Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Lion In The Living Room

Cats are the new kings of the jungle. There are over 600 million of them in the world, and the number is only growing. With bigger predators pushed to the brink of extinction by human development, the household cat is now at the top of the food chain. Unlike dogs, who have been systematically bred into subservience over thousands of years of domestication, cats are unchanged genetically from when they first came into contact with humans. If dogs are man’s best friend, cats are our wary companion, happy to follow behind us, but always maintaining their independence. Like humans, cats have remade the world in their own image, and it isn’t always clear which species is getting the better deal in the relationship. In The Lion in the Living Room, Abigail Tucker takes a deep, fascinating and often hilarious dive into the world of cats. After reading it, you will never look at your pet the same way again.

Scientists have traced the genetic origins of modern cats to a single species in the ancient Middle East. It appears they just showed up as humans began living in villages, made themselves comfortable and started feeding off the scraps. As Tucker puts it, they were less domestic recruits than invaders. Humans traditionally domesticate animals by hijacking their dominance hierarchy and establishing themselves as the alpha of the group. Cats don’t have one; they are solitary predators who don’t need a pack to survive. The key difference between cats and dogs, as well as every other barnyard animal who has been suited to fit human needs, is they always maintained control of their reproduction. Cat breeders are a relatively modern invention: it’s only in the last fifty years that we have begun to create micro-species like the munchkin. For most of human history, the generic tabby cat has bred without our interference, creating huge populations of strays outside our control.

Once cats are established in an ecosystem, they are almost impossible to eliminate. “Breeding like rabbits” is the popular expression for quickly churning out kids, but cats aren’t far behind. Within five years, a male and female cat can have as many as 354,294 direct descendants. Neutering, the preferred method of keeping their population under control, can often backfire, since cats who don’t have to deal with the stress of mating and breeding live longer, while kittens born in colonies where there are fixed cats have better odds of survival. People who try to protect vulnerable populations of birds and smaller animals live in fear of cats. The odds are stacked against them: cats are relentless and intelligent predators with public opinion overwhelmingly on their side. The gun lobby doesn’t have anything on the cat lobby, and cats are much more dangerous, at least to other animals. They are responsible for 14% of vertebrate extinctions worldwide.

Cats don’t take long to make themselves at home. A century after they were introduced in Australia, the Aborigines viewed them as native animals, even though they decimated populations of animals who had never learned to fear them. These days, cats in Australia (pets and strays) eat more fish on an annual basis than humans. By hijacking our natural fondness for small and seemingly helpless creatures, they have flipped the domestication script. Cats have conditioned us; their purrs mimic the wails of an infant. While they are theoretically supposed to hunt rodents who spread disease, they mostly coexist with the other smaller animals who also feed on our garbage. Why would an alley cat hunt a rat when there’s more than enough trash to feed them both? Historians now believe cats were one of the prime carriers of the Black Plague.

One of the crazier findings presented in the book is that cats spread a microorganism that has infected the brains of over 60 million people. Once infected, people become more prone to risk-taking behavior that can lead to death. Cats are just the middleman: the bug starts in smaller animals who become easier for cats to kill after they are infected, who then spread the bug up the ladder. There might be a reason why so many ancient societies feared cats and treated them with some suspicion. As a rule, cat enthusiasts are more prone to mental health issues, though it’s unclear whether that’s more causation or correlation. Reports of schizophrenia have spiked in the last 200 years, at the same time cats have passed dogs as the most popular household pet.

Cats are the perfect animal for an urbanized society. When people lived in more rural settings, cats were more like presences who roamed around the farm than members of the family. However, as we began moving into apartments, the lack of upkeep and space cats need to survive made them more appealing. Just as important, they filled the void created by the lack of community inherent in city life. Sometimes you just want to go where everyone knows your name, even if they ignore you half the time. The changes in the cat/human relationship have happened quickly. Kitty litter was invented in 1947. Cats now outnumber dogs worldwide by a ratio of 3:1, even though dogs perform many functions, from aiding the blind, sniffing for bombs and guarding our homes, more important than being featured in memes.

However, the move indoors has not been all good news for cats. They are apex predators without a pyramid, and the lack of territory to call their own can make them uneasy, especially when they are living with other cats whom they don’t get along with. Many would prefer to live in a small cage they can control rather than an open space they cannot. Like Lucifer, they would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven. While dogs have co-evolved with humans to the point where they need us to survive, cats would do just fine in a world without humans. They are an evolutionary masterpiece, a finely tuned killing and breeding machine that deigns to grace us with their presence. Cockroaches might not be the only things that survive a nuclear apocalypse.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mao: The Unknown Story

Mao Zedong killed more people than anyone in human history. In his near 50-year run as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, he was responsible for the deaths of well over 50 million people. Mao had no limits when it came to the pursuit of power. He killed anyone and everyone in his way, and he turned an entire country into an extension of his will. The scariest part is that it could have been much, much worse. Mao didn’t just want to rule China. He wanted the entire world. He was a James Bond villain in real life, except without James Bond to bring him down. In Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday paint an unflinching portrait of one of the worst killers of the 20th century, tearing apart the myths that surround him, and raising unsettling questions about what a 21rst century version of Mao could do.

