Favorite songs of 2015

I want to write more substantially after the holidays, but since it’s been a relatively good year for music I thought I would do a top 10 list now. So here it is for songs in 2015. I don’t claim these are the best, but they are the ones I hit repeat on the most. So until next year, enjoy listening!

Powerful – Major Lazer ft. Ellie Goulding & Tarrus Riley
Great album, and this song is more powerful than Lean On.

The Hills – The Weeknd
I love how he makes the scream part of the song.

Don’t @ Me – JME
This year’s best song about Twitter. Every line is an insta-classic.

Here – Alessia Cara
Captures a mood perfectly.

Yoga – Janelle Monáe ft. Jidenna
Everyone is allowed one guilty pleasure, right? I never thought I would love a track with the hypeman shouting “YOGA”, but here I am.

Really Love – D’Angelo
I don’t know if this was released this year, but it deserves the exception.

Let It Happen – Tame Impala
Sometimes change is good, and you should just let it happen.

Magnets – Disclosure ft. Lorde
Disclosure has a way of making collaborations more than the sum of their parts.

World Princess Part 2 – Grimes
I didn’t like Art Angels as much as Visions or Halfaxa (too much guitar, not enough layered vocals), but this song is flawless.

Space Song – Beach House
Simply sublime. Baltimore at it’s finest.


What are the odds?

Wu-Tang Clan’s business plan for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was genius. In an era where most artists try to increase distribution because revenue per listener seems to be falling, Wu-Tang aimed for the other end of the spectrum. The Clan’s plan was to sell one and only one copy of the album to the highest bidder, and recently it was announced that they had succeeded! But there was one, tiny flaw in the plan… what if the sole buyer turned out to be a monster and the profits were effectively forced to be donated?

Unfortunately, it seems that their buyer is one of the remarkably few people in the world sinister enough for this to be the case. Seriously, it’s hard to think of one person as universally hated as Martin Shkreli. Even Donald Trump has supporters; maybe the leaders of Westboro Baptist Church? One thing is clear though, the chances of such a disreputable buyer were slim a priori. We’re talking Death Star trench run odds here. And in fact, Shkreli’s misdeeds didn’t hit the news until the sale was being finalized. But once he revealed that he was the buyer, Wu-Tang’s destiny was sealed.

It’s a bit unsettling that Wu-Tang’s unconventional sales plan is mirrored by Shkreli’s heartless decision to increase the price of Daraprim, a drug on which his company has a monopoly, by 5500%. Both buyer and seller are in the business of price gouging. It’s as if pathological thinking attracts more pathological thinking. Now if only Shkreli tries to redeem himself by releasing the album to the public for free…

Quotient sets and the algebra of choosing a side


Note: This post is tailored to Americans. Deal with it, rest of the world!

I was watching one of those debate/news shows a few days back and I noticed something weird about the host’s stand on Hillary Clinton. The guest at the time had been fairly decidedly anti-Clinton, thinking she lacks key qualifications and moral values to be President. But while the host made it obvious he remains uninspired by the Democratic hopeful, he still thinks it’s stupid to be so against Clinton because she is the best, and most realistic, alternative this country has right now. In other words, he is anti-anti-Clinton. That means he would vote for her, and he would defend it in a shouting match, but he’d never say he is for her. That wouldn’t be fitting of the kind of person he wants to be. But is that any different than actually being pro-Hillary?

Who cares if you broadcast her PR material on your Twitter or not, as long as you vote for Hillary it’s all the same, right? Maybe it is a meaningless distinction, but when you think about it, the reasons why he supports her kind of makes who he is, at least to millions of viewers. He’s not just any other voter, he’s a cable host. Why he votes matters much more than how the ballot reads. His occupation necessitates constantly explaining the complicated reasons why he believes what he believes. And besides keeping his ratings up, it’s also crucial for his status off camera. Among other cable hosts, for cred with his staff, his coolness among his friends and friends of friends, and in order to pique the interest of the people he wants to sleep with. His detailed reasoning for picking sides in various issues signals his intelligence, creativity, credibility, popularity and earning potential. So maybe the statisticians only care about how he and his viewers vote in polls, but the viewers care more about the reasons why he chose his side.

But isn’t that true of everyone’s ‘viewers’ to some extent? If we look, there is ample evidence of this behavior whenever reputation and group membership are at stake. We all need social circles (online ones count), without which our mental well-being suffers and our lives lose meaning. And social circles have a way of internally maintaining a sort of orthodoxy that defines the ingroup. That orthodoxy usually involves a set of acceptable views one is allowed to have and must preserve in order to remain in good standing with the group. Often these views follow from the group’s interests, such as pet owners concerned about animal rights, or a collegiate organization standing in support of Palestinian issues. The strictness of these rules obviously varies from group to group depending on how important loyalty is to their dynamic, but I think you will find this organization arises naturally whether you look across wide groups like political parties and academic institutions, or across narrow groups like real life friends or a niche online community. The details that you provide tell them what they need to know in order to determine your ethics, level of commitment, sophistication and rank within the group as well.

Soviet clockwork foxes

Over a decade ago, I remember having a discussion with a friend regarding a notable Soviet-era genetic experiment, the domestication of the wild fox. I had just read of it and was in shock that such an experiment existed, so I was excitedly relaying the reported findings. To the best of my recollection, I explained how Lyudmila Trut is the scientist in charge of a selective breeding program that started in the late 1950s with the aims of testing hypotheses regarding the historical domestication of the dog… and possibly to create adorable house foxes. The main finding was that by simply selecting for behavior — specifically docility — almost all of the familiar behavioral and morphological features followed suit: short legs, droopy tail, whining, barking, cuteness and affection. This has all sorts of explanatory potential and my friend was excited to hear this part of the story. It was when I mentioned that the experimenters had also produced a population of hyper-aggressive foxes by reversing the selection criterion that my friend became visibly disturbed. Yeah, how horrible, I thought. The aggressive foxes must have had an awful existence being locked up in close proximity to the rest of the aggressive subpopulation. But that was not the source of the growing discomfort between us.

