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Month: February 2016 (page 1 of 4)

Statuses To Update

Tonight I’m reading up on how machine learning actually works. To be honest, I don’t understand the concrete mechanisms by which computers do intelligence-y things. I know some of the keywords — “big data” pops into my head — and I have a general idea of how they interact, but it doesn’t go deeper than “general idea”. So I’m seeking more information! This is very mundane, but it constantly amazes me that I have access to just about everything people know about any technical topic.

Cyberpunk rabbit by Vojtěch Lacina.

Artwork by Vojtěch Lacina.

That reminds me of a line I read in an article criticizing San Francisco as a putrid dystopia: “After all, technology is social before it is technical.” When software developers make comments like that, it gives me a little hope for myself in the tech world. I love this industry — it fascinates and infuriates me — but I don’t have any of the requisite skills to participate in the normatively valued ways. I can’t write code. I can’t build databases or even make websites from scratch. But I’m okay when it comes to wrangling humans. I’m a decent communicator.

In this capitalist hellscape we inhabit, do you make time to appreciate yourself? Do you allow yourself a little vanity? I do, but mostly because I can’t help it.

Tonight I made a Slack discussion group called Cyberpunk Futurism. For those who are unfamiliar with Slack, it’s basically a group chat forum. If you want to participate, click here and sign up. I’m not sure how many people will be interested, but I figured it was worth a try 🙂

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Ye Olde YouTube

Cyberpunk sculptor Retech is looking for collaborators, and he asked me to spread the word. Here are the requirements:

  • video footage that’s at least two minutes long, which will be looped
  • resolution in the 640-720 range
  • audio is optional (extra noise will be introduced by Retech’s hardware)

And here is one of Retech’s pieces:

Artwork by Retech.

You can get in touch via Retech’s website. He requests, “If your message is urgent […] write the words: ‘TOP SECRET’ in the subject line. If your message is just commonplace then please write: ‘I am not a spambot or Nigerian scammer’ in the subject line.”

In other video-related news, tonight Alex and I watched Thomas in Love, a French movie that’s unintentionally retro-futurist. It came out in 2001. The filmmakers’ vision of the internet is a network of video services and “visiophones”, which are basically Skype devices. The protagonist is a thirty-something agoraphobic man whose life is controlled almost entirely by an insurance company — to which he voluntarily turned over his assets. His therapist signs him up for a video-based “dating club”, and Thomas falls in quasi-love with the first two women who pay genuine attention to him. This sounds like the setup for a dumb rom-com, but the movie is actually quite nuanced and definitely melancholy. Recommended for people who enjoy nonstandard storytelling forms, can tolerate French cinema, and also don’t need fast-paced plots to stay engaged.

The meta takeaway from Thomas in Love is that our own visions of the future will seem silly in just a couple of decades.

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Meow Machines

When nanotech and material science get a lot better, we’re going to have awesome cat toys. I’m envisioning tiny robots that behave like butterflies with slower reflexes, made out of a substance that cats can ingest, possibly seeded with the scent of tuna and the psychoactive properties of catnip. Toss a handful into the air, let the bots wander according to their algorithms, and watch your kitty hunt.

At that point, will we still have biological cats? Maybe we’ll consider mammals more trouble than they’re worth — a sentimental anachronism. Are you familiar with the PARO therapeutic robot? “It allows the documented benefits of animal therapy to be administered to patients in environments such as hospitals and extended care facilities where live animals present treatment or logistical difficulties.” In other words, PARO is a cute interactive bot that looks and sounds like a baby seal. It’s commonly used in old folks’ homes to compensate for the lack of human touch and affection. All PARO needs to function is a freshly charged battery.

In addition to PARO and other medical bots, consumer robot pets with various levels of capability have already met the market. But I wonder if we’ll be able to bond to creatures that we know aren’t “alive” in the traditional sense. Some people consider their pets to be their children — I wouldn’t go that far, but I do adore my cats. Wouldn’t it feel weird to love a machine that much?

Eh, probably not. I’m a product of my place and time, but even so, I could probably adjust to a mechanical cat. Only after Polera and Grace have passed away!

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A Taste For Dystopian Imaginings

Today’s dispatch was contributed by Stephen Kahn.

When I was six years old, living near Echo Park, Los Angeles, I began hiding in the library. (My father was abusive; my siblings dysfunctional.) I’ve worked for libraries, institutions that become a drug to evade reality (whatever that is). Early on I was a reading addict, science fiction more than anything else — if you call Freddy the Pig and Grimm’s Fairy Tales “science fiction”. My friends at grade school laughed at me; they were reading Robert Heinlein. Soon I was reading science fiction too but I started with a baby step: Andre Norton before I graduated to Heinlein, Asimov, Alfred Bester, Jack Vance, etc.

