Category Archives: cults

Darwin and Platform Tyranny

“Tyranny consists of the desire of universal power beyond its scope.”

One of the nice things about having a blog is that you can spit out those damn brainstorms before they do too much damage to your equilibrium or worse or are extinguished by your daily life.

I’d not noted before that the evolved animal is like a software platform.

One of the curious facts about software platforms is that they aren’t good for anything. You have to pile an application on to the platform before it solves real problem. That is a useful right first approximation. Of course platforms are good for something, they are good for solving some space of problems. They allow you to build things.

There is a gap between a platform and a problem solution. In platform system design, where we don’t solve problems we just design more platforms, we think of these as layers.

For example the end-to-end principle suggests that the layers should be thin, so that the lower layers are windowed down to a kernel of necessary function and no more. In business theory where platforms go by other names like toolkits, standards, rule sets, and are observed in numerous guises such as major commodities on supply chain, we know that a platform creates an options space of further commercial activity. There is always a lot of competitive to and fro about who gets to capture that value. Suppliers often covet value created down stream from them in the supply chain. That’s no different than how platform vendors often fold high value innovations back into their platform offering. A move that is contrary to the end-to-end principle but is quite rational in a commercial mindset. When we complain about a supplier, say Microsoft, overreaching, say by bundling the web browser with the operating system, we call that monopoly; but as the quote above suggests it’s a kind of tyranny.

Reading and thinking about “Breakdown of Will” has been triggering some very surprising connections to all that. Animals are wired to manage their attention in a way that is at odds what we believe to be the optimal way to manage the attention of a rational man. There is a gap between the platform, i.e. the animal, and the problem to be solved, i.e. to be a rational man. It is into this gap that we humans pour our clever rationalizing schemes. Applications on the platform.

So that was my brainstorm. What triggered it was some stuff at the beginning of a book from the anthropology library about trying to explain religion. The introduction was working it’s way through the necessary dross and was talking about Darwinian explanations for religion. My reaction was “The platform can only tell you so much about the applications that run on it.” Darwinian ideas are a major supplier in the explaination of animal systems, but there is a tendency for people to let these ideas overreach their natural scope. You see a similar overreaching by the ideas that come of economics. At this point in my thinking about the ideas in “Breakdown of Will” I’m more inclined to put religion in the application layer as part of our struggle to create useful solutions atop the worse is better legacy platform.

Shangri-La Diet

The Shangri-La diet Shangri-la Diet book is out; it’s eccentric author is doing his book tour; the echos of the PR machine are reverberating thru the media ecosystem; and apparently I’m not immune to their effects. Darn!

What caught me was two things. This fun cheerful paper on “Self Experimentation” by the diet’s inventor Seth Roberts. What really did me in though was more than 30 years ago when I first became interested in cults I read my way through some marvellously silly books written by “Jane Roberts.” Jane’s gig was channeling, she would channel a dude name Seth. It’s a great exemplar of the art of speaking like a mystic; you know stuff like: “transforming invisible atoms into the dazzling theater of the world.” One side effect is that whenever I hear the name Seth I tend to get a foxy smile, and this time the name Roberts too!

I might not even have read the paper on self experimentation if it hadn’t been authored for inclusion in a book on behaviorism. I’m a huge fan of practical behaviorism; and I often recommend Jane Pryor’s book “Don’t shoot the Dog.” It’s delightful and a far better thing to read than this new diet book.

The diet turns about to be behaviorist at its core. Animals all (really all of them apparently) are very good at learning causal chains of behaviors; most of which end in food. The classic version of this is Pavloff’s dogs who he noticed would salivate when he rang the dinner bell; rather than when the food showed up. Animal trainers can do amazing things with these causal chains getting animals to walk around on two feet, jump through flaming rings, roll over, etc. etc. all just for a treat. The behaviorists have written libraries full of papers about the fine tuning of these causal chains, how to strengthen them, weaken them, extend them, etc. etc.

So the trick at the heart of Robert’s scheme is to weaken the causal chain between taste and calories. Consider the animal that has built a link between a bell and dinner. If that animal wants calories it craves the bell; it’s weird but true. Now of course a bell isn’t calories so we can weaken that link in two simple ways. We could randomly ring the bell so the animal abandons it’s illusion that these two things are linked. Plan B is we could stop ringing the bell before meals. Either will work just fine; though as the behaviorist research shows these links can be surprisingly robust if they have been trained up just right.

