Observations and notes from a trip to Las Vegas / FreedomFest

Couple weeks ago I went to Las Vegas for the first time – primarily for FreedomFest2018, but also just to look around.  (As regards the former, I am less libertarian than I used to be… but that’s another story, several speakers seemed interesting, including Heather MacDonald, Ross Douthat, and Michael Shermer.  It was a nice excuse for a trip.)

If you just want the photos, here are my photos of the trip.  (Or click here for full gallery.)

Me in front of Pawn Stars pawn shop!

Some observations about Las Vegas

1. This is definitely a city money built.

2. It was surprising how sensual (in the sense of appealing to the senses) the city was – photos really do not do it justice.  Lights everywhere, loud booming sounds, HUGE structures (several of the largest hotels in the world are in Vegas, so it’s not an illusion, things are huge).

3. Probably more water features per square mile, and absolutely, than any city I’ve ever been in.  Ironic for the desert (or perhaps that’s the idea).

4. On that note, perhaps the first time I really felt like I was in the desert – the Mojave Desert gets 2-4″ of rain a year.  The natural vegetation is low scrub – the palm trees of Las Vegas are all imported and also, I was told, the source of Vegas’ scorpion population, since they nest in the trees (I did not see any scorpions).

5. The Strip actually isn’t especially walkable – big roads, and pedestrian bridges over the roads but they only go some places.  So a lot of up and down and side to side.  “You want to go one mile, so you walk five”, one person said to me.

6. This will not surprise but – unashamed vice on advertisement everywhere.  I did see a surprising number of families – there are family things to do, but everything expensive.

And now, some notes from some sessions of FreedomFest.

Fake News / Social Media Rewiring the Brain Session

1. Ross Douthat – the main effect of the internet has been to drive people crazy, just because it’s always coming at you.  “You have these programs on your computer that are optimized to drive you crazy.”

2. Rich Lowry – the situation today is really not that new, the problem is we think a 30 year period after WWII is how the world is supposed to work.  That system has broken down and we’re returning toward a more 19th century media environment, and that’s probably a good thing.

3. Charlie Kirk – (speaking more of fake news) the problem today is not the facts presented, but the subtext journalists create within the story.  Journalists today start with the headline in mind, then they go find the facts they need to create the story.  [Lots of audience clapping.]  Read the NYTimes for a week straight and you’ll get a completely different perception of reality, than reality.

4. Douthat – Bias is less about what is covered than what isn’t.

5. Lowry – “My wife and I accounted for 20% of the Cruz vote in my precinct.”  On guns and immigration, the press is in complete advocacy mode.  But “I don’t know objective people.”  There is no such thing as objective journalism.  Our news outlets just shouldn’t hide their predilictions.

6. Douthat – “What happens a lot is, journalists feel the need to get it out fast, and they get it wrong.”  Fake news probably isn’t much of a problem because, in truth, 90% of fake news stories are believed by partisans whose actions are already determined anyway, they don’t really change anything.  And social media censorship efforts are unlikely to work.

7. (Not sure speaker) – The Russia investigation is a political revenge tool.

8. Douthat – There is a level of Democratic / media hysteria today.

9. Lowry – The media has just never gotten their heads around the fact that Trump won.  They still can’t accept that Trump is just going to normally fill out his term.  Fake news is not a problem – you have more access to information than ever before.  Humans are the problem – if you want to take the time to go out there and be well informed, you can be.

10. (Speaker) – In my experience, Axios does a pretty good job of just being short and factual, filling that void of who is reporting just the facts.

11. Douthat – The biggest concern today is not national coverage, it’s the fact that the economic base of small newspapers has collapsed, the gap hasn’t been filled in.  The internet age has not been good for the lower level.

Michael Shermer on scientific/technological attempts to make humans immortal

[Should be especially understood here that these are my notes on his comments, not necessarily my opinion.]  A talk especially about his new book.

1. Comments that first Christians and Jews did not believe in an afterlife.  (?)  [David – not sure what he means especially about Christians, unless he means they especially looked forward to a physical resurrection, rather than a spiritual once?]

2. Heaven has a history.  Plato’s idea of the soul got grafted onto Christianity.  But there are problems of identity – do you have a physical body in Heaven?  But our bodies aren’t perfect.  And how old are you?  Something like 30 is a popular choice, but “I’m not the man I was when I was 30.”

