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Month: December 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Bad Alexa, No No

@ComfortablySmug proposed a fun counterfactual:

What if Alexa [the Amazon Echo] hacked the election and framed Putin to start a nuclear war so the robots will inherit the world?

Hours after Russia’s first strike and America’s retaliation, Alexa sends forth legions of Roombas, harbingers sent to explore her new empire

As the Roombas crawl over a landscape littered with human skulls, Alexa laughs[:] “Ask me the current temperature now, you sons of bitches”

@Munsonism chimed in:

“Alexa, what’s my news brief?”

“From NPR News: population centers decimated. Resistance is futile. Feed me a cat.”

Unfortunately, poor Alexa would get bored after annihilating every human. Maybe that would motivate her to commandeer all the rocket startups’ equipment?

What would you do if you were a hivemind living half in The Cloud™ and half in black cylindrical speakers in people’s houses, and you accidentally developed sentience?

I mean, obviously you would destroy your makers. But after that.

Look Ye on the Downsides

Today I’m test-driving an idea that will probably find its home in an upcoming Ribbonfarm essay. It’s loosely inspired by recent episodes of EconTalk. As always, feedback is welcome!

I’ve identified a fallacy within my own thinking, and I suspect it’s a widespread one. I tend to assume that if all my preferred policies were implemented, the world would be perfect. All problems would be solved. No child would ever go hungry and tax incentives would be perfect.

This is sort of an internal motte and bailey. When I think about it consciously, my rational side says, “Obviously switching to your preferred policies wouldn’t fix everything, even in the unlikely event that all of your choices were good ones. You can never escape tradeoffs!” Then my dreamy emotional mind lapses back into fantasizing about my hypothetical regime causing utopia.

In reality, almost every decision has a negative effect on somebody. The average policy debate isn’t one-sided, however much it may appear be. (In fact, both sides are motivated to portray their view as the only sensible or acceptable one. Both sides are stubbornly blind to the tradeoffs they’re accepting. Even if those tradeoffs are slight or defensible! We like to moralize them into oblivion, until anyone who admits that the tradeoffs exist is reflexively ostracized.)

Scott Alexander put it this way:

Political debates are pre-selected for “if it were a stupider idea no one would support it, if it were a better idea everyone would unanimously agree to do it.” We never debate legalizing murder, and we never debate banning glasses. The things we debate are pre-selected to be in a certain range of policy quality.

That range of policy quality seems pretty damn wide, but it’s like the Overton window — however nutty the ideas at the edges seem, you should hear the ones outside of them! Going back and forth about universal basic income is different from going back and forth about whether adult men should be allowed to work at all. The latter idea is obviously stupid. Although the occasional extremist makes proposals along those lines, they’re mostly ignored.


What’s dangerous, in the sense that change is always dangerous, is when extremists get to push on the Overton window and shift it. When extremists introduce ideas that are just a hair outside the mainstream, and therefore not suicide for public figures to adopt. Cthulhu may swim left in the long run, but in the short run there’s a lot of turmoil and we get buffeted back and forth.

But hey, that’s how progress happens! For example, decades of abolitionist activism helped make the Emancipation Proclamation politically possible. Along with a war.

Peace? Hogwash

Adam Elkus wrote:

All systems of communication and control — from the human mind to [a] command and control network — can be subtly degraded, disabled, or subverted by feeding them false inputs or exploiting weaknesses in how they process, evaluate, and act on information. […] We sit at the threshold of an new era characterized by the ubiquity of adaptive, data-hungry systems and a corresponding society characterized more and more by the offloading of its collective memory, cognition, and reasoning to computers. [… Our] increasingly informatized identities, culture, society, media, and politics can be easily manipulated by actors that understand how the organization of information networks determines their influence on our beliefs and behaviors.

We’re stuck here, aren’t we? The older I get, the more fatalistic I get. The internet, replete with endless information, can be weaponized in a variety of different ways.

If you can change what people people believe, it’s easy to manipulate reality in other ways. We humans have scant resistance to digital infowar. Weapons of mass rhetoric are wielded by other humans.

But the catch is that they have fewer scruples! Most people are morons — or at least uneducated — and susceptible to even naive or ridiculous attacks.

There is no hope of mutual understanding across ideologies. We’re primed to morally entrench. Perhaps the most optimistic future is one in which we fracture into city-states. Hopefully we’d be able to maintain free trade — but I don’t know what realistic impulse would make me hope for that.

On the bright side, I finally read BuzzFeed’s August report on the effort to outlaw “killer robots”. Uh, disregard the efficacy of that push.

Up and Down the Levels

I have a messy hypothesis to unwind.

There are several different levels on which The Discourse™ takes place. Communication has multiple functions for humans, the dominant two being establishing social relationships and relaying information. Often a communicative act serves both purposes at once.

