Thought & Action

A Survival Manual for Dangerous Times

Things of Interest Relating To Interfaces

I’m interested in interfaces. They tie together several areas I find fascinating — from technology (what can you build?) to consciousness and the human mind (what can you understand?).

Here is an interface:

Here is another:

Here’s another, a slightly less obvious example:

That’s Facebook’s Graph API, an interface for third party apps to connect to and access Facebook’s data. It’s not a user interface, but it’s still an interface — an interface of a different kind, an “application programming interface”. The Apple Maps UI enables users to interact with Apple Maps; a cockpit enables pilots to interact with the plane; the Graph API is a means for systems outside of Facebook to interact with Facebook.

Programmers use interfaces at every level. Platforms like Facebook provide APIs for third-party developers to build apps on top of. Operating systems also provide APIs for software in user-land to interact with the underlying hardware. Every class and module provides an interface for other pieces of code to connect to.

A more profound example: programming languages themselves are interfaces between the programmer and the computer. The programmer might be thinking on the level of “how do I transform a set of user data into pixels on the screen?” The CPU operates on the level of electrons shuttling around in memory. A whole stack of programming languages provide an indirect interface for the programmer to interact with the CPU and achieve their high-level goal.

This post is mostly a brain dump of concepts, and other related links, that relate to interfaces.

Philosophy

The deepest philosophical topic that is relevant to thinking about interfaces is consciousness: what is human awareness and how does it function? How do humans gain knowledge of reality?

This breaks down into two relevant sub-topics: perception and cognition. Perception is the level of consciousness that takes raw sensory inputs and synthesises them into awareness of objects in the world — it is vision, hearing, touch, and so on. Cognition is the level of consciousness that takes perceptual observations and synthesises them into abstract knowledge — into concepts.

It’s a debatable philosophical point, but I side with the view that perception is the basis of all human knowledge. The exact workings of human perception are a subject of study for several areas of science, from neuroscience (which studies the underlying mechanics) to psychology (which studies the subjective internal experience). The workings of cognition are an even broader subject of study. Cognitive science studies some of the mechanisms of human thought, but, arguably, all of the humanities study different aspects of human cognition.

These fields provide knowledge that can be applied to build better interfaces — interfaces that better enable humans to understand the underlying system they are interacting with. (For example, a well-designed cockpit should enable the pilots to understand the overall state of the aeroplane, and all of its subsystems).

However, applying abstract scientific knowledge to the design of a concrete product is a very difficult problem. This is because the amount of potentially relevant knowledge is huge, and therefore difficult to hold in mind when dealing with a problem like “how should this screen be laid out?”. To be practically useful, the scientific knowledge of perception and cognition needs to be synthesised. The end product of such synthesis should be a set of principles that can be applied to concrete problems of interface design.

A specific sub-field of philosophy that is of special relevance is epistemology. Epistemology is the study of knowledge: how do you gain knowledge? Is certain knowledge possible? What is rationality? What is objectivity? One area of epistemology I think will be particularly useful is the knowledge of the nature of concepts and abstractions. This is basically the question of how you group observations of particular things in the world into categories.

Data Visualisation

Data visualisation is the field that studies how to effectively communicate data via the human visual system. In the new age of big data and data science, it has become an increasingly hot space.

The big name in data viz is Edward Tufte, whose Visual Display of Quantitative Information [Amazon] has deservedly become a classic. Tufte studied different information graphics, good and bad, and identified the qualities that differentiated the good from the bad.

One of Tufte’s examples — a graphic from Soviet newspaper Pravda intended to tell a positive story, but with no context for the reader to make an informed judgement. We can see that the value in question is going up, but not the rate of change. Is the value growing faster than before? Slower? It’s impossible to tell.

One of his big ideas was that graphic designers typically consider data to be boring, and so often jazz up information graphics in an attempt to be interesting, yet end up obscuring (or outright misrepresenting) the underlying data.

Tufte points out three strengths of the visual system: it is capable of vast “parallel processing”, it can quickly grasp the hierarchical structure of information, and it can perceive complex interrelationships between data points. The graph above (of weather in New York) is one of his examples of information design done well.

Tufte holds that good information graphic design requires the intersection of three areas: substance (the meaning of the underlying data), statistics (the mathematical analysis of the data), and design (the visual representation of the data).

Tufte began his career a few decades ago and he focuses on print media. One of his students, Stephen Few, has applied and extending his ideas to software user interfaces. Stephen Few’s book on dashboard design [Amazon] breaks down the different elements of visual processing, and explains how to effectively organise communicate data via a computer interface.

What I especially like about his book is that he integrates related concepts to develop his own ideas. For example, he makes use of the concepts of system 1 and system 2, the idea that there are two levels of cognitive processing; and situational awareness, a military concept denoting the mindset required to handle complex and rapidly-changing situations.

Since he has an active career as a UI consultant, he also provides many illustrations from projects he’s worked on — in other words, he’s able to combine both theoretical knowledge with knowledge gleaned from practical experience. It’s a powerful combination and an example of what I mentioned above — the synthesis of abstract knowledge into usable principles.

However, his work (or that which I’ve read) is focused mainly on passive data consumption. There’s a whole other question around the most effective way to enable user interactions with a data interface (for example, what options you present the user to query, filter and rearrange data).

Programming Language Design

It’s something I mentioned above. I don’t want to go into too much depth, because it’s a huge topic in it’s own right, but programming languages interest me as interfaces designed for smart people to achieve something very complicated.

When programmers build user interfaces, they often seem to approach the problem with the implicit mindset that “make the interface simple” means “assume the user is stupid”, and end up building something oversimplified that frustrates smarter users, or users that have a clear idea of what they want to achieve. The real trick is in building an interface that gives a huge amount of power and capability to the end user, without giving them something overcomplicated and confusing. Fortunately, a good illustration of “the right kind of simplicity” is provided by the top-tier of programming languages, such as PythonRubyOCamlErlangHaskell, and Lisp (and its many incarnations, such as Clojure).

These obviously fall on a spectrum — Haskell leans toward a mathematics PhD’s idea of simplicity (that is, theoretical purity), whereas Ruby, inspired by natural language, leans towards everyday understandability.

I wonder if any ideas from these languages can be applied to building interfaces for non-programmers? For example, an everyday spreadsheet, if you squint, looks kind of like a functional/dataflow programming language. And the accessible flexibility provided by spreadsheets has proved enormously valuable — it would be impossible to compute, but Microsoft Excel has probably helped produce hundreds of billions of dollars of economic value worldwide. (Think of all the countless organisations using Excel internally to plan, manage and organise projects).

Some additional interesting things

Brett Victor is an interaction designer who previously worked at Apple and has written a ton of interesting articles. I’m not sure how to categorise his work, but his interests seem to be tied around pushing the frontiers of user interfaces, and designing systems that more effectively augment human cognition. For example, his article on the Ladder of Abstraction proposes a new concept for thinking about complex, dynamic systems.

An illustration of Brett Victor’s “ladder of abstraction” concept.

Nicholas Carr is a technology journalist who wrote a book called The Shallows [Amazon], a study of how the internet is altering the way we think. It’s been a few years since I read the book but one idea I remember is the observation that different forms of technology augment human capabilities in different ways, and computers are part of a category of technology that augments our awareness and cognition. For example, the invention of maps enabled us to gain awareness of wide geographical areas. The invention of clocks enabled us to perceive time much more accurately.

The uber cognition-augmenter is writing, which changed the whole way we communicate complex concepts. (For example, it is much easier to develop a long and complicated argument in written form than via speech). He makes a strong case that long-form pieces of writing (books and essays) are the best way to communicate understanding of complicated topics, and I completely agree. Writing can synthesise vast amounts of information, and though summarisation is always valuable, some topics cannot be properly understood via brief summaries.


This article is something of an unstructured brain-dump of a range of topics I’m interested in. I’m currently investigating product ideas that lie in the intersection of the above ideas, such as tools that bridge the gap between data analysis and decision-making. I’m not sure yet what these will look like, but I suspect there are many big opportunities in the general space of communicating insights gleaned from data to end users.

