It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

Good Riddance Day

On page 14 of the current New Yorker is a brief notice titled Good Riddance Day.  It’s about a promotion in Times Square by a company called Shred-It; they will utterly destroy and recycle any unwanted items people bring to the event.  Actually, it’s undoubtedly already happened, since it was scheduled for December 28.  According to the notice, the event was inspired by Latin American Año Viejo traditions, in which people stuff puppets with bits of paper scrawled with regrets, and no doubt curses, of the passing year, and ceremoniously burn them.

I think it would be a great and useful tradition to start in the US.  God knows we have enough poisonous emotions left over from 2016.  We could work out our own details, befitting our peculiar culture.  Instead of burning or shredding, we could toss bits of paper inscribed with unwanted emotions from car windows on the freeway.  Or we could stuff them into those Smokers Station things outside of public doorways.  For a really modern touch, we could type them up on computers, which would send them randomly to those people we’d like to be rid of as well.

Wait, we already do that last one.  It’s called Twitter.

Fact is…

Years ago, when I was at Purdue University studying Anthropology, I was in one of those combined departments you get in a relatively unremunerative major. In this case, it was the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Sociology vastly outnumbered, outspent, and generally outdid us. We were like poor relations who were allowed to live with our betters because otherwise we would have been homeless, and that would not have reflected well on the family, would it?

I had a pet peeve, of course, and it was against the sociologists, of course. It seemed to me that they spent all their time studying either trivialities (e.g., why Freshman girls pledging sororities chose the ones they did) or the obvious (e.g., whether people generally prefer to socialize with others like themselves). God knows what conclusions were gleaned from the former, but the latter almost universally confirmed what was expected. Every once in a while, they would turn up something counterintuitive, but that was seldom, and when it did happen, more studies followed up, to see if the results could be replicated.

Of course, my perceptions of the kinds of research conducted by Purdue sociologists were severely biased, and almost certainly grossly exaggerated the percentage of pointless studies. All the same, there was one significant factor about the second variety, the studies of the obvious. When such studies confirmed expectations, they were almost never revisited. In the wisdom of my youth, I thought, good, they never should have been done in the first place.

Nowadays, it seems clear to me that there is good value in investigating “common sense,” since, as the old saw goes, it is often neither common nor sense. But here’s the rub: when such studies confirm general expectations, they’re still only rarely revisited for replication. In fact lack of attempts to replicate research has become an issue across the board; just google “replication in research,” and you’ll see what I mean.

Not revisiting studies of what seems obvious probably stems from a combination of confirmation bias and reluctance to waste time and money in short supply. But the extension to studies of any kind undoubtedly relates to mundane career decisions. There’s no glory in replicating someone else’s study. If you’re a junior scientist, or even a senior one, it is far better for your career to come up with something unique. Even then, you’d better get positive results, or your chances of publication are slim, and no publication means time wasted, career-wise.

And why, you’re asking yourself, does this matter? Two reasons: First, there are potentially many common-sensical hypotheses that are unsound, but are propped up by poorly designed studies, and thus become part of the scientific canon. Second, the pursuit of the trivial in an effort to avoid replication opens up science for ridicule by people with political agendas.

The remedy seems clear enough. Replication studies and negative results need to have the same status as original studies with positive results. Try convincing a journal editor or department chair of that, and good luck.

Shakespearean monkeys

I’m sure you’ve heard it. Give a monkey a typewriter and all of eternity and he will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. How you’re going to keep the monkey alive is another question. Does it still count if you have to switch monkeys in mid-stream? Will it still work if the dead one was half way through As You Like It?

As it happens, someone has created a virtual roomful of monkeys with typewriters, and claims that in less than a year, they’ve already written at least a poem or two. But he cheats. When one of his e-monkeys e-types any word that appears anywhere in Shakespeare, he saves it, and then puts the harvested words together to make up the desired result. Uh-huh. Not even close.

I don’t insist on live monkeys with physical typewriters, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that the words come out pre-sorted into a play, or something. This does bring up an interesting corollary, though.

Purely in terms of probability, although the theorem is stated in terms of infinite time, it could happen at any point within infinity, like, for example, as soon as you plop the monkey down at his desk and say “Go!” Then, nothing for the rest of eternity, except maybe a Bill O’Reilly book or two. This is because, although the probability of it happening at all during infinity is 100%, the probability of it happening at any particular time is the same throughout infinity. It is vanishingly small, to be sure, but it isn’t zero. There is no reason to expect one particular period of time to have any advantage over any other, when it comes to random chance.

Then again, the nature of infinity, or eternity, if you prefer, is such that not only would you get all of Shakespeare, but all of O’Reilly as well, more’s the pity. If it makes you feel any better, you’d also get everything ever written in any language, millions of times over, as if the poor monkey had wised off to some cosmic schoolteacher and had to stay after and type things over and over. Presumably, that would include “I will not make fun of Shakespeare” on our virtual, typewritten blackboard. Infinity is infinitely elastic, and can hold an infinite number of iterations of anything.

