Wednesday, July 11, 2007 54 Comments

My Navrozov moments

There are three rules you need to remember if you want to survive grad school.

Rule (a) is: never go to grad school before you're either old enough to drink, or old enough to have had a drink. Rule (b) is: never go to grad school without first having had a real job, that is, one which you for some reason were once tricked into actually giving a crap about, at least up till they hired that horrible woman with the bad hair. Rule (c) is: never stay in grad school.

Since I have broken only (a) and (b), and managed to restrain myself on (c), I feel that while I am certainly nothing special in the world, I have some right to present myself as scarred but not devoured. Granted, those who made it all the way into the whale, and especially those who have chosen to remain there, are often wonderful people, and one should in no way be embarrassed to have them as one's friends. But sometimes one is unsure of their voices. It is hard to always be absolutely sure.

The overwhelming fact of the modern world is that universities are not merely the charming, bucolic gardens of knowledge that they pretend to be. Granted, they retain a few leafy spots. A tree or two, a neatly sprinkled lawn. But the modern American university is a machine, and its business end - which seems to command a rapidly increasing percentage of its abdomen - is certainly sharp and appears to be rotating. It tells us it has no intention of grinding us into paste, but it would be hard to design a more impressive tool for the task.

The charge that universities are directly responsible for almost all the violence in the world today, for example, strikes me as essentially accurate. I'm sure it will strike you as absurd at best, and libelous at worst. But if you can stop these reflexes before they engage, please ask yourself whether you have ever seriously considered whether this accusation is or is not, not in some ideal world, but on the actual Earth planet we inhabit right now as I am typing this, actually true or actually false.

Because if it is true, it sure as hell explains a lot of obviously-insane crap that is otherwise extremely hard for me to understand or make any sense of whatsoever. Perhaps others can offer a better story, but until I hear otherwise - and I would like to - I will continue to assume that the universities, along with all other official information sources, are hostile replicating subsystems and need to be terminated.

Hopefully without any prejudice at all. For example, suppose you were a professor at MIT, or an assistant editor at the Times, or a senior economist at the Fed. Not really a public figure, but certainly someone with a very large pair of balls, or ovaries as it may be. Obviously you would need to find a new line of work, but it's not clear that you would want the old one on your resume. You could say you were off trying to write a novel, or fighting as a "contractor" in Iraq, or something. Can anyone really check up on these things? Do they even want to know? And it explains your weary mien, otherwise unusual in one with no evidence or prospect of professional growth.

This is how it would go in my imaginary ideal future. Of course this bears no resemblance to anything I actually expect to actually happen in the aforementioned actual real world. I expect it will be quite a bit nastier, and not soon at all. But I certainly think the sooner it happens, the better the whole experience will be for everyone.

There is definitely no point in saving any particular department which claims to be "science," any university which pleads that it's "private," any "newspaper" or "public school," etc. The entire system of official "education" has to be completely wiped, preferably even swapping out the hardware - as we say in the trade. (Many university campuses, for example, could easily be redeveloped as prisons, luxury housing, police academies or corporate headquarters.)

It's not clear to me that Digg, Wikipedia,, and other modern systems which solve, or at least purport to solve, the critical problem of separating content from nonsense, are quite ready for their new roles. But perhaps we'll be surprised. Certainly, industry will not suffer from the impact of a large population of extremely intelligent and potentially productive individuals, who until now have been devoting their nervous systems to what might as well be Neoplatonist astrology. As for "science," most of the advances in Western scientific history, contrary to popular belief, occurred when scientists were not servants of the State.

In any case. So this is basically my perspective on the American university system. Some will certainly take it as extreme. But I actually think it's quite moderate.

A Navrozov moment is a moment when you realize that the university, which was established as a refuge whose purpose was to pursue truth without regard for the opinions of the world, has become a power center whose purpose is to impose its own opinions on the world. As such it has no more use for independent thought than a dog has for beets.

The name honors this piece by Andrei Navrozov, which I'm sure that, since he is a gentleman, he and his notorious pit-bull lawyers will allow me to steal. It's from his Gingerbread Race, which is not nearly as hard to find as it should be. Navrozov, son of the equally eccentric and perceptive Lev Navrozov, is a little too concerned with Skull and Bones and not nearly concerned enough with paragraph breaks, but he is basically a sane man and a brilliant raconteur, and the following is not at all atypical.

'The trick of being tiresome,' said Voltaire, 'is to tell all.' The great historic upheavals that are the reference points of my childhood and adolescence may all be looked up in Britannica, which can equally be relied upon to furnish a superficial history of Yale, or of American universities generally. Abstractions like cultural diversity, liberal education and academic freedom have lost none of their popularity since the day I first encountered them in the admissions brochures. What no encyclopedia can be expected to suggest, however, is that what paranoid misfits like Mill and Orwell have always known to be true, namely that when, for one reason or other, a society lets go of the adversarial principle I have compared with the human soul, it develops therapeutic myths of itself which present its weaknesses as strengths, myths that displace truth in the pages of encyclopedias and allow the many to diagnose the few as paranoid misfits. The popular abstractions I place among the constituent myths of modern civilization's public religion are not outright lies, of course. They are what Mill called half-truths, noting that 'not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil'. By absorbing the violent shock of dissent once represented by such abstractions into its placidly gaseous whole, the religion quietly dissolves potential opposition, with the consequence that, in Mill's words, 'truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth by being exaggerated into falsehood'. But, as the Bach prelude, gently pealing from the chapel's Gothic tower, stilled my paranoid aspirations, I had no time for formulations of this kind. Courses had to be chose, and under the influence of the visible environment, which I obediently interpreted as the university had intended, I chose a course of lectures on Hegel. The first paper assigned by Professor Rockmore was an analysis of a famous chapter in The Phenomenology of Mind in which Hegel examines the relationship between master and slave. I hoped to approach Hegel, and indeed all my studies in those early weeks of my first term, exactly the way such matters had been treated at the Vnukovo dinner table. Obviously none of our guests liked to be thought of as a learned bore, and consequently it was unimaginable that in the course of a conversation bubbling into the small hours, somebody would summarize a chapter from a book everyone else had read. I viewed the professor as my host, and the essay I submitted was intended to divert him by presenting Hegel as a slave to platitude, an antihero of thought, a man so wanting existential imagination that in a Napoleonic Europe steeped in serfdom he was unable to recognize serfdom as a reality transcending the insular concerns of an ambitious Privatdozent. Hegel's idea that the slave enslaves the master, I reasoned, is not a paradox because in the broad historical context of universal servility it is sycophantic, as Proudhon's idea that property is theft would not be a paradox in a society of thieves. As I wrote, I imagined Father and our guests, eviscerating an academician's conceit here, taking a stab at a bureaucrat's witticism there, Tsinandali flowing amid roars of laughter. I read the essay to Father over the telephone, adding news of this new university life of mine, which I imagined as a continuation of and perhaps even an improvement on the lost life of the Vnukovo enclave, a paradise perfected. The following week I came to class, expecting the thrill of violent conflict between parts of the truth, the thesis being that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a celebrated philosopher and the antithesis, that this son of a Stuttgart government clerk led an intellectually sheltered existence. The dialectic, however, did not work out as I expected. 'May I see you for a moment?' said Professor Rockmore. I noticed red blotches on his face. He told me that he could not give my essay a mark, and that if I wanted to stay in his course I would have to rewrite it. 'But, Mr Rockmore, this is what I think,' I protested, 'these are my thoughts on Hegel's treatment of the subject.' He referred me to my college Dean, who received me in the Gothic grandeur of his study. The Dean advised me to withdraw from the course, explaining that it was for advanced students and closed to freshmen anyway. I have been strictly reared, as Mark Twain used to joke, but if it had not been so dark and solemn and awful there in that vast room, I believe I should have said something which could not be put into a Sunday-school book without injuring the sale of it. With a sinking heart I realized that the faux pas I had made was not unlike that of a tramp barging in on a ladies' circle evening devoted to problems of the homeless. This Shavian dramatization aside, suppose philosophy were a science, like mathematics or chemistry, and a drunken beggar barged in to disrupt a university lecture on metal ethoxides with his ideas about ethanol and its applications. On the other hand, it would never have occurred to me to disrupt Professor Rockmore's course in this way if the subject discussed was symbolic logic, or any branch of philosophy that borders on mathematics. I remembered that Mill, in his discussions of intellectual freedom, specifically used mathematics as an example of an exact science 'where there is nothing at all to be said on the wrong side of the question' in contrast to 'every subject on which difference of opinion is possible' and, in Mill's view, essential to what makes a freethinker's life worth living. Yet the subject under discussion was not Hegel's logic but his view of slavery, a subject upon the stark reality of which Mill began reflecting wile the Jena timeserver was still alive. Besides, Hegel's dialectical vision of the world process added a new dimension to Leibniz's optimistic myopia, and while I considered myself no more competent to discuss Hegel's logic than Leibniz's mathematics, I failed to see why discussion of a subject like slavery by the former should be closed to literary intrusion when, in the case of the latter, such an intrusion had produced Candide. I then approached several of the students attending the unfortunate course of lectures, none of them, admittedly, a fellow freshman. Many were even bearded, after the Young Hegelian fashion of Professor Rockmore himself. One student essay from the unfortunate week was finally produced, complete with a top mark and the professor's comments, whereupon, with the pain that I can only compare to that of a forcibly extracted illusion, I discovered that the bearded essayist had done just what schoolchildren do the world over, namely, repeated Hegel's argument paraphrastically, just as if it had been the proof of a Euclidean theorem or the tale of a big bad wolf called Sein. The tramp had not quite expected, perhaps, that he would be given crumpets with tea and asked to tell the ladies what the homeless need. He might not have expected that his ladies' kindness would outlast the short speech he planned to wind up by demanding a shilling from everyone present. But least of all he expected to find the good ladies naked, or mute, or dead. Yet this was precisely what I, in the role of tramp, admitted to university for reasons that had less to do with diversity than with the homogenizing of diversity, found there.

