The Trouble with Capitalism, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Socialism

The Trouble with Capitalism, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Socialism

There’s more to life than making money. Coming of Age in Political America I was relatively apolitical up until just a couple of years ago. Through age 20 or so my attitude towards politics was basically “Who cares?” It was pretty plain to me that politicians were more or less corrupt. But seeing the USSR collapse, and hearing the conventional Western line on why it happened, basically convinced me that capitalism was plain and simply superior to communism or any other sort of planned economic scheme. Then I moved to California and hooked up with a crowd of rabid libertarians–the people who are convinced that almost any government is too much, and that taxation is criminal theft. I found myself agreeing with a lot of their points. And yet… something didn’t ring quite true with their hyper-optimism. The Trouble with Safety Nets One main libertarian tenet is that if people were not taxed so heavily, they would have much more money to give to good causes, so all the functions currently performed by the government could (and would) be taken over by private enterprise. The difficulty is simply the transition. There is a large gap between eradicating government and establishing a network of institutions ready to take up all the slack. Typical libertarians are much more interested in getting rid of the government than in building effective institutions to replace it. Beyond this is the general issue of timing and social change. Almost any change in social policy will disrupt some peoples’ lives. The question is always, will they be better off when the dust settles? Welfare is the...
I Only Know What I Read

I Only Know What I Read

A nice bed under which to collect the dustbunnies of random realization. I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but now and again, when I do, I get a clue of some kind that’s worth remembering. And often, if it’s worth remembering, it’s potentially worth sharing. So, here goes: a miscellaneous tour through some old clues. Monday, July 15 Read the Wahlberg article in Wired, and learned why Richard Allen Davis made his infamous two-fingered gesture… he was pressing the knife to his throat. On and around Monday, July 15 Elsewhere in my pages I talk about the coming acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This theme is developed most definitively in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett . I’m enjoying the dizzying philosophical critique to which the book compels any thoughtful reader. Monday Evening, July 15 While websurfing in a spree commenced by the search for the above links, I ran across a theory of hedonism. At first blush it seems absurd: suffering is any non-optimal state, and relative suffering can be profound. There’s more to say about how avoiding suffering can be a nonproductive goal, but not just...
Guided depth: The teaching PC

Guided depth: The teaching PC

Computers’ transformation of education is just beginning to gel. [This was a piece I wrote for, potentially, the Intelligent Agent section in Wired. Since writing it I’ve learned a lot about what’s wrong with the sort of cyberphilia that permeates this article. Spot the elitist assumptions! Most of what I winsomely advocated at essay’s end is already underway, too… see my cyberspace discussion for examples.] Personal computers were supposed to change our classrooms. The eighties hype: give a PC to every homeroom and watch students everywhere learn like mad! Now we know that was wrong–homeroom computers didn’t do much. The basic idea, though, was right: computers _will_change the ways we learn, permanently. It will just take longer than many thought. Computers don’t themselves make education more interesting. Nothing can. Education will never be a killer app–you have to make an effort to learn, and passive entertainment will always be more popular. The payoff will come from making quality learning cheaper and quicker for those who want it. What is quality learning? It’s having access to knowledge about what interests you, at a level you can understand, with counsel from someone to steer you, and with companions who learn with you. I call this guided depth: information in depth, with guidance (human guidance) when you need a boost or a clue. This creates learning, as the student charges ahead at their own speed in their own direction. We can measure our current systems in these terms. First, stand-alone systems. CD-ROMs provide absorbable information in a convenient, coherent format, but they don’t hold very much (especially if you’re trying to learn...
Games: The Final Destiny

Games: The Final Destiny

Games are finally IT! It’s finally becoming clear. After years of thinking that computers were mainly useful for business, and games were only a sideline, the PC industry is coming round with astonishing speed. Some Facts New home PCs are now generally more powerful than office PCs. Page 65 of the 6 May 1995 Economist reports that in fourth quarter 1994, 17.6% of new home computers had Pentiums, as opposed to only 15.6% of new office computers. Does this surprise you? Get ready for more surprises. Microsoft has finally heard the pleas of gamers, and Windows 95 already takes records for “most game developers supporting a new operating system”. The main excitement is about hardware independence without losing speed, and a real 3D rendering API that is fully general and hardware acceleratable. Networking support also takes a big step forward with Win95. Doom set the precedent; these days, almost no game is considered complete without networking support. Playing against others is more fun. Home video games are a multibillion-dollar-per-year global industry, and there is a much larger potential market implicit in new Win95 users. Moreover, most 3D PC games are easily convertible to Sony Playstation format, which gets you two platforms for the price of one development effort. “PC and Playstation” is a very widely heard phrase around the industry these days. There are many many well-known game companies and designers developing for Windows 95. Some examples of the best: Bullfrog, Origin, Activision, and Mindscape (which has no home page yet). Most are focusing on 3D networked gaming. Other ventures into power-hungry network worlds exist. For more on that,...
Flow: What’s worth living for?

Flow: What’s worth living for?

Wondering what happiness is? Wonder no more. In late 1994, I read a book named Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by one Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The book has had a lasting effect on me, and the concept of flow has worked itself deeply into my thinking. This page explains the basic idea of flow, and touches on some of the reasons it’s a powerful concept. The page contains: Flow, explained Csikszentmihalyi is a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who has been studying human enjoyment since 1963. The question he posed himself was simple: What is fun? What makes some experiences enjoyable, and other experiences not? It is a surprisingly deep question, considering all the varieties of fun. Some people enjoy painting, others rock climbing. Some consider parenting one of life’s most stimulating activities; others are galvanized by the corporate whirl. Some enjoy whittling, others hiking. Are there any common threads that tie these experiences together? As it turns out, there indeed are. When Csikszentmihalyi interviewed all the kinds of people listed above, he discovered a common thread to their stories. The following is taken from his book The Evolving Self, pages xii-xiv, and is hopefully brief enough to be readable yet long enough to explain the key idea. Csikszentmihalyi is describing some of the painters he interviewed: When a painting was beginning to get interesting they could not tear themselves away from it; they forgot hunger, social obligations, time, and fatigue so that they could keep moving it along. But this fascination lasted only as long as a picture remained unfinished; once it stopped changing and growing,...
Do they go to Heaven if they don’t believe in God?

