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20200628 – Physical Intelligence

MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book per author is this: ” A rich and complex connection to the physical world demanding abilities that blur distinctions among mind, brain, and body; proactive decision-making regarding physiological events and action execution; physically challenging do-it-yourself projects in complicated situations that require ingenuity, strength, and a willingness to stray off the beaten path: these desiderata, in their variety and complexity of physical action, allow for the sustenance of enviable personhood. The challenge for our future, particularly as we more and more partake of a cocooned urban lifestyle, will be to find settings analogous to nature that will require sufficient complexity of physical intelligence and ensure the physical experiences we need to sustain our health and provide us with a sense of integrated well-being.”

DETAILS:

Introduction
Here author defines the notion of “physical intelligence”: the components of the mind that allow anyone to engage with and change the world. Inside the brain there is no single module or bit of tissue that makes this possible. Instead, the action-prone mind draws on a multiplicity of capabilities”. He links it to his experience as hiker, stating that it becomes evident only when one is within natural environment – wilderness. Then author points out that human evolution occurred in wilderness, rather than at home or in the office, and it is demonstrated by our physical intelligence. Finally, author discusses iceman Ötzi and how the physical intelligence kept him alive in very challenging environment.

1: The Space We Create
Author starts this chapter with describing beginning of his hiking trip into mountains and then moves to discuss how mind creates concept of space and orient body within this space:” The brain routinely combines vision, touch, and positions of the joints to make a volume around the body. There is good evidence that some neurons code for particular parts of space, such as the space within reach. Other kinds of neurons are active when an object or the hand approaches a particular spot on the face, like one cheek or the other”. The author describes several neuropathological conditions that illustrate what happens when parts of these multiple systems within the brain go out of commission or out of balance. After that author presents result of several relevant experiments using fMRI and other methods of direct scanning of the brain. He also discusses high performance sportsmen and their superior situational awareness, which allow some impressive physical feats.  

2: Surfaces
Here author movers to discuss surfaces. He starts with physical challenge of working in mountains, pointing out that it requires concentration of attention in the process of just walking to such extent that it consumes more than 80% of brain activity at the moment. He then discusses brain areas heavily involved in this process and what happens when these areas are damaged. The next topic is discussion of formation of this functionality in human brain starting with infants learning to move. The complexity of movement, especially walking, well demonstrated by inability to implement this functionality in robots. The final part of this discussion is about ground-level falls that quite surprisingly is a big problem and not only for elderly.

3: Shaping the Self
This chapter is about mental representation of body shape and ways to adjust it to environmental space in such way as it is required to achieve some objective. It is also reviewed in relation to some areas of body, which were damaged. It is not limited to the brain, but also includes “different sensory organs within the joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles that provide information about body position had been identified through the microscope. The computations these sensors enable are complex.”  Author discusses how it all works, experiments and observations of situations when various parts of the system are broken, and then returns back to the story of his hiking for illustration.

4: The Hidden Hand
In this chapter author moves to feedback control. He starts with analysis of use of spear that requires precise control of hand movement. He compares it with process of missile control. Then author discusses what happens when due to brain damage feedback signal stop coming and person even loses notion of possession of hand for example. The details of this process author describe as “hidden hand”: representation of body and surrounding environment within the brain as internal copy of movement-producing signal (efference).

5: Pulling Strings
Here author uses the story about difficulties of repairing a stove in the field because this action required specific positioning of his hands that he initially could not do. It brings discussion to motor controlling system and here is how author describes results of research:” nearly every one of these command neurons with the strongest influence over the muscles drives only one muscle. Each cortical motor neuron will influence only one muscle. This is good news in that it simplifies the wiring diagram. It also provides enormous freedom for the motor cortex to create any sort of movement it wants (provided the bones and joints will allow it!) and to individuate, to isolate the contractions of particular muscles in new ways.” Author then points out that each cortical neuron could participate in many kinds of actions and discusses in details how it all happens.

6: Perspectives
In this chapter author moves to the problem of orientation: how people know where they are and which way to go. He starts with experiments that show that without some direction processing people tend to walk in circles. He then discusses how animal and people find way, usually by utilizing some direction clues that go into developing mental representation of the map. Then author looks at it from another angle: mapping a brain using fixed box on the head to create referential frame.    

7: Learning to Solve Problems
This is very interesting and even funny chapter about problem solving. It retells the story of struggle between bears and tourists supported by park service. The latter trying to prevent bears getting to the food by using boxes, hiding food in cars and so on, while bears often succeed in getting to this food. Then author discusses how it is done: “hierarchical reinforcement learning and model-based learning work well when there are just a few actions to plan as a sequence. But what of problems whose solution requires many steps? As steps are added, the number of potential solutions grows exponentially. Here is the curse of dimensionality in problem-solving in all its glory.”