My friend got defensive, now questioning the methodology of the whole experiment. I was repeatedly asked for details about the setup that I couldn’t recall. But I tried to be assuring; this experiment really did occur and there was a video. If you watch it, you can clearly see the tame foxes are tame, and the hostile foxes are hostile. But it wasn’t disbelief in the observations, it was flat out refusal that trait was genetic. How strange to be against the most easily defensible claim of this nearly 50 year old experiment, I thought. After a lengthy discussion, I finally settled around the source of my friend’s hastily crafted disbelief. If we believe aggression is genetically determined in foxes, then it means that we believe that genetics determines aggression in humans, which leads to all sorts of unsavory racial theories and whatnot, which inevitably result in a loss of reputation for progressivism and society gradually accepting fascism. Oh dear, and I thought we had been talking about foxes!

Surely I should acknowledge that risk, my friend demanded. What could I say, it had not been at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t make myself worry about it. I entertained it as a possibility — that some people would make fantastical claims of the sort — but I expressed my faith that the sober among us would expose the brittle chain of reasoning and win the ideological battle (if there ever was one). I guess I never felt uncomfortable with the marginal ambiguity the Soviet fox domestication experiment introduced into political philosophy. Besides, what an intellectually dishonest reason to reject an otherwise compelling and limited observation. But my friend was adamant. We had to oblige a moral duty to cast doubt on this experiment, one we both had just recently discovered existed. We had to prepare a defense against our enemies who would obviously use it as ammo, and denial was the best defense that could be assembled in a short amount of time.

When a new issue arises, groups must quickly determine whether to love or hate it

If this dynamic can arise in one-on-one’s, then it certainly can in a crowd as well. When I watched Hannibal Buress do his bit on Bill Cosby at the Lincoln Theater in DC, I didn’t think much of it besides that it was another great joke that evening. Buress managed to connect a hook on someone who had been taking jabs at young people, especially young black people, for his entire career. The audience was enjoying Cosby’s comeuppance, even if it meant making light of alleged rape. Laughing seemed to be justified because it was for a good cause, or at least it felt good. I wasn’t surprised by the facts of the joke either, I remembered having heard the rape allegations back in 2005. Sitting in the theater I was reminded that of all people, Cosby is currently only one of two people allowed to eat for free at Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is right next door. It was going to be really awkward when the audience filters out and walks by the huge mural or sees the proclamatory sign in the restaurant.


And I did not expect the joke to become the revelation it did because the allegations were old news, but in retrospect it should have been obvious. Buress’ fans are young, hip, wonkish and unmistakably left-leaning.  In other words, incredibly anti-rape. (Obviously not that that’s a bad thing, just that the rest of society isn’t.) And coincidentally, Cosby’s public persona is the antithesis to the rest of their social priorities. His moralizing is horribly outdated and his views (probably incidentally) support the reactionary elements of old, white America. And the timing couldn’t have been better for the uproar. With social media instead of traditional media at the helm of trend setting, all you needed to do was light the fire among the young and watch this thing burn. And burn it did — because rape is horrible, and (just a little bit) because Bill Cosby is allied with the conservatives. So I thought I could predict the next tinder pile that would likely catch a spark from all this furor. I was certain Roman Polanski would be in the news again shortly.

But I was wrong again, this time nothing happened. I thought the similarities between their allegations were too big to be ignored: the narcotics, false trust of an icon, rape, hush money and settlement. And all amplified by the celebrity intrigue. Except those factors were not what the Cosby viralism was about. It was never about the crime, it’s all about how badly Cosby was hated by his detractors. It was a strategic play against the nuisance he represents. And Polanski, though still sought by the feds, is no enemy of the type of people offended by Cosby. So why would they care about his case?

What I am trying to say is that we tend to feel first and justify afterwards with any convenient arguments. This is nothing new, some describe this phenomenon as tribalism, mood affiliation or other post hoc concepts. Even the smartest among us seem to operate in this way, they just have a knack for devising more sophisticated arguments. Like everyone else, loyalty to social cliques cannot be ignored. Smart people still need the approval of their peer group to be happy. They won’t abandon their cohort and make their work and social life suck to hold onto just any belief. How much is it worth arguing against your friends about the minimum wage? Next weekend’s activities and maybe your chance with that hottie? Unless you’re an economist, probably not.

Not to mention everyone relies on others to inform them on issues they haven’t a clue about. How much research has the average freshman done on global warming? How about on the history of modern conflicts? Not that much, and the temptation to go with the prevailing opinions of the tribe is large when there is a social reward for compliance. Changes in tribe affiliation do happen, but often this is not a result of insight alone, rather some exogenous social pressure. Drop those same uninformed students into the workforce, and they adapt their weakly held beliefs to match those of their new social environments.

The enemy of your enemy is your friend

These loyalties and hatreds are common to almost every group, but the composite of many groups results in some really strange alliances. I was on a Wall Street firm’s trading floor the day Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal hit the news. Some knew him as the Governor of New York but to others, especially among trading firms, he was the Supreme Commissar of Punishing Wall Street. On this trading floor, that was definitely the feeling. Ostensibly uber-libertarian alpha male types, the traders were absolutely giddy upon hearing the news that Spitzer was being busted for contractual sex. These were gentlemen that in all other occasions would scoff at the suggestion that prostitution should be a punishable offense, defending their mathematically proven anti-governmentalism against your feeble-brained moralism. Every single day except this day. On this day, they would happily side with the supporters of the ancient moralistic law that had Spitzer hanging in the balance. If it were a pugilistic public figure they supported being ensnared in a prostitution trap, they would fight the very notion that prostitution is a crime. But for the glee of witnessing Spitzer’s power over them vanish, they were willing to have him judged according to a code with which they had serious grievances. Of course you could never mistake the city traders with moralists of upstate New York, they had totally distinct preferences in nearly everything. The only thing that united them was their common enemy. The black swan event I witnessed on that day in March 2008 was eclipsed by another one that happened in the markets later that year, but I will never forget the sound of that boastful laughter.

