The co-location of the creative class

I have never read Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class. There are a few reasons for this. First, his thesis was so ubiquitous in the 2000s that a distillation was easy to be had for free. People would write about Florida’s ideas. And he’d talk about it constantly in interviews.

Second, what was true about his model struck me as obvious, and what was not made it less significant. Single professionals in the knowledge economy are not by and large young Mormons who marry young and want to move into spacious tract homes in the suburbs as soon as possible. Rather, they will spend a significant part of their 20s and 30s expending and consuming in and around large cities, and want to be in circumstances where they can meet other like-minded people in similar situations.

But you can’t just create these cities by putting up bike paths. There’s no easy way to mimic what occurred in Silicon Valley. The Valley has a combination of structural (Stanford is there) and contingent factors (California has no non-compete clauses) that help it. It may be that in the modern world there are actually greater returns to locating in an ideapolis which is more expensive.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about academic research. What proportion in a given field of novel and innovative findings are produced by the top 10 institutions? The percentage varies by field and person to person, but I’ve gotten numbers ranging from 40 to 90% from people in different fields. In other words, research productivity is described by a power law as a function of institution.

Similarly, there will be one Silicon Valley, and everyone else will have the scraps. Information technology has not made the landscape flat. The visceral and concrete aspect of “being there” is even more of an advantage in a world where everyone is accessible via email and social media.

This article in Wired, Can the American Heartland Remake Itself in the Image of Silicon Valley? One Startup Finds Out, makes it pretty clear that it doesn’t matter how cool Denver is, it’s going to be hard if you aren’t in Silicon Valley.

The importance of geography and co-location is why I propose that a project for the 21st century should be the construction of a massive arcology between Long Beach and San Diego. Perfect weather on the coast and mountains inland. Aim to house the entire United States population there to start out with.

America with the evil empire

Before Donald Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia my eyes were already preparing to start rolling. If there is one thing that brings Americans of all political stripes together, it is contempt for our alliance with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the American ruling class reaffirms and reiterates our alliance with the passing of every administration like clockwork.

The Saudi alliance useful. It is financially lucrative for the small minority of Americans who are part of the international elite. It helps sustain some intellectuals and think tanks in Washington D.C. And in the bigger game of geopolitics the Saudis have been aligned thoroughly with the United States since after World War II.

But no one is under any great illusions about what the Saudi regime is. When Trump says “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” we have to laugh at the audacity of the lie. Starting in the late 1970s Iran did try to assert leadership of international Islam…but to do so it had to dampen sectarian consciousness, because 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni. Iran does support other Shia movements (though in general other Twelver Shias; the alliance with ghulat sects is opportunistic, as is that of the almost-Sunni-Zaydis of Yemen), and has had a very close relationship with Hezbollah for generations. But it has engage in this with a relatively soft touch with pretenses, because the Shia are outnumbered.

In contrast, Saudi Arabia does not need to pretend. The Saudi government and populace has been fomenting and exporting sectarian hatred for generations. Sectarian hatred even predates oil as an export of the peninsula. In 1802 the Wahhabis under the Saudis sacked Karbala. The Shia of eastern Saudi Arabia live under what is perhaps best analogized to Jim Crow for Americans.

After 9/11 many average Americans asked “why do they hate us?” This is a big question with many answers.

Here is one. For various reasons our government is allied  with a neo-medieval monarchy. Most Americans are not too aware of foreign policy, international affairs, and geography. But if you are a well informed citizen of Iran, you know exactly what Saudi Arabia is.

Many Muslims who are Sunni also know what Saudi Arabia is. Many Sunnis rue the day that oil enriched the monarchies of the Arabian peninsula, because they believe that it transformed the nature of modern Islam. This is overdone; the Wahhabis of the 18th century in Arabia can be paired up with the Deobandis of 18th century India, or the revivalism of the Sokoto caliphate in the 19th century in the Sahel. But on the margin and in quantitative degrees it is hard to deny that oil wealth has helped shape the ideological topography of modern day Sunni Islam.

