February 1st, 2016 by Wil
Welp, I’m back to linking to a Scott Adams post on Trump, but this time because it hits on an argument I’ve made myself: with the plethora of free information on the internet we should rethink education. Adams notes…
Trump could take “free college” off the table by saying college is overrated for most people. You can learn almost any skill over the Internet, so what we need is a way to accredit certain collections of skills.
I’ve spent the last couple weeks watching my girlfriend’s son use youtube to educate himself on techniques for filming and lighting movies. There’s tons of useful info out there. But, of course, all his learning is meaningless unless it is verified somehow. This would be the accreditation idea Adams speaks of. Will we see a rise of accreditation institutions that do not teach – that would be up to the student – but simply verify that a person knows what they are talking about? I’d love to see that.
I will say, I’m dubious Trump can make that argument stick for the current Presidential race; people are too wedded to the old ways. But the idea itself has merit and may take hold.
January 30th, 2016 by Wil
Lately, I’ve featured Scott Adams take on Donald Trump on this blog. Adam’s argues that Trump is a “master persuader” who wins arguments by signaling subtle cues that bypass actual argumentation. (Read pretty much any of Adam’s posts on Trump for examples.)
Adam’s posits that Trump is in complete control of his blustering persona. Adam’s has even stated he feels Trump uses ego as tool he can turn on an off e.g. Trump doesn’t feel actually insulted when people disrespect him.
At Vox, an author presents a different view. He argues that Trump has a need to dominate every social situation and this need is built into Trump’s core character.
Trump doesn’t make people feel that way. Indeed, he has constructed his entire professional life around him being the center of universe, the focus of any room he’s in. He doesn’t want to be liked, he wants to be respected and feared. He wants to be the top dog; he is obsessed with it.
I think people often misread that as a species of strength, but its true origin is fear — deep, pre-verbal fear, down in the brainstem.
Some scientists have looked into what makes conservatives conservative. One thing they’ve found is that conservatives are more sensitive to negative features of the environment — to threat, contamination, disorder. At the far right end of the spectrum is the authoritarian, who dreams of total control, freedom from all threat, “peace through strength.”
And that’s Trump (who, not coincidentally, refuses to shake hands for fear of germs). He must be in control, have all the leverage, in every situation. (If he doesn’t, he just declares bankruptcy and moves on.) He is hyper-attuned to disrespect or disloyalty, as the feud with Fox News this week showed. And a hair-trigger fight-or-flight reflex makes him prone to outbursts and personal attacks whenever he feels threatened, which is often.
It’s pathological. And the thing about pathologies is that they cannot be taken on and off like masks. They are pre-conscious; they order incoming experience.
I will say, as much as I find biological or psychological theories about behavior compelling I’m aware they are very difficult to prove. Is Trump’s lizard brain controlling his behavior or a “master persuader” cerebral cortex? Nobody can really claim to know for sure.
On a side note, one things bugs me about the Vox article. At one point the author states.
And here’s the bedrock obstacle to Trump’s success: there are simply not enough struggling, resentful, xenophobic white people in the US to constitute a national majority sufficient to win a presidential election.
And beneath that is a picture of Trump talking to fans. One smiling female fan is what looks to be Asian and beyond that a browned skinned women, possibly Indian or Hispanic. This is is a picture of about seven people total. It’s of course possible that this photo was somehow rigged by Trump to show his multicultural appeal but it’s an odd choice to use under a paragraph making the opposite case.
January 26th, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been thinking a bit more about this signaling idea prompted by Scott Adams’ musings on the rise of Donald Trump. I find a lot of it ties in with things I’d already been thinking about.
Let’s consider this scenario. You bump into a friend and he says, “I’m going home to listen to my new collection of Bing Crosby CDs.” At first glance this might seem an innocuous, almost boring statement. But I would argue much is being said beyond the straight facts. For one, this person is saying they like Bing Crosby, which affirms a few things about their identity. It affirms that they don’t only listen to modern music, but have an affinity for the classics. And specific classics—Crosby represented the white establishment music of the time, a genre of music that is basically maligned by hipster musicians of the modern era (not entirely; this is a complex assertion but I think the gist holds true.) In a way, there’s something “politically incorrect” about liking Crosby as opposed to, say, a grittier black artist like Bessie Smith.
