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.