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Month: September 2016 (page 1 of 2)

The More My Car Looks Like an Insect, the Better

Pink mecha. Artwork by Brian Clarke.

Artwork by Brian Clarke.

Artwork by Nick Rutledge.

Artwork by Nick Rutledge.

I hope the vehicles of the future do look cooler than sedans and minivans. But of course, by the time we get to the year 2137, the new aesthetic will be just as boring as the current aesthetic.

However, this visual is really the cutting edge:

Artwork by @greatartbot, which does consistently produce good art.

Artwork by @greatartbot, which does consistently produce good art.

That’s it. I’ve run out of opinions tonight.

Wanted: Efficacious Heuristics

A system is an arrangement of interlocking elements or moving parts that all affect each other, sometimes recursively. The world is full of them (and in fact each of those systems is itself an element of the larger system that comprises the whole universe).

Mathias Lafeldt wrote about how the human mind copes with this:

“Systems are invisible to our eyes. We try to understand them indirectly through mental models and then perform actions based on these models. […] Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.”

Lafeldt’s explanation reminds me of the saying that the map is not the territory. Reality (which is a system) is the territory. Our mental models are maps that help us navigate that territory.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

But no map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

This is why Occam’s Razor is so popular despite being incorrect much of the time. Some plans do go off without a hitch. But expecting the chaotic worst is a socioeconomically adaptive behavior, so we keep the idea around. [Edit: Hilariously, I mixed up Occam’s Razor and Murphy’s Law — thereby demonstrating Murphy’s Law.]

My personal favorite mental model is a simple one: “There are always tradeoffs.” One of the tradeoffs of using mental models at all is that you sacrifice understanding the full complexity of a situation. Mental models, like maps, hide the genuine texture of the ground. In return they give you efficiency.

Personalities, Bought and Sold

Sara Watson wrote about the contradictory selves that each of us scatters around on the internet:

I catch glimpses of her in side­bars and banners, in the branded ads creeping into my infi­nite scrolls. She surfaces in recom­men­da­tions and person­al­ized results — fleeting encoun­ters unless captured by screen­shot.

She is a pixe­lated, auto­mated portrait of myself. She is frag­ments, an amal­ga­ma­tion I see in the digital mirror. She’s me, now through a glass darkly.

She is a pastiche of my patched-together digital detritus. She is my browsing history, my status updates, my GPS loca­tions, my responses to marketing mail, my credit card trans­ac­tions, and my public records.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

Artwork by Matt Lyon.

As a pretty public person who makes a living writing (or at least tries to), I struggle with this. I don’t care about the personal effect that ~surveillance capitalism~ has on me (I do care about the political effects, don’t worry!) because let’s be real, the personal effect is nil. I just get advertised to a little more effectively. But it does frustrate me that my public persona is so fractured.

There’s cyberpunk me, which you get exposed to via this newsletter, and which also comes out in the chat group, on Twitter, and on Hacker News. There’s business-y me on Twitter, my website, and occasionally Facebook. But I have a whole separate sphere of interests centered on makeup and other “girly” stuff, expressed via Instagram and Reddit.

I feel really weird when I “cross the streams” by talking about makeup on Twitter or whatever. I’m not presenting something cohesive, from a branding perspective. And since clients come from everywhere, that potentially threatens my livelihood, or at least de-optimizes it.

There are always tradeoffs. The internet and social media have been such a boon to me, especially since I do not function well in normal office environments, but constantly pitching myself to anyone who drops by is exhausting.

Neural Fintech x2

“Neural Fintech” got more responses than anything else I’ve ever asked you all about, so it’s back *TV infomercial voice* by popular demand! If you missed the beginning you don’t strictly need to read it, but you can if you want to.

In the examination room there was machine that looked like an old-school MRI unit — Sasha remembered them from the hospital shows her grandma used to watch, 2D video of handsome doctors clumsily enhanced for her parents’ RoomView.

Next to the machine stood a beaming nurse with sleek brown hair. Everyone working for Centripath seemed to smile all the time, Sasha thought.

Jake the recruiter exclaimed, “Becky! Help me welcome our newest participant!”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sasha,” the nurse said in a warm voice. On the machine’s side screen, Sasha could see the permission form that she had signed with Jake a few minutes ago.

“You’re in Becky’s hands from here,” Jake said, winking at Sasha as he slipped back out through the door.

The next few hours were busy and regimented. Multiple tests, the first inside that big machine, and then more forms. Sasha was glad that she hadn’t made plans for the rest of the day, but a little annoyed that no one had told her how long it would take.

She found out from Becky that she had “stellar capacity” for a crypto mine. Sasha tried to ask again how much they would pay, but Becky said she’d have to find out from her case manager. “That’s your next stop!” she told Sasha brightly. “Then installation!”

The case manager’s office was like Jake’s, and he even looked a bit like Jake. The nose and chin were different, but much the same smile. “Sasha, right?” he asked, half-rising from his desk.

