Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Blogyear 2016 in review

This was a sucky year for my blogging, in addition to all the other ways in which it sucked. Politics dominated of course. And loss and grief. My company went under at the end of October, which I haven՚t written about here, but it certainly contributed to the overall feeling of disaster.

This is also the year the rabid wingnut fringe of the internet went completely mainstream. I feel a touch of perverse pride in having been tracking it from years before, although I՚m not sure why – if I was a professional pundit or prognosticator, detecting important ideas early should raise my reputation. But to be honest I had no idea these maniacs would turn out to be important, rather than just amusingly weird in a repulsive sort of way.

As is my practice, here՚s an attempt to cobble together some thematic unity after the fact:

The departed

Technology and geek culture

I declared a goal of writing about goals, but didn՚t end up doing much about it, at least not publicly. Lots of half-written ideas, waiting for the proper framework or format or moment to be fully articulated.

Prince gets the last word:
Life is just a party and parties weren՚t meant to last.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Who rules the cyber?

In my last post I wrote about some earnest, well-meaning, but kind of lame efforts of the San Francisco startup scene to do something to fix politics. This was formally nonpartisan, but obviously leaning towards the left.

Today, let՚s look at what the other side is doing:
I am beginning to suspect that despite the overwhelming support of Clinton among hip people, smart people, tech people, and educated people, it is the other side that has the deeper appreciation of how the new computational media work and how to use them effectively.

Certainly the people involved seem to think so, and the fact that they won the election works in favor of that opinion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Debugging Politics

I participated in this hackathon, even though I don՚t really believe in hackathons – good software is not something you can create in a rushed weekend, in my experience. Nonetheless, I and the rest of the participants were animated by the feeling that we really need to be doing something to try to fix things. Many somethings were done.

Our team (me and a product person) managed to throw together an Alexa skill to help in contacting your congressperson – not exactly revolutionary, but it was a chance to do a voice app, which was novel. A larger group of young people (they were almost all painfully young) put together a slick looking mobile app to do much the same thing. Other projects were aimed at visualizing or transforming bias in news articles (through browser plugins), or providing sites for organizing opposition activities, or encouraging communication between different factions. One guy wrote something that filters out all the adjectives from Trump's tweets, which was supposed to improve political discourse somehow.

These efforts, most definitely including my own, strike me as kind of lame. They aren՚t going to fix anything, although it felt good to make an effort with other people. Democracy in its current parlous state needs a lot stronger medicine than can be cooked up in a weekend. And while there is a good chance that medicine will be technological, it won՚t be yet another mobile app. [Note: there were also people from ongoing projects like, which are harder to dismiss.]

What could this stronger medicine be? Well, there are some more radical schemes in the air, like Liquid Democracy (similar to an idea I aired here called netarchy). or blockchain-based voting. It՚s hard to see these having a short-term impact on anything, but they offer promising longer-term visions of how the democratic process can get past its 18th-century origins.

And that՚s really the heart of it. Our system of representative democracy was designed for an era without electronic communication or modern transport. If it was working well, this wouldn՚t be a problem, it would just be one of those weird sets of archaic practices common to venerable and beloved institutions (like churches and universities).

But in fact our democracy is in the throes of an enormous and possibly catastrophic failure. It's delivered massive power into the hands of a con man, a sociopathic narcissist, an unread and clearly unserious person who in the best case is going to be corrupt and incomptent and int he worst case unleash destructive political forces and fatally delegitimize the institutions of governance. The consequences are potentially lethal. (And it wasn՚t working all that well even before Trump came along).

It՚s unclear to me whether the existing machinery of government can be fixed at all, or whether it is going to require wholesale replacement. And in the latter case, I have no idea how it happens. It won't be a weekend project, that's for sure.

[Addendum: What Fred Turner said:
I don’t envy engineers or executives at tech firms. They’ve been put in the position of being legislators for our public debates. America’s architecture for such debates — Congress, the courts, the executive branch, and to some degree, the press — was built in the 18th century. But the conditions of public discourse have changed, and the speed at which those conditions are changing has accelerated too. 
This makes engineers reluctant, but necessary, brokers of public discourse.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Picking through the ruins

[random incoherent reactions to the slow-motion in-progress disaster]

Jesus those posts from yesterday about whether “the narrative” changes or not seem so feeble today. Of course the narrative changes, but that is the least of it. People are going to lose heath insurance and their right to get an abortion. Mexicans and Muslims will be subject to discrimination, press freedoms will be muzzled, climate change will be ignored, the supreme court will be packed with authoritarian shitheels. And that՚s just off the top of my head. The Trump administration (gag) is going to be a cesspool of corruption and bad ideas and incompetence (I guess our only hope is that the incompetence beats out the other stuff).

As a parent I feel an extra helping of sadness and pain. The job of a parent is to create a safe and nurturing environment for their children, and our society has just decided to do the opposite. Clinton՚s most powerful campaign message was structured around what a horrible example Trump was for children, girls especially…I really thought that would resonate even with the Republicans, because aren՚t they parents as well? Do they really want for their children the kind of world Trump represents? For whatever reason, we have collectively failed to improve the world and are heading into a new, uncharted, and very dark territory.

I՚ve been lately defending the very idea of politics – on the grounds that it is an essential and inescapable of life and cognition. I still think that՚s true, but I wish it wasn՚t. Right now my impulse is to go off and study category theory or quantum computation or something else that is as far removed from human group dynamics as possible.

Oh yeah in terms of reactions, here՚s the latest hot take:
Donald Trump's presidential election victory has already been cheered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a constellation of right-wing European populists, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a Middle Eastern strongman. But there's another curious constituency that seems to be happy about the new American president-elect.
Shortly after Trump was declared the victor, a number of prominent Salafist ideologues linked to jihadist outfits in the Middle East took to social media to cheer the prospect of a Trump presidency…the remarks signaled the militants' apparent belief that the victory of a candidate like Trump, who has suggested potentially unconstitutional blocks on Muslim immigration and advocated torture, undermines the United States' moral standing in the world.
Which in turn reminds me of some stuff I was writing about ten years ago on polarization and conflict and how the real war is between those who incite conflict (because they profit from it) and those who want to make peace.

Here՚s something I wrote last night:
Trying to imagine the future under Trump. Occurs to me that the federal government will be a complete shambles leading to increased importance of state and local gov and devolution of power. No idea if this is right, maybe it's wishful thinking, I'd sure rather Jerry Brown was running my world than Trump.
File under “desperately searching for a glimmer of hope”.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Mismanagement and grief

Well, fuck.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night. 
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return. 
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again. 
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong. 
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. 
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone. 
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb? 
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. 
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame. 
    -- W. H. Auden

Election Day Narrative Special

Here՚s another of my mostly-unsuccessful attempts to engage at SlateStarCodex.

Context: Scott says that the election “shouldn՚t change the narrative”, because whichever way it goes the two sides and interests are still going to exist and be in play. To some extent I agree with this, but it՚s a strawman – nobody expects the other side to go away, quite the contrary, all the liberals I know are worrying about what kinds of havoc the Trump supporters are going to be wreaking after their leader hopefully goes down to an ignominious and crushing defeat.

What he really seems to be arguing for is more quantitative thinking and less narrative thinking – this is kind of a theme of rationalism. And it seems like a good thing, because narrative is emotional and weird and misleading, perhaps it is the real “mind-killer” that underlies politics. Narrative is hot, statistics are cool. (Note he doesn՚t exactly say this in the post, this is my attempt at sketching out his general POV). Narrative is what leads people to label others as heroes or villains, and join together to fight their enemies.

