Wednesday, September 30, 2015

What is an Anarcho Traditionalist, anyway? (AT Manifesto I)

I really think the heavier lifting of dissertation writing is already behind me, remaining just a couple finishing touches here and there that can be done at a more leisurely pace, which has given me a bit more time to peruse the web and explore a bit more of its wonderful depths (or rather, not so wonderful shallows, you never know how attuned to irony the scarce readers of these lines may be). One of the areas I’ve been dabbling in is the vast expanses of the neoreactionary movement(Neo Reaction), where you can find people sporting labels that sound dangerously similar to the one I chose for my own political philosophy some years ago, and seemingly sharing a distaste of the progressivism of traditional left-wing policies that I could also easily identify with. I’ve been thus reading anarcho-monarchists (Anarcho Monarchist), national-anarchists (National Anarchists) and flat out anti-democrats (AntiDemocrat) which consider the Republican party of the USA a bunch of “cuckservatives” that ineffectually pretend to try to stem the growing avalanche of corruption and degeneration that summarizes most of modern  society whilst they really facilitate their advance, and thus even more deserving of their scorn and contempt than their traditional leftist enemies (vaguely and derisively called “liberals”, “progressives” and some more colourful made terms like “demotists” or, horror of horrors, “SJW’s”).

Well, thankfully the precise label of anarcho-traditionalism doesn’t seem to have been claimed yet, which suits me fine, as I consider I’m fully Marxist in that respect (of Groucho’s persuasion, of course, never Karl’s), and “would never belong to a club that accepted people like myself”, so had I found some anarcho-traditionalist around I would have had to review how I defined my own position. Not that I find all the views I’ve been acquainting myself with of late entirely abhorrent (I can sympathize with some elements of their ideology, and some proponents seem more intelligent/ interesting/ astute than others, although I find their jeremiads and overtly apocalyptic tone not much to my liking), but again I find substantial differences with my Weltanschaaung, and that has led me to think it would be good to stake out my own position, so if in later times the always protean anarchist (or traditionalist) movements honor their tradition of accelerated mutation and production of spinoffs, I will be able to correct whoever claims to be an anarchotraditionalist and to show that I thought of the term before, and that whatever it is he or she understand by it is woefully incorrect.

What better, then, than to define in this and some following posts the full Anarcho Traditionalist Manifesto (ATM). Damn, the acronym is already taken, so I’ll need to think in something else. But in the meantime, let’s get on with the action

Anarcho Traditionalist Manifesto. Because a) current society sucks, and b) why not?

A spectre haunts the developed world - the spectre that, although not awful by historical standards, things could be much better than they are.  Society produces unheard of quantities of material goods, but millions teeter at the verge of poverty and destitution, and even between those well-sheltered, well-dressed and well-fed the lingering doubt of what may become of them if the business climate takes a turn for the worse keeps them awake at night, and unable to rest or truly relax.

Periodic crises rock the economic sphere (while the mouthpieces of the powerful try to convince the masses that such crises are something of the past, and that the last one will not be repeated in our lifetimes) and consign increasing numbers to joblessness and despair (even in the countries with more generous safety nets, as such joblessness is everywhere a searing stigma, not be lightly borne). The threat of loosing one’s job keeps the workers in line, so that in every upswing most of the increase in income, security and wealth flow to a minority who is already rich beyond any historical precedent.  
The mechanism that makes the many participants and accomplices in their own subjection is transparent enough for everybody to see: a socially sanctioned rationality that maintains that

1.       the ultimate and only reason for acting, the true end of any human life, is to satisfy desires
2.       there is only one desire: to improve one’s position in the social hierarchy. Every other thing apparently desired is so to the extent that it can be shown to the rest of the social body and boasted about
3.       there is only one measure of such position: the possession of material goods and the access to experiences that can be ranked and valued by the amount of money spent on them
Such rationality has developed historically as the product of competing societies embodied in different (and opposed) Nation States born after the peace of Westphalia in Europe in 1648. The societies that adopted the 3 articles of faith more thoroughly outcompeted the rest, produced more goods, equipped better armies and fleets, and dominated the world in ever more comprehensive ways. Starting by the Dutch from roughly 1650 to 1770, the British from 1770 to 1900 and finally the Americans from 1900 until Today. The Americans have completed the “manifest destiny” of such rationality extending its sway to the whole globe, so nowadays every single society believes equally in the 3 articles, and they compete to indoctrinate both their youth and their elders more fiercely in them so they keep on producing more material goods in a zero sum game that is wreaking havoc with the environment and with the psychical and spiritual well being of their citizens, ever more pressed to devote all their energies to such game.

So the first step to get to a better society, to the society that the technological level of development would allow us to inhabit, is to denounce that kind of rationality, and to unmask the chorus of sycophants that defend it by maintaining its supposed universality and alleged support by “human nature”. It is but a contingent and accidental development, whose sole justification is that it helped past societies in a scenario of international competition to manufacture more muskets and more gunpowder than their neighbors. But in the same way than helping our ancestors to have more babies is no rational reason to adopt a maxim of morality (and thus a morality based on evolutionary psychology in the end undermines itself, and can be understood only as a consequence of the warped dominant reason we hare thereby denouncing), helping our forebears to equip stronger armies is no rational reason to pledge our allegiance to a self-destructive set of principles for organizing social life.

