Month: May 2020
u r doin evrything rong
by Ken Arneson
2020-05-14 11:58

If you say something wrong on the Internet, you will usually find out about it very quickly.

I’ve been making some pretty bold statements on the Internet lately, claims about human nature, about politics, about philosophy, about economics, about religion, about art, about sports, and not one person has told me I’m wrong. Very few people have said I’m right, either, but that’s not as weird as nobody telling me I’m wrong.

I’m getting crickets. Why? It’s not that nobody is reading, because I am getting some hits. It’s not that I’m *obviously* wrong, because I’d be ratioed in an instant if I were obviously wrong. It’s probably some combination of:

  • I’m right
  • I’m wrong, but people have their own problems right now, so they don’t have the bandwidth to bother to engage
  • I’m wrong, but in an obscure way that is hard to argue against, so most people can’t tell one way or the other
  • I’m wrong, but in a harmless crackpot way, so people don’t want to hurt my feelings

* * *

It’s certainly true that people have many more important things on their mind right now. And rightly so. I’m not writing to complain. I’m writing this because yesterday, I learned something, and I wanted to make a note of it.

I learned something about the third of the above points. That phenomenon, of explaining something in an obscure way, has a name: Inferential Distances.

As the link explains,

In the ancestral environment, you were unlikely to end up more than one inferential step away from anyone else. When you discover a new oasis, you don’t have to explain to your fellow tribe members what an oasis is, or why it’s a good idea to drink water, or how to walk. Only you know where the oasis lies; this is private knowledge. But everyone has the background to understand your description of the oasis, the concepts needed to think about water; this is universal knowledge. When you explain things in an ancestral environment, you almost never have to explain your concepts. At most you have to explain one new concept, not two or more simultaneously.

So if I wanted to explain to someone in the 21st century how Google Maps works, I could just knit together a bunch of steps that you already understand. But if I wanted to explain it to someone from the 13th century, there’s a whole other set of steps I’d have to explain: that the earth is round, what outer space is, how things in space move in orbits, what an artificial satellite is, what an electromagnetic wave is, how you can communicate with a satellite using electromagnetic waves, how you can use a network of satellites to triangulate your position using those electronic waves, what a computer is–wait, what electricity is, what a screen is, how a computer can store data like maps, how a computer can calculate a route from one place on another on a map, how you can give a computer instructions, and a computer can use electronics to sound like it’s talking to give you instructions in return. In other words, to a 13th century person, there are a whole host of inferential steps that have to be understood first before you can even begin to explain WTF Google Maps is. A 21st century person already understands those steps.

My explanation of Google Maps probably contains numerous errors. But a 13th century person isn’t really going to be able to poke holes in my explanation of how Google Maps works. We’re going to get stuck on some silly minor step like “is the earth really round” and not actually get to the point where we address the real, actual flaws in my explanation.

* * *

Everything I’ve been trying to blog about lately hinges on one particular inferential step: the difference in the brain between nondeclarative memories (System 1) and declarative memories (System 2). If you don’t have a good grasp on that difference, everything that follows from it is going to be vague and unclear.

To me, this difference is the single most important fact about human nature.

And therefore, to me, if you are thinking about any aspect of human endeavor, from politics to philosophy to economics to religion to art to sports, and you aren’t thinking through the implications of the difference between nondeclarative/System 1 and declarative/System 2 on those human endeavors, you aren’t think things through as clearly as you could be.

* * *

Now this doesn’t mean you can’t reach the right conclusion without understanding this particular inferential step. You can build a fire without understanding the chemical attributes of oxygen. But understanding how oxygen works opens up a whole host of other creative possibilities to (a) build a better fire, and/or (b) do other things with oxygen beyond just building a fire.

This is what I’m trying to get across. The difference in the brain between nondeclarative memories (System 1) and declarative memories (System 2) is a key that unlocks many doors. There are all sorts of creative ideas that probably wouldn’t come to you if you don’t have that key.

I’m trying, with my recent writing, to apply that key to various areas of contemporary relevance, and see what kind of new rooms open up. I may be applying that key incorrectly, and reaching the wrong conclusions. If so, so be it. I’ll continue to do so, in the hopes that at some point, I’ll reduce the inferential distances enough for people to be able to tell me why I’m wrong.

Slow Motion Disasters
by Ken Arneson
2020-05-09 9:53

One of my most widely read essays was written in 2012, called MLB’s Customer Alignment Problem. In that article, I explained how increasingly, MLB’s revenues and franchise values were strongly tied to cable and satellite network fees. That was a problem because:

  • cord cutting was shrinking the cable and satellite TV network industry
  • live sports like MLB was the only thing propping up the cable and satellite TV network industry
  • this indirect income stream disconnected the industry from direct feedback from their real customers, the fans
  • without direct feedback, MLB would likely be slow to react to needed change, both positively and negatively

It seemed like a Ponzi scheme to me, or a house of cards, or a Jenga tower, pick your favorite metaphor. Every cord cutter takes a block out of that Jenga tower with them when they go. You never know when the tower is going to fall over, you just know that eventually it will.

