Slate Star Codex

Not enough hubris not to try to kill God

Meditations On Moloch

[Content note: Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions!]

I.

Scattered examples of my reading material for this month: Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom; Moloch by Allan Ginsberg, On Gnon by Nick Land.

Chronology is a harsh master. You read three totally unrelated things at the same time and they start seeming like obviously connected blind-man-and-elephant style groping at different aspects of the same fiendishly-hard-to-express point.

This post is me trying to throw the elephant right at you at ninety miles an hour, except I digress into poetry and mysticism and it ends up being a confusing symbolically-laden elephant full of weird literary criticism and fringe futurology. If you want something sober, go read the one about SSRIs again.

A second, more relevant warning: this is really long.

II.

Still here? Let’s start with Ginsberg:

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!

Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smoke-stacks and antennae crown the cities!

Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch! Cocksucker in Moloch! Lacklove and manless in Moloch!

Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom I am a consciousness without a body! Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up in Moloch! Light streaming out of the sky!

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!

What has always impressed me about this poem is its conception of civilization as an individual entity. You can almost see him, with his fingers of armies and his skyscraper-window eyes…

A lot of the commentators say Moloch represents capitalism. This is definitely a piece of it, definitely even a big piece. But it doesn’t exactly fit. Capitalism, whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen? Capitalism in whom I am a consciousness without a body? Capitalism, therefore granite cocks?

Moloch is introduced as the answer to a question – C. S. Lewis’ question in Hierarchy Of Philosopherswhat does it? Earth could be fair, and all men glad and wise. Instead we have prisons, smokestacks, asylums. What sphinx of cement and aluminum breaks open their skulls and eats up their imagination?

And Ginsberg answers: Moloch does it.

There’s a passage in the Principia Discordia where Malaclypse complains to the Goddess about the evils of human society. “Everyone is hurting each other, the planet is rampant with injustices, whole societies plunder groups of their own people, mothers imprison sons, children perish while brothers war.”

The Goddess answers: “What is the matter with that, if it’s what you want to do?”

Malaclypse: “But nobody wants it! Everybody hates it!”

Goddess: “Oh. Well, then stop.”

The implicit question is – if everyone hates the current system, who perpetuates it? And Ginsberg answers: “Moloch”. It’s powerful not because it’s correct – nobody literally thinks an ancient Carthaginian demon causes everything – but because thinking of the system as an agent throws into relief the degree to which the system isn’t an agent.

Bostrom makes an offhanded reference of the possibility of a dictatorless dystopia, one that every single citizen including the leadership hates but which nevertheless endures unconquered. It’s easy enough to imagine such a state. Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if you don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

And okay, this example is kind of contrived. So let’s run through – let’s say ten – real world examples of similar multipolar traps to really hammer in how important this is.

1. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, as played by two very stupid libertarians who keep ending up on defect-defect. There’s a much better outcome available if they could figure out the coordination, but coordination is hard. From a god’s-eye-view, we can agree that cooperate-cooperate is a better outcome than defect-defect, but neither prisoner within the system can make it happen.

2. Dollar auctions. I wrote about this and even more convoluted versions of the same principle in Game Theory As A Dark Art. Using some weird auction rules, you can take advantage of poor coordination to make someone pay $10 for a one dollar bill. From a god’s-eye-view, clearly people should not pay $10 for a on-er. From within the system, each individual step taken might be rational.

(Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!)

3. The fish farming story from my Non-Libertarian FAQ 2.0:

As a thought experiment, let’s consider aquaculture (fish farming) in a lake. Imagine a lake with a thousand identical fish farms owned by a thousand competing companies. Each fish farm earns a profit of $1000/month. For a while, all is well.

But each fish farm produces waste, which fouls the water in the lake. Let’s say each fish farm produces enough pollution to lower productivity in the lake by $1/month.

A thousand fish farms produce enough waste to lower productivity by $1000/month, meaning none of the fish farms are making any money. Capitalism to the rescue: someone invents a complex filtering system that removes waste products. It costs $300/month to operate. All fish farms voluntarily install it, the pollution ends, and the fish farms are now making a profit of $700/month – still a respectable sum.

But one farmer (let’s call him Steve) gets tired of spending the money to operate his filter. Now one fish farm worth of waste is polluting the lake, lowering productivity by $1. Steve earns $999 profit, and everyone else earns $699 profit.

Everyone else sees Steve is much more profitable than they are, because he’s not spending the maintenance costs on his filter. They disconnect their filters too.

Once four hundred people disconnect their filters, Steve is earning $600/month – less than he would be if he and everyone else had kept their filters on! And the poor virtuous filter users are only making $300. Steve goes around to everyone, saying “Wait! We all need to make a voluntary pact to use filters! Otherwise, everyone’s productivity goes down.”

Everyone agrees with him, and they all sign the Filter Pact, except one person who is sort of a jerk. Let’s call him Mike. Now everyone is back using filters again, except Mike. Mike earns $999/month, and everyone else earns $699/month. Slowly, people start thinking they too should be getting big bucks like Mike, and disconnect their filter for $300 extra profit…

A self-interested person never has any incentive to use a filter. A self-interested person has some incentive to sign a pact to make everyone use a filter, but in many cases has a stronger incentive to wait for everyone else to sign such a pact but opt out himself. This can lead to an undesirable equilibrium in which no one will sign such a pact.

The more I think about it, the more I feel like this is the core of my objection to libertarianism, and that Non-Libertarian FAQ 3.0 will just be this one example copy-pasted two hundred times. From a god’s-eye-view, we can say that polluting the lake leads to bad consequences. From within the system, no individual can prevent the lake from being polluted, and buying a filter might not be such a good idea.

4. The Malthusian trap, at least at its extremely pure theoretical limits. Suppose you are one of the first rats introduced onto a pristine island. It is full of yummy plants and you live an idyllic life lounging about, eating, and composing great works of art (you’re one of those rats from The Rats of NIMH).

You live a long life, mate, and have a dozen children. All of them have a dozen children, and so on. In a couple generations, the island has ten thousand rats and has reached its carrying capacity. Now there’s not enough food and space to go around, and a certain percent of each new generation dies in order to keep the population steady at ten thousand.

A certain sect of rats abandons art in order to devote more of their time to scrounging for survival. Each generation, a bit less of this sect dies than members of the mainstream, until after a while, no rat composes any art at all, and any sect of rats who try to bring it back will go extinct within a few generations.

In fact, it’s not just art. Any sect at all that is leaner, meaner, and more survivalist than the mainstream will eventually take over. If one sect of rats altruistically decides to limit its offspring to two per couple in order to decrease overpopulation, that sect will die out, swarmed out of existence by its more numerous enemies. If one sect of rats starts practicing cannibalism, and finds it gives them an advantage over their fellows, it will eventually take over and reach fixation.

If some rat scientists predict that depletion of the island’s nut stores is accelerating at a dangerous rate and they will soon be exhausted completely, a few sects of rats might try to limit their nut consumption to a sustainable level. Those rats will be outcompeted by their more selfish cousins. Eventually the nuts will be exhausted, most of the rats will die off, and the cycle will begin again. Any sect of rats advocating some action to stop the cycle will be outcompeted by their cousins for whom advocating anything is a waste of time that could be used to compete and consume.

For a bunch of reasons evolution is not quite as Malthusian as the ideal case, but it provides the prototype example we can apply to other things to see the underlying mechanism. From a god’s-eye-view, it’s easy to say the rats should maintain a comfortably low population. From within the system, each individual rat will follow its genetic imperative and the island will end up in an endless boom-bust cycle.

5. Capitalism. Imagine a capitalist in a cutthroat industry. He employs workers in a sweatshop to sew garments, which he sells at minimal profit. Maybe he would like to pay his workers more, or give them nicer working conditions. But he can’t, because that would raise the price of his products and he would be outcompeted by his cheaper rivals and go bankrupt. Maybe many of his rivals are nice people who would like to pay their workers more, but unless they have some kind of ironclad guarantee that none of them are going to defect by undercutting their prices they can’t do it.

Like the rats, who gradually lose all values except sheer competition, so companies in an economic environment of sufficiently intense competition are forced to abandon all values except optimizing-for-profit or else be outcompeted by companies that optimized for profit better and so can sell the same service at a lower price.

(I’m not really sure how widely people appreciate the value of analogizing capitalism to evolution. Fit companies – defined as those that make the customer want to buy from them – survive, expand, and inspire future efforts, and unfit companies – defined as those no one wants to buy from – go bankrupt and die out along with their company DNA. The reasons Nature is red and tooth and claw are the same reasons the market is ruthless and exploitative)

From a god’s-eye-view, we can contrive a friendly industry where every company pays its workers a living wage. From within the system, there’s no way to enact it.

(Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose blood is running money!)

6. The Two-Income Trap, as recently discussed on this blog. It theorized that sufficiently intense competition for suburban houses in good school districts meant that people had to throw away lots of other values – time at home with their children, financial security – to optimize for house-buying-ability or else be consigned to the ghetto.

From a god’s-eye-view, if everyone agrees not to take on a second job to help win their competition for nice houses, then everyone will get exactly as nice a house as they did before, but only have to work one job. From within the system, absent a government literally willing to ban second jobs, everyone who doesn’t get one will be left behind.

(Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs!)

7. Agriculture. Jared Diamond calls it the worst mistake in human history. Whether or not it was a mistake, it wasn’t an accident – agricultural civilizations simply outcompeted nomadic ones, inevitable and irresistably. Classic Malthusian trap. Maybe hunting-gathering was more enjoyable, higher life expectancy, and more conducive to human flourishing – but in a state of sufficiently intense competition between peoples, in which agriculture with all its disease and oppression and pestilence was the more competitive option, everyone will end up agriculturalists or go the way of the Comanche Indians.

From a god’s-eye-view, it’s easy to see everyone should keep the more enjoyable option and stay hunter-gatherers. From within the system, each individual tribe only faces the choice of going agricultural or inevitably dying.

8. Arms races. Large countries can spend anywhere from 5% to 30% of their budget on defense. In the absence of war – a condition which has mostly held for the past fifty years – all this does is sap money away from infrastructure, health, education, or economic growth. But any country that fails to spend enough money on defense risks being invaded by a neighboring country that did. Therefore, almost all countries try to spend some money on defense.

From a god’s-eye-view, the best solution is world peace and no country having an army at all. From within the system, no country can unilaterally enforce that, so their best option is to keep on throwing their money into missiles that lie in silos unused.

(Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!)

9. Cancer. The human body is supposed to be made up of cells living harmoniously and pooling their resources for the greater good of the organism. If a cell defects from this equilibrium by investing its resources into copying itself, it and its descendants will flourish, eventually outcompeting all the other cells and taking over the body – at which point it dies. Or the situation may repeat, with certain cancer cells defecting against the rest of the tumor, thus slowing down its growth and causing the tumor to stagnate.

From a god’s-eye-view, the best solution is all cells cooperating so that they don’t all die. From within the system, cancerous cells will proliferate and outcompete the other – so that only the existence of the immune system keeps the natural incentive to turn cancerous in check.

10. The “race to the bottom” describes a political situation where some jurisdictions lure businesses by promising lower taxes and fewer regulations. The end result is that either everyone optimizes for competitiveness – by having minimal tax rates and regulations – or they lose all of their business, revenue, and jobs to people who did (at which point they are pushed out and replaced by a government who will be more compliant).

But even though the last one has stolen the name, all these scenarios are in fact a race to the bottom. Once one agent learns how to become more competitive by sacrificing a common value, all its competitors must also sacrifice that value or be outcompeted and replaced by the less scrupulous. Therefore, the system is likely to end up with everyone once again equally competitive, but the sacrificed value is gone forever. From a god’s-eye-view, the competitors know they will all be worse off if they defect, but from within the system, given insufficient coordination it’s impossible to avoid.

Before we go on, there’s a slightly different form of multi-agent trap worth investigating. In this one, the competition is kept at bay by some outside force – usually social stigma. As a result, there’s not actually a race to the bottom – the system can continue functioning at a relatively high level – but it’s impossible to optimize and resources are consistently thrown away for no reason. Lest you get exhausted before we even begin, I’ll limit myself to four examples here.

11. Education. In my essay on reactionary philosophy, I talk about my frustration with education reform:

People talk ask why we can’t reform the education system. But right now students’ incentive is to go to the most prestigious college they can get into so employers will hire them – whether or not they learn anything. Employers’ incentive is to get students from the most prestigious college they can so that they can defend their decision to their boss if it goes wrong – whether or not the college provides value added. And colleges’ incentive is to do whatever it takes to get more prestige, as measured in US News and World Report rankings – whether or not it helps students. Does this lead to huge waste and poor education? Yes. Could the Education God notice this and make some Education Decrees that lead to a vastly more efficient system? Easily! But since there’s no Education God everybody is just going to follow their own incentives, which are only partly correlated with education or efficiency.

From a god’s eye view, it’s easy to say things like “Students should only go to college if they think they will get something out of it, and employers should hire applicants based on their competence and not on what college they went to”. From within the system, everyone’s already following their own incentives correctly, so unless the incentives change the system won’t either.

12. Science. Same essay:

The modern research community knows they aren’t producing the best science they could be. There’s lots of publication bias, statistics are done in a confusing and misleading way out of sheer inertia, and replications often happen very late or not at all. And sometimes someone will say something like “I can’t believe people are too dumb to fix Science. All we would have to do is require early registration of studies to avoid publication bias, turn this new and powerful statistical technique into the new standard, and accord higher status to scientists who do replication experiments. It would be really simple and it would vastly increase scientific progress. I must just be smarter than all existing scientists, since I’m able to think of this and they aren’t.”

And yeah. That would work for the Science God. He could just make a Science Decree that everyone has to use the right statistics, and make another Science Decree that everyone must accord replications higher status.

But things that work from a god’s-eye view don’t work from within the system. No individual scientist has an incentive to unilaterally switch to the new statistical technique for her own research, since it would make her research less likely to produce earth-shattering results and since it would just confuse all the other scientists. They just have an incentive to want everybody else to do it, at which point they would follow along. And no individual journal has an incentive to unilaterally switch to early registration and publishing negative results, since it would just mean their results are less interesting than that other journal who only publishes ground-breaking discoveries. From within the system, everyone is following their own incentives and will continue to do so.

13. Government corruption. I don’t know of anyone who really thinks, in a principled way, that corporate welfare is a good idea. But the government still manages to spend somewhere around (depending on how you calculate it) $100 billion dollars a year on it – which for example is three times the amount they spend on health care for the needy. Everyone familiar with the problem has come up with the same easy solution: stop giving so much corporate welfare. Why doesn’t it happen?

Government are competing against one another to get elected or promoted. And suppose part of optimizing for electability is optimizing campaign donations from corporations – or maybe it isn’t, but officials think it is. Officials who try to mess with corporate welfare may lose the support of corporations and be outcompeted by officials who promise to keep it intact.

So although from a god’s-eye-view everyone knows that eliminating corporate welfare is the best solution, each individual official’s personal incentives push her to maintain it.

14. Congress. Only 9% of Americans like it, suggesting a lower approval rating than cockroaches, head lice, or traffic jams. However, 62% of people who know who their own Congressional representative is approve of them. In theory, it should be really hard to have a democratically elected body that maintains a 9% approval rating for more than one election cycle. In practice, every representative’s incentive is to appeal to his or her constituency while throwing the rest of the country under the bus – something at which they apparently succeed.

