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Month: November 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Don’t Grudge What Changes

I thought most of this article was stupid, but here’s a statement that hit me:

[A] human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society.

Without our material inventions, we are doomed. Without our cultural inventions, we are endangered. At least! Society depends on cohesion. We must cluster and justify our clustering.

The real reason why this doesn’t matter, beyond our hearts: only acceptable justifications matter. “Acceptable” is a malleable thing.

“Technology” is a very broad term that we’ve narrowed down to “computers and software” for no reason except the zeitgeist; no reason except length of existence. So many tools; so much material. We’ve narrowed what counts as “technology” for no proper reason — none that I’m aware of, anyway.

Unless the reason is “ease of classification and control” — but perhaps that is always the reason.

Maybe it’s just because we become accustomed to the tech that already exists. Technically speaking, pun intended, anything manmade counts as technology. It’s very mundane.

Header photo by Nadya Peek.

Wanted: Rigorous Intuition

A significant part of San Francisco’s public transit system was hit by a cyberattack this weekend. It looks like ransomware, but the hackers haven’t actually asked for anything yet. SFMTA is currently just giving everybody free rides. Their email system was also impacted. Employees aren’t sure if payroll will go through properly.

lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I saw two different people tweet that this virtual hijacking is a sign: we live in a dystopian sci-fi novel after all! (What else is new…) Immediately, I thought of the essay that I linked in response to the election, “On Trying Not To Be Wrong”:

Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, the Secretary of State went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?


It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong. […] And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

Sarah Constantin is right. Reality marched on without those of us who misjudged it. Ironically, since I was so thoroughly deceived by 2016, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” feels pretty damn correct right now. All those ’80s authors who pioneered computer-noir were more prescient than they probably realized.

Philip K. Dick reality quote. Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Venkatesh Rao wrote about engaging with uncomfortable realities in a particularly good episode of Breaking Smart:

23/ This means accepting that your mind will need to go into both distressing and flow regimes as required by the situation, and accepting whatever emotions result.

24/ Perhaps the most important emotion to manage is that of feeling powerless. This causes acute distress and strong retreat-to-prowess urges.

25/ But you’re rarely entirely powerless. You can usually cobble together some meaningful, if clumsy, response to a situation with the skills you have.

26/ On the frontier, where there are no experts, and everybody is a beginner, this is often the only possible response. Unexplored nature is the ultimate asymmetrically superior adversary.


49/ The world is full of people and groups terrified of wandering beyond situations they are confident about handling. Those who make overcoming that terror a habit have an advantage.

50/ When a group of such people, with better-than-the-rest levels of emotional self-regulation, band together, they can form an unstoppable force. That’s what it takes for groups and organizations to break smart.

We can do it. Well, some of us. Which of us remains to be seen. Honestly, I am frightened that I may not be able to manage this.

It Shouldn’t Be Easy to Understand

Mathias Lafeldt writes about complex technical systems. For example, on finding root causes when something goes wrong:

One reason we tend to look for a single, simple cause of an outcome is because the failure is too complex to keep it in our head. Thus we oversimplify without really understanding the failure’s nature and then blame particular, local forces or events for outcomes.

I think this is a fractal insight. It applies to software, it applies to individual human decisions, and it applies to collective human decisions. We look for neat stories. We want to pinpoint one factor that explains everything. But the world doesn’t work that way. Almost nothing works that way.

In another essay, Lafeldt wrote, “Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.” Navigating life without heuristics is too hard, so we adapted. But using heuristics — or really any kind of abstraction — means losing some of the details. Or a lot of the details, depending on how far you abstract.

That said, here’s Alice Maz with an incisive explanation of why everything is imploding:

Automation is transforming bell curve to power law, hollowing out the middle class as only a minority can leverage their labor to an extreme degree. Cosmopolitan egalitarianism for the productive elite, nationalism and demagoguery for the masses. For what it’s worth, I consider this a Bad Outcome, but it is one of the least bad ones I have been able to come up with that is mid-term realistic.

Which corporation will be the first to issue passports?

Rushkoff argued that programming was the new literacy, and he was right, but the specifics of his argument get lost in the retelling. The way he saw it, this was the start of the third epoch, the preceding two ushered in by 1) the invention of writing, 2) the printing press.

Writing broke communal oral tradition and replaced it with record-keeping and authoritative narration by the literate minority to the masses. Only the few could produce texts, and the many depended on them to recite and interpret. This the frame (pre-V2 maybe) that Catholicism inhabits.

The printing press led to mass literacy. This is the frame of Protestantism: the idea is for each man to read and interpret for himself. But after a brief spate of widely-accessible press (remember Paine’s Common Sense? very dangerous!) access tightened up. Hence mass media as gatekeeper, arbiter of consensus reality.

The few report, and the many receive. Not that journalists were ever the elite, just as the Egyptian scribes. They were the priestly class, Weber’s “new middle”. (Also lawyers. Remember the backwoods lawyer? Used to be all you needed was the books and a good head. Before credentialism ate the field.)