By the time I was ten years old (1954), I was living in the future to escape my present. Unfortunately, as I reached my forties (late 1990s), I began to observe that the future had become my present. Dystopia tends to suit my gloomy, pessimistic, depressed, atheist world view. Orwell’s 1984, already based on Stalinism, bloomed even more bitter fruit in Kim’s North Korea. Huxley’s Brave New World forecast genetic engineering. As a teacher for a while, I struggled unsuccessfully to stamp out bullying. I experienced the reality — though fortunately less brutally — of the violent scapegoating in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I learned about the threat to our biosphere portrayed by John Bruner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. Philip K. Dick’s drug-inspired nightmares seemed to be coming true around me. Luckily I never delved into psychedelic madness, but I knew plenty of people who did, sometimes fatally.

Artwork by Keoni Cabral.

Artwork by Keoni Cabral.

I screamed inside, “It’s no longer an escape into fantasy; it’s a horrible world and it’s all coming true around me!” I stopped reading science fiction for about five years. Then as I reached my sixties and now early seventies, I began to meditate on my mortality, surprised to be alive. My abusive father died of a heart attack at the age of forty-three around 1965. As a child, I was pathologically shy with women; I thought I would never get laid. I was flunking out of college during the 1959 Bay of Pigs crisis, which is perhaps the closest our world ever came to nuclear war (On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, etc). As panicked students at UC Berkeley (the site of my personal flunking meltdown) huddled gloomily in the student union, a young lady gave strong hints that she was ready to spend what might be our last night on earth in one of the oldest human consolations for our existential dilemma, “rolling in each other’s arms”. I was too crippled by my personal angst to take advantage. Just as well.

I eventually rebooted at Pierce Junior College in LA, where I met an intelligent chick who was depressed by her microscopic bra size. Fifty years of marriage later — plus one daughter who recently wedded her girlfriend of two decades — I eagerly hope that humans will encounter extraterrestrial life before I croak. As I read in an excellent nonfiction book, Lee Billings’ Five Billion Years of Solitude, I think it might come true.

On the other hand, well-suited to my taste for dystopian imaginings, there are abundant sci-fi books about alien monsters and invasions, such as War of the Worlds, Day of the Triffids, Starship Troopers, and so on. Remember in our world’s history, when technologically advanced societies discover less adept societies (Europeans in Australia and North America, for example) the latter groups generally fare very poorly. Perhaps it’s a good thing that nobody has beaten the light-speed barrier and dropped out of our skies. Or maybe they are here already, just waiting to enslave us, eat us, or toss us out.

Now go follow Stephen Kahn on Medium.

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Technological Abundance: Interview With Multimedia Artist Torley

I originally discovered Torley through Flickr, where he shares screenshots of ethereal and bizarre scenes from Second Life. He is also a musician and has released projects like Glitch Piano, an album described thus:

“Not long ago, in a parallel universe fairly, fairly close… humans imported a master race of sentient pianos through spacetime portals, using the instruments as labor-beasts and war-weapons. Predictably, these magnificent creatures rebelled and bass’ed civilization, enslaving the masses like the un-self-actualized lowminds they broadly are.

The contained aurelics (sonic artifacts) are historical evidence of such a traumatic time, and oddly, we detected halos of rich emotional spectrum — including loveliness and humorosity — amidst the runes.”

I emailed Torley to request an interview, and he answered my questions at great length. The full text, minus a couple of portions redacted for his privacy, is available as a PDF. The dispatch that you’re currently reading is a sort of “greatest hits” summary, like what I did with Andi McClure’s interview.

During a hard period in his life, Torley read some of the classic cyberpunk novels as balm. Consequently, he…

“wondered if there was a ‘real’ (as real as real can be) place where I could explore some of these ideas. I learned of the cyberpunk city ‘Nexus Prime’ in the Second Life virtual world — almost all content created by its users! — constructed on the aptly-named Gibson region […] As a metaphor that worked on such a practical level, my first avatar was an amplified version of my physical self, then I projected further into the future — and became an incarnation of my time-traveling daughter, who came back to tell me ‘THINGS ARE GOING TO BE OKAY’. […] Eventually, I was hired by Linden Lab (makers of Second Life), which I am immensely grateful for as it changed my first life even further. I continue to work here on all of their products, including Sansar — our next-generation virtual world.”