It is high time then to discard those principles and replace them with alternative ones that allow for greater human flourishing, that do not force us to choose between an economic development that transforms the whole Earth in a filthy dump and a “degrowth” agenda that condemns untold millions to a life of squalor and underdevelopment, that allows for the sensible enjoyment of the fruits of technology and of the art and culture that past generations have bequeathed to us. We group those alternative principles under the banner of Anarchotraditionalism, as they are animated by two underlying visions:

·         Liberty and freedom, respect for individual preferences, and minimal interference with the choices every person makes regarding how to conduct their lives and what ends to pursue are transcendent principles to be respected as long as they do not impinge in the equally transcendent dignity to be accorded to any rational being. We do believe historical anarchism has been the most coherent and combative representative of that tradition, never compromising in its pursue of maximum autonomy and lack of constraints (thanks in part to the fact of never having been entrusted to actually govern any polity of any size beyond a few months of revolutionary fervor, having always been crushed by forces which ended up reasserting statism and control)
·         As much as the Enlightenment attempted to reinvent moral rules ex novo and recognized as legitimate only those maxims that could be ideally reached by every lone individual by himself, regardless of history or particular circumstances, we consider that attempt necessarily bound to fail and end in utter relativism, skepticism and paralyzing doubt. Men and women are reared in rich traditions, out of which they are incapable of assigning values, and value assignment is indeed the most defining feature of rationality (see rationality as value assignment (and sex dolls)). So rather than rejecting tradition and attempting to rebuild our ethical maxims from scratch, something that will never work (and that is in the end contrary to reason, forcing reason to do violence to itself), we advocate embracing such tradition (including the Western literary and philosophical canon, classical music, classical institutions and Christian religion) and making it an integral part of what the good life consists in
Now just wishing things to be so will not make almost four centuries of folly, greed and unbridled ambition to vanish in the air. The coming of Anarchotraditionalism will require a long, protracted struggle to dislodge the false beliefs that today reign in the hearts and spirits of people without them even noticing, and just preaching about the evils of their ways and the utopian bliss of what may lie ahead never changed anybody’s mind (not to the better, at least). This is why we have written the present tract, the ATM, to spell out in detail the program to upend the current way of organizing society, not for ourselves or for our own enjoyment, but for that of our children, and of our children’s children. We will construct it from the ground up, starting with what we understand about man (in a Kantian sense: what can we know? What can we expect? And how should we act?), following with the kind of society we should live in (what minimal set of rules should we strive to enact to balance the best of our tradition with the maximum decentralization and freedom) and finishing with how we should organize the production and distribution of goods and services so the differential ability to exclusively command them stops being the only worthy goal of a live well lived.

But we will do that in subsequent posts, as this one is already long enough. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Reflections on a Biker’s life

Last week I had to visit a funeral home to give my condolences to a friend who had just lost her brother in a motorcycle accident. The place was about 20 km from my work place, which of course I covered in one of my bikes, and I came back with a heavy heart, the head full of morose thoughts. Although I have driven many miles in various cars, I have never in my life had one to my name, as I despise “driving”, and would rather “ride” anywhere that is too far to just walk. Indeed, riding is what I do daily, as I commute on a motorcycle, I go to most places on a motorcycle, and when I have had the chance (that is, when I do not have to take the family with me) even move from one city to another on a motorcycle. I have been riding almost every single day of my life (with a few intervals in between, as when I’ve lived in Latin America riding was neither a sensible nor a convenient option) since I was 16 years old, so about to celebrate 30 years on the saddle this winter. I own three bikes and I usually joke about how the only thing that prevents me from buying another one is that I only have three sons to bequeath them to, and it makes me uncomfortable to think some unknown schlub may be tinkering with my iron when I’m not around any more.

So it should come to no surprise that I consider myself a biker. A very peculiar one, as I do not belong to any club or chapter (my anarchist and acratic beliefs would prevent me to feel comfortable even in such loosely-knit associations). But I consider most people belonging to those just posers anyway. Be it as it may, what I wanted to devote today’s post to were some insights that those 30 years of riding around have given me. Not that I consider them especially innovative, original or profound. But just thinking about them took me for a nice ride down memory lane and made me realize to what extent my chosen way of transportation has shaped the kind of person I ended up being. I’m going to present them (inspired by the great Matt Foreman) as a comparison about bikers and people who ride motorcycles (PWRM for short), two totally different classes. All bikers ride motorcycles, for sure, and most do it pretty frequently, but you can be sure that not everybody that straddles a two-wheeled vehicle is a biker. Not that I’m saying that one kind of people is somehow superior to the other, or adorned with more desirable traits, or that everybody that ever rides should aspire to become a biker, far from it. Just saying that there as definite chasm separating both, and that it helps to know what side of the chasm you are standing on.

