Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Challenge of Collective Action

The left habitually under-appreciates the difficulties of collective action.

Joining the recent protests against our new president, I found myself marching along in a wonderful crowd, all with common purpose and strong emotion. But what struck me was the utter innanity of the chant- Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, etc... It was an embarrassing regression to a minimal, indeed infantile, common denominator.

Why? Why do leftist actions and protests routinely look so shambolic and fritter away their energy? Why are the high ideals not matched by high rhetoric and disciplined action? The Occupy movement added squatting to the menu of marching and chanting, but ended up in the same place- lodging a mostly inarticulate cry of protest against the System.

The same disappointments abound across the spectrum, though. The Dilbert cartoon lampoons the difficulties of corporate communication and management, among people who work together every day, yet still fail to communicate and collaborate effectively. Participating in organizations is difficult, at all levels. But that already supposes an organizational hierarchy, which is more than the deep left is willing to countenance. Can anarchists and egalitarians accomplish anything?

The System is made up of organizations of all kinds- corporations, parties, legislatures, think tanks, unions, magazines, clubs, non-profits- a wide range of institutions each with some kind of mechanism of translating personal, privately held intentions and desires into communal action. Each can get more done than a simple mob, by virtue of its mechanism- its hierarchical organization.

That is how inarticulate cries get translated into sustained action- through organization. The left creates organizations profusely, but does not typically sustain them very well. There are countless peace and justice movements, non-profits, and coalitions, which typically operate on a shoestring and have a tenuous and brief existence, due to their anti-organizational temperament.

The right is more temperamentally suited to organzation life. Hierarchy is ingrained and desirable, not an evil to be torn down. Existing organizations and orders of society are assumed to be good, not regarded skeptically, with a revolutionary glint. The corporation is a prime example of this, an organizational style that pervades our lives and politics, and is run, as a rule, by people of a right-ward temperament. Power is also understood better by those on the right, assuming as they do an organizational structure rather than a menu of nebulous ideals. The problems of gaining and using power are typically separated from those of justifying it, as hierarchy is regarded as good in itself. Thus we have the spectacle of Karl Rove rising through means that were completely immoral, but highly effective, through a succession of Republican youth groups. Thus we saw the utter nihilism of Newt Gingrich, and later Mitch McConnell, in their pursuit of power, in collaboration with a whole ecosystem of secret money, state-level gerrymandering, and media pollution.

And what is the point of all this? For the right, the preservation of hierarchy and order, of the rule by the strong over the weak, seems to be the point of whole exercise of having power. Organizational success results in successful organizations. Inquality and oppression of the powerless is part of the deal. On the other hand, for the left, the point is to make of the state a bulwark against the strong and powerful, so that inequality and injustice are reduced. But to do that, a super-powerful organization is required, i.e. the state itself, whose capture by either right or left is then the most momentous condition of society in general.

In this way, the right seeks its goals in natural fashion, while the left needs to use temperamentally unnatural and disliked methods to get to the same goal. The left thus faces an existential question- how to reconcile the dogged pursuit of power with the overall goal of taming power in society. This temperamental and philosophical problem is at the core of why democratic majorities are not enough, and why the right, despite representing in effect a very small sliver of the populace, regularly gains power.

One way to look at this is via the two-dimensional political temperament graph, plotting authoritarianism vs left-right orientation. Above, I have been conflating the two, since at least in the Anglophone world, there is high correlation of authoritarianism and right wing-ism. Indeed, one might add that the authoritarian dimension is far more momentous, historically speaking, than the left-right dimension, whatever their correlation. The diagram should look more like a vertically elongated diamond.
Left/Right vs Authoritarian/Libertarian layout from politicalCompass.org. I would disagree with their placement of the main candidates, as Trump is clearly more right-wing, perhaps to an unprecedented extent in US history, as shown by his actions of just the first week of his administration. The researchers may have been hoodwinked by his various lies and poses during the campaign. Clinton, in contrast, could hardly be as rightist as shown, let alone farther right than Trump. It is an example of misreading people's characters, even by experts.

