• Play the sound file
[Music clip: From Haydn's Derbyshire March No. 2, piano version]
01 — Intro. And Radio Derb is on the air. This is your apologetically genial host John Derbyshire with some snippets from the week's news.
I am apologetic bacause last week I promised you a full podcast this week. That, you'll recall, was spoken from the depths of Tax Hell, where I was laboring under the lash of receipts, spreadsheets, 1099s, W-2s, and all those other instruments of torture.
Alas for promises: No sooner had I emerged from that dark pit of misery than my upper respiratory tract was assailed by a mischievous virus, leaving me with almost no voice, as you may perceive.
We Derbyshires have never been known to shirk the call of duty, though, so I shall do my utmost with a handful of the week's headline items, at least until my voice gives out. Here goes.
02 — Protected to death. The big news story of the week was the German airliner flown into a mountain by its co-pilot, 28-year-old Andreas Lubitz.
Herr Lubitz of course did an insanely wicked thing. It's in the nature of this fallen world, though, that random human beings will from time to time do insanely wicked things out of, well, insanity.
There isn't anything a commentator can say about random insanity except that it randomly and insanely happens. The only comment-worthy issues here are the secondary ones like: "Are we doing enough to detect and restrain insanity before it goes critical?" and "If it does go critical, are there measures in place to outwit it?"
In the case of the German co-pilot, the answer to the first question is plainly no. Perhaps one day we shall understand enough about the human mind to be able to say things like: "There's a nontrivial probability this guy will go postal at some point in the next 90 days."
We are far from that day. Friends who work in the mental-health field tell me that a real manipulative psychopath can dance rings around the professionals, and even an ordinary intelligent adult can generally fool them if he's determined to.
Be careful what you wish for here, too. If we ever do understand enough about the mind to make sound predictions like that, we shall understand too much. When you understand the mechanism, you can control it. The social price of free will and personal autonomy may be occasional acts of homicidal lunacy.
The second question opens up a zone of irony. After 9/11 airlines installed locking systems for cockpit doors so that hijackers could be kept out. Sensible enough: but it was exactly that locking system that prevented the pilot re-entering the cockpit, allowing Herr Lubitz to do what he did unrestrained. The occupants of flight 9525 were doomed by a device installed for their safety.
That unfortunately is a feature of our safety-conscious society. Automobile passengers are occasionally strangled by their seat belts or suffocated by air bags. Steven Pinker tells us in his recent book on the decline of violence that when a child is killed by an automobile nowadays, it is very often the case that the automobile driver is a parent chauffering her own kids to or from school for fear they might be kidnapped. The Law of Diminishing Returns hovers over all our attempts to make life safer.
Some American commentators have chid the Europeans for not applying our rule about there always being two people in the cockpit. On U.S. flights, if pilot or co-pilot leaves the cockpit, a flight attendant stands in for them. I can't see that this helps much. What if the pilot is a large muscular guy and the attendant is a skinny girl with no upper-body strength — not exactly unusual, I imagine?
We've also heard the suggestion that ground control should have some override power over the safety systems. The pilot unions strongly resist this. They want to control their own planes. Besides, it just opens up another opportunity for insanity to slip in. There's no reason to suppose ground controllers are more mentally stable than pilots — rather the contrary, I should think. That TV show Breaking Bad comes to mind.
So we're left with a shrug, a sigh, and the certainty of future acts of random insanity. I don't mean to be fatalistic: by all means let's continue thinking up ways to reduce the chances. Let's just accept that we'll never reduce them to zero, though. That's the nature of our world.
03 — Sauve qui peut. There's a French expression you sometimes see in print: sauve qui peut, literally "save who can." The English expression "every man for himself" is a near equivalent; but three syllables trumps six when you're in a hurry, and in this age of microaggression, the French version gets you off the charge that you're privileging the male sex.
I more and more find myself thinking that the real question about the Middle East is: "How long will it take the West to arrive at sauve qui peut?" Put it another way: How long before we throw up our hands, say "Screw them all," turn to safeguarding our own interests withour regard to what happens over there, and break off all contacts — just fence the place off and leave them to eat each other?
