Forward!

In case you haven’t noticed, everything’s going to hell.

I can’t say that I’m surprised: in a comment a while back, for example, I wrote that the administration of “this awful man — this grotesque incompetent, this subversive fraud, this preening and malevolent narcissist, this despiser of American tradition and implacable enemy of everything the U.S.A. was built upon and once stood for … will be looked back upon as the final turning point, as the time in history when the arc of American greatness turned at last from ascent to irrevocable decline, and ultimately to decay and disintegration. It will be seen as the moment when, under the leadership of a vainglorious man of low character, full of seething resentment and base ambition, the fatal and inevitable weaknesses of democracy finally overcame a once-great nation and people.” I do have to say, though, that the accelerating rate at which we are now tipping into the abyss is pretty impressive.

The latest unraveling (leaving aside, for now, the Bergdahl debacle and the government-assisted invasion of our southern border) is the conquest of much of Iraq by jihadist blitzkrieg (led, as it happens, by a chap we let go in 2009). Along the way, Allah’s advancing army have helped themselves to captured American weapons — including tanks, missile launchers and Blackhawk helicopters — and to almost half a billion dollars snatched from a bank in Mosul.

The Obama administration appears to have been caught utterly flat-footed by this, but as to whether that is simply due to astonishing incompetence, or to something darker, I frame no hypotheses. At any rate, when it comes to foreign affairs, every single place this administration has touched has ended up in flames. (And waiting in the wings is the insatiable succubus Hillary Clinton, whom I suspect couldn’t even run a quilting bee without ruining countless lives. We are well and truly doomed.)

Our reader Bill K. sent us a note earlier today, linking to a dark post about all of this by Richard Fernandez. It begins:

Ernest Hemingway observed that people went broke gradually at first then all of a sudden. Barack Obama’s career, for so long without visible means of support, has now moved onto the “all of sudden stage” of bankruptcy.

You can read the whole thing here. Do.

I will say this: having awakened some years ago from a brief ensorcellment by the universalist delusion known as ‘neoconservatism’, I understand that there are really only three useful options in a place like Iraq:

a) Rule it ourselves, as a sovereign colonial power;
b) Rule it by proxy, by buying ourselves a dictator and making sure that he stays bought; or
c) Complete encapsulation, combined with occasional pulverization when the inmates get too bumptious, and an end of all Muslim immigration to Western nations.

We’ll do none of these things, of course. We’ll launch a few airstrikes, maybe, just to bounce the rubble a bit (and of course we’ll mount a major Twitter offensive), but we haven’t the will for a), the cunning for b), or the wisdom (not to mention the balls) for c). So things will just get worse. As the fight moves toward Baghdad and the east — in other words, into the heart of Shi’ite Iraq — expect ISIL to face heavier slogging as the Sadrists push back, and Iran joins the fray. (I say ISIL, but you’ll also see them called ISIS. And just when we were finally done with all that Gaddafi/Qadafy, etc., business…)

One bright spot: the Kurds, whose pesh merga fighters are some of the toughest S.O.B.s on the face of the Earth, have taken advantage of the power vacuum to move on their ancient capital of Kirkuk. More power to ‘em; the world is a quieter place when populations disaggregate into their traditional homelands, though getting there is never pretty.

Awwww…

There aren’t many public figures on the Left who irritate me the way the writer Chris Hedges always has. (Tim Wise is another.) Pallid, sneering, humorless, self-righteous, and full of that grotesque collectivist piety that has done more damage in the modern world than any other force of man or nature, the very sight of him has always made my flesh crawl. I’ve only mentioned him once before in these pages — to direct our readers to a pert dressing-down by Sam Harris a couple of years ago — but I’ll draw your attention today, not without a little wintry satisfaction, to this little item.

Space Porn

I have to say, this is pretty titillating. It’s also the first I’m hearing about this sort of thing as a realistic possibility, and I wonder how seriously to take it. (The article says this rig can get to Alpha Centauri and back in a month. I assume that’s ship’s time, and so we’d still have to wait nine years or so to find out how it went.)

Awfully sexy mock-ups, though.

“On The Run”

Not content with Mosul, now it appears that ISIL has seized Tikrit, too. Iraq is disintegrating.

Update: Not sure what to make of this

Connection Restored

Things are finally getting back to normal around here, and I apologize to all for the long absence. (I realize that my not writing anything here for a week doesn’t exactly deprive anyone of oxygen, but I do know that many people stop by here regularly — my thanks to all of you as always! — and in the past I’ve always tried to put up something each day to make the trip worthwhile.

I’ve seldom been so completely offline, however, as I have been, due to pressing personal matters, this past week. I’ve been almost completely out of touch with current events, as well as all the other evanescent curiosities I customarily sift through to enliven these pages.

So now I’m rummaging through the week’s detritus, and attending once again to the passing charivari. Right off the bat I do notice, for example, that that weasel Eric Cantor got his clock cleaned down in Virginia, largely due to his destructive position on immigration: that alone is enough to make my day. I see also that we have apparently achieved an anemic solar maximum; that Sunni jihadists have now seized control of one of the more important cities in the Middle East; that the loathsome Hillary Clinton, failed Secretary of State to a failed President, has a new “book” out that, quite astonishingly, bears the same title as the memoirs of another failed Secretary of State to a failed President; that the Bowe Bergdahl detested-collaborator-for-terrorist-kingpins swap was such a hamfisted blunder that even many of the President’s most worshipful supporters are starting to feel like, as some wag (Tom Lehrer? Mort Sahl?) once said, a Christian Scientist with a toothache; that the University College of London has banned the creation of a Nietzsche club; that the recent Supreme Court decision in Bond v. United States, in which the Court rightly slapped down an attempt by Eric Holder’s slavering Department of Justice to prosecute a minor assault under the terms of an international chemical weapons treaty, and in which Associate Justice Scalia took Chief Justice Roberts to the woodshed in a coruscatingly brilliant concurrence, was actually a very big deal indeed, the full import of which I intend to examine when time permits; that, as usual, there has been another gory shooting or two, which as usual has led to the usual hysteria from the Left about eviscerating the Second Amendment, which, as always, is still a bad idea; that the rampaging Federal leviathan is now coming after your cheese; that things are still bubbling along in the reactosphere; that compared to chimps, we’re chumps; and a whole lot more.

I’ll try to get the presses rolling again over the next few days.

The King In Yellow Replies

In this engaging post, science-fiction writer John C. Wright responds, with brio and in fine style, to accusations of political heterodoxy and tainted allegiances.

Service Notice

There are a great many things I’d like to be commenting on just now, but I’m working very long hours this week and have no time for anything else.

Thanks very much as always for checking in. Back soon I hope.

