Sunday, January 29, 2006

Subjectivity by Proxy

Thoughts on Timothy Taylor’s* criticism of Guns, Germs and Steel

By Mark Dorroh

In a 5-12-97 critique* of Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs and Steel, Archeologist Timothy Taylor** takes Diamond to task for making assumptions about South Pacific aboriginal islanders based in Egyptologist Grafton Eliot Smith’s “underlying understanding of cultural worth.”

“Diamond talks of the Tasmanians’ technological changes through time as 'cultural losses', as if they had become somehow impoverished by their isolation,” writes Taylor. “Underlying his analysis then, is - ultimately - an assumption of western cultural superiority … Yet cultures, by their very nature (Gellner), have incommensurate value systems … The Tasmanians, according to Diamond, would have been better off if they had fished. In whose terms, and how do we know?” Taylor’s questions are puzzling. For one thing, we do in fact “know” the Tasmanians would have been “better off” fishing because we know the outcome of their practice of depriving themselves of the ocean’s vast bounty of high-nutrient food: It put them at a survival disadvantage.

Thus, Diamond’s proposition that the Tasmanians would have been “better off” catching and eating fish – as nearly all island people do - is not a proposition to be arbitrated by anyone’s “terms.” In regard to the survivability of a given culture, our shared “terms” are “behavior which enhances survival potential vs. behavior which promotes a survival disadvantage.” Any other “terms” are superfluous.

So far as any “assumption of western cultural superiority” on Diamond’s part, let us put this odd dietary prejudice into a cross-cultural context. Consider one chapter of Diamond’s later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In it, Diamond surveys the reasons for the failed civilization of Icelandic Norsemen who settled in Greenland.

Modern archeological evidence, specifically the very small number of fish bones found in excavations of Greenland kitchen middens, indicate the Norse had some sort of prejudice against the consumption of fish. Instead, they relied upon the same farming and ranching practices they had used in their home environment, the fjords of Scandinavia. Those practices were singularly unsuited to the climate and soil conditions of Greenland; consequently – and predictably - the Norse settlements crashed when the food ran out. Diamond goes on to note that Inuit peoples who lived in the area at the same time survived, in part because they were willing to eat what their environment provided in greatest abundance: seafood.

The Norse settlers, like the Tasmanians, allowed a cultural dietary predisposition to impair their chances for survival. Meanwhile, the Inuit, by choosing to base their dietary decisions in environmental reality, survived.

In other words, the Inuit, nonwhite aboriginals like the Tasmanians, made the proper adaptive choices. The Norse, white Europeans, were, for all intents and purposes, inferior to the Inuit because the Norse shared the dietary predilections of the Tasmanians and did not avail themselves of the rich harvest of the sea.

In all fairness, Collapse was not published until after Taylor’s critique of Guns, Germs and Steel. Still and all, it becomes evident that Taylor’s suspicion that Diamond underpins any part of his scientific analysis with an “assumption of western cultural superiority” is quite unfounded. Diamond is, in this regard, a pragmatist. His judgments come not from any sort of cultural prejudice; rather they are founded in historically observable and quantifiable outcomes of societal behaviors.

Taylor finishes off his observations about the Tasmanians by noting, “The only sure thing is that Victorian explorers came along and shot them for sport. That doesn't mean the Victorian explorers were better in any general way, just that they were more effective in mortal combat.”

An objective analysis of this sad chapter in the history of Tasmania makes it quite clear that the Europeans were in fact “better” than the Tasmanians in a “general way.” For is it not “better,” from an evolutionary standpoint, for a species to have at its disposal the best offensive and defensive options possible?

In the struggle to eat and remain uneaten, animals are endowed with offensive and defensive attributes such as fangs, claws, poison, camouflage, great size and muscular power. Humans possess none of those physical attributes … but we make up for it in our ability to reason, craft and use tools and communicate with one another so that what is known by one may be shared with – and improved upon by - all.

The Victorian explorers were “better in [a] general way” because their culture had provided them with better means to kill and avoid being killed. These facts presume no moral superiority on the part of the Europeans; theirs was merely the superiority of advanced defense/offense options. And while it is abundantly clear that the brutal and irrational practice of hunting other human beings is far from morally enlightened, it should also be noted that similar brutal and inhumane practices exist in virtually all human societies. No culture holds a monopoly on human depravity, but some cultures are more advanced, “better” if you will, in the science of survival.

