Sunday, August 22, 2010

Peter Principle in Washington

A recent David Brooks column declared that we are living in a progressive era, which he defined as a centralized government, alternately run by technocrats of both parties, spreading its centralizing tentacles into more and more decentralized systems. He suggests that this model has little public support and the public may eventually rebel French-Revolution style.

Assuming that happens, it is highly likely that whoever would take power in the aftermath would continue along the same centralizing path. America, and increasingly the world, is already fundamentally centralized in physical, social and psychological ways. The centralizing we see in government is a reaction to that reality, not its cause.

The problem is that decentralized institutions do not have decentralized effects—they impact the whole. Diverse financial services are not centrally controlled in this country but their complex interactions are tightly coupled, making financial catastrophes widely felt throughout the economy. Two skyscrapers are knocked down in Manhattan and people in Missouri become terrified.

In following columns Brooks wrote about the partisan theories to cope with this bipartisan reality. Liberals seem to be able to admit that more centralization is the solution, and that the only debate worth having is over how to make government more efficient and fair in the process. Conservatives seem to have a gut reaction against the fundamental centralization in our society and think that decentralizing government, dispersing power to local control, will somehow change the underlying reality. Put this way, I think the liberals are at least being intellectually realist, while the conservatives serve the purpose of putting the breaks on the centralizing apparatus. Not many republicans—there are a few—are recommending restructuring American society to pre-Civil War levels of centralization.

The fundamental truth of American connectivity remains. The result is that Washington becomes more centralized. The forces Democrats to become more activist to keep pace with the perceived needs of the system. It forces Republicans to become more uncomfortable with squaring their ideological position with the reality of governing. This is probably why partisanship has increased. If that is true, Washington may become truly broken and completely unable to function in the coming years no matter what white knight rides into town promising to change how Washington works.

My Dad likes to say that the Peter Principle has come to Washington: government has risen to its own level of incompetence. There is a sense that things have become too complex. And that a little entropy is not only in order, but inevitable.

One day, when I am my Dad’s age, the liberals and conservatives, out of sheer desperation, may come to a grand bargain: decentralizing the country form the bottom up, while sowing incentives that allow people living in the new decentralized America to have good quality of life. But if that happens there wouldn’t be a need for liberals and conservatives…

Thursday, July 29, 2010

“The Dark Knight” Plot Analysis: Act III & Beyond

This blog is about entropy in all its forms. Entropy is the unraveling or order into chaos and by looking at the world through Entropy Law we can better see the extremes we go to slow the conversion of the world around us to chaos, and sometimes how we speed up the process. The Dark Knight is an allegory for this process. In the end, order wins out, temporarily. The question we have to ask about our real world lingers over the comic book world of the film: is the way order is enforced sustainable?

Act III opens with Dent in his hospital bed, revealed to us as Two-Face. At this point in the film, he has not crossed a point of no return. It is conceivable that he could have surgeries and return to his job and clean up Gotham. He is enraged about Rachael’s death, but he does not become a monster until the Joker meets with him. Once that meeting happens, the underlying theme of the film (and Nolan franchise to date) can now be dramatized in action.

Batman sees himself as a model of good that the rest of the city can emulate. The Joker sees himself as a symbol of chaos always winning out over order. At first, Joker wanted to prove the power of chaos simply by killing Batman and letting the mod run free again. But once he realizes that having Batman around is a chaotic disruption in itself, he decides to ensure Batman stays alive and is not outed. The second part of his plot is to show the people of Gotham that there can never be order in their city because people are not fundamentally good. He will prove this by having one group of citizens blow up the ferry boat, and by bringing Dent down to the level of the criminal scum.

The first part of his plan fails because the people on both boats were fundamentally good. He had more success with Dent, who killed five people.

Batman’s solution is to take the rap for those five deaths, and keep Dent’s transformation secret. Gordon probably had body planted in the rubble of the hospital so he could later claim Dent died a hero.