Science and Technology Links

Robot submarines explore undersea rivers:

 

In many ways, undersea rivers are similar to the rivers we see on land. They have banks on either side. Smaller rivers called “tributaries” feed into larger ones. The rivers carve valleys into the sea floor. They follow meandering paths and can even change course, resulting in abandoned sections similar to oxbow lakes. Ultimately, they spill out onto the abyssal plain in the ocean depths in similar ways to a river estuary.

[…]

Rather than flows of fresh (or at least salty) water, undersea rivers are slurries of silt and sand that cascade along channels on the seabed. Each particle tumbles through the water under its own weight. A new river starts on the continental shelf like an avalanche in the mountains, picking up speed and momentum as it moves until it flows like a liquid. Once started, an undersea river can flow for weeks and even months at a time, moving the same amount of sediment in one go that all the world’s land-based rivers transport in an entire year.

[…]

Yet the sheer power of these enormous flows of sediment can make studying them a challenge. In January 2016, Paull and his team lost a fixed monitoring device, along with the one-tonne tripod it was mounted on, when a powerful sediment flow swept down the Monterey Canyon at 12mph (19.3km/h). They eventually found it, after following the pings from its beacon – three miles from its original position, almost completely buried in mud. When they managed to pull it out, they found steel plates on the frame had been bent out of shape and ground down to a knife-edge. A float on top of the tripod, made of carbon fibre and titanium, had also been badly eroded. Ten months later, they lost a second tripod in a similar manner, while another event saw an entire mooring dragged four miles (7.1km) out of position.

More deep sea news: 100 ships, fitted with state-of-the-art “multibeam sonar”, will spend the next 13 years mapping the ocean floor:

With only 5 percent of the ocean floor mapped, our knowledge of what’s beneath is about as detailed as a set dinner table with a wet blanket thrown over it. You can see the outlines, but how do you tell the candelabra from the turkey?

Fortunately, we’re about to whip the blanket off and reveal this aquatic meal in exquisite detail. In June, an international team of oceanographers launched the first effort to create a comprehensive map of all the world’s oceans. To map some 140 million square miles of sea floor, the Seabed 2030 project is currently recruiting around 100 ships that will circumscribe the globe for 13 years. The team, united under the non-profit group General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), recently announced it had received $18.5 million dollars from the Nippon Foundation for its efforts.

[…]

Modern ships like those that will be employed by Seabed 2030 are outfitted with multibeam bathymetry systems. These sensors ping large swaths of ocean floor with sound waves that bounce back, and are analyzed by computers on deck. One ship can now provide thousands of square kilometers’ worth of high-resolution maps during an expedition. Still, it would take a lone ship approximately 200 years to chart all 139.7 million square miles of ocean.

That’s where Seabed 2030 comes in. It will facilitate the collection of multibeam measurements on a coalition of ships charting previously unexplored territory, while also serving as a repository of existing map data. “When you look at a world map it seems like we’ve got it all figured out,” Jakobsson says. But those maps are just rough, artistic estimations of what the seafloor looks like. “I foresee a lot of new discoveries,” he says of the mapping project. After all, “our major discoveries have been because of mapping”—and there’s a lot more to be found.

Naturally, there are many enterprises waiting to put this knowledge to productive use, though, as always, environmentalists are not too happy:

The discoveries lying in wait beneath the waves aren’t only of interest to oceanographers. Hidden in the subsea mountains and valleys are vast pools of resources like precious metals, rare earth elements and even diamonds. “It’s like the old Klondike [Gold Rush], but the streams lead to the ocean,” says Steven Scott, professor of geology at the University of Toronto and consultant to the marine mining industry. “There’s mining for diamonds off of Southern Africa, tin deposits off of Indonesia, gold off Alaska.”

Currently, seafloor mining only takes place in these relatively shallow, near-shore locations, rather than in deep international waters. That’s partly because prospectors can’t target mining operations without accurate maps of most of the sea floor, but also because international laws make it challenging to exploit resources in international waters.

“We know so little about potential environmental impacts” of ocean mining, Gjerde says. “Some are starting to question if we know enough to authorize mining to proceed. We really need a better understanding of the deep sea before we start to do any irremediable harm.” Gjerde is co-author on a recent editorial in the journal Nature Geoscience arguing that while deep-sea mining might fuel economic development, the industry should increase its efforts to protect marine habitats.

[…]

“Mines on land are soon going to run out,” Scott says. “Every electronic device in the world has rare earth [metals] in it … we need raw resources.”  And what happens when we eventually run out of things to mine from the ocean? Scott says, “We start mining asteroids, or Mars.” Well, at least we’ve already got the maps for those.

For more on deep sea mining, see Nick Szabo’s series of essays (part one, part two, part three).


 

1200 workers convert an above ground train line to a subway line in 4 hours. Because the workers had such a tight time to complete the project, every step had to be tightly choreographed.

 

 

Tokyu Railways, the operators of the track, are one of Tokyo’s numerous competing private rail companies.

 


 

On a more pessimistic note: tech venture capitalists sink 10 million dollars into a “wireless ultrasound phone charger”. If built, this would no doubt be incredibly useful — the only wrinkle is that the very concept defies the laws of physics:

Having done my share of ultrasound physics AND wireless charging work in the past, the first thing that struck me about the idea was that, to transmit any appreciable amount of energy through sound waves, those waves would likely burn you, or at least deafen you, and any other small animals in the vicinity.  This is why charging is currently done inside copper wires surrounded by plastic – so you don’t get hurt!

[…]

I used nice round numbers and assumed things like perfect focusing and a 1 square meter transmitter (seriously… 3 feet by 3 feet??  The cracks are showing…) and then calculated how much power you’d end up with at the phone, and it turns out to be about 100x less than the standard wall charger.  That means it’ll take 100x longer to charge your phone with one of these, assuming you’re willing to deafen your dog and mount a 9 square foot speaker on the wall.  Instead of a charge taking overnight, with UBeam it’ll take three months.  Oh, and whatever you do, don’t ever stand in front of it or you might get killed!

UBeam’s investors included top tech investors Andreesen Horowitz, and it’s disheartening that they’re willing to throw money at such a project without doing proper due diligence. Though the company’s PR machine is still whirling, last year, their former VP of engineering wrote a series of blog posts confirming the above claims and describing the company as a sham. It’s a fascinating insight into the dark underbelly of technology innovation.

Life under Sharia Law

An interesting Reddit thread.

American expat in Saudi:

Executions happen on Friday. If you accidentally walk up to the crowd and look foreign, they will clear a way and push you to the front of the group. I don’t know why they do this. I asked one of my Saudi counterparts, and he said that it was to show how efficient their justice system is. I personally felt like it was more of an intimidation thing, but I can see both sides of the coin. I’m just glad I didn’t hurl in front of all those Saudis.

[…]

The Saudis definitely were not welcoming hosts. I mean, I had a chauffeur, a great place to live, and a fat paycheck, but they make it very clear that they are “above” you. It’s hard to describe, but it’s like a servant status if you are a westerner working there.

I almost forgot. Homosexuals 100% get killed there. It’s no joke. It reminded me of V for Vendetta. Just being accused of being a homosexual is a death sentence.

Native of Saudi:

Not many restrictions in childhood iirc and no stark differences in treatment between males and females. Once I hit puberty, things took a turn for the worst. I was not allowed to socialize with the other sex. Any females I used to play with as a child, I could no longer treat them the way as before. I couldn’t talk to them or be alone with them. Otherwise it would be assumed that I was after something sexual. I was basically treated as a horny animal who is not to be trusted around girls. And girls, pick up on this too and learn to be afraid of the other sex. Needless to say you couldn’t date or get to know the other sex. Schools, government offices, restaurants, mosques were all segregated. Shops and malls were policed and at some point, young males were outright banned from entering malls. If you’re a saudi single male, you’re constantly reminded of how undesirable you are. The country has nothing to offer for fun. No cinemas, of course no bars or clubs. Nothing but dining and shopping and some other few things. And in most of these places you’re greeted with a sign telling you, you’re not welcome. For families only. I spent my teenage years driving with friends on the streets, smoking shisha and spending time in one of my friends’ house. I do realize that despite how shitty this was, women had it worse. At the very least I didn’t need permission to do most of this stuff and if I had messed up, my family wouldn’t have come down on me so hard.