·         PWRM’s think that scooters and the new class of “megascooters” are a sensible and convenient way to move around the city. Bikers would rather be caught putting their dick in a dead pig’s mouth (well, it’s an occupation fit for a British Prime Minister, isn’t it?) than seen in one
·         PWRM’s think it’s great that some bikes have a deposit under the seat where they can stow their helmets. Bikers feel a strange tingling and disorientation if they enter a building (or, more markedly, a bar) without carrying their helmet with them
·         PWRM’s spend significant amounts of money in super-safe helmets, and fancy jackets with Kevlar protections and distinctive “I ride a motorcycle, or why on earth would anybody put on something like this” look, even when they are just going around the corner to buy the newspaper. Bikers wear non certified helmets and twenty year old leather jackets that absorb rain like a sponge and make them feel miserable after 10 minutes in harsh winter weather (that’s when they deign to wear something other than a worn t-shirt)
·         PWRM’s know how many horse power their bike produces, how long it takes it to get from 0 to 100 MPH, how many MPG they can extract from it, and how well it brakes (I bet there is a figure that measure that which they are also familiar with). Bikers know the sound of the motor of their bike by heart, and have a soft spot for last week unexpected choir of clunks (they find it endearing and call it “personality”)
·         PWRM’s go on extended vacation without as much as having a single moment of compunction about their vehicles. Bikers have separation anxiety if their butt is off the seat for more than 24 hours, and every day they are separated from their iron they dream longingly of it
·         On rainy days, PWRM’s drive their cozy cars and commiserate the wretched souls they see soaked on two wheels. On rainy days bikers cover themselves in plastic (so they get equally soaked, only more slowly) and commiserate the wretched souls they see trapped inside little wheeled cages of steel and glass
·         PWRM’s expect their vehicles to perform flawlessly, comply scrupulously with the scheduled maintenance (taking the aforementioned vehicle to a licensed dealer) and think about selling it if it ever malfunctions. Bikers take care of their bikes mostly themselves, but oddly know on a first name basis the mechanics of all the repair shops within fifteen miles from their home
·         PWRM’s are afraid of accidents, and reconsider switching to a safer mode of transportation every time they hear of a casualty between their acquaintances. Bikers are afraid of accidents  and think “aw, shucks, nobody lives forever” when they kick start their bikes in the morning after having toasted the latest departed one too many times the night before
·         PWRM’s think an uneventful ride is a good ride, and cherish arriving as soon as possible to wherever they were heading. Bikers savor being on the road for as long as possible, and although they curse and swear the ringing in the ears due to noisy exhaust pipes, the bumps on the road barely softened by nominal shock absorbers, the numbness on hands and feet due to excessive vibrations and the mosquitoes covering them from head to toe, there is no other place on earth where they would rather be than on their machines, regardless of how long it takes them to arrive from point A to point B
·         PWRM’s stop besides you in traffic lights, have a long look at your mount and say things like “nice bike, dude” or “wow, real classic, what year is that model from?” Bikers stop besides you in traffic light, and just keep on looking ahead, and may be give a world-weary sigh that speaks volume of the shared experiences you could harp about if you didn’t already know that conversation with strangers is for wussies
·         PWRM’s buy now and then motorcycle magazines to find out about the newest models and the best brands, or the life of super bikes pilots, or what some guy is doing around the world in a Gold Wing, and then throw them away. Bikers cherish their super-worn out collection of Easy Rider and Iron Horse from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, think that modern magazines are all crap and would rather have a tooth pulled out without anesthesia than part with any of the old rags
·         PWRM’s sell their bikes to buy newer, faster, glitzier ones without a second thought. Bikers would rather sell a son or a daughter into slavery than be separated from their irons
·         PWRM’s don’t know a spark plug from a carburetor jet. Bikers could tell you in their sleep the number of threads in the spark plug (and the gap in both mm and fractions of an inch)
·         PWRM’s tend to have their motorcycles clean and in a pristine condition. Bikers sometimes do… and sometimes don’t
·         No spouse of a PWRM has ever felt jealous of his or her significant other relationship with his bike. No spouse of a biker has ever stopped feeling so, and telling him or her “you love the damn thing more than me!”
·         PWRM’s (at least the younger ones) sometimes see their bikes as means to get chicks (sorry ladies, I don’t think it has ever happened in the history of the human race that a woman has bought and flaunted a bike to help her get men… although girls on bikes are a well known dude-magnet). Bikers sometimes see their old ladies as cheap labor to help them clean the iron
·         PWRM’s on knowing you ride a bike will typically share with you stories of how they once had one, loved it, but then settled down. Bikers don’t
The last difference made me realize that most likely, once you become a biker you stay one, until you are called to ride in the Great Highway Beyond. Sometimes, while I am putting on my rain gear knowing full well the next half hour of my life is going to be miserable to the nth power, that I’m going to risk my life in the slippery asphalt zigzagging between unaware sluggish cars that will not notice, and would not care if they did, that I’ll be cold, increasingly wet, looking ridiculous when I arrive to the office and have to contort myself out of the overall that by then will look like a giant rubbish bag… I entertain the possibility of also “settling down”, selling the three damn things and buying a comfy protective shell on wheels that can keep me warm on winter and cool on summer. That’s when I wake up screaming, and have to calm the wife telling her it was an inconsequential nightmare, and then try to sleep again soothing myself with the thought that I’m not there yet, that whatever life throws at me I’ll try to face it as I’ve done so far: over two not very reliable wheels of old iron, tall, proud and completely irrational. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Once you start bangin’, there’s no going back (how AI may be "coming", after all)

Putting the finishing touches on my dissertation, so not much time available to muse on the web about the divine and the humane. Not much reading, either, outside of long dead philosophers (which mostly happen to be more lively and interesting than the vast majority of today’s commenters), and the odd Viennese crackpot (I’m seeing more and more in the media news about  Elizabeth’s Roudinesco new biography of said crackpot, just published in Spanish, and it amuses me to no end that, after the perspective we should have gained on his oeuvre,  there is still people willing to make a fool of themselves defending it… but then again Ms. Roudinesco has been reared in the very noxious fumes of French haute culture, where it is apparently still OK to take such balderdash seriously). But in the rare occasion I’ve been peering outside of my private ivory tower this little article caught my attention:  Call to ban development of "intelligent" sex dolls. But of course! the whole web was, to a considerable extent, launched by pornography (you still can read here and there that up to 40% of the information travelling through the wires –and increasingly airwaves- is pornography that people discreetly download), so why wouldn’t the much heralded Artificial Intelligence be much speeded by it?

