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Culture War Roundup for the week of October 17, 2022

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My response on reddit:

Welp. This is checkmate.

Can't say I'm surprised (though I should be, my predictions were wrong on many points, especially technical). It's sad there weren't a few more years to prepare for the shock; but life is one big IQ test and many will not make the cut this time. I haven't even made it to China (but now there are seemingly other options to get nuked and dodge the terror of the next stage). My life plan was to survive to old age in the poor underbelly of the Chinese empire, in a Southeast Asian/South American satellite or maybe in some African neocolony – imagine that. How optimistic. There will be one singleton and he won't allow any escape hatches, any crypto bullshit or any «multipolar» outcomes. Expelled from Paradise seems positively Utopian now, too.

Of course the US would wipe the slate clean all at once, as soon as any of the Axis of Evil members takes the bait; it has the advantage to do so – since 1940s, probably. It was impossible to build the domestic IC industry without increasing involvement with the US, and therefore impossible not to increase your attack surface for stuff like this.

All those alarmist articles about China growing to eclipse the US by 2032 or whatever, and then making a move on Taiwan... (On Iran making da bomb...) If it's clear to analytics what «will» happen in 2025-2032, then why wait and allow it to happen? Why not counter it the instant the advantage is sufficient, if that's what is plainly implied? Did everyone buy into the assumption that American decision makers are uninformed bureaucrats just going through the motions reactively, because that's implied by how some of our pet priorities with high expected utility get treated? Just the psyop known as Hanlon's razor?

I wonder if prior to WWII there were alarmist writings on the topic of ascendant Germany and Japan, sure to swallow the civilization whole. Or about communism in 1989.

Earlier discussion.

My belief is that I cannot predict the details of the next stage and will inevitably get embarrassed, but that my Political Von Neumanns thesis will be vindicated, as it is already vindicated by this extremely effective economic war – a classic problem with predicting entities smarter than oneself. The US of A is one of a handful of countries with intelligent elites, and it's an economic, military, cultural hegemon, therefore possessing great freedom of action. Its laws, sanctions, fashions and even risible delusions of its campus activists hold exterritorial power. It will win one way or another; does it matter which disaster move exactly they'll get to exploit? China, meanwhile, has only disaster moves left.

Open military moves? What can that achieve? (Though I'd have advised an attempt at annexing Taiwan, and escalation to a total nuclear war. It won't do them any good in the moment but may secure some possibility for surviving people of Han background to have agency in the future. Naturally, no sane decision maker and no CCP apparatchik reasons like that). There's no chance of a fait accompli annexation, especially after the Ukrainian case. They'll have all targets of value destroyed, probably fail the annexation anyway, get embargoed and starve; strategically significant Taiwanese will either refuse to cooperate or flee with American and Japanese aid. Even in the absolute best case, by the point PRC gets anywhere with plugging seized assets into their supply chains and replacing the unobtainable imports, Americans will be launching domestic 3nm fabs and finishing their military AGI development.

Keep biding their time, now with deflating economy? To what end? In a few years, Taiwan will leapfrog the Mainland in military technology both domestic and imported, and eventually declare independence and enter defensive pacts, precluding the success of conventional attacks. I have to remind people here that the idea was to build competitive economy in Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, edging out Taiwanese businesses, brain-draining the island, lowering the «Taiwanese identity»'s relative prestige and eventually just swallowing it by fiat, sort of like it was done with Hong Kong (and even then it relied much more on brute force). Can't really do that when the gap with Taiwan is growing, not shrinking; the gap in scientific productivity e.g. Nature Index, GDP per capita, comprehensive economic health, life satisfaction, everything.

Economic action? Like what? They need the world more than the world needs them; much of our common prosperity over the last few decades is powered by Chinese labor, and we shall weep for its passing, but prosperity is not strategically vital. Even those fancy new TSMC chips are not vital – Arizona, Israel, South Korea can produce adequate ones. Everything that the Chinese do is commodified and reliant on higher-margin, more sophisticated Western tools which could just as well be utilized to rebuild industry elsewhere. Realistically they only have monopoly on rare earth metals, and it's wholly a matter of political will on the West, preparedness to weather a few hard years. I am positive that when presented with the frame of an «existential conflict with fascists», people of the «free world» will not just forgo buying another iPhone but proudly starve and freeze to death, if politely asked to. The assumption of materialism and small-mindedness of the opposing side is a characteristic failure mode of authoritarian regimes, and in this particular case a projection (same story with jaded Russian «ilita»).

In the end it's very trivial. Rule one: be attractive. Rule two: Don't be unattractive. If you cannot attract talent and cannot keep domestic talent in, you will fail – you'll just bleed to half-death and begin making erratic self-defeating moves that only talentless people consider reasonable. Of course, if you lack talent yourself, you'll fail to realize the depth of those rules to begin with. Xi is not very talented, and it seems like he doesn't listen to talented people.

So it goes.

