Monday, February 23, 2009

Thru Fragments of Cinema: Objectivism Questioned

At 43 Jean Bauby suffered a stroke and awoke to find himself with locked-in syndrome – a rare condition, as terrifying as it sounds, in which the patient is almost completely paralyzed yet remains fully conscious and aware. Able to blink one eye, Bauby was taught to communicate one letter at a time with the help of an aid who recited the alphabet until he blinked. Using this system, Bauby authored the memoir The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; I recently had the pleasure of seeing the movie based on it.

“I decided to stop pitying myself,” wrote Bauby, “Other than my eye, two things aren't paralyzed, my imagination and my memory.”

As the narrative digs deeper into Bauby’s trapped mind, it becomes increasingly sensuous, marked by bright colors, strong breezes, swirling cinematography and score.

He’s also visited by various friends. Some of them, like his elderly father, go so far as to compare their condition to his - one of a soul locked within the body. He’s visited by a distant friend who was held prisoner under inhumane conditions for 4-some years. You can lose your body, he advises Jean, but nothing can steal your humanity.

The film has an unfortunate tendency to wander, but its impact remains. Its underlying tragedy is universal: that of not knowing what you have until it’s gone. The narrative goes in 2 figurative directions corresponding to the metaphors in the title: The diving bell sinks further underwater and the butterfly flies effortlessly up.

The film strikes a chord with me, similar to the book Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which attests to the hollowness of objectivism. My political beliefs are generally libertarian, and in high school I enjoyed a few Ayn Rand novels. They seemed empowering at the time. But despite their food for thought, the ideas lacked staying-power with me. From the start, I never understood why her novels were so much more famous than her essays. Novels teach through experience. They’re a perfectly suitable way to get a lesson across, but they’re anything but an objective medium. After reading other authors in college, Rand seemed shallow in comparison.

Rand is often associated with libertarianism – even Alan Greenspan (who describes his views as libertarian-Republican) was deeply influenced by her in his youth. But aside from individualistic values, I’m not sure how much Rand overlaps with libertarianism.

I hate to throw around such intellectual jargon – as if they were interesting in and of themselves – but to come back down to the real world, undue objectivity can often pose more harm than good. Nowhere is this more evident than in the economy.

A frequent myth is the belief that the value of money is objective - that it's fixed. This mistake has led to hundreds of years of mistrust against certain ways to use money. Money-lending is almost universally despised, across cultures and religions, as a greedy way of using money to make money. Despite this hatred towards money-lending, using money to make money, in almost any other endeavor, is considered the norm. This is why the economy is built upon money-lending. Banks play an integral role by distributing money to be used for its greatest potential. Their distributive actions run contrary to liberal concerns about skewed distributions of income; however, trying to “fix” their distribution of money has as dire consequences as toying with income distribution.

Value is subjective. This is why banking works – the value of a small business loan to a businessman of great potential is greater than the value of that loan to someone who won’t know how to use it. Likewise, the value of lending money for interest is worth more to a rich man with no use for that money than to a poorer man. The value of receiving lent money is worth more to someone who needs it and has a reliable credit history. The value of giving a loan to someone with reliable credit is greater than the value of giving a loan to someone of poor credit. Viewed purely objectively, the whole economy – perhaps even freedom - really makes little sense.

Another danger of unbridled objectivity is the use of statistics. This is bared out in the common concern about lying with stats – obviously stats don’t lie themselves, it’s the people who use them that lie. Numbers are of course very objective. But their use – both in gathering and making sense of them – is considered more of an art.

Even Greenspan wrote that he supplemented statistics about the macroeconomy with more subjective measures. During the oil crisis of the Nixon years, he created measures to estimate weekly fluctuations in GDP, which included surveying small business owners about their present difficulties and concerns. The later were of comparable value to objective numbers. During the internet boom of the 1990’s, Greenspan noted that despite rises in GDP, surveys showed that workers were becoming more skittish about the economy, largely due to increased employee turnover. This discrepancy led him to conclude that the rising GDP & stock indexes gave the public an overly rosy depiction of the economy.