The country to watch here, as I've noted before, is little Yemen. Just to remind you of what I said back in January: Yemen is already overpopulated, and yet is doubling its population every 25 years. Oil deposits are mostly gone, groundwater's close to complete depletion, and agriculture is hopelessly inadequate. Basically, Yemenis are doomed.
And Yemen is merely the canary in the Middle East coal mine. I quoted analyst David Archibald, quote again:
The fate of Yemen — civil breakdown and starvation, then a breakup into remnant tribes — is the fate of every Islamic country from Morocco to Afghanistan.
Yemen is now the hot spot in the conflict between the two styles of Islam, Sunni and Shia, a split that more and more defines which side you're on in the region.
In the Sunni corner we have Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, the Gulf Emirates, Jordan, Sudan, Pakistan, Morocco. For the Shia: Iran, Syria, and Iraq. That's the line-up of organized states, or what passes for organized states in that neck of the desert. There are also powerful nonstate actors, notably ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas on the Sunni side, and Hizbollah — who basically control Lebanon — on the Shia side.
One reason Yemen is such a flashpoint is that they are divided between a Sunni majority and a Shia minority, with the various bigger powers on both sides stirring the pot. The Sunnis managed to keep the lid on until the coup we reported on January 24th, when a Shia group called Houthis seized power.
Seeing that the place is majority Sunni, with al-Qaeda and ISIS both active and the Saudis shoveling money and arms in, it's not likely the Houthis can dominate. Last week ISIS suicide bombers massacred 137 people in Shia mosques. On the other hand, with Iran behind them, it's also not likely the Houthis can be wiped out.
Which side is the U.S.A. on? You tell me. I'm not sure the Obama administration actually knows. To quote veteran British reporter Michael Burleigh in Friday's Daily Mail, quote:
We now have a bizarre — and potentially very dangerous — situation in which U.S. warplanes are providing air cover for Iranian-backed militias in Iraq in a joint effort against ISIS, while 1,200 miles to the south in Yemen, the Americans are helping Saudi pilots bomb Shia insurgents supported by Iran.
And all that's going on while the U.S.A. is negotiating with Iran over nuclear weapons. What a mess!
An even more interesting question, not much asked, is: Which side is Israel on? I keep seeing rumors that the Israelis are funding ISIS on the principle that my enemy's enemy is my friend, and Sunni ISIS is the enemy of Shia Iran-Iraq-Syria. Israel's main aim, this story goes, is to keep itself the only nuclear power in the Middle East, so Iran's the main enemy.
I wouldn't be surprised. If that whole region is going to sink into a sort of Thirty Years War fueled by religious and national antipathies, though, with great floods of refugees and massive resourse disruption, I don't see how we can stop it. Let's disengage and look to our own interests: Keep the refugees out and push these newer oil-extraction technologies.
That may seem cruel, but in a sauve qui peut situation, you have to turn your face away. In that great WW2 novel The Cruel Sea there's a moment after the ship is torpedoed when the captain up on the bridge knows they'll soon sink. On the voice tube he can hear the screams of the men below decks as the water pours in. What can he do for them? Nothing. He shuts off the voice tube and starts directing the men above decks. Sauve qui peut.
That's us: the guys lucky enough to be above decks. Yemen has 26 million people, mostly illiterate goatherds raised in a culture of savage violence and religious fundamentalism. Possibly Sweden will take them all in: But even if that happens, Yemenis are just the canary in the coal mine. There's a billion more where they came from.
Most Yemenis alive today will starve to death, or die violently. Probably the same applies all over the Middle East. Let's turn away and look to our own interests. Sauve qui peut.
04 — Summoning the demon (cont.) Having somewhat the reputation of a doomster, a thing I get asked a lot is whether we should worry about artificial intelligence, AI. There are periodic reports in the press about some big name in science or technology warning us that machines will get smarter than we are and displace us, perhaps keeping us as pets, or perhaps just wiping us out.
