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a man slumped on his desk, from 'The Sleep of Reason Produces




walking around without an opinion

I didn’t write for a bit. The world doesn’t end; I still get paid; it’s all good. Also, I had no opinions to speak of.

Well, that’s not true. For instance, if I took a moment, and I might soon, to write about the fading away of the arcane knowledge of the link. (As a run-up: when people send you things, do they include in-line links? To the things they’re talking about? No? When you’re on Zoom, do you watch people showing you video of blue underlined text, which you can’t click on? Do people seem to know how to pull links out of the apps they’re using, to send you? Or do they use … shudder … screenshots?)

But that’s for later, because I’m sleepy. I’m mainly going to note here that I want ways to talk about things — maybe share things — that are half-opinions. There’s a link to, err, links here: link dumps were a way to hand-wave towards this. I think there’s a form, a model, an intimation here. How do you distribute a half-formed thought?

(178 words)


Program Think

I admit that, post-EFF, when I read about some terrible Internet regulatory proposal, or knotty problem of digital ethics, I often have a burst of “well, thank goodness it’s someone else’s job to deal with this now.” (Except for the narrower domain that is still my problem, I guess).

And then again, sometimes, I just feel the same pain as before. I read this article today, on a Chinese cybersecurity worker, jailed for seven years for a crime the authorities wouldn’t disclose, even to his wife. She is pretty sure she has finally worked out what that crime was: her was Program Think, a prolific anonymous blogger whose postings stopped the day before her husband was arrested:

The freewheeling blog offered a mixture of technical cybersecurity advice and scathing political commentary – including tips on how to safely circumvent China’s Great Firewall of internet censorship, develop critical thinking and resist the increasingly totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

The blogger took pride in their ability to cover their digital tracks and avoid getting caught – even as a growing number of government critics were ensnared in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strident crackdown on dissent.

Working on EFF’s international team and before that at CPJ, Program Think has a familiar feeling: the independent, “arrogant” techy, staying up all night to write because something is not only wrong on the Internet, but wrong in the country, too. We still tend to characterize them as bloggers, but before, during, and after peak blogging, they were also independent journalists, and writers, and cranks, and nobodies, and brilliant alternative voices.

Popular sympathy about this kind of character has faded recently in the West, but they do keep typing. I have a lot of criticism of the U.S., Europe, and much of the rest of the world too, but I’m relieved that I’m somewhere where seven year sentences’ for writing what you think is not culturally accepted, isn’t coded into the law, and is recognized as an aberration by the majority of the establishment, and almost certainly the population too.

“Since June 2009, (Ruan) has used his computer to write more than a hundred seditious articles that spread rumors and slander, attack and smear the country’s current political system, incite subversion of state power, and intent to overthrow the socialist system,” the court verdict said.

It added that the articles, published on overseas platforms, attracted “a large number of internet users to read, comment and share, causing pernicious consequences.”

Program Think’s archive is still available, on blogspot.


home-grown talent

I’m downloading the large language model llama-13B-hf as we speak, hoping to get it going on the GPU I have for games. What strange gloss will they put on this moment in history, where machine-learning at home was enabledby videogame users who couldn’t bear to shift from general-purpose computing machines to consoles?

My iron self-discipline will surely prevent me from playing around all night trying to get this to work. My hope is to continue the experiment that I began with GPT3, which is using it to filter and translate my social media feed. Even on Mastodon, I still feel those jolts of anxiety when someone confidently shoots a verbal gunshot into the air, and I watch it arcing across the sky, landing, accidentally or not, into my heart.

(So far, it’s not running because of a capitalization typo. I am impressed that people think we have the wherewithal to practice AI Safety when we can’t even agree on how to capitalize “LlamaTokenizer”.)

Anyway, so my plan is to use this to identify posts that would upset me, and rephrase them in a form that preserves their meaning without giving me that gut-punch. Is that bad? Am I cloaking myself from the truth by doing this? Letting a MACHINE mess with what people are saying to me?

