Ilium and Olympos

Ilium and its sequel Olympos, by Dan Simmons, have their moments of brilliance. But they aren’t as good as his Hyperion series. Hyperion had novel, fresh ideas that worked towards telling a story. While Ilium and Olympos too can boast of such ideas, their relevance to the story is secondary. The primary purpose of the books is to weave literary works like Homer’s Iliad and Shakespeare’s The Tempest with science-fiction. Because of this the books seem a bit contrived as Simmons can’t really follow an idea through it’s logical conclusion and instead has to shoehorn them to fit in with the ideas from the literary works.

The other jarring problem in the books is the sexual objectification of the woman characters. I suppose in staying true to the old literary works, Simmons had to sexualize woman, but I think his choice goes deeper than that. Evidence for this comes from one of the main characters who expressed disdain for political correctness and Simmon’s dedication of the second book to Harold Bloom, someone who railed again social criticism of art.

As if to leave no room for doubt, Simmons adds an unnecessary rape scene where one character has to have sex with a women who is in suspended animation. Simmons is aware that this is rape and so actually mentions it through the thoughts of the rapist, but when the victim wakes up, she assures the rapist that it needed to be done and there was no other way. The reason being DNA transfer via the semen of a particular ancestral line to which the rapist belongs to. In the imaginative realm of sci-fi there are multitudes of other ways to transfer DNA. So this is an extremely contrived plot point which doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than to make a political point.

On communism and free markets

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty makes a passing reference on why abolishing private capital is undesirable. It prevents people from propagating alternative viewpoints as organizing and communicating ideas requires capital. The state won’t provide this capital especially if the views are subversive to the state.

Of course, this isn’t a new observation. Milton Friedman elaborated on it in his book Capitalism and Freedom. But then Friedman proceeds to conclude that since communism is wont to become totalitarian, free markets are the solution. His rationale is that that power should never be allowed to concentrate and nothing screams power concentration like a totalitarian regime.

However, free markets themselves can create massive power concentrations. Even if we achieve a minimal government which protects basic freedoms and property rights, and lets markets do their thing, it is almost guaranteed that whoever amasses enough capital through markets will group together and interfere with the functioning of the government. At that point, the government is no longer minimal. And power has become centralized.

So free markets aren’t the solution either. Markets regulated by a democratic government are. Democracies seem to allow distribution of power with the least amount of violence.

The dehumanizing left

There is a worldview which goes by the name of regressive left these days, but is really quite old. I’m realizing that this worldview isn’t just about fighting the oppressed, but is also about a fundamental assumption that the oppressor class is sub-human while the oppressed are fully human. The purveyors of this worldview might object at framing it like that, but when you consider the consequences of their words and actions, that is the only conclusion you can draw.

While an oppressor, say like the USA might rank some people as less human than their own citizens when calculating collateral in a war operation, the regressive left too ranks people on a similar scale. The result of this ranking is that since the oppressed are the only full humans, moral good lies only with them. Moral evil is with the sub-human oppressors. So an evil act can always be traced back to the oppressor.

So an an attack like the Orlando massacre, at its root is not the fault of Islamic homophobia (plus other things), but is the result of the USA via its foreign policy creating ISIS and so on. You see the same reasoning whenever there is talk about female FGM, hijab etc…

And the classification of moral good and moral evil is an absolute. So if an ex-Muslim or a Mulism reformer were to point fingers at their own community, they’ve violated the fundamental axiom of moral evil lying solely with the oppressor class. So these ex-Muslims and reformers become traitors to their own people. They themselves become oppressors, regardless of what they’ve suffered at the hands of the oppressors. They’ve literally made a pact with the devil.

The term regressive left doesn’t do enough justice to this worldview. Given the lofty ideals it professes to, a better name would be The Empathyless Left or The Dehumanizing Left.

Google Maps and Atlas

Reading this post on how the design of Google Maps has changed and how Google Maps fares compared to an old fashioned printed map, I’m reminded of the road atlas that I have, but haven’t used in a while. The atlas had a great level of detail (down to rest areas available on a freeway). One could navigate just using the road atlas if you’ve got someone in the passenger seat to keep track of your route and to plan ahead. Given that our mobile screens are getting bigger, Google Maps can take a leaf out of paper maps and show a similar level of detail in their maps app.

The Gates Foundation and the Anatomy of Philanthrocapitalism:

Philanthropy is also fundamentally dependent on inequality and hierarchy. As Canadian sociologist Linsey McGoey argues, inequality provides both the reasons and resources of philanthropy. To illustrate the point, developing countries lose approximately $100 billion per year in revenues due to tax avoidance by large multinationals, monies that could go a long way in providing development solutions. A 2012 report from the US Senate found, for example, that Microsoft’s use of offshore subsidiaries enabled it to avoid taxes of $4.5 billion annually, a sum greater than the BMGF’s annual grant making ($3.6 billion in 2014). Neither Gates nor BMGF can be held accountable for the global rules and structures – for example, those of global taxation – that produce global inequalities, but there is surely an irony in looking to the benefactors of such structures for equitable and just development solutions.

Charging for ignorance

Watch this video where a battery pack that costs $720 is opened up to reveal parts that cost significantly less:

And the follow up:

Markets run on certain moral premises. We need to ask what kind of moral premises are involved in a market where such huge markups are common. That it is okay to throw away a piece of equipment if a small, inexpensive part of it goes wrong? Or that we need to spend inordinate amount of time chasing money that we don’t have the time to sit down and fix broken things we own and so throwing them away and buying a replacement is cheaper? And the reason we need to chase money is because we know how unequal a society we live in and how much of an advantage having extra money is? What would a market look like if a society required its consumers to be able to fix certain things themselves?

Gatekeepers in Tech

I stumbled upon an old blog post by Joel Spolsky. It’s a fine example of gatekeeping and confusing merit with those who get past the gate.

In the 11 years since that post was written, Java has proven itself in the marketplace, that holy place where merit reins supreme. On average Java programmers earn more than programmers in other languages. And a whole bunch of Java programmers don’t know about pointers and couldn’t care less about recursion. Turns out that what sustains a business is not knowledge of pointers, but building software within a budget. And no amount of pointer-fu is going to give you that. You need to be well versed with the language’s ecosystem so that you can use libraries that save you effort (and money). That is why Java reigns supreme.

It also offers an important lesson on merit. There are scores of Java programmers who aren’t even from a computer science background, let alone meet the “high” standards set by Joel Spolsky. How do they manage to earn so much, and importantly build software that many businesses rely on? They learnt on the job. Merit is not innate. It is a function of opportunities, effort and aptitude. Many people lack opportunities. For example, a person who grew up with computers is going to show a different learning capability than someone who couldn’t afford a computer. A lot of people wrongly think that this difference is attributable solely to aptitude, ignoring prior circumstances. These people then function as gatekeepers decreeing who is fit to do a task and who isn’t.