All In A Day’s Work

Say what you will about Barack Obama, the man is consistent: everything he does seems reliably to act against the interests of the United States, its people, and its economic and social well-being; against the intention of the Framers that we shall live under a government of limited, enumerated powers, in which the three branches of government acts as checks upon one another; and against his own sworn oath to defend the Constitution, and faithfully to execute the laws that Congress enacts.

Today we learn that, having failed a few years ago to persuade a Congressional Democratic supermajority to pass drastic limitations on carbon-dioxide emissions, he is simply going to do so on his own, through the Environmental Protection Agency. In other words, the EPA is now more powerful than Congress: what Congress lawfully denied, the EPA will now provide.

We should note also that what will be regulated, with profoundly harmful effect on energy costs, and by extension, entire industries and, as always, the lives and liberty of American citizens, is now being called carbon “pollution”, even though it is a harmless gas, a natural component of our atmosphere, and is utterly essential to human life.

Carbon dioxide constitutes only 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere. To give a commonly quoted analogy, if the atmosphere were a football stadium with 100,000 seats, only 40 of them would be taken up by carbon dioxide. Only a small percentage of that atmospheric concentration is put there by human activity — perhaps three or four percent of all atmospheric CO2 — so out of those 100,000 seats, we are down to one seat. And that is the total for all human output, worldwide.

Now keep in mind that these regulations will only affect the United States, while China, India, and other developing nations will continue to burn as much coal as they like. Keep in in mind also that squeezing coal out of U.S. energy generation will reduce demand significantly, depressing the price of coal. But coal is still an extremely useful, portable, and relatively energy-dense power source, so all that will happen is that it will be exported and burned elsewhere, at lower prices. American coal producers, and their employees, will earn less, and most of the coal will go into the air anyway. As far as the greenhouse effect is concerned, the atmosphere doesn’t care where it gets burned.

Keep in mind also that a far more significant greenhouse gas is water vapor. Are we going to regulate that next?

In short, then: a fool’s errand, another burden and handicap for the nation’s economy, another arbitrary assault on American liberties, and another rebalancing of power in favor of this capricious and overweening Executive (and the subordinate behemoth sometimes called the “fourth branch”: the limitless, and almost completely unaccountable, Federal bureaucracy). If the Framers were alive today they would hardly recognize this failing nation as the Republic they risked all to create.

In other news, Mr. Obama has exchanged five senior Taliban prisoners for a U.S. deserter. The president was required by law to notify Congress before doing anything like this, but he didn’t bother. In doing this he not only violated the law (and thereby his oath, again) but has also, no doubt, encouraged future hostage-takers. Mullah Omar hailed the swap as a “great victory”.

People complain about the lavish vacations Mr. Obama takes, but I have to say I wish he’d take more of them. Indeed, if the nation could find the will, I think we could arrange for him to have a lot more free time, well before 2017 rolls around.

Who Knew?

I haven’t written about martial arts in a while, but coming across a silly little article in Popular Mechanics prompts me to do so today.

The article begins with some fawning hyperbole:

Forget all those broken boards and crumbled concrete slabs. No feat of martial arts is more impressive than Bruce Lee’s famous strike, the one-inch punch.

I can’t say I agree — for me, the ability to react effectively and proactively under actual combat conditions is far more impressive than staged demonstrations of any kind — but tastes do vary. I will say this, though: the one-inch punch is hardly “Bruce Lee’s famous strike” (though he did it very well). It is a commonplace in southern Chinese kung-fu systems, and a natural application of their core principles. Any southern-style black belt deserving of his rank ought to be able to do this, and many other things very much like it. I’ve taught my Hung Gar students this stuff for decades.

The article gives a good description of how this “short power” is generated:

Although Lee’s fist travels a tiny distance in mere milliseconds, the punch is an intricate full-body movement. According to Jessica Rose, a Stanford University biomechanical researcher, Lee’s lightning-quick jab actually starts with his legs.

“When watching the one-inch punch, you can see that his leading and trailing legs straighten with a rapid, explosive knee extension,” Rose says. The sudden jerk of his legs increases the twisting speed of Lee’s hips—which, in turn, lurches the shoulder of his thrusting arm forward.

As Lee’s shoulder bolts ahead, his arm gets to work. The swift and simultaneous extension of his elbow drives his fist forward. For a final flourish, Rose says, “flicking his wrist just prior to impact may further increase the fist velocity.” Once the punch lands on target, Lee pulls back almost immediately. Rose explains that this shortens the impact time of his blow, which compresses the force and makes it all the more powerful.

By the time the one-inch punch has made contact with its target, Lee has combined the power of some of the biggest muscles in his body into a tiny area of force.

Yep, that’s the general idea (though there’s a little more to it, of course). If the author had stopped there, I’d have had nothing to say. But then there was this:

But while the one-inch punch is built upon the explosive power of multiple muscles, Rose insists that Bruce Lee’s muscles are actually not the most important engine behind the blow.

“Muscle fibers do not dictate coordination,” Rose says, “and coordination and timing are essential factors behind movements like this one-inch punch.”

Because the punch happens over such a short amount of time, Lee has to synchronize each segment of the jab—his twisting hip, extending knees, and thrusting shoulder, elbow, and wrist—with incredible accuracy. Furthermore, each joint in Lee’s body has a single moment of peak acceleration, and to get maximum juice out of the move, Lee must layer his movements so that each period of peak acceleration follows the last one instantly.

So coordination is key. And that’s where the neuroscience comes in.

In a 2012 study, Ed Roberts, a neuroscientist at Imperial College London, compared the punching strength (at a range of slightly less than 2 inches) between practitioners of karate and physically fit people with similar amounts of muscle who do not practice martial arts.

“The first thing we found was that karate experts can punch much harder than normal, untrained people. Which isn’t exactly what you’d call Nobel Prize–worthy work,” he says.

But Roberts also discovered that for the karate practitioners, muscle alone didn’t dictate strong punches. Rather, when he used motion-tracking cameras to track the puncher’s joints, he found that strikes that synchronize the many peak accelerations in one complex move—like Bruce Lee’s—were also the most powerful.

And when Roberts took brain scans of his study’s participants, he also found that the force and coordination of each participant’s two-inch punch was directly related to the microstructure of white matter—the substance that manages communication between brain cells—in a part of the brain called the supplementary motor cortex. This is important, because this brain region handles the coordination between the muscles of the limbs, which close-range punches rely on. The altered white matter allows for more abundant or complex cell connections in that brain region, Roberts says, which could increase the puncher’s ability to synchronize his or her movements.

So Bruce Lee owes his master feat in part to a beefed-up glob of white matter.