You do not expect the regulation of Wall Street to be ultimately determined by scandals and the popularity of leading figures, but this definitely was a point scored for the Anti-Regulation Team and a point lost to the Regulation Team. These teams seem more or less evenly matched, but sometimes that isn’t the case. For example, take Fred Phelps and his infamous anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church. His loyal congregation has decided to do something remarkably foolish… if they were indeed trying to score points for the Anti-Gay Team. They protest homosexuality in a way that incurs the ire of US war veterans. Think about how deep the support networks run for both of those groups. LGBT members are allied with liberals, urbanites, the youth and the highly educated. War veterans have direct connections to conservatives, patriots and anyone sympathetic to the military. Between the two, that’s nearly everyone in America. These blocs are so big that the intersection of the two itself has millions of members. By attacking homosexuals and their sympathizers the way they did, the WBC got surrounded on the other side by the team that supports veterans. With those two huge, influential forces bearing down on this very small congregation, the WBC has materially lost the fight so utterly. Those WBC members will never get any status in society other than infamy. They will be locked out of jobs and will never form personal relationships with the outside, unless they renounce their church completely. And points against the WBC are so easy to score. No one — liberal or conservative, urban or rural, gay or straight, military or nonmilitary — is going to raise objection if you broadcast a strictly anti-WBC message.

It is that need to muster support to silence and defeat the proximate enemy that makes us often disregard with whom we unintentionally ally. Only when the group cheerleaders start broadcasting do the lines become clear. We see it all the time with newsworthy tragedies. Just this week, Paris was attacked by what was likely an anti-Western, Islamic terror network. Immediately the French flags and Eiffel Towers started going up in solidarity all over American social media. But look at some of the groups coming out in support of the French: American conservatives, military proponents, Islamophobes, the anti-immigration crowd. The types of people that, in previous instances, would usually bash the French and their social system with every other sentence and who would be embarrassed to be seen near a tricouleur. I doubt many of them know or care how Parisians feel about the issues they so ardently champion. But regardless of this wide gulf, they bind themselves to Paris. More specifically to the newly formed French priorities concerning national security and immigration.

And in reaction you see the enemies of these American groups questioning their motives. The social justice types ask, why didn’t you say anything about recent attacks in Beirut and Baghdad? Is it only Western lives that matter? But many among this defensive crowd were the same people who argued convincingly that the “all lives matter” mantra, however valid, is actually an insensitive attempt to dilute a tragedy that you don’t want to get attention. Besides, many of them did not broadcast their solidarity with Beirut before Paris stole the media spotlight. While usually claiming the media attention on the public vigils and sobbing victims is warranted because deadly violence never justifiable, now they find themselves downplaying their go-to defense of an often histrionic style of mourning. They feel threatened by a backlash against their interests, enough that they resort to the same tactics they call ‘shameless’ when their enemies do unto them. And in yet another tragedy, the rhetoric around the crime becomes meaningless other than to lend support to stances we would defend without context.

The players want as many cheerleaders as they can get

I am simplifying quite a bit. Of course the Wall Street traders can offer a compelling reason that having a laugh at Spitzer is well deserved schadenfreude, as Spitzer had held them to arbitrary ethical standards and then found himself being judged by other arbitrary ethical standards. I’m not saying that they haven’t made a fair point. Actually, I don’t wish to judge its validity at all. All I am saying is any apparent ‘consensus’ that seemed to have been built around the trader’s worldview was incidentally also built upon the support of people who cheered Spitzer’s downfall but who don’t think the standards are arbitrary. The result: the traders’ status is elevated by a populist groundswell… which is something that doesn’t happen very frequently.

Likewise the detractors of the Paris tragedy can always fall back on many other stronger positions. They may claim this attack — however bad we think it is — is ultimately going to lead to much worse bloodshed by playing right into the hands of the terrorists and xenophobes who want to expand the war and block immigration. Let’s not lend it too much legitimacy as a casus belli. And that is a convincing point to be made, but again, this post isn’t about that. Instead, recognize in making these points they lose some of the middle ground. Not everyone sympathetic to social justice is memorializing Paris because of inherently racist understanding of the world; Paris is also just a better connected city. Global urbanites live in, work in or travel to Paris (or know someone who does) far more regularly than either Beirut or Baghdad. People don’t like it when they’re forced to pick between a social cause and their emotional attachments to a familiar and central place. So the attacks in Paris put these social justice groups in an awkward position where they must broadcast their core message of equality to stay relevant, even if it means losing some marginally attached supporter. This time the forces just don’t align in their favor.

As I said, I don’t want this post to be about identifying instances of hypocrisy. Every sufficiently complex system exhibits hypocrisy. You can find it in the words and actions of every person, group and country. Digging for hypocrisy boring because it is everywhere.

No, the point I want to make is that there is a natural structure to the way people pick sides on issues. And it seems to work on every level of social organization. And it seems to prefer the emergence of two teams, which are massive alliances that act together to achieve narrowly defined common goals.

The roots of unity

Almost every battle and war in human history has been waged as a two-sided conflict. At any given time there are two opposing armies, countries or coalitions fighting each other. Though there might be exceptions, we take it for granted that this most exacting of human endeavors always seems to have this remarkable consistency. What invisible hand forces us to engage in hostilities in such a structured way?

