The People Vs Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it) by Jamie Bartlett, Review

This book is a summary of the recent news, research, non-fiction bestsellers and popular science relating to tech, in a political context. The author tries hard to maintain objectivity, but he ends up sitting on the fence and stating the non-offensive obvious rather than creating new insights. Perhaps, there is a certain irony in that: serious journalism doesn’t hit as hard as divisive tripe we’ve gotten used to on Facebook. Overall, it’s an entry level book for people who want to learn about tech vs politics.

On a personal note, I recently attended a conference on digital health where an IBM Watson guy described how it could make decisions that are 93% congruent with health professionals (source). That’s impressive. But just because it can, doesn’t mean it will. Ireland has decent IT in healthcare compared to most countries. Yet I still fax things a lot (welcome to the 80s). As a doctor, I often serve as a photocopying machine. I’ve seen radiology software pick some cool stuff up using algorithms, but it will be a long time before AI is on the front line of medicine, in my view anyway.

My highlights below (this is not to say I highlight things I agree with!)

…The digital technologies associated with Silicon Valley –social media platforms, big data, mobile technology and artificial intelligence –that are increasingly dominating economic, political and social life. It’s clear that these technologies have, on balance, made us more informed, wealthier and, in some ways, happier. After all, technology tends to expand human capabilities, produce new opportunities, and increase productivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good for democracy.

While there are certainly contradictions in minimising tax while claiming to empower people, doing so doesn’t necessarily betray insincerity.

The machinery of democracy was built during a time of nation-states, hierarchies, deference and industrialised economies. The fundamental features of digital tech are at odds with this model: non-geographical, decentralised, data-driven, subject to network effects and exponential growth.

We won’t witness a repeat of the 1930s, everyone’s favourite analogy. Rather, I believe that democracy will fail in new and unexpected ways. The looming dystopia to fear is a shell democracy run by smart machines and a new elite of ‘progressive’ but authoritarian technocrats.

Chapter 1: The New Panopticon

Social media platforms are the latest iteration of the behaviourist desire to manage society through scientific observation of the mind, via a complete information loop: testing products on people, getting feedback and redesigning the model.

The notion that with enough data the mysteries of the human mind can be understood and influenced is perhaps the dominant philosophy in Silicon Valley today.

Scientific theories were unnecessary, he [Chris Anderson, editor of Wired] said, now that we have big data.

Google engineers don’t speculate and theorise about why people visit one site over another –they just try things and see what works.

Our modern panopticon doesn’t have just one watchman: everyone is both watching and being watched. This kind of permanent visibility and monitoring is a way to enforce conformity and docility.

Being always under surveillance and knowing that the things you say are collected and shared creates a soft but constant self-censorship.

Diagnosis by AI will outperform professional doctors within a few years (it already does in many areas, but regulation is slower than tech).

Deny it if you want, but we already rely on the machine for moral choices.

I can imagine this kind of utilitarian thinking will take over the world, because it’s amenable to data and AI.

Chapter 2: The Global Village

We are living, as McLuhan predicted, through a great re-tribalisation of politics.

Humans were perfectly good at killing each other because of politics long before the iPhone turned up. But Silicon Valley, in its optimistic quest for a global village of total information and connectivity, has inadvertently let tribalism back out of the cage that modern representative democracy built for it.

At times ‘post-truth’ has become a convenient way to explain complicated events with a simple single phrase. In some circles it has become a slightly patronising new orthodoxy to say that stupid proles have been duped by misinformation on the internet into voting for things like Brexit or Trump.

Anyone who is upset can now automatically, sometimes algorithmically, find other people that are similarly upset. Sociologists call this ‘homophily’, political theorists call it ‘identity politics’ and common wisdom says ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

The point is that every individual now has a truckload of reasons to feel legitimately aggrieved, outraged, oppressed or threatened, even if their own life is going just fine.

Note how, for example, so many people who disagree with Brexit use the language of a small child that has yet to develop a theory of mind: why should I accept the result, I didn’t vote for it and I want my country back.

The liberals’ hopeful theory about the role of debate is that coming into contact with opposing views and opinions can help resolve difference.

Several inconvenient studies have found that if two groups of people debate with each other they often consequently hold more extreme views than when they started. 15

I see opposing views to mine online all the time; they rarely change my mind, and more often simply confirm my belief that I am the only sane person in a sea of internet idiots.

But being apparently neutral is itself a kind of editorial decision. Everything on social media is still curated, usually by some mysterious algorithm rather than a human editor.

But the problem is that no one is intentionally programming it to be sensationalistic –it’s just a mathematical response to our general preference for edgy and outrageous videos. This is both a mirror and a multiplier: a giant feedback loop powered by big data. You feed data in, and you get results that replicate themselves. Newspapers have always traded on outrage and sensationalism, because they’ve long known what algorithms have recently discovered about our predilections. However, the difference is that newspapers are legally responsible for what they print, and citizens generally understand the editorial positions of various outlets. Algorithms, however, give the impression of being neutral and can’t held to account –even though the YouTube algorithm alone shapes what 1.5 billion users are likely to see, which is more than every newspaper in the world combined.

In her masterpiece The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt warned that if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to the charms of demagogues.

