Saturday, 24 February 2018

Is globalisation hurting innovation?

What continues to bother me is the question of how we to prepare children to be comfortable with thinking differently and whether globalisation hurts or helps this goal.

I think most “innovation” these days is just iteration with good marketing. When was the last time we had a revolutionary new technology? Transistors were invented in 1947. The internet in 1989. Antibiotics in 1928. It’s not that inventions are no longer possible, I suspect we’ve simply neglected the educational tools.

First off, there is no point in comparing the West to China or India. The reason electronics are made in Asia is not because their engineers are smarter, it's because US environmental regulations and labour conditions make building state-of-the-art fabrications prohibitively expensive for all but the largest companies with the most entrenched market positions.

The countries we should be watching closely are the UK and Israel. Both have companies and technological innovation well out of proportion to their size. Israel gets more US patents per capita than any other country. The UK is small, yet British companies operate globally, and British expats are everywhere. The British succeed because of a liberal approach to education. They teach humanities along with mathematics and science, preparing people for a world in which they will have to live and make a living – not preparing them for jobs. There's a difference.

This makes British people incredibly creative, innovative, lateral thinkers. All those contest shows on TV? British. Most respected news organisation in the world? The BBC. Most respected scientist in the world? Stephen Hawking, a Brit. Apple's great industrial design? Courtesy of eastender John Ives.

In the case of Israel, I've always wondered if mandatory Torah studies required of students there (Jews everywhere go through this to some extent) teaches a broader, more critical approach to thinking compared with modern English classes.

It’s true, plenty of technology products are being made outside of developed countries. According to the conventional wisdom, this is "bad" because Asian countries are getting all the associated engineering and manufacturing jobs. But from another perspective, these devices are generally used to display content made in the developed world. A DVD player might cost $50. But a DVD movie costs $20. The bet is that people will buy more movies than they will buy players.

The computers and displays manufactured in Asia are simply commodities. But the programs running on the computers – MS Office, Photoshop, video games, etc – are not commodities. They are available at a premium. Computers cost half as much as a copy of Photoshop. And the entire earth has access to the internet, but Google, Yahoo and Amazon are US companies and services.

Rather than competing with China and India on engineering, we need more science and maths education, because those disciplines illuminate the world and develop minds capable of thinking clearly and consistently to identify and solve problems. But just as important is the study of art, music and literature to understand the human condition and fundamental desires so that innovators can design the kinds of products or content humans want to use.

In other words, producing more graduates who can explain how airplanes fly is less important than producing educated people who understand why travel and exploration are a fundamental human desire. China and India are getting better at the latter, but it’s the West’s game to lose at this point.

It’s the tech companies and government that want more engineers because their interests are the opposite of an engineer’s. They want more engineers to make engineers cheaper and expendable. There is an important subtext at work here. From the government's standpoint, it should make no difference whether someone makes $40k as an engineer, photographer or game designer. They'll pay the same taxes. $40k is $40k.

This is the fundamental relationship people have with government. From its creation, government was always seen as a necessary evil that sits opposed to those it governs. That's why the American Constitution, for instance, goes to such extreme lengths to specify government powers and the rights of the people which cannot be abrogated. The entirety of US political history after the Revolution is a story of the waxing and waning of government power over the people.

Because the government is an entity opposed to the people it governs, it is better to have legions of engineers at $40k than a random assortment of photographers, designers, artists and writers (the content producers). The former work under controlled and institutionalised conditions – the corporation – consuming the bulk of a person’s week and providing their family with a salary. The corporate worker is visibly present or, more importantly, visibly absent. This legion can also be treated as a single block, precisely because the individual’s lives are homogenous.

This isn't the case for the hodgepodge of professions. Sure, those jobs require discipline, time and oversight, but they have more independence and require less supervision. Also, their political interests and motivations are highly idiosyncratic and ill-defined. Yet they are more important for the people over the long term. They produce the things onto which we can project meaning and emotional significance: arts, designed products, entertainment, etc. We seek these out in our spare time, spending our hard-earned resources to consume them, revealing a deeper human need or desire for such things.