The takeaway point is that when the stats don’t seem to match reality, the fault is more often found with the former than the latter. This has vast implications, particularly for medicine, which alienates whatever it can’t explain as psychological or somatic. A large chunk of medical progress in the 20th century consisted reclassifying phenomena from psychological/somatic into medical. The fallacy however is that, at any given time, the categorization of conditions as psychological or somatic is thought to reflect the nature of the conditions rather than the progress of science. This has led to many misunderstandings between doctor and patient, and between researcher and object of study.

The vast difference between a human and a computer attests to how off objectivism is. It’s almost a tautology to say that we live in a subjective world. Objectivity is simply one tool among others. It can be a useful tool to help us crawl out of our locked-in subjective holes, but it can also lead to as many misconceptions as truths.

Even emotions – one of the cornerstones of subjectivity – evolved for useful objective reasons. Ignoring your emotions because they’re too subjective would be to block yourself off from one of your most carefully honed tools. I find them useful for intellectual discourse: When an idea just doesn't feel right (or wrong), you can use that as a springboard for further inquiry, and guide yourself in the right direction. Of course you can’t say that something is wrong because it feels that way. But you can use those emotions to then identify objective explanations. Objectivism's distinction between reason and irrationality is meaningless; as both reason and supposed irrationality can have the same utilitarian purpose in their proper contexts.

And what role do dreams play in a purely objective world? Consider what occurs when wake up and feel you've had an incredibly moving dream, but you try to describe to a friend to little avail. The dream's objective content somehow can't stand up to its subjective impact.

Objectivism’s biggest mistake is focusing on the “bottom line”. Because life occurs in everything above the bottom line. Humans come and go; they’re born and they’re dead; they consume calories and they expend calories; that’s the bottom line, that’s the objective perspective, as if from a disinterested party observing us from the moon. Obviously that perspective does injustice to the value of life. Robert Pirsig’s solution to the discrepancy between objective and subjective reality was to meld the two by focusing on the point where they meet. That’s quality, he believed. It's the value gained in voluntary exchange. It’s life. It's the loss that Jean Bauby suffered in the objective; the gain he won in the subjective.



Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Movie poster from the 2007 film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly; (2)Photo of Jean-Dominique Bauby, 1997; (3) curving, swirling, 04/09/2006, by David Pham; (4) Logo from book cover of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; (5) Portraits of Ayn Rand and Allan Greenspan; (6) Movie poster of the 2004 film The Merchant of Venice; (7) tools, 08/30/2006, by Striatic; (8) Blue Marble (Planet Earth), 01/25/2008, woodleywonderworks; (8) M.C. Escher's 1948 lithograph Drawing Hands.

Video: (1) Music collage, 02/08/2009, filmlasse with music from the 1959 film The 400 Blows.
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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Restoring Economics

In a sense, no one really knows what’s going on with the economy; and even if they do, they don’t know what to do about it. But academia is partly responsible for the public mystique about the economy. In formalizing learning, academia has the unfortunate result of making some subjects overly complicated. There are no in-built checks to make topics simple; and I’ve come across many egotistical professors, who, in an attempt to exploit their power, relish in making concepts more difficult than necessary.

Yet the following class discussion with a professor, from an undergrad course on corporate finance, demonstrates how people can approach economics without that much formalized knowledge. It was quoted at the start of a book review for The Ethics of Money Production.

It was one of those rare moments when the entire class listens attentively and participates in the discussion. That it occurred with this particular class was even more instructive to me personally. This was a principles-of-finance course, required not only of finance majors, but of all students pursuing either a major or minor offered by the school of business at my institution.

