November 02013

So ends the month of November.

21 posts in 30 days. Wrote about UpWing/DownWing thought, networks (as a form of human organization), proceduralization of decisions, and a little bit more on the Dark Enlightenment, among some other smaller one-shot posts.

I experimented with different ways of writing, compiling notes from my own private online discussions (which was low-cost but ultimately not of the quality I wanted), writing shorter/more frequent posts (enjoyable, workable), and the old longform posts (probably the most satisfying to write but maybe not worth it at my usual post frequency).

At ~22,400 words, I still technically fell short of NaNoWriMo’s “write a 50,000 word novel in a month” challenge, which I wasn’t seriously considering anyway, so there. It’s also about 10% less than last month, even though it’s the same number of posts. My average post was a reasonable 1200 words. I expect that in the coming month, these metrics will decrease a bit more, even though I still have plenty of stuff to say/regurgitate.

 

 

Reviewing Five Week Plan II

  • Take more walks. Maybe establish a small workout routine. This time for real. It will get much colder soon. [I did it! Consistently!]
  • Be a grownup this Christmas. Get gifts for more people, you’re not a hermit. [This is really a December goal. Who buys gifts any earlier?]
  • Work on my Cantonese. I really ought to have more defined goals so I can’t write them off later. [Failed mightily.]
  • Plow through at least a one more language on Codecademy. [Javascript, not quite finished though]
  • Read some more fiction. Biographies count, because all biographies are sort of fiction anyway.
  • Coursera: Financial Accounting; Video Games and Learning, 21st Century American Foreign Policy. [still ongoing]
  • Want more money outside of work. Haven’t won anything in a while. Provide a plan to make at least $1000 additional (outside of work payment) by 2014: This turned out to be very easy, I’ve already done it. Here is my backwards-looking two-step method to make a thousand dollars in three weeks:
    1. Buy Bitcoin

    2. Pray feverishly 
    Boom! Instant wealth. How sickening. 
  • I saw some interesting Khan Academy videos, including some on BitCoin, which I’ve known of for a while but lacked the sophistication to tell (or know who to trust) on whether or not it’s a sucker’s game or what. I want to improve my financial literacy in general, reading one book on investing (The Young Person’s Guide), and taking a course on personal and business finance. It’s something adults should know about (right?!) [I did read/learn/play with Bitcoin. I deeply distrust the stuff but I am also a risk-seeking opportunist.]
  • Buy an arduino set by Christmas.

Five Week Plan III

  • Be a grownup this Christmas. Get gifts for more people.
  • Work on my Cantonese. [Although I’d prefer to learn Mandarin?]
  • Learn Unity.
  • Build and start my DevBlog.
  • Test a podcast recording/editing.
  • Determine whether to go/no-go on my digital magazine idea.
  • Read some more fiction. Biographies count, because all biographies are sort of fiction anyway.
  • Re-up on Coursera? Probably not until next year.
  • Provide a plan to make at least $1000 additional (outside of work payment) for December.
  • Buy an arduino set by my birthday (I’m done purchasing fun-things this year, after Glass).

In-Flight Notes II

Packing to go down to Atlanta for Thanksgiving.

 

I.

Soon, I’m gonna finally reduce my writing frequency here as I start new projects. The norm might return to 2 posts/week.

I’m going to launch a second blog on this site specifically for logging project development/production, coming soon. The kinds of stuff I’m working on: some game development, maybe a podcast (on game studies) with some old friends, possibly an online magazine, and some quieter/more serious stuff.

This week, I’m starting Essences and Surfaces and The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Next week I’m reading more on John Boyd. After that, I’m starting to clear a little space to read/write about game studies, which I suspect will align well with the kinds of stuff I write about here, anyway.

 

II.

I shot the bull about animal cognition a few weeks ago.

Octopus movement: (via Daniel Estrada on Google+)

In one of the most intriguing early results, Levy tracked individual suckers across consecutive video frames, and reported a lack of any mathematical relationship between the lengths of the octopuses’ arms, their velocities and their accelerations. Instead of the rhythmic alternations of limb movements that most other animals use, octopuses seem to marshal eight largely independent appendages.

Neuroscientist Binyamin Hochner, the project’s principal investigator, says the results suggest that the octopus brain sends out high-level, goal-oriented commands, but leaves the details of movement execution to neurons in each of the arms — which together contain about two-thirds of the animal’s 500 million neurons.

