A New Ape In The Tree

It appears there is another ape in the neighborhood. Well, there was another ape and the neighborhood is the human family tree. Researchers have found parts of what they think is another species of human that lived roughly 50,000 years ago. The discovery was made in a cave on the island of Luzon, which is in the Philippines, a dozen years ago, but the announcement has just been made after years of research. There’s a lot of work to be done to figure out where this new species fits, but they seem sure it is a new species.

This is not the first time a new species has been found in the South Pacific. In 2004, Homo floresiensis was found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. They actually found quite a few skeletons, so they were able to more quickly figure out that it was a new species and not just some odd bits of an existing species. This was the one they nicknamed the hobbit, because the species stood about 4-feet tall as adults. Finding a second species of short people on another island adds another mystery to the human origin story.

That’s the real back story to these finds. For a very long time, the generally accepted narrative had modern Neanderthals leaving Africa first, followed by modern humans, who either out-competed or replaced Neanderthals. The out-of-Africa story not only fit the fossil record, but it fit the popular narratives of the modern West. The argument that people are all the same, except for the trivial differences in appearance, works a lot better when everyone has the same origin story. Recent data is calling that into question.

One important thing that these two discoveries confirm is something some have been denying for a long time. That is, evolution is recent and local. An important part of the important narrative has been that no real important changes in humans happened after our ancestors left Africa. These two finds make clear that evolution never stops and will accelerate when a species enters a new environment. In other words, humans not only kept evolving, they evolved to adapt to local conditions and local challenges.

Another issue raised by these finds is that there may have been many human species in Africa at the same time. It’s possible these bones are from another type of human that also made it out of Africa, settled on these islands and was cut-off. Genetics has found evidence of a “ghost” population in sub-Saharan Africans that does not exist in other humans. Just as Neanderthal DNA is found in Eurasians, but not Africans, this ghost population does not appear anywhere else. We may not all have the same ancestors.

The significant physical differences found in these skeletons confirms something else that has not always been popular. That is, small difference can have big differences downstream. In other words, having 99% of the same DNA may not mean the final product is 99% alike. These two species are dated to around the same time and most likely share a common recent ancestor, but small differences in their evolutionary history resulted in big differences in their appearance and big differences from their mainland relatives.

Of course, there is another aspect to a find like this. Any time new information undermines old assumptions, it calls into question other old assumptions. If the out-of-Africa narrative has been mostly wrong for decades, maybe it is just wrong. Maybe humans did not first appear in Africa, but maybe started to appear in several places. The evidence does not point this way, but maybe science has been looking in the wrong places for the wrong things, based on the old theory. Maybe there is many new chapters to the story.

More important, the evidence is mounting that a major claim of the ruling orthodoxy is flat out wrong. Science does not support their claims. Human evolution is real, it is recent and it is local. However humans got to Eurasia, whatever common ancestors they have with humans around the world, they started to change as soon as they settled in their new lands, in order to thrive in those new lands. The question is not how much are we the same, but rather how much are we different and how important is that now.

That’s what makes this an interesting age. Just as heliocentrism was seen as a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy, ancient DNA and the archaeological record is quickly becoming a challenge to the orthodoxy of this age. In fact, the current orthodoxy may be much more fragile than what Galileo faced 500 years ago. The organization of Europe did not depend on the sun revolving around the earth. Even the authority of the Church was not dependent on that model. Christian Europe was not invalidated by the telescope.

In this age, differences in origin stories and differences in evolutionary history will cripple our civic religion. You can’t claim people are amorphous blobs, if evolution is true, and you cannot claim all people are biologically equal if they are not. Further, the true believers cannot claim the mantle of science, if their beliefs are in conflict with science. The church of the secular Left is not just wrong about a few things, it turns out that its reason to exist is entirely false. That’s like discovering Christ never existed.

Spooky Stuff

One of the things that make dystopian science fiction fun for the audience is the understanding that it will never happen. It could happen, but only a long time in the future, when everyone seeing the warning is dead. Worst case, the “boot stomping the face” stuff happens when you’re ready to kick the bucket, so you’ll live to see it, but never really have to experience it. This adds a camp fire quality to it, allowing the creator to lay it on a bit thick to make his points. Horror movies often work the same way.

The same is true about doom and gloom in public commentary. The market predictor guy on TV, who thinks the market is about to tank, is not getting much traction if he claims a mild downturn is coming. If he warns that fire will rain down from the sky and Lucifer will rise from his pit somewhere on Wall Street, then people pay attention. The people consuming such content do so with an understanding that it’s not really going to be that bad, but it is kind of fun pretending it will be as you stock up on MRE’s.

You see this with the bogeyman of AI and his posse called automation. Any day now, so the story goes, the algorithms will come alive, enslave the population and replace every job with a robot. What usually follows, depending upon your inclination, is either the libertarian fantasy of a world where everyone smokes weed and plays hacky-sack or the dystopian sci-fi vision of a world like The Matrix or The Terminator. Most people assume it will not happen, but it is fun to pretend it will happen.

Of course, the one thing that rarely gets mentioned is that the future is never the nightmare people imagine. We know this because we are currently living in the nightmarish future imagined in the past. Orwell’s 1984 was nothing like our 1984. In fact, our 1984 was a lot better than Orwell’s 1948. London was still in rubble at the point. Food was still limited and general living standards were poor. Relative to life in 1984 London, life in 1948 was about as bad as Orwell imagined forty years or so on the future.

Probably the most relevant test case we have for this is 20th century Marxism. China and Russia underwent massive social experiments attempting to usher in the Marxist future of a worker’s paradise. At times, life was pretty awful for people in both countries. The purges of Stalin and the Cultural Revolution of Mao were dystopian nightmares for many of the people at the time. Yet, most buggered their way through. Their present was not our future. Instead, our future and theirs was our present, which is not so bad.