The internet killed consensus reality. Now anyone can trivially disseminate arbitrary text. But the platforms on which those texts are seen are controlled by the new priests, line programmers, which determine how information flows. This is what critics of “the Facebook algorithm” et al are groping at. The many can create, but the few craft the landscape that hosts creation.

It’s still early. Remains to be seen if we can keep relatively open platforms (like Twitter circa 2010; open in the unimpeded sense). Or if the space narrows, new gatekeepers secure hold. But that will be determined by programmers. (Maybe lawmakers.) Rest along for the ride.

That’s all copy-pasted from Twitter and then lightly edited to be more readable in this format.

I included the opening quote about complex systems because although this neat narrative holds more truth than some others, it’s still a neat narrative. Don’t forget that. Reality is multi-textured.

Header photo by kev-shine.

Two Kinds of Fallibility

Over the weekend I read cryptographer Peter Todd’s fascinating account of helping get Zcash off the ground. (Zcash is an altcoin which describes itself thus: “If Bitcoin is like http for money, Zcash is https. Zcash offers total payment confidentiality, while still maintaining a decentralized network using a public blockchain.”)

Todd’s story is a great overview of practical opsec, from the point of view of someone who’s skeptical about the whole endeavor he’s undertaking. Plus all the evasion tactics and burner tech are just… cool.

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Slot Machines for Social Capital

In a Hacker News thread about gambling, I came across this comment by user noname123:

Like slot machines that pump random awards and chance into slot user, I feel the surge of social approval and dopamine rush too when I get a Reddit upvote, a Facebook Like, IG comment, Tumblr reblog etc.

Also like how gambling addicts get into a “zombie flow-state” when they’re one with the machine, I feel the same way scrolling through pages after pages of Hacker News/Reddit/NYTimes/ESPN/YouTube popular channels. The thrill is gone, but the mechanics of pulling the slots pulley is embedded in my brain, watching one more YouTube video of a political pundit railing about the election, one more reaction video about a Internet meme, sometimes even re-watching video’s like re-watching music lyrics video to relive the laughter, that feeling — and only in the middle of the video wondering how I got there, like sometimes driving to a destination other than your work office but your brain goes on autopilot and takes the other turn to your office; and you don’t realize it until you’re there.

Also like how casino’s are a very anonymous and comforting place to addicts, I feel very safe and comfortable in hanging out with like-minded individuals on online forums whom I only know a vague outline of, but whose weariness and anonymity like mine are just as addicted and plugged into the zombie human-machine interface; I feel intuned and comfortable with. Like the anti-social meme’s (“Ez game, Ez lyfe”) on online games, alt-right memes on some Subreddits (Pepe memes, Trump is a racist) and IT memes on HN (for Elon Musk’s new Tesla model, against Holmes’ Theranos, for Peter Thiel’s Fellowship, against Peter Thiel’s endorsements, employees vs. funders), I commiserate with the anger and rage; and the identification of these online communities, just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life; sometimes I feel I feel simultaneous the negative emotions and positive identifications on both sides of the argument.

I guess at least my addiction isn’t too bad given I’m only losing on my account balance of time and attention although that feeling of coming out of a six hours bender on the net trying to find the perfect co-working space in my city, debating through all the Yelp/CityData threads for the pro’s and con’s, feels eerily like coming out a casino sliding doors to bright sunlight at 8AM after a 18hr binge at the blackjack table; somehow in the back of your mind, you already accepted that you’ll be economically bankrupt in exchange for a chase for an emotional high — almost a spiritual transcendence, but somehow you wound up just feeling morally bankrupt.

I want to pull out one line in particular: “[I do it] just to feel like I am a part of something and also to direct my emotions to have some kind of drama & risk in my otherwise sterile electronic life”.

I recognize myself in that line, since I closely follow any conflict in the subcultures I pay attention to. Drama is intoxicating. I hate being part of social conflicts, but I’m a dedicated voyeur.

In a way I relate to all of noname123’s experience, since I spend a substantial portion of every day online. I work online. I have online hobbies. I compulsively check Twitter. Sometimes I open a new tab and start typing the address of the website that I just closed in the URL bar.

But it doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers this person. I wonder why that is. Because I have a partner? Because I don’t spend literally all of my waking hours at the computer? Because I have pets? Or is it just some kind of genetic temperament thing?

Certainly people with partners and pets are susceptible to addiction, so that’s probably not the significant variable. Besides, maybe noname123 is happily married with eight children. (I doubt that, but it’s possible.)

Personally, I do worry about my productivity. But I’m not sure how much more productive I’d be if my work were spatially separated from my play. Creative thinking requires a lot of rebound time, if you know what I mean, or at least it does for me. Ideas require time and stimulation to bubble up to the surface.

I know a lot of you work online too, in one capacity or another. Is this a problem for you? How do you deal with?

Header photo by jayneandd.

The Downsides of Femme Finance

Yesterday a friend showed me Ellevest, which bills itself as an investing service for women. Their tagline:

Ellevest tagline

Thank goodness! The scourge of mansplaining in automated investing will be vanquished!