8: Purpose
In this chapter author moves to use of tools. He points out that it used to be common believe that use of tools differentiates humans from other animals, but with better knowledge and research it is obviously not correct. The interesting part of discussion is mental mechanism that turns tools into part of a body by including it in the body schema. There is also a quite interesting discussion of related neuronal activity. Moreover, tools and actions are united in the mind and author discusses how it was discovered by observing individuals with damaged brains.

9: Costs
This chapter starts with author’s health emergency in the middle of nowhere in mountains when getting to other people become question of life and death. Author describes how he was walking all day overcoming various difficulties and exhaustion. In process author discuss in detail how process of walking is the best and most effective exercise for which human body was naturally evolved. The final and most important part of the chapter is discussion of tradeoff between cost and reward. In this case cost was loss of energy and stress on author body that author had to overcome to achieve his objective. Here is how it was achieved:” The calculus underlying all my trade-offs of speed, stability, efficiency, and grace was performed without my giving it a single thought. All I had to do was sustain the tempo”.

10: Of One Mind

The last chapter starts with discussion of fatigue. Author discusses various explanations of this phenomenon and note that continuing training allows conditioning of the body to diminish and somewhat control it. His example – top level athletes capable to control their body to such extent that they time energy complete expenditure exactly to the moment of achieving finish line. This demonstrates integrity of a person and author discusses how specifically it works by using quick stress responses:” There are two lines of evidence that will eventually need to be reconciled. The standard view, based on extensive studies of patients who have suffered strokes and brain imaging of healthy people, is that the regulation of the heart is mediated through the insula: a hidden island of cortex located underneath the temporal lobe. In healthy subjects, changes in heart rate can be correlated with insula brain activity measured by functional MRI scans. And in patients with stroke, damage here can lead to catastrophic heart failure, presumably because of brief overstimulation of the heart. Recent anatomic studies by my colleague Peter Strick suggest that the insula serves as a control center to the parasympathetic nerves. These are the nerves that actually brake the heart and allow us to rest and digest. There is also good evidence that this area senses feelings from the viscera of the body. It is monitoring heart rate, respiration, and activity of the gut, making sense of what is going on. Damaging this sensing might also eliminate feedback control and lead to runaway stimulation of the heart.

The alternative model, which we know less about, maintains that the cingulate cortex and other areas of the frontal lobe are key for connecting the mind to the body by proactively controlling fast-acting stress responses via the sympathetic nerves. This is the system that drives the heart harder and enhances blood flow to the muscles. The evidence supporting this conclusion is quickly mounting. In recent studies of patients with epilepsy, when electrodes are placed in the deep portion of the anterior cingulate and a jamming signal is introduced, there is an obvious and dramatic decline in systolic blood pressure that is sustained until the stimulator is turned off. Such fast changes could be sparked only by nerves, not circulating hormones. No other area of the human brain has ever been shown to manipulate blood pressure this reliably.”

At the end author strongly affirms his believe:” that the integrity of a person can be revealed through the intelligence of physical action. Intense physical experience, particularly in complex natural settings, places demands on the brain to learn and to be proactive, even as it refines action to allow for best performance.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

I also believe that human mind and body is one integrated entity, so any approach that concentrates only on one part of this entity is necessarily very limited and could not possibly inform effective actions of any consequence beyond direct and simple impact. Among multitude of data, research, and experiments I was very impressed with one case: person with multiple personality of which one personality was healthy and another diabetic. How switch in mind of this person from one personality to another impacted level of sugar in blood is very difficult to say, but demonstrative power of body/mind integrity of this case is unquestionable. I think that in very near future application of AI technology that would allow analysis of millions of parameters of a person simultaneously with status evaluation and valid prediction of result of any externally directed action would allow removal of the very notion of being sick or even unwell if not completely, then close to it.

20200621 – Human Diversity

MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is to provide review of the most recent scientific research into human biology and humanities related to variation between individuals belonging to three different types of groups: by sex, by race, and by class. The objective is to provide hard data on intrinsic differences between groups within each type: male vs. female; one race vs. another; one class vs. another.