The Genius of Dogs (via John Hagel on Facebook)

There are many definitions of intelligence competing for attention in popular culture. But the definition that has guided my research and that applies throughout the book is a very simple one. The genius of dogs — of all animals, for that matter, including humans — has two criteria:

  1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species.

  2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences.

 

III.

This is a topic I have an aesthetic aversion to (not a disagreement, just a discomfort), but this essay was grounded and accessible: Distress of the Privileged (via Jordan Peacock). “Supremacy” is a great phrasing, and one I’ll use in the future when this kind of stuff comes up.

As the culture evolves, people who benefitted from the old ways invariably see themselves as victims of change. The world used to fit them like a glove, but it no longer does. Increasingly, they find themselves in unfamiliar situations that feel unfair or even unsafe. Their concerns used to take center stage, but now they must compete with the formerly invisible concerns of others.

If you are one of the newly-visible others, this all sounds whiny compared to the problems you face every day. It’s tempting to blast through such privileged resistance with anger and insult.

Tempting, but also, I think, a mistake. The privileged are still privileged enough to foment a counter-revolution, if their frustrated sense of entitlement hardens.

So I think it’s worthwhile to spend a minute or two looking at the world from George Parker’s point of view: He’s a good 1950s TV father. He never set out to be the bad guy. He never meant to stifle his wife’s humanity or enforce a dull conformity on his kids. Nobody ever asked him whether the world should be black-and-white; it just was.

George never demanded a privileged role, he just uncritically accepted the role society assigned him and played it to the best of his ability. And now suddenly that society isn’t working for the people he loves, and they’re blaming him.

It seems so unfair. He doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy. He just wants dinner.

 

IV.

Pope Francis, though.

Pope Francis is once again shaking things up in the Catholic Church. On Tuesday, he issued his first “apostolic exhortation,” declaring a new enemy for the Catholic Church: modern capitalism. “Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” he wrote. “This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

He couldn’t be much clearer. The pope has taken a firm political stance against right-leaning, pro-free market economic policies, and his condemnation appears to be largely pointed at Europe and the United States. His explicit reference to “trickle-down” economic policies—the hallmark of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and their political successors—is just the beginning: Throughout 224 pages on the future of the Church, he condemns income inequality, “the culture of prosperity,” and “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

Taken in the context of the last half-century of Roman Catholicism, this is a radical move. Fifty years ago, around the time of the Second Vatican Council, Church leaders quietly declared a very different economic enemy: communism. But Pope Francis’s communitarian, populist message shows just how far the Church has shifted in five decades—and how thoroughly capitalism has displaced communism as a monolithic political philosophy.

 

V.

I scraped some quotes I’ve posted elsewhere over the year. Sorry if you consider this to be a lazy post. I have a job, you know. Obligations and such. And it’s Thanksgiving week.

 

Misc.

“A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.” –Neal Stephenson

“I wanna be so important that everybody either understand me, or are terrified of admitting that they don’t.” –Peter Sagal, in interview with Marc Maron

 

On Magic

Daniel Dennett (reading a passage from Lee Seigel’s Net of Magic)

“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers. “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.

Alan Moore:

There is some confusion as to what magic actually is. I think this can be cleared up if you just look at the very earliest descriptions of magic. Magic in its earliest form is often referred to as “the art”.  I believe this is completely literal.  I believe that magic is art and that art, whether it be writing, music, sculpture, or any other form is literally magic.  Art is, like magic, the science of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to achieve changes in consciousness.  The very language about magic seems to be talking as much about writing or art as it is about supernatural events.  A grimmoir for example, the book of spells is simply a fancy way of saying grammar.  Indeed, to cast a spell, is simply to spell, to manipulate words, to change people’s consciousness.   And I believe that this is why an artist or writer is the closest thing in the contemporary world that you are likely to see to a Shaman.

I believe that all culture must have arisen from cult.  Originally, all of the faucets of our culture, whether they be in the arts or sciences were the province of the Shaman.  The fact that in present times, this magical power has degenerated to the level of cheap entertainment and manipulation, is, I think a tragedy.  At the moment the people who are using Shamanism and magic to shape our culture are advertisers.   Rather than try to wake people up, their Shamanism is used as an opiate to tranquilize people, to make people more manipulable.  Their magic box of television, and by their magic words, their jingles can cause everyone in the country to be thinking the same words and have the same banal thoughts all at exactly the same moment.

