The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life

prelude to Hoffer; a case study in legibility; foibles of over-economizing; one day my titles will be more than philosophy puns

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a case study in legibility as prelude to Hoffer

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This blog is running the risk of all writing, which is critique but no suggestion. Let me counter that with a practical post: I’m going to teach you how to get shot without dying.

Gri-gri comes in many forms – ointment, powder, necklaces – but all promise immunity to weaponry. It doesn’t work on individuals, of course, although it’s supposed to. Very little can go grain-for-grain with black powder and pyrodex. It does work on communities: it makes them bullet proof.

The economists Nathan Nunn and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra wrote a paper analyzing the social effects of gri-griWhy Being Wrong Can Be Right: Magical Warfare Technologies and the Persistence of False Beliefs (the full paper is up on Professor Sanchez de la Sierra’s site). Here’s the breakdown: Bullet-proofing magic is relatively widespread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The paper focuses on Congo-Kinsasha, specifically South Kivu. Things are not great there: “In July 2007, United Nations human rights expert Yakin Erturk called the situation in South Kivu the worst she has ever seen in four years as the global body’s special investigator for violence against women.” The quote from wikipedia gets way worse, trust me. Most of the villages lack larger forms of protection, as is probably obvious at this point. They also lacked any kind of coordinated resistance, and given the larger fire power, were hopelessly outgunned. That was for some time, and our wiki quote says 2007.

In 2012, the recipe for gri-gri was revealed to an elder in a dream. If you ingest it and follow certain ritual commandments, then bullets cannot harm you. The belief is puzzling, inasmuch as bullets did seem to keep killing people. More puzzling: not only did it survive, it was adopted by many neighboring villages, cities, and regions. “Why?”

The paper argues that gri-gri encourages resistance on a mass scale. Beforehand, given a mix of brave and cowardly, only a small percentage of a village would fight back. If you want to have any hope of surviving, then you need everyone to fight back. Gri-gri lowers the perceived costs of said resistance, i.e. no reason to fear guns when the bullets can’t hurt you. Now everyone fights, hence, gri-gri‘s positive benefits. Moreover: since more people are fighting, each gri-gri participant also raises the marginal utility of the others (it’s better to fight together). And, since there are highly specific requirements for using the powder (if you break a certain moral code it doesn’t work), gri-gri also probably cuts down on non-war related crimes. Take group-level selection: the belief in and use of gri-gri will thus allow any given village to out-compete one without gri-gri. After a time, these will either be replaced by gri-gri adherents (hence spreading it geographically), or they’ll adopt gri-gri themselves (also spreading it).

As far as “sober looks at horrifying situations” go, this is a good one. It’s clever, it’s a decent analysis of why certain beliefs persist despite being false, and I’m glad to know that economics has finally found Nietzsche.

If I have any specific criticisms, it’s that they vastly downplay negative externalities inflicted by the required rituals. They suggest, rather, that these might be positive. To use gri-gri certain commandments must be followed, and one helpful example is “don’t steal from civilians.” So far so good, and that does seem useful, but one that they don’t mention is that another form of bullet-magic requires human sacrifice and cannibalism. This might impact the cost-benefit, but I’m no economist. To be fair, they aren’t looking at Liberia, but they also want to generalize, so.

The rest is good, and I appreciate all attempts to examine “irrational” rituals. But I still think that there’s an easier and more obvious solution than theirs: gri-gri is actually magic. Continue reading “The Use and Abuse of Witchdoctors for Life”

Memetics and Memorization: A Critical Review of Both

kind of about dennett, mostly about poetry, mostlier about nihilism. somehow I wrote an article culminating in a defense of memorization as education and that’s confusing.

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NOT A SCIENTIFIC ARGUMENT

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This is a boring opening sentence: The psychologist and philosopher William James is most famous for his contributions to Pragmatism. “Contributions” here being a book called Pragmatism. I’m about to mutilate his argument; apologies to the dead. Continue reading “Memetics and Memorization: A Critical Review of Both”

Identity is the enemy. Finale.