Mao was the son of a farmer in rural China who preferred laying in bed and reading to working in the fields. If he had been born in a different time and place, no one would have known about him outside of his isolated village, which didn’t find out about the death of the Emperor for two years. However, the collapse of the Manchu Dynasty, and the power vacuum that came with it, created opportunities for ambitious young men like Mao. Even though he became one of the most influential leaders in Communist history, Chang and Halliday use his diaries and letters to show that he was never a true believer in Marxism. He didn’t need to be. Unlike his rivals in the CCP, Mao was never weighed down by ideology. From the beginning, he was more concerned with raising his status within the organization than accomplishing its goals.

It was the Iron Law of Institutions in a nutshell:
The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution "fail" while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to "succeed" if that requires them to lose power within the institution. This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. 
The CCP in its early years was fighting for its life against the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek, but Mao never cared. He ruthlessly maneuvered to get rid of his rivals, sacrificing huge numbers of Communist troops who weren’t under his command, most notably during the famous Long March, where the CCP armies took circuitous routes that exposed them to needless danger as they trekked across the country. Like a game of chicken between two cars racing towards each other, the one most willing to crash wins. With the Communists having to deal with the Nationalists and Japanese, as well as an often reluctant patron in the USSR, they couldn’t afford infighting. Either Mao would run the CCP or they would be destroyed. The only way to stop him was to split the party, and none of his rivals were as willing to do it as he was.

He doubled down on that strategy during World War II, repeatedly stabbing the Nationalists in the back as they struggled with the Japanese. Mao later claimed to be a fierce Chinese nationalist, but he always put himself first. He focused on the near enemy and then worked outwards, since they were the biggest threat to him personally. Mao wasn’t much of a military tactician, but he was a brilliant strategist, and he was able to parlay his ability to play two sides off against another to eventually take over the biggest country in the world and banish Chiang to Taiwan. There was never much of a populist insurgency in China: Mao inspired fear, not love. In that respect, he was cut from the same mold as Joseph Stalin, and some of the most fascinating parts of the book outline the titanic power struggles between the mentor and protege, as they grappled for influence in the Communist world in the first decade of the Cold War.

The authors put the Korean War in an entirely different light, with the US being an unwitting pawn in Mao’s quest to wrangle a nuclear weapon from Stalin. In their version of the story, the North Koreans were a paper tiger controlled tightly by Mao’s CCP, and he kept them afloat and strung the war along for years. His goal was to bait the Americans into dropping nuclear bombs, and let Stalin use China as a nuclear proxy, which would give him access to the Russian arsenal. As Mao saw it, China had a huge manpower advantage, and so would eventually come out ahead in a nuclear war. He was playing the game of thrones, and he didn’t care who he had to harm to win. Few world leaders rivaled Mao in terms of pure sociopathy, and no one was hurt more by it than the Chinese people, the ones he claimed to be fighting for.

Mao was obsessed with turning China into a superpower before he died. He didn’t care about his legacy or the future: his only goal was to maximize his own power in the time he had left. While Chiang obsessively tried to free his son from captivity in Moscow, Mao showed little interest in his family, whether they were his brothers, wives or children. His second wife died in a mental institution, while two of his sons starved in the streets of Beijing in the years leading up to World War II. He cared even less for his subjects. When Mao took control of China, it was an agricultural country with little manufacturing capacity, so the only thing he could export was massive quantities of food. He had to starve his people to get weapons and advanced military technology from abroad, and that’s exactly what he did, killing millions in the process.

If the authors didn’t meticulously document the sheer perversity of Mao’s schemes, they wouldn’t seem plausible. The most telling statistic about his methods of leadership comes from the end of the Long March: his section of the Red Army wound up with nearly as many officers as soldiers. The enlisted men literally carried their commanders on their shoulders for thousands of miles. The ones who complained were eliminated. Everyone who served under Mao lived in fear of him. He constantly purged the CCP for spies, because even if he didn’t find any, he found the atmosphere of terror it created useful. It was Darwinian selection: either you fell in line behind Mao or you were killed.