The effect on the public was not shown in the film but can be implied. The people of Gotham believe that Dent came so close to cleaning up the city, and gave his life to protect it. The people on the boats showed everyone that Gothamites were worthy of Dent’s sacrifice. This reaffirms their faith in themselves. The police have captured the Joker, proving that order can triumph over chaos. And Batman has replaced the Joker as the symbol of chaos that needs to be stamped out. Opposing Batman shows that the people are embracing civil order and civic goodness.

This premise sets up the third and final Nolan Batman film. The question for me is not which villains he will use. The suspenseful question I will be waiting for until the final scene of that movie is whether or not Wayne decides to retire Batman. If Gotham is free of its decades-long epidemic of crime and corruption, with good people running the city and setting the example, then he can retire—this would be a break form the comic books because it’s never happened in any of them as far as I know.

Or Nolan could end with the sentiment of Neil Gaiman’s “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” that concluded one Batman comic series with Batman saying: “I keep this city safe. Even if it’s safer by just one person. And I do not ever give in or give up…. The end of the story of Batman is, He’s Dead. Because in the end, the Batman dies. What else am I going to do? Retire and play golf? It doesn’t work that way. I can’t. I fight until I drop. And one day, I will drop.”

Which of these Nolan decides will be a huge part of Batman lore for a long time. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“The Dark Knight” Plot Analysis: Act II

Act II is the confusing part of this movie, which made me what to write this analysis in the first place, so I could better understand what happens. You remember: Bruce Wayne decides to turn himself in, but before he can Harvey Dent claims that he is Batman, which ends in a plot to capture the Joker.

Act II opens with the Joker’s first act of terrorism: he kills the vigilante dressed like Batman and tells Gotham via videotape that he will kill people every day until Batman unmasks himself. Up until this point, the public had never heard of this guy. He proceeds to kill the judge and the police commissioner. A few days later he shoots at the Mayor. The public begin to call for Batman to do as the Joker demands.

Wayne decides that the Joker is right: Batman has created this problem and is partly responsible for the deaths. He has sped up the entropic force of energy in Gotham from orderly chaos to pure, unorganized chaos. He also concludes that he cannot defeat the Joker, based on what the mod boss tells him. He decides to turn himself in. Let the police and Dent continue the work he has begun. Wayne tells Dent to schedule a press conference.

Dent has another plan. The following interpretation was not explicitly stated in the script so the plot could build suspense and surprise, but I think it is implied. After Batman tells Dent to schedule the press conference, Dent hatches a plan to capture the Joker. Dent will admit to being Batman, which will cause him to be locked up. He will be the bait. Gordon, who Dent believes is dead, will go undercover to escort the bait across town to County jail, and be ready when the Joker strikes. This is exactly as it unfolded, and with the help of Batman, they capture the Joker.

For a moment, Batman is winning again. The Joker is gone. Dent can clean up the city. He can retire the bat suit and be with Rachel.

But the Joker has his own secret plan. He has the mob kidnap Dent and Rachel, and forces Batman to choose which one to save. Batman picks Dent and Rachael dies. Dent is burned, setting up the final act of the movie.

Both Batman and the Joker are changed in this Act. Batman accepts that he cannot give up, probably forever. The Joker realizes that having the Batman to fight is a more fulfilling life than ripping off the mob. He tells Batman, “you complete me” and vows never to kill him. Thus the eternal conflict between these two characters is established in Nolan’s Batman universe. It is a relationship that will continue to define Nollan's Wayne/Batman—even if we never see Nollan's Joker on film again.

“The Dark Knight” Plot Analysis: Act I

There are two lines of energy fueling the plot of Nolan’s second Batman film to its inevitable entropic unraveling. Interestingly, both these power sources (or power vents) are characters: Bruce Wayne and the Joker. This stands in contrasts to many movies, including Nolan’s Inception, in which the plot is driven primarily by plot.