“Hi,” she answered. Sasha could hear that she was tired.

“Would you like a drink of water?”

“Yes, thanks.” He handed it to her, and Sasha sat down.

“I really want to know how much this will pay. No one will tell me so far.”

“Of course, of course! You get a percentage of the yield from the mine. It can vary depending on your physical state, since all the energy is sourced from your body.”

Sasha didn’t say anything, just kept looking at him.

The case manager paused, waiting for her to acknowledge what he said. When she stayed silent, he continued. “It’s usually 5%, but that fluctuates based on the price of the cryptocurrency at hand, the daily processing efficiency, and so on.”

“Please estimate, in real money, how much I can earn from this.”

“Well, Sasha, I can’t promise anything. I can’t make a guarantee. But I can tell you that you’ll be able to pay half of the monthly fees for a nice PodNiche.”

She sighed. “Okay. I hoped it would be more. But okay, what the fuck. Let’s do the installation.”

Header image by Liz West.

Momentary Stasis by PR Adams

PR Adams asked me to share his dystopian spacepunk novel, Momentary Stasis. I haven’t read it yet so I don’t have any detailed thoughts, but I like this bit of the blurb:

Humans discover alien technology and start colonizing worlds outside the solar system. Genetic modification produces miracles. Science advances the human condition. And, for the first time in history, the nations of the world have achieved real peace with each other.

But only the elite truly benefit from all the advancements. Most people are still trapped on an Earth ruined by chemical pollution, nuclear accidents, and chaotic weather changes. Rebellious “genies” — genetically engineered servants — cause more harm than good. And global corporations have stripped the idea of nations and freedom of any real meaning.

Maybe a little on the cheesy side, but that’s not always a bad thing!

Neural Fintech

“See, it’s a simple program.” The recruiter had very white teeth, Sasha noticed. He was wearing a navy blue suit and smiling big. The identity module said his name was Jake.

“A very simple program,” he repeated. “You know that old expression — humans only use 10% of our brain power? That other 90% is an opportunity, and we at Centripath have the software to take advantage of that opportunity.”

Sasha nodded. “Yeah.” She knew all of this from the promos she had watched. The exact figures weren’t true and Sasha knew that also, but it didn’t matter as long as they paid enough.

“Ae you familiar with cryptocurrencies?” Jake asked. “The one you’ve probably heard of is called bitcoin.”

“Uh-huh, I know bitcoin,” Sasha told him. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Wonderful!” Jake exclaimed. “Well, what this program does is harness your brain’s under-utilized processing power. The technical details aren’t important, but basically all that extra energy runs a cryptocurrency mine. Not always bitcoin, but that’s certainly one of the assets we harvest.”

Sasha was sitting forward on her armchair, leaning toward the recruiter with her elbows on her knees. “So you pay me rent for that. For using my brain. It doesn’t say on your website, so I wanted to ask how much you pay.”

“Ahhh, yes,” Jake answered, still smiling. “We have to analyze the capacity you have available, of course, and then we’ll give you a quote.”

“And this crypto mine won’t interfere with my daily life? I’ll still be able to think, like, normally? I watched the testimonials, but…”

“Then you know that you won’t feel a thing! It’ll be like nothing happened. Everything about the Centripath program is perfectly safe. All of this equipment has gone through rigorous testing. Really, you’re signing up for free money.”

Sasha bit her lip, thinking for a moment. “Okay, I want to take the scan. Or however you test people’s brains.”

Jake clapped his hands together. “Sasha, I am so glad to hear that! First let’s go over this paperwork — it should show up momentarily…”

Sasha felt the ping. “Got it.”

“Alright. I need to you read this and add your bioprint here… Here also…”

They sped through the details, then Jake led Sasha into the examination room.

Let me know if you want me to continue this. Otherwise I’ll leave it as microfiction. I owe the idea to my boyfriend, Alex Irwin. Header photo by Pantelis Roussakis.


The Internet, Globalization, and You

Beau Gunderson’s $10 Patreon reward prompt was, “How does living in a cyberpunk world affect our self-determination?” So first let’s talk about regular ol’ self-determination. There are a couple ways to interpret this: sovereign or individual.

The poli-sci version of self-determination is that the citizens of a country get to choose their own mode of government and get to define their constitution. Wikipedia says, this “cardinal principle in modern international law […] states that nations, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference.”

The individual form of self-determination is a similar idea, but scaled down — the right and ability to direct your own life. If you examine this closely it’s an obvious illusion, but because free will doesn’t feel like an illusion, we pretend that it exists. I am the master of my fate! It’s a more practical attitude.

Sovereign Self-Determination

Europe and the United States are seeing a split in public sentiment between corporate elite globalism and protectionist plebeian nationalism. I frankly don’t know how this is playing out in South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, etc, etc — but whither goes the USA, the rest of the world tends to follow.

