Saturday, December 28, 2013

2013 Blogyear in Review

This was an unusual year for blogging. Thanks to Venkatesh Rao I got to be a “blogger in residence” at Ribbonfarm, and that occupied most of my writing and thinking efforts. It was a chance to do something more thematic, and I returned to some of the same obsessions I had in graduate school and apparently have not finished with: agency, collective action, personae and social interaction, morality, empathy. Big hairy topics that I have no particular standing to pontificate about, if not for the fact that nobody else seems to understand them very well, including the professionals.

So the home blog only got about half as many posts as usual. However, a few of these managed to go mildly viral, which means they were seen by thousands rather than dozens. That is gratifying, for perfectly normal reasons, although it feels weird to me to actually care about that. Weirdly normal. There should be a word for that.

The Popular 3

The current three most popular posts of all time are from this year, and all actually manage to express a clear and coherent point, which is not always the case. And the points seem worthwhile, or in other words, I think they deserve to be popular; the ideas contained therein seem actually valuable and slightly original, and they ought to be in more people’s heads. All three seem like they could be usefully expanded on and may generate some longer writing in the future.

Hostile AI: You’re soaking in it! develops a theory of human-hostile artificially intelligent systems that already exist. Plays off the LessWrong “friendly AI” people, and advocates that they turn their considerable talents to solving real problems.

Lisp is for Stupid People (nobody noticed my recursive acronym, sigh) was a successful effort to get attention on Hacker News, but there is a serious point there, which is that software developers need to get over their self-image as rock stars of the intellect and acknowledge their limitations. Languages and other tools are designed, usually not very explicitly, to augment the intellect, but if we are more honest about our limitations, we could do much better.

“God” == God leverages Alan Moore to solve forever the tedious argument between atheists and theists, by pointing out that gods are not the kind of things that can be said to exist or not-exist, but are best understood as concepts with actual causal power, a metafiction in Moore’s terminology. I connected this to the different powers words have in written vs oral cultures, and to software, which is a relatively new way to link symbols and causality.

The Idiosyncratic 3

And here are three posts that did not rise in the ranks, and don’t make any stunningly clear points, but I have a fondness for so giving them a small boost:

Engineers of Human Souls I really do believe that social media is reshaping who we are, and I sure wish it wasn’t being done so clumsily. I'm hardly the only one to say this, but I keep feeling a need to say it.

The Opposite of Mathematics How often have you picked up a book on some abstruse intellectual subject (in this case, the relationship between mathematics and narrative) and found someone you know in the subject matter?

Proposed Extensions to the Booleans is a minor rebellion against the constraints of my day job, which has to do with what we in the business call "knowledge representation". Doing this involves taking a very crabbed view of what both knowledge and representation are, but since it’s slightly less crabbed than what usually goes on in computers, it is on the cutting edge and potentially useful. But man, do we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Guest post: Morality for Exploded Minds

My final guest post is up at Ribbonfarm, in which I solve morality for decentralized minds. Well, not quite, but a few hopeful stabs are made in that direction.

It was an interesting experience, playing in someone else's yard. Writing here -- where I can say whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like, at whatever length I feel like -- is very easy; but as soon as there are outside expectations, both in terms of deadlines and to be more coherent in subject matter, writing becomes much more like work, and surprisingly hard work at that. Worth it, I think, the feedback has been pretty positive.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Followup to failure

Today is the 1-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings in which 20 children and six teachers were killed by a presumably insane person who also killed his mother and himself.

On that day I wrote a post about the failure of our society to perform its most basic function of creating a safe environment for the reproduction of the species. I was pretty pissed off. The threat of insane people with guns is not all that big a threat, statistically, but we have failed to deal with other risks that are not as splashy but are certain to cause greater and more universal harm to future generations, such as climate change.

Well, since then, the US political process has failed even more dismally than I would have predicted. I really did think that an incident of this magnitude might actually penetrate the thick miasma of dysfunction that chokes our politics. Whatever else you might say about Americans, we are good at making a fuss over dead children. But no – in fact, it is now easier than ever for the violently insane to obtain the tools they need to realize their fantasies:
Of more than 1,000 gun-related bills introduced in the states since Sandy Hook, thirty-nine laws were passed, the majority of them in California, that make it more difficult to obtain a gun or certain kinds of magazines, while 73 laws were passed that make it easier to obtain or wield a gun, mostly in already gun-friendly states, according to a New York Times review.
So, I was wrong, twenty dead elementary-school children barely register in our political discourse; they are nothing compared to the 10:1 spending advantage the NRA has over gun control advocates. Could there be a clearer signal that our ability as a society to regulate ourselves has basically been eliminated?And if we can't act on such dramatic events, the chances for doing something about the larger risks we face are basically nil.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013


Neoreaction was the fringiest of fringe idea up until a few months ago, confined to the darkest and dankest corners of the internet. But lately it has burst out of obscurity, gaining new followers in the Singularity/Less Wrong crowd, prompting detailed critiques, coverage from mainstream news sources, and now well-known writers are joining the fray.

What is neoreaction? Roughly, it equates to being explicitly anti-democratic. Neoreactionaries believe that democracy has failed and in fact must fail, and that the only viable form of government is autocracy. Why this idea should appeal to anyone in this day and age is a bit of a mystery. Some of the believers are simply extreme rightwingers searching for a coherent philosophy, but oddly (or not) it also draws from the libertarian and rationalist communities. Here’s a map, prepared by believers, which shows how thoroughly this idea is linked to both high-tech libertarians and to the absolute dregs of the internet – men’s rights activists, christian extremists, and some truly vile racists – basically, people anyone with any taste whatsoever would cross the street to avoid. I would have some hesitancy about making a diagram like this myself – it implies that rationalists in Less Wrong, who are for the most part both smart and well-intentioned, are tightly linked to scum. But I didn’t draw this, they did. The chief of Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky, has distanced himself, but the meme pools are clearly leaking into each other in an alarming way.

All recent neoreactionary activity can be traced back to Mencius Moldbug, someone I have had some interaction with online and off (I am somewhat inexplicably on his blogroll). Like many of these people, Moldbug is obviously extremely bright but it is also obvious that has something has gone horribly wrong in his thinking. He struck me as someone who was, like many nerds, attracted towards libertarianism; but was also too smart to not see its internal contradictions. However, rather than backing off and being a normal progressive (which would be boring), he doubled down on the inherent authoritarianism that lurks under the surface of libertarianism.