While the typical principles class contains some highly motivated students who aspire to careers in finance, banking, and accounting, it is also filled with a fair number of students who look upon the course as a sort of dreaded, compulsory disruption to their nonfinance curriculum. But on this day, they were unified and engaged. A rare moment indeed!

At this point, the reader might consider this a strange way to begin a book review. The anticipated segue is provided by a voice in the back row of the classroom, where a rather quiet and normally imperceptible student began the following exchange with me:

"You know, we hear all about these bailouts and stimulus packages coming out of Washington."

"Yes, I know."

"Hundreds of billions, even trillions of dollars, right?"

"That's right."

"They don't really have the money, though, do they?"

"No, they don't."

"And so they are just going to print it, aren't they?"

"Yes, the banking system is going to print it and loan it to the government."

"Out of nothing, right?"

"That's right."

"But that's not right, is it?"

Just to be clear, the student was not suggesting that the premise was not right, as in not correct. He was asserting that this massive production of money out of thin air was not right, as in not ethical.

(from The Right & Wrong of Money Production, 2/18/2008, by Michael King)
Although not everyone might agree with the student, it doesn’t take much background knowledge to follow the discussion. We all know what he’s getting at.

In contrast though, you do need a lot of background knowledge in order to take such an economics course. Specifically, you need strong math skills and you have to be prepared to apply them. One of the first concepts you’re likely to learn is that of the production possibility curve. This is touted as a useful concept early on, because it can be used as a theoretical model to map the economy on both the macro and micro-scales. At the same time, you’re hit with such boring and dry explanations as the following (from Wikipedia)
The move from point A to point B indicates an increase in the number of computers produced, but it also indicates a decrease in the amount of food produced. Assuming that productive resources do not increase, making more computers requires that resources be redirected from making food to making computers. If production is efficient, FA of food and CA of computers could be made (as Point A shows), or FB of food and CB of computers could be made (as Point B shows).
In reference to figures like these

This is just the start of the long and arduous journey that the undergrad takes to complete his intro to economics. Is it any wonder then that the public at large seems to be grossly ignorant about economics? After all, if they didn’t take one of these boring courses, they most likely heard horror stories from peers who did.

The frustrating part is that, as the above dialogue demonstrates, economics doesn’t have to be boring. We all deal with money, prices, and incentives. Add a little guided thought on top of that, and it’s not hard to teach economics in a wholly engaging manner. Thomas Sowell accomplished this in his book, Basic Economics.

Sowell can be divisive and you might disagree with him on points, but all he asks of the reader is a hint of interest into current events and he’ll get you thinking about the wider economic role of actions like banking, risk-taking, measuring the macroeconomy, and investment. He uses everyday news articles, along with common sense, to build upon the reader’s intuitive understanding of economics.

The phrase intuitive understanding economics may seem a little odd. After all, what’s intuitive about the something like the production probably plot? Very little, and that’s why it doesn’t belong at the front of an introductory course. But insofar as everyone engages in the marketplace, intuition - not math - is a rather suitable place to start.

You’ll often hear the argument that education is an integral aspect of a democracy; and without it, our citizens can’t make informed decisions when they go to the polls. Nonetheless, those who subscribe to such notions tend to be more liberal, and it shows in their quality of education. In high school you’re more likely to learn about FDR’s New Deal than the Federal Reserve; and in college, economics is presented as a dismal mathematics model while courses in political science are more welcoming and palatable.

Part of this, I suspect, is because universities err on making things overly complicated and verbose. If mathematics can possibly be integrated into a major, then it absolutely will. The university has nothing to lose by erring on too many courses and prerequisites. And when there are a plethora of potentially interested students, this can be a way to weed some of them out.

Insofar as public education has a social obligation to produce informed citizens (and maybe it doesn't, but this is presumably why it exists), it's partly to blame for the public’s current ignorance about the economy. Few citizens can readily grasp the importance of banks and the Federal Reserve to the economy. This has a two-fold effect: It shrouds economics in a veil of unnecessary complexity hidden to the public's scrutiny; and it allows public policy experts take advantage of this ignorance. Such a rapidly growing ignorance can even be considered dangerous in the same sense that many would consider an ignorance of politics dangerous.

