Category: History

The Rise and Triumph of the Bayesian Toolshed

Bayes LawIn Asimov’s Foundation, psychohistory is the mathematical treatment of history, sociology, and psychology to predict the future of human populations. Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that postulated that Roman society was weakened by Christianity’s focus on the afterlife and lacked the pagan attachment to Rome as an ideal that needed defending. Psychohistory detects seeds of ideas and social movements that are predictive of the end of the galactic empire, creating foundations to preserve human knowledge against a coming Dark Age.

Applying statistics and mathematical analysis to human choices is a core feature of economics, but Richard Carrier’s massive tome, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, may be one of the first comprehensive applications to historical analysis (following his other related work). Amusingly, Carrier’s thesis dovetails with Gibbon’s own suggestion, though there is a certain irony to a civilization dying because of a fictional being.

Carrier’s methods use Bayesian analysis to approach a complex historical problem that has a remarkably impoverished collection of source material. First century A.D. (C.E. if you like; I agree with Carrier that any baggage about the convention is irrelevant) sources are simply non-existent or sufficiently contradictory that the background knowledge of paradoxography (tall tales), rampant messianism, and general political happenings at the time lead to a likelihood that Jesus was made up. Carrier constructs the argument around equivalence classes of prior events that then reduce or strengthen the evidential materials (a posteriori). And he does this without ablating the richness of the background information. Indeed, his presentation and analysis of works like Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld and its relationship to the Ascension of Isaiah are both didactic and beautiful in capturing the way ancient minds seem to have worked.

We’ve come a long way from Gibbon’s era where we now have mathematical tools directly influencing historical arguments. The notion of inference and probability has always played a role in history, but perhaps never so directly. All around us we have the sharpening of our argumentation, whether in policymaking, in history, or in law.  Even the arts and humanities are increasingly impacted by scientific and technological change and the metaphors that emerge from it. Perhaps not a Cathedral of Computation, but modestly at least a new toolshed.

On Killing Kids


Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was recently asked what I read for fun and had to admit that I have been on a trajectory towards reading books that have, on average, more footnotes than text. J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans kindly moves the notes to the end of the volume. Smith’s Chapter 5, Yahwistic Cult Practices, and particularly Section 3, The mlk sacrifice, are illuminating on the widespread belief that killing children could propitiate the gods. This practice was likely widespread among the Western Semitic peoples, including the Israelites and Canaanites (Smith’s preference for Western Semitic is to lump the two together ca. 1200 BC because they appear to have been culturally the same, possibly made distinct after the compilation of OT following the Exile).

I recently argued with some young street preachers about violence and horror in Yahweh’s name and by His command while waiting outside a rock shop in Old Sacramento. Human sacrifice came up, too, with the apologetics being that, despite the fact that everyone was bad back then, the Chosen People did not perform human sacrifice and therefore they were marginally better than the other people around them. They passed quickly on the topic of slavery, which was wise for rhetorical purposes, because slavery was widespread and acceptable. I didn’t remember the particulars of the examples of human sacrifice in OT, but recalled them broadly to which they responded that there were translation and interpretation errors with “burnt offering” and “fire offerings of first borns” that, of course, immediately contradicted their assertion of acceptance and perfection of the scriptures.

More interesting, though, is the question of why might human sacrifice be so pervasive, whether among Yahwists and Carthiginians or Aztecs? On Patheos, Chris Hallquist comments on the brilliant Is God a Moral Compromiser? by Thom Stark (free PDF!) that runs through the attitudes concerning the efficacy of human sacrifice for achieving military goals. And maybe you can control the weather or make your crops grow better. Killing one’s own kids sets up a dilemma for evolutionary psychology in that it immediately reduces your genetic representation. So the commitment to the gods must override the commitment to family and its role as a proxy for biology. Sacrificing other people’s children is less incomprehensible, though it does affect the tribe and larger political constructs as well.

