YCombinator, Thiel, & the Alt-Right

The first I heard of the Y Combinator/Thiel issue was from Scott Aaronson’s blog. Yes, I’m behind the curve because I don’t follow intra-valley drama. I like to think that’s why I’m not a millionaire. 8^) That allows me to continue denying my own character flaws.

But it follows right along with the thoughts I’ve been having since the Little Woody Beer Festival back in early September. Our hosts brought up the relatively new news stories about the Alt-Right. I was happy to see it being talked about in the news because I’d been following the Neoreactionaries for awhile. I started following such people after I began to realize how the moniker “libertarian” was being hijacked by right wingers. I also try to follow as many of our local racist groups as I can.

The contrast between libertarianism as I understood it when I was younger is to my current understanding of it just as the contrast of my younger understanding of the Confederate battle flag is to my current understanding of it. As a kid, the battle flag meant rebellion, individualism, and an ever present tendency toward a kind of berserker violence. It was a statement that one cannot trust in civility and genteel facades. I only learned that it was (actually) used as a symbol of racism when I went to college. And I only learned how it (truly) makes black people feel when I broached the subject to one of my very close friends, as an adult. [sigh] I feel the same embarrassment about that as I did (still do) when a college friend told me he was afraid to tell me, back then, that he was gay because of the way I might react. In any case, when I finally learned that “libertarian” is/was (starting to?) be used as a trojan horse for hard-right opinions, including racism and misogyny, I felt that same feeling. I’d been too naive, yet again.

Now, Thiel, Altman, Aaronson, Annissimov, etc. are all way smarter than I am. But I can’t help but feel like there’s a bit of wisdom they’re missing. The articles from Pao and Watters, as well as many other treatments (addressed seemingly pejoratively by people like Aaronson as “social justice activists”) of issues like this, have helped me tap into that feeling of embarrassment that was previously sparked by the battle flag, homophobia, and the hijacking of “libertarian”. The tone deafness seems to come from a kind of hyper-focus … the ability/tendency to concentrate on a small scope to the detriment of the synoptic.

I used to call this “linear thinking”. It’s tremendously useful when working in the particular, i.e. a specific domain, a given problem, when engineering a solution. Such ability to concentrate is valuable and, I think, plays a causal role in the success of these men. But it fails, utterly, when applied to plaited, complex problems and domains. But it’s not really linear thinking. It’s (as Aaronson implies while talking about Thiel’s strengths) essentialist thinking, the ability to hone in on, separate out, the essential kernel of the object/system under consideration. Such a kernel can easily be complex and the isolation of a salient, complex kernel from its less or ir- relevant surroundings is a critical skill.

But too much success in using any particular tool, including and perhaps especially analysis/reduction, can lead one to think that it is always the right tool. This is my tentative diagnosis of the (embarrassing) bubble occupied by Thiel, Aaronson, Annissimov, Harris and many of the other well-meaning but essentially (often cryptically) prejudiced savants.

Dog Whistles

Normally, Alexander’s log entries are nearly incontrovertible. With this one about mis-diagnosed dog whistles, I think he’s missed the forest for the trees. A dog whistle is a social phenomenon. It’s some sort of an error to assert that so-and-so, sans consideration of the audience, did the whistling. So, it’s inappropriate to analyse (“s” in honor of the content) the statements of people like Cruz, Livingstone, and Trump solely in the partial context of the particular speaker and the particular statement. No one sentence or phrase constitutes a dog whistle diagnosis. It takes a family of tuples (or a tuple of families) {speaker, statement, audience}.

So, consider Alexander’s discussion of Ted Cruz. I agree Cruz is not really a (classic) anti-semite. It’s reasonable to assume he’s averse to some properties of the Jewish stereotype. But, in general, he, his statements, and his usual audience are (at least) pro-Israel and pro-Judaism. So, any whistling cf. the “New York Values” has much more to do with urbanism (urbane?), atheism, snarkism, liberalism, etc.

I’m ignorant of Livingstone and not inclined to enlighten myself just yet. But re: Trump, it’s relatively easy to classify Trump in regards to multiple marriages, beauty pageants, arm candy, comments about women (including his own underage daughter) as if they’re works of art rather than humans, etc. As such, with a class/set of Trump-like people and Trump-like behavior, we have a family of speakers. We then collect all the statements that come from members of that family into a family of statements and the class of audiences with which such statements resonate; and we have easily met the social requirements for dog whistling.

