A place for new ideas to settle.

20 September 2015

REVIEW: "The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet" -- A gritty-but-not-grim space opera

I.
 
I pretty much bought The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the debut novel by Becky Chambers, on impulse because of a review on io9: "The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet Is This Year's Most Delightful Space Opera," it proclaimed, and damn if I wasn't rendered curious. Well, having torn through it, I can say that yes, it is quite delightful and I highly recommend it. I don't know if it's this year's best, but I rarely notice the exact year of publication for any given book anyway, so don't rely on me for that sort of judgment.

How could I describe The Long Way in a short, snappy sentence? I said on Goodreads (at about 25% of the way through) that it reminded me of Firefly and Titan A.E. (I'll explain why later), but less grim. Now having finished it, yeah; and I'll add Guardians of the Galaxy and Mass Effect in for good measure. There's also a noticeable British sensibility about the whole thing, as well as it being in the single-quotes-'our'-and-'re' mode of British English... strange, since the author is American-born. Oh well.

So what is The Long Way about, and why did I reference those sci-fi properties? I'll start with the abstract and work my way down. First, it reads very much like a fun serial television program: each chapter or two is a self-contained story nugget building towards the climatic (season?) finale. In particular, Chambers switches POV for each chapter, much like certain modern sci-fi television serials (or video game quests?) tend to focus on specific character arcs in a given episode. So that's why the first things to come to mind as references were visual media and not books.

Now for the setting and characters. The Long Way takes place sometime in our future: per Firefly and a long proud sf tradition, Earth has suffered ecological collapse and Humanity has fled outward to the rest of the Solar System and the stars. Interestingly, Chambers has the "Exodus Fleet" be primarily the global poor, while the rich stay behind and inherit Mars and the Solar System. Anyway, the Exodans discover (by accident!) that there's a much larger Galactic Commons out there, with plenty of established races. And so the situation once the book's story opens is that Humanity finds itself sort of in between the cases of Titan A.E. and Mass Effect: Earth isn't gone (it's currently undergoing revitalization efforts) but Humanity has only barely been accepted as a member of the GC. At least one non-Human in the story explicitly calls them (us) out on it, saying that we haven't yet grown past the stage of civilizational development where we can't stop trying to kill each other. Another character in the story hails from a race that did just that, and never grew out of it. His is a sad tale.

The story follows Rosemary Harper, a young emigré from the Martian colonies, who signs on as a ship's clerk to the Wayfarer, a hunk-of-junk ship in the grand Millennium Falcon tradition. The Wayfarer is a tunneling ship: using a piece of GC tech called an inter-spatial bore, it punches wormholes in real-space to make stable portals for fast-travel throughout the galaxy. Oh, and (hooray!) Chambers uses the sorely under-served "hyperspace is fucking weird" model, taken to the next level: When a ship is tunneling through the "sub-layer," physics and even time itself lose their definite meaning. Not even a ship's A.I. can handle the weirdness; it takes the guidance of a Navigator (see below) to avoid some serious potential fuckups.

For all that, tunneling is a gritty, blue-collar sort of business. And this is why The Long Way reminds me so much of Firefly and Guardians of the Galaxy: the characters in those stories are pretty much just above-average stiffs trying to live life and not get caught up in stuff. The difference is that the Wayfarer crew in The Long Way is very much not overtly political. They're not rebels. They just have a job to do.

II.

That doesn't mean they don't have diverse stories!

Rosemary, for example, from the beginning is seen fleeing her former life on Mars. Something to do with her family, something she gets a fake I.D. for.

The captain, a human from the Exodus Fleet named Ashby, is a pacifist (typical of Exodans) but is madly in love with an alien woman who delivers cargo for her species' military and is not necessarily against the use of weapons. Oh, and her species do not look kindly upon coupling with xenos.

There's Sissix, the pilot, from a reptilian species who are feather-headed, omnisexual, and extremely communal, yet she's on the ship alone of her species.

There's Corbin, the Dwight-Schrute-esque algaeist (they use algae for fuel), who, to put it lightly, has serious daddy issues.

There's Jenks, played by Peter Dinklage almost certainly, the ship's computer technician, who's in love with Lovelace "Lovey," the ship's A.I. But this is a working-class ship, so she's just a standard-model installation...

There's Kizzy, the other tech, who I read in Tara Strong's most squeaky voice and tried very hard not to picture as Kaylee from Firefly, and to Chambers' immense credit is way more endearing than annoying.

There's Dr. Chef, the ship's doctor and chef, who I couldn't help imagining (inaccurately) as a giant water bear and voiced by John Goodman (and a small backing chorus, his species has multiple throats).  His is the aforementioned sad backstory.

There's Ohan, the Navigator. They are a Sianat Pair, the Sianat being infected with a strange virus called the Whisperer which grants them crazy savant-level hyper-spatial reasoning, at the cost of like 80% of their life expectancy. Also their sense of individuality: Pairs are "they." And Ohan is at the end of their life when the book opens, so this job will almost surely be their last.

And others, not crew of the Wayfarer, who have their own quirks and interests. Chambers does a pretty masterful job, especially for a first effort, infusing her galaxy with color and variety. This is a universe that feels safe enough, within GC territory, no less than a typical wealthy nation in the heart of the industrialized world on Earth. Tunneling is dangerous but not apparently more so than, say, natural resource extraction, or heck, even actual tunneling through big mountains.

Yet even then there's enough going on for plenty of compelling interpersonal drama, and of course this story does feature a special time of extra danger for the crew. Traveling to the Galactic Core, to punch a tunnel back to GC space on behalf of a fledgling alliance with the Toremi, who heretofore have been inscrutably violent to any diplomatic missions into their volume of space? Sounds like a party. And it's the Wayfarer's big break; after this job, they can start getting some real credits.

III.

And now I will talk a bit of the recent kerfluffle regarding the politics and genre conventions of science fiction. Ahem.

The Long Way is a damn fine example of sfnal diversity writing. Chambers designed her alien races with a clear purpose, leveraging non-mammalian biology and non-normative behavior to excellent effect. Dr Chef's species, for example, are born female and transition to male after the birthing stage of their life is over. Ohan and Kizzy are non-neurotypical. Jenks has dwarfism. Sissix is like half of the non-hetero non-monogamous descriptors. Ashby is multiracial. All of this is noted somewhere, but in-story it just comes up when talking about it makes sense. Even with the—okay, I did smile and shrug a bit at this—use of 'xe/xyr' pronouns and interspecies lesbian romance, this is not the "message fic" bogeyman of "classic-sf" purists. This story posits a rationally knowable universe in the finest tradition while also leaving some things implicit, and encouraging some outside-the-box thinking about society and individuality. There's as much whizz-bang-wow cool scenes as you could want—a dusty colony world of Human tech-and-body-modification enthusiasts, and also giant ravenous alien locusts? an icy rogue planet as self-imposed exile for Sianat heretics? a tense, weaponless standoff against space pirates in the landing bay of the Wayfarer? etc.?—and also gender-neutral pronouns on a few pages.

