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



Archive for the ‘Status: Extremely Tentative’ Category


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)


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?)


unclassy acts

I wonder how many socioeconomic classes I’ve really hopped? There’s definitely a version of my bio that let’s me sound rags to riches: Basildon (so déclassé even the rest of Essex looked down on it) to Oxford and a weird proximity to Tory grandees of the future, to Silicon Valley where I sat close on by as the mere millionaires of the 2000s self-inflated into Tessier-Ashpool decadence. But honestly, I was pretty middle-class through all of that. Other kids bullied me for my book learning and BBC accent in Basildon, I grew up mostly in bourgie Chelmsford, I was a grammar school kid at Oxford, and I was mostly in the journalism/non-profit complex in California. Like a stick of rock with “home counties” written right through it.

But I have got to spend a bunch of time with a fair spread of classes, even if it was mostly just dropping by their parties before going back to hide in the bedsit with my laptop. The main class development I’ve noticed during the journey was mostly external to it: people (culture? the dominant media?) were pretty forgiving of the rich (less so the gentry) in the neoliberal 90s. Then after 2008, the resentment of the differently-funded got more and more steep. I was noting with one of my most loyally socialist friends the other day how, nowadays, almost every article ends with a little condemnation of capitalism and the rich, like a perfunctory curlique sign-off, or Casey Kasem saying “and remember, keep your feet on the ground, and soon, soon, you will burn the blood-sucking parasites of the sybarite class as they cower trapped in their stolen mansions”.

Anyway, I guess one of the things I genuinely puzzle ablikeout is how much variance there is between people in each class. I notice a lot of people seem to presume rich people are cleverer; a lot of people also presume that they’re morally bankrupt. You can even — often — believe both: that rich people are sociopathic geniuses. And the reverse is true: that poor people are stupid, and default to ethical purity — except of course, when forced by privation to transgress some minor social rule or other.

I’ve read a couple of papers which claim to prove the richness = turpitude equation; they’re not super-convincing. One identified that the rich become less sympathetic to the poor. Okay. The poor get far less sympathetic to the rich too; people in foreign countries have some strange ideas about locals, and vice versa. It just seemed like an outgroup thing.

Anyway, my own observation is that, at least in terms of ethics and general intelligence, the curves seem to mostly stay the same as you jump up and down the economic ladder. Unethical rich people probably do more damage, simply because they have more power. Unethical poor people, on the other hand, will fuck you up directly, and are terrifying to somebody wimpy but verbal like me, in a way that a monied lizard is not. Is that because I’m a white guy? I don’t think so: again, I’ve met landied racists, but nothing matches being stuck on a nightbus for in-your-face violent prejudice.

Intelligence, is, of course, weirdly even more subjective contested as a value. As someone who came in with the standard prejudices, I am perpetually surprised at how dumb many of the rich are, mostly in a Tim Nice-But-Dim way. I was never surprised by the raw intelligence of members of the working class, because I grew up there. I’m pretty clever, but from an early age was pretty clear how far behind my academic prowess was from just people who could deal with reality faster, more flexibly, and with a quicker learning curve than me. I got out, and they were stuck, but that wasn’t due to intelligence so much as preference, and their comfort with how well they could handle what was in front of them, versus my discomfort in everything that wasn’t safely cushioned in abstraction and safety.

Let me go meta a little bit here: If you’re already disagreeing with me, I think you’re probably right, or at least, no less right than me. I’m knocking out a trite, and factually unfounded opinion piece here. I think it’s a rarely-stated and intriguing opinion, but only because I’m falling back to a wriggly contrarianism.

All I can say is: I too am a sinner. Even if I’d stitched in a few links that back up my point, it’s hardly better than the average Substack blather.

What I really yearn for online are more articles that aren’t like this. What I’d like to do is make predictions or do original research. But that takes up more time than writing; it needs some gearing and machinery underneath the probabilistic GPT text generation of my left hemisphere.

I have some ideas about how I could do that better, but first I need to build up this habit of writing. If I’m not saying anything, I can’t test my thoughts. I am, right now, somewhat sluicing out the opinions as I try to work out what’s valuable and what’s not.

(850 words)


capital mood

I’ve been futzing around with LISPs. See how we say LISP like that, all in caps? That’s how I think of Lisp; it has this vague aura of pre-1980s aesthetic where capital letters where either teletype-obligatory, or an actual indicator of futuristic COMPUTER WORLD.

