8,000 Page Fantasy Life

I’m just wrapping up twelve weeks of Hitler and Stalin at the University of Maryland, and has been my experience with every class I have ever taken, I end with not much more than the sense of just how little I know about the subject. I then spend a postmortem of fantasy about actually becoming an expert in something-or-other. The 540 pages of Geyer and Fitzpatrick’s Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared and similar number of pages of selected journal articles weren’t enough. Thus, a Year of Hitler could be in my future as well (Barnett, Erica C., “My Year of Hitler: Six Things I Learned from Reading 8,000 Pages About the Nazis,” SLOG, The Stranger, 26 May 2009). Coincidentally, I’m tentatively titling my paper “Seven Ways to Think about Stalin during the Interbellum.”

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The Wolf-Girl of Chita

Wolf-men (or Mowgli Syndrome) seem like legends left over from the Nineteenth Century, but in fact a few turn up every decade, most famously the case of Genie, discovered in Los Angeles in 1970 and most recently Dani Lierow / Danielle Crockett in Florida in 2005 (DeGregory, Lane, “The girl in the Window,” St. Petersburg Times, 31 July 2008). The most recent case is from Chita, Russia (Wikipedia | Google Maps | “Feral Girl in Siberian City of Chita Was Brought Up by Cats and Dogs,” Times, 27 May 2009):

“For five years, the girl was ‘brought up’ by several dogs and cats and had never been outside,” police said in a statement. The child refuses to eat with a spoon, insisting on lapping up her food straight from the plate, and has taken on many other behaviours of the animals with which she lived, police said. “When carers leave the room, the girl jumps at the door and barks,” the police said. … The girl could understand Russian but could not speak it and tried to communicate through barking instead.

As if in an attempt to tip us off to some Times / BBC fabrication by taking the story over the line, the city where this story originates bears the name, Chita, of the sidekick to that most famous, fictional wolfman, Tarzan.

Flowers of Evil on L Street

Nasty mushroom pile in the sidewalk planter box, L Street NW, between 15th and 16th Streets near the Washington Post building, 26 May 2009

I’ve been working where I have for starting on my fourth summer, which means the same commute for approaching four years. Modern society is clockwork so the monotony is murder. I know all the timing on all the lights at all the intersections from the bus stop to the office. And it’s that way for everyone so I swear that I must step in front of the same guy preventing him from make the same right turn on red every morning.

But there are cycles with cycles, so with enough perspective there are higher orders of monotony. Every year for four years now, after the first summer storm this same nasty pile of mushrooms bursts forth from the sidewalk planter box on L Street NW, between 15th and 16th Streets, near the Washington Post building.

Most years they are normal mushroomy brown. This year they look bizarrely like some flower of evil native to Mordor.

Kurzweil Will Die

Apropos the latest Terminator film, The New York Times has a decent rundown of singularitarianism, transhumanism, A.I. and so on that touches on most of the figures in the field (Markoff, John, “The Coming Superbrain,” 24 May 2009). The conclusion:

Kurzweil will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the ‘great dawn,'” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s not fair.”

Moses never gets to enter the Promised Land. Such a shame — to be the last generation to die.

Without the Bugaboo of the Soviet Union

Marx display, Borders at 14th and H Streets, Washington, D.C., 19 May 2009

Well of course — this is just the media pushing its left-wing agenda. I doubt it. The media has their finger to the wind. During the Bush years they shamelessly kowtowed to Ari Fleischer’s admonition to watch what they write and now that the times are a’ changing, the media is putting up sails for new seas. The mood questioning capitalism is welling up from the ranks with the media wondering how to be relevant. Witness:

“Until 2004, we sold less than 100 copies of Das Kapital per year,” Schuetrumpf [managing director of the Berlin-based publishing house Karl-Diez Verlag, publisher of the German edition of Marx’s collected works] said. “In the 10 months of 2008, we have sold more than 2,500 copies. It is clear that people are interested in learning what Marx has to say about why capitalism does not work.” (Godoy, Julio, “Economy: Turning the Pages Back to Marx and Keynes,” Inter Press Service, 7 November 2008)

And from the picture above, apparently Borders thinks there’s enough interest amidst their customers to turn the Marx collection face-out.

Craziest of all, according to a recent Rasmussen survey, a whopping 20 percent of Americans currently believe that socialism is superior to capitalism (“Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism,” 9 April 2009).

