On Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” & eusociality

“What brought a single primate line to a rare level of eusociality?” asks Edward Wilson, the well known Harvard biologist in “The Meaning of Human Existence” (pg. 21).

Eusociality is the reason why Homo Sapiens, as a species, was able to conquer very difficult problems like an international monetary system, transnational corporations or, for that matters, dominion on Planet Earth.

Among many things, like a reflection on the kind of mundane peer-pressure that our society imposes on its members in terms of accepted rules for mating and reproduction, Yorgos Lanthimos‘ splendid “The Lobster” is a meditation on this sort of problems: why mammals -and in particular Homo Sapiens- do have eusociality.
It actually accomplishes that by a reduction ad absurdum argument – by showing what it means for a society not to possess it.

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Echoes of Buñuel -not only of Archibal de la Cruz but also and foremost of The discreet charm – are abundant. But the purpose of the film is less that of a social satire than of a dystopian meditation on patterns of sociability.
In either the claustrophobic forced in-mating of the hospice, or in the equally repulsive forced decoupling in the woods- the film seems to revolve around that single thread: what kind of society will we be inhabiting if we did not possess the mammalian sociability, but we were simply programmed to solve problems- and maybe be good at that.

Yuval Harari – in his wonderful book ‘Homo Sapiens’ (here Bill Gates on it) and even more in his ‘Homo Deus’- articulates the question: we are on the brink of offloading onto the cosmos some kind of intelligent life – non-organic  & design-based- which has no leeway for emotional intelligence and/or emotional resilience, no use for it. Machine intelligence.

Modern (neuro)science does not really know, but the default position is that consciousness and emotions are a biochemical computational infrastructure known to higher species only, like ‘the roar of the engine’ and as such are overrated in a cosmic perspective: think for instance to the prospect of colonizing other planets. Solaris did not possess emotions, but quite likely was able to solve intractable problems, maybe prove the Riemann hypothesis or adjust its own orbit by altering the gravitational pull (see Lem’s book).

But a world populated by purely optimum-searching automata would be very similar to the hospice inhabited by the people in the first half of ‘The Lobster’: Harari’s argument that this is a scary prospect rings visually true, but quite likely this is just another instance of our carbon chauvinism as species, to which I would add the eusociality chauvinism.

Practical reason as sorcery (ii): development economics

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the towering figure of Josif Stalin, whose footprint on the 20th century has been arguably the biggest of any world leader. ‘Young Stalin‘ of Simon Sebag Montefiore has rightly been awarded many prizes, as much uncomfortable its central tenet – JS was a supremely talented man, albeit an evil one- can be. In a forum, I stumbled upon the following witty remark:

“Stalin was a great ceo of ussr inc. fought and won inter management battle due to his superior strategy and vision. successfully defeated hostile takeover bid by german nazi inc ( with a little help from friends). cut lots of unproductive and underperforming fat. and really turned over inefficient and backward business into a world conquering juggernaut second only to great usa inc. a really great ceo and shining beacon for business community. “

Turning to more serious analysis, the early Soviet poster below, promoting industrialization, reads “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”:
it  gives an hint for another instance of the recurring theme of practical reason as sorcery (see here for the previous post).

smoke-of-chimneys-is-the-breath-of-soviet-russia

Let us start  from a remark by late Eric Hobsbawm in “Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848”, (pg 181):

“Of all the economic consequences of the age of dual revolution this division between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries proved to be the most profound and the most lasting. Roughly speaking by 1848 it was clear which countries were to belong to the first group, i.e. Western Europe (minus the Iberian peninsula), Germany, Northern Italy and parts of central Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and perhaps the colonies settled by English-speaking migrants. But it was equally clear that the rest of the world was, apart from small patches, lagging, or turning—under the informal pressure of western exports and imports or the military pressure of western gunboats and military-expeditions— into economic dependencies of the west. Until the Russians in the 1930s developed means of leaping this chasm between the ‘backward’ and the ‘advanced’, it would remain immovable, untraversed, and indeed growing wider, between the minority and the majority of the world’s inhabitants. No fact has determined the history of the twentieth century more firmly than this.”

Hobsbawm,  in “Age Of Extremes – 1914-1991″, (pg. 380), talks about the first Five Year Plan launched by J. Stalin in the following terms:

“Nevertheless, any policy of rapid modernization in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless …”

Stalin realized quite early on that the (world) revolution was not going to happen in the West & hence he unflinchingly (and brutally) followed the suggestions of the industrialists to steer through a policy of massive industrialization in one country.
How are we to judge the above remarks? Are they supported by empirical data?

