort of thing — airstrikes will not be an option in densely populated areas.

Second, Mr. Obama proposed providing support on the ground — arms and training — to enemies of ISIS. This is, for obvious reasons, by far the weakest plank in the platform. It is sheer desperation.

Mr. Obama mentioned the newly formed Iraqi government as one of the champions we will be backing. But we have been training and arming the Iraqi military for a decade or more now; they have been routed again and again by ISIS, with high rates of desertion and defection. Why would we imagine that this time around, with hardened resolve, we will somehow be able to turn them into the 82nd Airborne? Moreover, every time they lose in the field, their arms and equipment fall into the hands of the enemy; by repeatedly rearming them we are as often as not arming ISIS.

Also on the list are the “Syrian opposition”. But ISIS is the Syrian opposition. Subtract them, and you are left with a ragtag assortment of Muslim warlords (in most cases mere runners-up to ISIS in the regional battle royal), and a few genuine Western-style reformers. But the latter are a feeble congeries of what the President himself has described as “ farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting.” Can we expect them to prevail against a heavily armed and financed fighting force that managed to crush even the doughty Pesh Merga? The odds are that any group we arm in Syria will lose, and that any arms we provide will end up being used against us. Have we learned nothing? The entire region is a snakepit, a nest of vipers. That we can select this or that serpent from the writhing mass, pack its fangs full of venom, and send it forth as our champion while certifying its fealty is a palpable absurdity.

Mr. Obama spoke of coalition. But support is scanty, and alliances among the regional interests are mercurial and evanescent. (Victor Davis Hanson has summed this up nicely in a recent essay.) The Turks, who are one of the few players in the area who have the military power to make a difference, have already announced that they will not provide any support whatsoever, and will not even allow U.S. forces to operate from Turkish soil. (That ISIS holds forty-nine Turkish diplomats and their families hostage is, no doubt, a factor here, as is Prime Minister Erdogan’s Islamism, support for Hamas, etc.) As far as I am aware, not a single nation has pledged actual military participation in operations against ISIS. Germany and Britain have already made clear that they refuse.

Clearly, if anyone is going to do the work of defeating ISIS militarily under this “strategy”, it will be the United States, mostly alone. Those stakeholders in the region who might have done so in our absence — the Turks and the Saudis, for example — will be delighted to stay out and let us do it for them. The idea that these nations will be more inclined to participate if we lead the way is another palpable falsehood; the more we do, the less they will need to do — and the less they do, the more we will find ourselves doing.

Third, Mr. Obama proposed to redouble our counterterrorist efforts. Expect more of all that you have come to know and love from the NSA and the TSA. He will also “chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.”

Ah, the U.N. I’m sure we can all heave a sigh of relief.

Lastly, the President had this to say (my emphasis):

Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.

In comedy, timing is everything.

Well, what to do, then? Despite the difficulties, there seems to be a prevailing sentiment that we ought to smash ISIS. (I’ll confess that I feel its pull myself.) But almost entirely absent is any rational contemplation of the outcome. Indeed, I did something the other day that I’ve never done before: I called a nationally syndicated conservative talk-radio host, during a program in which he had been howling for war, to ask him what would happen after we won. Given that the entire region is an ungovernable hell-hole, I asked, and given also that any power vacuum seems inevitably to be filled by brutal jihadist warlords, wouldn’t we simply be forced either to rule the place ourselves — forever — or to withdraw (as we just did), and soon find ourselves facing the same mess all over again (as we just have)? His response was that, should we leave, then yes, “there’s a power vacuum, but there are also countries in the area that can fill it — and we ought not.”

This theory has, however, already been put to the test. Our exit from Iraq left a power vacuum — and it was ISIS, not the other “countries in the area”, that rose up to fill it. Why should this be any different next time? I think the host realized that this was a something of a soft spot in his plan; ultimately he said “what’s the alternative? To sit around picking our noses?” and said that we ought to “let the chips fall where they may”.

