The Evergreen Idiocracy

A purple-highlighted passage from Carl Sagan’s 1996 book The Demon Haunted World made the rounds of social media recently. In it Sagan expresses concern for a future in which people have chosen ignorance over reason, and some have taken this to be an eerily prescient depiction of America in the Age of Trump. Go ahead and take a minute to read it.


One of the things that struck me as absurd about Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was the way it presupposed some just-past golden age in which America was “great”. This was a time when manufacturing jobs were plentiful, blue collar everymen didn’t feel culturally condescended to by white collar technocrats, social change moved at an acceptable pace, and politicians weren’t all a bunch of crooks. When was this golden age? According to many Trump supporters I saw quoted it was the 1970s and 1980s.

If you’re my age or older you were alive during this golden age, old enough to read newspapers and watch TV. You remember clearly, firsthand, anxiety about the decline of American manufacturing, the closing factory that destroys a small town. The Culture Wars were actively being fought. I also recall that yuppies were snobs and politicians a bunch of crooks back then too. It’s not like concern with these problems is all misplaced—if I were a rust belt factory worker I’d be justifiably nervous about my job—but the problems themselves are long-term if not perennial, and not the result of some abrupt decline that happens to coincide with this particular moment in history. Trump supporters who believe otherwise are making a mistake, naively projecting their personal anxieties onto a historical shape that just isn’t there.

Now would maybe be a good time to go back and reread that Carl Sagan passage.


Sagan frames his dim view of America as foreboding about the future, but all the things he describes were commonly remarked-on trends in 1995. In the mid-1990s–just as in the 1980s and 1970s before them–pundits were worried about the decline of the manufacturing sector. The media (though back then it was network TV, not Twitter) was turning us all into spoon-fed zombies, unable to think for ourselves. The line about “clutching our crystals” hasn’t aged well, but Sagan’s disdain for horoscopes remains as germane as ever. The highlighted passage concludes with concern over American culture’s peculiar “celebration of ignorance”. This isn’t prescience, just evidence that people have been saying the same damn thing for over twenty years.

A bit of wisdom for any Millennial whippersnapper who stumbles across this post: there has never, ever, ever been a time when American intellectuals did not express deep concern over the ignorance of their fellow countrymen. Look no further than just beyond the purple highlighting above, for the specific evidence Sagan offers that right-now, in 1995, things are uniquely bad: the popularity of the TV show Beavis and Butthead. That show was the first big hit for writer and filmmaker Mike Judge, who in 2006 would go on to make the movie Idiocracy, a satire about a future America that had been overrun by–wait for it!–rampant anti-intellectualism.

I don’t mean to beat up on Sagan here. Just like the Trump supporters he’s not wrong, at least about some things, in a broad outline. In any culture there will be a strain of anti-intellectualism, and this is bad because it makes people vulnerable to con men and demagogues. Strains of this anti-intellectualism are playing out in American politics right now, and it’s good for people to combat them. In particular there are things about Donald Trump and his supporters that really are really, really bad. But from long personal experience let me tell you there is no rising tide of ignorance just about to swamp us all, no new army of barbarian yokels at the gates, and if you think you’ve just discovered one, you’re flattering yourself. Feel free to wear that red “Make America Smart Again” baseball cap as a joke, but if you ever for a moment take it to be a sincere rallying cry you are as big a rube as the people it mocks. The first rule about being the smartest person in the room is that if you think you are, you’re not.

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“The King of France is Bald” is Tricky

The king of France is bald. What does this mean? Is it this?

∃x [KingOfFrance(x) ∧ ∀y [KingOfFrance(y) → x=y] ∧ Bald(x)

Or maybe this?

How about this?

All of these depictions are useful. The translation of natural language into predicate calculus—pioneered by Bertrand Russell and later taken up and run with hard by Richard Montague—remains an invaluable tool for formal semanticists studying the interaction between a sentence’s grammatical structure and literal meaning. Lexicalized grammars like HPSG are formal systems that enable us to describe our syntactic and semantic intuitions in a manner that is precise, repeatable, and applicable to a broad range of expressions, bringing syntax out of the armchair and into the streets. Word embeddings reverse the discretizing movement of language–the conversion of the smooth flow of human experience into discrete symbols–by mapping those symbols back into a high-dimensional continuous vector space. This may seem like a perversely obscure thing to do, but actually proves quite helpful in software applications.

So these representations are all useful for performing various tasks related to a sentence’s meaning, but you can’t say that any are what the sentence actually means. This is most obvious in the formal logic case because that still looks like a sentence, except with the words out of order and some math symbols tossed in willy-nilly. It remains distractingly legible because it doesn’t manage to expunge all the natural language elements—there are still “functions” with names like Bald(x). This is less apparent with the HPSG representation because it’s harder to read—a visually busy grid, with non-standard mathematical notation. Still, look closely and you’ll see that tokens like “the”, “king”, “named”, and “bald” have again managed to insinuate themselves into the formalism. The theory may call them unanalyzed predicates, but they sure look like words to me.