DETAILS:

Introduction
The introduction is mainly about author’s intention to present scientific data that contradict currently dominant orthodoxy and support 10 propositions presented by author. Here is author’s description of orthodoxy:” The core doctrine of the orthodoxy in the social sciences is a particular understanding of human equality. I don’t mean equality in the sense of America’s traditional ideal—all are equal in the eyes of God, have equal inherent dignity, and should be treated equally under the law—but equality in the sense of sameness. Call it the sameness premise: In a properly run society, people of all human groupings will have similar life outcomes. Individuals might have differences in abilities, the orthodoxy (usually) acknowledges, but groups do not have inborn differences in the distributions of those abilities, except for undeniable ones such as height, upper body strength, and skin color. Inside the cranium, all groups are the same. The sameness premise theoretically applies to any method of grouping people, but three of them have dominated the discussion for a long time: gender, race, and socioeconomic class. Rephrased in terms of those groups, the sameness premise holds that whatever their gender, race, or the class they are born into, people in every group should become electrical engineers, nurture toddlers, win chess tournaments, and write sci-fi novels in roughly equal proportions. They should have similar distributions of family income, mental health, and life expectancy. Large group differences in these life outcomes are prima facie evidence of social, cultural, and governmental defects that can be corrected by appropriate public policy.”

The 10 propositions that author supports are:

1. Sex differences in personality are consistent worldwide and tend to widen in more gender-egalitarian cultures.

2. On average, females worldwide have advantages in verbal ability and social cognition while males have advantages in visuospatial abilities and the extremes of mathematical ability.

3. On average, women worldwide are more attracted to vocations centered on people and men to vocations centered on things.

4. Many sex differences in the brain are coordinate with sex differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior.

5. Human populations are genetically distinctive in ways that correspond to self-identified race and ethnicity.

6. Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.

7. Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.

8. The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personality, abilities, and social behavior.

9. Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.

10. Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.

Part I: “Gender Is a Social Construct”
Here author retells the story of development of feminist idea that sex is social construct and attempts to separate it from human biology. He states that last 20 years of scientific development left no doubt that this idea is completely detached from reality and then proceeds to discuss details.

1. A Framework for Thinking About Sex Differences
First author is trying to establish dimensions of discussion about male/female differences:

  • The People-Thigs Dimension
  • Height as example of statistical differences illustrated by graph below:
  • Which Effect Size is Big Enough
  • Inedividual vs. Aggregated Aproach

2. Sex Differences in Personality
In this chapter author looks at differences in personality disorders and differences within normal range. Author looks at this issue as it occurs in USA, worldwide, and especially how it depends on cultural environment: levels of equality.  

3. Sex Differences in Neurocognitive Functioning
Here author provides a long list of differences defined as result of multiple empirical studies:

  • Females tend to be better than males at detecting pure tones. 
  • Adult females tend to have more sensitive hearing for high frequencies than males. 
  • Females tend to have better auditory perception of binaural beats and otoacoustic emissions.
  • Females tend to detect faint smells better than males. 
  • Females tend to identify smells more accurately than males.
  • Males under 40 tend to detect small movements in their visual field better than females. 
  • Age-related loss of vision tends to occur about ten years earlier for females than for males. 
  • Males are many times more likely to be color-blind than females (the ratio varies by ethnic group).  
  • The balance of evidence indicates that females are more accurate than males in recognizing the basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter), though some studies find no difference. 
  • Females tend to be better than males at perceiving fine surface details by touch. This holds true for blind people as well as sighted ones.
  • Females tend to be better than males at remembering faces and names. 
  • Females tend to be better than males at recognizing facial emotions. 
  • Females tend to be better at remembering the minutiae of an event (labeled peripheral detail), while males tend to be better at remembering the core events (labeled gist)
  • Females tend to remember speech they have heard better than males, particularly when it relates to emotionally laden events in their past. 
  • Females tend to retain memories from earlier childhood better than males do. 
  • Females tend to have better short-term memory than males (e.g., given a list of single-digit numbers, they remember longer lists than males do). 
  • Females tend to have better verbal working memory (e.g., remembering a list of numbers while answering questions about an unrelated topic). 
  • Females tend to have better memory for locations of objects (e.g., remembering where the car keys were left). 
  • Males tend to have better visuospatial memory (e.g., navigating on the basis of a combination of landscape features).

