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.


Hal Morris said...

Mike: Happy New Year!
I just took a look at Engineers of Human Souls. Facebook seems like an epitome of a very broad trend of letting the culture go on autopilot -- the culture as a whole behaves like a scatterbrained adolescent, attracted to shiny and exciting and "hip" (whatever that means at the moment) things, and producing feedback loops with the creators of such goods -- the more we give ourselves over to them, the more we feed the industry broadening its base to grow and become more sophisticated and ingenious at capturing us, and the more the mentality seems to infect everything, and politics in particular.
Stanislaw Lem's Solaris seems a good metaphor for the state we drift into - highly recommended if you haven't read it - and I generally find little value in science fiction.

"Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity" Ha! easy for him to say; he'll never have to worry about losing employment due to something he wrote or did in High School or College. Integrity is more than saying "Here I am for anyone to see, not hiding anything"; I see it as something consciously - probably painstakingly - constructed.

Is "scw" the same person as "crawfordmuir"? Both seem to spent inordinate effort reading and engaging with writings that they declare to be worthless. No references (in this set of comments) to John Randolph though. If there were any I wouldn't have to ask.

There are those who insist the best way to tame government and avoid tyranny is to make sure the only tool government has is force or violence -- i.e. the "monopoly on legitimate violence". The trouble with this theory is that old saw that "to the man with only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail" (

Few people want to face how difficult democracy is (If I were to say what I think is really needed to get beyond blundering around and doing OK if we're lucky - as we have been so far, most people would gasp and think I'm crazy to contemplate such possibilities). So people dream of some magic autopilot (like the "invisible hand" or the "dictatorship of the proletariat") that will save us.

In all of this I see potential resonance between pico- and macro- economics. Truly of all the things you've written about (that I've read) that interests me the most.

Crawfurdmuir said...

"Both seem to spent inordinate effort reading and engaging with writings that they declare to be worthless."

I can speak for no one else, but the reason I do it is that even bad ideas have consequences, which are inevitably evil. Bad ideas therefore need to be read and engaged in order that they may be rebutted.