So, basically, that simple statement is loaded up with all sorts of subtle, cultural cues. This person isn’t just telling you about their evening plans, they are telling you about their identity. And depending on how you respond, you will tell them about your identity.
Adams’ assertion is that Trump is similarly loading his statements with these kinds of cues: subtle hidden meanings designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter.
One comment that Trump made that perplexed me at the time was Trump’s statement that illegal Mexican immigrants were hordes of rapists and murderers, though he did add, “some, I assume, are good people.” The “I assume” got me there. It’s like, “Geeze, Donald, you can’t even say that amidst the millions of Mexican immigrants there are, IN FACT, some good people?” He was actually leaving the possibility open that NONE of them were good people.
Let’s hold that thought. Consider another scenario. Let’s say you see a guy selling his car for $4000. You walk up to him and say, “I’ll give you $100.” Do you really expect to get the car for $100? Do you really think that’s a fair offer? Of course not; you’re saying ‘I drive a hard bargain.’ You will buy the car of the guy really wants to sell it, but you’re not going to be an easy mark.
My suspicion is that this was Trump’s real goal with the “good people” comment. He was saying, “I’m a tough negotiator. With me you don’t get to try and convince me that half of Mexican immigrants are good people, you try and convince me that a few of them are. I can lowball with the best of them because I hold the cards.” And people like tough negotiators for President; they like people who drive a hard bargain for “our” interests. I might even argue that this comment appeals especially to business people (small or large) who understand the intricacies of bargaining.
Of course it’s a dangerous statement since it could alienate so many people that it costs him the nomination. We will see of course, but he’s still in the lead.
January 25th, 2016 by Wil
I’m continuing to enjoy Scott Adam’s posts on politics—here’s a recent one arguing that the rise of political outsiders like Trump and Sanders is the result of social media bypassing representational democracy.
There’s another point Adams made somewhere in some other recent post (that I can’t track down at the moment)—the point was that one of Donald Trump’s strengths is his immunity to embarrassment. That might seem like a questionable ability. Doesn’t embarrassment keep you from making a fool of yourself? Sometimes, yes, but it could be a hindrance depending on your goals.
Personally, I find people who believe in insane conspiracy theories to be annoying. One of my early complaints about Trump was that he touted this insane “Obama is from Kenya” conspiracy theory*. Only an idiot would believe that. Trump, whatever you want to say about him, does’t seem like an idiot. So why does he believe it?
*For the record, I find the “Bush planned 9/11″ theory equally insane.
Well, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he just realized that this is a good way to signal to a certain group of Americans (roughly speaking, Nixon’s silent majority) that he’s on their side. Frankly, most of those people may not buy the Obama/Kenya theory but it’s anti-Obama and that’s enough for them.
Trump is immune from embarrassment and has no problem presenting himself as someone believing in something that on its face is quite idiotic. That’s my theory anyway, and it does seem to explain some of the inconstancies of Trump’s character (like how a basically smart/educated/rich guy can believe in nonsense. He doesn’t.)
The same thing might be said of Trump’s “Build a Wall to keep out Mexicans” plan. He knows it’s a preposterous, expensive idea. But he merely says the words to serve as signal to potential voters.
There was an interesting experiment described in this “Moral Tribes” book I’m reading. A generous welfare planned was described and called a “Republican plan” and experiment volnteers self-described as Democrats rejected it while self-described Republicans embraced it. The situation was reversed and so were the results. It almost seems like the we’re at the point where the substance of things is irrelevant—it’s entirely about symbolism. This is true with Trump and it’s true with Sanders (whose policy proposals are basically substance-less and have no chance of getting through Congress.)