Since he was speaking for the people as the head of the CCP, anyone who defied him was, by definition, an enemy of the people who could (and should) be purged in order to further the revolution. Once Mao maneuvered his way into the CCP power structure, he was able to turn its own principles against its most committed believers and take it over from the inside out. Once he was put in charge of the entire country, he ramped things up even further. China became a giant prison camp, where everyone spied on each other and no one, no matter how high they were on the chain of command, was safe from being denounced. Mao’s philosophy was to kill first and ask questions later. Anyone who died became a class enemy after the fact, in a repeat of what Stalin did in Russia. One way to create a classless society is to make everyone a slave. 

Much like Hitler or Stalin, it would have been easier to stop Mao at the beginning, when he was merely a commander in the CCP, and not when he had the entire state infrastructure at his disposal to crush his enemies. The problem is anyone who stopped Mao would have to have been just as ruthless as he was. Once Pandora's Box is opened, if often takes a strongman to close it. If Mao hadn’t ended up on top, it would have been someone else just like him. In Animal Farm, George Orwell warned that revolutionaries end up turning into the very people they initially revolted against. Mao is proof that Orwell was an optimist. They could turn out worse.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Before The Fall

Telling stories set in the universe of a beloved movie is a thin premise for a TV show, but Fargo has more than lived up to its namesake. Rather than trying to spin off characters from the movie, it took its underlying DNA - quirky criminals and even quirkier police officers interacting in a Midwestern society where everyone, even the most vile, is unfailingly polite - and ran with it. The writers toe the line between drama and dark comedy, and earnestness and nihilism, and it’s a formula the show’s creator Noah Hawley has replicated in Before The Fall. The book is a slow and meandering tale of a plane crash and its survivors, which incorporates a whodunit mystery with a coming of age tale as well as some deeper questions about the meaning of life.

The structure of Before The Fall resembles the first season of Lost, with a present-day storyline about the crash and investigation interspersed with the backstory of every person on the plane. Instead of a commercial flight, the plane is a private jet ferrying some of the top one percent, most notably a thinly veiled version of Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News, and a private equity executive who launders money for just about every country on America’s hit list. The power each represents (and the enemies they have) makes the possibility of an accident unlikely, raising an ominous shadow over what really happened.

Resolving the mystery, though, is not the central driving force of the book. For the most part, the investigation happens off the page, as various federal agencies bicker over who should be in charge and what direction to take the probe. Hawley is more concerned with the lives of the people who boarded the flight, and how they intertwined and wound up together on that one fateful night. Even the most seemingly insignificant passenger may have played a role in what happened to that plane. Hawley has a gift for creating characters.

As you would expect from the writer of Fargo, there’s one with an origin story bordering on the supernatural, as well as several twists on familiar types, from the bored housewife to the overworked executive and swaggering pilot. The villain is the star commentator of the fictional version of Fox News, who uses the untimely death of his boss as a springboard to wage a personal vendetta against the vast conspiracy he imagines is plotting against him and his network.

One of the running themes is the way TV distorts reality, and how fact and fiction blur when news becomes entertainment. It’s nothing anyone who has watched cable news isn’t already familiar with, but it’s still interesting to hear it coming from someone intimately familiar with how the business works:
How to describe the things we see onscreen, experiences we have that are not ours? After so many hours (days, weeks, years) of watching TV -- the morning talk shows, the daily soaps, the nightly news and then into prime time -- after a decade of studying the viral videos of late-night hosts and Funny or Die clips emailed by friends, how are we tell the difference between them, if the experience of watching them is the same? To watch the Twin Towers fall and on the same device in the same room then watch a marathon of Everybody Loves Raymond.  
To Netflix an episode of The Care Bears with your children, and then later that night (after the kids are in bed) search for amateur couples who’ve filmed themselves breaking the laws of several states. To videoconference from your work computer then click on an embedded link to a jihadi beheading video. How do we separate these things in our brains when the experience of watching them -- sitting or standing before the screen, perhaps eating a bowl of cereal, either alone or with others, but, in any case, always with part of us still rooted in our own daily slog (distracted by deadlines, trying to decide what to wear on a date later) -- is the same? 
Every piece of media you consume impacts your worldview, whether you realize it or not. There are a lot of people who view politics through the lens of Harry Potter. Is it any wonder than a former reality TV star is now our President? Does Donald Trump actually perform the duties of the President, or does he just play one on TV? And is there even a difference anymore? Does CNN exist to cover the news or does the news exist to provide content for CNN?

The book explores what it’s like to be caught in the middle of the TV fishbowl through the life of Scott Burroughs, a 40-something painter who caught on a ride on the plane through a series of fluke encounters and becomes an unlikely hero when he puts a 4-year old on his back and swims him to shore following the accident. Burroughs, like all overnight celebrities, watches his life played back to him, as the media delves into his past in ways almost designed to mislead. Only a saint could hold up to that much scrutiny, and none of Hawley’s characters, either on page or screen, could ever be accused of being that.

