The Hypostatic Union of Kanye West

While critics were busy calling him lost and confused, Kanye was writing Ye, his 8th album in a row to debut at #1. While they raced to publish op-eds questioning his mental stability, Kanye was negotiating the deal that would make him a billionaire. While they called his politics internalized self-hatred, Kanye was funding James Turrell’s Roden Crater and donating to victims of police brutality.

The New York Times headline The Battle for Kanye West Is Happening in Real Time reveals more than it lets on. Kanye is not a man. Just a prize to be won. As described by journalist Jon Caramanica, Kanye is merely “a vessel, not an agent” and “all around him, what amounts to a collective global rescue effort for his mind and soul…is playing out in real time.”

This is more than just garden variety condescension. It is dehumanization, disguised as sympathy for the mentally ill. No different than the rhetoric of colonialist missionaries professing to “save the souls” of heretic savages.

From the outside, Kanye is a mystery no one can quite grasp. Is he leftist, as he was in 2005 when he called out “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on national TV? Far right, as he was portrayed for supporting Trump in 2016? Is he the sinner who wrote “Fuck you and your Hampton house, I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse”, or the saint who hosts Sunday Service?

There are at least three answers.

The first, is that he sold out, or converted. That Kanye was once “woke”, but has since fallen.

Second, that he’s ascended. Like the lovecraftian Old Ones, Kanye exists on a higher plane, leaving us capable only of witnessing his low-level earthly projection, and unable to comprehend behavior impossible in both our physics and our ideology.

Third, the tension lies not in him, but in ourselves. Kanye’s image has been mashed up, remixed and distorted so many times that each side sees only what they want to. Compare, for example, the Atlantic’s headline “Lou Reed Compares ‘Yeezus’ to Farting” to Reed’s actual review: “the guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.”.

Or to take a more nuanced musical case:

  • When Kanye performed New Slaves on SNL, it built in anger for 3 minutes, ending with “I’m ‘bout to tear shit down, I’m ‘bout to air shit out, now what the fuck they gon’ say now?”
  • As performed live in concert, it contains the same line, but then pours out into an outro “I won’t end this high, not this time again…” followed by this incredible melodic hum from Frank Ocean.
  • On the album, there is yet a 3rd version, which follows Ocean’s chorus with a sample from the Hungarian band Omega. As described in that same Lou Reed review: he nails it beyond belief on ”New Slaves.” It’s mainly just voice and one or two synths, very sparse, and then it suddenly breaks out into this incredible melodic… God knows what. Frank Ocean sings this soaring part, then it segues into a moody sample of some Hungarian rock band from the ’70s. It literally gives me goosebumps… just overwhelmingly incredible.

The discord lies not in Kanye, but in our own refracted images of his work.

Our modern world is rife with contradictions, and if Kanye seems incomprehensible, it’s because he’s the only honest person living in it.

The rest of us are content to care for pet dogs, then go on to eat pork. To donate to charity while wearing clothes sewn by slaves. We make transpacific flights to attend climate conferences. Make vows to the sanctity of marriage then get divorced. We go out into society covered in the veil of civility as if we will not be naked, cold and alone each night before our final return to ashes.

Like all of us, he is stuck between animal and God. Both perfectly human and perfectly divine.

Kanye is merely the one who doesn’t turn away.

Contra Smith, I Guess

It’s taken 5 months, but Noah Smith is finally done with his ”epic” four-part saga “answering the techno-pessimists” in response to my initial post back in December.

A critical point of clarification: there is no such thing as a techno-pessimist, at least not in the context of this debate. Across the entire series of posts, I’m literally the only critic cited as a techno-pessimist, but none of this even describes my beliefs.

Take, for example, this accusation from Part 3:

Many of the Applied Divinity Studies blogger’s arguments rely on TFP as the fundamental measure of technology.

It’s difficult to understand how Smith could plausibly interpret this as my view. Throughout my entire post, “TFP” is mentioned exactly one time, and it’s not even my words! It’s in a quote from the Cowen/Southwood paper, the middle of a laundry list of other items, hardly a notable keystone of my thesis:

the disparate and partially independent areas of productivity growth, total factor productivity, GDP growth, patent measures, researcher productivity, crop yields, life expectancy, and Moore’s Law we have found support for this claim.