Take the Bolsheviks, as an example. Ostensibly leftist, they were also mad with lust for power, and in the end were both successful in seizing power from a rotten system, and in totally betraying their ideology to create just another version of Russian despotism. Such dedicated, organizationally competent, and doggedly power-seeking people (i.e. authoritarian) are rare on the left, since they operate against the natural temperament and ideological tendencies, which are disinterest in hierarchy and institutional power, free love, free work, free couch crashing, etc. This is the original non-profit sector. This internal, psychic opposition makes such authoritarianism particularly unstable.

Similarly, the Black Panthers only survived as long as they did thanks to some very authoritarian tendencies- hard-asses who ran the show, brandished the guns, and enforced hierarchical organization in the face of overwhelming right-wing infiltration and opposition. Relying on left-ish authoritarians to run one's organizations is clearly a recipe for disaster, however, as their temperament tends to a greater commitment to authoritarianism (i.e. power) than to leftism.

The left thus faces a deep problem. One needs leadership and hierarchy, even though few on the left are temperamentally suited to it. And one needs an ongoing diet of activities that allow groups to bond and grow their commitments and competence. The corporation, with its ongoing struggle to win the marketplace, is a good example. Churches are another, with the various personal and social goals that merge into a more or less stable institution that can occasionally be active politically as well.

The university is another, more left-aligned institution, where the society's need for knowledge and human development is channelled into maintenence of a cadre of left-leaning academics. It is typical that our universities have never taken up leadership of a larger social mission, but remain dutifully atomized in small departments, indeed individual labs and scholars, who are as distant as possible from social action. It is an example of how the temperament and interests of the left combine with subtle but influential incentive stuctures imposed from above (the competitive grant system, constant budget crises) to neuter a possible source of left social comunity and leadership.

  • Getting real about the Trump agenda.
  • If inequality is the problem, why elect a plutocracy? What were they thinking?
  • Does anyone buy it any more?
  • On the importance of truth and epistemology.
  • Example: climate change no longer exists.
  • But facts lie on a spectrum, so to speak.
  • VOA could be turned into Pravda.
  • EPA about to be destroyed.
  • Our decline is palpable.
  • Cybercrime is a huge economy. We need a better, and more open, defense.
  • Money is the only consideration now in the mainstream political system.
  • Exhibit A: Goldman Sachs is back to running our government.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Cultural Trauma and Authoritarianism

What the Mongols did to the Muslim world, China, and Russia.

Russia is certainly in the news now, and what do you know, but over the holidays Santa Claus brought me Martin Sixsmith's history of Russia. It breezes all too quickly through the first millenium or so of Rus, from its semi-mythical origins in the 800's as yet another Viking outpost, like that of the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons in England, and the Normans in France, England and later in Italy and Palestine.

Sixsmith paints a picture of a reasonably cosmopolitan and open society (centered in Kiev) in the very early period, though always quarreling and lacking centralized leadership and legitimacy, as was true for most other Western regions during the middle ages (and elsewhere in human history). All that changed in 1240, when the Mongols concluded a lengthy conquest, and put Russia under a severe yoke for the following 240 years.

While there has been quite an effort in recent years to rehabilitate the Mongols, one can make the case that the rise of Western Europe over all other areas of the world in the last few hundred years is due in large part to the destruction or hobbling of its competitors by the Mongols. This applies to China, to Russia, and most profoundly, to the Muslim world.

In Russia, the Mongols exterminated entire cities and forced the remainder to pay heavy tributes, as well as a lot of bowing and scraping, to their new overlords. But contrary to Sixsmith's portrayal, the Mongol rule was not terribly heavy-handed. They ruled through the local nobility, which, while neutered, was not destroyed. The Mongols also instituted some administrative efficiencies that accelerated institutional development. Perhaps the main effect, however, was the general trauma of violation and subjugation. With no natural borders, and predatory neighbors, the Russians evidently came to the conclusion that: 1. With regard to governing style, if you can't beat them, join them (i.e. the autocratic, despotic, and extremely effective military organization of the Mongols), and 2. That autocratic central power is the only way to keep Russia whole against its many neighbors. We in the US live in such a pleasant and peaceful neighborhood (Oh, Canada!), yet still are strikingly paranoid about Communism, Islam, immigration, etc.- take your pick. Imagine if those threats were actually real!
The enormous Mongol empire, 1200's.

