Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpopular Opinion


I’m sick of reading posts that say “If you do this or that” or “If you don’t do this or that you’re a shitty person”.

People are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional. People are in a constant state of change. It is actually possible to fuck up, believe something shitty or be too uncomfortable to be something society (or tumblr) says you should be and not be a fundamentally shitty person at the same time.

Everyone is fucking problematic. And no one around here needs anyone else making them feel more self-loathing than they already fucking do.

So could we please stop making blanket statements about whether or not specific humans are morally good or bad because of something we disagree with or one fucking flaw? If you can’t get past it, no one’s going to fault you. But stop saying people are shitty people.

Friday, July 25, 2014

I am struck occasionally, usually while snuggling the cat, with our faith in domestication.

The cat is a small, ferocious predator, twelve pounds of…well, flab and fur, frankly, in Athena’s case, but what muscle there is is strong all out of proportion to her size. I have watched three 150+ primates try and fail to subdue a ten pound cat, and consider it not at all unusual. The cat is as flexible as a snake and as strong as an ox. She has quite dainty looking teeth and claws, but there’s nothing dainty about their ability to flay flesh from bone.

If the cat and I were in a duel to the death, I would almost certainly win. I am 15+ times larger than she is, after all, and while my teeth and claws are pathetic, I have prehensile hands capable of doing terrible things. But if I had to go in naked, as the cat does, (and assuming the cat was aware that she was going to have to kill me, and not taking a nap in the corner) I can pretty much guarantee it would be a Pyhrric victory. I’d look like I’d gone ten rounds with a wolverine. I would need stitches. A lot of stitches. Possibly a glass eye. And antibiotics by the truckload. It’d be a mess, and there would even be a chance of an upset if the cat managed to go face-hugger on me.

And yet, despite the knowledge of the shocking amount of damage my small predator could inflict, it never occurs to me to worry. I pick the cat up and she tucks her head under my chin and purrs, canine teeth centimeters from my jugular, and despite the fact that I am carrying a ruthless carnivore in a position where she could, with great ease, remove me from the gene pool, I am thoroughly content with the world. Even knowing full well that cats are not even a truly domesticated animal, that Athena’s kin might best be described as “consistently tamed,” my greatest concern is that my black tank top is now coated in white cat hairs.

We have such faith in the process of domestication, despite the sheer unnaturalness of what’s happening. Small predators do not curl up on the chests of large primates and purr in the wild. And yet, every now and again, generally when my small predator is purring on the chest of this particular primate, I think How strange, how strange… that we’re doing this, and even stranger, that we both take it completely for granted, and find nothing unusual in such a completely unlikely alliance.

Ursula Vernon (via aliothturtle)

(Source: fuckyeahursulavernon)



straight guys more like


Actually true, tho. I still have leftover “phobias” for lack of a better word of when I cared about being manly and “not one of those gay guys” and it’s very hard to break out of them.

I’m trying tho.

Languages animate objects by giving them names, making them noticeable when we might not otherwise be aware of them. Tuvan has a word iy (pronounced like the letter e), which indicates the short side of a hill.

I had never noticed that hills had a short side. But once I learned the word, I began to study the contours of hills, trying to identify the iy. It turns out that hills are asymmetrical, never perfectly conical, and indeed one of their sides tends to be steeper and shorter than the others.

If you are riding a horse, carrying firewood, or herding goats on foot, this is a highly salient concept. You never want to mount a hill from the iy side, as it takes more energy to ascend, and an iy descent is more treacherous as well. Once you know about the iy, you see it in every hill and identify it automatically, directing your horse, sheep, or footsteps accordingly.

This is a perfect example of how language adapts to local environment, by packaging knowledge into ecologically relevant bits. Once you know that there is an iy, you don’t really have to be told to notice it or avoid it. You just do. The language has taught you useful information in a covert fashion, without explicit instruction.

K. David Harrison, The Last Speakers (via perugu—-annam)

(Source: simhasanam)

Anonymous said: could you explain what a transhumanist is (if you haven't before)



Nope. Nothing to add. This is the sort of transhumanism I can get behind.

I was just today reading a critique by Stephen Shaviro of Kurtzweil’s book on the Singularity actually and I think this particular quote might be relevant:


A transhumanist is a person who accepts the ideological values and goals described as transhumanist. This doesn’t explain much by itself so let me explain those (sort of summarizing this here).