4. Sex Differences in Educational and Vocational Choices
In this chapter author reviews results of multiple studies; stresses increase in female educational achievement and provides summary results of difference:

5. Sex Differences in the Brain
Here author discussesProposition #4: Many sex differences in the brain are coordinate with sex differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior.” He looks at difference in genotype and phenotype, and provides analysis of brain scans results. He summarizes it the following way:

  • Circulating sex hormones produce easily observable differences in the phenotype. Those hormones have specific, documented effects that match up with some of the differences in personality and neurocognitive functioning discussed in chapters 2 and 3. 
  • The underreported news about sex hormones is the permanent effect that prenatal and infant surges of testosterone have on masculinizing the male brain. Those effects also match up with the earlier discussions of personality and neurocognitive functioning. 
  • The greater lateralization of the male brain has been documented by a variety of evidence about sex differences in structural connectivity and functional connectivity. These findings bear on phenotypic sex differences in visuospatial and verbal skills. 
  • Differences in the functioning of the amygdala, hypothalamus, and other regions of the limbic

Part II: “Race Is a Social Construct”
This part is about another source of division – race. Author reviews history of development of idea that race is a social construct and looks at couple of famous people who promoted this idea.

6. A Framework for Thinking About Race Differences

In this chapter author is stresses that his approach in no way is supporting ideas about superior and inferior races and similar staff. His point is that science should look at genetics to define what is different in people of different races and not get beyond its area of competence. Therefore, author provides some minimal data and terminology related to genetics.

7. Genetic Distinctiveness Among Ancestral Populations
Here author looks at decoded human genome and discusses what databases are available, evolution of hominins, expansion of our species all around the world, and how genetic differences analyzed. Here is his summary: “The material here does not support the existence of the classically defined races, nor does it deny the many ways in which race is a social construct. Rather, it communicates a truth that geneticists expected theoretically more than half a century ago and that has been confirmed by repeated empirical tests: Genetic differentiation among populations is an inherent part of the process of peopling the Earth. It is what happens when populations successively split off from parent populations and are subsequently (mostly) separated geographically.”

8. Evolution Since Humans Left Africa
The next proposition author discusses is: “Evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local.” Author discusses recent findings in genetics, which move it away from relatively simple model of random and rare mutations to much more complex understanding in which diverse mechanisms impact organism in such way that evolution becomes a lot more dynamic, allowing for huge decrease in time is requires to make material changes in organisms.

9. The Landscape of Ancestral Population Differences
The final chapter of this part is designed to demonstrate that “Continental population differences in variants associated with personality, abilities, and social behavior are common.” Author going through multiple comparisons among subpopulations from the same continent and then at different continents demonstrating genetic diversity much higher between races than between subpopulations. Author’s recapitulation is:” The story of the raw material for studying continental population differences applies to SNPs related to physiological parameters, diseases, and cognitive repertoires. Substantial between-continent differences in target allele frequencies are common. Around a third of all differences meet a plausible definition of “large.” The limited amount of sophisticated genetic analysis of between-continent differences done to date suggests that these extensive differences observed in the raw material will frequently yield productive results about genuine continental population differences.”

Part III: “Class Is a Function of Privilege”
The final part of the book is about class difference. Author makes point that this difference comes not that much from formal privileges as from diversity of cognitive abilities that make individuals more or less capable to succeed in any given circumstances and that these abilities to large extent come from genotype and transferred from generation to generation. Author describes IQ role in three steps:

  • Establishing the heritability of cognitive repertoires and the relative unimportance of family background. 
  • Demonstrating that those cognitive repertoires are important causes of success. 
  • Examining the potential ways to mitigate the role of genes in determining success.

10. A Framework for Thinking About Heritability and Class
Here author discusses heritability: the process of transfer of features across generation and uses twins’ studies to demonstrate that it is valid in relation to genotype only, regardless of other forms of inheritance such as wealth, culture, and so on.

11. The Ubiquity of Heritability and the Small Role of the Shared Environment
Here author presents what he calls three laws of genetics:

  • First Law. All human behavioral traits are heritable. 
  • Second Law. The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of genes. 
  • Third Law. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.

After that once again he refers to twins’ studies to support the proposition:” The shared environment usually plays a minor role in explaining personality, abilities, and social behavior.”

 Author summarizes this in quite interesting graphic form:

12. Abilities, Personality, and Success
This chapter argues that “Class structure is importantly based on differences in abilities that have a substantial genetic component.” Author uses Herrnstein syllogism:

1. If differences in mental abilities are inherited, and

2. If success requires those abilities, and

3. If earnings and prestige depend upon success,

4. Then social standing (which reflects earnings and prestige) will be based to some extent on inherited differences among people.

To support this idea author provides results of comparative studies of IQ in childhood with adult outcomes.

13. Constraints and Potentials
The final chapter of this part argues that “Outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on personality, abilities, and social behavior.”

