Adapting to the Machine

Civilization creates a dilemma for all of us. It’s a dilemma we seldom notice – except in the extreme. It is a dilemma created by living in a world of machines.

The Chinese are planning on creating one such machine for their society.  In the planned Chinese “Social Credit” system every citizen will be rated based on their credit history, purchasing history, and more. The hope is that this grand societal machine will make China better – a more trustworthy place. It will create for every Chinese citizen a terrible dilemma.

An episode of the TV series Black Mirror played with this kind of social machine: a world where every time you so much as bump into a stranger you mutually rate each other out five stars – the resulting score controlling your access to all the good things in life. Black Mirror painted a predictably dystopian world – cheery trivialized bliss floating atop an ocean of mentally intolerable manipulative anxiety.

Watching that show, watching how the characters deformed themselves in-order to adapt to their absurd society, it occurred to me that this is more than just a sci-fi problem. This is more than just a Chinese Communist problem. This is more than just a social media problem. This is a fundamental problem of civilization.

We must adapt to the machine.

We humans have always adapted to our environment. We change our behavior to fit in, to succeed. For a hunter-gatherer, adapting to your environment meant adapting to nature. For a citizen of the modern world, adapting to your environment means adapting to civilization.

Now nature can be harsh – deserts, and ice, and lions – yet the ways of nature are always at their core suited to human nature. More accurately, human nature evolved to suit the ways of nature. In contrast, while civilization can be comfortable – sofas, and chocolates, and painkillers – the ways of civilization are a mixed lot. Some of it we created because it helps us. Some of it we created because when you create one thing you have to go on creating other things. And some of it… who knows why we made that?

Today more than ever, our environment is dominated by the products of human minds – technology and institutions. Machines built from matter, and machines built from people. Success in the modern world means adapting yourself to this world of machines.

Here comes the dilemma.

The things you must do in-order to get by in an artificial world often conflict with human nature. It is impossible to adapt to it without also harming yourself. Self-destructive adaptation. A lose-win or win-lose situation. One can be a functional member of society, or one can be a functional human being. But one can only do both in Utopia, or the wilderness.

All institutions and technologies have biases, tendencies, and needs that have nothing to do with why we created them. These machine-needs are born out of the nature of the machine itself. If you want to use the machine, then you must satisfy the demands of the machine. Those demands can be neutral, a bonus, or harmful – in the extreme they may even undermine the very reason the machine was created.

A technological example: Computers dislike rain, bright sun, and being jiggled around. So we use them indoors, sitting down, in the dark. We adapt ourselves to the needs of the computer. Use them too much and you grow sick from a lack of sun and exercise.

An institutional example: Schools have too few teachers to adapt themselves to the needs of individual children. Instead the children must adapt to the needs of the school. They must be made manageable: silent, still, passive – the very opposite of a healthy child.

Or take these very words as an example: too be ideally adapted to the internet, I would make this 140 characters long, give it a click-bait title, front it with a picture of cleavage and a kitten, then sit there counting views as a measure of success. But I would not have learned anything, and neither would you.

These self-destructive adaptations are everywhere. One major form is where we mistake some measure important to the machine with a measure that is important to us human beings. For example:

  • Step counts on an exercise monitor VS. being healthy
  • Facebook likes VS. friendship
  • Qualifications VS. expertise
  • Awards VS. quality
  • Triple A ratings VS. low risk
  • Number of citations VS. truth
  • GDP growth VS. national well-being
  • A good social credit score VS. a trustworthy citizen

The machines are dumb. They can only understand the world through these simple metrics (typically things you can put a number on, use to fill up spreadsheets, and present as evidence at an end of year review). Therefore these metrics are what the machine rewards and punishes. Whenever you interact with a complicated technology or institution you will be called to live your life based on these metrics.

Sometimes those metrics align with what we want. Sometimes they really really don’t.

Imagine a class with two notable students.  Samantha always gets A+ on every test. Harriet does poorly on tests, and typically brings class to a screeching halt by starting arguments with the teacher. Obviously society will reward Samantha. She’ll get prizes at the end of the year. Her parents will buy her celebratory meals. Universities will happily accept her. Likewise society will punish Harriet. She’ll get sent to detention. Stern letters will be written to her parents. She wont meet entry requirements for university.

Perhaps Samantha really is smarter than Harriet. But it is also possible that Samantha is an unimaginative idiot with a knack for uncritically memorizing garbage. It is also possible that Harriet is an actual genius who has figured out that the school curriculum is flawed and that their teacher is a moron. But the machine cannot handle this nuance. It is a machine and machines are dumb – reliant on simple metrics of success and failure. Therefore the education-machine produces an idiot who thinks herself a genius, and a genius who thinks herself an idiot. Both adapted to the machine.

The mismatch between human needs and techno-instuitional needs is perhaps greatest with those things that are big and complicated, created top-down, or based on a grand theory.

Compare the difference between using a chair and using an airplane. The chair is simple. Only one concession is required of you – put it on a flat surface. The airplane is monstrously complicated. Preflight checks, security screenings, weight checks, runways, fuel depos, air safety regulations…. All of society must adjust itself to the demands of the airplane.

Likewise with institutions. Compare a private tutor with a university. The tutor is hardly an institution at all, more a personal relationship. They can adapt to your exact requirements. A university, however, is an impersonal giant. It must facelessly classify and order it’s students by schedules and GPAs. Instead the students must conform themselves to the demands of an institution too dumb to truly understand them as human beings.

Now consider bottom-up versus top-down. Bottom-up creations are made by their users. They want a creation that works for them, not the other way around. But with a top-down plan? Here the designer is free to disregard the user entirely. Kings don’t have to live under laws made for peasants.

The worst nightmares result when planners create grand complicated top-down  schemes based on some flawed theory. The machine they create may demand outright insanity from its users. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and other such lunacies spring to mind.

So what are we to do?

First, better design. Down-sizing the down side. Fitting designs better to human needs. Using better metrics of success. Bringing users into the design process. Using the simplest effective technique rather the biggest most bloated technique. The machines will never match us perfectly, but we can do a lot better.

Second, be aware. Take note of how many common behaviors in society are actually adaptations to the machine, rather something inherently human. Be aware of when you are acting naturally, and when you are adapting to the machine. You may have no choice but to continue, but at least you’ll know, and at least you’ll have a chance to adapt more healthily.

