Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The technology-dependence of sexual morality

From the distance of the present, especially for young people, the sexual morality of the past seems very odd. 

In particular, the idea of very strong and widespread norms against sex outside of marriage is something that is hard to actually conceive of.

Progressives find the idea repugnant, and can't imagine why anyone would ever have supported it.

Conservatives and reactionaries can be on board with the idea, but still, it actually stretches the imagination to think of what it would be like for everyone in Europe to agree with the idea.

But this is mostly a failure of imagination, albeit an understandable one.

What would be the minimum number of changes necessary in society that would reverse the change entirely?

You could rout all the current progressive institutions, and replace them with Islam, or the Catholic Church of 100 years ago, but these are not really minimalist changes. We want a societal Rube Goldberg machine, where we set off small changes somewhere else that get us the same outcome. 

There's an assumption buried there that the change might be reversible, of course, and perhaps it isn't.

But if it is, a good starting point is the set of things that might explain why the old regime got replaced by the new.

My suggestion - to understand pre 20th Century sexual morality, all you need to do is imagine a world without any good contraceptives, abortion, or birth control in general.

Which, by the way, was what it was like.

You can talk about the pullout method, or the rhythm method. But do you think these are going to be reliable for a teenage boy having a dalliance for the first time with a maid? Probably not.

And as soon as you do that, suddenly everything becomes obvious. 

Take away contraceptives, and sex leads to pregnancy with high likelihood. Take away reliable abortion, and everyone, rich or poor, has to deal with the the child. Take away modern wealth levels and the welfare state, and an unplanned child for a single woman is a catastrophe.

How would you, enlightened progressive, feel about your 14 year old daughter sleeping with her boyfriend if it meant a good chance of getting pregnant and needing to have the child? 

Suddenly the patriarchy doesn't seem like such a silly idea now, does it? Suddenly 'sex positive' messages to teenagers don't seem like society's number one priority, no?

But to reactionaries, the depressing flip side is also true.

Namely, if the absence of birth control was the the basis for monogamy and chastity before marriage as social norms, it's probably going to be quite hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube. You can't uninvent condoms or the pill.

This is like mass immigration - a social problem that's really a technological problem

So I predict that our current sexual free-for-all will go on at least until society degenerates to the point that it can't produce contraceptives anymore, at which point barbarism will restore chastity before marriage.

On the plus side, when this happens, it will also simultaneously solve the most difficult problem of our times, convincing rich, educated, civilised people to have more children. 

Give people the choice, and they will hack their own evolutionary reward systems and have a lot more sex and a lot fewer children.

Like Prometheus, we have stolen fire from the gods.

Like Prometheus, we cannot give it back.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stop cheering for politicians

At the risk of cementing my place as a curmudgeon, the National Conventions of the US political parties always struck me as thoroughly bizarre. This is an entirely bipartisan feeling - they're a freakshow.

My overwhelming feeling, whenever it shows the crowd shots, is: who are all these people? Don't they have anything better to do do?

To the Australian mindset, there is something quite unseemly about turning up to cheer for politicians, especially in these degraded times. There is a reason that these events don't take place in Australia. They simply wouldn't pass the laugh test. If you built it, no one would come. This includes people who voted for the candidate.

Let the parties sort out their own tawdry affairs in private, and then we'll vote for whichever of the two repulses us less, if we're minded to do so. (In Australia, you legally have no choice on that last point)

If there is one advantage to living in a democratic age, you at least have the freedom to have open contempt for one's notional leaders without running afoul of les majeste laws or the like. This is fortunate, because the system tends to produce leaders richly deserving of the contempt that you're licensed to have.

Why throw that away for this bunch of clowns? Why act like a subject voluntarily for someone whom it is unworthy to be subjected to? Honestly, if you could actually pick a single person to be ruled by, no questions asked, would either of these two candidates be among the top 1000 people you'd pick? The top 10,000?

The rather visceral reaction I have to political conventions is, I will freely admit, a mostly aesthetic response. It seems like obvious pandering and boob bait for bubbas. Sometimes, some of the relevant applause lines strike home to me. Sometimes, they say things that seem true, and even important or compelling.