That was eight years ago. Cord cutting has continued apace. It’s not so much that old fans cut the cord. It’s that they die, and aren’t replaced by young fans. Young people simply don’t buy cable TV. The average age of a baseball fan in 2007 was 53. In 2017, it was 57.

So now you’re starting to see articles asking things like Are Millenials Killing Baseball? The answer, of course, is NO, THEY’RE NOT. MLB simply isn’t reaching them, because MLB’s incentive structure stops them from meeting Millenials where they are.

Of course, last we checked, baseball isn’t dead. Last year, MLB’s revenues were fine, ratings were fine, attendance was fine, everyone was making money. And over the last eight years, most of those regional TV networks who had such a wobbly mutual dependence with MLB have gotten themselves folded into much larger corporate conglomerates.

But what happens if we pull some really big blocks out of that Jenga stack?

In the time of the pandemic, the trend has become clear — cord-cutting is happening faster. While widespread stay-at-home orders have catapulted the growth of streaming, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a parallel trend: a sharp decline in subscriptions to the cable bundle. Pay-TV providers are coming off their worst quarter ever, shedding more than 2 million subscribers in the first three months of 2020, or around 3% of the customer base. That’s equal to roughly 40% of the total losses pay-TV providers suffered all of last year.


None of us know the inner financial workings of any MLB teams. Nor do we know any of the inner workings of any of the Pay-TV providers. It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say as many people do on Twitter, “You’re billionaires, suck it up.” But I think that attitude is based on an outdated idea of some sole Scrooge McDuck owner who sits on a pile of gold coins in his vault somewhere, where the price of a ballteam is a pittance for them. But nowadays, most MLB teams are so expensive that there are very few Scrooge McDucks who can own a team by themselves and pay for it with cash. Most teams are owned by an assembled group of people who pay for it using loans secured with collateral. These ownership groups really don’t want their collateral touched. That’s especially true if it’s some large publicly owned conglomerate on the stock market. Covering losses is not anywhere near as simple as asking McDuck to pull another coin out of his vault. Instead, getting any sort of decision made is a big giant mess of regulations and internal politics.

All of which is to say, this pandemic is creating a lot of pressure on MLB teams from a lot of different directions. And the first sign of that pressure is when the weakest link in the MLB value chain starts to break. And that weakest link is…drumroll please…the minor leagues.

Minor league teams and minor league players have a strongly dependent relationship with MLB, with absolutely no leverage at all. They are a source of cost for MLB, with very little direct revenue coming back to MLB. So when MLB revenues start to get squeezed, where do you think they’re going to look first to cut costs? The place with the least resistance to those cost cuts and the least effect on revenues, of course.

So now all of a sudden, the minor leagues are going to be reduced from 160 teams to 120. The draft is going to be reduced from 40 rounds to 5. What could the minor leagues and the new potential minor leaguers do about it? Nothing. They’re the weakest links in the chain. It was inevitable that they would be the first to crack.

You wonder, then, if this pandemic drags on for another year or two, what are the next-weakest links in the chain? Who will be the next group of people that MLB’s structural issues will collapse on top of?

* * *

Nobody could foresee this particular pandemic coming at this particular time. But the fact that some negative externality could lead to financial problems within MLB: that was entirely foreseeable. It’s been built into MLB’s business model for over a decade now.

One thing this pandemic has made clear: we are terrible as a society, and perhaps as a species, at dealing with slow-motion disasters. There are so many problems we can see coming from a long ways away, but we don’t do much about them because they’re a long ways away.

Until they’re not, and then it’s too late.

There are many slow-motion disasters that we aren’t doing anything about. Pandemic preparedness, in hindsight, was an obvious one. Climate change is another, of course.

Interestingly, the Republican Party has the *exact* same slow-motion disaster happening to them as MLB. Their whole business model, like MLB’s, depends on cable TV networks keeping old white people attached to what they’re selling. Their problem, like MLB’s, is that their demographic keeps getting older and dying off, and the young people don’t have Cable TV, don’t watch their schtick, and so they don’t buy into what they’re selling fast enough to replace the old ones who die off. It’s a slow demographic train wreck happening for them, and you can see it coming. The Republicans *know* it’s coming, that’s why they keep trying to hold that demographic train wreck at bay on the backs of America’s politically weakest links by restricting minority voting access and cutting immigration. That may work for awhile, but at some point in the next decade or so, demographic shifts will cause some big states like Georgia and/or Texas and/or Florida to flip, and then it’s game over. Their only advantage over MLB is that they only have one incompetent competitor to worry about, while MLB not only has to fend off their rival sports to stay afloat, it also has to fight new innovators like Netflix and video games and social media for attention.