So we learn, to our amazement, that Bruce Lee had to use his brain to make all this happen! I don’t know about you, but I was was completely taken aback. After reading this, I began to suspect that there might be certain other physical skills in which the brain plays an important role. (So far, I’ve only been able to think of four: playing the cello, dancing gracefully en pointe, landing the triple Salchow, and painting the corners with the split-fingered fastball — but for all I know, there may even be others.)

I guess we’ll have to wait for the research.

Uh-oh

Google’s just revealed its workplace demographics. The breakdown for tech workers: 60% white, 34% Asian, 2% Hispanic, 1% black.

Pass the popcorn.

Addendum, 5/29:

I neglected to add above that the breakdown by sex is: women 17%, men 83%.

Nobody should be surprised by any of this. To get through the multilevel Google tech interview, you need to have:

1) Exceptional talent for the kind of abstract visualization that software engineering requires, and a love for doing that kind of work, often for long hours and under severe pressure;

2) Deep theoretical understanding, particularly as regards algorithms, design patterns, and data structures;

3) Unusually high IQ – probably at least in the 130-140 range.

I’m probably ruining any chances I may ever have had for high public office by saying this in public, but I think the most parsimonious explanation here is that the composition of the staff simply reflects the statistical distribution of these qualifications among the various groups. I’m know that Google would like nothing more than to have lots of women and NAMs on their technical staff — but what has made them so successful and consistently innovative is their insistence on the qualities listed above. You simply can’t fake engineering.

This collision of reality with ideology is going to put Google in a bit of a cleft stick, I think. Hence the popcorn.

Vox Clamantis

Our reader Henry has sent us a link to the latest crop of “Random Thoughts” from Thomas Sowell. Some excerpts:

Some people act as if the answer to every problem is to put more money and power in the hands of politicians.

*

Republicans in Congress seem to be drawn toward the immigration issue like a moth toward a flame. How turning illegal immigrants into Democratic voters, while demoralizing the Republican base, will help either the country or the Republicans is a mystery. If ever there was a high-risk, low-yield investment, this is it.

*

We cannot insure to the vicious the fruits of a virtuous life; we would not invade the home of the provident in order to supply the wants of the spendthrift; we do not propose to transfer the rewards of industry to the lap of indolence.” Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan said that in 1896. Today’s Democrats do all those things that Bryan rejected.

*

The old saying that taxes are the price we pay for civilization has long since become obsolete. The amount that the government spends to defend us from foreign attack, or to maintain law and order at home, has been overtaken by the money it spends just to transfer some people’s money to other people who are more likely to vote for the reelection of incumbents.

Read the rest here.

We Can Dream, Can’t We?

Here’s George Will outlining the sort of presidential candidate he’s hoping for next time round. I have to say, I think that if someone actually presented himself to the voters as Mr. Will proposes, he’d win by a landslide. At the very least, he’d certainly get my vote.

Newton’s Third Law

Well! Good news from across the Big Ditch, as the “bunch of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” known as UKIP did very well indeed in yesterday’s elections.

Here’s a happy reaction from UK blogger ‘Anna Racoon’, in which she writes:

So peace finally reigns in the old ‘Muppet show’ studio ‘D’ at Elstree, from where the BBC broadcast the local election results during the night.

They were short handed – one of their senior editors, Jasmine Lawrence, had been removed from the team after tweeting “#WhyImVotingUkip – to stand up for white, middle class, middle aged men w sexist/racist views, totally under represented in politics today.”

She was almost right – UKIPs support is predominantly white, middle class men, retired men too. The main political parties have presided over the creation of a melancholy minority; men who grew up in the shadow of their heroic fathers, with no other opportunity to display their macho wares than trudging to work every day, paying their bills, guarding their children. Mundane tasks compared to saving the world from Naziism. Yet work they cheerfully undertook whilst rebuilding both the shattered economy and the shattered buildings of post war Britain.

They have been derided for their dedication to that task; undermined by Feminism, cast adrift from employment by a political elite that thought globalism was the way to go, impoverished by pension ‘raids’, and currently attacked by a legal system that cheerfully leaves them at risk of incarceration at the hands of any two hopefuls prepared to back each other as they seek to convince a jury that 40 years ago he ‘assaulted’ them. Against all this they must watch as a next generation of ‘White Dees’ claim £20,000 a year in benefits to support a champagne swilling lifestyle in Magaluf, and the streets fill with swirling figures in shalwah kameez whose human rights extend to cheerfully shouting ‘death to the infidels’ to passers-by.

Patrick Buchanan, in his latest column, had this to say:

What is happening in Europe?

In his unpublished “Leviathan and Its Enemies,” my late friend Sam Francis wrote of the coming crisis of the “soft managerial state,” of which the European Union is a textbook example.

Oswald Spengler used the word “Civilization” to describe “the terminal phase of a cultural organism,” wrote Francis. In 1941, Pitirim Sorokin described the characteristics of a Spenglerian “Civilization”:

“[C]osmopolitanism and the megalopolis vs. ‘home,’ ‘race,’ ‘blood group’ and ‘fatherland’; scientific irreligion or abstract dead metaphysics instead of the religion of the heart; ‘cold matter-of-factness’ vs. reverence and tradition and respect for age; internationalist ‘society’ instead of ‘my country’ and state (nation); money and abstract values in lieu of earth and real (living) values; ‘mass’ instead of ‘folk’; sex in lieu of motherhood … and so on.”

Between the managerial state and the civilization and culture that preceded it, the polarities are stark.

Yet they mirror the clashes of today as the European Union of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman’s vision exhibits unmistakable symptoms of disintegration and decay.

In a way, this is remarkable.

For undeniably the rise of the EU has coincided with an unprecedented rise in the standard of living for the hundreds of millions from the Atlantic to the Baltic and from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.

Still, though Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Parliament of man” and “Federation of the world” captured the imagination of 19th-and 20th-century one-worlders, the dream has proven incapable of capturing the hearts of European peoples. Who would die for the Brussels bureaucracy?

What are the identifying marks of these populist parties that have sprouted up now in almost every European country?

There is first the rejection of universalism and transnationalism, and a reversion to patriotism and its songs, symbols, holidays, history, myths and legends.

To peoples such as these, the preservation of the separate and unique ethnic and cultural identity of the nation supersedes all claims of supranational organizations, be it the EU or U.N.

This sentiment is reflected not only in fierce resistance to further integration within the EU, but in visceral hostility to further immigration from the Third World, Islamic world or Eastern Europe.

These people want to remain who and what they are.

We’ll see where all this goes; it may already be too late. But it’s good to see that the ancient peoples of the West still may still have a little fight left in ‘em.

Pedal To The Metal. Headlamps Off.

