Liberalism is the Incubator of Authoritarianisms

“‘Are you against the ‘liberal order’ which guaranteed peace and stability, and other wonderful things for so long?’ The obvious answer is that your much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.”

—Pankaj Mishra in an interview with Francis Wade, “‘The Liberal Order Is the Incubator for Authoritarianism’: A Conversation with Pankaj Mishra.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. November 15, 2018.

The fact that authoritarians are propped up by other authoritarianisms is commonly understood. Pointing to terrorists, pirates, criminals, and The Other in all their manifestations has always been a way to legitimize the rule and draconian practices of the elite.

But, liberal ideas like “human rights,” “rule of law,” and so forth are given a free pass on a more critical review of when they are applied and who benefits. What do these terms mean in a society where 1/3 of black men spend some time in prison? What do they mean when the bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen are made and dropped from planes sold by the United States?

When you understand that concepts like human rights and rule of law don’t apply equally to everyone, as is suggested by the name on the tin and how it is used, then it is easy to see the relationship of liberalism with other forms of fundamentalism. Free market fundamentalism is one obvious manifestation. But, rule of law and legal positivism is no less of a fundamentalism, one that doesn’t track well with reality when one can get past the surface and take a more critical look.

It’s an interesting point that liberalism is the fertile soil in which authoritarianism grows.

Creation Cattywampus

Communities are defined by their peripheries when they have no center or multiple centers. The edge case is the border between  inside and outside. Even within, your distance from the center and the edge constitutes a geometry of potential otherness and potential identity. A sun, a planet, a land, a state, a town. It’s the same turtle, just different sizes all the way down. But, it’s not just turtles in the world. Cattywumpus creations that don’t fit on the edge or in the center provide a new vision.

Imagine seeing with new eyes. At base, monochromatic dolphins, dichromatic elephants, trichromatic humans all perceive the world differently, in addition to their other differences. The amount of  time we spent looking at screens may even cause a return of tetrachromacy in humans, seeing with four channels might help with eye strain. But, evolution favors fewer channels and creatures in genetic lines that once had more now have less. What does a mantris shrimp see with its twelve channels of color? What would happen if we woke one day with icosachromatic vision (twenty channels of color)? Would a human with icosachromatic vision even be human anymore?

The Rating Rabbit Hole

Note: This was written in August of 2015, before cafebedouin.org existed. I rediscovered it recently and thought the point is still a valid one and worth sharing.

tl;dr:  Algorithms have a bias toward the status quo and present a threat to our cultural production. (2,600 words)

Shortly after the start of the Afghanistan war, Osama Bin Laden fled the city of Kandahar. An Afghani family picking through the abandoned Bin Laden property found a collection of 1,500 mix tapes comprised of “songs, sermons and intimate conversations” he used for his brand of extremist propaganda. In places like Afghanistan, mix tapes are good vehicles for propaganda because they are not subject to censorship and can be easily duplicated. Cassette players are an important medium in places where there is a dearth of other entertainment. The local cassette shop owner that bought the Bin Laden tapes from the family was convinced by a CNN cameraman to keep the collection together, and the tapes eventually found their way to Flagg Miller, who is an expert in Arabic literature and culture from the University of California, Davis. He subsequently spent 10 years listening to the tapes and writing a book about them, entitled “The Audacious Ascetic“.

The idea that the cassette player could be a powerful modern medium for propaganda is intriguing. So, I went to GoodReads to mark “The Audacious Ascetic” as a book I’d like to read when it comes out. While doing that, I noticed that GoodReads already had one rating for the book, for one star. [Note: It currently has a rating of 2.57 out of 5, with 7 ratings in. The only written review gives it a 5.]

While it is possible that someone got a hold of a review copy, evaluated the book and found it to be worthy of a single star, it seems unlikely. Given the book is not going to be released for two more months, the rating was more likely given independently of the book’s merits and rated instead based on the initial impression of the book and how well it conformed to the worldview and the personal/cultural identity of the person rating it. This possibility made me wonder. I have come to rely on rating systems like GoodReads. What exactly is being rated? What larger implications do using these rating systems have to our society, our culture and to ourselves?