The pandemic has added urgency to Republican dilemma, too, because if the economy doesn’t recover by November, that demographic train wreck might happen this year instead of 10-20 years down the line. So you’re seeing Republicans putting a lot of pressure on decision makers to “open up the economy” as soon as possible. But that, in itself, is another slow-motion disaster about to happen. The shelter-in-place orders have lowered the R0 of the disease from 2.5 to about 1.0 or even below 1.0, but as soon as it opens up again, the R0 will jump back up again. It probably won’t jump all the way back up to 2.5, because many people will be cautious and avoid high-risk activities, but it will probably jump back up to something like 1.5. And that means the death rate will look like it’s holding steady for a month or three, but then the exponential growth will start to take effect, and we’ll get a surge of illness and deaths in August or September or October that will be as bad or worse than the first one. But this time, the fall guys won’t be the politically weakest links as much as the physically weakest ones, who just happen to be the kind of old, sedentary people who spend a lot of time watching baseball and Fox News.

And then what?

The Problem with Pragmatism (and “It’s Time to Build”)
by Ken Arneson
2020-05-07 10:30

I was once an ally of Marc Andreessen, author of the recent much-descussed essay It’s Time to Build.

Back in 1996, there was an Epic Battle for the Future of the World between Netscape (founded by Andreesen) and Microsoft (founded by Bill Gates), for who was going to dominate the Internet. That battle is largely forgotten now, because it turned out that neither company ended up dominating the Internet. But at the time it was the Biggest Thing Ever. Or maybe it just seemed like the Biggest Thing Ever to me because I ended up in the middle of it.

At the beginning of 1996, I was a software engineer working for a business-to-business PC reseller called Dataflex, when it got bought out by a larger B2B PC reseller called Vanstar. Bill Gates owned something like 8% of Vanstar, if I recall correctly.

Back then, Gates was viewed as the Greedy Monopolist. More recently, because of his philanthropy focused on global disease reduction, Gates has flipped that image to become The Good Billionaire. But here’s a thing that hasn’t changed about Bill Gates: when he sees something as an existential threat, he will fight that threat in a thoroughly focused, organized, systematic, comprehensive, and relentless manner. Back then, Netscape was the existential threat. Netscape got crushed. The coronavirus has no idea what it’s in for.

Back in 1996, Netscape wanted to sell its software to businesses, because that’s where the big money is. But in order to do that, it needed resellers like Vanstar to leverage their relationships with businesses to sell them Netscape products. But there weren’t any resellers who would touch Netscape with a 10-foot pole. Either they were, like Vanstar, partially owned by Microsoft or Bill Gates, or they knew how much they were entirely dependent on Microsoft for their existence, and didn’t want to cross them. Netscape couldn’t get its foot in the door to businesses anywhere.

So a handful of we Dataflex/Vanstar veterans got wind of this, and decided to launch a B2B reselling business called Intraware to sell the software like Netscape that Microsoft didn’t want sold. That worked pretty well for a while, until the dot-com crash dealt a big blow to the idea. Then the fact that the Internet basically destroyed the concept of middlemen finished it off.

Still, we had a good run for a while there, and much of the material comforts I enjoy now are thanks to that titanic Netscape-Microsoft clash of the late 1990s. That fact that I can sit at home during this pandemic and not have to worry about where my next meal is coming from is in large part thanks to Marc Andreessen. So believe me, after all that, it does not give me much joy here to kind of bite the hand that fed me.

* * *

In my essay, “Quick Start Guide to Human Society™, I ran through some various approaches to political philosophies, and the problems with each of them. I claimed that each political philosophy has at its foundation a particular model of human nature.

I made one exception to that, which was Pragmatism:

Pragmatic models make no claim whatsoever about human nature. Instead, pragmatic strategies simply aim to function through trial and error to see what works and what doesn’t. They keep what works and throw out what doesn’t. Why something works or doesn’t isn’t considered an important question.

The problem with pragmatic models is that without a theory of human nature behind them, they lack a moral foundation. Without a good moral story to tell, it is difficult for pragmatists to establish and maintain trust within their Human Society™.

Andreessen in his essay is not promoting any particular political model. He goes out of his way to avoid doing so, pointing out the weaknesses and strengths of both sides of the two-party system. Instead, he advocates for tossing all that aside and just start focusing on getting stuff built, doing what works.

That’s basically Pragmatism.