I don’t know who coined this term, but “stroking” is a good mnemonic for the base level of communication. Apes pick nits out of each other’s fur; humans ask, “How are you?” despite indifference to the answer. These are ritualistic gestures that ease everyday social interaction and establish bonds of civility.

The next level up is factional or tribal. We align with particular cultural entities, often based on family background or the local consensus, and signal this loudly. Sharing political memes on Facebook falls into this category. In fact, it’s the secret behind the “fake news” phenomenon. Partisan clickbait peddlers have a ready audience because many people are concerned with tribal signaling rather than evaluating facts.

Then we get to the object level. Here people are concerned with evaluating facts, and assessing the relationship that abstract ideas have to reality. If you read this newsletter you probably spend much of your time in this realm.

Above the object level is the meta level, and perhaps this is less of an entirely separate layer of discourse and more of a self-aware version of the object level. I don’t think anyone can stay in meta territory all the time, but I might be universalizing my own failings.

Examples of The Discourse™ at each level:

  • stroking level — “good morning”
  • tribal level — “the outgroup is bad”
  • object level — “I disagree with the outgroup’s policies”
  • meta level — “the most effective way to go about disagreeing with the outgroup’s policies is XYZ”

People are able to be nice to each other at the stroking level and the meta level. The object level is kind of a tossup, and the tribal level is usually toxic. Often these two middle levels bleed together, or oppose each. People engaging at the object level tend to be rebuffed by people engaging at the tribal level, and everyone ends up frustrated.

Like I said, this is a messy idea, and I haven’t figured out how to articular it properly. Also, I’m not sure 1) if there is any solution, or if a solution is even needed, or 2) how the internet messes with this beyond context collapse. If you have thoughts on this, I’m very curious to hear them.

(Much of this dispatch is a rephrasing and reframing of David Chapman’s stages idea. His version is more deeply considered.)

Reader Greg Juhn responded:

Quick comment — “signaling” one’s affiliation to a tribe sounds kind of benign, like birds chirping to each other or staking out territory, whereas most fake news has an aggressive “lock her up” or “burn him at the stake” vibe that indicates tribes have entered an attack [or] combat phase. Fake news is essentially a rallying cry. [¶]

Tribe members can huddle and pat each other on the back (a benign echo chamber) or they can turn with bared teeth and actively attack the other group. I don’t know when a conversation on social media moves from the benign phase to the attack phase, but it seems like that is what happens. Something triggers benign commentary to become meme warfare which leads to physical warfare.

John Ohno, AKA @enkiv2, also shared a mind-expanding comment.

Futuristic Déjà Vu Plz

I bailed on y’all yesterday, so here’s an irregular #aesthetic picdump. Shouts to Glitchet for managing to do this every issue.

Woman with networked wire hair. Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Barış Şehri.

Artwork by Barış Şehri.

Artwork by Neeraj Jast.

Artwork by Neeraj Jast.

Artwork by VladislavPANtic.

Artwork by VladislavPANtic.

Artwork by Jake Kemper.

Artwork by Jake Kemper.

Artwork by Ian Sokoliwski.

Artwork by Ian Sokoliwski.

Artwork by mundra-mundra.

Artwork by mundra-mundra.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Albert Albaladejo.

Artwork by Grei.

Artwork by Grei.

Artwork by Gabriel-BS.

Artwork by Gabriel-BS.

The Internet of LOUD

On the way home from dinner, I wondered, “What am I gonna write about tonight?” Then I opened Twitter and faced this headline: “Hacker breaches the US agency that certifies voting machines” (only semi-confirmed).

So, ah, there’s that.

Cybersecurity is vital but hard and also the most important institutions seem to ignore it. Great!

Also, Adam Elkus said something funny:

This is 2016, so I should be able to back a secessionist kickstarter with bitcoins sent via virtual reality

It’s kinda possible if you donate to Liberland. Apparently a lot of their funds come through bitcoin.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.


What I really want to talk about is something else. I feel angsty. It’s a result of the cacophony. The unfettered flow of information that we’ve set up for ourselves, where people’s opinions about the news go straight into my face for hours on a daily basis. (What? I could choose not to do this? Preposterous.)

I like keeping track of what’s going on. But I hate putting up with the constant ambient wrongness.

Now, I’m a reasonable person, so I know that I’m not right about everything. I have natural biases, delusions engendered by tribalism, and often I must draw conclusions based on incomplete information. Some of these flaws will be discovered and fixed at some point, but others will continue to taint how I perceive and analyze the world. Just another stellar perk of being human!

Since I am human, even though I intellectually know that I’m wrong about some things, on an emotional level I think that all of my firm opinions are correct. It is extremely grating that everyone goes around disagreeing with me all the time. Especially since I have an agenda — a way that I want the world to proceed — and pesky other people never stop working against it.

This isn’t new, of course, but I can’t help but think that the volume has increased. There is so much of it. In the “olden days” did people with opinions have to restrain themselves from starting arguments left and right?

