21st Century Babel

—Chaos Monkeys by Antonio García Martínez’

I took this quote to be a concise description of why Facebook has the world so shook up since the populist backlash that won elections in 2016. It’s not just the Russian troll scare or privacy concerns; it’s that social media is a fundamentally new way of consuming the news. And it’s putting the interpretation of the news into the hands of the consumer like never before.

But by empowering consumers to chase their individual whims are we neglecting the power of shared truth? Without shared truth, can a society maintain its focus on a shared vision?

Skepticism is a great power that requires great responsibility. Giving consumers the ability to congregate around specific ideas is an exciting idea on paper but it has backfired in a lot of ways because the idea that everyone is properly equipped to make sense of our ever-increasingly complicated world overlooks human bias towards group-think, paranoia, fear, and whatever other base desires I’m overlooking. To surround yourself so efficiently with the flavor of information that you find comforting and agreeable means that the interesting and surprising stuff gets edited out and you, the consumer who’s being served so well, remains ignorant.

Our culture has a plethora of many myths that seem to represent the apotheosis of what is happening online. If Google is the Library of Alexandria then Facebook is the Tower of Babel—the technology that scatters people to ‘s attention toward their most basic inclinations,

Almost imperceptibly, while we chase these specially curated mass diversions, all shared national experiences except maybe the Super Bowl slowly fade to the periphery. And these sideshows are re-interpreted in so many different ways that any common ground crumbles beneath our feet. That, not Russian cyber-troll harnessing impotent grievances with the status quo, is why Facebook is such a decisive a challenge to democratic order.

As Martínez puts it so well in the afterward to his book, “The post-Enlightment man living in a liberal democracy believes he has a right to an opinion; post-Facebook, he also believes he has a right to his own reality. An online reality that aims to validate his worldview and bends reality to flatter his prejudices.” There is no going back.


While the townsfolk all look on…

Quotes, July Pt.2

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking. July was a busy month for reading/quote-mining:


“Ideology, by which I mean a totalizing and closed system that discounts or dismisses whatever does not ‘fit’ within it, has very little use for accurate descriptions of what is going on.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain

“We’re all born geniuses, but something in the process of living de-geniuses us.”—Buckmister Fuller


“Ideas seldom jump into the mind from nowhere. If they do, like Leonardo da Vinci’s sketch for a helicopter, they remain science fictions until technological advance makes them seem prescient. Ideas are seeded in frameworks of previous growths and need those same frameworks to flourish.“—John Man


“To sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”—Raymond Loewy


“Every time history repeats itself the price goes up.”—Bumper Sticker


“Always remember, others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them, and then you destroy yourself.”—Richard Nixon


“Ideas never survive contact with the real world in their pure form.”—Ben Judah


Simplicity is unforgiving, and it does not lie. This is the reason it is meticulously avoided by the amateur who is more interested in the ideas of simplicity and mastery rather than the honest self-investigation required by their actual process.”—Mercai Macavei (https://twitter.com/mistermircea/status/1022977150868250626?s=09)


“Human nature is everywhere morally ambivalent, the better angels cooing into one ear, their demonic cousins crowing into the other.’—Benjamin Barber

The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction


The French Revolution is tough to understand. I was raised in Texas and at no time was the subject discussed in any way deeper than “The French saw how wonderful freedom was in America and wanted a revolution of their own. It went disastrously because the French are untrustworthy and incompetent.”

I’ve long suspected that the full story was more complicated than that.

This admittedly very short introduction lays out the confluence of economic, political, and social problems that riled France a decade. These were the growing pains of coming into the modern world; of casting off feudal lordship in favor of representative democracy. Or at least France’s version of that concept.

The author’s thesis is that the ‘revolution’ was not one single event but was a time period of extreme social unrest and suffering that lasted from 1789-1802 ending with the ascent of Napoleon. With the consolidation of power behind Bonaparte, “the nationwide sigh of relief was practically audible. Napoleonic rule would bring its own problems and contradictions, but it endured because it began by resolving others that had torn the country apart for more than a decade.”

This book didn’t give me a feeling of overwhelming competence on the subject but certainly drove home the complexity in any social upheaval. The revolution itself is a prism through which any number of ideas can be examined. Did it give birth to liberalism? The persistent wouldn’t-it-be-nice?-ism of communism? The modern world?

All of these thoughts and more can be re-examined through a careful study of the past.

Continue reading

Quotes, July Pt.1

When you go out looking for quotes you suddenly start finding them everywhere. I’m breaking this monthly post in two this month because I already have so many.


The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”―William Blake

I didn’t look further into this quote but it struck me as a poetic (albeit, slippery) way of conveying the truism that the act of destruction is easier than creation. It’s slippery because to be more ‘wise’, at least in the way we use the word today, does not mean more able. It means smarter, and that throws my whole interpretation off.

“Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desire among people.” — Steven Pinker

This quote reinforces my long-standing inkling that political opinions are nothing more than a belief in how other people should behave. As always, it’s simpler and more effective to mind your own behavior first, and that’s where wisdom comes from.