In our house, we often use a minimum of an All Critics >80% Tomatometer score from Rotten Tomatoes to determine whether we will watch a movie that we are unfamiliar with. I rationalize this approach with a variation of Linus’s Law, i.e., “Given a large enough audience and critic base, almost everything ratable will be characterized quickly and its quality will become obvious.”

In Rotten Tomatoes, there are different ratings for top critics, all critics and for the general audience. Consider the ratings for the top movies for last weekend (August 14-16, 2015):

Title Top Critics All Critics Audience
1. Straight Outta Compton 78% 89% 96%
2. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 95% 93% 91%
3. The Man From Uncle 47% 67% 80%
4. Fantastic Four 5% 8% 22%
5. The Gift 96% 93% 81%
6. Ant-Man 72% 79% 90%
7. Vacation 25% 28% 57%
8. Minions 29% 54% 53%
9. Ricki and the Flash 51% 62% 54%
10. Trainwreck 83% 86% 75%

Looking over this table, we might hypothesize that if “Top Critics” represent some approximation of an objective baseline, then maybe movies based on established franchises (e.g., Fantastic Four, Vacation, and The Man From Uncle) get an audience bump of at least +15%, when they are of average quality. On the other end, unsettling movies like The Gift seem to take at least a -15% hit, even if they are excellent because the content is either unfamiliar or challenging.

Further, the Audience rating is hiding an important detail. There aren’t just “Top Critics”; there is also a “Top Audience”. Frequent movie-goers, defined as people that go to a movie theaters at least once a month, make up only 11% of the U.S. population, but they account for over 50% of movie ticket sales. The average American, in contrast, watches less than four movies a year in the theater.

If there are ~520 films released in the United States every year and if we suppose frequent movie-goers average no more than one film per week, they are watching no more than 10% of the movies released in a given year. How do they decide what to watch, showing-to-showing? If someone needs to evaluate 40 new movies every month, then they are going to rely largely on reviews. Using a meta-review site like Rotten Tomatoes that aggregates reviews combined with reading or listening to a particular trusted critic or two is a sensible approach to choosing. However, this approach is overkill for someone watching only four films a year. The selection process for the general audience is largely driven by popularity, and known franchises are more popular.

What impact does this have on film production? Primarily, the blockbuster becomes most important. These films see ever-increasing budgets and their content focuses on spectacle, established franchises and storylines that can translate across multiple geographic markets and with the broadest audience appeal possible, even if the quality is mediocre. Second, films not targeted to a large general audience need a defined audience demographic and has to balance expenses against an anticipated return. In order to turn a profit, this often means looking at the tastes of frequent movie-goers and making films that appeal to them. It also means creating niche movies to pull in niche audiences.

A recent Vox article stated that Universal made more money this year than any movie studio ever. How did they do it? Consider the top 12 films they released thus far, in order of gross revenue: Jurassic World (re-boot), Furious 7 (seventh installment), Minions (spin-off from Despicable Me), Pitch Perfect 2 (sequel), Fifty Shades of Grey (best-selling book), Trainwreck (niche celebrity), Ted 2 (sequel), Straight Outta Compton (biopic), The Boy Next Store (niche celebrity), Unfriended (genre), Seventh Son (genre), and Blackhat (genre).

The top five films were existing franchises. Trainwreck probably got greenlighted according to whatever logic is behind the Saturday Night Live comic pipeline, and while Trainwreck is more original than most SNL derived films, the studio was banking on the popularity of Amy Schumer and the built in audience that watches her show. Straight Outta Compton could be Exhibit A for a film targeting a specific audience, but at the same time, exhibiting a lot of general crossover appeal. Want to take bets that Straight Outta Compton is going to provide a template for future biopic films? Jennifer Lopez isn’t really a bankable star, but maybe has enough of a fan base to push her over the line to more likely than not to be profitable. The remainder are conventional genre pictures with unsurprising poor performance at the box office.