Writing at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald reports on an item from the collection of classified material leaked by Edward Snowden: a report on the ways that “Western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction”. I can’t say that any of it should come as a surprise, but it is hardly comforting.

What sort of a world do you imagine we will be living in, say, twenty years from now? As everything comes into increasing energetic collision with everything else, the solid world — from the books on your shelf, to the cash in your wallet, to everyday human contact — is vaporizing into a seething plasma of massless data, and there is no part of that world that is immune from scrutiny, manipulation, and continuous revision.

When I was at Singularity University a couple years ago, one of the lecturers said something to the effect of: “If you can see the road ahead of you, you aren’t going fast enough”. The audience — an impressive gathering of confident, high-IQ, risk-taking tech entrepreneurs from all over the world — loved it, and gave the remark some applause. I refrained.

Read the Greenwald article here.

Stalk Show

Here’s something really beautiful: photographs of subtropical fungi by Australian photographer Steve Axford.

What STEM Shortage?

We’ve been hearing for years that the only way America can stay ‘competitive’ is to admit hordes of foreign engineers to supplement our inadequate supply of homegrown STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) workers. The constant influx of these workers on H-1B visas has kept wages in these fields from rising for many years now.

But is there really such a shortage? We have an awful lot of people here already, after all, and until fairly recently America managed to dominate these fields for a very long time, and to lead the world in technical and scientific innovation, without having to flood the STEM labor pool with imported workers.

The whole thing may be a sham, or perhaps I should say a scam. Learn more here.

Spurious Correlations

Just discovered a terrific online resource. Have a look.

Wade In The Balance

Reviews and reactions to Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History have been many, and varied. The book is as polarizing as we all expected: for some it is racist ‘pseudoscience’, while for others it is a social and scientific watershed.

I linked last week to hbd*chick’s roundup of these reviews; Occam’s Razor has a good collection too, sorted on the spectrum of approval.

It took some time, but the New York Times, Mr. Wade’s longtime employer, has now published its own review, and as you’d expect, it is not a favorable one. Steve Sailer reviews the review, here; his final remark is particularly on target.

Steven Pinker commented on Twitter that, although in his opinion the book “gets some wrong” (much of the criticism of the book, from both sides, has been of its more speculative chapters), he thought that the book “explodes” the “race-is-only-a-social-construction myth”.

The prominent evolutionary biologist (and Richard Lewontin protégé) Jerry Coyne gave the book an unfavorable review at his blog; the neoreactionary blogger Scharlach replied with some pointed questions in a comment that Dr. Coyne refused to post.

There’s plenty more. Go and have a look.

We all expected the book to be controversial; some if us were worried, though, that it would simply be ignored. That, at least, hasn’t happened.

Too Pooped To Post

After working long hours the past three days (including an all-nighter on Tuesday), and teaching class tonight, I am utterly flogged. All I have to offer you is this.

Pardon The Stench

We haven’t been covering political events very closely of late, so here are two items of interest.

In the first, we learn that the Executive Branch has been short-circuiting deportation proceedings for thousands of criminal aliens, choosing instead just to let them go. Apparently this cohort, now at large within our borders again, have already distinguished themselves as follows:

The document reveals that the 36,007 convicted criminal aliens freed from ICE custody in many instances had multiple convictions. Among them, the 36,007 had nearly 88,000 convictions, including:

193 homicide convictions (including one willful killing of a public official with gun)

426 sexual assault convictions

303 kidnapping convictions

1,075 aggravated assault convictions

1,160 stolen vehicle convictions

9,187 dangerous drug convictions

16,070 drunk or drugged driving convictions

303 flight escape convictions

No doubt they’ll get right back to business. You can read the details here, although if you have high blood pressure, or anger-management issues, perhaps you’d better not.

In our second item, the Daily Caller reports that Senator Carl Levin (D, MI) has been up to his wattles all along in the IRS Tea-Party-persecution scandal. Story here. For a detailed timeline of this partisan abuse of government power, have a look here.

“Not a smidgen” of corruption, says Mr. Obama. Cue Joe Wilson, please.

Wabbling Back To The Fire

From Eric Hoffer’s Before the Sabbath, 1975:

It is disconcerting that present-day young who did not know Stalin and Hitler are displaying the old naiveté. After all that has happened they still do not know that you cannot build utopia without terror, and that before long terror is all that’s left.

Links

Sorry for the meager output over the past few days. The muse has been silent. Back soon.

Here are a few items that have piled up:

Goodnight Dune.

An outstanding reactionary essay by Richard Weaver. (Worth a post of its own, when time permits.)

Tornado passing through.

A handy chart.

Building the Pyramids.

Your tax dollars at work.

“Spengler” on Gödel and God.

Ten strange books.

– The estimable Deogolwulf on the atomization of the modern man.

– Courtesy of hbd_chick, a roundup of reactions to Nicholas Wade’s new book on genes and race.

Handy diagnostic method.

I hope this is ours.

Science predicts fashion. (Got the 80′s about right, anyway.)

Ranking the world’s nations by drunkenness.

The Incredible Shrinking Man

A few days ago we linked to a defiant essay by a young, Jewish college student in which, having been told once too often to ‘check his privilege’, he examined the ‘privileges’ his family had enjoyed in the Holocaust, and during the struggle of its surviving members to build a life in postwar America.

Here’s some of what the author, Tal Fortgang, had to say:

I have unearthed some examples of the privilege with which my family was blessed, and now I think I better understand those who assure me that skin color allowed my family and I to flourish today.

Perhaps it’s the privilege my grandfather and his brother had to flee their home as teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland, leaving their mother and five younger siblings behind, running and running until they reached a Displaced Persons camp in Siberia, where they would do years of hard labor in the bitter cold until World War II ended. Maybe it was the privilege my grandfather had of taking on the local Rabbi’s work in that DP camp, telling him that the spiritual leader shouldn’t do hard work, but should save his energy to pass Jewish tradition along to those who might survive. Perhaps it was the privilege my great-grandmother and those five great-aunts and uncles I never knew had of being shot into an open grave outside their hometown. Maybe that’s my privilege.

Or maybe it’s the privilege my grandmother had of spending weeks upon weeks on a death march through Polish forests in subzero temperatures, one of just a handful to survive, only to be put in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp where she would have died but for the Allied forces who liberated her and helped her regain her health when her weight dwindled to barely 80 pounds.

Perhaps my privilege is that those two resilient individuals came to America with no money and no English, obtained citizenship, learned the language and met each other; that my grandfather started a humble wicker basket business with nothing but long hours, an idea, and an iron will—to paraphrase the man I never met: “I escaped Hitler. Some business troubles are going to ruin me?” Maybe my privilege is that they worked hard enough to raise four children, and to send them to Jewish day school and eventually City College.