“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.”―Gabriel García Márquez

Sophisticated network computing dissolves the public, private, and the secret with each passing decade. In this post-privacy age, our three lives are blurring in such a haphazard manner that it’s tough to say we can ever take this idea for granted again. Our children may very well shrug at this notion and find it hopelessly simplistic.

“With social media extending your Radius of Envy out to every celebrity, and forcing even co-equal members of your cohort into self-promotional envy-production overdrive, comparisons to historical peasants or the advances of the Asian working class, will mean very little.”―Antonio García Martínez (https://twitter.com/antoniogm/status/1013815000253648897)

Careful what you pay attention to. It just might ruin your life. You’re not Kanye West but social media makes it easy to think that you could be, if only your Lotto ticket is scratched this week.

“A liberal is a man too broad-minded to take his own side in a quarrel.”—Robert Frost

I’ve been guilty in being so caught up with sympathy for others that I neglect myself. This can be an admirable position but also untenable because if you don’t care for yourself then who is going to?

“To understand all may indeed be to forgive all, but no civilization can survive when the capacity for understanding is allowed to supersede the capacity for judgement. Otherwise, at the end of the line lies a pile of garbage: Hitler wasn’t evil, just insane.”—Stephen Carter

To be understanding while still knowing how and when to disagree with something or stand up for yourself. That middle ground is always so hard to find.

“You’re basically who you are from the start.”—David Lynch

Another vague inkling that I’ve had for a long time is bluntly clarified here: that personality is maddeningly consistent over time and so changing our bad habits and living up to our idealized self is tougher than we’d expect.

“With quitting anything, you have to have that gut feeling that turns into, you know, like a physical epiphany where you’re just like, ‘Oof, this is not good.’”―Dave Grohl

Personal change is always possible, but your emotions often have to lead the way. Rational decision making always sounds good but doesn’t necessarily stick without a deep visceral feeling to attach to it.

“Life teaches you really how to live it if you live long enough.”—Tony Bennett (reminiscing on what he wishes he had told Amy Winehouse)

This is from the documentary Amy, which is an inspiring but heartbreaking look at the life of Amy Winehouse. Her talent is obvious but no one in her day-to-day life treated her well. Only Tony Bennett comes out looking admirable—a man whom she admired greatly but unfortunately didn’t spend much time with—and his wise words close out the movie.

Awakening Progress

It’s strange to look back and think that for vast periods of human history little or no material progress was made for centuries at a time. We now take progress for granted and measure it in years and decades.

In what ways have we regressed over the years? How are we standing still? Can the gains we’ve seen over the past century continue? What technological advances we haven’t yet discovered will come to be as widely taken for granted as paper is now?

And as Seth Godin said, “There is no normal. Simply the relentless cycle of change.

Quotes, June 2018

Here are some quotes I’ve read or heard this month that I found especially thought-provoking, along with some additional commentary/context.


“Wars are a beacon to idealists and adventurers and thugs, but also to a kind of tourist, who is drawn to conflict for obscure personal reasons. Experienced reporters usually keep their distance from such people, because their naivete not only gets them in trouble; it can get others killed.”—Lawrence Wright

Amateur war reporters and vigilante humanitarians rarely consider the burden of stress they put on their family and the people who are responsible for saving them if they get captured by the enemy. Lawrence Wright’s long-read ‘Five Hostages’ brilliantly illustrated this.

“Stability breeds instability.”—Hyman Minsky

We get comfortable. Then we get lazy. Then the safety we’ve been taking for granted begins to crumble.

“Bitterness is really just amplified self-pity.” —Marc Maron

“The sun doesn’t measure it’s light by the shadows it casts.” —Aubrey Marcus

Our self-worth cannot purely be determined by the amount of influence that we carry.

“The purpose of thinking is so that our thoughts die instead of us.” —Alfred North Whitehead

Alone in the animal kingdom we are allowed to change our minds. Where would we be without the ability to formulate ideas and test them out?

“Human beings are very clever but they’re not wise.” —Dennis McKenna

“Secrecy, or rather the possibility of secrecy, is not the enemy but the precondition of frankness.” —Theodore Dalrymple

If we cannot feel like we can voice our true thoughts anyplace then we will begin to self-censor. Censorship doesn’t have to be explicitly codified.

“Revenge is like politics: one thing always leads to another until bad has become worse, and worse has become the worst.” —Jonas Jonasson

You see this going on nationally today. I’ve heard that the Republican tax bill is punitive to blue territories and that Canada’s retaliatory tariffs target Trump-voting locales. The politics of resentment will only continue to get worse.

“Perhaps one reason revenge tends to run riot is that it is not framed by a recognition of some alternative. Revenge attaches to no scale of political concepts, values, or virtues.”—Jean Bethke Elshtain

Podcast Notes: Jason Zweig on The Knowledge Project

I enjoyed Shane Snow’s conversation with financial journalist Jason Zweig on his Knowledge Project Podcast. Here were a couple of his statements that I wanted to write down for my own edification:

“If you know that you have self-control problems you have to structure your life so that the things that tempt you into bad behavior don’t get surfaced in your stimuli.”

