Month: September 2015

Predicting the (Virtual) Future

Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like.  While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.

My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.

This is dead-on in my view.  The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.

Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons.   The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality.  About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that.  Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine.  His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists.  Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:

More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.

Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.

As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind.  Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales:  Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight.  Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality.  If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.

In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion.  In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well.  And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

(Image source)

White plight

The Southern Poverty Law Center is going to have an aneurysm over my plea to consider the struggle poor whites face in America. The piece is (where else?) over at Taki’s Mag today. An excerpt:

The racial privilege status of white trash makes them unattractive to the media because being penurious and pale-skinned is not respectable. While poor minorities are viewed with dignity and sympathy (as they should be), the same doesn’t apply to Caucasians. The white working class is, as Baptist minister Will Campbell put it, “the last, the only minority left that is fair game for ethnic slurs from people who would consider themselves good liberals.” Since the Progressive Era, the U.S. government has made it a goal to forcefully equalize society between races, classes, income scales, and gender. But to Campbell, “poor whites have seen government try to make peace between various warring factions but they have not been brought to the bargaining table.”

The result is pockets of despair in many parts of the country, most predominantly the South. And while it’s true that poor whites have always existed in America, the callous disregard for their difficulty we see by blue bloods in the Acela corridor is new. People like Kim Konzny have been stripped of dignity and left to fend for themselves without the assistance of the media or Washington elites. Unlike impoverished blacks who hold tight to faith and community, they are without an honorable sense of identity. If they cling to the Bible, they are seen as brainless, flat-earth bumpkins. If they somehow succeed in getting out of the trailer, they are demonized and told they’ve earned nothing because of “white privilege.” If they try to stick with their own kind, they are called neo-segregationists.


Read the whole thing and look for me listed somewhere on the SPLC’s Hate Map. I’ll be kickin’ back in short-shorts and combat boots with an Old Milwaukee pounder in one hand and four fingers down with one proud in the other. Boy howdy!

(Image source)

Autonomous cities can solve the refugee crisis

The Freeman was kind enough to publish my piece on autonomous cities having the ability to solve the refugee crisis. I try to gently poke those discussing the idea, namely Jason Buzi and his Refugee Nation, and more importantly, Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris and his attempt to buy a Greek island, to consider the governance of the city. Most of the discussion has focused on engineering and political difficulties. However, ultimately the success of such a project, namely, not simply being a giant refugee camp but a vibrant city, will depend on the legal system under which the city operates. I make this point more forcefully in the article.

When determining the success of a new country or city, the most important three things are laws, laws, and laws (with location being a distant fourth). Acquiring land, setting up tents, and giving away food and water will only create a giant refugee camp — not a city. To create a sustainable, livable city, where refugees want to move, there must be jobs, and for there to be jobs, there must be enterprise, and for there to be enterprise, the law must encourage it.

In practice what this means is that a refugee city must have economic freedom. Entrants must be free to own property, trade with each other, start businesses, and become productive citizens.

Paul Romer makes a similar point in a recent blog post of his, he writes.

To see what a real solution would look like, you need only remember three things:

1. It takes only a few cities, on very little land, to accommodate tens or hundreds of millions of people.

2. Building cities does not take charity. A city is worth far more than it costs to build.

3. To build a city, do not copy Field of Dreams. (“Build it and they will come.”) Copy Burning Man. (“Let them come, and they will build it.”)

How do we know that cities are worth more than they cost to build? Just look at the value of the land they sit on. Building a city on top converts land that used to be worth very little into land that is extremely valuable. The increase in the value of the land is the sign of the gains that can finance the cost of offering people a government that can create the conditions that offer residents safety, dignity, opportunity, hope.

Creating these conditions does require a local government; even at Burning Man, there is no libertarian free-for-all about where you can set up camp and where the public space will be. The local governing entity determines this before anyone shows up.