Be especially aware of metrics – indicators of success and failure. Whenever you see a metric, ask, “Does this actually measure what I care about?” If it doesn’t then ignore it, or find something that does.

Also be aware of the dangers of envy and what passes as success. In a world of machines, it is possible to succeed as a member of society by failing as a human being. Samantha is not always better than Harriet.

Third, know when to adapt and when to rebel. If the cost of adapting is low and the gains are large, then by all means adapt. Likewise, if the cost of rebelling is low, and the cost of adapting is high, then… go on – be a rebel. Go out there and stand  on the street corner, tear off that business tie, throw your smartphone on the ground, and shout, “I’m not your prisoner anymore!” You’ll probably get arrested, but for a little while, just a little while, you might feel more human. And that’s gotta count as a win.




Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

China’s social credit system, on Wikipedia here.

An outline of the Black Mirror episode, on Wikipedia here. (Caution spoilers! You should probably just watch the show. It’s a good show!)

One of the mother of all adapting-to-the-machine dilemmas. Go along with it and your country starves to death. Refuse to go along with it and you risk getting shot. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, on Wikipedia here.




Why the Fawkes Did We Just Do That?

Fawkes. Guy Fawkes.

I know it’s been and gone, but it seems fitting to write this now. Late. After it has ceased to be relevant.

In that spirit I would like us all to pause for a moment. Please. With me. Close your eyes and let us remember the true meaning of Guy Fawkes.

Um… I’m going to go with…. blowing up politicians?

Actually, the original true meaning of Guy Fawkes is something along the lines of this: Fuck Catholics.

People today celebrating Guy Fawkes with fireworks makes about as much sense as people in the year 2417 celebrating  Osama Bin Laden with paper planes and airshows. Guy Fawkes was a failed Catholic terrorist. He wanted to blow up the entire political class, start a civil war, and make England a Catholic country. He failed. He got executed. Explosive plots. Shoot outs. And torture. That’s what we are celebrating. Happy Death to Catholics Day everybody! God save the King!

This whole deal started because the King and parliament – who were quite thankful about not being exploded to death – decided the whole country should give thanks. And for some reason we’ve really liked it. Other weird traditions from that era have long since gone. Yet Guy Fawkes is one guy who has stuck with us for over four hundred years.

Why are we still doing this?

The thank-God-we’re-not-Catholic bit more or less died out in the 19th Century. We all decided to be a bit more orderly about things and stop beating people up. But you could still burn effigies of the Pope if you really wanted. Or the Russians. Or Tony Blair. Whoever you feel needs a good burning.

Then the fireworks industry got in on the on the action, using it as an annual celebration of their product. Seems we were okay with that. And entrepreneurial children also got in on the action, using it as an opportunity to sell effigies for burning so the could buy fireworks, because… fireworks.

Nowadays Guy Fawkes is morphing yet again. Governments, unimpressed by their citizens burning things down and blowing off fingers, have been moving us into an era of organized community fireworks displays. How very civilized.

And not one word about Catholics.

Yet the Guy Fawkes tale has also shot off in another bizarre tangent. Some of us quite like the idea of blowing up politicians. Ever seen that white-faced, mustachioed, smiling mask? The one beloved by Anonymous? That’s Guy Fawkes.  Those masks are film merchandise.

The film V for Vendetta, where that mask comes from, turned the whole 5th of November tale on it’s head. Guy-Fawkes-the-terrorist-fanatic became Guy-Fawkes-the-model-anarchist-freedom-fighter. Woo-hoo!  Let’s blow those fascists sky-high! Here Guy Fawkes takes on the meaning of a mad jester’s threat: if you politicians screw with us too much, we might just try to blow you to pieces. All of you! Kaboomy!

This whole fire-lit celebration has evolved rather a lot over the years.

I see little sign that Guy Fawkes will ever settle down as something coherent. Guy Fawkes is both hero and villain simultaneously. Guy Fawkes is about nothing and about everything simultaneously. Trivial and inspiring. Annoying and beautiful. You can sit at home doing nothing. You can run out and spend $6000 on explosives. No one cares. No one understands. Nobody knows what we’re doing.

Perhaps that is the secret to its success.

Any meaning or none can be wrapped around a hearty glowing core of fire, and explosions, and the vague sense that this all has something to do with politics.

That, I think, is the true meaning of Guy Fawkes. We’re all pyromaniacs. And we’re all confused.


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

A brief guide to Guy Fawkes from the BBC here.

The Guy Fawkes mask as the symbol of carnivalesque protest, on the Guardian, here.

Why Do We Celebrate Military Defeats?

The Texans still remember the Alamo, the Land Down Under annually commemorates getting pointlessly slaughtered in Turkey, and not long ago in the cinemas we got to relive once again that amazing day when the Brits got kicked out of Europe by Nazis. Why are we so fixated by military defeats?

 Who wants to be known for how brilliantly you can lose?

Turns out plenty of people do, and for some very good reasons.

If the war’s still raging, or if you live on one of those eternally strife-torn patches of dirt which planet Earth has in such great abundance, then obsessing over defeats is a great way to rile people up for some vengeful defeat-inflicting of their own. Everybody joins the army in a panic, then goes off shouting “Remember the Alamo!” as they mow down fleeing Mexicans. A similar thing can be said for the shocking defeats that linger in the mind long after the hatreds are forgotten. “Never again!” we say each time we hear the story of Pearl Harbor, “Never again!” A good defeat is a propaganda victory.

And an heroic defeat is a source of national pride.

Imagine a high-roller in a casino joking about that time he lost a million dollars on a bad bet. He isn’t pointing out his lack of judgement. He’s bragging about the fact he had a million dollars to lose in the first place. Same deal with the army. Look at the kinds of defeat we celebrate. They are never about that time we all ran away like cowards. They are always brilliant, like Dunkirk – an entire nation’s worth of amateurs in boats coming together to rescue their boys from the jaws of the Evil Empire. They are the kinds of defeats that you have to be kick-assingly amazing to pull off, like the Light Brigade suicidally charging the guns because that’s what they thought they’d been ordered to do, and by God they were going to do it!