Like libertarians, his attitude towards actual politics is a mixture of disdain and terror. He can’t tolerate the sloppy and unprincipled clashes of the various interests of society that make up civic life, so he’s constructed an imaginary version of absolute monarchy that makes all that disappear. It’s total nonsense of course, but I can detect and even have a smidgen of sympathy for the reasoning behind it. An example of moldbuggery (there are megabytes of this sort of stuff):
"…a reactionary is a believer in order, stability, and security. All of which he treats as synonyms….Thus, the order that the rational reactionary seeks to preserve and/or restore is arbitrary. Perhaps it can be justified on some moral basis. But probably not. It is good simply because it is order, and the alternative to order is violence at worst and politics at best. If the Bourbons do not rule France, someone will – Robespierre, or Napoleon, or Corner Man."
This is a remarkably clear statement, and also remarkably false in all of its presuppositions – that you can have human society without politics, for instance, or that the only two alternatives are autocratic rule or gang violence. Moldbug’s entire output is like this: crisply built on axioms that collapse like tissue if looked at with even a minimum of critical thought. And for all the macho posturing that goes on in this corner of the internet, it strikes me as a fearful, shameful, wussified stance. Order and security may be fine things, but if you are willing to sacrifice everything else for them, you have no pride, and you will only produce stultification.

I’m writing this from Chicago, a down-to-earth city far from the various sillinesses of the coasts. From here, disputes between various fringe belief systems seem about as significant as an argument between geeks about whether they prefer Star Trek or Star Wars. There’s nobody here I could even begin to explain this movement to without feeling foolish. However, the fact that these ideas are taken even a little bit seriously by well-connected technical people means they do have significance. Software is really eating the world and what goes on in obscure corners of Silicon Valley nerd culture really does end up having a disproportionate impact on how the world works.

So, I don’t think neoreaction is really going to get much political traction, because it is just too extreme, silly, nerdy, and ultimately self-contradictory. But it does seem to have become a powerful attractor in idea-space, and more people are being pulled into the orbit of this extremely dark belief system. There are short paths between this nonsense and real powers in technology, and that is something that at least needs to be watched.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lisp is for Stupid People

[yes, the title is clickbait.]

I’ve been programming in Lisp for many years. It has a reputation as language only suitable to forbiddingly smart people (and indeed, most Lisp programmers I know are MIT-trained or the equivalent). I never quite understood that though. In fact, I realized recently that the reason I like Lisp, why I am always drawn back to it despite its general lack of commercial marketability, is not because I am so smart, but because I’m so stupid.

Or, more precisely, it is because Lisp is a better tool for overcoming my own mental limitations. It’s not that I am particularly stupid – my limitations are largely shared by everybody else. My attention is limited, my processing capacity is limited, my short-term memory capacity is limited, simply by virtue being a human being.

Programming is thought to require being able to hold complicated structures in the head. Here’s a cartoon illustration, which is pretty accurate as far as it goes, and here’s some actual interesting research on programmer’s mental functions. It may be that the fabled 10x or 100x programmers are just a little bit better at dealing with complexity than normal. I’m pretty good at it, but not superhuman, especially now that I’m getting alarmingly old.

The alternative to requiring programmers to be amazing jugglers of objects and acrobats of attention is powerful abstraction and good design. Abstraction is the basic way in which programmers encapsulate a bit of complexity in a single object or function call. All programming languages let you do this but some make it easier and/or offer more ways to do it. Good design means organizing a system around a few fundamental principles so that things make sense and navigating through the code doesn’t require a lot of effort.

These qualities are linked. Clean design means choosing abstractions so that they work together in powerful ways, and better abstraction tools make it easier to do that. It is certainly possible to do good software design in a less-powerful language. Some of the most impressive pieces of software design I’ve seen recently has been the series of visualization libraries coming out of Jeff Heer’s group, including prefuse (in Java) and the newer d3.js (in Javascript). The designers of these libraries have carefully chosen their abstractions so they fit together in powerful ways.

But, I maintain, it is a lot easier to do this in a language that is designed for it, and Lisp is that language. In Lisp, macros and other features make it trivially easy to hide all the details away in suitable abstractions, with the result that the meat of the program can be compact, so that the programmer can focus on it. In Java, by contrast, the important part of a program generally tends to be hidden away amidst boring boilerplate code that is necessary to please the Java compiler but not germane to the problem at hand (this article refers to the novel software metric “beef-to-bun ratio”, which is low in Java but apparently improving).

Thus Lisp has always seemed to me a much better tool than any other for augmenting my own limited brain functions. I don’t know why the rest of the world, presumably equally suffering from the same limitations, doesn’t see it that way.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

“God” == God

Three of my intellectual heroes these days, in roughly decreasing order of respectability: Bruno Latour, Christopher Alexander, and Alan Moore. If I squint I can even detect a common project or thread that unites them. For one thing, all seem vaguely disreputable from the standpoint of mainstream thought. In actual fact, all three of these people would likely be pretty welcome in technology circles; and both Latour and Alexander have keynoted major tech conferences. But part of their attraction is a certain outlaw quality that success has not eliminated.

For the other thing: they are all, in different ways, struggling towards the spiritual (for lack of a better term). Latour writes on ecotheology, Alexander is determined to undo materialist metaphysics in favor of something rigorously old-fashioned and hylozoic, and Moore – well, I’ll get to him. This spiritual bent is somehow linked closely to the disreputable qualities. At least in the eyes of the MIT-trained-nerdy-atheist aspect of myself. They beckon to me from outside prison walls that I seem to have erected for myself.

Latour and Alexander I’ve written about previously; Moore is a more recent object of obsession. He is, of course, pretty well-known at this point as the most accomplished writer in the comic book format (Watchmen, V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentleman). What I didn’t know until recently was that he had declared himself to be a Magician, in roughly the Aleister Crowley sense, and was getting seriously into all sorts of mystical shit. In fact he’s written about this widely and you can find stuff on the net; his series Promethea is pretty much a catalog of various mystical systems in graphical form. While this sort of thing is not really my thing, I can at least respect that it is neither crazy or lamebrained or even supernatural. Here is a rough statement of the core of his stance as I understand it, from an interview in The Believer (emphasis added):
Actually, art and magic are pretty much synonymous. …The central art of enchantment is weaving a web of words around somebody… When that enchantment is the creation of gods and the creation of mythology, or the kind in the practice of magic, what I believe one is essentially doing is creating metafictions. It’s creating fictions that are so complex and so self-referential that for all practical intents and purposes they almost seem to be alive. That would be one of my definitions of what a god might be. …It is a concept that has become so complex, sophisticated, and so self-referential that it appears to be aware of itself….If gods and entities are conceptual creatures, which I believe they are self-evidently, then the concept of a god is a god.
This is more or less exactly the same idea I was groping towards a few years back. Given my background and biases, I’m inclined to think of god-concepts in more quasi-mathematical terms, whereas Moore thinks in quasi-linguistic terms, but I think we are pointing in the same general direction. The title of this post is my attempt to condense the idea down to a sort of formal notation, because that’s what I do.