I don՚t want to exactly argue against this, but it seems somewhat wrongheaded, because it is wishing for humans to be other than they actually are. We are creatures of narrative, we tell stories about ourselves and our society to make sense of it, it՚s just part of the package. It՚s not all that we are, but it՚s a major part. And politics, as part of the cognitive system of society in the large, is also going to be based on narratives.

This election in particular offers a stark choice of character and narrative. An America with Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office will have a different character than one with Donald Trump there (spits over shoulder). And the stories we will tell to make sense of this crazy year will also be different.

In short, there are plenty reasons to be suspicious of both politics and narrative, but I don՚t think we can dispense with them and it՚s a mistake to try. But we can get more cognizant of how they work.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Portrait of an Outrage Episode

  • Lena Dunham, an actress and author, is for some reason considered to have important opinions.
  • Lena Dunham makes and posts a weird little video where she interviews her father about “How are you feeling about the extinction of white men?” Aside from the title, it doesn՚t actually seem to be about extinction.
  • Internet shit-fountains like Fox News and Breitbart immediately latch onto this, doing their best to link it to Hillary Clinton:
Milo pointed out the similarity between Lena Dunham’s support for the “extinction of white men” and Hillary Clinton’s goal to import potential ISIS members … announcing “Here’s a taste of Hillary’s America. It’s Lena Dunham talking about the “extinction” of white men.”

Frankly I hate everyone involved in this. I have managed to remain pretty ignorant of Lena Dunham՚s work and character, I assume like many celebrities she is motivated mostly by attention-seeking. Others involved seem to be motivated because outrage feels so damn good. But I՚ll reserve my strongest hate for Dunham, the others have the excuse of being partisans of inherently shitty worldviews. She seems to be doing her best to demonstrate that the other side – my side – is equally shitty, and maybe she՚s right.

I՚ve recently been trying to defend the very idea of politics against people who want to avoid it. Still think I՚m right, but starting to see the merits of their attitude. So much of it is shitty people flinging shit at each other. Why enter into it, all you will accomplish is getting it on yourself?

Friday, October 28, 2016

In Soviet Russia, Internet invents you

This article on the history of Soviet efforts to build something like the internet is absolutely fascinating. They didn՚t manage to succeed of course, but it looks like the nerdy subculture that grew up around the effort was amazingly similar to the US equivalent.

My favorite part was this:
The forces that brought down OGAS resemble those that eventually undid the Soviet Union: the surprisingly informal forms of institutional misbehaviour. Subversive ministers, status quo-inclined bureaucrats, nervous factory managers, confused workers and even other economic reformers opposed the OGAS project because it was in their institutional self-interest to do so….

There is an irony to this. The first global computer networks took root in the US thanks to well-regulated state funding and collaborative research environments, while the contemporary (and notably independent) national network efforts in the USSR floundered due to unregulated competition and institutional infighting among Soviet administrat. The first global computer network emerged thanks to capitalists behaving like cooperative socialists, not socialists behaving like competitive capitalists.
This hints at something I՚ve thought about for a long time but haven՚t really managed to articulate: that the human built-in propensities for both competition and cooperation, for self-aggrandizement and for doing genuine good for others, are more or less constant no matter what the formalized institutional system of society.

We live in an ostensibly capitalist system, but corporations sophisticated methodologies to make their inside feel like a socialist collective farm, with everybody pulling in unison for the team and acheive “alignment”, a little bit of Newspeak that Mao would feel right a home with. And contrariwise, it is certain that even in the deepest and most committed precincts of the communist world, people were quite adept at pursuing their own rational and individual self-interests, even if that could never be publicly acknowledged. This is what killed the Soviet internet and no doubt many other worthwhile initiatives.

It may even be the case that actual cooperation is inversely correlated to how much it is part of official ideology.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

The Quest for Intelligent Trump Supporters

I՚ve indicated in the past that I was looking for intelligent Trump supporters to engage with, and couldn՚t really find any. Well, Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has published his own thoughts on the election (advocates voting against Trump), leading to over 2000 comments at this writing, many of them pro-Trump. Scott is very intelligent and draws an intelligent crowd, so there we go. Lots of bright people are engaging with the nature of Trump and politics in general, and they represent a diversity of views on the political spectrum.

Unfortunately it all seems like a waste of effort to me, because it is 100% unquestionably obvious that Trump has no serious policy knowledge or positions, so there is no point debating them. Scott acknowledge this:
Donald Trump not only has no solution to that problem [full employment], he doesn’t even understand the question. He lives in a world where there is no such thing as intelligence, only loyalty.
But he nevertheless goes on to pick apart Trump՚s policy statements in detail, because he apparently has boundless time and energy. I certainly didn't have the time to do the same, nor to read all 2000 comments, but here are a few pro-Trump people and their arguments:

Protest Manager
“President Obama set out to change that, since the only think he hates more than American power and success, is a Republican success.”
This is standard wingnut delusional resentment. The guy is also anti climate science, and eventually got himself banned.


Racism doesn՚t exist, it՚s something invented by Democrats and a threat, and thus
“A vote for Hillary is a vote increasing existential risk!”.
That this is elaborate nonsense should be obvious (indeed it seems obvious to the writer).

SSC people are big on existential risk except they seem to think that the most significant factor is not climate change or hostile AIs, but mean SJWs. Charitably, this means they are very young and overly influenced by their college experiences, or possibly living too much of their lives on the internet.

E. Harding

This guy has the most seemingly-fact-based arguments for Trump. If I wanted to have an argument, I might start with him. But of course most of it is wildly colored, eg:
“Obama created ISIS, almost certainly deliberately.”
This is a ridiculous distortion of the truth, which is that the west had some complicity in the creation of ISIS but it was due to the usual incompetent meddling in foreign wars, not some nefarious plot because Obama likes it when Americans are beheaded.

Luke the CIA Stooge
Trump Is not an existential threat. THE US FEDERAL GOVERNMENT IS AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT.…I support trump [because] He’s most likely to permanently damage the authority, legitimacy and power of the US federal government.”
At least this is consistent. If I was the anarchist hothead I was 30 years ago, I might buy this argument. Trump indeed is likely to do permanent damage to the US government, and if that's what you want he's a good choice.

In summary, I՚m not impressed and at this point I don՚t even feel much of a need to have this debate, because it is obvious based on character alone that Trump would be a terrible president. But – I suppose it must be acknowledged that not all Trump supporters are idiots or racists. They have arguments, just not very good ones.

Finally, I should mention Scott՚s conclusion:
The enemy isn’t leftism or social justice. The enemy is epistemic vice.

When the Left errs, it’s through using shouting and shaming to cut through the long and painful process of having to justify its beliefs. It’s through confusing disagreement with evil, a dissenter who needs convincing with a thought-criminal who needs neutralizing.
First, this acknowledgement is an indication of the fact that to a large segment of Scott՚s audience, the enemy is in fact leftism and social justice. That there is a large body of people to whom “justice” has become a curse word is alarming.

Second, I think this exposes a deep philosophical rift between me and Scott and his fellow rationalists. The idea of “epistemic vice” presupposes “epistemic virtue”, that is, that there is some objective model of the world that if we could all somehow figure out, it would solve these difficult problems like full employment and foreign religious wars.

Regardless of whether objective truth exists, elections are not about figuring it out, they are battles over which alliance of forces will get to rule. In this particular election, the lines couldn՚t be clearer: it is the liberal globalized capitalist elite, with generally enlightenment values including technological progress and human universalism, against whatever it is Trump represents, which is some ill-defined mess of ethnic chauvinism, aggressive nationalism, and anti-rationality.