In all of magic there is an incredibly large linguistic component.  The Bardic tradition of magic would place a bard as being much higher and more fearsome than a magician.  A magician might curse you.  That might make your hands lay funny or you might have a child born with a club foot.  If a Bard were to place not a curse upon you, but a satire, then that could destroy you.  If it was a clever satire, it might not just destroy you in the eyes of your associates; it would destroy you in the eyes of your family.  It would destroy you in your own eyes.  And if it was a finely worded and clever satire that might survive and be remembered for decades, even centuries.  Then years after you were dead people still might be reading it and laughing at you and your wretchedness and your absurdity.  Writers and people who had command of words were respected and feared as people who manipulated magic.  In latter times I think that artists and writers have allowed themselves to be sold down the river.  They have accepted the prevailing belief that art and writing are merely forms of entertainment.  They’re not seen as transformative forces that can change a human being; that can change a society.  They are seen as simple entertainment; things with which we can fill 20 minutes, half an hour, while we’re waiting to die.  It’s not the job of the artist to give the audience what the audience wants.  If the audience knew what they needed, then they wouldn’t be the audience.  They would be the artists.  It is the job of artists to give the audience what they need.

 

Science Fiction

William Gibson:

If you’d gone to a publisher in 1981 with a proposal for a science-fiction novel that consisted of a really clear and simple description of the world today, they’d have read your proposal and said, Well, it’s impossible. This is ridiculous. This doesn’t even make any sense.Fossil fuels have been discovered to be destabilizing the planet’s climate, with possibly drastic consequences. There’s an epidemic, highly contagious, lethal sexual disease that destroys the human immune system, raging virtually uncontrolled throughout much of Africa. New York has been attacked by Islamist fundamentalists, who have destroyed the two tallest buildings in the city, and the United States in response has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. By the time you were telling about the Internet, they’d be showing you the door. It’s just too much science fiction.

Paul Krugman:

Actually, this reminds me of an essay I read a long time ago about Soviet science fiction. The author — if anyone remembers where this came from — noted that most science fiction is about one of two thoughts: “if only”, or “if this goes on”. Both were subversive, from the Soviet point of view: the first implied that things could be better, the second that there was something wrong with the way things are. So stories had to be written about “if only this goes on”, extolling the wonders of being wonderful Soviets.And now that’s happening in America.

Charlie Stross:

The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress. This, if anything, is the ideological bedrock underlying “ideas” [Science Fiction] — that Things Can Get Better. Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance. The very concept that we are actually discovering how the universe works, and improving our lives, was a revolutionary rupture with the past — and one that took a long time to sprout any kind of literary or artistic shoots.

 

My Life with Games

I. 

I hate the word “gamer”.

I don’t particularly like the idea of a “gamer culture” either, because it draws a circle around a small subset of games and a small, unrepresentative group that plays them and says, “these are what games strive to be, and these people are the essence of folks who play games”. The average gamer is 30, and has played games for roughly 13 years. 45% of gamers are female. 36% of gamers play on their smartphone.

Buying a Sony console is a tradition for the men in my family. My father bought me a Playstation when I was very young. When I was ten or eleven, I saved up gift money to buy a Playstation 2. My younger brother bought the family’s Playstation 3, seven years later.

Many Saturdays, my brother and I were up at 7am for a half-day’s slog through some given platformer. For the first years I’d play and he’d watch, to be honest. We’ve since flipped places. We played the Tekken franchise to death (Tekken 2 was my first console game). Nintendo and X-box culture had to be absorbed by visiting friends’ houses. Ultimately my brother bought a Wii, but by then my console gaming era had ended.

Gaming was a social event. There was no stigma to it. Going to someone’s house and shooting the holy hell out of each other would fill the time until we got the whole crew together and decided what we were ultimately going to waste the day doing. And we did other things. We played soccer. We went bowling. Eventually, we drank.