Take old Alec Nove’s article, “Was Stalin really necessary?”:  his conclusion seems to be on the affirmative. Now take another set of researchers,  Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, Aleh Tsyvinski (MIT): in the paper “Was Stalin Necessary for Russian Economic Development?”, they argue quite the opposite, seemingly pointing to the total uselessness of JS’s policies of rapid industrialization, against the loss of economic potential in the millions. (The paper above has been reviewed by Emanuele Felice: here)

In reality, the debate -even invoking notions of Pareto optimality in the allocation etc- would still be an ill-fit to the empirical data, because the concept of human society it is predicated upon cannot be clearly stated, but it lives in the foggy province of either an extrapolation from the present, or of a earthly ‘civitas dei’ which, along with similar messianic ideas, cannot have instantiation.

It seems that either some obscure notion of human freedom, happiness has to be invoked, – which is impossible – or the debate is reduced to sterile comaparison of time-series analysis, which by itself cannot do justice to the vastness of the events. The phrase :”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics”, also attributed to JS, is just a restatement of the same problem, that morality – so to speak- has a necessary scale, which is commensurate to the situation at hand. Entire popuulations can be displaced to make room for future Magnitogorsk or Norilsk, without the notion of human dignity to apply or make much sense. Those notions, so to speak, have a local domain of validity. Kantian universalism is rejected by the historical data in the ‘age of extremes’.

 

 

 

Wir sind unschuldig

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The text at the bottom of Marx and Engels monument in Alexander Platz in Berlin reads “Wir sind unschuldig”, i.e. “We are not guilty”. Guilty of what?
In the preface to “A People’s Tragedy”, Orlando Figes writes very perceptive words:

The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering — perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity’s historic striving for social justice and comradeship.

Albert Einstein wrote an article for the “Monthly Review” in 1949, with the title ‘Why Socialism?’, explaining why a mode of production corresponding to Veblen’s “predatory phase” of human race could not foster the human potential, as (Veblen 1899, Ch. 1

“The predatory phase of culture is attained […] when the predatory attitude has become the habitual and accredited spiritual attitude for the members of the group; when the fight has become the dominant note in the current theory of life; when the common-sense appreciation of men and things has come to be an appreciation with a view to combat.”

Nowhere in recorded history, has argued Yuval Harari in ‘Home Sapiens’, there have been periods where being expendable in the production process has accrued in something else than insignificance. If ever we would be able to build the ‘civitatem dei’ of automata working for us, according to the old dream of the rabbi from Prague, the outcome may be straight dismissal for us. The illusion – fostered by the golden age of post 1945 Western economies miracle – that free sanitation and health care and (almost) free schooling were granted by the liberal order because of some ethical concern about the human life is soon dismissed: the (neo)liberal argument that inspired such policies was born out of efficiency considerations. Whoever has to provide for her own expensive health care is less productive and total efficiency decreases.

We are still trapped in this line of argument: if we forget this, it is at our own peril.

“Religions keeps us from thinking to hard problems”

Marvin Minsky needs no presentation: his unflinching atheism was proverbial.
Less well known, as the above video shows, his connection to Russian Cosmism. Sagan, Asimov and other East coast Russian-Jewish immigrants were all permeated by the idea of Tsiolkovsky. See also this.

Chances are CRISPR is but the latest incarnation of such a dream.
Antigone was wrong, again and againpace Martin Heidegger and his comment on ‘Ode on Man’.

In the brilliant words of Bertrand Russell:

A good world needs knowledge, kindness and courage. It does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men.

 

“To learn how to swim, one must go to sea”

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The great G. W. Leibniz articulates very neatly the relationship between philosophy and mathematics (and indeed human knowledge):

1.“Sans les mathématiques on ne pénétre point au fond de la philosophie.
2.Sans la philosophie on ne pénétre point au fond des mathématiques.
3.Sans les deux on ne pénétre au fond de rien.”

which in translation (see Tim Gowers’ page) reads

1.Without Mathematics one cannot understand the fundamentals of Philosophy.
2.Without Philosophy we cannot reach the Foundation of Mathematics.
3.Without both (Mathematics and Philosophy) one cannot reach anything that is fundamental.

In order to be able to make use of the famous words of Benedetto Croce in the title, I post here links to sites where the works of some major thinkers of the Western canon can be located (either in the original language or in translation). The selection is of course idiosyncratic, but gives precedence to those who resonate more closely to the ideas of this blog:

Giordano Bruno works:Italian,Latin
Baruch Spinoza works:Latin
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz works:German,Latin,French
David Hume works:mixed
Immanuel Kant works:mixed
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels works:German
Charles Darwin works:English
Frederick Nietzsche works:German
Noam Chomsky works:English
Roger Sperry works:English
Pierre Bourdieu works:mixed

Below a set of links to interesting lectures, where great thinkers have produced a sum-up of their thought:

Gibbs Lectures topic
Gifford Lectures topic
Massey Lectures index|streams
Reith Lectures topic
Tanner Lectures topic

Video Transcoding: Handbrake + libdvdcss

Suppose you had your collection of DVDs which you lawfully bought in the marketplace.
Suppose you wanted to see them when you are running in the gym, on your iPad. You need to transcode them, i. e. make the conversion into another format (in my case .mp4).