(It would be fun to imagine that the bearded essayist was, in fact, Daniel Larison. But I believe Larison was in diapers when Navrozov was at Yale, and a beard surpasses even his precocity.)

Now, Navrozov studied, of course, literature. I took a European history class at Hopkins, one each in Chinese, Japanese, and (definitely the most fun) early Levantine history at Brown, one creative writing course at Brown, and one each in hippie economics and hippie law at a pre-college summer in Cornell, and this is the absolute limit and total extent of my formal education in the humanities. I don't even speak any languages, although I'm told I do a good Indian accent.

Instead I escaped alone to tell thee, for all I studied is computer science. And it is hard to make CS be about anything except actual computers and how to actually work the fsckers, although the Good Lord knows enough people have tried. In particular, there are, or at least in the early '90s were, a few schools that had very solid programs in system software, and I actually think I wound up with a very good basic education at about a master's level in CS.

Computer science, I hasten to say, is no less a human garbage disposal than any department at any school. It is just slightly less obvious about it. The blade is slower, the motor less powerful. Perhaps some useful activity exists in this field, perhaps there is some peach-pit stuck deep in its drain with a leaf or two of actual life clinging to the chewed and ruined stem, but do we really need to reach in and retrieve it? I mean, for example, so-called "programming language researchers" have not designed a new language whose reception among the townies, ie, actual programmers who actually program for a living, could be described as even remotely warm, certainly in the last 30 years and arguably ever. There is a reason CS's entire existence is notoriously debatable.

My only personal advantage in embarking on this heinous and obviously unprofitable course of study was that my parents worked for the US Federal Government, another institution whose abolition I consider urgent, if a slightly lower priority. Even while the Cold War was still on, the odor of Brezhnev was remarkable, especially where my father worked: at State, a department largely responsible for there having been a Brezhnev in the first place. (And whose tentpole can scarce conceal itself now that the EU is actually the sweet Eden those nasty Soviets would never quite let themselves be - but I digress.)

Unfortunately, when Uncle Sam's testicles expand and press outward, they emit the shocking odor of an adult male marmoset, and this stench is now apparent to everyone between here and Saturn with a nose. It is the smell of power.

As Navrozov explains, the word "power" in Russian means "possession" and is a cognate to the English word "wield." Since in a democracy public opinion is power and universities are the source of all legitimate opinion, they can be said in a sense to possess and wield our minds. So no one at a university should be surprised to smell the marmoset, not even in an innocent little department called "computer science," but I knew the stench from childhood and to say I was shocked would be an understatement.

(Of course, all your actual, official dissidents or "activists" are trained from an even earlier age to misidentify the organ behind this secretion. They cauterize the imaginary gland of their paranoid fantasies with bogus moxibustions, ointments and poultices, which applied to the actual source are not just ineffective but often even nourishing. They claim to be stopping the drip, they believe they are stopping the drip, they are sure if they flagged in their effort for a second it would become a full-on faucet or even a flood. In fact the effect of their labors is at best neutral, and often constitutes actual lactation. Though the whole system is a fine case of the proverbial self-licking ice-cream cone, not to mention a substantial source of distraction or as we naively call it "employment," we do need to remember that the origin of the fluid is not, in fact, a "scent gland.")

So - in any case, computer science. (And definitely not Hegel.)

The only professor I ever actually learned anything from, at least anything that an ordinary person can't learn out of a book (CS is not in general hard, and I avoided the hard parts), in one year at Johns Hopkins (don't ask), three at Brown, and one and a half at Berkeley (really don't ask), was a fellow by the name of F. Kenneth Zadeck, an assistant professor at Brown, who I'm very confident cannot identify me at all.

Zadeck was (and I think still is) a compiler man and a good one, one of the inventors of static single-assignment (SSA) form, an approach to compiler optimization (basically, making your binaries run as fast as possible) which was new then but has since been widely adopted. But all of this you can get out of a book. It was not the content but the way he taught that was special.

Zadeck ran his graduate seminars in a very interesting way. As in most graduate classes in CS, at least at that time, the style was to do papers. At Berkeley, for example, we would read three or four papers a week, and spend maybe half an hour discussing each. Basically the goal would be to look at this cool smart paper and see how clever the people who wrote it were. Could we be clever, like that? Perhaps we could.

This is not how it worked in Kenny's class. He did one paper a week. And basically his methodology would be to have us read this one paper - typically a very cool paper, by people who were clearly very smart - and discuss it for at least a couple of hours.

And Zadeck's goal was almost never to praise this paper. It was to rip it apart. It was to show us the clever ways in which the authors had disguised the fact that their work was, while still cool and certainly not inaccurate in any way, utterly useless for any practical purpose.

As, of course, are 99.99% of the things that all computer scientists have ever built. (It is an error to confuse the open-source community, which for example wrote Linux, with the academic CS world. Basically, the relationship is that the former would like the prestige and power of the latter, whereas the latter would like the success and productivity of the former. This is an unstable relationship and I think it's not hard to predict how it will play out.)

Zadeck's adversarial version of CS was incredibly fun. Not, of course, that as a good Brahmin child I needed any convincing, but it helped convince me to go to grad school. I wound up assuming, much like poor Navrozov, that this essentially critical, aesthetic and realistic approach was simply the right way to study system software, which would of course be the way that it was studied at a great center of the art such as Berkeley.

