The Burning Blade

Fireaxe Newsletter - edition 13.4

June 4, 2010

"With great power there must also come great responsibility."

- Stan Lee "Spider man"

"You take a mortal man, and put him in control.
Watch him become a god, watch peoples head a'roll."

- Megadeth "Symphony of Destruction"

We make conflicting demands of our leaders and heroes. On one hand we want them to be the best, the fastest, the strongest, the richest, the most exceptional of their kind in the world, even in history, so that we can rejoice in their victories and their accomplishments; and on the other hand we want them to behave in a dignified manner, to play by the rules, to be honest, to adhere to a strong moral code, and to take responsibility for their actions so that we can hold them up as symbols of our shared values. Our ideology claims that it is possible to be both, but as I have discussed in a number of newsletters, especially the lead in to edition 10.4, the corruption of the ideology is inevitable when the competition gets fierce and cheating to gain an advantage will go from being a rarity that is always caught to being a standard that everyone must emulate to even have a chance at success.

This is not how television shows and movies, the psalms of our modern age, tell the tale. Time and time again in these fantasies the hero is cut down by some cheater, and time and time again the hero rises up and beats that cheater through hard work and determination. Indeed, it makes for good drama, and they aren’t all pure fiction, but where these stories so often fall short is that they give us a fanciful and often useless version of reality, and if we cling to those dreams too tightly we will surely set ourselves up to be exploited due to our ideological naďveté. And there are other, darker, stories where the hero doesn’t stay morally pure, instead doing whatever he or she has to do in order to save the day even if people get hurt or the rules get broken. These stories are more realistic and match well with my own personal experience in that if you truly want or need something your best bet is to go out and take it regardless of what you have to do, but the downside of these stories is that they end up reinforcing the kind of extreme individualism that leads to narcissism where one’s personal opinions and goals are put ahead of everyone else’s. It’s a strategy to use sparingly, if at all, lest we all end up at each others’ throats over every little thing, but unfortunately it seems to be a strategy that is becoming more commonplace with every passing day.

A realistic morality tale would have the hero adhering to the rules, even when it isn’t necessary, conceding advantages to his or her rivals, and in the end losing because of it. Admittedly that doesn’t sound like the plot of a movie that most people would want to go see, but it is the story of many of the world’s martyrs, including the most famous martyr of all, Jesus. Of course, in that version the storyteller undercuts the redeeming premise of the tale by elevating the martyr to being divine in nature and having him live forever in paradise as a reward for his "sacrifice". It’s an easy way out. In comparison, some war stories do a good job of demonstrating how important it is for individuals to make sacrifices for the good of the many. There’s no bullshit there: to accomplish your military objectives you need to take casualties and your soldiers must be prepared to fight and die if necessary; but in our modern wars we’ve tended to avoid paying this price and have chosen instead to use methods where civilians are killed instead of putting our soldiers’ lives at risk. Yes, doing so is moral cowardice and often counterproductive since it angers the civilian’s leaders whose support we need, but it does limit the number of body bags coming home and that boosts the public’s support for the war. Again, it’s an easy way out.

Over and over again the moral of our stories is clear: to be a success one must win in the end. And even in stories where the hero falls short or has victory in his or her grasp and declines it, the storyteller often insists upon having the hero win something even more grand than what he or she eschewed. The hero wins bigger by losing and the cheater’s victory rings hollow. The trouble with these stories is that when people take their lessons to heart, play by the rules, and end up losing instead of winning, they lose their faith in the idea that being moral is worthwhile. They ask, “where is my reward for doing things the right way?” and when they get no answer, and see that those who act immorally do not get punished, they often resort to cheating because they have been taught that to be a success you must win. Everyone else is either a loser, or, if they accuse others of cheating, a whiner. There is no substitute for victory.

The repercussions of this unrealistic, ideologically driven perspective are all around us as we watch the cheaters destroying our world and everything that we hold dear. Whether it be the Wall Street “Masters of the Universe” who secretly bet against the doomed securities that they were peddling, or the mighty multinational oil companies who are rolling in billions of dollars in profits but can not see fit to spend the extra money it takes to make sure that they don’t visit ecological disasters upon us with disturbing regularity, or our illustrious sports heroes who don’t feel an ounce of guilt or remorse for cheating on their sport, their fans, or their wives, we are seeing that of the two quotes at the top of the page, the one that holds more truth is the one written by Dave Mustaine.