Still, the example of China and Russia show that even though things tend to work out for humanity in the long run, the short run can be quite terrible. It means were probably better off worrying about what’s right in front of us, rather than what lies far down the road. A good example is what is coming from behavioral science and genetics. The former is about establishing statistical patterns of human behavior in order to model it. The latter is about finding genes to explain the features of life, including human life.

On the behavioral side, China’s social credit system is a great example of the spooky future stuff happening in the present. The same tools China is using are now being applied to social media and public discourse in the West. The British cop sent out to investigate an offensive tweet is applying the same techniques China is using when they throttle internet access of dissidents. It’s a combination of shame and reduced access, intended to alter the behavior of people viewed as disruptive.

The Twitter cops are not just people sitting around reading tweets. The social media giants are using techniques from behavioral science to narrow the focus to those most likely to be a problem. China’s social credit system works the same way. It’s not predicative in the narrow sense, but more of a profile. When the cumulative score of someone’s activity reaches a certain point, they gets closer examination. The social media giants use this same approach to throttle users with the so-called shadow ban.

On the genetics side of the dystopian present, this will become increasingly common as the science gets better and cheaper. Future parents will soon have a chance to increase their child’s cognitive score, so to speak, rather than leave it to chance. What parent would not want their child to be smart or tall or handsome? If science can increase the odds of that happening, people will embrace it. Think of it this way. If science could tell you which fertilized egg was most likely to be the best, which would you choose?

Of course, Stephen Hsu cannot guarantee your child will be a genius. In fact, he can’t guarantee anything as no such guarantee is enforceable. His clients will not know if his technique worked until their child is well along in development and no one is going to enforce a return policy for children. That said, it is not about guarantees. It is about probabilities. What these techniques offer is better odds of getting the best genetic mix from the parents. It’s like moving closer to the target at the shooting range.

If that’s not enough, genetic research is slowing moving toward a time when minor corrections after the fact are possible. It’s unlikely, highly unlikely, that science will ever be able to rewrite the code of a living human, but they are starting to tinker. These techniques will no doubt be applied to artificial insemination, in combination with what Stephen Hsu is offering. Pick the best embryo, make a few tweak and the odds of your child being a combination of the best his parents contributed goes way up.

None of this is part of some dystopian future. It is spooky stuff happening right now. The most worrisome is probably the stuff coming from behavior science, as it allows for that dystopian future, where the authorities act as puppet masters. The genetics stuff is less spooky and less worrisome for now. Still, the point is we have plenty of monsters walking around in the present. If we want to be worried or have a reason to put away some more MRE’s, you just have to spend time on Twitter or talk to Stephen Hsu.

Revolt of the Machines

One of the great unanswered questions in science is how did the first building blocks of life arise from the primordial soup of early earth. It is believed that before even the simplest of life forms existed, earth was something like a thin stew that was getting thicker as more complex chemicals formed. At some point, and no one knows how, the first DNA molecules formed. The prevailing theory is that the first genetic molecule was a primitive form of RNA, which evolved into more complex RNA and then DNA.

No one knows how this could happened only that it did happen. The proof of which is all around us, including in the mirror. Life exists and it is based in DNA. Further, RNA is created from DNA to put that information to work, like controlling the creation of proteins and performing other chemical functions. How DNA became the code of life, while RNA, its predecessor, became its tool, is a great mystery in science. It is the question J.F. Gariepy tackles in his book The Revolutionary Phenotype.

Gariepy or “JF” as he is known by his fans, is an enigmatic YouTube personality, known for his willingness to talk with anyone. He has had everyone from science deniers to holocaust deniers on his show, as well as lots of normal people. His YouTube career is recent, as until 2017 he was a neurobiologist and post-doctoral researcher at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences. In this book, he endeavors to explain the origin of life 4 billion years ago and predict the end of DNA-based life on earth.

One of the challenges facing writers of science books for a general audience is they must first simplify the presentation. It’s not that the audience is dumb, but that they are unfamiliar with the jargon and unfamiliar with the way people in science communicate information through mathematics. A book full of complex proofs and splatter charts is not going to be popular with most readers. Gariepy gets past this first obstacle by sticking with a straight forward narrative format that is easy to follow.

The second challenge for science writers is to follow the old rule about essay writing that kids learn in school. The book should always be like a woman’s swimsuit; big enough to cover the important parts, but small enough to keep it interesting. This is probably a good rule for all writing in this age. Thanks to the internet and cable television, everyone’s attention span has collapsed. Gariepy gets past this hurdle, as the book is just 138 pages and written in a brisk style that makes for easy reading.

The question is, of course, does Gariepy deliver on his promise to explain the origin of life and how it will end. The answer is an unequivocal maybe. On the positive side, he does a very good job of explaining one possible narrative for how primitive RNA evolved into RNA and then DNA. He offers up an interesting theory as to how DNA came to be the master and RNA the slave, which is an important event in the history of life. The presentation here is a nice primer for the general reader on the basics of genetic theory.

What really works here is his use of simple concepts that he stacks together to explain more complex ideas. For example, describing the relationship between your genes and your body as something like the relationship between a machine operator and the machine, is useful in understanding why our bodies will evolve over time. Our body is there to serve our genes, so any innovation that is better for our DNA is adopted, while changes that are not useful are discarded. Our body is a vehicle for DNA.