In the early 2000’s we had an old Dell desktop, a machine that hid its monstrous full form behind this wooden desk with cabinets, fitted into a corner of the room. I loved Real-Time Strategy games. Age of Empires and Sim City kept me up into strange hours. Much later, in college, I would seek out those games again. Other than some multiplayer fun on Steam, I wouldn’t really play much during college. I tried my hand at StarCraft 2 and found that I sucked. Same with DotA 2. I still dabble with them.

Back in those early years, maybe a decade ago, my neighbor and I would read up on who the new characters would be in the next Super Smash Bros. Okay, that actually is really nerdy, isn’t it.

There were games of the non-electronic variety. At home, Monopoly would bring us together (and tear us apart). In high school, my friends and I would get together for insane evening-long sessions of RISK, which would ultimately become lengthy debates and diplomacy (except for that one guy who just wanted to destroy). We’d play Cards Against Humanity, too.

Not that I didn’t spent a lot of time outside, too- back then, my parents would kick us out, not as punishment but just because. A basketball and some chalk would yield games of foursquare. We’d go exploring through the many conjoined backyards (our neighborhood was gigantic). There were street wars with airsoft guns. There were totally made-up games. I was the oldest in my cul-de-sac, so I ran things. I made the games.

 

II. 

I learned HTML in fifth grade, with a book (!) from the library (!!). I wrote a text adventure, with links sending the player to different webpages, modeled after those Goosebumps “Choose Your Own Adventure” titles.

During sixth grade, I downloaded a copy of early game-authoring system Gamemaker. I soon made my first original 2-D platformer, called “Wheelchair Crisis”. The protagonist was in a wheelchair because I couldn’t draw a walk cycle. He could jump, though. All sprites were drawings I made in paint. I made dozens of levels. Sometimes it was suddenly two-player. There were helicopter-flying levels. It was a mess.

I made demo discs of my games to sell. All the classics: Wheelchair Crisis. A shooting game called Seagull Battalion (yes the projectiles were poop). A never-to-be-finished adventure game.

The desktop that housed these games crashed. Now that first wave of games exist in memory and presumably in a couple of dozen unmarked CD-Rs. It’s unlikely to still be on my middle school’s network.

I became a moderator in a Gamemaker community. I learned to script properly, instead of using the drag-and-drop features. I played with other authoring systems, including 3-D ones. Sometimes I won things. I put it them on my college applications.

 

III.

I went to Carnegie Mellon with the intention to learn about decision support systems and games. I thought it was a good match, because of the people and work that had been done there: the legacy of Herbert Simon,  the futurist and game developer Jesse Schell, the CAPTCHA developer and “Games with a Purpose” producer Luis von Ahn, for example.

I met some folks who lived in my dorm, while walking back from the local game developing club. That night we made a game together in just a few hours, and if you don’t mind me saying so it looked damn good. 

We ended up making a lot of games together. We entered competitions and sometimes won. We went to game jams and crunched arcade games out left and right. But none of us actually wanted to be in the industry. That sort of put us at odds with our peers. We didn’t really play many commercial games at this phase, either. It was more the joy of making. Most of our work isn’t even consistently uploaded anywhere. Still, we grew into a small collective.

We were interested in using games in weird ways (some of us for different reasons). Some of my co-developers became my roommates. We made games and prototypes for clients. We won some competitions. We made games for crowds during an electronic music concert. We read philosophy on games, and dug into research literature. We won research grants separately and together on the topic. Game studies was a young field.There was a lot of low-hanging fruit to explore.

Ultimately, although I considered it, I didn’t stay in school beyond my BS, because I thought I saw an opportunity to really see businesses in action, to see how things actually fit and how game-design sensibility might improve things in large organizations. So I graduated early and went to work.

“Serious Games” and “Gamification” were taking off as ideas. And, honestly, I expected (and still expect) a period of disillusionment, where some of the early over-promising poisons the concepts for a little while. But then there’d be some interesting opportunities in all of that wreckage.

I’m exploring some game-related opportunities with some of my former college friends. I expect that I’ll find myself talking more about games, philosophy, and games studies in the future.

Legitimacy

About a month ago, I wrote this: “Power finds a narrative to justify itself. Humans are naturally social, and so tribes are to humans as ant hills are to ants. Institutions are not called forth by supernatural means- they propagate themselves naturally through coercion, utility, or the appearance of utility. Often a mix of the three. This is not a value judgment.”