Looking at the story of Abraham and the emergence out of the Yahwistic cultic mlk, we might see even more evidence of the effect of multi-level selection overriding the individual’s biological urges. Order, obedience, tribal practices, and one’s identity as part of the group overrule preservation and familial bonds, and society gradually emerges as the lawmaker and orchestrator of human interractions.

Inequality and Big Data Revolutions

industrial-revolutionsI had some interesting new talking points in my Rock Stars of Big Data talk this week. On the same day, MIT Technology Review published Technology and Inequality by David Rotman that surveys the link between a growing wealth divide and technological change. Part of my motivating argument for Big Data is that intelligent systems are likely the next industrial revolution via Paul Krugman of Nobel Prize and New York Times fame. Krugman builds on Robert Gordon’s analysis of past industrial revolutions that reached some dire conclusions about slowing economic growth in America. The consequences of intelligent systems on everyday life will have enormous impact and will disrupt everything from low-wage workers through to knowledge workers. And how does Big Data lead to that disruption?

Krugman’s optimism was built on the presumption that the brittleness of intelligent systems so far can be overcome by more and more data. There are some examples where we are seeing incremental improvements due to data volumes. For instance, having larger sample corpora to use for modeling spoken language enhances automatic speech recognition. Google Translate builds on work that I had the privilege to be involved with in the 1990s that used “parallel texts” (essentially line-by-line translations) to build automatic translation systems based on phrasal lookup. The more examples of how things are translated, the better the system gets. But what else improves with Big Data? Maybe instrumenting many cars and crowdsourcing driving behaviors through city streets would provide the best data-driven approach to self-driving cars. Maybe instrumenting individuals will help us overcome some of things we do effortlessly that are strangely difficult to automate like folding towels and understanding complex visual scenes.

But regardless of the methods, the consequences need to be considered. Our current fascination with Big Data may not lead to Industrial Revolution 4 in five years or twenty, but unless there is some magical barrier that we are not aware of, IR4 seems to be inevitable. And the impacts will perhaps be more profound than the past revolutions because, unlike those transitions, the direct displacement of workers is a key component of the IR4 plan. In Rotman’s article, Thomas Piketty’s r > g is invoked to explain the excess return on capital (r) versus economic growth rate (g) and how that leads to a concentration of wealth among the richest members of our society, creating a barbell distribution of economic opportunities where the middle class has been dismantled due to (per Gordon) the equalization of labor costs through outsourcing to low-cost nations. But at least there remains a left bell to that barbell in that it is largely impossible to eliminate the services jobs that are critical to retail, restaurant, logistics, health care, and a raft of other economic sectors.

All that changes in IR4 and the barbell turns into the hammer from the Olympic hammer throw as the owners of the capital take over the entire cost structure for a huge range of economic activities. The middle may not initially be gone, however, as maintenance of the machinery will require a skilled workforce. Even this will be a point of Big Data optimization, however, as predictive maintenance and self-healing systems optimize against their failure modes over usage cycles.

So let’s go back to Gordon’s pessimism (economics is, after all, the “dismal science”). What headwinds and tailwinds are left in IR4? Perhaps the most cogent is the recommended use of redistributive methods for accelerating educational opportunities while reducing the debt load of American students. The other areas that are discussed include unlimited immigration to try to offset hours per capita declines due to retirement and demographic effects, but Gordon’s application of this is not necessarily valid in IR4 where low-skilled immigration would cease because of a lack of economic opportunities and even higher-skilled workers might find themselves displaced.

One lesson learned from past industrial revolutions is that they created more opportunities than worker displacements. Steam power displaced animal labor and the workers needed to shoe and train and feed those animals. Diesel trains displaced steam engine builders and mechanics. Cars and aircraft displaced trains. But in each case there were new jobs that accompanied the shift. We might be equally optimistic about IR4, speculating about robot trainers and knowledge engineers, massive extraction industries and materials production, or enhanced creative and entertainment systems like Michael Crichton’s dystopian Westworld of the early 70s. Is this enough to buffer against the headwind of the loss of the service sector? Perhaps, but it will not come without enormous global disruption.