The negative here is that the language and analogies don’t always work. Using the office printer to explain how gene mutation works is clever, but calling it a trickster printer will give the American reader the wrong impression. The same is true for his use of the phrase “fool replicator.” This is probably a language issue, as Gariepy is French. The word trickster and fool have different connotations to French speakers than they do to English speakers, especially Americans, who think tricksters and fools are immoral.

Another complaint about the book, and one of the trade-offs with brevity, is it assumes the reader has recently read Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins. In fact, it is probably a good idea to read The Selfish Gene before reading this book, as Gariepy refers to it extensively in the first third of the book. Again, this is the trade-off that comes from brevity and summarizing the material for a general audience. In this case, it is a minor complaint and it does not ruin the book or invalidate his arguments.

The final complaint about the book is that he spends 80% of the text explaining the transition from simple RNA molecules to the complex DNA-based life. That’s about 100 pages, which is a great short primer on a difficult to understand subject. The rest of the book is a dash to the finish line, explaining how the rise of artificial intelligence spells the end of DNA-based life. There’s a strong impression that this part was rushed in order to get the book done and ready for sale. The book sort of ends with a thud.

Without giving too much away, Gariepy argues that RNA used DNA as sort of a bank vault for its code base. When it needed to copy itself, it did so from that copy stored in the DNA molecule. Eventually, the DNA molecule was able to replicate itself, without help from its RNA master. This set off a battle between RNA and DNA, which DNA won, turning RNA into its servant. This same process is about to happen with artificial intelligence, as AI becomes self-aware and able to self-replicate.

That sounds like the premise of a lot of science fiction stories, but it is both an interesting entry point to understanding artificial intelligence and the dynamic between environment, humans and man’s ability to alter his environment. There’s enough there for another book and maybe that’s the plan, but Gariepy only gives it about twenty pages and it felt very rushed. Given his YouTube audience, most of his readers are more interested in how life ends, rather than how it begins. They will undoubtedly feel a bit cheated.

Overall, the first half of the promise, to tell the story of how life began, works pretty well for the intended audience. It’s not a research paper or a bold new hypothesis to explain the origin of life. It is more of a summary of current thinking in a style that the general reader can follow and understand. The second promise could have worked, but it needed a fuller treatment than what Gariepy delivers. Otherwise, it is a book worth reading, if you have an interest in evolutionary biology or the origins of life on earth.

Technology And Social Trust

People working in criminal law have been saying for years that Hollywood’s portrayal of forensic evidence has made it more difficult to prosecute criminals. They call it the “CSI Effect” named after a TV police drama. It is where jurors demand comprehensive forensic evidence, which effectively raises the burden of proof in criminal cases. Instead of eye witness testimony placing a suspect at the crime scene, jurors now expect physical evidence and testimony from an expert on the use of DNA to identify the suspect.

There’s no data to support this observation, but it is something that gets said a lot on TV, so everyone believes it. The increased expectation of what science can do has effectively raised the standard of proof. Another way to look at this is better technology has lowered the standard of trust. It used to be that people could trust themselves to judge the testimony of a witness. They could count on citizens being honest to them. Now, they want physical proof before taking the word of anyone in criminal court.

Of course, now that people in the legal system think this phenomenon is true, they operate on the assumption that no one will take anyone’s word for anything. That means the state invests in high tech forensic labs and pays a lot of experts to testify to jurors in criminal trials about the physical evidence. On the other side, the defense thinks simply being innocent is not enough, so they require experts and private labs to both provide an objective denial of guilt, as well as a counter to the state’s battery of experts.

It is a great example of how new technology can have unexpected results when introduced into a complex system like the criminal justice system. The underlying assumption of our system is that regular citizens can weigh the evidence and decide the guilt or innocence of the accused. Now the assumption is no one can weigh the evidence, other than specially trained experts. Technology has conjured into reality the idea of the fair witness from Stranger in a Strange Land.

The courtroom is not the only place where technology is causing us to lose faith in our senses. The advent of the hyperlink has made it so that any controversial assertion on-line is assumed to be false if it does not have a link to an authoritative source. In every on-line community you see demands for links to authoritative sources, whenever there is a dispute over something. These appeals to a neutral authority correspond to a decline in the lack of trust between people. It’s not true unless you have a link.

Something similar may be happening in the news. Take the Jussie Smollett incident in Chicago. Exactly no one believed him, because there was no video and no corroboration from a neutral technology source, like a cell phone camera. As soon as the cops revealed they could not find confirmation on their surveillance cameras, everyone just assumed it must be a hoax. There were plenty of doubters to begin with, given the number of prior hoaxes, but even the gullible are now expecting proof from technology.

The proliferation of cameras and now listening devices on public streets means it is increasingly difficult to do anything without being seen. Even if that is not true, it is assumed to be true. That means if there is no video, it did not happen. It also means if there is no video, there is no investigation, as the cops will soon figure out that it is waste of time to investigate crimes unless you can get video. The criminal mastermind of the future will be the guy who figures out how to avoid being identified by CCTV.

Another way the proliferation of technology changes social trust is seen on the college campus. In order to avoid being accused of rape, males now tape their interactions with coeds. They may have a buddy record audio so they can prove the encounter was consensual. Young people are growing up to expect everything to be recorded and to not trust anyone unless they can see video or hear audio. People mock the idea of getting consent in writing, but that’s probably better than everyone taping their encounters.

The other side of this coin is the casual way in which people allow themselves to be recorded by others. Every internet drama seems to involve one party publishing chats, video or audio of another party. Super villain Jeff Bezos is an obvious example. He broke the cardinal rule of super villains. Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod. Most important, never send pics of you wiener to people. He was cavalier about being recorded and now is the world’s silliest super villain.

