Friday, February 24, 2017

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk seems like one of the best ideas I've heard in years. It is a fairly new organization and is based in Cambridge, UK. Recent articles in Wired profile its members and the specific risks that they study. For me, the Centre kills two birds with one stone: it attempts both to understand the universe and to identify the most serious risks facing mankind. What is unusual is that it studies actual threats that are often ignored by governments and profit-based organizations. One of the greatest weaknesses of capitalism is its emphasis on short time periods. Capitalists usually start by thinking that they can make money through their ideas and hard work, and that if all goes well they, their families and their descendants may benefit financially. Entrepreneurs don't typically give much thought to whether their company will be around in a hundred years or what its lasting impact might be. Capitalism encourages short-term thinking related to making money, which may explain why businessmen are often dismissive of the arts and sciences. Particularly in the U.S., it is common for them to focus on their work and to oversimplify other aspects of the world by assuming, for example, that God will take care of everything else. In extreme cases they may even believe that God favors business, with the implication that government should not interfere with it. Their thinking may be that God intended the U.S. to be the world's model for free enterprise. If you start from a theological point of view like this, the problems associated with climate change aren't necessarily ones for human resolution, since God's will is being followed, and he is the final arbiter on that question. It is therefore important to have independent researchers study existential risk, because the people who inhabit the main channels of power in the world are wedded to economic prosperity and may be indifferent to it or have conflicts of interest.

I enjoy reading through the list of risks. When I mention AI, I usually refer to it as a potential solution to problems, but it may also lead to catastrophic outcomes. There are a few conventional risks that are already well-publicized, such as pandemics, nuclear war, climate change, a collision with an asteroid and food shortages. Then there are obscure ones understood by few, such as the accidental annihilation of the universe during a particle accelerator experiment. I was particularly reassured by CSER's interest in tyrannical leaders. After Donald Trump was elected president, they met to discuss whether this constituted an existential threat. Many organizations are having a hard time coming to terms with the Trump presidency, and although the news has been filled with concerns about him since the election, conventional organizations are not well-positioned to make objective, public statements about him now that he is in power. Everyone has been pressured to treat Trump respectfully because he was elected in a democratic process, and many organizations are reluctant to publicly question his suitability or competence as a political leader.

Though it is hard to say how successful CSER will be, it is better than nothing for the risks that aren't generally studied. Their academic environment has both advantages and disadvantages. If the funding isn't predominantly from special interests, it may stand a better chance of producing useful, objective work than is the case with many other public or private research organizations. However, its affiliation with stodgy, careerist academics could entail some of the pitfalls that are common in academia. For example, given my opinion of academic philosophy, I think it unlikely that philosophers as a group will be helpful in this field.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


I've been reading the current print edition of Nautilus, which contains an article by Michael Lewis titled "Bias in the ER." The medical doctor, Don Redelmeier, became interested in the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on cognitive distortions and found that doctors are subject to the same errors as others and frequently misdiagnose patients. This was reassuring to me since I have avoided doctors for most of my life and hope to do so in the future. I also know people who have self-diagnosed and self-treated conditions that doctors were unable to identify. Apparently it is not uncommon for medical doctors to make extremely poor decisions.

For obvious reasons, I have been thinking recently about the competence of politicians. In the current literature about Trump, there are theories regarding the causes of his recent behavior that range from narcissistic personality disorder to early dementia to syphilis, but you don't necessarily need to find an exotic explanation in his case. I think that he is behaving much as he always has and has probably been incompetent outside a very narrow range of situations for most of his life. As far as I can tell, he was never particularly bright but was able to compensate for this by cultivating a veneer of success and by aggressively confronting his adversaries. He is a perfect of example of an alpha male who succeeds by intimidation where more competent people often fail. You might even say in this instance that Trump was elected by his fellow stupid alpha males who also think that they know more than they actually do.

The sad thing is that, because of general human incompetence, there is no alternative hero on the horizon who might rescue us from Trump. Think for a moment about Barack Obama. He was more cerebral than Trump and carefully mulled over his decisions, but that was not enough to make him an effective or memorable president. He inadvertently alienated the voters who prefer Trump's style, and while doing so he was unable to propose or implement ideas that might have set the country on a sustainable path to prosperity and equality. Obama's problem was that he looked, acted and thought like a neoliberal college professor, and his worldview was in some respects just as biased and limited as Trump's. The job of president is difficult, and it is probably too difficult for anyone to execute well at this stage in our civilization.