I think it has to do with our degrees of separation. It seems intuitive that the proximate and visible enemies always take the priority. Indeed, you soon will be actively fighting them if you aren’t already! If you were Germany in WW2 and are surrounded by the Western allies and the Soviet Union, then you’d find someone, anyone, in the Far East who was antagonistic with at least one of those two blocs. Similarly, if you were France, Britain or America and need someone to soak up German-inflicted damage, then you’d stifle your reservations and reach out to the Soviet Union. These alliances needed coordination among dozens of countries and hundreds of millions of individuals. In peacetime, it is incredibly difficult to negotiate a compromise that results in true cooperation (ahem.. WTO, TPP/TIPP). But under duress, the calculus is simple: who am I fighting and who is fighting them? The game becomes extremely short lived and high stakes. If we win, we gain everything. If we lose, we lose everything. So we need the numbers, and we need them quick.

And contrary to the name, civil society is always under duress. We see slippery slopes everywhere, and justifiably so. This month it’s scoring points on immigration, next year it’s winning the election! The game is on, so we can’t let up. We often seek long running opinion polls to observe how populations drift over time. But this analysis can only go so far. Statistics offers a good way at quantifying the degree to which people and ideas are linked, but it’s shockingly poor at determining the underlying structure of how and why they are connected. Yet predicting how existing interest groups will react to new developments doesn’t seem completely random either. Liberals and conservatives act and react predictably. Intuitively, we kind of anticipate what they will do or say when faced with particular developments.

At the micro level things are also extremely intense. Having your worldview challenged causes you psychological stress. But perceptions can change the course of history, and you’ll be proven right and duly rewarded if the rest of the world starts to see it your way. And the sad truth is that if you’re not making friends, you’re losing friends. So you pick a side to stay relevant, and you score points by displaying leadership and loyalty. Otherwise you’re not useful and get cut out of other people’s lives. But yet, things aren’t that dire usually. Learning how your friends interpret the news isn’t so hard. And keeping your social circles happy isn’t entirely a guessing game. Just don’t piss off any friend, and do piss off the people we all hate from time to time.

Multiple groups fighting and defending against others form natural alliances, called teams.

Dichotomous teams from in periods of dire immediacy. When a big fight is coming up, rapid cooperation analogous to what happens in war happens in civil society. Alliances form in unexpected ways to quickly get the job done. But how do you go from an infinitude of reasons for aligning or not aligning to some sort of predictable binary structure? Imagine a layer cake, with alternating layers of cake and frosting. Even if the other layers of cake are a different color, they are all still cake. Same goes for the layers of frosting. If your connections represent your animosities, one or odd degrees of separation always define your enemies, and two or even degrees of separation always define allies.

Quotient sets are mathematician’s ways of taking a complex of set of objects and grouping them along one important property. Imagine someone is planning a lunch out for Japanese food with her co-workers. She wants everyone to enjoy themselves and hates to be rushed, so she decides to invite only those of them that really like Japanese. Being somewhat mechanistic, she opens up the employee directory in a spreadsheet and enter either a 1, 2 or 3 next to each person’s name — 1 meaning they don’t like Japanese and 3 meaning they really like Japanese — planning to invite only the 3’s. In that example, the original set is the full directory, and the quotient sets are the new teams she formed: the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s. All the complexity of their infinite being is neglected — for instance, the deep reasons and history of liking or disliking styles of food — and the only thing that matters is the degree to which they like Japanese food. They may be beautiful angels in their mothers’ eyes, but they are just a number to her right now.

We could extend the mathematical nomenclature to say, an invitee to the lunch is a member of Team 3 modulo their preference for Japanese food. We could also say something like, every American is either Pro or Anti modulo immigration. Dear reader, which team are you on? Pro or Anti? Your reasons will differ from others on your team based on your race, sex, education, socioeconomic status, and a number of other important factors, but when push comes to shove you belong to one of the two teams nonetheless.

Checkmate, atheists!

At first pass, this kind of organization may seem too complicated to be real. Yes, the overall structure can be very complicated, but notice that it does not require top level organization. If individuals follow simple rules to align with the enemies of their enemies, it should emerge naturally. In fact, I’d argue you can find it in most website comment sections and social media posts. There doesn’t need to be a high level conspiracy or organized brigading for victims to claim they are being attacked by a huge, invisible force of users. With sufficient participation, factions inevitably recognize the conversation is being steered either in a favorable or unfavorable direction. Threads exhibit a multitude of arguments and psychologies, but ultimately the combative comments will claimed by one of two teams, usually representing an alliance of users that are for or against a central theme. The most reasonable and broadly applicable comments will be the most popular, but they will be supported by a invisible layer cake of users.

For instance take the topic of religion, which in American politics usually involves a battle between two teams that I will call the Atheists and Theists. (Very broadly though because members of Team Atheist may not be actual atheists and the members of Team Theist aren’t necessarily theists. More on that later.) No matter the specifics of the news, the existence of god will be discussed. But not for the sake of theology and to expand our understanding of what godliness is and how it affects our human experience… no, this is a popularity contest. It’s common to find a highly promoted comment that sounds something like, “I don’t know which religion is right, but I do know that history gives examples of successful nations that governed as if they were blind to religious matters, and examples of unsuccessful nations that governed with their hand in religious matters.” With enough supporting examples or the right context, this statement is undoubtedly one of Team Atheists most popular. It’s also not too edgy, so it can be broadly appreciated. But for better or worse, it rests upon a pyramid of users that also post and support less savory comments like: “The Bible is fake, I can prove it,” and “I think a country with mild Christian values can work, but I support secularization because Muslims values shouldn’t be trusted at all,” and “Damn religion, you scary.” All those people are on the same team. Indeed, that’s why it may seem like they are all the same person or part of the same organized brigade.

