Sunday, September 26, 2004

Love Amid the Ruins: A Modern Parable

This is my attempt to put the Bush-Kerry-Iraq thing into human terms...

Not too long after the first "rat incident", my husband came up to me with a serious look on his face. "Honey", he said, "We've got a real problem. You know that broken-up stretch of sidewalk down the street? Well, there's a gas main running underneath it."

"So?" I asked "That hasn't been a problem so far, has it?"

"No", he replied, "But I'm afraid that one of the rats will chew into it, and then create a gas leak--and you know what that will lead to. We're talking mass destruction. I want to get the Homeowners Association together right away and work out a repair plan. This is a grave threat!

"Well", I said, "In that case, you've got my support. If it's dangerous, do whatever it takes to get it fixed. But - can you be sure about the gas main?"

"Trust me", he replied. "I hear finding the gas main will be a slam dunk.

A day after that, I woke up to find two guys tearing up the sidewalk, working a backhoe and a pneumatic drill. My husband was in the living room, practising his putting. "That was fast!" I told him. "You must have really laid it on the line to the Homeowners Association."

"Well", he admitted, "I didn't actually convince them...but I figured we ought to take on the problem anyway, ourselves."

Well, hubby's never been great at sticking to a budget, and dollar signs flashed through my mind as I listened to the drilling outside. "Can we afford that?" I asked.

My husband didn't seem worried. "Honey, emergencies like this are why people invented credit", he replied. "And don't worry - I know what I'm doing. Jobs like this are in my blood!

"And who needs the Homeowners Association, anyway. You don't want the safety of our home determined by decisions made by that screwy French couple down the street, do you?"

Well no, I guess not. But a gas leak threatens everyone - shouldn't they pay their share?

Once the work started, I couldn't believe how fast that crumbly, unsafe old sidewalk came up. When the last piece of concrete was loaded into the dumpster, I took out a pitcher of lemonade to them and invited them up to the porch for a break. The Backhoe Guy was a tall thin fellow, who reminded me a bit of the guy that played the scarecrow on the Wizard of Oz. The Drill Guy looked more like the cowardly lion.

"You guys really know your stuff." I said. "Looks like the job's just about finished."

"Oh no, ma'am." said the Backhoe Guy "There's a lot more work to do. See, there's a lot of stuff under a sidewalk--what we call 'infrastructure'. Stuff like water pipes, oil pipes..."

"...sewers...", broke in the Drill Guy.

"...right, and electrical conduits---and that's all got to be working before we pour a new sidewalk and go home."

"Well, won't that be pretty easy to do, now that the old sidewalk's removed?" I asked.

"Actually," said the Backhoe Guy, "that old sidewalk, nasty as it was, was at least covering the infrastructure up, and protecting it from vermin. So we've got to be careful about how we get all the infrastructure rebuilt, and keep everything protected while we're doing that, or we could end up with a real mess."

Vermin, I thought. Since the rat incident I really don't like vermin. "What sort of vermin?" I asked.

"Rats." replied Backhoe promptly. "You end up with a messy, muddy hole, and it attracts rats. Also mice, roaches-"

"-frogs, locusts..." suggested Drill Guy.

"Well anyway", I interrupted, "How long will the rest of the job take?"

Drill and Backhoe exchanged glances. "Well ma'am," answered Backhoe after a pause, "it's hard to say, with the just the two of us. Usually you'd have a bigger crew for this. I mean, you need a plumber, electrician, civil engineer..."

"...union rep, lawyer..." interrupts Drill Guy,

" guys like us to stretch tarps, run fencing..." continues Backhoe

"...move in a porta-potty, build scaffolding ..."

"I think I get the picture." I tell them. "Tell me, does my husband know about all this? I mean, that we need a bigger crew?"

Drill and Backhoe exchange another glance, then look out, together, across the street. My husband's gotten out a tripod and camera, and is taking shots of himself climbing on the backhoe, wearing a borrowed hard hat and a T-shirt that said "Mission Accomplished!".

Another pause.

"We told him." said Drill Guy.

So, Drill Guy and Backhoe spent the next few days looking for that gas main, fixing up the 'infrastructure', and trying to keep the whole thing covered and 'secure' so it wouldn't turned into a rat-infested mud pit. A couple of neighbors even pitched in. And for a while, it seemed like things were going ok....sort of. I mean, they were working really hard, and this had to be a pretty tough job. But one thing they hadn't done was find that gas main.

Over dinner one night, my husband came out with some surprising news. "Well, honey" he said, "It looks like there isn't a gas main under that sidewalk after all".

"Uh - say again?" I asked.

"Don't feel bad - everyone makes mistakes", said one of the kids.