Surprisingly, this simple problem is not that tractable, unless you commit money to some expensive proprietary software solution. The issue is the Content Scramble System, a lawful encryption system that scrambles the contents of the DVD and messes up the reading of them.

A simple transcoder – an utility that transitions a format into a different one – may fail if the encryption is not taken care of.  And this is exactly what happens with a simple minded usage  of the marvellous free & open source transcoder Handbrake

handbrake

Handbrake needs the crucial library that inverts the scramble, libdvdcss.

Here is then the solution with respect to Handbrake 0.10.5.0 (64 bits) on Windows:
Download libdvdcss-2.dll from
http://download.videolan.org/libdvdcss/1.2.11/win32/libdvdcss-2.dll (32 bit version) or http://download.videolan.org/libdvdcss/1.2.11/win64/libdvdcss-2.dll (64 bit version).

Then, move the libdvdcss-2.dll into your Handbrake install directory (usually C:\Program Files\Handbrake\).
Enjoy transcoding!

Mass reproduction & reproduction of the masses

leben_der_anderen

In “Illuminations“, pg. 251, Walter Benjamin makes the following remark:

“Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of the masses.”

In order to comment on that, let us start from a film. The Bildungsroman of StaSi agent Wiesler in “The Life of Others” is clearly depicting a world where one could end up in jail for a non conformist interpretation of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right” or for an off-center reading of Dostoevsky.

The socialist world had the greatest respect for the poetic word: to the extent one could die because of it. Mandelstam and Bulgakov, Pasternak and Shostakovitch all had to face the consequences of their artistic genius. The aesopic nature of the Polish cinema in the 1960, to take another example (think of ‘Mother Johanna of the Angels‘),  reflects the fact that the poetic word could pierce the screen of power. The locus classicus for this sort of ideas is of course, George Steiner’s “Archives of Eden” (jstor) and his “In Bluebeard’s Castle“.

Why was that the case? Was it because the preservation of the poetic aura is the necessary condition for a message to be effective, and Baudelaire’s books of poems at the supermarket next to groceries are pointless offerings? Or was it because the secret of the poetic word was its concentration in very few hands, hence its disruptive power was in essence totally correlated with its social scarcity?

Arguably the failure of the Socialist movements in the “short 20th century” is attributable  to the leninist vanguardism of the ‘What is to be done?‘ according to which a selected elite should drive forward the ignorant masses. On the contrary, it can be argued that it is only the raising level of consciousness of the general population that can both (i) prevent the excesses of vanguardism and (ii) insure that the social targets are achieved in a way that is meaningful to all the people.

Rosa Luxembourg in her critique of Lenin, see here, raised the same argument more than 100 years back. Its poignancy is still with us.  Take the ‘Guardian‘, one of Europe’s best newspaper (arguably the best).

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Alan Rusbridger has been its editor in chief  for more than 10 years, steering the newspaper -among other accomplishments – to win a Pulitzer.
On the 9 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, he confronted the issue of how to inform the public in a world which is very different from just 20 years back and he wrote those perceptive words:

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that […] ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money […]. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

When the impeccable elitist Lord Reith set in motion BBC, “its self-assigned obligation to raise popular standards rather than condescend to them” -in the words of Tony Judt, “Ill fares the Land”, pg. 53 – was uncompromisingly clear.

Once, I used to think that the issues raised by Noam Chomsky in say, “Manufacturing Consent” or for that matter Glenn Greenwald in “No Place to Hide”, about some sort of interlocking directorate of revolving doors between journalism and politics was the likely explanation of that failure. Upon closer inspection and mature reflection, I have come to a simpler, information-theoretic conclusion. Information of good quality, challenging the expected value of conformist opinions, disruptive of worn out consensus, is costly. Providing it, as Alan correctly states, is very difficult. As human beings , we love patterns, repetitions, habits: we find unattractive what challenges our opinions, no matter how unmeditated. This is the true problem: whoever wants to know, she/he has the instruments to decipher the noise: be it books, the internet, high quality newspapers etc. The problem is, once again, how much energy are we willing to spend on that.
The conundrum of mass reproduction highlighted by W. Benjamin is still with us.