However, I did feel a slight twinge of concern at the realization that there was such a high level of what could only be called dishonesty in the profession. It was certainly not that the authors of these papers had failed to realize the drawbacks of their approaches, and it was also not that they had merely summarized the technical content and noted neither pros nor cons. Rather, they had explored the pros in lavish and impressive detail, and they had set up the entire structure of their problem to avoid the possibility that anyone might consider the cons. Hm.

Then there was the fact that as a class project I actually implemented Zadeck's SSA form, quite crudely of course, inside the GNU C compiler, which even then was a monster with hundreds of thousands of lines of code. I believe gcc has a proper implementation of SSA form now and I'm sure it works much better, and probably the fault was mine. But it disturbed me slightly that when I used my souped-up gcc, with this groundbreaking optimization model, to compile itself, it found something like three extra optimizations in the whole codebase. Hm.

In any case, off I went to Berkeley, where I had my real Navrozov moment. Basically, what I discovered at Berkeley was that the Zadeck approach to CS is an exception - to put it mildly.

My Navrozov moment at Berkeley came from the one and only paper I published, which was a clever way of reducing the time it takes for an operating system to "context switch," or shift between working on different processes. In a modern computer this depends on a piece of hardware called an MMU, which can be slow and cumbersome, so my paper described a way of securely separating two processes without using the MMU.

This was not even really my idea. I'd actually gotten it from a professor at Arizona, which had been my safety school and was nice enough to fly me out for a visit, whereas Berkeley knew I was lucky to have earned their blessing and didn't need to bother. I elaborated slightly on the Arizona professor's idea, giving him full credit of course, for my OS class at Berkeley, and the Berkeley professor was impressed enough to have me write it up and submit it to a minor conference, where it won "best student paper" - there being one other such.

In any case, this same problem was popular at the time - the only real way to succeed in CS is to invent a new problem which generates more employment for your peers - and other people at Berkeley were working on it. Two of these were a pair of third-year grad students whose names sounded a little like "Sacco and Vanzetti."

Sacco and Vanzetti came up with an entirely different solution to the slow-MMU problem, one which if I do say so myself was less imaginative than mine, but both more general and more practical. They published theirs in a real conference, received much acclaim for it, and I believe patented it, started a so-called company and eventually sold it to Microsoft. (Ah, Bayh-Dole.)

At some point during this period, however, I realized that the entire problem was a complete and utter pseudo-problem. The reason that an MMU context-switch is slow is that, when applied to the problem it was actually designed to solve, it is more than fast enough. The lily needed no gilding at all, and it certainly did not need to be nanofabricated from isotopically pure, individually selected gold atoms. Academic CS researchers at the time, for whatever ridiculous reason (probably something to do with microkernels), thought that there should be many more fine-grained security transitions in an OS environment. In fact if anything the trend is away from multiuser computing and toward virtualized or "shared-nothing" designs in which communication between protection domains is minimal. Furthermore, if this trend actually did reverse, which it hasn't, it would be very easy to fix MMU-based context switching to make it every bit as fast as needed.

So I am very confident that neither of these techniques, neither mine nor Sacco and Vanzetti's, has ever been used in practice. There is no need for them, there has never been any need for them, and there will never be any need for them. And this was quite obvious in 1993.

My Navrozov moment, of course, was when I approached one of the two - Sacco, I think - and attempted to have an intellectual discussion of this realization. The story is basically the same as Navrozov's, so it would be boring to repeat, but basically I came away with the feeling that I'd told someone his Sicilian grandmother liked to get drunk and fuck her own goats.

Which, in fact, I had. Because I'd essentially told him his research was fraudulent. The fact that my research was also fraudulent, and that neither of ours was particularly noteworthy in that regard, did not matter. And why should it? Others' crimes cannot excuse your own.

Of course "fraud" is a strong word in the world of science, or even "computer science." It has a generally-accepted technical definition which certainly none of us were violating. But it is also a word in the English language, and most nonscientists would agree that when you lie for money, you are committing fraud.

Suppose you are a CS researcher, let's say in the area of "programming languages." You are almost certainly a government contractor. You and/or your students are funded by a grant or grants, which you spent a considerable amount of effort in securing, in competition with many other researchers. The grant was approved by a board at an organization such as NSF or Darpa, and the reviewers were other researchers such as yourself - in fact, you may even know one or two of them. (Try to avoid using the word "mafia" - it is unseemly.) This outfit must in turn obtain its funding (the dirtiest word in the English language) from Congress, before which its lawyer-flanked flacks present themselves on a regular basis. Congress, in turn, receives its paycheck from good old Fedco, which gets it you know how.

As a PL researcher specifically, you are basically a mathematician. That is to say, your work consists largely of stating and proving propositions. For example, one popular area of PL research is what's called "proof-carrying code," which is solving a similar problem to the one that Sacco, Vanzetti and I were working on. It is also equally pointless, because the simplest possible form of "proof-carrying code" is what we programmers call "source code," and in practice the various approaches to this problem that have been proposed - such as "typed assembly language" - amount to no more than insanely-elaborate compression algorithms. Needless to say, no such thing has ever been deployed, and nor will it ever be.

But it is also a source of essentially permanent fascination to students and researchers the world over, because it creates an infinite variety of extremely difficult problems, which one can demonstrate one's intelligence by solving. And this is after all one of the main purposes of the university system: to employ extremely intelligent people, who might otherwise be out causing trouble, in tasks that consume their spare brainpower.

So let's look at how the fraud works in detail. Let's say you are a student working on one of the project groups working in this area - for example, there is one at Yale. Let's say you have some cool idea, for something everyone used to think was absolutely impossible - let's say, a type system in which one can write a provably-correct garbage collector. Quelle surprise! Of course, the resulting type system is expressed in the form of an 80-page proof, and the idea that any programmer would actually learn and use any such thing makes about as much sense as putting a Wal-Mart on top of Mount Everest and issuing pitons to the "greeters." But never mind all this. The idea is cool.

So it goes to the professor, who knows how to write grants, and it gets folded into the next grant proposal. A type system is of course essentially a security system - it ensures that your program will behave properly, and not be infected by viruses and such. And Congress is concerned about computer security, which, as we know, is part of national security. With a large quantity of skillful grantsmanship, and various euphemistic ambiguities at all levels, Aunt Gladys's tax dollars end up funding Feizhuang Zhu's type system, Prof. Smith's group gets its funding bumped by 10% and can take on another grad student or even a postdoc, and all is well in Mudville.

Except, of course, for the fact that the whole thing is basically a criminal enterprise, and all these crazy-smart people could actually be out doing real work, instead of spending their lives pulling each others' dicks in this bizarre, pathetic and dishonest manner.

The problem with CS - and I suspect in other sciences, such as physics, although I am certainly not qualified to fire so much as a BB gun in the great Woit-Motl war - is that science today is, contrary to popular belief, a business.

And it is a very special kind of business. In this business, there is exactly one customer, and his name is Uncle Sam. And there are no companies in this business - apart from your "mafia," you're on your own. You can get students to do your programming, true, but you have to do your own research and, more importantly, your own sales.

Selling to Uncle Sam is a fascinating problem. Uncle Sam wants his serfs to know that their tax dollars are being spent on top-notch research which will make America #1. If the dollars are being spent in the constituency of a Congressman with the right seniority, this is even better. Otherwise, Uncle Sam does not give a tinker's damn what he funds, as long as the result does not actually make him look like an idiot. Fortunately, Sen. Proxmire has departed this earth and all of your big-league journalists are pro-science pretty much the way Pat Robertson is pro-God, not to mention that if they have a BA in anything besides basketweaving it's a surprise, so Uncle Sam is unlikely to see any trouble from this front.