Stephen Hawking sounded the alarm last December in an interview with the BBC. Quote from him:
The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.
All right, Hawking's a theoretical physicist, so he's regarding the issue from some intellectual distance. Much closer to the metal we have software entrepreneur and seasoned programmer Elon Musk, who has for a year or two now been warning about the threat of AI. With artificial intelligence, Musk has said, we are, quote, "summoning the demon." It is, quote, "Our greatest existential threat."
Musk was at it again last week in an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, saying that the AI superbots may keep us as pets.
Speaking as the owner of a pampered Jack Russell terrier, I must say, that doesn't sound too bad. Being a pet would at least be better than being ground up for pet food, which is another possibility.
Even closer to the motherboard metal, here comes Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple Inc. Wozniak's an interesting case not just because he knows a whole lot about computers but also because he was for a long time an AI skeptic. Now he's changed his mind, he told an Australian financial journal last Monday, longish quote:
Like people including Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have predicted, I agree that the future is scary and very bad for people. If we build these devices to take care of everything for us, eventually they'll think faster than us and they'll get rid of the slow humans to run companies more efficiently.
What does Radio Derb think about all this?
First off, a couple of prefaces that should be attached to any remarks on this topic.
First preface: Imagined end-of-the-world scenarios seem to be built in to the human psyche. Most religions incorporate some sort of apocalypse. I don't know why we're attracted to these kinds of visions, but we surely are — not all of us, of course, but enough of us to make imagined apocalypses part of the human mental landscape. So when trying to think calmly about these things, you first have to ask if there is some of that in you. If there is, you need to suppress it if you can, in the interests of objectivity.
Second preface: There's a glib response you get from some people when you raise this topic. They say: "What's to worry about? Machines can only do what we program them to do. Let's just program them right."
I'm sorry, but that's just ignorant. I was coding Assembler language for the lumbering old mainframe computers of fifty years ago. Even then it was possible to write code that changed itself, so that the program executing wasn't necessarily the one you'd written. You could have a lot of fun doing that; so much so, commercial programming shops had strict controls on the use of certain instructions. There are persons alive today who got fired for using a COBOL "ALTER" statement. Self-changing, self-improving code; programs that rewrote themselves on the fly; fifty years ago. Imagine where we are now. Personally I'm out of touch, but I'm betting Steve Wozniak isn't.
So, with a wary eye on those old apocalyptic impulses and some hands-on acquaintance with the history of computing, am I worried about AI?
Yes, I'm worried. I don't want my kids to be some robot's Jack Russell terriers. And of course it could be a lot worse than that. What happens when the artificial intelligences learn about sauve qui peut?
05 — Print me a house. The robo-apocalypse, if it's going to happen, is three or four decades away. Shorter-term, a more pressing worry is the impact smart machines will have on jobs. I already do much of my shopping without interacting with any human salesperson. Either I'm shopping on the internet or at a store with automated checkout.
This can only get worse — worse, I mean for low-skill employees. For higher skills, too: Probably some portion of doctors and lawyers will soon go the way of travel agents. Remember travel agents? Right.
This is the slow, frog-boiling version of the robot apocalypse. It's not a mid-century thing; it's happening now. If you think it would be a nice humanitarian gesture to settle a couple million of those Yemeni refugees, ask yourself: "What are they going to do?"
What, for that matter, are the hundreds of thousands of Honduran and Guatemalan peasants that Obama and Holder hustled in over our borders last summer, what are they going to do? Cab driving? Autonomous cars are just over the horizon.
Construction work? In twenty years, someone told me recently, we'll just print houses. A chopper flies over and lowers a fifty-by-fifty frame onto the lot. The builder throws a button and the frame slowly rises, the house with all its fixtures and fittings being extruded from its underside. Shall we at least need someone to fly the chopper? Perhaps choppers will be autonomous, too.