The Washington Post, for instance, just had an editorial which urged consumers to spend rather than save their hard-earned money. The author tries to guilt-trip the reader into spending based on the presumption that saving money would cost the economy some 53,000 jobs. It doesn’t take very sophisticated knowledge about economics to see the fallacy in that one – namely, that you can’t have a sound economy when each individual household is living beyond their means. But without such knowledge, what do you say to the family that sympathized with the author’s points, and spent their way into years of debt in order to help the American economy? And then encouraged their neighbors to do the same? Afterall, the author does sound pretty convincing when he writes:
Borrow and spend, borrow and spend is what got us into this mess. Apparently, borrow and spend will get us out of it.
He then goes so far as to encourage individuals to glue together their torn up credit cards. I couldn’t believe what I was reading! Even if you subscribe to the (Keyensian) view that spending on consumer goods fuels the economy, what good would come from spending on increasing interest from credit card debt?

Although I’ve never been a fan of public education, economics is an area in which it has utterly failed. And for this the nation has suffered.


Media (in order of appearance):

Photo: (1) Production possibility curve; (2) Sleepy, 06/13/2008, by Barbcalie; (3) Grocery cart, 11/30/2007, by Buxmama; (4) Federal Reserve Building, 05/20/2006, by Dystopos; (5) NYC National Debt Clock, 06/24/2006, by WallyG.

Video: (1) Stimulus: Because all economies have performance issues., 02/04/2009, Reason TV.
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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Restoring Science

Many who work in research implicitly agree that the truth will set you free. And in one way or another this has driven a lot of us to science. But it's counterintuitive - the truth being thought to be objective and all - that the truth is so different depending on who's asking for it.

What then are we to make of Obama’s repeated desire to “restore science to its rightful place”? Josh Witten (over at Scientific Blogging) wrote a stimulating piece in which he contrasted a recent finding from efforts in federal Chinese science with Obama’s treatment of science. The former employed data on social disturbances, which was generously – almost surprisingly – released by the Chinese government. Looking at 51,000 social disturbances in 2007, sociologists were able to find patterns in the disturbances, which allowed them to successfully predict future ones.

Witten brings up the poignant question, to what end?. Would they use it for good in order to prevent civil unrest? Or would they use it to suppress their billion-plus citizens?

This concern, although hypothetical, is certainly valid for a government with such a corrupt history as China’s. In contrast, our government’s corruption - although not as oppressive as China’s and much smaller in degree - is more implicit and hidden. It's decentralized, just like the structure of the government - hidden away in an infinite amount of special interests, which collectively serve to chip away at the general interest. Indeed, to what end? is the question that we must ask about our own government’s science as well.

Conflicts of Interest

If economics has taught us anything, it’s that people respond to incentives. Almost anyone these days would be quick to point that out when discussing privately funded research. And over the past decade, scientists and academics have become sensitive about their own sources of funding. Scientific conflicts of interest these days are thought to arise mostly from private funding, in the form of corporations hiding negative findings so that they can profit at the public's expense.

But what about publicly funded research? Certainly it still abides by these same incentives, only they’re coming from the government. Hidden agendas in public research are not as explicit – there’s no CEO or central board pulling the strings – but this can make them all the more dangerous.

For instance, you can be certain that environmental scientists who have thought hard about global warming, and don't believe that it's man made, aren't going to receive much in the way of public funding, particularly under Obama’s new administration.

Or what about medical researchers who disagree with the CDC? Many claim that studies on the links between vaccines and autism are marred by confirmation bias - namely their conclusions are simply attributed to the objectives of the authors rather than to good science. Furthermore, vaccines are widely supported by public health officials who are associated with the government. Why would they fund any researchers who genuinely wanted to assess the negative effects of vaccines, when they not only disagree with them, but have everything to lose should their hypotheses be supported?