Many of these sorts of defeats are self-inflicted (or ally-inflicted). The cause of failure therefore, is never truly the enemy. We failed. But we were not beaten. We were lions led by donkeys. Our pride, our sense of superiority, remains intact.

These defeats also tend to be set in the context of a wider victory. Dunkirk has its winning-twin in Normandy. If Dunkirk had merely been the prelude to a successful Nazi invasion of Britain, then Dunkirk would simply be too tragic to dwell on. But we won, so Hurrah!

So why celebrate the heroic defeat at all, rather than the more straightforward heroic victory?

Ask the Spartans.

Ask Leonidas.

Faced with an overwhelming Persian army, faced with certain defeat, he and his 300 Spartans and their Greek allies choose to stay and fight to the death. They fought till their spears shattered. They fought till all their leaders were dead. They fought till all they had were their hands, and their teeth. They fought till thousands of Persians lay dead around them. They fought until they themselves had been annihilated. They fought and they were defeated. But the way they fought made them immortal.

Defeats push people to the limits.

How long one holds out against overwhelming odds is the true test of one’s abilities. Winning is easy. Victory never reaches the true limits of endurance – otherwise you wouldn’t have won. Only in defeat are the limits of a fighting force discovered. Only in the heroic defeat, when the troops keep fighting beyond all hope, fighting to the very last man, do the men show that they have no limits, none except mortality itself.

In spirit they are undefeated.

In spirit they are victorious.

The event comes to transcend reality and enters myth.

Which brings us to the two nations who mythologize more about a military defeat than any other peoples on Earth: Australia and New Zealand. Their founding military myth, indeed one of the core founding myths of their national identities, is the story of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. This British led invasion of Turkey during the First World War was a disaster. A pointless waste. Nothing was achieved except slaughter. Yet in it the ANZACs earned themselves a reputation that would be inscribed forever on the soul of the nation. Each year the ANZACs are still remembered with dawn services and wreaths.

So why did Australia and New Zealand become so fixated on a tragedy when they would come to have plenty of more uplifting military stories to choose from? While many factors went into making Gallipoli sacred, a tragedy allows a far more complex response to war than a simple victory, or even a heroic defeat. War is tragic. Yet war is heroic. The celebration of heroic tragedy allows a people to express both the pride and pain of war.

Victory cannot handle this full range of emotions. Victory cannot handle the full depth of what war is. Victory is jingoistic, jubilant, glorious. Victory slides easy into self-glorification, and from there to foolishness and barbarism. The same degradation can befall a heroic tragedy as time passes and the tragic side is forgotten, yet even after a century that lingering dirge-call remains. The mind is brought back to the sorrow. War, heroism, and tears.

It says a lot about a people.

A nation’s preference for remembering loss over victory is a measure of a nation’s soul.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Read more on Wikipedia about the defeats mentioned …

The Battle of Thermopylae

The Gallipoli Campaign

Battle of the Alamo

The evacuation of Dunkirk

The Charge of the Light Brigade




Why are Neo-Nazis Still a Thing?

Didn’t he know they lost the war?

It seemed like a legitimate question at the time. I had just told a friend of mine that a guy he’d just met was in fact a former Neo-Nazi. My friend had laughed, and asked that question. To him the very idea that anyone, at any point in their life, would choose to be a Nazi seemed absurd. The Nazis did, if nothing else, lose the war. For him, and most ordinary people, the fact that Nazism = bad idea, falls into the bloody obvious category.

So why are Neo-Nazis still a thing?

Why would anyone find Nazism appealing after the horrifying madman’s train-wreck of World War Two?

To answer my friend’s joking question, losing the war didn’t necessarily discredit Nazi ideology. The belief in the superiority of the Aryan master race is not necessarily touched by the defeat of Germany. Aryans and Germans are not the same thing. The fact that the Germans failed… a disaster yes, an epic propaganda disaster for sure, but not a Jesus-coming-back-and-telling-you-he’s-a-Satanist kind of disaster.

And besides, you can always blame the Jews. Good old Jews.

If anything it’s a surprise there aren’t more Nazis. Think about it. What happened to them all?

With the end of the war, the Allied occupation, the Nuremberg trials, and Denazification, ye olde Nazism-original officially came to an end. Before that millions of people had been gripped by fanatical Nazi fervor. Then it was over. Nazism faded away. Indeed even before the end, Nazi fanatics failed to fight to the death as would have been expected. Where did they all go?

The sudden vanishing of mass Nazism may in large part be due to the nature of Totalitarianism. This form of totalizing government doesn’t so much persuade people of the truth of its ideology, as through sheer force of terror create an alternative reality in which the ideology is true.  It is made true. Jews live in filthy ghettos. Therefore Jews are rats. And if Jews weren’t rats, then why did we put them in filthy ghettos? Alternative facts meets concentration camps.

The Allied defeat of Hitler’s Germany was not an act of persuasion. Instead it destroyed the alternate reality created by the Nazis. When the Nazis lost control, the Nazi universe ceased to be real. Everyone could sit up, shake off the dream, and carry on into the newly restored non-Nazi reality.

Nazism went back to how it had been in the beginning – a fringe group of true-believers. A number of Nazis continued some form of Nazism long after the war, providing a nucleus around which Neo-Nazism as we know it could form. Nazis and fascists also existed outside Germany: in other Axis powers, among collaborators of the occupied nations, and fascist parties across the world. These too allowed Nazism and its varieties to persist one way or another.

It’s understandable that Germans and fascists would still feel the pull of Nazism after the war. But why did Neo-Nazism end up so visibly present in nations like Britain and the USA – nations that pride themselves on having defeated Nazism? Isn’t a Nazi American a contradiction, a traitor to the nation by default? And stranger too, why is Neo-Nazism in places as disconnected from the whole WWII story as Mongolia and Taiwan?

To understand that you must understand what Nazism is actually about.

Nazism is universal. Nazism goes well beyond mere German nationalism.  Nazism isn’t even about Germans. Nazism is about race, and race transcends all nations and all borders. This race ideology is more than mere racism. This is racism as a political movement. This is racism as the key to history. This is racism as the meaning of life.

To put it over-simplistically, Nazism is a religion of racism.