The optimization algorithm for Congress is obvious, which is to keep funding what you're already funding. Except for minor porcine concerns, Uncle Sam certainly has no reason to ever cancel, steer, or otherwise redirect any research direction. Why would he? How could he possibly know more than the researchers themselves? Who better to ask about string theory than the string theorists?

The result is that Fedco's approach to research bears some resemblance to that of the large, and often slightly Fedco-like, software-hardware corporations that have dominated the industry for quite some time. Typically these outfits employ large numbers of researchers, at places like Microsoft Research, Sun Labs, etc. And these researchers, who are PhD types from academia, receive some mild encouragement toward productive directions, but of course have actual rank and can't simply be told what to do, as if they were mere employees. For the most part (although with some exceptions), these corporate research arms, which are basically run as a tax writeoff and general prestige farm, are simply sponsoring these scientists' academic careers in a way that provides less status than working at a research university, but does not involve the onerous and degrading T-word.

The result is that the researchers wind up managing themselves. And one of the things I learned after I said my goodbyes to the whale is that, again contrary to popular belief, there is this thing called management and it's actually necessary. There are individuals who can be productive without active management, but there are no organizations that can. And when basic research is treated as a self-managing organization, you will get unproductive basic research. If you were previously unaware that there was any such thing, I'm sorry to have to break it.

Most managers are easy for a scientist to scam, in precisely the manner described above. It's a case of what economists call "asymmetrical information," and the result is that your research program is simply producing status and credibility for the scientist, who is in the business of demonstrating his intelligence, as if he was in the sixth grade. It takes a really talented manager - General Groves is the all-time great example - to get an organization of super-smart people to work together on a real problem. (It is worth noting that the Manhattan Project's personnel were veterans not of Federal science, but of course of prewar science, a system under which the profession of "grantwriter" was, I believe, unknown.)

If there is any equivalent of General Groves today, his name is certainly Steve Jobs. I have never worked in a Steve-run company, but I have certainly heard the stories. And my favorite is one I heard from an Apple QA guy (QA, ie testing, is basically the lowest-prestige profession in the Valley) around the time Steve was returning to Apple.

Heads were of course flying left and right, all sorts of people were moving offices and changing jobs and the like, and this guy Dan, who was a project lead or something, got called in by his manager. "Hey, we're moving to building X next week," said the manager.

"But isn't that where - ATG is?" ATG being the "Advanced Technology Group," ie, Apple's research arm. Which was of course the most prestigious arm of the octopus.

"Yeah," said the manager. "Hey, could you keep it under wraps for a little? I don't know if they've heard."

In fact, unless I have been misinformed, when Steve came back he laid off Apple's entire research division. No funding cuts, no baselines, nothing. He killed the whole thing, and from what I knew of what they were doing, it was nothing but richly deserved.

Now what do you think Steve Jobs would do if they made him President? Or CEO, perhaps, of Fedco? With a mandate from the board to perform an arbitrary reorg as he saw fit? Frankly, the mind boggles.

I actually haven't even started to explain how pernicious the university phenomenon is. For example, I haven't justified my claim that they are responsible for most of the violence in the world today. Please remain on this channel for further eccentric and informative broadcasts.

But I will repeat my policy proposal: I believe the only effective way to deal with the universities is the Henry VIII treatment. That is, unconditional abolition and confiscation. The endowments and campuses can be treated as rough compensation for the vast streams of subsidies the universities have received since 1945. Simply wrap the whole thing up and call it a day. Let it be summer all year long.

However, I am strongly opposed to any prosecution for anyone involved in the university system, even in exceptional cases such as that of Michael Mann. I feel it's much better to let bygones be bygones. I'm sure some will criticize me for this stand, but I will stick to it.


Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

Mencius, you're turning into your own grandfather! Please carry on...

July 11, 2007 at 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike the original, this is a Henry VIII treatment I can get solidly behind.


July 11, 2007 at 6:44 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

As someone whose entire income for the last 4 years has come from NIH, I must protest against your attack on the federally-funded university system. I quite enjoy the net transfer of wealth from U.S. taxpayers at large to me. Why are you threatening my welfare?

But seriously, you fail to mention an important detail: Federal science is indeed a fraudulent mafia, but it is an extremely competitive mafia in which only the smartest and most ruthless thrive. Smart and ruthless people produce good science as an incidental side effect of their ambitious efforts to secure more funding. When you pay protection money to the mafia, you do get real protection (although it may be rather expensive, and not a voluntary transaction).

Also, you should know that adult male marmosets do not stink in any remarkable way. They have a rather generic furry-animal musk.

July 11, 2007 at 7:05 PM  
Anonymous anony said...

I'm not even remotely knowledgeable, but I seriously doubt there has ever been anything like intellectual freedom at any time in the history of education. Rather, there has likely only been the relative freedom to espouse ideas within whatever domain happens to be in vogue. Most of the Profs I've come across were good folks, like you say, but just stuck in some way intellectually, probably do to some horrible trauma that took place in a high school. It's all just a vicious circle.

I suspect that this is really just a basic fact of human nature and that the current iteration of the education process merely reflects this. In other words, I doubt that anything that replaces it would or could be fundamentally different. If it could be, it might be due to some sort of natural progression, but I try not to think about that too much as the eschaton needs no more immanentizing than is currently under way.

As for the violence thing, I mostly agree except that I think at its best, the education system displaces violence--foists it upon societies remote and primitive, as it were. As I live in a peaceful, overeducated, and quite amusing university town, I'm fine with this. If I've been lulled into a soporific dreamy dream, then so be it.

But I also don’t believe that violence is a zero sum calculation, and maybe, just maybe we could eventually displace violence into a solely intellectual sphere; a kind of game playing that only involves mutually acceptable injuries. The UR-ICF is probably the start of something and you will someday be seen as the Savior. I wish I could play, but alas I have already suffered some very serious intellectual injuries stemming from a graduate degree and the severe indulgence in bongs and bongos. However, I will be its biggest fan. Is it too early to make t-shirts?

July 11, 2007 at 9:27 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

I simply cannot comment on anything in this post other than the claim about violence, because it is so implausible it blocks out all else. Ask Steven Pinker or Jared Diamond, both will tell you primitive man (without universities) was violent as all hell. Today if you want to know where most violence occurs, it's in the most primitive places where universities have the least influence. Now I will turn around your remarks on ultra/cypto calvinism. Am I to believe that something pervasive in location L at time T1 and also pervasive in that same location L at the present time T3 is actually the product of the universities which first rear their heads (ugly or otherwise) at time T2? Give me a break.

July 11, 2007 at 9:43 PM  
Blogger George said...

Interesting, I'd have to think about it more before deciding to what extent I (dis)agree... but in any event, your argument seems to be valid only for a special case: the large research university (which is your background).

What about smaller schools that don't receive substantial grants and whose faculty are primarily engaged in teaching?

Granted, many faculty at such institutions still publish, but such activities do not constitute the majority of their "jobs" as at large research institutions.

You're condemning the whole system for what appear to me to be the sins of a select few... after all, there are thousands of colleges and universities and only a few hundred that can be considered "research" institutions and these are the ones that suck up the vast majority of Uncle Sam's "protection money".

July 12, 2007 at 1:34 AM  
Blogger Mitchell said...

It's time for you to meet Celia Green.

July 12, 2007 at 1:38 AM  
Blogger Bruce G Charlton said...

Presumably abolishing universities is a thought-experiment, designed to trigger reflection on what they, and formal education generally, achieve?

What they are doing at this minute is impossible to understand, but I think we can see that in the past schools and universities functioned to inculcate abstract systematic thinking (AST): the kind of thing at which MM so excels.

But how did MM learn to do this?