As long as it had to be crafted by cranky old doctors in dusty lab coats, struggling in their offices with deep learning, neural networks, semantic loading and whatnot, I stick to my original prediction that one hundred years from now we still will not have anything closely resembling artificial intelligence, neither in a strong nor in a weak sense of the word (that is, anything that would fool anybody above three years old after barely two minutes of conversation). But the moment sex enters in the equation, man that changes everything! I bet any clever Joe is willing to ascribe not just somewhat above average intelligence to his natural-sized doll, but considerable foresight, outstanding sensibility and sensitivity, amazing grace and moral agency in spades as soon as he has banged her to his full satisfaction. And for that she doesn’t even have to open her mouth (to speak, that is). Just givin’ him a lovin’ look may be more than enough. If the thing as much as speaks (even if it is a limited set of predefined phrases)… Jeez, I just hope the Nobel committee members are not between the clients of Abyss Creations or True Companion, as we may be shocked by some of their future choices for the award.

Now let’s get (just a bit) serious. There is a solid reason why I have argued that AI is nowhere near: the key component of intelligence is not the ability to compute (which we know how to replicate in a machine since the invention of the abacus), or the ability to put concepts into ever more abstract categories consistently (something that had to wait a few more millennia, to the advent of neural networks, and which is really all there is to most modern wonders like image and speech recognition). The key component of intelligence is the ability? Capability? Event? Of CARING about something. Of picking up an element of our perceptual field (or of our memory) and assigning some value to it. Of making it differentially important, relevant to us. Not surprisingly, there is one verb synonymous with “caring” which is highly relevant here: when we want to convey that we care about something we can also say that we MIND about it. We can use the gerund verb tense to describe the process and say we are “minding”: our own business, the outcome of some action, the decision someone we care about has to make… that is the true essence of intelligence, inseparable of the reality of having a conscious mind. A mind that “minds” about the things it perceives or the ideas it harbors, or the memories it stores. And that “minding” requires a number of things to happen: it requires a self (I mind about the pain in my knee in a totally different way that I would mind about a pain in yours, regardless of how well you describe it to me) that can identify, and follow, and monitor. It requires phenomenal experiences that I have direct access to (I’d rather use a technical terms that gives the proponents of strong AI the jeevies: it requires qualia, which they don’t have a clue about how to explain or how to start replicating in a machine). It requires a flow of conscience that I can control to a certain extent (so I stop minding my surroundings to do some introversion, to concentrate on some idea or some memory that I want to direct my attention to… but that attention thing is highly suspect to the aforementioned proponents; a homunculus! A ghost in the machine! They cry every time they hear the term) and that can even be interrupted by external causes (so when I’m anesthetized –or sleeping- there isn’t much I mind or feel or realize).

So I’ve always been very skeptic about AI claims because I recognized that we were entirely, utterly, completely, astoundingly clueless about how any of those essential components worked, and I firmly believed that until we had a passingly operational understanding of how they come to be we would be unable to even start working on anything resembling a conscience, and that without a functioning conscience we would never get the first inklings of anything resembling an intelligence. Call it my “working theory of intelligence”: Intelligence is the set of mechanisms our mind has for identifying another conscience. So you want an intelligent machine? Start by creating a conscious machine, and everything else will kinda sort itself out. And for the record, nobody has the darnedest clue on how to build a conscious machine, because nobody has the darnedest clue of what consciousness is (do not be fooled by books titled Consciousness Explained, as Raymond Tallis put it in his excellent Aping Mankind the author should be sued for breaching the Trade Act with such patently misleading description). My own hunch, which I have already presented elsewhere (yep, the shortcomings of dualism:  why monism sucks) is that the fact we are conscious ourselves, we have qualia, we mind what happens not just around us, but in the Universe in general (and specially to people we care about, but we may get somewhat self-referential here), we value things, or states-of-affairs (which is the same as the previous minding), we recognize non-material qualities (beauty, justice and truth, which I posit are more than “categories of categories of material things”) is in the end attributable to the fact that mind is substantially different from matter, and can not be reduced to it. So we can delude ourselves thinking our sex dolls (or the poor slaves we have robbed of their dignity and freedom and thus turned almost in a machine, regardless of their biological origin) have intelligence, or that any other device, for what is worth, has that same slippery quality, but it will be a delusion, and an easily dispelled one at that.