This religiosity can be quite literal. One of the ways Nazism survived the war was in the form of Esoteric Nazism. This gets drunk-fruitcake level weird: Hitler is a Hindu avatar, Aryans are from space, Jews are the work of Satan…. It’s a mash-up of Gnosticsm, ancient aliens, and Jewish genetic robots. Other Neo-Nazis prefer to dive into Norse paganism, satanism, and more. Ludicrous to outsiders perhaps, the esoterica does serve at least one purpose. It pushes the idea of race, the key dogma of Nazism, out of the world of scientific reality, and up onto the unassailable high ground of faith. Up in the clouds racism can live forever.

Even stepping back from these explicitly religious forms of Nazism, Neo-Nazis do come across a little religiousy. They come up with lists of eternal truths. They argue over arcane technicalities about who is and isn’t a member of the race. More entertainingly, or more worryingly, they have been known to engage in the make-yourself-relevant recruiting tactics that cheesy Christians are best known for. Take Nipsters for example: Nazi hipsters. Apparently the whole skinheads-in-trench-coats-threatening-to-kill-you look scares people. So they tried a hipsters-sipping-lattes-threatening-to-kill-you look. Anything to make Hitler cool for the kids of today.

Speaking of Skinheads, more important than any outward resemblance to religion is the role Neo-Nazism plays in it’s members lives – a role similar to that of a religion. If you’re not a Skinhead then you might not realize that Skinhead and Neo-Nazi are different things. You can in fact be an anti-fascist Skinhead. But if you can understand why Skinheads have become inseparably identified with Neo-Nazism then you’ll understand Nazism’s perennial appeal.

Nazism meets psychological needs.

Racism as an ideology, Nazi style racism-as-the-meaning-of-life, is a trembling hand grasping for a lost sense of identity. Belonging. Someone to be. Something to fight for. An explanation. A purpose. A destiny.

When all other group identities are stripped away from you, the most basic thing you have left, second only to gender, is race: the pure physical fact that I look like you, and you look like me. Therefore, says the race-ideologue, surely we must belong together. Do we not share a common identity… at some level… somewhere?

Say yes, and on this foundation you can build an identity, a purpose, a political movement.


The reality is that race suffers from the same problem as all other forms of mass identity, like patriotism and religion: most members of the mass group have never met. When they do they routinely discover that their differences mean as much to them as their commonalty. The reality is that ideological racists only experience true solidarity with themselves – to the extent that they have carved out a community within this world. But by claiming me, and you, and anyone else who looks like them, ideological racists make themselves part of something much larger. A world-historical struggle. A grand narrative in which they have a purpose, they have a place, and they belong.

They can belong even when they are alone.

They can belong even when they don’t belong anywhere. They can stare at the strangers in the shopping mall and think to themselves, “I am one of you. I am fighting for us. We are one people… if only you would wake up to your race.”

Racism also allows an escape from identifying with humanity as a whole. A strange desire? We take our common humanity as a given nowadays. We are all human. Obvious. But to truly identify with all of humanity is actually a terrifying prospect.

If you see yourself as a Citizen of the World, if you personally identify yourself first and foremost as a human being, then you must accept into your self-identity the horrifying realities of the human species. Cannibals. Rapists. Drug addicts. Lunatics. The homeless. Fraudsters. Filth. Smell. Hypocrisy. Fools. Strange rituals. Frightening faces. Slaves. Black and white and all the shades in between. Accepting your humanity can be as difficult as accepting your animal side. Racism lets you escape a common human nature, just like believing in immortal souls lets you escape a common animal nature.

Splitting humanity into races has a further psychological upside. Identify the right racial group for the task, and you can make everything you hate about the world flesh and blood. Then you can lash out. Beat the human voodoo doll to a pulp. Antisemitism is no accident. The Nazis singled out the Jews for a reason. Historically Jews were associated with banking, internationalism, and the government. The very things people had come to hate. You can’t stab abstract internationalism. But you can stab Jews.

While Neo-Nazis can’t let go of the Jews – it’s tradition – immigrants have become a more meaningful group to hate for today’s racists. They are our modern symbols of the globalized world. The world that uproots people, destroys communities, annihilates solidarity, fragments identity, and has left the working class, and much of the middle-class, insecure, hopeless, and angry. The super-rich and all those abstract global forces are out of reach, too hard to see, too hard to touch. But immigrants are in your face. And they scream when you hit them.

Alienation. Ugliness. Hate. Fear. Hopelessness. Confusion. Anger. The psychological bread of Nazism.

Which brings us back to the Skinheads. They started out as a 1960s British working class subculture. Hence practical buzz-cuts and work-men’s boots. Working class youth were simply one of the earlier and more prominent groups to express the angry despairing alienation of modern times. Hence why one of their styles – the Skinhead – has become the style of Neo-Nazism.

While some people find Nazism (and ideological racism more broadly) desirable on its own merits, or because that’s just their background, the experiences of the alienated poor make Nazism all the more appealing – the same way joining a gang is appealing. Nazism is a religion for gangs.

Poor neighborhoods are the most exposed to humanity’s ugliness, the place where it’s easiest to give up on the notion of a brotherhood of mankind. A philosophy of division, of hate, of exclusion, of the lust for power feels more natural when your experience of the world is of division, of hatred, of exclusion, and of a desperate need for power.

Nazism can give it all a justification.

A reason to hate. A reason to crack skulls. A reason to exclude the world that excludes you.  A reason to feel powerful. A reason to feel good about yourself when you have absolutely nothing to feel good about.

Nazism gives you an explanation for why your life is shit. The poor black kids can blame slavery. The poor indigenous kids can blame colonialism. But what about the poor white kid? What is he supposed to do? All he gets is society’s all consuming belief in meritocracy – where everybody gets what they deserve. Therefore we tell him that his  life is shit because he is shit. And if that weren’t enough, do-gooders then go slap absurdity on top of insult. They demand he think of himself as white. Then they ask him to feel guilty about it. Over-privileged complaining white kid. Loser.

Nazism can take all that shame away.

Nazism lets you take pride in your blood – the one thing nothing can take from you. Nazism lets you go and make the black boy next door bleed, grind his teeth into the pavement, because you know in your gut that the fastest way to stop being at the bottom of the pile is to forget about pulling down the guy on top. Forget about the rich kids. No. The quickest way to stop being on the bottom of the heap is to beat down the guy standing next to you, and stand on his face. That is the promise of Nazism. You don’t have to be a loser anymore.