If the medium is the message, is there a way to escape the drift toward ever more extreme ‘system one’ tribal politics? Of course. Laws, regulations or education can help.

The qualities we associate with human greatness –such as sensitivity, empathy, compassion, kindness, and honesty –are also keys to political success.

At a campaign rally in Iowa in January 2016, Trump told his supporters that he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and … wouldn’t lose voters’. There is a distinct and terrifying possibility that, in an era in which emotion outranks truth, bias outranks objectivity and tribe outranks compromise, he was right.

Chapter 3: Software Wars

Every election now is a mini arms race.

Just like Brad [Trump’s digital campaign guy], Cummings set up Vote Leave like a Silicon Valley start-up, with physicists, data, innovation and constant testing of ads or messages. One especially smart move involved inviting people to guess the results of all 51 matches in the Euro 2016 football tournament with the chance of winning £ 50 million, in exchange for their phone number, email, home address and a score of 1–5 in respect of how likely they were to vote for staying in the EU.

I was surprised when Theresa [Trump’s digital campaign figure] told me that social media employees –and ones who shared the campaign’s political views –were working directly with the Trump team, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

We used to call this sort of thing propaganda. Now we call it ‘a behavioral approach to persuasive communication with quantifiable results’, and give awards to the people who are best at it.

It is important that everyone receives the same message –or at least knows what others are receiving. That’s how we are able to thrash out the issues of the day. If everyone receives personalised messages, there is no common public debate –just millions of private ones.

When I was at Alamo, Theresa told me that she wrote many of Donald Trump’s Facebook posts. That was odd. I’d always assumed Trump wrote his own posts. I’d read many of them, and they certainly sounded like him. Nope, it was Theresa, sitting in her San Antonio office. ‘I channelled Mr Trump,’ she told me, smiling. ‘How do you channel someone like Donald Trump?’ I asked. ‘A lot of believe mes, a lot of alsos, a lot of verys … he was really wonderful to write for. It was so refreshing. It was so authentic.’ She seemed unaware of the irony.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to have had a Damascene moment towards the end of 2017, when he acknowledged that the company needed to behave more like a responsible publisher that takes editorial decisions, rather than as a neutral platform that treats all information equally. This will certainly help.

Far too many otherwise-intelligent people, unable to comprehend Trump’s popularity, believe that voters were duped by Brad or Theresa, or even by Vladimir Putin, into ticking the box for Trump. Those involved are happy to propagate this myth, because it’s good for business.

I don’t recall similar levels of outrage when it was revealed in 2012 that President Obama’s team had placed voters into 30 buckets and ranked them according to persuadability, and that Google’s Eric Schmidt advised the campaign. Liberals were apparently extremely comfortable with the idea when it was their guy doing it. That was a mistake.

Chapter 4: Driverless Democracy

When AI techniques transform medical diagnosis –within the next few years –it won’t mean fewer doctors, but better patient care because our busy doctors won’t need to spend hours staring at scans.

A specialist in machine learning at Starsky Robotics or Google performs a non-routine job, since it involves a lot of intuition, creativity and independent thinking in unpredictable situations. So does a gardener, carer or Deliveroo cyclist. It’s the jobs in the middle –what you might call ‘routine cognitive’ jobs –that will be most at risk. If you are a train operator, a mortgage adviser, a stock analyst, a paralegal, a credit analyst, a loan officer, a bookkeeper, a tax accountant or a radiologist, you might consider retraining.

High levels of inequality also wear away the fabric of society. The more unequal life gets, the less we spend time with people not like ourselves, and the less we trust each other.

‘There are40 million people in the US that live in poverty,’ he [Sam Altman, Y Combinator] said. ‘If technology can eliminate human suffering, we should do that; if technology can generate more wealth and we can figure out how to distribute it better, we should do that.’ There was no hint that tech has played some role in creating the problem that tech is now supposed to fix.

Chapter 5: The Everything Monopoly

Back in the 1990s many predicted that the internet would slay monopolies, not create them. The popular thinking of the time –repeated over and over by the era’s digital gurus and futurists –was that the net was decentralised and connected, and so would automatically lead to a competitive and distributed marketplace.

Market leaders in AI like Google, with the data, the geniuses, the experience and the computing power, won’t be limited to just search and information retrieval. They will also be able to leap ahead in almost anything where AI is important: logistics, driverless cars, medical research, television, factory production, city planning, agriculture, energy use, storage, clerical work, education and who knows what else.

At some terrible point, these tech giants could become so important to the health and well-being of the nation that they are, like large banks, too big to fail. Armed with the best tech and the most skilled engineers, maybe Google or Facebook could be the only ones who could solve sophisticated cybercrime (perhaps committed by a powerful AI from a hostile country?), fix computer bugs, predict and pre-empt economic shocks, run the National Grid or protect the cyber defences of the big banks –cyber security in the public sector is predictably understaffed and under-skilled.

Every politician, with only a few exceptions, values the support of business. But politicians need tech platforms to reach voters in a manner that they don’t need other businesses, and these companies own and run the platforms on which so much of our political debate occurs.

