Tag Archives: Philosophy

Megatron, as Futurist

A Mastodon thread considering the origin of the Transformers’ civil war, and comparing it with contemporary Anglo-American division, has been all kinds of fascinating fun.

My first response was that “the origin of the Cybertronian wars” presents a complicated premise for comment, because writers have told many different stories of that origin, over the decades. I can think of at least a handful, without even counting a 2010 novel apparently published as “the official history.” Given this, I thought it worth going back to the beginning, i.e. Issue One of Marvel’s comic book, probably the first published account of the war’s origin.

I haven’t actually read this issue many times, and probably not in years, so a close read of the opening pages was actually quite interesting in this context. In the original account of how Transformers’ civil war began, Megatron and the Decepticons seem motivated by something quite a lot like Futurism.

Contrary to many later accounts, the Decepticons did not have anything like legitimate grievances from a liberal perspective. But they weren’t quite one-dimensional bad guys greedy for power, either.

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Morality Plays

I think a lot of people have a need for human affairs to be a morality play which far exceeds the extent to which they really are. COVID has got me thinking about this, but so have a number of things.

As regards COVID, I think part of the screaming for permanent lockdown measures reflects morality-play thinking. I have already written that I think it’s partly denial of the fact that it is no longer February 2020 and can never be again. Realities which seem unjust are very hard to deal with (don’t I know it). People turn to denial, to conspiracy theories, and I think to morality-play interpretations.

I should explain here that by “morality play” I mean a belief that events have a moral, and often that this operates at an individual level; we tend to prefer a system in which cause and effect are just, and to prefer a system in which individual actions and their consequences are just. But reality is frequently not such a system in either regard.

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Alternatives and belief

I had an argument, today, with someone who offers a very swell model of the belief that America’s electoral politics are some sort of fundamentally fair-ish game which democracy advocates can win, if we just perform a checklist of the same activities as always.

I am convinced that this is naive and blockheaded verging on delusional. It is not completely outside the realm of all possibility that something might turn the current political environment, and the prevailing pattern of three decades, completely upside-down between now and November. It is very, very unlikely, and it is nonsensical to assert that the same things which have failed so thoroughly can be much more successful in 2022 because they “must.”

I have drafted a book exploring this premise, but perhaps the aspect about which I have the least to offer is that which most interests a lot of individuals: “what do I do?”

I feel like this is really a wrong question. I mean, World War I was an appalling immolation of lives to no point, even by the standards of war; if you had a choice about whether or not e.g. to go fight in the battle of Verdun, doing so would be absolutely stupid even if you wanted with all your heart to win/end the war. It would be absolutely stupid regardless of whether or not someone else, besides the war leaders, was proposing an alternative contribution you could make to help win/end the war.

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Basic Income vs Jobs

Politics produces endless strange outcomes. Yesterday, I encountered a Guardian item by Ben Tarnoff attacking universal basic income from the left.

Yeah, well, sure; why not?

I’m not sure that all of Tarnoff’s thesis hangs together, though a lot of his arguments are difficult to dismiss because other highly qualified voices support them. A long stretch in the middle basically rebuts that the popular narrative that economic inequality is the product of automation and “inevitable” globalization. Instead, the author lays blame on intentionally pro-elite trade policies (passed off as globalization), “the transformation of the tax code, the growth of the financial sector, and, above all, the collapse of [organized labor] since the 1970s.”

Economist Dean Baker makes and provides ample evidence for much the same arguments, almost every day. He has written more than once that “robots putting people out of work” is a red herring, and that automation is entirely compatible with full employment and a growing middle class, if we reverse policies that favor capital over labor.

I find his case persuasive, and generally endorse his specific prescriptions. Mr. Tarnoff’s objection to basic income seems a bit less convincing; a lot of it seems to be driven less by substance than style. He portrays the concept as a scheme by tech billionaires to “give us an allowance to live on, and keep the rest for themselves,” and “crumbs left by the bully who steals your sandwich.” In practice, though, I’m unclear that this is really all that different from his one-line alternative: “Better to own the robots collectively, and allocate the surplus democratically, than leave society’s wealth in the hands of its luckiest members.” Unless I’m missing something, basic income accomplishes two of these three objects, and it’s unclear to me how much meaningful difference collectivized robot ownership would make if the wealth produced by automation is redistributed. Possibly Mr. Tarnoff assumes that basic income must mean small-scale redistribution—”crumbs”—but besides its name I’m not sure that the concept is actually incompatible with much more aggressive leveling.