The vector space representation does not have this problem. No one would ever accuse that list of three hundred numbers in the vicinity of zero of making any kind of sense. But unless you’re a computer, it’s not clear what to do with it. If I wanted to convey to another person that the king of France is bald, I wouldn’t clear my throat and then say, “Ok here goes…Point zero zero six. Negative zero point five three. Negative point one one six…”

All of these representations are helpful in one way or another, and it is their very helpfulness that serves as a clue as to why they must ultimately fail at representing an utterance’s essential meaning. In order to be helpful, a thing must be helpful for some task, and while the tasks described above may be compelling to linguists, programmers, and philosophers, the one most compelling to us all is the task of speaking itself. There simply is no better tool for the job of joking, flirting, arguing, and bonding (over one’s deepest passions, or just over whether it’s hot enough for you today) than the words we already use. There is no essence behind the curtain. It’s curtains, curtains, curtains all the way down.

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Haiku From the Golden Age of Computing

Unimaginable power.
Sleek, new, and fast:
Behold the DEC PDP-11.

A whole eighty characters entered via edlin.
Teletype roll whirrs.
You will get the hang of it.

The daydreaming engineer trips over a stone,
Punchcards flutter.
Chaos conquers pride yet again.

Get with the program, buddy, it’s
Isn’t it time you learned some FORTRAN?

Thought is electric hieroglyph
Etched into aether.
This here’s a 300 baud modem.

Jackass! It’s an acoustic coupler
Not a coaster.
Your can of Tab belongs elsewhere!

The output of the Kremlin
translated. Zip!
It’s maybe four years out. Five tops.

The mainframe played me in chess.
I won–but barely.
I worry that we’ve gone too far.

Posted in Those that at a distance resemble flies, Those that have just broken the flower vase | 3 Comments

Beers with the Boss

“Which presidential candidate would you rather have a beer with?” is shorthand for a particular kind of populist gut check. George W. Bush or Al Gore? (Actually Bush doesn’t drink anymore, but you get the point.) It’s a way of asking whose personality seems more accessible. Who would you rather have as your friend?


As a hard alcohol guy and former smoker, Barack Obama actually seems more like my typical bar companion, but that’s beside the point because I’m never going to meet him. It may be comforting to have a personally relatable President, but it’s irrelevant. You’re not electing a Best-Friend-in-Chief.

Here’s a slightly modified version of this question that I do ask myself: “What candidate would you rather be your boss?” A perennial Republican talking point is to imagine America governed as if it were a business, but you don’t have to ask me to imagine that, because I’ve spent a good portion of my adult life working for large corporations in the private sector. “Business” is my default mental model for all organizations. So when I read about a president I naturally imagine them as being one rung above me at Microsoft or IBM or wherever, and then I ask myself: would I respect this guy, or would I be looking for another job?

In order to respect someone in a position of authority I have to have a sense that they are generally competent, on average make more good decisions than bad, are honest with me, and see leadership as a two-way street of obligations in which all parties play equally important roles. I don’t have to like someone to respect them. In fact, in work settings I find this correlation to be pretty weak. I have found myself thinking “I wouldn’t hang out with you, but you are good to work for” and I have also found myself thinking “I find this guy entertaining, but Jesus Christ what a moron.”

Of course “who would you want as your boss?” is also an academic question. I am, for instance, almost certainly not going to end up with a job in the Trump administration. (Though at the rate he’s going through staff members you never know…) I can see how someone could get a kick out of Donald Trump’s coarseness, take it as a middle finger to the Democratic party’s slate of polite upper-class technocrats. (I can also imagine how for many people “one rung above me at Microsoft” is a wholly alien concept.) In that situation you’d want Trump–maybe not as your friend, exactly, but as the blowhard at the end of the bar with a knack for winding people up. Because that can be fun to watch, but it’s not the gut-check you need to be making. A better one is to ask: would you want to work for Donald Trump?

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Hours Billable to God

You have to fill out a timesheet for every hour of your life. Each hour receives a numerical code. There is one code for each activity a human being could possibly do. How many codes are there?

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Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog

Excommunicate Me from the Church of Social Justice” is a brief missive from the Woke-o-sphere that drifted across my Facebook feed earlier today. In it QTPOC1 Frances Lee complains that liberal activist circles often exhibit a variety of group-think, dogmatism, and puritanical intolerance that stands in hypocritical opposition to their stated mission of inclusion. This shouldn’t come as news to anyone who has spent time around human beings, but she has a particular story to tell that’s worth reading.

What struck me was the religious language.  The talk about churches and ex-communication isn’t just a clever way to get attention in the headline: Lee returns to religious metaphor throughout. She was previously an evangelical Christian herself and finds parallels in the specific forms of intolerance in the two communities.


As a white, male, cishet, plus-any-other-privileged-group-I’m-currently-forgetting and an atheist2 I will always be an outsider to both these worlds and thus happily excused from their infighting. Even so, neither liberal activism nor Christianity are foreign to me. The former I know because I am an urban cosmopolitan fellow-traveller, and the latter because growing up in America it’s easy to get steeped in Christianity even if you don’t intend to. And like Lee, I find the parallels striking.