Likewise reasonable comments from the other side, such as, “You can be secular without being hostile to religion,” are often supported by users with less compelling beliefs. Other examples from Team Theist may include: “Militant atheism is just a witch hunt by another name,” and “You’re not secular, you’re just hate ethnic minorities,” and “Christian people made this country and gave you the freedom to think whatever you want.” You could easily suppose there are users that support neither team — and there are — but the social reward of broadcasting their moderate opinions are minimal. Riskless opinions lack boldness and do not display loyalty. It pays immediate social dividends to pick a side, even just slightly, so most people do.

However if you think about it, there are only three pure theological positions anyone can have: (0) there are zero gods, (1) there is at least one god, (2) true agnosticism. (I am not a theologian so I don’t know if that is absolutely true, but I posit any other positions, if they exist, are too esoteric to feature in the debate.) If you put everyone in the world by themselves in an empty room and ask them honestly whether they are a 0, 1 or 2, I would think most of the intellectual firepower in the world today falls into Camp 2. How many honest people have spent the time and effort to become truly certain about divinity? Yes, there is a sizable fraction of people who have experienced their god in their lives, or have reasons other than social pressures to be in Camp 1. But I think this is a relatively small fraction of the total. That is to say, most of the people who claim to be religious are probably not absolutely so. Then there are people bold enough to proclaim with certainty that there are no gods who fall into Camp 0. This camp is rarer still, I suspect.

Of course, camps 0, 1 and 2 are crude boundaries. There is tremendous diversity inside each one, I admit freely. But regardless, if this is the true distribution of theological opinions — comprising of three camps (and perhaps more) — it’s a bit strange to claim there are only two teams, no? And even more strange is for the teams to be determined by their sympathies either to atheists or theists arguments, when I claim most people are agnostic. Yes strange indeed, but I stand by it.

So now we get to the heart of the post — the numerous cliques, factions and individuals represent our complex social fabric — the camps represent the  context-free, purely philosophical positions an honest person or group can hold — and the teams represent populist leanings towards the boldest dichotomies (in this case between theist and atheist worldviews). But the problem is that the camps don’t matter to anyone other than disciplined intellectuals — only the binary teams get popular recognition! The diversity of opinions within the groups get divided out by the issue under discussion, resulting in two teams. The mechanisms that allow this to happen are social rewards and the layer cake structure of antagonistic relations. Every person or group just needs to figure out their immediate enemies and then seek out those that harm them. It’s a simple but effective method to fighting impromptu battles by incentivizing people socially.

For example, a person with strong nationalistic feelings for a country that strictly limits religious expression, say the PRC, will naturally have a bias to be in Team Atheist. The reasoning is: I like the PRC and get rewarded promoting it, and various theist groups attack the PRC for its militant atheist policies, so I will support the atheists that de-legitimize these critical groups. In another example, a person who enjoys being a member of a diverse professional group which includes practicing Christians, Muslims, Hindus, etc. is naturally going to be inclined to support Team Theist. Though perhaps not religious myself, offending my friends would harm me personally because an important part of my life would be ruined, so I will side with those that preach accommodation of all beliefs. If those examples refer to the same person, a mini mental crisis may ensue.

But relationships and worldviews are fluid, and sometimes we find ourselves shopping for new cliques to join. We’ve all encountered the annoyingly smug commenter online. Even if we agree with their position, their tone is just so disgusting it would be embarrassing to side with them over the nice people they are attacking. We would rather fight alongside the misinformed than side with these assholes. No doubt, this pattern happens too. The system is constantly in flux. Opinions change, new players get born and old ones die, but the game is slow to evolve. Statistics track the evolution of religiosity over time, but they are silent on the tempest that propels these changes.

When a Christian meets a stranger and thinks, “I hope that person is Christian,” I doubt in most cases they are making a statement about theological orthodoxy or seeking that person in the afterlife. Often it arises as desire to share a brief experience amicably with another person, like a long plane trip or a Thanksgiving dinner. Definitely something earthly and something immediate. When a proud Democrat posts something inflammatory on social media, there are many reasons, but one is always to rally the troops. They are looking for the same thing the Christian is, the “Amen!” The intra-team loyalty is strong, and cheerleading in an echo chamber makes us feel good. At least it makes us more willing to continue the fight for our team.

The One Child Policy: a postmortem

Chinese couples and human rights advocates earned a huge victory last week when China revealed that the complicated set of rules known as the One Child Policy (OCP) have come to an end, being replaced by slightly more lenient “two child policy.” The announcement signifies a major milestone in a long process of reversing what has been perhaps the most controversial social contract and natural experiment in the world. But the reversal has been very gradual, so no one expects a baby boom. Indeed for the past decade, most couples have been allowed to have two or more children. Thus the slow bureaucratic change of heart is not a softening at all, rather it highlights the obvious irrelevance of the OCP as China’s population expansion has come to a standstill. Demand for more than one child has been below the replacement rate for over 20 years, as Chinese lifestyles and costs of living have converged with urbanites in the developed world.

To put it in an even more stark perspective, never has there been this little demand to make babies in the entirety of Chinese history (except perhaps some periods of extreme social upheaval). The fertility rate has been persistently low for so long that China’s population is expected to start shrinking in about 10 years. This is most acute in the urban areas, which offer an aspiring representation China’s gleaming future. Counted as it’s own country, Shanghai would have the lowest fertility rate in the world at 0.7. That’s lower than the notoriously childfree Hong Kong or Singapore. And unfortunately even in an optimistic future scenario, immigration is unlikely to be a mitigating factor in the coming decades. So how did this massive reversal of fortune sneak past the ever mindful Communist Party of China while birth restrictions were still being enforced?