Meanwhile, though, I feel like something is missing from both his vague rebuttal to the “robots are going to take our jobs” story and from Mr. Baker’s more rigorous version. Both seem to assume on some level that society not only can produce lots of jobs despite automation, but should. I’m not clear that this is a very worthwhile goal.

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Basketball, Winning & Contentment

I have been thinking lately about the complexity of happiness, and how it so often differs from getting what we want. I feel like 2016 Cyclone men’s basketball is a wonderful illustration.

This past March, when Cyclone MBB ended its tournament run in the Sweet 16, I felt afterward like this was about as happy an ending for me as any possible. Basically because it felt like the team achieved all that was within reach.

Iowa State moved through the first two rounds—improving immediately upon a first-round upset loss last year—then exited after a game against an obviously superior opponent. I don’t remember the details, but the result was not a humiliation, nor was it close enough that I was left anguished that “they were so close, they had it, why couldn’t they finish?”

There was really no heartbreak element. Our guys reached a respectable plateau—the Sweet 16, surpassing more than 75% of all the other tournament teams—and the next step was just beyond them this year. Okay.

Of course, if offered it, I would have chosen more.

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00s flashback: peak oil

I know that the previous decade wasn’t that long ago, obviously. But it’s starting to feel that way now and then. Consider, for example, “peak oil.”

I can’t be the only one who recalls this meme, but again, it sure can feel that way. I swear that it has been years since I’ve seen any reference to peak oil. Which on one hand is not so mysterious; for various reasons, oil prices proved no more a one-way phenomenon than did house prices. But we still reference the housing bubble now and then. Peak oil, for all that I’m sure there are corners of the internet where it remains a hot topic, seems all the same to have vanished down the memory hole about as completely as anything does these days.

This is at the very least curious given that it was such a popular theory, particularly on the internet. I could probably find other looks-back at the issue, if I searched for them, but again it seems odd that I have not come across one. I read quite a bit of online crap, and I don’t recall seeing even one headline.

Therefore, if only for my own benefit, I’m preparing this brief examination, because: as much as I can be certain about anything, and to the extent that these words have any non-wriggly firm core meaning, “peak oil” scenarios were way, way wrong.

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The Jischke Honors Building: Still Wrong

The basic concept of alumni-supported higher education is, I think, awkward at best. It’s also very tiresome in practice, when the ISU Foundation e.g. calls you up a dozen times within two years of graduation.

That said, I believe in sharing wealth, and I try to live my beliefs. My resources for doing so here are relatively modest, but when I can I try to support worthy causes. If a fairly lavish institution that delivers much of its direct benefit to the already privileged is questionable for inclusion among such causes, well, 1) nothing’s perfect, 2) Iowa State University does at least seem to be spending money relatively responsibly, these days, exceptions aside, and 3) I got quite a deal from the institution so if any non-affluent graduate has reason to be “giving back,” it’s probably me.

So I have, now and then, directed the occasional surplus to dear auld ISU. I have not, however, given one single cent to the ISU Honors Program and I am not going to do so any time soon. This I vowed nearly 15 years ago, this I still believe: the “Jischke Honors Building” represents an unethical, insulting double-standard, and I am not going to forgive or forget.

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Why “The Martian” will be a blockbuster hit (unfortunately)

After reading The Martian the other day, I gave it four of five stars at goodreads. I read the whole thing in about 24 hours, and can certainly recommend it; up until the very last page I probably would have rated it five out of five. It basically dropped one whole star in the final paragraphs.

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that my main complaints about the novel come down to sentimentality. My minor complaint involves a strain of fantasy in the story; by contrast the object of my major complaint (supercharged during the closing paragraphs) is probably all too realistic. It could make sense to complain about too much and too little realism at the same time, I suppose. But in this case, my objection isn’t really about extremes as much as it’s about an extreme (in my view) of sentiment.