The result of all this is two things. One is the total lack of privacy. The only place that will be safe for anyone to imagine bad things is in their own head. When the internet of things is quietly spying in every home, car and public place, there will no longer be the concept of privacy. Imagine a land where there are no walls and no clothes. Everyone walks around naked and in full view of everyone else. It sounds crazy, but people adapt. The citizens of the future custodial state will get used to a word without privacy.

The other thing is no one will take anyone’s word for anything. This will include people in authority. If you can’t trust your own senses, you’re unlikely to trust the senses of some guy on television claiming to be your leader. Civic duty will have to be replaced with some form of coercion. Perhaps nudge technology will reach a point where the nudged will think they are acting of their own free will. Maybe the people in charge will fit everyone with a WiFi enabled technology collar that ties them into the internet of things.

It is assumed that technological advance always improves the material world. It certainly seems that way. It’s possible, however, that the trade-off for technological advance is the decline in social trust, maybe even a decline in empathy. In order for these new technologies to thrive, people have to abandon their ability to share the feelings of others and maybe even abandon their sense of self. The future will be a world of indifferent automatons, living in glass houses, under the eye of the state.

Old And Busted

Way back in the before times, at the dawn of the interwebs, I had some dealings with a small niche publisher. He had a few small newspapers he sold that focused on narrow subjects. Before the internet, there were a lot of these publications. Some were in the magazine format, while others were like a small newspaper. The model was to charge a relatively high subscription fee to a small audience. They could not sell ads, so the only way they could survive was on high subscription rates to loyal fans.

One day, this publisher starts telling me about his plans to abandon the old model and move to the internet. That way he could cut his production and postage costs, which were the biggest part of his operation. I asked him how he was going to handle the revenue side, as this was before firewalls and on-line payment processing, He said he was going to make up the difference with clicks. After some back and forth, I told him banks don’t take clicks, so he better come up with a way to make money, rather than clicks.

The guy thought I was just ignorant about the way the future would work, so he dismissed my skepticism. He was not alone. In the 1990’s, everyone was given a disk and then a CD that allowed them to get on-line and feel like there were on the cutting edge of technology. They were in the new economy, with clicks and traffic, not the old economy with money and expenses. It was a good lesson in human nature. Take people out of their natural environment and you suddenly see their raw cognitive ability.

That story comes to mind whenever there are layoffs in media and the media people start analyzing what went wrong. This story at Wired is better than most, but the fact that it needs to be written at this late date says a lot about the people in the media. By now, everyone should know that the newspaper model was never about the news. It was about the distribution system. The newspaper brought ads and marketing material to the people at a cost and efficiency no one could match. That was always their business.

The news part was the marketing expense. People would buy the paper because of gossip or the sports pages. The news was only interesting when something interesting was happening. Otherwise, the so-called hard news side was a sinkhole. When the internet robbed these operations of their distribution hegemony, the logic of their business went with it. When the internet robbed them of gossip and sports, they were left with hard news, which has a tiny market, but huge expense.

This was obvious by the middle of the Bush years. Yet people in the news business have never noticed. Today, in a world where most everyone knows most news is fake, just made up by desperate losers looking for attention, the point should be impossible to ignore, but here we are anyway. After Vice, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed cut staff in what will be a long journey into insolvency, the media was full of hand wringing about the state of journalism. It suggests the people in the media are not terribly bright.

That still leaves open the question as to why no one can find a model for news that is sustainable, without rigging the market or relying on the charity of billionaires. The on-line advertising model was always a bit of sham and that is becoming increasingly clear as Google and Facebook monopolize the space. Even there, the viewership of the ads is declining, as people employ counter measures. The result is more people are exposed to ads, but fewer people are watching them. At some point, that becomes a problem.

What may be true of the news business is that without monopoly or oligopoly power, it cannot exist beyond some scale. That is, a form of Brook’s Law comes into play. The more journalists that are added to a news enterprise, beyond some optimal number, the faster the enterprise descends into insolvency. A single journalist can create enough content for a theoretical maximum of consumers. Two journalists, however, can produce something less than the sum of those theoretical maximums.

This would explain why local papers somehow manage to bugger on, despite what is happening to city broadsheets and even tabloids. It’s not that the local paper fills a niche, which is certainly true. It’s that it never grows beyond a certain size and that size is well below the failure point. The people working in it don’t see themselves as a secular clerisy and instead take a practical view of their job. As a result, the cultural dynamic inside the organization is like you see inside any small local business.

Another point worth mentioning is that it has always been assumed a new economy would evolve to take advantage of the new efficiency brought on by technology, particularly the free flow of information on-line. What’s going on with mass media suggests maybe there is another option. Technology eliminates large chunks of economic activity, not through automation, but by making it impossible maintain barriers to entry. That is, when the price of something fully reflects all available information, the price drops to zero.

The Risk Of Speed

When it comes to automation, people tend to assume the robots will perform the same tasks as the humans they replace, just with fewer mistakes and fewer days off. While that is true, automation almost always means changing how the work gets done, in order to break it into discrete operations. Instead of a man at a workstation, doing a series of tasks, each task is done as a single event by a single robot. This simplifies the task of automation and reduces the cost of the automation by eliminating variables.

This atomization of the work not only makes the work process more efficient, it changes how the humans have to analyze it. Instead of focusing on the people, they must focus on the process. That’s always part of process improvement, but because the process changes and the variables change, new phenomenon turn up in the process. In statistics, they say quantity has a quality all its own. In automated systems, speed has a quality all its own. Those super fast, super accurate robots change the nature of the process.

Think of the game of table tennis. It is a pretty simple game, in terms of strategy. The players try to trick one another with various tactics like setting up a shot or putting spin on the ball so it is hard to return. Player A will use top spin to force Player B to change how he strikes the ball. At some point Player A will change, thus fooling Player B, who then hits the ball beyond the far edge of the table. Alternatively, one player will make the other player move side to side, increasing the chances of a physical error.