I do also cite the Bloom paper which mentions TFP, but it is not their central argument either. The bulk of the argument is about agricultural outputs, semiconductor development and life expectancy. My own treatment of the paper deals exclusively with the latter two of these issues.

Actually, let me make a more basic claim. I am not even a techno-pessimist, and have never claimed to be. From the original post:

The problem is not even that the ideas [of techno-optimists] are wrong. The problem is the blatantly imbalanced and isolated demands for rigour.

And even more explicitly:

To be clear, none of this is to say that The Great Stagnation is not over! Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe the whole thing was an illusion…

I planned to write a more substantial rebuttal, but reading through the rest of Noah’s post, the most notable thing is how little I disagree with his object-level claims. Rather then substantial, our differences seem to be primarily aesthetic. He likes anime; I prefer science-fiction. In the words of physicist-magician Suravaram Vidyasagar:

You are reading things that I have not written. You are having an argument, but it’s with somebody who isn’t me.

…that’s not to say that there aren’t also disagreements.

Concluding his latest post on scientific stagnation, Noah writes “U.S. business has done its part, but federal government R&D funding has really fallen off… In other words, business is running fast enough to stay in place in terms of R&D”. As evidence, he cites this chart from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation:

This is an erroneous interpretation on several accounts:

  1. Business has hardly “stayed in place”, it’s more than doubled from ~0.75% to nearly 2% of GDP! Additionally, real GDP is up around 10x since 1956, meaning real business investment has actually increased around 20x since 1956.
  2. Critically, this is only a measure of financial input, not of scientific output. Without accompanying evidence of actual innovations, growth in spending is evidence of stagnation (“less bang for its buck”), not of progress.
  3. Finally, we can’t conclude that “U.S. business has done its part” without understanding where that R&D spend actually goes. Note that since R&D expenditures result in tax breaks, firms push as much as possible under that umbrella. Amazon’s 40 billion in R&D spending is less impressive once you realize that it includes the development and acquisition of streaming content, alone an $11 billion line item. Amazon Studios may win awards, but it’s still not doing science.

So sure, I have plenty of details to nitpick. We could go back and forth like this for years.

But who cares?

Launching his new blog back in November, Noah originally wrote:

Twitter has become a dumpster fire of contentiousness, performativity, negativity, stupidity, and misinformation, and one solution is to go back to blogging. Blogs give readers time to digest and think about ideas, without being interrupted by random shouters with little context and lots of agenda.

That was a promising purpose, but Noah’s blogging has quickly devolved into the thing it aimed to replace. Arguing against a critic who doesn’t really exist? That’s nothing if not performative. You don’t get to escape the Twitter ethos just by joining an additional platform. Until you delete your account, you’re part of the hellscape and subject to its demands.

The performative aspect of feuds is only part of the issue.

But the real problem is that they’re profitable! Noah has a couple of orders of magnitude more followers than I do. The cost to my reputation is far lower than the benefit of being mentioned at all. C’est le succès du scandale. Noah has less to gain than I do, but since he writes on a monetized substack, he gets to profit in a more literal sense.

As usual, I’m just here to “raise or lower particular individuals in status”. The only problem with Noah is that he has the same incentives, but won’t admit it. So instead we’re here debating totally pointless questions, pretending to have a dog in the race. Maybe there is something for him, but as I said, it’s purely aesthetic.

If this all makes you feel pessimistic about the utility of blogging, you’re right.

Which is precisely why I don’t spend much time on it anymore.

Noah: Steins;Gate is overhyped, but I like FLCL and my email is always open if you want to talk.

60,000,000,000 Chickens

Launch post and writeup for 60B Chickens describing the inputs into and results of the analysis, along with considerations that didn’t make it into the final model.

Click here to view the full landing page

The meat industry breeds horrors on an unprecedented scale. History has never before witnessed suffering at this scale, nor seen it inflicted so carelessly and senselessly.

In 2013 alone, we slaughtered 60 billion chickens.

By comparison, the worst human tragedies cap out at around 145 million by even the most pessimistic estimates. If it’s difficult to conceive of numbers this large, think of it this way: you could murder 145 million human beings very year for the rest of your life and still not get to the chicken death toll for a single year. In fact, only around 100 billion humans have ever existed.

We can’t even blame any of this on our historical savagery. With all our sci-fi technology and economic progress, we are still choosing to commit these atrocities. In fact, it is precisely those advances that allow factory farming to function at this unfathomably grotesque industrial-scale.