Because AST has to come from somewhere cultural - it isn't spontaneous for humans. All humans were once hunter gatherers, and hunter gatherers are animists, who interpret the world as consisting of sentient, purposive beings - a world of human-like relationships (anything-but abstract).

Children are animistic too - and so would we be, if we hadn't grown up where and when we did.

Animism is culturally overwritten, to varying degrees, by AST - and a lot of this is done in schools and universities.

Or it was.

I wonder whether nowadays people don't learn AST as an accidental by-product of interacting with computers. If so, then maybe we could substantially dispense with universities?

Because once you have learned AST you can teach yourself.

(If you are sufficiently motivated - which a big 'if').

July 12, 2007 at 4:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha! Brilliant!

It's not just Uncle Sam who cares - this sort of thing is rampant all over the world.

I took part in this fraudulence when I applied for funding for an M.S. in Maths.

And boy, is my M.S. a farce (I won't post a link, because as much as I don't mind dissing myself, I would also be placing the reputations of others in jeopardy). I worked out some algorithms to help with the computation of a completely pointless graph parameter. It was fun; my programming skills certainly improved and I learned a new (human) language during the M.S. But that's it.

Having experienced first hand what many mathematicians do, I can only say it matches what you describe - if a problem is too hard, make up a new (pointless) problem! You can get 1-2 papers out of describing the problem and solving the easy cases. Repeat 2-3 times a year and you get your quota of 4 papers.

It's not only the researchers' fault. If they don't churn out a steady stream of papers, they get sacked. Working on hard problems is, well, hard. You might only churn out one paper every so often if you choose this path.

I wish universities were different. But as long as we treat everything like a business, we'll get the kind of garbage we see.

July 12, 2007 at 4:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my previous posting, I meant to say that my M.S. thesis is a farce. But by extension, so is the degree I have behind my name.

July 12, 2007 at 4:57 AM  
Anonymous Herr Ziffer said...

I laughed so hard, some of my morning mocha frappochino came out my nose.

Some second degree burns. My lawyer will be contacting your lawyer.

July 12, 2007 at 6:13 AM  
Anonymous PA said...

Mencius: you're not leaving David Chase-style loose ends on your blog, are you?

You ended the "Mysteries of Pacifism" post with the following: "How do pacifists, or cryptocalvinists in general, decide who is righteous and who is not?"

That's the Pine Barrens' Russian I'm waiting for to turn up again.

July 12, 2007 at 7:23 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

It seems to me that Anonymous from post 9 thinks the problem is too much accountability while Mencius thinks it's too little. Hmm. Is any agreement here for actual content as opposed to affect.

While we are on the topic, what do the posters think of Mandrainate. To me, 400 years of VERY slow decline from what is historically speaking a VERY high level of civilization looks REALLY good compared to other plausible options.

July 12, 2007 at 8:34 AM  
Blogger Donnie said...

One thing that I find interesting about the education system is that it is among the institutions that are least amenable to change in this country. In this regard, the education system stands together with government.

This resistance to change and to embracing change, at a time when change is coming exponentially faster, is harmful.

I thought your comments provided some insight into why this problem exists.

July 12, 2007 at 9:06 AM  
Anonymous Stirner said...

A more moderate (and petard foisting approach) would be to apply to the Universities the same sort of policies they have long recommended:

1) Price controls on tuition rates.

2) Wage control on faculty salaries.

3) Let's give them a little "skin in the game" on federal financial aid and make schools 50% responsible for the student loan debts that default. That would go along way toward stemming the minting of 80K "Communications" degrees that get you a job working at Starbucks.

Three simple steps, and the system would implode in short order.

July 12, 2007 at 9:29 AM  
Anonymous Zimri said...

Why let bygones be bygones? There are several departments in many prestigious universities, for instance in Cornell, which came into existence through violence and remain in existence due to the threat thereof.

Those involved in such departments do deserve prosecution for extortion, including hard prison time.

July 12, 2007 at 9:59 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

This post reminded me of my late uncle, a distinguished medical doctor and teacher of medicine, who eventually rose to chair his department and served as dean of research at a large midwestern state university. Some years after he retired he was invited to attend a conference of senior faculty and administrative personnel on "The Future of the University." After hearing several of these people speak he rose to remark that the one question they had not addressed that they should have done was, did the University deserve a future? Needless to say, that was not what anyone wanted to hear, and discussion proceeded as if the question had never been raised.

The university as an institution has approached irrelevance several times in its history. Most of the new learning of the Renaissance, the great revival of classical studies, took place amongst small groups of learned men and leisured aristocrats outside the universities. They formed "academies" and learned societies in which they could discuss the literature and philosophy that had been rediscovered, not in the universities, but by men of letters like Petrarch and by wealthy collectors of manuscripts like Cosimo di Medici. After a century or so, the classics were finally co-opted by the universities, where they soon ceased to be the province of readers for whom they contained living wisdom, and fell into the hands of the gerund-grinders.

Early natural science was burgeoning at about the time the classics started to be sapped of life by the university, and for a couple of blessed centuries the sciences flourished in similar learned cenacles, like the Accademia dei Lincei or the Royal Society, while the inmates of the colleges considered such mere mechanical activities unworthy to soil their dainty fingers. Galileo, Boyle, Huyghens, etc., were not university men; Newton's university appointment was in mathematics, not the natural sciences. As late as the early nineteenth century, most scientists were not of the university, but operated outside it, e.g., Rumford, Davy, or Faraday. While there are isolated examples here and there of university instruction in the sciences as early as the late 17th century (e.g., Barchusen at Utrecht, Boerhaave at Leyden), Iaboratory education in physics and chemistry at universities did not really gain acceptance until after 1850. Independent scientist-inventors, e.g., Lammot du Pont, the Maxim brothers, Edison, or Tesla, continued to be dominant in this country until World War I gave the first government funding to institutionalized research.

I believe the IT field is one in in which the monopoly of the university on certifying practitioners as learned is currently being challenged. A bank of which I'm a director recently lost one of its promising young officers in the IT field. He was the only person in his pay grade without a university degree, and had he stayed he had been on track to be our CIO, maybe even CFO. And he didn't quit to take a better job - he did so just to take some time to enjoy life and leisure. I guess people are having mid-life crises now at age 30. At any rate, the IT field is one in which even the conservative financial sector recognizes that the possession of a university degree is no touchstone, that competence is an urgent necessity, and there is no confusion of credentials with competence. I hope this way of thinking in business spreads outside that field. At any rate, I wonder whether, and if so how, the universities will respond to this challenge to their position as gatekeepers at the entrance to the palladium of prosperity and influence. And you can be sure that is how they will view it - the university's respect for real skills or love of learning is purely secondary, if even that.

July 12, 2007 at 10:22 AM  
Anonymous Matthew said...

The University has become everything that it's former nemesis, the Catholic Church embodied at the time of Galileo. You've done a great job of outlining that here.


July 12, 2007 at 11:00 AM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

A post-script: seeing universities and the mafia mentioned in chairmank's comment reminds me that the two institutions are quite compatible with each other.

A few years ago the influence of the 'Ndrangheta (the Calabrian equivalent of the Mafia) at the university of Messina. I don't know how to paste the URL into this comment, but if one Googles "Ndrangheta university of Messina" one will get several links to articles on it. Here are a few excerpts from the London Daily Telegraph's article, "Crackdown at university run by Mafia for 25 years":

"One of Italy's leading universities has been infiltrated by the Calabrian Mafia for 25 years, say investigators.

"They made the claim after police arrested 37 academics, doctors and students linked to the University of Messina in Sicily last week. A furher 79 professors and researcher have been placed under investigation.

"The unprecedented police raid, which has shocked the rest of Italian academia, followed a three-year inquiry into allegations of Mafia-run violence and corruption at the 452-year-old institution.