Of course racism isn’t the only form of gang-land salvation on offer. If you’ve got a Middle Eastern background then ISIS and its suicidal dreams of global empire fill the same role. For a white kid in the West the Neo-Nazis are simply the more logical choice. But it’s no surprise really to discover the story of teenaged Devon Arthurs, who switched from Neo-Nazi to radical Islamist, then murdered his Nazi friends for blasphemy.

Which reminds me of that mutual acquaintance, that guy my friend and I were talking about, the ex-Neo-Nazi.  His choices seem somewhat less absurd now. Our acquaintance had also escaped Nazism by finding God. It seems to be a common enough way to leave the fascist flock. I heard him give his testimony once, the story of how he got saved. He told how he’d grown up feeling rootless. He had no identity. But then he’d found his roots in his grandfather – a grandfather who’d grown up in Nazi occupied territory. A grandfather who’d developed a long-abiding admiration for his Nazi conquerors. It’s a typical enough Neo-Nazi story: one part true Nazi legacy, one part identity crisis.

And so our acquaintance found himself in a Skinhead world, contemplating if he should shave his own head, go all in, his heart a pressure cooker of hatred for every non-white person around him. Until he snapped – swapped love for hate and went looking for a better religion. Jesus was the new Hitler. A happy ending then. Although, as we chatted after he’d given his life-story speech, he did express his approval for hunting down and murdering abortion doctors. Old habits I guess…. Still, I suppose it was an improvement over wanting to murder four-fifths of humanity for being born.

So why are Nazis still a thing? Perhaps we should ask, when will Nazis not be a thing?

As long as society has members who feel alienated and lost we are going to have Neo-Nazis. At the very least, we will have something like them. Even if we expunge racism from existence something else will fill the psychological vacuum. Rage always finds a way out. Alienation doesn’t sleep quiet. If you want the Nazis to go away, then make the pain go away.


Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”.  A book well worth reading if you want to understand Nazism and Totalitarianism more generally. A preview on Google Books, here.

An example of Esoteric Nazism, Miguel Serrano’s 1984 book “Adolf Hitler The Ultimate Avatar”, here.

Read about Nipsters and Neo-Nazi struggles with branding and fashion in “Heil Hipster: The Young Neo-Nazis Trying to Put a Stylish Face on Hate”, in the Rolling Stone, here.

The unfortunate case of Neo-Nazi turn Islamic fundamentalist Devon Arthurs, in the New York Post, here.

The Turner Diaries, the novel that inspired Timothy McVeigh and other acts of terrorism. This novel that will show you what the world looks like if you’re a Neo-Nazi. A brief summary from the  Encyclopedia Britannica, here.

Neo-Nazis turn up in some unexpected places. “Mongolian Neo-Nazis: Anti-Chinese sentiment fuels rise of ultra-nationalism”, in the Guardian, here.

Life stories of former Neo-Nazi’s, on Reddit, here.

How Long Can an Acronym Get?

It started as LGB, then it became LGBT, then it was LGBTQ, and now I recently ran across LGBTIQA+. We have officially reached the point of ridiculousness. And while the “+” might suggest an official decision to limit the acronym’s growth before it exponentially expands to consume all print space in the universe, I’m not sure everyone’s going to happy with being relegated to a mere “+”. Surely everyone deserves acronym equality?

What is going on here?

It seems society has landed on a rather unfortunate way of labeling people who fit outside the gender-sexual norms: an acronym. It was chosen over mere “gay” because gay clearly doesn’t describe all the people to which it might be applied. Now this acronym worked fine when it was just gays and lesbians and bisexuals. But then we discovered all these other people who also don’t fit. So we just tacked them on the end of the acronym. Again, and again, and again.

There is no logical endpoint to all this. The only thing that truly unites all these diverse people is that they don’t fit the mainstream. But the number of possible ways to be non-conforming is near infinite. It is as if instead of dividing the world into Jew and Gentile, we decided to give every ethnic group in the world a letter, and divide the world into Jew and ESWIFGSPHCSBZTSIELXOAIPHCBCNBQ+.

I think it’s time the acronym got retired folks. That, or can we at least agree that when an acronym gets “+” added that it is now illegal to keep adding stuff on the end. An absurd label does nobody any good, especially the LGBTIQA+ community.



Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Some of the history and difficulties of the LGBT term and it’s variants on Wikipedia


One Easy Way to Spot When News is Actually Advertising

Was it long absence that made something so subtle appear so obvious? It’s been a long time since I’ve watched TV news. Is that why a blink-and-you-miss it segment jumped up, slapped me in the face, and yelled, “I’m not a real news piece! I’m trying to sell you something!”?

I don’t know, but it did teach me one good lesson about how to cut through the crap. Here’s one easy trick for spotting when news is more than mere news – look for the unnecessary element.

Look for that bit which adds nothing to your understanding of the story. The bit that seems chosen arbitrarily. The meaningless trifle. The thing which, when added, completely changes the meaning of the entire piece.

See if you can spot it in the news I saw. The story ran something like this:

It is the anniversary of a long-ago big change in our currency system.

An elderly man is interviewed. He worked at a particular bank in his youth and had to keep a close eye on the change.

Background info is given. Why we changed – it was a simpler system. The challenges – people thought it would be confusing. Why it worked – it had a good PR campaign. A few black and white cartoons drive home the point.

A young woman from the same bank as the old man is interviewed. “Most of our customers now use internet banking,” she says. The news presenter closes the story, “…and that goes to show that people are just as adaptable as they’ve ever been.”

Did you spot it?

Think for a moment.

Why that particular bank? Twice. And why mention internet banking? That currency change – a massive abrupt government rearrangement of the system – was in no way similar to the general private trend towards internet banking. Why bring it up? And besides… doesn’t everyone already know this?

At face value they are trying to tie the past to the present. Make it relevant. We changed then, we change now. But it still is a strange choice. We’ve had other top-down abrupt changes to our currency system in recent times – phasing out small coins, redesigning notes etc. Surely these are the obvious examples to turn to.

So why talk about internet banking? Surely this is an unnecessary element. Yet it completely changes the meaning of the story.