There is no objective reason to prefer one of these sides to the other. There՚s a lot to dislike about the Davos elite, and there are various reasons people have for being on the side of Trump (or the equivalent in other parts of the world, like the National Front in France). These reasons make sense to them, and I don՚t think there՚s much hope of reason convincing them otherwise. No amount of epistemic virtue can settle what is at its root a radical clash of worldview, a power struggle, not an argument.

BUT, it is glaringly, painfully obvious which side of this someone like me, or Scott, or his readers, should support. If your primary values are reason and fact-based decision making, the choice is obvious. If you put overall human welfare over the interests of your immediate ethnic group, the choice is obvious. If you are repelled by violence, the choice is obvious.

[ update: ok, here is a large list of "scholars & writers" who support Trump. Oddly there are no links to any actual writing, so who knows what the arguments are. The list seems to be a mix of well-known worthless right-wing hacks (Bill Bennett, David Horowitz, John Lott] and unknown academics from places like Hillsdale College. But I guess they count as "intelligent". ]

Saturday, September 10, 2016

A tisket, a tasket

Assorted reactions to Clinton՚s “basket of deplorables” remark:
  • It managed to express something everybody knows but for some reason is never made explicit: politics is about labeling the other side as bad people. Rightwingers think leftists are bad, and vice versa. Just a simple fact. Politics is all about solidifying these sorts of moral/social judgements.

  • But we are in a democracy, which means that everyone, no matter how much of a scumbag they may be, is entitled to a voice and a measure of respect, or at least lip service to their basic goodness. Presidents and presidential candidates especially are supposed to maintain the fiction that we are a united country rather than a collection of mutually antagonistic groups. So this was an unusual eruption of real-talk into the discourse.

  • People are comparing it to Mitt Romney՚s remark that 47% of the populace were entitled moochers. They have a superficial resemblance, to be sure, in that they seem to cursorily dismiss a large fraction of the electorate. Of course the main difference is that Clinton՚s was largely accurate and Romney՚s was not, although that doesn՚t seem to be a big consideration.

  • It՚s a really awkward turn of phrase. “Deplorable” is not really a noun and people don՚t generally get organized in baskets. It also seems politically clueless. Here՚s some interesting theories as to where the phrase originated, although it doesn՚t explain the political motivation behind using it.

  • One assumes that anything out of Clinton՚s mouth has been carefully engineered, so what՚s going on? I've heard a theory that the weird phrasing was deliberate, something people could't help discuss and propagate, so now people are talking about the exact level of racism and other deplorable characteristics of Trump's supporters -- maybe it's half, or maybe just 20%, but that idea is now firmly lodged in the discourse.

All the above is kind of abstract, here՚s my concrete and personal reaction: Yes, I find Trump and most of his supporters deplorable, and I don՚t have any problem with making that judgement, or the idea that this particular political contest actually is a fight against a very real form of evil.

Trump has sort of done the country a service, because normally I wouldn՚t feel much solidarity with someone like Hillary Clinton, who I find awful in some ways, but her awfulness doesn՚t hold a candle to that of Trump. So he՚s brought the country – the decent parts of it – together.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Burning Sensations

That last Burning Man post was way too serious, trying to make up for it.


Holy Labor

It՚s Labor Day and for some reason I have a tradition of making posts on this holiday. And I wouldn՚t want to break tradition, it՚s one of the few things we can hold onto in this chaotic world. But if it՚s an obligation, that writing it becomes work, and you are not supposed to work on labor day. So I՚m trying to write in a spirt of anti-work.

Whatever is motivating me to write, it does not feel like work, at least not the onerous kind. It՚s work but in pursuit of goals that come from within rather than from without. So I՚m not anti-work, I՚m anti-working-for-someone-else. At least for today, tomorrow I can go back to the daytime adult world, where everyone has someone to report to, even the CEOs. I՚ve been slowly and grudgingly accepting this fact of life, which most people seem to accept at an early age.

The ethics of Marxism seem to promise, not redemption from work, but redemption through work, which at least sounds more mature. To an old-school Marxist (if there are any left) labor does actually have something of the holy about it. I can even sense a spiritual logic behind it. Just as the breath (prāṇa) is holy because of its role as a connection between mind and body, labor is holy because it is a connection between mind and effective action in the world. Both represent a path towards reconciliation and reconnection of things that are split apart.

But (again according to Marxists) labor has been misdirected into alienated tasks, that is to say, despiritualized and mindless forms of action, and it is the job of the revolution to redirect it to its proper purposes.  (And yes, we all know how well that worked out). But I give Marx some credit for trying to turn labor from a curse (one of Adam's punishments in Genesis in fact) into something liberating.

So we should celebrate labor day not by lazing around a barbecue, but by laboring on what is not alienated, on something that aims at liberation.

[Realized I wrote almost the same post a year ago. Guess it really is Belabor Day.]

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The End of Argument

Argument used to be the foundation of intellectual activity. Between the internet and the more general culture of outrage, it's kind of dead. Nobody really argues on the net; when people try, it reads as trolling. Now you are only supposed to talk to people you already mostly agree with. That might be great for socializing but seems awfully boring or worse for ideas, which can only thrive under conditions of opposition.

One reason this is the state of things now compared to early iterations of electronic communication is the replacement of public space (mailing lists and usenet groups) with privatized spaces (Facebook pages, blogs, Twitter feeds). Whether or not this is a bad thing, it means that there is no public square to have a fight over. Now it makes more sense, instead of having an argument to settle the matter, you just go start your own blog and attract like minded people.

I suppose this is just a particular incarnation of the more overarching transition from modernity to postmodernity. In the latter state, every community gets to have its own version of the truth, and there is no master narrative, nothing worth fighting over.

In some ways this is a good thing. The old-style intellectuals were arrogant and their testosterone-fueled contest to impose the One True Ideology or Philosophy or whatever had some unfortunate consequences. Yet something feels lost.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Pull of the Man

So I՚m not going to Burning Man this year, for various lame reasons. But I feel myself pulled towards it nonetheless, in a weird way that is not exactly wanting in the normal sense. I guess I do want to go again, but I՚m not completely sure why – sure, it՚s a hell of a fun party, but I՚m not that much of a party person. The art is spectactular, but art is not usually capable of motivating me to travel so far from the comforts of home. The political aspect of it – the gifting economy, the sense of collectively building a workable temporary utopia – has a lot of appeal, but it՚s hard to see what it has to do with the power structures of the default world, and politics without real stakes is an unredeemable waste of time. There are a ton of interesting weirdos to meet there, but those connections too don՚t seem to travel back into the default world. I certainly had some worthwhile and unique experiences, but for the most part felt kind of out of it – too old, too asocial, too square, too intellectual, and without access to the right kinds of creative power that would enable me to go beyond spectator status. And it really is not a place for spectators.

Yet still I feel oddly drawn towards it, and I probably can՚t adequately convey the nature of that oddness. After all, it is not so odd to want to go to Burning Man. I assume I am pulled in by forces that are similarly acting on all the 80,000 or so people who are there, as well as those like me who are just dreaming of it. But what is the nature of those forces? They are no doubt various and ill-defined, yet somehow they have sustained the event for 30 years, an incredible length of time for a something like this to persist.

One of my kids asked me the other day about the Grateful Dead concerts I went to in my youth – what did I actually do there? He seemed to be after a deeper answer than “go nuts and have fun” – probably he takes me more seriously than I do myself. And truly, that answer isn՚t satisfactory even to me. I was looking for something larger then that, although I couldn՚t say exactly what. And it՚s not just me, everybody goes to concerts and other happenings or public events because they fill deep and usually unarticulated emotional needs – for meaning, for community, for beauty, for access to the sorts of things that tend to get left out of life under late capitalism.

