The Roll of the Dice: What Egalitarian Hunter-Gatherers Know About Luck (And We’ve Forgotten)

 

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This picture might be overly bucolic, but there is no Fox News

 

In this week’s New Yorker, John Lanchester has a really interesting, humbling, and depressing read about how civilization turned out to be really bad for people in general. It made us unhealthier, more stressed, and, though he didn’t say it, downright meaner.

He says outright that the Neolithic Revolution is the worst thing that’s ever happened to humans, and that if we had slowed our roll a few hundred thou after harnessing fire, we’d be much happier.

That isn’t to say we’d be stupid. As Lanchester points out, there were literally thousands of years after the dawn of agriculture but before the rise of city-states. This was a time where there was art and some religion, mythologies, and knowledge about how the world worked. People, it seemed, didn’t resist collecting into civilization because they didn’t know how, but because it didn’t seem to make sense.

The whole article is really interesting, and points to some fascinating-sounding scholarship, but this might have been my favorite part.

The study of hunter-gatherers, who live for the day and do not accumulate surpluses, shows that humanity can live more or less as Keynes suggests. (Affluence without abundance- ed) It’s just that we’re choosing not to. A key to that lost or forsworn ability, Suzman suggests, lies in the ferocious egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. For example, the most valuable thing a hunter can do is come back with meat. Unlike gathered plants, whose proceeds are “not subject to any strict conventions on sharing,” hunted meat is very carefully distributed according to protocol, and the people who eat the meat that is given to them go to great trouble to be rude about it. This ritual is called “insulting the meat,” and it is designed to make sure the hunter doesn’t get above himself and start thinking that he’s better than anyone else. “When a young man kills much meat,” a Bushman told the anthropologist Richard B. Lee, “he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. . . . We can’t accept this.” The insults are designed to “cool his heart and make him gentle.” For these hunter-gatherers, Suzman writes, “the sum of individual self-interest and the jealousy that policed it was a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

This egalitarian impulse, Suzman suggests, is central to the hunter-gatherer’s ability to live a life that is, on its own terms, affluent, but without abundance, without excess, and without competitive acquisition.

What really strikes me about this is how hunter-gatherer societies embrace and understand the role of luck in life. Think about it. You could be an amazing hunter, but if something else spooked the animals, they’re off and running before you unleash and arrow. You could throw a spear perfectly, but if the gazelle zigs left instead of right, it falls clattering to the earth, pointedly and pointlessly.

So much in life is about luck, chance, and circumstance. You could stumble into some sweet hunting grounds or be born rich. You could watch the prey you’ve been stalking get freaked by a bird and run off, or you could grow up in the shadow of industry that’s poisoning your water and putting lead in your brain, limiting opportunities in life.

Things happen. As we’ve grown as a species, we’ve invented new ways to heighten the role of luck, the roll of the dice. Capitalism exacerbates this, with all its talk of meritocracy. Racism, prejudice, and borders make it stronger. Where you are born and to whom you are born make more a difference than who you are.

Hell, luck can extend to the random sequencing of a genetic code, a little glitch that makes you sicker or weaker or less able to rise up. That’s luck.

Paul Newman, in talking about his camp for sick children, had one of my favorite quotes about luck in life.

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No! You’re not allowed to be this handsome and wise!

 

I wanted, I think, to acknowledge Luck: the chance of it, the benevolence of it in my life, and the brutality of it in the lives of others; made especially savage for children because they may not be allowed the good fortune of a lifetime to correct it.

And we’ve set up a society that refuses to recognize that. We’ve set up a society where the national myths are that you deserve your fate, and that there are many people who deserve to suffer. If they are suffering, ipso facto, they must deserve it. And they should suffer more, so that the luckier, who never consider their fortune anything just the justifications of virtue, can have more.

You may have recognized this as a summation of the Republican platform. It’s made crystal clear in their multiple attempts to repeal the ACA (and how goddamn happy Paul Ryan was when he thought he did).

Because that’s what repeal really is. It is saying that if you work three jobs, none of which have health care, you don’t deserve it. If you have a pre-existing condition, that’s too bad. If you live in a state with a Republican governor, too bad. If your cancer becomes metatastic and you can’t afford care, well, them’s the breaks.

That comes from the inability to understand that life is about luck. It’s about the driver looking up just in time to slam on her brakes before she t-bones you. Another second, another half-second, and you face a lifetime of therapy and mounting bills. There’s no virtue there. That’s only chance. The same as if you had entered the intersection a half-second earlier and were in her way.

Our system shouldn’t be about ignoring luck. It shouldn’t imagine that the person who happens to have the most meat at any given moment is the bravest, the best, and the most worthy. Our adherence to that superstition puts us far behind hunter-gatherer socieites. We’re less wise, less moral, and less knowledgeable about the world. We’re just less.