The robust American alliance with one of the most extreme regimes in the world makes a farce of our rhetoric of freedom and democracy. But Americans being who we are, we continue to engage in that rhetoric despite the reality that we quickly compromise when the national interest demands it. The strength of the American-Saudi alliance from administration to administration suggests there is far more than what we see above the surface. The rumors that some Muslims spread that the House of Saud has some of the biggest wine cellars in the world illustrates the reality that that regime is very willing to violate the spirit and letter of the laws which it promotes in public.

But the alliance is always a black mark in our American self-perception that we’re a moral superpower. Most Americans don’t realize it, but in the Muslim world it something that people take note of.

Winning the battle against post modernism by losing the war for the soul of science

Over 20 years ago Paul Gross and Norman Leavitt wrote Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. To me the book was revelatory and a shock; my own experience with “anti-science” was mostly with Creationists. This was only a few years before the Sokal affair.

In the wake of that it seems that the excesses of the “post modern” Left receded. When you review the “science wars” it is also notable that it is an elite affair, with a strong French inflection (Sokal’s book Fashionable Nonsense was actually originally published in French!).

With the rise of “big science” like the Human Genome Project the fuss about social constructionism in science seemed a bit silly. Onward and upward!

But change is in the air. There is a “new Sokal affair,” A new academic hoax: a bogus paper on “the conceptual penis” gets published in a “high quality peer-reviewed” social science journal. The abstract goes like so:

Anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct. We argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity. Through detailed poststructuralist discursive criticism and the example of climate change, this paper will challenge the prevailing and damaging social trope that penises are best understood as the male sexual organ and reassign it a more fitting role as a type of masculine performance.

The whole paper is pretty amusing.

First, I have to admit that this is not equivalent to the Sokal Affair, because the journal is far less reputable than Social Text. Part of the story are lower standards in academic publishing, and the fact that “peer review” is a lot sloppier and error prone that many in the general public think. The authors made up citations, and the peers did not catch them.

Another element of this may be that these sorts of fields are so diffuse that it’s hard to get good peers who understand what you are saying. One reason specialist journals of reasonable prestige get good peer reviews is that the reviewers work in basically the same field. You can’t make up citations in that situation.

But ultimately the fact that people like Jerry Coyne are promoting this also highlights that twenty years after Alan Sokal’s hoax the science wars were not won. The problem with the tactics of the social constructionists in the 1990s is that they were too showy and swung for the fences. Over the past twenty years the way that this sort of constructionist narrative has succeeded is that first it has to colonize and dominate disciplines outside of science, and then leverage progressive causes which scientists on the whole are onboard with in any case. Instead of undercutting science, the new tactic is to be pro-science rhetorically, but to constraint and delimit. Accept the idea of scientific reality, but simply demand it conform to your one’s own preferences (this by the seems to be the stance of Creationists).

Pegging the human expansion of out of Africa

Genetic science is good at many things, but precise dates have not always been its strong suit. There are many reasons for this, and the possibility of variable mutation rates puts a major a barrier in our ability to get absolute precision. From what I can archaeology is a little better here, despite all the problems that this discipline has.

Early human occupation of a maritime desert, Barrow Island, North-West Australia:

. In this first major synthesis we focus on the dating and sedimentology of Boodie Cave to establish the framework for ongoing analysis of cultural materials. We present new data on these cultural assemblages – including charcoal, faunal remains and lithics – integrated with micromorphology, sedimentary history and dating by four independent laboratories. First occupation occurs between 51.1 and 46.2 ka, overlapping with the earliest dates for occupation of Australia. Marine resources are incorporated into dietary assemblages by 42.5 ka and continue to be transported to the cave through all periods of occupation, despite fluctuating sea levels and dramatic extensions of the coastal plain.

The best current work sees to suggest that unlike most world populations Australians have not experienced much turnover. That is, the first settlers are the ancestors by and large of the current native populations. If this is correct we’re getting some really clear lower bound values for the date of Neanderthal and Denisovan admixture into our lineage.