Robert discovered that both tricks appear to work. That he could reduce the body’s craving for food (aka taste) by either means. He could providing a lot of random tastes so it wouldn’t build a strong link between them. He even found articles in the literature of experiments where animals whose food was flavored somewhat at random – they stopped eating so much. He could also break the linkage by providing calories with zero flavor.    In both cases is the outcome is a weakened causal chain between taste and calories; which in turn leads to reduced craving for food.

The theory is somewhat more complex than I’m making it here. You’d have no trouble finding a few dozen explainations if you poke around in the web. But for me I was particularly taken to see a diet based on such an extremely simple confident application of behaviorism.

Prophesy AI

“If only AI had worked out better.” is one of the favorite sayings of a contempary and fellow traveler thru the 80s AI boom. There are so many problems in life that a bit of effective AI ought to be able to solve. Coordinating the time of a meeting, or calling up the cable company and squeezing the next six month discount out of them

I’m currently reading “When time shall be no more. Prophecy Beliefs in Modern American Culture.” I haven’t gotten to the modern part yet, I’m still working thru the history of apocolypticism prophecy; three meaty chapters worth! The pattern the author sees in the historical record is that when ever western societies undergo trama a bloom of apocolyptic prophecy sweeps thru a segment of the population. He reports that each time things settle down again the bloom dries up, quickly. Each time this happens the various characters and events in the book of revelations are methodically mapped onto the recent history. This allows the narators to show thier enemies are the agents of satan. To hear him tell it these blooms seem more organic rather than planned. The forshadowing (teehee) is that later in the book modern media empires and PR based political movements will discover and exploit this market. A clear sign of the end times!

The laundry list of historical figures who’s names have been proven to sum up to 666 is amazing! Every pope, of course, and most historical figures.

Mapping names into a calculation that reaches a particular value is a simple search problem. The kind of thing that early AI tech is very good at. So it’s not suprising that you can get software to find these calculations. What I found amusing though was that you can find message boards that outline how to hack that software, so you can use it for free. Surely we need an open source version.

Now if only AI had worked out we would have software that could read any conflict narative and map it’s participants and events into the book of revelations allowing us to deamonize and polarize with much greater efficency.

P2P Reputation and Social Stratification

The nice thing about P2P content distribution systems is how they lower the barriers to entry for content producers. When things are working then the cost of distributing content to N consumers drops for the producer from N to 1, and the cost for the consumers rises from 1 to 2 (see here). In theory this enables content production to move much further down the long tail. It empowers the smallest players.

The design of these systems is a beautiful example of the design issues around a collaborative system. The consumers need to collaborate. If the total contributions of the consumers don’t amount to 2N then things fall apart. I’m finding it interesting to kick the tires on this problem. You can design systems to temper the freeloading by having the consumers accumulate a reputation. You can base the reputation on reports provided by other consumers. So if A provides content to B, then B can add to A’s reputation as a good actor in the system. If peer to peer exchanges happen in largely random patterns then A’s reputation will be assembled from a diffuse set of partners; making it harder to forge.

I assume it’s possible to design such a scheme. One that would allow peers in the system to know the contribution level of their partners with a reasonable degree of confidence. I haven’t looked very hard. I assume there are some papers on designing such diffuse reputation systems.

Ok, so I take it as a given that I can design a system where the participation demands a uniformity of contribution. But wait, I don’t want that! Look at the real world. Systems in the real world have multiple actors contributing to their total energy; and the distribution of their contributions is usually highly skewed. If the real world is that way, then is it a good idea to design P2P systems that effectively outlaw that distribution? What consequences would follow from that?

One thing’s clear. If you enforced uniformity you’d get class stratification. Participants of similar reputations would tend to flock together.

I’m reading a book about Common Interest Developments, i.e. the semi-walled garden highly homogenous communities created by developers. Their enthusiasts buy into a utopian fantasy. One who’s “overvalued idea” is the maintenance of property values. Other values tend to be displaced.

If we force uniformity of contribution into the architecture of P2P system, then that becomes it’s overvalued idea. Getting all fixated on the prevention of freeloading displaces other values? Why does the real world not work that way.

The delicate trick in getting the P2P reputation system may well be finding ways to encourage a diversity of participants. A means that it doesn’t lead to stratification, with that stratification and progressively tightening regulation of each group’s wall and internal norms. Very interesting tangle of problems.