Every scientist has a unique perspective on the world, but how can we be assured that committees of them who disseminate funding aren't forcing their views onto others? If a researcher concludes in a study that government intervention in his field is ineffective, how is he going to be funded in the future?

A concrete example I recall is from a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) researcher I once heard. To give a brief background, the CDC & NIH combined have espoused the view that CFS is no different from depression, although this has produced little in the way of useful research. The researcher was of the opinion that CFS wasn't very related to depression, and he wanted to run a well-devised study comparing different patients' etiologies. The study was eventually funded by the NIH - and his hypotheses were supported - but only he said, because after his grant application was rejected a few times, he re-focused it as if the study was meant to show that CFS was the same as depression, which was more in line with the opinions of the lead researchers at the NIH. It was a funny little anecdote when he told it, but then in all seriousness he said he would probably never receive NIH funding again.

The Doublespeak of Special Interests

Many people in the scientific community are joyful about Obama’s promises to science. And with good reason, because this gives them renewed vigor, along with added job security. But Obama’s vows to the scientific community are at best your average appeal to another special interest and at worst a hint at a more centrally planned scientific future. The web of the conflicts of interest portrayed above are not unique to science. They arise whenever the government overreaches into any special interest area.

Take the phrase “restore science to its rightful place”, and replace the word science with any other political buzzword: religion, agriculture, education, national highways, mail delivery, broadcast television. In this context, the statement’s meaning slowly becomes hollow to ears jaded from meaningless political promises. It does imply that money will be taken from other areas for the sake of science, but that’s about it.

But society thrives on science, where would we be without it? is the retort coming from a few people at Scientific Blogging, and I think it's the feeling generally shared by the scientific community. Once again, however, this argument rings hollow when you consider how many people have said that exact same thing – but for everything in addition to and on top of science, usually covering fields that they work in. Just the other day I heard a reporter say that federal mail service is integral in a democracy, as if to imply that we’d fall apart without it. This is essentially the same argument being espoused by the scientific community for more public science.

Any rigorous argument in favor of more public funds for science has to go beyond its import to society, and cover why it's more important than other specific areas that the government funds. Lobbyists and politicians, of course, act as if you can spend money on everything at once. When that power is abused society as a whole feels the ramifications, either directly through taxes or indirectly through poor monetary policy. Imagine for one moment that the government, just like a person or corporation, really did have a limited budged. Sure it would be necessary to spend money on some things, but why science and not some other thing?

The answer very well might be to spend on science, but it needs to be answered ahead of time and in this format (eg, in terms of opportunity costs). It can't just be assumed that the benefits outweigh the costs because science is good - or even because it's really super good. In the event that science is not the best thing to spend money on, then society as a whole loses (and at the expense of well-paid scientists). Even if all of those funds lead to very fruitful discoveries later, it doesn't automatically prove that they were still worth it, or that they were better than other investments. You would think that such fans of objectivity as scientists would embrace objective assessments like cost-benefit analysis. And they often do, but not always when it comes to their own work.

Well they're already cutting us the check, so why complain?

Academics and scientists feel they have an enlightened view of the world, and in a sense I agree. That's why it bothers me all the more that somehow many of them fail to see that the dirty politics and doublespeak of special interests applies to their discipline as well.

Free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that special interests tear apart the moral fabric of society. They're particularly dangerous because of the covert nature of their corruption: They don't lead to an outright abuse of power, but they create the incentives for many smaller ones. Take from the individual examples above - the scientist who is skeptical about man-made global warming, the doctor who wants to thoroughly assess vaccines, or the CFS researcher who disagreed with the NIH - none of these examples alone attests to the extent to which government funds can harm science. You have to look at the combined effect of such individual missteps, across every field affected, and multiplied over time. The overall picture is not unlike communism in its waste, inefficiencies, moral decay, and potential for corruption, the only difference being that the process is slower and more subtle - but nonetheless real - in regards to special interests.