If you are coaching table tennis, it is all about training the human to play against the other human. Now, replace the players with robots. The first thing that changes is the players will not make physical errors. So, the side to side business no longer makes sense. The same is true of using ball spin to induce a physical error. The robots will strike the ball correctly each time. In other words, when you remove human error and human emotion from the game, the strategy of the game has to change as well.

It also means the game changes. For example, the team that makes the first robot player will build it to capitalize on human error. Soon, other teams will replace their humans with robots. At that point, everyone stops trying to exploit human error. Instead, they are trying to make faster robots. If their robots can exceed the physical limits of the other robots, then they win. Soon, there is an arms race between the robot builders to make the fastest robot, in terms of physical response, along with the faster processors.

If you stop and think about what this would look like, it sounds kind of cool at first. The first robots would be slow and stupid, but eventually they would pretty amazing. They would go from amusing to terrifying as the speed of the game would become incomprehensible to humans. The speed, agility and processing power of the machines would have the ball flying through the air near its maximum velocity of 900 miles per hour. The paddles would be made of special material, in order to prevent them from flying apart.

Automating the game of table tennis would first result in removing the strategy of the game that exploits human failure. This would be true of any system that is being automated. System analysis would also change as the speed of the machines would create new points of failure and new challenges, in terms of finding efficiency and a competitive edge. In other words, as the problem solving shifts from the human variable to the engineering issues, system analysis has to change accordingly.

Now, instead of robots playing table tennis, let’s think of something else. Currently, close to 90% of trades in the equities markets are done by robots, which are just computer programs attached to the financial system. These programs have access to financial data throughout the system, which is inputted into their systems and the output is the buy and sell decisions. Teams of smart people called “quants” spend endless hours fine-tuning their programs to make them faster and more efficient at trading equities.

If you read the book The Money Game, which was written in the 1960’s, it presciently predicted the rise of the machines in the financial markets. What was clear to smart people at the dawn of the robot age, but not clear to most people, is the old systems regulating and controlling markets would not hold up to automation. It took the Black Monday crash of 1987 for everyone to realize that the controls had to change in order to accommodate the new robot players in the financial system.

In the 2000’s, the rise of high speed trading algorithms and large scale trading models eventually broke the system again. The emergence of the so-called “flash-crash” was entirely due to speed. While the first phase of automation removed the normal human checks on trading, resulting in runaway selling, the next phase of automation allowed for bad human decisions, like errors in trading algorithms, to be implemented so quickly, the systems could not respond. The result was erroneous sell-offs.

That brings us to the current market volatility. The decline itself is getting all of the attention, mostly for marketing and political reasons. The dullards in the media know how to sell gloom and they like blaming bad news on Trump. Historically, this bear market is not important. Whether it is called a correction or a bear market, the numbers are not all that significant. We’ve seen much worse. No one is jumping from their office windows and the public is not banging the sell button on the investment account.

What’s unique about this market is the weirdness. There is sustained volatility, but also a sustained decline, that does not appear to correlate to factors in the economy or in the financial system. The tiniest bit of news can cause wild swings. Apple announced what everyone should have known by now, that their toys are not selling as well as in the past, and the market takes a big tumble. Apple shares dropped 10% in minutes. Of course, this ripples to the rest of the market in seconds as well.

What could be happening is the next phase of automation. The speed and complexity of the algorithms are no longer comprehensible by the humans involved in the system. Like our table tennis playing robots, a level of speed and complexity passes the event horizon of humans to comprehend. Watching the robots play table tennis would be like watching a whirl of stars, beautiful, but impossible for the mind to fathom. Similarly, the new market dynamics may be reaching the limits of human regulators to fathom.

This is not to imply that the robot traders have become aware and are now taking control of the system from humans. That would be interesting, but the robots are still relatively dumb. Instead, they have reached levels of efficiency and speed that exceeds our ability to model properly. The result is the wild volatility and the seemingly irrational behavior of the markets. Put another way, this is the age of basic ideas implemented so fast and with such efficiency, they become irrational to their human creators.

The Persistence of Bad Ideas

The old line about a lie being halfway around the world before the truth is out of bed is a keen observation, but it also suggests something about the nature of lies. That is, a lie that gets around has some appealing quality to it. The reason it spreads so quickly is people want to believe it. There’s something about it that ticks all the right boxes. As a result, even smart and skeptical people, not only want to believe it, but they want to help everyone else believe it. Some lies turn everyone they touch into willing accomplices.

Bad ideas are like that too. For some reason, people want to believe them, even when it really makes no sense to believe them. For example, most people still think your diet can have a significant impact on your health. That if you eat fatty foods, you will have a heart attack. At the extremes this is true, but most disease is genetic. When it comes to heart disease, diet has nothing to do with it. The same is true of things like cholesterol levels, where there is little data to support a link between “bad” cholesterol and heart disease.

Part of what drives the persistence of bad ideas is they seem to address a need among modern people to believe in free will. As the human sciences build the case that we are the product of our genetic coding, the need to believe we can overcome that by force of will becomes stronger. Therefore, if you have a family history of heart disease, you want to believe eating unpleasant food, like some form of preemptive penance, will ward off the reality of your genetic makeup. Your diet becomes a moral issue for you.

The concept of epigenetics seems to be following a similar path. It is becoming this catchall idea that lets people ignore what we know, in favor of speculative nonsense that has no supporting data. This set of long posts on the Arktos site the other day are a good example of the phenomenon. The argument from the author is that epigenetics is proving that experiences can be passed onto subsequent generation through a biological process, just as genetic traits like eye color are passed on from parent to child.