Do they go to Heaven if they don’t believe in God?

A personal experience of religion, and some ongoing questions. Losing My Religion I was raised a Christian. My family went to church more or less every Sunday. The churches were generally old New England stone edifices, stained glass and wood pews. The services were a familiar ritual, and I murmured the prayers with everyone else. I wasn’t a devoted worshipper, but I was content to learn the Bible and believe. Yet as I grew older, I became more and more scientifically inclined, and I noticed myself tending towards a scientistic view of the world. The Bible seemed more like a book of myths than like a living reality, compared to the fascination of how the world around us actually works. I still believed in God, but vaguely, abstractly. And I wondered, if there was only one true God, then why were there so many other religions? My ebbing faith dried up almost completely when, in high school, I took a course on the Holocaust. I was shocked to learn how successful Hitler was at converting the Jews, in the eyes of the German people, from neighbors into nuisances. It violently depressed me and convinced me that there was no absolute good nor evil… since if there were, how could something so evil have happened? Obviously people just believe whatever they choose, I told myself, and there’s really no higher justification for behaving any particular way. If God existed, why did He allow this? I entered into a period of serious hardcore scientism. The only reality, I decided, is whatever can be scientifically measured and analyzed, and agreed on by...
Diversity or Consistency?

Diversity or Consistency?

The upcoming post-modern political upheaval. A political proposition for you: The dominant political issue in the world is not about conservatism versus liberalism, nor about rich versus poor. The driving split is between those who believe there is a single right way to live, and those who believe there are many legitimate possibilities. This is the tension between fundamentalists and civil libertarians, between the Pope and many modern-day birth-control-using Catholics, between Senator Exon and Newt Gingrich. It all stems from the unfortunate history of human cultural evolution… and it is about to boil over. Premodern, Modern, Post A facile but convenient description of the three phases of human cultural history: Premodern – Premodern cultures have a cohesive (to some extent) set of beliefs and myths on which the culture is founded. Little if any exposure to other cultures has occurred; as far as the premodern culture knows, its culture is the only way to live. Modern – In the “modern” era, the Western world discovered that there were indeed many other cultures on the planet, and that all of them saw the world differently, and had divergent faiths about how to live. Yet this awareness did not imply, to the modern mind, that Western culture itself was deficient–only that these other cultures were misled. Postmodern – Over the course of this century, the assumption that the West’s culture is in fact fundamentally more legitimate than others has come under fierce attack. Increasingly, it is apparent that Western cultural background is as based on myth and legend as many another, and that not all aspects of Western culture are preferable...
Deep Human Nature

Deep Human Nature

The limits of our thinking, and the shape of our instinct. This essay starts off by discussing the limits of human reasoning, moves into an examination of our basic sub-rational drives (and how we ourselves exploit those drives to survive, with hideous consequences), and ends with an eye towards how we might redeem ourselves. How Large the World? The more I think about what we humans are up to, the more obvious it is that we don’t know what we’re doing. A good way to describe humanity: a race of beings on a small planet, trying to figure out what we should be up to. For most of human history (this phrase appears often in my pages), we did not even know we lived on a single small blue planet. Each nation believed itself to be the sole (or at least most important) race of people; voyagers were rare, visitors rarer. Life was governed by the cycle of the seasons. Most economies were agriculturally based, and most societies were rigorously constructed to limit population to that which could be supported by the year’s harvest. Most governmental decisions affected only the local community; humans did not yet have the ability to drastically change the face of the planet. Individual wealth was limited by society’s ability to produce, which was in turn constrained by the narrow agricultural and technological knowledge at our disposal. Technology gradually began to change this picture. Over time, we became more able to consume large tracts of land, or vast quantities of natural resources, in order to spread material wealth through our societies. And as is natural...
Are Computers Just a Waste of Time?

Are Computers Just a Waste of Time?

Is this all a big cyber-shuck? Several recent books have announced a cyber-backlash. First published was Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll, then City Lights Books released Resisting the Virtual Life by James Brook and Iain A. Boal. Both works make sobering and valuable reading. The problem is, computers are so new we don’t really know yet what they’re good for–so they tend to get used inappropriately. Some examples from the books above: Much money is spent on putting computers into the schools, despite the lack of trained teachers to use them and the lack of good materials to run on them. All this while public libraries are being closed for lack of funds, and the teacher-student ratio continues to worsen. The Internet is touted as the ultimate communications medium, yet it is fraught with bile and idiocy. Anyone who thinks computer-mediated communication is the ticket to a more literate population hasn’t spent much time on Usenet. The “Information Superhighway” is not necessarily an on-ramp for the whole population. There is plenty of evidence that the only kids who become truly computer-adept are those whose parents also use computers or at least support their computer habit. And computers are still supremely and absurdly hard to use. Talking about universal access is a joke when 18% of black and Hispanic households don’t have a phone yet. (Reference from an article in the e-magazine Feed.) “Interactivity” is touted as the future of media, but all attempts to create an “interactive TV” have failed. Most CD-ROMs are very constrained and constraining in the possibilities you have for interaction. It’s not really an...