Supersonic Man

August 20, 2017

“Everyone is a little bit racist.”

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:19 pm

You may have heard that quote.  I am quoting it because I believe it’s true.  There is no dividing people into two groups, one racist and one not.  It’s a spectrum, and what matters is not what feelings or assumptions you start with, but what behavior you end with.  Let’s look at some sample points on this spectrum — some levels of racism:

Level 0: innocent.  This is where small children start out — unaware that race is a problem.  Maybe it’s possible to maintain this into adulthood in circumstances of major social isolation, but I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen an example of that.

Level 1: responsible.  We are all liable to sometimes forming snap judgments based on first impressions, and race is often a factor that plays into this.  But we can compensate for this by taking a moment for a second thought, to double-check our initial thoughtless reaction and make sure we’re being fair-minded.  This may not sound very impressive, but for most adults, this is about the best you can expect.  People in this category may be “allies” of minorities, or not.

Level 2: in denial.  This is probably where the majority of people fit, on most days.  This is where you land if you react to prejudicial snap judgments by rationalizing them instead of reconsidering.  Frequently accompanied by the idea that racism is largely historical, or confined to a few extremists — that it’s a distant external problem.  Racism at this level isn’t going to burn crosses, but it can produce frequent calls to the police about “suspicious” characters, or some extra strictness from the police themselves.  This mild racism can be enough to make a big difference in how difficult it is for some people to land a job or rent a place to live.  So even though the acts committed by any one individual seem minor and excusable, they can add up to a large negative impact on the lives of minority citizens.

Level 3: asshole.  This level is for people who sometimes show active racist behaviors, such as taunts and trolling and harrassment with racial epithets.  Generally these are people who are habitually unpleasant or obnoxious in other ways as well, or who have long lists of people whose lives they disapprove of.  Most often, such people are still in vigorous denial about racism, despite having numerous examples readily visible in the mirror.

Level 4: deplorable.  Finally, we come to those who have adopted racism as a guiding philosophy, and who actively evangelize it as an ideology: the Nazis, Klansmen, Neo-Confederates, and other racial separatists.  Many are fanatical True Believers, and as such, are capable of horrific violence for their cause.

Again, the point is not that people are divided into groups, who fit one label or another.  Any one person can and does slide up and down this scale, plus or minus a space over the course of a day, or larger shifts over months or years as they are exposed to different ideas.

And note that one’s position on this scale may have very little to do with the intensity or severity of their prejudices, particularly in the middle part of the scale.  Some can have major race-based fears and handle them well, and others might have minor ones but handle them badly.

The most important factor for affecting how a person moves forward or backward in their behavior is probably the social expectations of the people around them.

But don’t take this to mean that the way to make someone act better is by lecturing them.  If you really want to bring someone to see another point of view, it’s important to listen to them more than you talk to them, and let them express the feelings or anxieties or bad experiences they may be carrying on the subject.  And when you do speak, you want to be offering them an option, rather than making a demand.

Because when social pressure comes in a hostile form, it’ll probably have the opposite of the desired effect.  If you do listen to people at level 2 or 3 talk about race, one thing that often comes up is how much they dislike and resent hearing the word “racism” brought up as a belligerent finger-pointing accusation.

I don’t personally know who’s doing this kind of accusing, but some of my friends see it happen, and they affirm that yeah, it ain’t helping.  Maybe that behavior arises from having one foot in the responsible level and the other in the denial level, so you want to project and externalize the problem.  That’s just my guess, I can’t say.

As for the level 4 deplorables, I don’t think there’s much point in listening to them or engaging with them.  They’ve created a fantasy world where they believe each other’s made-up stories, so that’s all you’re likely to hear.  They’ve embraced evil, and there aren’t really very many of them, so socially, we can just write them off.

August 15, 2017

Nazi free speech

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:17 pm

The nazis among us like to complain that we’re stifling their right of free speech.  Here’s a reminder about some forms of speech which, by court precedent, are not and never have been protected by the First Amendment — types of speech which nobody has a right to make:

1. Fraud, false advertising, con artistry, and other forms of deceitful promise for personal gain.

2. Libel, slander, and defamation.  This includes not only attempts to damage reputations, but also taunts intended to provoke a violent response — “fighting words”.

3. Threats, intimidation, attempts to create panic (e.g. “fire!” in a crowded theater), or other means of trying to coerce people through fear.

4. Incitement of others to carry out violent or criminal acts.

5. Sedition — advocacy of overthrowing the government by force.

The courts may, for many of these categories, require strict or narrow conditions before ruling them to be unprotected and criminal forms of speech, but the point is that you do not have a right to deceive, a right to slander, a right to threaten, or a right to advocate violence.

If nazis and other racial supremacists think they have a right to advocate their point of view like the rest of us, well, let’s see if they can actually do so without committing any slander, making any threats, inciting any violence or insurrection, or making any fraudulent promises.  Since their actual program for society involves defaming large groups of people, using lots of violence and threats of violence, and overthrowing at least some parts of the Constitution, the only way they could advocate it without mentioning these would be by lying.

Nazi speech is sometimes suppressed, but if they think their rights of free speech are being violated, they’re wrong.  They never had any right to this form of speech.

March 1, 2017


Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:56 am

If what God actually wanted from us was to be worshipped, believed in, and obeyed in one particular way, think how easy it would be for Him to inform everyone on Earth of what He wanted.

Even if He only spoke to a few prophets, why not just have a bunch of them say the same thing at the same time in different languages?

Instead, what we’ve got now is a God who apparently expects to be believed in on a basis of occasional hearsay and conflicting testimony… which means that to arrive at correct faith depends on the exact same faculties that other people use to arrive at a wrong belief in a false deity.