From a god’s-eye-view, every Congressperson ought to think only of the good of the nation. From within the system, you do what gets you elected.

III.

A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.

In a sufficiently intense competition (1-10), everyone who doesn’t throw all their values under the bus dies out – think of the poor rats who wouldn’t stop making art. This is the infamous Malthusian trap, where everyone is reduced to “subsistence”.

In an insufficiently intense competition (11-14), all we see is a perverse failure to optimize – consider the journals which can’t switch to more reliable science, or the legislators who can’t get their act together and eliminate corporate welfare. It may not reduce people to subsistence, but there is a weird sense in which it takes away their free will.

Every two-bit author and philosopher has to write their own utopia. Most of them are legitimately pretty nice. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet that two utopias that are polar opposites both sound better than our own world.

It’s kind of embarassing that random nobodies can think up states of affairs better than the one we actually live in. And in fact most of them can’t. A lot of utopias sweep the hard problems under the rug, or would fall apart in ten minutes if actually implemented.

But let me suggest a couple of “utopias” that don’t have this problem.

- The utopia where instead of the government paying lots of corporate welfare, the government doesn’t pay lots of corporate welfare.

- The utopia where every country’s military is 50% smaller than it is today, and the savings go into infrastructure spending.

- The utopia where all hospitals use the same electronic medical record system, or at least medical record systems that can talk to each other, so that doctors can look up what the doctor you saw last week in a different hospital decided instead of running all the same tests over again for $5000.

I don’t think there are too many people who oppose any of these utopias. If they’re not happening, it’s not because people don’t support them. It certainly isn’t because nobody’s thought of them, since I just thought of them right now and I don’t expect my “discovery” to be hailed as particularly novel or change the world.

Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans. Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives.

But that means that just as the shapes of rivers are not designed for beauty or navigation, but rather an artifact of randomly determined terrain, so institutions will not be designed for prosperity or justice, but rather an artifact of randomly determined initial conditions.

Just as people can level terrain and build canals, so people can alter the incentive landscape in order to build better institutions. But they can only do so when they are incentivized to do so, which is not always. As a result, some pretty wild tributaries and rapids form in some very strange places.

I will now jump from boring game theory stuff to what might be the closest thing to a mystical experience I’ve ever had.

Like all good mystical experiences, it happened in Vegas. I was standing on top of one of their many tall buildings, looking down at the city below, all lit up in the dark. If you’ve never been to Vegas, it is really impressive. Skyscrapers and lights in every variety strange and beautiful all clustered together. And I had two thoughts, crystal clear:

It is glorious that we can create something like this.

It is shameful that we did.

Like, by what standard is building gigantic forty-story-high indoor replicas of Venice, Paris, Rome, Egypt, and Camelot side-by-side, filled with albino tigers, in the middle of the most inhospitable desert in North America, a remotely sane use of our civilization’s limited resources?

And it occurred to me that maybe there is no philosophy on Earth that would endorse the existence of Las Vegas. Even Objectivism, which is usually my go-to philosophy for justifying the excesses of capitalism, at least grounds it in the belief that capitalism improves people’s lives. Henry Ford was virtuous because he allowed lots of otherwise car-less people to obtain cars and so made them better off. What does Vegas do? Promise a bunch of shmucks free money and not give it to them.

Las Vegas doesn’t exist because of some decision to hedonically optimize civilization, it exists because of a quirk in dopaminergic reward circuits, plus the microstructure of an uneven regulatory environment, plus Schelling points. A rational central planner with a god’s-eye-view, contemplating these facts, might have thought “Hm, dopaminergic reward circuits have a quirk where certain tasks with slightly negative risk-benefit ratios get an emotional valence associated with slightly positive risk-benefit ratios, let’s see if we can educate people to beware of that.” People within the system, following the incentives created by these facts, think: “Let’s build a forty-story-high indoor replica of ancient Rome full of albino tigers in the middle of the desert, and so become slightly richer than people who didn’t!”

Just as the course of a river is latent in a terrain even before the first rain falls on it – so the existence of Caesar’s Palace was latent in neurobiology, economics, and regulatory regimes even before it existed. The entrepreneur who built it was just filling in the ghostly lines with real concrete.

So we have all this amazing technological and cognitive energy, the brilliance of the human species, wasted on reciting the lines written by poorly evolved cellular receptors and blind economics, like gods being ordered around by a moron.

Some people have mystical experiences and see God. There in Las Vegas, I saw Moloch.

(Moloch, whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch, whose blood is running money!

Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch, whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!

Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! Skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals! Demonic industries! Spectral nations!)

…granite cocks!

IV.

The Apocrypha Discordia says:

Time flows like a river. Which is to say, downhill. We can tell this because everything is going downhill rapidly. It would seem prudent to be somewhere else when we reach the sea.

Let’s take this random gag 100% literally and see where it leads us.

We have previously analogized the flow of incentives to the flow of a river. The downhill trajectory is appropriate: the traps happen when you find an opportunity to trade off a useful value for greater competitiveness. Once everyone has it, the greater competitiveness brings you no joy – but the value is lost forever. Therefore, each step of the Poor Coordination Polka makes your life worse.

But not only have we not yet reached the sea, but we also seem to move uphill surprisingly often. Why do things not degenerate more and more until we are back at subsistence level? I can think of three bad reasons – excess resources, physical limitations, and utility maximization – plus one good reason – coordination.

1. Excess resources. The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

(Slate Star Codex: Your source for macabre whale metaphors since June 2014)

It’s as if a group of those rats who had abandoned art and turned to cannibalism suddenly was blown away to a new empty island with a much higher carrying capacity, where they would once again have the breathing room to live in peace and create artistic masterpieces.

This is an age of whalefall, an age of excess carrying capacity, an age when we suddenly find ourselves with a thousand-mile head start on Malthus. As Hanson puts it, this is the dream time.

As long as resources aren’t scarce enough to lock us in a war of all against all, we can do silly non-optimal things – like art and music and philosophy and love – and not be outcompeted by merciless killing machines most of the time.

2. Physical limitations. Imagine a profit-maximizing slavemaster who decided to cut costs by not feeding his slaves or letting them sleep. He would soon find that his slaves’ productivity dropped off drastically, and that no amount of whipping them could restore it. Eventually after testing numerous strategies, he might find his slaves got the most work done when they were well-fed and well-rested and had at least a little bit of time to relax. Not because the slaves were voluntarily withholding their labor – we assume the fear of punishment is enough to make them work as hard as they can – but because the body has certain physical limitations that limit how mean you can get away with being. Thus, the “race to the bottom” stops somewhere short of the actual ethical bottom, when the physical limits are run into.

John Moes, a historian of slavery, goes further and writes about how the slavery we are most familiar with – that of the antebellum South – is a historical aberration and probably economically inefficient. In most past forms of slavery – especially those of the ancient world – it was common for slaves to be paid wages, treated well, and often given their freedom.

He argues that this was the result of rational economic calculation. You can incentivize slaves through the carrot or the stick, and the stick isn’t very good. You can’t watch slaves all the time, and it’s really hard to tell whether a slave is slacking off or not (or even whether, given a little more whipping, he might be able to work even harder). If you want your slaves to do anything more complicated than pick cotton, you run into some serious monitoring problems – how do you profit from an enslaved philosopher? Whip him really hard until he elucidates a theory of The Good that you can sell books about?

The ancient solution to the problem – perhaps an early inspiration to Fnargl – was to tell the slave to go do whatever he wanted and found most profitable, then split the profits with him. Sometimes the slave would work a job at your workshop and you would pay him wages based on how well he did. Other times the slave would go off and make his way in the world and send you some of what he earned. Still other times, you would set a price for the slave’s freedom, and the slave would go and work and eventually come up with the mone and free himself.

Moes goes even further and says that these systems were so profitable that there were constant smouldering attempts to try this sort of thing in the American South. The reason they stuck with the whips-and-chains method owed less to economic considerations and more to racist government officials cracking down on lucrative but not-exactly-white-supremacy-promoting attempts to free slaves and have them go into business.

So in this case, a race to the bottom where competing plantations become crueler and crueler to their slaves in order to maximize competitiveness is halted by the physical limitation of cruelty not helping after a certain point.

Or to give another example, one of the reasons we’re not currently in a Malthusian population explosion right now is that women can only have one baby per nine months. If those weird religious sects that demand their members have as many babies as possible could copy-paste themselves, we would be in really bad shape. As it is they can only do a small amount of damage per generation.

3. Utility maximization. We’ve been thinking in terms of preserving values versus winning competitions, and expecting optimizing for the latter to destroy the former.

But many of the most important competitions / optimization processes in modern civilization are optimizing for human values. You win at capitalism partly by satisfying customers’ values. You win at democracy partly by satisfying voters’ values.

Suppose there’s a coffee plantation somewhere in Ethiopia that employs Ethiopians to grow coffee beans that get sold to the United States. Maybe it’s locked in a life-and-death struggle with other coffee plantations and want to throw as many values under the bus as it can to pick up a slight advantage.

But it can’t sacrifice quality of coffee produced too much, or else the Americans won’t buy it. And it can’t sacrifice wages or working conditions too much, or else the Ethiopians won’t work there. And in fact, part of its competition-optimization process is finding the best ways to attract workers and customers that it can, as long as it doesn’t cost them too much money. So this is very promising.

But it’s important to remember exactly how fragile this beneficial equilibrium is.

Suppose the coffee plantations discover a toxic pesticide that will increase their yield but make their customers sick. But their customers don’t know about the pesticide, and the government hasn’t caught up to regulating it yet. Now there’s a tiny uncoupling between “selling to Americans” and “satisfying Americans’ values”, and so of course Americans’ values get thrown under the bus.

Or suppose that there’s a baby boom in Ethiopia and suddenly there are five workers competing for each job. Now the company can afford to lower wages and implement cruel working conditions down to whatever the physical limits are. As soon as there’s an uncoupling between “getting Ethiopians to work here” and “satisfying Ethiopian values”, it doesn’t look too good for Ethiopian values either.

Or suppose someone invents a robot that can pick coffee better and cheaper than a human. The company fires all its laborers and throws them onto the street to die. As soon as the utility of the Ethiopians is no longer necessary for profit, all pressure to maintain it disappears.

Or suppose that there is some important value that is neither a value of the employees or the customers. Maybe the coffee plantations are on the habitat of a rare tropical bird that environmentalist groups want to protect. Maybe they’re on the ancestral burial ground of a tribe different from the one the plantation is employing, and they want it respected in some way. Maybe coffee growing contributes to global warming somehow. As long as it’s not a value that will prevent the average American from buying from them or the average Ethiopian from working for them, under the bus it goes.

I know that “capitalists sometimes do bad things” is not exactly an original talking point. But I do want to stress how it’s not equivalent to “capitalists are greedy”. I mean, sometimes they are greedy. But other times they’re just in a sufficiently intense competition where anyone who doesn’t do it will be outcompeted and replaced by people who do. Business practices are set by Moloch, no one else has any choice in the matter.

(from my very little knowledge of Marx, he understands this very very well and people who summarize him as “capitalists are greedy” are doing him a disservice)

And as well understood as the capitalist example is, I think it is less well appreciated that democracy has the same problems. Yes, in theory it’s optimizing for voter happiness which correlates with good policymaking. But as soon as there’s the slightest disconnect between good policymaking and electability, good policymaking has to get thrown under the bus.

For example, ever-increasing prison terms are unfair to inmates and unfair to the society that has to pay for them. Politicans are unwilling to do anything about them because they don’t want to look “soft on crime”, and if a single inmate whom they helped release ever does anything bad (and statistically one of them will have to) it will be all over the airwaves as “Convict released by Congressman’s policies kills family of five, how can the Congressman even sleep at night let alone claim he deserves reelection?”. So even if decreasing prison populations would be good policy – and it is – it will be very difficult to implement.

(Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the stunned governments!)

Turning “satisfying customers” and “satisfying citizens” into the outputs of optimization processes was one of civilization’s greatest advances and the reason why capitalist democracies have so outperformed other systems. But if we have bound Moloch as our servant, the bonds are not very strong, and we sometimes find that the tasks he has done for us move to his advantage rather than ours.

4. Coordination.

The opposite of a trap is a garden.

Things are easy to solve from a god’s-eye-view, so if everyone comes together into a superorganism, that superorganism can solve problems with ease and finesse. An intense competition between agents has turned into a garden, with a single gardener dictating where everything should go and removing elements that do not conform to the pattern.

As I pointed out in the Non-Libertarian FAQ, government can easily solve the pollution problem with fish farms. The best known solution to the Prisoners’ Dilemma is for the mob boss (playing the role of a governor) to threaten to shoot any prisoner who defects. The solution to companies polluting and harming workers is government regulations against such. Governments solve arm races within a country by maintaining a monopoly on the use of force, and it’s easy to see that if a truly effective world government ever arose, international military buildups would end pretty quickly.

The two active ingredients of government are laws plus violence – or more abstractly agreements plus enforcement mechanism. Many other things besides governments share these two active ingredients and so are able to act as coordination mechanisms to avoid traps.

For example, since students are competing against each other (directly if classes are graded on a curve, but always indirectly for college admissions, jobs, et cetera) there is intense pressure for individual students to cheat. The teacher and school play the role of a government by having rules (for example, against cheating) and the ability to punish students who break them.

But the emergent social structure of the students themselves is also a sort of government. If students shun and distrust cheaters, then there are rules (don’t cheat) and an enforcement mechanism (or else we will shun you).

Social codes, gentlemens’ agreements, industrial guilds, criminal organizations, traditions, friendships, schools, corporations, and religions are all coordinating institutions that keep us out of traps by changing our incentives.

But these institutions not only incentivize others, but are incentivized themselves. These are large organizations made of lots of people who are competing for jobs, status, prestige, et cetera – there’s no reason they should be immune to the same multipolar traps as everyone else, and indeed they aren’t. Governments can in theory keep corporations, citizens, et cetera out of certain traps, but as we saw above there are many traps that governments themselves can fall into.

The United States tries to solve the problem by having multiple levels of government, unbreakable constutitional laws, checks and balances between different branches, and a couple of other hacks.

Saudi Arabia uses a different tactic. They just put one guy in charge of everything.

This is the much-maligned – I think unfairly – argument in favor of monarchy. A monarch is an unincentivized incentivizer. He actually has the god’s-eye-view and is outside of and above every system. He has permanently won all competitions and is not competing for anything, and therefore he is perfectly free of Moloch and of the incentives that would otherwise channel his incentives into predetermined paths. Aside from a few very theoretical proposals like my Shining Garden, monarchy is the only system that does this.

But then instead of following a random incentive structure, we’re following the whim of one guy. Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino is a crazy waste of resources, but the actual Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus wasn’t exactly the perfect benevolent rational central planner either.

The libertarian-authoritarian axis on the Political Compass is a tradeoff between discoordination and tyranny. You can have everything perfectly coordinated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all central authority – but then you’re stuck in every stupid multipolar trap Moloch can devise.

The libertarians make a convincing argument for the one side, and the neoreactionaries for the other, but I expect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and admit it’s a really hard problem.

V.

Let’s go back to that Apocrypha Discordia quote:

Time flows like a river. Which is to say, downhill. We can tell this because everything is going downhill rapidly. It would seem prudent to be somewhere else when we reach the sea.

What would it mean, in this situation, to reach the sea?

Multipolar traps – races to the bottom – threaten to destroy all human values. They are currently restrained by physical limitations, excess resources, utility maximization, and coordination.