And even if you believe Trump is not some master media manipulator, perhaps we can say it’s not a dog whistle so much as, simply, the sounds instinctively made by that type of person … sounds to which other members of that type are innately tuned. So, even if it’s not a “dog whistle”, per se, it’s a phenotype that operates in much the same way as a purposefully blown dog whistle might, attracting and fomenting misogyny.

Mystical Atheism

I’ve probably described my position regarding calling me an atheist in previous posts. Many of my atheist friends call me an atheist … after sometimes hours of arguing about the categories and what they mean. I think they are wrong. I am not an atheist. I had yet another opportunity to explain this the other evening when a Satanist (atheistic satanism) asked me how long I’ve been (or when did I first realize) I was an atheist. I had to be clear that I’m not an atheist. I am an agnostic, which I regard as fundamentally different.

Luckily, she did not proceed to lecture me on the 4 types (agnostic atheists – those who believe but admit they cannot know, gnostic atheists – those who don’t believe and think they know, agnostic theists, etc.). So, score one for Satanists not being as self-righteous as regular atheists in man-splaining my own beliefs to me.

Anyway, as a result of that whole conversation, which ranged over the various types of Satanists, including theistic ones, I pursued my long predilection toward the mystical. I know I’ve mentioned that somewhere. But it could have been on my old log. I’ve been suffering with the self-ascribed label of methodological atheist for awhile, now, because it does an adequate job of describing most of my approach to religious belief. But it’s inadequate because of how I treat the unknown (and perhaps the unknowable).

Being reared Catholic and having been exposed to Wittgenstein, no-go theorems, paraconsistent logic, and the like, I have a healthy respect for mystery — things that are either unknowable or simply problematically knowable (e.g. paradox). The end result is that I an an atheist with respect to any defined god(s) — or you might say any definite concept of god(s).

I don’t entertain definite conceptions of god(s). But I do entertain indefinite conceptions, vague, ill-defined conceptions. Gods that are (somehow) indescribable, unspeakable (Hail Lovecraft!), indefinable, are OK by me. As such, it’s perfectly reasonable to call me a “mystical atheist” as at least a partial synonym for (or perhaps a specialization of) “agnostic”. I’m agnostic, but in a particular way. I am atheist, but in a particular way. And you might even say I’m theistic, but in a very specific and particular way. Anything mysterious can reasonably called a “god”. But as soon as we remove the mystery, it is demoted from “god” to “mechanism”.

Final comment: What I find disconcerting is that the definition of “mysticism” seems antithetic to the definitions of “mystic” and “mystical”. Mysticism is commonly defined as the belief in the ability to know (or learn/experience) reality through a mystical experience, whereas mystical is commonly defined such that it relies on the unknown or unknowable … i.e. mystery. Stupid English.


Having gone through chemotherapy (with very little support from my friends), I can say that the following article misses the point entirely:

What Not To Say When Someone Is Sick

While Novella’s conclusions are mostly correct, especially w.r.t. the Dunning-Kruger identification, he misses the point that all advice is like this. It’s especially obvious with unsolicited advice. But it’s true with all advice, including the advice you receive from your doctor.

A better way to go about translating what others find beneficial (including both scientific and anecdotal) is through stories and explanations. You do not want others’ advice on what you should do/be. You simply want others to tell you what they think and what they know. And the best way to do that is through stories. Tell me what happened to you. Don’t abstract and generalize into “rules about the way the world works”. Just tell me the story and let me take from it whatever I can.

So the next time you’re tempted to give advice, stop yourself and reformulate what you were going to say as a story.

One thing Novella is absolutely wrong about in the above post is “practical support”. And it’s one of the reasons I didn’t get much support from my friends. I didn’t need anyone to drive me to appointments or take my (non-existent) kids to school. But one thing I did need was stories … stories about how others handle chronic pain, stories about others’ experience with chemo, stories about how they think about looming death, do not resuscitate orders, etc. Few would tell me such stories because of the very bad advice Novella is giving in this article.

Trump, fascism, and authoritarianism

I’ve been tangentially following the Trump/fascist meme since it popped up. This article finally clicked it for me … but not until section VIII. What Authoritarians Want. (By the way, thanks to whoever put that text into HTML. Thanks for giving the section a named ANCHOR to link to.)

I’ve recently struggled in my professional career with some colleagues suggesting I should make more of an attempt to be an, to assert my, to establish my, authority. I’ve been doing what I do since my sub-discipline emerged, which not only means I’ve been engulfed and engaged by it for that whole time, but that I also helped invent/refine it. So, these colleagues of mine have a decent argument. I have and continue to resist, though, primarily because I’m anti-authoritarian. Further, that’s one of the reasons I chose this sub-discipline in the first place, because it is, as a discipline, anti-authoritarian. (Is that a contradiction? Can a “discipline” be “anti-authoritarian”?)