Political Von Neumanns thesis

I've been meaning to address this thesis for a while, but always missed the time window of when your posts on it were fresh, so here goes nothing anyway. I think there is a difference between the natural sciences and the political/interpersonal domain in that we have figured out (or at least made very nontrivial advances on) the question of how to preserve, filter for quality and transmit knowledge in the former, but I don't see the evidence that the same happened for the latter. Von Neumann may have been a genius, but he still went to school and learned from teachers who learned from textbooks built upon generations more of textbooks and teachers, and whatever innate abilities he had served him well in a world that was already a well-kept garden of formalisms and abstractions and symbol-pushing problems that he could crunch in his oversized cranium. If von Neumann had been born as a contemporary of Isidore of Seville, or Caesar, or Hammurabi, or Grug the 3rd, would he have achieved anything that would have actually impressed a middling modern PhD student in maths or a natural science? Far from helping design the atomic bomb, could he have even figured out the physics to accurately trebuchet a boulder into a castle on the first try, given no calculus? I think not, so how many grunts would an ancient von Neumann have been worth to Caesar's army?

On the other hand, I really see no political equivalent of calculus, or the notion of formal proof, or atomic theory, and no circumstantial evidence that such a thing exists somewhere where I can't see it. Cicero's speeches read no worse than Joe Biden's, and their schemes, modulo amplification of their physical power by the ilk of physicists, seem no wilier than those I hear of of the Medicis or the Ottoman court. Given that, why should we assume that a political von Neumann today should be more formidable than a scientific von Neumann in Cyrus the Great's army would have been to the Greeks?

This is in my opinion a very consumer-like idea of intelligence. «Intelligence is useless unless you already have an infrastructure to plug it into». Or maybe nerdish «Returns to intelligence only scale in very legible technical domains». No, intelligence includes the ability to figure out and devise «sockets» for itself in any domain; and Fat Tony is not dumber than an IYI, for street smarts are a straightforward application of g. Without his scientific education, von Neumann would have plausibly become one of the most powerful bankers in history, greatly pleasing his father. But this should make us wonder why he was born into a banker's family in the first place; and how smart people of old banker dynasties (like Warburg are), seeing as there hasn't been a solid theory of financial capital until recently. In fact, their prominence has only declined with the increase of legibility and theory.

Far from helping design the atomic bomb, could he have even figured out the physics to accurately trebuchet a boulder into a castle on the first try, given no calculus? I think not, so how many grunts would an ancient von Neumann have been worth to Caesar's army?

With any luck, he'd have been worth a few generals, irrespective of his ability to improve on contemporary siege weaponry, and perhaps he'd have replaced Caesar himself in textbooks – which is, in fact, my point; Ceasar was a genius himself, from what we can tell. Intelligence has become a potent multiplier of power long before the industrial age or the dawn of science. Napoleon wasn't smarter than him, but he was smart enough even outside his domain, and he's still our symbol of military genius.

but I don't see the evidence that the same happened for the latter.

Maybe what you see is the result of the latter being flooded with adversarial stimuli. We discuss absolutely inane ideas for reasons that there is a social norm against rejecting them outright and that they are accepted by a significant percentage of the public. Add a little extra noise – and the discourse degenerates into incoherence, and then no progress in scholarship is possible.

But this allows incumbent actors to keep their advantage with no specialized scholarship, with little more than general intelligence, processing speed, access to new data, memory of historical precedents, and networks made of sane allies with healthy epistemology.

Your modus tollens is my modus ponens. The more mediocre «Joe Biden» gets despite the increasing hegemony of the US achieved by well-timed and savvy moves (like this devastation of Chinese IC industry), the more reason I have to suspect that inputs into his political behavior are produced by a sophisticated intelligence not unlike that of STEM geniuses, who are of course privy to the idea of information asymmetry and are happy to keep the spotlight on Biden.

I think not, so how many grunts would an ancient von Neumann have been worth to Caesar's army?

With any luck, he'd have been worth a few generals, irrespective of his ability to improve on contemporary siege weaponry, and perhaps he'd have replaced Caesar himself in textbooks – which is, in fact, my point; Ceasar was a genius himself, from what we can tell.

I am afraid you way overestimate how much of ancient history survived.

We know little else than names of many scientists and thinkers considered greatest geniuses in their time.

What would history said about ancient Von Neumann? Something like this:


NEUMANUS of Puteoli (fl. first half of 1st BCE), ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician.

N's works are completely lost, but he was mentioned by several second century sources as mathematician and geometer. One third century source claims N. was also writing about ethics and political philosophy.

About N. life is known nothing except he was of eastern Greek origin and moved to Italy later in his life.

There are no contemporary mentions of N. and his works and only few later notices.

1/Second century collection of anecdotes from lives of famous philosophers, contains two tidbits from N's life.

One extremely implausibly describes his mathematical prowess, while another is obviously meant as over-the-top parody of warmongering demagogue (it would be clear to all contemporaries that no Greek could be ever allowed to step in Roman Senate, least of all to implore the Senate to declare war against Parthian Empire in cartoonishly bloodthirsty speech).

2/Fourth century military writer in chapter about siege warfare includes apocryphal story how N. was one of Caesar's influential advisors and attributes to him invention of several war machines (current scholarly consensus is the story is later interpolation).

3/Fourth or fifth century pagan anti-Christian polemic quoted by fifth century Christian writer lists N. among famous learned and wise men who were pious worshippers of pagan gods (reading of name is disputed).

4/Seventh century Jewish chronicle lists N. among Jewish apostates and renegades who betrayed their faith (reading of name is disputed).

edit: typos, my fingers keep forgetting this site needs higher quality input than Reddit ;-)