Maybe I’m paranoid. Maybe the media can’t help but churn this stuff out. Maybe the entire story was written by that bank. But the meaning of the story is clear:

Hi there old folks!

Are you old enough that you still watch TV news? Are you old enough that you remember that big old currency change? Are you old enough that you don’t already know that everybody uses internet banking these days?

Well, then you’ll remember that even though the currency change looked big and scary it turned out to be both easy and so much simpler than the old way… just like internet banking.

Most of our customers already use it. You’ve made a big change before. You can make a big change again.

Internet banking. It’s for you!



Would You Dye a Lake Blue? Part II (or, We Are All Pretending and We Know It)

In “Would You Dye a Lake Blue?” I explored the strange case of people trying to achieve aquatic landscape perfection by dumping gallons of blue ink into their ponds. Was this absurd fakery just a problem for angst ridden landscape owners? I don’t think so.

Fake is a central fact of our social existence.

Fake is everywhere. You are fake. I am fake. We live in a fake world.

It’s easy to understand why one person fakes, and keeps their fakery hidden. People lie. We know why.

Far stranger is when two people lie to each other, and they both know they are lying, and they both know that they know that the other is lying. Yet they do it anyway. They consciously choose to create a fantasy world.


You’ve probably already done it today.

“Hey, how you doing?”

“Good. Yourself?”

“Never better!”

One, two, three, done. You could’ve been anywhere from manic to suicidal and you still would  have said the same thing. I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything in the universe is just fine. Except that it isn’t, and you both knew that.

It’s not just greetings.

Laze a while on the manicured lawns of your best friend’s Facebook profile. Is that really them? Or is it no more real than a lake full of blue dye? Take the phenomena of “Finstagrams” – fake Instagram accounts were people go to escape the fakeness of real Instagram accounts. Yet even they struggle with the omnipresent demand to be fake.

How about your boss? The chummy one. That matey, handshakey, pat-on-the-back, let’s-get-a-drink boss. The boss that hates you because you don’t do things the way he would. The boss that you hate because he is underpaying you. The boss with whom you act out a charade of friendship.

Our fakeness has even earned itself a title: the Social Fake. The art of the white lie. The secret to keeping everyone happy by pretending you give a shit. Which you don’t. But you don’t need to tell them that. They already know.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So why are we living all living in a self-inflicted fantasy?

I suspect the fake is camouflage.

First, like the white lie, it covers the ugly truth. Fake is the product of an arms-race of lying. A war of social conformity. Each step up in illusion creates ever greater demands to conform to an impossible standard. The only way to keep up is to invest in thermonuclear levels of fakery.

Yet the fake hides another even more brutal truth – everything we do is fake. We are all actors. All the time. We are permanent fantasists.

The truth is: the social world is a constructed world.

No law of nature demands that you listen to police officers. Physics did not decide that the tastes of the rich are more desirable than those of the poor. God did not decree that the money you strive for has any true value. We made it all up. It only exists because we say it does. And because we made it all up, a lot of our social world is soul-achingly absurd.

The illusions are the bed-sheets that cover the naked truths of our relations. Imagine what would happen if we tore the sheets away…

The greetings…

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“I’m going to kill myself.”

“Good. Saves me a job.”

The Facebook…

“Oh look, there’s a photo of Sally getting fired. Sad face! That’s her at rehab. I remember those needles – like! And that’s both of us getting arrested for public urination. Ah,  good times!”

That boss…

“Hey Phil, when I was last stealing office supplies, it occurred to me that no one here’s had a pay rise in ten years….”

“Yeah, I know. I’m doing it on purpose. You see, I really want to get promoted out of this shit-hole, which means I have to keep costs super-duper low so that the Fat Cats can pay themselves ginormous bonuses. Oh… and that cheap printer ink I made you all switch to – it causes cancer.”

“Oh, gee Phil, I guess I’m going to go start a riot now. Mind if I fire bomb your car?”

While I’m no fan of the noble lie – the idea that we need to be deluded – if we stripped away the fake then a lot in this world would be forced to change. A revolution or two at least. Maybe society would collapse into anarchy? Maybe Facebook would implode in a frenzy of unfriending? Maybe you would get divorced and move to Tibet? Or, maybe we’d learn to build a world that’s more true, more authentic, and doesn’t screw you over while asking you to smile.


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Learn more about Finstagrams in “On Fake Instagram, a Chance to Be Real” in the New York Times. Here.

It get’s weirder still. People fake looking authentic. “People Fake to Look Real on Social Media” on ScienceDaily. Here.

Got kids with special needs? Try “Phoney Baloney” the game that teaches them how to do the Social Fake, or more bluntly, how to manipulate people’s emotions by lying to them. Here.

Would You Dye a Lake Blue?

A friend once told me a strange story about an American summer camp. That camp had a lake. Just before the parents returned for their brats the camp managers done something very odd to that lake. They went down to the lake’s edge. They opened up some plastic drums. And they dyed the lake blue.

Blue. With blue dye. A lake.


If you’re like me then you’re probably going, “What? Are they insane? The poor fish! Those idiots!”



Don’t worry…

That summer camp was no anomaly. That was lake dye. Special purpose. Fish friendly, so they say. You can buy it by the drum load.

Why would anyone use this stuff?  Well, according to the purveyors of the finest in paint-for-lakes, lake dye is a must have because:

  • it controls algae and plants, by shading all photosynthetic life to aquamarine-tinged death;
  • it enhances fish safety, by allowing the fish to hide from predatory birds in murky water the color of Gatorade;
  • and, most importantly of all… beauty. If it aint glowing cerulean blue then it aint good enough for you.

It appears that enough people find these reasons sufficiently compelling to have supported an entire industry, with multiple competing brands, that’s been churning out the blue wonder for years.

Now, just in case you’re beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, this is reasonable behavior after all, let’s be clear about one thing. All this talk about “fish safety” and “algae control” is a blue-dyed herring. For limnological reasons we wont get into, trying to fix water quality issues with blue dye is like trying to grow a beard with face paint. Lake dye is about one thing and one thing only – The Look, the blue look.

“Hey, Jim, that’s amazing! How did you get your pond to look so blue?”

“Well, Bob, I filled it with ink.”

“Gosh Jim! Why didn’t I think of that? Can I have some?”

