Ellsberg’s broad conclusion

Yet what seems to be beyond question is that any social system (not only ours) that has created and maintained a Doomsday Machine and has put the trigger to it, including first use of nuclear weapons, in the hands of one human being – anyone, not just this one man, still worse in the hands of an unknown number of persons – is in core aspects mad. Ours is such a system. We are in the grip of institutionalized madness.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury; New York. 2017. p. 332 (italics in original)

Film doesn’t feel

One of the limitations of photography — especially that which eschews unrealistic post-processing — is that it provides limited means for expressing emotions. There is no link between the feelings in your mind and the data your sensor collects, unlike the stroke of a pen in forming a word of brush in making a drawing.

Nonetheless, photography is art-by-doing. An unaltered photo is a credible statement: I was at this place, these things were around me (Exif data can make it especially intimate). In that spirit, I tried to take a walk to express grief and pain photographically. When you’re sick with these feelings — when your brain feels like it’s being pulled apart — one answer is to travel somewhere strange and remote. To listen to the night wind blowing across something enormous and cold.

I’m working on practicing non-self-destructive ways of handling overpowering emotions.

The space race as single combat

With the decline of archaic magic, the belief in single combat began to die out. The development of the modern, highly organized army and the concept of “total war” seemed to bury it forever. But then an extraordinary thing happened: the atomic bomb was invented, with the result that the concept of total war was nullified. The incalculable power of the A-bomb and the bombs that followed also encouraged the growth of a new form of superstition founded upon awe not of nature, as archaic magic had been, but of technology. During the Cold War period small-scale competitions again took on the magical aura of a “testing of fate,” of a fateful prediction of what would inevitably happen if total nuclear war did take place. This, of course, was precisely the impact of Sputnik I, launched around the earth by the Soviets’ mighty and mysterious Integral in October 1957. The “space race” became a fateful test and presage of the entire Cold War conflict between the “superpowers,” the Soviet Union and the United States. Surveys showed that people throughout the world looked upon the competition in launching space vehicles in that fashion, i.e., as a preliminary contest proving final and irresistible power to destroy. The ability to launch Sputniks dramatized the ability to launch nuclear warheads on ICBMs. But in these neo-superstitious times it came to dramatize much more than that. It dramatized the entire technological and intellectual capability of the two nations and the strength of the national wills and spirits. Hence … John McCormack rising in the House of Representatives to say that the United States faced “national extinction” if she did not overtake the Soviet Union in the space race.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 124–5 (ellipses in original)

Related:

Fighter pilots’ hazardous lifestyles

More fighter pilots died in automobiles than in airplanes. Fortunately, there was always some kindly soul up the chain to certify the papers “line of duty,” so that the widow could get a better break on the insurance. That was okay and only proper because somehow the system itself had long ago said Skol! and Quite right! to the military cycle of Flying & Drinking and Drinking & Driving, as if there were no other way. Every young fighter jock knew the feeling of getting two or three hours’ sleep and then waking up at 5:30 a.m. and having a few cups of coffee, a few cigarettes, and then carting his poor quivering liver out to the field for another day of flying. There were those who arrived not merely hungover but still drunk, slapping oxygen tank cones over their faces and trying to burn the alcohol out of their systems, and then going up, remarking later: “I don’t advise it, you understand, but it can be done.” (Provided you have the right stuff, you miserable pudknocker.)

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; New York. 1979. p. 37 (italics in original)

Breaking loops

As an experiment in living and in an effort to protect my sleep I have set my router to disable internet access from all my devices between 2:00am and 7:00am seven days a week.

Especially when I am feeling down and wishing I could avoid things, there is a temptation to just keep clicking through YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or news stories.

Contrary to the pervasive idea that being well-informed is all about being apprised of the latest information, there is good reason to think that the newer information is the more likely it is to the incorrect, incomplete, or useless. Over time, we filter information by quality, put things together, and benefit from additional context. That makes the news from a weekly or monthly magazine more likely to be informative than the news from the current Google News page or a social media feed, and it means reading a book which society has determined to be important almost certainly carries more lifetime value than reading the same number of words from breaking news stories.