Now perhaps you could argue from the standpoint of speciest solipsism. Whatever the cortical neuron counts say, we don’t really know what happens inside the brain of a chicken. Do they suffer? Are they even really conscious?

It suffices to say–as a general moral principle–if there is reasonable doubt as to whether or not a creature suffers, you should probably not kill 60 billion of them every year.

At this point, any reasonable person would just stop eating meat. But I’m not reasonable, just rationalist. So okay, let’s do the moral calculus.

Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik have done some preliminary analysis, but it’s a lot to take in and hard to follow.

You can see the landing page here, and view the full analysis here. The rest of this post explains some of the calculations, as well as other considerations that didn’t make it into the final model.

Here’s the math on moral/financial fungibility:

  • For 1000 calories of meat, chicken produces 2kg CO2-equivalent, versus 10kg CO2-equivalent for cows
    • CO2 offsets cost around $10/tonne, or $0.01/kg.
  • Both species provide ~260g protein and ~2500 calories per kg of meat
  • Per life, chicken produces around 1.9kg of meat, versus 212kg for cows
  • Chicken costs ~$7/kg, beef costs ~$8.8/kg
  • Due to elasticity, reducing consumption by 1kg only reduces production by ~0.7kg for both chickens and cows

If you’re not eating meat, you have to replace the protein and calories. At baseline, flour is 4,464 calories/dollar and 134g protein/dollar.

Since we’re talking about financially offsetting meat consumption, this analysis does not rely on estimating the relative moral patienthood of chickens versus cows, or their relative living conditions. [0]

Perhaps the most important number is the cost to prevent an animal from being farmed. Initial estimates were as low as $0.10/life, but later came under scrutiny. One estimate puts the cost at $5.70 to save a chicken life, with pigs being around $150. Since that implies costs scales about linearly with meat-produced, I’m assuming $636 to save a cow’s life, but these numbers are all speculative. Note also that these are estimates for one particular intervention.

From these conversions, we can calculate the “true” financial cost for each animal. Chicken comes out to $3.42/kcal versus $4.18/kcal for beef. Anchoring on protein yields similar results: $2.76/100g for chicken and $3.48/100g for beef. [1]

Finally, what about plant-based meat alternatives? As Kelsey Piper writes:

plant-based products are already difficult to distinguish from the originals, while having a lighter carbon footprint and no impact on animals. If you avoid beef by switching to plant-based meat products, you really are improving the world and improving conditions for the humans and animals that live on it.

The problem is still cost. Beyond Beef is $6.74/lb or $14.83/kg on Amazon (cross-check), versus just $8.80/kg for cow beef, or $10.93 for suffering and carbon offset cow beef. In other words, for the price of 1kg Beyond Beef, you could get a kg of cow beef, and use the remaining money to offset 6kg worth of meat. [2]

So it’s not cost-effective short-term. In the long run, maybe there are benefits to demonstrating demand for plant-based meat alternatives, but that’s hard to quantify and I’m skeptical. You’re probably better off eating cow beef and donating the $6.03/kg to the Good Food Institute which accelerates the development of plant-based proteins.

Thanks to Scott Alexander, Kelsey Piper and Brian Tomasik for their previous work on this topic, and providing many of the numbers this analysis relies upon. All errors are mine.


[0] If you’re curious anyway:

  • Chickens are treated much worse than cows. Brian Tomasik estimates as 3x multiple.
  • Cows are smarter than chickens, and are perhaps more “sentient” or morally important. The estimated multiple varies, but some sources say ~2x, 10x or 6x or 8x.

[1] As Scott points out, normal reasoning starts to break down here. If you really can offset 1kg of CO2 for just $0.01, the lesson isn’t that you can eat all the chicken you want. The lesson is that you should pour all your money into CO2 offsets!

Alternatively, rather than asking “how much does it cost to eat ethically neutral chicken”, you should just ask “how can I do the most good with my money?” Stated otherwise, I don’t really get the Supererogatory approach to ethics, and see failing to do good as similar to causing harm.

In that worldview, the real cost of 1kg chicken meat isn’t $8.55, it’s the 4 mosquito nets you could purchase for that same amount, with $0.55 leftover to eat rice and beans.

[2] Beyond Beef has its own carbon footprint. They claim to emit 90% less GHG than cow beef, which makes the offset negligible.