But may be it is not so easy to dispel, after all, as my theory of intelligence has one gigantic loophole: people (but let’s be honest here, I would be willing to bet my hat that it is mostly men) are willing to project the most astounding and bizarre qualities in those things that catch their fancy, specially if “catching their fancy” is a polite way of saying “making them believe they can give them sexual satisfaction”. So the nice “consciousness identifying mechanism” theory collapses when the dick takes charge and sees some opportunity of giving himself some action. I can see droves of guys ordering “robots” (and paying good bucks for ‘em) that can give them a conversation that, in the lips of a “real” human being would point her out as barely literate, but then coming out of the experience feeling they had a thoughtful exchange with a mixture of Dostoevsky and Aristotle (well, as long as it is followed by a not so thoughtful but more physical exchange, that is). If the thing catches on, the demand for some talking capability can only go up, as the window dressing in these matters is as important as the window herself. Call it the “Playboy effect”, as in the reputed magazine of the same name, where you could find some notable pieces of journalism that gave it a veneer of respectability (and the wild dollars they made by selling photos of naked girls to excite the imagination and facilitate the masturbation of kids that probably could have achieved the same effect looking at the photograph of a brick allowed the editors to hire and finely pay some outstanding authors, by the way). If talking sex robots kinda become mainstream I can very well envision the iterative development of more and more sophisticated interaction capabilities, until in the end they become more or less indistinguishable from the real thing (indistinguishable for someone who is sure to get the thing to the sack with no resistance at all, were there some doubts as to the final result I guess people would be more discerning).

So I would expect five years from now to have some of my friends point to me the astounding advances in the conversational abilities of the latest sex toy (I hope that is all they  tactfully point, as I don’t expect to be all that interested in their abilities beyond that, which will surely develop as exponentially) to try to convince me of the imminence of the advent of fully developed AI. Of course, that particular astonishment will have to compensate for self-driving cars never having materialized commercially by then, translation software being almost as clunky as it is today, and no machine yet having won the Loebner prize (for a good report on how that works, see The most human human). Well, at least by then we will be only 25 years from Kurzweil’s predicted date for the arrival of the Singularity, close enough to confirm the idea was bonkers all along       

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Entropy in organizations and the 4th rule

In today’s post I wanted to expand on a couple of features of my General Theory of the Organization. The first topic had to do with the first law I stated (the fact that in every organization “entropy” –the inverse of the ability to achieve the organization’s goal- increases), and the second had to do with the most typical response to that increase in entropy, the attempt to grow the organization to counter it (which is a part of the 2nd law, that states that the response to such loss of ability is either to stay put, to try to grow or to innovate, the first two responses being always a failure), and why it most frequently backfires. The improvement in the understanding of both laws will lead us to formulate a 4th law I have already hinted at in some previous post.

 1. Revisiting the first law: why entropy increases 

Let’s consider in more depth why it is that with time the ability of an organization to achieve the ends of its members decreases. It can not be a basic law of nature, of course (too complex!), so there has to be an underlying cause. The best explanation for such regularity is actually quite similar to the statistical explanation of the second law of thermodynamics: there are simply so many more configurations where energy is uniformly distributed within a closed system (compared with non-uniform distributions that allow for some work to be extracted exploiting the differences), that with time the system can only evolve spontaneously towards such uniform distribution. Similarly, there are so many more configurations within a closed group that make it less capable to achieve its ends (or within an open one, although if the openness is selective, and allows in only additional members or resources that enhance its ability to grant the members their ends, the ability of the whole group can be enhanced –hence the impulse to grow out of difficulties, which remember was one of only two possible responses to try to counteract entropy and with which we will deal soon afterwards), that it is not surprising that they end up dominating the evolution of the group, as they make it so much more likely that it will evolve along the (much more numerous) paths that degrade its ability.

Now it may be argued that a viable alternative would be to try not to evolve at all, nicely captured in the piece of popular wisdom “if it ‘aint broke, don’t fix it!”. Indeed, a frozen system is not subjected to the second law… until it starts unfreezing (which, btw, takes energy from the environment to achieve a more disorganized state). Applied to an economic organization, the aforementioned viable alternative would be to stick with the proven organizational form (same people, doing the same things, using the same resources, that have allowed them to achieve a certain degree of market dominance, hoping to thus be able to retain it), at least until key persons reach their retirement age and decide to leave (at which point they may even be replaced with people as similar as possible, with the same basic capabilities, same rights and responsibilities, and hopefully able to achieve the same results). Unfortunately, such “alternative” would only be viable in a perfectly stationary economic environment, where consumer’s preferences never varied, new competitors never appeared, recessions never depressed the aggregate demand (thus lowering the overall consumption of most agents), regulations (reflecting heightened public sensibilities) were never updated, etc. Which is to say, It has never happened in reality, at least since the XVIth century (and may be not even then, according to some economic historians the seeds of what would bloom as the traditional Industrial Revolution were planted in the XIV, XIII and even XIIth centuries).

In the real world, once an organization is established and manages to achieve some ends that make it worthy for some individuals to join it, thereby renouncing to some freedom and to some of their resources (hence the “original conflict”, as theorized in this post: original conflict) it starts drawing the attention of people outside it. Even in the best of cases, in a competitive society (i.e. in every single existing society since the dawn of mankind) their success would draw in competitors that will undercut their ability to reach their goals, specially in the case of economic organizations, as those goals are necessarily positional (they are valuable as they signal some meaningful achievement, that stops being meaningful the moment it becomes widespread), and become less attractive as more people attain them and thus lose their strength as status symbols. In more mundane terms, your company that pays you 3,000 bucks a month is a “great place to work” regardless of how many hours it forces you to spend in the office as long as everybody around you is making 2,500 a month. The moment the average salary goes up and catches up with those 3,000 $ (more so if earning that average salary demands a lower time commitment) that same company is just run-of-the-mill (in exactly the same conditions), and if the rest of the job market gets to pay the average Joe 3,500 $ a month, it becomes positively lousy, and they rather do something to reward their employees more competitively or they better seek another occupation (may be as NGO or charity). So paid work is a “red Queen” situation, in which every firm has to stay running just to stay in the same place, as all other firms are equally running to the best of their capabilities.