The One Child Policy was never about containing overpopulation

Well, it didn’t. And in all likelihood, the CPC knew they were riding a global trend the whole time. Birth rates had fallen for a full decade before the OCP went into full effect in 1980. The reason was traditional family planning policy started in the early 1970s: contraception, education and slogans painted everywhere. Perhaps equally important was the dismantling of the Maoist communes, which were redistributive and lowered the time and resource costs of having children. Another revealing observation is that the drops in fertility rate province by province correlate more closely with economic performance than with the highly non-uniform intensity of policy implementation. Whatever the potential multitude of reasons, as it did elsewhere in the world the Chinese family shrunk throughout the 70s. In fact it did most of the shrinking before the OCP was enacted, a semi-embarrassing fact for the Party’s preferred narrative. The CPC boasts 400 million births prevented, but that estimate almost certainly contains the effects of this earlier, uncontroversial era of family planning and reforms.

The true benefit of the OCP is in the way it acted in concert with China’s urbanization and industrialization efforts, both of which accelerated dramatically in the calm period after 1989. A manufacturing and trade boom along with the rationing of urban housing and urban status lead to an urgency among rural Chinese to get into the cities. The government could ill afford the city dwellers to milk their privilege by producing a surplus of dependents who would strain the finances of the city. If the countryside was to be drained of people, there could not be a clog in the system. Limiting the non-working population of urban China was a convenient way make way for the peasant migration. It also helped reduce the cost of providing the desirable urban public services, which were necessary to coax hundreds of millions to relocate. Instead of spending extra money on health and education for kids — investments that would take at least two decades to start paying off — cities could invest that surplus into development, industry, transportation and other fast growth activities. Which they did, in abundance. That doesn’t imply that the quality of health and education isn’t as high as it could be. Indeed, the quality of both improved dramatically. But the proximate goal was to keep costs low and easily manageable for municipalities over the next few decades. And it worked because the central government stuck with the birth restrictions, and enforcement was strictest in cities.

Besides making for better schools and larger subway systems, the OCP added more unencumbered urban young adults (especially women) to the work force. Which means more taxable and disposable income was generated than would have without birth restrictions. It quickly becomes obvious that regardless of the dubious Malthusian benefits of the OCP, what’s certain is that it helped speed up GDP.

The benefits have been reaped and now the bill is due

Now all those tailwinds have come to an end, and some have transformed into headwinds. Over 35 years of declining fertility rate means a rapid ageing of society is all but assured for China. The generation-long benefits of keeping kids out of cities will unwind at a rate unparalleled in history. Besides for defending prior action and preserving face, the OCP has become completely untenable. Yet even when it seems obvious change is necessary, bureaucratic inertia can take years to overcome.

One speculation is that the desire to have a lever on reproductive decisions (even if largely ineffective) might stem from a uniquely Chinese fear of a large youth population. With the memory of students of radical doctrine renouncing and condemning their elders in the chilling tumult of the Cultural Revolution, maybe having a way to limit the urban youth numbers seems prudent. Americans tend to associate Chinese youth as victims à la Tiananmen, the impressionable little monsters in the Red Guards got away with terrorism and murder.

Or it may be employment concerns that make the government reluctant to change course. The new two child policy might be evidence of a grand compromise brokered between the demographers and policy planners who goad the central Party to increase the birth rate, and the OCP’s more than 1 million employees who like things the way they are. The nosy and unpopular TSA by comparison is less than one-tenth that size — imagine the clout their lobby has.

And it’s unclear whether the dependency ratios and the problems of providing social services in the face of a shrinking taxable base are even the worse of the problems the OCP has produced. Gender-informed abortions, while not uniquely caused by birth restrictions, have amplified the unnatural distortion in male to female birth ratios. Gender ratios among second and third children in families that had them tend to be worse than in other countries that have gender imbalances, but I am unaware of exhaustive studies that attribute the imbalance solely to the OCP.

The material effects of the One Child Policy are exaggerated, both good and bad

The CPC wants you to believe that the 35 years of birth restrictions have been necessary and prevented something like 400 million births. And detractors of the Party and human rights advocates will point to the gender imbalance as a hallmark of the atrocious policy. Yet the available data makes hard to believe either side. Since it the massive drop in fertility and gender imbalance phenomena are common in developing countries, it’s difficult to assign credit or blame to the OCP. As much as both sides want to think the Chinese government is in command of everything within its borders, controlling these global trends is beyond the means of even the most capable (and evil) bureaucracy. However, even a small marginal impact translates into a large absolute effect in a country the size of China’s. Undoubtedly millions of families have been needlessly traumatized by crude enforcement, not to mention the inherent amorality of the law itself.

It’s clear to me that the OCP has had a positive impact on growth and urbanization for the last few decades, and will have a negative impact on the economy over the next few decades. Other claims — the ones most commonly cited, such as overpopulation, gender imbalance, environmental impact, etc. — are much less clear. All in all, the most trustworthy estimates say OCP probably prevented 100 million births, mostly of females. In the absence of the OCP, China’s population would be about 7-10% larger and slightly more gender balanced than it currently is.

Happy Halloween

Threads — a British TV drama from 1984 about nuclear war and the collapse of society — is the most horrifying and unsettling film I’ve ever seen. The full video is posted above. Watch if you dare. You have been warned.

Reflections on Syria


Six years ago this time, I travelled to Syria and encountered the most hospitable and honest people I have ever met. Though culturally distinct, Aleppo, Damascus and desert towns revealed one common thread that unites all Syrians: they love to talk and are friendly AF. It’s hard to appreciate the magnitude of this friendliness unless you have witnessed it on the ground. My apprehension began weeks before I arrived, having booked everything in advance over Skype because (1) I thought it was essential that at every place I stayed someone could speak English, and (2) booking trains and buses between cities was impossible to do online and I thought it would be nice to run through my itinerary with a local just for a sanity check.