When you start thinking about these things, the gibbering stupidity of U.S. immigration policy becomes all too plain. I stand by the prediction I made in We Are Doomed, from which, if you'll excuse me, I quote:
It is a plausible general principle that, when the human race in its overall development comes to some kind of bridge, the first nation to cross the bridge successfully has a great advantage over other nations. Britain was the first nation to industrialize, and dominated world affairs for a century afterwards. If demographic decline is inevitable — which of course it is: the Earth must have some maximum carrying capacity — the first nation to get through the transition intact, and conquer the associated problems, will be at a huge advantage. On current showing, that will be Japan.
While the U.S.A. and other Western nations have doubled down on the old economic model that says the more workers you have, the better, the Japanese have confronted the problem of population decline and have refused to sign on to the mass-immigration Ponzi scheme. They are working hard to integrate robotics into everyday life. Results so far are mixed, but at least they are facing reality, not dreaming on in a fool's paradise. I stand by the prediction I made in Doomed.
06 — Down with uplift! You want reality? Here's a little dose of reality: median household wealth in the U.S.A. by race.
Remember median is the number that divides the population in halves: Half are above that number, half below it.
OK, median household wealth holdings for non-Hispanic whites: $111,000 in 2011, according to a report discussed in Forbes this week. A hundred and eleven thousand for us privileged white folk. Blacks: $7,000. Latinos: $8,000. Put it another way, the median white household has almost sixteen times as much wealth as the median black one, more than thirteen times the median Latino one.
Those are pretty staggering numbers. Much of the commentary on them has of course been about racism, discrimination, and privilege.
Home ownership is a big issue, we are told. We need to get more blacks and Latinos owning their homes! Hey, let's loosen up credit regulations so mortgage lenders can sell hokey loans to low-income minorities! What could possibly go wrong?
On a related topic, a couple of people have asked me if I'll be reviewing this new book Shame by black conservative Shelby Steele.
No, I won't. I've read the promotional material and a couple of reviews. Steele's argument is that big-government social programs, Section Eight, EBT cards and the rest, along with affirmative action and well-intentioned white guilt pandering, have crippled black people's will to strive and succeed.
Steele is cheerleading for good old American uplift. Individualism! Meritocracy! Throw off those mental shackles! Be all you can be!
Political and religious conservatives, of the kind I hung out with for fifteen years, and many of whom I still cherish as friends, love this stuff — especially if it comes from a black person. Hey, it worked for the pioneers, didn't it? And the Germans and Irish, the Italians and Poles, the Armenians and Jews? Why wouldn't it work for blacks and Aztecs?
Because science, that's why; the science of human nature, now firm enough to tell us without reasonable doubt that there are innate statistical race differences. Behavior, intelligence, personality: everything we have been able to measure about these classes of human traits tells us they are all highly heritable.
It follows that localized mostly-inbreeding populations, under selection pressures of different environments, will develop distinctive group profiles on these traits.
Black and Hispanic populations aren't ever going to exhibit the same behavioral profiles as European whites and East Asians, though of course there'll be lots of individual exceptions and outliers. It's a fantasy. It would actually violate the laws of biology.
Conservatives educated in literature and the humanities cling to the fantasy because they can't understand the science. That's too bad, but I'm tired of trying to educate them. I no longer want to engage in any way with race denialism. It's just ignorant.
So no, I won't be reading Shelby Steele's book for review, unless someone offers me a large sum of money for the trouble. (I can be reached via Taki's Magazine.)
In future I won't be reading or listening to any material on race topics that denies the simple reality of group differences. It's like listening to creationists or flat-earthers.
People are free to believe in dumb things. I don't mind them doing so, and wish no offense to anyone, certainly not to my friends. I'm getting older, though, and more and more sensitive about wasting my time.
07 — Signoff. That's all I can manage, I'm afraid, ladies and gents. I do apologize, and thank you for listening.
There will be more from Radio Derb next week, which I hope will find me in better voice.
Meanwhile, to see us out, here's a fine old Edwardian concert song, a great favorite of my Dad's: "If those lips could only speak," sung here by Peter Dawson.
[Music clip: Peter Dawson, "If Those Lips Could Only Speak."]