The eternal Axial Age

As I have noted before one of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek history is that in many ways the socio-political identities and outlook of the Hellenic people before and after the Bronze Age were probably as distinct as that between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. That is, the citadel culture of the Mycenaeans was constructed out of recognizable elements. Take one dollop Near Eastern autocracy, add a dash of semi-civilized barbarian warlord, and finish off with the tincture of brutalist post-Minoan aesthetic, and you have the pirate kings of Achaea, who so plagued the kings of the Hittites and later transformed themselves into the “Sea Peoples.”

The story of what happened after the end of the Bronze Age is somewhat well known to us, because the roots of our civilizations are clear in the ideas which emerged in the period between 1000 BCE and 0 CE. The basis of the institutional religions which we see around us date to the Axial Age. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, either arose or ripened in the one thousand years after the birth of Christ, but from a naturalistic perspective the bases of these traditions are present in the early Iron Age. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, Judaism over its history truly takes shape in the centuries leading up to, and subsequent to, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. But the disparate threads of Rabbinical Judaism were already there in the centuries before Christ; they were simply synthesized and extended later on.

Much the same can be said about science. On the one hand, a narrow view of science is that it is the cultural product of a group of individuals who began collectively exploring aspects of the natural world in the 17th century. Eventually this contingent cultural enterprise spread across the whole world. But the roots of the scientific enterprise can also be seen in the Pre-Socratic philosophies. It was already there 2,500 years ago. But the victory of Platonism, and later the rise of Hellenistic ethical systems, and finally the ideological uniformity imposed by Christianity, dampened the efflorescence of heterodox speculations which flourished for the few centuries around 450 BCE. The steam went out of the scientific enterprise, and it never truly became science as we understand it in the modern world. But pieces of it that came together later on were familiar to us of old.

And then there are the political innovations. The Greeks gave us all their different varieties; democracy, oligarchy, the mixed monarchy-oligarchy of Sparta. The Romans had their republic, and even during the imperial period rejected the institution of ‘kinship,’ though all the powers of a king were eventually accrued to the emperors.

But political debate existed outside of Greece and Rome. In China political and ethical philosophy were intertwined, the tension between Legalism and Confucianism would continue down through the ages after the official ascendancy of the latter during the Former Han. In India there was a variety of forms of governance characterized by differing levels of centrality before the conquest of the Mauryas set the horizons and template for much of the rest of South Asian history.

Democracy and republics faded. Republican governments eventually made periodic revivals. During the period of the American Revolution many were skeptical of the idea of such a geographically expansive state such as the United States being able to maintain a republican form of governance. The shift toward a more democratic self-identity in the early 19th century with the rise of Jacksonian populism was even more shocking, because for much of history democracy was seen as a failed Greek experiment which often devolved into illiberal mob rule.

I recall 15 years ago Steven Pinker observing that one reason philosophy has made little progress is that what one could not make progress in was consigned to philosophy, while the natural and social sciences waxed in their ability to model and explain the world around us. This is uncharitable to philosophy in many ways, but it gets at something real: we haven’t pushed much further beyond the Greeks on foundational questions. Similarly, Islam is the last major religion to have emerged, and the theology of Christian churches and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Hinduism are all one to two thousand years old. Instead of progress we’ve seen shifts back and forth in fashion. Reworking of templates, not the creation of new things.

Over the past few centuries we have witnessed something different than this. The birth of the modern. The explosion of democracy and liberalism, and economic well being through massive gains to welfare and well being to the non-elites. Between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled in Western societies shrank. Seen from the first half of the 1960s the future was shiny, infectious disease was going to be unknown, and robots would allow us a life of leisure.

Though we do have iPhones and other shiny devices, and nerds like me can consume lots information on the web, things have not quite worked out in exactly the way predicted. Yes, China and much of the developing world has improved in terms of vital statistics. And it looks like space commerce may finally arrive in the next decade. But we do not have a Mars colony in 2017, let alone a Moon colony.

Economic productivity combined with a demographic transition mean that extreme deprivation is slowly being strangled. But inequality flourishes, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled began to increase after 1970 in the developed world. Whereas at one point the Whiggish perception that history was progressive, and that it would end in some quasi-utopian terminus, was self-evident, today many are not as certain. The unipolar geopolitics of the 1990s has given way to a new farcical world of the “Great Game,” while secular Arab nationalism has faded to irrelevance in the face of a resurgence Islamic identity.