Besides the above reading, I watched a depressing but sobering French film called "The Measure of a Man," starring Vincent Lindon. It depicts a middle-aged married man who has a handicapped son and is struggling to find a job. His financial counselor advises him to take out a life insurance policy as a solution to his unemployment – he may die but at least his family would be provided for. He ends up as a store detective and hates it. The film clearly shows that the way the store is managed dehumanizes everyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, both customers and employees, and is a better indictment of capitalism than one is likely to find in any American film. There has been a popular undercurrent in France that is sympathetic with communist rule, but nothing of that nature exists on any scale in the U.S. Ironically – and accurately – this film depicts the outcome of capitalism as similar to the dreaded communist outcome that Americans have been taught to fear through indoctrination since the 1950's. American politicians in both major parties are so far behind the curve that all they can do is mindlessly repeat how capitalism and liberty are the solution to all of the world's problems. Clearly they are not. Conceptually, Trump isn't entirely different from Obama or Hillary Clinton.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


William, the cat, is adjusting to our domestic situation very slowly. Unlike most of the cats in my experience, he has strong tendencies to behave like a wild animal. He has tremendous amounts of energy that can only be expended by hunting outdoors for several hours each day. Even with cold weather and a foot of snow on the ground he would rather stalk birds outside than look at them through a window or play with cat toys. When you try to distract him with a toy he immediately notices that it is inanimate and is attached to an animate object – your hand – which becomes the target. In the absence of birds, mice, moles, voles and insects, he tends to stalk human hands and feet, which does not pose a problem for me, since I am always alert, but it does for others. In most respects he is like typical house cats: he thinks I'm his mother, likes to sit on my lap, and purrs and rubs against me. We have tried to get him to eat canned cat food because of the moisture content, but he refuses to eat it and loves dry food. As long as he drinks enough water he should stay healthy. In the warmer months he was eating some of the mice that he caught – I found mouse intestines and a heart in the yard. There is some risk that he could be attacked by a coyote or a bobcat, but he would put up a good fight. When he hears the coyotes howling in the distance he becomes cautious.

Cats were never fully domesticated, so you should expect a certain amount of wildness in them. However, the practice of neutering has caused the current population of domestic cats to reflect a wilder recent ancestry than was the case a few years ago. Before neutering became widespread, an adopted kitten was more likely to have been the descendant of several generations of house cats. Now, because of neutering, domestic cats are more likely to have recent feral ancestors, since a larger percentage of the current reproductive cat population is feral. The feral cats in rural areas like ours closely resemble their distant ancestors with their solitary hunting of wild prey in natural settings. Unlike most domestic cats a few years ago, William may have feral parents or grandparents.

I am still following the American political situation, with Trump's demise now looming sooner than I would have thought two months ago. Until recently there was a sense that we might have a major fascist government in store for us. After all, Hitler was in power 72 years ago and Stalin was in power 64 years ago – we were due for another fascist! However, Trump has already demonstrated that he has neither the ideological resolve nor the political skill to make any lasting impact. If you compare him to the previous American political ideologue, Ronald Reagan, he lacks the experience, the fealty to big business and the charisma to orchestrate anything significant. He can't even manage his own cabinet, and the power brokers in Washington are being forced into the realization that Trump is just a windbag who, with a lucky turn of events, just barely managed to squeeze himself into the White House. If it hasn't already, it will soon be recognized by nearly everyone that Trump does not serve their interests. His presidency will seem like a pilot for a reality TV program that got low ratings and was canceled.

My reading continues to be limited. The Philippe Roger book contains many interesting facts and a good historical perspective, but I'm only reading it in spurts. I decided that it was time to read some Jared Diamond, who seems to be another of the major thinkers of our era. My primary living intellectual hero is still E.O. Wilson, but his ideas seem to be going out of favor and he does not have a comparable successor. For the time being, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, will have to do.

Saturday, February 11, 2017


At the moment I'm not engrossed with any reading material and have been occupied with other thoughts. Looking into the future, it seems to me that historians, sociologists and economists don't possess privileged knowledge, since we are living in an unprecedented time, and when you combine that with the fact that they don't understand the present all that well you are probably justified in thinking that you can figure things out just as well as they can. Another way of saying this is that the economists who currently advise countries and businesses on how to plan their futures will all be unemployed if capitalism collapses. Even if economists had been following the scientific method, they would still have no authoritative literature for an environment in which capitalism is no longer dominant.