There is a ritual nature to these events. A ritual, broadly speaking, exists any time humans come together around some shared focus of attention. Every random concert or performance has something of the ritual about it, but Burning Man is more explicit about its ritual structure, from its physical layout to its practices. Black Rock City is arranged in concentric circles, surrounding a mostly empty circle of desert, and directly in the center the Man himself.

There are some other centers of attraction in the layout, such as a cafe/community center ( a center for talks, small-scale performnances of the hippie arts and the like, and one of the very few places you can spend money). Another is the Temple, which is more for silent contemplation and connection to the higher powers. These two and centers and the main center, the Man himself, are laid out on a central axis.

I have to admit I spent an awful lot of time at the Temple during my one burn – that wouldn՚t have been my conscious choice, there were plenty more fun or interesting places to be than that, but that is where I felt myself pulled. The Man and the Temple are both burned towards the end of the Burning Man week, which determines the temporal side of the large-scale structure of the Burning Man ritual. And, of course, it has the nature of a sacrifice.

Sarah Perry recently published a useful summary of some functionalist approaches to ritual. Such theories are all very well and I՚ve spun them myself, but they are kind of mechanistic and feel external to the phenomenon they are trying to describe. They can explain from an evolutionary standpoint why rituals exist, but they can՚t convey what they are like. Yes, people may perform sacrificial rituals in order to signal commitment and gain status – but that is probably not what they are thinking and feeling while they are doing it. If they are, it isn՚t working – something designed to be directed at lofty communal goals is being perverted into base, greedy, individualistic goals.

And who knows, maybe the vast majority of religious display is infected with this sort of egotistic hypocrisy, but I can՚t believe that it all is. Perhaps I am naive, but it seems to me that people are often quite sincere in their displays of religious enthusiasm – that is, they actually want to participate, they want to be directed at something outside of and higher than their usual concerns, and they are drawn into the ritual based on its nature and their own, not by external compulsions or calculations. Since people are not naturally going to stop engaging in egotistic calculations, part of an effective ritual is that it breaks down individuality. This condition is both terrifying and desirable, and this contradiction underlies some of the weird dynamics of ritual and religion.

It is this desire for transcendence that strikes me as somewhat mysterious, at least in my own case. This mysterious attraction appears to be spiritual in nature. I really hate to use that word, my self-image rejects it. It՚s embarrassing to find myself longing for spiritual experience, to want to be in the sort of place and state of mind in which the individual ego gives way, where the infinite contacts the finite, where the ineffable expresses itself. Such desires don՚t fit in with my self-conception as a realist, pragmatist, materialist, member in good standing of the techno-intelligentsia, and general competent adult.

Maybe It՚s not the spirituality that is embarassing – after all this is California in the 21st century, and everyone is permitted, if not actively encouraged, to engage in all manner of practices. No, it is the longing that is vaguely shameful – at my age, I should just go after what I want, or give it up, all this mooning after the impossible-to-get seems juvenile, especially in the land of do-as-you-please.

But I don՚t think my feelings and reactions are anything out of the ordinary. I may be more conscious of them than normal people, for a variety of reasons, but that doesn՚t make them special. So I conjecture that rituals are structured in such a way as to focus people՚s attention and desire onto something transcendent, that is, something not quite real in the ordinary sense, and thus not really attainable. Longing is built-in to the structure of the sacred.

And if something shameful adheres to the notion of longing, at least a ritual allows people to do it collectively, to align their longings with that of others. Individual longing may be a puerile waste of time; collective longing defines a culture.

[My earlier trip report and an alternative, less weighty view of the nature of the event.]

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Talking to Trumpers

So I tried to engage with a bunch of Trump supporters at one of the wingnut websites I occasionally frequent [sorry no link]. Kind of thought of it as a civic duty. Unfortunately all I have to report back is basically what I knew going in. These people are:
  • stupid: the kind of stupid people who think they are smart, bringing to mind this classic scene.
  • racist: not the virulent kind, more the whiny kind who think blacks are getting special advantages and the decks are stacked against white men
  • assholes: in all manner of ways, but most striking to me was when I pointed out that Trump had a habit of stiffing the contractors who did work for him, they replied that “the work must have been substandard”. In other words, in a fight between a rich and powerful guy and a lesser power, automatically back the rich guy. This may be due to something basic in the core of the authoritarian psyche, but it is incomprehensible to me.
  • convinced that there is something called “the left” that includes everybody from Hillary to Stalin, that is deliberately evil and devoted to “destroying our liberties”, and basically is in league with Satan.
This last point of course means that whatever Trump՚s flaws, he appears to be the better alternative to them. So pointing out Trump՚s near-total ignorance, his vile personality, his fraudulent background, and his absurd and destructive proposals means nothing. They claim to be conservatives but are willing to take the risk of vast destruction of our existing system of governance, simply out of hatred for someone who exemplifies the existing system.

These people are lost to sanity, and all we can do is hope that they aren՚t a very big or influential group come November.

[addendum: I don't think I did a very good job of doing what needs to be done -- that is, getting some kind of sense of what these people are really about. That is (a) hard to do on the internet as opposed to f2f and (b) probably better accomplished by people with more empathic skills than me. Here's George Saunders, who normally writes fiction about the broken people of the modern world, giving it a go.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Stealing the future

“these companies really are designing the future and they may get away with it.”
Here՚s an article that caused a minor shitstorm among the self-appointed defenders of nerd-dom. It՚s not a very good article and the reaction it got is also pretty stupid, but it touches on themes of interest so I can՚t resist wading in.

The article claims:

  • “Relatively young white males overwhelmingly run Silicon Valley firms and they are stealing the future from everyone else.”
  • The algorithms of these young white males are biased.
  • Since these algorithms are an increasingly important part of the public sphere, they should be regulated by the public.
  • SV has an “almost complete absence” of females, non-whites, and people from demographics like the aged or the low-income.
  • Many of the men who run the techno-corporate behemoth are autistic or have minds tinged with autistic thinking.
  • In that regard, they “know little and care less” about other people.
  • Autistic traits are useful technically, but “can become a hindrance if a general naiveté about human beings is translated directly into the design of the products and services used by billions of other people around the world”.
  • “We” (society, or maybe neurotypicals?) ought to take more control of the technology rather than letting the autistics impose their warped vision on “us”.
Some of these statements are just false – for instance, SV has a very large number of Asians in both engineering and money roles, and while females are underrepresented, they are hardly completely absent. Others are phrased in a ridiculously contentious fashion: “stealing the future” is a brilliantly nasty phrase.

Nonetheless, I think underneath all that stuff are a couple of worthwhile points: (1) that tech companies have too much social power (2) there՚s something vaguely autistic about their methods. The first of these points seems obviously true to me. Companies or whole industries rise on tweaks to Google՚s ranking algorithm, and Facebook has assumed the power to tell us how we are allowed to present ourselves in public life. This just can՚t be good. It՚s not that Mark Zuckerberg or Sergey Brin are bad people, it՚s just that it՚s obviously asking for trouble to cede the fundamental architecture of collective human society to individuals and for-profit organizations. I suppose it՚s controversial to suggest that big tech companies should be regulated or reined in somehow by the rest of society, but surely we can agree that they have immense power and there՚s no particular reason to think that they, of all human organizations, shnould be immune to the corruptions that accompany power.