People have been painting in caves as long as there have been people, paint and caves. The first stone jewellery is only slightly less ancient than the first stone tools. Every culture on earth has music and dance. It’s what makes us human. Regardless of one’s value judgment on these things they are important, or we wouldn't waste money and free time on them. That means people who make them are at least as important as the people who make the tools.

Just as engineering declined when manufacturing went offshore, I suspect innovation will decline too. Without an industrial base to practice the feasibility of ad-hoc techniques on the shop-floor, how can people be expected to see gaps? How can cutting-edge ideas be taught if they don't exist close by? And where will the teachers learn? What happens when the generation that did learn from the shop-floor retires? Will teachers then be imported from India and China?

I haven't been to India or China, but I get the impression those countries lack a certain amount of social overhead which lets people concentrate on becoming an expert, partially due to lower personal freedom. By contrast, the consumer choices in the West force us to put a lot of time into determining the best product to buy. Our political and judicial systems are equally conflated – most of us will be in court eventually, whether for permit requirements or actual violations.

Then if we do get some free time to socialise, no one gives a crap about engineering and maths. You better have some entertaining knowledge about music, sports or literature, along with some knowledge about the many subcultures around us. Plus, there's an expectation of near-total engrossment in a child's life and anything short of absolute devotion is considered bad parenting. It’s not clear if these unseen consequences of freedom are preventing otherwise motivated eclectic geniuses from attaining their true potential. I don’t think anyone’s figured this out yet.

Ultimately, power doesn't care which country does the innovating. Most companies are stateless multinationals anyway and all they care about are low labour costs. As it was with ditch-diggers, so it will be with engineers: those who can’t innovate will find themselves in a pointless McJob sooner or later.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Music, maths and memorisation: the point of work

Nothing of value in human experience is intuitive. All that comes naturally to the human animal is eating, defecating and killing. People aren’t “gifted” at activities. Babies don't even know how to sleep peacefully through the night. As any parent will tell you, they must learn how to sleep.

We are creatures of noise, madness and chaos. Everywhere in the world where people live together, and the inhabitants are uneducated and idle, regardless of culture, race, or time, all of them share a common characteristic – they are noisy. By contrast, two places people congregate in large numbers are quiet: churches and libraries. That’s where people get on with the work of engaging with the unknown. Understanding is a function of work. And the first point on that function is (0,0).

For instance, there is nothing intuitive in mathematics beyond the addition of natural numbers less than 10. Subtraction is not intuitive, nor is the concept of zero. The postulates of Euclid are not intuitive. If they were, Euclid wouldn't get credit for them. Fractions? Forget it. And don't get me started on calculus.

As far as I can remember, most maths before calculus is computation. To master computation takes work. Not a little work, not 15 minutes a day – it takes a lot of work. Over and over and over again, like running beep-test drills in basketball drills. Or endless scales in piano practice. Most of it is practice for the real interesting maths later. If you’re willing to put in the practice, calculus teaches you composition, the system and patterns which not only produce order but define it.

To understand something, you must recreate it. If you can do this, you stare for hours at what you just did. The sun goes down outside, and you don't see it because all you see is how the starting point so obviously contained the brilliant insight at the end. How did anyone not see it? The world you know, the same world as you lived in as an infant – all wood and metal and separate pieces – starts to look thin and you start to see the fields and flows that have always been there, and you wondered why you ignored them, and what else you are ignoring.

This is why it doesn't matter what you are studying, fluid dynamics, electromagnetism, topology, physics, aerodynamics. You are listening to the different music the universe plays, but even though it isn't expected, you know how to listen, how to hear it. You know what to expect before you hear it. You look at planetary charts and you expect the mathematical model to be something like Bach – some periodicity, synchronicity, some counterpoint within the unity.

You look at the data coming from an atom smasher, and you don't expect to hear Bach or Mozart. Maybe Stravinsky. Probably more like Xenakis. Discord and unpredictability in an irresistible force. An energy. Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman. A force with its own internal order invisible from the outside. A fixed beginning with a very definite and different ending.

