A cure for alienation

http://www.sci-news.com/othersciences/anthropology/new-strand-european-hunter-gatherer-ancestry-03440.html

I would estimate that anywhere from one-third to one-half of modern jobs are mostly or entirely pointless. This is obviously a problem for the people doing those jobs, who must be aware on some level that the net effect of their labors is, in terms of the welfare of humanity, a big zero (if not negative). But no discussion of this Treadmill of Pointlessness would be complete without considering the exact opposite: namely, the hunter-gather lifestyle.

Animistic thinkers are at home in the world. Children and hunter-gatherers are not necessarily happy, of course – but they have a relationship with the world: they are not alienated. Animists are watched over, controlled, protected, and also punished, by the sentient powers that constitute the world. […]

By contrast, since the invention of farming, modern life has become a state of siege, a small gang of family and allies against a mass of hostile strangers, an island of order surrounded by overwhelming forces of chaos – planning is essential, yet most plans will fail. The world is not an unconditionally nurturing parent but must be coerced into producing the necessities of life, survival is a hard bargain, failure an ever present threat. For the farmer, the natural world is neither unchangeable nor ‘giving’ – it is raw material for the production of food and other necessities and luxuries. Production entails prolonged, dull, repetitive tasks to force nature into new and different shapes.

Alienation is hardly new. The problem isn’t the Information Age. It isn’t even the Industrial Revolution. It’s agriculture. The invention of farming and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

In all seriousness, the cure for modern alienation may be some sort of a return to a primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Is there a way to do this without also returning to Paleolithic population levels and standards of health care? Perhaps when all the “jobs” are automated out of existence, human society will naturally revert to its pre-modern, tribal shape, but with better technology; call it the Paleolithic 2.0.

We will live as our ancestors did, squatting around fires in animal skins, while our crops are harvested by robots and our iPhones are made in huge, unmanned subterranean factories.

Pointless jobs

A savage deconstruction of the treadmill of pointlessness that constitutes “work” for a large percentage of people:

Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.

Some would argue that lots of media, entertainment, academic and government jobs could be added to that list. Uncharitably, one might even throw in the entire advertising, marketing and PR industries.

What if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are actually aware of it? Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one believes does not need to be performed, is simply a waste of time or resources, or even makes the world worse? […]

What is a bullshit job?

The defining feature is this: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince themselves there’s a good reason for them to be doing it. They may not be able to admit this to their co-workers – often, there are very good reasons not to do so – but they are convinced the job is pointless nonetheless.

Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless; typically, there has to be some degree of pretence and fraud involved as well. The employee must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason their job exists, even if, privately, they find such claims ridiculous.

The element of pretense and fraud is a key point. The habitual dishonesty required to maintain the illusion that a pointless job actually serves a purpose may be the most psychologically destructive aspect of the Treadmill of Pointlessness.

An earlier piece by the same author is even more incisive:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would have advanced sufficiently by century’s end that countries like Great Britain or the United States would achieve a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it. […]

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

Exactly. But how do we rein in the “administrative sector” without destroying the modern economy and throwing many tens of millions of people out of work?

Odds of the Apocalypse: 37%

Only somewhat more likely than your house getting flooded

A hydrologist walks us through the cold mathematics of revolution and chaos:

While we don’t have any good sources of data on how often zombies take over the world, we definitely have good sources of data on when the group of people on the piece of dirt we currently call the USA attempt to overthrow the ruling government. It’s happened twice since colonization. The first one, the American Revolution, succeeded. The second one, the Civil War, failed. But they are both qualifying events. Now we can do math. […]

Stepping through this, the average year for colony establishment is 1678, which is 340 years ago. Two qualifying events in 340 years is a 0.5882% annual chance of nationwide violent revolution against the ruling government. Do the same math as we did above with the floodplains, in precisely the same way, and we see a 37% chance that any American of average life expectancy will experience at least one nationwide violent revolution.

This is a bigger chance than your floodplain-bound home flooding during your mortgage. [I.e. 26%]

It’s noticeably bigger.

And here’s a factoid that should give you pause for thought:

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, there have been 465 sovereign nations which no longer exist, and that doesn’t even count colonies, secessionist states, or annexed countries. Even if we presume that half of these nation-state transitions were peaceful, which is probably a vast over-estimation, that’s still an average of one violent state transition every 2.43 years.

Maybe the Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood celebrities and politicians who are secretly building apocalypse bunkers have rational reasons for doing so and are not completely nuts.