But that particular line of attack isn՚t what triggered the remarkably strong reaction of the critics, who went so far as to compare the article to Nazi writings on Jews. At first, that seemed ridiculously overblown to me, almost offensively so. But maybe not -- scapegoating is an inherently ugly business, and the “stealing the future” line evokes that chilling song from Cabaret, In this reading, the autistic take the place of Jews in a story of illegitimate power wielded by a somewhat inhuman and alien race of people, a race that has expropriated the legitimate heirs to the future, whoever they are. If that wasn՚t bad enough, the article also blurs autism and whiteness and privilege in general. Sure sounds like like incitement to hatred.

And then it introduces the idea of “autistic corporations”, which is an interesting idea, but what does it really mean? A corporation run by or largely staffed by autistics? Seems to me a corporations, which is a legal person, might have plenty of these alleged evil autistic traits (such as lack of empathy) even if staffed entirely with the neurotypical.

These are all tantalizing questions for me: what does it mean to be human, how do we implement ethics and empathy, and how do the loosely-autistic people in the tech community diverge from the human norm? And how do collectives like corporations manage to embody partial humanity? However, this article does a piss-poor job of raising them. I guess that is due to the degraded state of public discourse, which largely consists of outrage contests.

So the worst thing about that article is not that it is going to cause pogroms against the autistic, but that it makes it that much harder to do the kind of informed and careful critiques of technology that we desperately need. It is quite right to say that the future should not be left in the hands of a few private tech corporations; and changing that will involve some kind of political struggle. It's quite wrong to paint this struggle in terms of race or neurotype.

[Addendum: right after posting I found out that today is "Autism Pride Day"

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Stray thoughts on neoreaction

It looks like Philip Sandifer is writing an exploration of the links between neoreaction and rationalism and the various quirky personalities around which they nucleate. This is sort of my territory, but it looks like he will do a far more thorough and entertaining job of it than I could hope to do. So good, maybe I can obsess about something else now. Don՚t know how closely his view matches mine, but his biases seem about right.

The Holocaust was in my thoughts recently, and naturally it colored my thinking on the deepest moral question of our time, whether Mencius Moldbug should get to speak at technical conferences. The controversy has turned into something of an ugly battle within nerddom. Both sides seem driven by a self-righteous outrage which I don՚t share. I find Moldbug՚s views reprehensible but don՚t see much point in shunning him socially or professionally – but neither am I ready to dismiss the feelings of those who want to. In short, on this question I find myself waffling. I՚m not sure why I feel obligated to apologize for not picking a side – as if this were Harlan County where there can be no neutrals. Both sides seem to see it as an absolute moral struggle with very clearly drawn sides, and both are very confident in their moral judgements. They can՚t both be right, but there՚s no reason they can՚t both be wrong.

The issue is framed by his defenders as a simply a matter of a weird, smart, original thinker getting unfairly punished because of his ideas. He՚s just talking, not actually committing any violent acts, and talk is harmless and should be protected. But his opponents do not believe that speech is harmless. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have murderous consequences, and thus bad ideas need to opposed not simply with words.

My indirect personal connection to the Holocaust animates my own feelings on this question; whether that give my opinions any greater weight is for others to decide. But I do feel a moral imperative to oppose such ideas. What the exact method of opposition should be, I don՚t know – banning people who hold them from conferences seems like a crude move to me, I՚d prefer to engage them, and in fact have done so. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one, and I do not admire people who are reflexively defending Moldbug՚s free speech rights without also acknowledging the actual content they are defending.

If you dig deeper into antipolitics, one of the things that seem to underlie it is a fear of some kind of horrific apocalypse on the horizon – in the rationalists case, it՚s a superintelligent AI running roughshod over human values, with the neoreactionaries, it՚s political disorder or just chaos in general. They seem to think that this onslaught of antihuman forces is located somewhere in the future, something to either work desperately to avoid or grimly accept as inevitable.

But it՚s already happened. Civilization and rationality turned on those who thought it was on their side and remoreselessly dehumanized, tortured, and murdered them on an industrial scale. We՚ve already had experience with human-built systems that end up expressing antihuman goals.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – was today. It՚s sort of an anti-holiday. Holidays are centered around something holy and sacred (even the secular ones); this is around an event that is the opposite of that, the ultimate profanation. Something about the Nazi genocide sets it apart from mere mass murder. Not just the brutality itself, but the systematic, industrialized, and bureaucratic efficiency with which it was carried out. The moral abyss it opened up was blacker and deeper than anyone could have dreamed of, and it still exerts an inexorable gravitational pull on our moral thinking – or mine, anyway.

These events seem unimaginably distant from our present comfortable era, but it was not that long ago. I was born in 1958, 13 years after V-E day and 2 years before the Eichmann trial. Both my parents fled Europe as teenagers, my mother՚s family (from Germany) mostly got out, my father՚s (from Prague), well, nobody knows but it is pretty safe to assume they were murdered. They managed to build lives for themselves in America, but my mother, who loved high German culture (particularly opera, particularly Wagner) I think was messed up by the experience; it՚s not hard to understand why.

If you want to know why I get obsessed over the crypto- and not-so-crypto-fascism that infects our public life these days, this is why. I՚m very aware of the abyss and really feel an obligation to do whatever I can to stop people from being sucked into it. Political flaming on the Internet is almost surely a complete waste of time, but if there is any excuse for it, this is mine.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Politics-free Zones

I tried taking my anti-anti-politics line on the road at a SlateStarCodex thread about the Moldbug/LambdaConf controversy, with predictably unsatisfactory results. Nobody there likes politics, which they identify with undeserving authority, dreary conformity, and a general low level of intelligence. With some justification! Politics is a noisy, messy, and often uninspiring and unproductive affair.

So, why can՚t some places be politics-free zones? In particular, a technical conference, which is about programming languages and algorithms and such? Why can՚t we pursue our quasi-mathematical pastime in peace, isolated from the noisy conflicts of the regular world? Surely we don՚t want to corrupt our ethereal intellectual domain with such mundane gubbish. The technical world should be a politics-free zone, driven by more noble and intellectual motives than the crass social power that is the currency of politics.

Sounds good, doesn՚t it? In this light, the disinvitation and boycotts that have greeted Curtis Yarvin (aka Mencius Moldbug՚s) attempt to present his work on Urbit are awful, a scary intrusion of group hostility into what should be a peaceable world of pure thought.

Unfortunately such an argument collapses totally on contact with reality. The presentation in question is about a piece of technology explicitly crafted towards a political end. There՚s nothing wrong with that, and it actually sounds kind of interesting. If I were running a conference I՚d let the guy speak, all else being equal. However, to claim that politics wasn՚t involved in this matter until those mean SJWs started a harassment campaign is fucking nonsense.

More broadly, there՚s no such thing as a politics-free zone. We are political creatures and anytime a bunch of us get together there is politics involved, whether it is the local kind of who is in charge of what or the broader kinds of group interest. That՚s life. If somebody claims to eschew politics, what they really mean is that they accept the current structure of power and don՚t want to be overly troubled by how it got that way or any efforts to change it, which, sad to say, is itself a political position.

This is especially true of computer systems and the ideas and designs underlying them, at this stage of history. These are no longer amusing toys for nerds, they are the cognitive, social, and economic infrastructure of the entire world. Of course they are political! How could they not be? And of course politics shaped the history and development of computers from the very beginning. This is why I keep harping on this point, if nerds don՚t think adequately about the political dimensions of what they do they are abdicating their responsibilities.

One other important point about this affair that seems to get lost in the noise (and then maybe I can forget about it, it՚s starting to bore the pants off of me): nobody has threatened to censor Yarvin՚s ideas. They are all readily available on the net, nobody (as far as I know) has tried to pressure Google to take down his blog or Github to take down his code. People are not censoring him, they are refusing to associate with him, which may not be nice but is a pretty normal and accepted form of political speech.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The A Word

Yesterday was Autisim Awareness Day and some people have suggested that “autistic” not be used as a derogatory term either for people or ideas. I՚m guilty of doing that, although not as often as I would have thought. They are probably right and I should stop.

