Thursday, September 28, 2017

Maximum Uncertainty Principle

Vasya Lozhkin
We live in uncertain times. In the US, large chunks of Texas and Florida are uninhabitable due to hurricane damage. All of Puerto Rico is without electricity. In the Caribbean, entire islands of Barbuda, Domenica and St. Martin have been destroyed. Elsewhere in the world, on the island of Bali, 75,000 people are being evacuated from around the Mount Agung volcano, which is said to be ready to erupt. In Washington, the new director of FEMA is urging everyone to develop a “culture of preparedness.” But the problem is that we don’t ever really know what to prepare for; if we did, then we would surely prepare for it, as we do for most foreseeable eventualities. Yes, having a bug-out bag with a change of clothing, a few essentials, your documents and some cash is always a good idea. But what can we do beyond that? What’s the use of a food stockpile if your home is uninhabitable? What’s the use of a fuel reserve if the roads are impassable? And what’s the use of money if power is out and cash registers aren’t working?

This may sound defeatist, and since we don’t want to sound defeatist (because that would be embarrassing) we go on expecting, and relying on, various certainties of daily life that are in fact quite uncertain. For most people, doing anything other than daily navigating a triangular course between home, work (or school) and shopping would not look like success, and that, again, would be embarrassing. But what a “culture of preparedness” entails is the ability to survive many small embarrassments instead of dying of one big embarrassment once our triangular course becomes unnavigable due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control.

But what else is there to do? There is only one good and simple answer: you have to think for yourself. (I hope that you don’t expect somebody else to do your thinking for you, because that’s not going to happen.) But thinking is hard! It is especially hard because we are accustomed to certainty, and uncertainty breaks our existing thought patterns with nothing to replace them. But here is the thing: uncertain times call for uncertain thoughts. Since thinking uncertain thoughts takes quite a knack, which you may not currently have, and since I am here to help, let’s get started.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Public Loathing as Deification

Before going on with discussing the many ways in which linguistic limitations, deficits and defects imperil our ability to think and to communicate our thoughts and cause us to obscure what is tangibly, experientially real behind a veil of artifice and nonsense, I want to focus on a certain phenomenon that has become particularly widespread lately and has been causing many of us to inadvertently become members of political hate cults.

Cults are often nasty things that subordinate the free will of their neighbors to all sorts of preposterous and outrageous notions. They are the breeding grounds of political and religious extremism and intolerance. They splinter societies and turn relatives, friends and neighbors against each other. Governments periodically find it necessary to suppress them, even resorting to violence—all the way to actually destroying them with fire, as happened with the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas on 19 of April 1993. Cults that combine politics with religion, such as the Wahhabi state cult of Saudi Arabia that has been breeding extremism all over the world, are particularly nasty.

But the type of cult I want to discuss is quite different from these.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Arise, You Prisoners of Semantics! (Part 3)

Language is the tool that we think and communicate with. This makes it pretty important. There are some ideas floating about that make our choice of linguistic tools irrelevant. Such as: people are people, whatever language they speak is whatever language they speak, they all have the right to free self-expression, and they have the right to express their opinions, based on whatever it is they thought up, by voting. But there are differences between languages, just as there are differences between a penny whistle and a kazoo at one end of the spectrum and a concert piano at the other. Consequently, the classical repertoire is replete with piano concertos but there is a dearth of them for penny whistle and kazoo. But language has far more important uses than making beautiful music: it is the medium used for thought, deliberation and decision-making.

Just as a concert pianist doesn’t spend a great deal of time thinking about which finger to run over which key, letting the music take his hands where it wants to, so too we let our language carry our thought forward in a way that is largely automatic. The specific features of the language we speak influences the thoughts we think. It is possible but difficult to go beyond what our language can readily express through the use of special terminology and awkward, labored phrasing. On the other hand, it takes no effort at all to run roughshod over distinctions which our language does not enforce. When people start to ignore some nicety of grammar, they may at first sound uncouth and uneducated, but once the trend runs its course everyone forgets what any of it was about. But what in fact happens is that the voices of countless generators of our ancestors are suddenly and permanently silenced. They had evolved this or that grammatical category or feature through trial and error, and preserved it over thousands of years because it conferred advantages on them—and us—by enabling us to think higher-quality thoughts more or less effortlessly and automatically.

This is a horror story in which the loss of one small but vital grammatical distinction leads a certain part of humanity to be conquered and dominated by machines to such an extent that they forget what it means to be human, or an animal, or alive.

Continue reading... [3348 words]

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Organizational Announcement

By popular demand, ClubOrlov is shifting to a semiweekly publishing schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays.

• Tuesdays will once again be free blogging days, with the full article (usually an editorial on current events) published on ClubOrlov and announced on Patreon. You should feel free to quote, excerpt or re-post these articles, provided you do so with full attribution (including my name and a link to the original).