Unfortunately he stops short of directly advocating for Charter Cities to be used to stop the refugee crisis, though Alex Tabarrok did tweet at both him and Naguib Sawiris, so if I am feeling optimistic I will assume they are collaborating. I was also pleasantly surprised about his favorable reference to Burning Man, it seems Burner culture has permeated even high academia. Lastly, I feel a need to correct his use of libertarian. Libertarians are not against rules and institutions, they merely favor a specific kind of rules and institutions. Burning Man is libertarian to the extent it is an opt in culture with clearly defined rules that are agreed ex ante by participants.

Overall, I am pleased about the recent and new advocates for refugee cities. It shows the idea of free cities is gaining traction in unrelated circles, perhaps it is an idea whose time has come. That being said, I do hope they take seriously the problems of governance. I fear if they don’t, they risk setting up failure on a massive scale that would both have a high immediate human cost, the refugees, as well as a high future cost by reducing the likelihood of the initiation of similar projects.

One thing I did not discuss in The Freeman piece was the structure of governance. This is a little more difficult than what the laws should actually be (namely British Common Law). Should a refugee city be a democracy, private city, or some hybrid. The question is tricky because democracies have citizens. A refugee city, at least in its early years, wouldn’t have citizens in the same sense America does today, long time residents with a vested interest in the success of the city itself. What would the requirements to vote be, live there for 6 months, 1 year? Who would make the initial investments in a port and other basic public goods, would those investments be recouped, and if so, how?

My bias would be toward a private city, which would solve most of these questions, though in a somewhat unsatisfactory manner. Decision making authority would be clearly delineated, and a person like Naguib Sawiris does seem to have the best intentions of the refugees at heart and enough resources to invest in such a venture. But I doubt he would be willing to spend tens of millions of dollars on such a project as charity. The downside to a private city would be the potential for exploitation of those most in need of refuge. The primary advantage would be a much faster reaction time.

The other alternative would be the EU sponsoring such a city. Raising a few hundred million dollars to stem the refugee crisis would likely not be difficult. Further, they would be in a better position to bargain for economic freedom for the new city. The drawback is such an effort would probably be bogged down by politics and take several years to get off the ground when the worst of the crisis is over.

As usual, I would support both these efforts, though I lean toward the private city. Luckily, there are plenty of refugees for both approaches and the downside is relatively low. Hopefully these attempts can provide some alleviation of suffering and even hope for those who have been forced from their homes by war.

Power Word: Blackface

Movement conservatives have this thing that they do whenever someone is questioning the latest steps toward military aggression. They compare it to appeasing Hitler, because Hitler was appeased and Hitler was bad. So like a lawyer making his closing arguments to a jury, they say, “But what about… WORLD WAR TWO!?”

I call this Power Word: World War 2, like those spells from Dungeons and Dragons that were power words that could not be resisted by their target. Similarly, Power Word: World War 2 ends the discussion, because non-interventionism is obviously wrong, since it’s a proof by contradiction. Everyone has to believe in World War 2 as the good intervention (duh!).

But all the beautiful people know that neoconservatives are stupid, so I will focus on a power word that the beautiful themselves love to use. And that is Power Word: Blackface.

A week or two there was a story about a white man named Michael Derrick Hudson who got a poem published in one of the most prestigious journals of poetry in the country. Hudson had previously had the poem rejected from lesser journals about 40 times. So he used the name Yi-Fen Chou because he thought that appearing to be something other than a white male would get his poem published.

He was right.

“Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American,” the (non-white) editor of the journal, Sherman Alexie, explicitly stated.

Despite the overt favoritism toward poets because of their non-maleness and non-whiteness, in bizarro Twitter world, people took this fiasco as proof that Hudson actually had some sort of unfair advantage.

The contradictions between the narrative and the reality are obvious. But the issue for the commentariat is that this ordeal had:

  1. A white man coming out on top
  2. A white man doing it by seemingly outsmarting people of color, and most, importantly
  3. A white man turning a left-wing narrative on its head.