This way of looking at things seems so simple and obvious and at least partially right that I can’t believe it’s all that original (with either Moore or me). Yet I can’t find much prior art. Perhaps it isn’t really satisfying to most people who want to know one way or the other if there is a referent on the other end of the symbol. Maybe people’s concept of concept is not rich enough to encompass these kind of complex, quasi-autonomous structures. Concepts are insubstantial; gods if they are not mere fiction have some effects in the world. We are used to thinking of symbols as dead things on paper; but the more primal oral form of language was always alive, always closely connected to the real-time human activity of a speaker. The causal powers of words in the old days was immediate and obvious.

But we are getting more experience even in our advanced writing-based culture, with complex symbol systems that are immaterial and yet have effects in the world. That is what software is, after all. Gods are pieces of cultural software, powerful enough to erect cathedrals, start wars, bind together communities. Like software, they are living texts, actualized fictions.


Another doctrine that might sound profoundly anti-rational is that God’s holy four-letter name, the Tetragrammaton, is identical with God Himself. Unlike other names that merely point to the signified, when the unnamable Absolute becomes known to the created beings by a name, that name itself becomes the personal God of religion, ’Elohey Is ́ra’el. When the Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai, they experienced a synesthetic vision, in which the sounds of the commandments were seen as flying letters, made of pure light...during their synesthetic experience, the Jews actually saw God as identical to His name. Therefore, it is permitted to bow before the letters of the Tetragrammaton, because they are God, in an esoteric sense, and not just a visual representation of Divinity, which Judaism forbids
From Between Enlightenment and Romanticism: Computational Kabbalah of Rabbi Pinchas Elijah HurwitzYoel Matveyev, talking about an 18th century encyclopedia assembled by Hurwitz ]

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Government Within

I have a new guest post up at Ribbonfarm, mostly on the work of George Ainslie.

To go a bit meta on it: I find Ainslie fascinating but hard to internalize. I wrote the post mostly as a way to force myself to reread parts of his work and try to get deeper into it, with I guess some partial success. Any theory of distributed agency is hard, I think. The natural operation of the brain is based in simple agency and narrative; we aren't so good at thinking about systems with distributed control, or at the boundary between mechanism and agency.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Fixing The Fixer

Mark Stein, one of my oldest friends, has helped edit and re-issue the memoirs of Mendel Beilis:
One of the great trials of the twentieth century was the 1913 blood-libel trial of Mendel Beilis in Czarist Russia. Beilis, a Jew, was arrested in 1911 by the Czarist secret police. He was accused of ritually murdering a Christian boy in order to use the boy’s blood to bake matzah for Passover. Beilis was jailed for over two years, under horrible conditions, while awaiting trial. He heroically resisted all pressure to implicate himself or other Jews. In 1913, after a dramatic trial that riveted the Jewish people and much of the rest of the world, Beilis was acquitted by an all-Christian jury.
This is a genuinely moving and gripping account. With something of a happy ending, even. Aside from Beilis's own responses to his troubles, which display an unassuming heroism in the face of forces bent on his destruction, it is quite heartwarming to see that a good many Christians supported and came to his aid, but also his neighbors and acquaintances. Very oddly, his friends and supporters included even members of the Black Hundreds, the anti-semitic nationalist group that was pushing the libel.

The post title is a reference to a supplementary essay that claims Bernard Malamud plagiarized large sections of his famous novel The Fixer from Beilis' account.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Yom Kippur and Escape from Language

My relationship with Jewishness is untainted by any feelings of ideological obligation. That is to say, I belong to this people and community (sort of, more or less), I participate in their rituals (very occasionally), I share some deep values (not necessarily the obvious and articulated ones), but I will be damned if it will determine how I think. Like any other body of learning, I treat it as a resource that I will make use of as I see fit, not a framework that I have to fit myself into. 

This sounds both a bit naive and a bit like bragging, but I’m just trying to be accurate about how things are with me. I’ve never been able to comfortably wear an ideological or identity. In a way it’s annoying that I am a radical non-joiner. Some people manage to make themselves nice lives out of being Jewish, or being an anarchist, or scholar, or activist, or whatever. I resist being anything. I suppose even that becomes an identity eventually.
“I decided I’d rather starve and live on the edges of nowhere than do anything at all, than become anything labeled.” – Bukowski (a saint of illegibility)
Given that I’m not a counterculture hero or anything close, but rather a middle-class guy with a family to support, I do in fact have a quite labeled work identity (and resume and LinkedIn profile and all the rest). It’s a real enough aspect of me; I don’t mind (much) inhabiting the role and selling it on the marketplace. But a holy day is a point where I can step back from it and place it in its proper perspective. Taking off from work is just a superficial aspect; it is taking a day off from the everyday structural illusions of the world, the better to put them in their proper place.

There’s a lot of talk about the soul this time of year – how to purify it, is it going to be inscribed in the Book of Life, etc. Like a good materialist with cognitive science training, I am deeply dubious about the very concept. Yet someone or thing is being dubious, no? If nothing else, language and grammar force an identity to come into being.

Yom Kippur begins with the Kol Nidrei, an odd bit of legalistic performative Aramaic that has the emotional force of prayer, and an interesting and controversial history that I was unaware of until recently. It is a release from vows, and has been interpreted by anti-semites to mean that Jews can’t be trusted.
It refers to vows assumed by an individual for himself alone, where no other persons or interests are involved. Though the context makes it perfectly obvious that no vows or obligations towards others are implied, there have been many who were misled into believing that by means of this formula all their vows and oaths are annulled. – Philip Birbaum via Wikipedia
Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the reconstructionist movement, tried to get rid of it but failed. The emotional force of it and its connection to the ritual proved too strong; and for many Jews it is the most moving and holy ceremony of the calendar.