Sixsmith certainly draws a line between this trauma and the continuing dedication of Russia to statism and autocracy, now exemplified by Vladimir Putin's nouveau despotism. China has ended up in a very similar place, from a much longer history of dynamic centralization, but similar subjugation by the Mongols. It is easy to draw the lesson that strength is the only way to survive in such a rough neighborhood. Yet it is a conclusion a little too-easily drawn by those already in power, whose only real interest is staying in power. Both China and Russia are exemplars of the extremes of depotic rule, particularly after it was given a whole new propagandistic lease on life by a Western ideology far more amenable and convenient than liberal democracy: communism. In China, it works tolerably well at the moment, but only by being radically tamed from the heights achieved by Chairman Mao.

But the saddest trauma was suffered by the Muslim world, which was at its height when the Mongols trashed Baghdad. In the centuries since, they have not gained a continent-wide empire (excepting the conquests and splendors of Mughal period), and have fallen progressively behind Western Europe. Whether the low point was the cavalier carving up of Muslim countries by the British (and French and Russians) after the fall of the Ottoman empire, or the current Islamist insanity, the Muslim world has had an increasingly frought relationship with the rest of the world, and with Modernity.

The Muslim approach to statehood and governance has always been lacking, based as it is on Muhammed as a singular and unreplicable example. A tribal and militaristic style succeeded after Muhammed's death, in channelling the energies of the unified community to winning an enormous empire. The caliphate then kept things together loosely, with religion as the core of identity. But it was always by civil war that God decided on the winners in the battle for the next ruling family. In Europe, the Catholic church (and its monastic affiliates) provided a much more stable model of governance, via election out of an oligarchy of cardinals. Later on, the Protestant reformation prompted ever greater attention to the role of the individual, as arbiter of celestial as well as terrestrial salvation. These threads of practice and theory led, in excruciatingly slow fashion, to the secular democratic state we have today.

When crisis threw Muslims back onto their religion as the bulwark of communal identity, there was little to go on to develop state institutions. Thus states tended to revert to tribal autocracy as the model. In the Arab core of the Muslim world, this remains the rule to this day. In outlying areas, however, such as Indonesia, Pakistan, and Turkey, (possibly Egypt and Tunisia), non-religious ideologies and influences have been more powerful, such as British colonialism, and the active Westernizing secularism of Ataturk. These countries have highly authoritarian tendencies, but have so far successfully cast aside enough of their Muslim ideological baggage to make democratic systems work to some degree.

This lack of legitimate state development in the bulk of the historical Muslim world, perhaps accentuated by the trauma of Mongol destruction, is central to its current complaints. It was central to their lack of resistance to Western imperialism, to their lack of effective post-colonial governance, to lack of human development and the economic development it leads to. It was also central to our disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the US dreamed of quickly implanting democracy, only to be faced by a culture utterly unprepared for it, with far more fissiparous fish to fry. If God anoints the strong to rule over the weak, by way of warfare in general and jihad in particular, what is the point of legally bound representative state institutions?

  • Trump and Putin... it makes no sense, unless Trump is a clown.
  • Incoming HHS secretary is corrupt.
  • We have a media problem.
  • Splenetic clown can dish it out, but can't take it.
  • Work, yes. Capitalist work, not necessarily.
  • Web design.. by the young, for the young?
  • Integrity and democracy can make a difference.
  • The youth are worried. Then why didn't they vote?
  • Are we ready for world equality?
  • Thank you, god!
  • Why are private schools allowed to exist?
  • We need a new economic deal, and we need it fast.
  • Economic graph of the week: Corporations are paying less, workers are paying more.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Why Have Brain Waves?

