Posts Tagged ‘history


Secret Life of the “High 5”

It’s not secret actually, because it’s on wikipedia, but it’s just a classic case of how the richness of the world can really overwhelm you when bother to focus on any one part of it.

Just reading the bare facts of how the high five supposedly originated brings to mind all sorts of questions. It probably originated in sports — that seems likely, but then one wonders how essential the “high” part of the “high 5” is. Is the high five somehow different than the low five? Before you answer, know that the low five was an African American tradition that clearly came before white people. Did white culture have to make the high five “high” to sanitize it and make it uniquely white or appropriate to white people.

And how does this fit into a pattern of cultural appropriation (I would love to read some who seriously took up the issue of cultural appropriation, the world over, from the Elgin marbles to whatever else — embarrassing that I don’t have that many examples)? After all, think of the history of rap, jazz, and today, the question about the N* word. Is it ok if white people appropriate that too, even if they do in fact intend to use it in it positive valence?

Also, consider the SEXUAL history of the high five. One of the most documented claimants to be the first high five was between Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke. Burke transformed the sign into a gay pride expression in San Fran.

In one sense, one thinks that its wonderful and happy that a cultural sign for gay pride is taken on by the wider culture. After all, this type of diffusion is how progress is made in respecting various groups. But when one uses the word “appropriation” one can see a different side to these things.

Endlessly interesting, was the high five taken from gays and blacks, or was it adopted as an affirmation of the activity and indirectly, those who generated it. Without knowing the whole history, I would wager its the latter. There is nothing better for progress then to have a disenfranchised group become “cool.” The risk is that the group will be exploited by cultural forces (im sure some black artists have had this happen to them), but on the whole, I think sex and cool often work for the better in these situations (think of how important it was for civil rights when the supreme court said that black people and white people could date. In history, nothing brings races together like physical attraction. This too can be abused, but on the whole I’m high on sexual and cultural mixing.)


Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled Reality is Broken. Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.



Marriage: the oldest casualty of western civilization?

In my last post, I talked about how western civilization has seen institutions that put harsh restrictions on people replaced with looser restrictions. I don’t know any good exceptions to this trend, and I wanted to reiterate one additional example that is also very stark and instructive.

Take marriage. At the beginning, marriage was an extremely sacred and powerful social institution. In Europe, it was for a long time controlled by the church which had enormous power over those who ignored its dictates. This had to do with rights that a man had over his wife, who got property from the marriage, and also who inherited the name of the family. Even nobles were largely bound by these dictates. Henry IV had to create his own church to twist out of his marriage commitments.

As time went on though, the requirements softened in a variety of ways. Women began a painstaking campaign for equality within the marriage structure. Furthermore, divorce became easier, the penalties for infidelity less, and arranged marriages became less prevalent. All of these developments continued to the present day. For example as late as 1963, interracial marriages were forbidden in Virginia. More or less though, today, there is a high degree of choice that infuses the marriage institution. People can marry and divorce as they see fit and the stigmatization for being a “bastard” is as far as I know, quite low (though the effect of such a thing on the prospects of the bastards is still quite disastrous). There are STILL laws against adultery in the U.S. (it’s a court martial offense in the military and some states still have laws against it) but the penalties are very small and cases are rarely brought and prosecuted. Adultery is deemed to disrupt the social order in particularly egregious case or when some other angle intersects.

Then of course there is the issue of whether homosexual marriages will be allowed. I think it’s safe to say the day will come. Young people are hugely supportive of gay marriage (when the older generation dies off the issue will be largely dead I predict) and the whole force of European history seems to say that greater choice and flexibility will come, one way or another, into the institution.

What fewer people appreciate is that even as gay marriage is on the horizon of being accepted, it seems that marriage in general is on a slow decline. Less people are getting married, more people are getting divorced, and I’ve heard many people in my generation struggling to understand why it needs to have the social sanction and backing that it does.  The view (not yet in wide circulation, but growing) is something like this: If you’re with someone, then you’re with someone and if they know it, then why does anyone else need to know or care? Love, more than ever, more than class, more than a labor arrangements (women in the kitchen, men at work), religion, and government, is the arbiter of marriage. But as that happens, it seems that marriage will need to be reformulated again to survive. My point is just that the more reformulations it endures, the less urgent it becomes.

I’ll reiterate the point I made in my last point. If marriage continues on its trend to become less and less important, then we may see the end of one of the first and seemingly most powerful social institutions ever created. After something like 2000 years (at LEAST), we would have a conclusive case of society, over the long term, transforming one of the most fundamental human instincts toward a very radically new expression. Just as biologists look over history to understand the evolutionary arch of a species or ecosystem, it might very interesting for sociologists and historians to think broadly about what characteristics of our civilization created, and then over such a long time, destroyed, marriage as a social form.