My own interpretation, which is no doubt overly influenced by my own particular obsessions, is that the Kol Nidrei is a fundamental and irreplaceable counterweight to the usual Jewish obsessions with language and law. It is not so much a release from vows as a release from language, a temporary ritual acknowledgement that for all our word-worship, words are an imperfect and inadequate tool to face reality and life, and most of all the sacred. Like many other religious and meditative practices, the Kol Nidre is a form of language whose function is to move beyond language.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Proposed Extensions to the Booleans

A quasitechnical nonproposal (ref):


true because I say so
true because God says so
hidden truth
ultimate truth
penultimate truth
self-contradictory truth1
true in all possible worlds
true even in impossible worlds
ironically true
true because the powerful have decreed it true
true despite that the powerful have tried to make it false
necessarily true
too beautiful not to be true
true for me but not for you
true for you but not for me2
true for all practical purposes
truth eventually universal; but for now unevenly distributed3
true for anybody with a shred of self-respect
truth of the master
truth of the slave
truth of the parent
truth of the child
forbidden truth
really forbidden truth
unspeakable truth
unbearable truth
truth nearly but not quite dead from overexposure
mostly true
sort-of true
occasionally true
conventional truth
conventionally unconventional truth4
self-aggrandizing truth
self-effacing truth
true because least improbable alternative
bought and paid for truth
casualty of war truth
official truth
underground truth
tentative truth
overbearing truth
true irregardless
true to truth itself
true despite all appearances



1 h/t G. Spencer-Brown's imaginary values
2 h/t "Bob" Dobbs: “I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to
4 aka "SlatePitch"

Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day Nonpost

Labor Day is a day when laborers are not supposed to labor. It is an artificial holiday, created explicitly to separate US labor from the international labor movement, which still celebrates on May 1. Since I am now a member of the blogging proletariat, this particular post is excusing itself from the task of making a point, and is going to ramble and drop links.

I Believe in America

Labor Day Is a Scam To Keep You Poor and Miserable Forever

Developers are the Autoworkers of our Generation (Hacker News discussion_)

Tech CEO autistically offers to automate someone’s job away

The discussion on that last one got me thinking…A good developer is constantly automating the boring parts of their job so they can focus on the more interesting parts. What is a compiler, or a continuous-integration server, but a way for developers to spend less time on repetitive tasks?

It is always striking to me how much software has improved in this respect, and how little. Yes, tools like Wordpress make it possible to set up a website in minutes, where it would have taken a month or so in the past. But the basic tasks of coding don’t seem any easier. Languages have not improved much in the 30+ years I have been doing this professionally, nor have editors or debugging tools (actually things have gotten quite a bit worse since the peak of powerful programming environments, the Lisp Machine, but that is a flame for another day). Revision control systems have improved, but not radically. You’d think we’d have systems that could go from intention to powerful software engine almost instantaneously by now, but no, it’s still an incredibly tedious process. Software seems stuck on a plateau, which is good news I guess for us developers, we just haven’t made ourselves as obsolete as we should have.

Of course the real money is in automating other people’s jobs. That is happening and I believe will accelerate in the next decade, which would cause labor unrest and a resurgence of Luddism if people had any guts, but mostly they don’t. Of course this has been happening for a long time:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ... Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

– Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848) (and no, I am not a Marxist but I am very fond of this passage)
The developer/entrepeneur/VC nexus is like the Victorian bourgeois raised to the nth power. Move fast and break things! If the old labor and socialist movements were a response to the rise of industry and the destruction of traditional ways of life, well, we are still waiting for an adequate political solution to the social churn caused by software.

Mitigating the effects of accelerating technological change doesn't sound so hard in theory. I don’t have any trouble imagining what that response should be. The goal is to have a world where the creative entrepreneurial spirit can thrive, but without the side-effects of destroying people's lives.  How about for instance: a guaranteed minimal income; changing our model of education from its industrial model to one of continuous learning; greater wealth equality and more democratic workplace cultures? All good ideas, but with essentially no chance of happening given the currently broken political system.

As a software person I feel our field should have some social responsibility for these issues – given how much we are damaging people’s livelihoods, we should also be working on the fixes. However, we don’t really have the talent or inclination.

Perhaps that is changing. Software may be eating the world, but as it does it gets changed in turn. The more artists, activists, and other people who are not in the generic tech-nerd mold get involved with software, the better (and I say that as pretty much a generic tech-nerd myself). The more important software is, the more important it is that it reflect the full spectrum of human needs, desires, and abilities, not merely the narrow parts of that it currently serves.

Previously. Also there are some obvious links between this topic and my recent guest post on I/Thou, the explicating of which is left as an exercise for the reader.

Some work songs (Spotify link).

And I should add that I have almost no personal complaints about my current employment, at least, none that have to do with this post. I'm pretty firmly in the camp of eaters rather than eaten and hope to stay that way.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Guest post: I and Thou and Life in Aspergerstan

I have a new guest post up at ribbonfarm, which turned out to be a conceptual salad of Martin Buber, cognitive psychology, the culture of Asperger's, and social media. As J.R. "Bob" Dobbs says, too much is always better than not enough.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

One of these days I really must renew my membership in the Procrastinator’s Society

The Fabian Society, which I was previously only vaguely familiar with as a group of elite British socialists, was named after the Roman general “Fabius the Delayer”, due to the group’s emphasis on gradualism. An explanatory note appearing on the title page of the group's first pamphlet declared:
For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.
They have not been very influential in the US, probably due to this guy.

I learned this via Taleb's Antifragile (p122). He is pro-procrastination, and I tend to agree with him. Those earnest lifehackers using technology and tricks to make them perform their hamster-tasks more arduously and continuously kind of sicken me.
Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation, the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses. Few can grasp the logical consequence that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic-risk-based form of decision making….Using my ecological reasoning, someone who procrastinates is not irrational; it is his environment that is irrational. And the psychologist or economist calling him irrational is the one who is beyond irrational.

Monday, July 29, 2013


Driven by the somewhat egotistical notion that my writings should be readable, I did a pretty drastic redesign of the blog’s template (while resisting the urge to move to Wordpress or write my own software from scratch). Feedback welcome, but I think it’s a big improvement. Out of the dark ages!

This wanted to be the new epigraph, but it was way too long:
Just as the body (its organs and functions) has been chiefly known and revealed not by the prowess of the strong but by the disorders of the weak, the sick, the infirm, and injured (health being incommunicative and a source of that vastly mistaken impression that everything proceeds as a matter of course), it is the disturbances of the mind, its dysfunctions which shall be my informants. More than the all too excellent mental skills of the metaphysicians, it is thee dementias, the backwardnessess, the deliriums, the ecstasies and agonies, the breakdowns in mental skills which are really suited to reveal us to ourselves. 
– Henri Michaux, The Major Ordeals of the Mind (and countless minor ones)

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Infrastructure of Intention

So I am starting a new and rather different job tomorrow. In preparation for that, I have been ruminating on an topic for the last few weeks, trying to turn it into a post before I start and get immersed in a new and probably overwhelming environment.

This idea is nicely captured by the phrase "The infrastructure of intention". That is to say, living things, social systems, technologies, all embody purpose in various ways and all these purposes have various ways of interacting with each other and wouldn't it be great if we could find some better ways of both analyzing these extremely important processes, and improving them? I didn't get very far with this essay because the ideas are just way too big for a blog post, and kept threatening to grow into something dissertation-sized.