Let’s start from Wayne. Nolan was able to dispense with the familiar origin story in Batman Begins, so by the sequel Wayne’s motivations have evolved. His need and use of Batman has detached from the seminal act of violence in his childhood and taken on a life of its own that perpetuates in the context of the real, present world of his adult life after the introduction of Batman into Gotham City. (Those of us that are adults, are our particular paths any different?) He is not so much avenging his parents, as he is adapting to the political and criminal realities that he has in fact instigated.

In The Dark Knight, Wayne is motivated by his ability to show his city a different way, that good people can stand up to the criminal corrosion that seems to touch everything. Before Batman, change was unthinkable. But by one person fighting for good—albeit in a very dramatic fashion—people start to think that it can be done. The few good cops, the few good lawyers, the few good politicians, and a few good Samaritans gravitate around the Batman example. They pull others into their orbit. Strength comes with numbers. Confidence comes with strength. The first result is that within a single year, all the once-fearless crime bosses are scared to go out at night. The second result is Harvey Dent, who ends up convincing the cops and the politicians to arrest all the crime bosses on RICO charges. This would have been unthinkable twelve months earlier, and the Mayor gives his nebbish reasons why it simply can’t be done—but Batman has shown that it can, and has cleared the way for Dent, his political and legal counterpoint, to take over his job and bring it into the light of day.

Truth be told, Batman may have only resulted in the arrest of a handful of criminals in that first year. But because of the demonstration that crime can be opposed, the rest of Gotham City stands up to do the rest.

This all happens—Batman wins, plans his retirement—before the Joker asserts himself to the people of Gotham. But because these things happened, the Joker then asserts himself with overwhelming force.

In the first act of the movie, Joker is a small-time bank robber with a little flair. The bosses and the cops don’t take him seriously, and the public doesn’t even know he exists. The character’s motivation has always been uncomplicated: sow chaos. In the film, this is his only desire. He does not want money, a fancy lair with an expensive car. We never see him eat, drink, sleep or satisfy sexual urges. He is chaos personified, which makes him a durable canvas to project generations of audience anxieties—in this case, terrorism.

Joker understands the major impediment to sowing chaos in Gotham City is Batman. His plan is simple: work with the crime bosses to kill Batman, so the city can return to its former chaotic state, in which he will play a large role.

At the end of act I, Joker is loosing. Dent has arrested all the bosses. The streets will be clean for a year and a half. Like he told the bosses, “Dent is only the beginning.” So in Act II, Joker dramatically increases his terrorism, adding a mega jolt of energy into the city that speeds up the flow of entropy toward chaos.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Baboon Metaphysics

The fact that is sticking in my mind after reading Baboon Metaphysics is that human brains continuously use as much energy as the pumping leg muscles of a runner during a marathon. The authors go on to make the point that natural selection does not evolve energy-guzzling organs without an equivalent return on that investment. (Bodies are good models for efficient, entropy-slowing machines.)

The main thesis of the book is that baboon brains (and human brains) are naturally selected to do one important task very well: monitor and respond to social interactions. This skill is contrasted with some bird brains that have evolved primarily to hide and locate seeds. A male baboon’s fitness is dependent on his ability to know his social rank and compete with other males in order to climb in rank, and form bonds with females that will result in the protection of his offspring.

The authors go on to make the hypothesis that human language evolved on the foundation of ape social intelligence. The precursors for words are in simian calls. The precursors for grammar are located in the proven ability of apes to organize sounds (alarm calls or predator growls) into subject, verb, modifier sequences. What apes appear to lack is a “theory of mind” wherein they can attribute mental states to others, or sense the intent of others. They do not feel the need to “explain or elaborate upon their thoughts” rendering them “largely incapable of inventing new words or recognizing when thoughts should be articulated” (265). Five to seven million years ago, humans split from monkeys and inhabited their own branch of the evolutionary tree. At some point, we developed a “theory of mind” that took our ancestral social intelligence skills to the next level. This in turn allowed us to take advantage of language adaptations like the development of vocal cords to put distinct words to all the new thoughts we were having.