There is no doubt that we can crush ISIS if we want to; in purely practical terms, it is probably within our capacity to extinguish all biological activity throughout the region (and I daresay that if we did, the world would almost certainly be a safer and happier place for centuries to come.) But can there be any reasonable doubt that if we attempt it on the terms the President has outlined, and in accordance with our new and ruthful style of war-making, that we will be hard-pressed to win, and never be able to leave? This is what the President so tellingly omitted from his “strategy” speech: any definition of victory, or any vision of how we might exit. If we go up against ISIS on these terms, their caliphate will be our tar-baby, forever.

So: what else might we do? As painful as it might be not to use our overwhelming power to punish these vermin, our real national interest might be better served by:

‣   Airstrikes wherever they might be useful, along with relentless pinpoint attacks against ISIS leadership whenever possible. In the event of attacks against Western nations, retaliation should be swift, certain, disproportionate, and harsh.

‣   Support for the (very) few reliable forces in the region, most notably the Pesh Merga.

‣   Humanitarian support, in whatever form we can provide, to those afflicted, besieged, and displaced.

‣   The most vigorous containment we can muster. Above all — and this is the nettle that nobody in the West seems ready to grasp — we must quarantine Islam in its homelands, while securing our own borders. If there is a coalition to build, it is a coalition among Western nations to agree that Islamism is a metastatic disease, that the pathogen is Islam itself, and that any mass population of Muslims contains an irreducible percentage of carriers. As I urged in my previous post, the West must come to understand “that mass importation of Islam to the West has been a blunder of incalculable magnitude, and that it should be arrested at at once, and reversed as humanely and expeditiously as possible.”

There are two advantages to this approach. The most obvious is that we spare our own lives and treasure, rather than bleeding them away ad inifinitum into the unquenchable sands of the Mideast. The second is that it is only by refusing to police the region ourselves that the other principalities of the area may at last be forced to step into the breach.

Above all else, we must be clear about the real nature of the conflict between Islam and the modern West. Our reader JK just sent along a link to a refreshingly frank assessment, which you can read here.

Q.E.D.

Among the topics I passed by during our August hiatus was the story about Rotherham, England, in which it was revealed that groups of Muslim men had been using young white girls as sex slaves. This had been going on for many years, over which time there had been at least 1,400 victims, some of them only eleven years old.

The crimes did not go unreported; they were reported early and often. Nothing was done, however, because the officials who might have taken action were afraid of being accused of racism.

There’s been a great deal of commentary about this already, and I’m coming in late. John O’Sullivan posted a good piece, for instance, over at NRO:

The motives of the exploiters, though vile, are not hard to understand. They plainly include both racism and sexism alongside the lust and cruelty enabled by their misogynistic culture. But what explains the silence, the acquiescence, even the cooperation of the authorities? Their motives seem to derive from the rich stew of progressive absurdities that constitute official attitudes in modern Britain. The first is the fear of being suspected of racism. Again and again the police and the social workers shrank from intervening or responding to complaints because to do so would invite the accusation that they were “racist”… To uncover such scandal would be not only racist, it would commit a sin against the ideal of multiculturalism that now actuates much official policy.

…Another element in official attitudes is hostility to the family and a hatred of the notion that families might instill traditional moral values in their children. Such hostility proved very convenient for the criminal gangs, who probably had to overcome a weaker moral resistance on the part of their grooming victims. To be sure, this hostility arises from a very different source than sexism or contempt for the white working class: a sense among progressives in the public sector that intact families undermine equality and that even etiolated Christian beliefs obstruct multiculturalism. If that sounds a trifle paranoid, recall that it was the same Rotherham social-work department that wanted to remove children from foster parents whose support for UKIP indicated an impermissible hostility to multiculturalism. You couldn’t make it up.

There are a lot of essays out there saying more or less the same thing: political correctness has gone too far, we’ve been blinded to reality by the dormitive spell of multiculturalism, by surrendering too much of our liberty and tradition to the utopian fantasies of “progressive” ideologues, and so forth. All of this is true. I have yet, however, to hear anyone (other than the usual lepers and pariahs) say what really needs saying: that mass importation of Islam to the West has been a blunder of incalculable magnitude, and that it should be arrested at at once, and reversed as humanely and expeditiously as possible.

