Course 17, The Arrival

When I went to Course 17 — political science — I was young. I was idealistic. Let’s be honest — I was naive. Course 17 beat that out of me. It was painful in the short-term, but perhaps healthful in the long-term? We’ll have to see, but I went to Course 17 to receive an education in politics, and I did, so to that extent, Course 17 delivered. Let me state right off though that I survived, but some didn’t, which I will describe. It’s a dangerous game, but it didn’t seem so at the time.

However, Course 17 is set within an engineering school — possibly the most famous engineering school in the world, so let’s not be coy, MIT — so I went thinking it was possible to blend engineering and political science. It turns out that, in my experience anyways, that is not possible. In Course 17, it was not enough to be merely correct, one needed to be politically correct. The problem is, the requirements of political correctness are not advertised. They are not made available for scrutiny because they would not pass scrutiny. Instead, those who are in the know have inculcated the rules, and the club — as I came to understand years later — is socialism.

I went to Course 17 as a kind of experiment. I didn’t want to be an “in your face” conservative, but I didn’t want to back down in the face of socialism either. I figured that sticking to engineering-based arguments in an engineering school would provide safety and prove a winning strategy. I figured the conservatives who had tried academia and failed were insufficiently brave, or committed, or smart. Perhaps I was being arrogant, but I was going to put my money where my mouth was. I was going to give it a go. Part of the experiment would be to find out if I did get into trouble, what form would it take? How would I find out? How would the threat become manifest? And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t sweat getting kicked out too much because I’m a good computer scientist, so I trusted in my ability to land on my feet because I had a backup plan.

So why am I writing this? Because I want to take you behind the doors of a socialist incubator, right here on American soil. People don’t believe socialism exists. And if they do, then they think it is slightly nutty, academic, and benign. I used to believe that too, but I don’t believe it any longer. Socialism threatens America, and an unblinking analysis of it is uncomfortable. Confronting it requires intelligence, bravery, and confrontation, which doesn’t blend naturally with most Americans’ love of leisure, wealth, and peace.

With that preamble, I came to Course 17 with an engineering background from Kansas Polytechnique, or Kansas Poly in Manhattan, KS, where I was taught by an alumnus, Professor Thayer, from real-MIT, electrical engineering / computer science (EE/CS), or Course 6. So at first I was ecstatic at the thought of going to Course 17, and initially it turned out super well. I signed up for four courses, and in three of them I earned As. The fourth one didn’t go as well, a course that went by the deceptively simple name, “Rationality,” which was taught by an academic superstar and supposedly the brightest person in the department, Professor Kilo. Coming from an engineering background, I thought it would be important to understand how Course 17 thought about cognition, and having studied artificial intelligence (AI), I thought I had the correct background. But the course was odd because it didn’t square with what I knew about the world.

Let’s me be a bit more specific here. I had been working as a computer programmer in Lawrence, KS after getting a master’s degree in computer science. My thesis was based on 10,000 lines of pretty complex code, and the way I worked with it may not be familiar to non-programmers, so let me describe that. When programs are fairly small, they are predictable. So when you change something, you pretty much know what the change will do and can predict what the results will be. At some point though, the code hit a level of complexity where I could no longer predict what was going to happen. I had ideas. I had theories, but I needed to create code just to test my code. And when I ran these tests, I needed to be prepared for the test not to work and to go back to a known configuration that I know did work. And this is with code in which I am the world’s foremost expert because it’s my code! Nothing is more painful than spending a lot of time on the code, realizing that it’s a fruitless path, and then trying to undo what you’ve been doing.

Kilo’s Rationality class had almost the exact opposite flavor. People were talking about very complex political-economic systems, and they were proposing radical changes to them confident that they would know what would happen. Note that I’m using the word “radical” fairly precisely and not pejoratively but in the sense of, “very different from the usual or traditional favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions,” which is what he was doing.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there was another quality to the Kilo’s class. Everything was so abstract, idealized, and simple, so then people did this really fanciful math based on these heroic assumptions that made the math easier, but to me it felt that the reality and vitality had all been squeezed out. There was no connection to the real world, and it was never discussed. I wasn’t afraid of the math, but I at least thought that it should be connect to and describe the real world. I had left AI for that reason — creating interesting programs about idealized and simple, artificial worlds, and that’s one of the reasons I came to Course 17, through a passion for applied problems.

So I’m sitting there in Rationality class, listening to Kilo, and I’m thinking, “This can’t be right. How can this guy assume he knows what will happen when making these radical changes to system more complex than my code, which I didn’t know what was going to happen to my code and it was a much simpler system and I was the world’s foremost expert.” Moreover, there’s a whole sub-field of computer science called computational theory, and the takeaway is that there are all sorts of questions that are seemingly simple but cannot be answered definitively! One of the reasons they teach that to students is to help them not waste time on unsolvable problems. .