Language Games

Word GamesOn The Thinking Atheist, C.J. Werleman promotes the idea that atheists can’t be Republicans based on his new book. Why? Well, for C.J. it’s because the current Republican platform is not grounded in any kind of factual reality. Supply-side economics, Libertarianism, economic stimuli vs. inflation, Iraqi WMDs, Laffer curves, climate change denial—all are grease for the wheels of a fantastical alternative reality where macho small businessmen lift all boats with their steely gaze, the earth is forever resilient to our plunder, and simple truths trump obscurantist science. Watch out for the reality-based community!

Is politics essentially religion in that it depends on ideology not grounded in reality, spearheaded by ideologues who serve as priests for building policy frameworks?

Likely. But we don’t really seem to base our daily interactions on rationality either. 538 Science tells us that it has taken decades to arrive at the conclusion that vitamin supplements are probably of little use to those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world. Before that we latched onto indirect signaling about vitamin C, E, D, B12, and others to decide how to proceed. The thinking typically took on familiar patterns: someone heard or read that vitamin X is good for us/I’m skeptical/why not?/maybe there are negative side-effects/it’s expensive anyway/forget it. The language games are at all levels in promoting, doubting, processing, and reinforcing the microclaims for each option. We embrace signals about differences and nuances but it often takes many months and collections of those signals in order to make up our minds. And then we change them again.

Among the well educated, I’ve variously heard the wildest claims about the effectiveness of chiropractors, pseudoscientific remedies, the role of immunizations in autism (not due to preservatives in this instance; due to immune responses themselves), and how karma works in software development practice.

And what about C.J.’s central claims? Well I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to, so I can only build on what he said during the interview. If we require evidence for our political beliefs as much as we require it for our religious perspective we probably need to have a scheme for how to rank the likelihood of different beliefs and policy commitments. For instance, C.J. follows the continued I-told-you-so approach of Paul Krugman in his comments on fiscal stimulus; not enough was done and there is no evidence of inflationary pressure. Well and good that fiscal stimulus as a macro-economic stabilizer has been established in the most recent economic past. The non-appearance of inflation was somewhat surprising, actually, but is now the retrospective majority opinion of economists concerned with such matters. It was a cause for concern, however, as were the problematic bailouts that softened the consequences (if not rewarded them) of risky behavior in pursuit of broader stability.

The language game theory of politics and religion accounts for most of the uncertainty and chaos that drives thinking about politics and economics. We learn the rules (social and pragmatic impact as well as grammatical rules) and the game pieces (words, phrases, and concepts) early on. They don’t have firm referential extension, of course. In fact, they never really do. But they cohere more and more over time unless radically disrupted, and even then they try to recohere against the tangle of implications as the dust settles. This is Wittgensteinian and anti-Positivist, but it is also somewhat value-free in that there is no sense for why one language game should be preferential to another.

For C.J., there is a clear demarcation that facts trump fantasy, and our lives and society would be better served by factually-derived policies and factually enervated perspectives on the claims of most religions. But it is far less clear to me as to how to apply some rationalist overlay to the problem of politics that would have consistent and meaningful improvements in our lives and society save the obvious one of improving general education and thinking.

I recently irritated and frustrated my teen son in questioning him about some claims he was making about bad teachers in the local school system. The irritation came as I probed into various rumors about a teacher who had been fired because she was, according to him, sexist and graded boys poorly. It turns out he only had a handful of rumors about everything from the teacher’s firing to the sexism. It looked more likely that one of his friends made it up in conjunction with other boys who were doing poorly in the teacher’s class. They created a meme in a language game and it propagated. My son was defensive about the possibility of the whole story and I admitted it was possible but that it was sufficiently unlikely as to not warrant concern. The attachment of levels of likely veracity and valuations were ultimately the only difference in the end.

I apologized for making him mad but didn’t apologize for my skepticism and, later, there were signals that his network of beliefs had been moved a bit, the vile evil sexist teacher drifting out of focus among the other shades of consideration.

And that is how the language game is played.

