Friday, October 27, 2006

Autism Squeaks

Anybody who works in a trading room tuned to CNBC is extremely tired of the Autism Speaks commercials that have been playing for the last few months. If the following post seems overly cruel, it is hard to be dispassionate about a set of commercials that have caused so much pain to so many people.

The commercials begin with a statistically unlikely possibility for "your" child, and then close with the odds that "your" child will be diagnosed with autism. "The chances of your child growing up to appear in a Playboy Centerfold are one in fortyfive thousand. The chances of your child being diagnosed with Autism, are one in one hundred and sixty six."

They are odd, nearly nonsensical pieces. After all, if your child is over eight, the probability of that child being diagnosed with Autism is either 1 or 0, with nothing in between, and certainly not 1:166. Similarly, the probability of the children of people in trading rooms having illustrious career paths is slightly higher than the probability of the population at large, and that probability is different for every family, depending on their predispositions and gifts. Only the bossiest commercials assign personal probabilities to highly conditioned events, and it is not completely clear from the commercial whether autism is even a problem, or whether they are calling attention to the greater social evil of rampant autism diagnoses.

But what does it take to get a diagnosis of Autism around here? High-functioning autism can include "a facility with numbers, a need for repetition, and a difficulty generalizing from the concrete to the abstract". The Autism Speaks commerical satisfies all three diagnostic criteria in a mere thirty seconds.

Another diagnostic criteria of Autism is emotional blindness and insensitivity that can be mistaken for rudeness. For example, if the rumors are true, and Jim Simons of Renaissance Technologies is financing those commercials, then it is insensitive to the point of sadism for him to use the alpha that he has removed from other portfolio managers to repetitively inflict a commerical that repeatedly irritates his former and current victims.

People usually bracket Simons' interest in Autism research by mentioning that his daughter is severely Autistic. But the rule of thumb is that a daughter's brain has a closer relationship to her father's brain than does a son's brain, and it is quite likely that, just as James Joyce was a high-functioning schizophrenic with a low-functioning schizophrenic daughter, Jim Simons is a high-functioning Autistic with a low-functioning Autistic daughter.

While we're diagnosing Autism, the success of Renaissance Technologies could even be reduced to the central conjuncture of an emotionless person exploiting the mood-swings of over-emotional people. Jim Simons' ability to treat the emotions of the market as pure information rather than as contageous panic or thrilling euphoria has allowed him to quantify that information in extremely profitable ways, and it is sad if the only thing he can think of doing with his billions is to study the structure of his own brain. So, my response to the commercial is that "The chances of my child growing up to be in a broadway show are zero in fifteen thousand. The chances that this commercial will do more good than harm are one in ten thousand, and the chances of the people responsible for this commercial being diagnosed with Autism are 1 in 1."

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Jamming class radar

The corner grocery store in my neighborhood is a pleasant place, with a cheerful staff, pleasantly cluttered layout, and most items weighing in at about a dollar more than they would anywhere else. It is an attractive time-warp where the staff and customers make an effort to know each other by name, the butcher counter has an agreeable policy of almost never selling meat that was ground more than three hours earlier, and they stock an evershifting panoply of European treats (for a while, they were one of ten venues in the city that would sell you a Ritter Sport that combines hazelnuts, white chocolate, and crisped rice, but they have moved on to other, equally tempting delicacies).

Their decision not to sell lottery tickets contributes to the old-fashioned charm of the store. Like a lot of people, I viscerally hate the lottery, and it offends me every time I see a person buying a ticket. The lottery is an extra tax on the poor, the uneducated and the unintelligent that disrupts "class interests" by encouraging a fantasy life in which the underprivileged imagine they are absurdly wealthy, and then cast real votes in real elections to protect their imaginary wealth.

It would be in the Republican Party's interest to give away lottery tickets for free, and it is sheer genius to get people to pay for their own poison. One explanation for Republican political hegemony is that their policies have disintegrated the base-line morality of large segments of the population. Call me anachronistic, but those seven deadly sins are not considered "deadly" because they are life-enhancing, and while it may not be a secular government's job to suppress sin, it is hardly a government's job to encourage it.

As it turns out, the Illinois State Lottery will be shooting a commercial in the grocery store next week. The lottery has corrupted the essence of other grocery stores to the degree that those stores are an advertisement for the moral terpitude and decay that the lottery brings, while the lottery itself, in order to make its own corruption appealing, fictionally situates itself in uncorrupted sites.