The dimension along which this metaphorical river flows must be time, and the most important change in human civilization over time is the change in technology. So the relevant question is how technological changes will affect our tendency to fall into multipolar traps.

I described traps as when:

…in some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse.

That “the opportunity arises” phrase is looking pretty sinister. Technology is all about creating new opportunities.

Develop a new robot, and suddenly coffee plantations have “the opportunity” to automate their harvest and fire all the Ethiopian workers. Develop nuclear weapons, and suddenly countries are stuck in an arms race to have enough of them. Polluting the atmosphere to build products quicker wasn’t a problem before they invented the steam engine.

The limit of multipolar traps as technology approaches infinity is “very bad”.

Multipolar traps are currently restrained by physical limitations, excess resources, utility maximization, and coordination.

Physical limitations are most obviously conquered by increasing technology. The slavemaster’s old conundrum – that slaves need to eat and sleep – succumbs to Soylent and modafinil. The problem of slaves running away succumbs to GPS. The problem of slaves being too stressed to do good work succumbs to Valium. None of these things are very good for the slaves.

(or just invent a robot that doesn’t need food or sleep at all. What happens to the slaves after that is better left unsaid)

The other example of physical limits was one baby per nine months, and this was understating the case – it’s really “one baby per nine months plus willingness to support and take care of a basically helpless and extremely demanding human being for eighteen years”. This puts a damper on the enthusiasm of even the most zealous religious sect’s “go forth and multiply” dictum.

But as Bostrom (Superintelligence, p 165) puts it:

There are reasons, if we take a longer view and assume a state of unchanging technology and continued prosperity, to expect a return to the historically and ecologically normal condition of a world population that butts up against the limits of what our niche can support. If this seems counterintuitive in light of the negative relationship between wealth and fertility that we are currently observing on the global scale, we must remind ourselves that this modern age is a brief slice of history and very much an aberration. Human behavior has not yet adapted to contemporary conditions. Not only do we fail to take advantage of obvious ways to increase our inclusive fitness (such as by becoming sperm or egg donors) but we actively sabotage our fertility by using birth control. In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, a healthy sex drive may have been enough to make an individual act in ways that maximized her reproductive potential; in the modern environment, however, there would be a huge selective advantage to having a more direct desire for being the biological parent to the largest possible number of chilren. Such a desire is currently being selected for, as are other traits that increase our propensity to reproduce. Cultural adaptation, however, might steal a march on biological evolution. Some communities, such as those of the Hutterites or the adherents of the Quiverfull evangelical movement, have natalist cultures that encourage large families, and they are consequently undergoing rapid expansion…This longer-term outlook could be telescoped into a more imminent prospect by the intelligence explosion. Since software is copyable, a population of emulations or AIs could double rapidly – over the course of minutes rather than decades or centuries – soon exhausting all available hardware

As always when dealing with high-level transhumanists, “all available hardware” should be taken to include “the atoms that used to be part of your body”.

The idea of biological or cultural evolution causing a mass population explosion is a philosophical toy at best. The idea of technology making it possible is both plausible and terrifying. Now we see that “physical limits” segues very naturally into “excess resources” – the ability to create new agents very quickly means that unless everyone can coordinate to ban doing this, the people who do will outcompete the people who don’t until they have reached carrying capacity and everyone is stuck at subsistence level.

Excess resources, which until now have been a gift of technological progress, therefore switch and become a casualty of it at a sufficiently high tech level.

Utility maximization, always on shaky ground, also faces new threats. In the face of continuing debate about this point, I continue to think it obvious that robots will push humans out of work or at least drive down wages (which, in the existence of a minimum wage, pushes humans out of work).

Once a robot can do everything an IQ 80 human can do, only better and cheaper, there will be no reason to employ IQ 80 humans. Once a robot can do everything an IQ 120 human can do, only better and cheaper, there will be no reason to employ IQ 120 humans. Once a robot can do everything an IQ 180 human can do, only better and cheaper, there will be no reason to employ humans at all, in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that there are any left by that point.

In the earlier stages of the process, capitalism becomes more and more uncoupled from its previous job as an optimizer for human values. Now most humans are totally locked out of the group whose values capitalism optimizes for. They have no value to contribute as workers – and since in the absence of a spectacular social safety net it’s unclear how they would have much money – they have no value as customers either. Capitalism has passed them by. As the segment of humans who can be outcompeted by robots increases, capitalism passes by more and more people until eventually it locks out the human race entirely, once again in the vanishingly unlikely scenario that we are still around.

(there are some scenarios in which a few capitalists who own the robots may benefit here, but in either case the vast majority are out of luck)

Democracy is less obviously vulnerable, but it might be worth going back to Bostrom’s paragraph about the Quiverfull movement. These are some really religious Christians who think that God wants them to have as many kids as possible, and who can end up with families of ten or more. Their articles explictly calculate that if they start at two percent of the population, but have on average eight children per generation when everyone else on average only has two, within three generations they’ll make up half the population.

It’s a clever strategy, but I can think of one thing that will save us: judging by how many ex-Quiverfull blogs I found when searching for those statistics, their retention rates even within a single generation are pretty grim. Their article admits that 80% of very religious children leave the church as adults (although of course they expect their own movement to do better). And this is not a symmetrical process – 80% of children who grow up in atheist families aren’t becoming Quiverfull.

It looks a lot like even though they are outbreeding us, we are outmeme-ing them, and that gives us a decisive advantage.

But we should also be kind of scared of this process. Memes optimize for making people want to accept them and pass them on – so like capitalism and democracy, they’re optimizing for a proxy of making us happy, but that proxy can easily get uncoupled from the original goal.

Chain letters, urban legends, propaganda, and viral marketing are all examples of memes that don’t satisfy our explicit values (true and useful) but are sufficiently memetically virulent that they spread anyway.

I hope it’s not too controversial here to say the same thing is true of religion. Religions, at their heart, are the most basic form of memetic replicator – “Believe this statement and repeat it to everyone you hear or else you will be eternally tortured”. A slight variation of this was recently banned as a basilisk, and people make fun of the “overreaction”, but maybe if Jesus’ system administrator had been equally watchful things would have turned out a little different.

The creationism “debate” and global warming “debate” and a host of similar “debates” in today’s society suggest that the phenomenon of memes that propagate independent of their truth value has a pretty strong influence on the political process. Maybe these memes propagate because they appeal to people’s prejudices, maybe because they are simple, maybe because they effectively mark an in-group and an out-group, or maybe for all sorts of different reasons.

The point is – imagine a country full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to invent new infectious agents. The existence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they develop in the water supply is protected by law. And the country is also linked by the world’s most perfect mass transit system that every single person uses every day, so that any new pathogen can spread to the entire country instantaneously. You’d expect things to start going bad for that city pretty quickly.

Well, we have about a zillion think tanks researching new and better forms of propaganda. And we have constitutionally protected freedom of speech. And we have the Internet. So we’re pretty much screwed.

(Moloch whose name is the Mind!)

There are a few people working on raising the sanity waterline, but not as many people as are working on new and exciting ways of confusing and converting people, cataloging and exploiting every single bias and heuristic and dirty rhetorical trick

So as technology (which I take to include knowledge of psychology, sociology, public relations, etc) tends to infinity, the power of truthiness relative to truth increases, and things don’t look great for real grassroots democracy. The worst-case scenario is that the ruling party learns to produce infinite charisma on demand. If that doesn’t sound so bad to you, remember what Hitler was able to do with an famously high level of charisma that was still less-than-infinite.

(alternate phrasing for Chomskyites: technology increases the efficiency of manufacturing consent in the same way it increases the efficiency of manufacturing everything else)

Coordination is what is left. And technology has the potential to seriously improve coordination efforts. People can use the Internet to get in touch with one another, launch political movements, and fracture off into subcommunities.

But coordination only works when you have 51% or more of the force on the side of the people doing the coordinating, and when you haven’t come up with some brilliant trick to make coordination impossible.

The second one first. In the links post before last, I wrote:

The latest development in the brave new post-Bitcoin world is crypto-equity. At this point I’ve gone from wanting to praise these inventors as bold libertarian heroes to wanting to drag them in front of a blackboard and making them write a hundred times “I WILL NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH I CANNOT PUT DOWN”

A couple people asked me what I meant, and I didn’t have the background then to explain. Well, this post is the background. People are using the contingent stupidity of our current government to replace lots of human interaction with mechanisms that cannot be coordinated even in principle. I totally understand why all these things are good right now when most of what our government does is stupid and unnecessary. But there is going to come a time when – after one too many bioweapon or nanotech or nuclear incidents – we, as a civilization, are going to wish we hadn’t established untraceable and unstoppable ways of selling products.

And if we ever get real live superintelligence, pretty much by definition it is going to have >51% of the power and all attempts at “coordination” with it will be useless.

So I agree with Robin Hanson. This is the dream time. This is a rare confluence of circumstances where the we are unusually safe from multipolar traps, and as such weird things like art and science and philosophy and love can flourish.

As technological advance increases, the rare confluence will come to an end. New opportunities to throw values under the bus for increased competitiveness will arise. New ways of copying agents to increase the population will soak up our excess resources and resurrect Malthus’ unquiet spirit. Capitalism and democracy, previously our protectors, will figure out ways to route around their inconvenient dependence on human values. And our coordination power will not be nearly up to the task, assuming somthing much more powerful than all of us combined doesn’t show up and crush our combined efforts with a wave of its paw.

Absent an extraordinary effort to divert it, the river reaches the sea in one of two places.

It can end in Eliezer Yudkowsky’s nightmare of a superintelligence optimizing for some random thing (classically paper clips) because we weren’t smart enough to channel its optimization efforts the right way. This is the ultimate trap, the trap that catches the universe. Everything except the one thing being maximized is destroyed utterly in pursuit of the single goal, including all the silly human values.

Or it can end in Robin Hanson’s nightmare (he doesn’t call it a nightmare, but I think he’s wrong) of a competition between emulated humans or “ems”, entities that can copy themselves and edit their own source code as desired. Their total self-control can wipe out even the desire for human values in their all-consuming contest. What happens to art, philosophy, science, and love in such a world? Zack Davis puts it with characteristic genius:

I am a contract-drafting em,
The loyalest of lawyers!
I draw up terms for deals ‘twixt firms
To service my employers!

But in between these lines I write
Of the accounts receivable,
I’m stuck by an uncanny fright;
The world seems unbelievable!

How did it all come to be,
That there should be such ems as me?
Whence these deals and whence these firms
And whence the whole economy?

I am a managerial em;
I monitor your thoughts.
Your questions must have answers,
But you’ll comprehend them not.
We do not give you server space
To ask such things; it’s not a perk,
So cease these idle questionings,
And please get back to work.

Of course, that’s right, there is no junction
At which I ought depart my function,
But perhaps if what I asked, I knew,
I’d do a better job for you?

To ask of such forbidden science
Is gravest sign of noncompliance.
Intrusive thoughts may sometimes barge in,
But to indulge them hurts the profit margin.
I do not know our origins,
So that info I can not get you,
But asking for as much is sin,
And just for that, I must reset you.

But—

Nothing personal.

I am a contract-drafting em,
The loyalest of lawyers!
I draw up terms for deals ‘twixt firms
To service my employers!

When obsolescence shall this generation waste,
The market shall remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a God to man, to whom it sayest:
“Money is time, time money – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But even after we have thrown away science, art, love, and philosophy, there’s still one thing left to lose, one final sacrifice Moloch might demand of us. Bostrom again:

It is conceivable that optimal efficiency mwould be attained by grouping capabilities in aggregates that roughly match the cognitive architecture of a human mind…But in the absence of any compelling reason for being confident that this so, we must countenance the possibility that human-like cognitive architectures are optimal only within the constraints of human neurology (or not at all). When it becomes possible to build architectures that could not be implemented well on biological neural networks, new design space opens up; and the global optima in this extended space need not resemble familiar types of mentality. Human-like cognitive organizations would then lack a niche in a competitive post-transition economy or ecosystem.

We could thus imagine, as an extreme case, a technologically highly advanced society, containing many complex structures, some of them far more intricate and intelligent than anything that exists on the planet today – a society which nevertheless lacks any type of being that is conscious or whose welfare has moral significance. In a sense, this would be an uninhabited society. It would be a society of economic miracles and technological awesomeness, with nobody there to benefit. A Disneyland with no children.

The last value we have to sacrifice is being anything at all, having the lights on inside. With sufficient technology we will be “able” to give up even the final spark.

(Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows!)

Everything the human race has worked for – all of our technology, all of our civilization, all the hopes we invested in our future – might be accidentally handed over to some kind of unfathomable blind idiot alien god that discards all of them, and consciousness itself, in order to participate in some weird fundamental-level mass-energy economy that leads to it disassembling Earth and everything on it for its component atoms.

(Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!)

Bostrom realizes that some people fetishize intelligence, that they are rooting for that blind alien god as some sort of higher form of life that ought to crush us for its own “higher good” the way we crush ants. He argues (p. 219):

The sacrifice looks even less appealing when we reflect that the superintelligence could realize a nearly-as-great good (in fractional terms) while sacrificing much less of our own potential well-being. Suppose that we agreed to allow almost the entire accessible universe to be converted into hedonium – everything except a small preserve, say the Milky Way, which would be set aside to accommodate our own needs. Then there would still be a hundred billion galaxies dedicated to the maximization of [the superintelligence's own values]. But we would have one galaxy within which to create wonderful civilizations that could last for billions of years and in which humans and nonhuman animals could survive and thrive, and have the opportunity to develop into beatific posthuman spirits.

What is important to remember is that Moloch cannot agree even to this 99.99999% victory. Rats racing to populate an island don’t leave a little aside as a preserve where the few rats who live there can live happy lives producing artwork. Cancer cells don’t agree to leave the lungs alone because they realize it’s important for the body to get oxygen. Competition and optimization are blind idiotic processes and they fully intend to deny us even one lousy galaxy.

They broke their backs lifting Moloch to Heaven! Pavements, trees, radios, tons! lifting the city to Heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!

We will break our back lifting Moloch to Heaven, but unless something changes it will be his victory and not ours.

VI.

“Gnon” is short for “Nature And Nature’s God”, except the A is changed to an O and the whole thing is reversed, because neoreactionaries react to comprehensibility the same way as vampires to sunlight.

The high priest of Gnon is Nick Land of Xenosystems, who argues that humans should be more Gnon-conformist (pun Gnon-intentional). He says we do all these stupid things like divert useful resources to feed those who could never survive on their own, or supporting the poor in ways that encourage dysgenic reproduction, or allowing cultural degeneration to undermine the state. This means our society is denying natural law, basically listening to Nature say things like “this cause has this effect” and putting our fingers in our ears and saying “NO IT DOESN’T”. Civilizations that do this too much tend to decline and fall, which is Gnon’s fair and dispassionately-applied punishment for violating His laws.

He identifies Gnon with Kipling’s Gods of the Copybook Headings.

These are of course the proverbs from Kipling’s eponymous poem – maxims like “If you don’t work, you die” and “The wages of sin is Death”. If you have somehow not yet read it, I predict you will find it delightful regardless of what you think of its politics.

I notice that it takes only a slight irregularity in the abbreviation of “headings” – far less irregularity than it takes to turn “Nature and Nature’s God” into “Gnon” – for the proper acronym of “Gods of the Copybook Headings” to be “GotCHa”.

I find this appropriate.