So essentially, the fact of external competition is what makes staying put a non-option for economic organizations, and what forces them to evolve if they don’t want to lose their ability to satisfy their members’ needs (let’s remember that the main need in such organizations is the need for social status). This fact is confirmed by the different dynamic in competitive and non-competitive sectors: in the former (most private companies in non-regulated markets) the pressure is much higher, the rewards are on average somewhat lower, the turnover is also higher and the rate of change (in all fronts: product change, job content change, relational change in the form of promotions, demotions and reorganizations) is generally more frequent ,whilst in the latter (public service or highly regulated industries like healthcare, education or utilities) the salaries (or benefits that come with the salary) are higher and the rate of change is much slower (governmental departments work today much in the same way as twenty years ago, regardless of some fads to somehow link their pay with “productivity” –between quotes as it is so damn hard to measure). But even in the most protected sectors the inevitability of aging and cognitive decline make the ability of the economic organizations degrade with time, and the dynamics of the less regulated sector exert a constant pressure on them to adapt and improve.

 2. Why grow? (hint: it’s NOT human nature) 

Since the beginning of my professional career (remember it was in consulting, where the pressure is much higher than in other areas of the economy) I’ve been baffled by the obsession with growth. In my company of 15 years we were relentlessly focused in achieving “double digit growth” (10% or above) regardless of the conditions of the market. The world economy was contracting in the throes of a full blown recession? Damn the torpedoes, we had to deliver 10%. We were in the midst of a major reorganization, forced to change the name of our brand and to redefine the compact between the firm and its employees (by redefining the professional career that had been promised to every one of them when they joined)? Fuggedaboudit… go back to the street and sell, sell, sell! In the end, how good a professional you were was measured almost exclusively by how much you could contribute to the growth of the company. Can you convince your client of how superior the services we provide are (regardless if they truly are or not)? Can you identify further “needs” that would justify selling him a new project (or an extension of the current one)? Can you gain his trust so we gain some competitive advantage over our competition in the next sale? If the answer is yes, yes and yes you have a brilliant career and are more than welcome to stay, if there are minimal doubts in any of them… Houston, we have a problem. Not that it was in any way irrational, those exuberant rates of growth were absolutely crucial for the company to survive, given its dependence on a clear career path to reward the foot soldiers it relied upon to stay in business (that career path had to compensate for salaries that were, on a “job content” basis, never that competitive to begin with, so what made it attractive was the possibility to reach those positions faster than anywhere else…).

What troubled me back then (and still troubles me today) is that a) there is no way every company within an economy can grow above the rate of the aggregate (that would be a “lake Wobegon” situation, where all kids were famously taller and more intelligent than average) and b) even if every company pushing to grow above average were somehow possible (and didn’t end up in ever greater concentration by absorption or destruction of those companies that failed to keep up with the accelerating path), a social system entirely based upon growing rates of growth is not sustainable (as a part of that growth relies on the non renewable consumption of depletable resources). However, far from that obsession with growth being a peculiar quirk of that single company(an obsession that instead of subsiding has only gotten worse with time, regardless of the lack of success in achieving it and the necessary downgrades of the original target), what I’ve learned as my professional life has progressed is that it is very widely spread malady, to the point that barely an organization is free from it. In a sense, it is what lays at the core of the Marxist critique of Capital as a system trying to senselessly trying to perpetually expand the productive capabilities of society (of the “multiple capitals” that were required to compete against one another, even if each was in a monopolistic situation, for the system to keep on moving) just for the sake of expansion itself. Imagine a conversation between NC, a nondescript capitalist (in the Marxist sense) and NHB, a normal human being:

-        NHB: so why are you putting so much effort and attention in ensuring this year you produce 10% more merchandise than last year?

-        NC: well, so I can sell it and bring in a 10% more revenue!

-        NHB: and what do you want that extra revenue for? Will you live a 10% more luxuriant life?

-        NC: I wouldn’t dream of such folly! With that 10% I will rebuild my worn fixed capital, get a bit more, buy more raw material and hire more labor, so next year I will produce not 10, but 20% more (actually, 22% more) than last year!!!!

-        NHB: I see, which will probably also require a 22% more effort and toil from you, and seems just as irrational (doing something idiotic is not turned less idiotic by being repeated year after year)… what would be wrong with producing the same as this last year?

-        NC: Everything! Mi colleagues in the Plutocrat’s Club would put me to shame, as they are all growing their businesses like crazy; My wife would abandon me as I couldn’t afford a bigger soapbox at the opera and a new, bigger, mink coat for her; My competitors would increase their market share at my expense and, having more sold units between which to distribute their fixed costs would undercut my price and finally drive me to bankruptcy!