Anyway, brain size measured by something called the index of cranial capacity (ICC). This is a ratio of brain volume and body size. The bigger the body, the larger the brain. But other factors also seem to influence brain size. Animals that have long life spans plus a lover period of juvenile development have bigger brains than animals that don’t. Group size also plays a factor. Animals that live in large groups have to keep track of more individuals and relationships, necessitating a bigger brain. Baboon ICC is 7.3, whereas chimpanzee ICC is 8.2. Chimps live in larger groups than Baboons.

The book is an easy read and reflects cutting-edge research.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Caribbean, Part 2

The place we visited most often on our trip to Virgin Gorda was a bar/sandwich shop called Mad Dogs. It is a small, wooden one-room structure with a wrap-around porch, situated on a grassy, rock-strewn yard home to chickens and roosters. The porch overlooks the rounded humps of the Baths and Drake Chanel and Tortola beyond. A retired New York woman named Edith bought the joint after the previous owner died. She is a thin, pale, white-haired woman, frequently dressed in black. Her daughter, who was visiting, is from New Jersey. It was interesting listening to the New York accent bantering with the Jersey accent over the counter of a bar in the BVI.

Edith is what’s known down here as a belonger. A belonger is someone who visits the BVI decides that they belong there, so they become a permanent resident.

She had a few locals, by which I mean generational inhabitants, helping her in the kitchen (which was just the counters, sink and refrigerator behind the counter). Lilia, a tall dark-skinned woman is her main partner. They are infamous on the island for their witty repartee and odd-couple sensibility. We passed many hours drinking Red Stripe while sitting on deck chairs, watching the boats come and go from the Baths, listening these two and their customers.

One customer was there most of the times we were. On out last night, we struck up a conversation. He was from South Carolina. His family owned a house on the island, and he came down a couple times a year. There seems to be a lot of Southerners in the BVI—its just easier to get here from there, as our all-day air travel from Newark proves.

Of course he loved the islands, but he talked about the expense of having property here. The walls need to be re-painted frequently because the salt in the air gets into the paint and causes it to corrode. He was in the process of retiling the bathroom floor because the moisture caused the tiles to expand and crack. He said the cheapest option is to have the building supplies shipped from Home Depot in Miami.

When we drive across the island we see little construction projects on almost every property, but practically no evidence of construction taking place. There are piles of bricks, and bags of concrete, and dusty lots, and half finished cinderblock frames and unconnected pipes sticking up out of the ground and out of roofs where walls should be. It is as if the entire island is under a continual state of repair and rebuilding that never quiet gets done. The expense of bringing in material is restrictive.

Same with agriculture. The only thing we saw being cultivated on Virgin Gorda was goat. This may be why our search for a traditional Caribbean meal came up short. Does the fact that the island doesn’t produce its own food stuffs limit the inhabitant’s ability to develop an original cuisine? It would be arrogant to answer this question after being on the island for only four days. We ate a lot of very tasty sandwiches, washed down with Jamaican beer. But a sandwich is a sandwich.

We closed out Mad Dogs around 9pm, with a recommendation to have our last dinner at Chez Bamboo. This turned out to be an excellent choice. It had one of my tell-tale signs of a restaurant with great food—they make their own desert and ice cream. The homemade ice cream is no mean feat in the islands, and I believe Chez Bamboo is the only establishment on Virgin Gorda that does so. When we got there a guitar player was playing and singing classic 1950s and 60s pop songs in the outside dining patio. He told stories of playing with famous musicians who visited the Caribbean and happened to come into whatever bar or restaurant he was working in, including John Denver. He was fond of Richie Valens tunes. The food was great and the ice cream smooth and sweet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Caribbean, part 1

Up here in the real world, entropy rips through everything at such a lightening quick pace that we hardly ever notice. But there are parts of the world where entropy cannot be relegated to an abstract, high school physics classroom learning objective. These are places where energy is expensive and therefore entropy moves slowly—and so do the people. It’s not a coincidence. In the Caribbean you can see the effect this abstract physics lesson has on human culture, government, and especially individual personalities.