In my defense:
  • I use it from within, since I՚m almost certainly somewhere on the spectrum myself, although not officially diagnosed. Like blacks have a license to deploy the n-word and queers have taken back the word “queer”, people like me ought to have a license to deploy the a-word. Of course, the cases are not completely parallalel in all sorts of ways.
  • I use it not to insult individuals, but to critique certain sets of ideas that seem like attempts of some aspects of the autistic personality to convert itself into political ideology or other large-scale systems.
There are obvious problems with labeling ideas or worldviews as autistic. For one, autism as a syndrome has an extremely wide variety of expression. Very few people with autism start political ideologies or movements around their thinking. But it՚s a problem, because I do believe that my non-medical usage of the word denotes something real and important, and I can՚t think of a better way to describe it. Roughly, what I mean is “disdain of or distrust of or incompetance at normal human social interaction, coupled with a fondness and competence for abstractions and artificial formal systems”. This is a common feature of autism but is not identical with it and deserves its own designation. I՚ll call it a* for now (not to be confused with the graph search algorithm of the same name).

Why is it so important to have a designator for a* thinking? It has informed computation since its origins (Turing had classic signs) and is obviously endemic in the present-day technology industry, and that industry is in the process of “eating the world”. We are all living more and more of our lives inside systems designed with a bias towards a*. So unless you are a digital luddite you owe a lot to a*, all the wonderful information and interactions you have on the internet can be traced to these weird obsessives plying their talents towards abstraction.

On the other hand, let՚s take two example of where a* thinking may have some negative consequences.

Facebook is now in control of a large fraction of our social lives, and Facebook is a* in spades. There՚s nothing inevitable that says that the complexities of social interaction have to be reduced to a formal graph of “likes”, but that՚s what we have now. It՚s not so much that Facebook is bad, but that we are allowing the very fundamental structures of society to be redesigned by people who may not be the best suited to it.

On a lesser scale, Moldbug՚s thinking is an exemplary illusstration of a* thinking and its pitfalls. If you study his work in-depth (not recommended) it is clear his primary motive isn՚t racism or ethnoationalism, but a horror of conflict and uncertainty. Ordinary society and politics involves both vague boundaries of groups, imperfect mechanisms of control, and internal and external conflict between different centers of power. Moldbug՚s dream is to replace this mess with something well-engineered and clear, so that for any resource x, there is always exactly one agent a who controls it absolutely. This is not the place to examine this idea on its merits, just to notice that it՚s exactly the sort of thing that would be dreamed up by someone who sucks at navigating actual social structures but is great at constructing abstract systems.

To summarize: I would argue that a* thinking is a real phenomenon and an important one. That it has deep consequences for society which need to be understood better. Finally, it is not necessarily a bad thing if social life is changing in an a* direction, given how fucked up the default world is, but we ought to have better awareness of what is going on.

[ and here is one of my better guest posts at Ribbonfarm where I dive a little deeper into the a* mindset and what it means. ]

Friday, April 01, 2016

Horrified Fascination

Here is a very common visual cliche that oddly doesn՚t seem to have an actual name (the title is best I could come up with):

There are hundreds of stock photos and movie stills in which someone simultanously covers their eyes and peeks through the fingers. What kind of sights can provke such a strange reaction, and what could be its function or meaning? Some prospects simultaneously draw one՚s attention and repel it, giving rise to an internal conflict. You shield yourself from the thing (but not in any truly effective way) and then undermine your own act. Who is supposed to be fooled by this looking-while-not-looking? If it was just a matter of modulating a disturbing incoming visual signal, surely the eyelids would do as good a job as the fingers?

It seems to be a clear outward form of an inner conflct, and inner conflicts are always interesting because they reveal something of the structure of the mind (a jumping off point for Freud, Tinbergen, Minsky, and Ainslie, to name only the most influential).

The conflict between fascination and horror comes up in my thinking a lot these days. I detect it in my attitude to onrushing catastrophes like climate change, or the Trump ascendency, or the aftermath of various natural or manmade calamities. And in my otherwise inexplicable fascination with neoreaction and other wingnutty emanations on the internet, which is sort of like a slow-motion trainwreck of the intellect. Or doom in general, which was a founding theme of this blog. My mind is drawn irresistably to such topics, then forced to draw back.

There՚s something almost shameful and twisted about it, although I can՚t quite say why. At least I՚m not alone in having this perverted attraction towards the repulsive. The entire US media apparatus seems to be in this kind of relationship with Trump, both horrified and addicted to the spectacle.

In my defense, I don՚t think the alternative of pretending these looming horrors don՚t exist is any better. It seems almost impossible to face them squarely, so this kind of half-assed playful attitude is probably the best I can do.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Moldbuggery 2: The Rebuggering

[ background: Moldbug was going to speak at another technical conference (LambdaConf), the organizers this time decided not to disinvite him when they discovered his political views, other people had very bad reactions, and pulled out, and the conference is basically falling apart.]

The reaction to this affair has been extremely polarized. People on both sides seem pretty certain that they are right. Either people are outraged by the racism, or they are outraged that a technical conference would dare to ban somebody for their racism. Doesn՚t seem to be a whole lot of middle ground.

But my own reaction is ambiguous, torn, waffling between two sets of incompatible values. This is interesting to me (although I՚m not sure it is interesting to anybody else, but nobody is forcing you to read this). I find it much more interesting to write about my uncertainties than my certainties.

David Nolen is one of the people most outraged. He՚s a major figure in the Clojure community, and also happens to be black, and he reacted to Moldbug՚s racism in the strongest possible terms, invoking powerfully charged images of racial oppression:
I՚ve thought Moldbug՚s stuff was pretty outrageous, but never really took it seriously enough to become personally offended or threatened. I was willing to debate him over it rather than pushing it away in horror. But I don՚t feel like I have any right to tell Nolen how he should feel about it.

I tried to imagine how I՚d react to race-hatred that was aimed more at me personally. What if a Nazi was going to give a talk on his exciting new programming language? Would I boycott the talk, or the conference? Would I demand the conference organizers shun this individual? I՚m not really sure. I think a lot would depend on the surrounding political climate. One weirdo anti-semite might be a joke to be laughed off, but if there are enough of them to constitute a political force, then the situation demands a political response.

This issue is very parallel to the Trump-related issues I was discussing in the previous post. This idea that there is a space of discourse in which anything goes, and is radically separated from the realm of action is a fine fiction, but a flimsy one.

My earlier post made one point that is still valid, and I haven՚t seen made elsewhere: that Moldbug as an anti-liberal has no grounds for complaint. That doesn՚t invalidate anybody else՚s concerns however.

This episode has caused a lot of bad feelings but I have an oddly positive take of it, from an oddly (for me) conservative point of view. Maybe it՚s a good thing that there are still some ideas that cause outrage, that will get you banned from polite society, that will cause good people to shun you. Boundaries are important. Turns out even in the advanced stages of late capitalism, there are codes of behavior. This is a good thing. Everybody knows liberalism doesn't extend  freedom to infinity, but nobody knows what the boundaries are, so episodes like this are an instance of how we are in the process of figuring that out.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Veneer of Speech

Donald Trump has managed to create an aura of violence and threatened violence around his campaign events. Everyone is getting alarmed by this, but I detect an element of bad faith in that reaction, because violence always lurks under the surface of politics. It՚s not beanbag, it՚s a competition for power, in this case for the right to be the most powerful single individual in the world, commander of the most powerful military force in world history, etc. We often manage to have such competitions peacefully, using just words and elections, but that seems rather exceptional in broad history of human society. Trump is ripping apart the fragile structures of liberal governance, which is a truly bad thing, but I am not overly surprised at their fragility.