And Chambers wrote for The Mary fuckin' Sue!

The funny thing, to me, is that reviewers (io9 and others) seem keen to point out that "this isn't like other science fiction stories" because the story isn't one of grand universe-shattering consequences. And yet that's, to me, so laughably wrong. This is like other science fiction stories, a proud tradition of small-but-meaningful storylines going back a very long time indeed.

The "hyperspace is weird" trope, for example, including the Navigator who can literally see the mathematical structure of the universe, is straight out of SFWA Grandmaster Frederik Pohl's "The Mapmakers," wherein the crew of a rocketship act competently and very much non-rebelliously in the face of a freak accident. Pohl wrote that story in 1955, right at the height of classic sf! (Oh, and it's really good, too, if what you might call very Fifties in its social sensibilities.)

It's true that more recent (say, since 1980) science fiction has leaned hard on the 'hypercompetent rebel against incompetent stultifying authority' stories, and often in service to dystopian tales of grim woe. We do need more stories that fight both features of that played-out cliche: not just dystopia, but also the "authority is stupid, and only Great Men are worth reading and writing about" part. It's a deeper-rooted notion, not just in the American mythmaking machine but also in narrative structures going back a very long time. Family stories, I think, don't get enough play.

IV.

All that said, this is a damn fine story. Go read it.

16 September 2015

Wednesday Links -- 16 September 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

Television used to have a lot more "dark background, leather chair foreground, casual highbrow discussion prefaced by classical music" shows than I thought. See, for example, the format of William F. Buckley's Firing Line. But also this show, Nightcap: Conversations on the Arts and Letters, on the Alpha Repertory Television Service (ARTS). (It shared a channel with Nickelodeon!) This episode, moderated by Studs Terkel and Calvin Trillin, is a discussion between Isaac "reigning SF grandmaster" Asimov, Gene "just having finished the Book of the New Sun" Wolfe, and Harlan "the original grumpy cat" Ellison, on what science fiction really means. For thirty minutes. Holy shit.


More than just hoarding (though there's a bit of a hoarding tendency; why own two copies in the same format of Rat Fink and Boo-Boo? Though it does look incredible), this article on physical-media collectors and the "premature death of physical media" points out the massive trophic loss as media goes from film to VHS to DVD to Blu-Ray—and not just from neglecting crap!

Meanwhile, let's pray this never makes it to any media, physical, digital, or otherwise: Nickelodeon Is Talking About an "Avengers-style" Nicktoons Movie

In lies, damn lies, and vaginas news: Ashley Madison tried very hard to convince people that it wasn't scamming anyone using fake-female bots; Louisiana lawmakers seem to think that dentists can do what Planned Parenthood does; and the executives overseeing the remake of Carrie (many of which, notably, were married with children) couldn't bring themselves to utter the word "vagina" when discussing the director's suggestion for a better ending scene.

Because I hate to pass up critique of Silicon Valley silliness: The New York Times has a good op-ed about "the Internet of Way Too Many Things", whose opening serves as a nice anecdotal summary of the whole piece:
At a design conference recently, I was introduced to Leeo, a new product that I initially understood to be a reboot of something really in need of a redesign: the smoke detector. As the designer explained his process, I quickly came to understand that Leeo was nothing of the sort. It was a gadget, a night light that “listens” for your smoke detector to go off and then calls your smartphone to let you know your house might be on fire.

So, to “improve” a $20 smoke alarm, the designer opted to add a $99 night light and a several-hundred-dollar smartphone.

This is not good design.
Preach, sister. In other "stop and think about your tech life" op-eds, see this one in the Harvard Business Review from the founder of the LibriVox public-domain-audiobook project... who was spending so much time online that he didn't have time to read more than a couple books per year. And in the inverse case, tech person Paul Graham has written some thought-provoking pieces, but this one ain't it: Hiring is obsolete, he wrote (and explained to the graduating class at UCLA) in 2005. Young ingenues ubermenschen should just found startups and hope to get bought out instead, since they're obviously more valuable than stodgy oldsters think: "Why go work as an ordinary employee for a big company, when you could start a startup and make them buy it to get you?" Can we blame him somewhat for Deus-vult-ing the startup-just-to-get-noticed-by-investors-or-Google gold-rush?

Meanwhile in the Valley, Harper's looks at the burgeoning New Rationalist community in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. The writer seems to take a certain tone of "this is sorta like the hippie cult movements of the 70s" disdain towards the whole thing; but since I did buy a copy of Rationality From A.I. to Zombies and plan to read all of it in due time, and more or less agree with the Effective Altruism movement, it's fascinating to see who else glommed on to it, and how they think about things. One thing William McAskill said during his visit to the Seattle EA group was that the EA community at Oxford was much less "start-uppy" than the one in the Bay Area. The Harper's piece is more evidence that the Bay Area is no place for sober thinking about high-minded ideals.

Streets With No Game: Colin Ellard is an environmental psychologist who claims that bad urban planning leads to poor health outcomes, specifically because "Boring cityscapes increase sadness, addiction and disease-related stress." The way he describes the study he did... well, I'm not so convinced on the causal chain there. But there's definitely something to be said about how street facades effect pedestrians; for example, downtown Seattle (block-length office tower plazas) feels more austere and sterile than Wallingford, Fremont, or Capitol Hill. See also this post at Urban Kchoze about "modelitis," or the thoroughly modern tendency to build cities from an aerial view rather than a pedestrian view, resulting in really ugly and unusable public spaces.

Brooklyn Bar Menu Generator: "Have you recently purchased a bar in Brooklyn, but are completely bereft of original ideas? Firstly, congratulations on joining the thriving Brooklyn bar scene! Secondly, relax! You can use this handy tool to generate a name and menu for your fine establishment – absolutely no imagination necessary!" Example:

"Pan-seared anchovy bombs" sounds like something Guy Fieri would inflict on Brooklyn.