History does not move in cycles where the future reenacts the past. But much of the modular furniture of existence seems to be 2,000 years old. The Salafi movements the world over are fundamentally products of modernity, or the reaction to various elements of European modernity. Their roots pre-date the 20th century, and go back to revivals in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century which parallel a reconstruction of self conscious orthodox Islam in India as the Mughal order was collapsing. But ultimately they are refurbishing the furniture put together by Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who himself might have been comfortable among Judaean Zealots. The Taliban are simply the Maccabees of our age.

From an American perspective the reality, the necessity, of the spread of democracy and the expansion of liberalism seem self-evident. Inevitable. Along with technology and science, it all seemed to hang together. In the 1990s the future was arriving as scheduled.

In 2017 the Russian experiment with Western democratic forms has not turned out how we wanted. Though China is economically liberal, it is not democratic. The global capitalist elite were as surprised as everyone else by 2008, and in the wake of that shock they have persuaded themselves that there is no need for a fundamental rethink of the institutions that they’ve developed over the past 70 years since the Bretton Woods Agreement.

As the Western economic elite continues to persist in denial, the cultural elite has been making a broad push to sweep post-1960s social liberalism throughout the world. This, all the while that Western societies have been demographically stagnant, and Western economic power has been declining in relative terms.

We are in the late stages of the long 20th century. The institutions and mores of the post-World War II are still with us, like Zeitgeist zombies. But the combination of global capitalism, individualism, democratic values always constrained by oligarchic preferences, and the universal acid of Critical Theory infused identity politics, does not hang together in a robust fashion. In most of the world if people have to pick between their ‘sexual identity’ and their ‘religious identity’, I think it will be the latter (assuming they concede that a sexual identity is a thing). In the early 20th century Marxists had to confront the fact that internationalism was not capable of overcoming nationalism. In the 21st century the identity politics of individual self-actualization and self-definition will likely confront 2,000 year old identities.

Ideologues dream of final victories. Of ideologies sweep through the world, from sea to sea. Global Communism. A world-wide capitalist order defined by free trade and free movement of peoples. China and India converting to Christianity and finally ending the civilizational conflict between Christendom and Islam, as Muslim MENA is constricted between Christian Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But pluralism has defined the last few thousand years. The final victory has been elusive. The old ideologies and religions do not die, they evolve, they reinvent, they repurpose. The stories are different in each age, but they live in a shared universe of characters who also repeat similar plot elements.

The second century BC was a strange time for the Roman republic. It was an empire in all but name. The ancient enemy Carthage was no more. But destitution was also coming to some of the Roman people. This resulted in reformers attempting to right the ship of state. The brothers Gracchi attempted to help the plight of the Roman poor with redistribution.  Marcus Livius Drusus expanded the franchise to non-Roman Italians. Political redistribution if you will. Gaius Marius began as a necessary general, but ended as a chaotic autocrat. The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.

Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.

Sulla is efficient. Cruel, but certain in his rightness. Sulla is not a clown. He is not narcissistic, for Sulla does have ideals, even if you hold that those ideals are cruel or callous. Sulla is a piece of furniture, found in many places at many times. The United States of America has not seen Sulla yet. I believe it will.

Tales of the Chinese future past

In the first half of the 1990s I was an avid reader of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series. This is before I knew much about Chinese history, or much about life to be honest. This vast epic future history is set in a world where a resurgent China dominates the world. Wars of genocidal extermination against the black and brown peoples, as well as the Japanese, have left the ethnographic topography rather simpler. Europeans exist as a subaltern race in the techno-Confucian order.

The Chinese hegemony erases the true history of the human past and promulgates a fictional alternative history, which the populace accepts as the truth. In this telling the semi-legendary Chinese general who was turned away by the Parthians 2,000 years ago continues westward, and ultimately China conquers Rome. All institutional organized religion is obliterated from existence and memory; no Christianity, no Buddhism. It is as if the Former Han dynasty had access to 21st century technology.