But even then, not far beneath the surface is the feeling I have during the few times I've had the misfortune to watch romantic comedies. When watching the sad bits, I sometimes feel brief pangs of sadness. But they quickly get followed by a sense of resentment of the fact that my emotions are being manipulated here, for other people's benefit, and in a crude and obvious manner.

Doubt not that this is happening to you. Even if you honestly think it's a good idea to vote for this candidate. In fact, especially if you honestly think it's a good idea to vote for this candidate.

Now, it is possible that these are generally new and interesting times, and genuinely new and uniquely worthy leaders. A lot of people on the right are really excited about Donald Trump. Maybe they're right to be thrilled.

I would caution you with the following though.

If you're honest with yourself, and remember what you felt at the time, did you not feel at least some similar excitement at Mitt Romney's speech? At John Bloody McCain? When you look back now, are you not embarrassed to have supported these shameless, self-promoting fools? One is a Democrat-lite, and the other took the 'Invade the World / Invite the World' idea so strongly that he probably would have started a war with Russia over the sinkhole that is Ukraine.

If you're a Democrat, for an equivalent test, try and summon up now the same enthusiasm for John Kerry that you had in 2004. It simply cannot be done.

With the passage of time, the raw tribalism goes away, and the sheer mediocrity of the candidates offered in democratic elections becomes strikingly clear.

So if you (like me for sure in 2008, and me to some extent still in 2012) felt some excitement at the time for those clowns, you should feel a little chastened. You might reflect that perhaps, indeed, I am one of the rubes after all, or at least am not wholly immune from rube-like tendencies. Perhaps I just like cheering for my team, and this is what I'm actually feeling right now. Perhaps most of what strikes me as absurd about the other party's convention applies equally strongly to my own.

In related news, November cannot come fast enough.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Initial Thoughts on the Coup Attempt in Turkey

It is always hazardous writing about coup attempts before everything is done and dusted, but the recent one in Turkey is notable in several respects. 

Also, unusually for this type of thing, I was watching the updates in real time, so there's a few things that stuck out to me that might not be so obvious if you just read about it the next day.

The most striking thing is the extent to which everybody, myself included, misread the most important moment of the whole proceedings. 

It was this:

That is Turkish President Erdogan, giving a press conference by facetime, assuring people that everything is just fine.

Up to this point, you may recall, there had already been reports on official Turkish State TV that the coup had succeeded (past tense), that a peace council was now in charge of the country, and a curfew was in effect. The reports in the press were tending towards announcing the coup as a fait accompli.

So, given that background, what do you what do you make of this?

The popular response to this was twofold. Firstly, derision. A press conference by phone indeed is farcical. This kind of reaction was typical.


I mock, but I shouldn't. If my response had been fixed publicly in time, it probably wouldn't have looked much more sophisticated.

Second, most people looked at this and saw Baghdad Bob. It's hard to convey the impression that you're in charge of the situation from behind a phone. What it looks like is someone who's already packed their bags and is getting the hell out of dodge.

In other words, it wouldn't matter what he was saying, the real message was that it was over and the leader had fled. The coup had won.

It turns out, people were so focused on the absurdity of the situation that they missed what he was saying. 

He was telling people to take to the streets and protest, focusing on the main squares and airports.

And this was a really, really, important message to get across.

Because he had enough supporters that they really did take to the streets. You're not Baghdad Bob if you still have a massive army of supporters at your disposal, even if you are behind a phone screen.

The next thing that became apparent was something that the War Nerd has noted a long time ago - driving tanks around urban environments without infantry support, which is what the army was doing, is a recipe for disaster. This is especially true when the opponents have RPGs, but even in Istanbul there were rumors of tanks being disabled by people throwing sheets over them, pulling the crews out, etc. Not to mention the photos of civilians lying in front of tanks, daring the military to drive over them. Which it turns out they lacked the gumption to do. The apparently impregnable tanks being taken over by protestors became a really depressing metaphor for the whole event, at least if you  were hoping for it to succeed.

What's really, really important in coups is Schelling Points. Why is a facetime speech still really valuable? For the same reason that controlling State TV (which the coup plotters also did early on, and then lost) is really important, actually even more important. You thought TV was obsolete, didn't you? Not in a coup it's not.