The author is picking up on something Oswald Spengler argued. That is, the land of a people shapes their sense of identity, how they see themselves and their purpose. This in turn shapes their culture. The author of the Arktos piece thinks science is proving that these collective cultural experiences as a people are shared, but also passed on to subsequent generations via the miracle of epigenetics. He points to some papers on the subject and this study on the children of holocaust survivors.

The original definition of epigenetics¹ is the study of how genes are expressed, from a biological perspective. Your DNA contains instructions for determining your eye and hair color, for example, but it also contains instructions for more subtle things like personality traits. You inherit your DNA from your parents. Epigenetics refers to ways in which those genes are turned on and off. Genes are the blueprint for creating proteins, while epigenetics is the study of how genes are read.

The way in which epigenetics is used here and in popular writing is the claim that your experiences can somehow be passed onto your children. This is complete nonsense and there is no evidence to support it. You cannot pass on your experiences to your off-spring through any known biological processes. This nutty idea was cooked up by left-wing agitators so they could claim victim-hood by proxy. Their ancestors were treated poorly, so they are now suffering from the same effects, as part of their biological inheritance.

To now put this bad idea to use in the name of race realism or the moral philosophy of Oswald Spengler is amusing, but every bit as a nutty. As Greg Cochran once put it, this line of reasoning is like saying if you chop off a cat’s tale, it’s kittens will be born without tales. There’s simply no known biological process for passing on experiences or learned behavior. In fact, the changes to how your genes are read as a result of environmental factors are reset in the zygote. In other words, you can’t pass on your experiences.

Now, the author of the Arktos piece is probably a nice guy with good intentions. His background is history and theology, so he can be forgiven for not understanding the human sciences part of this. That raises the question of why epigenetics is so attractive an explanation for someone without math or science. Why embrace something about which you know nothing? The obvious answer is it supports his main point, but another aspect of it is that old need to believe in free will. We are not just moist robots.

In this way, bad ideas are like great salesmen. The bad idea always flatters the person willing to believe it. Pitchmen and motivational speakers have relied on flattery since forever, because people like being flattered. The flattery of free will is that you, unlike the rest of those slobs out there, control your destiny. The promise of epigenetics is that your decisions today will alter the lives of generations to come, because your decisions will be passed onto them, whether they like it or not. You are a god.

Of course, it also suggests something about the future. Many think that the unriddling of the human genome will usher in an age of reason. The fact that our theological overlords have suddenly become evangelical opponents of the human sciences, while embracing things like epigenetics, suggests otherwise. Belief is powerful magic, that has always found a way to override factual reality. That’s probably the main reason bad ideas are like drug resistant viruses. They make it easy to avoid facing reality.

¹I’m not writing a biology textbook here, so if you’re tempted to sperg out on the science, restrain yourself. This is not a post about science.

Vertical Thinking

Some time ago, someone sent me a link to a news story about vertical farming, which is a form of urban agriculture. Here is the Wiki on it and here are some news stories about it here, here and here. Amusingly, when you dig into the subject, you find that the growth of vertical farming can be credited to marijuana growers, who used hydroponic farming to grow weed outside the prying eyes of the man. Big agriculture is now jumping into the business, as a way to both cut labor cost, but also transportation costs.

The cost drivers for food production have always been labor, land and transportation, so farmers have always looked to technology to mechanize their process and increase the yield per acre. Getting the result to market, on the other hand, has always been controlled by distance. Farmers are way outside the city and the customers are in the city. Things like motorized transport and refrigeration have had the strange result of increasing the distance between farm and table. Most city dwellers have never seen a farm.

Vertical farming not only allows for greater yield per acre, you just keep growing up, it also allows for the distance between farm and table to collapse. Vertical farms are just buildings using hydroponics and can be as tall as you like. Almost every city has an excess of abandoned warehouse and factory space. Those spaces, in theory, can be turned into vertical farms. The area around them could literally be turned into farmer’s markets, where the locals can buy their food from the farmer.

The other twist on this is the growing of food in a building, rather than out on the land, makes automation easier. Having robots roaming around the countryside sounds like fun, but robots break, so that means people roaming the countryside to fix the robots. In contrast, an automated warehouse requires just a few people to maintain the robots, relatively speaking. A Japanese firm has built a vertical lettuce farm that is entirely automated. It is a robot vertical farm that is commercially viable.

It’s not much a jump in thought to imagine where this can lead. This method of food production means that cities could become independent of the countryside, maybe even become agricultural centers. That means the interdependence of rural and urban that is enforced and regulated by government could be be broken. That does not mean cities would break from from the countryside, but it means they could survive, at least, if order breaks down and government is no longer able to maintain the balance.

The science fiction scenario is not such a big leap, if vertical farming can be what the industry thinks it can be in a few decades. The cosmopolitans who run the cities and control finance and trade, would move to seal off the cities from the countryside. Inside we get the Brave New World of Huxley, while outside we get the depopulated countryside of John the Savage. The cities would be connected by hyper loops built by Elon Musk. Port cities will be where goods and services enter the system from overseas.

As John Derbyshire remarked at the most recent Mencken conference, the future imagined by Huxley is not only more likely than that imagined by Orwell, it is right around the corner. Cities may not become entirely self-sufficient in the next generation, but the world of work and want is possibly coming to a close in the West. A lot can happen between now and the glorious future, like a plague or an unforeseen financial collapse that upends social order, but the future imagined by Huxley is visible on the horizon.