Given this discord within my professional life, which has been continual since way before Trump emerged as a politician, it’s been difficult for me to see Trump as someone who would be attractive to authoritarians. Trump has no governing experience, whatsoever. Hence, any thinking authoritarian would realize he has no authority, whatsoever. From this perspective, it would seem that Cruz, as a sitting Senator with a relatively (to Trump) long political career, who espouses the same (if not more) authoritarian rhetoric, would be the preferred choice of authoritarians. Cruz is an “outsider”, too, to some extent. Thinking authoritarians really have no choice but to admit that Cruz is much more credible than Trump.

But what VIII of the article above lays out (not very well) is Trump’s willingness to ignore any rules or traditions, checks, balances, social conventions, or any limitations whatsoever. If there is a limit somewhere, he’ll simply lie about that issue and pretend there is no limit. And, paradoxically, those lies make him more credible. Cruz, however much an outsider he is, admits and even takes pride in some traditions, some law, some social conventions, etc. Hence, while Cruz is more credible as far as actual governmental action, he is less credible in his willingness to toss the whole system and ignore potential consequences. Every time Trump says something “politically incorrect” (i.e. stupid, bigoted, or just obviously false), it is evidence that he doesn’t care about reality or being nice or anything else. That makes him more likely to act regardless of any traditions or rule of law or whatever, more credible as the “man of action” the authoritarians want.


In honor of the upcoming Valentine’s Day: My significant other (aka wife, to those of us who aren’t controlled by religion or governments ☻) had a dream the other night wherein I surprised her with the news that I’d married someone else, with whom I’d been having an affair. Now, I usually have dreams that break physical laws (flying, multidimensional houses whose ∞ bathrooms are all occupied, etc.). But this dream violates some “laws”, too, albeit sociological or psychological laws.

I had to explain, again, that I’m a non-religious feminist. Of course, I try to keep my feminism quiet for the most part. Like “libertarian”, the term has been co-opted by something akin to “bros” or “hipsters” who want to use it to game the system or simply assume a shallow meaning for the term. (As an aside, I stopped identifying as a libertarian almost precisely when one particular hard-right old man explained that he was a libertarian. I wanted to pull out some heroin and offer it to him … but that would have been considered antisocial. It helped that I didn’t have any heroin handy. On the plus side, this guy reminded me of Otto.) Anyway, I’m a feminist in the sense that I don’t believe women are playing optimal roles in our society. We have tremendous and sophisticated mechanisms for finding and fostering the talents of men. By contrast, for the most part, our society (here in the US… I can’t speak for other places) doesn’t provide many mechanisms for finding and fostering the talents of women. The ones we herald are too often ham-handed coercions of the mechanisms we use for men. To boot, many of our mechanisms, including marriage, are primarily structured to oppress and control women.

So, for my wife, to whom I am not married, to have a dream of me marrying some arbitrary mistress, is just as fantastical as ∞-dimensional houses with fully occupied bathrooms. Now, I’m not claiming I wouldn’t take a secret mistress … or abandon my wife for her. I sincerely doubt that would happen. But I’m only human and the future is difficult to predict. But I can predict with near certainty that I would not marry the home wrecker. ☻

Societal collapse

I’ve been a fan of zombie movies for something like 40 years. And you can’t be a fan of zombie movies (or even scifi with its common tropes) without also being a bit of a fan of apocalyptic stories. Perhaps it started in CCD, which is, ironically, where I first learned to meditate. In any case, triggered recently by Barry’s interview where he mentions the transformation of civilization as a result of climate change (and his earlier suggestions to read this log), I’ve begun to think more seriously about it. By “serious”, I don’t mean the fun things like building your PAW death machine or hoarding just enough food to survive the big one. I mean trying to tease out the sociological factors behind things like mass murder, eschatological cults, the popularity of an @ssh0le like Donald Trump.

My current attention was drawn (by a friend) to this article, which sits so squarely in the category of self-righteous morons impressed with their own cleverness. However moronic the Malheur terrorists might be, this person Albert Burneko is much worse. What could possibly cause a seemingly otherwise intelligent person like Albert to misunderstand things so badly? I don’t understand that anymore than I understand why people think Trump would make a good President. [sigh]

Anyway, I’m definitely not defending the Malheur terrorists. But I feel the same way about them that I feel about the morons who still want to fly the Confederate battle flag. It’s so batsh!t crazy, there must be something more underneath. If we simply call these people idiots or crazy and move on to the next topic, then we’re just as much to blame for their actions as they are … or at least just as much to blame for the society that gives rise to their idiotic beliefs.

