October 15th, 2010


Thiel exposes our decade-plus First World growth slowdown

Numerous emperors, no clothes.

Very rich content in the current WSJ profile of Peter Thiel:
Our technocratic elite told us to expect an ever-wealthier future, and science hasn't delivered. Except for computers and the Internet, the idea that we're experiencing rapid technological progress is a myth.

"People don't want to believe that technology is broken. . . . Pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—all these areas where the progress has been a lot more limited than people think. And the question is why."

Mr. Thiel delivers his views with an extraordinary, almost physical effort to put his thoughts in order and phrase them pithily. Somewhere in his 42 years, he obviously discovered the improbability of getting a bold, unusual argument translated successfully into popular journalism.

"All sorts of things are possible in a world where you have massive progress in technology and related gains in productivity," he says. "In a world where wealth is growing, you can get away with printing money. Doubling the debt over the next 20 years is not a problem."

And President Obama? "I'm not sure I'd describe him as a socialist. I might even say he has a naive and touching faith in capitalism. He believes you can impose all sorts of burdens on the system and it will still work."

The system is telling him otherwise. Mankind, says Mr. Thiel, has no inalienable right to the progress that has characterized the last 200 years. Today's heightened political acrimony is but a foretaste of the "grim Malthusian" politics ahead, with politicians increasingly trying to redistribute the fruits of a stagnant economy, loosing even more forces of stagnation.

Question: How can anyone know science and technology are under-performing compared to potential? It's hard, he admits. Those who know—"university professors, the entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists"—are "biased" in favor of the idea that rapid progress is happening, he says, because they're raising money. "The other 98%"—he means you and me, who in this age of specialization treat science and technology as akin to magic—"don't know anything."

But look, he says, at the future we once portrayed for ourselves in "The Jetsons." We don't have flying cars. Space exploration is stalled. There are no undersea cities. Household robots do not cater to our needs. Nuclear power "we should be building like crazy," he says, but we're sitting on our hands. Or look at today's science fiction compared to the optimistic vision of the original "Star Trek": Contemporary science fiction has become uniformly "dystopian," he says. "It's about technology that doesn't work or that is bad."

The great exception is information technology, whose rapid advance is no fluke: "So far computers and the Internet have been the one sector immune from excessive regulation."

A "higher education bubble":

"University administrators are the equivalent of subprime mortgage brokers," he says, "selling you a story that you should go into debt massively, that it's not a consumption decision, it's an investment decision. Actually, no, it's a bad consumption decision. Most colleges are four-year parties."

"If the universities are dominated by politicians instead of scientists, if there are ways the government is too inefficient to work, and we're just throwing good money after bad, you end up with a nearly revolutionary situation. That's why the idea that technology is broken is taboo. Really taboo. You probably have to get rid of the welfare state. You have to throw out Keynesian economics. All these things would not work in a world where technology is broken," he says.

Perhaps it really does fall to some dystopian science fiction writer to tell us what such a world will be like—when nations are unraveling even as a cyber-nation called "Facebook" is becoming the most populous on the planet.
Most of these dangerous ideas, and way more, were prereleased as his supercalifragilistic December TEDx talk -- entitled "All We Need is a Singularity." If you haven't looked at it, you're crazy not to!

PThiel re: FBook

[...]believes the right company "won" the social media wars: Its great rival, MySpace, founded in Los Angeles, "is about being someone fake on the Internet; everyone could be a movie star," he says. He considers it "very healthy," he adds, "that the real people have won out over the fake people."
Technology=Salvation, A+++ headline!

Explaining mindfulness meditation as Less Wrong

Vipassana aims to break the habit of blindly making affective judgments about mental states, and reverse the damage done by doing so in the past. This habit may be at the root of many problems described on LessWrong, and is likely involved in other mental issues.

Four [simultaneous] aspects to the process:

1. Slowing the flood of affective judgments so one can distinctly observe them.
2. Learning to not compulsively make affective judgments.
3. Smoothing one's previously formed emotional gradients.
4. No longer forming strong emotional gradients.

Luxurious forager instincts

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, but Robin Hanson is right way more than that because he's an overclocked wild spinner. He laps the truth at least twice an hour.

On foraging vs farming lifeways, I think he's on to more than he realizes:
This transition [ from foraging to farming (= digging + herding) ] meant huge changes in attitudes and behaviors, supported by modest still-slowly-continuing genetic changes and huge cultural changes. I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

The Weather Duo

This chamber music (a cello and an upright bass) is simply wonderful to write to, read to, think to, focus on for its own sake. I heard them live this month in a sparse small space, and wow.

Tension: signaling your attractive health vs political sanity

High openness-to-experience liberals are more physiologically confident.

At least for 46 adult participants with strong political beliefs (would love to see that screening process!, like an opposite of jury selection??), a team of EIGHT psychologists (what a ratio for a primary study!) famously found in 2008:
Views may have a biological basis. Individuals with measurably lower physical sensitivities to sudden noises and threatening visual images (LOLWTF can you imagine the testing room?) were more likely to support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control. The degree to which individuals are physiologically responsive to threat appears to indicate the degree to which they advocate policies that protect the existing social structure from both external (outgroup) and internal (norm-violator) threats. - cite
Reactionaries, paleolibertarians and even mainstream conservatives take social hits in part because our views signal physical weaknesses -- oversensitivities. I know I am insanely sensitive to noises -- both sudden and continuing -- compared to roughly anyone else, and to what feels like danger, so this all especially rings true for me despite the total lameness of the actual study.

Sympathy + resources create "the Laffer curve of redistribution where if you suffer a bizarre..."

Sympathy is for the historically disadvantaged, the poor, and people aligned with such groups.

On the other hand, when everyone is a victim, by definition you can't give yourselves a boatload of money, because it has to come from somewhere else.

Currently, the homeowners are changing the mortgage contract ex post because lawyers and politicians find them useful muckraking props for their power and profit grabs. Prior default curves for mortgage cohorts are now totally irrelevant because there is now little stigma for defaulting on a mortgage--rather the opposite--and you get to live rent free for a longer time if you stop paying.
- Falkenstein

"politics of fear"

Why do we accept our own personal fears and hates, even as we suggest that others’ fears and hates are bad signs about them?

Relative to low status folks, high status folks have less occasion to fear or hate. Complaining that your opponents have a “politics of fear” or hate is really just complaining about their low status [ :) ]

in which everyone else leaves the cities to the biggest liberals

Oh, wow, just realized this works toward a real explanation of why folks who live in walkable big cities (like SF, NYC) are so liberal.

Walking a big city is wildly noisy. It presents streams of "threatening visual images."

I learned this week that even a very confident, multitasking, neurotypical-in-good-ways ;) friend had quit a job in the core city in large part because she didn't like how she felt the buildup of high-alert commute walks changing her.

More sensitive people (like me) feel the most pressured to leave. If we are also less liberal, the city gets left as an evaporatively cooling group, viz.:
In the classic "When Prophecy Fails", one of the cult members walked out the door immediately after the flying saucer failed to land. Who gets fed up and leaves first? An average cult member? Or a relatively more skeptical member, who previously might have been acting as a voice of moderation, a brake on the more fanatic members?

After the members with the highest kinetic energy escape, the remaining discussions will be between the extreme fanatics on one end and the slightly less extreme fanatics on the other end, with the group consensus somewhere in the "middle".