Instead, what we have in Rotherham is perhaps the clearest experimental confirmation yet of Auster’s First Law of Majority-Minority Relations in Liberal Society, which can be expressed as follows:

Once the equality of all human groups is accepted as a given, any facts that make a minority or foreign group seem worse than the majority native group must be either covered up or blamed on the majority.

The First Law has a corollary:

The more egregiously any non-Western or non-white group behaves, the more evil whites are made to appear for noticing and drawing rational conclusions about that group’s bad behavior.

I miss Lawrence Auster. He saw so many things so clearly, and he saw them long before most of the rest of us did. Go and browse his archives.

Rut-Roh

What’s up with Takimag? The site’s been down all day. It’s worrisome.

Veritas

Today we present a fine piece by Steven Pinker on the state of our elite universities. Pinker’s essay is a response to a New Republic article, by William Deresiewicz, entitled Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.

Pinker, writing with his usual clarity and brio, defends the Ivies, and makes the case for standardized testing as the best foundation for meritocratic admissions — full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes. An excerpt:

Let’s daydream for a moment. If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….

We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. I suspect that a major reason we slid into this madness and can’t seem to figure out how to get out of it is that the American intelligentsia has lost the ability to think straight about objective tests. After all, if the Ivies admitted the highest scoring kids at one end, and companies hired the highest scoring graduates across all universities at the other (with tests that tap knowledge and skill as well as aptitude), many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight. Other industrialized countries, lacking our squeamishness about testing, pick their elite students this way, as do our firms in high technology. And as Adrian Wooldridge pointed out in these pages two decades ago, test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the Jenny Cavilleris (poor and smart) over the Oliver Barretts (rich and stupid).

If, for various reasons, a university didn’t want a freshman class composed solely of scary-smart kids, there are simple ways to shake up the mixture. Unz suggests that Ivies fill a certain fraction of the incoming class with the highest-scoring applicants, and select the remainder from among the qualified applicant pool by lottery. One can imagine various numerical tweaks, including ones that pull up the number of minorities or legacies to the extent that those goals can be publicly justified. Grades or class rank could also be folded into the calculation. Details aside, it’s hard to see how a simple, transparent, and objective formula would be worse than the eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat mysticism that jerks teenagers and their moms around and conceals unknown mischief.

So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.

What a breath of fresh air. Read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, from another corner of the Steveosphere, Steve Sailer calls our attention to a new paper on the genetic underpinnings of cognitive variation. Among the authors you’ll find a familiar name: Steven Pinker.

Finally, Ron Unz has rounded up some responses to Pinker’s response to Deresiewicz, here. (Among these is a singularly feeble comeback from David Brooks, here.)

Gie It Laldy!

Over at Outside In, Nick Land offers a neoreactionary’s perspective on the coming ‘exit’ referendum in Scotland.

My Scottish mum would have approved.

Male Plumage

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fields First

For the first time, a woman has been awarded the coveted Fields Medal, which is generally regarded as the the mathematician’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Her name is Maryam Mirzakhani, and you can read about her here.

This is of course a proud day for female mathematicians. Congratulations to Dr. Mirzakhani.


 
Maryam Mirzakhani
 

Varsity vs. Jayvee

Once again, Vladimir Putin has snaffled the U.S. and her quondam allies: the acceptance by Ukraine of a proffered cease-fire on what, for Russia, are very comfortable terms, will douse any ardor in the West for aggressive confrontation.

In last night’s NightWatch bulletin, John McCreary wrote:

While NATO plans to fight Russia, Putin’s peace plan has outpaced NATO’s profession of resolve. The crisis will be winding down on Friday. Even if it does not, Putin emerges with enhanced international stature. If the fighting in Ukraine stops, support for the NATO rapid reaction force in Eastern Europe will weaken rapidly.