Marketing the Vineyard Church

Thru direct mail and radio advertising (on my local NPR station) a church here in town has been campaigning to make me curious about them. I’m a very secular fellow. But I happens to know a lot about abusive cults and so my first question was is this one of those large abusive cult churchs that spring up from time to time. Like, for example, the Boston Church of Christ.

The Internet can be a big help with questions like that. The large older abusive churchs are easy to identify because some of their survivors will post descriptions on the net. Vineyard probably isn’t one of those. But it sure has attracted a lot of analysis and commentary from folks who are interested in mapping out various church theological positions and those who are working to understand the evolution of American Protestantism. Much of that is pretty stern stuff.

For example “Vineyard emphasizes public healing, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), demon depossession, and prophecy.” and the following passage from here.

One obstacle the Vineyard Movement has recently faced deals with the disfellowship of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church (also known as Toronto Blessing ). Over 300,000 people have visited the Toronto branch to experience for themselves the outbreak of “holy laughter.” Holy laughter is the manifestation of the Holy Spirit through hysterical, uncontrollable laughter. John Wimber and the Association of Vineyard Churches recognize holy laughter as an important part of their ministry. However, when the Toronto Vineyard started incorporating animal noises as part of the holy laughter experience, Wimber decided that they had gone too far. In 1994, the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church was kicked out of the Vineyard Movement. It was a difficult decision for Wimber to make considering the popularity of this charismatic event and due to the fact that the Vineyard Movement was in such a relatively early stage of development.

Wimber, along with C. Peter Wagner, was one of the founders to what is sometimes called the third wave. These three waves are Pentacostals (1902), the Charasmatics (1960s), and what is sometimes now called the New Aposstolic Reformation(1990s). These guys had a product to sell, a course on how to make your church grow faster. The key advise was to include more “Signs and Wonders” e.g. the glossolalia, demon depossession, and such. Wimber’s innovation was to add a lot of music. He had at one time been a keyboardest for the Rightous brothers.

So one thread here is the charasmatic or evangelical church growth movement. For example the Alpha program who’s signage you see hanging outside lots of churches is a direct decendent of the work of these two guys. The ads on NPR and the direct mailings reflect the increasing sophistication of modern marketing techniques in use by church growth experts such as these.

It isn’t clear to me exactly how much Wagner is still tied into the Vineyard moement. I wish I knew because I find him to be a scary character. He’s very, ah, pragmatic:

“… we ought to see clearly that the end DOES justify the means. What else possible could justify the means? If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method. If, on the other hand, my method is not accomplishing the goal, how can I be justified in continuing to use it?” (C. Peter Wagner, “Your Church Can Grow – Seven Vital Signs Of A Healthy Church”, 1976, pg. 137. – emphasis in original)

He’s really concerned about demons:

Peter Wagner in a symposium on power evangelism at Fuller Seminary affirmed: “Satan delegates high-ranking members of the hierarchy of evil spirits to control nations, regions, cities, tribes, people groups, neighborhoods and other significant social networks of human beings throughout the world. Their major assignment is to prevent God from being glorified in their territory, which they do through directing the activity of lower-ranking demons.” (John D. Robb, “Strategic Praying for Frontier Missions,” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Study Guide, 1997 Edition, Pasadena: William Carey Library,1997), p.1-8.)

You might think this is kind of odd and marginal until you recall
General Jerry Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and the following story:

Of a strange, dark mark on a photograph he took of Mogadishu, Somalia, during the Black Hawk Down operation of which he was a part: “Ladies and gentleman, this is your enemy. It is the principalities of darkness. It is a demonic presence in that city that God revealed to me as the enemy.”

Life was simpler when I didn’t have to understand these currents in American culture. I prefered a simpler secular view of the world.

Brand Religiosity

There a lot of fun “statically improbable phrases” in this paper (sadly hidden behind a garden wall) about religiosity in brand communities. It’s about the Newton community, which like the Lisp community, can be described as “operating in a threatened state.”

Like all communities these brand communities have rituals, including stories. And when the community is threatened then you can look for these kinds of stories: “(1) tails of persecution, (2) tales of faith rewarded, (3) survival tales, (4) tales of miraculous recovery, and (5) tales of resurrection.”

I particularly liked the idea of “highly visible stigma symbol.” The damn back lite apple on my powerbook for example. Until recently I could use the word closure as a stigma symbol but it apparently it’s making a comeback. The stigma symbol attracts persecution. Communities have what salesmen call objection handling techniques for responding to those. In this paper we get the wonderful phrase “taming the facts.”