I find this extremely disturbing, because it’s pure pandering. As far as I can tell, Ellevest is just a fee-charging software layer on top of a basket of Vanguard ETFs. The terms and conditions explain that Ellevest pulls their recommendations from Morningstar. I’m sure Ellevest itself does something, but I’m very skeptical of whether the something it does is valuable.

They claim on the homepage, “We’re not just ‘shrinking and pinking’ an old investment model. We’ve built a whole new approach.” No, you haven’t! You’re just Vanguard with better UX and cynical marketing!

Look, I’m a woman. I believe misogyny exists and I agree that it’s fucked up for finance to be overwhelmingly dominated by men. I consider myself a feminist. I could get behind an investing service that was ethically women-oriented, like a version of faith-based investing.

But that’s not what Ellevest is. Ellevest is normal investing with a ladylike veneer. (Notice all the curly fonts?) Sure, I bet they employ more women than the average fintech company. But they also exploit a historically disadvantaged group, one that’s low on financial literacy, in order to offer a return to their own VCs.

I’ve talked before about how I love the internet’s ability to serve every niche. This is not what I meant.

Ctrl Alt Hecate

Quick Intro Note

Election? What election? Ugh. I wrote down all my feelings and posted them on my personal website, so if you’re interested you can go read that. But this is not a politics newsletter, even though governmental shenanigans often end up being cyberpunk. For now, let’s change the subject. I mean, seriously, who isn’t ready to talk about ANYTHING else?

Copy-Pasted Toil and Trouble

Toby Shorin shared a set of “cyber mysticism” resources, through which I found STONEDALONE: “a collection of wearable 3d printed crystals imbued with cyber mystical properties”.

Photo from the STONEDALONE shop.

Photo from the STONEDALONE shop.

Photo from the STONEDALONE lookbook.

Photo from the STONEDALONE lookbook.

The only thing that’s explicitly ~cyber~ about the actual products is that they’re 3D-printed. Beyond that it’s all fuzzy aesthetic stuff. Which is not a criticism! It’s just an interesting facet (pun intended) of the project.

I can’t quite tell if STONEDALONE is tongue-in-cheek. It looks like vaporwave or pastel goth jewelry with a nifty marketing hook. For example, “the blue crystal simulates a sense of shavasana after a harrowing reddit session” — how is that anything but sly self-parody?

On the other hand, there are bizarre cyber witches out there who are 100% sincere. So you never know.

Both the look and the ethos of STONEDALONE heavily remind me of cybertwee, a digital femme collective that most notably sold cookies on the deep web. And cybertwee itself is a kawaii reinterpretation of VNS Matrix.

Performative femininity has always flourished on the web, but it seems to have gotten more self-conscious about it. Hmm.

Uh, Um

I don’t know why I feel the need to do this, since y’all haven’t noticed in the past when I’ve simply forgotten, but no dispatch tonight. (Unless this counts.) GUESS WHY.

Yeah, I’m displeased by the results of the election. I was never an HRC fan but I preferred her policies in every domain.

That said, I’m actually the most gutted by realizing that my perception of reality was so wrong. I said this on Twitter and I’ll say it here too — I was willing to bet money on Hillary Clinton the whole time and I would have rightfully lost that money.

So anyway, I need to process my epistemic failures before I can keep opining.

(inb4 someone replying to say that worrying about my perception of reality is selfish)

(it probably is but I don’t know how I can serve a world that I clearly don’t understand to the degree that I thought I did)

(brb updating my priors?)

Mania and Miscellania

Happy Election Day! (Sorry, international readers. It’s almost over.) Or you might be reading this on the day after. I’m writing in the morning, so I don’t know who won! Who is going to win, I mean. Unless time is all predetermined and someone has won but we just haven’t arrived there yet. Isn’t it tomorrow already in Australia? Ahem.

@WarrenIsDead on Twitter — 2 real though.

@WarrenIsDead on Twitter — 2 real though.

The upshot is that there’s no fucking way I can focus today. I’m going to point you at some other interesting things:

Video still of Sarah Meyohas at work.

Video still of Sarah Meyohas at work.

Matt Levine wrote about Sarah Meyohas — “the artist who placed trades in penny stocks, caused the prices to move, painted the price charts on canvas, and then sold the paintings to art collectors” — and linked to a video about the project (five minutes long). Meyohas’ work brings together technology, money, and art in a particularly sardonic way. You should also read Levine’s commentary! Just scroll down to the “Art.” subhed.

Another video! This one was described as “a cosmic astral travel love story” by the reader who sent it to me. The artist calls it “a mesmerizing video short where two soulmates are reunited in a multi-dimensional plane of existence.” Definitely not cyberpunk, but it’s beautiful! Warning, however: the visuals are NSFW.

And finally if you want to read something relevant to the election, try “Inside the Sacrifice Zone” by Nathaniel Rich. You will come away frustrated but it’s a smart essay.