What should be, maybe not the last word, but the next to last word, on the anti-gay American Taliban county clerk: Stupidity, Not Religion, Put Kim Davis In Jail—I would add that someone should talk to Stephen King because apparently his characters are manifesting in the real world...

Libertarian writer has a characteristically un-libertarian insight: The Re-Feudalization of the Modern World—it's as if property-obsessed corporations don't have consumers' best interests in mind!

Libertarian writer has a stereotypically libertarian "insight": What the TSA Could Learn From Disney, But Won't—seriously, should the TSA also have costumed mascots as well?

It's expensive to be poor in America, as the Economist demonstrates. But something something if they could just boostrap above those ridiculous fees!

Skeptics have always fought pseudoscientists, quacks, and charlatans, but they've also fought their own inner cynicism: A Rope of Sand

Music of the week: Math proofs, rendered into MIDI format. They sound surprisingly artful, which shouldn't be that surprising, since mathematical proofs also have structure.

08 September 2015

REVIEW: "Doing Good Better" and "Living on One Dollar" -- The varieties of altruistic experience

I.

I don't know if another book has sparked more cognitive dissonance in me than Doing Good Better.

Written just this year by William McAskill, a philosopher and co-founder of both 80,000 Hours and Giving What We Can, the book represents a sort of manifesto for the Effective Altruism (EA) movement. I did want to read the book for straightforward reasons—my parents pretty well instilled in me the ethic of "live within your means, and give some of the extra to those less fortunate," so any way to do that better is welcome—but also for more circumspect ones. Namely; EA has grown pretty fast since its generally-agreed-upon inception in 2007 (the year GiveWell was founded; but the EA brand-name wasn't invented until 2011), and has just as quickly attracted some fairly harsh criticism for something so... altruistic. I'll get into that later in the post, but for now it was the other reason to read the book: could I see in it the misguided or even misanthropic tendencies alleged by EA's critics?

So, the book: Doing Good Better is persuasive and also frustrating. While the first half's argument for why effective altruism is worthwhile is pretty great, the second half's implied philosophy of how to be an effective altruist struck all sorts of nerves with me, and I'm still trying to parse why that was. Part of it is that the how-to strategies don't seem able to be generalized; for example, at what point does "an ER doctor" become the best option for someone considering their future career? Career comparison, moreover, is rather hard for paths that require a lot of invested effort—software engineering, brought up more than a few times in the book, is unusual in this regard—and the ability to gather a decent sample of possible careers seems like it would be rare in a community, even the industrialized West.

But let's take it a bit slower. Why "effective altruism"? McAskill's argument is that we need to be very careful about which aid organizations get our donations, because the very best organizations are responsible for the vast majority of improvement in their respective causes, even compared to the next lowest quantile of merely very good organizations. So basically, if you just randomly or thoughtlessly donate your money, there's a very good chance it's as if you just burned the check.

He backs it up with quite a few examples, some of them very high profile. The worst realization for me came right in the introduction, where McAskill recounts the story of the PlayPump. The basic theme is the same as pretty much every high-profile failure: celebrities and corporations joyously endorse a solution that's completely outside-context and an utterly poor fit for the local problem. The PlayPump, for example, did a worse job than the mediocre hand pumps the villagers had been using before! Not to mention the part where some PlayPumps were installed without consent.

And then, in the face of overwhelming counter-evidence, the PlayPump organization... kept right on making them. That was my cynical realization: bad charity is pretty much like pseudoscience or alternative medicine. Debunk it all you want, it won't die. As long as it helps someone, just once, it's "worthwhile" and keeps pulling in funding.

After raising the reader's hackles against the status quo in the first few chapters, McAskill lays out a framework for deciding how effective a charity is. This is really good stuff, and should be considered by everyone: there's really no excuse, if your motives are truly altruistic, for not doing at least a little homework. Charities, too, ought to be more diligent about transparency and open data.

Now to the second part: how to be an effective altruist. As I said above, my big problem with this section was its seeming pretension to generality without that being obvious, or else its lack of stipulation that the rules can't apply to everyone. The whole concept of "earning to give" as a terminal goal hinges on the idea that the rest of the workforce is pretty well in hand, so you as an effective altruist are better served going for the highest-paying version of whatever career path suits you best. Doctor? How about the kind of doctor that operates really expensive equipment, or only on rich people who are insecure about their appearance? That sort of thing. And the ever-popular options of "software engineer" and "quantitative financial analyst" came up, too.

Except that line of argument seems really facile. Taken as a general strategy, it totally ignores the uneven distribution of jobs by specialization and geography. Yes, you might be marginally non-useful as the 800,001st doctor, but what about the thirteenth doctor in a rural county? Or the first abortion-providing doctor in the state? Quite a different marginal impact. This raised a question in my mind about the ethos of effective altruism, which I'll get into below.

There's also the issue of calculation: the heuristic used in the book is Quality-Adjusted Life-Years, or QALY (rhymes with "Wally"), which McAskill generalizes from medical charity research. It's not clear how well QALYs work with other kinds of causes and interventions; however, I recognize the lack of a robust method since EA is a relatively new prospect. Something is better than nothing, but I worry (see below) that arguments based on QALY estimates are not being properly discounted.

Overall it's certainly a conversation-starter, and a good introduction to why we should be thinking rigorously about our charity. And as a framework for evaluating charities and causes, I highly recommend it. (Along with GiveWell and Giving What We Can.)

II.

I also watched Living On One Dollar, a 2013 documentary produced by some of my high-school classmates. As a film, it's pretty great, especially given that it was filmed on a shoestring budget by college sophomores. They bring an earnestness and positivity to a genre that, in their own opinion (and mine, to some extent), relies more often on guilt-tripping the audience—and yet they don't veer too far into the empty optimism or dangerous naivite of something like the #KONY2012 thing.

In the film, college friends Zach (Bainbridge High School represent!) and Chris decide to study rural extreme poverty by traveling to Guatemala and living on just $1 per person per day. They are joined by friends and filmmakers Sean (BHS!) and Ryan (er, actually I don't know either way), who are good at photography but ignorant of Spanish, much less the native Mayan dialect. Zach and Chris, on the other hand, do speak Spanish, and thus acquire a very different understanding of the hardships that come with extreme poverty—a difference that comes to a head in the film's climax.

They also further simulate the experience of poverty by randomizing their daily income, anywhere from $9 to $0 drawn out of a hat each day. Between the villager interviews and a series of extremely-low-draw days, you approach a sense of the chaos inherent in that situation.