It’s very possible this is one of the most interesting times in American history. I’m not uncertain that if Trump is elected that he won’t just turn around and announce that the whole thing was been a big, crazy challenge he gave himself to see if he could bullshit his way into office.
UPDATE: Here’s a Scott Adams post that gets to the heart of the argument that Trump is immune to embarrassment.
Trump intentionally accepts the scorn of many as a cost of winning. And it works.
Ask yourself if you could withstand the types of criticisms Trump withstands every day. It would kill a normal person with a fragile ego. One can only endure that type of abuse when you see ego as a tool, not a character trait. Trump doesn’t mind the criticism because people are attacking his choice of tools, not his personality. Only Trump knows his inner thoughts, and apparently he’s okay with them.
Always remember this: Ego is a tool, not a personality trait.You can manipulate your ego, as Trump shows us, to gain advantage in this world. I took the Dale Carnegie course years ago and they teach this very thing. Today when I embarrass myself in front of millions of people – which I do about once a week – it just seems funny to me.
January 23rd, 2016 by Wil
I’ve been dimly aware that Scott Adams, author of the Dilbert comic strip, has an interesting blog that I should probably check out more. I only recently found out that he’s been making predictions about the political rise of Donald Trump that have been quite accurate (while the rest of the media has been baffled by Trump’s rise.)
Adams is a certified hypnotherapist and argues that Trump is what should be called a “master persuader”—a brilliant pitch man. Part of Adam’s thesis is, as I understand it, that people don’t really think logically, instead they respond emotionally to various cues. A good hypnotist, or politician, can manipulate people by transmitting these cues. That is what Trump has done, says Adams. Sounds nutty, but Adams has been making predictions about Trump’s fortunes with a high degree of accuracy based on this theory.
This Reason article provides some detail.
“What I [see] in Trump,” says Adams, is “someone who was highly trained. A lot of the things that the media were reporting as sort of random insults and bluster and just Trump being Trump, looked to me like a lot of deep technique that I recognized from the fields of hypnosis and persuasion.”
This also ties in with a book I’ve been reading called “Moral Tribes.” In the book, author Joshua Green argues that we are programmed by evolution to cooperate within groups; this behavior leads to the success of our individual genes. Green basically says that we have subconscious programs in our mind/brain that control our behavior. Presumably these programs could be activated by the cues Adams talks about.
The point of all this is that people who are baffled by Trump’s success despite his lying and general self-aggrandizement are missing the big picture. Trump knows exactly what he’s doing by sending signals to persuade people (more emotionally than logically) that he is a good choice for President.
I myself have said that while I think a Trump presidency could be a disaster for the solar system, I understand the appeal of his refusal to bow to political correctness. I’ve long identified in myself an anti-authortitarian streak, a dislike of being told what to do or say. The political correctness camp specializes in telling people what to do and say (often with very good reasons, but it’s still bossy.) Does Donald Trump behavior appeal to my “anti-authority mind module”? I think so.
January 18th, 2016 by Wil
I caught a bit of the final Democratic primary debate last night. One question popped that I was not expecting, asking what the nominees would do about the heroin epidemic.
I wasn’t aware we were in the middle of a heroin epidemic and I remember being underwhelmed by the numbers present in the last one, during the grunge-filled 90s. So what are the details? This CNN article says…
In general, drug overdose deaths have been on the rise for the past two decades, but the number of deaths from heroin use is up by 39%.
That means 5,927 people died after using heroin in 2012 and that number jumped to 8,260 deaths in 2013. Those are the latest numbers available.
And to give context…
For perspective: The number of people dying after abusing drugs is higher than the number of people killed in traffic accidents.
Well, waitasec… they mean the total number of people dying from any type of drug (not just heroin) is higher than traffic fatalities? That’s what I will presume though they never in the article actually provide that number.