"Italy's university system is famously corrupt with rampant nepotism and sinecures, but Mesina i the only university to have been exposed as having direct mafia connections.

"In recent years two Messina professors have been kneecapped by unknown assailants, four bombs have exploded in university buildings, and the cars of several academics have been set on fire outside their homes...

"One university source, who refused to be named, said: 'Threats and the possibility of violence were always in the background here...

"Led by Giuseppe Morabito, nicknamed 'Shootstraight,' the clan's agents in Messina turned the university into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favoured associates. Many of the beneficiaries were friends or relatives of politicians whom the mafiosi wished to cultivate..."

The article goes on to report threats of violence against professors unless certain students passed their exams, sales of "exam packages" that could clear the way to a degree, rigged elections to governing bodies at the university, and 'Ndrangheta infiltration of positions of influence in the faculty senate and the student's union.

In other words, the 'Ndrangheta did just about everything at Messina that the Frankfurt-school Marxists and their paramilitary of "student activists" did in the American university system during the 'sixties. The extent to which student "occupations" (and trashings) of administrative offices were really about getting favored treatment for members of certain groups, e.g., blacks and Hispanics, who did not on their merits qualify for degrees, is seldom discussed publicly but will often be confessed in private conversation by academic officials. A friend of mine, who retired some years ago as a dean of one of the colleges in the City University of New York system told me as much, musing that at least the last time the Puerto Rican students occupied his office, they left the bottle of Irish whiskey in his filing cabinet alone. Now, while I am no teetotaler, I have never kept a drop of liquor in my office, but if I had to deal with what my friend did, I'd probably have taken up drinking on the job as well.

July 12, 2007 at 12:52 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

To embed links write [a href="""]text that is to be a link[/a] with [ and ] replaced with < and > respectively.

I think the mafia gets a bad rap. They sell me booze when the government prohibits it. The government does all sorts of crazy nonsense to me that's supposed to be for my own good and won't stop no matter how hard I try to dissuade them. See Caplan's voters ad mad scientists.

July 12, 2007 at 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Michael S. said...

Thank you, tggp, for the instruction on links.

You're undoubtedly right about the Mafia. They at least understand markets. The academy could be no worse, and might indeed be better, if Joe Bonnanno and Carlo Gambino had traded places with Kingman Brewster and Grayson Kirk. On the other hand, organized crime would undoubtedly have suffered.

July 12, 2007 at 7:04 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I am happy to be corrected on the marmosets! I always suspected they had a bad rap. Presumably whatever keeps crawling into my basement is something more oily - a civet, perhaps. But it is definitely male.

My impression is that biomedical research is among the healthiest fields around, largely because there is actually an infinite amount of real work to be done - it is not so necessary to invent it.

Nonetheless I suspect it could be quite a bit more efficiently directed. For example, one of the things I notice about biomedical research is that a lot more money goes into using the toys than into improving the toys.

If you look back at the work people were doing in the '80s, say, there were all of these enormous painful efforts to clone or sequence some gene, which with the tools of 2007 you could do in an afternoon. Presumably the researchers of 2027 will have some similar observations. Or am I completely offbase on this?

In any case, I certainly believe that if anything not enough people are working on biomedical research, but I think - even without converting NIH's yearly budget into Fedco dividends - private organizations could do a much better job of administering the effort. It is simply impossible for political appointees to manage scientists, but someone has to do it.

July 12, 2007 at 7:53 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


The world may not be flat, as per T. Friedman, but it is flatter than it looks. I certainly don't think the universities have an influence on between New Guinean highlanders, who presumably are bashing each other over the head as they always have. But Iraq is another story.

As a quick example: Frantz Fanon. I find it hard to imagine either Osama or Saddam without Fanon, who is still very, very popular on campus.

Very briefly - I will cover this - it was once the conventional wisdom that the way to suppress violence was by defeating it. Gibbon in the 1770s assumed that barbarism would never return to Europe, and that European arms would rapidly defeat it in the rest of the world. To say it hasn't turned out that way is an understatement.

July 12, 2007 at 8:04 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Unfortunately, I am not sure that everyone is born with a knack for abstract thinking. (And I definitely don't think anyone who is born with such a knack is in any way morally superior to one who isn't.)

But for those who are, the place to develop it is high school, I think, not university. This was primarily the goal of the old classical curriculum, and I think my thinking would be much more systematic if I had benefited from it, instead of just being bored and angry.

People will always need a place to teach and learn from each other, and they will always need ways to know who is worth learning from. But the question always is: if this didn't exist, would you invent it? I am not sure we would invent anything much like the universities we have inherited from the 20th century.

July 12, 2007 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

michael S.,

Indeed. The formal Western university is a millennium old and has adapted to many things. It will probably survive the 21st century, if we do. But the longer it goes without competition, the greater the chance that it will be too inflexible to adapt when such competition does appear.

The exercise of this post was an attempt to construct a possible future from whose perspective the extinction of the university, at least as we now know it, would seem obvious and inevitable. Of course, from the perspective of the future, the course of events always seems obvious and inevitable. But when, for example, we draw the line between the student violence of the '60s and the political correctness of today, we can see that such a narrative is not at all strained. All it lacks is popularity, and popularity is a thing that can change fast.

"IT" is not one field but an enormous variety of specialties, and in many of these credentialism is still going strong. But there is no doubt that there is a general feeling of working in a liberated profession that is invigorating.

One historical comparison is to the political base of 19th-century Manchester liberalism and its various precursors, who supported "free trade" because they worked in industries that were new, and thus had not been mercantilized into guild stagnation. IT libertarianism definitely has something in common with this trend, although it remains much weaker and more diluted. But perhaps its Cobden and Bright will come as well!

You might enjoy Bruce Sterling's classic "steampunk" sci-fi novel, The Difference Engine, set in an alternative Victorian Britain in which mechanical computing a la Babbage has created an early IT revolution.

I love the academic 'Ndrangheta...

July 12, 2007 at 8:26 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


The problem with the smaller schools is (a) that their intellectual content all comes from the prestigious seaboard universities, and thus reflects intellectual fashions whose origins can be quite caught up with the power game - at least on the humanities side; and (b) that, again on the humanities side, most of the people who are attending these programs are doing so as an extended version of high school, ie, their reason for enrolling is generally unrelated to the material they are studying.

Certainly when it comes to science, engineering and medicine, these caveats do not apply. But I suspect technical skills could be taught much more cheaply and effectively without the traditional university baggage. Today's private higher education industry has to subsist on the scraps from its subsidized competition, and is not really representative of what might exist if the playing field were leveled.

July 12, 2007 at 8:35 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Anything that makes it implode is fine by me!


But do you really want to give them anything else to complain about?


If I had any organizational skills, would I be writing this stuff? But I'll get there, I promise.

July 12, 2007 at 8:37 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

Once again, Mencius, I think you overstate the importance of intellectuals. Lenin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh and the gang were old-line "anti-imperialists" that seized power without Fanon. It is through them that later "national liberators" emerged.

It is true that the ones you might link to Fanon were, unlike the ones I've mentioned, not explicitly communist. However, the basic ideas were in bolshevism long before Fanon and were merely adapted for their time and place. In addition, possibly the most important decolonialist event was the independence of India, which occurred in 1947, whereas Fanon did not publish Black Skin, White Mask until 1952.

