One Ping Only, Vasili

A few weeks ago I met up with some friends and we were walking through the busy Gallery Place / Chinatown area, all three of us heads down studying our various hand-helds (two iPhones and an Android). I joked that the app that we need is something like the range-finders from the Alien movies, only that does picture-in-picture on our phones so we can see what’s coming without having to look up from our immersion in our respective virtual worlds as we walk through heavy pedestrian traffic.

The absurd extent of the anxiety of influence: not only if you’ve had a good idea can you count on someone having already had it, but if you make a joke about something absurd, you can rest assured that someone is already doing that too. It turns out there is already a sonar app for the iPhone (Frucci, Adam, “iPhone’s Sonar Ruler App Measures Distance Using Sound,” Gizmodo, 21 August 2009).

(Jokes about iPhone apps follow the same formula as jokes about hitherto unnamed but always Johnny-on-the-spot when convenient members of the Smurf village: think of an absurd or inappropriate function, append “smurf”; e.g. Cuckolding Smurf finds life in the Smurf village paradisiacal; or sumrfs keep themselves free of tropical disease by regularly licking Quinine Smurf; In the case of iPhone apps, name an absurd function, then say “There’s an app for that.”)

Who Screwed Up the 1970s?

The standard narrative of the stagflation of the 1970s is the one that the right has advanced. The left has no countervailing narrative. In that of the right, the economic doldrums of the ’70s can be squarely hung round the neck of liberals: in the simplified version, because of the welfare state, no further explanation required; in the more complicated one, the inability to choose between the guns of Vietnam or the butter of the Great Society, of Keynesian fine tuning and oil shocks resulting from liberal pussyfooting around in foreign policy. The hero of this narrative is Ronald Reagan who unwound twenty years of leftist regulation and redistribution, unleashing the U.S. economy to do what it does best.

As a liberal, this is the narrative against which I must justify my policy preferences, but more basically, I think it just simplifies a much more complex story. As an example, when Reason, a right-of-center libertarian publication, decides to hold a colloquium on the renewed threat of stagflation, which president do they put on the cover as the personification of the memory of the inflation of the 1970s? Gerald R. Ford:

Reason Magazine, October 2009, President Gerald Ford as the poster-boy for inflation

Poor Gerald Ford: an honorable man whose best association is Chevy Chase spoofs from Saturday Night Live of him tumbling down the airstairs.

It should be recalled that Reagan’s first run for the presidency consisted of his failed challenge to incumbent Ford for the 1976 Republican nomination, and that the real bête-noire of the Ford-Kissinger foreign policy was not the Democrats or the left, but the anti-détente, anti-arms control neoconservatives and elements of the right who found their political figurehead after Barry Goldwater in Ronald Reagan. It should also be recalled that the policy maker credited with the defeat of the inflation of the 1970s is then Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, a Carter appointee, rather dishonorably shown the door for his efforts by President Reagan in favor of Alan Greenspan.

Super Macro

My present favorite feature on my Canon PowerShot SX200IS is the Super Macro setting available under manual mode. It’s really got me playing National Geographic photographer.

A frog, Richter farm, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, 13 September 2009

13 September 2009, Richter farm, Pennsylvania, a frog with whom I crossed paths far from the pond and who was all hopped out by the time he made it back to safety.

Honeybees amidst the goldenrod, Richter farm, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, 13 September 2009

13 September 2009, Richter farm, Pennsylvania, honeybees amidst the goldenrod of the fields.

Sociobiology as the Transcendence of Biological Ecology

The central idea of sociobiology is that the emergence of social creatures (herd animals) coincided with the creation of what might be termed a socio-cultural environment. The socio-cultural environment is as much an environment that social creatures inhabited as the material environment. As social creatures evolve, two things happen to the socio-cultural environment:

  1. As with evolution of species morphology, the maximum complexity of socio-cultural environments increases (there is selection pressure on the entire socio-cultural environment as, say, predators develop way of thwarting or exploiting the social aspect of their prey and the social species evolve to countervail this development, e.g. parasitic cordyceps and ants; that is, there is species-level selection, since a social characteristic unrecognized by a counterpart comes to nothing; consider this as an analogy for fourth generation warfare).

  2. Subsequent generations of herd animals come to rely ever more heavily upon social cohesion — as opposed to horns, honed perceptive apparatus, efficient digestion, et cetera — as their primary means of survival.

As this socio-cultural environment becomes more sophisticated and intricate and increasingly important as a means of survival, the socio-cultural environment grows in importance as the universe of factors shaping the evolution of social animals, while the objective, geological, hydrological and biological environment recedes in its evolutionary force.