During the Cold War, Americans’ strongest association with socialism was the Soviet Union, and after the collapse of communism we were told that left-wing economic ideas had been roundly refuted by events. So the right currently believes itself to be effectively tarnishing the program of President Obama by labeling him a socialist. But it turns out that the existence of the Soviet Union wasn’t just culture jamming socialist ideas, but the negative associations that it generated was lending undue credibility to right-wing ideas as well. The collapse of communism may end up not so much taking left-wing ideas down with it, as depriving those of the right of their cudgel of existent socialism. The association of socialism with Stalinism has lost its effectiveness now that the Soviet Union has become just another historical anecdote. This might explain the even more pronounced positive view of socialism among young respondents in the survey (33 percent of young people favor socialism versus 20 percent among the general population).

Republicans would be advised that in constantly pointing to the popular President Obama as the primary exemplar of socialism, the outcome isn’t so much to tarnish President Obama so much as to burnish socialism in the minds of the young generation. “If Obama is socialism,” they think, “I guess that makes me a socialist.” (Yglesias, Matthew, “The Declining Unpopularity of Socialism,” ThinkProgress, 9 April 2009).

Marx is Back!

April-May 2009, Marx is Back! / 1 de Mayo immigrant's march posters

Out of character for the city, there have been a number of lefty signs around. Some of my recent favorites are the two above. The one on the right is for a Mayday immigrant march. Notice that the flag in the hands of the native American is the United States as a tree with its roots in the shape of the rest of the world. The little plaque on the man’s chest reads both “Sise puede” and “Yes we can.” And the rally is meeting in Malcolm X Park, the unofficial name for Meridian Hill Park (Google Maps | Wikipedia).

I love the socialist conference poster. “Marx is back!” One may wonder where he ever went. I guess some people though that Marxism went into remission after the end of the Cold War. But everyone is on notice that he’s back now.

March 2008-May 2009, Newsweek, Foreign Policy and BusinessWeek, varying degrees of questioning capitalism

With Newsweek going beyond declaring us merely Keynesians now and portraying George Bush, Jr. in the style of Che Guevara, Foreign Policy putting Marx on the cover of their “Big Think” issue (“Why he matters now”), BusinessWeek making Ben Bernanke look like Lenin and including Henry Paulson in Stalinist Soviet style collages and Richard Posner titling his current book A Failure of Capitalism, things are feeling positively European.

But the return of Marx is more than just media camp. With respect to national security, Charles Krauthammer referred to the liberal internationalism of the Clinton years as a “holiday from history” (The Washington Post, 14 February 2003, p. A31). Robert Kagan is now referring to the post-1990s as The Return of History and the End of Dreams. Supposedly September 11, 2001 and the ensuing clash of civilizations has woken us up from our Fukuyam-esque ex-historical state. Similarly, we might refer to the phenomena of “Marx is Back” as the return of history to the economic sphere after 20 years of economic dreams (given that the current crisis has wiped out nearly 15 years of stock market value, it does seem as if it was all a dream). Just as September 11, 2001 broke the exclusive claim of liberal internationalism upon the thinking of the foreign policy establishment and showed that the future would be one of continuing world-historical ideological contention, so the holiday of political-economy that was the Washington Consensus has been knocked askew. The future of the economy will be one of political conflict.

But I kid myself. The legitimacy of capitalism within a given polity has nothing to do with the soundness of ideas and little to do with events. It is primarily a function of the Gini coefficient: the more money there is sloshing around in the upper social strata, the more inassailable the reputation of capitalism. And since that’s hardly going to change in the current crisis, I doubt that the Washington Consensus will emerge with anything more than a few fast forgotten slights.

In this regard the conservatism of the Obama administration should be noted. They are doing whatever they can to handle the current situation with as little enduring systematic change or publicity as possible. And I guess I’m in favor of this. While I may sympathize with dialectical materialism and Marx’s critique of the corruptions of capitalism, he was grossly wrong in his assessment of capitalism as ineluctably hell-bent-for-crisis. I’m essentially an advocate of Keynesian tinkering in a mostly stable system. And besides, alienation is a feature of capitalism, not a bug. The last thing I want is to be railroaded into a syndicate with a bunch of hippies. Those guys are fascists.