The film does a pretty good job of showcasing just a few of the barriers that stand between the villagers of Peña Blanca and a stable (if lower-working-class) life:
  • Language—All of the villagers speak the Kaqchikel a Mayan language, and not many can afford to learn Spanish. Wiki says Guatemala isn't terrible about this and there are bilingual classes in school, but lack of institutional support for indigenous and minority languages is a huge barrier in many places around the world.
  • Labor—In the film, only one villager, Antonio, has a stable job. The rest work informally as day laborers working on farmland.
  • Nutrition—Food is not that expensive in Guatemala, but uncertain, poverty-level income makes it so nobody's really eating well. Even on rice, beans, lard, and bananas, the guys are barely breaking 1000 calories a day and one of them loses something like 20 pounds over the two months they stay in Pi a Blanca
  • Healthcare—When Chris comes down with Giardia parasites they get him checked out at a doctor in the nearby town. Medicine is stupidly expensive, essentially beyond the financial reach of any villager without some serious financial trauma.
  • Credit—Traditional banks in Guatemala, consistent with what I've read about in general, pretty much refuse to extend lines of credit to poor people. You have to meet an absurd number of requirements that are simply beyond the means of subsistence farmers and informal day-laborers.
  • Education—Schools in Guatemala require tuition on the order of $25 per student per year. Basically, if anything bad happens (disease, injury, hurricane...) there goes the money for school.
The film doesn't get into the issue of land rights, which I understand are a big issue in some countries—title and use rights are often legally fuzzy in these places, so poor farmers are at risk of being exploited and deprived of potentially a lot of wealth. Or they simply have no real access to the equity that's literally beneath their feet. This idea formed the basis of Hernando de Soto's (not the conquistador) work on property rights and the informal economy. But then again, given the film's scope, I can see why they never went there.

My biggest  nitpick is that the film mentions that microfinance (institutions like the Grameen Bank, which actually does make small loans to extremely poor people) has a mixed reputation, but they never follow through on it. On the one hand, it's great that the villagers who took out loans seemed to be doing really well (starting businesses, which would probably help pay off the loan rather quickly)... but what happens if someone has to default? The guys take out a loan themselves—to represent buying the farm-hut they're living in—and risk not being able to make a payment ($6.25 every three weeks, I think!) but they never go into detail about what would happen. Given the volatility of a typical villager's daily income, it seems like a problematic omission.

Oh yeah, and the film gets you right in the feels any time they talk to kids. Or Antonio. Or Rosa. Or...

Overall it's a pretty good effort by some people I actually knew in real life. Well done!

III.

Taken together, Doing Good Better and Living On One Dollar present an interesting juxtaposition of altruistic experiences. The book emphasizes high impact, global efforts. The film zooms in on a highly local struggle, though one reproduced all over the developing world. Both focus on experiences pretty much exclusive to the developing world—there's severe poverty in the United States, for example, but its character seems very unlike that of the rural Guatemalans in Living On One Dollar. And both aim, in their own ways, to break the mold of how we think about charity and foreign aid.


They also highlight the extremely privileged situation the generic reader or viewer will be in: literally anyone with a job in the United States is better off economically than billions and billions of other human beings. (Even with all the stories of economic hardship that working-class and middle-class Americans face.) That's the argument Doing Good Better makes, and uses a lot of graphs and statistics to back it up. The film goes one better, and shows us two guys from very comfortable backgrounds—New York for Chris, Bainbridge Island ("Seattle") for Zach—experiencing some fraction of the daily struggle of rural Guatemalans firsthand. I've written about this sort of educational tourism before, and I think the filmmakers pretty much avoided the pitfalls of WEIRDness as much as could be expected.

In the end the message is the same: You, reader, occupy such a privileged position in the world that you have more or less a moral duty to contribute to these causes. If you don't, who will?

Fair enough. But now we come to the crux of EA's oddness: what cause(s) should you donate to? Well, one EA principle is that of "impartiality"—we shouldn't discount the needs of any moral agent. This includes people at the furthest reaches of human habitation, other animals, and any of these that may come to exist at some future time. This generates, in order, EA's championing of global poverty and disease eradication; animal advocacy and veganism; and existential risk mitigation.

Ah, x-risk. This is what makes EA look like a movement of self-obsessed tech nerds. Not that, say, making sure we can see oncoming asteroids isn't important. Nor is research into neutralizing rogue technology, whether nuclear, bio, or nano. No, it comes down to two factors.

First, the "every life is sacred" principle massively weights the argument in favor of x-risk as the exclusive cause to donate to. Nick Bostrom, a philosopher researching x-risks, calls this the argument from "astronomical waste":
As I write these words, suns are illuminating and heating empty rooms, unused energy is being flushed down black holes, and our great common endowment of negentropy is being irreversibly degraded into entropy on a cosmic scale. These are resources that an advanced civilization could have used to create value-structures, such as sentient beings living worthwhile lives.

The rate of this loss boggles the mind. One recent paper speculates, using loose theoretical considerations based on the rate of increase of entropy, that the loss of potential human lives in our own galactic supercluster is at least ~10^46 per century of delayed colonization.[1]
He goes on to refine this estimate but it's still mind-bogglingly huge. And that's how you end up with EA pivoting to artificial-intelligence-safety-research for the keynote speech at the EA Global 2015 conference. Not "how many diseases can we eradicate?", or "how can we end factory farming?", but pretty much "how can we appease an alien god?"

And that's the second problem: If you posit superintelligence, you can get away with a lot of whizz-bang "predictions" that are way to close to "what the Kingdom of God will be like once Jesus returns" for my liking. And for all the admonishments to not take futurologists seriously if they start throwing out too many specific claims:
Which is to say:  Adding detail can make a scenario SOUND MORE PLAUSIBLE, even though the event necessarily BECOMES LESS PROBABLE.

If so, then, hypothetically speaking, we might find futurists spinning unconscionably plausible and detailed future histories, or find people swallowing huge packages of unsupported claims bundled with a few strong-sounding assertions at the center.
Well, there are a lot of specific claims floating around by those same admonishers:
Amazon screenshot showing related purchases for "Smarter Than Us" by Stuart Armstrong
What happens when machines become smarter than humans? Forget lumbering Terminators. The power of an artificial intelligence (AI) comes from its intelligence, not physical strength and laser guns. Humans steer the future not because we're the strongest or the fastest but because we're the smartest. When machines become smarter than humans, we'll be handing them the steering wheel. What promises—and perils—will these powerful machines present? Stuart Armstrong’s new book navigates these questions with clarity and wit. Can we instruct AIs to steer the future as we desire? What goals should we program into them? It turns out this question is difficult to answer!