Partly, it conveys a sense of official power. The main information outlet is now owned by the coup. Erdogan is reduced to a telephone, which is not nearly as good. So far, so good for the plotters, at least early on. 

But much more importantly, it conveys the same message to lots of people all at once. And it turns out facetime is just fine for this purpose. What the government forces couldn't do until that point was to coordinate the behavior of their supporters. When they all started hitting the streets at once, everything changed. Suddenly the military had a much bigger problem on its hands.

All security forces exist based on force projection and self-fulfilling beliefs. If everyone committed crimes all at once, the police don't have nearly enough people to arrest them all. Law and order is maintained because for the vast majority of people, each one believes that law enforcement will arrest him, John Q Citizen, if he commits a crime. Hence most people don't commit crimes, the belief in the authority of the police is maintained, and order persists. The only time this breaks is during a riot, when people realise that they can just loot stuff because there aren't enough police to arrest them all, and the police aren't doing anything anyway.

So this problem exists for security forces at the best of times. But it's even more severe during a coup.

In a coup attempt, everyone is looking to see which way everyone else is going to jump.

If people think the coup has succeeded, they will stop fighting, and the coup will actually succeed. This was what  was initially happening, as far as I can tell, in the initial stages.

But the reverse is true. If people think the coup is failing, they will resist it, and some of the soldiers will surrender to the police, and this will depress morale of the rest. Moreover, this starts to happen at the point when you're relying on the soldiers to start shooting ever more of their unarmed countrymen. That takes a lot of martial discipline at the best of times. 

What this tells you is that you can judge a lot about a coup's success just by who is making more official announcements. It doesn't even matter what they are. As soon as Erdogan's official statements started appearing regularly on my twitter feed, I strongly suspected that the gig was up.

As of writing, it's not "over" over. There keep being reports of ongoing fighting, jets bombing Erdogan's palace, jets bombing the airport (whose jets? great question). 

But you're sure not hearing anything out of the coup leaders, and that bodes very poorly for them.

You can also judge a coup's success by the passage of time. The longer it goes on, the worse it looks for the plotters. In the ideal case, it's instant and bloodless. But they're fighting to reverse the default presumption of power. When that momentum starts to falter, it can reverse very quickly.

To slightly modify the great Sun Tzu, though we have heard of stupid haste in coups, cleverness has rarely been seen associated with long delays.

Finally, there is the role of the west in all of this. 

A perennial question in matters of statecraft is the extent to which organised US power is actually running the world from behind the scenes, or catching up as a mostly clueless observer.

I don't think you and I will ever really know.

But one thing I do know is that all the official western outlets were conspicuously silent about the whole affair until after the protesters started hitting the streets. Then came the announcements that we need to support the democratically elected government of Turkey etc etc. Before that were rumors that Erdogan had been seeking asylum in Germany but his plane had been denied permission to land.

It seems that it's not just people in Turkey who are waiting to find out which way the wind is blowing. 

And because it failed, I doubt we will ever really know who was behind it. In the weird three-way war between the 1) secular parts of the Turkish military, 2) the Gulen cultists and 3) the Erdogan supporters, it's not clear whether this was group 2 alone, group 1 alone, or group 1 and 2 in combination. Erdogan is blaming this on Gulen, but he'd be crazy to not use the opportunity to consolidate his power over them, even if he thought it was the secularists.

Successful changes of government have a thousand fathers, but a failed coup is the most despised orphan of them all.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sing, Muse, of the incompetent rage of the police shooters

To my mind, there is only one genuinely surprising thing about the recent police shootings in Dallas, which is that they were carried out with unusual competence. This is also the main reason you're reading about them. Killing multiple police all at once, at a protest that ensured there was already a media presence, is too dramatic to ignore. You can't just paint it as some 'piece-a-shit' incident gone wrong (in Tom Wolfe's memorable phrase).

This puts the media in a difficult bind, because I suspect that they very much would like to ignore this black on white rage, like they do for most such rage. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been if the shooter had used something other than a gun. In that case, progressives would have been deprived of the opportunity to at least try to redirect the conversation to gun control, and the story would already be in the process of being actively memory-holed.