Fortunately in goofing off from addressing it I ran into this post by Robin Hanson, which very helpfully reminded me that questions are typically more interesting than answers. So, here are some questions around the idea of intention and computation, some of which have been dogging me for decades. Some managed to get into my actual dissertation, and some others may be addressed in this new gig, but we will see. I'm just a computer programmer, which means most of what I do is just informational plumbing, and it doesn't leave that much time for grandiose theorizing. But high and low have their ways of coming together on occasion.

So, the questions (and pointers to people who have spent more time thinking about them then I have):
  • What is the nature of purpose? (Cybernetics, particularly Gregory Bateson)
  • How do humans (and animals manage their various divergent intentions? (Freud, Tinbergen, Minsky)
  • Can inanimate things have purpose? (Latour, Bennett)
  • How do individual goals relate to social structures and institutions? (all of sociology and political science, at the moment particularly Charles Tilly and Mary Douglas)
  • How does goal-directed behavior work in human activity that is clearly non-functional in any simple way, like religion and art? (Evolutionary psychology)
  • Can/should/how can software embody and extend human goal structures (the CSCW field, but originating maybe with Doug Engelbart)
  • What would the world look like if computational infrastructure actually supported goals in a powerful way (lots of science fiction, mostly with a dystopian flavor, but for a somewhat more cheery spin, Bruce Sterling's story Maneki Neko)
Big fucking questions, aren't they? And quite out of scale compared with my ability to provide answers, but they won't leave me alone.

Thursday, July 04, 2013


This year Independence Day comes at a moment when I am in something of a liminal state in respect of my professional life. I’m not becoming independent, but may be switching masters. The best I can do at this point in my life is throw off one set of chains and immediately strap on another. I do admire those who can be free agents rather than employees; the latter always has a feeling of serfdom. But unless you really have fuck-you money you always are serving somebody. And that’s not entirely a bad thing, god knows. I am rather bad at serving, and at this point I am starting to actually feel somewhat sorry for all the bosses who’ve had the unenviable job of trying to manage me. 

All normal people learn how to submit, how to take up a place in a hierarchy, how to serve. That’s what keeps society running. But what an enormous strain on the soul it is. No wonder people turn to anarchism, music, drugs and other forms of rebellion. My own rebelliousness feels like a leftover adolescent quality, and I am way past the age where it is seemly to act like an adolescdent. But without it I am quite literally nothing, I can’t accomplish much unless I am in some way doing it against the grain, on my own terms. If that sounds like bragging, it isn’t meant to be, just an accurate statement of how things are with me. A successful rebellion might be worth boasting about, but rebelliousness is just a pain in the ass for everyone.

I hasten to add that I don’t have that much personal grounds for complaint. My working conditions and rewards are pretty damn good compared to the bulk of mankind. And the new job is quite promising along several dimensions. But work, workplaces, commerce, and money remain what they are.

Previous Independence Day posts: hereherehere

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest post: war, agency, killer robots, hostile systems

I have a new guest post up at Ribbonfarm which hits some of my usual issues: collective agency, war, morality, etc. It generalizes a bit from this earlier post into a theory (well, a proto-proto-theory) of human-hostile systems, which seems like an important concept.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Portraits of neglected Unicode characters #3: ⋩ SUCCEEDS BUT NOT EQUIVALENT TO

This symbol, somewhat awkward in both name and graphic, seems to be perfect for denoting certain types of human relationships, such as fathers and sons, teachers and students, influencers and artists. In all cases, the right side of the relationship obviously owes a great debt to the left side that precedes them, but determinedly asserts their non-equivalence.

The “but” seems weak though, as though it wasn’t really believed. Successors have to go through a process of overthrowing the influence of their predecessors. Like most revolutions, it can be at best a partial success, the revolutionary child inevitably ends up copying many of the strongest aspects of the paternal authority they are rebelling against. And over the course of time they tend to end up on the other side of the relationship, wondering how the hell they came to play a role that they defined themselves against.

(for father’s day)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The anti-Kurzweil

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is a fascinating mess. It’s centered around a single big idea – that some systems are not merely robust to disruption and shocks, but are capable of actively gaining from them. Taleb’s background is in finance and trade and his theory is deeply rooted in his trading strategies, but it goes far beyond that, purporting to be a very general theory of systems and indeed life in general. The book spins out implications of this idea at multiple levels, from economics to diet to basic philosophies of life. It is deeply personal – the author is clearly trying to pack a lifetime’s worth of thought into this package, which works both for and against the ideas. Taleb is in desperate need of an editor but probably too arrogant to accept anybody else’s intervention in his work. So the book feels kind of shapeless. 

Taleb’s thinking quite deliberately does not take the form of any kind of traditional academic theorizing. If there’s anything like a formal theory in this book, it is so enmeshed in his personality and biases that I couldn’t really make much sense of it. This is despite the fact that I share a large subset of his biases, his contempt for high-modernist central planning for instance. He is so confident of the correctness of his biases that he feels free to build them into this theorizing without much justification. The result is that the book quite often reads like a personal brag than a philosophical or scientific treatise (his habit of boasting about his physical strength and calling his opponents “half-men” also contributes to this impression).

So for me the actual content of this book remained tantalizingly obscure. This was frustrating, because it did seem like there were some deep, important, and profound truths hidden away, but they weren’t conveyed in as effective a way as I would have liked. Perhaps it is too much aimed at the world of standard economics that he despises, a foreign territory to me (but he despises all of academia just as much). If I try to summarize my understanding of what he is saying, it comes out both trivial and contradictory. For instance: apparently the secret of economic antifragility is to arrange your resources so they have limited downsides but at least small probabilities of large or unlimited upsides. Sounds like a great principle, but doesn’t sound like any more useful (to an economic naïf like me) than “buy low, sell high”.

The contradictory part is when he gets into ethics, where his main principle seems to be that one is obligated to have “skin in the game” – that is, personal exposure to risk. He is exquisitely scornful of the Wall Street types who manage to profit while destroying value for others, but how is that different from what he does? Financial trading (unlike actual economic production) is inherently zero-sum, if you profit, you are inherently always taking advantage of somebody else. I’m missing some distinction that I’m sure is there. Perhaps taking advantage of your peers (those who have the same skill and risk portfolio as yourself) is OK, but preying on the defenseless masses is not? A deeply ethical/aesthetic sensibility pervades Taleb’s work, and I find that quite appealing, but his sensibility is different from mine in ways I can’t quite tease out.

