Westworld, Prom, and Cultural Appropriation

Last Friday I read an odd opinion piece about the mostly excellent TV series Westworld. The author argued that the Shogun version of Westworld due to be introduced in season 2 was inherently racist. His reasoning, more or less, is that white people might visit and get a kick out of killing robots that looked like Japanese people.

To assert that there is a special degree of moral depravity in Westworld’s Edo-period sister park simply because the hosts there are phenotypically Asian and some of the people who might visit will surely be white is, at best, a peculiar sentiment. It suggests there is something inherently wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that looks like a Japanese person that isn’t wrong in a white person killing a sentient robot that happens to share their complexion (and vice versa). That is, killing and torturing robots that don’t look like you is somehow more unethical than killing robots that do, regardless of your motivations.

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Unintelligent Design at the Local Library

I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.

 My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.

 It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.

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Unmasking Leviathan: The Radical Right’s Attempt to Reshape American Politics

The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.



There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.

However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.

Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.

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Combating Political Religion: How Small Government, Free Market Dogma Fails to Account for Observable Reality

There is growing sense that those interested in finding out what is true of the world are becoming a rarer and rarer breed. Everywhere we look, someone is trumpeting some blatant inanity. Vaccines cause autism. Adding flouride to water is a government conspiracy. Genetically modified organism are dangerous. Organic food is particularly nutritious. Christians are a persecuted minority. The 44th President was a foreign national and communist agent. The 9/11 Terror Attacks were an inside job. The world is only 6000 years old. Humans can’t influence the climate.

Nonsense is everywhere, but the impression that it is more prevalent than ever is mostly a matter of appearances. Humans are innately tuned to focus on the negative aspects of their environment. Good reasons for this abound, easily distilled in the recognition that it is far more consequential for us to spend our time thinking about the things that could be better than it is to spend it thinking about the things that are going just fine. On the landscapes of our ancestors, where decisions about what to pay attention to were a regular matter of life and death, it was vitally important to take note when things were about to turn sour – when herds of prey were about to migrate to a new territory, when seasonal changes were about to reduce the availability of edible fruits, when an unfriendly band of visitors turned up in your neighborhood.

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Conservative Non-Profits Use Disturbing Scare Tactics to Influence Voters

This is disturbing. It was produced by a group called People United for Privacy, who are funded by the State Policy Network (SPN). The SPN is a 501(c)(3) non-profit funded by conservative billionaires and millionaires who work to keep the electorate in the dark about their political influence.

Of course, having information about who is influencing policy decisions and political campaigns is essential to the democratic process. Regardless of how much they donate. But New Mexico SB 96, which this targets, doesn’t demand disclosure unless you spend more than $1000. In 2016, only 0.52% of donors gave more than $200 dollars to a political campaign.

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On the Value of Work

Historian James Livingston has written an interesting piece for Aeon. In it, he asks “what is the value of work?” – a question given added urgency by the fact that, hanging just over the horizon, is a future where advances in AI and automation may wipe out a huge segment of job market.

The conviction that there is a clear correspondence between effort and reward probably emerged on the pre-industrial American frontiers. Out in the hinterlands, the connection between hard work and economic return is always obvious. If you’re a farmer, the amount of food you harvest follows directly from the amount of seeds you sow, the work you put into building irrigation systems, and the time you spend tending your crops. Ranchers would have had more beef to sell if they spent more time watching their herds. For a fur trapper, supplies and money varied in proportion to the number of hides he could sell back to a company at the end of the season. Gold prospectors got more money out of mining more gold.

Today, the relationships are considerably more nebulous. Those who have had a lot of luck in life are quick to point to the efforts that preceded it. No doubt, those are causally efficacious, but they are hardly comprehensively explanatory. There are plenty of people who work hard and go nowhere. Likewise, there are even a few people who become wealthy beyond any coherent sense of proportion to the value they add to society. Was the work Lloyd Blankfein did in 2015 really worth over $23 million? Are there products circulating the globe whose value has been increased by $71.5 billion dollars by the efforts of Warren Buffett? Those questions are clearly rhetorical, because the objective answer is a flat, unequivocal “no”.

To argue otherwise is to imbue markets with a sort mystic omnipotence, suggesting that the prices that emerge from economic transactions are always and everywhere reflective of their true value. Which is pure, unadulterated nonsense. There’s simply no way for economic agents to account for all the information that kind of computation would require. As a result, situations emerge where subsidiaries achieve market valuations in excess of their parent companies, or where an 86 year old man is worth $71.5 billion dollars despite never having invented a world-altering technology, discovered a lifesaving medical treatment, or even sold a piece of art. That people have profited immensely from grossly unethical – sometimes even outright criminal behavior – without ever suffering the slightest consequence suggests that the myth that human value is somehow reflected or enhanced by wages and net worth is not only misguided, but laughably deranged.

Once, decades – maybe even centuries – ago, under certain conditions at the fringes of the industrialized world, that was true. Not any longer. Some people work hard and do pretty well for themselves. Others work just as hard and accrue riches greater than the GDPs of entire nations. Some work even harder – two jobs and brutal swing shifts – and can’t save enough to retire or afford health insurance. Desperate to preserve that crusty, ramshackle American ethos of rugged individualism and the self-made man, some might interject that surely, while it is possible to succeed tremendously or fail miserably despite your best efforts, it is also true that it is impossible to succeed at all without at least putting your shoulder to the wheel in the first place. For the most part, that’s probably true – but I would remind that misty-eyed romantic that there are people alive and wealthy today because a rich man’s sperm fertilized a rich woman’s egg – generations ago.