Saddam (who lacks the sort of extra-perverted idealist liberalism I would associate with the Fanonites, even while I concede that Osama and many others of that ilk possess it) be considered an imitation Nasser (if we don't trace it all the way back to fascism), who seized power in 1952, but had already formed the "Free Officers" in 1949. The Mau Mau rebellion (rather pure Fanon-style black anger at white colonialism without other ideological baggage) began in 1952, but like Nasser's coup had been developing for some time before then. I don't really see any way in which Fanon is necessary for what we saw later. Finally, Fanon wasn't even a professor, so I think the academia connection is weak. Like Rawls, I think he is an ideologue that served as a figurehead for something he did not create and was not responsible for.

Speaking of decolonization, I just remembered a first world example of a military coup: the Movimento das Forças Armadas, which is responsible for the independence of Angola and the rest. And no, I don't attribute General Spinola's "Portugal e o futuro" to Fanon.

July 12, 2007 at 9:47 PM  
Anonymous ru said...

Certainly most computer scientists do oversell their research and do omit even basic arguments that would show their research to be incorrect or irrelevant, but I am willing to believe that often it is not conscious or intentional but rather the result of the operation of the widespread human bias toward self-interest. It looks like you are less prone to this bias and consequently better able to perceive reality correctly than most people, but I suggest that you would become slightly more persuasive if you did not assume that the behavior is conscious and intentional -- though I concede that it yields highly nonoptimal outcomes even when it is not intentional.

July 12, 2007 at 11:30 PM  
Anonymous PA said...

Mencius: re. Mysteries of Pacifism entry "How do pacifists, or cryptocalvinists in general, decide who is righteous and who is not?"

I'll look forward to when you can discuss this. I think that out would go a long way toward understanding the past 60 years.

July 13, 2007 at 8:28 AM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Yes, all very true, but I fail to see the difference between Unqualified Reservations and any random sample of university discourse -- i.e. both are utterly useless save for the entertainment of the participants.
(including me - I love your links)

Speaking of which -- when considered as a business that delivers a product
(official qualifications) what would you imagine to be the level of customer satisfaction ?

July 13, 2007 at 6:11 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Oh, Fanon was certainly not the first. The Marxist anti-imperialist line had been clear for quite some time. I cited Fanon merely for the appalling hatred and overt incitement to murder and mayhem of which he is such a fine example, and his continuing popularity in the university world, where "postcolonial studies" largely follows in his footsteps.

I really find no reason at all to pick a favorite between Fanon and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. What would you think if your local community college had an Aryan studies program that prominently featured Chamberlain, Rosenberg, etc?

Regardless, none of the anticolonialist movements succeeded by purely military or even purely local means. They all depended on alliances with political movements in the colonizing countries, and since the latter were the necessary ingredient the guerrillas are best seen as the tail, not the dog. And this is certainly a new development in the 20th century - no politician in Victorian England would have dreamed of defending, say, the Mahdi.

The first hints of the 20th century model are visible in the Boer and Philippine wars, both of which were won by the colonialists but not without some domestic opposition. Later it began to go exclusively in the other direction.

This is easiest to see when you look at the uniform failure of violent movements that did not enjoy the sympathy of Western intellectuals - the OAS in Algeria is an excellent example.

Movements like the Mau Mau don't happen unless they have a chance of succeeding, because people aren't stupid. And they only have a chance of succeeding if they can defeat their militarily superior Western forces with political victories at home.

That Wikipedia page on the MFA is laughably POV. The "Carnation Revolution" was a socialist coup - Portugal was lucky not to end up in the Soviet bloc. The Estado Novo was essentially without intellectual legitimacy by 1974, and it was easy prey for the wave of leftist agitation sweeping the Western world. The domino effect didn't stop in Southeast Asia, and it carried on from there - for example, the fall of Portugal was to a substantial extent the proximate cause of the destruction of Rhodesia.

July 14, 2007 at 1:43 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


Oh, you are absolutely right.

The problem is that I am not really a believer in conscious malice. Not that it doesn't exist, but I think by far the majority of evil is done by folks who are sincere and well-intentioned. It is hard to remind myself that most people don't agree with me on this, and so I tend to make this mistake often.

July 14, 2007 at 1:45 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


The difference is that I admit it!

In fact I will go slightly farther - I write this blog entirely for my own entertainment. The fact that it entertains me to try to entertain others is coincidence only, and thus it would be entirely counterproductive to try to adjust it to the needs of the audience.

July 14, 2007 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger chris miller said...

Ooops -- I didn't make myself clear -- my question concerned the customer satisfaction with universities,not U.R..

Let's say your Henry VIII does manage to convert every campus into a wetlands restoration project.

Wouldn't customer need summon them immediately (for the rich) and eventually (for everyone else) back into existence ?

Chairman Mao -- the Chinese Henry VIII -- managed to shut every university in China -- but even he couldn't keep them down for more than 4 years.

July 14, 2007 at 6:13 PM  
Anonymous tggp said...

his continuing popularity in the university world, where "postcolonial studies" largely follows in his footsteps.
I am claiming that this part is not a significant cause of the Saddams, Osamas etc. The popularity of Che shirts among Berkley students at any time has pretty much no linkage to the prevalence of foquismo in latin america (by the way I'm reading Daniel Moran's "Wars of National Liberation" now, and the analysis of the failure of Che's popular ideas on revolution outside of Cuba as well as the effectiveness of simple ruthlessness in latin america is delicious).

Movements like the Mau Mau don't happen unless they have a chance of succeeding, because people aren't stupid.
Sure they do. As long as there has been empires and colonies such things have happened. The Boxer Rebellion, with their belief that kung fu protected them from bullets had no chance. The War Nerd on Om is also a good example of complete self defeating idiocy. Do you think the Greeks and Romans didn't ever experience them even at their most determined and brutal (I'm not saying the frequency is independent, but I am saying that PEOPLE ARE STUPID).

This is easiest to see when you look at the uniform failure of violent movements that did not enjoy the sympathy of Western intellectuals - the OAS in Algeria is an excellent example.
I actually think the FNF and OAS did more for the FLN than intellectuals like Fanon and Sartre ever did. De Gaulle was the most important on the right and on the French political scene. They made him their mortal enemy, along with much of France when they basically went to war with it. If the pieds noires had their own country independent of France, as white Rhodesians and Afrikaaners had, they would have lasted much longer.

Regarding Portugal, it seems to have turned out alright. It was already the poorest country in western europe before it, and as far as I know it didn't really get much worse. I'll have to think a bit more of its impact on Rhodesia (when have the English much cared for the priest-ridden wogs of the Iberian peninsula?). Do you have any sources of information you'd recommend? Britannica to me seemed better than Wikipedia on the Carnation Revolution.

July 14, 2007 at 8:55 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


It depends. At a minimum, an unsubsidized university would look very different from the existing subsidized one. However, the real question is whether you have a system of government in which the opinions of intellectuals command political power. Any such system will devolve into a theocracy, Henry VIII or not.

July 16, 2007 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...


I think you are greatly underestimating the extent to which the respect of First World intellectuals underpinned and still underpins national-socialist regimes in the Third World.

This respect is if anything the principal component of what Mosca called the "political formula" of these regimes. The likes of Castro and Chavez, not to mention Ben Bella, would never have gotten anywhere near as far as they did if they presented themselves as mere caudillos or gangster-politicians.

People in these countries are not stupid, and the claim that Cuba or Venezuela differs from the First World because it is, in fact, more advanced in its development - rather than being, as these countries actually are, barbaric backwaters dominated by militaristic personality cults - is, however threadbare, essential to the tiers-mondiste style of government.

The Mahdists or the rebels of the Indian Mutiny were very, very different from 20th-century insurgencies like the Mau Mau. They were actually dying gasps of genuine indigenous cultures. By the 20th century, every such culture had been eradicated.

There is a reason 20th-century Third World nationalism looks the same everywhere - it's because it is. All of its national traditions are fabricated or rediscovered, like Ossian, Wicca or Kwanzaa. For better or for worse, no genuinely indigenous non-Western civilized tradition survived, at least not as a continuous chain of instruction, into the last century.