* * *

America is a two-party system, so you don’t ever get a Pragmatist Party promoting Pragmatist ideas as a viable party. But even in multi-party parliamentary systems, there aren’t any Pragmatist parties that win elections anywhere. Why is that?

There’s an aphorism goes, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” Pragmatists don’t want to take sides on questions of human nature, they just want to Get Things Built. They prefer to remain neutral in the questions of morality that pervade political discourse. They prefer a skeptical distance from the moral certainty that emanates from each side of the political divide.

You know that phrase “if you can’t afford an attorney, one will be provided for you”? Pragmatism is like that. If you don’t have a view of human nature of your own, you’ll get one assigned to you.

Pragmatists want to stay amoral. But by not choosing, moral decisions get taken out of their hands, and they thereby abdicate their political power. The practical result is that pragmatism gets co-opted by other philosophies.

Sometimes those other philosophies that pragmatism gets attached to are immoral. Which is exactly what happened to them throughout a large portion of American history.

* * *

Two party systems are inherently unstable. The average two-party presidential system lasts about 20 years before falling apart because the two parties drift so far apart that they can’t agree on anything long enough to Get Things Built. (Parliamentary systems last about 4x longer, on average.) America’s two-party system is no exception to that instability. The Civil War was basically that instability coming home to roost. The only thing that kept it from breaking up again after the Civil War was that for the next 100 years, America wasn’t really a two-party system as much as it was a three-party system: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Southern Democrats.

Nobody wanted another Civil War. That gave Southern Democrats the leverage to make a deal: they would be a source of pragmatism and compromise to Get Things Built, as long as they got to keep their racist institutions intact.

So American Pragmatists, lacking a view of human nature of their own, found themselves assigned one: that white human beings were superior to other races of human beings, and should therefore rule over them.

Racism is America’s great sin. It is also American Pragmatism’s great sin. America used to Get Things Built, but it wasn’t because it Wanted To Build more than it does today. It did so because America, and in particular American Pragmatists, in their unwillingness to commit to a model of human nature, were also unwilling to commit to saying that the model of human nature promoted by white supremacists, and the political philosophy that follows from it, is wrong. It was willing to trade the welfare of African Americans in order bridge the necessary gaps between left and right in order to Get Things Built.

This is how Pragmatists, time and time again, in their efforts to remain amoral, let immoral things happen.

* * *

The Civil Rights Act blew up the deal with the Southern Democrats. And for the next 30 years or so, the pragmatists and the racists drifted around without a clear home. Both left and right tried to attract the racists to their side in indirect and subtle ways, by being “tough on crime” or launching a “war on drugs”. Both sides tried to appeal to pragmatists by trying to solve social problems with market mechanisms.

A funny thing happened in the 1990s. The pragmatists and the racists began to realize they held the leverage in this power struggle. The Pragmatists, under the Clintons, took over the Democrats. And increasingly, as the pragmatists shifted towards the Democrats, the racists began to co-opt the Republicans, leading in the end to Donald Trump’s victory.

In the election of 2016, Americans were given a choice between an amoral philosophy and and immoral one. Because Pragmatists have trouble morally justifying their positions, people could and did ascribe all sorts of immoral motivations to those choices, whether true or not. It’s not hard to make a Pragmatist look immoral. The choice between amorality and immorality often doesn’t look like a choice at all.

* * *

In the end of his essay, Marc Andreessen asks, “What do you think we should build?”

My answer to that is: a moral center.

It’s a pipe dream, I know. But you’re asking, so I’m answering.

America’s great flaw is that its political center has always been occupied by amoral and immoral philosophies. So in order to Get Things Built, America has always had to do things that are morally reprehensible.

In the long run, that leads to distrust, which leads to roadblocks.

It doesn’t need to be that way. I believe that America can Get Things Built again, if it had a good moral story for the center of American politics.

A primary reason I wrote my essay “Quick Start Guide to Human Society is to provide an example of such a moral center.

It’s a morality that differs from the right, which is focused on liberty, and from the left, which is focused on equality. This centrist philosophy that I’m advocating is focused on trust. It is not a branch of either the left or the right, but philosophically distinct from either one. It can tell a story about why being in the center, as opposed to either the left or the right, is the morally correct place to be. And as such, it can provide a bridge where the distrust of the left for the right, and vice versa, leads each party to spend most of its energy and resources on stopping the other side.

With a third clear morality to choose from, there is no excuse for people who want to Get Things Built to take the Pragmatic path and avoid moral choices. Make a choice, and then get to work.

America’s potential is still there, waiting to be unlocked. The key we need to unlock it is a morally sound mechanism for compromise. If we build that, then our country’s true potential can be fulfilled. America can finally Get Things Built the way we all believe it can.

This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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