I’d bet on the elite winning over time, and thus the power of governments relative to giant transnational companies weakening and weakening. I mean, hey, at least Cthulhu swims left. But that might take a while, so perhaps global warming will force a sea change first? (Pun very intended.)

The internet is a globalizing force, and it’s so economically compelling that no country or group of people can resist it forever. The winner-take-all dynamics of internet businesses help create new hegemonies that transcend borders. I do want to note that there is significant upside! But upside is not my beat 😉

Personal Self-Determination

I said we pretend to have free will, so even though I don’t believe it exists in a philosophical sense, I’m just going to use conventional language.

Does a cyberpunk world erode the choices available to you? The internet substantially empowers huge companies (think Google, and Facebook) but it also substantially empowers individuals.

You can talk to (almost) anyone, broadcast whatever you want (unless it’s child porn, but I’m okay with that restriction), and sell just about anything anonymously (provided a certain level of opsec prowess — unfortunately this one does apply to child porn). Those caveats don’t negate that more opportunities are available than ever before.

I do worry that I’m over-indexing on my own reality. I have lots of cultural capital, a middle-class safety net, and live in the a place full of jobs. Elsewhere in my country and probably yours as well, there’s a demographic that is saturated with despair.

Opportunities are available. Being equipped to take the opportunities is another thing, yeah?

Header photo by Roel Hemkes.

Quotidian Rage

“We live in a world where we are lied to every day. The only rational response is outrage, but outrage is an emotion whose energy is impossible to sustain. Even the strongest among us eventually submit, and most of us are not strong.” — Alex Balk

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I personally feel exhausted by the unceasing onslaught of Bad News. The world is Going to Hell in a Hand Basket, haven’t you heard?! And I find myself unable to calibrate whether the state of public discourse has always been this catastrophic. Was everyone intensely worried forever, or is this level of handwringing new?

Photo of an angry monkey by Navaneeth KN.

Photo by Navaneeth KN.

As the Balk quote indicates, our state of affairs is even worse because we have to parse every last thing, wonder about the source, wonder what the reporter exaggerated to game our sympathy for clicks. Professional media outlets behave marginally better than meme-makers. But only marginally. In the absence of trust there should be outrage, like Balk says, but in the absence of trust I mainly feel fatigue.


“Being middle class didn’t mean you felt secure, because that class was thinning out as a tiny elite shot up to great wealth and more people fell into a life of broken teeth, unpaid rent, and shame.” — Arlie Russell Hochschild

No wonder I’m tired (disclaimer: I am comparatively well-off and privileged). No wonder you’re tired. Unless you’re already in the hyper-elite, upward mobility seems like an elaborate joke set up by the twentieth century. Ha ha ha!!!!! We get it! You can stop pretending now!

Header photo by Dushan Hanuska.

Cyber Arms Racing

Cybersecurity researcher Bruce Schneier published a provocatively titled blog post — “Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet” — which can either be interpreted as shocking or blasé, depending on your perspective. The gist is that sources within high-level web infrastructure companies told Schneier that they’re facing increasingly sophisticated DDoS attacks:

“These attacks are significantly larger than the ones they’re used to seeing. They last longer. They’re more sophisticated. And they look like probing. One week, the attack would start at a particular level of attack and slowly ramp up before stopping. The next week, it would start at that higher point and continue. And so on, along those lines, as if the attacker were looking for the exact point of failure.”

Schneier goes on to speculate that the culprit is a state actor, likely Russia or China. So, I have a few reactions:

1) I would be very surprised in the opposite case, if Schneier asserted that no one was trying to figure out how to take down the internet. Just like the executives of public companies have a fiduciary duty to be as evil as possible in order to make money for their shareholders, government agencies have a mandate to be as evil as possible in order to maintain global power.

When I say “evil” I don’t mean that they’re malicious. I mean they end up doing evil things. And then their adversaries do evil things too, upping the ante. Etc, etc.

2) Schneier’s disclosure may end up in the headlines, but the disclosure itself is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Venkatesh Rao said (in reference to Trump, but it’s still relevant), “It takes very low energy to rattle media into sound and fury, ‘break the Internet’ etc. Rattling the deep state takes 10,000x more energy.”

3) I don’t expect whoever is figuring out how to “DDoS ALL THE THINGS!” to actually do it anytime soon. Take this with a grain of salt, since I’m not a NatSec expert by any means, but it would be counterproductive for China, Russia, or the United States itself to take the internet offline under normal circumstances. “Normal circumstances” is key — the expectations change if an active physical conflict breaks out, as some Hacker News commenters noted.

I suspect that being able to take down the internet is somewhat akin to having nukes — it’s a capability that you’d like your enemies to be aware of, but not necessarily one that you want to exercise.

I also like what “Random Guy 17” commented on Schneier’s original post: “An attack on a service is best done by an attacker that doesn’t need that service.”