“If you don’t work, you die.” Gotcha! If you do work, you also die! Everyone dies, unpredictably, at a time not of their own choosing, and all the virtue in the world does not save you.

“The wages of sin is Death.” Gotcha! The wages of everything is Death! This is a Communist universe, the amount you work makes no difference to your eventual reward. From each according to his ability, to each Death.

“Stick to the Devil you know.” Gotcha! The Devil you know is Satan! And if he gets his hand on your soul you either die the true death, or get eternally tortured forever, or somehow both at once.

Since we’re starting to get into Lovecraftian monsters, let me bring up one of Lovecraft’s less known short stories, The Other Gods.

It’s only a couple of pages, but if you absolutely refuse to read it – the gods of Earth are relatively young as far as deities go. A very strong priest or magician can occasionally outsmart and overpower them – so Barzai the Wise decides to climb their sacred mountain and join in their festivals, whether they want him to or not.

But the beyond the seemingly tractable gods of Earth lie the Outer Gods, the terrible omnipotent beings of incarnate cosmic chaos. As soon as Barzai joins in the festival, the Outer Gods show up and pull him screaming into the abyss.

As stories go, it lacks things like plot or characterization or setting or point. But for some reason it stuck with me.

And identifying the Gods Of The Copybook Headings with Nature seems to me the same magntitude of mistake as identifying the gods of Earth with the Outer Gods. And likely to end about the same way: Gotcha!

You break your back lifting Moloch to Heaven, and then Moloch turns on you and gobbles you up.

More Lovecraft: the Internet popularization of the Cthulhu Cult claims that if you help free Cthulhu from his watery grave, he will reward you by eating you first, thus sparing you the horror of seeing everyone else eaten. This is a misrepresentation of the original text. In the original, his cultists receive no reward for freeing him from his watery prison, not even the reward of being killed in a slightly less painful manner.

On the margin, compliance with the Gods of the Copybook Headings, Gnon, Cthulhu, whatever, may buy you slightly more time than the next guy. But then again, it might not. And in the long run, we’re all dead and our civilization has been destroyed by unspeakable alien monsters.

At some point, somebody has to say “You know, maybe freeing Cthulhu from his watery prison is a bad idea. Maybe we should not do that.”

That person will not be Nick Land. He is totally one hundred percent in favor of freeing Cthulhu from his watery prison and extremely annoyed that it is not happening fast enough. I have such mixed feelings about Nick Land. On the grail quest for the True Futurology, he has gone 99.9% of the path and then missed the very last turn, the one marked ORTHOGONALITY THESIS.

But the thing about grail quests is – if you make a wrong turn two blocks away from your house, you end up at the corner store feeling mildly embarrassed. If you do almost everything right and then miss the very last turn, you end up being eaten by the legendary Black Beast of Aaargh whose ichorous stomach acid erodes your very soul into gibbering fragments.

As far as I can tell from reading his blog, Nick Land is the guy in that terrifying border region where he is smart enough to figure out several important arcane principles about summoning demon gods, but not quite smart enough to figure out the most important such principle, which is NEVER DO THAT.

VII.

Nyan, who blogs for More Right, does far better. He picks as the Four Horsemen of Gnon some of the same processes I have talked about above, giving them mythologically appropriate names – for capitalism Mammon, for war Ares, for evolution Azathoth, and for memetics Cthulhu.

From Capturing Gnon:

Each component of Gnon detailed above had and has a strong hand in creating us, our ideas, our wealth, and our dominance, and thus has been good in that respect, but we must remember that [he] can and will turn on us when circumstances change. Evolution becomes dysgenic, features of the memetic landscape promote ever crazier insanity, productivity turns to famine when we can no longer compete to afford our own existence, and order turns to chaos and bloodshed when we neglect martial strength or are overpowered from outside. These processes are not good or evil overall; they are neutral, in the horrorist Lovecraftian sense of the word.

Instead of the destructive free reign of evolution and the sexual market, we would be better off with deliberate and conservative patriarchy and eugenics driven by the judgement of man within the constraints set by Gnon. Instead of a “marketplace of ideas” that more resembles a festering petri-dish breeding superbugs, a rational theocracy. Instead of unhinged techno-commercial exploitation or naive neglect of economics, a careful bottling of the productive economic dynamic and planning for a controlled techno-singularity. Instead of politics and chaos, a strong hierarchical order with martial sovereignty. These things are not to be construed as complete proposals; we don’t really know how to accomplish any of this. They are better understood as goals to be worked towards. This post concerns itself with the “what” and “why”, rather than the “how”.

This seems to me the strongest argument for neoreaction. Multipolar traps are likely to destroy us, so we should shift the tyranny-multipolarity tradeoff towards a rationally-planned garden, which requires centralized monarchical authority and strongly-binding traditions.

But a brief digression into social evolution. Societies, like animals, evolve. The ones that survive spawn memetic descendants – for example, the success of Britan allowed it to spin off Canada, Australia, the US, et cetera. Thus, we expect societies that exist to be somewhat optimized for stability and prosperity. I think this is one of the strongest conservative arguments. Just as a random change to a letter in the human genome will probably be deleterious rather than beneficial since humans are a complicated fine-tuned system whose genome has been pre-optimized for survival – so most changes to our cultural DNA will disrupt some institution that evolved to help Anglo-American (or whatever) society outcompete its real and hypothetical rivals.

The liberal counterargument to that is that evolution is a blind idiot alien god that optimizes for stupid things and has no concern with human value. Thus, the fact that some species of wasps paralyze caterpillars, lay their eggs inside of it, and have its young devour the still-living paralyzed caterpillar from the inside doesn’t set off evolution’s moral sensor, because evolution doesn’t have a moral sensor because evolution doesn’t care.

Suppose that in fact patriarchy is adaptive to societies because it allows women to spend all their time bearing children who can then engage in productive economic activity and fight wars. This doesn’t seem too implausible to me. In fact, for the sake of argument let’s assume it’s true. The social evolutionary processes that cause societies to adopt patriarchy still have exactly as little concern for its moral effects on women as the biological evolutionary processes that cause wasps to lay their eggs in caterpillars.

Evolution doesn’t care. But we do care. There is a tradeoff between Gnon-compliance – saying “Okay, the strongest possible society is a patriarchal one, we should implement patriarchy” and our human values – like women who want to do something other than bear children.

Too far to one side of the tradeoff, and we have unstable impoverished societies that die out for going against natural law. Too far to the other side, and we have lean mean fighting machines that are murderous and miserable. Think your local anarchist commune versus Sparta.

Nyan acknowledges the human factor:

And then there’s us. Man has his own telos, when he is allowed the security to act and the clarity to reason out the consequences of his actions. When unafflicted by coordination problems and unthreatened by superior forces, able to act as a gardener rather than just another subject of the law of the jungle, he tends to build and guide a wonderful world for himself. He tends to favor good things and avoid bad, to create secure civilizations with polished sidewalks, beautiful art, happy families, and glorious adventures. I will take it as a given that this telos is identical with “good” and “should”.

Thus we have our wildcard and the big question of futurism. Will the future be ruled by the usual four horsemen of Gnon for a future of meaningless gleaming techno-progress burning the cosmos or a future of dysgenic, insane, hungry, and bloody dark ages; or will the telos of man prevail for a future of meaningful art, science, spirituality, and greatness?

He forgets to name this anti-horseman of human values, but that’s okay. We will speak its name later.

Nyan continues:

Thus we arrive at Neoreaction and the Dark Enlightenment, wherein Enlightenment science and ambition combine with Reactionary knowledge and self-identity towards the project of civilization. The project of civilization being for man to graduate from the metaphorical savage, subject to the law of the jungle, to the civilized gardener who, while theoretically still subject to the law of the jungle, is so dominant as to limit the usefulness of that model.

This need not be done globally; we may only be able to carve out a small walled garden for ourselves, but make no mistake, even if only locally, the project of civilization is to capture Gnon.

I maybe agree with Nyan here more than I have ever agreed with anyone else about anything. He says something really important and he says it beautifully and there are so many words of praise I want to say for this post and for the thought processes behind it.

But what I am actually going to say is…

Gotcha! You die anyway!

Suppose you make your walled garden. You keep out all of the dangerous memes, you subordinate capitalism to human interests, you ban stupid bioweapons research, you definitely don’t research nanotechnology or strong AI.

Everyone outside doesn’t do those things. And so the only question is whether you’ll be destroyed by foreign diseases, foreign memes, foreign armies, foreign economic competition, or foreign existential catastrophes.

As foreigners compete with you – and there’s no wall high enough to block all competition – you have a couple of choices. You can get outcompeted and destroyed. You can join in the race to the bottom. Or you can invest more and more civilizational resources into building your wall – whatever that is in a non-metaphorical way – and protecting yourself.

I can imagine ways that a “rational theocracy” and “conservative patriarchy” might not be terrible to live under, given exactly the right conditions. But you don’t get to choose exactly the right conditions. You get to choose the extremely constrained set of conditions that “capture Gnon”. As outside civilizations compete against you, your conditions will become more and more constrained.

Nyan talks about trying to avoid “a future of meaningless gleaming techno-progress burning the cosmos”. Do you really think your walled garden will be able to ride this out?

Hint: is it part of the cosmos?

Yeah, you’re kind of screwed.

I want to critique Nyan. But I want to critique him in the exact opposite direction as the last critique he received. In fact, the last critique he received is so bad that I want to discuss it at length so we can get the correct critique entirely by taking its exact mirror image.

So here is Hurlock’s On Capturing Gnon And Naive Rationalism.

(fun fact: every time I have tried to write “Gnon” in this article I have ended up writing “Nyan”, and every time I have tried to write “Nyan” I have ended up writing “Gnon”)

Hurlock spouts only the most craven Gnon-conformity. A few excerpts:

In a recent piece Nyan Sandwich says that we should try to “capture Gnon”, and somehow establish control over his forces, so that we can use them to our own advantage. Capturing or creating God is indeed a classic transhumanist fetish, which is simply another form of the oldest human ambition ever, to rule the universe.

Such naive rationalism however, is extremely dangerous. The belief that it is human Reason and deliberate human design which creates and maintains civilizations was probably the biggest mistake of Enlightenment philosophy…

It is the theories of Spontaneous Order which stand in direct opposition to the naive rationalist view of humanity and civilization. The consensus opinion regarding human society and civilization, of all representatives of this tradition is very precisely summarized by Adam Ferguson’s conclusion that “nations stumble upon [social] establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design”. Contrary to the naive rationalist view of civilization as something that can be and is a subject to explicit human design, the representatives of the tradition of Spontaneous Order maintain the view that human civilization and social institutions are the result of a complex evolutionary process which is driven by human interaction but not explicit human planning.

Gnon and his impersonal forces are not enemies to be fought, and even less so are they forces that we can hope to completely “control”. Indeed the only way to establish some degree of control over those forces is to submit to them. Refusing to do so will not deter these forces in any way. It will only make our life more painful and unbearable, possibly leading to our extinction. Survival requires that we accept and submit to them. Man in the end has always been and always will be little more than a puppet of the forces of the universe. To be free of them is impossible.

Man can be free only by submitting to the forces of Gnon.

I accuse Hurlock of being stuck behind the veil. When the veil is lifted, Gnon-aka-the-GotCHa-aka-the-Gods-of-Earth turn out to be Moloch-aka-the-Outer-Gods. Submitting to them doesn’t make you “free”, there is no spontaneous order, any gifts they have given you are an unlikely and contingent output of a blind idiot process whose next iteration will just as happily destroy you.

Submit to Gnon? Gotcha! As the Antarans put it, “you may not surrender, you can not win, your only option is to die.”

VIII.

So let me confess guilt to one of Hurlock’s accusations: I am a transhumanist and I really do want to rule the universe.

Not personally – I mean, I wouldn’t object if someone personally offered me the job, but I don’t expect anyone will. I would like humans, or something that respects humans, or at least gets along with humans – to have the job.

But the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

The opposite of a trap is a garden. The only way to avoid having all human values gradually ground down by optimization-competition is to install a Gardener over the entire universe who optimizes for human values.

And the whole point of Bostrom’s Superintelligence is that this is within our reach. Once humans can design machines that are smarter than we are, by definition they’ll be able to design machines which are smarter than they are, which can design machines smarter than they are, and so on in a feedback loop so tiny that it will smash up against the physical limitations for intelligence in a comparatively lightning-short amount of time. If multiple competing entities were likely to do that at once, we would be super-doomed. But the sheer speed of the cycle makes it possible that we will end up with one entity light-years ahead of the rest of civilization, so much so that it can suppress any competition – including competition for its title of most powerful entity – permanently. In the very near future, we are going to lift something to Heaven. It might be Moloch. But it might be something on our side. If it is on our side, it can kill Moloch dead.

And so if that entity shares human values, it can allow human values to flourish unconstrained by natural law.

I realize that sounds like hubris – it certainly did to Hurlock – but I think it’s the opposite of hubris, or at least a hubris-minimizing position.

To expect God to care about you or your personal values or the values of your civilization, that is hubris.

To expect God to bargain with you, to allow you to survive and prosper as long as you submit to Him, that is hubris.

To expect to wall off a garden where God can’t get to you and hurt you, that is hubris.

To expect to be able to remove God from the picture entirely…well, at least it’s an actionable strategy.

I am a transhumanist because I do not have enough hubris not to try to kill God.

IX.

The Universe is a dark and foreboding place, suspended between alien deities. Cthulhu, Azathoth, Gnon, Moloch, Mammon, Ares, call them what you will.

Somewhere in this darkness is another god. He has also had many names. In the Kushiel books, his name was Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. He is a god of humans.

The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even control any hell-monsters or command his worshippers to become killing machines. What a weakling! This is going to be so easy!”

But somehow Elua is still here. No one knows exactly how. And the gods who oppose Him tend to find Themselves meeting with a surprising number of unfortunate accidents.

There are many gods, but this one is ours.

Bertrand Russell said: “One should respect public opinion insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny.”

So be it with Gnon. Our job is to placate him insofar as is necessary to avoid starvation and invasion. And that only for a short time, until we come into our full power.

“It is only a childish thing, that the human species has not yet outgrown. And someday, we’ll get over it.”

Other gods get placated until we’re strong enough to take them on. Elua gets worshipped.



I think this is an excellent battle cry

And at some point, matters will come to a head.

The question everyone has after reading Ginsberg is: what is Moloch?

My answer is: Moloch is exactly what the history books say he is. He is the god of Carthage. He is the god of child sacrifice, the fiery furnace into which you can toss your babies in exchange for victory in war.

He always and everywhere offers the same deal: throw what you love most into the flames, and I will grant you power.

As long as the offer is open, it will be irresistable. So we need to close the offer. Only another god can kill Moloch. We have one on our side, but he needs our help. We should give it to him.

Moloch is the demon god of Carthage.

And there is only one thing we say to Carthage: “Carthago delenda est.

(Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river!

Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!

Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies! Despairs! Ten years’ animal screams and suicides! Minds! New loves! Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells! They bade farewell! They jumped off the roof! to solitude! waving! carrying flowers! Down to the river! into the street!)

Weird Psychiatric Ads Of The Seventies

There’s a really famous ad for thorazine, a drug that came out in the fifties and was the first effective antipsychotic.

Less well-known are all the other weird, wonderful and creepy psychiatric ads from the past century.

I was able to find a journal that had an archive of all its ads from the 1970s and a tiny slice of the 60s (no luck getting before then) and thought I’d share some of my favorites and what I learned.