They couldn’t turn to him getting something because of his privilege, since the exact opposite happened 40 times. So where could the thinkpiece industry find its outrage release valve? Power Word: Blackface.

Blackface was a bad thing. It degraded black people by portraying them as buffoonish and contemptuous. It’s obvious that blackface not being socially acceptable is a good development. Yellowface was a bad thing as well, and Hollywood had quite a few examples of dressing up white people to make them walking stereotypes of Asians, like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the header pic). People who write by-the-numbers outrage thinkpieces aren’t very smart, and so they lazily painted Hudson with this brush.

The poet-troll didn’t wear yellowface though, despite the shrieks of the folks at Salon and the Guardian. No stereotypes or degradation happen. In fact, even the editor of the journal that there was nothing “Asian-seeming” about the poem he accepted. Hudson just beat a”no white males allowed” filter that apparently exists at a lot of places, and this made those who want to see those gates do their job very angry.

The absurdity of this becomes evident when considering that 19th-century female authors adopted male pen names to get published and read. It’s not a secret that George Eliot was actually a womann named Mary Ann Evans. Even J.K. Rowling supposedly adopted a gender-indeterminate name to appeal to broaden her appeal. Were these women degrading men and wearing “manface”? No, that’s obviously ridiculous. It’s equally ridiculous to say that Hudson was being a racist and wearing yellowface.

The blackface smear happens lot, and it happens when the contradictions in cultural Marxism are laid bare. People couldn’t quite articulate why Rachel Dolezal is evil and Caitlyn Jenner is brave, so they said “remember that blackface thing? That was bad! And this looks similar!”

Pointing out superficial similarities in things is something that every first grader has mastered. So why are adults paid 100 dollars per article to do it and why do we all pretend that it’s thought-provoking?

Things Michael Gerson doesn’t think are worth being called racist over

Rarely does a conservative columnist state it so plainly as Michael Gerson does in his piece about why Ben Carson should vote for a Muslim president:

What gain or goal is worth the cost of breathing life into bigotry?

Here are some things Michael Gerson doesn’t think are worth that cost, because of his self-fulfilling prophecy that “declaring war on demography is like declaring war on gravity”:

  1. A secure border
  2. Preserving the two-party system
  3. A well-assimilated immigrant population

Lots of people have argued the Iraq invasion was racist, being a war of aggression waged against a Muslim nation with at least the secondary purpose of bringing their government up to 21st Century standards. When Gerson was in meetings of the White House Iraq Group, did he think it was worth the slings and arrows?

We don’t get to decide what bigotry is, the world in 2015 is full of people who do that professionally. Since Gerson is ready to elect a Muslim president of a Brazil-ized America, there is very little conflict between them. The ones who aren’t up for a policy of, ‘invade the world, invite the world, then consider the merit of ideas based on whether someone, somewhere, will call them racist,’ have a harder time finding their views represented in the Washington Post.

My modest proposal: equal hair for all!

Republished from the Press and Journal

Brothers and sisters, it’s good to be on the side of progress in 2015.

Today in America, marriage is no longer considered a conjugal bond to rear children. The rich and middle-class must pay for the health care of the poor. Across the land, restrooms and locker room are being opened to all genders regardless of biology. The last vestiges of the Antebellum South – including the Confederate Flag – are being removed from public life.

Yes, it’s a good era in which to be liberal.

There is no doubt history will judge us correct in our struggle against the patriarchal reactionary forces that wish to keep us shackled in the 19th century. After all, our side represents progress and equality for all!

Unfortunately, a new front has emerged in our war of equaling. It is located in the western part of Pennsylvania, our great progressive state. A barbershop run by a burly, misogynistic poor excuse for a citizen is refusing to cut women’s hair. The barber, John Interval of Washington County, was rightfully fined $750 by the state’s Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs after a comrade-in-arms informed on him.