And it’s not memorisation that makes a good mathematician or a thinker, although it does add an important factor. People who make educational music with a hip-hop voice and cadence reciting multiplication tables or national capitals over a drumbeat send the message that kids can't/won't memorise pieces of information unless its put in music. But they should still memorise them if for no other reason than to train their minds in the process of memorising abstract information.

Funny how kids don't have any problem memorising the characters on their TV shows or video games but can't be expected to remember the names of nine (or eleven) planets or the identity of half a dozen species of tree in their backyard. The idea that kids don't have to memorise multiplication tables because they have iPhones is beyond ignorant. People have had abacuses for thousands of years, then soroban, slide rules, calculators, etc. and it was still worthwhile to memorise.

I was never very interested or good at maths, but I’ve since discovered the reason to memorise multiplication tables is so the patterns in the tables, for example, the relationships between the 2, 3, and 6's, and the 4's will become apparent over time. Just like it's useful for a child to see a picture of a farm to understand farms, it is worthwhile to see the landscape of multiplication to understand what happens to numbers when you multiply them.

Likewise, when you visualise a memorised table in your mind, you start to notice things that are missing from it, like 11, 19, and all the other primes. You start to notice that some numbers show up a lot, like 24, and others infrequently, like 21. When the student thinks about the table, these patterns all become part of the memory of the multiplication table. He begins to learn things about mathematics, completely independently, from the simple act of repeatedly recalling the dumb multiplication table.

If it were religion, we’d say you take your passage from the bible or zen kōan or whatever and pray or meditate on it. Maths isn't a religion, but the iterative process of thought is the same. You think about a thing, you see it in your mind, and your mind becomes so familiar with this conjured image that it can detect new patterns in it.

It’s this same reason kids are taught to memorise the postulates of geometry, formulae for conic sections, aphorisms, the names of common birds and trees, various types of insects, the continents, oceans, planets and national capitals.

We memorise datasets so we can develop insights and new ideas about the data that haven’t existed before. Memorisation is the basis of inquiry, investigation and answer. It allows you to formulate and answer your own intelligent, probing questions. Otherwise, education is nothing more than instructions for using tools.

But the emphasis here is on the work. There is no intuition or natural talent. The child who sits at the piano for hours after the other children get bored does not have a natural talent for music. He has a natural talent for work. Same with reading. The joy is in figuring out, in trying.

There is only comfort in work because all that is great comes from inhuman amounts of work. The only way to create order out of disorder, to create a pattern out of noise, is work. Work fights entropy. Bach and Beethoven worked. They suffered. They were possessed of Plato's demon, driven to study and study and study and slowly to learn to see the patterns, and until they learn to recreate the patterns, change them, and finally dare to wrangle the forces underlying those patterns, and set to work on those forces themselves, creating new patterns surprising and unexpected even to accomplished musicians.

This is what mathematicians and thinkers do. The field attracts introverts and people comfortable with solitude. Maths – not computation, but maths – requires concentration, devotion and humility. A mathematician is a good listener. Maybe he thinks he's listening to God, or the Universe, or the white noise of bombinating quarks. He isn’t working his systems of equations by mechanically jostling symbols around the page. The good mathematician and thinker listens and wonders where he's heard it before.

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Being remembered in a utopian history of the future

The great American defence lawyer Alan Dershowitz recently told a New Zealand crowd the threat to free speech in Western countries worries him a lot. He hasn’t observed this kind of problem since the 1920s and 1930s.

Back then, there were obvious reasons why freedom of speech was being crushed. Europe had disastrously ended WWI, inflation was rampant, and countries were ungovernable. The major parties were the Communist party on one side, and Fascist parties on the other. None of that is true today.
American lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz

You don’t have to read Stephen Pinker’s great work The Better Angels of Our Nature – in which the professor proves the world is on an upward trajectory – that things really are getting better by almost every measure.

“Look at the US, things are going very well. Even the poor are richer than they have ever been. The inequality gap is widening, but we don’t have hunger, starvation and unemployment problems. The circumstances that normally lead to this kind of extremism in political discourse are not present. So other factors must be at work,” he says.