I have no answers. But these 2 links are interesting:

Climate change & organized society

I simply want to log my friend’s comments here. Watch the whole interview (Part 1, Part 2).

If you think about the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean over the last year or two years, and people don’t make the connection of that to climate change, but it is actually closely related to the four year long drought in Syria that amplified the conflict there.

A temperature rise of the order of 4° would render the world essentially a world in which organized human civilization, as we understand it, is no longer possible.

Law of Attraction (again)

So I’m thinking about The Secret and The Law of Attraction (LoA) again, unfortunately. I have a more immediate need to think about it, now. In particular, it seems like a fairly common psychological bias. But I just don’t have a term for it, a conceptual anchor point.

This essay, New Thought (aka Mind Cure or Mind Science) movement by Robert Todd Carroll helped quite a bit. The kernel Carroll helps lead me to consists of these ill-formed hints:

  • illusion of control
  • self-confidence/esteem
  • “the master has failed more times than the novice has even tried”
  • evolutionary success

I don’t have the time to formulate something more coherent at the moment. And since nobody reads this log, anyway, it doesn’t matter. It’s just one log entry on the way to another!

Anyway, that essay commits the same error it accuses the LoA believers of committing:

Nobody ever accomplished anything without a positive attitude and belief in his or her own ability to succeed at achieving a goal. Thoughts lead to actions and actions bring about results. No thought, no action—unless you’re a robot.

Anyone who knows me has heard me rant about the delusion of thoughts leading to actions. The only way I accept that is if you redefine “thought” to mean “smaller, faster actions”. So, Carroll is committing the same error by elevating the illusory thoughts into a causative role. We certainly can and do act without thought… all the time. And what’s with “nobody ever accomplished anything without a positive attitude”? That’s just plain ridiculous. Our history is replete with stories of unhappy, negative, suicidal artists and inventors who changed our world, both for the better and worse.

We know that most of our ailments will go away of their own accord and that many of our ailments are responses to our social situation. We know that having faith in the healer is important for success, as is the ritual and theater that often accompanies the meeting between healer and patient. We know that the optimism and hopefulness of the healer play an important role in affecting the faith of the patient in the process. We know, in other words, that belief is a powerful placebo.

Never mind the specious use of “most”, here. If he’d written “some”, it would be more defensible. The more important point is that the things Carroll is saying we “know” are really vague, abstract, placeholders for whatever underlying mechanisms there may be. We don’t know these things. A better way to say it is that we’re ignorant of why these correlations exist. The correlations imply a mechanism we may ONE DAY know or understand. But today, they’re merely phenomenal correlations.

So, although Carroll’s essay helped me refine my hunch that the LoA is a common diagnosable psychological bias, he is, himself, infected.

The Leap of Faith in Philosophical/Metaphysical Naturalism

This post triggered, again (I know, right?), my ongoing problem with atheism. But it did so in an interesting way.

The term naturalism refers to explanations based exclusively on natural causes. A position called metaphysical naturalism claims that supernatural causes do not exist. The position of methodological naturalism makes a more humble claim that supernatural causes might exist but will not be invoked to explain the phenomena at hand.

So, of course, I found this article, which concludes with:

From landing a man on the moon, to the creation of the personal computer and the Internet, humanity has been gifted beyond measure by the assumption of methodological naturalism. At some point, doesn’t the amazing success of assuming naturalism when asking questions about reality mean that naturalism is not only a good assumption -but the underlying reality of the Universe?

Now, at first read, I thought “Yeah, yeah, OK. I’ve heard that before.” But there’s still something fallacious about it beyond the leap of faith from method to ontological claim. And it’s relatively easy to find the fallacy in the above phrasing. It’s the sleight of word shift from the phrase “assumption of methodological naturalism” to the phrase “assuming naturalism”. It’s true that the use of methodological naturalism brought us all those things and is what’s so successful. It is NOT true that the use of naturalism, sans the “methodological” modifier, has brought us these things.

My argument with the leap of faith taken by the metaphysical/philosophical naturalists lies precisely there. It’s the METHOD that matters, not the naturalism. It, literally, does not matter what we think, as long as our behaviors follow the pattern.