There is one problem with all of this, whether it is self-sufficient cities run by robots or the future imagined by Huxley. That is, what would be the point? Ruling elites have the population they need to rule. They always seek to reduce that which is not useful to their grip on power. The proliferation of birth control is simply eugenics with a happy face. The societies to the South are sending their excess population north because they don’t want them. Every African potentate will tell you. He has too many Africans.

In the robot cities of the future, most of the people would serve no purpose, so they could be expelled out of the city or recycled for their mineral content in the vertical farms. At some point, the only useful people to the ruling elite would be the guards, who defend the city from the outlanders and expel excess people. Some jobs can never be automated, at least not in foreseeable future, so cities would still have people, just not a lot of them. The logical result of that is much smaller cities, but that becomes self-defeating.

Just play out the dynamics of the imaginary world of self-sufficient cities run by robots and it becomes ridiculous in a hurry. The expulsion of people drives up the population of outlanders and drives down the population of cosmopolitans. To keep from being overrun, the number of guards needed by the city must go up. The self-sufficient cities run by robots eventually become armed camps for no other purpose than to guard the vertical farms and give the ruling class someone over whom to rule. It’s pointless.

Of course, there is another side to the question. That is, what’s the point of living in the world imagined by Huxley. That is the thing Derbyshire noted in his talk. People prefer Orwell, because his future seems like it has a point. There is a reason to live. In the Brave New World, life is consumption and fornication floating in an ether of soma, the opioid-like narcotic freely available in Huxley’s future. That’s what makes it so unpleasant for modern readers. Life without purpose is not utopian. It is dystopian..

As we get closer to that world and drug addiction rates spiral upward, suicide rates climb higher and now life expectancy is declining, it suggests there is a stop between here and Huxley’s imagined future. That’s death. Humans, at least Europeans, are not built for captivity. This reality is probably what is driving the migrant invasions. What’s the point of defending your lands when you have no reason to get up in the morning? People don’t defend land. They defend the life that can be built and lived on that land.

Slavery As A Service

Unsurprisingly, the first step in the Progressive pogrom against normal people after the Pittsburgh shooting was an effort to de-platform Gab. The ruling class has a deep hatred of the site for a number of reasons. One being it puts the lie to the claim that the tech industry is an open market. The other is it puts the lie to the fact that Americans have constitutional rights. Anything that is seen as a challenge to Progressive rule is marked for death and the people in charge are not about to allow a tragedy go to waste.

The bodies were not even cold and the usual suspects were organized and sent out on social media, and then Progressive media, to denounce Gab as some sort of organized assault “on our democracy.” The only thing missing from the hysteria was the claim that Gab is a Russian agent. Everyone was supposed to drop what they were doing for a five minutes of hate against Gab, a tiny web site with about half a million users. FaceBook has billions of users, Google controls the internet. Yet, Gab is a threat to civilization.

Not soon after the signal from Prog was given, the heads of the tech oligopoly got together to throw Gab off the internet. First their hosting service, a company called Joyent, gave them 48 hours to find a new hosting service. The company is owned by Samsung and it is run by a loathsome bigot named Scott Hammond. The hope was that Gab would not be able to find a replacement over the weekend and the site would go dark. Word was sent out to the media to prepare a celebration of the event so Hammond could be honored.

Gab, ever resourceful, found another hosting company and was able to start making the transition, despite Joyent deliberately trying to sabotage their efforts. That’s when the next step in the operation was launched. GoDaddy, the registrar Gab used to buy the domain name, threatened to steal the domain name from them. This is the trick GoDaddy has used in the past, stealing domain names from owners, who hold opinions contrary to the official orthodoxy. Gab was able to avoid this and is in the process of moving to new digs.

Now, when you start looking at these companies, the thing that should ring out is they are pretty much the standard villain in Hollywood movies. They are large, soulless corporations run by bland automatons like Scott Hammond. They are men hired because they will just follow orders. When you look at a guy like Scott Hammond, you see the face of someone who never asks too many questions. He’s the guy who begs for his life at the end of the Hollywood action movie, but the good guy shoots him anyway.

The question that normal people ask is how this is possible. After all, these companies sign contracts and in theory, we still have courts where contracts can be enforced by impartial judges. While that is a laughable fiction now, the reality is these companies are not bound by standard business agreements. They have been allowed to carve out new law for themselves, forcing their vendors and customers to sign off on what is called an adhesion contract. This gives the tech giants absolute power over everyone else.

An adhesion contract or “standard form contract”  is a contract drafted by one party and signed by another party. The second party typically does not have the power to negotiate or modify the terms of the contract. Adhesion contracts are commonly used for things like insurance or rental contracts. When you rent a car or purchase car insurance, you just sign the contract, because you have to in order to rent the car or get insured. Every technology service provider is now basing their relationships on these types of contracts.

It used to be that the courts carefully scrutinized these types of arrangements, so the contract had to adhere to some basic principles. The courts would often use the “doctrine of reasonable expectations” to void all or part of these contracts, when there was lack of notice, unequal bargaining power, or blatant and substantive unfairness. The reason for this should be obvious. When a powerful company has the right to dictate the terms of the contract to their customers, they have all the power in the contractual relationship.

In western jurisprudence, a valid contract is one in which both parties freely engage and have equal opportunities to negotiate. When one party imposes the conditions on the other, that’s not a contract. That’s slavery. In a world where a handful of people control the public space, these types of contract give them arbitrary power over public discourse. If they become vexed with what you say, they can claim you have violated their terms of service and remove you from the internet. Again, the terms are dictated, not negotiated.

A recent, less emotional, example is what happened with Stefan Molyneux, the alt-lite YouTube personality. He has built up a large following on YouTube for his quirky brand of edgy commentary. He said the wrong thing and was informed by YouTube that his business would be shuttered unless he conformed to their terms of service. His only recourse, like a slave being whipped by the master, was to beg for mercy. After getting a reprieve, he will have to live knowing who holds the whip and who is the slave.