Netflix provides another interesting example. They invest in a series like House of Cards in order to appeal to a wide audience and differentiate Netflix from other streaming services. Comedy specials are for a niche audience. Netflix has produced dozens. They are fairly inexpensive to produce, and there’s probably significant overlap between people that would go to comedy show and those regularly going to movie theaters.

The Universal and Netflix examples show that there is a content continuum that moves from expensive blockbusters with high returns to niches with a modest expense/profit profile to original concepts, genre films and art house gambles that often lose money. Unique films with a new or an alternative vision do not have predictable audience appeal, which means studios have to pay for multiple failures out of a few successes. If a studio has $100 million to invest, it’s clear from looking at Universal’s list what content pays. Comfortable and familiar content for predictable audiences means money. Capitalism works best when you have a consistent, reproducible product, and if you grow up on a diet of Twinkies, you’re going to prefer Twinkies.

But, what about the “long tail”, or the idea that given enough of these niches over time, there will be a diversity of content and voices? The problem with the “long tail” is there is rarely enough profit in it for any but a small minority to make a living making content for it. Imagine trying to find funding for the modern equivalent of a cult movie like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Will the argument be that over decades, streaming, merchandising and other sales will provide a sizable return? Or, will it be viewed as disposable content that will never find an audience, but maybe interest investors in the producer’s next project or lay the groundwork for a successful Kickstarter campaign?

Movie studios are corporations. Why would anyone believe that a corporation would want to invest in films with profitability measured in decades rather than films that make a profit in a few years? Try to name an example of that ever happening. Consequently, film studios are not good at developing alternative viewpoints or funding the creation of challenging works of art. The market value of “the alternative” is only realized when it becomes the mainstream or solidifies into a predictable, profitable niche. Easier to bet on “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” than the original “Clerks”.

While a few people like Kevin Smith (director of “Clerks”, “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma”) or Shane Carruth (director of “Primer” and “Upstream Color”, both movies I would highly recommend) show it is possible to achieve a level of success in the “long tail”, their films are often made outside the traditional studio systems, television networks or even emerging production and distribution channels. The “long tail” may largely be a process of creating a portfolio and carving out a niche audience that can be pitched to investors. Creating content for these audiences is perhaps easier in an era where films can be shot on a consumer grade “smart phone” and uploaded to YouTube. But, then, what happens when the “long tail” gets longer, and film production moves from a hundred films or even several hundred films a year to a market of millions? What does that look like? The book market might provide some insight.

In the United States, ~300,000 books are published every year. According to Pew Research, Americans read, on average, 5 books a year. Best seller lists indicate that the books with the most sales top out at around a million copies. What does a popular book look like compared to most of the others? According to BookScan numbers, Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” was No. 20 on the Non-Fiction best seller list and it sold 260,814 units. How many books does the No. 10,000 spot sell?

One indication is that it is typical for self-publishers to print somewhere between 7,500-10,000 volumes for around $16,000. If you sell your book for $5, then you need to sell 3,200 books to cover production costs. If you sell it for $25, then it’s only 640. Most books, if they have an audience at all, will fit a small niche. In GoodReads, they have few ratings, often a 100 or less, and sales of a few thousand, at most. You don’t need to be an accountant to figure out that there’s not a lot of room to make a living writing books, and the people doing it seem to be doing it on the Kevin Smith and Shane Carruth model. They are funding the “long tail” with jobs, second mortgages and credit card debt.

Most writers are living in the tail, and the deeper into the tail you go, the question starts to be less about the quality of the work and more about whether the reader (and rater) is the intended audience. For example, there is no other source to learn about the Bin Laden tapes. The quality of professor Flagg Miller’s prose is largely irrelevant. As long as it meets a certain minimum standard, it’s going to be good enough. And once you get to that point, raters are making judgments on the work based on how well it conforms to their worldview or whether they find it interesting, rather than an objective evaluation of the work. How do you untangle the objective judgments about the work from subjective judgments about how well the rater conforms to the niche audience of the work, particularly in an environment where 300,000 new works are made every year, each with relatively small audiences?