As soon as the reports were suggesting a sniper from an elevated position, my guess was that whoever was doing this had some formal training with this stuff. Sure enough, the shooter was in the Army Reserves. Initial reports said that it was multiple snipers from a triangulated position, which made it even more likely. Now they're saying that it's a lone wolf, but they would, wouldn't they?

To shoot 12 officers, kill 5 of them, and hit only 2 civilians, is a surprisingly difficult task, especially if the shooter was indeed acting alone.

The typical pattern of black rage against police is far less planned, and far more likely to result in immediate arrest before actually killing many, if any, police. To take just the last couple of police shootings in the immediate aftermath, we had the following:
Authorities say a man called 911 in south Georgia to report a break-in, then ambushed and shot the officer who came to investigate. Both men were wounded in the ensuing gunfire, and both are expected to survive.
That is far closer to what I expect. Point blank, ambush, incompetent, resulting in immediate arrest.

This was his best plan to kill as many police as possible - leave a 911 call with his own voice, calling a single policeman to his own home, just to make absolutely sure the police would know who the prime suspect was in the unlikely event that he actually got away. Moreover, his choice of target was a policeman who would already be slightly on edge due to being on an active call.

And that's what you get with actual forward planning. Without that, it's even more incompetent:
In a fourth attack early Friday, a motorist fired at a police car as the officer drove by. In all, four officers were wounded. The officer wounded outside St. Louis is in critical but stable condition. The wounded officers are expected to survive 
A suburban St. Louis police chief says a motorist shot an officer three times as the officer walked back to his car during a traffic stop.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says the suspect, who is in his 30s, ``ambushed'' the officer, who is in critical but stable condition. 
Just taking pot shots with a handgun at cops who happen to be in the vicinity. Great way to end up in prison for decades with a low probability of actually killing anybody, you really stuck it to the man.

As Randall Collins noted in his excellent book (first chapter free here), the probabilities of actually hitting someone in a combat scenario with a handgun are very low. Here's some numbers from police incidents, the highest annual police 'hit' probability from a gunfight is 25%, the lowest is 9%. Now subtract out most of the formal training that police receive, and you can see why these clowns have such a low chance of success in general.

We should be thankful to have such imbeciles as enemies.

The reality is that not many people in the west, black or white, are actually ready for the effective suicide mission of shooting at the police. If you start shooting at figures of official authority, the absolute best case scenario in the overwhelming number of cases is life imprisonment. Most pathways just end up with you dead, like this, or this.

At one extreme, I suspect that most of the the low impulse control rage shootings like the above happen because the perpetrators haven't actually considered the consequences much at all. This explains why they're so poorly carried out. In the west, it's easier to find thoroughly stupid people than suicidal people.

Of course, among those that have considered it in advance, hope springs eternal in the human breast. Most people cling to some small probability that they'll actually get away, even if they don't have a clear idea of the end game.

Hence the preference for being a sniper. It was true here, it was true with John Allen Muhammad. Being a sniper allows a mental "out". Perhaps I won't get caught. Perhaps I'll shoot a few, get away, and live to tell the tale.

If you fully embrace the idea that you're going to die, you could kill a whole lot more people. You might become a suicide bomber, and drive a truck bomb into police headquarters. The optics of this are very bad, of course. Suicide bomber goes to crazy terrorist. Not a good way to spread your message, whatever exactly it is.

So America will continue to have black rage shootings. This has happened before, of course. In the 1970s, this stuff was frequent among black power groups. Just look at the Zebra Murders, which nobody much seems to remember.

The worst worry is that more shooters begin to twig onto the tactics that actually work, in which case you don't want to be around to find out what happens to a) the number of police killed, and b) the homicide rate in your city as police retreat to areas of relative safety.

For the moment, the main thing saving us is the fact that people smart enough to carry out a competent mass shooting are deterred by the fact that they're also smart enough to realise that doing so is a death sentence.

Modernity produces both blind rage and suicide in considerable quantities. It is a small mercy that these don't usually coincide in the same person.