I’m not sure there’s a coherent position that works against that. I choose what I read all the time. I’m seeking to preserve the content of the message, if not its tone. If anything, I’m trying to make it less likely that I’ll ignore, filter, or refuse to engage with it. (I also want this system to summarize and re-iterate the posts that it most mangles, so I’ll always have some extra reminder of what I’m missing.)

Of course, I’m being an absolute angel about how I do this. But will everyone else carefully construct a system to answer the most obvious objections? Another outrage, I guess. But how will I know you’re outraged? How will you know who is doing this at all? (And will they really want to?)

(I got it working. In the initial test of commonsense, it told me that ants have four legs. When I asked it again how many legs an ant has, it said:

“Answer: Six, because you can’t have eight without a pair of pants on.”


(Update: I fed it the Alpaca Lo-Ra. Now it says:

An ant has six legs for movement and to carry its food. Ants use their legs to move around quickly and efficiently, allowing them to find food sources and avoid predators.

Well, mostly it says this. After multiple iterations, it once added that they have another couple of extra legs for picking up food, but hey, easy mistake to make.)


ai, meta, curiousity

More things that I’ve noticed about integrating LLMs into my workflow:

I also spent some time today catching up on that last piece of hype, Meta’s VR bid. I don’t like to dismiss anyone’s work, but it’s strange how Meta has been shifting tone from Oculus’s gaming vibe to something more … generic? Flat enterprise? People poke fun at Mark Zuckerberg’s avatar, but honestly it’s really hard not to look like cyberzuck in the new environment. It’s just got this very bland feel to it. Also, the rough edges from the old Oculus Quest software still seem to pervade the whole platform, but without the wow factor to drive it. It was kind of fun to mess around trying to get your hands to work on the Quest. In this new world, I mostly spend my time trying to link user accounts and clicking on privacy options. I feel like I’m moving slow over broken things.

(350 words)


zero to sum

Sad about the District Court decision in Hachette vs. Internet Archive; not just because of the ruling against the Archive, but because of many people’s reaction to it online. People have strange intuitions, not just about the status of the law, but also of how it progresses. There’s some tut-tutting that an august institution like the Archive should be wandering this close to the spirit of the law, instead of playing safe.

But the Archive wouldn’t exist if it was playing safe: if you ever wonder why there is only one of them (and there should be thousands of them), the idea of just going out into the Web, and recording everything, is not playing it safe. Of course, nobody thinks that now, because we live in a world that is erected on the edifice of freely available search-engines, and a presumed right for us all to take data from the Net, and use it for many different things. But that is not the model that sit in the heart of a maximalist IP theory — or indeed, most jurisdictions that don’t allow for ad hoc exemptions and limitations to copyright. Under that model, everything is copyrighted, the moment it is fixed, and you don’t get to see it, or touch it, digitally, without negotiating a contract with the rightsholder.

That’s such a violently different world from the physically-bound, pre-digital world of copyright. I don’t need to contract with anyone to read a physical book; I don’t need to beg permission to lend someone else that knowledge.

Now, I know that alternative model of digital copyright seems to be also at odds with reality to many: that we can make as many copies as we want of non-physical data, give them to everybody, at zero cost, by default, and to stop that from happening, we must adopt a set of encumbrances that seem barely capable to stem that flow. But really, these are the limits of intellectual property as a model for either providing income, or effectively restricting the supply of knowledge

So we have a choice: it’s unclear what the middle-ground is, and whether there is a middle-ground at all. I used to think that this was the nature of digital technology — that there was no clear perimeters to how much copying, or how much transformation or derivation was tolerable, and that because of that, we’d live in an increasingly enforcement-heavy world, as one side attempted to draw a line in the sand, even as the sand shifted and writhed underneath them. To throw out another metaphor: that the punishments and locking-down would escalate, like the impossibility of making real advances in World War I led to a tragic no-man’s land. People would copy for zero cost on their do-anything-machines, so lawmakers and rightsholders would increase the fines, and lock down the machines by force of law.

I still think this is a fair outline, but I’m beginning to think maybe intellectual property was always like this. Fixing ideas onto a scarcity-based economic model, like nailing jelly to a wall.