Even with its extra funding, what is science’s rightful place anyway? Is it just to be well-funded? What does this place look like? Will we shuffle our focus in science - alternative energy for a while, then say obesity - just like 5-year plans in Soviet Russia? Obama strikes me as confident and intelligent, but there's a subtle Orwellian tinge to his promise, if only because science is so important and can be used for so many different ends. Unfortunately this is the last question people seem to ask of Obama’s promise - to "restore science to its rightful place", alright, but to what end?


Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1) Essay: Elevating Science, Elevating Democracy(New York Times), 01/26/2009, MashGet; (2) "We need a president who believes in science.", 03/21/2008, Snil Garg; (3) Crowd Policing, 08/12/2006, by Dom Dada; (4) Poster from the 2006 documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth; (5) USPS Logo; (6) Rockefeller Research Building: Example of a building constructed over a highway, 01/01/2008, by Zachary Korb; (7) Berlin Wall, 03/20/2006, by David Hunter; (8) 柏林墙 - The Berlin Wall - Berliner Mauer, 11/12/2007, by siyu. Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, February 7, 2009

"You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."

At the stroke of midnight in Washington, a drooling red-eyed beast with the legs of a man and head of a giant hyena crawls out of its bedroom window in the South Wing of the White House and leaps 50 feet down to the lawn ... pauses briefly to strangle the chow watchdog, then races off into the darkness...toward the Watergate, snarling with lust, loping through the alleys behind Pennsylvania Avenue and trying desperately to remember which one of those 400 iron balconies is the one outside Martha Mitchell's apartment.

Ah...nightmares, nightmares. But I was only kidding. The President of the United States would never act that weird. At least not during football season.

That’s Hunter S. Thompson on Nixon (He Was a Crook, 2005).

I’ve been getting into Hunter S. Thompson recently. His brand of writing is refreshing. My mind has 2 reactions, the first is of rejection: If you read the above, it’s clear that Thompson was just looking at Nixon’s physical features, combining it with a prejudicial bias, and letting his imagination take over. And in a sense anyone can do that.

But Thompson’s work stands out with a brutal honesty. He took rational concepts and warped them with a part of the brain that’s not used to tackling them. Consider the following on the American Dream:

"Nonsense," I said. "We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we're right in the vortex you want to quit." I grabbed his bicep and squeezed. "You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."

"I know," he said. "That's what gives me the Fear."

The ether was wearing off, the acid was long gone, but the mescaline was running strong. We were sitting at a small round gold formica table, moving in orbit around the bartender.

"Look over there," I said. "Two women fucking a polar bear." (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971).

You might have a different opinion about the American Dream, but how are you supposed to respond to that?

The problem is that we’ve all become so used to arguing with the rational part of our brain that we rarely take the time to consider our first impressions. Of course first impressions rarely provide the answer, but overbearing rationality can have just as dire consequences.

A similar thing might occur in scientific paradigm-shifts. The ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy, for instance, set up his model of the universe such that all the planets were rotating around the earth. For centuries, this was the prevailing system. Similar to any astronomer without advanced equipment, he built his system off of geometric proofs, resting on axioms, and accounting for what could readily be observed in the sky. His volumes of work, at the outset, are only mildly complicated, but as he accounted for more phenomena, things got uglier. He created epi-cycles - cycles of cycles - based off of certain stars and alignments; and then he brought in epi-epi-cycles; and then he brought in equalizers in order to represent the ratios of various epi-cycles to each other; and then the equalizers arbitrarily applied in some situations and not in others. The pages in his work go on and on to no end, as the proofs get longer and longer to tackle less important phenomena. You can get lost intellectualizing the world, but it didn’t take a genius (or maybe it did) to see that his system of the heavenly bodies was surprisingly complicated, tedious and ugly. The model was corrected, of course, after Copernicus suggested that the sun was in the middle of the universe, if only because it created a system about one-tenth as arduous as Ptolemy’s. Copernicus has since been credited with kick-starting the Renaissance by suggesting that natural phenomena, in more ways than one, don't revolve around the human mind.