"Look", said my husband, "This wasn't a mistake!. There's no gas main, but I'm not the only one that thought there was. And isn't it great to have gotten rid of that dangerous old sidewalk? I mean, my Dad tripped up on that sidewalk back in the 90s. That sidewalk was trying to kill him - it tried to kill my Dad!

"Come on, Honey," he continued, "You said I had your support when I started this. Wouldn't you have still given it, knowing that there was no gas main?"

I hate hard questions: people so seldom take the time to listen to the answers. And the kids were watching, and I had a funny feeling that whatever I said, Drill Guy and Backhoe were going to hear my answer. Do I want to tell them, in so many words, they've been wasting their hard work?

"Look, I would have supported you", I said. "You're the head of the family, after all, and you needed all the ammunition you could get, to drum up support for the job with the Homeowners Association. And the sidewalk needed to go sometime. But--I would definitely not done everything the way you've done it, Dear. For starters, I sure wish you'd managed to get the Homeowners Association involved more. The last time we repaired with that sidewalk, it wasn't nearly as expensive."

After that, a few more weeks went by. It seemed like every evening and weekend was spent messing with that darn sidewalk job, and things just seemed to be getting worse, not better. There were places so dangerous, muddy, and rat-infested that no-one dared go there. The neighbors were more annoyed at us than anything, and even started to talk about the job being illegal. And then I found out that my husband had gotten a report that said that things were bleak, but hadn't told me, and also that almost no work had been done on the 'infrastructure', because of all the vermin problems.

So eventually, I got a little angry. "Look." I told me husband one day. "I've got to tell you that I'm not entirely sure that the way you're handling this sidewalk job is, well, exactly the best way that one might approach the job."

In reply, I got a glazed look. "Too much nuance and complexity in your language there, honey. Try and be more direct."

"Ok, I'll simplify." I told him. "I'll be real, real clear. What you're doing is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It's so wrong, I think 'Wrong' must be your middle name. This is the wrong job, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. It's so wrong, I think you should be off the home repair detail permanently. This job is putting us in debt, spending money we could put to better use elsewhere, and it's distracting you from that other, really important job you started and never finished." That glazed look again. "What other job?"

"Don't you remember the rat incident?" I asked. "When that big sneaky rat, the rat from the trash bin, the one that we called 'Bin Rat', got into our house sometime, knocked over your tower speakers, and caused $3000 in damage? Your important job was to catch Bin Rat!"

"Oh, that" he said. "I don't think that's so important any more. I truly am not that concerned about him.

"But if you're worried about rats - hey, we're doing great with rats! we're fighting loads of rats on the sidewalk job! and isn't it better fighting them outside than here in out living room?" "Sure", I said, "but how do you know that fighting them outside is actually keeping them away from our living room? maybe you're just attracting more rats with that muddy mess of a sidewalk job."

Another glazed look. Sometimes, a question can just be too complicated to answer.

"Ok, if you're so smart", he said, "Tell me what you'd have done differently."

"Everything." I told him.

"Ok, look" he said. "You told me I had your support when I started, right?"

"Well, yes." I agreed.

"And you even said you'd have supported this job, even if you knew there was no gas leak, right?"

"Not exactly", I said. "You're taking me out of context. I did support you then, but expected that you'd get help with the job, like you said you would. And, frankly, I didn't expect that you would screw this up so badly that-"

Yeah, yeah", he interrupted, "you're always going on about how I take you out of context. The point is, first you say yes, then you say no! that's just like a woman! how can I take your advice seriously if you're always flip-flopping like this!

"Face it", he continued, deepening his voice, and thrusting out his chest and chin, "major repairs are no place for people that can't make up their minds! Flip-flopper!"

Right, like he's never changed his mind?

"Well, if I'm a flip-flopper", I tell him, "You're a pig-headed idiot that refuses to take advice or admit he ever made a mistake!"

(And now the happy ending...)

"Don't say it like that", he replied, smiling winsomely, compassionately, and sincerely. "Actually, I'm decisive and resolute. And I make unpopular decisions."

Well, that was just too much - what's a girl to do? I took down my hair, tore open my bodice, and flung myself into his arms, my snow-white bosom heaving with passion. "Oh George", I sobbed on his shoulder, "You're right. You are so decisive and resolute! Please say you'll stay with me, and do my home repairs forever and ever! or at least another four years!"

"No problem" he replied. "In fact, I have big plans for the house too---I think we should switch to a flat roof."

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The real reason why we put the Cat out...

Oh very young
What will you leave us this time
There’ll never be a better chance to change your mind
And if you want this world to see a better day
Will you carry the words of love with you
Will you ride the great white bird into heaven
And though you want to last forever
You know you never will
(You know you never will, plank, plunk)

Yeah, sounds like a hijacking threat to me, too. Get him off the plane. Him and that Kennedy guy both.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

a few new links...