Case in computing is a funny thing, like a binary signal in the ebb and flow of fashion. When and why did Unix (UNIX™) shell commands adopt that lowercase chic? I still write my email address in lowercase, even on government forms that request all caps, out of a defiant alt tone — DANNY@SPESH.COM stinks of AOL, Compuserve, and doing it wrong.

Common Lisp, forged in the eighties, expected, like Lisp itself, to be timeless: Common Lisp has CAPITALS all over it. Not exclusively, though. I guess when you’re Guy Steele and you’re trying to bind together futuristic AI and McCarthy fifties experiments, smashing together upper and lowercase is the least of your temporal concerns.

Will upper case make a come back? MAYBE IT ALREADY HAS.


geek old semi-formal

I love this articleby Christine Peterson about her coinage of the term “open source”, not just for the story (which I’d known about, but never heard in detail), but for the tone of the piece. It’s written in what I generally think of as “Geek Old Semi-formal”: this precise, slightly low-affect, somewhat wry tone that seeks to depict the maximum number of factual points, in a simple but almost shockingly accurate way.

In pretty much everything I’ve done, I’ve fought with the hellish triangle of being readable, entertaining, and truthful. Sometimes you end up flexing the absolute clinical truth for one of the others: for instance, I don’t really “generally think” of Christine’s tone as “Geek Old Semi-Formal”. I just made that term up on the spot. I didn’t quite confess that earlier, because it sounded funnier to imply I’ve used this name, even just internally, for years.

Compared to just describing the tone flatly,  I did very mildly better on the entertaining axis (at least in my own mind), probably just as readably, but really not as true. (It was also easier to write — because a term like that is actually exactly what I need for a title. Great, I’ll paste that into the title box up there, and maybe that will become the hook for others who reblog this.)

Anyway, where was I? Right: so, actually honest documents are rare, mostly unentertaining and largely unreadable. We rarely optimise for the absolute truth, because either one of “readable” or “entertaining” is more immediately valued, and rewarded.

Geek Old Semi-Formal is readable and true, at the expense of some of the fripperies of language that we associate with entertaining speech. It’s this beautiful upgrade of technical writing to convey conversation, stories, anecdotes, and the communal trivialities of our lives.

As part of my Plan 9 binge (did I tell you about my Plan 9 binge?), I’ve been reading lots of old Unix papers, which all aspire to this style. As the New York Times said in its obituary of Dennis Ritchie:

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Ritchie were struck by his code — meticulous, clean and concise. His writing, according to Mr. Kernighan, was similar. “There was a remarkable precision to his writing,” Mr. Kernighan said, “no extra words, elegant and spare, much like his code.”

I don’t want to say that computer geeks got this from Kernighan; I think that there’s a wide set of folks involved in factual-seeking professions and hobbies that hold similar aspirations, and end up admiring and adopting the same style.

Cover of MICRO Magazine

This morning, I opened a mystery package delivered by the “browsing ebay auctions at 3AM”-fairy. It was a paper copy of this February 1980 issue  of MICRO: The 6502 Magazine purchased for reasons of unstoppable nocturnal nostalgia.

I think even the august editors of MICRO would concede that the writing skills of its contributors were pretty variable. The year 1980 seems to be a seller’s market for 6502 periodical literature: There’s a full-page advert pretty much begging for people to write articles. (They’re paying $50-$100 a page, too, if you want to go back in time.) But for me, that variability is just a great opportunity to watch the Geek Old Semi-Formal style fail and crumble in different ways. The feigned jocularity! The laundry lists! The science paper formalism! I won’t point fingers, but you can flick through this copy of MICRO to see for yourself the rich panoply of Geek Old stylings.

It’s also a style I really have come to enjoy in face-to-face interactions too. There’s just something deeply comforting about sitting and talking slowly and precisely with someone, each of you carefully constructing entirely accurate sentences with little overall variation in tone or pace. Especially by contrast to the usual chit-chat of slapdashing word-sounds together and slinging them out your mouth in order to fill time and show off, between gurning physical expressions  and uncontrollable emotional explosions.

Not that it doesn’t also work for emotions, too. I think of all the times someone I know has flatly, compactly and desperately clearly conveyed their experiences: remaining calm, grammatical and short-sentenced even as the tears stream down their face, and their life fell apart.