Life over Death/Health over Disease: Although some “clever” people try to argue for it, it is easy to see that death - even “natural” death - is very bad. It forever annihilates everything a person is and brings great sadness and grief to others.

Transhumanists consider death as an enemy in general, and hope to achieve a radical extension of human lifespans and healthspans through technology.

Even if physical limits or the like ultimately it impossible to have actual deathlessness, it does not mean we can live much longer than we do now. And we want to be healthy and happy at an old age, too. Not decaying in a hospital bed. We hold such a change in the current situation to be desirable.

Now, for some reason this kind of reasoning has been culturally coded as villainous, but the arguments about that are for another post, I’m using this one to just explain what transhumanism is.

Have a quote I posted a while ago on this topic:

“There is no glory, no beauty in death. Only loss. It does not have meaning. I will never see my loved ones again. They are permanently lost to the void. If this is the natural order of things, then I reject that order. I burn here my hopelessness, I burn here my constraints. By my hand, death shall fall. And if I fail, another shall take my place … and another, and another, until this wound in the world is healed at last.”

Overcoming human limitations: All humans could theoretically be improved in some ways. We grow old, we forget things, we are physically unimpressive relative to other animals, our minds are extremely prone to bias…

Transhumanists also hope to use technology to grant the possibility to improve our conditions and be happier. There are a few ways in which this is already happening, even.

Morphological Freedom: This one is important. We believe that in general people should have the freedom to do what they wish with their bodies. Individuals can think very differently and have different goals.

For example, one person could want to use technology to look like an elf, another could want to use it to become smarter, a third could want to remain as they are. Under this principle, all of them deserve the freedom to follow their individual goals.

This value is even important enough to overrule the first. We may consider death to be bad, but transhumanists in general seem to be in favor of letting people have the freedom to end their lives if they really really want to.

This is important, because one of the uninformed criticisms people make to those who wish for immortality is “But what if you get bored and just want to die some day?”

Then one can answer “That won’t be for a very long time, but if I succeed in spreading my values, it won’t be an issue since I can just do that once I want to.”

Wide Access: If human enhancement technology appears but is restricted to a tiny elite, that is not the preferred outcome. Transhumanists want to give access to everyone who wants it.

We don’t want to just avoid death, we want to deny it to everyone who does not wish for it. We truly want people to stop suffering and dying involuntarily.

I notice that a lot of the people who criticize transhumanism as some sort of rich libertarian thing don’t seem to be aware that we actually want this sort of arrangement, which is pretty odd since it is also one of those big things you notice from reading pretty much any of the influential transhumanists…

We do want everyone to be able to improve themselves, be healthy, and have longer lives. It is more fair, it increases the chances that our loved ones and us will benefit, it reduces global suffering much more than limiting to an elite would…

We also do think that, unless great efforts are made against this, human enhancement will eventually reach everyone. If history teaches us anything, it is that new technology usually does start out as nice toys for the rich, but then the price drops and everyone can enjoy it. It has happened many times before.

Hope for the future: Another trend we notice through history is that, in general, things have been getting much better over time.

This is the hope that the trend continues. But hope is a lousy defense.

We also try to promote work based on this hope. Work to prevent global catastrophe and improve people’s lives.

The future is to be protected before it can be enjoyed. The present does not treat everyone nicely, so we want to help those who need it. Nature does not care about us, but we do.

Do my transhumanist followers have more to add?

As Jameson laments, towards the end of his recent book on utopian and science fiction (2005): “we have been plagued by the perpetual reversion of difference and otherness into the same, and the discovery that our most energetic imaginative leaps into radical alternatives were little more than the projections of our own social moment and historical or subjective situation: the post-human thereby seeming more distant and impossible than ever!” (211). Slavoj Zizek makes a similar observation (though he isn’t referring to science fiction specifically) when he says that “today it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest change in capitalism” (Taylor 2005) . We have no trouble picturing the catastrophic breakdown of the capitalist order, and the extermination of human life on this planet; but we are scarcely able to envision a tolerable and pleasant world without money, without advertising, without brand names, and without the vast inequities that characterize a capitalist economy. Kurzweil’s book is only the crass exemplification of a much wider problem: the way that all thought today, even explicitly oppositional thought, has been colonized and appropriated in advance by the flows and metamorphoses of Capital.

I’d add to the description above, which I think is very useful, a specification for Leftist Transhumanism. Leftist Transhumanists have a responsibility to conceive of utopia not in just in technological but in social terms, and to imagine ways of improving and de/reconstructing not just individuals (in the libertarian transhumanist model) but social systems as well.