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STOP MAKING LAST MEN

(Part I here, social currency here, Part II here, Part III here)

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Quoting yourself is tacky, but for continuity’s sake:

I used a monarch and their palace for an example earlier. The palace costs $200, they only got $170 in revenue because of Laffer Curves. There’s a question that everyone should have asked then: “Why not just wait another year and then you’ll have enough for the palace?”…

…the question you need to ask yourself is what is our equivalent to that palace?

I’m afraid that this lays a trap, and perhaps more than one.

The palace looks like a concrete goal. If it is, then the social state equivalent might be something like “policy change”. If the real question is not the palace but its time frame, then we need to follow this logic. Q: “Why would someone push for policies knowing that they’re impossible within such a short period?”A: If the goal is not the policy.

The palace is almost a red herring, but not quite. A palace is enjoyed by the monarch, but it exists as a sign of monarchy. It’s the architectural embodiment of a state. As a project it’s almost meta – the state wants to gain more power so that it can display the kind of power it has. Raising taxes here isn’t just about getting a project done. The real goal is the demonstration: “We can build this in a year.” This is simply another way of saying: it stands for power and identity, not a goal.

Social power is a tactic and its purpose is political. These are “goals”. But the social state is an organization, and like all organizations its fundamental purpose is to maintain power and to provide identity. Better: the power of the state is what attracts people who want to identify with it. The “goal” has come to metonymically stand for the state itself.

“Ok, sure. But why do this?” For monarchs? I dunno. For us, citizens of a social state? Continue reading “Identity is the enemy. Finale.”

Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.

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FINDING MODERN TRIBALISM IN THE TAX CODE

(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here, Part II here)

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There’s 1. Here “social left” is a stand in for the left most aligned with social justice (insert whatever here). “The other side” is the motley collection confusingly stretched between Gamergate and Marxism. a common fear among the social left [1] that no matter how persuasive their rhetoric and how many studies they mount and how many articles they write, people’s behavior will not change. Men benefit too much from the patriarchy, whites benefit too much from systematic racism. A thousand years of lip service and everything will wind up exactly the same as it has been.

There’s a common fear on the other side that social goals are mostly about policing language, fighting culture wars, and that they will not stop. The goal posts will always move, the rhetoric will remain as extreme no matter how “bad” the problem is. That structural change has become impossible or ignored.

These two concerns are the exact same thing, and that thing is the Panama Papers. Continue reading “Social Laffer Curves that go for a thousand screaming years.”

Publicani in Berkeley

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A PROGRAM FOR DEMOLISHING YOUR POWER BASE THE OLD ROMAN WAY

(Part I here, some subsequent clarifications here. Disclaimer: this is more metaphorical or more literal based on your preference. I don’t think it changes much about the argument.)

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I know, I know. We live under fascism now, according to people who know that fascism is a word one can use. I’m extraordinarily excited for some greenhorn to notice the fasces in the House of Reps and tie it to Trump, but currently the #Resistance is focusing on (sigh) Milo Yiannopoulos. This is annoying for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that now I have to talk about him.

Milo’s a twat, etc. but the press is also worthless.

A term much favored by Milo is snowflake, to which the left tried “Enough snowflakes make an avalanche!” After they’ve landed, sure, but before that snowflakes make blizzards. This is also a powerful thing but one that has different effects. An avalanche crushes you; a blizzard blinds you, turns the world a furious wail of black-and-white, and slowly freezes your lost ass. Continue reading “Publicani in Berkeley”

Theses on Social Currency

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INTERLUDE BEFORE SOCIAL LAFFER CURVES

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Economic laws impact our lives so mysteriously and with such awesome power that we resort to mythologizing them. Their effects are natural disasters, and we are confused animals on a windswept plain. They are dark, primordial forces that shift us around. And they do so seemingly without human input.

Job: imprecating the sky justly, but for that very reason utterly lacking comprehension.

It is no mistake that Chigurh is a primordial force that uses coins to determine his actions. Nothing is a mistake; everything is economics. Continue reading “Theses on Social Currency”

On Social States

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(Disclaimer: this is more metaphorical or more literal based on your preference. I don’t think it changes much about the argument.)

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There’s a joke about fish and water and ignorance. We know about oxygen, so that’s not our joke. But our joke is similar.

The setup differs, but the punchline is always the same: “I thought you were in charge here!”

It says something (bad) about us that we use the same for inspiration: “The power was within you all along.” Continue reading “On Social States”