Sexual selection (a type of sociobiological selection, as opposed to natural or Malthusian selection) is the sort of selection pressure that a species faces when its fellows, rather than the environment becomes the main challenge to getting its genes into the future. The shifting balance of natural selection and sexual selection in the play of evolutionary forces is meta-evolutionary. Evolution is recursive, with developments in the subjects of evolution backpropigating into the mechanism itself. In this respect every new thing in the universe (or at least in the effective realm) can potentially alter the functioning of the evolutionary dynamic. In this broadened perspective, the idea of machine or meme evolution supplanting biological evolution should not be so surprising.

Among a certain sector of the wildly technologically enthusiastic (among whom I count myself, though Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work is presently doing a lot to kick the piss out of this pretention), there is a notion that humans are rapidly disencumbering themselves of the material world and constructing for ourselves a world of pure ideas, information, mind-stuff. At some point in human history saber-toothed tigers, virulent microbes, droughts and tar pits ceased to be the primary challenge to humans seeking to survive and reproduce. Such extra-human threats were replaced as the primary danger by human-originating threats such as careening contraptions, shoddy construction techniques, insufficient precaution with the kitchen fire, marauding hoplites, jilted dagger-wielding lovers, corrupt institutions and flawed regimes of succession in governance. It is at the point where today it is plausible that the human socio-cultural environment has attained a level of preponderance where even the level of environmental catastrophe such as an asteroid strike that caused the mass extinctions of the past might be thwarted by the constituents of the human socio-cultural environment (on the other hand, the complexity of our socio-cultural environment might be just the sort of run-away biological factor that caused past mass extinction such as the oxygen catastrophe or the Canfield ocean thesis of the Permian–Triassic extinction event). In this conception, it is usually the the information revolution, the invention of the computer — a brain-like device — that is the cause of this transcending of matter. The advent of technology was not the key turning point. The recognition of sociobiology is that this trend is an aspect of evolution; that it long predates not only technology, but also even predates humans. In this way, we are not unique, not the penultimate branch of the tree of life, but only the latest in a succession of forms.

Update, 15 September 2009: It’s worth noting that while computers are not the revolution, nor the source of the revolution, they do form a paradigm, shaping our conceptualizations in ways that allow us to perceive the revolution.

I Know There Must be an Iron Fist Somewhere in All Obama’s Velvet

Upon a second watching, the thing that’s so striking about President Obama’s speech tonight is just how magnanimous and in-touch it was. Listen to the whole arc about the Kennedy letter: it’s almost all high principle and his concessions to capitalism and the notion that government action and the realm of individual freedom trade off is fairly surprising. But I think that he is right about where the American electorate is right now, whether they know it or not (i.e. have been intentionally misinformed).

But if the Obama administration is right about where the average American voter is ideologically, then this is a terrible indictment of their political strategy. That they are losing the P.R. war on what should be a popular policy is a powerful demonstration of the ineptness of the Democratic party.

In the afterglow of a well-delivered speech like this it’s entirely too easy to get carried away by the rhetoric. But the imperturbability of President Obama’s insistence on a reasonable tone in Washington, D.C. is remarkable. It seems as if the President is sincere about his desire to transcend partisanship. If Barack Obama manages to pull it out yet again on the base of steady-handed, even-keeled reason, my political cynicism will have been dealt a heavy blow.

On the other hand, this bipartisan talk is really tactical. Tomorrow it’s going to be balls to the wall. There’s going to be a full court press against the blue dogs and Olympia Snow. Healthcare reform passed along straight partisan lines through the budget reconciliation process will be in the mix as a negative inducement and as a real possibility (to Congressional fence-riders what the public option will be to the insurance companies). The speech was potentially the last of the nicie-nice.

Or a third possibility, with so many plans now in play (the House committees, the Senate HELP plan, the Republican plan, the Max Baucus plan, and now the administration plan), perhaps this was merely the opening move of an intensified, second round of horse trading. Perhaps President Obama is a nervy bastard playing the long political game.

Vanity Fair

David Schmader’s description of Vanity Fair (“On Spoofing GOOP,” SLOG, The Stranger, 8 September 2009):

Vanity Fair, which was designed for me by God, who forced People and The New Yorker to have a baby, then swaddled the results in ambitiously art-directed fashion ads. It is one of America’s great narcotics …

I think that Vanity Fair is the best magazine in the U.S. today, a perfect combination of superficiality and seriousness, playfulness and piety.