This short quote:

You cannot sit and moan about the world. You need to come out on top. (p 386)
encapsulates an important quality of Antifragile. He advocates action and winning over being right in any abstract academic sense. Academics don’t have skin in the game, they don’t suffer when they are wrong, thus their pronouncements have no weight. This makes some sense, but also doesn’t seem to leave room for any standard of value but money or power. The frank acknowledgement of the brutally competitive nature of life, while no doubt common on Wall Street, is pretty jarring in a book with the intellectual ambitions of this one. It’s an anti-intellectual stance, denying the possibility of any sort of un-self-interested enquiry. Taleb is well aware of this problem and his rhetorical strategy is to create a couple of separate personas to manage the contradiction of being an anti-intellectual intellectual. Fat Tony is the street-smart winner, uninterested in ideas for their own sake, while Nero Tulip represents the more cultured and cultivated side of life (but he too must play and win financial games).

One passage in the book really clarified Taleb’s position in the intellectual firmament for me: where he figures out a way to describe himself by identifying his polar opposite:
I was just reading…about attempts to use science, in a postreligious world, to achieve immortality. I felt some deep disgust — as would any ancient — at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. It is not just neomania. While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion. (p370)
I’ve mentioned Kurzweil a few times here, mostly to note his boring drone of a speaking style. Taleb seems to have the opposite flaw – he is so determined to be interesting that he doesn’t know when to put his personality aside and let his ideas speak for themselves. My own background is a lot closer to Kurzweil’s though, so maybe I am just too much of a nerd to catch the antifragility train.

Speaking of Kurzweil and AI – it occurs to me that minds and biological systems are necessarily antifragile (or at least robust), due to their evolutionary history. Every biosystem that exists has managed to do so despite being situated in a chaotic, dynamic and often hostile world. Computer systems are nothing like that. Like the formal theories of mathematical logic that gave rise to them, they are practically designed to fall apart at even a single mistake or contradiction. People are pretty aware of this and have been trying to back-fit various kinds of robustness onto computers, but it never goes very deep. Someday someone will reconstruct computation and computational intelligence on a truly robust foundation.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Opposite of Mathematics

I recently stumbled across a book whose premise intrigued me: Circles Disturbed: The Interplay of Mathematics and Narrative. This is an edited volume that explores the different ways mathematics and narrative interact. The power and fascination of this combination (collision? intersection? union? mating?) arise from how opposed these ways of looking at the world are, and how powerful – both have been proposed as being the metaphysical foundation layer of reality. They can’t both be, but maybe in setting them against each other in various ways one can get a glimpse of something more fundamental than either. 

Mathematical structures exist in a timeless Platonic eternity, they alone (perhaps God also) are not subject to time and change. Mathematics is also thought to be universal, so much so that we believe if we ever meet an alien race we will be able to talk to them by starting with the Pythagorean theorem. Narrative on the other hand is essentially both temporal and specific; this particular and peculiar sequence of events happened to these people, at this time. Narratives are rooted in a particular culture and often don’t translate well to others. Mathematics is a narrow path; but part of the appeal of stories is the sense that anything could happen. Narrative and mathematics thus seem to be so different as to barely inhabit the same universe, but obviously they do intersect in the human mind if nowhere else.

This particular collision of worldviews has some personal resonance for me. I spent my formative years around an artificial intelligence lab, and one of my academic efforts back then was to try to dislodge some of the stale ideas that I felt were holding back the field, which tended to take mathematical form (in most non-humanities fields the pressure to at least seem to have a rigorous formal foundation for your work is intense). One strategy was to displace some of this overly-mathematical conceptual infrastructure with ideas from narrative theory.

The writers in this volume, for the most part either professional mathematicians or historians / philosophers of mathematics, are not quite as brash or as confrontational as I was back then. They are mostly looking at mathematical practice, that is, the very human situated activities that somehow enable the transcendental structures of mathematics to reveal themselves. Since mathematics is a human activity, and a demanding one, naturally it makes effective use of the full range of human mental tools, including such un-mathematical things as rhetoric, narrative, analogy, and figurative language. Mathematics and narrative intersect in other ways, such as stories with mathematical protagonists, or explorations of the formal structure of stories. (This particular volume doesn’t pay too much attention to the small subgenre of mathematical science fiction, but see these other collections).

An even more personal resonance: one of the chapters contains a story involving someone I knew: Tom Trobaugh, who was in grad school with me and tragically committed suicide. I knew him mostly as a musician, I had no idea that he was doing mathematics at a professional level, but apparently he did during his life and oddly continued to do so after his death. The chapter in question takes off from a rather bizarre episode where Trobaugh appeared to one of his co-authors in a dream, after his suicide, and provided a key insight:
The first author must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom's simulacrum remarked, "The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf." Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom's simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn't let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper. To Tom, I could have explained why he must be listed as a coauthor.
The article as a whole is a detailed meditation on the nature of agency, rhetoric, and literary form in mathematics, especially in the envisioned automated forms of it that have been a gleam in the eye for most of the 20th century.

My own writing and thinking isn’t very mathematical in the usual sense, but it often seems to hover uncomfortably between structure and narrative. My background leads me to always gravitate towards conceptual abstraction, and I assume the value here (if any) is in the Big Ideas, not the specific happenings of my life. But in order to get thoughts to flow into the blog format they often require a temporal hook, if usually a trivial one like a holiday or event or random experience, such as a chance encounter with a book. My hunch is that all writing has to bridge this gap between the personal and the universal, the temporal and the timeless, and there a thousand different ways to do it. The blog is a relatively new genre of writing that encourage new recombinations; being able to experiment with them is one of the attractions of the form.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


It’s a day for international labor solidarity. Just based on the past history of this blog, I feel a need to mark it somehow, although I can’t think of anything witty or insightful to say. Doing so has become a job, an obligation, if only to myself.

I was thinking about the nature of work awhile back, the relationship between work and play, how at least for me work only works if it feels like play. Work is something you must do for reasons external to yourself or to the task itself, play is self-justifying. To use the analytical terms that have become somewhat of a personal trademark, they have different structures of agency.

Capitalism has a tendency to turn everything productive into work, while treating play as purely on the consumption side of the economic ledger.

Some of us have the luxury of bridging these worlds, of enjoying our work and having a form of play that is economically useful. I’d say I achieved this for a good part of my life and consider myself amazingly fortunate to have been able to. Most people don’t. For them, the labor movement, aside from its more basic functions of giving economic leverage to those who didn’t have it before, and imposing some standards on how work is extracted, also at its best restores a sense of agency to work. Some radical movements wanted to dispense with work altogether -- unfortunately, at the time they were active factories did not run themselves and fields were not harvested without human inputs. That is likely to change, in the not so far distant future.