Burroughs lives the type of rootless existence that becomes progressively sadder the older he gets. He chases pleasure and career success without any greater purpose behind any of it, and the things he paints (disasters and their aftermath) only deepens his existential crisis. Like several of the characters from Lost, he is a man without anything in particular to live for until the crash gives him meaning. He develops a bond with the boy he rescues and starts to look after him when he is handed off to his well-meaning aunt and scheming uncle, neither of whom is prepared to become a parent.

Were it not for the child, Burroughs would probably have drifted back into aimless hedonism, parlaying his fame to a more lucrative career. Instead, with someone else counting on him, he is forced to grow up. He has a zen-like indifference to the way his character is assassinated on TV, but when it starts to impact the boy, he has to act. Having no attachments is one way avoid suffering, but our relationships are what give life meaning in the first place. That’s the message of Before The Fall. Turn off the TV. Invest in others. Don’t let work (or pleasure) define your life. We only have a limited amount of time to spend in this world. Make the most of it.
There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” 
- Ecclesiastes 4:8

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Vision Of The Anointed

The people in power need a reason why they are in charge. It used to be birth. The nobility were elevated over the rest of society because of their superior breeding, and they handed down authority from generation to generation. The US, at least in theory, is a meritocracy. Our elites weren’t born into their positions. They earned them. They went to better schools where they learned more about the latest advancements in human knowledge, giving them the wisdom needed to rule the country, if not the world. That’s what most people in Washington D.C. believe, regardless of political party. In The Vision of the Anointed, Thomas Sowell paints a disturbing picture of how that mentality has impacted our society, and what it means for the future.

The US government has gotten steadily more powerful over the last century, and it’s hard to see that dynamic changing anytime soon. At this point, it doesn’t matter all that much which politicians are placed at the top. They are the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of an imperial bureaucracy whose tentacles stretch far beyond our own borders. What Barack Obama and Donald Trump have found out, to varying degrees, is that the tail wags the dog in D.C these days. That’s why there’s such a continuity of policy between the last few presidents, despite how differently they were sold to voters. If there’s a common thread running through most public policy, it’s increasing the importance of decision-makers in the federal bureaucracy over everyone else.

Justifying that power is easy when you believe the people wielding it are wiser, more knowledgeable and more virtuous than the unwashed masses. Eight of the nine current Supreme Court Justices went to either Harvard or Yale Law. The ninth went to Columbia. The tools to educate yourself have never been more accessible in human history, yet the pathways to the top are narrowing. While the internet and social media connect people from every corner of the globe, they also allows them to build echo chambers of like-minded people where they never have to listen to those who disagree with them. During the height of conservative opposition to Obama, liberal thinkers accused their opponents of “epistemic closure”, meaning they had created a belief system that didn’t have the capacity to acknowledge outside criticism. Of course, it’s a charge that can just as easily be turned back on the ones making it.

Political debate has become a stage where people try to prove their moral superiority. My favorite example from the book is the criticism of the Mercator projection, the world map most people used in school. It exaggerates the size of land masses near the top and bottom of the globe, making Greenland look nearly as big as Africa. It didn’t become controversial until modern times, when people criticized it for a Eurocentric approach that minimized the relative size of countries along the Equator. However, the reason those distortions exist is because the projection keeps latitude and longitude lines straight to make navigation easier. Practicality, not prejudice, is why it became popular. No mapmaker can represent every part of the globe accurately because they are trying to fit a 3-dimensional object on a 2-dimensional space.

Public policy, like mapmaking, is a series of trade-offs. Our criminal justice system is based on the idea that it is better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to go to jail. The harder it is to convict an innocent man, the easier it becomes for a guilty one to get off. There are no right answers: how much additional crime will those 10 guilty men commit once they are released back into society? At some point, whether it’s 100 guilty men or 1,000, the trade-off no longer becomes worth it. The only question is where, as a society, we decide that point is. There is no way to create a perfect criminal justice system. That’s where the saying “hard cases make bad law” comes from. Focus on one circumstance which highlights the worst problems with a particular law and you can miss all of the situations where the law works well.

The problem is that not seeing the forest for the trees is the easiest way for a politician to get elected. They campaign as if trade-offs don’t exist, and there are cost-free solutions to societal problems. One great example is Obamacare, which was supposed to increase access to health care while also making it more affordable. However, there’s a basic tension between affordability, accessibility and quality that exists at the heart of any health care system. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to insure more people, but any dramatic change to the current system will have wide-ranging consequences, intended and unintended. “If you like your plan, you can keep it” was never an option, and a few years after Obamacare was passed, no one pretends otherwise. It may take decades before we know whether or not Obamacare was successful.