I asked about the appeal of this genre, and Torley told me:

“I’ve long romanticized big cities with towering skyscrapers, and couriers scurrying in the dark, running past neon signs with some data that was too precarious to simply upload… so it had to be done sneakernet-style. I definitely enjoy the whole audiovisual package, even if it’s the most superficial images of what comes to mind when a cyberpunk trope is mentioned… and as a strain of sci-fi, to quote Gibson, to realize we are living in an unevenly distributed future RIGHT NOW. It’s happening all around us.”

He continued:

“For me, cyberpunk has always meant giving unpopular (minority) ideas a fighting chance. […] it means a resistance to change the system, and augment one’s personal self. Which is what I chose with my life path. […] We each contain that power to alter the operation of the big machine, even if we may be ‘just’ a gear or cog in the works. Megacorps fascinate me, and all the fictional marketing that goes into the worldbuilding process.”

Torley on his own daily habits:

“I enjoy consuming Soylent 2.0 everyday. ‘Revolutionary’ is an adjective not to be applied lightly, but it’s saving me an accumulating amount of time. I always wake up and have a bottle or two to start my day. I’m drinking some as I communicate right now. A few bottles make up the majority of my meals. […] I suppose Soylent is a cyberpunk ethos foodstuff — the target demographics are both diverse and fascinating. Yet we are all human, and time is a teacher that kills all its students. That’s why I think their marketing is clever — they emphasize that Soylent does not outright replace conventional food, but FREES you to choose what meals you want to chew.”

Circling back to Second Life:

“Second Life has been a safe space for me and many others — whether that’s exploring identity, sexuality, racial-cultural constructs, etc. How you perceive SL depends on how you perceive yourself […] It’s very easy to experiment with identity here. You can change your whole look as easily as people can change clothes in ‘meatspace’. One’s avatar’s total appearance can be changed in mere seconds, yet may get a completely 180-degree response from those around you inworld. A hulking dragon brings out a totally different reaction than being an adorable pixie. I have been many forms, almost always revolving around my pink-and-green color scheme. I’ve called it ‘the Torley Council’, wherein I imagine a type of mini United Nations in my head, with each persona diverse yet unified — it’s all me, after all.”

In closing:

“We are blessed to live in such an age of technological abundance, as unstable as some systems may be. We owe it to ourselves to harness those tools to be healthier, happier, more creative human beings. When our own needs are met and our resources are replenished — and when we are genuinely comfortable in our own skin — we can more ably help each other.”

I’ll crack open a neon watermelon and toast to that.

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Cybersecurity Tradeoffs & Risks

Kevin Roose hired a couple of high-end hackers to penetration-test his personal cybersecurity setup. It did not go well, unless you count “realizing that you’re incredibly vulnerable” as “well”. In his write-up of the exercise, Roose mused:

“The scariest thing about social engineering is that it can happen to literally anyone, no matter how cautious or secure they are. After all, I hadn’t messed up — my phone company had. But the interconnected nature of digital security means that all of us are vulnerable, if the companies that safeguard our data fall down on the job. It doesn’t matter how strong your passwords are if your cable provider or your utility company is willing to give your information out over the phone to a stranger.”

There is a genuine tradeoff between safety and convenience when it comes to customer service. Big companies typically err on the side of convenience. That’s why Amazon got in trouble back in January. Most support requests are legitimate, so companies practice lax security and let the malicious needles in the haystack slip through their fingers (to mix metaphors egregiously). If a business like Amazon enacts rigorous security protocols and makes employees stick to them, the average user with a real question is annoyed. Millions of average users’ mild discomfort outweighs a handful of catastrophes.

Artwork by Michael Mandiberg.

Artwork by Michael Mandiberg.

In semi-related commentary, Linux security developer Matthew Garrett said on Twitter (regarding the Apple-versus-FBI tussle):

“The assumption must always be that if it’s technically possible for a company to be compelled to betray you, it’ll happen. No matter how trustworthy the company [seems] at present. No matter how good their PR. If the law ever changes, they’ll leak your secrets. It’s important that we fight for laws that respect privacy, and it’s important that we design hardware on the assumption we won’t always win”

Although Garrett is commenting on a different issue within a different context, I think these two events are linked. The basic idea is that when you trust third parties to protect your privacy (including medical data and financial access), you should resign yourself to being pwned eventually. Perhaps with the sanction of your government.