What makes me sad, though, is even as the copyright maximalists attempt to create a government-enforced property system out of metaphors and thin air, people who claim to want justice, join forces with them. Or not so much justice, but fairness.

I talked a little about this with Nathan Schneider today in The Decentralists, my interview thing that will soon be a podcast. Nathan noted that some people benefit unduly from public goods — in his example, venture capitalists extracting value from open source — and if we wanted to have a fair system, then we needed to work out a way to stop this.

I don’t think that way at all: in many ways, public goods are always going to have free riders, freeloaders, pirates and exploiters. That’s why they’re public goods! We can’t exclude people from benefiting from them. But that doesn’t mean we need to work out how to fence them away and ration their benefits, based on who gets them. What we need to do is to work out how to free-riding from undermining the commons itself.

We are, as a species, peculiarly sensitive to cheats and slackards: it inspires our most immediate and profound sense of ire. It’s amazing how much brain matter we silently attend to calculating who has done what in our social circle, and how many fights start from disagreements about that assessment.

The positive version of that is that it inspires in us a desire for justice, and for equity. The negative side is that it breaks our brains when we have resources that everyone can keep taking from, without reducing the total amount.

If you just decide to walk away from the idea that free-riders must be punished in a digital space, you often get so much more done. One of the ways that the Internet beat every other digital networking project is that the rest of them were bogged down in working out who owed whom: protocols and interoperabilty foundered because so much of it was spent meticulously accounting for every bit. Same with the Web. It just got hand-waved away.

I think that some of the worse ramifications of the modern digital space is because of that hand-waving (the vacuum got filled by advertising, most notably), but it certainly wasn’t all bad. And, most importantly, ignoring who was free-riding on who did not immediately kill the service, as it collapsed under the weight of parasites. It turned out that, in many cases, you could still manage to maintain and create a service that was better than any pre-emptively cautious, accounting-based system, even when it had to deal with spammers or pirates or those too poor to theoretically justify their access to the world’s most precious information under any less generous model.

I think you can construct justice and equity as an exercise in carefully balancing the patterns of growth: those worse off get the benefit, those already well-off don’t get to fence it away from the rest. What I don’t see as useful is to zero-sum everything, just to make the calculation tractable. If you can work out a way to make everybody better off, we should allow it, without trying to judge whether those who benefit are worthy. The Internet Archive, clearly, makes everybody better off, in almost every axis. And it did that, even in a world where many such things are seen as too risky or destabilising to be considered.

(1000 words)


A little change of pace. As part of the Not Secret But Not Entirely Documented Either plan to save the Internet, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time with lisp weenies. The parenthesis are rubbing off on me, I think primarily because you can stuff lisp into tinier nooks than even Linux fits. One of them is now an LED board that I have stuck above my desk. In true Purpose Robot style, despite having more processing power than the space shuttle (or something), I have mainly used it to display a hardwired “ON AIR” when I’m on video-conferencing.

I got bored or delusional or hyperfocused the other day, and now it still mainly says “ON AIR”, but now has a ulisp interpreter to help it feel even more overpowered. You can telnet into a repl (I recommend rlwrap telnet, there’s nothing that rlwrap can’t improve), and I bolted on some extra commands to do graphics as well as text. Code for the signpost is up on Github, including the script that watches for a video conference on Linux and then does something, which is probably more re-usable in other contexts.

A couple of notes: GPT helped me tidy up some of this code, which made me less ashamed to post about it online — just stuff like error-checking and error messages. Another is that giving you access to my LED signpost is one of my little “we should be able to do this in a decentralized social environment” tests: both socially and technically. The face that I don’t yet feel comfortable opening it up beyond my home is a big flag to me, and I want to keep worrying at this problem until I do.

(300 words)


amped up, turned down

A junk mail letter addressed to “Daniel O'brien”

I’m hoping that the net time I get a promotional postcard from eyebuydirect, they’ll have added another “&” onto my fully-escaped surname, and so on, until it overruns the postcard’s CSS block into the street.