Author uses here another syllogism:

1. If the shared environment explains little of the variance in cognitive repertoires, and

2. If the only environmental factors that can be affected by outside interventions are part of the shared environment,

3. Then outside interventions are inherently constrained in the effects they can have on cognitive repertoires.

Then he analyses veracity of each premise based on research results, looking at specific areas:

  • Role of outside interventions
  • How genes shape environment
  • Heritability and Socioeconomic status
  • Empirical record for early childhood interventions

Author also looks at various attempts to achieve improvements:

  • The Self-esteem Movement
  • Stereotyping Threat
  • The Growth Mindset Movement

The result of analysis is conclusion that effects are minimal.

The final part of chapter is discussion of epigenetics.

Part IV: Looking Ahead
Here author refers to E.O. Wilson’s idea of Consilience: merge of all areas of human knowledge into one seamless entity in order to present a coherent vision of the future.

14. The Shape of the Revolution
In this chapter author “focuses on the problem of establishing causation with genomic material and describes a great debate about the role of genomics in social science that is already well under way. Its resolution will determine whether the social science revolution is upon us or will be deferred indefinitely.” Author presents variety of schools of thought in this area and discuss ongoing debates.

15. Reflections and Speculations
The final chapter presents author’s key conclusions:

  • Human beings can be biologically classified into groups by sex and by ancestral population. Like most biological classifications, these groups have fuzzy edges. This complicates things analytically, but no more than that. 
  • Many phenotypic differences in personality, abilities, and social behavior that we observe between the sexes, among ancestral populations, and among social classes have a biological component. 
  • Growing knowledge about human diversity will inevitably shape the future of the social sciences.

After that he discusses how it would impact understanding of human nature:

MY TAKE ON IT:

I think that results of research and analysis presented in this book demonstrate quite convincingly that men are somewhat different from women, smart people from stupid, successful from unsuccessful, and that a lot of this difference is intrinsic, coming from genetic makeup of individuals. The funny thing about all these is that I do not think that on the reasonably long run it has any relevance to human lives whatsoever. The origin of interest in differences between humans comes from the period in history when role of family origin become much less important in defining quality of individual life, while personal qualities much more important. It used to be if one born duke, he is duke to the end so IQ would not matter. When born poor got opportunity become rich then IQ become important. However, while opportunity to move up opened, the places up there remained scarce, and road there went via selection by others. For example, IQ test came from US army, which needed easy to use tool that would provide good prediction for which conscript is smart enough to become artillery calculator, which one is better fit to learn tactics and weapons to be a good infantry soldier, and which is best fit to load and unload trucks. Same for deciding if women can do this or that job and whether class position defined by robbery and banditry or by superior intellectual abilities and grit. All this is losing relevance as soon as most of necessary for production activities moves to AI and machines, so people are free to do whatever they want and do not need to compete for place in some hierarchy in order to satisfy their material and psychological needs. They just need resources to pursue their own unique type of happiness.  

20200614 – Bullshit Jobs

MAIN IDEA:

Author clearly identifies his main idea and purpose of this book in such way:” Writing this book also serves a political purpose. I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization. There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assistance from their communities. It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement. The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities—usually under the orders of a person we dislike—is to rankle with resentment over the fact there might be others out there who are not in the same trap. As a result, hatred, resentment, and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together. This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end.”

DETAILS:

Preface:  On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs
Here author tell the story of accidentally writing an article discussing phenomenon of Bullshit jobs and how it become unexpectedly very popular subject of popular discussion. He describes how he come to the idea that constant political fight for jobs misses a very important question of quality and meaning of these jobs. He refers to Keynes prediction of very short work days due to increase in productivity and contemplates the fact that productivity did increased, but working time did not decrease at all. He then provides key points of the article:

  • Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
  • It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.
  • The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
  • How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?

Author also refers to research demonstrating that bullshit jobs are not unusual. The researches asked: “Does your job “make a meaningful contribution to the world”? Astonishingly, more than a third—37 percent—said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain).”

At the end of preface author announces the purpose of this book as political action.

Chapter 1: What Is a Bullshit Job?
Author starts with description of several meaningless jobs in which people either do nothing or some meaningless activities and then provide definition:

” Final Working Definition: a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Author also provides graphic representation of results analysis for the use of working time:

Chapter 2: What Sorts of Bullshit Jobs Are There?
In this chapter author discusses categories of bullshit jobs:

Flunkies:” Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.”

Goons: “people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them.” Author also stresses that such jobs include aggression and deception.

Duct Tapers:” Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.”

Box tickers:” … the term “box tickers” to refer to employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.”

Taskmasters:” Taskmasters fall into two subcategories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others. This job can be considered bullshit if the taskmaster herself believes that there is no need for her intervention, and that if she were not there, underlings would be perfectly capable of carrying on by themselves. … Type 2 taskmasters may also have real duties in addition to their role as taskmaster, but if all or most of what they do is create bullshit tasks for others, then their own jobs can be classified as bullshit too.”

