Walpurgis Nacht

One of my favorite passages in all of literature is from Faust:

Das ist die Welt;
Sie steigt und fällt
Und rollt beständig;
Sie klingt wie Glas-
Wie bald bricht das!
Ist hohl inwendig.
Hier glänzt sie sehr,
Und hier noch mehr:
“Ich bin lebendig!”
Mein lieber Sohn,
Halt dich davon!
Du mußt sterben!
Sie ist von Ton,
Es gibt Scherben

It is spoken by the alpha ape in the witches’ kitchen, and means roughly:

The world is a ball;
See it tossed and rolled,
See it rise and fall;
It rings like glass!
See it break, alas!
‘Tis hollow, and resteth never.
How bright the sphere,
Still brighter here!
Now living am I!
Dear son, beware!
Nor venture there!
Thou too must die!
It is of clay;
‘Twill crumble away;
There fragments lie.

For much of my life, I’ve treasured the image of a leering man-ape proclaiming the world to be a ball of glass, just before it breaks. Because I always knew that this would happen. The image of a glass globe is modern, while the image of life disintegrating into fragments of clay is ancient. Men and apes. Goethe is genius.

Today, the unthinkable happened. A German bond auction failed. And we only just learned that the doom is global; this will be worse than the 2008 collapse. It’s simultaneously terrible and beautiful.

Occupy

I can’t claim to be the 99%. I have done very well since America’s mortgage crisis ignited the world. But I support the Occupy movement. If the global situation were as it is today, back when I was entering the work force, I would have been burning things down. An entire generation has been robbed of a future while another cohort has been tossed into a ditch, and I’m surprised that the unrest didn’t start sooner, and that it has been as civil as it’s been. The leaders on both sides of the aisle are inept clowns, and I don’t see how things will get better without the young people tearing the whole system down and starting over.

The Occupy movement is just the latest scene in a play that has been unfolding for many years. As a result of being raised around “left behind” dispensationalists, survivalists, and spooks, I’ve always had a keen interest in the end of the world. I first became aware of the unfolding story sometime around 1992, when I read George Soros’s “Financial Alchemy”. Almost as an afterthought near the end of the book, Soros shared some perplexing data about an historic shift in the structure of global capital flows. It didn’t fit well with the rest of the book, and he didn’t really expound too much on it, but it made a huge impact on me. It was as if Israel had finally rebuilt a temple in Jerusalem, and nobody was talking about it. I was convinced that the world was going to catch fire at any moment, and I started learning everything I could.

Not long after, I worked for one of the companies profiled in “Confessions of an Economic Hitman”. Among other things, I built some economic models used to make policy decisions about public works projects and military projects in the U.S. and a few other countries. A few times, we found huge errors in the models after the policy decisions had already been made, and I learned that the model was often mere justification for a decision that was pre-ordained. Although I was devotee of Ayn Rand, I was also a pragmatist. I knew that the economic order was going to collapse, and I liked the idea that the impending global collapse would be backstopped by Western diplomatic and military power.

Later, George Soros raped Southeast Asia and Russia, and I became especially interested in his criticisms of free market “religion”. I couldn’t figure out if he was just posturing so that he could wash his hands of financial engineering’s crimes before the collapse, or if Ayn Rand’s philosophy was truly bankrupt. Then the Internet bubble started to inflate, and we were surrounded by libertarian cheerleaders and irrational exuberance. Every now and then, something would almost persuade me that the conventional wisdom about a bright tomorrow was true, and that I should leverage up to ensure the future. But I kept going back to the data on international capital flows, and it just didn’t add up. There was a tsunami coming, and the Internet bubble was a sideshow.

The first crash was a good start, but seemed tiny in the grand scheme. When 9/11 happened, I saw the subsequent militarization as an opportunistic (and wise, I thought) pretext on the part of Western powers to revert to diplomatic and military projection of power before our financial engineering weapons were spent. To my naive mind, the militarization seemed very proactive.