He’s not buying it

The former head of the British navy is less than impressed by the evidence that has so far been produced for Assad’s complicity in the gas attack near Damascus. No doubt he will be dismissed by many as an “appeaser” comparable to Neville Chamberlain:

Retired senior Naval Officer Lord Alan West has questioned whether the chemical attack in Syria was the work of President Assad’s troops.

“We need unequivocal proof that this attack was done by Assad’s forces – I’m not at all convinced at the moment,” he told Julia Hartley-Brewer.

“All of the reports are coming from people like the White Helmets, who have a history of doing propaganda for the opposition forces in Syria. The WHO reports are coming from doctors who are also part of the opposition.

“If I’d been advising the opposition, I’d have said ‘get a barrel of chlorine, at some stage there will be bombs dropped on you – blow it up and we can blame them, because what we really want is the allies coming in’.”

Lord West added that if proof is provided: “we do need to be part of a coalition,” but that we should wait for evidence.

The widening vortex

That Richelieu feeling

In light of the swirling chaos in the Middle East, which will most likely be intensified by today’s strange “punitive” bombing of Syria, it’s instructive to consider how another great religious and ethnic conflict played out in Europe:

The Thirty Years’ War started in May 1618 when the Protestant Estates of Bohemia revolted against the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand II. They threw his envoys out of the windows of the palace at Prague. Fortunately for them, the moat into which they fell was filled with rubbish and nobody was killed.

Had the revolt remained local, it would have been suppressed fairly quickly. As, in fact, it was in 1620 when the Habsburgs and their allies won the Battle of the White Mountain. Instead it expanded and expanded. […]

The similarities with the current war in Syria are obvious and chilling. This war, too, started with a revolt against an oppressive ruler and his regime. One who, however nasty he might be, at any rate had kept things more or less under control. […]

With so many interests, native and foreign, involved, a way out does not seem in sight. Nor can the outcome be foreseen any more than that of the Thirty Years’ War could be four years after the beginning of the conflict, i.e. 1622. In fact there is good reason to believe that the hostilities have just begun. Additional players such as Lebanon and Jordan may well be drawn in. That in turn will almost certainly bring in Israel as well. […]

As of the present, the greatest losers are going to be Syria and Iraq. Neither really exists any longer as organized entities, and neither seems to have a future as such an entity. The greatest winner is going to be Iran. Playing the role once reserved for Richelieu, the great 17th century French statesman, the Mullahs are watching the entire vast area from the Persian Gulf to Latakia on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean turn into a maelstrom of conflicting interests they can play with. Nor are they at all sorry to see Turks and Kurds kill each other to their hearts’ contents.

It’s mildly reassuring that US Defense Secretary Mattis is calling this missile strike a “one-time shot” (for now), but I don’t think anybody believes that we’ve seen the end of US military involvement in Syria. To the contrary, it has probably only just begun — and nobody knows when or how it will end, and at what cost.

Money talks, pageviews walk

A nice lesson about the advantages of quality vs. clickbait in journalism:

So far, Mike Rosenberg, a real estate reporter, is seeing that his in-depth and time-consuming work often drives more subscriptions than the work that took an hour but went viral, he said.

Last year, Rosenberg spent a lot of time on a story about how Amazon made Seattle the country’s biggest company town. It ran on the front page on Sunday and influenced 140 subscriptions, more than anything else he’s covered in his two years at the Times.

He also wrote a quick story last year about tiny apartments. It was the most-read story on the day it was published and got about 100,000 pageviews. It influenced about seven people to subscribe.

“The consensus is we’d rather have a story that had a smaller number of good readers who wind up subscribing than a viral story that a bunch of people in New York and Chicago read but will never come back to Seattle again.”

This isn’t really surprising when you think about it. There is, in general, a proportional relationship between the time/sweat that goes into a project, and the size of the ultimate payoff.

In the case of The Seattle Times, I would think that subscriptions are a more relevant measure of success than pageviews, as subscriptions equal money, while pageviews only indirectly generate money by luring more advertisers to the site. And clicks (like glory) are fleeting. As one Twitter user notes:

I could have said the same thing about blogging. The little viral posts that put a spike in your traffic don’t do much for long term growth. Controversy “for the hits” never pays off, & it’s annoying to be accused of that.

Virality is nice, but subscriptions pay the bills. And you can’t eat clicks for dinner.

Now having said that, I believe that viral articles are useful for branding purposes and to spice up the content of a site and provide some variety and relief to the reader. Viral articles are great, but they should be the seasoning rather than the main content.

That is, unless your business model is based on clickbait, in which case good luck.