[...]


Are we up to the challenge? A mathematician by training, Armstrong is a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University. His research focuses on formal decision theory, the risks and possibilities of AI, the long term potential for intelligent life (and the difficulties of predicting this), and anthropic (self-locating) probability. Armstrong wrote Smarter Than Us at the request of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a non-profit organization studying the theoretical underpinnings of artificial superintelligence.
Armstrong begins that book, Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence, with a parable about the Terminator getting its digital shit wrecked by a superhuman A.I.:
"I thought I should keep you up to date as to what I've been doing," [the superintelligence] said. "Well, I started by locating the project that would become Skynet and leaked its budget to various Senate subcommittees. The project will become a political football between budget hawks and military hawks before finally being cut in a display of bitpartisanship in about three months' time. I also figured out how to seduce a photogenic fireman, who'll be leader of the new political party I'm setting up—funded by my investments. (Do you have any idea how easy it is for me to predict the stock market?) I have already written a few speeches that will bring tears to the eyes of every human who hears them. It'll ensure no alternative version of Skynet is ever built, anywhere or anywhen."
At least when Iain M. Banks posited godlike machine Minds, he had the decency to give them hyperspatial computing substrates. (This is the genesis of a whole 'nother post so I'll have to leave that there for now.)

IV.

The ancient Stoics had a meditation exercise. Imagine progressively generating these circles:

Source: Massimo Pigliucci, How To Be a Stoic (https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/stoicism-101/)
The idea is that compassion begins with the self, then extends with less and less natural ease to family, neighbors, countrymen, and humanity as a whole. The Stoic meditation is an exercise in fellow-feeling towards these wider circles, in progressive waves, so as to expand one's compassion towards humanity. (You can, of course, continue from "humanity" to "sentient creatures" or even "conscious creatures.")

In some sense the Effective Altruism movement is trying to radically achieve that last circle, or even extend it beyond to "conscious creatures" (in the form of animal-rights activism), but by "hacking" around natural fellow-feeling. I think it would be well-served to seek out more human stories to generate that compassion, rather than just the warm glow of having "optimized" something.

To that end I think Living on One Dollar offers a more humanistic approach. By all means, be effective in your charity, crunch all the data you need to—but seek out the human stories that come of it, because it's not really the data that needs your aid.

03 September 2015

Work/school balance

I.

Kayla at Crows Against Murder has a great post up about September—that calendrical signifier of Back To School which, for those of us in the current "quarter-life" cohort, is still about two-thirds of our entire lives, and almost the entirety of our remembered lives—and the prolonged existential crisis that is "adult life":
But the milestones from my youth are no longer relevant.  I don’t have a promise of seeing old classmates, or meeting new ones.  I won’t develop new relationships with teachers or mentors.  Nobody will curate information for me to consume.  There will not be a semester, nor will there be the accompanying guaranteed measurable accomplishment that I can feel proud of by the time Winter Break comes around.  There isn’t even such thing as “Winter Break” anymore.

Most disorientingly, I’m no longer building towards a discrete point at which I will have “graduated” from my current world to another one that is somehow more real and meaningful.  I’ve arrived in that world.  And it feels less real than the old one.
I've definitely had my share of post-academic anomie, especially while I still lived near my alma mater. It was just so easy to audit classes, and I had so much free time...

But there's also a pretty strong prevailing counter-narrative: that school, or the prevailing paradigm in American schooling, sucks and is a terrible experience for students. I don't mean the social conditions, but the structure of the educational institution, for pretty much exactly the same reasons Kayla cited positively.

A popular video example of this is the RSA Animate version of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson. Robinson takes a sort of Foucaultian view of the current education paradigm and its history, arguing that it grew out of the Industrial Revolution and the need for a regimented workforce. Thus, school days arranged in shifts, divided by bells, departments, and so on. Cue the Pink Floyd: We don't need no education/ We don't need no thought control...
He believes that much of the present education system in the United States fosters conformity, compliance and standardisation rather than creative approaches to learning. Robinson emphasises that we can only succeed if we recognise that education is an organic system, not a mechanical one. Successful school administration is a matter of fostering a helpful climate rather than "command and control".
It's all very Romantic. I don't mean to explore the validity of Robinson's theories of education any more than to point out that his TED Talk is one of the most watched ever, and that RSA Animate video has tens of millions of views. So lots of people are aware of this view.

The funny thing is, unless everyone else went to Crazy Hell School, K-12 education in America allows for much more creativity than pretty much any "real world" job. Sure, in K-12 you divide the day up into "science time," "social studies time," "recess," "art time," and so on, but that's a crazy level of variety compared to a 9-5 work shift, where most of the variation is in the task and not the subject matter. Variation in tasks, having "art time" or recess, is seen as a weird thing limited to startups and Google. It's all rather juvenile.

I side pretty heavily with Kayla on this, and yet I agree that the tendency for startups to include game rooms and so on is really stupid and gimmicky. Hm.

II.

I also wonder if there's deeper psychology at work. Suppose the "yeah, school was regimented and soul-crushing" people were right. But now suppose that the "I love my adult job, it's so fulfilling and goal-oriented" people who work in cubicles at jobs other people think are regimented and soul-crushing are also right. At least subjectively.

Why? Because I can find a pretty decent mapping between Kayla's desiderata and the generic American workplace:
  • Seeing old classmates, meeting new ones — co-workers, co-unionists, co-tradespeople
  • New relationships with teachers or mentors — managers and senior coworkers
  • Nobody will curate information for me to consume — (Potentially) management does this
  • Semesters / semester exams — Periodic performance review / employee of the month
  • Winter Break — PTO, and not the parent-teacher kind
  • Discrete point of "graduation" — career paths / promotion
Making this analogy, though, seems horribly glib to me, mostly because I don't have appreciable corporate experience, but also because I'm not convinced that it really is analogous.

What if, for some people, the left and right hand sides are in fact incommensurable? It's not to hard for me to imagine somebody writing a blog post on LinkedIn about how much they love having finally joined the workforce, because they never felt analogous experiences to forming relationships with co-workers, learning from managers and senior coworkers, promotion, vacation when they want and not decided ahead of time, etc.

There's probably a continuum here, between academic and workforce type people. But what kind of type is it?

It seems like it can't entirely be a cultural thing, because joining the workforce at least is pretty definitively deferred in our society. And outside school, younger kids get a mix of experiences. Could it be a personality thing?