At every opportunity in recent years, Vladimir Putin has mocked and and taunted the epicene, etiolated, and increasingly self-enstupidated West, in whose faculty-lounge worldview something like ISIS “has no place in the 21st century”, and for whom the idea of a virile former superpower reclaiming some of its lost assets is now “unthinkable” (a word that has a depressingly literal aptness here, I’m afraid). Putin knows, when he embarks on these adventures, that there is a threshold of audacity below which nobody is going to stop him, and he is adroitly probing its limits. We can be sure that with every advance he is further emboldened. Sure, there may be sanctions, and they may hurt, but Putin enjoys overwhelming popular support — and I think the West has forgotten the glaring historical fact that the Russians will always bear brutal hardships, if they must, to prevail against outsiders who seek to control them. If we were sensible, we would recognize that Russia has, and has always had, a natural penumbra of influence and control, and that is beyond our power — at least the power we are realistically willing to exert, or that it is in our interest to exert — to deny Mr. Putin the run of it. Crimea is not the Gaspé Peninsula.

The worst possible approach is the one we consistently choose: spluttering outrage and “red lines”, backed up by nothing. A great power may be forward-leaning and aggressive in international affairs; it may also be content simply to attend to the security of its own proper sphere of influence. Both approaches have their costs and benefits. What is important above all is to choose, and to be consistent. At this, we consistently fail — as we seem to do, these days, at so many things.

Mencken Speaks

Here’s a real find: what purports to be the only extant recording of the Sage of Baltimore. It’s a long interview, with good audio quality.

But A Walking Shadow

We note with sadness the deaths of Joan Rivers and Glenn Cornick.

Gather those rosebuds, folks…

Libya

Let’s review the results of our adventure in Libya, for which President Obama and the presumptive Democratic heir, Hillary Clinton, can fairly be assigned complete responsibility.

‣   After a successful, decades-long effort to bring Muammar Qaddafi to heel, and after feting our new North African ally at the highest levels of government, we betrayed our side of the deal, and gave our military support to a ragtag assortment of revolutionaries — most of whom were violent Islamists, and our sworn enemies. Qaddafi’s regime was toppled, and his corpse was dragged through the streets.

‣   Cyrenaica fell, and then Tripolitania, as the country — formerly one of Africa’s most prosperous — slipped into blood-spattered chaos. The black flag of al-Qaeda flew from government buildings, and Westerners fled. Libya is now a ‘failed state’, and has effectively ceased to exist as a nation.

‣   Our ambassador and three others were gruesomely murdered in a coordinated attack on a carelessly defended U.S. diplomatic compound, while we did nothing. Our only response was a mendacious political whitewash for domestic consumption.

‣   Qaddafi’s arsenals and other assets fell into the hands of jihadis, and flowed from there throughout the Middle East.

‣   This week, we have learned that eleven jetliners have been taken from Tripoli’s airport, for purposes unknown. (This last item, despite its obviously worrisome implications, appears to have received no coverage whatsoever in our “newspaper of record”.)

What theme, what ideological fixation, could have started Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton (and to be fair, George W. Bush as well) on such a course? The central delusion of ‘progressivism’ itself: a belief in a benevolent historical teleology, a self-actuating ‘arc of justice’ that professional uplifters and visionary magnificoes may, when the fancy takes them, assist with coercive, and often destructive, intervention. Add to this the other great folly of our time — the fantasy of essential human uniformity — and there is no stupidity, no great unwisdom, of which our nation is incapable.

Links, etc.

It’s been a refreshing break, beginning with a splendid mountaintop wedding in New Hampshire back in late July. I don’t often post such things, but here is a shot of your humble correspondent at that happy occasion:

 

After that it was just a lot of this sort of thing:
 

 

Anyway, that’s done: August is over, and now it’s shoulder to the wheel once again. To get things rolling, here are some links that have piled up over the summer:

A free lunch, perhaps.

Why should you wear the glasses?

Underwater real estate.

Derb’s tired of the red pill.

Impress your friends.

Ummm…

Chandra turns 15.