“Sure Bob! I’ll bring it over as soon as I finish spray painting the dog.”

Lake dye is nuts. Objectively. It’s expensive. It doesn’t fix the real problem (i.e the fact that small lowland ponds just aren’t blue… that’s nature folks). And… you are dying a lake blue!

So then… why do people care so much about The Look that they are willing to act like eccentric professors with an overabundance of bad ideas?

Good question.

Lake dye has friends. Fake has long been popular. The Chinese are said to paint entire quarried mountainsides green, so that passengers in passing aircraft don’t notice the ravaged landscape beneath them. Stores exist where you can buy yourself an entirely plastic garden, right from the astroturf to the petrochemical palm trees. I recently passed an entire hedge’s worth of this stuff outside a lawyers firm – I had thought something seemed a bit wrong with those bushes. And my own grandmother long kept a bowl of plastic apples on her kitchen table – an eternal mouthwatering disappointment.

So why be a person who merely looks like they have a bowl of fruit, without getting any of the satisfaction of actually being able to pick up one of those apples and eat it?

Why do we fake anything?

Maybe some people really do like the look of plastic fruit and blitzed-blue lakes. It’s a quick-cheap aesthetic booster-shot. But that summer camp never wasted their dye making life pretty for the kids.

Fake is impression management. Information warfare. Psychological espionage. So viscous is this struggle that some of us will go to any length in-order to win – including telling lies with a forty-four gallon drum full of blue – seeking natural perfection in chemical oblivion. A few clever words from the salesman about algae and fish and we can convince ourselves we are doing this for sensible reasons. But the truth is…

Society’s eyes are ever staring. We see all. We judge all. We are inside your head.

We decide what you must want, what you must have, what you must be. If you want our help, then don’t you dare tell us that you cannot afford to be… don’t have time to be… don’t know how to be… We expect perfection! We expect your polluted little mud pond to resemble the royal blue waters of alpine Davos. We expect the impossible.

So you give us the impossible. The unreal. The lie.

You fake it. You fake it to make our voice in your head shut up.

You drown us in blue dye.



Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

A few random lake dye suppliers as a taster:

(I’m not advertising by the way. In fact… never buy lake dye. Are you insane?!)

Will the War on Terror Ever End?

Wars are fought to be won. Yet the War on Terror feels immortal. A whole generation has come of age since 9/11, yet still no end can be seen. No end seems possible. An eternal war. A contradiction in terms?

When will the War on Terror ever end?

The harder the goal is pursued the faster it recedes. The papers are full of blood each day. Again. Again. Again. Such news barely registers anymore.

Can this war ever end?

Let us take the War on Terror at its most noble. Let us leave aside all those dark questions about oil, or American hegemony. This is the good War on Terror: a fight to defend democracy. A fight against the people who want to violently overthrow freedom, and replace it with an empire of intolerant theocracy.

In this war Democracy dominants the intellectual space, it holds the moral high ground, and it has chosen to rely on two tools above all: the law and the military.

Be a terrorist and you will get arrested. Be a nation of terrorists and you will get bombed. The aim – put every last terrorist in prison, or a grave.

Will this work?

Will the bloodshed ever end?

I don’t know what will happen in the future. But I do know a little history. Idly skimming the pages of the past, something familiar caught my eye. I feel like we’ve been here before.

Once upon a time there was another power. It too dominated the intellectual space. It too held the moral high ground. It too relied on the law and the military.

What caught my eye was a certain obscure old war fought by this power: A murderous ruler harboring evil-doers. A short official invasion to clear them all out. Early success. “Mission accomplished,” one might have been tempted to say. Then decades of war, massacres, reversals, revolts, and – if you care to use the word – genocide. Sound familiar?

That war was the Albigensian Crusade. That power was Catholicism. This was the age of the Crusades. And when you start to think about it, the fundamentals of it all, it begins to look eerily familiar.

In medieval times the great enemy of the Church was heresy. Heretics were a threat to goodness of the gospel. Heretics where a threat to power of the church. Heretics were willing to use violence. Heretics were evil. Heretics had to be stopped. Heretics were an enemy within.

Being a heretic could get you arrested. Staying a heretic could get you executed. Being a land of heretics could get you invaded.

This was the War on Heresy.

And it was brutal.

The Waldensians were burnt. The Free Spirits were burnt. The Lollards were burnt. Even the dead were dug up and burnt.

Military campaigns were launched against all the enemies of Catholicism: the Muslims in Spain, the pagans in the Baltic, and, of course, those Albigensians in France – those ones got hunted down for decade after decade after decade.

In the War on Heresy torture became permissible, executions became a necessary evil, and collateral damage was dismissed with the words, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”

To pursue the heretics unto the ends of the Earth, a special anti-heresy division was created  – the Inquisition. Its reputation lives on. Noble aims got mixed up with dirty politics, and corruption, and outright sadism. The noble faith of all-loving Jesus was enforced by boots and chains.

And it worked.

For centuries it worked.

Heresy was under control.

Until it wasn’t.

The Protestant Reformation broke out. Whole countries went heretic. Many of those previously defeated heretics reemerged and fused to the new movement. Suddenly there was an ocean of heretics.

They couldn’t all be imprisoned, reformed, or executed. Not that it wasn’t tried. Millions of people were stabbed, hacked, and burnt to death as both sides engaged in decades of war, massacre, and counter massacre in a futile attempt to eliminate the other. Both failed. But Catholicism failed most. It permanently lost its War on Heresy.

The medieval Catholics never dealt with the real problem: that their own moral corruption was fueling outrage at the Church, and that universal agreement on religion is an impossibility. They fought a war of ideas, a war of morals, with a butchers knife. They lost the moral high ground. Then the intellectual space. Then their political power.

Today the heretics rule the world.

Our War on Terror is also a war on heresy. Democracy has heretics.  They are those groups of people which cannot be tolerated in a tolerant society – the people who don’t believe in tolerance. The two are mutually incompatible, just as Catholicism and it’s heretics were mutually incompatible.

The Communists. The Fascists. Now the Islamic terrorists. They are our heretics.

Enraptured by the mythos of World War Two we are snared in the belief that the enemies of democracy can be defeated with guns. World War Two made such a grand tale. It felt so final. It was our glorious crusade. We defeated Nazism because we shot all the Nazis.