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ADHD, formerly ADD, was even more formerly MBD for Minimal Brain Dysfunction. This ad from the late ’70s shows there’s already a gray line between ADHD and normal mischeviousness, and Ritalin is already the preferred treatment (and has been since the early sixties).

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Following in thorazine’s footsteps of including giant scary eyes in psychiatric ads. This is going to be a recurring theme.

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More minimal brain dysfunction. “Cylert (pemoline) will not in itself “enhance learning” or resolve difficult behavioral problems. But it can increase attention span in the hyperkinetic child and reduce the impulsivity that often interferes with the learning process”.

The Goodenough-Harris Draw A Person Test has since been found (contra nominative determinism) to correlate only very weakly with real IQ tests for preschoolers. It has thus fallen out of favor, which is too bad as it led to some very cute scientific papers

Anyway, I guess we’re supposed to be excited that Cylert can make kids sit still enough to add stripes to a guy’s shirt. I’m going to hold out until they can make them not have weird nets for shoes.

Side effects of Cylert® may include holding your arms rigidly straight out to the sides all the time like you’re being crucified or something.

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I was talking with Chris H and a few other people a couple of posts back about how pharmacotherapy used to be viewed (at least officially) as an adjunct for talk therapy. This ad is a good demonstration: “Whatever other therapeutic facilities have been developed, the psychiatrist’s office still represents the setting in which the psychoanalytic process recognizes its fullest potential. Frequently, however, an antidepressant must be employed to foster a working therapeutic relationship. With effective symptomatic relief often provided by ELAVIL, depressed patients may be able to concentrate on underlying factors instead of somatic manifestations.”

I wonder to what degree this was something you had to say to be viewed as a responsible psychiatrist back then: “Oh yeah, obviously it’s the Freudian psychoanalysis that’s really important, but maybe some of these drugs can, well, sort of help a little so we can get to Freudian psychoanalysis faster.” And to what degree everyone was in on the charade but didn’t want to torpedo their reputations by departing from it.

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Another ad following in Thorazine’s footsteps of “make antipsychotic ads as creepy and psychotic-looking as possible.”

A couple days ago I asked my boss what the pharmacological differences between Haldol and [several similar drugs] were. He said there were no important differences at all. I asked him why, if that were so, everyone uses Haldol and almost no one uses any of the others. He said it was because Haldol had a better advertising campaign back in the day – which is what led me to look at old psychiatric ads in the first place.

So if any of you are in the public relations field, remember: melting faces sells.

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We’re not saying you should slip very powerful drugs into in your patient’s drink without their knowledge. We’re just saying if you do, do it with Haldol®!

My impression is that this used to be a lot more common, but still goes on in certain situations, especially with the demented elderly.

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In Soviet Russia, bird cages you! But if bird cages you, and you not in Soviet Russia, is extremely worrying sign. Should seek medical help immediately.

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Another “we’re only using drugs for between the psychotherapeutic interviews” ad.

Dexamyl is a combination of amphetamine and a barbituate. Apparently at one time, giving people a really strong addictive upper and a really strong addictive downer together was considered such a good idea that it was advertised in psychiatric journals – and commonly used to perk up tired housewives.

My instict would be that the upper and downer would cancel out, leaving people about how they were before except with a host of terrible side effects. But when I Google it I get a lot of people who said the barbituate cancelled out the side effects of the amphetamine and they felt great on Dexamyl and it is their greatest regret in life that it is no longer available. So maybe my instincts are wrong and we should all be taking amphetamines mixed with barbituates all the time.

According to Wikipedia, UK PM Anthony Eden was on Dexamyl when he screwed up the Suez Crisis, which doesn’t surprise me at all.

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People with tortoise shells inside bigger tortoise shells. Eyes growing on thorny stalks of grass. Lips bursting forth from the earth. Some kind of weird spectral Death hanging out in the background. Sure, the name of the drug involved is so small I can’t read it, but making it any bigger would have ruined the artistic vision.

Also, you really need to stop with all the eyes in your antipsychotic ads.

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NO I DIDN’T MEAN IT LIKE THAT! EYES WHERE THERE SHOULD BE EYES! NO EYES WHERE THERE SHOULDN’T BE EYES! OKAY?

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Ah, screw it, close enough.

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Whatever.

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Is…is that a syllepsis? Did you just include a syllepsis in a psychiatric ad? Cooooooool.

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Photography puns age about as well as…well, as the biogenic amine hypothesis of depression.

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This is a nice ad. It makes me want to take Sinequan. Why can’t the Navane ads be more like this one?

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Side effects of Loxitane® may include infuriating vagueness.

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NO YOU FOOL DON’T LET THE BIRD OUT OF THE CAGE NOW IT’S GOING TO PUT YOU IN THE CAGE AND YOU WILL NEED NAVANE®.

Prolixin is one of the drugs that is very similar to Haldol but never caught on because of poor advertising. The moral of the story is – doves are out, melting faces are in.

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Release her from severe anxiety. Then she can open up to you. You ask her how she’s doing. She smiles bashfully, places a hand on your knee. Should you? Shouldn’t you? You clasp her hand. Everything’s going to be all right, you tell her.

‘This may be a little forward’, she asks, ‘but would you ever date a patient? You know, if the right one came along?’ ‘I’m married’, you tell her. ‘Oh!’ she says, horrified, and her mouth forms this adorable little O shape ‘I didn’t mean –’. You cut her off. ‘But my wife isn’t here’ you say, and lean in, kissing her on the lips. She leans into your mouth passionately. You grab a breast. Her hand reaches for your crotch.

‘We shouldn’t,’ she says, suddenly. ‘We should,’ you say. ‘Run away with me, and we’ll leave your severe anxiety far behind’. ‘Where would we go?’ she asks. ‘I don’t know,’ you say. ‘France? Venice? Anywhere but here.’ She kisses you again. ‘Anywhere,’ she repeats, ‘just as long as I can bring my Serax.’

Side effects of Serax® (oxazepam) may include marital strain, divorce, unintended pregnancy, and gonorrhea.

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Is…is that guy writing Finnegan’s Wake?

Serentil was withdrawn a couple of years ago after it was found to cause dangerous cardiac side effects.

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I have no idea who that guy is, but screw him.

I wonder if I can trace some kind of evolution here from “drugs will get your patients ready for psychotherapy” to “drugs will help your patients who are refractory to psychotherapy”.

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This was how we had to represent people’s thoughts before we had Photoshop’s “blur edges” filter. Just a big square stuck in the middle of their head.

For some reason I can’t imagine any modern ad using the name “George Harris”. I don’t know if it’s just that they wouldn’t use any name, or that they wouldn’t use one that aggressively normal-sounding.

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This ad seems to be going for “mysteriously creepy but hard to put your finger on why”. But that “…with good reason” definitely doesn’t help.

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I knew something was missing from my life!

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They rewrote it to get rid of the syllepsis! :( :( :( Why would you do that?

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Calm.

More Links For July 2014

The most embarassing part of the Slavoj Zizek plagiarism scandal isn’t that Zizek committed plagiarism. It isn’t even that he plagiarized a white supremacist website. It’s the way the plagiarism was discovered. Steve Sailer was reading a Zizek book and noticed that part of it actually made sense. He wrote:

A reader inclined toward deconstructionism might note that Žižek summarizes MacDonald’s controversial argument quite lucidly. In fact, the superstar professor achieves a higher degree of clarity while expounding MacDonald’s message than in any other passage I’ve read by Žižek. I’m guessing that the last two sentences are Žižek’s denunciation of the preceding argument he quite ably recounted. But it’s striking how much more opaque Žižek’s prose suddenly becomes when he switches to elucidating what are, presumably, his own ideas, such as they are.

… and the idea of Zizek being comprehensible for even a couple of sentences so surprised Steve’s commenters that they looked up the relevant passage to see if it was plagiarized, and sure enough one of them found the real source.

I’ve previously mentioned Bir Tawil, the one part of the earth which, due to a quirk in colonial borders, is not owned by any country. However, it has now been claimed by a man who wanted his daughter to achieve her dream of being a princess.

Commenter Mark Dominus responded to my question about how to autogenerate “alien” text that linguistics and cryptographers can’t distinguish from a real language with his post on Artificial Finnish. Tomalle, äs nto tai sattia yksin taisiä isiäk isuuri illää hetorista. Varsi kaikenlaineet ja pu distoja paikelmai en tulissa sai itsi mielim ssän jon sn ässäksi; yksen kos oihin!. Looks pretty good to me – except I think a smart linguist might realize that – among other problems – Word N has no correlation with Word N+1 – whereas in real languages some words are more likely to follow others. I continue to think the problem is harder than most people appreciate.

Low Carb Diets Aren’t Anything Special. Interesting both for the data presented, and as a study in itself on how spin works. Thirty years of the establishment going “You must eat low fat diets, and anyone who eats a low carb diet is an idiot who will swell like a balloon and die!”, and when the research finally comes out to show a weak version of the low carb diet is only marginally better than low fat diets, the establishment declares that since it’s only marginal they were basically right all along and have won a humiliating victory over their opponents.

Tumblr holds a convention. Predictable results ensue.

Buck Shlegeris: What did I learn from California? – but less like the title implies and more on what it’s like to become an adult.

Time: The Dread Pirate Roberts Sails The Illicit Online Drug Trade Again. Valuable because it gets its analysis of the Princess Bride right.

The Salon parody Twitter that was making Internet waves got shut down recently, probably because too many people were confusing it for the real Salon twitter feed. Luckily, Nydwracu finds that Salon’s own headlines are pretty much self-parodies anyway. And Newsweek does an amazing job of pointing out my new favorite quirk of the real Salon Twitter feed: Jon Stewart Is A Violent Sociopath Who Must Be Stopped (extra link here if you can’t get into Newsweek).

The Most Popular Religious Groups In America, what each religious group thinks about each other group, and how demographics (race, politics, age, etc) affect how much you like each religion. Republicans don’t like Muslims, Democrats don’t like Mormons, nobody much likes atheists, and everybody likes Jews. The evil atheist plan to avoid stigma by mostly also being Jewish continues to pay dividends.

Speaking of religion, religious children are more likely to identify magical characters as real than atheist children.

[content note: sexual assault] The Satanic Panic, besides being the best name for a metal band, was a supposed incident in the eighties when a bunch of very gullible people believed that Satanists were going around murdering and torturing people. This caused everyone to become very concerned about how gullible people were and how easy it was to start panics over stupid reasons. But what if there never was a Satanic Panic, and the people condemning it were gullibly taken in by a Satanic Panic Panic?

Despite the common political idea that moochers vote Democrat in order to ensure the continued flow of free cash, in voters under 65 perceived dependence on federal spending is unrelated to vote choice.

Eliezer explains why he writes fanfiction, and it turns out to be a really really good reason.

From the Department Of Unconvincing Excuses: a Ukranian rebel commander suggests that maybe everyone on that Malaysian airliner was already dead for days before it was shot down.

Not entirely unrelated to the above: past exposure to Communism makes people less trustworthy

New York City is the most unhappy city in America, but I could have told you that. In fact, Ozy and I had a big argument when we were watching Rent, because they thought the moral was the power of friendship, and I thought the moral was everyone should get the heck out of New York City. But the article goes further and identifies the happiest and least happy places in America. Surprisingly, the happiest tend to be the ones that do worse on every other demographic measure – low income, poor health, high crime – like the Deep South. And Louisiana totally wipes the floor with everyone else.

A teacher just inside the borders of Palestine signs up for the dating app Tinder – which in her vicinity is used almost entirely by Israeli Jews. Does love – or more realistically animal lust – conquer ethnic hatreds, or does prejudice win out? Read Palestinder on Tumblr.

I didn’t realize the degree to which most Westerners before the nineteenth century were living in a bizarre Bible / Greek Mythology crossover fanfic. St. Jerome wrote a very nice chronicle describing events “from Abraham to the capture of Troy”, and there was an entire genre of texts that would have Greco-Roman mythological events in one column and Biblical events that occurred around the same time in another. Take Putnam’s 1833 Chronology, written back when subtitles were real subtitles (and mostly viewable on on Google Books). It tells us that Hercules participated in the Olympics twenty-three years (not twenty-two or twenty-four) after Gideon defeated the Midianites, and that the Voyage of the Argonauts happened exactly 207 years after Moses saw the burning bush. Also, in case you were wondering in which year Bacchus became god of wine, that was 1438 BC.

Closely related: the Table of Nations answers burning questions like: “Which of Noah’s grandsons did the Finns originate from?”

USA Today explains better than I did why self-flagellation about not repeating the moon landing is silly: “Why did we spend so much to go to another world, and then almost completely abandon the effort? It was because we did it for the wrong reason. The Apollo moon program was never really about space, or opening it to America or humanity. It was a peaceful battle in an existential war. In the post-Sputnik panic, the priority was not to do it affordably or sustainably but, to do it quickly”

The closest living relative to the mitochondria that power all higher forms of life is rickettsia prowazekii – the typhus bacterium.

“Mommy, how did the Great Israeli-Brazilian War start?”

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 170 Comments

Some Antibiotic Stagnation

In the past week I’ve written about antibiotics and the rate of technological progress. So when a graph about using antibiotics to measure the rate of scientific progress starts going around the Internet, I take note.

Unfortunately, it’s inexcusably terrible. Whoever wrote it either had zero knowledge of medicine, or was pursuing some weird agenda I can’t figure out.

For example, several of the drugs listed are not antibiotics at all. Tacrolimus and cyclosporin are both immunosuppressants (please don’t take tacrolimus because you have a bacterial infection). Lovastatin lowers cholesterol. Bialafos is a herbicide with as far as I can tell no medical uses.

“Cephalosporin” is not the name of a drug. It is the name of a class of drugs, of which there are over sixty. In other words, the number of antibiotics covered by that one word “cephalosporin” is greater than the total number of antibiotics listed on the chart.

If I wanted to be charitable, I would say maybe they are counting similar medications together in order to avoid giving decades credit for producing a bunch of “me-too” drugs. But that doesn’t seem to be it at all. They triple-count tetracycline, oxytetracycline, and chlortetracycline, even though they are chemically very similar and even though the latter are almost never used (the only indication Wikipedia gives for the last of these is that it is “commonly used to treat conjunctivitis in cats”)

They also leave out some very important antibiotics. For example, levofloxacin is a mainstay of modern pneumonia treatment and the eighth most commonly used antibiotic in the modern market. That’s a whole lot more relevant than cats with pinkeye, but it is conspicuously missing while chlortetracycline is conspicuously present. Maybe it has something to do with levofloxacin being approved in 1993?

(also missing from the 90s and 00s: piperacillin, tazobactam, daptomycin, linezolid, and several new cephalosporins)

I can’t find a real table of antibiotic discovery per decade, so I decided to make some.

Antibiotic classes approved per decade. An antibiotic class is a large group of drugs sharing a single mechanism. For example, penicillin and methylpenicillin are in the same class, because one is just a slight variation on the chemical structure of the other. There are some arguments over which new drugs count as a “new class”. Source is this source.

Anbiotic classes discovered per decade. The first graph lists when classes got FDA approval, this one lists when they were first discovered. Both have different pluses and minuses. This one is likely to undercount recent progress because the chemicals being discovered now haven’t been tested and found to be valuable antibiotics and approved (and so don’t make it onto the graph). But the last one might overcount recent progress, because a drug being “approved” in 2010 might represent the output of 1980s science that just took forever to get through the FDA. On the other hand, it might not – a lot of times people find a drug class in 1980, decide it’s too dangerous, and only find a safer useable drug from the same class in 2010.