Ice, Ice, Baby.

Fred Reed on gendered space

— ..and a related item.

An awkward allele.

— Some pro-tips from my sifu’s sifu’s sifu’s sifu’s sifu, Wong Fei Hung.

As above, so below.

A sad story.

The ratchet’s progress.

A response to Rotherham from hbd*chick.

Sowell on Ferguson.

Nonsense upon stilts.

The poorest state, if it were a state.

— Game of Thrones, as it might have been.

There’s a lot to catch up with. Back soon.

September!

All right, then. August is over. Did I miss anything?

Just kidding. Back soon, with a spleenful.

Service Notice

It’s August once again, and things will be quieter than usual here for the next couple of weeks — maybe a post or two here and there, but nothing much, probably, till after Labor Day. As always, please feel free to browse our ever-expanding archives, and to try the “Random Post” link at upper right.

Mugged By Reality

Here.

NaCl

In a recent column, Thomas Sowell asked: Is thinking now obsolete?

Perhaps it is. Read this label:

 

This is the sort of blithe and cheery obliviousness that carries me to the brink of despair.

Ethics, Engineering, And Driverless Cars

There’s a great deal of buzz lately about self-driving cars. They were the focus of a couple of sessions when I was at Singularity University a couple of years ago, and Google sent one over so we could get a look at it. The consensus at SU was that they confer so many public benefits that their adoption is almost inevitable. That they do indeed have many advantages is undeniable, but as the resident pessimist at the program I attended, I was far less swept away with enthusiasm than the others in the room, almost all of whom were either tech entrepreneurs or globalist Utopians (with a great deal of overlap).

One problem that you don’t hear about so much is this: driverless cars are autonomous robots, and as Isaac Asimov so presciently observed ‘way back in 1942, if we are going to be able to let autonomous robots exist among us, we need to lock them down with built-in ethical restraints. Asimov proposed what he called the Three Laws of Robotics. They are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov was rightly celebrated for this clarifying insight, and still is. There are, however ethical problems that even the Three Laws are too blunt to dissect, but that engineers will need to confront as they prepare these robots to take over the roads. A recent post at Quartz provides an example:

Consider this thought experiment: you are traveling along a single-lane mountain road in an autonomous car that is fast approaching a narrow tunnel. Just before entering the tunnel a child attempts to run across the road but trips in the centre of the lane, effectively blocking the entrance to the tunnel. The car has but two options: hit and kill the child, or swerve into the wall on either side of the tunnel, thus killing you.

Both outcomes will certainly result in harm, and from an ethical perspective there is no “correct” answer to this dilemma. The tunnel problem serves as a good thought experiment precisely because it is difficult to answer.

The tunnel problem also points to imminent design challenges that must be addressed, in that it raises the following question: how should we program autonomous cars to react in difficult ethical situations? However, a more interesting question is: who should decide how the car reacts in difficult ethical situations?

Of course, even we humans have trouble with questions of this kind, so much so that they have become the object of much philosophical scrutiny, with no conclusive result. (The philosophical holotype is called the “Trolley Problem”, and you can get an overview of it here.) But the prospect of having tens of millions of autonomous robots, each weighing a ton or more, speeding along the nation’s highways and byways makes what was heretofore a philosophical conundrum a public question of no small importance.

One answer will be to leave these preferences to the owner, and make them configurable options. But imagine the “Settings” page:

1. If a choice must be made, should the car kill the passengers, or a pedestrian?
2. Please select the maximum number of pedestrians to kill before prioritizing driver fatality.
3. Please assign preferred weighting to the following categories of pedestrians:
      – Children
      – Bicyclists
      – Young mothers
      – The elderly
      – Nuns
      – Physically or visually impaired persons
      – Endangered species
      – Non-endangered species
      – Cats
      – Dogs (large, dignified)
      – Dogs (small, yappy)
      – Neck tattoos
      – Tea Party members
      – Persons of Color
      – LBGT
      – Cisgendered white males

…and so on.

Read the Quartz item here.