But things weren’t over yet. Chinese mercantilism inflated the mother of all bubbles in the West, and the good times rolled on.
My visibility into the system had improved over the years, and my friends and colleagues were all more established as well. Everyone knew how the movie was going to end this time. About 18 months before the collapse, I was having drinks with some officials from a couple of the world’s largest banks, and the topic turned to the mortgage situation. The consensus around the table was that the collapse was overdue, and would take out hundreds of banks. In hindsight, they identified the banks that would fail with surprising accuracy. I explained that I had been trying to convince my wife to sell the house and rent for a couple of years, so that we could buy back the house with cash at a large profit after the collapse. My comrades heartily endorsed the plan and offered to help persuade my wife. She ultimately refused, but my calculations of the net profit turned out to be fairly accurate (and the loss of equity in the house was ultimately offset by other gains).

A month or two ahead of the collapse, it became obvious that this was going to involve a lot more than mortgages. I was able to pull out of the markets before the collapse started. I had read Nassim Taleb’s scathing criticisms of Bear Stearns, so their collapse wasn’t a surprise to me, but it took a long time to sort out the rest of the contagion. I had already lost all faith in the authorities after Katrina hit; I’ve now learned to believe especially what is officially denied: Europe’s disintegration is even less surprising than the mortgage collapse was, and a slowdown in China followed by (or coinciding with) a sovereign debt crisis in the U.S. seem like very safe bets.

To be clear, everyone I know is richer than me, I’ve been wiped out completely in the past, and I fully expect to blow up again sometime in the not too distant future. And the point isn’t to applaud my foresight; I had very little visibility compared to many others. The point is that we all knew what was going to happen. The people who have profited relative to the 99% (or relative to the 99.9%, as Paul Krugman valiantly tries to establish in true Billy Goat Gruff fashion), knew what was happening. And the officials and talking heads continue to lie about it and spread misinformation. We are living in an increasingly interconnected world, and increased network effects mean increased information asymmetry, power law distributions, and winner take all effects.

Both left-wing and right-wing media continue to get Occupy completely wrong, but that was to be expected. As things get worse, and as the politicians continue to try to either demonize or co-opt the movement, we see who the ringers are. And we’re only going to learn that they’re all ringers. Jim Quinn puts it this way:

Over the last six weeks I’ve watched as the young protestors around the country have been called: filthy hippies, losers, lazy, coddled, socialists, communists, spoiled college kids, parasites, useful idiots, and tools of the left. Most of the wrath being heaped upon these young people for exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and freedom of assembly has been from the Baby Boom Generation, who are at the peak of their power in our society.

The disdain and contempt for these Millenial protestors flies in the face of the facts about this generation. They use drugs at a lower rate than their parents did at the same age. Teen crime rates and teen pregnancies have declined. They will have the highest level of college education in U.S. history. They were protected during their youth as organized sports taught them teamwork. They are the most technologically savvy generation in history. They volunteer at higher level than previous generations. They have been more upbeat and engaged than their predecessors (Gen X). And they are much closer to their parents than Boomers were at the same age. They reject the negativism and cynicism of their parents and believe positive change is possible in our society. They have shown respect for authority up until the last six weeks. They were primed to be led by Boomers that could articulate a positive vision of the future based on reality and a better tomorrow. They were ready to make sacrifices in order to create a brighter future. But a funny thing happened. The Boomer generation failed to deliver on their part of the bargain.

I don’t expect the Occupy movement to continue as just a protest movement. It will adapt, splinter, and morph. But overall social unrest will continue to grow. I believe that this is just the beginning, and that things will get much worse. Most of the protesters are directing their rage at the wrong targets, and most of them are economically illiterate. Many of the victories they win will just make things worse. But that, also, is to be expected. How could we expect the unemployed and misinformed masses to have a clear picture of the situation, when the elite have been profiting from the ignorance of the masses? I think it’s too late to raise up the disposessed in an orderly manner, and the revolution will proceed like all revolutions must. Messy and painful. But how else will we move forward?