A potential dark family secret recently came to light which I am in the process of investigating. It requires a DNA test, and I have submitted my DNA to and am awaiting the results, which should confirm or disprove my theory, which I am not at liberty to discuss here. In the meantime I am updating my family tree for entertainment. The database continues to grow, and it has become easier to find and identify relatives than when I started a few years ago. There was a mystery in my ex-wife's family that I now think I've explained. One of her grandmothers was abandoned by her parents in childhood and was brought up by a half-sister of her mother. She may never have seen her mother or father again, and when her own children were growing up, whenever her grandmother visited she led them to believe that she was their grandmother. Otherwise, I have been supplementing my English genealogy, though it is still hard to find much before 1800. As of the mid-nineteenth century my English ancestors were tailors, furriers, plumbers and teachers. Prior to that they were farmers, fishermen and carpenters. They lived in Scotland, Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Hampshire and London. The only information that I can find on my Armenian ancestors is my grandfather's U.S. Social Security record: he lived briefly in the U.S. and worked in Indiana. Many countries have kept few records, and certainly there aren't many for Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. I have Armenian cousins still living in Greece and will find out what they know. One of my great-grandmothers was born in Germany and grew up in Paris, but I can't find anything about her family background. Genealogical research is not the most important of activities, but, like astronomy and geology, it enables one to see how ephemeral one's life is.

It is impossible to avoid hearing about Donald Trump without living in a cave, so I am making the most of it by speculating on how his administration might implode. That seems more likely than not, and it may just be a matter of time. I think Putin probably has the goods on him and has adopted a wait-and-see approach. Some of Trump's cabinet picks are competent people who may butt heads with him in the future. His top advisor, Steve Bannon, is a complete disaster from an ideological standpoint and may have to be demoted or fired at some point due to political pressure. Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress are attempting to use Trump to advance their agenda, but if he falls too far out of line they will rein him in. The most notable effect so far of the Trump presidency has been the galvanization against him of the news media and nearly all educated people. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, correctly stated that most Americans can't sleep at night with Trump in the White House. The politically correct set centered in college and university towns has gone berserk and will be relentlessly organizing counter-Trump measures until he's gone. There is always the possibility that Trump will reinvent himself as a more palatable persona, but I don't think he has the temperament, flexibility or talent to deter his growing army of foes. Many in Congress already consider him unstable and dangerous but are holding their tongues for now.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017


I've been reading How Will Capitalism End?, by Wolfgang Streeck, and had hoped that by now I would be farther into it. Unfortunately it is written in an academic style that would make Richard Feynman's head spin, and I find myself translating many of the sentences to enhance their intelligibility as I read, which slows down the process considerably. Moreover, the padding with academic baggage reminds me of my brief period as a philosophy graduate student, when I kept saying to myself "Am I supposed to find this interesting?" I dropped out after two quarters. Nevertheless, Streeck's subject is one of the most important problems facing mankind, and, oddly, it seems to be an obscure field that attracts little attention.

In the view of Streeck and his colleagues, capitalism has always been unstable, with a tendency to disintegrate. He sees the current form of neoliberal capitalism as irreversibly unstable and in the early stages of permanent collapse. The underlying "systemic disorders" he identifies are "stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption and global anarchy." The book offers a far wider analysis of the scenario discussed by Thomas Piketty and is an important contribution to the field, but I am finding Streeck's reliance on Marxist concepts grating, because I prefer to think in rough biological terms, which have a distinct empirical element that was mostly absent in early sociological thought.

The phenomena described by Streeck are quite apparent, and you can see them playing out in real time. The election of Donald Trump after the publication of the book is a perfect example, because Trump represents the first American president to resemble a Russian oligarch. However, Trump has already demonstrated his incompetence as an oligarch and is doomed to fail, because his singularity of purpose – public admiration – is not accompanied by the knowledge or skill to control the U.S. government. Sooner or later his supporters, who were in a minority to begin with, will lose faith in him, and he will be swept out of office before you know it. Nevertheless, the sentiment that Trump exploited in order to get elected will still be present, and Streeck's analysis will hold up if a more competent oligarch emerges after Trump is gone.