I meant to expand on it, but local events pushed my writing in a different direction for a while. Even here, I go slightly off the rails a bit, but it’s time to post and move on.

 

Quoth the Archdruid:

Karen Armstrong starts by claiming that “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions,” which is quite simply not true. All religions? There are many in which compassion falls in the middling or minor rank of virtues, and quite a few that don’t value compassion at all. All ethical traditions? Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, widely considered the most influential work on ethics in the Western tradition, doesn’t even mention the concept, and many other ancient, medieval, and modern ethical systems give it less than central billing. All spiritual traditions? That vague and mightily misused word “spirituality” stands for a great many things, many of which have nothing to do with compassion or any other moral virtue.”

No, ideologies are not necessarily about human flourishing. Not at all. The only thing an ideology is in favor of for certain, is the propagation of itself. This might be easier if the “host” does not die as a rule, but sometimes it does mean that the host perform risky behavior to be noticed, or to evangelize, or to strengthen bonds with others who have also selected to perform the behavior. Good strategy for an ideology is ultimately focused on the population, not the single specimen.

[source]: Analogizing to physics, maybe legitimacy is more like the dark matter of political development, a substance we cannot observe but whose existence we can infer from the otherwise strange behavior of human particles in visible political systems.

The problem with that analogy is that the theoretical models we have of social systems are nowhere near as well-developed and specific as the ones physicists have used to infer the existence of dark matter. […]

Likewise, technology may be the dark matter of economic thought. Political Theory professor Xavier Marquez makes the legitimacy/technology argument here:

Technology is here the “Solow residual:” all the different mechanisms by which economic growth occurs that are not accounted for by simple measures of labor and capital utilization. But there are many such mechanisms! Education, changes in political institutions and property rights, the invention of new machines and business methods, new forms of economic organization, changes in social roles, norms, and culture, etc. all can contribute to economic growth beyond increases in labor supply and capital accumulation; but only some of these mechanisms correspond to what we normally think about when we say “technology,” and forgetting this is likely to lead to incorrect inferences. Moreover, we do not actually know which of these mechanisms is the most important in general, and hence which government policies would be most likely to increase growth.

And likewise, he and others argue, with “legitimacy”.

At best, I could define political legitimacy as “acceptance of a power’s rationalization of ts own persistence”. This is incomplete, though. There must clearly be many kinds or mechanisms of legitimacy.

Speculation

The idea of legitimacy is apparently relational, and is apparently related to the consent of the governed and the consistency of the governing. But for most of history, and in most places, the governed don’t have a choice individually, and will be punished severely for questioning the legitimacy of a power. Across all of history, social contract claim to power is empirically every bit as legitimate as the divine right claim to power. Clearly, I (and most Westerners) prefer the values signaled by one of these justifications than the other. But that wasn’t always true, was it. The Archdruid demonstrated above how values can be wildly different over time. In some sense, though, it must matter what a power says about itself, right?

Common values and a sense of ideological/social order may be necessary for inter-tribal peace. Whatever power can instill that sense is “legitimate”. That doesn’t solve the puzzle though.

The Chinese Communist Party and the Vatican are both examples that should clearly illustrate the usefulness of “legitimacy” as a concept, and what’s left to be desired: Both have ‘sacred’ texts and tenets whose utility are the alleged basis of the two organization’s legitimacy. This orthodoxy is too important to edit on a whim, because being able to freely distort the orthodoxy closes the power loop (“these papers are our backbone, they give us power” <–> “we write and edit the papers at will”) and lays bare the emptiness of their claim of consistency to whatever principles or rituals are supposed to give the ruled their promised prosperity or blessedness or what-have-you. Instead, the Party employs apologetic, carefully argued rationalizations that explain away changes in policy in evolutionary terms. The Organization’s sacred tenets and the current leadership’s reading of the history of the tenet’s applications will appear to inform whatever course they decide to make- slowly. Are they still obviously different entities with different views today than thirty years ago? Clearly. By what mechanisms did they actually maintain legitimacy? Is it a purely narrative phenomenon? Other social creatures settle on orders based on strength or trust. Is the concept of “legitimacy” valid with them, or does legitimacy involve language? Is legitimacy just something that happens to explain and reinforce some local stability?