So even though the Europeans acted in a depraved fashion when they hunted aboriginals for sport, the weapons with which they conducted their inhumane activities did in fact make them “better” in a general sense (as opposed to a moral/ethical sense) than the less-developed civilizations upon which they preyed. Interestingly, weapons research and production are frequently in the vanguard of scientific progress, precisely because they most often occur as emergency responses to military/political threats. More significantly, it should be noted that improvements in weaponry do not occur in a vacuum.

Consider just one example of a technologically-advanced weapons system which resulted in the general good of society: In the 1980s, the rapid expansion of the US military’s cruise missile program led to intensified research into semiconductors and the mass production of cheaper and more efficient computer chips. The civilian sector then took those better, cheaper chips and proceeded to greatly upgrade the efficiency of information storage and transfer. History is full of similar cases of the imperatives of warfare leading to spin-off technology which enhances human survivability and quality of life.

Taylor also writes, “Diamond sees environmental adaptation and an expansion of the resource base as self-evidently good. The Maya saw the location of cities close to subterranean caverns as self-evidently good, whatever the ecological costs in our terms. The Maya behaviour of intensifying monument construction to the point where their system collapsed seems like the 'wrong' decision to us, but their behaviour seemed right to them.”

Let us take a close look at the final statement in this graph, “but their behaviour seemed right to them.” The Mayan’s subjective opinion of their ecologically disastrous practices was and is, in terms of survival outcomes, immaterial. They, like the Victorian hunting parties of Tasmania, may have thought it was “right” to act in such a destructive manner, but we, removed from those times and places, find ourselves able to assess the outcomes of those practices … and we know they were in fact “wrong.”

One might contend that Taylor’s refusal to render judgment on practices which destroyed a great civilization is a scientifically objective way of looking at things. But by the same token it might be said that dereliction of one’s intellectual duty to make such a judgment - merely because the people who destroyed their own environment thought it was “right” - is a sort of “subjectivity by proxy.”

Would Taylor defend the continued overuse of fossil fuel today, even knowing that global warming is most likely at least in part due to such human activity? Nations whose economies depend on fossil fuels are loathe to change their practices, and probably believe they are "right" in continuing to burn coal and petroleum in massive quantities. But merely believing a thing is “right” does not make it so … as the destructive practices of the Mayans and Victorian explorers amply prove.

I submit that the objective measure of the wisdom (or foolishness) of cultural practices must be based on whether or not they promote and protect human life and societal survivability. It matters little whether we, the Mayans or the Victorian explorers believe, subjectively, that we are “right.” Only when measured against the analysis of outcomes – verifiable through historical and scientific research – can the “rightness” or “wrongness” of an act be determined.

In his most famous dictum, George Santayana was certainly "right." We who think and write for a living owe it to ourselves – and to society at large - to render our most objective judgment upon humanity's past mistakes ... and hopefully thereby learn how to avoid repeating them.

* Published on the web site Edge, at

** The Web site The Third Culture at states, “Timothy Taylor teaches in the Department of Archaeological Sciences, University of Bradford, UK, and conducts research on the later prehistoric societies of southeastern Europe.”

Friday, January 27, 2006

Al Sharpton, payday loans and 30 pieces of silver

By Mark Dorroh

Editorial note: This column was first published in the Hopewell (VA) News in early 2006. I have redated it in order to pop it to the top of this blog because there seems to be a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing at Realtors and lending institutions over the sub-prime mortgage mess. This set of observations and research findings will, I think, correct the misimpression that only rich white guys rip off poor people. There's plenty of blame to go around, and some of it roosts in the unlikliest places ...

Sometimes, reality is too juicy to be real. Here's a case in point: If I'd have told you last year the Rev. Al Sharpton would soon be hawking the services of a car title loan company on television, you probably would have said, "You mean The Rev is fronting for one of those companies that charges 200 or 300 percent annual interest on small loans to poor people?"

And your eyes would have bugged out slightly as you asked. Mine sure did when I saw a 30-second television ad the weekend after Thanksgiving, 2005 on Richmond's UPN affiliate. There was Sharpton (or someone who looks and sounds remarkably like him), smiling and rapping, claiming to be the friend of the little guy while inviting him down the path to financial ruin.