This is not something limited to social media. Microsoft has imposed similar terms of service on users of Office and Skype. In theory, it means they can stop your company from using these products if they find out the owner gave money to the wrong political candidate or has the wrong opinions. All of the content providers like Hulu, Amazon and NetFlix have implemented the same one-way contracts. While they have not banned people from using their services yet, it is something they now have the power to do.

This is why the “cloud” is so popular with the Cloud People. Turn on the television and you are treated to ads telling you how the cloud will solve all the problems of your life. What it is, of course, is an inducement to walk into the cage. Once inside, the door slams shut and you are now just another bit of property on the plantation. In the near future, Brendan Eich will not just lose his job. He will be found to have violated the terms of service for his refrigerator, car and checking account. Internal banishment becomes real.

Slavery tends to end one of two ways. The slave-based society is conquered or the slaves rise up and slaughter their slave masters. It’s too much to hope for the political class to ban these leonine contracts used by global tech to enslave the rest of us, but that would be the peaceful resolution. The courts could also return to the habit of carefully scrutinizing these agreements. Given the behavior of the political class, this seems unlikely. Judging by the physiognomy of Scott Hammond, the alternative seems certain.

It’s Complicated

Anyone who has been through a change in software platforms for their company knows that it starts out as a lot of fun, but then turns into drudgery. Initially, thoughts of all the new stuff and better programs makes it feel like Christmas. Then the reality of going through every single business process of the company hits home. You end up re-thinking vast chunks of the company’s business processes, much of which is terribly dull, even though it is essential. It is the only way to get it right and take advantage of the new system.

What you learn from such an ordeal is that the company software system is the repository of the company rules that define how it exists. Over time, the rules changed and evolved and the software was changed to evolve with the company. There were upgrades and modifications. If the software is old enough, there were modifications to modifications and many hands doing the work, many of whom are long gone. More important, many of the processes were created for reasons no one remembers. It’s just the way it is done.

The people who like to argue that complex systems cannot evolve from simple systems have never worked with business software. All complex business software started as simple software. Over decades, it evolved into highly complex systems that even the creators don’t fully understand. Usually, in the case of enterprise systems, there are teams who specialize in one aspect of the system. They have created interfaces that the rest of the system uses to pass data or call functions related to that area of the system.

The reason that systems tend toward increasing complexity is that the world is not a fixed place. Even small changes can require significant changes in how a company does business. In a government regulated industry like food or chemicals, the government is always updating the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). That means regular changes to the forms that are printed or the data that must be captured. That, of course, means regular changes to the company software system. Over time, those changes add up.

Now, the people maintaining and modifying the software are not rewriting large swaths of it every time there is a change. They make small changes, the bare minimum, in order to keep costs down and get the change done quickly. That means they take shortcuts, hybridizing other functions and applying patches to existing code. It does not take long before this gets out of hand and even small changes require lots of thinking and planning.

It is good way to think about all of human organization. The company that started out as two people, but grew to one hundred people, is at least a thousand times more complex than when it started. Obviously, the small town that grew into a city seems infinitely more complex than when it started. Even your social circle can suddenly feel wildly complex if your circle of friends expands to include people outside your initial peer group. Complexity grows at a rate faster than the growth the organization. That’s an iron rule of life.

The people working in artificial intelligence are running into this same problem. Replicating even the most mundane human task requires millions of lines of complex code. What we take for granted as humans is actually quite complex. For the same reason no one person can understand the complexity of their small town, the creators of AI cannot understand the complexity of their creations. Algorithms to handle one small task get unwieldy in hurry once they are interfaced with other algorithms to handle other small tasks.

This is why the robot future is a lot further away than the futurists want to believe. The cost of labor to automate a warehouse is a grain of sand on the beach, compared to the cost and complexity of automating a highway. Just as important, the cost of maintaining it is orders of magnitude higher. As every business owner knows, just because something can be automated, the cost of doing so often outweighs the savings. Put another way, just because something can be done does not mean there is a reason to do it.

Putting aside the cost of complexity, systems often become so complex that they become unpredictable. Even in business systems, which are simple compared to the software for driving a car, the complexity can reach a point where no one truly knows what will happen if some change is implemented. The result is a whole new process for performing quality control, to make sure the changes do not have some unexpected and unwanted downstream result. There are now certifications for software quality control professionals.

This is often why legacy systems are replaced. It’s not the technology, although that is often a handy excuse. It’s that the old system has so many patches and mods that no one knows how it works anymore. New changes result is weird outcomes and costly followup changes. As is true with everything in life, things sometimes get so complicated that the best answer is to start over. It’s why men leave their families and why people change careers. It’s also why the people stand aside and let the revolutionaries topple the rulers.

That’s what a revolution is, when you think about it. It’s a lot like the decision to buy a new software system for the company. It’s not that what comes next will be better. It’s that the status quo is so complicated and unpleasant, anything has to be better. Of course, just a new software never turns out as expected, revolutions always turn out to be a lot more unpleasant than anyone imagined. Instead of firing the initial consultants, the revolution eats its own, by killing off the first group of revolutionary leaders.

Even so, it is something to think about as the West struggles to reform itself. The web of pirates, grifters, reformers and patriots within the ruling classes of the West has reached a point where no one understands what’s happening. That’s why official Washington remains in a state of emergency over Trump. It’s why the European ruling class is worried that they may be too lazy to fight their own people. Everyone knows that the system is not working, but no one has any idea how to fix and everyone is afraid to touch it.

It might be time for a new system.