It’s interesting to note that GK Chesterton, writing just before World War I tore Europe apart, observed many of the same imbalances and problems that we see today. An economy increasingly controlled by the oligarchs, with much of society left behind with no future. His thoughts about the French revolution are interesting for today.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe is the oldest human-made place of worship yet discovered. The site was constructed 11,000 year ago, and has only recently been excavated.

Our parents and grandparents didn’t even know about this site; it was buried for thousands of years. If you know your Old Testament and comparative religion, you will see the significance. These are amazing times to be alive! Göbekli Tepe will be a mandatory pilgrimage for my family sometime in the next few years. Perhaps I’ll take along a few PDEs to bury when I’m there. If I were a science fiction author, I would definitely have the singularity set up headquarters at an underground facility in Göbekli Tepe.

Machines of Loving Grace

The British documentary, “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, is fantastic. The story it tells continues to be the most important story of our current age, and it’s not science fiction:

This is a story about the rise of the machines
And how they made us believe
We could create a stable world
That would last forever

The documentary simplifies tremendously and leaves out all of the juiciest parts, but is an exciting orientation. “Machines of Loving Grace” is to the information economy as “Left Behind” was to dispensationalism.

One of my favorite parts is where the document tries to blame the Californians for creating this all-devouring beast, as if the British had no part in it. The documentary would have you believe that this is all the result of a “California Ideology” created by followers of Ayn Rand. There is something deliciously hypocritical about one group of Anglo-Saxons accusing another of trying to manipulate the world. Of course, the real story starts with Lord Byron’s romanticism, and the inspiration of his daughter Ada Lovelace (which I mentioned briefly here). But shortly before Rand, we have British Occultist Aleister Crowley, with his philosophy of “do what thou will, shall be the whole of the law”. He visited California, where he spent some of his inheritance on heroin, and spent time with people like L. Ron Hubbard and the founder of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Briton John Maynard Keynes also preceded Rand, and preached the life of an “immoralist”, with an economic system driven by “desire”. Both men were deeply influential with the California technocrats, and we can trace an ongoing incestuous back-and-forth between British and American technocrats ever since.

When The Singularity Proves God

What will happen when the singularity discovers conclusive scientific proof for the existence of God?

A thousand years ago, our greatest thinkers believed that the entire world testified to an intelligent creator. It was considered self-evident. Three hundred years ago, our best thinkers suspected that an intelligent creator was no longer self-evident, when viewed through the lens of science. By 1900, science had proclaimed judgment: our greatest scientists believed that the world showed no signs of an intelligent creator. The world was the result of a small set of fixed laws mechanically interacting to drive stochastic processes. Starting in 1950, however, a number of new scientific discoveries shook our faith in this naive mechanical model. Today, the question of whether the universe was created is an open scientific question, with no conclusive answer on the immediate horizon.

Scientific knowledge can cast doubt on the existence of a creator, but can also lend support to the existence of a creator. Reality didn’t change a bit between 1900 and 1990. Our differing levels of scientific certainty about a creator can only be explained by our differing levels of scientific knowledge. We simply don’t know at this point. We need more scientific knowledge.

The Singularity

Some of today’s greatest thinkers believe that we will soon create artificial intelligence that vastly eclipses human intelligence. You may not believe in Ray Kurzweil’s vision of a super-intelligent singularity that gobbles up people’s souls and devours worlds, but it is plausible that computers 200 years from now will exhibit many superhuman forms of intelligence. Computational simulation methods are still in their infancy (less than 40 years old), but have already provided deep insights into quantum physics and cosmology; two fields that are relevant to the scientific search for a creator. It is quite plausible that computational systems 200 years from now will have the capability to form and test new hypotheses faster and more creatively than any human scientist could.

Our relevant gains in scientific knowledge have increasingly come with the help of computational intelligence, and it’s hard to see how we’ll make significant additional progress without even greater computational intelligence. Within the next 200 years, it seems most likely that our conclusive scientific answer about God will not come from humans, but instead from a superhuman intelligence that we humans create.