There are other self-harming loops I have been working to disrupt in myself and better understand in other people. Despite a lot of anguish and turmoil, the overall experience of the last couple of months suggests that improvement is possible.

STEM over-emphasized?

Even at Google collaborative skills matter more than technical ones:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

I suppose that’s unsurprising in a sprawling corporation like Google. When you’re working to advance mass interests within a bureaucracy, human interaction can often be the most important factor. Working alone on your own project technical competence and motivation may matter most, but in a web of people the way you affect the others will often be paramount.

Pullman on authoritarianism and eroded democracy

Along with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, Phillip Pullman’s essay “Malevolent voices that despise our freedoms” must be one of his most radical pieces of writing. It corresponds to his general concern about lack of oversight over powerful institutions and speaks out powerfully against the authoritarianism that can arise in parallel with public fear:

And the new laws whisper:

We do not want to hear you talking about truth

Truth is a friend of yours, not a friend of ours

We have a better friend called hearsay, who is a witness we can always rely on

We do not want to hear you talking about innocence

Innocent means guilty of things not yet done

We do not want to hear you talking about the right to silence

You need to be told what silence means: it means guilt

We do not want to hear you talking about justice

Justice is whatever we want to do to you

And nothing else

One early passage in his new novel La Belle Sauvage evokes a similar theme:

She tried to keep a steady pace. She had nothing to fear from the police, or from any other agency, except like every other citizen she had everything to fear. They could lock her up with no warrant and keep her there with no charge; the old act of habeus corpus had been set aside, with little protest from those in Parliament who were supposed to look after English liberty, and now one heard tales of secret arrests and imprisonment without trial, and there was no way of finding out whether the rumors were true. (p. 153–4)

Authors like Pullman and Margaret Atwood play a valuable societal role in drawing attention to such dangers: that fear will drive us to hand over control to unaccountable entities and that a drift toward dystopia is possible. Among all the dangers we face, we mustn’t forget the nightmares the state is capable of imposing.

Related:

Jordan Peterson’s crusade

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson‘s conduct has increasingly been the subject of public and media criticism. He has gone from refusing to let students choose their own gender pronouns to a much broader critique of university culture. Recently, he proposed to start a website where people could report which of their professors and classes are “indoctrination cults”.

See:

Dr. Peterson is an interesting man and one of the most compelling speakers I’ve been exposed to. I feel like he has seriously lost perspective and become inappropriately convinced that he is being subjected to persecution. If he could abstract himself from his own situation enough to think about it more objectively, I think a section from one of this lectures would lead to him rethinking his conduct:

So life is suffering. What does that do to people? It makes them resentful. These are pitfalls of being. Except being has a structure. One of its fundamental structural elements is suffering. But suffering produces other characteristics of being: resentment is a characteristic of being. People feel resentful when they believe that they’ve been taken advantage of. And if you feel resentful, it may be that you are being taken advantage of. It may also be that you should screw your head on straight and look at things properly. And it may also be that you should talk to somebody to find out if you’re being taken advantage of or if your head just isn’t screwed on straight.

Dr. Peterson started on the comparatively defensible ground of being concerned about how potentially oppressive institutions might unjustly constrain speech, but from the beginning he has been targeting the oppressed rather than the strong. Now he has drifted into the company of aggrieved enemies of supposed “political correctness” who have inverted their understanding of politics to see themselves as oppressed while those like the transgendered are elevated by structures which he must now resist. It’s a dynamic where exposure to people who disagree with you can tend to deepen your conviction that you are actually right, leading to you being more and more isolated and increasingly unable to comprehend the discussion you’re taking part in.

Americans have grown apart

I don’t know the methodology used to create these distributions, but this graphic from a recent Economist article on the political effects of social media shows how Democrats and Republicans have overlapped less and less in the last 25 years:

I would really like to know the method behind creating these shapes. For instance, in both there are “Republicans” who are nearly at the “consistently liberal” outer edge, and “Democrats” nearly on the outer right. My guess is that this is based on party self-identification, but it would be good to know more.