The old labor movement seems deader each year. I’m pretty sure there will be new organization forms sprouting up to make work tolerable and to mediate between the working human soul and the soulless market, but I’m not sure what those will be. Cooperatives? Rhyzomatic organizations? Guilds? (I just signed up for an experiment along those lines – a consulting network which will probably not be called “The Refactoring Guild” but could be). Or something yet to be invented?

All I can say is that most of the ways we have now of harnessing human energy and creativity to create economic value really suck, and May Day is a good day to acknowledge that suckitude and dream of a better future.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Guest post: Performing ourselves on Facebook

I have a new guest post over at Ribbonfarm on how social media affects our outer personas and effectively our actual being as well.

I can hear the skeptics winding up already. But if you are spending your time having bitter disagreements with people from widely different backgrounds, that you don't know personally, who might be anywhere in the world, then you have already lost this particular argument.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Engineers of Human Souls

You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
       – Mark Zuckerberg
This quote from a few years back still amazes me today. If we take it at face value, it implies that some of the fundamental laws and conditions of human existence are being blithely reworked by what are basically naive kids. The kids happen to run a billion dollar corporation, but does Zuckerberg’s technological and business prowess give him a license to not only pontificate about the nature of human identity, but radically alter it? Apparently it does.

Zuckerberg’s childish ideas about how humans work is going to affect hundreds of millions of people and how they interact with each other. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you will be forced to give up whatever multiple personas you like to keep on hand for different occasions, and just Be Yourself. In a way, maybe it’s a relief. No more playing roles, you are just you. As Zuckerbergs’s line about “lack of integrity” implies, only the morally flawed would want to hide their true face from the public eye.

Well, fortunately a lot of this is the usual cloud of hot air that hangs over Silicon Valley. Facebook and other social media certainly put a twist on social life and interaction, but do they reach into the deepest recesses of the human mind and change the way we are? I’m not sure. I don’t think Facebook has changed me that much, but I’m old. It may be a different story for those growing up in this media environment. I’m built out of books and bad 1960s television shows; my children are constructing themselves from multiplayer gaming worlds and the like. They will be different.

I do not mind so much that technology changes how we interact with each other and thus how we construct ourselves; that has been happening all the time, every new media technology (print, newspapers, radio, telephone) does that. If the Internet wires us together in a new way, that is OK, it’s not like the particular conditions of the previous social matrix were something especially sacred.

What does bother me is how we are doing this in such an undemocratic, centralized, and corporate fashion. The Internet was designed to be open, free form, and democratic. The web followed those principles and displaced the corporate walled gardens of an earlier era (AOL and Compuserve). Now we seem ready to give all that up and cede control of the very fabric of our lives to Zuckerberg’s walled garden / panopticon because that is where everybody else is, with barely a whimper of protest. It would be bad enough if social media were merely an entertainment playground, but it's builders seem to think it is part of the infrastructure of the new human soul, and they may be right.

[previously] [post title reference]

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Hostile AI: You’re soaking in it!

I was in a Facebook discussion about “Friendly Artificial Intelligence” — this is a buzzword from the Singularity Institute people. They believe in their heart of hearts that artificial intelligence of literally incomprehensible power is just around the corner, and they see their job as somehow assuring that it is “friendly”, that is, having its interests more or less in line with human interests. (book-length pdf)

Now, there are about three major things wrong with this, and the discussion was started by someone writing a school paper on just what those problems were. I chimed in:
I am generally on the side of the critics of Singulitarianism, but now want to provide a bit of support to these so-called rationalists. At some very meta level, they have the right problem — how do we preserve human interests in a world of vast forces and systems that aren’t really all that interested in us? But they have chosen a fantasy version of the problem, when human interests are being fucked over by actual existing systems right now. All that brain-power is being wasted on silly hypotheticals, because those are fun to think about, whereas trying to fix industrial capitalism so it doesn’t wreck the human life-support system is hard, frustrating, and almost certainly doomed to failure.
Corporations are driven by people — they aren’t completely autonomous agents. Yet if you shot the CEO of Exxon or any of the others, what effect would it have? Another person of much the same ilk would swiftly move into place, much as stepping on a few ants hardly effects an anthill at all. To the extent they don’t depend on individuals, they appear to have an agency of their own. And that agency is not a particularly human one — it is oriented around profit and growth, which may or may not be in line with human flourishing.

Corporations are at least somewhat constrained by the need to actually provide some service that is useful to people. Exxon provides energy, McDonald’s provides food, etc. The exception to this seems to be the financial industry. These institutions consume vast amounts of wealth and intelligence to essentially no human end. Of all human institutions, these seem the most parasitical and dangerous. Because of their ability to extract wealth, they are also siphoning off great amounts of human energy and intelligence — they have their own parallel universe of high-speed technology, for instance.

The financial system as a whole functions as a hostile AI. It has its own form of intelligence, it has interests that are distant or hostile to human goals. It is quite artificial, and quite intelligent in an alien sort of way. While it is not autonomous in the way we envision killer robots or Skynet, it is effectively independent of human control, which makes it just as dangerous.

[update 10/2014: Charlie Stross has roughly the same thought]

Friday, February 22, 2013

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Computational Theology, the Next Generation

In the distant past, back in the primeval era of the Internet, I started an organization called the Institute for Computational Theology. This institute lived in a post-office box in Kendall Square, Cambridge, and was mostly a front for ordering various kinds of High Weirdness by Mail back before the web made all sorts of weirdness instantly available in seconds. While there was a bit of serious discussion around the topic, the name was about 95% joke. Unfortunately this was in the era before everything was automatically archived for all time, so any great insights that were developed have been lost.

Today in a fit of nostalgia I googled the name and discovered the Computational Theology blog. This looks to be at least 50% serious, and some of it is quite good, although there aren't a lot of posts yet. It hints at God/Logos as an “attractor in Platospace”, which resonates strongly with some of my own thinking. It may end up being too rooted in traditional Western philosophy/Christianity to really appeal to me, but I look forward to more efforts to try to decompile the cosmos into its source code.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The scaffold sways the future

I do a lot of holiday posts, for reasons that aren't clear to me. It’s not like I do a lot of observance in real life, but they provide a nice theme to crystallize thought, and their annual reappearance provides a sort of long rhythm to what is otherwise a pretty formless stream.