But a war of ideas is not a war of guns. Nazi-style beliefs still lurk underground. Waiting. Surprisingly common.

In contrast, Communism was ultimately defeated because Communism was discredited, by the Communists. They proved themselves a failure. Now not even Communists want to be Communists.

So how will our current war against today’s theocratic heretics of democracy end?

History suggests four broad options.

One: the war will never end. Not for us at least. A bullet cannot stop an idea, and an idea cannot stop a bullet. Each bullet inspires a new convert. Each convert inspires a new bullet. This war will be waged for centuries.

Two: the war will be lost. The war will be abandoned because the war itself is what feeds the enemy. One day there will be too many heretics, and too few bullets.

Three: the war will be lost. The war will have made us our own heretics. A Christian who kills souls to save souls can hardly be called a Christian. The free who destroy freedom to save freedom are not free. Democracy will pass away. Instead we will kill Muslims because they are killing us, and Muslims will kill us because we are killing them.

Lastly – four: the war will be won. This fight will be seen for what it is: a contest of ideas, a struggle of social change, a choice between democracy and theocracy. We’ve made this choice before. The implosion of the old Crusader’s world, that all-encompassing violent repressive theocracy, is exactly the world from which modern democracy was born.

Perhaps, it could be done again?


Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars, on Wikipedia, here.


© Under Obvious, 2017.

How to Write a Philosophical Bucket-list

Recently I had a crack at writing at a bucket-list: that defining list of things that you must do before you “kick the bucket”. I don’t know why it occurred to me to do this. Perhaps I’m dying and only three neurons in my hippocampus have yet noticed. Either way I think I messed it up. Majorly.

You see, I looked at other people’s lists for inspiration. Loud as a gong my mistake became clear. “Oh no!” I said. “What have I done?!”

You see, I’d written Become wise; they’d all written Go scuba diving.

Gosh! Dang! Jeepers!

Am I wasting my life? What am I doing?

Trying to live wisely, apparently. That’s according to my half-assed never-to-be-finished scuba-free bucket-list anyway. So let’s have a crack at that. Wisdom. And bucket-lists.

Why are bucket-lists so full of trivial crap? This crap is supposed to be the crap you must do before the Grim Reaper pops over for dinner and death. Yet 99% of bucket lists contain the following: write a novel,  learn a language, travel the world, and run a marathon.


Marathons must be pretty bloody amazing.

These bucket-list cliches are all nice. Yay for you. You went for a run. Good one. Nice.

But do you want a nice life? Or a meaningful life? Because all these cliche goals, this menagerie of the nice,  does have a certain meaning. They are the expressions of a certain philosophy – a poorly thought through philosophy.

The typical bucket-list philosophy is this:

  • juvenile hedonism,
  • drive-by altruism,
  • mushy sentimentality,
  • and rub-the-Jone’s-face-in-my-glory one-upmanship.

It’s the life philosophy of a Facebook photo. Look at me. I shook the president’s hand. I’m so cool. Now I can die.

Jeepers! Dang! Gosh!

This all got me thinking. What would a philosophically sound bucket-list look like? Here’s some thoughts.

First, the over-riding motivator behind bucket-lists is this idea about “living life to the full”, whatever that means. As a result recommended items include:

  • Jump in a puddle,
  • See a sunrise,
  • And watch the clouds go by.

This is nonsense! Do you really plan on watching a sunrise only once in your life? Are you a vampire who wants to go out with a bang?


Living life to the full is not for bucket-lists. It’s a habit. You do it everyday. You see a puddle. You jump in it. Life lived.

Second, although typical bucket-lists are insipid, they do allow you to see the classes of activity you can do in life. Here’s ten rough categories to help spur your imagination:

  • Becoming: change your character.
  • Learning: gain knowledge or skills.
  • Experiencing: see, touch, hear, lick it for yourself.
  • Achieving: succeed at some prestigious project.
  • Creating: make something.
  • Acquiring: get stuff.
  • Helping: make life better for other Earthlings you know.
  • Changing: make a difference in the world.
  • Locations: be somewhere.
  • Relationships: make and shape social bonds.

Pick items from each class. That way your bucket-list is more than just a bloody road-trip itinerary.

Third, please-please-please know why you are adding an item to the list. Do you really want to run a marathon? Or does that just sound cool? Item #1 on your list should be this: figure out what matters in life. Nothing else makes it on the list until you’ve answered that question.

Fourth, choose goals that take time. Seeing the Eiffel Tower can, technically, be achieved in 0.01 of a second. How is life any better for that?

In contrast, becoming fluent in French will take you a lifetime. You will soak in the language. You will be changed by the language. You’ll have to go to France anyway. Remember – these are things worth doing. They are worth taking some time. So, even if you simply must see Gustave Eiffel’s pile o’ steel, then at least do this: draw a picture of it. You will be forced to stop, slow down, and be changed.

Fifth, be careful with random trivial goals. They risk sucking the meaning from the entire enterprise. Instead give your list structure. Begin writing the grand and noble, then work down to the small and trivial. Let the lesser serve the greater. For example:

  1. Be as psychologically healthy as humanly possible
  2. learn meditation
  3. visit a Buddhist temple

Each goal flows one from the other. The otherwise trivial YOLO goal of getting selfies with a bald monk is given meaning by being part of a series of greater goals. The trivial is lifted to greatness, rather than the great  brought down to triviality.

Lastly, you might want to consider calling this list something other than a bucket-list. As soon as you say “I have a bucket-list.” you’re going to get asked, “So when are you going scuba diving?”

More troublesome, the “kick the bucket” idiom comes from either slaughtering pigs, or maybe from committing suicide. Yeah. Grim. Nihilistic gallows humor isn’t a great start for finding meaning in life.

I prefer the image of a list of plot points. Imagine you are writing a novel. Look at the main character. Certain things need to happen to this person. What  must they learn? How must they change? Where must they go? For the story to make sense – to have meaning – each question must be answered. Each answer must be brought to fruition. Otherwise the story will be incomplete. You just couldn’t kill off the main character yet.

Finish their story, then they can die.

Stories are how we make meaning of events. Life is a story we tell ourselves. So then, what are your plot points? What must happen for your tale to be complete? And yes, it can include scuba diving.