-        NHB: so there really is no way out, and it is nobody’s fault. The system really forces you to produce commodities for the market (pieces of merchandise that are circulated with the sole purpose of being exchanged for a greater amount of capital than what it took to produce them) in ever increasing amounts, the limits of the Earth’s non renewable resources be damned, the need for pursuing interests other than making money be damned, the impoverishment of the workers and the deadening monotony of their specialized work be damned

-        NC: Yup, that pretty much sums it up. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “and so it goes”

So there is indeed a strong push towards growth in economic organizations (that, remember, have no way of further “degrading” by adopting lower level needs), but it is not rooted in human nature, but in the social system based on commodity production (where even in the service sector we can consider the worker time as a commodity which he exchanges in the market for money which he will mostly reinvest to keep on selling it at ever higher intensity to “get ahead”). This is what we would expect if the ultimate reason that made people join (and stay within) economic organizations were to improve their social status. By definition social status is relative, and I can only improve mine if somebody else loses his. As I can assume everybody else is pursuing the same end (and everybody else’s win would be my own loss) the only rational choice for me is to keep trying harder. The form that “trying harder” takes, when the group from which I extract my social status has a constant “status density” is to use more of it, to make it bigger so the total status I extract by belonging to it also grows. That would be the link that connects individual decisions (“I will work harder”, “I will spend more hours at work”, “I will force my peers to strive harder to increase production” and so on) with the overarching social structure, as I find explanations that only rely on some “metaphysical” feature of said structure overly unconvincing (as I complained about in this post: critiquing the critiquers).

 3. Putting it all together: the 4th rule

So I consider the following statements to be solidly grounded:

-        the degradation in the ability of each and every organization to achieve its goals is real, and more marked the more competitive the market in which it operates is

-        given the innate resistance to change of human beings, the spontaneous response to such degradation is to try to grow the organization, which in economic ones translates to an increase in the amount of goods or services produced (regardless of the potential demand for them)

We have also seen that in a capitalist economy everybody is indeed engaged in that “grow production at all costs” mentality (funny that for most of their history such was also the case in socialist economies, but the lack of effective coordination between agents –as a centralized state is unable to perform such feat- led to their stagnation and final collapse, apparent enough since the 70s of the last century), and precisely because everybody is trying to grow, it is very unlikely that such strategy may succeed, leading to a “red queen” situation.

So in most organizations, specially the economic ones (devoted to the improvement of the social status of their members), people are asked to do more and more to grow the organization, as that is seen as the only means to at least keep whatever level of satisfaction they have achieved, but that increased effort is rewarded at best with the maintenance of the status quo (and at worst with a gentler loss of it). That surely doesn’t predispose any member towards magnanimity and love of their fellows in struggle. Now imagine the possibility for a change comes your way, and you see two options. If you choose option A, if it turns out right it may imply a noticeable betterment of your circumstances (an increased achievement of whatever your collective goals are); if it turns out bad things would get worse, and it would be clear that it was your fault. As the outcome is uncertain, let’s assign to the first outcome (good) a probability of A.G%, and the second outcome (bad) a probability of A.B%, and let’s quantify the benefit of the first outcome as A.X (measured in units of pleasure, or monetary units, or level of achievement of whatever end the organization pursues) and the loss of the second outcome as A.Z (which should be a negative value).  Now let us suppose that option B (the alternative to A in the original choice) is certain to produce some loss (let’s quantify it as B.Z), but such loss (here is the catch) can be blamed on somebody else.

The expected value of the option A is (or should be if we were entirely rational beings) the difference between the values of the possible outcomes weighed by their probability of happening:

Value A = A.X * A.G% - A.Z * A.B%

And the expected value of B is the (remember, negative) value of its certain outcome:

Value B = B.Z ( < 0)

So we would expect people to choose A over B whenever

Value A > Value B =>  A.X * A.G% - A.Z * A.B% > B.Z

And of course, B being negative (being less than zero) the previous inequation obtains every time that

A.X * A.G% > A.Z * A.B%

That is, every time that the expected value of the positive outcome exceeds the expected value of the negative one, people should choose to go with option A.

As any experienced operator can attest, nothing of the sort happens. When faced with such a choice 99% of people, 99% of times will go with option B, regardless of how negative B.Z turns out to be, regardless of how fantastic the potential outcome (A.X) appears to be, regardless of how more likely (A.G%) it is than the alternative, and regardless of how comparatively mild (A.Z) or unlikely (A.B%) that alternative is. As I formulated it in a previous post: “if there is a choice between a doubtful benefit and a certain loss of which somebody else can be blamed, ten times out of ten people will choose the second option”  .

There are a number of reasons why the rule obtains, based on some popular tenets of folk psychology (most of them explained in depth in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow), from loss aversion (that makes us assign an inordinate probability to the chances of a bad outcome) to confirmation bias (that makes us to see as more likely that people, specially those we are not very fond of, will mess up things regardless of our best intentions). However, I’m going to leave it at that, as for my present purpose it is enough to justify the next step in my research: why it is of paramount importance to have clear hierarchical lines traced as part of the organization’s definition, and responsibilities fully spelled out, so people know where they stand and what is expected of them, and can not resort to the universal “is somebody else’s fault” line of defense. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

The dreaded return from holidays (to lifting, of course, who cares ‘bout work anyway?)

Crunch time for the Vintage Rocker, decided to finish his dissertation (having it “ready for review”) by September the 15th come hell or high water, and seriously reducing any activity different from checking quotations, getting missing page numbers or tightening arguments that after being read in retrospect look too shabby or out of the blue (surprisingly few of those, however, I’ve turned out to be a pretty consistent writer after all of these years). So most of my life has been put in the back burner for some weeks, and that includes lifting, throwing, sprinting, and being physically awesome in general (well, I’m humble like this, when you have awesomeness to spare like I do you can allow to let it drop without much care). But that doesn’t mean I’ve completely forsaken any physical activity, as to write forcefully (and to appear full of confidence and pizzazz at work, which is a substantial part of any executive’s job description) you need to maintain a core of bodily well-being that deteriorates quickly if you just sit all day for too long. Those serotonin and dopamine generators start sputtering and atrophying if you don’t jolt them with bouts of activity every now and then, and it is not just any activity (a walk in the park at a leisurely pace won’t do it, or at least it doesn’t cut it for me), but some seriously strenuous, forceful, willpower depleting set of movements that will do the trick.