Author provides multiple examples for each type.

Chapter 3: Why Do Those in Bullshit Jobs Regularly Report Themselves Unhappy?
In this chapter author reviews multiple testimonies of people unhappy in their bullshit jobs. They mainly demonstrate how much such jobs contradict human nature and need for meaning. Author also discusses unrealistic assumption of economic man who does not care what he is paid for as long as pay is good. Another point that author discusses here is “concerning the clash between the morality of time and natural work rhythms, and the resentment it creates”.

Chapter 4: What Is It Like to Have a Bullshit Job?
In this chapter author looks at adverse effect of do-nothing jobs on human condition. The main reasons he identifies are:

  • the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense
  • the misery of not being a cause
  • the misery of not feeling entitled to one’s misery
  • the misery of knowing that one is doing harm

Author provides a bunch of descriptions for each of these miseries and concludes by discussion “on the effects of bullshit jobs on human creativity, and on why attempts to assert oneself creatively or politically against pointless employment might be considered a form of spiritual warfare”

Chapter 5: Why Are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating?
In this chapter author looks for causes of bullshit jobs and find them in dramatic increase of productivity, which moved jobs from agriculture and manufacturing to services where majority of BS jobs resides:

Significant part of the chapter author allocates to discussion of government BS jobs vs. private BS jobs, convincingly demonstrating that both sectors are not that different. He then looks in details at industry that he knows and well understand: Higher Education with its proliferation of administrative BS jobs, but also at industries that he is not really familiar with or understand: finance and information technology. Finally he puts on his Marxist hat and goes into discussion of “managerial feudalism” and its differences and similarities with “classical feudalism”. He also provides another graphic demonstrating who really pays for BS jobs: people doing non-bullshit jobs whose productivity increased, but compensation did not.

Chapter 6: Why Do We as a Society Not Object to the Growth of Pointless Employment.
Author’s reasoning here comes down to the following:

  • the impossibility of developing an absolute measure of value
  • most people in contemporary society do accept the notion of a social value that can be distinguished from economic value, even if it is very difficult to pin down what it is
  • the inverse relationship between the social value of work and the amount of money one is likely to be paid for it
  • the theological roots of our attitudes toward labor
  • the northern European notion of paid labor as necessary to the full formation of an adult human being
  • work came to be seen in many quarters either as a means of social reform or ultimately as a virtue in its own right
  • the key flaw in the labor theory of value
  • work came to be increasingly valued primarily as a form of discipline and self-sacrifice

Chapter 7: What Are the Political Effects of Bullshit Jobs, and Is There Anything That Can Be Done About This Situation?

The final chapter presents author’s “thoughts about the political implications of the current work situation, and one suggestion about a possible way out.”

These implications are mainly about unsustainable character of this situation, which per author is “maintained by a balance of resentments”. These resentments are about 99% versus rich 1%, relatively well-paid union and government worker vs non-government ununionized workers and so on. It is also about identity politics that left behind white lower and middle class, which responded by electing the Donald. Author also brings in robotization that forces people into BS jobs or unemployment. Finally, author discusses Universal Basic Income that, he believes, could be solution to BS jobs problem because it “might begin to detach work from compensation and put an end to the dilemmas described in this book”

MY TAKE ON IT:

For me it is very useful book because author spent time and effort basically conducting anthropological research that empirically supports my believe that humanity is moving in direction of increased redundancy of humans for productive processes. For me author’s designation of this process as “managerial feudalism” makes little sense, demonstrating nothing more his strong Marxist background. In my view there is no “isms” here, only continuation of increase in productivity that started a few centuries ago and due to achieve its logical completion some time before the end of this century – less than 80 years from now. The completion of this process would mean extinction of labor as human activity conducted under control and supervision of other humans and is necessary to obtain resources needed for survival. So instead of human labor, machines driven by Artificial Intelligence would automatically create resources that humans need. Author expresses support for UBI, but in my opinion it is not such a good idea because it leaves no space for human need to act for obtaining resources, overcoming some adversities and challenges in the process. Without satisfying this need society cannot be stable. If it is divided into small privileged group of acting individuals – owners of everything and large group of well-fed but deprived of meaningful activity individuals, then the deprived will inevitably direct their activity to overthrowing existing arrangement and establish the new one, in which they will be on the top.