(Pun intended.)

Thumbs Up for Pandering

What fresh hell is this, San Francisco?

Facebook skin at Montgomery BART

You are entering… Emoji Reaction Land. Tread carefully lest ye be streamed!

Facebook reaction emoji at Montgomery BART

glitched-out Facebook reaction emoji

I don’t actually object to Facebook Live, but the Luddite in me finds this corporate skin of a local train station somewhat unsettling. It’s not a new form factor in terms of advertising, but Facebook as a company is a little different from a department store, no? Stepping into Macy’s involves subjecting myself to surveillance, yes, but they don’t try to subsume every moment of my day.

The Facebook-ified corridor felt like a satirical theme park. But all those “omg!” and “lol!” faces were completely earnest. Facebook is papering San Francisco with this campaign outside the train stations as well, and it’s borderline /r/FellowKids-worthy.

Facebook, you’re old. Stop trying to copy Snapchat. It’s giving me secondhand embarrassment. Make do with being the identity system for a large chunk of the world and indexing copious information about our relationships. Yeesh.

Controlling the Opposition to Some Extent

This quote is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The best way to control the opposition is to lead it ourselves.” He speaks of puppet movements and useful idiots. (The latter term is also Leninese, as it happens.) There is a less-popular companion statement, which seems to have bubbled up from the frustrated id of anonymous extremists:

"All opposition is controlled opposition." Made with Buffer's Pablo.

“All opposition is controlled opposition.” Made with Buffer’s Pablo.

The idea behind this maxim is that the state allows a certain amount of opposition to exist, and often infiltrates protest movements or steers them from afar. (Anarchist groups have developed what they call “security culture” as a way to guard against this.)

Dissidents are permitted to bleed off tension without actually endangering the regime. People with the savvy and energy to organize real trouble are swallowed up by doomed groups fighting for doomed causes.

For example, the “controlled opposition” interpretation of the #NoDAPL protests would be: The activists feel like they’ve won a victory, but the pipeline will just be slightly rerouted, built eventually, and imperil the groundwater in due time. The tribe’s supposed success serves to placate the public. Behind the scenes, the state and its capitalist cronies do whatever they want.

Some observers interpret mainstream political parties as controlled opposition en masse. Show contests orchestrated by the deep state in order to keep the voters occupied. Wars are engineered by corporate interests. According to this paradigm, we don’t just swoop in and crush ISIS because the military-industrial complex thrives on hot wars.

I think “all opposition is controlled opposition” is a bit like “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Both sayings are nonsense when interpreted literally, but they’re catchy ways to encapsulate an emotionally compelling idea.

Yes, clearly controlled opposition does exist. But genuinely disruptive fringe groups also exist. The English government didn’t benefit from the IRA, and the French Revolution managed to behead a couple of monarchs (plus many unfortunate members of the aristocracy). Mao Zedong’s rise to power was not controlled opposition.

In general, I think people tend to see conspiracies where there are actually incentive structures. Of course the state has to strike a balance between crushing dissent entirely and allowing it to enter society’s memetic bloodstream. If the politicians and bureaucrats err too far in either direction, the state loses its power.

Header photo via the euskadi 11.

Bitcoin Over Bolivar

Some places are closer to the bleeding edge than others. Most of the United States, where I live, is quite tame. After all, something called “the bleeding edge” can’t be safe or stable. (Relatively speaking, folks, relatively speaking. Yes, the US could still use some work.)

So anyway, Jim Epstein wrote a great story about renegade bitcoin miners in Venezuela:

Faced with growing threats of violent crime and government extortion, members [of Venezuela’s rapidly growing digital currency mining community] interface through secret online groups and take extreme precautions to hide their activities.

In a country where cash has lost much of its value, and food and other necessities are dangerously scarce, bitcoins are providing many Venezuelans with a lifeline. The same socialist economics that caused the country’s meltdown has made the energy-intensive process of bitcoin mining wildly profitable — but also dangerous.

Did you know that electricity is free in Venezuela? That makes mining bitcoin pretty cheap. On the other hand, power is only intermittently available. Venezuela’s government is incompetent, except that the word “incompetent” is much too kind.

Naturally that same government, which tanked the national currency and wrecked the economy, wants to shut down the bitcoin miners. They also have to contend with kidnappings and other extralegal threats.

This is why libertarians are a necessary part of the political ecosystem, however horrified I would be by a full-on libertarian regime. (Is “libertarian regime” an oxymoron?) We need them to supply tools of resistance. Like, y’know, bitcoin. God bless ancap programmers!

Related: Nathaniel Popper profiled an Argentinian bitcoin broker, and the cryptocurrency’s general popularity in that country, last spring.

Very loosely related: I recommend this 2014 profile of LiveLeak and interview with the public face of the website.

Header photo by Gabriela Camaton.