A really cool cite for election wonks, or even just those who want to see how their team is doing this week, is the Current Electoral Vote Predictor 2004.

A nice clear writeup of the war on terror (from a non-mimetic perspective of course) is here.

I clearly remember that write around the time my first son was born, I started have trouble concentrating, understanding technical material, and one other thing...oh yeah, remembering stuff. Which led to my theory of Conservation of Cognition, evidence for which is finally starting to emerge.

The First Meme War?

One of the scariest thing about terrorism is that it appears to be senseless and irrational. Why would anyone deliberately kill himself by flying into a building? Who could conceivably benefit from killing innocent schoolchildren? Why on earth would Iraqi insurgents deliberately target aid workers that are trying to rebuild their country? Irrational actions are always scary, since they're impossible to predict it and hence prevent.

I think that the 9/11 terrorist acts, and many subsequent ones, are not irrational, when put in the proper context. I think the "war on terror" can be understood as a conflict between memes. For those that haven't hear the term, "memes" are contagious ideas that, like viruses, replicate by passing from mind to mind. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins. Memes can be harmless (like a catchy tune), valuable (like a new scientific technique) or harmful (like the "smoking is cool" meme, which often kills off its host). One key to understanding memes is to view them as independent entities, not just as "ideas". Like viruses, memes can mutate, and like viruses, the memes that spread rapidly and persistently survive the best.

I believe that we are now fighting an extremely wily, dangerous and harmful meme: wily, because it has subverted the minds of its hosts so fully that it has some degree of intelligence; dangerous, because it is fighting for its life; and harmful, both to its hosts and to others. I'll call it RI, for radical Islam, but don't be confused into thinking that I'm talking about a set of countries, or individual people, or even a community of people. I'm talking about a different of creature: an more-or-less living entity that is encoded as set of ideas that propogates like a virus, and that subverts the minds and bodies of its hosts in order to spread and survive.

Let me flesh this idea out more. The first point is that memes compete---particularly memes associated with non-syncretistic religions, like Islam. This means that often memes can have a high level of penetration within an cohesive community, but a much lower level of penetration in the population at large, where they have to compete. (For example, for every guy from Malibu that joins up with the Taliban, there's also a Buddhist, a firewalker, a Wiccan, a Kabalist, an neo-animist, an atheist lawyer, and a physicist working on GUTs.) As societies open---due to economic globalization, cheaper communication and travel, etc---this threatens those memes that require an intellectually isolated community to survive. I believe that RI is such a meme---which is why it is fighting for its life. Western democracy is not (or at least, pre-9/11, was not) actively trying to stamp out RI---but the very existence of a set of strong competing religious memes constitutes a threat.

The second point is that a military confrontation is an extremely effective way to isolate two communities from each other's memes. The heros of the enemy---military or intellectual---become your enemies, and ideas of the enemy become treason. I believe that purpose of 9/11---from the point of view of the RI-meme---was to provoke the west into a military war against the Islamic world, thereby isolating itself from western memes.

Notice that from the point of view of the people in that world, this war might be economically disasterous, and from any military point of view, the war might be unwinnable. But to the RI-meme, the war is helpful, because it insulates it from competition.

So what are the implications of this?

One is that a lot of the current "war on terror" is misdirected. Better security at airports, screening containers shipped into the US, tracking black-market radioactive materials, even cleaning up and policing "failed states"---all of these make some sense as defensive measures. But offensive measures that take the fight to the enemy are not, ultimately, military measures. They need to be attacks on the RI meme, not merely on the society in which its human carriers live.

In fact, as the whole Iraq campaign has shown, conventional military attacks might actually strengthen the RI-meme. The usual military strategy is to attack the enemy's weapons and delivery vehicles, and then his economic infrastructure, making it impossible for him to rebuild. But for the RI-meme, there are no weapons, and the only "infrastructure" it needs is a population filled with hatred and dispair. In fact, economic and social chaos in may actually strengthen the RI-meme, just as weakening your body leaves it vulnerable to infectious disease.

The second implication is that we need to worry about a lot more than simply catching up with terrorists---even if we were 100% successful that would only eliminate part of the infection. We also need to think about prevention---about how to innoculate a population against the RI-meme. I'm not sure how to do this most effectively---for starters, I'd need to understand it a lot better. I'd guess the first thing to do is strengthen the memes most likely to displace it, which are probably more moderate versions of Islam.

Finally, if the RI-meme's purpose is to isolate itself from the west, we need to do what we can to defeat that purpose. We need to do whatever we can to cut through the membrane between "us" and "them". that started forming on 9/11. And we need to do it safely---without subjecting ourselves to additional danger from terrorist attacks, and without inviting PR fiascos that lead to more hatred against the west, and without unnecessary conflicts that lead to further isolation.