It takes a lot of applied energy to slow down a runaway anything. To slow down these two north New Jersians to Caribbean speed, it took three flights, (two Red Stripes and a calamari sandwich on homemade wheat bread at Ray’s on Trellis Bay), one ferry ride, one decidedly un-slow taxi ride over the mountainous roads of Virgin Gorda. But once we were on the balcony of our room, looking out over the placid, moonlit Nail Bay with the yellow lights of Tortolla in the distance, the slowness began to penetrate.

The entire island chain, from the Yucatan Peninsula to the mouth of the Orinoco, is a case study of physical entropy (see the Precepts). The neat, compact, highly-structured energy bundled in magma became unleashed from the earth’s crust and spewed out of the Atlantic Ocean, forming messy, sprawling, disorganized bundles of rock completely devoid of energy, which had been totally spent in the creation of the islands. The Caribbean’s physical entropy was finished (the first phase, anyway, since entropy will eventually whittle away the remaining rock until there is nothing left). But the Caribbean’s effect on human social entropy was just beginning.

First, a bit of telling history by way of James A. Michener’s Caribbean:

These two good men, one a governor who kept his stealing within reason, the other the scion of a splendid family and himself destined to become a colonial governor, had identified the fundamental reasons why Spanish lands in the New World would fail, during the next four hundred years, to achieve any simple, responsible system of governance, democratic or not, in which good men would rule without stealing and alienating the riches of their countries.

A fatal tradition had already been codified during the rule of Diego Ledesma in Cartagena: provide reasonably good government for the time being, steal as much as decency and the envy of others will allow, and then, because your own position is tenuous, place every relative in the richest possible position so that he, too, can accumulate a fortune. This will mean that even if you are dragged home in disgrace, the members of your family will be left in positions of power, and after a few years they can ease their way back into Spain laden with wealth and titles, to become the new viceroys and governors or to marry into the families who do, and thus find new opportunities to steal new fortunes (96).

In this chapter of his historical fiction, Michener describes how Spanish cultural norms affected Spain’s governance of its Caribbean colonies. It describes a people drunk on abundance. In the 1500s, the fruits of the New World—gold, silver, copper, sugar—were the social equivalent of the bundles of magma that formed the place: packed with inordinate amounts of social energy waiting to be released. Hordes of people came over to be the ones to release that energy for their own benefit. It is no wonder these people thought of this place as an Eden, a childlike candyland. The result was that the people who came over were not civilization-builders, not “carpenters and weavers and shipbuilders and… men of middle age who knew how to run things like shops and bakeries and ironmongeries, men who could do things” (67). Instead, over came the do-nothing sons of aristocrats who thought they would “collect buckets of gold from the streams, and go home rich” (67). The fact that these rich lands were inhabited by practically defenseless natives that could be easily slaughtered or cheaply bought must have made them even more drunk on their good fortunes. When the slave ships brought in free labor, they existed in a kind of delusional Heaven: huge amount of energy output, with very little (of their own) energy input.

The New World was these Spaniard’s Mr. Fusion, their free lunch, a thing that Entropy Law teaches is as illusory and unreal as Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth. Unsustainable to the core. Eventually entropy was going to catch up with them, but the Spanish governors did not realize this until it was too late.

Greed is not an exclusively Spanish trait. But Michener goes on to postulate why Spanish culture was less entropically suited to rule what they called the “Spanish Lake” than other nationalities:

It was a system that provided swings of the pendulum so wide that men became dizzy, and a form of government that wasted the tremendous resources of the New World. With far fewer natural riches, both France and England, would establish more lasting forms of good governance than Spain with its superior holdings ever did. …both France and England would not start their occupancy until the 1620s and 1630s, another half-century later. But the seeds of Spain’s deficiencies had already been sown (96).

Because England and France had less energy--less terrestrial stock--they could not afford social structures that burned it needlessly. Their cultures that took root in the New World tended toward sustainability, conservation and the slowing of entropy (at least compared to the Spanish, certainly not the natives).

In the next entry I will write some thoughts about how social entropy plays out today on the one island we visited (unsurprisingly, ice cream is involved), and hopefully post some pictures.