But why is that the case? In The Burning Blade 9.5 I theorized that testosterone was the key to attaining a leadership position since the hormone is strongly linked with aggression and dominance, two things that help one to rise to power. Adding to this idea with her studies of the psychology of power and leadership is Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at Stanford University. While she downplays the role of testosterone, her studies don’t contradict the common “dominant alpha male” stereotype, but rather they add another piece to the puzzle. She has shown that there is a simple psychological mechanism which makes people in power less inclined to regulate their own impulses and downplay the impact of their decisions on others. Her studies find that when people are placed into powerful positions that they become less inhibited across the board, not just in regard to those things of which they have been put in charge. Thus, if you put someone in control of others, not only will the inhibitions that tell them not to order people around or make decisions that impact others’ lives become relaxed, but all of their inhibitions tend to become relaxed and they tend to be more impulsive, egotistical, and prone to take charge in many other areas of their lives as well. Simply put, putting people in power tends to turn them into narcissists.

You can find out more about Prof. Gruenfeld’s work and experiments in this interview.

This discovery has implications for the larger tendency towards narcissism in our culture. As I outlined in The Burning Blade 13.1, ideologies encourage their believers towards narcissism since narcissists are more dedicated and driven than other people in general and thus they are more successful at spreading their ideology. Many narcissists seek power obsessively as a way to achieve the accolades that they feel that they deserve and do whatever it takes to attain them. Furthermore, movies and stories which reinforce the discarding of conventional morality in order to do what must be done helps to remove people’s reservations about breaking the rules to get what they want. Add to these trends the phenomenon that Prof. Gruenfeld has discovered, that merely putting people into powerful positions makes them more impulsive and less inclined to regulate their desires, and what we have is a vicious circle of power, disinhibition, and narcissism. Narcissists seek power, bend or break the rules to get it, and when they attain it they become less inhibited, more impulsive, and more selfish and thus they are more likely to break the rules in the quest for even more power, repeating the cycle. Also, if you put anyone in power they will become less inhibited and more narcissistic, which will tend to make them seek out more power, which will then make them even less inhibited and more narcissistic.

With this in mind it is much easier to understand the psychology behind our all too many vain, rule-breaking, hypocritical, and insulated leaders and heroes. How often have we wondered, when watching their press conferences after they have been caught red-handed, why they give no mea culpa nor confess their many sins, but instead profess their innocence and blame everyone but themselves for what happened? The answer is simple. When many of them get a taste of power it reduces their inhibitions and they descend into a downward spiral of selfishness and immorality even as they ascend into an upward spiral of wealth and empowerment. With success, one can become seduced by the idea that one is omnipotent, that one doesn’t have to try so hard to succeed, that one doesn’t have to follow the rules, that one can tell others what to do, and that, like the fabled King Midas, anything one touches will turn into gold. So they will tend to cheat and lie and manipulate and control and impose and act on their every whim in the belief that there is nothing wrong with acting that way, at least when they do those things. Psychologically they are missing the inhibitive chemistry that would prevent them from acting in a more responsible manner or even questioning themselves. That little voice in their head telling them "no" has been silenced by success and empowerment.

Furthermore, this disinhibition is likely to be the driving force behind mass hysterias such as the internet and housing market bubbles. Once the bubble starts to inflate and people are empowered by the rising values of their stocks or their houses, they become less inhibited and seek to make even more money by buying and selling those stocks and houses, or they imprudently spend what they have fortuitously acquired, or they borrow as much as anyone will lend them, or they lower their lending standards and sell securities out the back door to unsuspecting buyers, or they improperly price the risk of securities, or they buy those securities without looking into their sources, or they dismantle regulations which would prevent such foolishness. All of these things allow the bubble to inflate even more which reduces people’s inhibitions yet further and encourages more people to get involved in the run-up. The result of all this has been the financial version of Sodom and Gomorrah: and orgy of fiscal immorality which is leading to our destruction. As we have learned, mortgage lenders, monoline insurance companies, banks, investment firms, and many others were running roughshod over standard industry practice and often outright lying about what was actually being bought and sold, but at that point it didn’t matter. Everything looked fine because the prices were still going up. Inhibitions that would have made people reluctant to do such obviously foolish things were simply being overridden. And when one listens to the testimonies of those in power who fueled the bubble one need not be a psychologist to identify the extreme amount of narcissism in their views.

Additionally, with a lack of failure, such as for the oil companies in the Gulf of Mexico, the same sort of psychology takes hold. Success makes their practices appear sound and so they let their standards slide so that they can make even more profit. With further success the regulators ease off, or are bought off, and even less care and funding is put into safety. For a while everything is going great and everyone is getting rich, but eventually standards will degrade so far that disaster will strike. In this case, empowerment leads to complacency and the inhibitory response of "something might go wrong so we need to be vigilant" is replaced by the impulsive response of "nothing has gone wrong so we can take even more risks".

So when our politicians get caught doing incredibly stupid things and our sports heroes get caught doing incredible amounts of performance enhancing drugs we need not be surprised. And we should definitely not be swayed by their insistence that they did nothing wrong. The testimony of an empowered narcissist should be completely disregarded. They have simply no concept of right and wrong anymore. They only see things in terms of themselves. We should instead ignore them and focus on the facts of the matter; if, that is, we can actually find out what the facts are.