One of the primitive ways we check our compatibility with a niche is through word-of-mouth and the development of genres, and sub-cultures. If I say something like: “György Pálfi’s ‘Free Fall’ is my Discordian film pick for 2014,” people that self-identify as Discordian will know that it’s probably going to get weird in a way they might like. To everyone else, it won’t mean anything. In the technology space, there is a similar thing going on with linked recommendations: “People who bought this book also bought X”. On the more sophisticated end, algorithms are creating taste profiles and making predictions based on pattern matching preferences, and this is where the problem with ratings really start down a troublesome path.

If Netflix is using algorithms to both make recommendations to you and also looking through datasets of your watching behavior to determine what is profitable to produce, then at some point, you have to start wondering when a feedback loop will come into play. For example, Netflix thinks I like movies featuring “Strong Female Leads” but is this my preference? Or, is this because I almost always watch movies with my wife? What happens when Netflix sees a broader pattern of interest in creating content with “Strong Female Leads” and produces “Grace And Frankie”? Now, whose interest is Netflix recommendations serving? Is it win/win or is there subtle interplay, where if something is produced based on a collective viewership dataset, then how can that not feed right back into the recommendation predictions I am receiving?

Then, there’s the dynamic I get into by looking at the predicted results and comparing them to how I felt about a particular film. I find myself trying to game my own ratings of Netflix titles, so it shows me more options of what I think I want to watch rather than more of what I actually do watch. I may have a thing for Gladiator or Clint Eastwood movies, but it doesn’t mean I want endless exercises on the genre. More to the point, how can I coax the algorithm to help me to find content that challenges me and develops my interests rather than recommending things that are great for the person I am today? I am not sure it can.

Rating systems are imperfect. Authors are paying for positive reviews on Amazon, which is understandable when you get your mind around the razor thin margins writers live on. There are examples of people clearly gaming the systems for fun, profit and in the pursuit of various agendas – such as our one star rater for “The Audacious Ascetic”. But, I think the thing that concerns me most as I think about the various rating sites I use is how much influence they have over what is created. In some sense, rating systems are a way of rating ourselves, and it changes both our cultural landscape and our very selves. It is tempting to see meta-ratings and reviews as a ticket to some strange Wonderland of “The Best” content, products or whatever. But, these ratings may serve as a chrysalis of stasis, trapping us in a cocoon of the generic, the popular, the profitable, and the established average with its +15% bump with a sprinkling of easily defined niches, celebrity vehicles and genre exercises. What, besides the “long tail”, will emerge from this environmental envelopment and this narrowing of our vision? What will it mean to the kind of people we will become? I don’t know, but on balance, I don’t think the path leads to more interesting, flourishing lives. Caveat evaluator.

A Theory of Documentation

“Documentation needs to include and be structured around its four different functions: tutorials, how-to guides, explanation and technical reference. Each of them requires a distinct mode of writing. People working with software need these four different kinds of documentation at different times, in different circumstances – so software usually needs them all.

And documentation needs to be explicitly structured around them, and they all must be kept separate and distinct from each other.”

—Daniele Procida, “What nobody tells you about documentation.” Divio. Accessed: November 12, 2018.

Probably applicable to any kind of documentation process you need to replicate, not just for software.

The Difference Between Possible and Practical

“The difference between the possible and the practical can only be discovered by trying things out. Therefore, even though the physics suggests that a thing will work, if it has not even been demonstrated in the lab you can consider that thing to be a long way off. If it has been demonstrated in prototypes only, then it is still distant. If versions have been deployed at scale, and most of the necessary refinements are of an evolutionary character, then perhaps it may become available fairly soon. Even then, if no one wants to use the thing, it will languish in the warehouse, no matter how much enthusiasm there is among the technologists who developed it.”