Of course Brand communities have product at their center, often technological products. Technology is magical. That leads to the wonderful phrase “technopagan magic.” The best heroic fantasy tales deal with persecution with a burst of tecnopagan magic.

But the real reason I needed to write this posting was this marvalous signature line used by somebody in the Newton community:

“Would the last person to leave the platform, please turn off the backlight.”

Join Me

This article give a just just amazing example of group forming.

… excitement died down, Wallace, now living by himself, was overcome with loneliness and ennui. On a whim, he took out a classified ad asking people to “join” him and send him their passport photos. That was it. “I was just interested to see whether people would,” he later recalled. “And then I forgot about it.”

Much to his delight, someone joined. In fact, a whole posse of someones. Wallace quickly exceeded his goal of one hundred joinees, and set his sights on one thousand. Collecting them became like a fever. Wallace bounced around Europe, appearing on late-night talk shows and in newspapers to spread the gospel of Join Me. He began meeting with his devotees and taking them out for beers. He set up a Web site and even recorded a theme song, all the while trying desperately to keep his burgeoning secret life hidden from Hanne. But then Wallace’s adventure took a new turn: The joinees began demanding to know what, exactly, they had joined.

In fact, they rapidly became irritable with their Leader, who was always mysteriously vague about what it was they were supposed to be doing. They sent plaintive e-mails, and posted theories on the Join Me Web site Wallace had set up, speculating that he was doing some kind of weird statistical research, or perhaps was a “demented megalomaniac” on a “massive ego trip.” One of the more enterprising joinees created his own Web site and agitated the others into pressuring Wallace to reveal what Join Me was all about.

Mutiny was afoot. Wallace knew that if he didn’t come up with a point, his career as Leader was over. “I would be lying to you if I told you there wasn’t a part of me that wanted to use my joinees to spread mischief across the land,” he later wrote. “But alas, it wasn’t to be. Because I, Danny Wallace, was to be in the service of All Things Good.”

So the Leader decreed that the point of Join Me was this: to be nice.

That’s got to be the best example of a community founding myth I’ve seen.
It suggests that the three markers of a community (common: cause, ritual, responsiblity) can arise after the group forms. 90% of the founding myths are are about a bunch a guys who discover a problem and then band together in common cause to address that problem. In this myth the group forms and then demands common cause. Like a bunch of kids sitting around going “I don’t know, what you want a do?”

Tribal size

Ted’s post on Finding your Tribe reminds me that I’ve been meaning to see if I could hack something together to say about scale and groups. How many groups is a person typically a member of? If we ask the various social sciences -anthropology, sociology, economics, politics, demography, physiology – do they have answer for us? If we ask the various social movements what have they to say? Or ask similar questions of other metrics on these tribes? What of size of the tribe? What of the half life of membership; or the length of time required to join? What of the topology of overlapping groups?

I’m very suspicious of a kind of pop sociology that declares some number to be definitive. For example that there is an upper limit on the number of friends you can have; or the number of groups you can be a member of; or the set of skills you can accumulate. There are some very large tribes; American Catholic Democrats, or South American women soccer fans, or people who clip coupons. Notice all the tribes unmentioned in Ted’s posting: fathers, dwellers in wet places… It would be a real project to make even a reasonably good list of the groups one is a member of.

Modern life has brought about a shift in the overall statistics of group/tribal membership. Since people, on the whole, seem a happy lot, i suspect, should you ask the members of some insular tribe, or a modern city dweller you probably get about the same distribution of happiness. But the life the insular are living is totally different than that the urbane dweller can live. The richness of modern economics, the density of human habitation, the network of communications allows some people to engage with the world in surprising ways. Ways that are not just hard for the insular citizen to imagine they are actually impossible for him to experience. For him an upper physical reality created an upper bound on what was possible. In that situation the rules of thumb are self evident. When the upper bound evaporates the rules get harder grasp.

If the numbers suggest, which they do, that the group forming is scale free then we need to go back and ask each of those social sciences and movements what they wish make of that. If they wish to sing the praises of a particular scale, or disparage some other scale what should we make of that? The numbers certainly don’t care, they are the facts. Are the new ways of living displacing the old insular models? I think that’s obvious.

Is God and early or a late adoptor?

My love affair with continues:

In a court case which has fascinated Sweden with its intoxicating mix of sex, death and the workings of an obscure religious sect, a Swedish pastor has been jailed for life for faking text messages from God to get his nanny-lover to murder his wife and try to kill the husband of a second mistress. — here