Take the notions of “sin” and “privilege”. Both are a kind of inescapable original stain on one’s moral character for which one must make ritual atonement. These rituals can often be ostentatious and self-regarding, but they still mean something, because there really is evil in the world, and society really does give unfair advantages to some people, and you have to find some way to confront these things both in the abstract and in yourself.

It often comes down to a matter of emphasis. There will be the Christian who uses an awareness of their own sinfulness as an incentive to be more forgiving, and there will be the Christian who uses everyone else’s sinfulness as an excuse to harangue them about Christian orthodoxy. Likewise you can use a knowledge of injustice as a reminder to be more respectful and understanding, or you can you use it to peer around the room quietly ticking off your moral inferiors.

Ironically, political correctness has made me much more sympathetic to religious conservatives. Here’s a story you’ve heard a million times: kid grows up religious, moves away from their small town, and discovers to their utter amazement that Christians aren’t the only good people on Earth, and some of them can even be quite mean. My instinct is still to roll my eyes at this, but Frances Lee is telling the same story here, and the change of details makes me willing to hear it fresh. Likewise, though religious talk of sin and forgiveness has always struck me as transparently passive-aggressive bullying, having the similar dynamics play out in my own liberal intellectual enclaves has helped me see the sincerity that can underlie it. I still recoil from orthodoxies, but more contact with actual human beings is always a good thing.

Don’t know what that stands for? Read the article.

I swore I’d never write an “As a…” sentence, but I have to admit there’s no more succinct way of expressing this point.

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English Has Over 1.5 Billion Meanings for the Word Snow

I was once at an Elvis Costello concert where he told the audience that the first song he ever wrote was in the key of E minor. It was called “‘Winter’”, he added, his ominous tone of voice getting a laugh. The joke turned on our shared understanding of the meaning of the word “winter”–not just its narrow dictionary definition, but the way in which we could imagine it being deployed by a budding adolescent songwriter to evoke the coldness of the world.

In part it is the realization that the workings of language can be this subtle while at the same time individual languages are so markedly different had led many people to speculate that the language one speaks profoundly shapes the way one perceives the world. This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which persists despite linguists’ attempts to dispel it. (See John McWhorter’s The Language Hoax for a recent corrective.) At its most naive it takes the form of observations that language X has no word for Y, and at its most famous extrapolations from the untrue factoid that Eskimo speakers have over 80 words for snow. Though these examples are easily mocked, Whorfianism can retreat behind the camouflage of subtlety. Maybe our language doesn’t shape our perception at the level of gross meaning, but at the level of subtle connotation speakers of different languages still do live in different worlds.

After all some things really are untranslatable. You may be able to ask for directions on the Paris metro with the aid of a phrasebook, but in order to fully appreciate the poetry of Rimbaud you’ll have to break down and learn French. As evidence against the reality-warping effects of a linguistic frame, linguists are fond of pointing out bilingual speakers’ heads’ stubborn refusal to explode, but plenty of bilinguals will attest to a fundamental incommensurability between the tongues they speak. Sure, one might say, English is fine for getting by in daily life, but to express deep emotion only the Italian of their childhood will do. What if Elvis Costello went on tour in Australia, gamely acquired some facility at one of the aboriginal languages, told his winter joke to a group of native speakers, and had it fall flat because their word for “winter” means something slightly different? Might we take this as evidence they inhabit a different linguistic reality?

The standard linguist’s objection to these sorts of claims is to say they’ve got it backwards. It’s not language that shapes one’s worldview, but rather worldview that shapes one’s language. Obviously cultural differences influence all manner of human behavior: why should language be any different? My hypothetical aboriginals’ failure to get Costello’s joke is not due to some mysterious property of their lexicon, but simply because music, weather, and adolescence differ in Australia versus London. But the interaction is complicated here and can lead into a chicken-and-egg conundrum, so consider a different tack.

Grant that language-specific shades of meaning, the untranslatability of poetry, the general sense that different languages feel different–all this really is evidence for a kind of linguistic relativity separate from mere cultural difference. So though they inhabit the same world by virtue of inhabiting the same planet, Japanese and English monolinguals also inhabit slightly different worlds because of the different ways they frame their innermost thoughts. This isn’t implausible, but if we’re going to entertain that idea we should follow it all the way through. What about an English speaker and a French speaker? Would their worldviews be linguistically closer because their languages are more closely related? What about a Canadian and a Scot? An American with a Boston accent and an American with a Texas accent? What about two siblings who, though presumably linguistically very similar, will not over their lifetimes have been exposed to an identical set of utterances?

There are approximately 1.5 billion speakers of English in the world today. They all know the word “snow”, but for all of them it will bring up different memories, evoke different images, and land differently when employed as poetic imagery. At the very least the sound “snow” will trigger responses in different sets of neurons, one for each individual English-speaking skull. And yet we agree that there is an (admittedly hazy) sense in which the meaning of “snow” is the same for all English speakers, so a proponent of linguistic relativism has to additionally characterize the way that sameness noticeably breaks down at the (also hazy) boundary between languages. Otherwise we’re left saying that it’s not language that causes us all of us to inhabit different worlds. It’s just our brains.

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