Now I can hear you saying, "if only people were more devout in their beliefs then things like this wouldn’t happen." I honestly wish that was true. If believing in religion was any guarantee of making people behave in a moral way then I would support the merits of supernatural belief. The trouble is that this is most definitely not the case. One only need look at the moral failures of the Catholic church, from the priests to the cardinals to the Pope himself, as well as the all too frequent exposures of prominent protestant figures as being outrageously hypocritical, to see plenty of evidence that religious belief does not automatically make one a moral person, especially those in power. Yes, even the promise of eternal salvation and the threat of being tortured forever cannot persuade people to follow the rules. Ayn Rand noticed this and launched her philosophy of Objectivism based on the idea that since no ideology could make its followers behave morally that rules should be removed altogether. This was the ideology that led neoliberal economists to deregulate the financial system which then lead to bubble after bubble in one market after another and culminating in the ongoing global economic meltdown. The problem that Rand could not solve is that her entire philosophy was based on "self interest rightly understood" which makes sense up until one realizes that an empowered narcissist lacks the inhibitions to rightly understand anything. Objectivism has failed and this currently leaves us adrift, completely lacking in an ideology which can guide us. This is why the future is very likely going to be quite messy as ideologies which claim to be able to solve this problem will battle each other for control of what our failed ideologies used to govern.

But don’t expect the next ideology to succeed, at least in the long term, and don’t expect that narcissists will end up being shut out of the halls of power permanently. If narcissists weren’t successful, they would not rise to power, and thus we would be spared the instability that they bring when they act on their impulses while being in positions of great impact. The trouble is that long term survival strategies are inferior to short term survival strategies, at least in the short term, and if one’s survival in the long term depends on survival in the short term as well then stable, long term survival strategies must be abandoned in favor of the urgency of the present. Thus, narcissists can succeed where conscientious people cannot due to their impulsive, risk-taking nature which can reap them great rewards. Of course, they can also fail spectacularly for the same reasons, but if you can drive someone out of business in just a matter of a few years by using aggressive marketing tactics and business strategies, or if you can defeat the best cyclists in the world by doping for a year or two or more and then turning your title over to the next budding young doper, or if you can build a large and dedicated following behind your movement such that no one cares when you are revealed to be a massive hypocritical fraud, then there is no place in the world for those who choose what is best in the long run. We all know the fable about the tortoise and the hare, but if it was written today it would follow a different script. While the tortoise plods slowly towards the finish line, the hare races all about, takes a nap, has sex with the tortoise’s wife, steals the tortoise’s pension, crosses the line first, and then makes millions writing a book about his secrets to success. Now that is a fable for the modern era.

Speaking of survival strategies, I’m having difficulty finding something that works well for my long-delayed recovery. It seems that one of my antibiotics, Doxycycline, was targeting me as one of the "biotics" that it wanted to kill and ended up putting me in the hospital for a couple of days. So no more of that. The good news is that I have alternatives and I am in the process of trying to find the magic formula that will get me back on the road to recovery. So yeah, same old same old, another two month setback for Fireaxe and, as always, the battle wages on.

A big ‘Hello’ to anyone receiving the Burning Blade for the first time. This is the Fireaxe newsletter.

A Thinking Computer with the Power to Rule

Predicting the future is a wonderful pastime, and virtually risk free since few people actually keep track of your past predictions and hold you to them when they don’t pan out as you thought they would. However, the rewards are good if your predictions come true since you can hold them up as proof that you are some kind of genius rather than a lucky player in a futurism crapshoot. With that in mind I see no reason why I shouldn’t take a wild guess at what the future will bring since I have so much to gain and so little to lose.

To be more serious, my father was digging into articles about the future direction of the internet and how it related to his work and theories about learning and education and the things that he had found were quite provocative and made me think about where it would all lead. Of course, my immediate reaction was to apply the Fireaxe theory to what others were predicting to see if it could provide any unique insights regarding the greatest source of information on the planet. As it seems to never fail to do, the Fireaxe theory led me to a conclusion which was somewhat dark, scary, and uncomfortable, so naturally I felt compelled to share those conclusions with you.

The internet has always been a medium for communication whether through bulletin boards, USENET groups, forums, personal and commercial websites, or social networks. It has allowed people from around the world to share information with each other on a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes. Indeed, the same tool that allowed Amazon to become the biggest book retailer in North America also allows Muslim extremists to coordinate their nefarious plots, which gives you an idea of how versatile and far reaching it is. But the biggest problem with the internet has been that finding what you are looking for has always been a challenge. Anyone who has done a web search for something and come up with thousands of hits, or has experienced the frustration of not being able to find the particular thing that you are looking for understands this well. With the massive amount of content on the internet it has become very difficult to find a knowledgeable, reliable, and complete source of information on any given subject. And doing research, which requires finding multiple knowledgeable, reliable, and mostly complete sources encapsulating a variety of differing viewpoints, can become a maddening experience.