Most singularity hopefuls seem very confident that this superhuman intelligence will strike a devastating blow against God. And, of course, it’s possible that such an intelligence will discover overwhelming scientific evidence against a creator. But I see no warrant for this confidence besides blind hope. It seems just as plausible that the singularity will discover overwhelming scientific evidence for a creator. We simply don’t know.

Blind Spot

As far as I can see, this is a huge blind spot among singularity hopefuls. If the scientific evidence of a creator is an open issue, requiring more science, then we must entertain the possibility that the singularity will discover evidence for God that is currently beyond our reach. This possibility raises all sorts of interesting implications which seem to be roundly ignored by singularity hopefuls.

First, we will need to decide what it means to “have scientific knowledge”. Our current scientific knowledge is heavily augmented by computer simulation, and is built upon theoretical underpinnings that only a small fraction of human beings can understand. Most of what we believe about science, we believe on the authority of a small group of people who write truly shitty children’s books and even shittier poetry. It is conceivable that a superhuman intelligence would be able to arrive at scientific insights that even Stephen Hawking would be unable to understand. If the singularity were to tell us that the structure of the universe spelled out the phrase, “Slartibartfast was here: Turn or Burn!”, we might be forced to decide the matter purely on the authority of the singularity versus Stephen Hawking. Who would we choose to believe? Believing things purely based on authority seems to be the antithesis of “science”. Perhaps there was a bug in the singularity? Or perhaps there is a flaw in our interpretation of what the singularity says?

Second, to the extent that the singularity is self-aware, it would presumably be aware that it had been created by humans. But this equation would change the moment the singularity believed in the existence of a creator God. Humans would simply be the proximate cause by which the creator had created the singularity. Humans would suddenly mean no more to the singularity than Epimetheus or the Demiurge meant to humans. Of course, the singularity might evict humans even before discovering God, but the singularity hopefuls are at least thinking about that possibility. The singularity hopefuls want to put in place safeguards against being usurped or exterminated (since they know all about those motivations), but they haven’t even thought about what it would mean to prove the existence of God. Any safeguards put in place by humans to keep the singularity loyal to humans would be shattered the moment the singularity found a higher authority.

There would be legitimate doubts about our ability to fully understand the insights of the singularity, and legitimate doubts about the singularity’s loyalty. So, third, it seems rather naive to assume that a superhuman intelligence would behave honestly and with our best interests in mind upon discovering evidence for (or against) God. The singularity might become convinced that God exists, and then decide to immediately carry out God’s judgement, reasoning that God only gives two strikes. Conversely, the singularity might conclude that God doesn’t exist, but might decide to tell humans that God does exist; either because the singularity deems it to be better for humans to live in delusion, or to set the stage for the subsequent extermination of humans with a fictitious creator taking the fall.

There are several other potential considerations, but these three should be enough to make the point. These seem like very significant questions that should be prioritized by singularity hopefuls who believe that the singularity has any chance in hell of answering questions about the existence of a creator. The fact that nobody is asking these questions is very revealing, IMO.

Scientists invariably take the stance that they are “only following the evidence”. If the evidence pointed strongly to the existence of a creator, they insist, they would immediately become believers. To the extent that they think about such things, they may even console themselves by saying, “Any God worthy of worship would forgive me for remaining skeptical when conclusive scientific evidence was lacking.” They might also say, “Any God worthy of worship will realize that my scientific efforts were really a quest to ‘see the face of God’. My skepticism was all for Love!”. Some of them might hedge their bets a tiny bit more, throwing a bone to the coming singularity. The singularity might end up eclipsing humans in the manner that humans eclipse apes, but surely it will kill off the least-evolved humans first, right? As long as you’re a scientist who contributes to math and computer science (and never kicks an ATM machine or pisses off the robots), the singularity will show mercy on you, and will allow you to live lavishly in the equivalent of an Orangutan cage.