I wonder, too, why I associate it with older geeks (older than me, for sure). It smacks a little of the repressed-fifties model of male scientist, though I don’t think of it as entirely gendered; in real life, it seems as strange on men as women. And I see people younger than me adopting it, often comically until they get it right. It’s definitely a bit on-the-spectrum—but I’m not on-the-spectrum and I use it, and aspire to it.

Well, now I’ve felt it so strongly in Christine’s great piece, I’ll start looking for it more, in words and in conversation. And now I have a name to call it!







go wild

I love watching the AlphaGo/이세돌 games. I barely know anything about Go, so I’m essentially pursuing my favourite hobby of watching smarter people reach out beyond their comprehension.  The little shortcuts of explanations between expert Go players: the flurry of hand movements, the little trial explanations of future moves, and Go’s beautiful vocabulary, the subcultural mix of  deliberate ironic calm and background, barely concealed anxiety and excitement. A friend said it felt like “surrealist theater” sometimes. But what I love about games, about programs, about science is that even when it’s hidden and barely explicable, there’s always something there.

Nobody seems to understand AlphaGo’s wilder moves. In the second game, everyone commenting belatedly realised that it was doing something in the center when everyone thought it was losing the upper right to Lee. Opinions on who was winning swung wildly from side to side. AlphaGo itself has a metric of how it thinks its doing (it resigns if it perceives it has a less than 10% chance of winning). We don’t get to see what that is in the game, but the program’s British inventors said afterwards that AlphaGo thought it had a 50/50 chance in the mid-game, but its confidence slowly and consistently increased towards the end. Were AlphaGo’s early moves madness or genius, someone asked. We’ll know from whether it wins or not, another human replied. It won.

And again, something of a zeitgeist event. The AI people, who’ve been kicking around in my box of interesting predictors for nearly a decade, I think they feel that this is their moment.

I spent a couple of hour last weekend talking to Benjamen Walker about Nathan Barley, and the psychic damage of the early 2000s. At one point, I talked about the terrible distortion for technologists in the dotcom years of having years of everything you want and predict turn out to be true. Then I more sadly talked about how the magic had ebbed away. How so many of us coasted along on glib predictions that the Internet is going to make things nicer and more exciting for a decade, and it worked,  then suddenly every bet turns out wrong.

I  hate actually predicting things, because as soon as  you pre-commit, your perceived accuracy plummets (because now it’s your actual accuracy which is never as much fun). As ever, I can just couch my predictions in woolly language here so: I’m feeling myself be tugged along in the AI folks wake, because they’re going somewhere interesting for a few years, even if maybe the magic will fade from them before they reached home and the Singularity.

(Fun reading if you want it, in this vein: Crystal Society by Max Harms. My favourite book this year so far. And, just like my favourite book this decade, Constellation Games, indie/self-published.)

BTW, Constellation Games is the Book of Honor at the upcoming Potlatch science fiction conference. I’m mortified I’m missing it, but I think I’ll be ending up at the same city as the author (hi Leonard, are you going to be at LibrePlanet in Boston?), so maybe it’s not so bad. Who can predict?


a spectre is haunting internet

I am diving a little further out on the Net, now, and seeing a few patterns. I don’t really know how pervasive those patterns are. For most purposes (beyond my guilt), that doesn’t really matter. There’s always going to be limits to how far culturally you can wander. I can’t just go to a random place on the Internet and wander around from there, because you can’t deduce the significance of that place just from turning up. You need to know something of the path to that place.

What I’m always looking for is cultures or ideas or places that are generative. Places that lead to other places; spreading ridges in earthquake zones, creating more land under your feet. I’m lucky, because where I start out from these days is almost always toward somewhere imminently popular, or famously unpopular, or universally-declared-as-interesting. And I get to be “lucky” in searching for these, because before and after I get to these places, a whole crowd of invisible people who are just like me, but richer and more powerful and influential are also turning up, because we share a lot of common history and traits. And they’ll uplift what I find and suddenly it will be universally-declared-as-interesting. So you get to be an amazing prophet of trends.

You have to be aware of your cohort. You have to be aware that you are more-or-less identical with a huge subset of humanity, and when you like something, there’s a certain number of people who will not only like it when you show it them, but probably liked it before you got there. You are never the first, but you might be the first to talk about it among your friends.

Anyway, what I’d like to note here is the rise of communism.