Here՚s Rachel Maddow documenting Trump՚s ramp-up of violent language:

And here՚s an alarmingly titled but otherwise perfectly sober and accurate piece from Josh Marshall on the inevitable consequences: Someone Will Die.

It՚s interesting to see the varied leftish opinions about the Trump rally in Chicago that got canceled due to purported threats of violence (still isn't clear exactly what those threats were or who was making them). And by “interesting” I mean my own thoughts are not that clear. My natural first reaction is kind of the ACLU I-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-stupid-and-repulsive-shit, a stance ably and politely represented on that page by Murc, who writes:
I kind of feel like it should be possible to simultaneously hold the opinion “Trump is running the fascist playbook, it’s appalling, and we should all be ashamed and angry” as well as “when someone takes the time to book out a venue and follow all appropriate laws and regulations, that should be respected and they should be allowed to do their thing.”

Judging by the rest of the thread, this is an unpopular opinion, but I’m gonna just come right out and say that merely being a fascist doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you. When Trumps brownshirts force some liberal rallies to be cancelled because they storm the place and raise a ruckus, rendering it unsafe (when, not if; that’s going to happen) we’ll all be outraged, and correctly so.
Against him, almost everyone else in the discussion.

I՚m torn myself. I value freedom of speech, but I don՚t really believe in some kind of absolute distinction between speech and action. You see this boundary blurred all the time in politics, that is what a demonstration or rally is after all, speech that is also a display of force. The debate about money in politics also blurs the line. So yes, I am a good liberal who believes in freedom of speech but I also believe it՚s a useful fiction – but that utility is limited, there are situations where it breaks down.

A liberal society is one that allows multiple points of view to exist and compete for power, which creates a paradox – at some point, there must be a practical limit to how far can it go it tolerating and accomodating its enemies. Given that there are all sorts of illiberal political forces out there, including the numerious variations of religious fundamentalism, racism, and toxic nationalism, how do you design a society where their illiberality can continue to live in private enclaves without being a threat to the order of the greater community?

The ACLU՚s defense of the Nazis right to march through Skokie back in the late 70s is paradigmatic for me (I grew up right next door in Evanston). Sure, let՚s allow a few pathetic and repellent adherents of a dead ideological enemy to parade around and get people angry at them. They pose no real threat, it is actually a sign of strength of the liberal order if you can let this sort of thing happen without forceful interference.

But at some point fascism stops being a fringe of harmess nuts and become a real threat. And somewhere along that line it becomes not just permitted, but almost obligatatory to oppose it, and not just with words, but with actions.

Has Donald Trump՚s quasi-fascist rhetoric crossed the line? Obviously he has no problem threatening the use of violence on protestors; does that justify violent tactics on their part?

In pure moral calculus, well sure. There is no earthly way in which you can pretend it is not Trump who has been constantly opening up the door to violence. That puts the responsibility for it squarely on his repulsive orange head.

In strategic terms it is almost certainly a mistake. The only conceivable consequences of violence at a Trump rally, whoever starts it, is increased support for him from the same febrile quarters it comes from now. It՚s the nature of the beast, and that is barely a metaphor. If there are really people so wishy-washy that they are undecided between Trump and a Democrat, which way do you think they will turn if it looks like society is in the throes of violent disintegration? Which side of this battle has more heavily armed lunatics?

So I hope that left protestors will use non-violent practices. But I can՚t condemn them if they don՚t. I՚m not a pacifist, some fights are worth fighting and this most certainly is one of them.


[ Bernie Sanders visiting the Woody Guthrie Museum ]

Monday, February 08, 2016

The Dark Side

Seven years ago I noticed that Republicans had made “empathy” into a curse-word, and I joked that they were going to have to develop a reverse Voight-Kampff test to screen their candidates. Today I think that was a little off. They aren՚t going for robotic non-empathy, but something darker, more like active anti-empathy. The leading Republican candidates, Trump and Cruz, are increasingly playing to their audiences with threats to commit mayhem on some outgroup. They will bomb them into glass, torture them, deport them. Mexicans and Moslems play the role of the despised Other for the most part, but the exact identity hardly matters, as long as they can be held at bay and made to suffer.

The enthusiasm for inflicting pain is beginning to seem kind of kinky at this point. Not that there՚s anything wrong with that! But this is reality and there is no safe word to end the scene.

Might there be some truth to the frequently-heard idea that Bernie Sanders and Trump enjoy some of the same sources of support, despite being opposites in every political and moral dimension? There is a lot of pain in the world, and people who are desperate can be tempted to clutch at anything that offers hope, the promise that the world can be a better place. Sanders proposes the idea (which seems radical and otherworldly, but shouldn՚t) that ordinary people should have a measure of economic security, Trump offers the promise of renewed strength, of triumph over the threatening darkness. I don՚t think these visions of a better world are at all equivalent, but they both stand in contrast to a candidate like Hillary Clinton who offers no hope at all for any fundamental change. That՚s practically her brand identity.

I know some Clinton supporters and they tend to be the kind of people who are doing alright for themselves, who have sussed out the rules of the existing system of power and made it work, often to very good ends. All very well I suppose, but the rest of us need our dreams.

The dream world of Trump and his supporters is one in which our pain ceases because we transfer it to the other, where all the losses of life are replaced by “so much winning”, where crushing and tedious social norms of bureaucratic society are overturned and the repressed can return in the form of displays of  unrestrained assholery.

Trump repulses all respectable people, but obviously there are a lot of non-respectable people out there and the rules of politics means they get a voice, their hopes and dreams and fears can't be dismissed even if they deserve to be.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Firing up the Emotion Machine

Marvin Minsky has passed on, to use a phrasing I feel pretty confident that he՚d dislike. He was a thoroughgoing materialist, so according to him there is nothing to pass on, no spirit to live on beyond the body. Let՚s just say his meat machine gradually broke down, as they all do, and eventually ceased to function. He՚s rumored to have signed up for cryogenic preservation, for what that՚s worth, so there is the possibility of the machinery coming back into operating condition at some time in the future.

But whatever spirit animated him does live on, in the hacker culture that grew up around MIT and has since kind of taken over the world. Many people built that culture, but Marvin was at the core of the restless inquisitiveness, pragmatism, skepticism, and general disrespect of established institutions that characterizes it.

Everyone else who embodied this spirit gave their own twist to it, and perhaps Marvin՚s own special version is now lost until the digital resurrection. It almost doesn՚t matter. Marvin I think was somewhat disappointed, even bitter, in his later years, because the field he founded wasn՚t taking his ideas as seriously as he felt they deserved, and was going in directions he viewed as unpromising. If I could have had a last conversation with him, and felt presumptuous, I would tell him not to worry about any of that. The important part of who he was made it out into the world, embodied in the vast number of people he influenced.

And Marvin՚s own words and works live on. There՚s a collection of 150 or so video clips of him holding forth on the history of AI, his personal story, and the intellectual milieu he lived in and generated. His daughter Margaret assembled a beautiful web presentation of his paper Music, Mind, and Meaning. There is plenty of Marvin left in the world.