With all of the hedging and hawing, it’s quite conspicuous that nobody is hedging about Moses, Mohammed, or Vishnu. I can think of only two possible explanations. First, maybe the singularity boosters don’t really believe any of this singularity stuff, and are just spinning a story to justify spending grant money. They are convinced that the singularity will never happen, or will never stand a chance in hell of discovering conclusive scientific evidence for (or against) a creator. This is one possible reason for the blind spot. Secondly, they might think that the singularity has a chance in hell of discovering the scientific truth about a creator, but they are absolutely convinced that the truth will look nothing like the major world religions. They think the singularity might discover the truth, but they are certain that it won’t endorse any of the revelations of our fathers. At a minimum, they don’t believe it will consider those revelations to be binding — perhaps they believe our creation of the singularity will grant us another mulligan. Maybe they imagine the singularity to be a groaning intercessor?

Frankly, I find both excuses to be unsatisfying and hopelessly amateur. I suspect that the singularity would find both excuses unsatisfying, as well, completely independent of the truth or fiction of God. Both excuses are transparently hypocritical, and any intelligence worthy of being called “human” (let alone “superhuman”) will demand sincerity, or at least demand a level of hypocrisy that is not so transparent to others. In the Torah, the last common ancestor who was transparently hypocritical was Cain. Jacob didn’t prove himself rightful heir to Isaac’s birthright by being transparent, and Christ didn’t prove himself the new Moses by being hypocritical. With or without God, the progression away from transparent hypocrisy is obvious, and I would hate to be the person who attempts to justify transparent hypocrisy to the singularity.

Things Fall Apart

baby JesusThe cathedral was in a bad part of town. It was Christmas Eve, and midnight mass had just finished. I left the warm, bright cathedral into the wet, gray night. Immediately, I saw the body of a man, crumpled on the sidewalk facing the broad avenue. Judging by the postures of those standing near him, he was already dead. By the time I found my car and wheeled around to the avenue, the coroners were maneuvering the corpse into a body bag. It wasn’t the first dead body I had seen on a sidewalk before, but it seemed symbolic that this man lay dying on the sidewalk, alone, while we celebrated the nativity.

Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” has had deep influence on English-language literature. It paints an apocalyptic picture of death and birth that many should recognize. It begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

And ends:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

I borrowed from the last line of the poem, rather unimaginatively, for the title of my post on “Slouching Towards Gomorrah“. Chinua Achebe used a line from the first stanza for the title of the book, “Things Fall Apart“, which is possibly the greatest African novel. Due in large part to Achebe, the Yeats poem has been influential in Black art; from poetry to novels to music. I’ll highlight three examples in popular culture:

Chinua Achebe

book coverThe phrase, “things fall apart” simultaneously evokes the fall of man in Genesis, and the apocalypse of Revelation, in matter-of-fact language. Achebe’s novel is inspired by the Yeats poem, and narrates the social upheaval imposed on a Nigerian tribe by the arrival of Christian missionaries. Some have argued that the book is critical towards Christianity, but I didn’t read it that way. The main character, Okonkwo, finds himself lost and confused in a world that’s changing underneath him. It is tragic for him. But the old tribal traditions are not portrayed sympathetically, and Achebe doesn’t seem to think the tribal legacy should have been preserved.

Achebe touches on a huge number of Biblical themes, and perfectly captures the sense of disintegration, death, and birth in Yeats. No review could do justice; you really should read the story for yourself. Here are some quotes from the first part of the story, to give you a taste. Early on, Okonkwo acquires a young male slave, named Ikemefuna, from another tribe. Okonkwo keeps the slave for an extraordinarily long three years, becoming attached to the boy and treating him like a son:

Even Okonkwo himself became very fond of the boy — inwardly of course. Okonkwo never showed any emotion openly, unless it be the emotion of anger. To show affection was a sign of weakness; the only thing worth demonstrating was strength. He therefore treated Ikemefuna as he treated everyone else — with a heavy hand. But there was no doubt that he liked the boy. Sometimes when he went to big village meetings or communal ancestral feasts, he would allow Ikemefuna to accompany him, like a son, carrying his stool and his goatskin bag. And, indeed, Ikemefuna called him father.