—Rodney Brooks. “The Rodney Brooks Rules for Predicting a Technology’s Commercial Success.” IEEE Spectrum. October 25, 2018.

Courtney Dauwalter Takes On Big’s Backyard Ultra

“By hand-selecting a field of ‘warriors,’ and dropping them into a last-man-standing arena, he’s managed to create an endurance event with the coup de gras thrust of bloodsport. ‘It’s an incredible spectacle to watch. It lends itself to drama,’ Backyard’s emperor told me two days prior to the opening bell. ‘I provide a venue where people can find greatness in themselves. They’ve got a lot of time to let these thoughts coalesce.’…

…’My eyes were droopy and I was seeing a lot of weird things—a giant 12-foot tall cowboy with a yellow bucket hat twirling a rope, an ice castle, people lining up along the road. That was during the daytime,’ she said. ‘At night, out on the road I tried to let my eyes close. Sometimes I started thinking about how much further we might go but I consciously brought myself back to stay in the loop. I tried to keep any doubts or breaking on the inside, even from my crew. Vocalizing didn’t help anything. Somewhere in the early 200-mile range, I may have told my crew that my legs were really tired.'”

—Sarah Barker. “Courtney Dauwalter Takes On Big’s Backyard Ultra.” Deadspin. November 9, 2018.

An account of Big’s Backyard ultramarathon, a race of a 4.1667 mile loop run every hour until only one runner remains. This year, it went for 283 miles over almost three days. It is put on by Gary Cantrell, who also organizes the Barkley Marathons.

The Minto Pyramid Principle for Writing

Barbara Minto‘s “The Minto Pyramid Principle” is a how-to guide for writing concise reports in a management consulting firm that has been around for years. I wrote a one sheet summary of her book over a decade ago that I still sometimes find to be a useful aid for writing. While it might be overkill for most writing we do, it is still a useful reference.

First Things First, Subject/Predicate

  1. What is the subject you are writing about?
  2. What is the question you are answering in the reader’s mind about the subject?
  3. What is the answer?

Make It a Story

  1. What is a situation where the Subject/Predicate can be illustrated?
  2. What problems complicate the situation?
  3. Do the question and answer still follow?

Find The Key Line or Take-Away

  1. What new question is raised by the answer?
  2. Will you answer it, inductively or deductively?
  3. If you answer inductively, what is your plural noun?

Always Do

  1. Dramatize the main idea using imagery.
  2. Imagine a doer – for analysis and writing.
  3. List all the points you want to make, then find relationships.

Rules

  1. Ideas at any level must always be summaries of the ideas below.
  2. Ideas in each grouping must always be the same kind of idea.
  3. Ideas in each grouping must always be logically ordered.

For Beginners

  1. Always try top down first.
  2. Use the Situation for thinking through the introduction.
  3. Don’t omit to think through the introduction.
  4. Always put historical chronology in the introduction.
  5. Limit the introduction to what the reader will agree is true.
  6. Be sure to support all key line points.

Initial Questions

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Where does it lie?
  3. Why does it exist?
  4. What could we do about it?
  5. What should we do about it?

Introductions/Openings

  1. Introductions are meant to remind not inform.
  2. They should contain the three story elements.
  3. Length of introduction depends on reader and subject.

Headings

  1. Never use only one element for a heading.
  2. Show parallel ideas in parallel form.
  3. Limit to the essence of thought.
  4. Don’t regard headings as part of the text
  5. Introduce each group of headings.
  6. Don’t overdo.

Critical Focus

  1. Question the order in a grouping – time, structure, or ranking.
  2. Question source(s) used in the problem solving process.
  3. Question the summary statement.
  4. Question your expression.

Structures for Evaluation

  1. Financial structure – consider strictly financial issues.
  2. Task structure – focus on how work gets done.
  3. Activity structure – focus on what needs to happen to create problem.
  4. Choice structure – bifurcate choices.
  5. Sequential structure – combination choice and activity structure.