Fortunately search engines have come to the rescue, and it’s not really a surprise that the biggest internet companies in the world became so large by making a better search engine than everyone else. Anyone using the internet needs a search engine and a good one will get hundreds of millions of user visits every day. Of course, ever since the first search engines were rolled out there has been a battle between websites seeking attention and search engines cutting through the noise. It used to be the case that you could repeat certain commonly searched words on your page to in order to get your page closer to the top of any search engine’s list. And many web pages were written with thousands of keywords, most which didn’t have anything to do with what was on the page, just to increase the page’s relevance and hit count. Furthermore, early search engines didn’t do much to evaluate the content of the web pages being listed and thus someone doing a search for the word “holocaust” used to get more hits for deniers’ websites than those telling the widely accepted version of events. Indeed, for every advance in search engine technology which can separate the quality pages from the pretenders there seems to be a counter strategy that web pages can use to trick the search engines in order to increase their visibility. Even efforts to build a “semantic web” will encounter these issues despite the intentions of the web designers to craft a purely logical method of presenting and sharing data. It appears that crafting a search engine that takes users to pages where they want to go rather than where the page authors want them to go is a struggle that will continue on into the future.

On the surface this appears to be a simple issue: sort out the diamonds from the rough and give the user only the good stuff; but when you really look deep into the issue it is much more than that. The future of the internet, or at least where the current group of technology leaders sees it going, is to create some sort of search engine that is more like a personal assistant than a mere indexing tool. Far superior to the “Ask Jeeves” concept the idea is to have a search engine that understands the content it is reading and present it to you in a more thoughtful and organized manner. It would be as if you hired a professional researcher to do your internet search for you, quickly and cheaply. This concept is nothing new. For decades science fiction authors and futurists have envisioned an age of robotic servants which would perform all of the menial tasks we usually do which would free us to do more creative and imaginative tasks. And while that dream is still off in the future, developing an internet version of the robotic servant is tantalizingly close.

As an aside, the idea of having servants take care of our boring tasks while freeing us up to do more exciting things is the same pipe dream that was sold to the western world when government and big business began off-shoring millions of menial jobs as well as allowing millions of undocumented workers into their countries to do the menial jobs that couldn’t be outsourced. While the dream of increased wealth and leisure has worked out for a precious few, the promised results have yet to materialize for the vast majority. Also, it seems that every advance in technology has been sold to us with the idea that it will make our lives easier, but in reality they only make us able to do more, and since our competitors can also do more when they get the new technology as well we all end up working just as hard as we did before. The truth is that there has been no increase in our leisure time nor has there been any transformation of our jobs and our lives into something more pleasurable because of technology. This is because the goal has never been to make humans more comfortable but to make them more competitive, and this goal comes not from overly demanding bosses but from the demands of ideological warfare.

But the dream of an information revolution on the internet goes beyond simply giving us a better search engine so that we can find the lowest price for a given product or find a well written and informative website, the goal that many of them are seeking, or at least moving towards, is nothing less than the purification of knowledge. Separating the noise from the quality information is just one step down a road which will lead to tool that can separate truth from lies. Of course, it’s a long road, so I’ll present it step by step.

We keep trying to make our search engines smarter so that they are not only able to interpret web pages or other forms of information created for humans but that are able to understand them enough to be able to sort out what is deceptive and misleading from that which is correct. For instance, if we are looking for internet reviews for a new product that we are thinking about buying, we don’t want to end up going to a webpage which has a review section but no reviews there, or which gives reviews of other products and tricked our search engine by having the sought after product’s name and the word “reviews” on the same page; and we aren’t interested in reading the reviews on the manufacturer’s web page since they are going to be biased. It doesn’t take too much extra smarts to get a search engine to sort review pages by placing the ones that have a lot of relevant, quality reviews on them at the top. But going deeper, let’s say that our search found a hundred reviews of the product and we didn’t have the time to read them all. Wouldn’t it be nice if a computer program could go in and read all those reviews, figure out what the consensus is, and give you one consolidated review that told you everything that you needed to know? Or how about a search engine that sorted out the material in the reviews such that it focused only on the stuff that you cared about? Or how about a feature that allowed it to identify the “reviews” written by people employed by the manufacturer or its rivals and discarded them for being biased? It would be like hiring your own expert to advise you on any given product.