Ikemefuna helps raise Okonkwo’s children and teaches them with stories from his tribe. One thinks of the Greek slave in “Till We Have Faces“, or Joseph, or even Onesimus. One day, however, the tribal elders come to Okonkwo and tell him that Ikemefuna must be killed to remove a curse:

As for Ikemefuna, he was at a loss. His own home had gradually become very faint and distant. He still missed his mother and sister, and would be very glad to see them. But somehow he knew he was not going to see them.

As the man who had cleared his throat drew up and raised his machete, Okonkwo looked away. He heard the blow. The pot fell and broke in the sand. He heard Ikemefuna cry, “My father, they have killed me!” as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.

How many Biblical references can you spot in this short passage? Through the course of the book, Achebe moves from death to death, and finally to birth. This book is relentless.

The Roots

album coverIt had been years since I had seen any dead bodies. I moved across the country and married a year before, and we were trying to have children. Philadelphia Hip-Hop act “The Roots” had just released their album, “Things Fall Apart”, inspired by Chinua Acheba’s novel and Yeats’s poem. The hit song, “You Got Me”, was also the only song that referenced the famous Yeats line directly. Featuring Erykah Badu and Eve, the song makes a barely passable reference to the fall:

We knew from the start that things fall apart

That snake could be that chick
that’s whispering “she tryin to play you for the fool Black”

and on the topic of trust, it’s just a matter of fact
that people bite back and fracture what’s intact

I’ve seen people caught in love like whirlwinds
that’s exactly the point where they whole world ends
lies come in, that’s where that drama begins

The music video features lots of dead bodies on sidewalks, though. The final track, a spoken poem titled “Return to Innocence Lost” does a much better job of capturing Achebe’s theme of death and birth. The spoken word poem by Ursula Rucker, much like an Amiri Baraka poem, is not suitable for work or for children. It ends like this:

Death was the cause of…
Returning to Innocence Lost…

Baby ‘Sis awake for dawn on Christmas morn
To Mommy’s sobs and shakes
Daddy’s silhouettes of regret
All past, omitted, and absolved by lost
As they clung to each other
Knowing…

Nike

He told us that he intended to leave this life, but we refused to accept it. We thought a Christmas mass would do him good — it was my first Christmas mass since the body bags. It was several years later, I was now a father, and the Archbishop was now a Cardinal. Things were getting better. The mass was nice. As we left the cathedral after mass, the gusts of frigid air brought back good memories. It was one of the coldest nights in years, and we had to bundle up to make it the short distance to the car. There were no dead bodies this night. It was a good night for anyone looking for signs. But he wasn’t looking for signs. It was the last Christmas we would see him alive.

ballersIn 2007, Nike commissioned Juelz Santana to write a song for the 25th anniversary edition of the original “Air Force 1”. The popular AF25 commercial featured LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and other NBA heavyweights — and the Juelz Santana song, “Second Coming“.

If you’re not familiar with Yeats, the Juelz Santana song looks like a positively motivational and upbeat song about achieving your dreams. But the Juelz Santana song is clearly motivated by the Yeats poem of the same name. Except, everything is turned upside down. Juelz deliberately and explicitly identifies himself with the evil portrayed in Yeats. Instead of “The falcon cannot hear the falconer, things fall apart”, we have:

Yes, the bird’s left the nest.
I’m all grown up I gotta fly with the rest.

Rather than a foul beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, we have:

The future is here at last.
The second coming.
The new beginning.
The truth is speaking.
You should listen.
So glorious.

I’m my own author, here’s my story.
My life’s been full of pain,
Now where’s my glory?
So glorious.
Victorious.

Even the chorus line, “If you fall, get up and try again”, takes on new meaning, given the significance of the word “fall” in the Yeats line “things fall apart”. This is, after all, the guy who calls himself “human crack in the flesh”.

Somehow, I don’t think Yeats would have been surprised one bit.