That barefoot philosopher says that the desire for money is the root of all evil, and he is more than half right, since Greed finances four other sins -- Sloth, Vanity, Gluttony and Lust. Contemporary culture accepts that Anger and Jealousy are character flaws, but the greed-based family comprise ninety percent our culture, and ninety five percent of our problems. Republicans win elections because, when faced with the choice between hypocrisy and sin, many people prefer hypocrisy: but who would win if the Democrats became the party of morality?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The road to serbdom

As a couple of plugged in readers pointed out, the "Road to Amarillo" video linked below featured British and not American troops, lip-synching a song by a British pop star. In retrospect, that only increases the emotional-visual complexity of the piece, as the Blair government lip-synchs American foreign policy and the English soldiers are used as stand-ins for Americans by the local bombsters.

The above lipsynch similarly shows an ironic European relationship to American foreign policy, put together by Norwegian soldiers, suggesting that once-proud Viking marauders are reduced to sissy peace-keepers by the United Nations and American policy.

With the emergence of sue-tube, it'll be interesting to see whether the holders of copyrights to karaoke soundtracks decide to assert that ironic justapositions of their lyrics with the karaoke soundtracks goes beyond "fair use". Bob Rivers asserts his ownership of the modified song in this link, but the piece only rises to the level of first ammendment protected mockery when the Norwegian troops add their ridicule of the song's original creators. The Beach Boys could have asserted their intellectual property rights against Bob Rivers, but not against the Norwegian mockvideo.

In a copyright-choked world, this piece could never have been put together. The irony is that a tribute karaoke or lipsynch that enhances a rock group's brand is discouraged by the law, while disrespectful interpretations are protected. It is a strange twist in the current conjuncture: if entertainment is religion, the legal structure of intellectual property encourages blasphemy and negativity.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Diversity, Drugs, Designer Babies, and Dictators

Genetic diversity insures species continuity. Our species produces "morning people" and "evening people" in almost equal percentages, so our camps are guarded at all hours, and a percentage of people will be able to pursue opportunities whenever they are offered. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a more interesting example: superficially, it is a phenomenal wate of psychological resources, but, during periods of plague and bacterial infection, people with OCD are the ones who survive. Similarly, poets, mystics, and seers, while superfluous in a stable social order, provide the visionary bridge that assists transition from one legitimational system to another.

Our civilization has an innovative way to deal with genetic gifts that do not dispose people to "fit into" any of the current social niches. In some smaller tribal societies, those individuals with different genetic gifts were supported as a tribal insurance policy against different types of change. In other smaller tribal societies and in most larger civilizations, people who did not "fit in" were often hunted and killed. We have an uneasy compromise between the two approaches: we tolerate some types of diversity (i.e., homosexuality), but people with other types of diversity are encouraged to ingest chemicals that will blunt their special gifts and make them better able to adapt to the current economic system.

If we define "success" as "success in the current economic system", there is no compelling argument against enhancing one's likelihood of success by chemical means. The growing social consensus against steroid use among athletes is simultaneously medical (there are strange side effects of steroid use) and aesthetic/moral (a steroidally enhanced athlete is like photoshopped porn: the audience feels cheated). However, the social consensus against chemical use does not reach into psychoactive drugs, as various compassion-killing substances are marketed as anti-depressants, to allow compassionate people to function at a higher level in society without crippling concern for their fellow-humans.

Zookeepers judge their success by the willingness of animals to breed in captivity and depression and impotence are natural mechanisms to push evolution. If a society is so unhappy that it cannot breed, then things should either change in a way that makes people ready to breed, or it should die out and be replaced by something more vigorous. This was the thrust of Habermas' classic work, Legitimation Crisis, in which he diagnosed a massive societal depression, caused by the gap between our lofty ideals and their flawed instantiation. The social change that Habermas foresaw is unnecessary, thought, because our economy has created incentives to produce chemicals that block out people's unhappiness, which, in turn, allow the society to continue without circumspection. It is ironic that people, themselves doped up on Prozac, still have enough contact with their natural values that they would be disgusted see animals doped up on Prozac in a zoo.

But the issue of drug-use reduces to the question of the individual versus the species. It is unacceptably cruel to tell Brooke Shields not to take anti-depressants for her post-partem depression, particularly if, evolutionarily, post-partem depression is an extra hurdle that winnows out less resilient babies. The social consensus represents the unwillingness to "take your pill" as an anti-social infliction of one's personality on the society, but a person who refuses to capitulate to the social pressure for conformity is often serving the broader interests of the species, usually at some personal cost.

And thus we return to the most compelling argument for "designer" babies of the future. We are creating and loving children who would not have survived in earlier eras. And then dope them up, so they can survive in our economy. It seems much more efficient and more humane to deal with the problem at the source, and only summon beings into the world who are able to survive in our world. The risk is that a lack of genetic diversity will decrease our species ability for adaptation, but this risk could be easily mitigated, possibly with reservations for free-range humans, or maybe through a managed human ecosystem, applying growing understanding from natural ecosystems.