Perhaps it was my privilege that my own father worked hard enough in City College to earn a spot at a top graduate school, got a good job, and for 25 years got up well before the crack of dawn, sacrificing precious time he wanted to spend with those he valued most—his wife and kids—to earn that living. I can say with certainty there was no legacy involved in any of his accomplishments. The wicker business just isn’t that influential. Now would you say that we’ve been really privileged? That our success has been gift-wrapped?

Our reader ‘Musey’ commented:

Check your privilege. That means you, not your parents or grandparents. It means now as you live with advantages that others don’t have and have no chance of enjoying. All it means is that we should give some thought to those whose lives are different to ours, and try to put ourselves in their shoes. If that had happened in the 1930′s maybe the holocaust would never have happened.

This gave me pause. Is that all that “check your privilege” is supposed to mean? A plea for empathy and thanksgiving, and perhaps a little kindness?

Well, maybe. Given the tone and context in which I seem to hear it most of the time, though, I don’t think it’s quite as benign as that, and I don’t think ‘privilege’ means what it used to.

Words are tools for dissecting the world, and for that they work best when they have precise, sharp edges. On the battlefield, though, they’re often more effective when blunted into clubs. (See also ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’.) This now seems to be happening to ‘privilege’; its new meaning seems only to be ‘whatever you have that I covet’.

In particular we seem to be effacing the distinction between ‘privileges’ and ‘rights’. In my own understanding, ‘rights’ are intrinsic and inherent, while ‘privileges’ are contingent and external. We are born with rights, but privileges, one way or another, must be earned; they must be paid for, and we acquire them in virtue of some quality that we bear or possess not merely as members of our species, but as individual persons. (I’ve written before about the importance of this distinction.)

Daniel Dennett once wrote, in a different context, that “if you make yourself small enough, you can externalize everything.” It applies here as well, and gives us the key to understanding the meaning of “check your privilege” — which is that we are to be reduced to atoms.

Just as atoms are identical, so are we to be: in the pursuit of absolute equality, each of us is to be made so small that every distinguishing characteristic, every sin and virtue, becomes external to us. Thus reduced, with every individual quality stripped away, there can no longer be any basis for discriminations of any kind at all, and certainly not for any sort of privilege.

It doesn’t stop there: in order to achieve full equality in the here and now, the atomization of the individual must also reduce and externalize our extension in time. Our personal histories, and the heritage of our parents and ancestors, must be scraped away as well. Have you toiled for years to educate yourself, or to create a successful business, and as a result, now enjoy a measure of wealth and comfort that others do not? No, this is unjust; “you didn’t build that”. Correctly understood, you are just a lucky atom, intrinsically no different from any other, wafted to your position of privilege by warm and entirely contingent updrafts.

The point of all this shrinkage is this: if we are all atoms, and atoms are all the same, then there is no just basis for the unequal distribution of blessings in the world. But blessings there are (for now, at least), and something must be done with them — so if there is no basis for distributing them according to privilege, then a mathematically equal distribution becomes, by default, our right.

This, then, is the real meaning of “check your privilege”: if there’s still anything left of you, you haven’t made yourself small enough.

The Leidenfrost Effect

Courtesy of the indefatigable JK. Here.

Triple-Decker

Our pal Mangan directed us yesterday to an interesting item, from Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs, on the idea of ‘political correctness’ as an expression, not of one’s actual beliefs, but as a ‘signaling’ mechanism employed to enhance status. (This is not a new idea, but this is a good treatment of it.)

Inside the article is a link (linked text: ‘Easterlin paradox’) to a previous IEA article that you should make a point of reading. The sublinked item, from 2012, has the title Government shouldn’t worry about our happiness – new research shows.

That item, in turn, contains a link to a detailed IEA report on the subject, which you can download free of charge.

Key points:

– The government should not be trying to measure or maximise happiness as an explicit policy goal.

– There is no evidence that more equal societies lead to increases in happiness.

– Smaller government tends to make people happier.

– Contrary to widespread belief, the evidence suggests that happiness is in fact related to income and economic growth.

Sounds about right to me, of course, with one caveat: that last point could be taken in support of the idea that economic criteria trump all others, as the unholy alliance of open-borders advocates on both sides of the aisle keep telling us. There are, however, other factors that are also of critical importance for happiness, and community life and social cohesion are near the top of the list.

Conservation Of Asymmetry

A sharp excerpt from a post by Bryce Laliberte:

Equality is alien to nature… Democracy is opposed to order, for it is fundamentally a kind of disorder; order entails the accumulation of capital, material and social, which likewise entails a hierarchy and the attendant high asymmetries of power. Democracy precludes the accumulation of power by a self-interested estate, at least technically, and so the high degrees of power asymmetry necessary to stability cannot actualize.

Democracy is not “politically neutral,” as though it only functions as a market which distributes according to preferences and economic power. Democracy politically favors he who would upset hierarchies, for by necessity there are more at the bottom than at the top. All forms of subordination become equivalent to oppression, as those who are subordinate are led to believe that they can rise up and “take what is theirs” without this proving to destabilize and threaten the whole of society.

Hence you can have a Leftist singularity, for which the result is utter destruction. After all, there is nothing more equal than death.

Very good, but I must quibble: there will always be power asymmetries, even in the rubble of a Left singularity, for the very reason that Mr. Laliberte points out: equality is alien to nature. This means that it can only be maintained by external imposition. And as long as anyone is left alive, that requires power.

Bring It On Home

Kevin Spacey: new face of the Dark Enlightenment. Here. (h/t: Nick Land.)

Check Your Privilege

The best thing I’ve read all week. Here.

The Penny Drops

It appears as if reality may slowly be impinging upon the consciousness of David Brooks. In today’s column, he laments that the abstract world order he had hoped for seems to be slipping away, yielding to older and more organic forces.

We read:

“The ‘category error’ of our experts is to tell us that our system is doing just fine and proceeding on its eternal course toward ever-greater progress and global goodness. This is whistling past the graveyard.

“The lesson-category within grand strategic history is that when an established international system enters its phase of deterioration, many leaders nonetheless respond with insouciance, obliviousness, and self-congratulation.

…The weakness with any democratic foreign policy is the problem of motivation. How do you get the electorate to support the constant burden of defending the liberal system?

It was barely possible when we were facing an obviously menacing foe like the Soviet Union. But it’s harder when the system is being gouged by a hundred sub-threshold threats. The Republicans seem to have given up global agreements that form the fabric of that system, while Democrats are slashing the defense budget that undergirds it.

Moreover, people will die for Mother Russia or Allah. But it is harder to get people to die for a set of pluralistic procedures to protect faraway places. It’s been pulling teeth to get people to accept commercial pain and impose sanctions.