Nietzsche and Red Bull

Nietzsche predicted that European / Western culture was on the verge of losing its energy and dynamism because of the way that it related to pain and to the experience of life. He predicted a wide-ranging decline in the politics, art, and leadership of european life due to the acceptance of pleasure as the leading principle guiding society combined with a stultifying egalitarianism.

Given this prediction, I think it’s interesting to think about energy drinks. Coffee has existed since time immemorial, but a more recent phenomenon is energy drinks. Looking at this short update shows that the market for highly caffeinated beverages is growing by a lot each year.

But why do people need so much energy though? Historically, it seems very out of place. Think about the brutality of medieval europe or the industrial revolution. People sometime worked 20 hour shifts in cramped conditions with little light or air and of course no safety regulations. Shouldn’t it be the case that THOSE people needed “energy” more than the modern person.

What this leads me to wonder is a conjecture that I think fits with some other transitions in modern life, which is that perhaps we are just becoming more bored with things. Our search for more wealth, more luxury, and more entertainment…does it betray that in a deep sense we might be boring our collective culture to death. How many times will Hollywood reboot the same movie franchise before we start to seriously consider the possibility that as life becomes more easier, healthier, and more secure, it also becomes more boring? Do we need energy to get through our days because though we have easily available water, air conditioning, and cars, we are fatter, less focused, and more easily distracted?

Is it fair to think of our time in history as one in which we need energy, quite literally, just to get through our days. 


NASA, Zero Pox, and Weather Report

This post is about sticking with an issue long enough to see what history has to say about otherwise very uncertain pronouncements in tough situations. One reason Barack Obama did so well in the primary against Hillary is that both politicians had made a decision about the Iraq war, Hillary for and Barack against, and Barack turned out to be substantially correct (or did he? A longer time horizon maybe revealed that he was the one who was wrong, but things change as time stretches on).

Thus,  one really good character trait is judgment, which is the ability to get things right when complete information is lacking.

I bring this up because I want to brag a little bit. In this post I argued that the government would win handily in a national security / privacy case called NASA v. Nelson. Basically, the government was requiring some background checks for some contract engineers at a jet propulsion lab, and they complained about it. Well, I am proud to say that I was right and that the government won a UNANIMOUS VICTORY. Now I don’t know if this ruling is good in the sense that it makes our system of law more just or fair, but I am saying that after reading the facts of the case, I thought it was a clear victory for the government.

Ok, but really, this is a small point. The bigger point is that we need to study history to learn about our capacity for judgment. Inevitably we face hard choices, and so we go with one option over the other. The only way to sharpen our ability to make those type of choices is to go back, and do some history to see how our process of decision-making is successful or not.

Here I talked about a book I’m reading called Scourge. This book has something to say about judgment and history as well.

In the 90’s smallpox had been eliminated from the world and only existed in the laboratories of the CDC and some Ex-Soviet bio-weapon facility. The question was, what to do with these viruses. Some people advocated destroying them and so, seemingly, ending the existence of that virus on earth (since it cannot survive outside of humans). Others thought it would be worth keeping the ‘ole virus around to learn things from it. This debate was very hard to resolve at the time that it was brewing most fiercely. “Destructionists” thought that nothing could be learned from smallpox because it did not have a suitable animal model from which results could be extrapolated from. They also argued that there was a risk in keeping the virus around to be stolen or for an accident to happen.

Those on the other side thought that the virus could be used to learn about the human immune system as well as to create new drugs and more sophisticated vaccines. They argued that other countries had secretly preserved the virus and that the U.S. as well as the rest of the civilized world should do the same.

Well who was right? History gives a partial answer. Not only did research discover a suitable animal model for further research, but there were significant strides made in finding antibiotics that attacked the virus as well as new vaccines that would work for immunosuppressed people.

The importance of these innovations can be seen by considering 9/11.  The pessimists seemed to get a lot of credibility for their assertion that there were bad people that would not hesitate to use biological weapons if they could get their hands on them, especially after the anthrax scare right after 9/11.

Of course, history may reverse and trick us again. What if the next attack takes place using stolen viruses from the CDC or from a decaying Soviet biowarfare lab? Then the decision to retain the virus is going to look pretty stupid, and the “right decision” may continue to change depending on what actually happens.

Thus there is a difference between what is in fact the best decision and what is the best decision at the time and given the available facts. Only smart thinking can make the latter, but only history can teach us what the former was.

What I mean is that there is a difference between what happens and what was calculated to happen. If the risk of having the virus stolen was, objectively, 1/1000000, then it made sense to store the virus, even if history takes the path of that extremely minute percentage and it gets stolen and then used. The right decision at the time would be storing the virus, but history would teach us that it would have been better to destroy it.

Also, just found out about this song “Birdland” by Weather Report. It’s quite good.


Zen and art of climate science

Here’s a nice post about people who deny global warming.