Payday loans are bad enough: If your post-dated check bounces, you can be charged criminally and sued by the company for restitution. But if you default on a title loan, the company is legally entitled to take away your transportation to and from work.

At least that was my impression, so in search of the Real Deal, I petitioned Prince George County Virginia Extension Agent Lou Gorr, our local family finance guru. He took me to lunch and explained in vivid detail why those who are most likely to use a title loan company are the last persons on earth who should ever do so.

"They already don't know how to budget what they have," he said. "The fundamental law is, if you don't have enough to make ends meet, you have to earn more or spend less."

Gorr is frankly skeptical that a family already financially stressed will benefit from a 288 annual percent rate loan, with its breadwinner's wheels as collateral. On the question of Sharpton's apparent endorsement of the company, Gorr declares that if the guy on the LoanMax ad is in fact he, "it would be interesting to know what the Reverend Doctor Sharpton is getting paid."

One can only congratulate Gorr on his perspicacity.

But maybe the guy on the TV is just an actor, or Sharpton's evil twin. If that's the case, The Rev should run, not walk, to the nearest attorney and try to sue somebody's brains out. He's got no legal grounds to do so, but hey, when has that sort of inconvenient fact ever stopped Sharpton from raising Cain in court?

If the LoanMax TV spokesman is a ringer, he should be sentenced to be slapped repeatedly by elderly black charwomen, many of whom pack a sincere wallop with their labor-hardened hands.

Come to think of it, if it's not a ringer, The Rev himself should be subjected to the same justifiable assault by the same no-nonsense ladies.

Actually, there have recently been media stories about Sharpton getting his own TV sitcom, so he might just be selling the little guy down the river for the sake of increased media exposure. But even if he donates 100 percent of his pitchman pay to charity, there's no excuse for his sudden endorsement of usurious interest rates on loans to poor, working families.

For background, I did a little Web research, and discovered, to my dismay, that Virginia is not the only state where anti-usury laws are neatly gotten around by high-interest loan mills. In a story from Iowa's Waterloo-Ceder Falls Courier, Rod Aycox, owner and operator of LoanMax, "says he runs a 'decent business.'

"'I ... am, in my opinion, a good corporate citizen,' said Aycox, who encourages his critics to call him if they have concerns about his business practices.

"'We're not preying on anyone,'" said Mr. Aycox.

Well of course not, at least by my lights. As a neo-capitalist libertarian, I believe any deal you want to enter into (short of one involving the breaking or severing of limbs when repayments are in default) is between you, your lender and your spouse. Government's got no business telling people how to keep from losing the family auto to good corporate citizens like Aycox.

And if Sharpton had spent his career championing capitalism, personal financial responsibility and self-determination for all - including the sovereign right of the poor to be taken advantage of by the rich - I'd at least applaud his consistency.

But as we all know, Sharpton has instead spent his life attacking high-achieving capitalists of color ("cocktail-sip Negroes" and "Uncle Toms") for daring to ask the question once voiced by the late, great lawyer, entrepreneur and Virginia State University alumnus Reggie Lewis; "Why should white guys should have all the fun?"


The bottom line is, Sharpton (or his body double) has put aside the race card long enough to play the hypocrisy card.

One might ask, with a considerable degree of justification, what else one could expect of a man who claims to love and serve the Prince of Peace, yet who has nothing but scorn for so many of us?

When you think about it, The Rev just the flip side of poor old peeking-pervert Jimmy Swaggert. Both are supposed Christians who either condemn the sexually deviant among us - between their own sneaky photo sessions with hookers at sleazy motels - or gleefully chase the eternal ambulance of race enmity while spraying American civilization with Ebola-quality rage.

Since whoever it is that looks and sounds so much like The Rev never actually says his name on TV, I continue to hold out hope that it's not really Sharpton, it's just a Sleazy White Man Trick, sort of like luring mallards within shotgun range via the clever use of wooden decoys. But I can't tell, and neither could the young lady at a local LoanMax office who spoke with me when I called to ask her about the new advertisement. She said she'd seen it, and thought it was Sharpton, but nobody had told her one way or the other.

Strangely, I actually hope to see a story about how Sharpton is suing the ringer/clone talent who did that sick endorsement of a low-quality service provided by the same money-grubbing capitalists Sharpton claims to despise. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but in this case it would be refreshing to see one man, even one as hateful and phony as The Rev, maintain and defend a consistent set of values for longer than it takes him to collect his 30 pieces of silver from a good corporate citizen.