If so, it would certainly be a couple of scales. The theoretical extremes are 100% academic (fully enthusiastic about school experiences and norms), and 100% workforce (mutatis mutandis). I definitely fall on the academic side of 50-50, but I can certainly tolerate enough of the generic workforce ethos to hunker down and get paid.

This continuum almost certainly has more dimensions than just those two. For example, I absolutely do not get enthusiasm for gym that some people have. I mean, I understand the importance of exercise and fitness, I like doing stuff outdoors, but I really don't like the exertion. I just do it because I know it's good for me. I'm not one to get hype for #legday or whatever fitness culture terminology is appropriate there. But then again I got really excited to sign up for a Coursera course on automata theory, which I'm sure even gym-friendly academics might quirk an eyebrow at, even though intellectually we could probably outline lots of similarities to a gym regimen and a self-study course.

III.

I don't exactly resonate with the latter half of the post—I just don't share that particular anomie (yet?)—but I wonder what the implications would be, if there were some sort of psychographic distributions that favored one sort of institutional structure over others. Certainly there's been a lot of buzz recently about "unschooling" but that fixes itself in opposition to just the one kind of institution, albeit the one that's federally mandated for 11 or 12 years of every American child's life. As if the workplace isn't all but mandated for 30, 40, or 50 years of every American adult's life!

So what would a business look like, that ran its departments like a school? What would a school look like, that treated its students like employees? (I don't mean the degrading process of "economization" and market excessivism that have beset schools from K-12 to university.) We do seem to have a workforce equivalent of unschooling: freelance, basically, or the kind of work where you live out of a camper van and do odd jobs while traveling cross country.

Or maybe that's entirely the wrong way to approach this situation. Maybe it's just that the prevailing memes are that school sucks and work sucks, and that life is a big grind except for the exceptional few, and that pretty much any time anyone tries to boss me around that's an injustice. Certainly suspicion of authority is one of the chief American narratives. In which case, love of the school system (or the workforce) would be a strange failure of the narrative to fully take hold. (And it does run deep; we're noticeably weirder about that sort of thing than even our otherwise-quite-similar Canadian neighbors.)

In which case, this might be yet another instance of a classic American tension: how to balance the relentless suspicion-of-authority narrative with the social fact that sometimes you need to get a little hierarchical-cooperative to get things done. Not like that isn't a giant fixture in political debates or anything...

REVIEW: "Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France" --- The demon-haunted Ancien Regime

Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark contains many excellent parts, but this is among the best and most foreboding:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
Here's the thing: this scenario already came to pass—in France of the 1780s. Just a little over two hundred years before Sagan published his prophecy, the Ancien Regime fulfilled a weird inverse. The spirit of the age was Science, the idea that Science had unlocked so many secrets of the universe that men had become as gods, that everything half-mythical would be proven true. It was this milieu that provided the main vector for transmission of radical ideas from the intellectual elite—those very few who had actually read Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Social Contract—to the common people, and therefore fomenting a Revolution. This vector, the pseudoscientific theory of mesmerism (or "animal magnetism"), is the focus of Robert Darnton's book Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France.

Darnton packs quite an argument into about 150 pages: that the pseudoscientific medical-philosophical theory of mesmerism provided the rhetorical basis for later radical politics in pre-Revolutionary France, and that this lead directly to the abandonment of Enlightenment ideas in favor of esotericism, mysticism, and Romanticism. Not that the Revolution would have failed to reach the masses without mesmerism, but that few people actually read Rousseau's work, and so they needed some more popular medium to be transmitted through. Thanks to the fervor for science (well, "science") in the Ancien Regime, pseudo-scientific language was the perfect medium.

Overall the book is excellent, and Darnton injects just the right amount of irony in his observations---mesmerism is somewhat quaint in its original form, but was taken to ludicrous heights in later years in the search for a "universal system"---but unfortunately this is a book for scholars of French history, so lots of French text is presented without translation! I felt rather left out. Thankfully it doesn't much impede the thrust of the argument, but I would have liked more translation, even brute-force literal translations.


The most striking thing, to me, was Darnton's use of primary sources to illustrate the attitude of literate Frenchmen at the time before the Revolution: namely, that revolution was the last thing on their minds! And yet, in their fervor for hot air balloon flights and chemistry demonstrations, one sees the epistemic rot in the system. France was so enthused by the discoveries and demonstrations of scientists, that they imagined that surely all magic and mythical beasts would soon be proven true. In other words, mysticism and supernatural belief never seemed more acute than now, at the very height of the Enlightenment.

In a way this provides a damning critique of the Enlightenment as it first emerged as a world-view: it did not yet have the capability to effectively block out pseudoscience and supernaturalism. In particular, the academies of medicine of the time were barely science-based, so the mesmerists had legitimate critiques of the establishment! It didn't help that the prevailing tendency (held over from older, pre-scientific times) seems to have been censorship rather than criticism and testing in the face of challenges to the orthodoxy. 

Of course, in this work of history there's something to be gained with comparison to the present. I thought it was the height of irony that late-18th-c. France was more "science minded" than contemporary America, at least going off of what people said. And yet, I can't quite see this as a bad thing: it seems that in general science is normalized far more than it was back then, so it's not quite the Big Shiny that let weirdos use it to slip nonsense through people's bullshit sensors. Then again, maybe it's just that 21st-century American society is less monolithic with respect to social movements than 18th-century France was—society-wide faddishness does seem to be a historical defining feature of French society...

The other fascinating thing about Darnton's extensive use of primary sources is how freaking old pseudoscience is. The basic concepts of mesmerism weren't especially original to Anton Mesmer, though they were repackaged into the "fluid" paradigm of contemporary science. And yet they get recycled over and over and over and over into the 21st century, fading into the background but never really dying out. Apparently mesmerists still exist in France, though they are on the obscure-and-sad fringe that nobody much pays attention to, like Theosophists (or, lately, Christian Scientists) are in America.

I give this book a hearty recommendation for anyone who likes the history of ideas, skeptical history, history of science, or French history. However, there was one annoyance: as this is a book for historians of France, there are several passages in the footnotes which are untranslated! I was very disappointed. Still, overall it's definitely worth reading.

02 September 2015

Wednesday Links -- 2 September 2015

Here's some of the stuff I've read about this week that's worth a comment or two.