And yet, extremism certainly exists.

Humans don’t do very well with utopia. Philosophers have long understood that if utopia could be realised, the first thing people would do is break a window. Maybe they’d be bored and want something – anything – to happen, even if it’s dangerous. But I think it has more to do with the desire for utopia itself.

We all say we want to avoid death, but the only way to do that is to remove all the things that make us vulnerable. As those vulnerabilities are taken away, the core of what it means to be human disappears, placing us in an eternity in which nothing can grow and nothing can become. Utopia is something we think we want, but we want it only because we don’t know what we want.

I often think New Zealand is the closest any country has come to utopia. The US too has moved near to utopia. It’s not everyone’s version of utopia, sure, and that’s why some people are breaking windows. More than eternal bliss, some people simply want to be remembered.

The US is a young country, relatively speaking. It’s had a handful of versions of the same government lo these 240 years and things have by-and-large been stable (the Civil War excepted.) But at some point, the US will at least mirror Europe’s ideological, economic and social divisions. These tore Europe apart, united it under any of at least a dozen empires, and triggered countless, devastating wars. At some point in the future, maybe 1000 years from now, that stuff will happen in the US. It's inevitable.

So, if it’s going to happen eventually, why not secure your place in history as the one who sets it in motion? That way, you will drive history rather than be yet another forgotten political figure when the Big Change comes. I think this explains why people start and join movements.

Think of it another way. In all aspects of life, things exist on a continuum evaluated in relation to their opposites. Music must have high notes and low notes, soft notes and loud notes. When the music of an era holds for too long on one thing, the next era of music is inaugurated when someone plays from the other end, re-establishing a dynamic equilibrium. It defines not only the new thing but also the old thing.

Likewise, in art. Beginning in the Renaissance, painters worked to paint more accurately and realistically. But as the centuries passed, it became repetitive. They didn't know at the time they were the realistic painters – they simply assumed they were being good painters. The impressionists came along and proved a person could be a good painter by painting completely unrealistically. This new art form was distinctly unrealistic and emotional, but the impressionists also defined their predecessors as too formal and literal just as much as they closed the book on them.

The same goes for politics, law and everything else. We know our Western legal system requires lawyers to defend people we hate, so no one has ever really criticised that before.

But what if you were to demonise, intimidate and discourage lawyers from wanting to fill that role? You could ensure that people the public hates don’t get a fair trial, not by rigging the trial, but by changing the culture so no one performs the role the system assumes at least one person will fill for it to be valid.

You can affect all kinds of social change this way. The long-term trend does seem to be more freedom and prosperity due to science and technology. It feels normal, expected, just like the expectation of defence lawyer for a mass murderer. We don’t think anything of it. So, the only way to make a name for yourself is to reverse that trend. By defining the new era as the antithesis of the previous era. By using science and technology to make people less free and less prosperous.

If the trend instead was that human existence is getting more miserable with each generation, then the agitators would be out in the streets leading the revolution. They act either way because they want to be remembered generations after they are dead. You don't get that today by curing disease or doing something amazing. Can you name the inventor of chemotherapy or the microchip? Did you even know they have a chicken pox vaccine now?

I think these people know intuitively that the best way to be great in the eyes of history is to seize the machinery of civilization and throw it into reverse. It would imply you are one of the few who sees and understands the machinery. It further implies you are one of the few among the few who have seized the lever. And finally, it means you are the singular one of the fewest of the few with the courage – or insanity – daring to pull the lever knowing exactly what will happen.

Terrorists are defined by their desire to do break the status quo, but they neither see the machine nor have any control of it. As for these kids, I don’t think their heart is in it. They didn't come to this reversal idea emotionally. They are anti-freedom because these are the times which will reward such a stance.

Uncovering the conspiracy of the Deep State

I tripped on a step the other day and wondered if I should sue the “deep state,” or maybe US President Donald Trump.

By now, everyone with an internet connection knows the term "deep state." But consider that if you find yourself in complete agreement with the public, especially when "public" includes people you wanted to murder in the last election, then your position is not only wrong, it's not even yours. You have been trained to think about the deep state, so the money is in understanding why.