Rather than think in terms such as "class solidarity," which are faintly ludicrous to me, I prefer to think in terms of organisms and resources. Humans are very good at exploiting resources – so good that they often deplete them entirely and are forced to find new ones elsewhere. We are living in an era in which a mythology surrounding the concept of capitalism gives it the aura of imparting eternal life. It is no coincidence that this mythology originated in the U.S., which is the only major world power that still embraces Christianity. Unfortunately, there is nothing magic about capitalism, and we are seeing this now, with markets exploited to their maximum doomed to diminishing future returns. It is true that once upon a time there were major markets that took many decades to exploit fully, such as the market for automobiles. Those markets are becoming rarer, which helps explain why the financial services sector has grown so much of late: it is one of a very small number of existing markets where large profits are still possible, and it depends to some degree on the theft of public funds for those profits. The Great Recession, the lack of accountability on Wall Street and the attempt by Donald Trump to eliminate regulations designed to prevent a repeat all fit Streeck's narrative perfectly.

Streeck and his colleagues differ on when the final collapse will occur, but the most pessimistic think it will be by mid-century. They seem to be at a loss when it comes to what will replace the current system and how the transition will occur. I still believe that there may be technological solutions that could solve all of the problems if they are not abused. This is where I think biological thinking opens a window that professional sociologists may not recognize. I notice that the kinds of people who are extremely successful in technological fields these days tend to project strong eusocial beliefs when it comes to the future of mankind. They often go overboard in supporting programs to help humanity and ostensibly show little similarity to the robber barons of yore or Donald Trump, who himself seems to be a misguided anachronism. As long as humans remain human, a permanent dystopian outcome is not inevitable.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


I continue to be distracted by political events here but would rather not be, considering how ignorant the perpetrators are. It would be possible to use this as yet another example of the problematic nature of democracy within the context of capitalism, but I've already written about that and have drawn my own conclusions, and the weaknesses of the system are so obvious to me that they require no further discussion. How an intellectually bankrupt narcissist became "the leader of the free world" is going to keep pundits talking for decades, but I'd simply like to be rid of Trump as soon as possible, preferably by means of a humiliating impeachment.

At the moment I am receiving some solace from those intelligent Frenchmen of the past who noticed far better than contemporary Americans how distasteful life in the U.S. can be. As Philippe Roger writes:

It seemed extraordinary to the French (and even more so to literary Parisians) that people could go live over there without being forced to by the most stark necessity of blatant disgrace. "If I stay there for a year, I will die," Talleyrand wrote Madame de Staël. The fact that America could wrench such a heartfelt cry from the most rakish of political expatriates must have made an impression on his illustrious correspondent. Talleyrand's despair was not disingenuous. It was fairly common in the small but turbulent French colony of Pennsylvania: there was a general sense of withering away, pining for Paris, loss of any sense of existence. Whether it was hell on earth or an eternal limbo, the United States engulfed exiles so completely that if by chance one reappeared, it was as though he had come back from the dead....

Talleyrand had hardly set foot onto American soil in 1794 when he took a sudden dislike to the country for which he had fled the radicalizing Revolution. He poured out caustic remarks at dinners in Philadelphia and the émigré meetings that gathered in Moreau de Saint-Méry's bookstore and printshop....His frustration at finding himself both far from public affairs and unsuccessful in financial dealings he had thought would be lucrative were what lay behind his bitterness that was mostly aimed at the mediocrity of American life. Talleyrand was bored to death in hidebound Philadelphia for lack of entertainment and intrigues, banquets and banter. He was also so wasted by the anemic environment that, according to La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt , he ended up making "dutiful little witticisms no one appreciates." Spiteful toward the Americans, he found them, in turn, generally hostile to the French. Liancourt noted that it was "impossible to have a worse opinion of them in all regards, or to speak worse of them" than Talleyrand.

Not much has changed in the attitudes of the French toward the Americans, or vice versa, in more than two hundred years. To this day most Americans would be incredulous if anyone told them that they were comparatively crude, unsophisticated or second-rate, because, according to their criteria for evaluation, they are collectively wealthier than the French and therefore, by definition, they are superior. It would, for example, be self-evident to Donald Trump that the French are "losers."

You already know how I think this situation should be resolved, so I won't harp on it, but just to recap, my hope is that artificial intelligence will one day provide better governance than people have been able to effectuate on their own throughout history and up to the present.