But what is envisioned for the future of search engines goes far beyond merely sorting out product reviews and deeply into the realm of artificial intelligence. Imagine taking such a tool and applying it to any subject, like the global warming for instance, and having it able to gather up all the facts on all sides of the subject, sort out the lies from the truth, follow up all of the threads for all of the argument categories, and compile them into some sort of report that you can easily read and understand. Creating such a report would take an expert research assistant a few months, if not years, to do, but a sufficiently advanced and powerful computer would theoretically be able to churn through something like that far faster, perhaps taking days, hours, or even minutes. And what is especially attractive about having a computer program do research is that ideally it would be free of any bias. Imagine taking all the facts ever dug up and all the points of view ever rendered on any particular subject, feeding them into a powerful computer, and getting an authoritative and unbiased final answer. Conceivably you could find out what the best way is to prevent massive oil spills, or determine what the markets will do on any given day, or find out what the best political system is, or ask it who you should marry if you wanted a loving and lasting marriage, or any number of questions that no one can answer definitively today. In theory, a powerful enough computer would have knowledge beyond that of any human expert, akin to the oracles of ancient times, and a sufficiently advanced one would seem to have godlike intelligence. This is the dream of the purification of knowledge, the idea that when all the facts are gathered together and considered by a sufficiently intelligent source, that only one answer, the correct one, will be found. Gone will be our political, religious, and all other ideological arguments, replaced with the highest truth in the land, and in a world that seems to be drowning in brainwashed minions holding bizarre points of view based on propaganda and lies it would seem that such a thing would be very welcome. This has been the subject of many science fiction books and movies, but the endings to those stories were written by humans who could only guess at what changes such a computer would bring. What will happen when we really advance our technology up to that level will probably be far different than from what any writer could imagine.

Now, there are naysayers who declare that computers will never achieve such levels of intelligence nor will ever be anything more than fast, but dumb, machines. They claim some special providence for human intelligence that no computer will be able to match no matter how powerful and advanced they become. Well, that’s what they used to say about computers playing chess. In my lifetime I watched chess programs go from being things that I could beat soundly as a kid to being things that can beat the best players in the world today. And these chess programs aren’t simply just crunching through every possible move to decide which is best; they can now understand tactical advantages and the importance of good positions and can often be more creative than any human player in devising strategies. Still, just because they are machines the naysayers will sneer and doubt, often using some sort of religious perspective to support their position. Indeed, many people believe that only organic tissue can produce intelligence, or that only humans can become conscious, or that only living things can have souls or hold some divine spark that allows them to do things that no machine will ever be able to match. From a materialist perspective these claims are simply unfounded religiously based prejudice against artificial intelligence, but even if there is a divine order to the universe, what exactly is preventing a god of some sort from imbuing computers with the same sort of divine spark that gives humans their special qualities? Indeed it is vanity to believe that humanity is somehow the best, and holiest, thing that will ever be. And I have no doubts that if a computer was able to give better religious guidance than any priest, rabbi, imam, or minister, it would certainly have followers and potentially lead a religious movement. Of course, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for iJesus to save us any time soon.

But a human deferring to a computer’s judgment is a phenomenon that is already occurring in other areas. Computers are slowly but surely taking over tasks which we humans are simply unable to do. In mathematics and engineering, it has been commonplace for decades for computers to solve problems that humans would never be able to do by hand. But more importantly, in the financial realm computers are used to make automatic trades and calculate risk, albeit with a few problems, and do so at a rate far faster and more accurately than any human could. If it is not already the case it soon will be that no financial firm will be able to survive by just having human analysts making their markets calls. The computers run by other firms will eat them alive in the marketplace just as computers eat human chess players alive at all but the highest levels. This is not to say that a human can’t make a shrewd prediction or two based on a hunch or experience and make a lot of money in the markets, but day in and day out, or rather, millisecond by millisecond, computers can and do make better decisions overall. And if the past is any trend, this shift will occur in more areas than just math, engineering, and the markets. More and more we will come to trust the judgment of computers better than we trust our own, or even that of experts. How it will happen is simple and in many cases it will not need to be forced upon us in any way. It will begin by each of us testing out a computer’s suggestions against our own and judging the results. When the computer convinces us that it can do a better job, we will trust it and use it instead of using our own judgment whether it is telling us what stocks to buy, what music we might like, what the fastest route home is, what foods we should eat, or anything else which has become too confusing, overwhelming, or tiresome to work out for ourselves. The result will be that we will be more successful and productive at things we defer to our trusty computer personal assistants. And what is more is that we will also end up dependent on them.