Earth is ruled by a small oligarchy of virtuous monarchs. Progress is dampened in the interests of social stability. The world is explicitly stratified into classes, though there is some mobility upward and downward within a single generation. They know their world’s history is a foundation of lies, but lies are seen as critical to social harmony and stability. The truth may set people free, but this is not a world where freedom is the primary value. Rather, stability and social harmony are prized.

Though Wingrove’s narrative is not without some sympathy for the dominant social order in terms of what it was attempting to achieve (they were not Legalists, but rather moralists), ultimately the most sympathetic protagonists channel the values of the late 20th century West. Truth, progress, and individualism.

Reading this series in the first half of the 1990s as a teenager it all seemed fantastical. Liberalism, Western liberalism, was inevitable as humanity’s terminal state. We all knew that. As the Chinese grew wealthier the expectation by many was that they would begin to inch toward Western norms and institutions, just as the collapsing Soviet Union was. The very concept of a jarring lateral shift in norms, values, and Weltanschauung, was quite literally the stuff of science fiction!

I now believe that I was very wrong about many things back then, and David Wingrove’s fertile imagination grasped far deeper, and perhaps troubling, possibilities about the arrow of history. In 2011, after a 15 year hiatus, Wingrove returned to this series with a prequal, Son of Heaven. It is perhaps an appropriate time for me at this juncture to revisit this world, and even look at it with more sympathy as an adult than I did as a child.

Of course I’ll also be re-reading my Xunzi. In translation I feel as if I’m missing but, but my hope is that re-reading will allow me to gain insight. Unfortunately I am hopeless at languages, otherwise I would attempt to learn to read Mandarin at this advanced age.

Notes on my social media fast

I turned on StayFocused last Thursday and set it for a week. I locked myself out of Twitter and Facebook.

Because so many people now message via Twitter and Facebook I did check via Chrome on my phone once a day. But I didn’t check the stream of messages at all.

Obviously a lot has happened in the news over the past week. Being off Twitter meant I found out about thinks a bit more slowly. But that’s OK.

I’m back on Twitter. But I am not going to reinstall it on my phone. I try and be accessible to people and respond to them…but over the years it has gotten too much. I get tagged in so many conversations. From now on I’m much more likely to ignore them.

There are still things Twitter is useful for. Things I want to say that are easier to say there. But most of the “conversations” are not worth it. Many of them are circle-jerks. In other cases a sincere person like Nicholas Christakis has to show almost Job-like patience with others who don’t play by rules of fairness and charity.

Facebook is a different case. I don’t use it to chatter with people. Rather, I post about my children or what I’m eating. I like baby pictures and see what’s happening in peoples’ lives who I know in some way. I missed it, but not that much. But I also now think it is far less toxic (in part because I’ve “trained” Facebook not to show me all the political arguments and such). I think this week has given me insight into why Facebook is so much more popular and valuable than Twitter.

On the balance when it comes to intellectual discourse, I think Twitter has made things worse.

To be a scientific intellectual today

George Busby has put up note about changes in his career path, Meditation on the Caltrain. I took offense to this section:

On top of this, there was the burgeoning realisation that no one actually reads the academic papers that I write. This is no moot point: writing papers is the main purview of a research scientist, and the central way we both communicate our results and measure success. However, compared to the proportion of the world’s population who can read, the number of people that had sat down to ingest my latest, dense, and fascinating (to me at least) treaty on the population genetics of Africa, three years in the making, was minuscule. The words of a colleague rang in my head: “99.9% of scientific papers just don’t get read”.

His most recent paper, Admixture into and within sub-Saharan Africa, was great. I meant to blog it, but got busy with other things. To be frank the fact that someone like George Busy is having trouble in the academic market is sobering. He has produced good and prominent work, and has been attached to groups which have some prominence. Of course grant approvals and job prospects have a stochastic element. But his experience shows that talent and good work is just a necessary, not sufficient, condition.

It looks like Busby will land in Silicon Valley with one of the two companies that do a lot of work on ancestry. Good for him. I think it does behoove those of us with intellectual pretensions to wonder what we’re doing out in the world. And, it also behooves academics to wonder what they’re doing with their job security. Sometimes it is important to tell the truth and explore topics even if people don’t care, or don’t want to listen. Otherwise, why fund anything that’s not practical with the public fisc?