Chapter 6: Crypto-Anarchy

(Public key) encryption is the crypto-anarchist’s barbed wire. It allows people to communicate, browse and transact beyond the reach of government, making it significantly harder for the state to control information, and subsequently, its citizens. This is because of a simple-but-magic rule: due to some arcane properties of prime numbers, it takes far more computing power to decrypt something than to encrypt it. 3 It’s like an egg: a lot easier to crack than to put back in its shell. Julian Assange, who was an active contributor to Timothy May’s email list, puts it this way: ‘the universe believes in encryption’.

In the well-intentioned pursuit of privacy and freedom, we might risk undermining the entire edifice on which these rights are based. Most liberals have been very short-sighted about this, because they want total freedom and equality, without realising that the two are sometimes in tension. This is why the issue of encryption and privacy throws up peculiar political alliances. (The most notable of recent years is surely the idiotic social democratic love affair with crypto-anarchist Julian Assange.)

Democracy is about individual liberty of course, but that’s only half the picture. It is also a system of coercion because your liberty must sometimes be taken away too. The state must be able to force you to pay tax, remove your passport, restrict your right to assemble and back it up with the use of force if it needs to by arresting you and throwing you in prison.

A blockchain social media platform would be untouchable – no government would be able to edit or remove hate-speech, illegal images or terror propaganda, unless the whole network was somehow vaporised. Blockchain advocates hate ‘middle men’.

For reasons still not entirely clear to me, humanity is currently embarked on a quixotic quest to connect everything to everything else.

A recent survey in the Journal of Democracy found that only 30 per cent of US millennials (the demographic made up of those born since 1980) agree that ‘it’s essential to live in a democracy’, compared to 75 per cent of those born in the 1930s, and results in most other democracies demonstrate a similar pattern.

Conclusion: Say Hello to the Future

In the hands of a techno-authoritarian, all the digital tools of liberation could easily become powerful tools of subtle coercion that might make society run more smoothly but wouldn’t make us more free or hold the powerful to account.

Digital technology is behind the slow unravelling of power and control in democracies. The obvious monster is Scylla – turbo-charged inequality and social breakdown. But in trying to avoid it, democracies could end up in the thrall of Charybdis, a digitally powered techno-authoritarian, and wind up with China and Russia undermining democracy in the name of order and harmony.

Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen by Hannah Howard Review

This book belongs to that dying coming-of-age-in-NYC-uber-honest-personal-essay-featuring-tampons-vomit-and-DMCs genre.

It’s also sweet and embarrassingly relatable for millennials.

The best things about this book is Hannah’s startling honestly. Not even so much when it comes to her devastating eating disorder, but how she feels about men and work. You kind of wonder if some of it was made up to protect the identities of the people involved. It’s preciously revelatory and confessional. You can feel the anguish.

It’s certainly readable, but I cannot honestly say I am a fan of the style. Some of it is beautifully descriptive. Parts are repetitive. Everything shines like the moon. Hannah is preoccupied with the sensations in her toes. 

The descriptions of food can be wonderful, but at times it seems like she ran out of paper and had to write her shopping list in her personal diary.

Other times, the detail seems unnecessary. For example, she cooks Irish oats. I effin love Irish oats. But frankly, they are not that different to good oats from anywhere else in the world. Why mention that they are Irish? To show your level of pickiness? Sophistication? But surely, oats are just oats – and anyone who cares about food enough to care that the oats are Irish knows that. Hannah isn’t pretentious or arrogant! (Of course, the reader is assured at this point that they know her like she is her best friend.) Maybe, it is just the glaringly obvious explanation: food is her tragic obsession and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

There are also too many Americanisms consumerinisms. She talks about writing things in Sharpie. Dude, why can’t you just say marker?

The main theme of the book, as I see it, is Hannah’s struggle to find people who will love her and accept her. She wants to find a “home”, “her people” and feel like she belongs. Despite severe anorexia, she even feels at home when the uberthin hostesses of an superposh New York restaurant side with her in a mean girls exchange. That’s all it took: knowing she wasn’t alone. Her fear of weight gain summed up in one line: “I will be unfuckable, or even worse : unlikable, unacceptable, unlovable.”

There is probably one most telling bit in the whole book. Hannah talks about the advice that works: “Get out of yourself and your own head. Call someone else. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their day. Listen. Don’t talk about you. That advice. I’ve heard it before from Aaron and it is exactly what I don’t want to hear. It works nearly every time.”

What is it? Well, the same way that steroids get rid of inflammation, this exercise gets rid of self-obsession. A crude diagnosis, but it’s there.

The ending is a little but too much of an amalgam of post card philosophy. I don’t think she’s not honest or what she says is wrong, but it’s not nearly as refreshing and gripping as the rest of the book. Then again, this also happened to War and Peace, so I don’t judge 😉

My highlights below.

On what food does for an addict

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable. Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Often, postbinge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness.

It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after — waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering.

My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.

I am not a cool girl. I always have friends, wonderful friends, and yet my identity as an outsider feels fixed from as far back as I can remember.

But most importantly, I am not thin enough. This sums it all up. This is my curse, my refrain, true as my name.

The mirror is enemy number one.

After cosmetic surgery

When I go back to school for senior year, nobody notices. If they do, they are silent. I feel the devastation in my chest, my bones, their marrow. I am still me.