The ultimate effectiveness of No Child Left Behind, the education reform bill signed in 2003, and NAFTA, a free-trade agreement passed in 1993, are still hotly debated among scholars. For a politician, though, the long-term results are almost beside the point. They need something tangible they can sell to voters as proof they should stay in office, and they are always looking for accomplishments that will build their legacy. There’s a bias towards action over inaction, even though doing something can often be more harmful than doing nothing at all. Saddam Hussein was a problem for the US, but the power vacuum in Iraq created by removing him was ten times worse. Just because a problem exists doesn’t mean trying to fix it is necessarily a good idea.

The world is not an ideal place, nor will it ever be. Idealists confuse the difference between what is and what ought to be, and they think believing in an ideal is proof of their moral superiority, regardless of when happens when they apply that ideal to reality. Those who want to make society more equal just tend to accuse their opponents of being in favor of the status quo, even though their proposals often have the exact opposite of their intended effects. There is more poverty in the US today than when the War on Poverty started more than 50 years ago. Maybe things would be even worse without governmental intervention, but that argument is essentially unfalsifiable. If the only two possible outcomes are that a policy makes things better or stops things from being worse, we are assuming it to be true without any evidence.

The other word for that is faith. Modern people pretend we are rational thinkers who only believe what science tells us, but that’s because we assume science confirms what we already believe. No one really bases their worldview on what can be proven by scientific experiments. They start off with their desired conclusions and look for science that backs them up, rather than the reserve. The conclusions of the people in power these days only go in one direction: we are better than everyone else, so we deserve more power. Pundits can’t admit they are wrong because their sense of self-worth is based on being right. The cognitive dissonance is too intense. When reality differs from their beliefs, it’s not their beliefs that have to change, but reality.
The [presidential] aide says that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued, “We’re an empire now, and we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”  
-- An aide to George W. Bush to a New York Times reporter, 2004 
Throughout the book, Sowell contrasts the vision of the anointed with what he calls the tragic vision, a more pessimistic outlook on the human condition which questions how much we can truly know and how much we can actually change the world. That idea doesn’t have much appeal to those with the power to shape society in their own image, and they aren’t interested in any belief system that doesn’t flatter their ego or appeal to their vanity. Nor do they have much time for anyone who questions their right to dictate the nature of reality. Our secular priesthood will not tolerate heresy. The March For Science had things backwards. We have been living in a theocracy the whole time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Is God A Mathematician?

Pure math does not exist. No matter how abstract the concept, there is always some application to the real world, even if it’s not immediately apparent. Knot theory (the science of telling knots apart) started out as nothing more than an intellectual challenge in the late 19th century, and is now used to help understand how DNA combines and splits apart. Mathematical breakthroughs have long anticipated discoveries in the physical world. From the speed of light, to the normal distribution of probabilities and Einstein’s theory of relativity, the universe is built on math. In Is God A Mathematician?, astrophysicist Mario Livio tries to decipher what that means.

Despite the title, the book isn’t about theology. Livio is more interested in math than God. What he wants to figure out is whether math was invented or discovered. In other words, are numbers, and the relationships between them, something humans cooked up out of thin air, or did they always exist, just waiting to be figured out? Math is the universal language among humans, but would the same hold true for alien species? Would intelligent squids who lived on the ocean floor have any knowledge of prime numbers? It may seem like an absurd hypothetical, but looking for an answer is an interesting window into the long and tangled history of math, which is Livio’s real passion.

The greatest mathematicians all united seemingly different fields of study. Descartes combined geometry and algebra with the invention of graphing and the coordinate system. Newton used math and physics together to create calculus. Einstein’s theories found a way to treat space and time as one. The holy grail of modern scientific research is finding a theory of everything, a single unifying framework which reconciles the effects on gravity on incredibly large objects like galaxies (general relativity) and incredibly small ones like electrons (quantum field theory). Neither theory can explain what happens when a huge amount of mass is confined to a microscopic area, like the center of a black hole or the universe in the second after the Big Bang. The progression of mathematical history seems to point towards one underlying series of equations that determine the very nature of our reality.

The people who think math was discovered point to these natural laws as proof. It doesn’t matter whether or not we know about the speed of light, objects still can’t go faster than it. Just because we can’t perceive the platonic world of mathematical forms doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. That’s the idea behind Plato’s famous allegory of The Cave, where the ancient Greek philosopher imagined a group of human beings chained to the floor, unable to move their heads. The only thing they can see is the wall in front of them, and any shadows cast on the wall by the fire behind them. They see the reflections on the wall rather than the objects that are actually being reflected, in the same way that the objects we see in the world are merely shadows of their ideal forms.