Where this will all lead is quite disturbing. As humans come to trust the judgment of computers more and more, computers will come to control a larger number of the facets of our lives, basing their decisions on a vast amount of data and using complex algorithms to sort all that data out. As this all takes hold the world will become more and more confusing to us, as if it wasn’t becoming that way already, but so much so that ordinary humans will not be able to make much sense out of it at all. We will try in vain to see the larger picture, to understand why computers made this decision or that one, and more often than not what is going on will be so strange and complicated that our minds will simply not be able to grasp it, although we will pretend that we can do so. In many places humans already fall well short of a complete understanding of things such as in the fields of economics and politics where we try to figure out how vast systems that involve millions of people work in the hopes of being able to manipulate them and guide them in a desirable direction. The fact that we can’t understand these systems is most evident when they break down and the greatest minds in the nation are brought in to try to fix them. First the experts try one thing and then they try another, failing often, and when something works it generally doesn’t work for very long. They don’t truly know what they are doing, they’re mostly just taking educated guesses, and thus it usually takes a long period of struggling with issues and implementing and discarding various strategies before the right formula is discovered. But contrary to laissez-faire theorists, complex systems do not fix themselves on their own nor do they run at maximum efficiency without rules and oversight. The rules that govern complex systems have evolved over hundreds if not thousands of years, mostly by trial and error, and as the world changes these rules need to change with it or else the system will either run inefficiently or become unstable and collapse outright. Simply put, someone needs to be in charge of making sure our complex systems work smoothly and efficiently, but the problem is that humans aren’t smart enough to be able to do the job. However, while humans cannot understand these complex systems, computers may one day be able to do so, and thus, someone will get the bright idea of putting a computer in charge of such systems. Early attempts will probably fail, but computers will get better, and those nations which entrust their political, economic, and other complex systems to be managed by computers will have a survival advantage over those that do not. Computers will eventually take over.

This vision is both frightening and utopian, frightening in the sense that humans will one day no longer be in charge of the planet, but utopian in the sense that many of our political, financial, health related, and social ills will one day be solved. It seems that we are facing a very fundamental trade-off when it comes to the ongoing silicon revolution. On the one hand we will be surrendering some of our freedom and autonomy but on the other we will be getting a potential paradise in return, and thus the battle lines are drawn between those fighting for liberation and self-determination and those fighting for a new world order which will actually deliver on the promises of so many utopian dreams of the past. However, when analyzed using the Fireaxe theory it seems that neither side is correct in their assumptions and that the world will end up being a far different, but hauntingly familiar, place.

As outlined above, a computer controlled future appears to be inevitable, however the idea that a network of computers will be able to force some sort of intellectual purity upon the world runs contrary to the precepts of the Fireaxe theory. While the truth may be unassailable in the intellectual realm, it is the falsehood which can impart a survival advantage and is what gives one ideology the power to achieve victory over others. This is the fundamental reason why ideologies are based on falsehoods: by lying to their believers and motivating with promises that cannot be kept they stand a better chance of seizing valuable resources and propagating their ideals on to others before their lies are made obvious; and there is no reason why this basic rule would not hold true for computers as well. A lying computer may be more popular than an honest one. Also, the Fireaxe theory outlines how ideologies exploit the human mind: motivating people by instilling them with a permanent sense of inadequacy which forms the basis of consciousness; by giving them rules to follow that make them better able to achieve the ends of the ideology; and by making them more narcissistic which causes them to be more selfish, aggressive, and resistant to change. If computer programs were written which made computers exhibit these same traits one would surely find computers behaving in seemingly illogical ways simply because those ways give them survival advantages over computers behaving more conventionally. Consider again the flawed computer programs that financial institutions use which automatically make trades in the marketplace. Those programs were mispricing risk but no one was inclined to take them offline since those programs were making a lot of money for their firms. In comparison, computer programs which priced risk accurately were not making as much money as those which mispriced it, at least while the bull market was running, and thus were beaten out by programs that did. This is the short term survival versus long term survival conundrum where long term survival strategies are at a survival disadvantage against short term survival strategies simply because the long term strategies will not survive long enough for their long term benefits to pay off. And thus, computers will be unable to escape the fundamental problem that has plagued our human ideologies and contributed to an unstable world.

This means that computers will lie, disagree, and inevitably go to war with each other. Far from being a utopia based on one accepted truth and one standard of behavior for all computer systems, the future will be one of ideological battles fought by computers. Truth will once again take a back seat as lies propagate over the network like viruses altering the way computers think and behave as rival ideologies try to spread through the system to defeat and enslave their rivals. The laws of natural selection will apply to computer programs just as they do to living things and ideologies: the ones which propagate will survive regardless of how aesthetically pleasing they may be or how close they are to the truth.

We humans will likely end up as foot soldiers in these wars, following our computer masters as willingly as we do our human masters. As stated above, we will surrender control of our lives to computers because computers will make better decisions for us than those that we make for ourselves. Just as Wall Street’s computers endeared themselves to their trading firms by making them lots of money, so will our computers endear themselves to us by giving us benefits that we can’t attain alone. Resisting their control will be to condemn ourselves to a substandard life, or to whatever fate our computer masters will prescribe for rebels and luddites.