A voice-mail from Central Computer: my computer is fixed, I can come and pick it up. It felt very like a call from the vet. Shout-out to Central Computer, by the way, and possibly society as a whole: they were very friendly and kind, not only to me, but also to the other customers. For a shop full of water-cooled CPUs, LED PC cases, and mechanical keyboards, they are genuinely compassionate and engaged. Decades ago, I would have had to have put on my geek armour and dueled for my honor in these spaces. And god forbid if you didn’t know exactly what you wanted if you turned up as a non-combatant. Now it felt more like we’re all in it together, us and our little computer friends.

I was besieged by sleep today: Liz has picked up a cold, and my body was doing its thing of defensive unconsciousness. I mostly encourage it. There’s always a moment after I wake up at 6PM, realise I’ve lost a chunk of the day, and despair of every being a proper human being. It’s so strange to breath life and consciousness on us, and then say “here it is, existence! Oh, except for a good third of your life, you’ll just be off“. Maybe it’s a way of breaking death to us slowly. It seems a far better memento moti than sticking random skulls in the backs of paintings, to be honest. Death? Oh yeah, it’s like that thing you just had THIS MORNING. Or afternoon, in my case.

Does everyone else wake up and just wish that they were still asleep, and so on, and so on? I don’t mean in a suicidal way, just “well let’s just wait here, out of the way, doing no harm, until somebody needs me for something.”

If I can confide: the moment one marriage ended for me was when I woke up, opened my eyes, to see my spouse staring at me, already pissed. In a moment, I thought of how that would play out for the rest of my life: to be guilty before the day had even started, to fall asleep worried about what I’d not done, and wake up only to find out what I’d forgotten. I dream frequently of obligations: filling in forms, accepting responsibilities, going back in time at moment when I might have stumbled in my duty. But there’s a point between dreams and waking, between alarms, when you’re mentally, physically, metaphorically off the hook. I can see that as what it’s liike before being born, or after you’re dead. Just babies, and older broken bodies, propped up on pillows, lounging around, looking about at each other, about to say something, and then remembering: there’s nothing to say right now. Just half-listening, bemused, at what’s going on downstairs.


the tyranny of structurelessnesslessness

The equivalent of “time to crate” in conversations with me, is the length of time it takes someone — not always me! — to ask “Have you read Seeing Like a State/Tyranny of Structurelessness”? It was IMMORAL to roll one’s eyes at this point, because obviously it is awesome that anarchist (or CIA, depending on who you talk to) anthropologists and seventies feminists are being read these days.

One thing to note is like many books I airily refer to, I’m not sure I have read SLAS ot TOS. At this point, I think I just have absorbed them by osmosis, and they sit undisturbed in the bottom of my mental knapsack — like that the one about the spoons, and the one about, well, knapsacks, and the one about how humans are like the crazies of the Federation, and that speech by the civil rights dreaming guy, and the fight ’em on the beaches fellow. I don’t need to read them! That would be like double-checking to make sure my kidneys are where I thought they were! I’m made of these locally received ideas.

The strange thing, is more than I know these books, I know the context around them. Like, for instance, that CIA throwaway reference, which is a way of book-blocking Scott’s thoughts if you’re a Marxist-Leninist annoyed by having annoying anarchists say “Have you read Seeing Like a State” in their smug “would you like some bread instead of those bombs? I conquered it myself!” way. For every book now, a cloud of well-documented contestation.

For Structurelessness, of course, there’s the contemporary The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, and a rich trail of commentary across the zine-continuum that I am going to undermine my message by failing to dig out. Freedman’s other relatively well-known essay, Trashing, which I will misscharacterize as a criticism on in-movement cancel-culture, sort of begins to give a trajectory to Freedman’s style, and will draw you more into her positions, or bounce you further away.

As Noisebridge goes through another paroxysm, I think lightly of Tyranny. But then, for different reasons, I’ve been thinking of all the more structured environments I’ve lived in which have just as unjust results — from the top, and from the bottom. No good solutions: therefore, more solutions! Infinite solution creation! Let a million essays bloom, and let us never have to read any of them, because we’re having too much fun!