20200607 – Storm before the Calm

MAIN IDEA:

The main idea of this book is that America regularly going through two parallel, but mainly independent cycles: institutional and socioeconomic. At the end of each cycle it goes through severe crisis after which it comes out with renewed institutions and updated economic system. 2020s represent a unique occurrence when both cycles enter crisis stage simultaneously, making crisis more complex and difficult than usually. However, upon completion of the crisis the renewed, more productive and more powerful America will continue to move to higher levels of prosperity, as it had always done before.

DETAILS:

Introduction
Here author presents his doctrine of two parallel cycles of American History: “institutional cycle” approximately 80 years starting with Revolutionary war and “socioeconomic cycle” approximately 50 years. Then he notes that 2020s will be a very difficult time for America because both cycles include period of crisis, which happens simultaneously during this period. Then author defines American exceptionalism in such way: “The most important fact to bear in mind is that the United States was an invented nation; it didn’t evolve naturally from a finite group of people over thousands of years in one indigenous region, as did, for example, China or Russia. More than that, the United States was an intentionally and rapidly invented nation. The American regime was first conceived in the Declaration of Independence and institutionalized in the Constitution. The American people were constructed from many countries and many languages, with varied reasons for coming to America—most freely, and some by force. The people of the United States invented themselves from a blank slate. And in important ways the American land invented itself. It provided Americans with possibilities that were unimaginable to most and could be used in ways no one anticipated.”

The author presents plan of the book: “Part 1 seeks to explain the American character, American values, and the history that led to the formation of the “American people.” It also shows why the United States is so resilient and why it can survive extreme periods. Part 2 describes the two major cycles in detail and the realities that govern American history, especially what has led to the crisis the United States is currently experiencing. Part 3 is a forecast for the future, describing the crisis that will happen when the massive forces of these two cycles converge in the decade 2020 to 2030—something that has not happened before—and then looks at what will follow and the future of America when the storm has passed.”

PART ONE: THE INVENTION OF AMERICA
1. The American Regime and a Restless Nation
Here author further defines specificity of American culture, which based on both: distrust of government and distrust of people. It resulted in creation of complex dynamically changing system based on balance of power and intentionally complicated rules where everybody has some areas of protected freedom and some area where restrictions apply. The main difference from others and common core is that each American ought to be free to succeed or fail in the pursuit of happiness. Then author discusses history of how it all came to be this way.

2. The Land—a Place Called America
Here author discusses geography and climate of America, original settlers – American Indians, and reasons for British being successful in settlement of this land and suppression of both Indian resistance and French competition. Here are a few pictures supporting author’s points:

3. The American People
In this chapter author discusses people that populated America: first British settlers, who then brought in African Slaves. The second wave, well before revolution, were Scotch-Irish and Scottish Presbyterians from Ireland. Author notes that they were considered unassimilable, the first in many waves to come, but does not discuss them and just moves to culture. He discusses the dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture that lasted all the way until the end of WWII and then looks at stereotypes of Americans: The Cowboy, The Inventor, and The Warrior. In the final part of chapter author fulfils compulsory requirement to lament crimes of America against black Slaves and Indians, albeit within reasonable framing: Slavery was normal elsewhere in the world, Indians were successfully killing, fighting , raiding, and conquering each other forever, and their destruction was not caused by genocide of settlers,  but rather by diseases that settlers brought in.   

PART TWO: AMERICAN CYCLES
4. How America Changes
Here author starts with the statement that America changed a lot during 250 years and it came in somewhat predictable cycles despite of chaos of everyday lives, politics, and economics. The change was not only in America internally, but also in its global position in the world, going from peripheral small country to the globally dominant power.

5. How Geopolitics Frames the 2020s
Here author discusses his expectation of big crises of 2020s resulting with coincidental completion of two major cycles one of which is institutional cycle typically driven by a war. Author then discusses this starting from the beginning of America with special details related to America’s global empire created after WWII and currently mainly outdated after the end of Cold war, even if its institutions are still keep going. Author makes the point that it leads to coming crises.

6. The Institutional Cycles and War
In this chapter author reviewing history of such institutional cycles: The first starting with Revolutionary war, the second – Civil War, and currently the third one starting with WWII and closing to its completion now. Here is how author defines crisis at the end of such cycle:” The institutional crisis is rooted in two things. First, the governing class, and the technocrats, accumulate power and wealth, and they begin to shape the institutions to protect their interests. The second problem is that the expertise that won World War II and built the postwar world is now encountering its own problem of inefficiency—diffusion.”