• Thursdays will be premium content days, with the full essay (usually a longer, more in-depth, analytic piece) published on Patreon, visible to subscribers only and announced on ClubOrlov. For those who object to paying $1/month for Patreon access, a paper edition of the essays will be published on Amazon on a semiannual basis. For those who object to paying Amazon… well, there is just no pleasing some people!

Military Defeat as a Financial Collapse Trigger

Back in 2007 I wrote Reinventing Collapse, in which I compared the collapse of the USSR to the forthcoming collapse of the USA. I wrote the following:

“Let us imagine that collapsing a modern military-industrial superpower is like making soup: chop up some ingredients, apply heat and stir. The ingredients I like to put in my superpower collapse soup are: a severe and chronic shortfall in the production of crude oil (that magic addictive elixir of industrial economies), a severe and worsening foreign trade deficit, a runaway military budget and ballooning foreign debt. The heat and agitation can be provided most efficaciously by a humiliating military defeat and widespread fear of looming catastrophe.” (p. 2)

A decade later these ingredients are all in place, with a few minor quibbles. The shortfall of oil is in the case of the US not the shortfall of physical oil but of money: against the backdrop of terminal decline of conventional oil in the US, the only meaningful supply increase has come from fracking, but it has been financially ruinous. Nobody has made any money from selling fracked oil: it is too expensive.

Meanwhile, the trade deficit has been setting new records, defense spending has continued its upward creep and the levels of debt are at this point nothing short of stratospheric but continuing to rise. Fear of catastrophe is supplied by hurricanes that have just put significant parts of Texas and Florida under water, unprecedented forest fires in the West, ominous rumblings from the Yellowstone supervolcano and the understanding that an entire foamy mess of financial bubbles could pop at any time. The one ingredient we are missing is a humiliating military defeat.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Everything is Going According to Plan—The Book

Six months ago I started publishing my weekly blog posts behind a paywall. Over the intervening months I have accumulated well over a thousand subscribers, most of whom pledge the minimum $1 per month. After all the fees (PayPal, Visa/Mastercard, etc., plus 5% for Patreon's service), this nets me just 77 cents. This rather minimal amount has had some wonderful effects. First, I no longer have to fight off trolls and filter spam from the comments. Second, the quality of the comments, which are now hidden behind the paywall, has improved greatly and now make very interesting reading, often as interesting as the blog posts themselves. Third, even this little bit of extra income has given me some needed breathing space, allowing me to devote more time to writing longer, more detailed, better researched weekly articles. The result is that over the past six months I have written over 300 printed pages, which I am now bringing out in paper book form. I hope that this book will please all those who have balked at making a monthly pledge but won't balk at buying a paper book.

At present the book is only available through CreateSpace, which works well within the US and hardly at all for foreign orders. If you are outside the US, please wait a couple of days, until it becomes available worldwide on Amazon. Thank you for your support.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Arise, You Prisoners of Semantics! (Part 2)

“A bad workman blames his tools” is a common enough idiom, which people often mistake to mean that tools don’t matter—only skills do. This is obviously wrong: tools do matter a great deal, and a good workman starts out with good tools and keeps them sharp and in good working order. Good workmen follow professional standards, both in the tools they use and in the objects they produce. When it comes to thinking, our main tool is language. It is very difficult to express complicated thoughts using simple languages, or to think well using a language that is flawed.

For example, pidgins and creoles, which evolve spontaneously in isolated communities lacking a common language, tend to lack concepts of time (past, present, future). Consequently, users of these languages find it very awkward to get across ideas such as whether someone might have said or done something had no one else said or done it previously. Research on an isolated group of deaf people in Nicaragua which spontaneously evolved a simple sign language showed that once temporal concepts were added to their languages their ability to recall the past and make plans for the future improved as well: language limits cognition.

Most likely, this is not a hard limit, and even limited expressive means can be stretched through effort. But since most people tend to be somewhat lazy it is to be expected that they will shy away from pushing against the boundaries of what their language can readily express. Just as importantly, most languages have certain safeguards built into them that constrain what they can express, blocking out large areas of physical impossibility, whimsy and illogic. These function as guard rails that keep your thoughts from going off a cliff. Languages that lack these guard rails do nothing to limit one from spouting spurious nonsense.

Pidgins and creoles aside, most of the major languages have evolved steadily over time, becoming ever more elaborate and refined, and by now all of them provide a very extensive toolkit for expressing constructive and creative thoughts. Although details vary quite a bit, most Indoeuropean languages (which account for well over half of the world’s speakers and an overwhelming majority of published texts) have a set of grammatical features that are obligatory: to say something, you have to make a choice of tense, mood, number, the animate/inanimate distinction and, significantly for this discussion, that most loaded of contemporary terms, gender. [2974 words]