Like, Shaviro references Kurtzweil talking about the importance of preserving intellectual property. That’s… wow does that ever lack vision, to me. I’m not satisfied with the “tech will trickle down” notion. I’m not satisfied with a transhumanism that still has bosses controlling the means of production, or corporations controlling copyrights and trademarks and patents indefinitely. That’s not good enough for me.

So I’d add to this a (proposed!) Leftist Transhumanist value:

Belief That We Can Transcend Oppressive Power Structures As Well As The Limits Of Our Bodies.

Monday, July 21, 2014







can someone actually make the case against capitalism to me? the general consensus here seems to be that it is Awful and Should Be Overthrown when I was under the impression that it’s better at incentives and at allocating resources than all the other systems we’ve tried and every one that’s been seriously proposed

#every communist I have read is a complete imbecile and it’s making me unfairly prejudiced against communists#capitalism

Well, capitalism by default results in some people being poor, and that’s really terrible. Ideally, you fix that with basic income, somebody should try that in real life so we can see if it works (preliminary trials suggest it almost certainly will).

The sorta fundamental ideal of capitalism is that you set up a system where doing pro-social things gets you rich, and being rich gets you access to cool toys, and everybody runs around doing pro-social things all the time.

And it’s an awesome fundamental ideal, and it works out precisely as intended way the hell more often than anticaps will acknowledge.

But sometimes you wind up with people running around doing anti-social things and getting rich off that instead. Economists call this “rent-seeking behavior”. The classic story about this is the kids with a lemonade stand who give out free peanuts, soaked in capsaicin, so now everyone desperately wants lemonade. These kids did not do anything to, y’know, increase net-utility. Profit motive didn’t lead them to pro-social behavior. And I think this happens in real life. The most obvious case to me is advertising. A lot of times advertising just makes you feel bad unless you have the thing. Sometimes this causes large and negative changes at the societal level. Advertisers invented body odor, they invented halitosis, they invented the two-months-salary rule and the idea of the diamond engagement ring as mandatory.

This is all related to the fact that humans are irrational. Like, we capitalists sometimes point out that socialists are wrong about human nature, that humans are not perfect communitarians who are going to be super motivated to work for the common good every day. But I think that, like, saying “Adam Smith, therefore capitalism is ever and always awesome” makes a similar mistake, and assumes that humans are perfect rational selfish agents, and we’re not. We discount hyperbolically. We experience hedonic treadmills. Sometimes that means that making more stuff available doesn’t make us as well off as it should. Sometimes making more stuff available makes us feel less good about what we have.

Communists sometimes talk about the alienation of labor. Like, under capitalism, you do one thing super well and you make money for it and the money solves your other problems, so there’s this, like, indirection between the labor you do and your well-being, you’re not directly engaged in self-care the way you would be if you were like making all your stuff for yourself. There’s probably more to this and I’m probably not understanding it that well, but a lot of people seem to think it’s important?

So far, empirically, capitalism sure appears to have done a poor job of dealing with long-term renewability of natural resources. Like, I know you can probably come up with brilliant solutions involving like ownership of futures contracts and special property rights arrangements, but historically this hasn’t happened.

Also, capitalism is not libertarianism, but Scott’s anti-libertarian FAQ (Why I Hate Your Freedom) may be relevant

So there’s a vote in Switzerland to bring a guaranteed basic income in, and proposals elsewhere, but to my knowledge it hasn’t been tried and failed anywhere.

If you’ll all forgive me for being cliché, Marx sort of covered the “what’s wrong with capitalism” bit already. To sum it up, a middle class—which is really what all “nice” proponents of capitalism want a lot of—is not a natural feature of capital accumulation. Wealth pools at the top without government intervention; I think the original response did a good job of explaining why this is. We see the evidence now; the less regulation on capital, the more wealth disparity. The market is actually shit at allocating resources; we have enough food to feed everyone, but we waste tons of food while the developing world starves, etc. It may be, at the present day, slightly less shit than certain planned economies like Stalin’s USSR, but in no way effective in purely utilitarian, let alone ethical terms.