Another expat in Saudi:

Odd experience – While grocery shopping, muslim women would drop notes in your shopping cart. Comments were about doing anything to leave, meet me in America and will marry you, etc., etc..

[…]

Workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, etc., would be treated like dogs. Pay was about the equivalent of $125.00 a month. Heard horrible stories.

Had one co-worker gunned down in the street by terrorists.

Military contractor in Afghanistan:

In Afghanistan it was a daily occurrence to come across self described “deeply religious” clerics who took great pride in their “understanding” of sharia law. I remember one of our mechanics watching as the cleric lost his shit over catching a glance of a woman’s ankle and then 30 minutes later laughed as he called one of the tea boys over to bring him his noon time tea, before proceeding to molest the boy in the back room for an hour or so. It was a daily occurrence. He was respected in the community so he was untouchable. It was by no means an isolated incident. By their logic the tea boys (whom were generally orphans) were property and not people. So it was not a sin to molest them. Yet seeing a woman’s ankles would get them all worked up and everything would stop while they would go pray and wash and renew themselves.

Expat in Qatar:

The main issue is getting raped, particularly by a local. If you are sexually assaulted by an Emirati, just leave the country. Cut your losses, get the medical help and counselling you need in your home country, but don’t bother pursuing it. Because the perpetrators will almost certainly get off scot free and you (as a woman) may get imprisoned for sex before marriage. As a raped man it may even be worse if you got charged with homosexuality, even if you were straight.

Saudi native (female):

I really struggled with freedom of movement. We didn’t have a driver, and my brother hated driving me around, so I ended up not leaving the house for months at a time expect for school, uni or work. When I started saving up and later earning money, I would take taxis after I kept going late to work because of my brother. I got sexually harassed by a taxi driver a few times​, and I always made sure I’d write down the car plate number, registration number, and if possible the driver’s name and phone number. One time was pretty bad that I called the police and told them what had happened. I told them I knew the driver’s details, but all I was given was “for your own sake, keep this to yourself.” I later made the mistake of telling my mom what happened, minus the police incident and that I had the driver’s details. I made her promise not to tell any of my brothers, but she went ahead and told them. They treated me like a gullible idiot for not taking down the driver’s details, and ever since then, I wasn’t allowed to take taxis or be with a driver by myself, which resulted in my forced isolation at home again. Thing is, I didn’t give them the driver’s details because I knew they would have just gone and beat him up, and I didn’t want that bullshit, but I dug own grave by trusting my mother.

Several commenters discussing slavery:

I’m from India, and a colleague of my father was once telling me and my sister about the people who go to work in Dubai, a representative of some rich guy will go to some village, basically paint a very beautiful picture about the life in Emirates, basically ‘buying’ people in bulk, over there they are treated like shit and make about enough money to send a little home but not enough to go back there.

You get fucked over the day your passport gets confiscated. Most Indians who leave for work there are poor and illiterate. When they reach there the employer takes their passport away. And then to leave the country you need an exit visa to be signed by your employer (not happening anytime soon). The Indian Embassy does conduct efforts to rescue expats in such situations

Source: Friend who worked at a company that worked with the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to help expats come home safely.

In response to “India, Bangladesh actively collaborate with the enslavement of their own citizens”:

 As an Indian, I can say this is categorically false. If you approach the Indian Embassy they’ll do everything to help you. The problem is that most of these migrants are illiterate and know nothing about their rights and thus are unable to utilise these options, I suggest you to look up the Indian external affairs ministry’s work in saving multiple citizens from Saudi Arabia and UAE.

 

Gibbon on Ancient Virtue

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is, obviously, not light reading. Still, it’s more readable than you might expect. More rational, too — as a son of the Enlightenment, Gibbon is critical of religion; indeed, he’s one of the earliest real critics of Christianity, and wrote at a time when to do so still carried real personal risk. At the same time, he predates Marx, Freud, and other modern thinkers. Modern historians largely see him as old-fashioned, and his views as simplistic. In other words, he stands against both religious dogma and modern nihilism.

I disagree with the moderns. Though Gibbon lacks some modern knowledge (such as that gained from the last two centuries of archaeology), he is wrongly labeled as simplistic for setting out a grand integration of Roman history. Modern history tends to see historical events as being too complex to be traced back to individual causes; instead, events must be explained by a wide range of overlapping factors. But causes and effects form a tree-like structure, and everything can be traced back to a small set of fundamental causes. Toyota understands this, and so does Gibbon.

One keystone of his theory is the classical notion of virtue: habits of thought and action that lead to success in reality. Vice, in contrast, leads to destruction and disaster. The Roman Republic grew strong by building a social system that rewarded and encouraged the virtuous. After it became an empire, the social order slowly degenerated, and philosophical, wise, courageous, and far-sighted emperors gradually became replaced by brutal, vain, cruel, and short-sighted rulers. Gibbon traces this trend through the centuries, and through many aspects of Roman society.

In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for the ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade. The legions themselves, even at the time when they were recruited into the most distant provinces, were supposed to consist of Roman citizens. That distinction was generally considered, either as a legal qualification, or as a proper recompense for the soldier; but a more serious regard was paid to the essential merit of age, strength and military stature. […] After every qualification of property has been laid aside, the armies of the Roman emperors were still commanded, for the most part, by officers of a liberal birth and education; but the common soldiers, like the mercenary troops of modern Europe, were drawn from the meanest, and very frequently from the most profligate, of mankind.

The public virtue which amongst he ancients was denominated patriotism, is derived from a strong sense in our own interest in the preservation and prosperity of the free government of which we are members. Such a sentiment, which had rendered the legions of the republic almost invincible, could make but a very feeble impression on the mercenary servants of a despotic prince; and it became necessary to supply that defect by other motives, of a different, but not less forcible nature; honour and religion. […] The golden eagle, which glittered in front of the legion, was the object of their fondest devotion; nor was it esteemed less impious, than it was ignominious*, to abandon that sacred ensign in the hour of danger.

* (Ignominious: very shameful; reproachful; dishonourable; infamous).

You can get a taste of the rest of the book here.

Objectivist Epistemology

Two years ago — in August of 2015 — I read a book that changed the direction of my life.

I was living in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, at the time. I had about six months worth of savings in the bank and was taking some time out to recover my sanity and decide on my future life direction. I rented a cheap studio apartment and spent my days riding around on a motorised scooter and sitting in hipster cafes (alongside Western digital nomads and Thai graphic designers), reading up on philosophy, history and finance, in between endless games of Civ IV.

At the time I’d also been diving deep into a range of different philosophies and worldviews. I’d first read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged a year earlier, and loved it.

(I think it’s good to first read Ayn Rand in your mid-20s. I notice many people who first read her as a teenager, initially become fanatically obsessed with her ideas, and then become disillusioned a few years later, ascribing their earlier obsession to immaturity and youthful ignorance. I read Atlas just before I turned twenty-five, and was surprised at the philosophical and emotional depth contained within. But my thoughts on that book are a topic for another post).

However, I was still skeptical of Ayn Rand’s philosophical system. I wanted to integrate the insights I’d gained from different belief systems and worldviews, but how would one go about that? I didn’t think it likely that I was the lone genius who would be able to solve all the riddles of philosophy. Still, I was surprised that after long centuries of human thought, we were nowhere close to a consensus. (For a while I was enamoured with the idea that the collective intelligence of humanity would somehow converge on the right answer, as different belief systems were tried and tested in the crucible of history).

This was my state of mind when I discovered a whole stack of Ayn Rand’s non-fiction in a hippy bookstore near Chiang Mai’s old city walls. I bought Philosophy: Who Needs It, a collection of her essays, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, her only real non-fiction book.