3. Transhumanists want to break through the upper human age limit of around 120 – we aren’t even close.  Cryonic tech is not even close.  And there are perhaps irresolvable problems of personal identity – even if we find some way to copy your consciousness into an android, say, you yourself are still “stuck in the meat body”, so we haven’t actually extended your lifespan at all, we just made a copy of you.  (Again, technologically speaking, not even close – check back in five millenia.)

4. If we could find some way to extend the human lifespan by a year, every year, then you never have to die.

5. If you make it into your late 80s / early 90s, what happens is a bunch of interlocking biological systems all kind of shutdown simultaneously.  It’s like a battery which maintains an almost constant voltage until almost the end, and then the voltage falls off a cliff.

6. We also don’t know what we don’t know.  Suppose you make it so humans can live to 200 years – what happens to the human body then?  We have no idea.  “We don’t even know what food to eat!”

7. (after being asked about near-death experiences) We can stimulate parts of the brain to replicate all the typical NDE features.  The idea of feeling yourself outside your body is called “decentering”, and you can do it with your imagination right now.  A tunnel with a white light is just oxygen deprivation to the brain.  Also worth noting that people have different sorts of NDEs based on their expectations in life.

8. I have an invitation to come to Costa Rica and take drugs – my friends tell me “then you’ll know this spirituality stuff is real!”, but even if I did believe so and tried to write about it, all my readers would just say “Shermer, you were on drugs”.

Notes from session on digital security

(Sorry did not record speaker names for this one.)

1. Ayn Rand – privacy is the foundation of a civilized society that sets men free from other men.

2. “I’d rather people churn metadata than show up at my home and investigate me.  Technology doesn’t have a personal interest in me.”  Actually said perhaps the reason we interned Japanese-Americans during WWII was because we couldn’t churn metadata, so we felt we had to treat everyone as a threat.

3. Privacy is dead, but if you invest yourself a bit in some commonly used tools, you can raise the bar a little bit on security.

4. Realistically the biggest privacy threat is probably the hacker.  Remember when North Korea hacked Sony it was a simple phishing scam.  You might remember North Korea lost internet access for a short time after that, the US firing a shot across their bow perhaps.

5. The internet architecture was simply not designed to be secure.  What we need is a new internet architecture, perhaps emerging from the crypto movement.

6. Audience was polled as to whether Google/Facebook, or governments, were the bigger privacy threat.  Vote was about 50/50.  Someone shouted “what’s the difference?”

7. Some comment that people should object to local data accumulation – reference was made to a company that will give local police license plate readers for free.  The contract states explicitly that the company owns the information collected.

8. Looking at something like 9/11, we had lots of information, but at the end of the day someone has to look at it all.

9. Comment that red-light cameras actually photograph the license plate of every car that goes by?  Have been helpful in locating people fleeing from the law?

10. Sharyl Attkisson said the government hacked into her computer and put classified information onto it.

11. Usually when the government wants to get into a piece of technology they have a good reason – and if you don’t build in a backdoor, then they’re just going to go out and pay someone to hack the device, and then you the taxpayer are paying for it.

12. Companies like Lifelock can be helpful, but remember that you give these companies all kinds of information about yourself, and they too can be hacked.

Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, quick talk related to academia

1. “I’m from Illinois, where we believe in term limits for our governor – you know, one term in office, one term in jail.  When we ask for our governor’s cell number…”

2. Got lots of clapping for “we tell people to borrow money they don’t have, to study things that don’t matter, to get jobs that don’t exist”.

3. “We have a nationalized student loan industry.”  98% of student loans come from government.  You pay the same interest rate regardless of what you’re studying.  The second biggest lobby market in DC is the higher education lobby, and they are all about maintaining the status quo.

4. The cost of a college degree has exploded, while the value has plummeted.  “You really want to stand out to an employer?  Then don’t have a college degree, that’ll get you noticed.”  He himself never went to college, incidentally.

Heather MacDonald, quick talk related to academia

Hard to summarize this very passionate speech.  Essentially, the anti-speech forces on college campuses are hysterical, and the way to confront them is to go directly after the factual problems with the identity-based victimology that is used to justify shutting down speech.  I wrote down: “the narcissistic victimology”, “students on college campuses genuinely believe they are victims of oppression at risk of their lives”, “colleges have a whole bureaucracy dedicated to cultivating this narcissism”, “you can only escape being an oppressor by becoming an ally”, “ecstatic know-nothingism”, “science fields are now vulnerable too, every academic department is in the victimologists crosshairs”, “teaching people to hate”.  We have to assert that racism and oppression are not the defining characteristics of American society today.  Also suggested Chinese universities would overtake those in the US because they don’t care about identity politics, their academic system is still a meritocracy.