So, here’s a couple of past posts on MLK Day. And here is MLK himself:
I have not lost faith. I'm not in despair, because I know that there is a moral order. I haven't lost faith, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I can still sing "We Shall Overcome" because Carlyle was right: "No lie can live forever." We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant was right: "Truth pressed to earth will rise again." We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell was right: "Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne." Yet, that scaffold sways the future. 
Is there an arc to the universe, and does it bend toward justice? If so, how does that work exactly? Yes I am a crudely materialistic engineer contemplating the spiritual and wanting to hack it, to understand, invade, and improve it. It feels slightly silly. Unlike King, I can’t simply summon faith, I need to know the wiring diagram.

Justice is one of those things (like Truth and Beauty) that act as cosmic attractors, that pull people and reality itself towards them. More than just exerting a passive gravitational pull, it inspires passion in people. The arc bends, but individuals must do the work of bending it. This must be something like what someone from King’s religious world would call doing the Lord’s work, and what we modern Jews call Tikkun Olam.

The concept of justice seems to have deep biological roots, predating humanity (that link goes to a paper on cheating in primates by Marc Hauser, who himself was caught cheating). That may represent the starting point of King’s arc. Humanity is somewhere further along. The endpoint is not really visible to mortal eyes, yet we have these capital-letter names for it, and some like King claim to be able to see through the murk of the present into the far distance and want to lead us there. But as usual humanity is caught somewhere in the uncomfortable middle between ape and angel.

The implementation of justice relies on the ability to consider people on a level playing field, where my rights and freedoms are the same as yours and his. This is exceedingly unnatural, because obviously the human in the mythical state of nature privileges himself, his family, his friends above random strangers on the other side of the world. I never liked Peter Singer’s utilitarian ethics, because it is impractical, and because it ignores this basic fact of human psychology. It starts from a place we haven’t gotten to and perhaps can’t get to.

I am more interested in the practical and humble psychology of justice and empathy, how we go about constructing this would-be universal sense of justice, this ability to treat every human being with equal dignity and equal rights. It might be unattainable, it might not even be desirable, but it exerts a pull on the arc of humanity nonetheless.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


Does anybody else find it weird that there should be an academic citation style tied to the offerings of a single company? To me, it seems like a minor but telling episode in the continual erosion of the commons, or more precisely the cultural secession of control of the means of communication to private enterprises.

Minor, in that who really cares about citation styles, especially in light of all the far more significant ways in which corporations have ate away at academia. Telling, in that it means that “tweet” has become part of the general machinery of communication, a generic term like Kleenex or Xerox (or Google) that just happens to be owned by a corporation.

We have accepted tweeting into our lives, just as we have Facebooking and all the other similar platforms for social life. In Twitter’s case, I sort of implicitly trust the company not to do anything too stupid, not to change the rules too drastically (this is in part helped by their radically simplified model). With Facebook, it’s quite the opposite, we are resigned to them changing the rules all the time, knowing that we will grumble and complain and a very few folks will loudly resign from the FB world, and everyone else will go on.

I myself tweeted last year:
sɹəʌɐɹ⊥, əʞıW (mtraven). “Oh please, if FB can "sabotage what it means to be human" then your humanity wasn't much good in the first place.” 30 May 2012, 4:00 p.m. Tweet.
FB won’t make us less human, because human is a very expansive idea, there are many ways to be human. But it does threaten to change human culture in ways we don’t quite understand. It seems roughly analogous to what happens when privately owned shopping malls displace genuine public urban street life – you get something cleaner, more managed, more pleasant in many ways, but also sterile, depoliticized, and subtly or not-so-subtly oriented towards getting you separated from your cash.

Academia is supposed to be an island somewhat isolated from commercial pressures and fads of the moment, the part of society that is able to consider both the long term and the common good. If it was stronger and functioning properly, it would have come up a better way to refer to chunks of social media conversation, something that was more general and more archival.

In this case, they fucked up even the job of setting a standard for Twitter, since they didn’t include the URL or unique id that would have actually made reference possible. This makes me think that there were no technical people involved in this, and it is a case of some poor humanist grudgingly forced to acknowledge a new reality. They would have done better to embrace it more fully.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The good die young

I don’t have much new to say about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Like many, I was deeply affected despite only a glancing personal acquaintance with him. He seemed to embody the aspirations of a whole class of people, someone who combined intelligence with energy, compassion, and engagement, and (most miraculously) was effective at it. The untimely death of someone so seemingly blessed seems to require an almost mythic explanation. He is Youth and Genius, crushed with an indifferent brutality by the Combine, the Man, the System he wanted to change.

I distrust such capitalized stories about what are after all real individual people, not cosmic forces. But in this case the match between reality and grand narrative is too strong to ignore. It might explain why so many people who barely knew Aaron (myself included) feel so affected, because this incident resonates at frequencies that are deep within us all.

Did he know he was enacting this sort of grand tragedy? I don’t see any indication of that. That in itself is affecting, the thought that this brilliant polymathic youth was not aware that he was unleashing vast destructive forces against himself.

As readers know, I’ve got an obsession with the idea of agency. As soon as this story broke, people were arguing about who to blame for this tragedy: was it the prosecutor’s fault? Or was it “depression”, the catch-all explanation of our age? The mythic perspective undermines all that talk. Tragic protagonists like Oedipus and Macbeth are the agents of their own destruction, and yet they aren’t. They are pawns of fate, drawn to their doom by forces stronger than they are. Blame is an inadequate concept, a petty local view of a grand cosmic process.

I distrust such grand narratives but find myself drawn to them nonetheless. While Aaron’s family and friends mourn him as an individual, the rest of us can’t help view his story through the lens of myth. So in that spirit:


Somewhat inspired by this post by the blogger formerly known as IOZ, who has resurfaced with a new site.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Announcing the BOOCK

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the hot new thing in education. Today, I’d like to introduce the next step beyond the MOOC: the BOOCK. A BOOCK is a Basic Object Offering Content And Knowledge.

Like MOOCs, BOOCKs provide a vast array of knowledge in an readily accessible way at very low cost. Unlike MOOCs, BOOCKs offer real-time random access and are accessible to those without internet connections. Unlike MOOCs, a BOOCK once obtained will remain your physical property forever. BOOCKs have a long and distinguished history; their format has been refined for hundreds of years; they may be stored indefinitely on shelves with no additional backup; and they have institutional support in the form of editors and publishers. BOOCKs require no power and are thus perfectly usable in third-world villages, wilderness trips, and post-collapse hellscapes.

We expect BOOCKs to revolutionize education. Whereas in the recent past, students were faced with online courses with annoying, poorly recorded videos, stupid “Now Johnny” question-and-answer interfaces, and toxic levels of hype; now students have virtually unlimited access to knowledge at their own pace.

Many BOOCKs are already available at local stores; those still stuck in the internet age can also find them online if you must.