 

Alien Views of Legitimacy

On Aztec Political Thought:

We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,”

[…]

Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).

Even More Mulling: Themes, Readings, and Bacteria

I. The Apparent Direction of My Writing

The Fogbanking Blog, an only-vaguely-planned expression of my day-to-day thoughts on my reading, revolves around my interest in building things that consciously change behavior. I’ve posted notes and summaries about alternative historiographies, convergent evolution, games, design, organizational behavior, culture, apologetics, and philosophy with that same broad theme: the artificial is a subset of the natural. Social reality is built right on top of physical reality and is just as important to the human mind. Humans are reasoning but not necessarily rational creatures (for good reason- it’s expensive to be deliberative all of the time), and we are empathetic and tribal. Heuristics, mythologies, interfaces, and institutions exist to reduce human cognitive processing cost, and are mostly a good in that they improve our productivity, productivity that sometimes leads to improved living standards.

 

II. Deep Play

Earlier this week, Aeon magazine posted a new article by Venkatesh Rao: Deep Play. The article talks about ecosystems, institutions, and scenius. Highly recommended. The Mars/Africa question is the kind of Diamandis/Gates divide I mentioned a couple of weeks ago when I was writing about UpWingers (they’re both UpWingers). I’d like to read more into scenius.

 

III. Endosymbiosis

Scenius makes me think about microorganisms. It sort of makes sense, doesn’t it?

One of my favorite ideas that I learned in the last few years was the concept of the “microbiome” [Alt: much shorter articlewikipedia.]

Neuronal Lineage: Daniel Dennett claimed that neurons have a lineage as single-celled organisms independent of humans for over a billion years. He was explaining how unlike other organs in the body, the brain is a mass of constant “coopetition” between neurons for influence (putting a little more literalness on the parliamentary metaphor). It was in this video, a long lecture/discussion on the mind. As usual, Dennett had some really illuminating analogies ready that make me pretty jealous to be honest.

Mitochondrial lineage: It’s a bit more well-known that mitochondria, the “power plant” organelle in our cells, evolved from independent creatures and still harbor its own distinct set of DNA. (This mDNA is exclusively matrilineal- children only get their mother’s mDNA.) SAR11, one of our mitochondria’s evolutionary cousins, is possibly one of the most abundant microorganisms on Earth, covering our ocean’s surfaces (and providing plenty of interaction for a relationship to form between them and other organisms).

 

IV. Why Weird Politics

Why not read weird politics?

The bipolar dialectic in American Politics constrains certain political possibilities. In campaigns, opposition seems to define even more than advocacy does. Between Left and Right, there is common grounding and understanding of what the issues even are, even if the two sides use different vocabularies. There’s also the idea of ‘the moderate’, which is a bit semantically confusing. Is a moderate one who holds some proportion of beliefs from the two tribes? Or is it about intensity of belief? Nobody really knows or cares. In the general elections everyone is more moderate than thou. All political talk incorporates bipolar tribal affiliation that mirrors the obvious voting strategy of all Americans: if you consider yourself to the right of the Right, you vote for the Right.

The Neoreaction, though, is starkly different. They deny some of the common stories that help keep our personal political identity clear to us inside our tiny Overton Window. They reintroduce ideas we once had names and opinions about in alien ways that seem arguable (instead of insane and unworthy of consideration) in the given frame. They would not be able to answer questions about contemporary issues in sixty seconds during the debates, because the quiet assumptions of the mainstream beliefs are not invisible or agreed upon by the neoreactionary. It’s this quality, not an odd search for new policy beliefs, that I think is so interesting in reading foreign or uncommon political beliefs (so long as they’re articulated well- many political beliefs are uninteresting because they are senseless).

I want to reintroduce another [now defunct] blog’s stages of policy acceptance (mentioned here):

  • Unthinkable (the vast universe of physically possible but not coherent/conceivable options. An idea I’ve committed words to in the past)
  • Radical (Conceivable but not acceptable for considerations of feasibility, advocacy (no one is driving it forward) or social acceptance (‘morality’))
  • Acceptable (A coherent, socially acceptable option.)
  • Sensible (A commonly understood option, one with resources and advocacy)
  • Popular (An idea that the public feels that it knows and wants)
  • Policy (An option that is accepted and implemented.)