The question isn't whether the deep state exists, it is why so many people intuitively knew about it before they learned the term. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures, so when I tripped on that faulty step, my instinct was to blame the step, but that gets the problem backward. The issue isn't the faulty step, it is all of the correctly laid steps. I didn't trip because the step was too high or because I should have been more careful. I tripped because the city taught me not to be careful.

On the one hand, we live in a society which values free choice and personal responsibility, but we are told it is safe to value such things only because we expect a certain amount of absence of choice and freedom from responsibility. We assume we will not be allowed to make a truly dangerous choice because our judgment of risk is based on belief in God – and this is even more true if you think you don't believe in God. Hence the “deep state.” Let me explain.

The reason I thought personal responsibility is the answer to the faulty stair is that stairs already exist, and if they already exist they must be safe or "some other omnipotent entity" would not have permitted them to come into existence. That is the problem of modern culture in a nutshell. All the metaphors of modernity imply this omnipotent other, from "free market" to "inalienable rights" to "peace in our time."

This entity can be heard in language such as “globalists” and “New World Order” or "patriarchy." We all see a man behind the curtain. Conservatives say progressives are secretly ruining the world, while progressives say conservatives are holding back freedom. No one ever stops to think: “hang on, if everyone sees a conspiracy and yet no one I meet is ever a part of that conspiracy, why am I not in a padded cell?”

What stops the men in white coats from taking you away is there are no men in white coats. We think only in terms of ourselves and multiply by 7 billion. Take Turkey for instance. In Turkey, a man can be judged on his intelligence based on the complexity of his conspiracy theories. The more moving parts, the smarter he is. Who cares if these pieces don’t fit together, that just proves the conspirators are more powerful than we thought! It's easy to laugh, but what would happen to Americans if a multi-century empire and religion collapsed within a few decades? Actually, that is what happened in the US.

Turkish people were “freed” from Islam in 1924 when Kemal Ataturk founded his secular state but left the gene-deep superstition and pattern-seeking tendencies of Turks completely alone, creating a psychological vacuum. Religion in Turkey didn't disappear, God just switched ownership. The proliferation of conspiracy theories proves the Caliphs weren’t magical, they were simply redirecting the natural human desire to see meaning in a non-meaningful world.

The Christian West switched to the same omnipotent entity: science. Whereas Christians once believed in seven-day creation, now many believe in Intelligent Design. Of course, this is exactly what progressives did by changing Providence into the “arc of history.” That is: they take a belief system which is clearly religious in historical origin and try to disguise it as something that has nothing to do with God as a way to install their religious doctrines as public policy.

It used to be, when the church still had power, the bible needed to be believed entirely for a person to be a Christian. Now that the church doesn’t have power, and Science does, it’s suddenly acceptable to “apply science” to the word of God to “better understand how He did it.” This is how people talk when they align with a new status quo power structure. Nietzsche was wrong, we didn't kill God, we enslaved him and changed his nametag.

Globalists, Big Pharma, Jews, Nazis, communists, Satan, God, Allah, djinns, karma, Vishnu, Tao, voodoo, Nirvana. It’s all the same thing: a desperate attempt not to shine a light into the abyss to see just how abyssy it is. Nietzsche warned us not to stare into the void, lest it stare back into us. He wasn’t telling us to avoid the truth about meaninglessness, he was saying not to make Heidegger's eventual mistake and let this vanity be the conclusion for our lives – and to rise above this need for an "omnipotent other."

If conspiracy theories are just wish-fulfilment, then why do people always envisage nasty plans? Well, when the symbols of superstitious expression are undermined, yet our collective superstitious psyches are untouched, conspiracy theories aren't just optional, they are psychologically necessary. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, so long as someone is in charge. Billions of secular people may scream: “we live in a totalitarian world!” but they will simultaneously whisper “and thank God!”