Of course, if you know me, you know I feel the “let’s compare fatalities from X to traffic fatalities” to be disingenuous as traffic fatalities have gone down substantially in recent decades. (Check out the graph titled “Trends in Automobile Fatalities” on this page.) As I always say, we ought to celebrating that auto fatalities have gotten so low as opposed to using the new lower number to make comparisons.
One final ironic point made in the CNN article. Efforts to prevent people from getting legal opioids may be what driving them to heroin.
Federal, state and local governments have been cracking down on illegal prescription drug sales with some success, according to the Journal study. That may have a connection to the rise in problems with heroin.
Law enforcement has shut down many pill mills. Governments have created rules that tighten prescription practices. Drug manufacturers have been creating more abuse-deterrent versions of their drugs.
All this effort to stop prescription drug abuse has made it much more of a challenge for addicts to get their drug of choice.
That may mean they turn to heroin, a drug that gives users a similar kind of high, but can be cheaper and now may be easier to get, according to the Journal study.
January 14th, 2016 by Wil
I’ve started reading a book that’s been recommended to me in the past – The Four-Hour Workweek. It’s essentially a self help-book, one that promises to provide strategies the reader can use to generate free time. It has a bit of a P.T. Barnum flavor but makes a fair amount of sense and verbalizes a lot of my thoughts on the empty busyness of modern life, especially in the workplace.
I do find myself wondering why we (as a society and species) are so prone to being busy? Why do we feel the need to accomplish anything at all? (I’m not sure this is universal; I have heard of various primitive societies that don’t feel the urge to do more than what is needed.)
Evolutionary psychology would probably argue something like the following: we realize that our status is tied to our odds for reproduction and thus passing on our genes, so we seek to elevate our status by earning more and gaining credentials. And we live in an era of incredible opportunities for status improvement. We can work hard at the office and generate our income but in our off hours we can also become more skilled by learning another language, or playing in a band, or taking globe trotting vacations that can impress our fellows. I’m not devoid of this kind of obsessive working—currently I have a part time job, several musical projects, a web site, a passing hobby at drawing and an attempt to learn French going on. It does, at times, seem overwhelming and I find myself wondering why am I doing this? The conventional wisdom is something like, “To be a better person.” but what the fuck does that really mean? Why do I care about being a better person?
So I suspect there is something beneath the surface that pushes me, something wired into the psyche from years of man’s evolution.
January 13th, 2016 by Wil
Over at the web site goodereader.com (never heard of it before today) a post compiles comments from female authors who are able to pursue a writing career because of their husbands financial support. For example…
“Writing did come late to me, long after a many times disrupted career as a painter. I have worked different jobs, a few years as a midwife, studied art, became a mother of four and now I write in my spare time. My husband is financially supportive but kind of questions the writing stuff. Our youngest is still in school and after almost 25 years of working at home and from home I do feel I ‘earned’ the time I so desperately need to be creative. I take my husband’s reluctant sponsorship anytime and thankfully we are able to manage our humble life. Neither do I complain nor do I feel guilty. But boy do I hope this book will be published.”
It’s reasonable to ask how many male authors have a similar set up. That said, the article makes a decent point…
Every bestseller list is dominated by women and this is primarily due to their competitive edge. They can simply keep on writing, while being financially supported by their husbands. Some women feel guilty about this, while others see it as their husbands responsibly to be the breadwinner of the family.
I myself have wondered whether the book market is corrupted by this kind of patronage. Are the price of books driven downward because many authors are willing to produce at a loss (one supplanted by their spouses’ incomes?)
I’ve actually seen something similar in the world of music though with a gender twist. When I was in the L.A. country music scene there were a couple of guys (who shall remain nameless) who seemed to have no problem putting out quality albums year after year, often featuring top-shelf players. I was always unclear on how they made this work. Were good session musicians donating their time simply because they were impressed with the songwriting? Were these guys managing to simply sell way more albums than I was? I finally started to hear that at least some of these guys had wives with great incomes. While the wives may not have been supporting their husbands music careers, the need to put food on the table was certainly mitigated.
I suppose it has always been this way and probably always will be.