January 22, 2017

Trump’s inauguration crowd is yuge

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 5:50 am

​From one perspective, it’s hilarious: Trump has taken time off of his twitter feuds to engage in a ridiculously juvenile dick-measuring contest over who had the bigger crowd in DC, his supporters or the protestors.  And he sends out this Sean Spicer character to make absurdly transparent lies about it, in order to back this up.  As (presumably) a professional media guy, Spicer has got to be pretty deeply embarrassed about hitching his national reputation to such a transparent fib, but Trump has him doing it anyway (albeit fleeing the podium as soon as possible afterward).  This is not only some good late-night-comic fodder, it’s also an open invitation for the straight news media to directly call out your administration as liars, despite their normally great reluctance to depart from “neutrality” whenever there is disagreement about facts.

But there’s another way to look at this, which isn’t so funny.  In a nation with a free press, this kind of attempt to transparently invent your own fake facts is laughable… but in countries where the press is not free, it’s routine.  This is exactly how news reporting is treated in totalitarian countries where the media are captive to the state.  In those circumstances, the big lie is the only story the public gets to hear, and if the truth gets to them, it’s only in the form of rumor and anecdote, which might be just as untrustworthy when it comes to pinning down solid facts.

What makes this sobering is Trump’s continual attacking and denigration of the news media.  He very much wants his supporters to distrust them, but even more, he wants them to stop reporting facts which contradict his stories.  Why all the attacks?  Because he wants his supporters to demand change, to shout down stories they don’t like — to pressure the media into compliance with his will.  Consciously or not, what he is pushing for is an end to the free press.  To him, a free press is the enemy.  He will never stop attacking them, so long as they report news that they discover through their own lying eyes and ears, rather than the official truth of Trump.

Trump is not just making this attack out of ego or spite — he is betting his presidency on it.  As long as the press remains free, Trump is a clown.  As soon as it’s not, everything he’s doing starts to work exactly as he intends it to, and he can rule as strongly as he wishes.

Trump is governing in a style which can only work when the press is not free.

December 19, 2016

red country vs blue city

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:11 am

Anyone who’s studied election maps has seen that when you look at which areas voted conservative and which voted liberal, it isn’t a matter of “red states” vs “blue states”, it’s a matter of urban areas vs rural areas.  The cities in red states are blue, and the countryside in blue states is red.  The balance of the state as a whole largely comes down to how urbanized it is (though the racial composition of rural areas can also be a factor).


So what is it about city and country that correlates with liberal and conservative views?  I think there is one factor which explains most of the difference.  It comes down to investment.


December 1, 2016

conservatives face a test

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:41 pm

There are several types of conservatism in the United States.  They differ in what sorts of principles and values they consider to be the moral basis of conservatism.

The first branch to consider is small-government conservatism.  This includes libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other ideologies favorable to laissez-faire free market policies.  The underlying values and principles have to do with liberty, individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance.  They judge people as friends or enemies depending on how willing they are to impose rules on each other.  When this philosophy reaches a toxic extreme, you get philosophies like objectivism, in which caring for other people is anathema.  But the mainstream of this type of conservatism is the most common one you will usually find in intellectual discourse: it has a rich body of abstract philosophy supporting it, and often attracts highly intelligent people.  But I don’t think it’s a majority among American conservatives.

How compatible is this type of conservatism with the rhetoric of Donald Trump?  Not very.  He tends to easily mix hands-off ideas in one area with interventionist ones in the next. (more…)

November 25, 2016


Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 3:18 pm

The practice of denying the vote to felons even after their sentence is complete — one basis of the discriminatory Crosscheck system — really ought to be ruled unconstitutional.  It exploits a loophole of the 14th amendment in a way clearly not intended by its crafters, and acts as a substitute for the “poll tax” practice abolished by the 24th amendment.

Misuses of felon lists to block voting have already been ruled illegal in several states by several courts, specifically because they target minorities (as forbidden by amendment 14), yet they persist in the abuse.  We need to cut the whole thing out at the root, which is the state laws under which felons lose their voting rights permanently.  These laws turn biased law enforcement into a tool of deliberate disenfranchisement.

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins.  These two topics may not seem related, but they are.  They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class.  Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers.  We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays.  But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics.  Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs.  This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore.  White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest.  Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away.  The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences.  But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education.  But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with.  I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education.  Nevertheless, culturally I am 100℅ a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up.  Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class.  (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair.  And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty.  Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it.  This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized.  (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.)  Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds.  Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others.  This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time.  And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill.  The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work.  A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business.  Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory.  As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto.  Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them.  Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value.  They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue.  For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as at most a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills.  In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too difficult and subtle to mechanize  — that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and human judgment which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit.  We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today.  The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine.  Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation.  All human labor is losing its economic value.  Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end.  Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance.  We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function.  Society will need a new basis.  When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice.  We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be.  We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got.  We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way.  Free-market believers will be especially insistent.  But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, free-market thinking would demand that those with little or no economic value should receive little or no economic benefit.  And as that group becomes an increasing majority of the population, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, because there is no need for human beings to fill their roles either.  Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist (as long as they have not yet succumbed themselves) that we have to.  We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit”.  But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must.  This doomed type of capitalism will end.  What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now.  In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability.  And we need those ideas now, not in another generation.  The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:07 pm

It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats.  Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a much broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming.  Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.

[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now.  But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]

If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.

So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?


September 9, 2016

Star Trek: 1966–2005

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:43 pm

Star Trek has now been an important and inspiring part of our culture over a span of fifty years.  But it’s done.  It is now time to let the shambling corpse have its rest. (more…)

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