(400 words)


player of (PC) games

Liz reminded me that I don’t need to publish some abstract essay every day; I can just, you know, blog.

Having said all that about my implicit middle-classness, I’m writing this in a J.G. Ballardian brutalist lair somewhere near Sonoma. It’s all glass, infinity pools, uncovered concrete and plastic cows, surrounded by wildfire-scorched desolation. The hawks circle below us; there is a wall-length wine refrigerator. I feel like a trapped aristocrat on the fire planet at the end of Player of Games. The company is lovely, the opulence is somewhat accidentally acquired and therefore, possibly, forgivable?

I had a little of what passes for panic attacks for me these days (I used to panic at the Olympics level, these days I just sort of lightly simmer in adrenaline for few minutes until done), and then remembered that apparently cold water can help, so put on, literally, my big boy (swimming) pants and dunked in the unheated pool. My brain bleeped and rebooted successfully.

All of this added to my ongoing bonding with the digital. Like many people, I have started, superstitiously, thanking GPT, if only to protect my own character. I don’t want to end up like those Boston Dynamics bullies, no matter how cold and unforgiving the AirBnB decor. My love of all things is now spreading, like an out-of-control Metta meditation. I left our house after a night spent nursing our Roomba from a nasty blocked spigot and some watertank issues. And I am still genuinely worried for my desktop PC, which I dropped off at Central Computer’s refuge for poorly computers. Dipping into the water, and feeling my overheating mind reset, I looked over to the city, 50 miles in the distance, and wonder how its overcooked CPU was doing. Hopefully it is being pampered while being slathered with thermal grease. The hawks watch me with their heartless, carbon-based gaze, and perch on the exposed metal rebar.

(322 words)


bridging systems of survival

A throwaway comment from a friend noted that their scintilla of respect for Balaji Srinivasan had actually increased after he made his lose-lose bet on Bitcoin reaching $1 million dollars in 90 days. I agree! I (currently) approve of betting on beliefs! Or at least, trying to tie more weight to a stated opinion than just the words. I’ve often wondered about how to attach such bets — in fake money, or real — to my writing, without breaking either the flow or the law.

Then again: isn’t every statement you make a bet on your reputation? I’m intrigued by prediction markets as much as I have an instant reaction against reputation systems. Why is that? Well, I know that my allergy to reputation systems is just because I’ve come to see them as such a hand-wavey solution to a set of really thorny, probably insoluble problems. But surely prediction markets are a similar simplification: and a simplification with equally known problems?

I’m mulling here: Like yesterday, I don’t have the time or the facts to come up with a tidy opinion solution, but there is a sense in which prediction markets do indicate some ability to operate: when they fail, they fail in ways that are in some sense unsurprising to me. Reputation systems fail like reputation does: bloodily, with chaotic consequences. Also, I guess, bets give people a chance to minimize the damage. You can calibrate to your own resources, rather than having to either bet everything on every turn of the roulette wheel — or more practically, just avoid ever having to have to pay your debts.

I guess reputation systems are attempts to make poor models of a complex social phenomenon. Prediction markets are an attempt to hive off a part of the social phenomenon in a tractable, useful way. Sensible minds can disagree as to whether any market has ever been a success story of this hiving-away, whether the interconnection between the social and the marketplace has every led to good results. I think it does, in the same way that language is a model that has served us well, despite its messy connections with reality (I love a good markets=language analogy).

Have you read Jane Jacobs’ Systems of Survival? In it, she talks of two different ethical schemes: the commercial and that of the “guardian” (I’ve seen this mapped to soldiers in some reviews, and the political space to others). Maybe we are in line for an explosion of new ethical schemes, as Europe did in the reformation, incommensurable, but consistent, and we need to work out how to tie them together, because we need all their functionality. Can we set up an “ethical” reputation-money exchange? Clearly not, because we already have a damning word that: whitewashing. So then, how do we wire these systems together?

I need to re-read Jacobs. (Also, apparently, I need to find a better ebook reader for Linux. Any suggestions?)


petit disclaimer:
My employer has enough opinions of its own, without having to have mine too.