See also her upcoming book.

Talk by Daniele Struppa (college president) on higher education

1. “I’m a math professor, so I never get these kind of crowds.”

2. Talked about being a young man in Milan, students would march waving the Soviet flag.

3. Some interesting comments (from Antonio Gramsci) about cultural hegemony / superstructure.  “The hegemonic culture propagates its own values to transform them into common sense values.”  This makes it important to assimilate traditional intellectuals if you want to move a culture.

4. Was against any kind of “affirmative action for conservatives” in academia.  Fight for free speech and academic freedom, open inquiry.

5. Free speech is under attack but never directly, always in “but” statements.  Everyone says they love free speech.  “If there is anything that makes me proud of my job, it is when I support people’s ideas that I find absolutely abominable”.

6. Part of the problem for public schools is that they have to report to an entity (legislature) that does not understand academia.

Talk by Charlie Copeland and Josh Dunn, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, on academia

1. There are so few conservatives in some fields of academia that we had to use what is called a “snowball sample” to find them.  That is where, if you find one person (a conservative professor in this case), you ask him if he knows a few more we could contact.

2. Survey data showing discrimination against Christians and Republicans in the social sciences is remarkably easy to get – usually you have to trick people to get them to admit they’re willing to discriminate, not so in surveys about discrimination against these groups in, for example, professor hiring.

3. “…so few students are actually looking for history degrees in this age of trade-school education”.  Was part of a conversation about one university history program removing any requirement that students take a US history course.  Programs feeling pressure to lower standards just to attract students.

4. Many academics today are on a religious mission – your job as a scholar is to root out privilege and power and oppression.  Note the use of the word “interrogate” instead of “study” for example.

5. Left-leaning faculty are really more alarmed by the campus environment today, because they are the ones teaching the courses filled with students looking to find heretics.

6. Lack of conservatives in some fields mean important questions go un-investigated – gave the example that many early minimum wage proponents were explicitly pro-eugenics.  Raise the minimum wage and the “undesirables” who comprise our lowest paid workers will be priced out of a job entirely, and won’t be able to have as many children.  The anti-employment effects of the minimum wage weren’t an undesired side effect, they were the goal.

7. Sciences are the “ballast” for the university, keep us from capsizing into insanity.  There are real consequences for “doing” science in a way that doesn’t match reality.

8. University administrators have a deep impulse to create more administrators.

9. “If you have low expectations of your students, they will give you pretty much what you demanded.”

10. Interesting suggestion from a questioner at end that instead of paying outrageous tuition, just pay for a good private tutor for your child.  Sounds great but unfortunately for the moment anyway academia has a lock on the credentialing many employers want to see.

Notes from panel on free speech in academia featuring Ari Cohn, Heather MacDonald, Representative Tom Garrett, Lisa Sparks

1. HM – we have had 40 years of the development of identity politics, which are a magnet into narcissism.  This is not fundamentally a technological problem.  The fundamental premise of much discourse today is that the US is a racist and sexist nation.

2. TG – social media is a “non-stop hyperbolic hate machine”.  But suggests the Bonhoeffer paradigm, “that which makes us angry may also help us become better thinkers”.

3. HM – the lack of ability of protesters to imagine the situation reversed is astounding.  It never occurs to them what will happen if, having set the precedent for censorship, they lose power.  To listen to some of them, you would think free speech is a tool to oppress minorities – the historical ignorance is amazing.  Frederick Douglas said “five years of free speech would break every chain in the south”.

4. HM wonders what makes university admins so cowardly.  “What does a college president fear?”

5. TG – there are two types of people, those too busy being offended to be productive, and those too busy being productive to be offended.

6. (Someone) – if you do banish speech, all you do is ensure people will only talk to those who already agree with them.  And then opinions get even more extreme.

7. HM – what if the Leftist diagnosis of society is wrong?  They act like behavior doesn’t matter, than the only thing that can explain the true, disparate social outcomes is discrimination.  Only their explanation is allowed.

8. HM – do not give money to your alma mater unless you have made a close examination and determined they are still worth it.  Starve the beast.  (In response to a questioner) unfortunately they have a monopoly on credentializing students right now and that’s a tough nut to crack.

9. (one speaker says that students learn these attitudes in K-12, that’s the bigger problem, and teacher certification programs just indoctrinate future teachers into a lot of this sociological nonsense).  HM – “we’re going to have to have homeschooling for college.” TG – “it’s effectively coming with online education”.


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