This piece in the New Republic from 2014 pretty (suspiciously?) well echos the introduction to Doing Good Better, a book on effective altruism that I'll be reviewing shortly. In particular, it makes DGB's very persuasive case that the current paradigm of charitable giving and international aid in particular... sucks. But DGB does give some counterpoints to the typical aid-skeptic view, noting that while "average" aid has been on the order of 100-200 dollars per person per year to the developing world, that's a false image because charity effectiveness is highly skewed: the very best charities are incredibly effective compared to even merely very good charities. So a lot more has been done than one might expect. (All the more reason to pay attention to which charities are the very best!)

Ashley Madison Code Shows More Women, and More Bots. It should be a theorem of the Internet by now: given any private service promising (closed-source) discretion, your desire for discretion has far more value to the service than any actual discretion. This holds for adulterous dating sites as much as it does for anonymous remailers, Bitcoin services, or whatever.

Eric Liu at the Atlantic makes the same case for E. D. Hirsch's cultural literacy argument as I did several years ago: that any effective liberal progressive agenda must include cultural literacy, otherwise there will be far fewer ways to effectively engage with the power structure. Holy hell, he must have actually read the book!

Tom Shippey in this 2011 Wall Street Journal article makes a powerful case for the science fiction genre, rebutting authors who disdain the label and yet freely appropriate the form and trappings anyway. What does it mean when someone like Margaret Atwood says The Handmaid's Tale isn't science fiction—and it isn't, it's a fable—and seems to believe that a sfnal Handmaid's Tale (where the connection between the setting and the present day actually seems plausible rather than obvious caricature) would somehow be an inferior story?
What event could trigger the rise of a patriarchal theocracy? Robert Heinlein would have thought of something political. How do the patriarchs keep the young males obedient and suppressed? Jack Vance would have thought of something anthropological. Both George Orwell, in "1984," and Huxley, in "Brave New World," described the precise origins of their dystopias with a thoroughness that Ms. Atwood never attempts. That's sci-fi. Scenario on its own—that is, what we get in "The Handmaid's Tale"? That's not sci-fi, that's (just) speculative.
Shippey also laments the genre's turn towards navel-gazing dystopian stories. I think that trend is finally turning around, but still.

Carceral Feminism and the Libertarian Alternative. Usually when an article talks about a Libertarian Alternative to something it comes out... wrong. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is both sincere and reasonable, a shocking combination among Internet political-thinkpiece-writers. Just imagine the Facebook comments though!

Internet Win: The Wikipedia Page For Racism Is Getting Absolutely Destroyed! Take that, racism!

Meanwhile, Fredrik de Boer laments:
Of all of the ways in which our political conversation is broken, all of the endless petty erosions to the basic ability to meaningfully discuss politics in any constructive way at all, I think this tendency is the worst. It is the single most undermining, destructive way to behave. “I want you to be saying this thing that I think is wrong so that I can get mad at you for being wrong about it and get others to condemn you.” That’s where political progress goes to die, and I have no more patience for it. Sorry. I’m too damn old.
His "one rule" is a pretty good one, I think.

Sam Altman, founder of the startup incubator Y Combinator, is regarded by the tech community has having some sort of good judgement. After all, he picked successful startups like AirBnB. Recently he got some press by saying that he'd invest $100 billion in artificial-intelligence-safety research and development. In the same interview he also claimed that the government was causing "vast overinflation across the board." I don't feel confident agreeing with the wisdom of either.

Related: This startup demonstrates how thin the conceptual line between fair lending and multi-level marketing actually is. Also reinventing the co-signer wheel, in some sense.

The Unlikely Reanimation of H. P Lovecraft: H. P. Lovecraft has far exceeded his own deathbed expectations, going from near-oblivion to popular and critical acclaim on the year of his 125th birthday. Yet, as the Web page title notes, he was a "genius, cult icon, racist." And how! I have a two-volume collection of his correspondence with Robert E. Howard, of Conan the Barbarian fame, another genius cult icon racist. They exchange a variety of, ah, colorful theories of anthropology, based on all sorts of pseudoscience: it's quite fun to read, actually, in a fascinated "wow these ideas were taken seriously not that long ago" way. But as the article notes (echoed in several quotes from Lovecraft scholars and critics) it was precisely his sense of nihilism and alienation born of racism that gives his stories their universal appeal. An amusing irony, that.

A blog I must now follow religiously, Urban kchoze, points out the much more sensible Japanese zoning laws. I will freely acknowledge this, and counter with the insanity that is Japanese mailing address assignment.

Another blog I'll be looking at closely: Naturopathic Diaries — Confessions of a Naturopathic Doctor. I wasn't aware how broad the scope of naturopathic practice is in Washington State, when naturopathy is essentially pseudo-accredited bullshit.  See this interview with the author in Vox.

01 September 2015

Of anarchism and traffic tickets

I.

At the end of the last Drunken Philosophy meeting I gave in to a bit of political-philosophy masochism and listened to a former-libertarian-now-anarchist explain how to argue your way out of paying a traffic fine. Just ask the following series of questions—not arguments, because if you try to argue the judge can just order you to pay:
Is the court obliged to prove its case against me, beyond a reasonable doubt?
   - Yes.

Must the court justify every point of its argument to prove the case?
   - Yes.

Can the court use anything but facts and evidence to justify those points?
   - Yes.

Is the court's reasoning based on the idea of jurisdiction; that I must pay the fine because I allegedly violated a law in the jurisdiction of the court?
   - (with growing trepidation) Yes...

Then what facts or evidence can the court provide that this "jurisdiction" actually exists?
   - Bailiff!
At which point the anarchist, having smugly proved that the court's "authority" is grounded in thug tactics, gets carted off in contempt of court, and still has to pay the fine.