(h/t to Allison, Dee, and Bill Breeding for the breakfast conversation about this piece that made me think about luck and who we are. Always my favorite people to talk to.)

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Foxconn’s Wisconsin Plant Bad for Wetlands and Workers; Another Demonstration of the Race to the Bottom

 

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Foxconn: Worker-friendly enough to install anti-suicide nets

 

So, last week it was announced that Foxconn, which builds stuff for Apple when its employees aren’t killing themselves in China, was opening a plant right in Wisconsin’s 1st District, home of Paul Ryan. This was sort of a win for Trump, who is bringing back manufacturing, etc, and presented as a very good thing for Wisconsin workers.

This is a $10 billion investment, and it could actually go higher if you listen to the President.

President Donald Trump, who has suggested the deal would not have happened without his efforts, said he was told by Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou that the investment could be larger than $10 billion.

“He told me off the record, he thinks he may go to $30 billion,” Trump said at a small business event at the White House on Tuesday of Foxconn’s investment.

“I promised I wouldn’t tell,” Trump said to laughter.

Now, based on track record, this conversation almost certainly didn’t happen. We don’t expect Donald Trump to tell the truth. But still, $10 billion is a lot, and there could be thousands of jobs, both in the plant and in the auxiliary trades.

(There is also a great little part in Reuters: “Trump praised Foxconn chairman Terry Gou at a White House event, asserting: ‘If I didn’t get elected, he definitely wouldn’t be spending $10 billion … This is a great day for America.'” That’s…not praising Gou.)

Now, to be sure, there have been some caveats. For example, a lot of that $10 billion could be spent on automation. Gou wants to have 1 million robots “working” for his factories over the next decade. It will be looking for “automation savvy workers”, which doesn’t always mean the people in Janesville who lost jobs. With retraining, it might. And if Wisconsin invests in such programs, it could create jobs for the state.

But that means money, and all this Foxconn largesse doesn’t come cheap. For example, the state is giving Foxconn $3 billion in tax breaks. And there is some more. As the Journal-Sentinal puts it:

In return for building an industrial campus that could employ as many as 10,000 people in Wisconsin, Foxconn Technology Group almost surely will expect subsidies, tax breaks, job retraining promises, infrastructure improvements and other government incentives.

And it will expect them on a scale that by traditional standards would be staggering.

“They do this everywhere they go,” said Einar Tangen, a Beijing-based Chinese economic expert, echoing the views of many Asian experts. “They extract everything they can.”

They’re not kidding, either. One of the provisions in the bill to lure Foxconn in is fewer protections for the wetlands.

Environmental groups, including Midwest Environmental Advocates and the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, said the state’s proposal rolls back protections for wetlands, which act as natural filters for drinking water and wildlife habitats, and protect against flooding…

The draft bill allows Foxconn to discharge dredged or fill material into some wetlands without state permits. The legislation also would allow Foxconn to connect artificial bodies of water with natural waterways without state permits.

This is not great. But it is a perfect encapsulation of the Trump/Ryan/Walker anti-worker and anti-environmental plan.

Let’s review what we have here. A decimated industrial workforce building a factory for high-tech workers who don’t, at all, have to come from the area. They can move there from anywhere (and a recent theme of the President has been people moving to Wisconsin). An anti-environmental race to the bottom where workers move from state to state depending on which lowers restrictions enough to get medium-to-low paying jobs. This is another theme of Trump, who emphasized as much in a lunatic pre-inauguration press conference.

You can do anywhere — you’ve got a lot of states at play; a lot of competition. So it’s not like, oh, gee, I’m taking the competition away. You’ve got a lot of places you can move. And I don’t care, as along as it’s within the United States, the borders of the United States.

The theme is to let the states fight it out. Who can remove the most protection for workers? Who can remove the most environmental regulations? Who can destroy unions the fastest? Who can dive to the bottom of the barrel? This is what Walker has done to Wisconsin, and it is the quintessence of the Republican jobs plan.

It’s to create some jobs, yeah, but to remove any power workers might have. To make them fight over scraps. To have states compete against each other to be “pro-business”. You want us to keep our factory here? Well then get rid of child labor laws.

It isn’t a coincidence this is being built in Wisconsin. Walker has made it the petri dish of right-wing jobs’ programs, in which the workers are reduced to disposable numbers and any idea of duty to the community is laughably archaic. He loves overturning regulations in order to attract “jobs”, because that’s how people get turned into capital. And that is his driving motivation.

It’s Trump’s, too. All his talk of the white working class was, like everything else, a lie. The plant will be good for people in the short-term, maybe. And the environmentalists will be painted as inhibiting jobs, anti-worker, etc. It’s part of the long-running war to separate the two groups, a false choice proposed by greedy management. This is the new America. Looks a lot like the old one.