Hits and MITS

I just came across the following scan that describes how an MITS Altair 8800B became my first personal computer, journeying from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, New Mexico and getting an EEPROM burner attached to a ribbon cable snaking out through the enameled steel case. The speech synthesizer predated stored digital samples, by the way, so it instead emulated phonemic mixtures generated by digital waveform filtering.

And that young chap on the left would later become my boss, three or four parts removed, at Microsoft. I still have that Altair, too, safely stored away.

MITS Altair Convention

Original PDF Scan:

MITS Computer Convention



The Vapors of Hell

Concept map created with
Concept map created with

Since Plutonium has now been unearthed in Turkey–no, not the element, but the gates of the underworld where the Priests of Cybele got drunk on gases erupting from below the water table–it seems only appropriate to trace the historic, mythic, and semantic roots of the notion of Hell out from its roots in antiquity straight through to our modern representations.

We can draw a direct line from Tartarus to the concept of punishment and the afterlife that arose during the Hellenistic period and filtered into the Near East, and what better representation of the dangerous threats from deep beneath the earth than a cave that kills animals and makes people drunk on the fumes? Such a place must have captivated the minds of the ancients by providing a corporeal connection to the mythic dancing of the deities.

The great irony is that the Hierapolis and the Plutonium was bulldozed by Christians in the 4th to 6th century CE, thus destroying a touchstone of their own cosmology.

Hirsi Ali’s Social Evolution

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reminds us of the depressingly anti-freedom recent history of Islam in her recent Newsweek article, Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate. For Hirsi Ali, despite fatwas on Rushdie, 9/11, and the murder of  her friend and collaborator, Theo von Gogh, a kernel of hope is nascent in the democracy movements that emerged from the Arab Spring: when people have to govern themselves they will, ultimately, turn towards freedom of expression, thought, and worship.

But is that hope warranted?

Is there any sense of inevitability to the liberal programme that emerged from industrialization, affluence, and education? Or is the “progress” of the West more contingent than that, built from happenstance due to the geographic separation of America from Germany and Japan in World War II combined with the widespread availability of raw materials on the American continent, leading to success in that war and the growth of American post-War power in an unbombed industrial landscape that, ironically, led in turn to the defeat of Soviet Communism, itself claiming an inevitability to the flow of history?

Azar Gat raised a parallel question in The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers (Foreign Affairs, 86 (4), pp. 59-69) when he asked whether the rise of “Authoritarian Capitalism” in the form of China and recent Russia constitutes a viable challenge to the claims of liberal democracy. If so, then the notion that there is any sense of inevitability evaporates like the suppositions of dialectical materialism.

The underlying assumptions are taken for granted among most Americans: (1) all people are the same; (2) all people want freedom; (3) authoritarianism is anti-freedom; (4) people will oppose authoritarianism. It’s a nice thought that has some resonance in, say, the history of the Eastern Block, where economic limitations combined with cronyism and foreign political control led to (4). And the domino effect went in reverse. Yet China remained steadfastly authoritarian through all the churn, even while opening its economy in emulation of its neighbors, while managing corruption and building economic prosperity to just an extent that people have been unable to summon the urge to fight the parts that should appall them.

Can the same happen in Islamic states?

I’m not convinced. If the secular authoritarianism of China can thrive alongside economic prosperity, so can Sharia-driven intolerance thrive alongside democratic institutions. There doesn’t seem to be any inevitability to social change, but it is good to hope. And that brings us to a less contestable part of Hirsi Ali’s argument:

If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union. We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative.

And that sense of empowerment costs little, yet can potentially achieve peace and prosperity until there are no more fatwas hanging over cartoonists’ heads. It may not be inevitable, but it is better than hopeless.

The Evolution of American Gods

Taking a break from my countdown, Simon Critchley is back in the New York Times with his fascinating analysis of Mormonism and the varied doctrines concerning reincarnation and the eventual divinity of, well, at least men. Interestingly, reading The Book of Mormon doesn’t illuminate these topics–they exist largely as exegesis through specific lectures by Joseph Smith. As Critchley notes about Smith’s lecture, the character and nature of God is finite, is a member of the Host of Heaven (or a council per the lecture), and creation in Genesis is not creation per se, but is instead some kind of reorganization of an infinite and timeless universe.