Now, I’d been planning to read ITOE for a while, so I don’t want to turn this story about serendipitous twists of fate. Had I not discovered the book in that particular shop in that particular time, I’d probably have simply bought it on Kindle. But it was a fitting place to discover such a book, since within its pages I found enlightenment. In its pages, Ayn Rand, widely held to be the shallowest, most evil, most brutal philosopher of the 20th century, seeks to uncover eternal truths about the nature of human consciousness.

I think she succeeds. Here’s the first few paragraph of chapter one, “Cognition and Measurement”, so you can judge for yourself:

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

There’s a lot going on just in these few paragraphs. Ayn Rand is an extremely careful and deliberate writer. You can look at every word and ask “why is this particular word used here?” In particular, you can ask “why does she not use this near-synonym, or why does she differentiate these two words?”, because she is very careful about delineating concepts.

Likewise with sentence structure. It’s from Ayn Rand I learned about the power and beauty of grammar. Words refer to concepts, the basic elements of human thought; grammar, by teaching us the proper ways of joining words into sentences, therefore teaches us the proper ways of relating concepts and structuring our thinking.

Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration.

This sentence alone integrates many observations.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness” — the “as a state of awareness” implies that there are other ways of looking at consciousness — for example, as a faculty possessed by living beings. Right now, we’re considering it as a particular condition awareness can be in. “Consciousness” is a slippery term that has caused endless confusion in philosophy (and in mysticism, and religion), but “awareness” is pretty straightforward. Other “states of awareness” might include “drowsy” or “delirious”, so by “consciousness” I take Ayn Rand to here mean “the state of awareness where the agent is fully aware of reality”.

“Consciousness, as a state of awareness, is not a passive state, but an active process” — hang on, “consciousness as a state is not a state” — is Ayn Rand contradicting the law of identity right out of the gate? No, she’s simply saying it’s not a passive state. Because of her careful use of language, we know the implication is that “process” and “state” aren’t mutually exclusive. In this case, “a state of awareness” can be “an active process”.

(A process is an ongoing activity or series of actions. In Ayn Rand’s view, consciousness is a faculty that, like any faculty of a living organism, serves the organism’s survival as a self-sustaining process. So “consciousness” is like “metabolism” — it’s an ongoing activity an organism performs to remain alive. Or, it’s one sub-process that helps maintain the broader process that is the organism’s life).

“an active process that consists of two essentials: differentiation and integration” — Ayn Rand is all about thinking in essentials. What are the essentials of the process that is consciousness? “Differentiation and integration”. Splitting and lumping. Consciousness — any consciousness, human or animal — is an active process that constantly separates things, then recombines them.

It’s no coincidence that Ayn Rand uses mathematical terms here, as she believes that there is a deep relationship between cognition and mathematics. “Integration”, in particular, is a fundamental concept in ITOE, and in her philosophy as a whole.

That’s just the first sentence. Let’s look at the second:

Although, chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual — epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage.

“chronologically, man’s consciousness develops in three stages: the stage of sensations, the perceptual, the conceptual” — this was really big for me when I read it. I’d been studying Buddhism in depth, and though Buddhism is heavily focused on breaking down consciousness to a more basic level, I hadn’t encountered a clear breakdown of these three stages. Many Buddhist writings seemed to imply that there were two stages, though the different schools seemed to identify them differently, e.g. sensations vs. combined perception and concepts (in Vipasanna), or concepts vs. combined sensations & perceptions (in Zen). (This is a topic for another post, however).

“Although chronologically, …, epistemologically, …” — again, note the careful sentence structure. This careful balancing of her sentences allows Ayn Rand to convey the complex organisation of her ideas to the reader.

“epistemologically, the base of all of man’s knowledge is the perceptual stage” — this is another of Ayn Rand’s big philosophical ideas. Perceptual observation is the basis of all knowledge. At the perceptual level our minds have already performed some automatic integrations on raw sensory data. This touches on a major debate in Western philosophy, between rationalists and empiricists. Rand in some sense can be said to be closer to the empiricists, though she seeks to carve out a third position. (Roughly, where perceptual observation is the base, but conceptual cognition is the essential next step).

Then the next two paragraphs expand on the nature of sensations and percepts:

Sensations, as such, are not retained in man’s memory, nor is man able to experience a pure isolated sensation. As far as can be ascertained, an infant’s sensory experience is an undifferentiated chaos. Discriminated awareness begins on the level of percepts.

A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.

Differentiation and integration appear again: the sensory level is “undifferentiated chaos” the perceptual level is built on “automatically retained and integrated” sensations. “It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality.” Perception is how we apprehend reality. This might sound innocuous, but it sets the stage for Ayn Rand’s fundamental conflict with Immanuel Kant, who held that perception ultimately only gives us a world of representations, and not access to true reality.

I’ve spent a lot of time examining one page, to show how much depth there is to these ideas. From these first few paragraphs, Ayn Rand then builds out the foundations of her theory of knowledge. She explains how the human mind integrate percepts into concepts, how concepts relate to reality, how we form higher-level concepts through abstraction from abstractions, how we form concepts of consciousness itself, the role of axioms in cognition, and how the properties of consciousness determine the correct methods of human cognition. It’s a ground-breaking, mind-expanding book.

For me, reading ITOE in Chiang Mai, I felt like arriving on dry land after having nearly drowned in the ocean. I finally saw how it was possible to gain a certain foundation for one’s knowledge. Once I understood this basis, I was able to go back to Ayn Rand’s other writings, and see how the system fit together. I also realised that she’d gone much further than other philosophers. It was as though she was Mendeleev, having developed the philosophical equivalent of the periodic table, when the others were still at the level of alchemists, groping around in a foggy realm of mystery.

By changing my thinking, ITOE changed my life. To illustrate its importance, I split my adult life into three phases: university, from 2007-2012, the crazy years, from 2012-2015, when I was all over the place, and the rational phase, from 2015 to the present, after I integrated Ayn Rand’s philosophy into my decision-making, re-analysed my fundamental beliefs, and set about identifying my deepest values and purpose in life.

Needless to say, I highly recommend grabbing a copy.

Two Automation Quotes

“Experts” agree that mass automation is imminent. Real experts are skeptical. (Bolding is mine):

Yes, someday TerrAvion might go unmanned, but as a former military drone unit commander, I both look forward to the day and think it is further off than people in the Valley think. We’ve had the technology for unmanned trains for 60 years and yet when all you care about is price per ton/passenger mile, sometimes an operator is the last part of the labor fraction to take out. Mapping is a similar price per pixel type operation.

Smallsats are cool, but they are really only attacking price and reliability of satellite–they aren’t even close to say Pleaides or WorldView3 constellations on performance, let alone matching RapidEye for agriculture.

Regarding the disposition of the civilian mapping data market, I think if you look at what the military did in Iraq and Afghanistan the unlimited defense budgets of the 2000s might give an idea of what civilians of the 2020s will be doing. The satellites mostly got used by division and theater level staff to answer long term questions, say 20% of questions. Hand launched drones, which were ubiquitous in company storage rooms, but not in operations answered a few micro questions say 5% of aerial data needs. The remainder of planning questions got answered by air-breathing aircraft of one type or another. Not sure why the venture community has not largely not noticed this.

Source.

Air travel has always been rich with conspiracy theories, urban legends, and old wives’ tales. I’ve heard it all. Nothing, however, gets me sputtering more than the myths and exaggerations about cockpit automation—this pervasive idea that modern aircraft are flown by computer, with pilots on hand merely as a backup in case of trouble. The press and pundits repeat this garbage constantly, and millions of people actually believe it. In some not-too-distant future, we’re told, pilots will be engineered out of the picture altogether.

[…]

But one thing you’ll notice is that these experts tend to be academics—professors, researchers, etc.—rather than pilots. Many of these people, however intelligent and however valuable their work might be, are highly unfamiliar with the day-to-day operational aspects of flying planes. Pilots too are guilty. “Aw, shucks, this plane practically lands itself,” one of us might say. We’re often our own worst enemies, enamored of gadgetry and, in our attempts to explain complicated procedures to the layperson, given to dumbing down. We wind up painting a caricature of what flying is really like and in the process undercut the value of our profession.