Marvin was brilliant in numerous ways, an accomplished inventor, mathematician, and musician aside from the work on artificial intelligence he is best known for. But his big trick was to face squarely the mechanical nature of the human mind and not be alarmed by it. Indeed, he found it rather delightful and intriguing. This put him at odds with standard-issue humanists, which suited him just fine. But Marvin himself was not in any way inhuman, far from it. He was an extremely warm and welcoming individual, and always willing to engage with anyone՚s open mind.

He was I suppose a reductionist, but to label him that is to reduce his own complicated way of thought to a single-word slogan. And that was one kind of reduction he did not practice. His other big trick was to know that there is no one big trick to the mind, that single-idea solutions like logic or bayesianism are insufficient, and that building a mind requires the complex orchestration of multiple mechanisms. Society of Mind was itself structured as as cooperating network of very specific ideas for mechanisms, making the form match its content. He was an extreme fox on the Isaiah Berlinfox/hedgehog scale (while John McCarthy, a co-founder of AI who was more fond of logical formalism, might be his counterpart hedgehog). So he tried to take intractable concepts like selves and consciousness and “reduce” them to a complex interaction between mechanisms:

“The idea that there is a central I that has experience is a typical case of taking a common sense concept and not realizing that it has no good technical counterpart, but it has 20 or 30 different meanings and you keep switching from one to the other without even knowing it, so it all seems like one thing…Consciousness seems very mysterious and unphysical if you don՚t know how it works, like when Houdini or Penn and Teller make an elephant disappear, then you say “this is not physical, it՚s impossible”. When you know how the magic trick works, the sense of wonder goes away, although you still might remember how it puzzled you once.”
His life could be seen as a battle against the idea that understanding how something worked in any way diminished it.

It was truly a privilege and a gift to learn from him. I was far from an ideal student, and went off in directions he didn՚t really approve of. I was consumed by the specifics of the notion of “agent” that he developed – a subpart of the mind with its own machinery, goals, and ability to act – and tried to understand exactly what agency consisted of, what it meant, how it was deployed as a metaphor in technical talk in general. When Marvin wrote a a follow-up book, the The Emotion Machine, he decided to drop the agent language in favor of the more neutral “resources”. I guess he was unhappy at how people inferred from the agent metaphor that these components were full-fledged minds with sophisticated reasoning and representations of their own, in which case the theory didn՚t really explain anything.

This may have been sound tactics but I think it was a strategic mistake. The question of what agency is and what machinery could underlie it is important, and lack of good ways to think about it is responsible for some of the confusion in current discourse around the idea of superempowered artificial intelligences.

Marvin was a mathematician (albeit a very nonstandard one) and mathematicians have the job of pulling eternal truths into the temporal processes of life, cognition, and scholarship. Computation itself – an idea that he helped define – is also a way of connecting the timeless and the temporal. His time to be active has come to an end, and you can look back on his life and see how he was a creature of his time, how he learned from the great minds of an earlier time, and how he passed on his knowledge to the generations that followed. All of whom had their own visions, colored by their own times, yet retaining and transmitting some fragments of what was learned from their teacher.

Time marches on and cuts us all down eventually, but some part of us is timeless. Not godlike or soullike, Marvin wouldn՚t have any of that, but perhaps there is some quasimathematical pattern that our mechanisms embody and that precedes us, outlives us, and connects us.

[More people remember Marvin. My own mentions of him over the years, here and on Ribbonfarm.]

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Resolution of Resolution

The New Year is a time for the making (and the inevitable breaking) of resolutions, that is, attempts to commit yourself to some worthwhile goal that you would not normally have, or would not normally be able to achieve. The weakness of our ability to actually fulfill such promises has become a fairly tired cliche and material for reflexive jokes:

Comedy often involves puncturing pretension, so the resolutions are a fertile topic. But comedy aside, the whole exercise is pretty strange – a promise, in effect, that future versions of yourself will be bound by a goal of your present self. That might not seem so strange on the surface -- after all, we can, in normal circumstances, make ourselves do things that we don՚t naturally want to do, like washing the dishes or going to the dentist. We are always forming intentions and then making ourselves execute them, if usually on a smaller scale. If was can do that, why is it so difficult to make ourselves exercise or learn to play the piano? Somehow whatever tricks we've learned to do the minimum necessary unpleasant tasks to get through life won't extend to these more ambitious goals.

New Year's resolutions are generally intentions that we know we will have trouble executing, so we hope that the specialness of the holiday period will magically enhance our ability to enforce current preferences on our future selves. Why a random holiday should enhance our normal level of (perceived) willpower is not completely clear. Maybe because everybody else is doing it too? Maybe the special time of year is a sort of Schelling point where we all converge on trying to improve ourselves, agreeing to act as each other's consciences.

For me it՚s just another excuse to delve into my favorite topic – the disunity of mind, how the different parts interoperate and cooperate and/or conflict with each other. For some reason I like to try to demonstrate that I don՚t exist, at least, not as a unified coherent single point of control, and neither does anybody else, and that our precious selves are largely fictional constructs. Of course, everybody sort of knows this already, but living as if it were true is not easy, maybe impossible. The illusion of solidity is very strong and it sometimes seems as if the entire quotidian world is structured so as to perpetuate it.

George Ainslie probably has the most useful view of the nature of will in a seething non-unified mind. In his theory, the self is not an organ but a coalition, a point of convergence for the different appetites and the different situations they find themselves in. Self-construction is a process of creating, maintaining, and refining this tenuous balance of interests. That's the most challenging part of Ainslie: it's not that hard to believe that different parts of ourselves have goals of their own, since everybody experiences that, but it's a lot harder to understand that somehow these parts also have bargaining and political skills.

My resolution for the new year – or rather, the tentative constitution that my divergent interests temporarily agree to work under – is to understand goals better. in the abstract, and in my personal life as well.

I've never really had a great relationship to explicit goals. I՚m amazed at all these people I meet who have well-defined goals and plans, who have sketched out the routes they want their life to follow in advance. I've never really been able to do that, and occasionally it troubles me, although I seem to have managed to accomplish a few things and raise a family just by blundering around without much of a plan. No doubt I would have achieved a lot more with one, but on the other hand, how could the callow younger version of myself presume to tell the old and experienced person I am now what they should be doing? It՚s almost exactly the same problem as that of New Year's resolutions.

On the more workaday level, I really have come to loathe the way explicit goals are treated in in the process of software development, whether through old-fashioned formal planning or the trendier agile methodologies. It may be completely necessary in order for people to coordinate their work, but it still somehow manages to miss everything that is interesting and important about software design, which is never spoken of, possibly because we just don't have a good vocabulary for it yet or possibly because it is inherently un-articulable, like the Christopher Alexander's quality without a name.

Of course I have plenty of goals in my work on various scales. It's not the goals I mind, it's the process by which they are arrived at, both in setting them and fulfilling them. I'm not sure whether the process is broken or I am just too weird, intransigent, or immature to adapt to it. It seems to work, sort of, for most people and companies, although it is always the topic of endless dissatisfaction.

But it's the people with explicit long-term goals who seem to achieve things in this society, and perhaps in any society. I am impressed yet also somewhat repelled these types. Even when the goals themselves are laudable, they seem to be somehow enslaved to themselves. That may be a really negative way of seeing what is usually considered one of the primary virtues, the quality of having mastered yourself. But there can՚t be a master without a slave, even if they are the same person. A man with a plan sees other people, and himself, as means to an end, not as ends in themselves.

[ This post kicks off what I hope (nay, resolve!) will be a series of posts on different aspects of goals. Actually the recent post on play could be considered a part of the series. Tackling a topic of that size risks pomposity, and there is the additional risk of tiresome reflexiveness (yes I am being meta in having a goal about goals in general, but no I don't think it earns me any cleverness points).  ]