Those who have spent serious time in academia are probably getting a queasy feeling and thinking, “You didn’t go there? You didn’t express these thoughts to Kilo did you?” If fools go where angels fear to tread, then yes, I went there. I did so with such lack of guile, and such trust that looking back, it’s kind of inconceivable. I thought Kilo had thought through these issues and that we would have a nice discussion and that I would learn something. What actually happened was different — very different.

 

 

 

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Romans 15:5-6

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I feel so sorry for young people today because the politically ambitious have sold out their futures for socialist ideology, personal profit, and political power. They trust, go into debt for college, and then end up in a very difficult position. The words “endurance” and “encouragement” are especially appropriate during these difficult times. So too is the advice that we should follow Christ’s example in dealing with one another, and mining and destroying future generations does not follow His example. I increasingly feel like Moses, “Let my people go!”

Algonkian Writers

A few decades ago, I wanted to become a writer. My heroes at the time were writers: Tom Wolfe, George Will, Charles Krauthammer were my favorite intellectual writers, and I had an appetite for spy fiction that included Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, John Le Carré, and Trevanian. I took a creative writing class at NYU, and it was held in a small room with people sitting in the hallway, and I thought to myself, “Can’t they even figure out how to schedule the proper classroom?”

Of course they had as people started dropping out in huge clumps once the work started, and the work consisted of merely of writing and reading your writing in class. I remember well how nervous I was when I read my first writing aloud. People dropped out, and I persisted, and after a while it became apparent that a girl and I were among the best writers in the class. She wrote dark, brooding, Eastern European types of pieces, while I wrote lighter pop pieces in the manner of Tom Wolfe, if not his masterful style.

I went to grad school and eventually learned to write academic prose, but the dream of being a writer — or even better, an author — faded with jobs, mortgages, family, and non-fiction publications. However, my wife reminded me of my earlier ambition, and I have some ideas, so it’s worth going down that path again. I’ve identified the Algonkian Writer’s Conference as a good source of writing instruction as it’s not too academic — been there, done that — and seems to be well informed, practical, and economical. Caius Lowell will continue to be the venue for my opinion writing, but here will be my fiction laboratory in which I experiment a type out my lessons. Will let you know how it goes.

Replacing Marxism with Complexity

I just learned that May 5, 2018 was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday, so happy birthday Karl! But I would be remiss to point out that this is a bittersweet occasion given the history of Marxism and the great fiasco of the Soviet Union as well as many, many other lesser fiascos.

I might point out, on a personal note, that the title of this blog, “Course 17”, which is what they call political science at MIT, is in part due to Karl, if I may call him Karl. You see, there was a professor there, let’s call him Prof. Kilo, which is appropriate since it implies the metric system, the implied ascendancy of science, and the rejection of regressive tradition and backward religion — by force if necessary — which frequently it proved to be.  I my case, I wrote a paper against socialism in an MIT class called “Rationality”. Being a computer scientist — what they call “Course 6” at MIT — I noted that computational theory shows there are all sorts of interesting limits that pop up quite quickly when it comes to the predictability of computers with perhaps the most famous being the halting problem, which states you can’t tell it a computer program is going to halt or stop unless you actually run the program. When it comes to actual day-to-day programming, this theory manifests itself through the need to save backups before making and testing even small changes because frequently what I thought was going to work didn’t, and I needed to get back to what I knew did work. This is counter-intuitive to non-programmers because I knew more about that code than anybody in the world because I wrote it, but the code had become sufficiently complex that my mind couldn’t predict what it would do. I had theories, sure, but they needed to be tested and were frequently found… wanting.

When it comes to Marxist political theorists though, they regularly assume they know how political systems far more complex than mere computer code work. Moreover, Marxists advocate — based on their super-powerful brains and deep understanding — making gigantic, radical changes to political systems based on their predictions about how they’ll turn out. My paper said, basically, that if I had trouble predicting small changes in my computer code that I created and understood better than anybody else in the world, then how could Marxists predict the outcome of gigantic, radical changes of systems understood far less well? Basically this was Hayek’s Nobel-winning thesis but with a computer theory overlay, which seemed like a reasonable paper for MIT.

The reaction was not what you would expect as a Course 6 person but exactly as you might imagine as a Course 17 person — that is, spectacularly negative! I received an F on the paper. Not much I could say about that, so I went away and reviewed my logic, which still made sense to me, and then thought about how to present my arguments better. I went back to Kilo and started to express what I was trying to do when he interrupted me and shouted, “Your paper means nothing! Nothing!” Strangely, I felt better because I realized that there was something there, but Kilo just couldn’t handle it because why else would he be so emotional? I still had an F on my record, but that was only a minor problem.