All true. (And the weakness of democracy that Mr. Brooks notes above applies equally to domestic policy as well.) But you knew that already, readers.

Most significant of all is this:

The liberal pluralistic system is not a spontaneous natural thing.

Exactly right. This is why it can only be imposed externally, by an increasingly malevolent concentration of power, rather than arising organically at all levels of a harmonious and self-organizing hierarchy. This is why it is the natural enemy of genuine and meaningful liberty. And this is why we must resist it.

Do The Right Thing

Just in case, loyal Readers, you happen to be looking for a fat tax write-off; and supposing also that you’ve been troubled lately by how hard it is for aging, pallid reactionary male bloggers just to get around without being interfered with by resentful Progressive mobs, here’s the perfect way to kill two birds with one stone: by getting me one of these.

Exhibit A

One more from the UK: the Daily Mail reports that modern humans are weaklings compared to our early ancestors.

They might be on to something.

Those Guys

NRO’s Jim Geraghty attended the National Rifle Association’s annual convention last week in Indianapolis, and today he summed up his impressions in an excellent post.

I had begun to cull some excerpts, but really you should go read the whole thing yourself. It’s here.

Best line:

“Hi, I’m here to change your culture!”

Holger Danske Stirs

After yesterday’s depressing post, here’s some good news from across the pond: the anti-EU party UKIP has surged to first place in the runup to to next month’s elections.

Suddenly, all over Europe, the spell is breaking.

And So It Goes

Once, Winston Churchill was the voice of England, the defender of “the island race“. My parents, who grew up in Britain, remembered hearing him on the radio during the Blitz. They told me that, more than anything else, it was his lion’s heart (and his lion’s roar) that gave the sturdy people of that battered and isolated kingdom the strength, in their darkest hour, to go on alone against overwhelming odds.

Churchill was also one of the greatest masters of the English language ever to lift a pen, and devoted his long literary life to the story of his ancient homeland and people. His crowning achievement, his incomparable six-volume history of the Second World War, rightly earned him the Nobel Prize.

When Churchill died in 1965 at the age of 91, the English-speaking world wept. At the time of his death he was considered by many, if not nearly all, of the British people to be the greatest Englishman who ever lived.

Quoting Winston Churchill in public can now get you arrested. Story here.

Notice

This morning I dropped a post I had written late last night, something I rarely do. When I got up and reread it, it just seemed too morose. As news unfolded later in the morning, I was glad I had done it for another reason: it would have led to more bickering than I have the time or patience for today.

Goodbye, Rigor

Hello, … well, something very different indeed.

Here’s an article about what college “debate” has become.

Nationalism vs. Empire

In his latest column, Patrick Buchanan argues that what confounded the Soviet empire, and what will keep Vladimir Putin’s revanchist ambitions in check today, is not sanctions or military threats, but a rising tide of nationalism.

We read:

Before we start sending troops back to Europe, as we did 65 years ago under Harry Truman, let us ask ourselves: Was it really the U.S. Army, which never crossed the Elbe or engaged in battle with the Red Army, that brought down the Soviet Empire and dissolved the Soviet Union?

No. What liberated the nations of Eastern Europe and the USSR was the determined will of these peoples to be free to decide their own destinies and create, or re-create, nations based on their own history, language, culture and ethnic identity?

Nationalism brought down the empire. And Mikhail Gorbachev let these nations go because Russia was weary of maintaining a coercive empire and because Russia, too, wanted to be part of the free world.

While Putin may want the Russians of Ukraine and Belarus back inside a Greater Russia, does anyone think he wants Rumanians, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs or Slovaks back under Moscow’s rule?

Putin knows that his own popularity, near 80 percent, is due directly to his being seen as a nationalist willing to stand up to the Americans and their claim to be sole architects of the New World Order.

And it is nationalism, not a NATO full of freeloaders, that is America’s great ally in this post-Cold War world.

It was nationalism that liberated the captive nations, broke apart the Soviet Union, split Czechoslovakia in two and divided Yugoslavia into seven countries.

Nationalism drove the Chechens to try to break from Moscow, the Abkhazians and South Ossetians to secede from Georgia, and the Crimeans to say good-bye to Kiev.

And as nationalism tore apart the Soviet Empire and USSR, nationalism will prevent their recreation.

Read the whole thing here.

C.I.V. — A Case Study

In a splenetic comment to an earlier post, a reader presents us with a clinical example of what I have called Cultural Immunodeficiency Virus: an AIDS-like memetic infection that attacks the social organism’s immune system, rendering it incapable of making essential discriminations — in particular, exactly those self/other distinctions that any organism must make to defend itself against external threats and invasive pathogens.

We read:

When Brandeis University looked into Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s phony claims of fleeing Somalia to gain asylum, her vile remarks about Muslims, and her support of mass murderer Anders Brievik, they decided that they did not want to provide their imprimatur for her. The right wing protested loudly, as they suddenly became staunch defenders of freedom of speech. However, if Ali has the free speech rights to vilify Muslims, then Louis Farrakhan has the same right to vilify whites, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has the same right to vilify Jews. Would those who loudly defend Ali make the same vociferous defense of a university withdrew an award to Farrakhan or Ahmadinejad? Wake me up when that happens…

If a writer wants to defame Islam, then she has the freedom to do so and have her writings celebrated by a large university, because when Muslims are concerned, anything is fair game.

In autoimmune diseases, the body’s threat-detection mechanism malfunctions, losing the ability to distinguish between invasive pathogens and its own tissue — between self and other — and the body begins to attack itself. In the most lethal forms of autoimmune diseases, the immune system itself becomes the target of the immune response. This is far more dangerous: it completely neutralizes the body’s defenses, and the victim quickly dies of opportunistic infections. This is what the human immunodeficency virus does, and before treatments were discovered to suppress its disease mechanism, AIDS was a death sentence. The cultural equivalent of HIV is what we see here.

Formerly infected by a virulent and exquisitely evolved memetic agent, a woman has managed to cure herself of it. Knowing that this bug is aggressively opportunistic, highly contagious, mutates quickly, is almost completely resistant to all antibiotics, and is epidemic throughout much of the world, she makes her way to the West, which is already immunosuppressed to the point that an accelerating infection by this restless pathogen has caused significant necrosis in large areas of formerly healthy tissue.

Seeing that her adopted culture’s immune response is faltering, she attempts to activate it. She does so by distributing a film. So far has the opportunistic infection already progressed, however, that her collaborator is murdered in the street by a carrier of the same memetic pathogen.

Meanwhile, the immune system of her Western host is weakening rapidly under the progressively debilitating effect of the second, and ultimately more lethal pathogen — C.I.V. (If I may coin another expression, I’ll say that this disease is ‘ideo-pathic”.) By attempting to trigger a defensive reaction, she attracts the attention of this hijacked system, and it does indeed begin to mount a response: it attacks her.