On loneliness and lack of self-esteem

College means everything. If my body is one measure of my self -worth, college is the other.

I read. No matter how lonely I feel, how much an outsider,how fat, I am welcome in the world of words, stories, poems. They hold my hand. They show me that there are more ways to think and feel than I may fathom.

In my fantasy, something remarkable happens at college. I am not an outsider. I belong.

I am going to be a whole new Hannah. Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course. Skinnier is everything. Skinniness is next to godliness.

The summer holidays after getting into the college of her dreams:

My new life is full of possibility but I am stuck inside myself. My stomach feels round and big as the moon. I have big plans for my summer. I want to do unambitious things like make eight bucks an hour scooping ice cream, read a lot of trashy mags, and sleep. It sounds wild, an adventure. Also, I will diet.

It doesn’t feel like enough, not even close, but hunger seems a small price to pay for liking myself, for not dreaming of carving away the flesh below my belly button, the sides of my butt.

On starving herself

So much better than being cool, I feel powerful. My skin and bones are different, electric.

My stomach gurgles, struggling against its own emptiness, and I am proud.

I go long stretches of days with only Pink Lady apples, coffees with skim milk and Splenda, liters of diet soda and seltzer water. A frozen yogurt, sometimes.

My butt hurts when I sit, and sometimes my knees buckle under the weight of my body, like it’s heavier in its thinness.
I think about the pancetta sandwich he cooked me, the cruel extravagance of the buttery croissant.
I flip through the pages, deliberate over what I won’t hate myself worse in the morning for ordering.

On men

It is the best drug — wanting him, him wanting me. The room spins.

He peers over, and we make eye contact… “ You’re very beautiful, like a model. ” His eyes are wider than they should be, all pupils, like he’s taken an opiate. His gaze feels like a scratch on my skin, unbearable… He doesn’t say anything this time, his eyes are hard on me. I think, This is because of my diet. Fifteen pounds ago, this would never have happened. Is this what people want? Why?

“Your face is a ten, but your body is a six,” he says, unprompted. “ I’m only grading you harshly because you have such potential. You could be a ten, even, if you lost some weight, got in great shape.” I feel as if my skin has been peeled from me. And yet, I agree.

“Do you see the way men look at you?” Corey asks. “ ike they’re hungry?”

I still hate the roundness of my belly, pull on the flesh around my hips and fantasise about its evisceration. But I have felt immense pleasure and given the same. The power of that straightens my spine.

Because I don’t believe I am likable, even for a second, attention from men surprises me, every time.

On hearing that her boyfriend is addicted to coke and alcohol:

I don’t think, Hannah, yikes, walk away. I think, Thank god. I am not alone. He gets it… He drinks the way I eat—to fill something unfillable.

I think about years passing with him, decades. The thought makes me want to puke.

[There is a lot on sexism. There is also a rape.]

On wanting to be thin

I wonder how miraculous my life would be in her body.

“ You know,” she says, “ being skinny is such a strange part of beauty. It’s not the most important part. It’s just the only part you can control. ”

“The point is to be fuckable. ”

I fantasize about butchering myself the way the cooks I work with so beautifully break down a side of beef, carving away the excess until I’m okay.

I want to be badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.

No one wants me to join Ari on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I am sure. It doesn’t matter, the other stuff.

On finally being thin

I think, This is what I wanted. I’m skinny and eighteen and about to go out with a Michelin – starred, kind – of celebrity chef. I wonder why I’m not elated.

“ You’re beautiful, ” he tells me. The claim sounds ridiculous, cruel.

I don’t particularly want him, but being wanted makes up for it.

My chest hurts with each inhale, the empty ache of not – enoughness.
..deep inside my internal organs, there are millions of pounds of longing. This is not the way I thought skinniness would feel.
The Atlantic rushes up to my ankles, the beach smells of wind and sardines. My loneliness feels as wide as its endless expanse.
I want to eat the pastéis de nata and I don’t want to eat the pastéis de nata. I am trapped. Either way, I will let myself down.
I remember Corey saying “ Just lose some weight, then you can go back to loving food.” Am I there yet? That place does not exist. I will never arrive.

On work

Nobody goes home sick at The Piche. It’s the restaurant code of honor.

I close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 AM, and get up at 5 AM to open the restaurant the next day. “ It builds character, ” they tell the three management trainees.

At first, I love the profundity of my exhaustion when I come home, the satisfaction of the ache in the arches of my feet, my lower back, proof I have worked.

The day ahead here feels like a prison.

I don’t stop talking about whether to quit or not to quit. I’m trying to decide. Both options fill me with hot dread. I feel resigned. I fear that if I stay, Josh’s prediction will come true.

My soul will be constricted and slicked down, like my hair, until, starved for breath, it deflates. Yet if I go, I will be a quitter, a failure at my first real grown-up job.

What she really wants from work:

It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart.

The Corporate Steakhouse could never have been home. Walking out past the koi for the last time, I feel the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.

On finding out that what she thought was her dream turned out to be quite different in real life:

Our vision. Our dream. The truth is, I don’t love it or even like it. I am simultaneously stressed and bored.