It felt somewhat odd when I finally realized that this is the common theme to The Martian‘s flaws (as I perceive them). In many ways it’s very, very strange to apply the word “sentimental” to this story in any way. To be completely blunt, while I found it a page turner and while I’m not alone, I think the majority of The Martian feels remarkably like a space-exploration-themed series of sample engineering problems from a college textbook. It reminds me of Verne, particularly The Mysterious Island, except with the engineering content ratio much higher. The majority of the other content, meanwhile, documents meetings of NASA administrators.

Again, I found the result nonetheless gripping, and much credit to author Andy Weir. That said, the story he produced from these parts made me frustrated and even angry at points, and unlikely as it may be the reason is basically unchecked sentiment.

I’ll be blunt a second time, now, and just say that my biggest complaint about The Martian is how the whole thing is basically a fantastic, horrible illustration of the aphorism that “one life is a tragedy, a million lives is a statistic.”

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Lakewood, McDonald’s and community

This one feels a long time past. I originally wrote it in mid-2011, but it seems like so long ago.* I have always felt that I did some good thinking here, however. Meanwhile, I’ve decided now is the time to repost it here in my long-term archive. Lakewood is currently confronting another top-down plan to replace a familiar piece of the community** with some sort of corporate wheeze, and one of the most vocal critics has even declared the pending liquidation of Lakewood Hospital “another McDonald’s.”

No, no and no. Among many other differences, Lakewood Hospital actually matters, I think. Whereas the arrival of McDonald’s on Detroit Road, I argued and still argue, was mostly just a petty annoyance. Unfortunately I have a growing sense that too many people cannot tell the difference, a want of perspective that cannot be helping anyone, except those powers that are content to see citizen “meddling” diffused into griping about a dozen issues rather than concentrating on doing something about one.

For this reason among others, I’m going to skip most of the opening paean to Lakewood…

Lakewood is packed with locally-owned bars and restaurants; I even did a cartographic guide to the bars once. Meanwhile, fast-food chains and big-box stores are almost unknown. The biggest “big box” is a supermarket and there’s really just no room for a walmart or home despot, etc.; there are a few chain establishments like a Schlubway and a Domino’s and a Dunkin’ Donuts, but aside from one Taco Bell the only big-league standalone drive-thru greasepits are banished to the fringes of the city and completely absent from “mainstream life” in Lakewood. (Cue ominous piano chords.) That is, for now

This morning, I got up, stumbled around through the usual re-orientation to consciousness, pulled up teh intarweb and read with dismay of the “potential McDonald’s move to Detroit Theatre property.” Sacre bleu!

Oh the ignominy. When the theater closed several weeks ago, I wasn’t really concerned since it had always looked kind of shabby and I go to a movie theater at most once every two or three years anyway. Had I known, though… the Detroit Theatre is hardly “paradise,” but on the other hand “a parking lot” would be far less demoralizing than a McDonald’s.

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Bad Politics Depends on Bad Voting

I can't recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is "get out a pencil and draw another option."

I can’t recall where I found this, but tl:dr answer is “get out a pencil and draw another option.”

Yesterday, a friend asked me this question about voting:

So, if you reject the ‘lesser of 2 bought and paid for evils,’ what do you do?”

I admit this seems somehow fake, at least to me; even with the context that led to it, the innocence of this question took me by surprise. But I assure you that this is a direct quote. I suppose that even in this day and age, not everyone keeps his or her mask of cynicism up all the time, and occasionally someone will still ask an honest philosophical question that isn’t accompanied by sneering or part of a set-up etc.

This was my answer(1):

First of all, per the old saying “I wouldn’t start from here,” I advise not beginning at the general election ballot. We have a sort-of-kind-of run-off system in America, via primaries, though this system is to a proper run-off system kind of what the ACA is to single-payer.(2) But it’s what we have, and more people should take part in it rather than just waiting until November to consider who “they” chose for you.(3)

Second, if (and often when) primaries result in both major parties running bought-and-paid-for pod people anyway, look down-ballot. There is often at least some alternative.(4) If there isn’t… or if all of them appear genuinely as bad or worse than tweedle-D and tweedle-R… well, go fish. Many times life is, indeed, a menu of only bad options… but it still isn’t as narrow a menu, as frequently, as most people take for granted.

Elaborating on a few points… Read More →