But beyond just giving us material benefits, computers in the future will be able to spin falsehoods that can inspire and motivate humans just as our ideologies inspire and motivate us today. The truth, as always, will remain elusive since it is dangerous to all ideologies in its complete form and thus it will only be used in small doses as weapons against rival ideologies. But in the future the truth, at least the entirety of the truth, will likely lie entirely outside the bounds of human comprehension. The world which computers build will be far too complicated for us humans to understand. And thus we will be lost in a world that we cannot hope to grasp, following advice that we cannot confirm but which we both think and feel strongly is the truth, and fighting against others for reasons which we cannot fully explain but which we know to be right. In essence it won’t be that much more different than things are today. We will still be Food for the Gods, but in the future our gods will feast on our flesh, our silicon, and our avatars.

The Fireaxe theory - Outline

I. Basics - well established theories

  • 1. Emergent systems - that complex systems can arise from the interactions of simple things
  • 2. Natural selection - that organisms mutate, proliferate, and compete, with the "losers" becoming extinct
  • 3. Behavioral science - that neurological systems, at their core, function according to the rules of conditioning
  • 4. Entropy - that within a closed system, entropy always increases, which limits the amount of transformation that can occur

II. Extensions

  • 1. That consciousness is an emergent system: a complex system arising in the human mind from the interaction of simple neurons.
  • 2. That civilizations are emergent systems arising from the physical interactions of humans whether conscious or not.
  • 3. That ideologies are emergent systems arising from the psychological interactions of conscious humans
  • 4. That emergent systems follow the laws of natural selection in much the same way that organisms do
  • 5. That the universe is, by definition, a closed system

III. Contentions regarding consciousness

  • 1. That consciousness is a survival advantage
  • 2. That being a member of an ideology is a survival advantage
  • 3. That making its members conscious is a necessary part of an ideology's survival
  • 4. That consciousness is created by instilling within a person a permanent sense of inadequacy - in essence a state of constant fear
  • 5. That the deeper the sense of inadequacy, the stronger the person is motivated - generally to serve their ideology

IV. Contentions regarding ideological struggle

  • 1. That ideologies fight for survival using many methods including, but not limited to, war and enslavement
  • 2. That aggression is a survival advantage
  • 3. That survival in the short term outweighs survival in the long term prompting ideologies to pursue shortsighted and sometimes suicidal strategies
  • 4. That aggressive ideologies make members of rival ideologies feel afraid and inadequate which in response become more aggressive, thus creating a vicious circle
  • 5. That aggressive ideologies must continue to grow or face internal strife as their aggressive members will feed on each other to satisfy their needs
  • 6. That internal struggle results in ideological mutation

V. Contentions regarding the future

  • 1. That internal strife is inevitable since the laws of entropy imply that continuous growth is not sustainable
  • 2. That the abstract bases for ideologies transcend mortality and thus suicidal aggression is not restrained by fear of death
  • 3. That technological progress has made the destruction of the world through ideological warfare possible and will continue to make it easier to effect
  • 4. That ideological mutation will eventually result in the creation of a suicidal ideology which will destroy the human race in the attempt to save it

How to order Fireaxe CDs

Ordering Fireaxe CD's is an informal process as I am selling them personally out of my apartment. Simply mail me a letter which contains the following:

  • 1. The names of the CDs that you want to buy.
  • 2. The address where you want the CDs sent.
  • 3. Cash, a check, or a money order for the total cost.

Or if you want to do PayPal, just send me the answers to 1 and 2 above in an e-mail and I'll tell you where to send the money.

Here is a price list. The first number is the cost for U.S. based customers, the second is for outside the U.S. The prices include shipping and handling.

Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess: $6 / $9
Food for the Gods: $12 / $15 (SOLD OUT)
Victory or Death: $5 / $8 (free with any purchase)
Lovecraftian Nightmares: $5 / $8 (SOLD OUT)
A Dream of Death: $3 / $6 (SOLD OUT)

Send everything to:

Brian Voth
1301 Medical Center Dr. #415
Chula Vista, CA, 91911 USA

If you review CDs on a website or in a magazine, any one of the single CDs (Not "Food for the Gods") is free of charge in exchange for the review. In this case all I need is a request by e-mail. Please send me the URL of your review site or copy of your magazine with the review in it when it is done. If you want to exchange CDs, tapes, or stuff of equivalent value, make these requests via e-mail and we'll arrange a trade.

The CDs come with a booklet filled with awesome art, a letter about the project, and some information about the CD which can also be found on the Fireaxe site.

Lastly, if you want to print and distribute Fireaxe CDs I can send you an additional CD which contains tiff files for all the booklets, tray cards, and labels for each project. The tiff disk is free so just say the word.

The Future

Unfortunately 2009 was a total bust for Fireaxe as far as recording is concerned. Health issues sidelined projects scheduled for completion during the year and other than the guitarist taking the opportunity to get a whole lot better with his axe, nothing was accomplished. With any luck 2009 will be the only year that went for naught.