Well it turns out for (1), Syrians had a very ingenious way of deciphering English: they asked other Syrians until they found one that spoke it, then all three parties spent as long as it took to answer the foreigner’s question. Additional parties joined the group if we had managed successful translation, but no one knew the answer. These conversations took 20 minutes and 10 people sometimes, if only to fulfil some trivial request of mine such as locating the address of a restaurant. But no one ever shirked or rushed the conversation. I never felt anything other an earnest duty to help myself or my lost Syrian cabbies, with nothing exchanged except pleasantries. As soon as I arrived in Syria, I felt so at ease and my misplaced apprehension melted away. It has been my favorite destination to date, and I shudder to think what I witnessed no longer exists.


And for (2), Syria was a planned economy, so everything ran at every time and there were always seats available.


Why on earth would you go to Syria?

It’s always been a dream of mine to visit ever since I learned about the Crusades as a kid, and reading since then has only kindled the dream. To summarize, Syria is a nexus. It has probably the oldest urban history in the world, both Damascus and Aleppo have decent claim to being continuously inhabited for 8,000 years or longer. To put that in perspective, the advent of writing marks a rough halfway point, and New York is less than 400 years old. Syria has had complex social networks for millennia, and it manifests itself in the networks people belong to today. Every stranger I spoke to wanted to know where I was from, what I thought about Syria, if I had pictures of my kids (I didn’t have kids). It was all about best face forward to guests. In a market of Aleppo I noticed that a boy no older than 10 was following me for a few blocks with an eye on my pocket. I was ready to slap his little hands if they came near, but an old man who had also discovered his intentions shouted stridently at him and he backed off bashfully. The social rules are complicated and strictly enforced, I am tempted to say because cities have existed for so long.


Syria is somehow as old of time but still full of children. Roughly half the population is under 20 years of age, one of the few places remaining in the world where these kinds of demographics persist. Kids there are the wellspring of life, and every adult was expected to help guide and raise them. In big cities, they surrounded nearly every group of adults, being prodded to hurry along across the street. In small towns, they roamed in packs by themselves. A group of boys caught me one evening walking back to the Hotel Ishtar in Palmyra and hurled dirty words in foreign languages, giggling anytime I gave them a response. Stuff like this was common, every little group tried to do something to impress you. Also in Palmyra, a concert for families was being held in the old Roman amphitheater on afternoon. It was brutal watching teens bored out of their mind marching towards what I had taken two long flights to see.


Those days Assad was everywhere. Lest you forgot which Mid East strongman ruled this land, there were pictures on billboards and framed in every hotel and restaurant to remind you. More often than I would have liked, conversations switched to politics, initiated by my curious hosts. Complaints about their government, of travel restrictions, of sanctions, corruption and problems with the economy. At times it felt obvious speaking disparagingly of their country was intended to be a peace offering for the American — an attempt to keep me enticed by the conversation. It’s natural to conclude that Syrians are extremely passionate about hospitality especially to foreigners, but it goes deeper than that. They wanted something from me as well.


Closed borders, open ears

There is some ancient wisdom about welcoming the weary traveler into your home. The wanderer gets a warm reception, maybe some food, a place to sleep, some sense of security. And you get stories from far beyond the horizon. International surveys in 2009 would have told you Syrians had a particularly negative view of America (low teen approval ratings IIRC), but the response to “I’m American” was always smiles and the occasional, “Amreeka greatest country!” Within a few minutes of crossing the border, I could tell that Syria had been isolated for a long time. There were no familiar goods to remind me of home or anything to suggest recent trade with the West. Foreign tourists were limited to French, Germans, British, a handful of Japanese and tons of Iranians. In the markets it was easy to pick up the distinctive wafts of Farsi being spoken in a sea of Arabic. Americans were especially rare; anything else, forget about it. One local wasn’t aware that Canada was a country. I tried to explain it was north of America but he was certain there wasn’t anything between America and Russia.


Syrians want to know what the world thought of Syria, and naturally were looking for opportunities to correct misconceptions. I would come to learn that eventually all conversations crossed this topic. Perhaps affirming their dismay, I informed them most Americans did not give the country much thought. Nearly every person would follow with their pithy comment about what their country meant to them, implicitly hoping that I would repeat it upon returning home. Most mentioned the diversity of the country. They spoke with pride on how Syria is a multi-ethnic, multi-religion, peace-loving country where many flavors of humanity call home. This was before the civil war began, so at the time I wasn’t thinking irony, but how much it sounded like Americans talking about our virtuous heterogeneity.


A majority are Sunni Arab, a relatively new group that was a result of religious and cultural assimilation after the Conquest. But there many other distinct identities: Shia, Alawite, Druze, Syriac speaking Christians, Jews, Circassian, Turkmen and Kurds. Their walled towns and ancestral villages are spread among the remarkably numerous microclimates and ecological niches of Syria, like marbles of different colors on a floor. My first taste of these extraordinarily localized environments came when I entered the country by “taxi” — or more like an impromptu ride-share cobbled together by a few taxi drivers in Amman. Our Syrian driver spoke longingly of getting back to his beloved country which, unlike the arid reaches of northern Jordan we were driving through, is green and abundant. It was hard to believe him until we crossed the border and saw the desert give way to an expanse of productive agricultural land in the midst of being kissed by a sunshower, a gift from the warm Mediterranean. (Keep this in mind when you are reading your Old Testament; in this world a mere miles could transport you from hell to heaven.) These natural enclaves have made it possible for people to remain distinct throughout the millennia.


The heterogeneity takes a time dimension as well. It is impossible for Syrians to speak of their country without mentioning an illustrious history. The Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus had been a Christian basilica in earlier centuries, which had been a Roman temple to Jupiter, which stood on top of the yet more ancient Aramaean temple to a thunder god. Even if most of those cultures have vanished or faded, they are still irrevocably part of the modern Syrian identity. Syria can’t be a country of just the living; it owes too much to the dead.