[…]

A flight is a very organic thing—complex, fluid, always changing—in which decision-making is constant and critical. For all of its scripted protocols, checklists, and SOP, hundreds if not thousands of subjective inputs are made by the crew, from deviating around a cumulus buildup (how far, how high, how long), to troubleshooting a mechanical issue to handling an onboard medical problem. Emergencies are another thing entirely. I’m talking about the run-of-the-mill situations that arise every single day, on every single flight, often to the point of task saturation. You’d be surprised how busy the cockpit can become.

[…]

I would like to see a drone perform a high-speed takeoff abort after a tire explosion, followed by the evacuation of 250 passengers. I would like to see one troubleshoot a pneumatic problem requiring an emergency diversion over mountainous terrain. I’d like to see it thread through a storm front over the middle of the ocean. Hell, even the simplest things. On any given flight there are innumerable contingencies, large and small, requiring the attention and subjective appraisal of the crew.

Source.

Review of Peikoff’s “The DIM Hypothesis”

An article I wrote very soon after I became seriously interested in Objectivism, in 2015. It’s not the article I’d write now, and I make many comments below that I wouldn’t make today. But I leave it up as interesting example of my intellectual development.

Grand sweeping theories of history aren’t so popular these days. Neither are Objectivists. So it’s not surprising that a grand theory of history based on the tenets of Objectivism has been virtually ignored.

The DIM Hypothesis claims to offer such a theory, and is the product of over ten year’s work by Leonard Peikoff, the founder of the Ayn Rand Institute and the man designated by Rand as her “intellectual heir”.

The book touches on a topic of common interest to conservatives: what caused the modern-day degeneration of Western thought and culture? Was the cause merely, as Spengler suggested, the entropic decay inevitable to all complex societies? Or was it the product of determined action by a particular group of people? Did it all begin with the progressive intellectuals? Or the Puritans? Or Luther?

Objectivists have an unusual answer: Kant.

More specifically, a mode of thought which originated with Kant, and which came to dominate every field of knowledge in the centuries following the Enlightenment.

Peikoff’s book describes three fundamental modes of thought: the Disintegrative mode, established by Kant; the Integrative mode, established by Aristotle; and the Misintegrative mode, established by Plato.

Peikoff differentiates the three modes by their stance towards “integration”, a cognitive process which, in the Objectivist theory of knowledge, is essential to rational thought: integration essentially involves logically combining pieces of knowledge into systematic wholes. (“Synthesis” is a near-synonym). At the most basic level of thinking, humans integrate perceptual observations into abstract concepts; at higher levels, they integrate concepts into propositions, propositions into theories, and, sometimes, theories into universal systems of knowledge.

Thinkers can choose to integrate or not, and they can integrate validly or invalidly. Disintegrators eschew integration wherever possible; integrators perform valid integrations; misintegrators integrate, but invalidly. (Peikoff judges validity based on his Objectivist framework, which, as I’ll discuss below, some might object to).

If integration is so great, why isn’t everyone a dedicated integrator? Because, Peikoff suggests, people hold differing beliefs on the efficacy of human reason. These beliefs fall into three broad stances:

Stance #1: human consciousness is necessarily divorced from ultimate reality, and the world we observe is merely a construct of our perception; logic is the manipulation of meaningless symbols; therefore neither observation nor logic can give us true knowledge.

Stance #2: the world we observe is merely a shadowy reflection of true reality, which is an abstract realm lying beyond space and time; observation of reality is therefore misleading or worthless; deductive logic built on a priori axioms (often axioms based on mystical insight or revealed truth) is the proper means of gaining knowledge.

Stance #3: the world is a knowable realm of concrete entities, perceivable by human senses; inductive logic is the tool which enables us to organise our perceptual observations; logic combined with observation is a reliable path to knowledge.

The first represents Kantian disintegration; the second Platonic misintegration; and the third Aristotelian integration. Not everyone holds these beliefs consciously. Indeed, most people don’t. However, Peikoff holds, the deepest thinkers — the ones who have the greatest influence on cultural developments — do tend to follow one of these stances explicitly.

Peikoff labels Aristotle, Newton, and (unsurprisingly) Ayn Rand as archetypical integrators; Plato, Hegel and Einstein as archetypical misintegrators; and Kant, Rawls and Niels Bohr as archetypical disintegrators.

The systems defined by Plato, Kant and Aristotle are internally consistent, and so act as stable attractors in intellectual history.  However, Peikoff also defines two ”mixed modes”, Worldly Supernaturalism and Knowing Skepticism: misintegrators who maintain some commitment to reality, and disintegrators who maintain some commitment to reason. “Knowing Skepticism” is, in fact, the dominant intellectual tendency in our culture, and reveals itself in the obsession for statistical methods and p-value hunting in science, or for unprincipled pragmatism in politics.

I’ll use Peikoff’s labels to designate the five modes from here on:

I: integration (Aristotle)

M1: partial misintegration (“Worldly Supernaturalism”)

M2: pure misintegration (Plato)

D1: partial disintegration (“Knowing Skepticism”)

D2: pure disintegration (Kant)

The broad sweep of Western history within Peikoff’s framework is then as follows. The Greeks represented the world’s first I culture, and saw the establishment of I and M2 philosophy by Aristotle and Plato in Athens. The rise of the pragmatic but pious Romans represented a swing from I towards M1; Peikoff paints interesting portraits of the freedom-loving Greeks and the duty-bound Romans, and of the contrasts in their respective cultures.

The dark and middle ages were dominated by pure Platonism in the form of Christianity (M2), and were followed by a swing towards M1 with the rediscovery of Aristotle by the medieval scholastics. The Enlightenment — in particular, Newton’s revolutionary “system of the world” — led to another brief flourishing of I, but Kant’s “Copernican revolution of thought” represented the establishment of D, which would slowly come to dominate Western culture. Fascism and Marxism are both typed as M2; modern liberal culture is largely dominated by D1, but is gradually moving towards D2.

The bulk of the book is devoted to applying the framework to four broad fields, chosen to best illustrate the role of conceptual thought in history: literature (the most conceptual of arts), physics (the most conceptual of sciences), politics, and education. Conservatives will likely agree with much of Peikoff’s analysis, and possibly also encounter some fresh insights. For example, though Peikoff describes in detail progressive ideology in education (D2), and its rejection of traditional pedagogy in favour of self-expression and socialisation, he also notes that modern education is more “pluralist” (D1) than progressive; not committed to a single ideology but to a range of contradictory goals, and not teaching leftist dogma but simply a confusing mishmash of subjects.

He also distinguishes traditional socialism from postmodern egalitarianism, saying that the latter is not merely the evolution of the former, but is something fundamentally different. Socialists tended to view society as an entity with an existence transcending that of individual people, and had a concrete plan for achieving their utopian future; egalitarians, lacking a coherent worldview or plan, aim only to remove “inequality” or “oppression” or “hatred” from the world — and see these things as intrinsically bad, regardless of context. Socialists therefore are typed as M2; modern-day egalitarians (whether environmentalists, feminists, OWS or others) are typed as D2.

The section on physics is possibly the most questionable, as Peikoff is not a physicist, and he appears to be relying heavily on second-hand summarisations. Peikoff cites Newton as an exemplar of I for his establishment of the modern scientific method; Einstein is labelled as M1 for his tendency to reify abstractions; quantum physicists are labelled as D2 for their rejection of Aristotelian logic; and string theorists are labelled as M2 for their rationalistic theory of everything. The obvious problem here is that the latter three, even if wrong, did expose errors with Newtonian mechanics; that said, it is possible that modern physics has fallen down various philosophically-invalid rabbit holes, which would explain its split into mutually incompatible schools of thought.

The obvious danger with any grand theory of history is that the complexity of mankind’s story in shunted into an over-simplified conceptual scheme, where contradictory evidence is ignored to maintain a neat and tidy framework: in other words, misintegration. Peikoff naturally takes care to avoid this trap. The early chapters of the book, which aim to show that integration is the fundamental intellectual issue, are themselves a good example of integrated thought in practice — and, at the same time, demonstrate that Objectivists are not the intellectual lightweights they are often painted as.