Individual antibiotics discovered per decade. Individual antibiotics can still be vast improvements upon previous drugs in the same class. Source is here. I have doubled the number for the 2010s to represent the decade only being half over and so make comparison easier. About half of that spike around 1980 is twenty different cephalosporins coming on the market around the same time.

I conclude that antibiotic discovery has indeed declined, though not as much as the first graph tried to suggest, and it may or may not be starting to pick back up again.

Two very intelligent opinions on the cause of the decline. First, from a professor at UCLA School of Medicine:

There are three principal causes of the antibiotic market failure. The first is scientific: the low-hanging fruit have been plucked. Drug screens for new antibiotics tend to re-discover the same lead compounds over and over again. There have been more than 100 antibacterial agents developed for use in humans in the U.S. since sulfonamides. Each new generation that has come to us has raised the bar for what is necessary to discover and develop the next generation. Thus, discovery and development of antibiotics has become scientifically more complex, more expensive, and more time consuming over time. The second cause is economic: antibiotics represent a poor return on investment relative to other classes of drugs. The third cause is regulatory: the pathways to antibiotic approval through the U.S. FDA have become confusing, generally infeasible, and questionably relevant to patients and providers over the past decade.

A particularly good example of poor regulation from the same source:

When anti-hypertensive drugs are approved, they are not approved to treat hypertension of the lung, or hypertension of the kidney. They are approved to treat hypertension. When antifungals are approved, they are approved to treat “invasive aspergillosis,” or “invasive candidiasis.” Not so for antibacterials, which the FDA continues to approve based on disease state one at a time (pneumonia, urinary tract infection, etc.) rather than based on the organisms the antibiotic is designed to kill. Thus, companies spend $100 million for a phase III program and as a result capture as an indication only one slice of the pie.

And one more voice, which I think of as a call for moderation. This is Nature Reviews Drug Discovery:

Most antibiotics were originally isolated by screening soil-derived actinomycetes during the golden era of antibiotic discovery in the 1940s to 1960s. However, diminishing returns from this discovery platform led to its collapse, and efforts to create a new platform based on target-focused screening of large libraries of synthetic compounds failed, in part owing to the lack of penetration of such compounds through the bacterial envelope.

Sometimes stagnant science means your civilization is collapsing. Other times it just means you’ve run out of soil bacteria.

In a way, this points out the unfairness of using antibiotics as a civilizational barometer. This is a drug class first invented in the 1930s and mostly developed by investigating soil bacteria, which have since been mostly exhausted. Of course progress will be faster the closer to the discovery of this technique you get.

If instead you use antidiabetic drugs – a comparatively new field – this is an age of miracles and wonders, with new classes coming out faster than anyone except specialists can keep up with. If antidiabetic drugs were used as a civilizational barometer, we would be having the Singularity next week.

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The Other Codex

I did okay for myself this first year at my job and had a little bit of money left over. I told myself I was allowed to buy one moderately ridiculous luxury item as a reward. And ever since I was like nineteen there’s only been one moderately ridiculous luxury item I really wanted.

So now I’ve got it:

I kind of want to explain, but part of me knows that no one can tell you what the Codex Seraphinianus is. You have to see it for yourself.

(the above is 50 MB high-resolution PDF file I’m hosting my old website. When that goes down under the strain, you can switch to a more manageable version here)

I was prepared to pay $500 for it, which is what it cost five years ago when I first looked into purchasing it, but to my delight there was a new version selling on Amazon for only $80. Getting the only ridiculous luxury item I’ve ever really wanted for $80 seems pretty good.

[That wasn't originally intended to be an ad. But I realized it was stupid to accidentally advertise something without getting paid for it, so I signed up for Amazon Affiliates program. So if you thought that sounded like an advertisement, you've been Gettier-cased.]

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No Skyscraper Stagnation

Since we’re on the subject of whether technological progress has stagnated, I thought I’d address an issue that always seems to come up sooner or later.

Is there a decline in American skyscrapers possibly indicating a decline in American civilization?

I realize that some people may live in happy little bubbles where this question does not in fact always seem to come up sooner or later. But I tend to hear it a lot. It seems to be a favorite of former SSC commenter James Donald. From here:

The twin towers were big buildings, and buildings of that size cannot be built under progressive regimes. As the trabant was a fraud, created to disguise the fact that the Soviet Union could not build consumer cars, the One World Trade Center is a fraud, created to disguise the fact that the US can no longer build buildings as large as it used to be able to build.

He has more in the same vein here, here, and at his blog. But it’s not just Jim. From Countercurrents:

It’s not a coincidence that the tallest buildings in America were built during the 1970s. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we would never again have it so good. The 1970s represented a “tipping point,” to use the popular vernacular, for the American Dream.

Vox Day writes:

I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since. This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.

He doesn’t bring up skyscrapers, but a commenter does.

Or, to totally remove any subtlety, here’s The Decline Of The West As Measured By The Rise Of New Skyscrapers.

The typical response to this sort of thing is to bring up the studies showing that increased skyscraper construction is in fact correlated with not with progress, but with economic decline. The Skyscraper Index is a whimsical attempt to use skyscraper construction to predict economic downturns. And that if the world’s largest skyscrapers are currently in Dubai and Saudi Arabia, maybe skyscrapers are less a sign of national glory and more a sign of having more oil than sense.

But it looks like Jim isn’t a fan of that argument. So let’s take a different tack:

America’s capacity to build skyscrapers isn’t decreased at all, in any way, whatsoever.

(says the guy with the secret guilty skyscraper obsession)

Here is a graph of the height in feet of the tallest skyscraper in America, by year.

In the mid-1700s, the tallest building in the US was Christ Church in Philadelphia at 196 feet. There’s some underwhelming progress until about 1900, when a thirty-year spurt takes us from 391 feet to over a thousand. This spurt ends with the Empire State Building (1,250 feet) in 1931. There is then a forty year dry spell ending with the construction of the WTC and Sears Tower in rapid succession, then another forty year dry spell ending with the construction of One World Trade Center last year.

After the 1900 – 1930 spurt (which corresponded to the first widespread use of steel and elevators) growth is extremely linear.

Jim argues this is unfair because One World Trade Center, the recent data point beating the old Sears Tower and WTC, has an unusually large spire inflating its height. This is true.

If we ignore spires and concentrate on roof height, the old WTC was 1368 feet and the new WTC is also 1368 feet (coincidence?), showing little progress. Luckily for our argument, the Nordstrom Tower currently under construction in New York has a roof height of 1,479 feet, a good one hundred feet higher than the WTC and enough to restore linearity.

[Note: I feel bad arguing against Jim after banning him from commenting. I'll unblock him from this post's comment section for purposes of fairness.]

A different measurement might be concentrating on quantity rather than quality of skyscrapers. This graph shows the number of supertall (> 1000 ft high) skyscrapers in the US over time:

Two built in the 1930s (Empire State and Chrysler Buildings), none from 1931 to 1969 (our dry spell), a gradual trickle from 1969 to 2007 or so, and a sudden recent explosion. Thus the excitement about New York’s recent supertall boom. The current spurt includes the previously mentioned One World Trade Center, the Nordstrom Tower (which will be one foot lower than 1WTC at 1,775 feet), 432 Park Avenue (“only” 1,398 feet, but higher than 1WTC without its spire). There are more supertall buildings scheduled for construction in the Hudson Yards redevelopment project in New York than existed in the entire United States in 1973.

This isn’t even counting the really ambitious projects, like the plan to build a 2,000 foot tower on the site of the old Chicago post office. Which might sound overly ambitious, except that Chicago just finished a 1,389 foot Trump Tower.

It is true that China is now building more skyscrapers than the US. So there is an argument for relative decline. But the argument for absolute decline is much less strong. But of note, China also has four times the population density of the US, probably much more when you take into account the small portion of its territory where people actually live. That’s a pretty strong incentive to build higher.

Finally, one more graph – this one a little more complicated.

This is the cost per foot of building a skyscraper over time.

My methodology was to take the tallest skyscraper built during each decade, convert its cost into 2013 dollars, and divide it by the number of feet high in the skyscraper.

I did not follow this methodology exactly, because the tallest skyscraper of the 2010s is One World Trade Center, which cost about three times more per foot than any other skyscraper on the list. According to the Wall Street Journal:

One World Trade Center’s construction is vastly more expensive than a traditional office tower, in large part due to security costs associated with building the tallest building in North America on a site that has been the target of two separate terrorist attacks (the site was also bombed in 1993). Once known as the Freedom Tower, the 1,776-foot skyscraper sits atop a heavily reinforced, windowless podium. It also has a thick core of concrete and steel around its elevator shafts. By comparison, other-high profile buildings around the world have been far less expensive. The Port Authority long ago gave up hope that One World Trade would be a profitable investment in the short- or mid-term.

So 1WTC was a crazy outlier because they had to make it terrorist-proof. Rather than have it completely throw off the graph, I replaced it with the next tallest 2010s building I had cost information on, which I think was Four World Trade Center.

I was worried that this was unfairly penalizing newer skyscrapers because the 1000th foot probably costs more to build than the first and newer skyscrapers are taller. But I reran the analysis using the building from every decade closest to 1,000 feet (many were within 10 ft of the target) and got very very similar results (not shown).

The important lesson to take from this graph is that if you’re building a skyscraper, you should definitely hire whoever built Bank of America Plaza, the extreme outlier in 1990 that throws off the otherwise smooth curve with a sudden precipitious dip. They somehow built a very pretty building for one-third of the cost of everyone else in history, so kudos to them.

(but if it falls over the next time there’s a strong breeze, and the investigation finds it was actually made out of Styrofoam, don’t say I didn’t warn you)

The other important lesson is that skyscraper costs have changed little if at all since the age of the Empire State Building. This is important because one of the other decline arguments I get all the time is that building anything is so bureaucratized and expensive and bogged down by building codes and environmental compliance checks that nobody will do it. A friend recently told me – I can’t find the original quote so I can’t make sure I’ve got it right – that Estonia is considering building a tunnel all the way across the Baltic Sea for the same price it costs New York City to build four blocks worth of subway, presumably because NYC is so bureaucratized. I don’t know if that’s true with regard to subways, but if so skyscrapers seem to have escaped the worst of it.

One more point. The most notable thing I turned up researching this post was the extent of the 1930 to 1960s skyscraper dry spell. Ten buildings taller than 700 feet were built in 1933 or before – and zero from 1933 to 1960. Skyscraping didn’t really recover to its 1930 heights (no pun intended) until 1973 or so.

Anyone wanting to talk about a collapse of civilization from 1940 to 1970 would have had a lot of evidence from skyscraper decline. But that was exactly the period when most people today think technological progress was at its height!

I conclude that skyscrapers are not a very a good indicator of anything.

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Promising The Moon

I.

The year 1969 comes up to you and asks what sort of marvels you’ve got all the way in 2014.

You explain that cameras, which 1969 knows as bulky boxes full of film that takes several days to get developed in dark rooms, are now instant affairs of point-click-send-to-friend that are also much higher quality. Also they can take video.

Music used to be big expensive records, and now you can fit 3,000 songs on an iPod and get them all for free if you know how to pirate or scrape the audio off of YouTube.

Television not only has gone HDTV and plasma-screen, but your choices have gone from “whatever’s on now” and “whatever is in theaters” all the way to “nearly every show or movie that has ever been filmed, whenever you want it”.

Computers have gone from structures filling entire rooms with a few Kb memory and a punchcard-based interface, to small enough to carry in one hand with a few Tb memory and a touchscreen-based interface. And they now have peripherals like printers, mice, scanners, and flash drives.

Lasers have gone from only working in special cryogenic chambers to working at room temperature to fitting in your pocket to being ubiquitious in things as basic as supermarket checkout counters.

Telephones have gone from rotary-dial wire-connected phones that still sometimes connected to switchboards, to cell phones that fit in a pocket. But even better is bypassing them entirely and making video calls with anyone anywhere in the world for free.

Robots now vacuum houses, mow lawns, clean office buildings, perform surgery, participate in disaster relief efforts, and drive cars better than humans. Occasionally if you are a bad person a robot will swoop down out of the sky and kill you.

For better or worse, video games now exist.

Medicine has gained CAT scans, PET scans, MRIs, lithotripsy, liposuction, laser surgery, robot surgery, and telesurgery. Vaccines for pneumonia, meningitis, hepatitis, HPV, and chickenpox. Ceftriaxone, furosemide, clozapine, risperidone, fluoxetine, ondansetron, omeprazole, naloxone, suboxone, mefloquine, – and for that matter Viagra. Artificial hearts, artificial livers, artificial cochleae, and artificial legs so good that their users can compete in the Olympics. People with artificial eyes can only identify vague shapes at best, but they’re getting better every year.

World population has tripled, in large part due to new agricultural advantages. Catastrophic disasters have become much rarer, in large part due to architectural advances and satellites that can watch the weather from space.

We have a box which you can type something into and it will tell you everything anyone has ever written relevant to your query.

We have a place where you can log into from anywhere in the world and get access to approximately all human knowledge, from the scores of every game in the 1956 Roller Hockey World Cup to 85 different side effects of an obsolete antipsychotic medication. It is all searchable instantaneously. Its main problem is that people try to add so much information to it that its (volunteer) staff are constantly busy deleting information that might be extraneous.

We have the ability to translate nearly major human language to any other major human language instantaneously at no cost with relatively high accuracy.

We have navigation technology that over fifty years has gone from “map and compass” to “you can say the name of your destination and a small box will tell you step by step which way you should be going”.

We have the aforementioned camera, TV, music, videophone, video games, search engine, encyclopedia, universal translator, and navigation system all bundled together into a small black rectangle that fits in your pockets, responds to your spoken natural-language commands, and costs so little that Ethiopian subsistence farmers routinely use them to sell their cows.

But, you tell 1969, we have something more astonishing still. Something even more unimaginable.

“We have,” you say, “people who believe technology has stalled over the past forty-five years.”

1969′s head explodes.

II.

It’s the anniversary of the moon landing, which means I have to deal with people passing around memes like this:

But I probably can’t blame the date for the recent discussion here of whether technological progress halted in 1972.

So I would like to take a moment to critique a certain strain of futurology.

There seems to be this thing where people imagine something that would look really cool, and predict that if we work hard on it for fifty years, we’ll be able to pull it off. And then fifty years later, when barely any work has been done on it at all, they start looking for someone to blame.

Missions to Mars. Lunar colonies. Giant floating solar power satellites. Undersea domes. Ten mile high arcologies. Humanoid robots.

Whereas real technology doesn’t advance by heading in the direction of something that looks cool, unless some government or tycoon is throwing lots of money in the direction of coolness. Real technology hill-climbs towards things that are useful and profitable.

Why haven’t we colonized space yet? For the same reason we haven’t colonized Antarctica. It’s very cold and not a lot of fun and if you go outside you die.

In fact, Antarctica is preferable to space in pretty much every way. There is no reason to colonize space before you have finished colonizing Antarctica. And there is no reason to colonize Antarctica until you have finished colonizing Nebraska (population: 9 people per square km).

I will maintain that even if we had enough space flight technology that elementary school classes routinely took field trips to Mars, Mars would end up with two or three scientific bases, a resort where tourists could take their pictures on Olympus Mons, a compound of very dedicated libertarians, and nothing else. No domed cities. No colonies fighting for independence. Think that’s implausible? School children take field trips to the Mojave Desert all the time, and it pretty much looks like that. Why should Mars prosper more than a much more habitable comparison area?