The idea of an Overton Window might also be applied to other behaviors, such as less-common mind-states (I’ll mention more about that below, with Julian Jaynes).

 

V. Future Reading

I’m going to start reading “Surfaces and Essences” late next week. I’m also going to start (at no doubt a slower pace) Julian Jaynes’ “The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, a book that has apparently influenced a lot of people I respect, and one that I didn’t even know about until I read these two posts.

After that, I’m going to start digging into Game Studies again. An opportunity I’m interested in is gaining speed, and it requires me to start reading up, so I’ll also take that opportunity to share some thoughts and summaries there, too, in a couple of weeks’ time.

 

VI. Misc. Links

Aeon Magazine has a films section now. Just watched the Future of Humanity Institute one.

I’m priming myself for the Jayne book by reading what Daniel Dennett saw in his argument. I’m doing this because Jayne’s book is older than me, and so I don’t expect to be blown away by cutting edge neuroscience. I’m reading it for a different purpose.

Drugs: Ribbonfarm’s The Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanded Mind, on drugs and minds. Same topic but with a mildly Moldbuggian twist from the Last Psychiatrist. Finally, a bit about fighting conceptions with crack addiction and agency from New York and Chicago.. These go well with the links in Part V.

I do wonder how many Senators have done hard drugs. Not that I could reasonably expect that to make a difference to their policies, which likely reflect what they think their districts want- it’s why I can’t really take that Florida congressman’s hypocrisy too personally.

Networks/Crowds

Machines are incredibly intelligent in many ways (I hope that’s not you mumbling at the use of ‘intelligent’ that way…), but in the universe of possible minds, it’s clear that the set of machine cognition only slightly overlaps with the set of human cognition. Ignoring concerns about energy use, there are problems that standard commercial computers solve vastly better than humans (better= more reliably, quicker), and there are problems where humans are still by far more effective than computers. Human-Based Computation (HCOMP) is an interesting field, and one that I do not foresee being overwhelmed by The Machines anytime soon. Crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, and crowdvoting are still in their infant phase, new tools that could enable a variety of interesting organizational forms. There are Wiki’s, enjoyed passively by the masses and generally maintained by a small, monastic sect of super-users in a backroom community (I might write some day about my months as an active Wikipedian). There are computer-mediated collaborations of various kinds. There are crowdsourced micro-work platforms such as Mechanical Turk. There’s the nascent field of Citizen Science, classically applied to astronomy, and more recently applied with phone apps (Quantified Self). There’s Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other platforms where volunteers support creative and engineering projects. There are “Games with a Purpose”, where players teach computers or fold proteins as they play.

There was once a wonderful site called Intrade.

Prediction markets like Intrade are also part of this Organization in the TIMN framework, called the Network. Users can inadvertently contribute to networks through their self-interest, informing predictive algorithms for Netflix or Amazon or Google.

Futarchy is perhaps an example of a pure form that may never be implemented at scale but is still an interesting and useful idea [manifesto here].

In many Bitcoin circles, the (old) idea of a Distributed Autonomous Corporation is sometimes excitedly introduced. (Ex. onetwo, three [pick one, they’re all the same and two of them are the same author]).

Not all decentralized organizations easily complement older organizational forms. Torrenting has long been a problem for digital contracts. Bitcoin is also not a controllable, centralizable construct. Silk Road and other black market platforms are enabled by anonymous exchange. Recently I’ve been reading about the realization of contract assassination markets (and the more interesting “prediction/assassination market“: killers can correctly predict the dates of death and receive winnings quietly.) It’s the emergence, 2-3 decades later, of science fiction unique to the 80’s and 90’s- speculation based on the emerging technologies of the day, in labs and in some subcultures. That length of time is roughly consistent with the incubation time for tablets and mice from corporate blue-sky projects to consumer-ready products.

Open Source Warfare

DownWinger John Robb believes that crises will continue and that recognizable middle-class life will collapse. Nation states around the world will decay from the inside, keeping the vestiges of legitimacy but becoming, in reality, hollow states. Alternative forms of organization, such as the narco-state in Mexico, will propagate.

Robb’s interest in resilient communities is very clearly related to his interest in the next generation of warfare on Global Guerrillas. Both the new guerrilla groups and his proposed new communities borrow tactics of the decentralized, networked organization. It’s a construct that Nassim Taleb would immediately recognize as antifragile. I haven’t written anything about Antifragile in this blog yet, but I would consider it another inductee into my list of canon works.