On her initial recovery from anorexia

Anorexia is the most fatal mental illness. Deadly. Before a heart stops, way before hospital visits, furry skin, even when the anorexia is merely an idea of itself, a taste of impending famine, it starts to obliterate things.

I cry in her office. I know I am getting fatter. What was the point of all this struggle? I gain a few pounds, and nobody says anything ever again to anyone’s mom ; nobody worries about me.

I am not better. If anything, I am worse. I still go as long as I can go without eating, until everything around me breaks into little dots and begins to lose its substance. And then I binge.

On her success in recovery

No longer a secret, the food very slowly loses its tight grip on me. The shame begins to dissipate.

“Your feelings won’t kill you,” Faith says as if reading my mind. “And they will pass. Promise.”
I once thought I was eternally fucked.
They tell me “a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” I say that I don’t understand what the fuck that means.

On wanting love

Surreally pretty. I catch myself staring: his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his underwater eyes. That he likes me, loves me, seems unfathomable.

…our whole bodies are not just touching but without boundaries, his skin is my skin, his tattoo is my tattoo, and it is better than chocolate and cake and sex and success and all of the things that are good.

I notice that the people who love me do not love me more or less if I am thinner or heavier.

My eating disorder is all about me, me, me. A selfish beast. It tricks me into thinking that if I can shrink enough, I will be safe and loved and admired. But I am safe and loved and admired just as I am, no matter what size I wear, even if I have to tell myself this a million times over to half believe it.

Post-card philosophy

There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. Each time a piece of pottery cracks, it is lacquered back together with gold. All those golden threads make the piece what it is, extraordinary.
I like to think of my heart like that. That each time it breaks, it gets more valuable and beautiful with the mending. It is a collage of gold.

Insight

It makes me sad, how much of my own life I have missed, buried in the self-obsession of my eating disorder.
It’s not that I’ve emerged from my cocoon a butterfly. It’s not that I have escaped the taskmaster that lives in my brain and shouts and shouts an endless loop of fear, worry, shame. But I do know that the taskmaster’s voice speaks only some garbled, deeply skewed version of the truth, and that’s no truth at all.

If Symptoms Persist by Theodore Dalrymple: my highlights

A retired psychiatrist tells all. Warning: Controversy and cynicism ahead.

“I find my own cynicism witty and sophisticated; but in others I find it callous and brutal.”

[About health promotion]: I am so heartily sick of the tepid existence which we doctors are now peddling as the elixir of life that when one of my patients refuses to take my good advice, I want to jump up on my table and give three cheers.

I know there are medical fascists around –a former President of the Royal College of Physicians is one –who would make such patients pay for the treatment of their ‘self-induced’ diseases, but this seems to me to come perilously close to the Erewhonian nightmare, in which youths who bash old ladies over the head will receive treatment but people with heart attacks will be punished.

It is a well-known fact that one of the best preservatives against ill health is self-employment. The self-employed cannot afford to be ill, while those in the employ of others cannot afford (it often seems) to be entirely well.

I should have bought something for my ward with the £ 5, of course, but the devil entered me and I decided to go through the proper channels. [What follows is his recount of how he spent multiples of the “thank you” from a patient on the bureaucracy of “proper channels”].

‘I’ve realised, doctor,’ she said, ‘that life’s not worth killing yourself for.’

The symptoms of her illness were vague but debilitating: she could no longer summon up the energy to do the thing she did not wish to do, such as vacuum-cleaning and ironing.

[About a patient who didn’t notice at all that she was being seen by a doctor who was standing in for her regular doctor, Dr S, who is a very warm-hearted individual]: I feel rather sad on Dr S-’ s behalf. He thinks his patients value his efforts, but in fact he is valued only for his function, as a vacuum cleaner or washing machine is valued.

[About a woman who immigrated to the UK and successfully built a life there, only to find her one of her sons deliberately unemployed and one in jail]: How has her dream of thirty years ago been turned into this nightmare? I do not have the whole explanation, but I suspect that those who teach that employment is exploitation, that law is injustice, and that racial prejudice is so ubiquitous and all-pervading as to render personal effort superfluous, have much to answer for.

No matter how deluded and paranoid people are, they are usually able to refrain from attacking several policemen, each of whom is over six feet tall.

Since activity is as good as action, the first thing to do is to form a committee… The purpose of this committee is to assure the Health Authority that it can assure the Ministry that it can assure the Minister that he can assure the Government that it can assure the Opposition that something is indeed being done.

As everyone is aware, alcohol is responsible for accidents, murder, suicide, cirrhosis, cancer, heart disease, stroke, divorce, crime and ruination, as well as 95 per cent of the enjoyment at social occasions and a considerable, if lesser, proportion of government revenue.

[On health education]: Their jobs depend upon a permanent effervescence of publicly-funded panic.

Dealing with people makes you appreciate things.

[To a patient]: ‘What you’re really saying to me is this: when you have found the single piece of buried treasure in my psyche that explains my behaviour, I will automatically stop breaking into people’s houses; but if you don’t find out what it is, which is your job as a doctor, then, when I break into people’s houses and steal their videos, it is really your fault and not mine.’