I think Peikoff makes a solid case for the existence of the three modes, and for these three representing the fundamental categories of thinking styles. Certainly, one of the defining characteristics of modern thought is the eschewal of system-building and the rejection of any coherent philosophy as “dogma” and “ideology”, and I think Peikoff is correct in diagnosing this tendency as disintegration, and in linking it to the commonly-held belief that human knowledge must always be uncertain and limited.

His distinction between integration and misintegration is more slippery, since it rests on a notion of “validity” defined within the framework of Objectivism. Theists may well object to the requirement for valid integrators to be either atheists or deists; they (and others who share Peikoff’s rejection of modern nihilism, but not his Objectivism) might be tempted to simplify the analysis by grouping together M and I. In this viewpoint, history would become a two-sided battle between integration and disintegration, between light and darkness, between divine knowledge and wilful ignorance. (Peikoff notes that this is precisely how M-thinkers have tended to view history). I think that there is, however, a fundamental difference between the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions of rationality, and that both are fundamentally distinct from modern skeptical nihilism; on this basis, I think the D/I/M trichotomy is justified.

I would have preferred to see more justification, though, for the notion that “philosophy is the prime mover of history”: the assumption that political, economic and social trends are all caused by intellectual movements, which ultimately stem from one of the three fountainheads (Plato, Kant or Aristotle). Certainly, many seemingly disparate movements often have shared philosophical roots. However, other factors also influence the spread of ideas. The Renaissance didn’t happen merely because Thomas Aquinas made Aristotle hip again (as Peikoff and Rand sometimes suggest), but also because of the printing press and because of Europe’s economic and technological development. Additionally, trying to link all intellectual developments to the three fountainheads seems to be based on an excessive belief in the primacy of individual genius.

Peikoff ends the book with a very unusual prediction: religious totalitarianism in the United States within fifty years.

His reasoning is that the current D-dominated culture is likely to fizzle out from its own internal inconsistency, and, without a strong representative of I waiting in the wings, a resurgence of M2 is the overwhelmingly likely outcome. Based on current trends, this will most likely be in the form of evangelical protestantism. Peikoff draws an analogy to Weimar Germany, where the pragmatic mainstream parties of both left and right (D1) could offer no firm resistance to the fanatically consistent ideology of the Nazis (M2).

Peikoff’s modal breakdown of the US population is interesting:

D1: 15 million people; mostly college graduates,

D2: “high 6 or low 7 figures”; hardcore activists, generally allied with D1.

M1: a small niche, including some “old-school Catholic theologians” (most mainstream, liberal churches are modeless).

M2: between 60 and 120 million people; baptist, evangelical or similar Protestant churches.

I: 100,000 at most; Objectivists being the only significant representatives of this mode.

As for Europe, with no strong native religious movement or other ideological group posing a serious threat to the reigning orthodoxy, Peikoff sees the culture continuing to be dominated by D1 and D2 for the foreseeable future — unless, of course, a large and fanatical religious group moves in from outside.

Objectivism today is in a strange place. Rand’s novels are extremely popular, and have seen a surprising increase in popularity since the 2009 financial crisis, but her non-fiction remains largely unknown and her philosophy is almost universally dismissed in both left and right-wing circles.

Personally, I think Objectivism is worthy of further study for anyone with an interest in preserving the philosophical, rational, scientific, industrial civilisation in which we live.

For those who want a comprehensive overview of Objectivist thought, I’d recommend Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It, followed by her Romantic Manifesto and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology — the first is a readable collection of her essays on diverse topics, and the latter two are arguably her deepest non-fiction writings.

An Ideological History Of Early Christianity [Full Text]

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I’m interested in ideologies. How do ideologies grow, how do they organise, and how do they suppress competing ideologies?

The story of Christianity is an epic of ideological warfare: a tiny religious cult that grew to dominate a continent-spanning empire, and then, after the empire’s collapse, built a thousand-year organisation amidst the ruins.

One core assumption I make is that, to understand the actions of agents in history, one must assume that people’s actions were moral and rational within the framework of the ideology within which they operated. If early Christian beliefs were true, it would have been rational and moral for Christians to convert the world to their creed; if Roman beliefs about Christianity were true, it would have been rational and moral for the Romans to uproot Christianity from their society.

If one truly believed that one belonged to the one true faith, living in a fallen world dominated by an evil empire, then devoting one’s life to bringing as many fallen souls as possible back to the one true God would seem to be the right and proper thing to do. Likewise, if one truly believed that one’s glorious civilisation was being corrupted from within by a bizarre, subversive, fanatical cult, then devoting all one’s power to breaking that cult would seem entirely justified and, indeed, the only safe and prudent course of action.

One can only judge others — including others acting in alien cultures long ago — from the framework of some moral code. If one takes for granted that both sides in an ancient, alien conflict were wrong — how is one to know that the modern, seemingly-conventional moral framework one operates within is right?

At the time I initially wrote this article, one thing that struck me (at the time) as highly unexpected was the extreme commitment to intellectual rigour of early Christians. Early Christianity was not a collection of vague platitudes formed by feel-good consensus: early Christians lived every premise of their creed, fought over a single word in their doctrine, and died defending their ideas. Though such an attitude may seem utterly alien to moderns, to those who upheld it, such an attitude was a necessary in the maintenance of absolute devotion to everything good, right and true.

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An Ideological History Of Early Christianity

I submitted an epically-long (6000+ words) post to an intellectual website (now offline) on the topic of Christianity in Ancient Rome. It was very interesting to research and to write about — I love mentally vacationing in the ancient world, and the story turned out to have many twists I wasn’t previously aware of.

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Spengler On Technology

Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“Decline of the West”) is one of the most fascinating books I’ve come across. To modern ears he sounds both extremely mystical and extremely traditionalist. This is a weird combination for most, and an intriguing one for explorers of alternative ideas.

In a recent post I dissed the current obsession for simplicity and digestibility in online writing. Spengler is the opposite — not only is every paragraph of his a jewel reflecting a whole galaxy of novel thinking, the book is also extremely long. (I haven’t yet read it cover to cover — maybe some time in the next two decades.)

Let’s just dive right in, and I’ll explain Spengler’s worldview and thought processes as we go. The following is all drawn from the last chapter in the book:

Very different is the Faustian technics, which with all its passion of the third dimension, and from earliest Gothic days, thrusts itself upon Nature, with the firm resolve to be its master. Here, and only here, is the connexion of insight and utilization a matter of course. Theory is working hypothesis from the outset. The Classical investigator “contemplated” like Aristotle’s deity, the Arabian sought as alchemist for magical means (such as the Philosophers’ Stone) whereby to possess himself of Nature’s treasures without effort,’ but the Western strives to direct the world according to his will.

‘Faustian’ is Spengler’s term for contemporary Western civilisation. He’s contrasting its approach to technology to the Classical (i.e., Greek and Roman) and Arabian (i.e., anything in the Middle East from about 500 AD) civilisations. Unlike other writers, Spengler does not see modern Western civilisation as a continuation of Classical civilisation — although the former originated in the ruins of the latter, it’s a distinct creature with a distinct soul.

The reference to the “third dimension” is Spengler’s idea that a key part of the soul of every culture is a unique conception of space — for Western culture, this is infinite three-dimensional space. The Classical spatial motif is the perfect circle, whereas the Arabian one is an enclosed sphere (or dome, or cave), with light shining in.