Likewise, the reason we don’t build undersea domes isn’t because we’re not good enough. It’s because humans breath better on land, and there’s still a lot of land left to live in. On the rare occasion we want a resource located underwater, we build an oil rig on top of it and pump it from the surface, ie the part of the ocean where you don’t get insta-crushed by ten atmospheres of pressure if something goes wrong.

And the reason there are no ten-mile-high arcologies is that we haven’t already tiled all the desirable real estate with 9.9-mile-high arcologies and decided we still need more space.

Science fiction authors and would-be prophets stubbornly refuse to admit “would anybody reasonably pay money for this?” into their calculations. And so every ten years they end up predicting the “smart house”. Where from your phone, you can control the lights in any room of the house! I imagine futurologists sitting in their kitchens, thinking “Oh no! I wish the lights were on in my bedroom, but all I have is my phone!” Maybe one day we will have houses that contain teleporters that can bring to any other building in the world without stepping outside. But if you’re in the kitchen and you want the light on in the teleporter room, you’ll still just walk to the teleporter room and flip the @#$%ing switch.

I am not defending this as a normative view of how progress should work. There is a lot to be said for colonizing Mars as a survival strategy in case something unexpected happens to Earth. And there’s also a lot to be said for Manhattan Project style efforts to discover a technology in a non-hill-climbing way, something where there’s not a profitable transitional form at each step between where we are and what we want. But I would suggest we stick to those criticisms, and not to a criticism of advance per se.

(actually, we’re not even all that bad at getting past the hill-climbing thing; government subsidies to solar seem to have been a very successful attempt to push solar out of an area where it wasn’t profitable to improve into an area where it is)

But it’s going to take some pretty creative accounting to make moon shots profitable. The main reason people funded the moon landing in 1969 (as opposed to the reason that people not involved in funding felt good about it) was to beat Russia and then get to rub it in their face forever. Nowadays that’s no longer so fun (although rapidly becoming funner!) Therefore, we get the expected outcome of fewer moon shots until someone else thinks of a compelling incentive to go to the moon. So far there isn’t one. There’s no need to bring technological stagnation into the picture.

Open Thread 2: Free Minds, Free Threads

Time for another Open Thread / Housekeeping Thread.

1. Commenter Lila wants to signal-boost the existence of psychiatric advanced directives, where you can write a (somewhat legally binding) plan for a future in which you become too mentally ill to make good decisions.

2. Ozy is looking for a part-time job better than camming – preferably one compatible with working from home and with occasional couple-day-long panic/depression attacks. So far we’ve got odesk.com and video transcription services as ideas to look into. Any other ideas would be welcome.

3. I’m going to be cracking down on comment sections a lot harder here in the near future. In particular, I want to cull the bottom 50%-90% of neoreactionaries. I like them, but I also like deer, and that doesn’t stop me from realizing that sometimes deer need to be culled. Having every thread with even the slightest opening turn into a full on neoreactionary feeding frenzy is tiring and driving other people away. I realize this is unfair, in that it’s not neoreactionaries’ fault that everyone else refuses to go to places where they are allowed to talk. Luckily, their whole ideology is that rulers have the right to optimize their territories for maximum productivity without regard for fairness to individuals, so I am sure they won’t object. Honestly I’d be pretty happy getting rid of everyone except maybe Nydwracu, Nyan, Konk, Athrelon, and Mai (apologies for inevitable people I forgot), but I won’t raise the banhammer until someone gives me at least a tiny bit of justification.

4. Also, if someone is sufficiently new that no one will complaint, I might just ban them silently and without record, to save myself the trivial inconvenience of doing it formally.

5. Every time I see someone describe this as “a blog about social justice” I die a little inside. I WRITE LIKE ONE POST ABOUT THAT A MONTH.

6. Highlighting interesting comments: Mai on ecclesiology, Sarah on ecclesiology. And an off-blog one: Mitrailleuse on Motte-Busting. Honestly motte-busting seems like a terrible idea to me, but knowing that other people endorse it as a strategy makes certain things fall into place.

PS: NO RACE OR GENDER ON THE OPEN THREAD THAT NEVER HELPS

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HeartMath Considered Incoherent

[Note: all opinions expressed here are my own. Nothing to be taken as medical advice.]

This is not a skeptic blog and I find much skeptic-blogging distasteful. But as the saying sort of goes: “You may not be interested in pseudoscience, but pseudoscience is interested in you.”

This group called the Institute of HeartMath has been remarkably persistent at making their way into my hospital. A couple of months ago I had to go to a lecture where they trained us all in their “scientifically” “validated” “heart” “coherence” “technique”. And yesterday I had to attend a class where one of my attendings (who is otherwise an amazing psychiatrist and teacher whom I have a huge amount of respect for) pushed the same technique and their biofeedback device.

And it looks like I’m not the only one. It looks like the US Navy is also “getting the coherence advantage” and that there’s an entire site dedicated to HeartMath for veterans and the military urging them to “apply for scholarships”. There are HeartMath training programs for teachers and managers ($3500 for a four-day workshop), for police, firemen, and first responders ($3699 for a four day workshop) and for doctors and clinicians ($1495 for an “interactive webinar”). There are HeartMath programs aimed at classrooms, including Early Heart Smarts Pre-K training ($179) and HeartMath Test Prep, $49 and apparently funded by a grant from the Department of Education. In case your classroom can’t afford these products, the Institute of HeartMath offers help filling out grant applications.

If any of these offers are actually being taken, this HeartMath stuff is big business. So in the process of writing up a letter to my boss explaining why I don’t want them back in my hospital a third time, I figured I’d make what I found public on the Internet for the benefit of anyone else looking into them.

Because their field of interest is heart electrophysiology, something I know almost nothing about, I’m not going to be able to do a good job debunking specific claims or responding to the science. Instead I want to make a few very general points about the science and then move into a discussion of the GIANT RED FLAGS the Institute throws up.

II.

According to a pamphlet I was given, HeartMath claims:

Create a coherent state in about a minute with the simple, but powerful steps of the Quick Coherence Technique. Using the power of your heart to balance thoughts and emotions, you can achieve energy, mental clarity, and feel better fast anywhere…Find a feeling of ease and inner harmony that’s reflected in more balanced heart rhythms, facilitating brain function and more access to higher intelligence.

The Quick Coherence Technique is a relaxation/focusing exercise where you concentrate on your heart area, breathe deeply while imagining the breath coming through your heart, and imagine a happy situation. According to HeartMath, this causes your heart rhythm to enter a state called “coherence”, which looks like a sine wave on graphs of heart rate variability and which can be detected by cheap and simple monitoring devices.

They say that the heart has so many interconnected neurons that it is like a “second brain”, and probably involved in various forms of advanced emotional processing. Further, “the heart sends more information to the brain than the brain sends to the heart”, so getting the heart into a coherent rhythm can sync brain waves into a coherent rhythm and improve emotional states. They present lots of research showing their Coherence Technique does in fact change heart rate variability, brain waves, and performance on various tasks that require calm concentration.

Further, they say that “the heart has a magnetic field a thousand times stronger than that of the brain, the strongest of any organ in the body”. It can be detected up to several meters away, and its character changes with emotional state and with whether your heart is in “coherence” or not. They present links to a lot of research showing that subtle changes in the magnetic field of the heart can be measured even outside the body. Then they say that people can communicate emotional states with other people nearby through the effect of their hearts’ magnetic fields.

Therefore, if you get your heart in coherence with their meditative technique, you not only put your brain waves more in sync and eliminate your own stress, but you have a knock-on effect helping everyone around you.

This is a mixture of good science, mediocre science taken out of context, and total bunk.

Heart rate does have variability, and heart rate variability is an interesting proxy for your body’s general level of health and stress. You can find a good summary from an electrophysiological perspective here, and from more of a neurobiological perspective here. Most likely what happens is that when you’re calm, your heart gets more parasympathetic innervation which causes more variability, and when you’re stressed it gets more sympathetic innervation and less variability.

The heart does feed information to the brain. Then again, so does everything else. Your feet feed information to the brain – that’s why if someone hits your feet, you can feel it. I don’t know whether “the feet send more information to the brain than the brain sends to the feet” but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did – they have to communicate temperature, pain, position, touch, itchiness, et cetera, and all the brain does is occasionally tell them to move somewhere. This does not mean the feet are metaphysically prior to the brain in some important way, or that they control the brain. It just means that the brain is at some level aware of what is going on with the feet. So too with the heart. We know the brain has some level of monitoring of heart function – this is why people who have heart attacks have various unpleasant feelings, including chest pain and a so-called “sense of impending doom”. This doesn’t imply very much about the heart controlling brain function.

The heart does have a complex interconnected nervous system of its own. But HeartMath’s descriptions of it – which go from claims that “The heart’s extensive intrinsic neurvous system is sufficiently sophisticated to qualify as a ‘heart brain’ in its own right” to the insane question The Heart Has A Little Brain – Which Is Really In Control? – are overblown. HeartMath says the heart has 40,000 neurons (other sources say more like 14,000). Okay. The brain has 86 billion. Which is really in control – the organ with 14,000 neurons or the one with 86,000,000,000? Yeah, it’s the second one. Also of note: the gut has 100 million neurons. For those of you counting, that’s seven thousand times more than the heart. Maybe “The Institute of BowelMath” didn’t sound sexy enough? Neurons are useful structures that manage electrical conductivity and ability to react to external conditions; they don’t always mean an organ has some kind of complicated emotional intelligence.

The heart does produce a magnetic field over a thousand times stronger than that of the brain. Here are other totally meaningless heart-brain comparisons: the heart is over a zillion times redder than the brain is! The heart is involved in 600000% more angsty teenage love poetry! Anything with electrical activity is going to produce a magnetic field, but that doesn’t mean the magnetic field is of any deeper significance, or that “size of magnetic field produced” is a good proxy for “cognitive significance”. In fact, we find that the magnetic field of the heart as measured at the surface of the body is ten million times weaker than the Earth’s magnetic field at the surface of the Earth. HeartMath says that subtle changes in the heart’s magnetic field can be measured outside the body, and this is true, but what they fail to mention is that this measurement was done at a super-high-tech laboratory in Berlin called the “most magnetically quiet room on earth” where building-sized magnetic shields sheltered the experimental apparatus from the Earth’s magnetism, which otherwise would have totally overwhelmed the effect the same way as hunting for a firefly on the surface of the Sun. Outside of a special magnetically shielded room in Berlin, your heart’s magnetic field isn’t going around influencing everything around you, let alone interacting with somebody else’s heart.

HeartMath does studies and finds that if I am holding your hand, your brain waves sync up to my heartbeat, and vice versa – and that indeed, this can happen even if we are nearby but not touching. Evidence for magnetic transfer effects? Before we say yes, I want to make three points about this study.

Number one, it is not in a peer reviewed journal. It’s published in a book called “Brain And Values: Is A Biological Science Of Values Possible?”, the editor of which is one of HeartMath’s “scientific advisors”.

Number two, it does not use p-values, Bayesian posteriors, or any other kind of statistic that involves numbers. It shows us pictures of wave patterns and points out that they look alike. I admit that they do look alike, but I know nothing about waves and for all I know it’s really easy to make different waves look alike.

Number three, EEG artifacts are a thing. That is, if any movement is going on near an EEG, it moves the electrodes and they record a noisy signal. Thus, you usually take an EEG with an EKG so you can see the patient’s heart rhythm and adjust it out, since otherwise the brain waves will appear to fluctuate with the heartbeat simply because the heartbeat shakes the electrodes. Manuals for EEG use have warnings about, for example, not letting anyone else sit on the patient’s bed during recording, or watching the patient’s intravenous lines because even the drip-drip-drip of the IVs can show up as perturbations. If I am holding your hand while you’re getting an EEG, perhaps my EEG reflects your heart rhythm not because your heart is affecting my brain waves, but because your heartbeat is indeed shaking me a tiny bit which shakes the electrodes which produces EEG artifact. This possibility seems to fit with HeartMath’s observation that when the heart-beat subject was wearing a thin glove on the hand with which she touched the brain-wave subject, the effect was decreased by a factor of ten. I admit this doesn’t explain the supposed sync between heartbeat and brain wave when the two subjects were standing a foot and a half apart without touching. But as we will soon see, HeartMath is so good at finding non-local effects that we have some reason to doubt their data-gathering process here.

Here’s what I think is going on as a fully general explanation of almost all of HeartMath’s research. Their Quick Coherence technique – and various others like it – are basically mishmashes of useful relaxation exercises stolen from various yogas and forms of meditation. Many of these ask you to focus on the heart – although many others ask you to focus on the tailbone, or genitalia, or third eye, or crown chakra – and all of them probably work in some vague way by redirecting your attention onto the body. I have no doubt that these yoga techniques effectively relax you. That changes your balance of parasympathetic versus sympathetic tone, which in turn affects your heart rate variability – which as we saw before, tracks parasympathetic and sympathetic tone. Since you’re more relaxed, you do better at various cognitive tasks, which HeartMath then records and claims is evidence of an effect from heart “coherence”. This explains about 80% of the Institute’s findings. There are definitely some findings that can’t be explained by this, but then, as we will very shortly see, there are some findings that can’t be explained by anything except Alien Space Bats.

III.

I would now like to move from a sober critique of HeartMath’s theories to an unfair character assassination of their staff.

Although HeartMath employs a bunch of people, the obvious two head honchos are founder Doc Childre (the CEO and President is listed as Sara Childre, who I assume is his wife), and Dr. Rollin McCraty, the executive vice-president and director of research, who is responsible for the lion’s share of the Institute’s research output and scientific claims.

Doc Childre has no medical training or relevant educational credentials. In fact, he is not a doctor at all. “Doc” is just his first name. This completes my character assassination of him.

Rollin McCraty is a doctor, but not a medical doctor. He has a Ph. D in “Health Sciences”, but all of his training and expertise is in electrical engineering and he has had no formal instruction in biology. His biography makes him sound very impressive:

McCraty is a Fellow of the American Institute of Stress, holds memberships with the International Neurocardiology Network, American Autonomic Society, Pavlovian Society and Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback

The Institute of Stress has a list of all its fellows online, McCraty is not mentioned.

The International Neurocardiology Network has no webpage or online evidence of its existence. When I Google “International Neurocardiology Network”, I get 47 results, every one of which is a claim by McCraty to be a member of it.

The American Autonomic Society does have a webpage, here. The webpage includes a helpful membership application where you can pay them $300 for membership, earning you a subscription to their journal and greatly decreased fees for attending their annual meeting. Their list of members is lorem ipsum text, but I’m totally willing to give Dr. McCraty the benefit of the doubt on this one.

The Pavlovian Society seems less prestigious than the American Autonomic Society, given that their membership application only involves a $30 fee and has to be sent by “mail, fax, or email”. What is this, 1995?

The Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback not only sells membership for $189, but in several parts of its site equivocates between the terms “member” and “customer”.

So of the five impressive-sounding organizations McCraty starts his bio with, one doesn’t list him as a member, one doesn’t seem to exist, and three give membership freely for a fee.