And this is what you see here. “Support” for Anders Breivik? Nonsense. “Vilify Muslims”? No, her criticism is of the mind-virus that has infected them. “Where Muslims are concerned, anything is fair game?” Nonsense upon stilts, that one: a startling, total inversion of reality in a self-abnegating Western culture that relentlessly derogates its own history and traditions, but that cannot even bring itself to name its ancient and implacable enemy, let alone to speak frankly about it — and certainly not to resist it.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This

Here’s a fine online edition of Philogelos, the world’s oldest joke book.

Gee, What A Coincidence

Megan McArdle comments on the Obama administration’s conveniently timed revamp of insurance-data collection:

I’m speechless. Shocked. Stunned. Horrified. Befuddled. Aghast, appalled, thunderstruck, perplexed, baffled, bewildered and dumbfounded. It’s not that I am opposed to the changes: Everyone understands that the census reports probably overstate the true number of the uninsured, because the number they report is supposed to be “people who lacked insurance for the entire previous year,” but people tend to answer with their insurance status right now.

But why, dear God, oh, why, would you change it in the one year in the entire history of the republic that it is most important for policy makers, researchers and voters to be able to compare the number of uninsured to those in prior years? The answers would seem to range from “total incompetence on the part of every level of this administration” to something worse.

I’ll go with “something worse”.

Settled, Schmettled

Here’s a calm and reasonable article about “climate change”. The author is Lennart Bengtsson, an impeccably credentialed climate researcher.

We read:

More CO2 in the atmosphere leads undoubtedly to a warming of the earth surface. However, the extent and speed of this warming are still uncertain, because we cannot yet separate well enough the greenhouse effect from other climate influences. Although the radiative forcing by greenhouse gases (including methane, nitrogen oxides and fluorocarbons) has increased by 2.5 watts per square meter since the mid-19th century, observations show only a moderate warming of 0.8 degrees Celsius. Thus, the warming is significantly smaller than predicted by most climate models. In addition, the warming in the last century was not uniform. Phases of manifest warming were followed by periods with no warming at all or even cooling.

The complex and only partially understood relationship between greenhouse gases and global warming leads to a political dilemma. We do not know when to expect a warming of 2 degrees Celsius. The IPCC assumes that the earth will warm up by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celcius in response to a doubling of CO2 concentration. These high values of climate sensitivity, however, are not supported by observations. In other words: global warming has not been a serious problem so far if we rely on observations. It is only a problem when we refer to climate simulations by computer models.

There is no alternative to such computer simulations if one wants to predict future developments. However, since there is no way to validate them, the forecasts are more a matter of faith than a fact. The IPCC has published its expert opinion a few months ago and presented it in the form of probabilities. As long as the results cannot be supported by validated models they produce a false impression of reliability.

EU member states pursue a strategy of reducing the climate risk by reducing the use of fossil fuels in the shortest time to a minimum. Many citizens are risk averse and therefore support this policy. In addition, many citizens want to phase-out nuclear power, because it is also seen as too risky. To eliminate both nuclear energy as well as fossil fuels is an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, Germany and Switzerland have opted for such an energy transition. To pursue such a radical and perhaps risky energy policy, despite the limited economic, scientific and technical capabilities of the two countries is an enormous undertaking.

There are two things that need to be addressed in this context. Firstly, such energy transitions will, unfortunately, do little to reduce global CO2 emissions, since 90 percent of these emissions come from countries outside Europe. Many of these countries are likely to increase their CO2 emissions in the future, as their population increases and their top priority is to improve the living standards of their citizens. China is a special case. Its CO2 emissions have more than doubled in the last decade and are now about 50 percent higher than those of the United States. For various reasons, there are no alternatives to fossil fuels in the developing countries for the time being. Energy demand there is great. Currently, 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity. To reduce their own emissions easily and quickly, the OECD countries have outsourced some of their energy-intensive production to developing countries. In the national statistics, this looks good. Globally, however, not much changes, since the emissions occur simply somewhere else.

Secondly, the rapid transition to renewable energy has led to a considerable increase in energy prices in many countries, especially in Europe. This weakens the competitiveness and leads to a relocation of energy-intensive industries to countries such as the USA, where the energy price has dropped significantly by the use of shale gas.

It is no surprise that there are other forces that are driving rapid change. Because once government subsidies are involved, huge profits are available. However, before radical and hasty changes to the current energy system are implemented, there must be robust evidence that climate change is significantly detrimental. We are still far away from such evidence. It would be wrong to conclude from the report of the IPCC and similar reports that the science is settled.

Just trying to keep it fair and balanced, folks.

Endangered Species

Here’s a good piece by Jon Hinderaker on the Bundy affair.

And Then My Heart With Pleasure Fills

It’s just spring here in Wellfleet, and suddenly there are daffodils everywhere.

I love daffodils; they seem perfect to me. They sing of warm spring sunlight, and cool clear air, and dark fertile soil, and of beauty unvanquished. I’ve always thought that daffodils are pure joy.

I’ve written in these pages, from time to time, about some of the ideas I’ve encountered in my contact with systems of “inner work”. In particular I’ve mentioned the ideas that the Greek/Armenian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff brought to the West at the beginning of the last century: a distillation of the esoteric teachings of various Central Asian “schools”.

One of the ideas of this system is that we are ‘three-brained beings’: that within us are three very distinct centers of activity whose operation, in a perfected being, would be harmonized under the executive control of a single, awakened ‘I’ — but which, in our disordered state, just run along ‘willy-nilly’, quite separately and chaotically. These centers correspond, in simple terms, to the intellect, the emotions, and the drives and instincts of the physical body. In our usual state, sometimes one is in charge, sometimes another; sometimes they bicker and disagree. Often they just go about their business quite independently.

Why am I mentioning all of this here? Because I was reminded of something that happened to me, something that gave me some empirical data about all of this.

Many years ago, I was walking in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden with my mother-in-law Lily on a fine April day. We were arguing about something. (Lily, for all her talents and fascinating charms, is a stubborn and opinionated woman, and often a quarrelsome one, and of course readers of this blog will know that I have a scrappy streak myself.)

So: there I was, fully engaged in heated debate about some forgotten topic, and thinking about nothing else, when I became aware, quite gradually at first, of a strange feeling in my middle — a kind of warmth, not at all unpleasant. Eventually this spreading warmth became insistent enough for me to give it my full attention, and then I realized what it was.