In the eternal struggle between doctor and patient, I told a medical student last week, the patient always has the upper hand. This is because, while the doctor is constrained by a code of behaviour, the patient is not: he can use any means he likes to bring about his desired end… A doctor has to learn to accept blackmail, I said, with a good grace.

Surely, if passive smoking is bad for one, the passive consumption of junk food must be even worse.

The ward smoke alarm went off in the midst of my reflections. I went to see what was happening: the alarm was being tested. It took three men to test it, one up a ladder, one with a clipboard at the base of the ladder, and one –a Fire Prevention Engineer –to oversee operations. And then, suddenly, the whole meaning of life became clear to me: so to arrange things that we survive until tomorrow.

One of the worst things about being a doctor is that you have to pretend that repulsively bad manners are a sign of suffering.

After all, if you don’t do anything, you can’t be accused of inefficiency.

Our Culture, What’s Left of It by Theodore Dalrymple: my highlights

A fascinating book from a retired psychiatrist/prison doctor who has seen the sort of things most of us never encounter. Mostly skeptical and confrontational, occasionally dark and a little prudish – with ephemeral sightings of the most honest optimism. Verbose. I usually despise verbosity, but his is the sort that I like to read out loud.

There is something to be said here about the word ‘depression,’ which has almost entirely eliminated the word and even the concept of unhappiness from modern life. This semantic shift is deeply significant, for it implies that dissatisfaction with life is itself pathological, a medical condition, which it is the responsibility of the doctor to alleviate by medical means. Everyone has a right to health; depression is unhealthy; therefore everyone has a right to be happy (the opposite of being depressed).

 

When young people want to praise themselves, they describe themselves as ‘nonjudgmental.’ For them, the highest form of morality is amorality. There has been an unholy alliance between those on the Left, who believe that man is endowed with rights but no duties, and libertarians on the Right, who believe that consumer choice is the answer to all social questions, an idea eagerly adopted by the Left in precisely those areas where it does not apply.

 

It is only the sentimentalist who imagines that the profundity of a person’s response to tragedy is proportional to the length, volume, or shrillness of his lamentation.

 

Danger simplifies existence and therefore—again when chosen, not imposed—comes as a relief from many anxieties. [About a photographer in Vietnam]: He loved the country, but his commitment to it was only war-deep: if peace, alas, were to break out, he would have to find another conflict to photograph.

 

Untold numbers of my patients, with every opportunity to lead quiet, useful, and tolerably prosperous lives, choose instead the path of complication and, if not of violence and physical danger exactly, at least of drama and excitement, leading to sleepless nights and financial loss… As many have told me, they prefer disaster to boredom.

 

…social theorists often suppose that human beings have a clear idea what it is they want from life, and behave moreover as if they were rational calculating machines designed to procure it.

 

I learned early in my life that, if people are offered the opportunity of tranquillity, they often reject it and choose torment instead.

 

For a long time I pitied myself: had any child ever been as miserable as I? I felt the deepest, most sincere compassion for myself. Then gradually it began to dawn on me that the education I had received had liberated me from any need or excuse to repeat the sordid triviality of my parents’ personal lives. One’s past is not one’s destiny, and it is self-serving to pretend that it is.

 

…a rejection of everything associated with one’s childhood is not so much an escape from that childhood as an imprisonment by it.

 

I had assumed, along with most of my generation unacquainted with real hardship, that a scruffy appearance was a sign of spiritual election, representing a rejection of the superficiality and materialism of bourgeois life.

 

[About Soviet border officials]: He surmised that these border officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful themselves of the power to which they were subordinate… ‘automata inconvenienced with a soul’:

 

[About St Petersburg]: The very selection of the terrain—a freezing swamp—for the construction of a city by the fiat of the czar was an expression of contempt for humanity, for in such a place construction necessarily entailed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Only where human labour—and life itself—ostentatiously counted for nothing could such a system of building maintenance have been envisaged, let alone tolerated.

 

An uncorrupt leviathan state is, in fact, more to be feared than a corrupt one.

 

The British, by contrast [to the Italians], are still attached to their state as calves to the udder. They have just voted massively for a party and a man who claim to be responsible for everything—whose government has recently issued, for example, an official booklet to every engaged couple outlining the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, as if the population were incapable of thinking for itself even about those things that most intimately concern it (which, under a regime like this, is increasingly the case).

 

British liberals, who habitually measure their own moral standing and worth by their degree of theoretical hatred for and opposition to whatever exists.

 

[About Princess Diana]: In an age when strength of character consists of being able to flaunt one’s weaknesses to the prurient gaze of millions of idle onlookers, nothing could establish her bona fides better than her confession that she induced herself to vomit after eating too much: just like a thousand or a million salesclerks anxious about their weight… That her tastes were, despite her privileged upbringing, utterly banal and plebeian appeared very clearly at the funeral, where Elton John sang his bathetic dirge immediately after the prime minister read Saint Paul’s magnificent words in Corinthians.

 

Those who think that an understanding of the double helix is the same as an understanding of ourselves are not only prey to an illusion but are stunting themselves as human beings, condemning themselves not to an advance in self-understanding but to a positive retrogression.

 

Many a man is the Macbeth of his own little world, and the measurement of evil is not the same as a body count.