The other school of thought thinks the shadows are all that there is, that there is no ideal world. Our perception is what creates reality. One of the most fascinating discoveries in quantum mechanics is the observer effect: the mere act of being observed will change the ways in which objects behave. When scientists shoot an electron at a wall through a piece of paper with two slits cut in it, which slit the electron goes through (or whether it goes through both) depends on whether or not a measuring device is placed in front of the paper to see. If there’s no device, the electron creates an interference pattern on the wall, as if two ripples of water were intersecting over the surface of the lake. However, if there is a device, the electron is forced to choose one of the two slits, and no interference pattern is created. No one knows why this happens.

The debate goes back to the very beginning of math. Euclidean geometry has been around for thousands of years, and it was long seen as proof that mathematical knowledge was based on a solid foundation of universal truth. That changed in the 19th century, when people realized one of its primary axioms could be altered. Axioms are the building blocks of Euclidean geometry, the things assumed to be true without needing to be proven: there’s only one straight line between two points, two parallel lines don’t intersect etc. However, not all of them hold true in every situation. The sum of the angles in a triangle only adds up to 180 degrees on a flat plane. They add up to less than 180 on a curved structure, and more than 180 on a spherical one. Euclidean geometry only works in two-dimensional space. Modifying even one axiom results in dramatically different conclusions about the world.

This became important as mathematicians tried to formalize logic to create a rational framework to analyze the truth of any statement. Here it is as its most basic form: if P or Q, and not P, then Q. What could we prove about the world given these tools? Was math invented or discovered? And if we discovered it, then who invented it? Livio dances around the question throughout the book, but he shows his hand here, when he quotes George Boole, one of the architects of formalized logic:
To show the power of his methods, Boole attempted to use his logical symbols for everything he deemed important. For instance, he even analyzed the arguments of the philosophers Samuel Clarke and Baruch Spinoza for the existence and attributes of God: “It is not possible, I think, to rise from the perusal of arguments of Clarke and Spinoza without a deep conviction of the futility of all endeavors to establish, entirely a priori, the existence of an Infinite Being, His attributes, and His relation to the universe.” In spite of the soundness of Boole’s conclusion, apparently not everybody was convinced of the futility of such endeavors, since updated versions of the ontological arguments for God’s existence continue to emerge today. 
The main logical arguments for God fall under three main categories. There is the cosmological argument, which says that since everything in this world is created by a creator, the universe itself must have been created. The teleological argument says God must exist since the universe itself was not created by accident. Finally, the Cartesian circle says that God must exist because without an ultimate source of truth there is no way to trust in the validity or human reasoning. However, as Livio points out, theists don’t need these arguments to be persuaded in the existence of God while atheists are not persuaded by them.

He is more right than he knows. That’s what the apostle Paul is referring to when he talks about “the mystery of faith”. There’s no way to reason backwards to faith because reason is ultimately built on faith. Every set of logical beliefs about the world is built on first principles. Geometry doesn't work without axioms. You can’t prove anything without assuming something else to be true. Descartes and Newton were devout Christians whose discoveries stemmed from their faith in God. Livio has the search backwards. You can’t reason your way to first principles. You can only judge them by their results:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 
- Matthew 7:15-20

Monday, May 1, 2017

Playing Through The Whistle

A city as small as Aliquippa should not have produced so many great football players. Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Darrelle Revis all grew up in the same steel town in Western Pennsylvania, which, even at its peak, never had more than 30,000 residents. Despite its lack of size, the town’s lone high school annually churns out Division I players, many of whom wind up in the NFL. Manufacturing steel and playing football have a lot in common: they are fields were toughness is prized, discipline is essential and the good of the whole trumps that of the individual. It’s probably not a coincidence that the sons of the factory workers who built the American war machine became some of the best football players in the country. These days, the factories are shuttered and the jobs are gone, but the people left behind in dying towns like Aliquippa still have football, the one constant in a world turned upside down.

S.L. Price, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, first visited Aliquippa to report on its football program. He found an even more interesting story instead. Within the span of one lifetime, Aliquippa went from a glittering symbol of the triumph of the New Deal to an urban wasteland that looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off downtown, as one longtime NFL general manager told Price. Its meteoric rise and even more dizzying fall mirrors that of the Rust Belt as a whole. Playing Through The Whistle is primarily about the history of one town and its obsession with football, but it does as good a job as any of explaining how we got to where we are today as a country. The book should be subtitled The Decline And Fall Of The American Empire.