That's why the deep state is so attractive to our atheistic brains. People often say, “Washington needs to sort Mr Trump out until the politicians can get their act together." Wow. Leave aside policy controversies for a second, observe how easily – naturally – we go over the government to a higher authority. Observe how easily people can find "some other omnipotent entity" to save us from ourselves.

The deep state is this generation’s omnipotent other, and if it fails we will always locate another such an entity because we cannot live without it. Our allegiances to grand plans constantly shift but we will never permit ourselves to live only in the abyss-mal world of our actions. We are always on the side of "who can fix this," never on the side of "I helped cause this." It isn't a political problem, it's a psychic problem: this is how all of us think.

The omnipotent other has three characteristics: it is omnipotent, it opposes the existing (dis)order, and its sole job is to protect you from yourself. Not from the world – from your bad decisions. Now can you see why conspiracies are necessary? After all, the alternative would be to live truly free. And none of us is ready to stare into that void, no matter how much we believe God is dead.

Hence the deep state.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Unsocial media

I don't like any of these kinds of social sites because whenever I create a profile no one ever wants to be my friend, so my page sits there, alone and unseen. The dark matter of the internet.

But I would still create the profile and mark my interests, diligently tagging, listing and ranking, and I would write funny things and watch and wait for people to come and like me. I am nothing if not patient, and when I was a shy little child standing by the edge of my neighbourhood pond hoping for a friend to play boats and chase the ducks with me, my mother always said good things come to those who wait. So, I wait and wait. My waiting punctuated only by the occasional page refresh. But it never changes. No one clicks me.

"What if you built a website and no one came?" they would say. They would look at my profile full of empty div tags. And they'd laugh because in my profile all my friends are placeholder jpgs in silhouette.

Surely someone would come, eventually. They must. I have the same interests as others, we have things in common, things we share. Aren't I just like everyone else in some unique way? I would wait, but nothing would change.

As I got older, and computers grew smaller, still no one came. No one clicks me, no one likes me. I am an old man now, and spend my days one after another after another sitting by the pond feeding the new ducks, reflecting on my life and all the interesting things I had to say that no one heard because I went my whole life unfriended.

And as more years passed and I grew frail, I would realise that in truth I had nothing interesting to say. I am not like everyone else, not the same in some special way. I am unlike anyone else. I am not special, I am not compatible, I am not loved. I look at the ducks and see happiness that I could have found in simple things, had I not been waiting for the friends I never made.

My profile, showing a handsome young man in the prime of his youth, is decades old, untouched and unedited. No one has seen it. Does it even exist? Did it ever? Did I?

And then one day my phone would chirp and I would check my profile to see that I had a new friend. My First Friend. This Friend looked so happy and vibrant in their picture that my heart would break with joy and I would feel young again because on the internet there is no age or arthritis, no twilight, just our ideas. I knew even as an old man the few years I had left would be spent in the virtual company of my First Friend and all the other friends who would surely follow in his wake. The days would be filled with love, chatter, kindness, tears and more life than an old man could take.

Another chirp. My new friend leaving his first comment! "Sorry man, I thought you were someone else" and then he is gone and they are all gone and my future full of friendship collapses back to the desert of me. I look agape at my profile whose pristine emptiness is stained only by that comment, that network traffic accident of a once and momentary friend, and in that moment, I realise what my profile is to the internet and what I am to the world – the thing you bump into on your way to someone else. My greatest conversations with my fellow man are "excuse me" and "sorry didn't see you there." Humanity has passed me by. It has moved on. But I'm left behind.

My top eight is empty. I am empty. I have spent my life inside my head, and I have come to loathe me.

And only then will I understand that my life was more than an infinite series of page refreshes. Standing there by the pond that was home to that little boy and the ducks who have since moved on, I delete my profile and vanish from the virtual world.

I will be an old man then. But I will have a warm coat on my back and bread in my pocket. And I will walk. I will walk the hills and the highways and the untread kilometres. I will walk on past it all, past the shyness and the loneliness, past the what-ifs and could-have-beens.

I will be old, but my eyes will work and my mind will work and I will walk and I will see what I will see.

Me alone. With no friends but the new rays of an ancient sun.