The Faustian inventor and discoverer is a unique type. The primitive force of his will, the brilliance of his visions, the steely energy of his practical ponderings, must appear queer and incomprehensible to anyone at the standpoint of another Culture, but for us they are in the blood. Our whole Culture has a discoverer’s soul. To dis-cover that which is not seen, to draw it into the light-world of the inner eye so as to master it — that was its stubborn passion from the first days on. All its great inventions slowly ripened in the deeps, to emerge at last with the necessity of a Destiny. All of them were very nearly approached by the high-hearted, happy research of the early Gothic monks. Here, if anywhere, the religious origins of all technical thought are manifested. These meditative discoverers in their cells, who with prayers and fastings wrung God’s secret out of him, felt that they were serving God thereby. Here is the Faust-figure, the grand symbol of a true discovering Culture. The Scientia ixperimenfalis, as Roger Bacon was the first to call nature-research, the insistent questioning of Nature with levers and screws, began that of which the issue lies under our eyes as a countryside sprouting factory-chimneys and conveyor- towers. But for all of them, too, there was the truly Faustian danger of the Devil’s having a hand in the game, the risk that he was leading them in spirit to that mountain on which he promises all the power of the earth. This is the significance of the perpetuum mobile dreamed of by those strange Dominicans like Petrus Peregrinus, which would wrest the almightiness from God. Again and again they succumbed to this ambition; they forced this secret out of God in order themselves to be God. They listened for the laws of the cosmic impulse in order to overpower it. And so they created the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone. But with that they overpassed the slender border-line whereat the reverent piety of others saw the beginning of sin, and on it, from Roger Bacon to Giordano Bruno, they came to grief. Ever and ever again, true belief has regarded the machine as of the Devil.

The “early Gothic monks” are mentioned here because, in Spengler’s model, they belong in the early springtime of Western civilisation, and he discerns in their thoughts and actions the same impulse as that of later Western scientists and inventors. All the “slowly ripened in the deeps” and “necessity of a Destiny” relate to Spengler’s idea that civilisations are essentially organic entities, which grow and unfold according to their cosmic destiny.

(If I’ve lost you here, you can appreciate Spengler’s insights while discarding most of his metaphysical ponderings. He’s basically looking for common patterns in the development, rise, and fall of civilisations. These commonalities indeed exist, and for similar reasons to those which cause dolphins to look a lot like sharks — although unrelated, they are shaped by the same environmental pressures. Both also have unique characteristics, which lead to further unique developments — warm-blooded dolphins need to consume more food but also can support larger brains, and so on.

The idea of reading someone like Spengler is not to accept or reject their views wholesale, but to translate their thoughts into your own conceptual terms and see if that generates insights.)

I should also mention that Spengler refers to the organic phase of a civilisation as a Culture, and sees civilisations as the frozen end product of a Culture: the winter-time period after which no fundamental changes occur. (Germans of Spengler’s time often saw themselves representing a romantic young Kultur against decadent Anglo-French civilisation). I’m using the two terms interchangeably.

The passion of discovery declares itself as early as the Gothic architecture — compare with this the deliberate form-poverty of the Doric ! — and is manifest throughout our music. Book-printing appeared, and the long-range weapon. On the heels of Columbus and Copernicus come the telescope, the microscope, the chemical elements, and lastly the immense technological corpus of the early Baroque.

Then followed, however, simultaneously with Rationalism, the discovery of the steam-engine, which upset everything and transformed economic life from the foundations up. Till then nature had rendered services, but now she was tied to the yoke as a slave, and her work was as though in contempt measured by a standard of horse-power. We advanced from the muscle-force of the Negro, which was set to work in organized routines, to the organic reserves of the Earth’s crust, where the life-forces of millennia lay stored as coal; and to-day we cast our eyes on inorganic nature, where water-forces are already being brought in to supplement coal. As the horse-powers run to millions and milliards, the numbers of the population increase and increase, on a scale that no other Culture ever thought possible. This growth is a product of the Machine, which insists on being used and directed, and to that end centuples the forces of each individual. For the sake of the machine, human life becomes precious. Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate. The entire Culture reaches a degree of activity such that the earth trembles under it.

This section’s pretty straightforward, but I wanted to highlight the following: “Work becomes the great word of ethical thinking; in the eighteenth century it loses its derogatory implication in all languages. The machine works and forces the man to co-operate.”

And what now develops, in the space of hardly a century, is a drama of such greatness that the men of a future Culture, with other soul and other passions, will hardly be able to resist the conviction that “in those days” nature herself was tottering. The politics stride over cities and peoples; even the economics, deeply as they bite into the destinies of the plant and animal worlds, merely touch the fringe of life and efface themselves. But this technique will leave traces of its heyday behind it when all else is lost and forgotten. For this Faustian passion has altered the Face of the Earth.

This is the outward- and upward-straining life-feeling — true descendant, therefore, of the Gothic — as expressed in Goethe’s Faust monologue when the steam-engine was yet young. The intoxicated soul wills to fly above space and Time. An ineffable longing tempts him to indefinable horizons. Man would free himself from the earth, rise into the infinite, leave the bonds of the body, and circle in the universe of space amongst the stars. That which the glowing and soaring inwardness of St. Bernard sought at the beginning, that which Griinewald and Rembrandt conceived in their backgrounds, and Beethoven in the trans-earthly tones of his last quartets, comes back now in the intellectual intoxication of the inventions that crowd one upon another. Hence the fantastic traffic that crosses the continents in a few days, that puts itself across oceans in floating cities, that bores through mountains, rushes about in subterranean labyrinths, uses the steam-engine till its last possibilities have been exhausted, and then passes on to the gas-engine, and finally raises itself above the roads and railways and flies in the air; hence it is that the spoken word is sent in one moment over all the oceans; hence comes the ambition to break all records and beat all dimensions, to build giant halls for giant machines, vast ships and bridge-spans, buildings that deliriously scrape the clouds, fabulous forces pressed together to a focus to obey the hand of a child, stamping and quivering and droning works of steel and glass in which tiny man moves as , unlimited monarch and, at the last, feels nature as beneath him.

And these machines become in their forms less and ever less human, more ascetic, mystic, esoteric. They weave the earth over with an infinite web of subtle forces, currents, and tensions. Their bodies become ever more and more immaterial, ever less noisy. The wheels, rollers, and levers arc vocal no more. All that matters withdraws itself into the interior. Man has felt the machine to be devilish, and rightly. It signifies in the eyes of the believer the depo- sition of God. It delivers sacred Causality over to man and by him, with a sort of foreseeing omniscience is set in motion, silent and irresistible.

Machines becoming “ever more and more immaterial”, “ever less noisy” might seem prescient, since Spengler had no idea of the post-industrial age with its electronic devices, fibre-optic cables, satellites and so on. Actually, in his time electricity and radio waves were beginning to be harnessed, so that particular trend was already apparent. Spengler isn’t in the business of making precise technological predictions: instead, he sees the emerging technological world as reflecting the spirit of Western culture, and makes forecasts based on that.

Never save here has a microcosm felt itself superior to its macrocosm, but here the little life-units have by the sheer force of their intellect made the un-living dependent upon themselves. It is a triumph, so far as we can see, un-paralleled. Only this our Culture has achieved it, and perhaps only for a few centuries.

He mentions the “machine as microcosm” idea again — machines as precise little worlds, obeying the rule of their (human) creators.

What follows is an extremely interesting section:

But for that very reason Faustian man has become the slave of his creation. His number, and the arrangement of life as he lives it, have been driven by the machine on to a path where there is no standing still and no turning back. The peasant, the hand-worker, even the merchant, appear suddenly as inessential in comparison with the three great figures that the Machine has bred and trained up in the cause of its development: the entrepreneur, the engineer, and the factory-worker.

Out of a quite small branch of manual work — namely, the preparation-economy — there has grown up (jn this one Culture alone) a mighty tree that casts its shadow over all the other vocations — namely, the economy of the machine-industry. It forces the entrepreneur not less than the workman to obedience. Both become slaves, and not masters, of the machine, that now for the first time develops its devilish and occult power. But although the Socialistic theory of the present day has insisted upon looking only at the latter’s contribution and has claimed the word “work” for him alone, it has all become possible only through the sovereign and decisive achievement of the former. The famous phrase concerning the “strong arm” that bids every wheel cease from running is a piece of wrong-headedness. To stop them — yes ! but it does not need a worker to do that. To keep them running — no ! The centre of this artificial and complicated realm of the Machine is the organizer and manager. The mind, not the hand, holds it together.