 

Remote Control ISIS Weapons: Probably Not Good

WaPa

While the advantage of remotely operating a direct-fire weapon such as a machine gun or sniper rifle is obvious, remote weapons can also make small bands of insurgent groups seem stronger and better equipped. The report covers one instance in which Kurdish troops attacked an Islamic State remote-controlled sniper rifle, losing men in the process while the shooter remained protected in a bunker nearby. Instead of using men to protect the remote weapon, the Islamic State instead tied up dogs around the system.

Experts are increasingly impressed and worried with the level of technological sophistication of tele-weapons used by militant groups in Iraq and Syria, especially ISIS. Mowing down Kurdish fighters with a remote-operated gun protected by dogs seems like a perfect combination of ISIS’s patented brutality and technological sophistication.

But really, it’s only the dogs, and the relatively crude-but-successful nature of the operation that make it any different from the way violence is changing, and becoming more remote and even automized. It’s one of the main issues of our day, and I don’t think it will ever be possible to have a real discussion about it, since we rush forward, and any attempt to say we shouldn’t have a weapon is lost in a deafening drum circle of retrograde chest-thumping.

Look for example at the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System. Even just the name makes it sound like a bad idea, but saying “this will protect the lives of Marines”– which could very well be true!– makes its deployment essentially a done deal. It needs human control now, but that’s just the first step.

 

This is the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System, or MAARS for short. It's an unmanned ground vehicle that can be outfitted with a medium machine gun or a grenade launcher.

This makes me uncomfortable. Image from Tech Insider

 

There will be a point one day soon when robots will make the kill decision, algorithmically. I’m not a person afraid of a robot takeover, but I am apprehensive of them making what are essentially moral decisions. I’m also concerned that adopting higher and higher tech makes it impossible for us to condemn it, and keep it out of the hands of even worse actors. But barring high-level political action, I don’t see this as a road off of which we’re going to veer.

I’m Probably Going to Blame Teens For This

 

Don’t be so smug, Brayden. This is your fault. 

 

Facebook is running a small test that allows all videos to automatically start rolling with the sound on, rather than silently as they do now — this despite the company’s own research showing that unexpected, loud video ads annoy 80 percent of users.
[Peter Kafka | Recode]

I don’t really have much to comment on Facebook here, per se: they are going to do what they are going to do, and continue to make money, even as we grouse. And we will, because automatic videos with sound are annoying as hell. I work from home, where no one will ever look over and know I am goofing around when a video starts playing, and I still get instantly irritated and close whatever window the sound is in. It’s a natural reaction, a vestige of office-based guilt, but mostly annoyance. I’ll sit through ads. I’ll click on things. If I get a website for free, and enjoy the content, that’s the price. It’s fine. But not when you insist upon makign a racket. But anyway, that’s not what bugs me about this, really.

No, it’s that 80% that blows my mind. That seems overwhelming, but that means 20% of you aren’t annoyed by this. If you are talking to five people right now, one of them is ok with an ad for Hardees suddenly shouting at them. Who is fine with this? Who are you people? In some ways, this is more disturbing than knowing that millions of people are voting for Trump.

It’s probably teens. I knew it was teens. Even when it was the bears, I knew it was them.

Self-Driving Cars And The Technology Trap

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Image from Scania via Quartz

Over the weekend, as reported in Re/Code, Ford announced a successful test of an autonomous car driving in the dark- that is, without some of its equipment working. The car was driving without its camera, relying mainly on laser directions (lidar). Basically, it was like a human having to drive after their headlights went out, on a black moonless night. Or a bright one, where it was still hard to see. You know, just night, basically. Anyway, you and I would be in trouble, but the Ford car wasn’t. This is a big breakthrough.

I’m a passionate advocate of self-driving cars. Not professionally, because who the hell cares what I have to say about it, but personally. It makes me sick and angry to think that one moment of distraction by myself or another driver can kill someone I love or ruin their life forever, that a split second of indecision or mistake can have such a shattering impact. I think we’re going to look back at the era of human-driven cars as a time of unimaginable barbarism, where tens of thousands of people a year were killed and tens of thousands more maimed driving these glass and steel bullets at breakneck speeds. Self-driving cars will also be much better for fuel economy– there will be less driving around confused, less sudden braking, and fewer incidences of inefficient driving, the biggest cause of fuel waste.

There are drawbacks of course- system safety (imagine if a hacker breaks in and messes with V2V or V2I communications), a lack of autonomy, massive disruptions to the insurance industry, etc. There are huge political obstacles, as well as cultural ones. There is also the immediate problem that it will could cause huge layoffs in vulnerable sectors while immediately benefitting corporations. That’s a drawback, and one with unsettling human and political ramifications.

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