The everlasting desktop computer

Last night I ordered all of the parts to create a new, and very fast, desktop computer.  My current machine is about 8 years old, though it still plays many games just fine.  Certainly it does most computing tasks with ease.  Although it was a pretty fast machine when I built, it is remarkable that the vast majority of things people use a computer for have not changed much in the past 8 years.  In fact, I am going to move my existing computer into a new and smaller case so that I can use it for office-type tasks.  I might still get another 5 years out of it.

This experience differs substantially from the life of a laptop computer.  All kinds of compromises must be made when constructing a very small computer that runs on a battery and fits on one’s lap.  Desktop computers, on the other hand, are cheap and fast.  Additionally, they aren’t susceptible to being “totaled” due to wear and mishap.  For instance keyboard problems often mean the end of life for a laptop but only a $15 replacement for a desktop.  If you can’t afford a new fancy laptop, you should probably consider a cheapo desktop; it will be just as fast as some shiny macbook pro and last about three times as long.

Coffee Review Group 1

One purpose of doing cappuccino reviews is to get out in the world and try some cappuccinos you might not otherwise encounter.  To that end, I’ll have to search out some places I haven’t been before (or were at long ago).  I’ll do that soon, but first I wanted to list the coffee shops that I already know about and will likely be top contenders.

  • Bradbury’s (the first place in Madison to serve a proper cappuccino and still one of the best)
  • Johnson Public House (#1 or #2 in my mind, depending upon the visit)
  • Grace on State (brand new and a bit odd, in the old hat shop, but seemed legitimate when I was there. Also has the honor of illegally painting one of the remaining brick store-fronts on State…)
  • Ledger Coffee (in Garver, the old beet factory)

A plateau in technological progress

It has been argued by quite a few authors (Gordon in The Rise and Fall of American Growth for one) that we have recently seen few of the profound technological change the characterized life at the beginning of the 20th century.  For instance, between 1900 and 1950 just about every aspect of peoples’ lives in the rich world was transformed by technological, economic, and cultural change.  And most of this was progress. On the other hand, between 1970 and today (50 years!) we have seen dramatic changes in only a few areas of life.

Of course, things have gotten quite a bit better; there has been gradual change in most areas of life, and some areas (like Information Technology) has seen transformative change.  But life itself has not transformed in the way that it did between 1900 and 1950.  I was reminded of this fact while I drove back to Madison from northern WI yesterday.  It is possible that AI will soon transform transportation as we know it, but that is not especially likely.  It is turning out to be much more difficult to create self-driving cars than originally thought.  In fact, the experience of someone traveling down the highway is not tremendously different than it was in 1970.  They are a bit safer, but driving is still the relatively dangerous.  Drivers still face the basic problem of steering a large metal object down a road of questionable quality, while fighting weather, fatigue, distractions, and boredom.  Unlike in 1950, the elderly today have not experienced anything close to transformation in transportation.

Criterion for Inclusion

Starting with the coming Solstice, I will review ever coffee shop in the Madison area that offers a traditional (6 oz or similar) cappuccino.  When I did my first round of coffee reviews around 2008, that would have included probably two or three shops.  Things have certainly improved.  I’m guessing that there are at least a dozen shops that qualify now (maybe many more).  I’ll compile a list in the coming weeks!

The benefits of a two party system

Anyone who complains about how a robust third party would make the American electoral system better need only look to the UK for a quick refutation. First-past-the-post systems (in which the person in each district with the highest vote-total wins that district) do not mix well with coalition-style governments with several major parties. The Conservatives won only 43% of the vote in the UK nationally on Thursday, whereas the three more liberal parties (Labour, SNP, and Liberal Dems) won about 47%. However, the Conservatives won about 58% of the seats. This is because they were the largest party in a large number of district, with the liberal vote in those districts split between the more liberal parties.

Part of the problem in the case of the UK is that Labour has become so radical as to render it incompatible with Liberal Dems (who are most definitely not socialists). District-based first-past-the-post systems naturally tend to two parties, because any parties that can combine will have a significant advantage over those that cannot. Of course, this might be reason to favor proportional systems, where seats are awarded to parties as a function of the overall popular vote, over district-based systems. However, if you are in a first-past-the-post system, then you should embrace a system of large moderate parties. If you don’t, then eventually the other side will…

Political Self-awareness

It is quite stunning sometimes how easily we are drawn into a partisan perspective, and how most of our media sources help us down that trap. The standard liberal message from the FBI Inspector General’s report was that the FBI was largely cleared of wrongdoing. However, the report also revealed some stunning sloppiness, casualness and incompetence in how citizens are legally surveilled. Even if Trump is a dangerous crook (he is), Republicans are right to complain about how the investigation into him was conducted by the rank and file at the bureau.

Such violations by law enforcement would normally be pounced on by civil libertarians, who have also typically dominated the more activist part of the Democratic party. However, rather little concern has been heard from that part of the left. It is to the credit of the New York Times that the problems in the FBI were a front page story today. It is a very strange world indeed when we have to rely upon Republicans to criticize law enforcement (and of course they do so for ALL of the wrong reasons).