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A More Literal Disruption

“Automation did not upend the fundamental logic of the economy. But it did disproportionate harm to less-skilled workers.” — Daniel Akst

Earlier in the article, Akst explains, “technological advances have not reduced overall employment, though they have certainly cost many people their jobs. […] technology has reshaped the job market into something like an hourglass form, with more jobs in fields such as finance and food service and fewer in between.” In other words, the low and high ends of the market are thriving. The middle level of prosperity is fast becoming obsolete. (“Millennials” and “middle class” are two terms that don’t belong together.)

Here’s the “fundamental logic of the economy” that Akst references earlier: efficiency drives growth. When we figure out how to accomplish tasks using less time, materials, and money, then we can devote the extra resources to something else. We can better leverage comparative advantage. This “grows the pie”, as politicians like to say. New forms of human organization — such as the corporation — can produce greater efficiency, but they’re nothing compared to the advent of steam power or computing.

Machinery photographed by MATSUOKA Kohei.

Machinery photographed by MATSUOKA Kohei.

Technology is phenomenally valuable because it frees up time that was formerly occupied by drudgery. However, the transition from one mode of business assumptions to the next is always excruciating. Workers suited to the last paradigm struggle in the new one — observe the devastation of America’s Rust Belt. Or look further back, at the Industrial Revolution! Artisans lost their livelihoods and peasants were forced into tenement cities to serve as human fuel for factories.

After two centuries of industrialization, those of us in “First World” countries have a standard of living higher than a colonial-era villager could imagine. This hypothetical yeoman might predict abundant food and physical comfort, but he could never conceive of the mind-expanding access to information that is normal now. The idea of an on-demand, self-driving car powered not by magic but by math would blow multiple gaskets.

My point is that the Next Big Thing won’t necessarily be “disruptive” in Clay Christensen’s sense — it’ll be DISRUPTIVE like an earthquake that reorders the landscape.

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Once & Someday Software Experiments

Andi McClure is an artist whose primary medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and how she conceptualizes her work.

This conversation took place via IM. The full transcript is available for your reading pleasure, but it’s much too long for a newsletter. Instead, I selected some of Andi’s loveliest statements.

Art-Purposed Computing

“Um, I guess I just had this drive to make stuff. I didn’t really question it. I guess at the beginning, when I was making things, I seemed focused on making worlds people could dip into? all my BASIC programs were grossly simple text adventures, and hypercard I was all making point and click adventures (it’s suited for that, it’s technically the program Myst was eventually made in)”

On the games Cyan made before Myst: “you’d explore these bizarre alice-in-wonderland worlds that were full of stuff that reacted in funny ways when you clicked on them.”

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

Cover art from McClure’s collection Sweet Nothings.

“I do definitely think of myself as an artist. Code happens to be the thing I know how to express myself through, so that’s how I create art. Sometimes I think of the way I approach certain things in life (politics, day to day problems) as being sort of an engineer’s mindset, but if i’m writing code, that’s art. My programming language project is maybe not itself art, but I’m doing it with the goal of making art WITH it, so.”

On trying to distribute “little minimally-interactive systems”: “I’d have this problem that the only way anyone could see this little bitty thing I made, that I spent like a day on and that takes about a minute to two minutes to appreciate fully, was to download this 2MB .exe, and run it on their computer, and half the time have to disable their antivirus or something. So that was awkward.”

The answer to that problem was a website called…

“dryads are trees that are also girls and that is very compelling to me.”

“i was very specifically trying to find something that evoked a sort of a tension between something organic and wild and something mathematical and technological. like some of the ones i didn’t go with were ‘glitch dot flowers’, ‘fleshy dot rocks’, ‘screaming dot computer’”

“i really really liked the idea of a dryad trying to design technology and what that would look like. i imagined that it would involve lots of crystals. i had this mental image of a tiny plant girl holding a wrench about as tall as she is, looking out over some kind of cryptic crystalline machine.”

“Again I’ve only got two things up so far but the descriptions are all going to be completely inaccurate descriptions as if the little toy I made was some sort of device built by dryads, with a specific purpose which is vaguely incomprehensible to humans but makes a lot of sense to a tree.”

“i do want to make sure this doesn’t feel like trees trying to use human technology and make sense of it. this is trees doing their own thing that may or may not have anything to do with you.”

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Andi McClure Chat, Full Transcript

Andi McClure is an artist whose main medium is code. She uses proverbial `1`s and `0`s to make games and game-like creations, a programming language called Emily, and digital sigils. Andi and I chatted on Skype recently about these various projects and her artistic practice(s).

This is the full transcript, which is messy like most IM conversations. I sent a collection of quotes to the newsletter subscribers. Read more

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