(Note: Robb has since left Resilient Communities and started a new blog, HomeFree America).

In what ways are Robb’s ideas in the Antifragile universe? Look at his Open Source Warfare (OSW) Standing Orders from 2009:

  1. Break Networks
  2. Grow Black Economies
  3. Virtualize your organization
  4. Repetition is more important than scale
  5. Coopetition
  6. Don’t fork the insurgency
  7. Minimalist rule sets work best
  8. Self-replicate
  9. Share everything that works
  10. Release Early and Often
  11. Co-opt, don’t own, basic services

Many of the orders involve a very evolutionary-sounding imperative: self-replicate your organization, release new innovations early and often, and realize that attack repetition is more important than attack scale. Instead of meticulously planning expensive one-off attacks, Robb’s warriors enable newcomers to be able to cheaply and remotely learn the skills, absorb the moral worldview, and assemble the tools to fly the flag of an organization he may never personally coordinate with. These guerillas quickly learn from each other’s successes and failures and replicate themselves and their processes. Their organizers keep rule sets as minimal as possible to keep flexibility. They “share everything that works”. They exist in physical and in virtual space. They feed off of the larger power they’re fighting, and they technically cooperate with other insurgents without ever necessarily coordinating, even if the other insurgents are ideologically at odds.

I don’t know exactly what to call these groups, but the decentralized organization as a concept has seen rich and interesting stories in the last decade or so, with Al Qaeda and Anonymous being symbols of mystery and pervasiveness, and open-source becoming an increasingly mainstream concept in the civilian, non-techie world.

Institutionalism I

The year I was born, Douglass North published a paper [pdf] in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, titled “Institutions”.

Institutions are the humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction. They consist of both informal constraints (sanctions, taboos, customs, traditions, and codes of conduct), and formal rules (constitutions, laws, property rights). Throughout history, institutions have been devised by human beings to create order and reduce uncertainty in exchange. Together with the standard constraints of economics they define the choice set and therefore determine transaction and production costs and hence the profitability and feasibility of engaging in economic activity. They evolve incrementally, connecting the past with the present and the future; history in consequence is largely a story of institutional evolution in which the historical performance of economies can only be understood as a part of a sequential story. Institutions provide the incentive structure of an economy; as that structure evolves, it shapes the direction of economic change towards growth, stagnation, or decline.

Douglass demarcates Institutions from the more tribal, specific, directed units called Organizations. In practice, I don’t know that these two ideas are easily separable.

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That Vision Thing

Writing process for this month: daily, write 100 words of notes or summaries. Flesh out over the weekend and in spurts during the week. Release a few of the more complete posts once per weekday until material empties.

 

A half-thought about running large things using vocabulary I’ve been flinging around.

 

Procedural decision patterns are not driven consciously, but are instead the result of either completely learned behaviors (and thus requires almost no attention) or completely externalized behaviors to the environment (and thus requires almost no attention).

leader is a person who changes procedural patterns in order to simplify decisions for others, by installing their principles and inclinations into people’s heads and/or into the environment. While a strong feedback loop to their tribe/institution and the outside world is good for creating smart mental models, leadership is fundamentally authoritative: the objective is to seed everything with a single broad mental model in order for the organization to be able to row in relative sync. Good leadership generates elegant (ie, cheap+useful) heuristics for decision making.

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Codification

On Ramit Sethi, the writer behind “I Will Teach You To Be Rich” (How’s that for a name?)

“[…] Willpower is a depleting resource. We should focus on setting up systems, automating behaviors we want to happen.”

Sethi’s self-help shtick involves getting twenty- and thirtysomethings—of whom he has 500,000 online followers—to put as much of their financial life on autopilot as possible, setting up automatic deductions for 401(k) plans, student-loan repayments, credit card bills. He even came up with a way to force himself to go to the gym.

Instead of cleaning up my physical space, I’ve been cleaning up my behavior a little bit (example: I now love Mint), proceduralizing things. Paperwork cripples me, so I set up as much automation as possible.

In this post, I’m try to sync the vocabularies and ideas of a couple of threads on this idea of behavioral proceduralization.

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