“Improve your mental hygiene. You can’t turn yourself into someone who’s unemotional but you can turn down the amplitude of your own emotions if you change what your exposures are.”

Just some words to live by, and I find that too many fascinating things go in one ear and out the other far too often when I’m listening to podcasts so I plan to start posting some of my favorite tidbits on here more often.

Article Share: ‘Syria News is Everywhere, Except on People’s Minds’ by Frida Ghitis


Frida Ghitis’ op-ed for CNN on the indifferent reaction to yesterday’s escalation in the Syrian War is thoughtful and rings true. This war is changing the world but in the rich Western world we have grown numb to its significance.

“The West’s largely hands-off approach created a vacuum that Russia eagerly filled, adding to Iran’s strength and alarming Tehran’s Arab foes, stoking regional rivalries, and wars.

In the West, the images of fleeing Syrian refugees helped empower nationalist politicians from Hungary to the United States, propelling a global trend toward authoritarianism. The multiple conflicts — diplomatic, political, military — have contributed to a growing turmoil in global politics, even as the incorrect impression that Syria doesn’t matter prevails. Even in Europe, that sentiment seems powerful enough to have so far smothered the instinctive reaction of popular fury that seems to spring to life whenever the United States flexes its military muscle.”

It’s hard to comprehend what got us here, as bloody and incoherent as civil wars are. But this is where we are at, and God forbid we have a dummy at the helm.
Read ‘Syria News is Everywhere, Except on People’s Minds’ by Frida Ghitis

Alsoof interest on the topic: For a harrowing recap of the complex tensions at play in the Syrian Civil War, see Tyler Cowen’s Bloomberg article ‘Syria War’s Game Theory is too Complex to Predict. That’s Frightening.’ He sees the situation’s multifaceted tensions as an eerie parallel to the inciting events of World War I:

“If you don’t quite follow how a single assassination, which was not even seen as so important the day it occurred, triggered the death of so many millions, and the destruction of so much of Europe, that is exactly the point. When there is no clear way for observers to model the situation, a single bad event can take on a very large significance and for reasons that are not entirely explicable.

In today’s Middle East, we also have a broadly festering situation across multiple fronts, with many smaller players, lots of internal political struggles and unstable political units, and commitments from some major external powers, including the U.S., Russia, Iran and Turkey. I find that an uncomfortably close analogy with 1914.”

In other news, I hope you’re having a wonderful day today 🙃

Reflections on The Austin Bombings

Several people in town have been killed by exploding packages. The victims seem random with a likely tinge of racism.

I think this put the whole city on edge a bit. A few delivery drivers at work had guns pulled on them. Grumblings about racial tension. Town hall meetings. I had a dream the other night of being in the blast radius of an exploding building. Friends and family seemed concerned and uneasy.

Is this what terrorism feels like?

The perpetrator killed himself last night with a bomb while fleeing from police in a car. A miserable, cowardly death. We get facts and details but no closure. Why do these things happen at all?

More disturbingly, given that these awful things do happen why don’t they happen more often?

If I’m to pay any attention to my dream the other night my subconscious mulls this over in the background. Pondering these things put me in a glum mood but having a place to write a few poorly articulated thoughts on the subject has been a cathartic exercise in its own small way.


Update 3/31


As we look around for answers.

Whenever there’s a news story about someone killing lots of strangers, I cannot stop thinking about the book I read a couple years ago about the Columbine massacare called ‘Columbine’ by Dave Cullen. I will quote the passages that still stick with me below:

“None of the earlier school shootings had been televised; few American tragedies had. Or at least it appeared that way: the cameras offered the illusion we were witnessing the event. But the cameras had arrived too late. Eric and Dylan had retreated inside after five minutes. The cameras missed the outside murders and could not follow Eric and Dylan outside. The fundamental experience fore most of America was almost witnessing mass murder. It was the panic and frustration of not knowing, the mounting terror of horror withheld, just out of view.”


“Mass murderers tended to work alone, but when they did pair up, they rarely chose their mirror image. [FBI hostage negotiator] Fuselier knew he was much more likely to find a pair of opposites holed up in that building. It was entirely possible that there was no single whyand much more likely that he would unravel one motive for Eric, another for Dylan.”


National polls taken shortly after the attack would identify all sorts of culprits contributing to the tragedy: violent movies, video games, Goth culture, lax gun laws, bullies, and Satan. Eric did not make the list. Dylan didn’t either. They were just kids. Something or someone must have led them astray.


“For investigators, the big bombs changed everything: the scale, the method, and the motive of attack. Above all, it had been indiscriminate. Everyone was supposed to die. Columbine was fundamentally different from the other school shootings. It had not really been intended as a shooting at all. Primarily, it had been a bombing that failed.”


“The final act of the killers was among their cruelest: they deprived the survivors of a living perpetrator. They deprived the families of a focus for their anger, and their blame. There would be no cathartic trail for the victims. There was no killer to rebuke in a courtroom, no judge to implore to impose the maximum penalty. South Jeffco was seething with anger, and it would be deprived of a reasonable target. Displaced anger would riddle the community for years.”