Imagine, all the lost works of classical antiquity, if only you had an infinity of time to search through all the gibberish!

In any case, we have pretty good empirical evidence that there’s a monkey out there somewhere, typing merrily away. How else to explain social media?

Anti-social media

I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m actually tired of reading the same political comments over and over. They’re not even arguments any more. Each side just posts, bot-like, a few choice talking points without any consideration of relevance. I’m convinced that these exchanges could be streamlined to save everyone time and eyesight. I’ve narrowed the most popular ones down into an easy-to-use numbering system:

For liberals:
1. I’m a progressive, not a liberal!
2. Fuck you
3. Bernie would have won in a landslide.
4. Hillary lost because Bernie supporters didn’t vote.
5. Hillary actually won.
6. Dump the electoral college.*
7. We need to come together and (insert favorite position).
8. The polls were inaccurate.
9. The polls were accurate, but (see #3)

For conservatives:
1. I’m alt-right, not conservative!
2. You’re an out-of-touch libtard.
3. You have no idea how real America lives.
4. Give Trump a chance.
5. Americans should unite, now that the election is over.
6. Give Trump a chance.
7. Trump has a clear mandate.
8. Trump actually won the popular vote, and probably the Nobel Peace Prize, too.
9. Shut up! I said shut up!

*This point can be switched to the other side in future elections, if there are any.

Trumped up

So now it appears that Mr. Hyde is hidden, and Dr. Jekyll has come out.  It’s hard to know what to make of that.  Trump has completely reversed his opinion of both Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama, both of whom he’s warmly complimented in the last two days.  It is, of course, completely opposite what he has said about them during the campaign, but contradictions have not exactly been unusual for him.  In a way, it’s reminiscent of his meeting with  Enrique Peña Nieto, the president of Mexico, during which he was all smiles and conciliation; he seemed cowed by the presence of a head of state.  That didn’t last 24 hours; by that evening, back across the border, he was his old obstreperous self again, apparently to the extent of lying about what was discussed during the meeting.

Many people who supported Trump, and presumably voted for him, are holding out an olive branch, saying that what Trump said during the campaign was just rhetoric, and he’ll calm down now that he’s been elected.  I can’t help feeling that if we don’t fall in line, we will feel the sting of that olive branch, converted into a whip.

I caught the tail end of an interview on the radio with a CEO who supported Trump.  Her take was that, yes, Trump is a jerk, but he has a talent for hiring competent people to actually run his businesses, so his personality is irrelevant.  I’m not sure reducing his unprecedented gall to merely annoying is justifiable, but there is a ray of hope, albeit small and not very satisfying.  If Trump appoints normal Republicans to his administration, and goes off to play golf, his administration will only be a normal Republican disaster, that is, slightly mitigated rather than unmitigated.

The big question for the rest of us is, what next?  The Democratic Party is in disarray at the moment.  I doubt that will last, but we’re between the proverbial rock and a hard place.  Does the party move to the right, to try to accommodate moderate Republicans, or does it move left, and offer its own brand of populism?

I doubt very much that ideology played any part in the election of Donald J. Trump.  We brought, as they say, a knife to a gun fight, and now we’re licking our wounds and arguing about what kind of knife to bring to the next one.

There are almost as many reasons given for his victory as there are pundits, desperately trying to salvage their reputations, after failing miserably to predict almost everything about the election.  There is, however, one factor which I find the most disturbing.  NPR reported on All Things Considered yesterday on a new app-centric polling company called Brigade, which found in results from election day that as much as 40% of registered Democrats crossed over to vote for Trump.

In a campaign full of ingenious imagery, the one that sticks with me is that people just wanted someone who would tip over the table, reset the process to point zero.

We can only hope that Trump is a one-off, and when people see his policies in action, they will be disabused of their illusions, and we can pick it up from there.  Right now, I see neither hope nor despair, just a long wait.

Diverging paths: an allegory

Say you’re walking down a dangerous path in a forest, overgrown with thorny vines, progress is difficult.  You’re increasingly fed up with hacking at the vines to eke out a few steps at a time.  Someone has told you this is the path that leads out of the forest, but you’re no longer convinced it’s true.

Suddenly, the path in front is suffused with light, and there’s an easier looking path splitting off to the left.  The first light you’ve seen in days of wandering, so tempting, but on examination, you see that it just leads to a small clearing a few feet away, surrounded by the same thorny vines on the path you’re on.  A nice enough place to rest, but it won’t help you out of the forest.  Still, you’re utterly exhausted, tired of slogging away, unsure you’re any closer to being out of the forest than when you started. Could you be going in circles? You think, I could just live in that clearing, give up trying to find a way out altogether.

Then you notice that all of the light doesn’t come from that side; on the right is another, narrower path leading away.  It is small, but straight, so you follow it for a few steps, until you see that it leads straight over a precipice to jagged rocks below.  It’s a long way down, you think, but a person might just survive the fall, and it’s definitely out of the forest.

Shuddering, you return to the path you started on, with considerable dismay.  It hasn’t gotten any less thorny, has it.

What to do?