Lying about chemical weapons

Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has accused foreign secretary Boris Johnson of being less than entirely honest about who poisoned former Russian double-agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter:

Labour has called for an investigation into whether Boris Johnson “misled” the public over Russian involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attack.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier implied the foreign secretary had exaggerated the findings of the UK’s defence laboratory, Porton Down. […]

Labour said in an interview given to German TV last month, Mr Johnson said that “people from Porton Down” were “absolutely categorical”, adding: “I asked the guy myself. I said ‘are you sure?’, and he said ‘there’s no doubt’.”

But on Tuesday the Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the Novichok nerve agent used, although it did say it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor”.

Labour called on the prime minister to launch an investigation into whether Mr Johnson broke the ministerial code.

A state actor. Hmm. That’s a far cry from pinning the blame on Putin, as so many are keen to do.

The truth about these matters is often hard to establish. What is clear, in this case, is that we simply do not know who poisoned Skripal, and with what motive.

Naturally, that won’t stop the absurd saber-rattling, mass expulsions of Russian diplomats, and crazed ramping up of tensions with the world’s number two nuclear power. Why let rational thought get in the way of that?

An awful waste of space

The silence of the cosmos continue to be, well, deafening:

After searching 100,000 galaxies for signs of highly advanced extraterrestrial life, a team of scientists using observations from NASA’s WISE orbiting observatory has found no evidence of advanced civilizations in them. […]

Roger Griffith, a postbaccalaureate researcher at Penn State and the lead author of the paper, scoured almost the entire catalog of the WISE satellite’s detections—nearly 100 million entries—for objects consistent with galaxies emitting too much mid-infrared radiation. He then individually examined and categorized around 100,000 of the most promising galaxy images. Wright reports, “We found about 50 galaxies that have unusually high levels of mid-infrared radiation. Our follow-up studies of those galaxies may reveal if the origin of their radiation results from natural astronomical processes, or if it could indicate the presence of a highly advanced civilization.”

In any case, Wright said, the team’s non-detection of any obvious alien-filled galaxies is an interesting and new scientific result. “Our results mean that, out of the 100,000 galaxies that WISE could see in sufficient detail, none of them is widely populated by an alien civilization using most of the starlight in its galaxy for its own purposes. That’s interesting because these galaxies are billions of years old, which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations, if they exist. Either they don’t exist, or they don’t yet use enough energy for us to recognize them,” Wright said.

“This research is a significant expansion of earlier work in this area,” said Brendan Mullan, director of the Buhl Planetarium at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh and a member of the G-HAT team. “The only previous study of civilizations in other galaxies looked at only 100 or so galaxies, and wasn’t looking for the heat they emit. This is new ground.”

Why should you care? Because these non-findings strengthen the case for the Great Filter — the hypothesis that some sort of cosmic barrier is preventing the rise of advanced, technological civilizations, a barrier that some believe could take the form of an Exterminator that eats intelligent life for breakfast.

The Great Filter is coming for you. Repent!

A generous offer

Thailand elephants

America: what could have been

In which Abraham Lincoln declines a most generous offer from a country far, far away:

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

“America hand”

Wang Qishan fire brigade chief

Wang Qishan is known in China as the party’s “fire brigade chief”

Fascinating nuggets from a recent FT article about Wang Qishan’s appointment as vice president of the PRC, just five months after he “retired” as China’s anti-graft czar (and the country’s second most powerful official):

The Chinese Communist party’s most trusted crisis manager has returned to front-line politics just in time to face one of the biggest challenges of his long career — managing the fallout from what is likely to be the most dramatic deterioration in Sino-US relations in 30 years. […]

“Wang Qishan has forgotten more about our country than many of our senior people know,” said Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former political adviser who met Mr Wang in Beijing in September. “The level of detail he knew about the US was stunning — the economics of regions, the economics of cities, American infrastructure, the workings of the American economy.” […]

But with the recent departures of Mr Cohn and Mr Tillerson, there are very few senior Trump administration figures to argue for moderation in dealing with China. “Trump is going to be quite confrontational,” said Mr Bannon. “But the Chinese absolutely think the American establishment is going to bail them out and why wouldn’t they, it did in the past.

“The Chinese are going to play for time, engage in dialogue,” he added. “They owned us in Mar-a-Lago, no doubt about it. The globalists were in the ascendancy then, agreed to two ‘strategic’ dialogues [with China] and nothing got done, just more talk.”

I noted the FT piece about Wang’s meeting with Bannon here.