So although when I laid down my plan for the year I envisioned at this point transitioning from a weightlifting centered routine to a powerlifting oriented one, I’ll probably delay that at least until November (in a couple weeks I’ll have the dissertation review-ready, but then I have to send it to my counselor, add his comments, prepare another couple of articles for publication, and hopefully keep my day job!). Until then, I plan to stay in “park bench mode”, just gaining overall strength through the accumulation of compound movements that give me a maximum bang for my buck whilst not being technically too demanding or requiring a great flexibility I have no time at this point to maintain (that means squats, presses, power cleans, chin ups and deadlifts). I’ll stick with the strategy of progressing through achieving more density (move the same total volume –same number of sets and reps with the same weight- in less time), and only when I master a combination of exercises completing them below certain threshold time will I rise the volume (either adding reps or a bit of weight). Given the constraints I have I’ll aim at three workouts per week, all of which should last less than 40 minutes, divided in 4 blocks of 10 minutes. In each block I’ll have to complete 4-8 sets of a single exercise or a couple of supersetted exercises (involving agonistic muscle groups), and change plates to leave everything ready for the next block. Finally, in order to strengthen some links I feel have grown weaker, I intend to squat every session ,bench press every session, chin every session and put the bar overhead every session (so 3 of the 4 available blocks are already filled, as the chins and OH presses can be fitted in a single block). I also have greatly enjoyed doing some sprinting and throwing outdoors, which I think is unbeatable to stay fast and mobile, so I’ll add a fourth, optional workout to do those things.
This is then how a typical week will look like, training wise, for the next two months:

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4 (optional)
Low Bar Back Squats
4 x 8 @ 65%
Jump Squats
5 x 3 w 50 kg
Front Squats
4 x 8 @ 65%
Standing shot put
A few
Bench Press (comp. stance)
4 x 8 @ 65%
Speed BP
8 x 2 @ 70%
Paused BP (3 secs)
4 x 5 @ 65%
Gliding shot put
A few
Farmer’s walks
6-8 x 20 yds w 70 kg/hand
Power Clean
8 x 2 @ 80%
3 x 6 @ 75%
Hill sprints
4-6 x 20 yds
BTN SG Push Press
4 x 6 @ 70%
Supersetted w chin-ups
4 x 5-7
Savickas Press
4 x 6 @ 70%
Supersetted w pull-ups
4 x 4-6
Push Press
4 x 6 @ 70%
Supersetted w chin-ups
4 x 5-7
Bounded jumps
A bunch

I’m aiming at a total volume above 30 tons, and the following weights in each exercise:

·         LBBS: 100 kg (100% would be 154 kg)
·         BP: 85kg (100% would be 130 kg)
·         BTN SG Push Press: 75 kg (100% would be 107 kg)
·         Power Clean: 95 kg (100% would be 119 kg)
·         FS: 80 kg (100% would be 123 kg)
·         DL: 150 kg (100% would be 200 kg)
·         Push Press: 75 kg (100% would be 107 kg)

Which seems about right, a bit light for lower body (my best lifts in the squat and the deadlift are 170 kg and 220 kg respectively, so although I’ve neglected them for some time now I may be underchallenging myself in those) and a bit heavy for the upper body ones (my best lifts are below the projected 100% in all of them, but as those moves involve less total muscular mass they allow for a higher volume at a higher intensity). However, those are not weights I can strive for right away, after an almost total layoff for three weeks (again, sweet holidays away from the gym), which is when the title of this post becomes relevant. As this week I started with this schema, to calibrate it and check if it was feasible (I was specially interested in confirming the time it took both to change plates and set the bar) I ended the first WO absolutely crushed (and above 50’), had tremendously sore muscles for the whole week and felt overall miserable and weak.

It is well known that the nervous system remembers the ability to move certain weights far longer than the muscles ability to contract against the resistance those weights provide endures. That means that when we come back from an extended resting period (and three weeks is just time enough to get somewhat deconditioned) our brain can push our bodies to do things  that “feel” doable, but that have the potential to wreak a much bigger havoc than what we expected. What in peak condition was a 60% effort may have become a 70% or even an 80% of the maximum we can do if detraining has been significant enough, and having that amount of effort done for big muscle groups for a high number of reps is a) great for quickly recovering the previous level of fitness b) dangerous if there was any previous unbalance, as it will get much exaggerated and c) prone to cause considerable discomfort (according to the oft quoted in this pages Mark Rippetoe, it is apt to cause “one of the most exquisite levels of soreness a human being can experience”). I wouldn’t say I’ve gone through such level of soreness, but it has been an interesting week nonetheless…

However, after going through a full cycle and having started the second one with much milder symptoms, I am pretty confident that this routine is going to serve me very well. All the main areas (“slow” strength, power, speed, even some endurance) are addressed, weaknesses are thoroughly dealt with, and even with the relatively low intensity I’m betting the higher volume and consistency will leave me in a couple months with a better base of strength than I had eight months ago. I’ll most likely do a fast peaking phase to prime the CNS for substantially heavier weights and then taper and take maxes again, and adjust accordingly, given how the rest of my life is going.