Later on I read Herman Finer’s Road to Reaction, which criticized Hayek similarly — that is, emotionally. What’s revealing is that this book by Finer, a Harvard professor and Fabian socialist or Marxist, is absolutely horrible, but it was published and apparently accepted as reasonable by his socialist and Marxist colleagues. Hayek was given an update by Herb Simon, who also a Nobel and created bounded rationality, which hearkens back to the Course 17 class that Kilo gave me an F in, Rationality.

The point here is not to rehash who said what long ago but to realize there’s an important and unresolved research puzzle here that has incredibly large, super significant policy consequences. Why do Marxists claim to follow science and logic yet come unglued when confronted with complex arguments they can’t understand or answer? What is the enduring appeal of Marxism, and why does it persist despite its obvious and oh-so-well documented failures? This isn’t just an academic endeavor but is vital for the future of humanity, and the way forward seems to be through a better understanding of complexity generally and complex social science specifically and, more importantly, how it is different from and better than Marxism. No less an intellect than Stephen Hawking said that the 21st century will be one of complexity, and who are we to let Steve — if I may call him Steve — down?

Lawrence of Arabia

This weekend I watched Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, and there are three things about it you should know. First, the movie was made in 1962 and is almost four hours long, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen a movie that long.

Second, there’s a colonialism aspect to it that’s from another era. T.E. Lawrence was a mid-ranking British officer who excelled in the Arabian field. This provides a certain amount of hope for people who may find tradition and structure stifling. However, I learned that the British has more of an influence on creating Saudi Arabia then  I knew before. I learned where Aqaba is (in Jordan), and I learned where Medina and Yanbu are too.

Third, as we consider the mindset of Lawrence, there was doubtless a certain restlessness that travel offset. However a recent essay I read, “Travel is No Cure For the Mind,” states that when people travel, they bring their problems with them. Lawrence’s success may have been that travel was good for his mind, but the relief was only temporary. Eventually his demons caught up with him and he went back to England where he died in a motorcycle accident. Whether that accident was due to another bout of restlessness or bad luck, I do not know.

Finally, there is a raft of interesting trivia surrounding the movie, such as the Peter O’Toole was often drunk, he fell off a camel and almost got run over by a herd of horses but the camel stood over him to protect him, Peter called Omar Sharif “Freddy,” and the King of Jordan married one of the production crew. Who knew? I might have to watch “The Stuntman” again, one of my favorite O’Toole movies.

 

Tocqueville on America

In writing about America, one of the first questions that needs to be addressed is, “What is America?” Now there are a lot of ways to answer this question, and I would argue that a lot of them aren’t very good or accurate because they’re driven by marketing and self-interest masked by virtue signaling. However Tocqueville’s Democracy in America continues to shine a light on not only America but America’s place in the global system:

There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which
seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different
points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have
grown up unnoticed; and whilst the attention of mankind was directed
elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed a most prominent place amongst the
nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at
almost the same time.

All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and
only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are
still in the act of growth; *r all the others are stopped, or continue
to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and
with celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term.
The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose
him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the
wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its
weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by
the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American
relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free
scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens;
the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the
principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.
Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same;
yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway
the destinies of half the globe.

Seems odd to review this observation over a century and a half later, but recent events have placed America and Russia into the worlds spotlight yet again. Underlying this dynamic must be a set of relationships that are essentially fundamental, which I argue is the continuum between quality and quantity, which as they say, has a quality all its own.

What Foreign Spies do in the US

Those “in-the-know” say that there’s never been a better time to be a spy, but the question remains, what do they do? It was with this question in mind that I was especially intrigued by this headline:
Chinese Spies Engaged in Massive Theft of U.S. Technology
The Chinese communists are stealing American technology, which when you think about it, is a well-incentivized deal. That is, developing technology is super expensive seeing how you have to pay engineers to sit around to do it, so it’s valuable. And when it gets stolen, the average person on the street doesn’t really care. This is the reality of it: the spy game isn’t like James Bond — spies are not engaging in car chases, hanging out with models, or killing bad guys: they’re stealing stuff.

The Chinese also engage in “soft power” through the Confucius Institute or (CI). This is not to be confused with the Intelligence Community (IC) or Counter Intelligence (CI), which Obama weakened to make it even easier for the Chinese to steal American technology. Also, note the marketing aspects of the name “Confucius” which helps take the communist edge off of today’s Chinese reality. In fact, Confucius was a bourgeois enemy of the people during the Cultural Revolution, but Confucius tested better with American audiences than Mao or Deng Xiaoping, so Confucius it was.

And you know, if there’s good stuff worth stealing, then other countries will get in on it too. The Russians had a great consulate in San Francisco, right down the street from Silicon  Valley, that was useful for stealing all sorts of stuff — until PDJT closed it down that is. More later!