A theory about the function of electrical brain oscillations.

The phenomenon of brain waves have been the topic of many posts here, because they are such a tempting target for brain-wide information synchronization and management. Disparate analogies such as radio broadcasting, and the clock-ing of CPU chips come to mind. Yet the phenomenon is complicated, with lots of noise and a variety of active frequencies, spanning a ten-fold range. There have been many clues about their function, such as correlation with various mental states, (attention, sleep, resting non-attention), but no coherent theory about what they do has arisen, yet.

A recent paper tries to rectify that, by dialing back the expectations of what brain waves are doing, and coming at the problem from a very basic level. Information, after all, is not being carried directly by these waves at all- they are too variable and weak for that. Information in the brain is carried by the individual cell activations, in the context of their anatomical connections, which together form patterns that dynamically model variable information states.

One problem for this system is that neuron firing needs to be sparse in order to be useful. If everyone fires at once, you have epilepsy, instead of information modeling and transfer. Inhibitory neurons help with this, dampening feedback loops and preventing runaway activation. But most phenomena that one wants to model are stable over time, or vary relatively slowly. If you are looking at a scene, little changes from one 50 millisecond frame to the next, which is why our MP3 and video compression technologies work so well. Modeling stable phenomena with sparse, randomly firing neurons leads to quite a bit of error, as shown in the author's panel b, below.

Theory for the usefulness of partial neuron synchronization for accurate data encoding. Panel b shows what happens when neurons (black slashes, for each firing) are unsynchronized, while representing a constant stimulus (signal, blue). The cumulative representation (black line) is not an optimal representation of the original signal (blue). In contrast, if the neurons still fire sparsely, but are clocked to a global rhythm, even a very rough rhythm (yellow) gives as good overall accuracy as the fully randomly firing ensemble, and shorter time intervals provide the possibility of greater accuracy (salmon, green). Panel d represents conceptually the tradeoff between random firing and synchronized firing, as measured in data reconstruction error. The optimum is somewhere in the middle.

The observation is general to all data, whether stable or not, actually. Some synchronization provides more accurate data representation over a completely random ensemble of neurons, especially if the neurons are firing sparsely enough that (as in panel a, above) none fire at exactly the same time. This is a very significant point, and by itself predicts that neuron oscillations will happen in roughly the way they are observed- widely enough to be observed and to entrain much of the neuron firing that happens, but not strongly enough to cause epileptic-like mass synchronized firing.

It turns out that that there is even more room for improvement, however. Ironically, adding a little noise can also be helpful for signal reconstruction. Since the network has to include inhibitory neurons to dampen overall feedback and also prevent simultaneous spiking of nearby neurons, they cause an additional degradation of final representation, especially since they have delays in their own response, as do the activating neurons. The problem is that despite the presence of inhibitory neurons, they can not always act fast enough to dampen spike trains, which tend to run away a bit before inhibition. Modelling this all out, the authors find that adding a bit of noise to the system helps prevent excess synchronization, with quite beneficial effects, seen in the next figure.
 "Thus, optimal coding was achieved when the balance between excitatory and inhibition was the tightest. Further, at the optimal level of noise, the spiking CV [coefficient of variation] value was near unity, implying irregular (near-poisson) single cell responses."

The population firing rate power (panel h) shows most clearly the dangers of the low or no noise regime. Adding just a little noise (blue) helps dampen runaway spike trains significantly, while also (panels e, c) improving data reconstruction accuracy. In each panel d,e,f, the stable dashed line is the orginal data to be reconstructed. CV = coefficient of variation, exc. = excitatory neurons, in. = inhibitory neurons, ram = root mean squat, an inverse measure of correlation between the original signal and the reconstructed signal. Lower numbers (error) are better.