Treadwell, Stalin, Chapman and Osama

If you want to see the real face of unreasoning fanaticism in the service of a just cause, you should rent a copy of the Werner Herzog documentary "Grizzly Man." The flick mostly consists of the edited and narrated video tapes shot by Timothy Treadwell's many visits to Alaska where he lived with native Grizzly Bears.

Treadwell loved bears far more than he loved people, but that didn't save him or his lady friend, Amie Huguenard, from becoming Bear Chow when a rogue bruin unexpectedly became hungry and territorial in 2003.

What is apparent early in the film is the extreme hubris of a man who thought he could share turf with large, omnivorous critters, and that somehow, in flagrant violation of every law of nature, he would never get chewed upon.

True, he did establish good contact with the bears over the years, and he did understand their social system. As bears are not pack animals, their social signals are very basic, and Treadwell (a stage name he picked up while living in Hollywood trying to get film and television roles) mastered those basics.

But the bear who ate him didn't respond to the signals. This bear was old and slow, and as anyone who knows large predators will tell you, the wounded, old, and/or slow animals are the ones people need to watch out for. When the fatal attack went down, had Treadwell simply fired off a starter's pistol, he and Ms. Huguenard probably would have been spared their grisly ordeal. But Treadwell regarded all firearms, even those firing harmless blanks, as works of the devil.

The day the bear ate Treadwell and Huguenard, a video camera was turned on throughout the entire attack, but (mercifully) with the lens cap on. The audio recording is, all by itself, so disturbing that after Herzog heard it, he refused to put it into the movie's soundtrack and further recommended to the archival conservator, an old girlfriend of Treadwell's, that she never listen to it and destroy it ASAP.

In the recording, Treadwell, who was attacked first, is heard yelling at Huguenard, telling her to run and save herself. Those entreaties were followed by a dull clanging sound as Huguenard apparently smacked the bear upside the head with a skillet. One could say she chose her destiny by sticking around trying to rescue her man, but then again, had Treadwell possessed an ounce of sense, she (and he) would not have been there in the first place.

It's pretty clear that Treadwell felt no responsibility toward fellow human beings, but what can be said about the value of his mission to save the bears? According to a wildlife expert Herzog interviewed, Grizzly Man did the wild bears no favors by accustoming them to regular contact with humans.

Treadwell spends a lot of time on camera talking about how he loves his furry pals. But there's an odd, proprietary edge to his declarations; he clearly feels he's the only person in the world who can save the bears.

The depth and the true nature of those feelings are manifested in a five-minute video raveout he indulges himself in, cursing and flipping the bird at the very U.S. Parks and Wildlife Service personnel who had earlier helped him with his mission. A Stalinist apparatchik denouncing Leon Trotsky and all his works could scarcely have been more rabid.

And herein lies the sad truth about the Grizzly Man and his kind; they often discover transcendent meaning in their chosen causes in order to compensate for their failures in life. They will always be drawn to the vulnerable, be they humans or animals, to whom they can play sole protector, knight-errant, savior.

Heaven help anyone who associates with these folks while simultaneously daring to harbor a non-compliant vision. Watching Treadwell's virulent antics before his camera, one feels almost glad his life ended before he armed himself with a Louisville Slugger and went after some unsuspecting ranger or bureaucrat whom he perceived to be a traitor to the cause.

The frustrated would-be actor Treadwell never married and had few friends. He also had severe drug and drinking problems prior to finding, in the grizzlies, his life's work.

His flaming anger is of the same variety as Osama bin Laden's livid hatred of Western modernity or Mark David Chapman's paranoid fantasies about John Lennon.

Treadwell's own paranoia became evident when a boatload of fans came looking for him. He hid out, secretly videotaping the visitors and muttering his belief that they meant to harm his bears.

After they left, he found a log on which they'd scratched the words, "We'll be back." A normal person would have taken such a message, under the circumstances, as a promise to one day seek him out and shake his hand. But martyr-in-the-making Treadwell read into the message nothing but malice, menace and a coded death threat.

Unlike Lennon, he was not killed by a deranged fan. Timothy Treadwell was killed by his own demons. Unfortunately, he took an innocent, nature-loving woman with him.