7. The Socioeconomic Cycles
In this chapter author discusses the second type of cycles: socioeconomic cycle. He reviews history of 5 such cycles:

The First Socioeconomic Cycle: The Washington Cycle, 1783–1828

The Second Socioeconomic Cycle: The Jackson Cycle, 1828–1876

The Third Socioeconomic Cycle: The Hayes Cycle, 1876–1929

The Fourth Socioeconomic Cycle: The Roosevelt Cycle, 1932–1980

The Fifth Socioeconomic Cycle: The Reagan Cycle, 1980–2030

At the final analysis he links it to income distribution problem when wealth is concentrated at the top, while middle stagnates. Here is graphic he provides to support this idea:

PART THREE: THE CRISIS AND THE CALM
8. First Tremors of the Coming Storm
The storm for author is coming with Trump and in this chapter, author elaborates why it is so. The reason is practically that old cycle ran out of steam and Trump is the last hurray of descending blue color class, which is expected to lose whatever is left of its power in 2020s.

9. The Crisis of the 2020s—a Clashing of Cycles
Here author discusses coming crisis as form of class straggle when ideology of effective government and rule of technocracy would clash with traditional ideology of democratic government by elected officials. Author looks at the history of democracy and its corrupt party bosses, who nevertheless where mainly local and close enough to regular people to help with their problems. Their substitution with technocratic bureaucrats made rulers much more distant, but also less effective, often working against interests of people they are supposed to serve, as it was the case with outsourcing and globalization. The end result is massive loss of legitimacy by nearly all institutions, save military.

10. The 2020s Crisis in Technology and Education
Here author discusses another side of crisis, which he characterizes as diminishing productivity growth resulting from failure of educational system to meet requirements of technology. The result is another division of population into hostile classes: educated and prosperous and poorly educated and miserable. Author expect that for the next 8 years quality of live would be declining due to crisis of final years of Reagan era that will end in 2028 with election of the president and team that will produce new innovative and currently unknown ideas that will define the next cycle.  

11. Beyond the Storm
This chapter is somewhat optimistic when author tries to look beyond current problem to the new raise of America. He believes that it would be based on the new understanding of governance when government will become more strategic by defining main direction and allowing local much smaller bureaucracies to make tactical decisions and actually implement them much more effectively and efficiently than super big and complex federal bureaucracy. Author discusses in some detail how it would be happening in areas he is familiar with such as education. He is quite optimistic about future and states that America always came out of crises stronger than before and he believes that it will happen again this time. He also provides graph of America’s GDP growth per person and states that he does not expect it to be any worse in the future:

Conclusion: The American Age

In conclusion author discuss America as unwilling empire, which is slowly moving to maturity that would take another century to achieve. He completes this analysis on very nice note:” America is a country in which the storm is essential to clear the way for the calm. Because Americans, obsessed with the present and future, have difficulty remembering the past, they will all believe that there has never been a time as uncivil and tense as this one. They will wait for the collapse of all things and loathe all those who produced it—which will be those with whom they disagree. It will be a time of self-righteous self-certainty, hatred, sometimes murderous, for those they despise. And then the patterns of history work their way through, using the raw material available. American power in the world will sustain itself, because the power of a country like the United States, a vast economy and military and seductive culture, does not decline because it is hated. All empires are hated and envied. Power is not diminished by either. The permanent things in America’s founding—our rights and the Constitution—serve to drive both the prudence and the recklessness of the country. And it is the combination of these two things that has allowed the United States to evolve over nearly 250 years of stability and chaos. There is no evidence of it ending. The current storm is nothing more than what is normal for this time in America’s history and our lives.”

MY TAKE ON IT:

It seems to be a popular idea to find cycles in American development and there are quite a few authors doing just that. I find it somewhat interesting, entertaining, but hardly relevant for understanding the current situation or future development. I agree that America and even the world is falling periodically into crises that it then overcomes. However, I think that each crisis is unique and should be explained not by cyclicity, but rather by development of technology, modes of its use, and ideas of how multitude of individuals had to interact with each other. The crisis occurs when levels of technology, modes of its use, and modes of human interaction get out of synch, cause some kind of calamity, and force change. Example could be WWI when technology of high frequency precise shooting and heavy weight projectiles led to the crises of traditional mode of technology use for killing people and taking their staff, because cost became by far higher than benefits. It took a while to switch to other modes of human interaction that substituted war by international trade and division of labor, but killing technology is still standing by just in case. The current crisis comes from technology that first made long distance goods transfer cheap and information transfer practically free, creating opportunity to substitute expensive labor with cheap. Now in addition to this new challenge arrived in form of AI that could substitute humans in practically all productive activities. Unlike author I do not think that it is specifically American crisis, it is just America always arrives first into the future. However, like the author I think that this crisis will be overcome and the next wonderful stage of human development will arrive relatively soon.