You are wrong about the OAS. In fact what happened is that De Gaulle screwed the French right - he was put into power by people whom he had led to believe would preserve Algerie francaise. He saw that the political wind was changing (to quote Harold Macmillan) and changed with it, and when he did he made the Salans of the world his enemy, not the other way around. The classic treatment of the affair is Henissart's Wolves in the City.

As for Rhodesia, the dependency was much more down-to-earth: Rhodesia was militarily dependent on support from either Mozambique or South Africa, and preferably both. After Mozambique was evacuated, it was predictable that the hairy-backed morons who ran South Africa would stab Rhodesia in the back in a desperate and dishonest attempt to buy off the West, which is exactly what they did. Ian Smith is not a very good writer, but his memoirs are still worth reading.

Unfortunately I cannot really cite any sources on Portugal, as most of my knowledge arrived through osmosis (my father was the US consul in Oporto for a couple of years). The 1974 revolution included many elements, some of which were explicitly communist, and fortunately the latter were later defeated. However, this was much too little and too late to save Mozambique and Angola.

July 16, 2007 at 11:10 AM  
Anonymous tggp said...

This respect is if anything the principal component of what Mosca called the "political formula" of these regimes. The likes of Castro and Chavez, not to mention Ben Bella, would never have gotten anywhere near as far as they did if they presented themselves as mere caudillos or gangster-politicians.
Imagine a hypothetical in which the first world does not exist, or pays no mind to the third world and its political movements. Wouldn't the thugs still want to present themselves as national liberators rather than gangsters? Does the "stationary bandit" or those that aspire to that condition often present itself otherwise? Many of the War Nerd's columns are on "wars nobody watched". Are the people responsible for those any different from other third world shitbags? No, like you said they are all the same (the reason I think is that, as Steve Sailer pointed out, rednecks are the norm and Puritans/Quakers are the exception). In Nepal they've still got a monarchy (as in real, not constitutional), which should be perfect fodder for the liberals since as you noted, their central myth is that we still live under those evil things. I virtually never hear a peep about Nepal from them. Maoists are waging a civil war there. Do you think those Maoists care what we think? They're so disconnected they're barely aware of our existence. I simply don't see much of a mechanism by which first world intellectuals bolster the rule of third world thugs and the latter provide anything to the former (unlike the Mau-Mauers inside first world countries, who fight on the battlefield that actually concerns those intellectuals).

De Gaulle does not strike me as much of the professional politician, alert and receptive to "changing political winds". When he didn't get what he wanted he would stomp off in a huff.

July 16, 2007 at 6:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

De Gaulle's huffs were always theatrical. He drove Churchill up the wall with it. His disingenuity was legendary and always effective.

Actually, when the political formula of the day was monarchy, would-be state-capturers liked to concoct threadbare claims to monarchical legitimacy - Perkin Warbeck being a classic example. China was also full of this trope - in the Qing dynasty, every crappy little bandit was some long-lost scion of the Ming.

Note that there is none of this in Nepal, even though it actually still is a monarchy, which I think is a good example of how the winds have changed.

The people who support the Nepali Maoists are very, very backward. The same could be said for the old Sendero Luminoso in Peru, or the Naxalites in India, whose ideology I believe is similar. It is impressive that anyone can convince said peasants that they are on the wave of the future, but I suspect it is not inconsistent with their other beliefs about the world.

In any case, this late Maoism is a very different phenomenon than that of, say, Chavez in Venezuela. And less dangerous to civilization, certainly.

The mechanism is simple. If you are actually on the wave of the future, you can expect to sweep to power and stay there. If you are not on the wave of the future, you shouldn't be paddling for it, so to speak.

One thing that even the poorest Nepali peasant knows is that the First World exists, and Nepal is not exactly the center of it. In other words, he knows that water flows downhill, not uphill. "National liberation movements" were dependent on First World intellectuals for exactly this reason - they made what, in the 19th century, would have been regarded as backward bandits, seem like the wave of the future. And we all want to ride that wave, man.

July 17, 2007 at 11:36 AM  
Anonymous tggp said...

De Gaulle's huffs were always theatrical. He drove Churchill up the wall with it. His disingenuity was legendary and always effective.
The man resigned from French politics after serving as President for a while when they didn't rewrite the constitution to his liking, and then twiddled his thumbs until (about 12 years later) the Fourth Republic was replaced with the Fifth. When the referendum he proposed in 1969 failed, he quit again. Is that's disingenuity, it's not very crafty disingenuity.

China was also full of this trope - in the Qing dynasty, every crappy little bandit was some long-lost scion of the Ming.
Obviously this was in order to win the support of European monarchist intellectuals!

In any case, this late Maoism is a very different phenomenon than that of, say, Chavez in Venezuela. And less dangerous to civilization, certainly.
It is true that while Chavez has called himself a socialist, I don't think he's ever called himself a Marxist (he talks a lot about Jesus, which Marxists generally don't). It is also the case that while his rhetoric is very out-there, he hasn't really carried out the kind of reforms that might be expected from one full of leftist ideology, as opposed to your standard issue third world authoritarian. I don't see how Chavez is dangerous to anyone other than Venezuelans though.

The mechanism is simple. If you are actually on the wave of the future, you can expect to sweep to power and stay there.
Marxism hasn't been "the wave of the future" for quite a long time. Sure, after the Russian revolution there were attempts in places considered ripe for it, like Germany. But Stalin realized the international workers revolt was not coming and focused on the nationalist route in Russia. In the 30s it seemed like there was enough of a crisis in advanced capitalist countries that revolution could happen, but communism lost handily there years before it started sweeping the third world. Trotskyites, if I recall correctly, have never taken power anywhere (neoconservatives in America don't count). Tito and Mao were both too Stalinist, which led to their squabbles with Russia. I would say that by the time the Sino-Soviet split, marxist movements didn't really the first world to be converted, and they were primarily interested in their own neighborhood (all politics is local, after all). As Marxism lost out to nationalist and religious causes, the connection to the first world became all the more tenuous. A capitalist and communist can have a reasonable debate about the merits of their system. Afterward it was not about ideas, but tribalism, and you can't really argue tribalism.

One thing that even the poorest Nepali peasant knows is that the First World exists, and Nepal is not exactly the center of it. In other words, he knows that water flows downhill, not uphill.
Maoism doesn't even have a chance in China anymore, let alone Europe and the United States. Do you think the Nepalese peasants give a shit? The strength of the insurgency despite all that speaks otherwise.

"National liberation movements" were dependent on First World intellectuals for exactly this reason - they made what, in the 19th century, would have been regarded as backward bandits
The Taiping and Boxer rebellions cared a lot of legitimacy. Did they care what western intellectuals thought of them? Of course not, when you're the younger brother of jesus and your kung-fu deflects bullets, who needs pointy-headed palefaces!

seem like the wave of the future. And we all want to ride that wave, man.
And western intellectuals viewed Saddam, Osama and so on as the wave of the future? I suppose Michel Foucalt can be pointed out for his support of the ayatollahs, but I honestly think they would have preferred if the oh-so-counter-cultural frenchman was sputtering about how rigid and backward they were.

July 17, 2007 at 4:44 PM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

And we all want to ride that wave, man.
I'm dubious about this also. In the west thses days there's a pretty widespread belief in a glorious future, but I think in most of the world for most of history the general attitude is that the glory days were in the distant past and the future is generally going to consist of continuing decay.
I think for a third world nationalist the idea of reclaiming a romanticised past could easily as appealing as the idea of leapfrogging the west into the future, and wouldn't be nearly as obviously absurd.

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