I find that people are super-interested in communism, and that interest is permeating in a familiar way. Look at Reddit’s me_irl. Me_irl is one of the larger reddits, and it’s sort of broiling with strange memes, like 4chan used to. My aged instincts tell me the source for its generativity is offstage somewhere, and me_irl is actually the most boring, old receptacle for that output. I can definitely click around and swiftly people who are pissed off with me_irl, that it’s been taken over by social justice warriors or fascists and that you should got somewhere else for the real fun.

Nonetheless, me_irl, is really interested in communism. Just to double-check I’m not on crack, I went there just now, and clicked on the first “me☭irl” link I found. It was this, with these comments.

Clearly, in those comments, bystanders are irritated that me_irl, which should just be a random meme palace for people’s metaphorical depiction of their sad but ironically funny lives, has somehow veered into a constant reposter of Marx and Engels jokes. They also get annoyed that me_irl becomes regularly obsessed with scary skellingtons.

I am, for some reason, not going to construct an elaborate theory about the scary skellingtons. But I do find, when it comes to communism, that the tiny overlords of me_irl are wallowing in hints of a broader generative trend.

Now whenever I look around elsewhere, I really see a lot of people fascinated by communism. This is not in the sense of selling Socialist Worker at street corners, but mostly making rather sophisticated in-jokes about the bourgeoisie and commodity fetishism and Hoxhaism, and having others riff on those jokes. You can make endless jokes using communism as a source material, and also kick off many 3AM conversations or shower thoughts. Generative!

This really isn’t that surprising: communism is a pretty deep subculture (a bit less than catholicism-level deep, perhaps?), its source material gets translated a lot, it speaks to the human condition, it is explored in vivid amounts of detail in the further education that almost everyone has to attend to these days. It is pretty fertile, alien but approachable, old but new. Also everyone is grumpy at capitalism right now.

This is notable to me, though, because I grew up in communism’s lowest ebb. From 1989, onwards, communism was really the least generative ideology around, just because it had taken a gut punch from history. I remember walking around with Mackay and Cait in New York in the late nineties and finding a garbage pail full of old Marxist analysis, leaving us to  simultaneously cry out “look! the dustbin of history”!

You could certainly be into communism in the late 20th century, but I don’t think anyone was seriously expecting it to be the ur-source of new ideas right at that point.(And by “anyone”, of course, I mean “people less than a certain subcultural circumference away from me.”)

I’m thinking on a wider theory about what this means about subcultural flows across generational timescales, but unfortunately that idea needs a bit more javascript. So I’ll just leave this here and say that if in the next 5 years, we all start having more communist revolutions, you heard it here first. Well, here, and in_rl.


new estonia

I spent some time last week with people slightly above my pay grade in the International Political Relations space talking about the future of the Internet. The event used Chatham House Rules, which are like the Three Laws of Robotics, except for dignitaries, so I can’t say who said what. I can exclusively reveal that some people aren’t happy with what Apple has done in response to the San Bernadino court order, while a lot of other equally powerful people think they are exactly right. You heard it here first.

My less shocking (but not by much) observation was that politicians and diplomats who like the Internet (or, at least, understand the Internet) aso like Estonia. A lot. You rarely find people of this ilk going on about the greatness of a country that is not their own, so that stood out to me. There may even have been a little Estonia envy going on. It is also possible that there was some patronising “plucky little country that I can acknowledge without any further ramifications”, but I think it was mostly genuine admiration. No-one was very specific about why Estonia was doing the right thing, and I think I will leave it at that.

Another theme was many people’s disappointment with their governments’ lack of a defensive posture regarding Internet security and privacy. That is, there was plenty of talk of the rights and wrongs of states hacking into endpoint devices, or requiring backdoors, or circumventing encryption — but many people were concerned that no state was doing enough to protect its citizens and organizations from attacks.

The criticism, just from its origins, seemed to center on the United States. But it occurred to me that actually the current budget for supporting basic infrastructural security work, such as ISC and OpenSSL and so on is currently so small that even a relatively small nation state could add an order of magnitude or two to it. In fact, given many technologists’ suspicions of the more heavily-resourced states, it might be politically more acceptable for an Estonia-level state to be a benefactor.

I don’t have an opinion on whether this would be a good idea or a bad idea (for the record, I do not believe donations from Latveria should be accepted at this time). I’m just noting that if a small state wanted to be the new Estonia of the Internet before the old Estonia of the Internet had even got a chance to settle into the throne of cyberspace, this would be a fine way of doing it.


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