Thursday, May 7, 2009

Metal as a Meme

Metal seems to have greater potential as a meme than classical music. Musical tropes are often used as examples of memes and as the starting point for discussing exactly what a meme is. (e.g., is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony a meme, or just the four-note da-da-da-dum that literate Westerners would recognize?)

The key is in how the meme is reproduced process. In classical music, you put on a CD or go to a concert, and for two days you're walking around humming "da-da-da-dum" - but does anybody else hear you and get infected? No. Of course, the same is true of that new metal CD you just bought. The difference is that someone who listens to a lot of metal is far more likely to pick up an instrument and make their own metal. When was the last time someone who listened to Bartok ran out to buy a violin? You could make an argument that this happens because people who listen to metal are on average younger and more impressionable, partly because of the parts of the brain that metal affects. As an aside, at 35, I'm sad to say I'm developing an immunity to its charms, though I've fought this seeming inevitability for several years now.

Fear not, classical music enthusiasts. Classical music isn't going anywhere, at least right away, because it has prestige value, and a wealthier (older) audience, and an established academy to produce musicians. But the market share of such a bottlenecked genre is necessarily vulnerable to the expansion of self-driven, home-grown, grass roots genres. To continue the tradition of meme enthusiasts of extending extend the analogy too far, the reproduction of classical music is eusocial, and metal is, if not viral, then bacterial.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

How Screwed is Africa?

By 2100, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to one-third of human beings. This is up from almost exactly a quarter right now. From a pure self-interest standpoint, this alone is reason to start paying more attention to a continent that has seen far more than its share of depradation. Africa has been subject to multiple challenges in the last century which have been extensively treated elsewhere: among them, global warming, which will expand the Sahel further into what used to be arable land; the ironic resource curse, which is already contributing to behind-the-scences tensions between the West and China, which is wasting no time putting down stakes in Africa's oil and ore deposits; and the even more ironic poison of no-strings-attached foreign aid, which has made things worse by creating corrupt hand-out dependent states.

What worries me the most is a trend that could organize Africa's endemic miasma of troubles into a true powderkeg as its population continues climbing. North Africa has long been Muslim, and in the post-colonial period sub-Saharan Africa has shifted consistently away from non-organized (tribal) religions to Christianity.

In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins details the changing face and distribution of "Southern" Christianity, a cross-denominational catch-all for sects of Christianity altered by their experience in the developing world, into forms those of us in the West barely recognize (for example, is Pentecostalism as practiced in Latin America a form of Catholicism? Protestantism? Something new? Is it even a relevant question?) Jenkins discusses the possibility of an epoch of crusades and jihads in the religious borderlands south of the Sahel - the African Thirty Years War.

Again, even from a purely cynical material self-interest standpoint, the echoes from such a conflict would be felt worldwide. We will still need copper and oil; conflicts in the Islamic world have a way of not staying put; and Western Christians will be part of a religion that is increasingly darker-complected than it is today. In the case of Nigeria, we don't have to wait until 2100 to see what results when the two waves of evangelical fervor meet:
Plateau State has the highest number of displaced people as a result of clashes between Christians and Muslim communities there. The predominantly Christian Tarok farmers consider the mostly Muslim Hausa cattle herders as outsiders, and accuse them of stealing land and trying to usurp political power. These had led to the burning down of 72 villages over between 2002 and the end of 2003. More than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims in Jos, the Plateau State capital, in September 2001.

-, an independent American U.S. defense policy institute, April 2005

Stopping the diffusion of ideas, religious or otherwise, is ab initio a losing proposition. So is this just one more inevitable knife in Africa's back? Not necessarily. There are many countries in the world that have successfully integrated multiple evangelical traditions, and even ended the violence associated with them (as in Ireland) through neutral, secular institutions that promote and demand religious tolerance. Structural reforms in Africa must focus on building and expanding such institutions, or they're likely to see their efforts swept away in the twenty-first century by religious civil wars that further set back Africa's joining the Enlightenment. I understand that this is a tall order in a continent where educational levels are on average the lowest in the world, but the reinforcement of a secular order and religious tolerance must be part and parcel of all reform, or it will all be for naught.

Constitutional Interpretation and Legal Contortions

The U.S. Constitution is the oldest serving founding document, and as such documents go, it's on the short side. It has been amended only twenty-seven times in its almost two hundred twenty year history. As much as the members of the Constitutional Convention seemed to have intentionally made it a flexible document, do we seriously think the constitution of an agrarian preindustrial society of 4 million? By comparison, that's the same population as the modern Central African Republic, with just over half its population density.

No constitution on this planet approaches the sacred text status that the American one does. I share that feeling of reverence. It's a document that was ahead of its time and a testament to the Enlightenment, but by no means perfect or universal. I've found myself wondering if among its strengths, its greatest - its continuity - is an extrinsic one, supported by a dedicated body of legal scholars in the form of the Supreme Court interpreting it in ways that (usually) adhere to the tastes of the people living at the time of the decisions. If that's really all that's going on, there's still something to be said for the sense of stability provided by a continuous constitution, and at least forcing a legal body to find contortions that allow us to continue considering that constitution as remaining in effect. But still, at the risk of revealing an unsophisticated understanding of jurisprudence, if the Constitution is the basis of the rule of law, isn't such a practice legal heresy?

There were some basic value differences between most modern Americans and the men who wrote the Constitution - for example, the expansion of the voting franchise to women, non-landholders, and non-whites. The right to vote has been expanded based on amendments to the Constitution, which is how it's supposed to work - but isn't it safe to conclude that there are other values embedded in the document intentionally by its creators which would now be anathema to us? We can't ask Madison directly whether there are any unanticipated horrifying interpretations of the document of which he was, if not the father, at least the mid-husband; but there are several ways to objectively ask whether constitutional law is really just about interpreting a written constitution in whatever ways best satisfy current public taste. A beginning would be to see if similar legal questions have reached the Supreme Court more than once, and then tallying whether the outcome of those cases has changed consistently over time. For me, the best answer would be a "no" that allays my suspicions. I'd rather a civilization be based on foresight and reason, rather than legal contortions to preserve the illusion of continuity - but I'd also like to be able to tell the difference.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Con Men and Salesmen: Spot the Difference

The quote below is from an Intelligent Life piece about con men via Marginal Revolution. Oddly, I've often said the same about skilled salespeople:
It requires avid study of psychology and body language. It's an amazing paradox--a con man has incredible emotional insight, but without the burden of compassion. He must take an intense interest in other people, complete strangers, and work to understand them, yet remain detached and uninvested. That the plan is to cheat these people and ultimately confirm many of their fears cannot be of concern.