Herzog is a master film maker, and "Grizzly Man" is a great film. See it. If nothing else, it will help you understand the behavior of sociopaths who hate humanity and themselves, all the while swearing their love and allegiance to a "higher" cause.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Cats, pianos and the Y2K scare

There's an old, sick joke I read in an old, sick joke book. It goes;

Man: "I moved my piano upstairs to the attic yesterday."

Other Man: "Boy that must have been a job."

M.: "Nah. I got my cat to drag it up there."

O.M.: "How did you get a six-pound cat to drag an 800 pound piano up the attic steps?!?"

M.: "Used a whip."

Before the animal lovers amongst you start writing your irate letters, I'll stipulate that I am a cat fancier (my wife calls me a "cat magnet"). The point is not cruelty to animals, it's cruelty to humans, as the remainder of this column will illustrate.

History shows there are two basic ways of dealing with human predicaments. One is to use the whip to force people to do what's necessary. The other is to allow people to figure out for themselves what needs to be done and then leave them free to do it.

The first method, exemplified by the monolithic governmental command-and-control, top-down philosophies of socialism, has never worked worth a darn. The poor suffering Russian people - the same brilliant and innovative people whose culture produced Aleksandr Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Sergei Rachmoninov - spent 70 years living in a land where all their major personal decisions about where to work and what to do with their time and money were made by an authoritarian government.

The irony gets pretty thick when one discusses the late, unlamented U.S.S.R. The fact of the matter is, without tons and tons of wheat supplied by the capitalist bloodsuckers of the United States of America, beginning in the Hoover administration and running through the Carter administration, the poor production of collective farms would have resulted in famine after famine.

The second approach to fixing real problems, exemplified by democratic republics with capitalistic economic systems, has worked stunningly well. Wherever people have been left free to solve their collective problems with minimum interference from whip-wielding authorities, there has been material prosperity, intellectual freedom and all the blessings of liberty.

A modern, classic example of that principle may be seen in the successful campaign to avoid the predicted disasters of the Y2K "millennium bug." Remember the dire predictions? At midnight, December 31, 1999, the entire civilized world was supposed to grind to a halt. It never happened, mostly because across the planet, individuals and voluntary corporate collectives went to work, free of government interference and in most cases without government funding, fixing the problem before it could fix us.

On the Web site, "the history of computing foundation,"* there's a history of Y2K called "A short narrative on why nothing (much) happened."

It explains that the effects of Y2K were slight "thanks to enormous extra efforts put into detecting possible millennium bugs, primarily in the utilities industry, insurance and banking institutions.

"Risks, governments reasoned, were assumed to be the problem of the financial and merchant industries itself," the story continues. "In some countries, spin-off companies of local universities were able to cover the most urgent needs, making use of work[ing] students or [other] trained ... people within organizations .... All very low profile and at low costs."

On the list of other positive influences upon the pending crisis are things like "most legacy systems were replaced due to the normal update cycle before the year 2000, where the millennium bug was treated as a routine check in the new systems; most software had been checked for the Euro-related issues and as routine [and] took the millennium bug into consideration ... ; programmers got strict instructions to pay attention to date-related algorithms before issuing a new version of software prior to the year 2000; most software manufacturers released new versions [in which] the millennium bug was treated as a routine check, long before the millennium came into effect and almost all computer related magazines published (routine) millennium checks for software that helped users detect problems long before the year 2000."

Let us take note of the fact that in this brief history of disaster averted, there is no mention of gigantic government programs. No laws were passed, no emergency powers were assumed by authorities, nobody went to jail, yet, curiously, things worked out quite well.

Not to belabor the obvious, but it must be noted that instead of governments whipping us into shape with a lot of legislation, threats and coercion, what happened was, a lot of individuals and private companies voluntarily did the right thing. They, not elected officials, were the ones who voluntarily got us all out of the mess created when the first computers failed to take into account that sooner or later, the date would begin with the prefix "20" instead of "19."

"The history" does make mention of government and its minions. And its observations upon these institutions are not kind; "Some of the most voiced [panicked sounds] were [those] of politicians. They and other public figures tended to forget that the smooth transition was the result of some thousands of persons [working] very hard ... Most people were unaware of the huge amounts of money and time spent by private corporations and some public organizations," it says.

In other words, if governments would just learn to leave their little whips alone, what a fine, peaceful, productive world this would be.

* Copyright: the history of computing foundation, 2002