Information Phenotype

The fractal tree at the corner of 18th and Lamont, Washington, D.C., 29 April 2009

I have previously commented on my love of the movie π (“The Supernovae in Your Coffee Cup,” 2 November 2008). It left me with two enduring images: mixing coffee and cream as an example of turbulence, previously discussed; and the branching of tree limbs as an example of fractal symmetry. I love winter for its exposure of this fabulous phenomena, innocuously right over our heads. I am always a little sad for the arrival of spring and the enshrouding of all these thought-provoking fractals in greenery.

The picture above is of my favorite tree in the neighborhood where I live. The degree to which the pattern of major arc over two-thirds of growth length followed by sharp break and lesser arc over remainder of growth length is repeated trunk to twig is amazing. Notice the arc of the trunk: unlike many trees which follow one rule for trunk and a separate rule for the branches, this tree follows a single rule throughout.

We think of a fractal as a recursive algorithm, a mathematical formula. But there’s no math in that tree. The recipe for that fractal is coded somewhere in the tree’s DNA. But the DNA contains no fractal. The DNA is a bunch of nucleotides that are transcribed by messenger RNA that code amino acids that assemble into proteins that form the structures of cells. The cells then split and differentiate in response to a complex of internal chemical signals and environmental stimuli to grow in a pattern that is the fractal.

One might say that there is a fractal somewhere in that tree, but there are so many transformation rules between nucleotide sequence and fractal growth pattern, that it is only in a manner of speaking. I am reminded of Wittgenstein’s discussion of what constitutes following a rule and going against it (Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe [Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1953]):

198. “But how can a rule shew me what I have to do at this point? Whatever I do is, on some interpretation, in accord with the rule.” — That is not what we ought to say, but rather: any interpretation still hangs in the air along with what it interprets, and cannot give it any support. Interpretations by themselves do not determine meaning.

“Then can whatever I do be brought into accord with the rule?” — Let me ask this: what has the expression of a rule — say a sign-post — got to do with my actions? What sort of connection is there here? — Well perhaps this one: I have been trained to react to this sign in a particular way, and now I so react to it.

But that is only to give the causal connection; to tell how it has come about that we now go by the sign-post; not what this going-by-the-sign really consists in. On the contrary; I have further indicated that a person goes by a sign-post only in so far as there exists a regular use of sign posts, a custom.

199. Is what we call “obeying a rule” something that it would be possible for only one man to do, and to do only once in his life? — This is of course a note on the grammar of the expression “to obey a rule.”

It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which someone obeyed a rule. It is not possible that there should have been only one occasion on which a report was made, an order given or understood; and so on. — To obey a rule, to make a report, to give an order, to play a game of chess, are customs (uses, institutions).

To understand a sentence means to understand a language. To understand a language means to be master of a technique.

200. It is, of course, imaginable that two people belonging to a tribe unacquainted with games should sit at a chess-board and go through the moves of a game of chess; and even with all the appropriate mental accompaniments. And if we were to see it we should say they were playing chess. But now imagine a game of chess translated according to certain rules into a series of actions which we do not ordinarily associate with a game — say into yells and stamping of feet. And now suppose those two people to yell and stamp instead of playing the form of chess that we are used to; and this in such a way that their procedure is translatable by suitable rules into a game of chess. Should we still be inclined to say that they were playing a game? What right would one have to say so?

201. This is our paradox: no course of action could be determined by a rule, because every course of action can be made out to accord with the rule. The answer was: if everything can be made out to accord with the rule, then it can also be made out to conflict with it. And so there would be neither accord nor conflict here.

It can be seen that there is a misunderstanding here from the mere fact that in the course of our argument we gave one interpretation after another; as if each one contented us at least for a moment, until we thought of yet another standing behind it. What this shews is that there is a way of grasping a rule which is not an interpretation, but which is exhibited in what we call “obeying the rule” and “going against it” in actual cases.

Of course Wittgenstein is writing about social phenomena where custom and training are factors, but the undecidability of rules is the point here. Socially dogmatic, we are dismissive of blatant divergence from consensus. Less dogmatic — but not free of dogma — science resorts to the metaphysical-aesthetic notion of Ockham’s razor with which to cut through the myriad of rules that might potentially be made to accord with observed behavior. Is there really a fractal in the tree’s DNA? The fractal pattern of tree growth is but an interpretation of the tree’s DNA — an interpretation that would be different given a differing machinery of RNA transcription, amino acid assembly, protein expression, etc.