The living and the martyrs

The war has raged on for four and a half years, longer than either the American Civil War or the American involvement in WW2. But what’s truly unimaginable is nearly half the country has been displaced, forcing that many people homeless indefinitely. The migrant tent communities outside the major cities were big in 2009 but now they are cities themselves, brimming with people that are slowly coming to terms with the reality that they have to reinforce their makeshift dwellings for yet another winter. Imagine having a home somewhere but being forced to camp indefinitely. And then imagine living among those that have lost it all, still paralyzed from seeing their family cut down and everything bombed out before them. Martyrdom is ubiquitous in the Mid East. Every village and every family has martyrs — people who died not for what they did, but for who they were. Some names are carried for hundreds of years, and children made to memorize. They provide a cautionary tale that history goes on forever, so only the fool believes in loyalty outside of blood.

Yet no one in their right mind should think this extreme desperation is in anyway a normal state of affairs for these people. The Aleppine doctor or shopkeeper doesn’t know how to live on the streets any more than a New York doctor or shopkeeper. As Americans we may be tempted to think that whatever is happening in Syria is totally expected because “once a shithole, always a shithole.” But that could not be further from the truth in late 2009. There was so much life, so much abundance and no stormclouds on the horizon. Syrians wanted the world to come see them more than they expressed any interest in seeing the world. My Syrian driver who got us through the border stopped on the side of the highway near Deraa, where his brother-in-law was waiting to take us the rest of the way to Damascus. For him the labors that had taken him to another country had ended, and he was headed home. As they exchanged motorbike for taxi, he drifted off down a dirt road towards his real purpose in life. In Damascus, an antiques merchant chatted with me for over half an hour after inviting me for tea in his small backroom. Drifting clumsily from topic to topic, we covered his occupation and family thoroughly and the items in his store not at all. At the end of the conversation, he offered a British engineer’s sextant circa WW1 for 100, then 80 and eventually $60. Even though I refused, he never even made a face. I should have accepted; I love sextants and that would have given him something like the average Syrian family’s daily earnings. But even being the awkward traveler I was, my refusal barely registered to him. His mind quickly moved on to other things more important than the transaction.

Roman theater being set up for a family event. In 2015 ISIS child soldiers staged the execution of 25 men.
Roman theater being set up for a family event. In 2015, this is where ISIS filmed 25 men being executed by children.

Fragile unity

Saladin, the great unifier, died in Damascus in 1193 and rests in his mausoleum in the old city. In the late nineteenth century a major benefactor of the recently unified Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, took a vacation among his nation’s ailing allies the Ottomans. Sensing what every sensible European knew was an empire on the verge of disunification, he offered gifts of homage to the great Saladin in Damascus. It’s as if this place repeatedly bears witness to the lesson that stability is something easily undone.


Today two world leaders, Assad and Putin, fight in Syria to preserve the unity of their nations. What sort of Frankenstein of a peace they hope to revive is anyone’s guess, but maybe the ideal of unity is still alive in Syrian hearts. But was what they had ever real? In 2009 it certainly felt real, and the war genuinely did catch everyone off guard. And if it was fake, then what America tells itself is fake too. So I don’t doubt that was real, but fleeting — as any life is real but fleeting. It’s a shame that no one travelled to Syria to appreciate what is now gone. If Paris or Barcelona ever erupt as Damascus and Aleppo have, there would be widespread shock and disbelief. With Syria, it’s just ignorance that no one thinks much of it.


One lucky bastard

Imagine a deep sea entrepreneur of sorts in an exploratory ocean submersible. He’s diving a trench searching for a rare form of life, a spectacular squid that no one has ever seen alive. He’s already past the sunlit zone and descending slowly, going down to the trench floor where the creature is speculated to live. Back on dry land, some edgy restauranteur assured him that there are clients willing to pay top dollar for a freshly captured specimen. Alive if possible, if dead just okay. So he went to a manufacturer that sells submersibles for biologists and somehow managed to rent one.

He said he was going to a trench that was at most 3 km deep, but they knew the trench he was talking about and it was 10 km deep. They said no way it could survive that depth, it could only take 4 km max. He said, whatever you’re all wrong anyways. They would turn him down but he had credit and insurance and a few credible letters, so he got the submersible. And then he set off.

At this point the tiny vessel is passing 3 km and his crew of two henchmen are getting nervous. Relax, I know what I am doing, he assures them. They wonder about his contentiuos calculations, maybe the trench really was 10 km. They reluctantly agree to press on. Things start to creak and strain under the pressure, and the metalwork starts clamoring above their heads. Then, thud. The vessel hits bottom, and a moment of relief ensues. The lights, which had been pointed downward during the descent, are turned horizontally for the eager crew to have a look about. The light fades after a few meters, but they don’t see much at all. No trench walls or anything. The leader takes controls and moves laterally a bit. Nothing. Then again with more commitment. Nothing again, entirely flat and devoid. Where are they?

So he engages full throttle and they glide along the sea floor for several hundred meters. Suddenly they see a flash a light and then many more just beyond the reach of their flood lamps. In a few seconds, an entire ecosystem comes into view with geothermal vents and sea creatures galore. None are the fabled squid, but all are exotic and unknown to the surface. What’s more, there are thousands! Even if they filled every specimen tube, they could only bring back a small sampling of what is down here.

They scoop and suction up as much as they can, and they make an effort of tracking their general location while heading to the surface. Once they breach the air and make it back to civilization, they present their morsels to the restauranteur. He’s impressed. It wasn’t exactly what he wanted, but he could make it work. Plus they assure him they can supply him for years to come. So win-win. He doesn’t think they really found the trench, but doesn’t care either. Where ever this seafood came from, it is good stuff. And right now he claims a monopoly on it. So he tells the bastard who is lucky to be alive to get a fleet of submersibles and go back to the depths.

This is the story of Christopher Columbus in a nutshell.