I started this as a response to the BoingBoing post about autism and sociopathy. While an evolutionary aware perspective increases sympathy for many of the "nice" variations, it decreases sympathy for the "bad" ones. It is a sucker's bet to sympathize with people who have a genetic predisposition take advantage of one's sympathy. And just as the Nazi sociopaths wanted to root out their compassionate fellows, if it really is a war, then it is symmetrical for the compassionate to contemplate rooting out the sociopaths. The compassionate way to abolish something is to prevent it from ever arising, and while I love genetic diversity, it's pleasant to imagine a future where evil has been eradicated, much like polio.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Iraq mess redux

Just when I start to lose faith in my culture, a friend sends me the above clip. Watching it, I sense how Americans felt in 1942 when they compared Glenn Miller with the Horst Wessell song: Our values are so simply and directly on the side of optimism and humanity, that only a self-indulgent commitment to twisted cosmologies or historical narratives of revenge and righteousness could immunize a person from their appeal.

The biggest bane of humanity, as the Buddha tell us, is the desire for complexity when simplicity will suffice. It doesn't take much to make people happy. Mutual respect might be the simplest social code ever invented, and the Maslowian hierarchy is the foundation of personal happiness. Even so, it is nearly miraculous when large groups of humans cooperate on a level that allows most of them to be clothed, fed, and sheltered. Why can't we all just get along?

The quick answer is that civil society is a wonderful and rare thing, a sturdy oak that was once a tender sprout. Civil society is built on a historical consensus under which people internalize the socially defined rules for allocating status and control of resources. When a few people refuse to play by the rules, it is called "crime"; when many people refuse to internalize the rules, it is called "social breakdown"; when those people organize themselves into factions, it is called "civil war".

At the beginning of the Iraq experiment, Wolfowitz promised a massive laboratory test of Platonism. Wolfowitz assured us that the good was desireable, and that our society was good, so once obstacles were removed, Iraqis would naturally desire to emulate our social structure. Even if we ignore the conflation of contemporary American porno-capitalism with the ideal forms, it is hard to forget that Plato thought it utterly implausible that the average man on the street would be even be able to recognize the Platonic Good.

Thus far, the Iraq experiment has suggested that Plato's pessimism was thoroughly justified. The considered Islamist response to our efforts to convert them to our values has been that they are not just simple organisms willing to dance around to catchy tunes, and an economic system built around amplifying and exploiting organic pleasures and desires is an insult to their spiritual natures. In fact, their cosmology tells them that catchy tunes and organic pleasures are the snares by which Satan traps the souls of the unwary. When Islamists call us the "the Great Satan", it is not an overblown figurative rhetorical device. They call us "the Great Satan" because they believe that we are, in fact, "the Great Satan".

One of the lessons that the Romans learned in their attempted forcible assimilation of the Christians was that one cannot compel cosmologically deluded people to accept basic notions of civility if those cosmologically deluded people feel that their immortal souls are imperilled by civil society. More born Islamists are attracted to Western values than Westerners are attracted to Islamist values, and that is a general, human "proof" that our civilization is "better". But even an enthusiastic majority is not enough to establish functioning civil society: once can win an election with a slight majority, but the election is only meaningful if nearly all the participants agree to be bound by the result and the remainder are sufficiently socially isolated to be considered "criminals". Civil society is an organism, and an organism usually dies if a threshhold percentage of its cells are cancerous.

I opened this piece on optimistic note, and it would be so nice to close this piece with a clear proposal to solve the Iraq mess. Why isn't there an internet meme that offers a five point plan to ensure peace and stability in Iraq without compromising American values? Could we talk Ray into it? Now that's somthing I'd forward to everyone on my email list.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Speaking of everything being revealed

But what will we learn when we decode the DNA of the "genome 100"? That the world is just, and our overlords deserve their wealth and status? That they are curiously lacking in empathy, while maintaining a veneer of sociability? Or just that they are a lot like everybody else, but very, very arrogant?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Until we are as children ...

There is something fascinating about the current economy, whose primary growth sectors -- construction, finance, and entertainment -- have an uncanny relationship to children's games. Construction is just building with blocks; finance resembles nothing so much as the imaginary economy of a make-believe store, where phantom money is used to purchase ghost items; and what is the entertainment business but play-acting? It is interesting that the boom in construction has been limited to residences (i.e., unproductive space), the boom in finance has primarily come from trading (unproductive exchange), and theater is so completely separated from its didactic roots that it is considered part of the "entertainment" industry.

Contrast our contemporary industries with the coal mines of the nineteenth century or the assembly lines of the twentieth -- who would mistake the primary activities of those centuries for a schoolyard game? As we talk about the infantilization and narcissism of contemporary culture, it is difficult not to note that the entire economy is constructed around child's play, and, given the alternatives, maybe that isn't such a bad thing.