A post a day to ring in the ’20s

I have decided to revive this blog. I have thought about doing that many times before, but have often been too ambitious about what a post must look like; I have typically opted for long and substantial posts. This often has the effect of paralyzing my writing in many contexts — the weeds take over. I may as well make the most of the rest of 2019 with a short entry every day, about whatever might be on my mind. 2020 is going to be a terrible, anxiety provoking year for sure…
-Z

Psychological disorder and the dream of Utopia

The view of humanity that we get from the ancients (and by extension the Abrahamic religions) is both deeply deceptive and very influential.  If people are the creation of beings of (more or less) perfection, then it is reasonable to expect that humans are naturally orderly creatures.   Or, at the very least, we are disordered in some sort of systematic way.  According to this view, the psychological and social disorder experienced by all people and societies to varying degrees is a shortcoming.  The behavior and lived experiences of humans fall short of some meaningful ideal, because they fail in some way to reach their full potentials.  Of course, we might think that humans cannot reaching their full potentials without the grace of God or unadulterated contemplation of the good — or perhaps humans cannot possibly reach such a point of perfection — but all of this presumes that there is some sense to the idea of human perfection.

Certainly, we can conceive of what a “perfect” human might look like, but this has little to do with humans as they actually are.  Evolutionary theory in fact is able to provide us with a simple yet profound insight in this regard: the natural state of a human is to be a jumbled mess that gets the job done better than the next local competitor.  The same goes for a community.  We all know this to some degree, but we typically ignore what this means for our lives and society.  The human body and psychology has certainly been “finely tuned” by various evolutionary forces, so that individuals can produce offspring and provide them with various advantages.  We have also been made naturally cooperative in certain ways, so that we can more easily form societies of individuals to provide mutual advantages to each other, but this in no way guarantees healthy psychologies or societies of peace and happiness.

In fact, it is reasonable to think that a society of perpetually unsatisfied humans, who continually seek to compete with one another, will have an advantage over those containing people who have reached a state of inner peace and unconditional love for their neighbors.  This matters, because it seems to call into question the widely lauded goal of promoting universal happiness and social tranquility.  Not only does such a goal take a too optimistic view of the power of social reform, but it also promotes a false vision of human nature.

Many of us also think that finally getting our psychological act together would make us happier.  If we could only take account of all of our disparate (and often maladaptive) motivations and feelings and put them into proper order, then we would finally be living in a virtuous and happy way.  Social reformers often take a similar view of our social ills; if only our institutions were made to function well enough (providing all of the needed resources and incentives) to bring about virtuous and happy lives among the populous, then social order and prosperity would also be achieved.  They of course recognize that such a utopia is not likely in our messy world, but they still think that the ideal is meaningful.

I think we should doubt that the ideal of utopia is meaningful.  This is not simply because humans are deeply flawed.  Rather, it is because human psychology is not the sort of thing that is likely to achieve either internal (psychological) harmony nor external (social) harmony.  Again, this is nothing new, but it is largely ignored by optimistic social theorists and reformers who hope to create environments and education that promotes pro-social motivations and subsequent behaviors.  This includes both social theorists on the left as well as the right.  Some socialists, for instance, think that once the capitalist power structure is removed (or at least substantially weakened) then the motivations of people will be transformed, becoming more pro-social.  An extreme version of this comes form Marx and Engels, but a somewhat weaker one persists among many modern socialists and social-democrats; something about the current economic paradigm makes us slavish and vicious consumers, that once removed will free us from that sort of behavior.

On the right, libertarians have a similar utopian ideals.  They think that when people are left alone to live, create, and trade, they will live cooperative and virtuous lives, because it will be prudent to do so.  When the government’s only role is to provide for public goods and a system of public justice, and it does so rather effectively, then the only way for someone to get by is to be productive.  Cheating and stealing are promptly punished, and begging for subsidies does no good.  Many libertarians seem to have an idea that such a society would be a rather happy place to be, where people are able to safely pursue their own interests.

If people are naturally disordered, then there is little reason to think that non-coercive social systems will bring about a happy and peaceful world.  It cannot be assumed that more just social institutions can automatically lead to a more just and well-functioning public.  It leads us to a social theory more in line with Thomas Hobbes and “classical” conservatives like Edmund Burke than the modern social muses of Locke and Marx.  Cultural norms certainly provide a form of internal control, but these forms of control are typically inadequate, especially in pluralistic societies with weaker cultural norms.  And if many people experience a great deal of psychological disorder, disorder that will never be fully resolved, then their ability to internalize and behave according to a complex set of social norms with any consistency may be limited.  Ultimately, greater levels of social organization may require greater levels of external coercion, or at least the threat of it.  This coercion may be subtle, though nonetheless real and backed by state violence.  It may even be subconscious, like that which comes from messaging and marketing.  Those in marketing have long known that you often need to trick people to buy a product; likewise, you may need to trick people to bring about a good society.