But the point is that the rational parts of people’s minds can lead them just as far astray – if not further - as the irrational parts. Nietzsche attributed this to the artificial power of objectivity. When an argument is cloaked in rationality and objectivity, it’s given an air of superiority which is often undeserved.

Perhaps the largest blow to the purely “rational” approach came from Godel who proved the inherent fallibility in purely logical systems, and he achieved this nonetheless by building his own purely logical system as well. Although a few modern authors have capitalized on Godel’s message and updated it for modern times (particularly Douglas Hofstadter, in his book Godel Escher Bach) it has yet to fully be incorporated into much of empirical research – be it in medicine, economics, psychology, or social science – where theories live or die in accordance to how they align with purely mathematical models, particularly the generalized linear model. The concern, just as with Ptolemy, is that even if a model is comprehensive and internally consistent (or non-contradictory), it can still have no correspondence with reality whatsoever.

Sometimes rationality is achieved at the expense of reality. Economist Mark Skousen, for instance, claims that theoretical models of the marcoeconomy have likely done more harm than good for the national economy.

The problem with Nietzsche however was that he took his ideas too extreme and – as is common with the human mind – painted the world in black and white; it came to the point where he was almost building his own objective model based on his criticisms of the nature of such models. His criticisms of other systems seemed somehow to not apply to his own.

Hunter S. Thompson in contrast wrote with a humility that suggested that he didn’t have any of the answers, but instead was simply a crazed observer who couldn’t shut his eyes:

But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism. (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971).

Most of all Thompson saw that at the bottom of all of his subjectivity and irrationality taken to the nth degree wasn’t a new vision of the world, but simply chaos and self-destruction. He portrayed this rather well in his criticism of Timothy Leary and the whole hippie movement, all of whom were convinced that their new-found notions of free love and a world without boundaries somehow argued for a harmonious peaceful vision of the world.

Anyone who has experienced hallucinogenics I think can attest to the falseness of Leary’s vision: When you break down the barriers to reality you come across a dissonant chaos at the center of all things, equal parts innocent, joyful, revelatory, and frightening. You see just how fine-tuned the human mind - in its normal state - needs to be in order to make any sense of the world whatsoever. The hippie movement was as optimistic as Nietzsche was pessimistic, but broth broke down on the same accord. Wrote Thompson:
What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create...a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.

This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit that has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic...a blind faith in some higher and wiser "authority." The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister...all the way up to "God."

One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on that day when the Beatles cast their lot with the Maharishi. It was like Dylan going to the Vatican to kiss the Pope's ring. (Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, 1971)

What we can get from all this isn’t so much yet another model for how the world works, but it maybe just as important. It hints at a sense of humility and awe necessary to make any sense of the world – at just how disconnected our rational minds may be from it, and how we need to keep in mind that the further we depart down the path of abstract theory the more we have to ensure that our feet are planted just as firmly on the ground.


Media (in order of appearance):

Photo: (1) Nixon?, 01/19/2006, by Michelle Aquila; (2) Hunter S. Thompson, 05/13/2007, billypalooza; (3) Bat Country, 07/15/2006, by Aaron Booth; (4) Portrait of Ptolemy; (5) Ptolemy's cycles; (6) Buy the ticket. Take the ride., 04/25/2008, by Ratticus; (7) Timothy Leary; apathy's hunter s thompson, 12/21/2008, Zen Sutherland.

Video: (1) Music video, from afiendishthingy, of the song "A Day in the Life", by The BeatlesSgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. from their 1967 album Sphere: Related Content
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