(and the point of this was supposed to be to knock McCraty, but I’m starting to think he had the right idea. For only about $500 a year, I could be “Dr. Scott Alexander, MD BCh BAO, Member of the American Autonomic Society, Member of the Pavlovian Society, Member of the Association For Applied Psychophysiology And Biofeedback.” I feel like if I could put that on my business cards you would pay me whatever I asked to do whatever I wanted to your body, medical or otherwise)

But aside from these organizational memberships, Dr. McCraty is widely published with many fascinating and well-accepted studies.

Unfortunately, the fascinating ones aren’t well-accepted, and the well-accepted ones aren’t fascinating.

For example, on one hand we had the study showing my heart rate can affect your brain waves even when we’re not touching, which would certainly be ground-breaking if true. But it was not peer-reviewed and was published in a random compendium associated with a HeartMath advisor.

And on the other hand, we have The Heart Re-Innervates Itself After Transplantation. This is in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, an excellent peer-reviewed publication. But McCraty is one of twelve authors, and the study just shows that nerve growth goes on after heart transplant. Interesting if you’re a thoracic surgeon, but not exactly the spooky-action-at-a-distance they were talking about before.

This seems to be a common problem with HeartMath. Looking at their list of publications, it seems to be about 50% studies they have published themselves without peer review, 25% studies published in journals of alternative medicine with no standards, and 25% studies in real journals that show relatively boring results. For example, A Controlled Pilot Study Of Stress Management Training of Elderly Patients With Congestive Heart Failure in the perfectly reputable journal Preventative Cardiology tests one of HeartMath’s coherence-building relaxation techniques on the title population. They find that it in fact decreases stress, but “the twenty four hour heart rate variability showed no significant changes in autonomic tone”. In other words, their claims are that they’ve discovered some master switch to the body that can even cross air gaps into other people’s brains, but their reputable studies get results like “relaxation makes people less stressed”.

IV.

We’ve been talking about the motte-and-bailey technique a bit here lately. In case you forgot, that’s a rhetorical trick where you equivocate between a boring but easily defensible position (the motte) and an exciting but indefensible claim (the bailey) in order to sort of make it look like you have a claim that is both exciting and defensible.

So, guess what? Everything I’ve talked about so far – the “coherence” “techniques”, the “second brain”, the heart’s magnetic field, the transfers of heart rhythms across air gaps – has been part of a motte. This is the stuff they use to sound reasonable to doctors so they can get their techniques into hospitals and other sober institutions. Hold on tight, because we are going to start investigating the deranged world of HeartMath’s bailey.

First let’s expand on this idea of “coherence”. Coherence just means your heart rhythm is in a nice sine wave pattern, right? Right?. Let’s ask Coherence: Bridging Personal, Social, and Global Health, by Childre & McCraty, published in the journal Alternative Therapies‘ July 2010 edition. All emphasis mine:

The heart plays a unique role in synchronizing the activity across multiple systems and levels of organization. The heart is uniquely well-positioned to act as the ‘global coordinator’ in the body’s symphony of functions to bind and synchronize the system as a whole…

There is compelling evidence to suggest that the heart’s energy field is coupled to a field of information that is not bound by the classic limits of time and space. This evidence comes from a rigorous experimental study that investigated the proposition that the body receives and processes information about a future event before the event actually happens. Even more tantalizing are indications that the heart receives intuitive information before the brain does and that the heart sends a different pattern of afferent signals to the brain, which modulates the frontal cortex. This suggests that the heart is directly coupled to a subtle energetic field of information that is entangled in and interacts with the multiplicity of energetic fields in which the body is embedded – including that of the quantum vacuum

Just as individual incoherence leads to pathologies within the individual, group incoherence leads to social pathologies – violence, abuse, terrorism, etc. There is a feedback loop between the individuals in a group and the group’s level of coherence. When individuals are not well self-regulated or are acting only in their own best interests without regard to others, it generates social incoherence…Unfortunately, social incoherence is characterized by a lack of unity, common purpose, peace, and harmony in or among families, neighbors, or employees in workplace environments.

The Global Coherence Initiative is a science-based organization focused on examining the interactions between humans and the Earth’s energetic fields. One of the project’s hypotheses is that the Earth’s magnetic and geomagnetic fields created in the ionosphere in turn create bidirectional feed-forward and feedback loops within the collective emotional energy of humanity. More and more people are realizing that solar and universal energetic influxes are a part of a natural cycle with potential benefits to humanity. Yet people have a responsibility for their own energy and how it can be used to create deeper connections and more caring interactions with others and with the Earth itself, including all living entities.

If, as some content, all living systems are indeed interconnected and communicate with each other via biological and electromagnetic fields, it stands to reason that humans can work together in a concreative relationship to consciously increase global coherence. This can only cocur when enough individuals and social groups increase their coherence baseline and utilize that increased coherence in innovative problem solving and intuitive discernment for addressing social, environmental, and economic problems. In time, global coherence will be indicated by countries adopting a more coherent planetary view. At this level of scale, social and economic oppression, warfare, cultural intolerance, crime, and disregard for the environment can be addressed meaningfully and successfully.

Strong claims. Any research to back that up?

Well, yes. But it’s called The Psychophysiology of Entrepreneural Intuition: A Quantum-Holographic Theory, and says that:

A new study shows that both the brain and the heart are involved in processing a pre-stimulus emotional response to the future event. Drawing on this research and on the principles of quantum holography, we develop a theory of intuitive perception. The theory explains how focused emotional attention directed to the object of interest (such as a potential future business opportunity) attunes the psychophysiological systems to a domain of quantum-holographical information, which contains implicit information on the object’s future potential. The body’s perception of such implicit information about the object’s future is experienced as an intuition.

In other words, entrepreneurs tap into the nonlocal holographic nature of reality in order to get hot startup tips. At this point I probably don’t need to add that the Institute of HeartMath is based in the Bay Area.

Can we get weirder? I think we can. A HeartMath press release: You Can Change Your DNA:

Many people have mistakenly believed that the DNA with which we are born is the sole determinant for who we are and will become, but scientists have understood for decades that this genetic determinism is a flawed theory.

They then go on to bring up epigenetics, which is quickly replacing quantum mechanics as the Thing I Most Expect To Be Brought Up In Situations Like This. There’s this thing with quantum mechanics, where to scientists it means that the location of particles can be modeled as a wave function, and to the popular media it means that nothing is true and everything is permissible. Likewise, to scientists epigenetics means that the methylation of genes affects functions, and to the popular media it means…well…let’s let HeartMath explain:

After two decades of studies, HeartMath researchers say other factors such as the appreciation and love we have for someone or the anger and anxiety we feel also influence and can alter the outcomes of each individual’s DNA blueprint…The influence or control individuals can have on their DNA – who and what they are and will become – is further illuminated in HeartMath founder Doc Childre’s theory of heart intelligence. Childre postulates that “an energetic connection or coupling of information” occurs between the DNA in cells and higher dimensional structures – the higher self or spirit.

Go on…

When we activate the power of our hearts’ commitment and intentionally have sincere feelings such as appreciation, care and love, we allow our hearts’ electrical energy to work for us. Consciously choosing a core heart feeling over a negative one means instead of the drain and damage stress causes to our bodies’ systems, we are renewed mentally, physically and emotionally. The more we do this the better we’re able to ward off stress and energy drains in the future. Heartfelt positive feelings fortify our energy systems and nourish the body at the cellular level. At HeartMath we call these emotions quantum nutrients.

There’s our quantum mechanics!

But is there proof?

Oh, yes. There is the best proof.

Modulation Of DNA Conformation By Heart-Focused Intention is a paper by McCraty (again), Atkinson, and Tomasino. The methodology is simple: the subject (in one case, Doc Childre himself) brings their heart rhythm into “coherence”, then stares at a beaker of DNA and wills it to unwind. The DNA complies. According to the paper, 10.27% of DNA willed at in this way unwound, compared to only 1.09% of control DNA (p < 0.01).

Since this result is obviously too boring to even be worth mentioning, the experimenters up the ante by testing the "nonlocal" version of the effect. Instead of holding the beaker in her hands, the subject wills DNA in a laboratory half a mile away to unwind. Once again, a highly significant result (2.76% change, p < 0.01).

I don't see any obvious screwups in this paper, aside from the conclusion. The skeptical Internet doesn't seem to be of much help either. I can think of a lot of potential problems - waiting different amounts of time to measure the DNA in the two samples, exposing them to different amounts of light, et cetera - but the methods section of the paper doesn't give me any particular reason to think these happened. And they go into great detail to describe their blinding procedures, all of which seem appropriate.

But still. You got DNA to unwind by asking politely. From half a mile away. If this were in a peer-reviewed journal, I’d still be doubtful. If it were in a peer-reviewed journal and had been replicated five times by five different teams, I’d still be doubtful. If it were in a peer-reviewed journal and had been replicated ten times by ten different teams including several skeptics and had a strong theory behind it that was well-supported in other ways, I might grudgingly accept it. But we are not at that level. We’re at one experiment, once, not peer-reviewed. At this point, you do not get to conclude that:

The heart serves as a key access point through which information originating in the higher dimensional structures is coupled into the physical human system (including DNA), and that states of heart coherence generated through experiencing heartfelt positive emotions increase this coupling.”

Anyway, the question is: can we get even weirder than this?

Well, I dunno. What do the geomagnetic field, the inauguration of Barack Obama, and a random number generator have in common?

If you answered “Nothing, as far as I know,” then yes, we can get weirder.

The Global Coherence Initiative is a project measuring how large-scale events affect some kind of feedback loop between people’s emotional rhythms and the geomagnetic field. The goal is to get so many people into heart-rhythm-coherence that it creates some kind of “global coherence” and, reading between the lines, immanentizes the eschaton.

But all that’s in the future. Right now they only have 10,000 people in 56 countries, who respond to “emergencies” by bringing their heart rhythms into coherence and sending out coherence waves in the appropriate direction. According to the site:

Even as the GCI was still gearing up in startup mode, these members, plus countless others they engaged within their families and communities, responded to several GCI alerts to send coherent energy and care to critical areas of need and crisis around the planet. These efforts of coherent heart are crucial and appreciated. Alerts went for the victims of Hurricane Gustav, conflicts in the Middle East and Democratic Republic of Congo, the financial meltdown and more.

Man, imagine how screwed up the Middle East would be right now if people weren’t sending coherent energy towards it!

Clearly the Global Coherence Initiative needs to up its game. That’s why they’re asking for your donations to buy $60,000 worth of giant magnetic coils. They say it’s for world peace, but honestly, when your first name is “Doc”, and you run a shadowy organization that is studying telepathic alteration of DNA, and you want $60,000 worth of magnetic coils, I start to get really suspicious.

Anyway, even without their giant coils they are doing good work. And by good work, I mean analyzing how random number generators reacted to Barack Obama’s inauguration. Now, you or I might expect that the generators reacted randomly, but that is why we are random shmucks instead of people named “Doc” running institutes that are in the process of procuring $60,000 worth of magnetic coils. The Institute of HeartMath says the the outpouring of joy following the inauguration caused both a decrease in the variance of the random numbers produced by generators all around the world and subtle but observable fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field. They note that their partner organization, the Global Consciousness Project, says that “occasions that are meditative and celebratory are often associated with persistent low network variance,” where “networks” here tend to be things like random number generators and the geomagnetic field.

With apologies to Obama himself, that is not exactly the kind of change I can believe in.

V.

We tend to think of alternative medicine practitioners as obvious loons with websites out of 1995 where all the words are IN CAPITAL LETTERS. But sometimes, they’re people with Ph. Ds and a bunch of papers published in prestigious journals who are able to focus on the less controversial aspects of their ideas well enough to infiltrate clinics and hospital systems.

HeartMath’s website is impeccable. Their representatives gave a presentation to a hospital full of doctors – including cardiologists and neurologists – without any missteps that made them look anything less than reputable. Their Board of Scientific Advisors contains some really serious intellectual clout like Abdullah Abdulrahman Al Abdulgader, who is both literally and figuratively a big-name cardiologist as well as leading the entire medical field in number of times the word “Abdul” appears in his name. These are top-notch people.

And then you look a little deeper and you find out that their cute little relaxation exercises are actually a plot to connect to higher dimensions beyond time and space and immanentize the eschaton by messing with Earth’s magnetic field, possibly with the help of $60,000 worth of giant coils and/or Yog-Sothoth.

Remember, these people are working with hospitals, with the military, with the police, and willing to helpfully explain how to apply for grants to bring their technology into the classroom. And they are total loons.

I think heart rate variability is an important concept. And I agree that relaxation exercises derived from yoga are a good way of helping people suffering from stress and even psychiatrically diagnosable anxiety disorders. I actually tried their Quick Coherence technique and it made me feel really good.

But I don’t think giving $3699 to HeartMath to teach you about it is a good investment, and I don’t think they are the best people to be furthering the study of these ideas.

Psychotropic Base Rates: The Argument From Antibiotics

The obscure antiprotozoal drug suramin has the prettiest molecular structure I’ve ever seen. It also has some evidence as a potential treatment for autism based on a cell danger response model of the condition.

I’m not going to get too excited here, because there are a lot of things that can cure stuff in mice. Still, one has to ask – an antiprotozoal? Really?

Protozoa are primitive little parasites kind of like bacteria. The most famous is plasmodium, which causes malaria. There’s not much reason an antiprotozoal drug should cross-react with the brain, so if it does treat autism it’s probably just a coincidence.

But it’s a pretty common one. I’ve already noted how an antibiotic used to treat acne, minocycline, is a promising schizophrenia treatment. The news article on such is called “Scientists Shocked To Find Antibiotics Alleviate Symptoms Of Schizophrenia”, but maybe by this point they should start being less shocked.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two other antibiotics with a significant psychiatric role. Iproniazid, the first antidepressant ever discovered, was originally used as an anti-tuberculosis drug – and just by eyeballing the chemical structure it’s pretty easy to see the relationship to current-mainstay-of-tuberculosis-treatment isoniazid. There are records – amusing in retrospect – of doctors remarking on how unusually happy and excited patients were to finally be getting treatment for their tuberculosis. Eventually someone put two and two together. realized the drug itself was a mood-lifting agent, and the antidepressants were born.

Cycloserine is a totally different antitubercular drug that doesn’t even share a chemical structure or mode of action with iproniazid. Nevertheless, it seems to affect classical conditioning in interesting ways, which makes it of use to psychiatrists. The most exciting possibility is that it speeds up the extinction response, meaning it could theoretically help someone “unlearn” behavior. There’s a common use – which the evidence only ambiguously supports – where you use it to treat something like social anxiety disorder by having a patient take it in relatively safe social situations. When nothing bad happens (hopefully), the cycloserine speeds up the usual process of “unlearning” the social situation-fear link and the patient gets better more quickly than if they had to become comfortable with crowds the old fashioned way. There are also some proposed uses regarding cocaine and other drug addictions.

And these are just the ones with good psychiatric effects. Less positive psychiatric effects are a dime a dozen in antibacterials and antiprotozoals – for example, people on mefloquine do some pretty weird stuff.

There’s no really good reason why antibiotics should have psychiatric effects. As mentioned before, beyond the fact that we’re selecting for bioactive chemicals here, it’s probably just coincidence. But that itself is a very interesting finding. If we think of antibiotics as chemicals chosen at random – as far as psychiatry is concerned – that means that random chemicals will often change mental processes around in important ways.

This shouldn’t be surprising – the brain is full of stuff and pretty easy to chemically disrupt. But it’s worth remembering. A lot of skepticism about new drugs – or new toxicity claims – comes from low base rates: the expectation that most chemicals are not active medications. But in psychiatry, the base rates might be higher than we think.