The point of the article is simple: the forces of public discussion are massively in favor of the long term triumph of understanding of climate issues. According to a recent report (from Yale, woohoo), many Americans want to know more about climate science and they trust scientists to give them this information. The real issue is getting the message out in a robust and controlled manner. The report also notes that extreme skeptics about climate change are a rarity and not the norm.

A lot of people spend time getting worked up about people who deny that global warming is real, but everyone should just chill out. I say this so much on this blog, but I’ll say it again. America has serious problems to deal with, and the sooner everyone can stop whining and playing back-biting garbage games about small potatoes, the better we’ll all be.

Of course, global warming IS a real issue, and people should be trying to change policy on this issue, but as I’ve also said a billion times before, sometimes the right response is a zen-like take-the-high-road attitude. And what I mean is that persuasion is  science. If you want large groups of society to come around to a certain position, then you better not be so naive as to think that SIMPLY BEING RIGHT on the factual matters at play is enough to come out ahead.

So you think to yourself, kind of dramatically, “the truth is not enough, there has to be aggressive campaigns to get those doubters to see the light.” Well not really. Sometimes the best way for one view to ascend in acceptance and popularity is to remain above the fray and to be serene and imperturbable rather than angry and reactionary.

One example is gay marriage. As far as I can tell, history is on the side of gays becoming substantially better off in the medium to long term. People who don’t like rights for gays are getting old, or are just plain dying. It’s important to work on behalf of gay rights, but people who get really angry about homosexual haters are really just doing a disservice to everyone by giving more grist to those who WANT politics to be about anger. Every extreme leftist that lets slip inflammatory (but often true) statements about military, spending, homosexuality, or welfare just further alienates even open-minded conservatives. In other words, society works on trust and not just on arguments, and for that very reason, the best policy is to ONLY TALK in terms of argument. The side of an issue that speaks in terms of facts, projects their moderation, their reasonability, and above all, CONFIDENCE.

Nothing settles arguments better than confidence, and the best way to project it in the case of climate science is just to keep stating the arguments and putting them forward in the best light possible. They may even be wrong. The final analysis will tell (after all science was Newtonian before it realized it should be Einsteinian), but the point is that to convince as many people as possible, one should be zen-like. In control of oneself and in control of the arguments.

As with rights for homosexuality, I believe that history is on the side of climate change, and the sooner we calmly acknowledge that fact and non-condescendingly (that’s a huge piece of advice that many liberals just can’t seem to take) spread the message, the sooner we’ll bring the future toward the present.


Islam in America

This week (the show), had a town hall style program in which a live studio audience watched several pundits discuss the perception of Islam in America. There were some really ridiculous comments made, but overall, this was a good attempt to advance the dialogue about these issues.

First, as a small side note, the woman who lost her daughter in 9/11 stole the show with some really powerful rhetoric. I thought she was just a really credible ordinary American with fairly sophisticated view of these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised if she shows up elsewhere. She was impressive.

The point I want to make though is that there was a lot of discussion about Islam as it is practiced globally in some repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Christian commentators on this segment pointed toward Sharia law and honor murders, and other things that Muslims do. As many on the show pointed out, what people do in Iran is not a rationale for treating American Muslims with suspicion, but the error of this point is much more profound.

First, why IS IT that Christians don’t really do barbarous things anymore? The Christian representative on this show wanted to create the belief that Christianity was somehow a trustworthy religion that could live in peace with its neighbors while Islam could not. This could not be more wrong, and it’s very deceptive to boot. Last time I checked, Christianity cooled its jets due to political and philosophical developments during the enlightenment. Basically, governments got tired of Christians killing each other all the time and so invented the idea of tolerance. This idea filtered down to religious people who became easier to deal with. Christians were NEVER on board with this idea and they have accepted it only INSOFAR as society continues to trend in that direction (evangelicals in our country are just the latest incarnation of people who refuse to accept toleration as a cornerstone of modern society).

What this means is that Christianity is likely a liberal religion today because it was FORCED to inhabit liberal European states as they grew during the past 300 odd years (yay liberalism). Many Muslims and ESPECIALLY the ones that do crazy things live in non-liberal and even non-industrial societies. Given that Christianity did crazy things when it flourished within non-liberal regimes, perhaps we should stop trying to theorize an intrinsic hierarchy of religions and think about the governments that various religions inhabit. When religious people live in dictatorships, they do stupid stuff (history is my witness) but when they live in liberal states, they learn to be liberal, thank god (no pun intended). So, we can surmise that as Muslims live in liberal states, they will become more and more liberal. Muslims in Saudi Arabia may remain reactionary for years, but that’s because their government is extremely illiberal and leans on absurd religious practices for the purpose of social control.

This was borne out by the fact that some Imam was yelling at one of the women on the show to put on her traditional attire and she (being Daisy Khan, a liberal, modern, moderate Muslim) just kind of laughed at him. You see, she’s a firm part our secular and permissive society, if we can keep her there.