But, for that very reason, to preserve the ever endangered structure, one figure is even more important than all the energy of enterprising master-men that make cities to grow out of the ground and alter the picture of the landscape; it is a figure that is apt to be forgotten in this conflict of politics — the engineer, the priest of the machine, the man who knows it. Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward. The quiet engineer it is who is the machine’s master and destiny. His thought is as possibility what the machine is as actuality.

There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do. Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world; suppose that, under the influence of the metaphysic and mysticism that is taking the place of rationalism to-day, the very elite of intellect that is now concerned with the machine comes to be overpowered by a growing sense of its Satanism (it is the step from Roger Bacon to Bernard of Clairvaux) — then nothing can hinder the end of this grand drama that has been a play of intellects, with hands as mere auxiliaries.

Spengler’s identification of the “three great figures” of the industrial age is truly prescient. Of the three, he sees the factory worker as of lesser importance, whereas the remaining two figures should be familiar to anyone in 2015 — the entrepreneur and the engineer. And this was written 97 years ago!

Spengler is mainly concerned with fundamental changes in the ideas and philosophies that drive a culture (which in this case, proves a very effective way of identifying what will become crucial and what will ultimately become irrelevant). Socialism was historically important because the working class became so numerous, but it’s not so important to Spengler, who sees it as merely a squabble over the output of the machine. Anticipating Ayn Rand, he states that “the mind, not the hand” is key to operating the industrial world, and that therefore the entrepreneur will become the more important figure.

But an even more crucial figure is the engineer. This section is worth repeating. “Not merely the importance, but the very existence of the industry depends upon the existence of the hundred thousand talented, rigorously schooled brains that command the technique and develop it onward and onward.” He continues, anticipating future fears of energy shortages and also identifying the real threat: “There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails — this army whose thought-work forms one inward unit with the work of the machine — the industry must flicker out in spite of all that managerial energy and the workers can do.” (Spengler’s point applies equally to oil fields as to coal fields. Oil reserves are calculated based on what can be economically extracted with current technology — improved technology has kept pushing those limits further and further out). “Suppose that, in future generations, the most gifted minds were to find their soul’s health more important than all the powers of this world” — yes, suppose so.

The Western industry has diverted the ancient traditions of the other Cultures. The streams of economic life move towards the seats of King Coal and the great regions of raw material. Nature becomes exhausted, the globe sacrificed to Faustian thinking in energies. The working earth is the Faustian aspect of her, the aspect contemplated by the Faust of Part II, the supreme transfiguration of enterprising work — and contemplating, he dies. Nothing is so utterly antipodal to the motionless satiate being of the Classical Empire. It is the engineer who is remotest from the Classical law-thought, and he will see to it that his economy has its own law, wherein forces and efficiencies will take the place of Person and Thing.

In the next sub-chapter he anticipates another very contemporary struggle:

But titanic, too, is the onslaught of money upon this intellectual force. Industry, too, is earth-bound like the yeoman. It has its station, and its materials stream up out of the earth. Only high finance is wholly free, wholly intangible. Since 1789 the banks, and with them the bourses, have developed themselves on the credit-needs of an industry growing ever more enormous, as a power on their own account, and they will (as money wills in every Civilization) to be the only power. The ancient wrestle between the productive and the ac- quisitive economies intensifies now into a silent gigantomachy of intellects, fought out in the lists of the world-cities. This battle is the despairing struggle of technical thought to maintain its liberty against money-thought.

“The ancient wrestle between the productive and the acquisitive economies” AKA finance vs commerce. Many called the financial crisis a failure of “capitalism” — it wasn’t, it was a failure of finance.

The dictature of money marches on, tending to its material peak, in the Faustian Civilization as in every other. And now something happens that is intelligible only to one who has penetrated to the essence of money. If it were anything tangible, then its existence would be for ever — but, as it is a form of thought, fades out as soon as it has thought its economic world to finality, and has no more material upon which to feed. It thrust into the life of the yeoman’s countryside and set the earth a-moving; its thought transformed every sort of handicraft; to-day it presses victoriously upon industry to make the productive work of entrepreneur and engineer and labourer alike its spoil. The machine with its human retinue, the real queen of this century, is in danger of succumbing to a stronger power. But with this, money, too, is at the end of its success, and the last conflict is at hand in which the Civilization receives its conclusive form — the conflict between money and blood.

For the record, I think Spengler is wrong about money here.

Anyway, money and blood represent one more round in what, for Spengler, is the fundamental conflict. Money vs blood; intellect vs the body; cities vs villages; animals vs plants — Spengler sees all these as manifestions of the conflict between two modes of consciousness, translated in English as “waking-being” vs “Being”, essentially an active animal existence vs a cyclic plant-like existence.

The coming of Caesarism breaks the dictature of money and its political weapon democracy. After a long triumph of world-city economy and its interests over political creative force, the political side of life manifests itself after all as the stronger of the two.

By Caesarism, Spengler is referring to the tendency for late stage civilisations to become ruled by strong, charismatic demagogues, who come to power simply by the force of their personality. (As opposed to early cultures, which tend to be ruled by hereditary kings and aristocrats, and mid-stage cultures which are ruled by enlightened men of principle. Caesars and neither and in Spengler’s world, this means they cannot effect real change).

The sword is victorious over the money, the master-will subdues again the plunderer-will. If we call these money-powers “Capitalism,” then we may designate as Socialism the will to call into life a mighty politico-economic order that transcends all class interests, a system of lofty thoughtfulness and duty-sense that keeps the whole in fine condition for the decisive battle of its history, and this battle is also the battle of money and law. The private powers of the economy want free paths for their acquisition of great resources. No legislation must stand in their way. They want to make the laws themselves, in their interests, and to that end they make use of the tool they have made for themselves, democracy, the subsidized party. Law needs, in order to resist this onslaught, a high tradition and an ambition of strong families that finds its satisfaction not in the heaping-up of riches, but in the tasks of true rulership, above and beyond all money-advantage.

Spengler concludes with a restatement of his philosophy and worldview:

A power can be overthrown only by another power, not by a principle, and no power that can confront money is left but this one. Money is overthrown and abolished only by blood. Life is alpha and omega, the cosmic onflow in microcosmic form. It is the fact of facts within the world-as-history. Before the irresistible rhythm of the generation-sequence, everything built up by the waking-consciousness in its intellectual world vanishes at the last. Ever in History it is life and life only — race-quality, the triumph of the will-to-power — and not the victory of truths, discoveries, or money that signifies. World-history is the world courts and it has ever decided in favour of the stronger, fuller, and more self-assured life — decreed to it, namely, the right to exist, regardless of whether its right would hold before a tribunal of waking-consciousness. Always it has sacrificed truth and justice to might and race, and passed doom of death upon men and peoples in whom truth was more than deeds, and justice than power. And so the drama of a high Culture — that wondrous world of deities, arts, thoughts, battles, cities — closes with the return of the pristine facts of the blood eternal that is one and the same as the ever-circling cosmic flow. The bright imaginative Waking-Being submerges itself into the silent service of Being, as the Chinese and Roman empires tell us. Time triumphs over Space, and it is Time whose inexorable movement embeds the ephemeral incident of the Culture, on this planet, in the incident of Man — a form wherein the incident life flows on for a time, while behind it all the streaming horizons of geological and stellar histories pile up in the light- world of our eyes.

The reference to the “Chinese and Roman empires” is meant to suggest that the end state of a civilisation is an organic, cyclic existence, where empires rise and fall without fundamental changes. For Spengler, if the Roman empire had not been overrun by barbarians, it could have lasted for millenia, with multiple imperial dynasties rising and falling, as happened in China.

Spengler concludes the book on a fatalistic note (one that I don’t share):

For us, however, whom a Destiny has placed in this Culture and at this moment of its development — the moment when money is celebrating its last victories, and the Caesarism that is to succeed approaches with quiet, firm step — our direction, willed and obligatory at once, is set for us within narrow limits, and on any other terms life is not worth the living. We have not the freedom to reach to this or to that, but the freedom to do the necessary or to do nothing. And a task that historic necessity has set will be accomplished with the individual or against him.

Ducunt Fata volentem nolentem trahunt.

Roughly, “Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling”.