In societies (like the U.S.) with relatively weak social control through culture, promoting greater levels of the public good may require greater degrees of social coercion.  I’m not sure what we should conclude from this.  It may, of course, mean that there are limits to how well the public good can be promoted in free societies.  Some people will always choose private violence in order to settle disputes.  Others will make poor choices about when to start a family or what purchases to make.  Still others will adopt hateful attitudes toward their fellow citizens because of prejudice.  What we can do to get people to change their behaviors on their own may be far more limited that we would hope.   However, it may also mean that we should be open to greater levels of social coercion, at least if we are serious about improving human lives.  I’m not sure which we should choose, but it seems that the disordered character of human nature pits freedom and well-being  against one another.

Progressive Federalism

There are clearly two Americas, and one is holding the other back.  At least this is likely the view held today by many Progressives. To use the terminology of the famous nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn (though obviously in a different context) there is the A-country, and there is the B-country [*See Note Below*].  The A-country is making progress, where the government is involved in creating communities, taking care of the vulnerable, and creating equal opportunity for all.  This is the Northeast, parts of the great lakes (primarily Illinois and Minnesota), and the entire west coast.  These are places that routinely vote for Democrats and have reliably Progressive policy initiatives.  It is also where the most interesting stuff is happening, and where we are most likely to find conditions conducive to a good life (for the Progressive at least).

Then there is what Progressives would likely think of as the B-country; this is all the rest.  Libertarian and conservative politics prevail, the government does far less to provide equal opportunities to all citizens, and the people generally have somewhat “backward” or “traditional” values.  Of course, from the perspective of libertarians and conservatives, much of B-country is preferable to A-country; they see the policies of A-country to be smothering initiative and violating individual rights.  These different ways of life are supported by different sets of values.  

One problem, you might think, with the standard progressive strategy of the past 30 years is that action has been at the national level.  Policies have meant to apply across both A and B countries, even though the people living in those different places have wildly different values.  This has long been the complaint of conservatives who desire for the federal government to stay out of their business, so that they can ban abortion or permit discrimination against minorities.  Additionally, conservative states often want to be left out of various programs that involve the government intervention in various aspects of life.  This preference for strong federalism has been resisted by Progressives who have wanted their policies to apply across the country.  

The resistance to strong forms of federalism makes perfect sense in clear cases of injustice.  Progressives cannot permit the widespread discrimination against minorities or the denial of basic rights to occur anywhere in the country (though there is also conflict about what should be considered a “basic right”).  However, I think there might be a different story for positive programs, like the provision of universal health insurance.  It may be possible for states in the A-country to undertake such programs themselves, much like Massachusetts did in the 2000s, but as a block.  This might be in the form of a single market between states for health insurance (providing more competition) as well as the provision of common regulation and subsidies for that market (providing benefits of scale in implementation), or even a single-payer health system shared by those states.  

The single-payer system may be especially interesting, because it would provide these states (which have a large proportion of the national population) substantial leverage to negotiate prices. It would also seem that this may not violate any constitutional restrictions on limiting federalism (a problem with Trump’s “plan” for the interstate sale of insurance), because it would be formed through the voluntary agreements between states.  Multi-state agreements like this are not uncommon (port authority and transportation authorities, for instance), though this would be far more ambitious.  

There are obvious difficulties to coordinating such a system, but I think it could be done if some of the larger or adjacent states (centered around California and New York, for instance) took the lead.  If large states formed such a block, then the inevitable taxes required to pay for insurance subsidies would not render those states uncompetitive relative to others.  Businesses to not routinely move from California or New York to Texas simply because of small differences in taxes (which already exist).  The benefits of these locations are too enticing.  Such a program could provide the benefits of the Affordable Care Act without the necessity of dragging unwilling states into the mix.  There is a hope that voters in B-country would eventually see the benefits of such a social welfare program and want to be included in the interstate agreement.  This may eventually grow into a truly national program once a critical mass of states agree to join.  Of course, it is possible that majorities in B-country will never come around.  All the worse for them, but it is not the fault of those living in A-country that those living in B-country are backward looking rather than Progressive.

Some will rightly worry that such a program would create a further rift in our country.  Perhaps.  Though in many ways that rift already exists.  People in A-country and B-country already live in rather different worlds.  And voluntary interstate agreements would eliminate the high levels of conflict that exists at the federal level; there simply would be less to argue about.  The hope is that this would lower the stakes of federal policy formation, and thus make our politics more functional.  Progressives will have an easier time convincing New Yorkers and Californians to implement such a program than convincing a block of former slave states.

*Completely unrelated note*: Kahn’s idea (From On Thermonuclear War) was something like the following.  Even if our major cities like New York and LA (A-country) were blown up in the first round of a nuclear war, we might still have a substantial supply of infrastructure, resources, and people left. This “B-country” might include exciting places like Winona or Cedar Rapids.  He thinks that we should plan on a strategy for an extended but winnable nuclear war rather than simply “mutually assured destruction.”  But please don’t tell this to Trump.  Especially because Kahn wrote this before larger stockpiles of hydrogen bombs existed, so his insight may no longer be relevant.