Well, why not more government intervention—market socialism? I am not a good doctrinaire communist in that I actually think this is fine as an intermediate measure and prefer it to, say, a revolution in which I would inevitably be killed horribly, but I think it’s only a stop-gap measure. Why? Two reasons:

1) People consistently do not vote in their best interest. There are a ton of cultural and psychological reasons for this, but essentially people, at least in North America and increasingly elsewhere, will take a 50 cent tax cut over transit or health care infrastructure that will save them substantially more in the long-run. Economics is haaaaaard.

2) Governments can be bought and are bought, frequently. If you look at surveys of people’s actual political beliefs versus what lobbyists make happen, you’ll see that a strong state apparatus is no guarantee of market regulation.

Thank you both! So I agree that

1) people not getting the things they need is a bad outcome

2) unregulated markets result in worse outcomes than regulated markets in lots and lots of cases

(I do believe that nearly all of the problems with capitalism you mention could be solved with halfway-sensible externality contracts, but if I’m going to hold communism accountable for the fact that whenever attempted it kills millions of people, I have to also hold capitalism accountable for the fact it hasn’t solved those problems.)

… but I think I am entirely unconvinced that as a result we should give up on markets. Or that we even could, actually. In basically every environment where you attempt to replace markets with another means of distributing things, markets pop right up anyway, because as long as some people have things that other people want, they’re going to trade them. Any possible strategy for preventing this does far, far more harm than is done by people making suboptimal choices in the markets themselves. 

It might be useful here to distinguish between a few things? I can imagine a country with a universal basic income which nonetheless allows markets to set the price of labor and goods. That country sounds fantastic and I’d love to live there. I’d consider that country capitalist; would you?

I can also imagine a country where some criterion other than supply and demand is used to set the price of labor and goods. I am reasonably certain that such a society would be a disaster resulting in far more suffering than even the most safety-net-less captialist societies.

I also think that empirically wealthier nations have better safety nets, so the economic system that probably results in the most generous benefits fifty years from now is the one that creates the most wealth now. Do we disagree on that?

To sum it up, a middle class—which is really what all “nice” proponents of capitalism want a lot of—is not a natural feature of capital accumulation.

All ‘nice’ proponents of capitalism want this? It’s not that it seems obviously wrong to me to want this, but it doesn’t seem obviously right either. I want peoples’ preferences to be fulfilled. I want middle class people exactly to the extent they are happier than rich people or working-class people or people living on benefits. I can’t find good research on this, but as far as self-reported happiness goes the poor are happier than the middle class.  (The rich are happiest). 

And Michael, thanks for the mention of dignity-of-labor type considerations; that’s one aspect of communist ideology I find particularly impossible to understand. I would prefer no one ever have to do work that’s related to their self-care and survival; self-care and survival are my least favorite parts of existing, and if my work and intellectual productivity were also directly connected to them (for example, if I had to build my house or grow my food or sew my clothes) I would be utterly miserable. Sometimes I’m cripplingly unhappy over the fact that I have to brush my teeth every single damn day. And that’s about as directly-related-to-your-own-health-and-wellbeing as you can possibly get. 

 Is this psychologically rare? Are most people longing to do work that’s more connected to their immediate needs? Or is that a desire that only a very small percentage of the population has, and mostly because it’s been romanticized beyond all recognition?

(I will change my mind here if enough people chime in to say that this is a desire of theirs; I’m a psychological outlier along enough axes that it would not surprise me to learn that I am an outlier here as well.)

You all seem to be using a very different concept of “alienation of labor” than the one I have. My understanding of the concept of “alienation of labor” is that workers are not working towards intrinsic goals, but extrinsic ones set by people other than themselves. The goal of work is not doing a job and feeling proud and satisfied in a job well done, but rather making money so that you can survive. The worker doesn’t necessarily feel like their labor is needed or useful or helpful to society - just like their employer will pay them to do it. They end up feeling like cogs in the machine or like tools of the system rather than like fulfilled people or vital, contributing members of society. Because they require money to survive and are paid money to work, the primary motivation to work becomes the wage working pays. So in a communist system (or other system without alienation of labor), people would not be forced to allocate their labor based on what makes them the most money, and would instead work jobs that they are skilled at and feel satisfaction from performing and feel like are actually making a positive difference in society. Basically, it’s not about whether your work is self-care or base survival, it’s about whether you feel like you’re actually using your skills and talents in a meaningful way.

Yep, I did not understand this part very well, thanks for the clarification =)

(…) A systems programmer has seen the terrors of the world and understood the intrinsic horror of existence. James Mickens - The Night Watch (via hot-gay-rationalist)