Month: September 2013

Why I believe in technocracy

Roman Senate

“The good old days,” where democracy is concerned.

I am down on democracy. Partly it’s do do with all this debt ceiling/government shutdown nonsense. I do, however, have more longstanding gripes with the democratic process. Once upon a time, when I was young and naive, I believed the world’s problems could be solved if only we, as a species, could come up with enough good ideas. If there were enough good ideas, and experts presented them in a convincing enough fashion, we could solve the pressing problems of our age.

The problem is people aren’t so much interested in developing well-reasoned solutions to serious problems. They prefer to push their own short-sighted agendas, even if that flies in the face of empirical evidence.

People don’t want to approach an issue rationally if it means re-examining their preconceptions. Nothing underlines that fact more boldly than this study, “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government.” From the abstract:

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy — a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information — did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized — and even less accurate — when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoetical and practical significance of these findings.

Again: “more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

More and more I believe in technocracy. If individuals are incapable of objective reasoning, why not simply leave governance to the experts? Italy’s technocratic government, headed by Mario Monti, did a rather impressive job of managing the country’s finances in the depths of the Eurozone debt crisis (the mob has since ousted him, opening the door for clown Berlusconi’s return to Italian politics).

I will admit that technocratic governance provides fertile ground for abuses of power. Ultimately, however, which is it better for society as a whole? A “legitimate” democratic government that must pander to the mob, or a technocratic government made up of capable experts?

Is the world now too complex a place to leave in the hands of Joe the Plumber?

I rather think it is.

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In Russia, novel read you

Day of the Oprichnik cover

Day of the Oprichnik

Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik is Ivan the Terrible meets A Clockwork Orange. It’s a day in the life of a secret policeman in a futuristic Russia. The Tsardom of Russia is back in full force. Andrei Danilovich Komiaga drives a red Mercedes adorned with a severed dog’s head (servants pick a new one each day). His ringtone features the sounds a man being tortured to death. His workday consists mostly of extortion and murder, with the occasional odd gang rape for good measure. And when he’s not burning, raping and pillaging Komiaga spends most of his free time on drugs.

This novel has its roots in Ivan the Terrible’s oprichnina. From Wikipedia:

The oprichnina consisted of a separate territory within the borders of Russia, mostly in the territory of the former Novgorod Republic in the north. This region included many of the financial centers of the state, including the salt region of Staraia Russa and prominent merchant towns. Ivan held exclusive power over the oprichnina territory. The Boyar Council ruled the zemshchina (‘land’), the second division of the state. Until 1568, the oprichnina relied upon many administrative institutions under zemshchina jurisdiction. Only when conflict between the zemshchina and oprichnina reached its peak did Ivan create independent institutions within the oprichnina.

As for methods:

The first wave of persecutions targeted primarily the princely clans of Russia, notably the influential families of Suzdal’. Ivan executed, exiled, or tortured prominent members of the boyar clans on questionable accusations of conspiracy. 1566 saw the oprichnina extended to eight central districts. Of the 12,000 nobles there, 570 became oprichniks, the rest were expelled. They had to make their way to the zemschina in mid winter, peasants who helped them were executed.

Sorokin’s Russia has also turned inward. The king (His Majesty, Komiaga exclaims breathlessly)  is obsessed with orthodox religion. He’s outlawed cursing. Blasphemy is punishable by death (And thank God, Komiaga would add). In fact there are two forms of religion in Day of the Oprichnik: traditional Russian Orthodox religion and a religion of absolute loyalty to the state.

The novel clearly links Ivan the Terrible’s Russia to contemporary, Putin-led Russia. It’s a vicious satire of crony capitalism, religious fanaticism and obscene nationalism. Day of the Oprichnik is not a particularly pleasant read . It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. Fortunately it’s quick and punchy. Sorokin hardly wastes a word.

Worth a look if you’ve got a strong stomach.

The cardinal sin of overwriting

I hate overwriting. Where writing and plotting are concerned it is a cardinal sin.

The dictionary definition of overwriting is as follows:

Transitive Verb

“to write too much or in an overly elaborate style.”

Overwriting manifests itself when a writer takes a simple thing and makes it massively complicated for no goddamn reason other than to stroke her own ego. Creative people fall into this trap because we’re tremendously insecure and desperately want others to perceive us as clever. But the truth is when we overwrite we don’t come off as clever. All we do is strain our audiences’ willingness to suspend disbelief – frequently to the breaking point.

Take, for example, The Awakening. In it a skeptical young woman investigates reports of a haunting at a creepy boarding school.

Initially this struck me as a fine film. Damn creepy, too (what with a faceless child ghost and all). But in the third act it runs right off the rails, crashing and burning and scattering body parts all over the place. The reason is a plot twist.

Apparently the protagonist grew up in the house that was later turned into the boarding school. She has traumatic childhood grief related to the place. In fact, she witnessed a double murder there and the faceless ghost is actually her dead brother, who it turns out wanted some company (!)

See what I mean? You get to the third act and WHA-BAM!, the twist hits you like a kabob-smack to the face. All the tension that’s built throughout the film evaporates. Suddenly the script dumps a bunch of backstory on you to make sense of it all, and the last thing you’re thinking about is the faceless ghost.

What, pray tell, is so wrong with a skeptic going to investigate a haunted house because it’s fucking haunted? Why does every goddamn detail need to be interconnected? Why can’t we just flash back to a scene of the murder because the ghost voodoos our protag with some spiritual Jedi mind shit, like Mola Ram does to Indiana Jones in Temple of Doom?

Mola Ram

Mola Ram doing some crazy shit.

I don’t need a convoluted reason for a character to have strange visions in a haunted house. People see weird shit in haunted houses because they’re fucking haunted.

That’s all the explanation you need. It’s an intuitive leap the audience is more than capable of making it on its own.

Paranormal Activity 3 = unmitigated lameness

paranormal activity 3 screencap

The face of unmitigated lameness.

On one hand I give the Paranormal Activity franchise a lot of credit. It’s made oodles of money with the simplest of gimmicks. Perhaps even more impressively, it’s proven people will pay good money to watch a movie where nothing much actually happens.

I had the misfortune of watching Paranormal Activity 3 the other night. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure I should qualify that. I watched part of Paranormal Activity 3 the other day

I gave up at about the half hour mark. Mostly because nothing much had happened, unless you can count a spring-loaded wife as a plot point. Granted there were some bits about a kid talking to her “imaginary” friend, and at one point some dust did fall on something that could possibly be construed as a ghostly shape. But at the end of the day it takes more than a couple scare chords and an ambiguous video artifact to offset a half hour of unmitigated lameness.

Is it fair to bash a movie I gave up on a third of the way through?

Absolutely.

A horror movie can be many things. Boring is not one of them. In order to be boring a horror movie must fail on a fundamental level. Other examples of things that were fundamentally flawed:

Fortunately, watching Paranormal Activity 3 does not directly threaten one’s financial security or personal well-being. It’s just not very much fun. In fact, about the only fun I had during Paranormal Activity 3 was trying to convince my girlfriend we could make a better sex tape than the couple in the movie (she didn’t go for it). Also realizing director Ariel Schulman is the brother of that guy from Catfish.