Apparently this argument was suggested by Lysander Spooner, a man with an amazing name and a rather colorful legal pedigree. On the one hand he was a tried-and-true abolitionist who was absolutely militant in trying to achieve emancipation:
From the publication of this book until 1861, Spooner actively campaigned against slavery.[16] He published subsequent pamphlets on Jury nullification and other legal defenses for escaped slaves and offered his legal services, often free of charge, to fugitives.[17] In the late 1850s, copies of his book were distributed to members of Congress sparking some debate over their contents. Even Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi, a slavery proponent, praised the argument's intellectual rigor and conceded it was the most formidable legal challenge he had seen from the abolitionists to date. In 1858, Spooner circulated a "Plan for the Abolition of Slavery", calling for the use of guerrilla warfare against slaveholders by black slaves and non-slaveholding free Southerners, with aid from Northern abolitionists.[18] Spooner also "conspir[ed] with John Brown to promote a servile insurrection in the South", and participated in an aborted plot to free Brown after his capture following the failed raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (Harper's Ferry is now part of the state of West Virginia).[19]

In 1860, Spooner was actively courted by William Seward to support the fledgling Republican Party.[citation needed] An admitted sympathizer with the Jeffersonian political philosophy, Spooner adamantly refused the request and soon became an outspoken abolitionist critic of the party. To Spooner, the Republicans were hypocrites for purporting to oppose slavery's expansion but refusing to take a strong, consistent moral stance against slavery itself.[20]
Like daaaaaamn. By the Salkian standard of moral uprightness ("Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors") Spooner is already way ahead of probably most people. But his ideological rigidity came at cost: "Although he denounced the institution of slavery, Spooner recognized the right of the Confederate States of America to secede as the manifestation of government by consent, a constitutional and legal principle fundamental to Spooner's philosophy; the Northern states, in contrast, were trying to deny the Southerners that right through military force." Of course, this is what often gets repeated through sovereign-citizen and anarcho-capitalist circles. They tend to leave out the part where he also said "It would have been okay for the North to attack the South anyway, if the North had been taking a principled stand against the continuation of slavery..."

What we had in this discussion was (in my estimation) a sort of larval-stage freeman-on-the-land reasoning. The idea that the Law is like the a computer, or the natural world, and if only you can find the right clever argument or device then the Law will obey you in the end. It helps to view everyone else as a narrow-minded sheeple too programmed to think for themselves. Again, we didn't get that far, but I wonder if I didn't observe the ideation in its very first stages.

But enough slandering the argument. What's the counter-reasoning? Well, the crux of the anarchist's argument is that the law contains elements that cannot be justified on evidential grounds, and therefore the law is impotent. I can think of a couple rebuttals that certainly won't make the anarchist happy, but seem likely enough.

II.

First, let's stay abstract. There are lots of systems of thought that (at least within themselves) do not have an ultimate evidence-based grounding. For a soft example, consider cell biology. If you just consider the workings of the cell parts, you won't find the whole story of why things are doing what they're doing: at some point you have to appeal to chemistry. (Obligatory snarky xkcd.) The hard example, is mathematics, which is an axiomatic system. To do mathematics, you have to pick some axioms and just go with them.

As a specific case, Euclid began his discussion of geometry with some axioms:
  • Between any two points, we can draw a line.
  • Any finite line can be infinitely extended in the same direction.
  • Given a point A and a fixed length r, we can draw a circle with center A and radius r.
  • All right angles are equal.
  • The Parallel Postulate.
  • If a = b and b = c, then a = c.
  • If a = b and c = d, then a + c = b + d.
  • If a = b and c = d, then a - c = b - d.
  • a = a.
  • The whole is greater than the part. 
There are even some implied axioms (sub-axioms?!), like the implication that there even are such things as "points" with which we can draw such things as lines and circles, etc. Euclid's axioms aren't enough to provide a foundation for everything one might want to do with mathematics—a quandary that frustrated mathematicians for centuries! Then it was proved that no axiomatic system can provide a foundation for everything one might want to do in mathematics and simultaneously allow for no contradictions. Oops.

Anyway, why do mathematicians even care about axioms? Well, axioms are the stuff we take to be beyond reproach, that once we've chosen a set of axioms, then everything we want somehow extends logically from those axioms. They're a backstop to any annoying barrages of "Why's that?" Eventually we get back to the axioms. Another "Why's that" and we're outside the realm of mathematics per se.

Maybe laws are the same way? Certainly they follow a sort of hierarchy in the United States: The Constitution declares itself to be "the Supreme Law of the Land," so that any further law needs to justify itself to the Constitution, at least in principle, to be considered valid. (Of course, valid laws still can be immoral...) The decisions of the Supreme Court on a law's constitutionality are, in some sense, final. At least there is no higher legal authority to appeal to.

There are differences, of course. Perhaps there are some beneficial laws that are prohibited by the Constitution. I already mentioned Constitutional-but-unjust laws. And moreover the law is not advanced through a process of conjecture, proof, and refutation as in mathematics. It's very possible, and even desirable, for a given law to be interpreted different ways by a judge, given the circumstances of the case.

Yet the principle of axiomatization still holds some weight, I think. In establishing rule of law we sort of need to invoke a Supreme Law. Spooner and other anarchists totally do this, by the way, they just appeal to "natural law" rather than the Constitution, which they regard as grounded in fiction about "consent of the governed" instead of... whatever "natural law" is grounded in. The ground...?

III.

This brings me to the other argument. Anarcho-* people, libertarians, and other political contrarians often finish off the sarcastic gloss of some societal institution they don't like with "... and if you don't, then men with guns come and bully you into doing it anyway." Ergo, taxation (e.g.) is theft.

They say this with the most unctuous sarcasm, too, as if everyone else is just pretending that it's not the case. Maybe other people are. But here's the thing: Yes, and you too. See, only the most hopeless utopian naif would expect that Anarchyland is not, at bottom, grounded in rule by force. It takes on a certain ironic cast when you hear people go on about this and then turn on a dime to explain how the government is going to take away their guns, and how "an armed society is a polite society." Sure, but what happens when someone isn't polite?

I think it's not unreasonable to take one measure of civilization as how much obstinacy is required on someone's part before the Men With Guns come out. In the industrialized world it actually takes quite a bit... unless you are black. (I suppose the barbarism had to find an outlet somewhere. Note the rhetorical inversion.)

Compare this to Libertopia, where it's maybe the second step, if you're lucky. (That's assuming the for-profit court system is even worth your while.) On that measure, then the rule of natural law as predicted by fringe groups is somehow less civilized than even the median case in contemporary American society under the Constitution. Note, also, that white people are vastly overrepresented in this particular ideology. This is rather surprising; given the #BlackLivesMatter narrative, you might expect black people to actually prefer two steps to the current situation of maybe-one. Then again, not surprising, since the historical origins of Sovereign Citizenry are racist as shit.

Not even strict social constructionists can really escape this. No matter how much you want to claim that current social dysfunction would vanish in the "true society" dictated by Nature, or just after your preferred social engineering project has worked its way through a few generations, you still have to account—in principle—for anomalous situations, including That One Guy Who Just Won't Stop Causing Problems. To assert that your Utopia never needs to resort to force is either wishful thinking of the highest order, or else an open invitation to your neighbor civilizations to start revving up the tanks. (What are you going to do, scold them?)

IV.

And that's why Lysander Spooner still has to pay his goddamn parking ticket.