 

Macbeth is motivated in equal measure by ambition and by the fear of appearing weak and small in the eyes of his wife… Shakespeare gives us to understand that their self-pity—and by extension all self-pity, including our own—is dangerous, permitting evil in the name of restitution… And in showing us that the line is always there, easily and disastrously crossed, Shakespeare destroys the utopian illusion that social arrangements can be made so perfect that men will no longer have to strive to be good. The prevention of evil will always require more than desirable social arrangements: it will forever require personal self-control and the conscious limitation of appetites.

 

…a Marxist wondering whether or not the historical inevitability of the triumph of the revolution requires his participation… As Russian Marxists needed their Lenin, so Macbeth needs his Lady Macbeth… She humiliates him into doing what he knows to be wrong, just as many of my patients who take heroin started to take it because they were afraid to seem weak in the eyes of their associates… The lesson is that any powerful emotion or desire, however virtuous in many circumstances, can be turned to evil purposes if it escapes ethical control.

 

Macbeth is aware throughout the play that what he does is morally wrong: he never claims (as do so many modern relativists) that fair is foul and foul is fair. He thus single-handedly refutes the Platonic theory of evil as ignorance of the good. Unlike his wife, he never deceives himself that a little water can clear them of their deeds.

 

Only if we obey rules—the rules that count—can we be free.

 

Penguin Books’ proposed publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover clearly suggests that the company knew the book could not be defended against the charge of obscenity; publication had to wait until Penguin could rely for the book’s defence upon the evidence of ‘expert,’ that is to say elite, opinion.

 

The idea that social perfection is to be achieved through wonderfully sensual sexual relations between men and women is a fantasy unworthy of prolonged intellectual consideration. To call it adolescent tripe is to be unfair to many intelligent adolescents.

 

[About Virginia Woolf]: One way to surpass her father and her uncle in achievement was, of course, to disparage and destroy all they had erected.

 

An incident when I practiced medicine many years later on an island in the Pacific Ocean reinforced this lesson. Next to the small psychiatric hospital, with its yard enclosed by a high wire fence, was the leper colony. Every afternoon, the lepers would gather at the fence to mock the lunatics as they were let out for their exercise, performing their strange dances and shouting at unseen persecutors.

 

There is a permanent temptation, particularly for intellectuals, to suppose that one’s virtue is proportional to one’s hatred of vice, and that one’s hatred of vice is in turn to be measured by one’s vehemence of denunciation.

 

‘Artists must continue the conquest of new territory and new taboos,’ Rosenthal continues, in prescriptivist mood. He admits no other purpose of art: to break taboos is thus not a possible function of art but its only function. Small wonder, then, that if all art is the breaking of taboos, all breaking of taboos soon comes to be regarded as art.

 

That civilised life cannot be lived without taboos—that some of them may indeed be justified, and that therefore taboo is not in itself an evil to be vanquished—is a thought too subtle for the aesthetes of nihilism.

 

This way of thinking about culture and civilisation—possible only for people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of Western societies.

 

At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as always having been there, as if man’s natural state were knowledge rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good comes about as a free gift of Nature.

 

[About the freedom to use drugs]: In practice, of course, it is exceedingly difficult to make people take all the consequences of their own actions—as they must, if Mill’s great principle is to serve as a philosophical guide to policy. Addiction to, or regular use of, most currently prohibited drugs cannot affect only the person who takes them—and not his spouse, children, neighbours, or employers.

 

No one seems to have noticed, however, that a loss of a sense of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss of intimacy means a loss of depth. There is, in fact, no better way to produce shallow and superficial people than to let them live their lives entirely in the open, without concealment of anything.

 

When sex is deprived of the meaning with which only the social conventions, religious taboos, and personal restraints so despised by sexual revolutionaries such as Ellis and Comfort can infuse it, all that is left is the ceaseless—and ultimately boring and meaningless—search for the transcendent orgasm.

 

The law of unintended consequences is stronger than the most absolute power.

Skin in the Game: main ideas and review

Silver rule over the golden rule

Taleb established that the silver rule is more ethical than the golden rule, i.e.

“do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” rather than

“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

I think it is rather obvious that avoiding injustice is more robust than trying to pursue justice because not even the most well-intentioned and intelligent know what harm they could do as an n-th order consequence of their pursuits.

In opinion, it’s for the same reason why doctors try to do no harm rather than to make people healthy.

“Pseudoleftist caviar eaters”

Taleb has been on Twitter a lot, and by god, he didn’t just take the red pill, he took the whole box. He used the terms “social justice warrior”, “white knight”, etc to talk about people who signal their generosity of spirit without being exposed to the consequences of that which they advocate. Next, he will be on Alex Jones. 

He implied that the very prominence of Bernie Sanders is a testament to how unequal the Unites States became under the preceding presidency. He also brought up some jaw-dropping statistics about the dynamics of (in)equality: a large portion of the US population will be among the richest at some point in their lives, unlike in Europe where, if you are rich, you’ve been rich since the middle ages.

Atheism

Taleb exposed a very interesting feature of atheism while calling it a “monotheistic religion”. I think what he was getting at is that pagan religions are inherently pluralist. There is a kind of competition between the gods, whereas monotheistic religions involve an absolute as, one could argue, does atheism (but not agnosticism).