Taken together, this work argues strongly that neural oscillations (aside from the sleep spindles and other slow-wave phenomena that have distinct maintenance purposes) have a loosely analogous role to clocking cycles in computers. They do not themselves convey any data, but facilitate better data modelling. Their strengthening during attention, motor activities, and the like would then be a sign of weak synchronization, which may be significant over large areas of the brain for assembling mental constructs, but not of anything like information broadcasting. I would take this as the leading theory, currently, of their function.
"Neural oscillations have been hypothesised to fulfill a number of different functional roles, including feature binding (Singer, 1999), gating communication between different neural assemblies (Fries, 2005; Womelsdorf et al., 2007; Akam and Kullmann, 2010), encoding feed-forward and feed-back prediction errors (Arnal et al., 2011; Arnal and Giraud, 2012; Bastos et al., 2012) and facilitating ‘phase codes’ in which information is communicated via the timing of spikes relative to the ongoing oscillation cycle (Buzs├íki and Chrobak, 1995). 
Many of these theories propose new ways in which oscillations encode incoming sensory information. In contrast, in our work network oscillations do not directly code for anything, but rather, are predicted as a consequence of efficient rate coding, an idea whose origins go back more than 50 years (Barlow, 1961)."

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Which is More Real: Global Warming, or Jesus Christ?

An exercise in epistemology.

A recent article in the magazine Free Inquiry urged atheists to not get seduced by the theory that Jesus was a mythical creation, instead of a real person. This has been a persistent and highly interesting sub-current in the community, yet the academic consensus, even among non-believing scholars, is that Jesus really did exist. As the writer, Bill Cooke, states: "Part of the problem is that there is no convincing explanation as to why a body of mythological exegesis should have built up quite quickly around someone who never existed."

The consensus of the field is not that Jesus is entirely mythical, but rather that the religion that we have now as Christianity is mostly mythical, going far, far beyond whatever kernel Jesus provided. For example, Jesus was Jewish, and had no interest in founding a non-Jewish, let alone anti-Jewish, religion. He was likely a reforming preacher, and may possibly have presented himself as an inverted Jewish messiah. But the idea that he was god, or part of a trinity, or born on Christmas, or was resurrected, or will come again ... are total fabrications, even to discerning theologians who understand their history.

But all this gets far ahead of the point of the mythicist exercise, which is not to state in some fundamentatlist way that "Jesus never existed, so nya-nya!", but rather to point out the paucity of evidence for that existence, making of it a valid question rather than glorious certainty, and making of the Bible a multi-layered amalgam of myth, piled around a little pea which, while probably real, might also be myth.

There is no direct evidence that Jesus existed. No inscriptions, no contemporary texts, no mentions at all in any text until fifty years or more after his death. And those first mentions, by the Apostle Paul, have a curiously mythical character to them, never mentioning Jesus as a person in any distinct way, but only as the crucified apotheosis of the new movement. The Jesus seminar, to take one example, has tied itself in knots trying to figure out what slivers of the Christian corpus have anything to do with its founder.

Do electric Magi dream of animatronic gods?

So the epistemological status of Jesus as a human being is not secure, but rests, as mentioned above, on the measured judgement of historical scholars about the likelihood of this cult developing the way it did, with or without the putative founder. It is a circumstantial, and preponderance-of-evidence kind of argument, far from an empirical certainty. And the epistemological status of Jesus as a current being / target of devotion, who listens to our prayers, accepts our love from the hearts that we open to him, and will return to set everything right ... well, that is completely untethered from reality, naturally. There is no more evidence for this than there is for praying to pet rocks.

Compare this with global warming and our role in causing it, which is, ironically, the subject of wide disbelief, especially among the religious and others with financial or ideological interests in not believing it. It is, like religious belief, more or less invisible and a matter of careful inference, by a priesthood of experts with occult instruments and practices. But truly, the evidence is now available in profusion, both of its existence and its inexorable (if slow) and dire consequences.

Yet disbelief persists. If god is running things for our benefit, the earth could hardly be going to pot due our greed and negligence, could it? And anyhow, if Jesus is coming back soon, who cares? The idea that humanity will be around for thousands, even millions, or, inconceivably, billions of years into the future is foreign to a mindset where one's horizon is hardly farther than a generation past or future, and everything beyond that resides in an archetypal, dreamy haze.