Aliquippa began as a company town at the end of the Gilded Age, a place where the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company could build a private empire. The invention of the Bessemer furnace had changed steel production from being done by hand to a mechanized assembly line that required huge amounts of manual labor. Waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and black sharecroppers from the South came to work in the massive factories rising up from the ground. Each ethnic group was settled into its own distinct neighborhood in the city, creating divisions within the workforce that still exist to this day. Baseball was king at the time, but the country was changing, and a new sport was emerging that would capture the national imagination:
[Baseball’s] pastoral air, subtle details and gunfighter showdowns between pitcher and batter harked back to an era of artisans and yeomen, its rhythm increasingly at odds with the nerve-racking pace of the machine age. Football channeled frustration, rewarded power. It fed and fed off the ethos of factory, mill and mine. Muddy, bloody and raw, football felt more like the life now unfolding at ground level in Western Pennsylvania: bodies punished in a fight for the slightest edge. 
The Great Depression and the New Deal completed the transformation, and Aliquippa was ground zero. In 1937, a landmark Supreme Court case involving the J&L Steel Corporation effectively ended opposition to FDR’s agenda, expanding the Commerce Clause in the US Constitution to justify almost any intervention by the federal government into private business. Steelworkers were given the freedom to unionize, while World War II created an insatiable demand for their product. After the war, with the rest of the industrialized world in shambles, American manufacturing had no real competition, allowing the newfound wealth to be spread relatively evenly. The unions went on strike every three years like clockwork, and each time they won a new concession, culminating in the thirteen-week vacation that would later become a symbol for bloat and entitlement. It was a golden age, except like all golden ages, it came to a quick end and it wasn’t all that golden either.

The mills provided jobs, but they were brutal jobs that took years off their employees’ lives. And, in some cases, limbs. No one wanted their kids to work there. In that way, the mill is a lot like pro football. Mike Ditka’s dad worked at J&L so that his son could play in the NFL, and Ditka played in the NFL so that his sons could do anything else. He said that he wouldn’t allow them to play the sport knowing what they know now. It’s a blue-collar version of this John Adams quote:
I must study politics and war so that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics, philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain. 
The problem is that a lot more people can earn a living making steel than playing football, and even fewer can make it as artists. For every Aliquippa native who grows up to become a Hollywood composer, like Henry Mancini, a dozen more are struggling to find work in the post-industrial dystopia of the modern Rust Belt. The jobs aren’t coming back, and the only thing that has taken their place is drugs.

Price uses the story of Jeff Baldwin, an Aliquippa High standout who played college football at Pitt before returning home, to illustrate the remaining paths out. One of his sons, Jonathan Baldwin, was a first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs. The other was Jamie Brown, a drug kingpin who may or may not (depending on who you ask) have ordered the assassination of a cop that shook what was left of the town to its foundation. Given the state of the school system in Aliquippa, even the players who make it to college have a difficult time rising out of poverty, since they are so unprepared academically. It’s only NFL stars like Ty Law, Sean Gilbert and Darrelle Revis who have the financial stability to uproot their lives and leave the town for good. Aliquippa went from a place that pushed people into the middle class to one that kept them out.

On the field, their biggest rival is Hopewell High, the suburban school comprised mainly of people whose parents and grandparents worked in the mills and then left for literal greener pastures. Price’s reporting, which stretches back to the founding of both communities, covers the beginning of white flight in the 1960’s to the final results a half century later. Aliquippa went from an all-white team, to one that gradually accepted black players, to a program with hardly any whites left. In Price’s telling, Aliquippa in the 1970’s was almost like Yugoslavia, with the police helpless as rival gangs of whites and blacks created militias that partitioned the town. There were daily racial brawls at Aliquippa High, and even the bonds forged from football weren’t immune from being broken. The grandson of Carl Aschman, the coach who turned the school into a football powerhouse, was beaten up in its hallways.

There’s no way to read the book and not wonder what could have been done differently. Things are bad in Aliquippa, and they don’t look like they will be getting better anytime soon. There’s just no money left. Even the football team might be gone in five years. But while the people in charge at the steel factory, whether they were in management or labor, were definitely spoiled by their success, could they have resisted the structural changes that doomed American industry? Once automation made the Bessemer furnace obsolete, mass layoffs were inevitable.