January 11th, 2016 by Wil
Everyone acknowledges that the internet has radically changed things, even if we’re not quite aware of what those changes mean. I often state that the ease of access to information (and misinformation) that the web provides has big ramifications. For instance, I think the very notion of education and various credentials is weakening when so much information is online. It isn’t a matter of knowing something, but knowing where to find information.
The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed on the declining role of librarians as research helpers. It used to be you went to the librarian to have them look up obscure facts found only in arcane reference books found on dusty shelves; now you google it. As a result..
The mood among some librarians is pessimistic. A New Mexico librarian recently told me: “I spend most of my time making change and showing people how to print from the computer or use the copier. I sure don’t get the reference questions like I used to.”
Later the article makes an interesting point.
One bright spot: Some public libraries have created jobs for “technology assistants,” positions filled by tech-savvy young people with community-college degrees and plans for information-technology careers. Libraries can easily justify this new position: Techies are paid less than librarians or library associates and they offer skills the public increasingly needs. The public library of the future might be a computer center, staffed by IT professionals and few books or librarians.
Perhaps the Library will morph into a kind of IT Support center for the common man. Concerned about whether to upgrade this or that software? Wondering if someone stole your online identity? Go to the library.
January 2nd, 2016 by Wil
A while back I was pontificating John Searle’s thought experiment, the Chinese Prisoner’s Dilemma. The nature of this thought experiment is detailed here, but since I hate it when people force me to follow links around I will quote the following description.
He proposes that you have a man locked in a Chinese prison cell. The man does not speak or read Chinese. Chinese characters are passed into his cell, and he draws from his own collection of Chinese characters to “answer.” He eventually gets pretty good at responding with the correct Chinese characters. (Theoretically this would take many lifetimes to learn but this is a thought experiment.) The guy is presumably thinking along the lines of, “whenever I get this character or character set, they seem to like it when I reply with this character or character set.” To the Chinese people on the outside, it seems like the guy in the prison cell understands the conversation but in reality he doesn’t. The prisoner recognizes the designs of the symbols, but not their meaning.
Basically Searle argues that real communication is the following process: An intelligent actor passes a communication to a second intelligent actor. That second actor comprehends the message and then develops an intelligent response which it passes to the first party.
That’s real communication (according to Searle.) Fake communication is what he argues computers or Chinese prisoners do. It’s something like: An intelligent actor passes a communication to a second actor. This second actor may or may not be intelligent. That second actor basically randomly passes back something it doesn’t really understand and the first actor has to make sense of it.
The conceit here is that us human—an intelligent lot—do a lot of real communication whereas computers, Chinese prisoners and other various idiots don’t.
But is it true we humans really communicate? I’ve always been a little bothered by this conceit because it seems like a lot of communication I engage in is sort of knee jerk. I don’t really sit and ruminate on what a person is saying to me and my answer appears out of nowhere and is out of my lips before I consider it. I’ll give an example:
Someone: How’s you doing to day, Wil?
Me: Fine, and you?
I say this no matter how I’m feeling, unless it’s obvious that I’m not doing well. (If my entrails are hanging out of my stomach, for example.) I just have a canned response when someone asks me that question. Pretty much as we understand computers do.
How about this dialogue?
Someone: Are you going to work today?
Me: I am.
This might require a bit more comprehension on my part. I need to think about whether I’m working and give a response.
But “going to work” can really mean several things. One is “are you traveling to work?” Another is “are you going to perform the act of work?” Do I always understand what the person is asking when I answer that question? Not really. Sometimes context fills it in; if I’m on a bus I might presume that they mean “are you traveling to work” (though I could be wrong.)
So my point is here’s an example of communication where I don’t fully understand the question. I only have partial comprehension. And that’s not full communication.
Maybe it’s to much to ask that we have fully understood communication with every bit of dialogue. But I’m wondering if the fact that we don’t points to another possibility: that we really communicate in a more automatic way than we think, much as we presume computers do. Maybe we’re all Chinese prisoners.