Fascinatingly strange, and compounded in its strangeness by the assertion that:

The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.

It is an evolutionary assertion that suggests our ultimate being is a divine form, and that we have the capacity to achieve this divinity through action, through works, and through effort at being good. As Critchley concludes:

…I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity.

While I doubt that this analysis will help assuage the concerns of conservative Christians about Mitt Romney’s faith, it undoubtedly serves as a touchstone for that uniquely American principle of religious freedom, and the underlying assumption (on Constitution Day), that the choice of a leader should not be tied to their choice of romantic delusions.

Socialistic Roidrage

Just when American politics appeared to be getting down to bare-fisted fighting we get a re-affirmation that political ideologies are largely religious from one of the papacy of modern conservatism, George Will, in his inane discovery of socialist tendencies in college football:

The collective activity of team sports came after a great collective exertion, the Civil War, and two great social changes, urbanization and industrialization.

Progressives saw football as training managers for the modern regulatory state. Ingrassia says that a Yale professor, the social Darwinist William Graham Sumner (who was Camp’s brother-in-law), produced one academic acolyte who thought the “English race” was establishing hegemony because it played the “sturdiest” sports.

Ummm, sure, collectivism is like sports activity and, hell, like war or industry, where people collectively work collectively together towards some outcome. It’s almost like government itself, as one astute reader noted concerning the US Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare.” Those damned leftists!

Now, we might claim that George Will, confused by ‘roidrage, is just scrambling for material in his strange communist witch hunt, but this has profound implications for reinterpreting American history. For instance, until the Italian Fascists resurrected the old Roman outstretched arm salute that was then picked up as “Heil Hitler” by the Nazis, the Pledge of Allegiance was saluted by school children throughout America in the same way:

And, let’s not forget that Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge, was a Christian Socialist advocating the redistribution of wealth for the greater good of the American Christian people.

Will is right about all this sports nonsense. When football is combined with the Pledge of Allegiance, we can only arrive at communism, fascism, and the preversion of our bodily fluids.

From Smith to Darwin

The notion that all the contingencies of human history can be rendered down into law-like principles is the greatest reflection of the human desire for order and understanding. Adam Smith appears in that mirrored pool alongside Karl Marx and, in his original form, even Charles Darwin. That’s only the beginning: Freud, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Hegel, and a host of others are reflected there in varying, and transitory clarity.

Adam Smith is a iconic case, as I discovered reading Adam Smith’s View of History: Consistent or Paradoxical? by James Alvey. The paradoxical component arises from a merger of a belief in the inevitability of commercial society and, at various points in Smith’s intellectual development, a cynicism about the probability of forward progress towards that goal. Ever behind the curtain, however, was the invisible hand represented by a kind of teleological divine presence moving history and economics forward.

The paper uncovers some of the idiosyncrasies of Smith’s economic history:

[T]he burghers felt secure enough to import ‘improved manufactures and expensive luxuries’. The lords now had something beside hospitality for which they could exchange the whole of their agricultural surplus. Previously they had to share, but ‘frivolous and useless’ things, such as ‘a pair of diamond [shoe] buckles’, and ‘trinkets and baubles’, could be consumed by the lords alone. The lords were fascinated with such finely crafted items and wanted to own and vainly display them. As the lords ‘eagerly purchased’ these luxury items they were forced to reduce the number of their dependents and eventually dismiss them entirely.

The lords ultimately have to trade off economic freedom of the artisans in exchange for more diamond shoe buckles. Odd, but perhaps reflective of the excesses of the wealthy in Smith’s era–something that needed explanation.

And what is the connection to Darwin? Darwin, in the automaticity expressed by that invisible hand (and the progress of history), saw a way to explain the natural order of the biological world, and this argument has continued to this day.