America wasn’t going to be the land of opportunity forever. Nothing ever is. The country that greeted the immigrants who helped found Aliquippa is a lot different than the one their grandchildren live in today. Instead of hoping our kids will have better lives than our own, we just hope they won’t be worse. The only thing harder than reaching the middle class is staying there. If history is filled with the sound of wooden shoes going upstairs and silken slippers going down, as Voltaire once said, we are well into the latter stage. Once civilizations reach a high enough level of prosperity, there’s only one direction left for them to go. Make America Great Again? If only it were that easy.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Master Plan of Evangelism

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

People have wanted to change the world since the beginning of time. Few have actually done it. Countless political ideologies and social movements have had a moment in the sun only to fade with time. Drop a rock in the water and it will make a splash. Only the biggest will avoid being carried away in the current. A charismatic leader can inspire people to flock to their banner, but a cult of personality won’t outlast the person at the center of it. The initial excitement wanes, the thankless work of movement building doesn’t get easier, and the concerns of everyday life crowd out people’s attention. Even the truly committed have trouble passing that dedication on to their kids.

In the aftermath of Jesus Christ’s death, that same process should have destroyed Christianity. After all, that was what had happened many times before:
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin [the Jewish Senate] and ordered that [the Christians] be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”

- Acts 5:34-37 
Jesus did not die at the head of an army that would push his legacy forward, like Moses or Mohammed. He wasn’t the son of a king, like Buddha. He didn’t even have a core following of thousands who rioted at his death, like Joseph Smith. So how did a penniless carpenter from a conquered tribe in a distant corner of the Roman Empire become the most influential person who ever lived? How did his followers, a tiny group of marginal figures led by an uneducated fisherman (the apostle Peter), sustain a movement that would one day take over the Empire? In The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman outlines the secret to their success: they did it one person at a time.

The story sounds too good to be true. People who don’t believe that Jesus was a real person often point to his absence from the historical record. If there was a guy raising people from the dead, turning water into wine, and feeding thousands with a few pieces of bread, surely it would have attracted more attention from contemporary sources. Everything we know about Jesus comes from the gospels, which were written by his disciples and some of their close associates. Jews believe that Moses himself wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, while Muslims claim that the Qur’an is the direct revelation of God to Muhammad. Christians get all their information about Jesus secondhand. The New Testament is not an autobiography. Jesus didn’t write anything down. He let his followers speak for him - that was precisely the point.

The most counter-intuitive aspect of his public ministry is how often he avoided big crowds. The Jews expected the coming Messiah to create a theocratic empire modeled after Rome. He was supposed to be the new Caesar, not render unto the old one. Jesus had his own plan. He hung out with people on the fringes of society, spoke in riddles, and pushed away half-hearted followers. He wasn’t aiming his message at the masses, or the movers and shakers who played the game of thrones. He discipled a small group of followers who would be able to spread his message long after his death. In the gospels, he spends three times as much time explaining the parable of the sower to his disciples in private than he does telling it to the crowd in the first place.

Jesus cared about the crowd; he just didn’t have the time to care for them individually. The only way he could trust his 12 disciples to lead his church was to to get to know them, building the type of deep personal relationships that would allow him to teach, guide, and correct them. He was a spiritual father to his disciples, and a father has to spend time with his family to raise them. Jesus didn't tell people what to do to live a good life; he showed them how to do it. He was a big believer in small class sizes -- his disciples were always at his side.

He spent his time on Earth showing his disciples how to have disciples of their own. Christianity is all about paying it forward. Exponential growth doesn’t require a lot of people in the beginning. If two people each teach two people who teach two more, the numbers add up quickly. It’s the wheat on a chessboard problem in action. Two to the power of four is 16. Two to the power of 16 is 32,768. Two to the power of 32 is well over 4 billion. With the faith of a mustard seed you can move a mountain. The people writing histories in Rome might not have known about Jesus at the time of his death, but their descendants knew who Peter and Paul were, and soon enough, it became impossible to write a history of the Roman Empire without Christianity. Jesus was Obi-Wan Kenobi: strike him down and he became more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

The gospel’s rate of transmission wasn’t going to be perfect, or anything close to it. Even the best disciples will make mistakes when they disciple others. Most will give up before they even try. Pouring yourself into others is a recipe for disappointment. Jesus, after all, was betrayed and sent to his death by one of the 12. People aren’t government bonds - there’s no guarantee of a return on investment. Over a long enough period of time, though, none of that mattered. Only a few needed to be faithful:
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.  
 - Matthew 13:3-8 
Jesus could see beyond the span of his own life. When he told Peter to cast aside his nets and become a fisher of men 2,000 years ago, he started a chain reaction that is still bearing fruit today. No man is an island. Every Christian has other Christians in their life who hold them accountable and help them grow. If they don’t, they don’t stay Christians for very long. Giving speeches might do wonders for the ego, but speeches don’t change the lives of the people who hear them, at least not in the way that spending time and getting to know them will. The only way to change the world is to change the lives of the people around you. That’s what loving your neighbor is all about.