Nationalism

Taleb spoke about not being comfortable to get naturalised in France, as he was entitled, as he wasn’t part of the culture (but would have been on with a Greek or Cypriot passport). He admitted to wanting to accept the honorary degree from a Lebanese university as an exception.

He backed the United States’ policy of making its citizens pay tax on all their income obtained elsewhere, to the United States. He endorsed a certain amount of protectionism.

This is a stark change from his stance in the now 11 year old The Black Swan.

Liberty

He spoke once again about the benefits of decentralisation, the damage caused by regulation, etc. He mentioned the paradox of tolerating intolerance under a democratic system, but, in my view, didn’t address it properly.

He compared entrepreneurs to wolves and employees to dogs and argued that freedom always involves risk.

In a strange, conflicted way, he portrayed autocrats as entrepreneurs: it is easier to deal with a business owner (autocrat) than an employee (elected representative held accountable by committees and the media) when trying to make a deal.

Genetics vs language

Taleb argues that when it comes to language, the one that suits the most intransigent group and doesn’t inconvenience the majority becomes the lingua franca. Another example of this process is that a lot of schools don’t allow peanuts, or why commonly available juice is being labeled as kosher. He calls this the minority rule.

His argument about genetics is the opposite, the majority rule, as in the genetics of certain populations remain the same despite invasions.

I am not so sure he is right because what you find studying non-autosomal genetics (Y chromosomes and mitochondria) is that a version of the minority rule applies. It’s the same mechanism as why surnames die out and in theory, as time goes to infinity, we will all end up with the same surname.

Does Taleb have skin in the game?

Taleb denounces as charlatans the people who give advice without being held accountable for it. He feels that a life coach can only teach you to be a life coach and a professor can only teach you to be a professor. Does it follow that Taleb can only impart the knowledge on how to be a contrarian writer?

What skin does he have in the game? Reputation? Family? So do politicians, who he argues aren’t exposed to the consequences of their actions. He has long left his area of risk management and moved on to cultural, political and economic issues. I guess he is a successful practitioner of risk, a man who lived an interesting life and an erudite. He doesn’t impose his policies and regulations onto people. He does seem to have soul in the game as there appears to be consistency and integrity in his writing. It seems that he is doing it for posterity. Through his f*** you money, as he calls it, I think he has to an extent isolated his skin from the game. He seems to think this is freedom.

Should you read it?

If you are going to read just one book by Taleb, I recommend Fooled by Randomness. Otherwise, yes. You can get it on Amazon.

Not saying goodbye – a book series that died

Somewhere between trashy and literary, there is a set of historical detective novels about Erast Fandorin. I was a fan when I was younger and recently, the concluding book was released, Not saying goodbye. The character has a beautiful sense of duty mixed in with a XIX century James Bond style immortality.

Spoiler alert. Until he doesn’t. The ending was disappointingly cynical. Once again, he prioritised his sense of duty over his family, just like he did in the first book, Azazel, which I never really liked. The cynicism comes from the setting: orphans, an explosion… It’s almost like fate herself came around to avenge the death of his first wife for which he is arguably responsible. I felt he wasn’t. The author seems to think he was – after all this time.

I think the author’s main concern throughout his writing has been this sense of duty to the world at large – which he felt was impossible to combine with the duty to one’s loved ones. Alas, I think the author turned into a different man to the one who wrote the books that I really liked, namely The Death of AchillesThe Coronation and Special Assignments.

“People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”

Ten. Billion. Dollars. A year.

That’s how much the self-help industry makes. That is actually more than make up.

A lover of books, I stopped looking at the best-sellers sections of book shops because they inevitably contain self-help books, about how to optimise this and maximise that. I spoke about books I regretted reading and definitely anything like self-help is in that category.

A reflection of our time for sure, with their “aspirational narcissism” and “predatory optimism”:

Where success can be measured with increasing accuracy, so, too, can failure. On the other side of self-improvement, Cederström and Spicer have discovered, is a sense not simply of inadequacy but of fraudulence. In December, with the end of their project approaching, Spicer reflects that he has spent the year focussing on himself to the exclusion of everything, and everyone, else in his life. His wife is due to give birth to their second child in a few days; their relationship is not at its best. And yet, he writes, “I could not think of another year I spent more of my time doing things that were not me at all.” He doesn’t feel like a better version of himself. He doesn’t even feel like himself. He has been like a man possessed: “If it wasn’t me, who was it then?”

The New Yorker article itself is a bit self-helpy, ironically, but has a few gems and a review of the literature, if it may be called that.

I think that for many people, improving yourself is happiness: seeing progress, seeing results of your work and what you have become as a consequence. So in theory we shouldn’t deride self help.

I don’t know what bothers me the most about it: the feeling of constantly being sold to? The relentless inward focus when a lot of these problems are better solved with the help of those closest to you? The idea of a cheap shortcut to “radical change”? All of the above and many more. In my view, self-help is definitely not the best way to improve yourself.

I also think that the generation below us aren’t going to go for it anymore. They prefer “not giving a fk” to getting rich and thin or dying trying. Of course, this won’t reduce the amount of money spent on the genre as it is highly adaptive in telling people what they want to hear.