While I was busy arguing with Lily, we happened to be standing in front of a little grassy rise, and bursting from the green grass were hundreds and hundreds of daffodils, positively singing in the warm April sunshine. (Here’s a picture of that very spot.) While my intellectual part, and my attention, were completely ensnared by Lily and the argument we were having, my emotional center, on this perfect spring day, was having a little dance-party with all those daffodils, without my even knowing it was happening.

My words trailed off as I began to understand what was going on, and after a minute Lily’s did too. We just stood there feeling happy.

I’ve never forgotten that experience. It was as if those daffodils needed to teach me something, then and there, and made sure I learned it. I thank them, every April.

Hate Speech

I just took an online survey called “How Stereotypically White Are You?” It offers a hundred criteria, and asks the respondent to check all that apply.

Most of them were things like “Have you ever listened to John Mayer while hooking up with someone?”

(The sort of questions I might have asked — “Have you ever solved a partial differential equation?” or “Have you ever watched a movie in a theater without talking?” or even “Have you ever sat quietly in a room, reading an old book?” weren’t there at all, curiously enough.)

Anyway, I managed to check seventeen items. (I recalled, for example, that I had once watched bowling on television.)

My result page said “Congratulations, you are NOT white!”

I have an ominous feeling about all of this. I fear it will not end well.

How Heartbleed Works

A simple explanation from Randall Munroe.

Yikes!

We’ve been hacked, it seems. Perhaps it’s that ‘Heartbleed’ business, although my understanding was that Bluehost, my hosting service, had not been affected.

Thanks to Matt Walker for leaving a comment on one of the (now deleted) spam posts to tell us that our RSS feed is corrupted also.

Our in-house team of cyberterrorism experts is investigating. We may need to go offline for a bit.

C.I.V.

Brandeis University has rescinded its decision to award Aayan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree at this year’s commencement. You might have thought that a Jewish liberal-arts institution that was sufficiently impressed by Ms. Ali’s advocacy of women’s rights to offer her this honor wouldn’t be put off by her outspoken criticism of a culture that subjected her to grisly genital mutilation (the same culture that also relentlessly seeks the destruction of Israel and the subjugation of the Jews), but all that means is that the dhimmitude of the West has got a little farther along than you were aware of.

In case this comes as a surprise to you, here’s an even more depressing exhibit, from Sweden’s former “Integration Minister”:

“We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we become a minority, they will be so towards us.”

As the linked article points out, this one may be “best example of Western Leftist Dhimmitude ever, combining defeatism, inevitability, false hope, and a fatal misunderstanding of Islam all in one sentence.”

So: what does the title of this post mean? It stands for a coinage of my own: Cultural Immunodeficiency Virus, the memetic plague that will be the death of the West.

Phase Transition

A story that’s making the rounds today concerns trending changes in the way people read. Here’s the lede, from today’s Washington Post:

Claire Handscombe has a commitment problem online. Like a lot of Web surfers, she clicks on links posted on social networks, reads a few sentences, looks for exciting words, and then grows restless, scampering off to the next page she probably won’t commit to.

“I give it a few seconds — not even minutes — and then I’m moving again,” says Handscombe, a 35-year-old graduate student in creative writing at American University.

But it’s not just online anymore. She finds herself behaving the same way with a novel.

“It’s like your eyes are passing over the words but you’re not taking in what they say,” she confessed. “When I realize what’s happening, I have to go back and read again and again.”

To cognitive neuroscientists, Handscombe’s experience is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

I don’t doubt this is true, and I think it’s fair to be alarmed. It isn’t as if the things a person ought to understand about the world have got any simpler than they were in pre-Internet days; it’s just that we are no longer given the time we need to absorb them. In terms of the ideal-gas-law metaphor I proposed in an earlierpost, the container we live in has got so small that we collide with everything from everywhere; the temperature and pressure have gone up so dramatically that it’s hard for large, complex mental structures to form before they are battered apart by impinging, energetic particles.

The article in the Post seems a bit muddled, however, on exactly what’s happening to the human brain as a result. We read:

The brain was not designed for reading. There are no genes for reading like there are for language or vision.

This is an extraordinary thing to say, and it must almost certainly be false. Reading is such a powerful tool, and written language so ancient, that hundreds of generations of differential reproduction surely must have favored, by now, brains that have the knack for reading over those that don’t, at least in those populations where the written word is culturally important (and of course the written word will have become culturally important in those populations whose brains are wired more advantageously for reading.)

The muddle continues in the next sentence:

But spurred by the emergence of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Phoenician alphabet, Chinese paper and, finally, the Gutenberg press, the brain has adapted to read.

The brain “has adapted”? What does this mean, if not that modern brains are innately different from preliterate ones? If not, then “the brain” hasn’t adapted; it’s just the same old brain in every generation, with the only difference being that some people teach their kids to use it to read. But the very idea that there is no genetic difference between brains that can and can’t read is absurd: we can’t teach dogs to read, after all, and the fact that some humans can learn to read at a very early age, while other barely achieve literacy even with intense effort, makes it obvious that there is some innate (i.e. genetic) difference between them. If the difference is innate, then it is almost certainly heritable, and if it confers even a slight edge in reproductive fitness, then over the course of hundreds of generations it would have resulted in significant adaptative change. So “there are no genes for reading” is, I think, obvious nonsense.

Having said all that, I don’t doubt that the brain can be trained to read in different ways — and I imagine that, as with other aspects of language acquisition, the way we learn in childhood has a profound effect on what we will be capable of for the rest of our lives. Failing to learn “long form” reading during this “imprinting” period, and learning instead to cultivate the shallow, transient sort of attention that one needs in a world of constant, brief distractions might very well mean that we never learn to think the long, deep thoughts that are essential to serious intellectual work; the world simply cannot be understood in 140-character crumbs.

There is more to this than mere reading, too: growing up bathed in constant, high-frequency impingement would interfere, I should think, with a child’s ever learning to control his attention at all. From the perspective of every esoteric tradition, every organized system of inner work from the Buddha’s to Gurdjieff’s, this is very worrisome indeed.

Creative Destruction

My Android phone just had a stroke, and I had to do a factory reset. I lost all my applications, which meant I had to go rummaging around to replace them.

It’s turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because I’ve found some nifty new ones, and after blasting away all the cruft that had accumulated over the past four years (yes, I have a four-year-old smartphone) the old beast is running much better.

Among the new apps I’ve just installed are a terrific new chess program called Droidfish, a marvelous little audio recorder called Easy Voice, and an app called SnapPea, which gives you direct access to your phone through your WiFi network. That last one is really great.

Also recommended: a task manager called WatchDog Lite, Google Sky Map, and HDR Camera+.

My favorite, though, is this one. I’ll bet I’m the only person you know who has it.

Okay…

Too much social/political stuff lately. Will lay off for a while.