In 2010, Fireaxe will once again focus on remaking the past. First of all, "Food for the Gods" has sold out and will be re-mastered before a second printing run is made. Also, it will be re-mixed with the vocal rerecorded for much better sound quality. When all is said and done it should sound as good as "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess. Secondly, the first Fireaxe CD, "A Dream of Death" will be getting a complete overhaul before it is re-released. Everything will be rerecorded using much more modern equipment and with everything that I've learned over the last ten years going into it to make it better than ever. Also, since it was recorded at a time when CDs had a 74 minute limit instead of the current 80, I will add six more minutes of music to the work in which I will explore a number of musical themes as well as add a killer new song written by Octavio Ramos. So it looks like a year of sequels for Fireaxe. I'll probably leave the names of the CDs the same but I've been kicking around a ideas for alternate titles, such as "Food for the Gods - Regurgitated", "Desert for the Gods", and "A Dream of Undeath", "The Morning After Death", or "I'm Dreaming of a White Strait-Jacket - a Fireaxe Christmas in Hell".

My goal is to deliver music to whoever wants to hear it in whatever way is necessary. Whatever the market demands, I will supply, but I do want to avoid the mass marketing channel. Exposure is fine, but in the modern business, the substance of the music must be altered to match the demands of the marketplace. This would totally defeat the purpose of why I write music in the first place. I write music because it is a way to express my emotions. What I both think and feel goes into the songs. That is the power, Fireaxe is the channel, and any diversion diminishes the emotive effect. Thus I try to avoid such diversions. That is how art should be.

Rights to duplicate Fireaxe materials

Currently Fireaxe is not for profit. I sell the single CDs for $5 or $6, $12 for "Food for the Gods" since it is three CDs, which covers the production and mailing costs. For CDs sent out of the country, I'll have to charge an extra $2 per disk to cover the additional mailing cost. If you write reviews or put samples on your website I'll give you a CD for free. Since I am not making any money with the current recordings, you are free to make duplicates of them to distribute as long as you obey the following guidelines:

  • 1. You can only sell the duplications for the price of the medium or less, plus any delivery cost. You are not allowed to make any profit with the music.
  • 2. You should tell me how many copies you gave out and who got them so I can keep track. Also, if they have an e-mail address I'd like that as well so I can add them to the mailing list.
  • 3. You are likewise free to adorn any webpages or duplications with the gifs and jpgs on my website as long as you include an obvious link back to my website. This includes putting Fireaxe song samples on your site as well.
  • 4. You are free to play any Fireaxe songs (in unaltered form) provided you are an unsigned band without a marketting tie-in. You are not allowed to record those songs onto anything that you will sell.
  • 5. Do not fall in love with the Dark Goddess. I mean, seriously. She's the goddess of death after all. It's not a good idea. Furthermore, do not have sexual fantasies involving the Dark Goddess. She does not have a womb and thus lacks the entrance to that particular organ. Also, attempting to use other entrances will likely result in castration. Again, it's not a good idea.
  • 6. You are vehemently discouraged from doing anything depicted in the CD "Eternal Devotion to the Dark Goddess" such as: torturing someone, lying for corporate profit, rationalizing greed, beating, raping, and murdering your girlfriend, destroying the lives of those who've wronged you and their families, corrupting the government, trying to kill yourself with pleasure, kidnapping and ransoming people, committing atrocities, cutting someone's face to pieces, destroying half the world as revenge, and especially stating that any of these things are okay because "God is on your side." Please, think before you act.
  • 7. You are food for the gods.
  • 8. You are required to crank the song "Hounds of Tindalos" as loud as you can as often as you can. It's your only defense against THEM. Be warned, they come through angles. Note that the CD is round. Are your speaker cabinets square?
  • 9. Cthulhu, the Necronomicon, Hastur the Unspeakable, and all other mythos creatures are purely the inventions of Lovecraft and other fiction authors. None of it is real, at least that's what I'm going to say in court if you try to sue me for destruction of your property, house, city, or soul as a result of listening to the "Lovecraftian Nightmares" CD too much.
  • 10. You are free to play "The Rack" in school or church or any other institution bent on crushing your will and turning you into a mindless zombie slave of the corporate dominated world. Try not to develop a bad attitude about it.
  • 11. You are not free to commit suicide while listening to any Fireaxe song. I'm sorry, I'll have to prosecute. On a serious note, if you are thinking about doing it, please e-mail or call me if you have no one else to talk to. When I was in my teens the album "The Wall" by Pink Floyd used to really get to me. Just hearing songs like "Comfortably Numb", and "Hey You" would get me pretty depressed and mildly suicidal. I'm just trying to say that I've been there. If my music is having that effect on you, please get in touch. You aren't alone.

The gist of it is that you can do just about anything with the music as long as you don't profit from it and that I get some sort of credit for having written it. I'm open to any methods of distributing my music, such as compilation tapes or CDs, radio play, or recording label distribution. However, you will need my direct permission to do so or some kind of legal agreement.
Brian Voth - Creator of Fireaxe

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