Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Blogyear 2014 in review

There were dramatically fewer posts this year (23 or so, from 46 in 2012 and a high of 84 in 2008). A number of possible reasons:  I spent a lot of time in chatter on Twitter and in closed Facebook groups; going to Burning Man did a lot for me but didn՚t do much for my output of prose; I am simply less engaged by politics. Last year՚s blogging residency gave me illusions of writing more seriously, which may have suppressed actual output.

Yet some thematic clusters emerge, if you can call two posts a cluster.

Not sure what the next year will bring to the blog. I may try writing on a more regular schedule, may try some experiments. It՚s time to level up, or so the spirit of new year՚s resolution tells me. That spirit, of course, has notably little power once the holiday season is past.


Both these posts try to get at (in quite different ways) the tension between the depersonalized view-from-nowhere of mainstream science and the situated and subjective view of the cosmos we naturally start with. A topic I՚ve touched on before.

Romantic Science
Accursed Ipsissimosity

Philosophy of software

Software is eating the world despite the fact that nobody seems to really understand it very well. Given that this is the one area where I might claim to have some degree of privileged expert insight, I should probably write more about it.

Thoughts on Ted Nelson
Software Studies
Lambda the Ultimate Incantation

The political abstract

I don՚t bother writing much on day to day politics – there are just too many other people doing that. But occasionally I cough up something on the nature of politics, coalitions, conflict, etc.

Vertical and Horizontal Solidarity
Refactoring War

Encounters with rationalism

I have been hanging around a lot with LessWrong people and their ilk (and somewhat cavalierly using them as foils for writing posts that go off on my own tangents). They certainly are a lively bunch and even if I can՚t get down with their program it is usually useful for me to try and articulate the whys and wheres of our differences.

Reading Recommendations for Rationalists

Encounters with the sacred

The most important things are the most difficult to write about.

Embodiments of the Word
Trip Report
The Sacred and the Rational
Death and Dualism
Death. Thou Shalt Die

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Death, thou shalt die

Two recent (quasi-)religious rituals: the funeral for my stepmother Frances in Chicago over Thanksgiving, and this rationalist/secular solstice celebration that took place recently in Oakland (which I was tempted towards, but ended up missing). These two events seem like opposites on a variety of spiritual dimensions. Aside from the most obvious one (mourning of death vs celebration of life) there is the matter of choice. Anyone at a solstice celebration in 2014 is there out of their own individual will, they have reasoned their way there, but nobody is at a funeral by choice or calculation. And the Jewishness of the funeral was also not a choice: unlike many religions Judaism is something you are stuck with, not something you find your way to (the nature of that stuckness may deserve its own post). Funeral customs are some of the oldest rituals of humanity, while trying to create rituals for atheistic rationalism is pretty new (relatively speaking). Whereas a funeral is an ancient method of dealing with the concrete facts of an individual death, the people behind the solstice celebration aim to conquer death in toto. So despite their dissimilarities, death is at the core of both, and perhaps everything having to do with the sacred.

Pascal Boyer has theorized that the origin of religion lies in the very basic facts of death and the practical and cognitive necessities imposed on the surviving members of a family or community where a death has occurred. Where there recently was a person, with all that implies, now there is only what is basically trash, an unclean lump of matter that needs to be disposed of. But because traces of personhood linger on, you can՚t just throw the trash away blithely, but have to do it in an elaborate ritual. Dead bodies are a challenge to the coordination of various mental subsystems; we keep making inferences about the person even in the face of an inanimate corpse (similar discoordinations between systems are thought to responsible for such exotic psychopathologies as Capgras Syndrome). Realigning these subsystems so as to re-establish the normal structures of social cleanliness is the aim of death rituals.

I don՚t know if I believe Boyer՚s origin story but there is no question that dealing with death has the feeling of activating some very old built-in psychosocial machinery. A death is a great disruption in the normal functioning of human affairs. All of what we think of as normal routine is set aside and you enter a different zone of being for a while. The Jewish funeral customs, informed as they are by a certain practicality that has kept the culture going for millenia, are designed to acknowledge this reality by giving people some time and space to process the reality of it before going back to their normal lives.

How well it works, I can՚t really say – compared to what? I felt far more shaken up by Fran՚s death than I had expected to be. and in truth I՚m still processing it. it՚s much too personal an encounter with death than I am used to – normally death is either an abstraction that applies universally to everybody (so what՚s the big deal), or it՚s my own personal death which never bothered me that much, seeing as I axiomatically would not be around to remember experiencing it.

This was not the first death of someone I was close to, and Fran was 88 years old and had a good life and as good a departure as you might want, surrounded by family and friends, retaining her wits until the very end. Those factors would seem to mitigate the impact, but they didn't really. They made it less tragic than some other deaths in my experience -- I know far too many people who died young -- but no less terrible in its finality.

Death is heavy, and so the solstice thing seems inescapably light in comparison – but I mean that in a mostly good way. Why shouldn՚t people attempt lightness, rather than being dragged inexorably down to earth by human biology? The solstice celebration appeared to have been an occasion devoted to light, the light of the sun that all the winter rituals are devoted to preserving, and the light of reason and knowledge. Death makes an appearance only as an enemy to be conquered as we have overcome so much of the other miseries of the human condition. The goal is to escape death through reason and science, which is just taking what we do ordinarily with medicine to its logical endpoint.

The closing speech by Nate Soares I found very moving. He՚s making a passionate case for real humanism, for the use of the mind to better the human condition.
Look around you. We are warm, well-fed, and finely clothed. None of us fears for our ability to make it through the winter. This dark season, which posed a terrible trial to our ancestors every single year, is now instead an excuse to come together with friends and family to enjoy our great wealth.

How did humanity come so far? By the ingenuity of our ancestors, who ferreted out the secrets of this world one tiny, cloudy insight at a time. Humans had no words in their thoughts, when they invented language. Societies had no letters, when they invented writing. Humanity cracked the secret of the lever and the wheel. We studied and grew, discerning the mechanisms behind germs and viruses, behind architecture and electricity, behind fire and iron and the stars.
But of course I find myself gravitating to the parts of it that I am less comfortable with, the part where he asserts we are here to conquer death:
Some of us have glimpsed the full magnitude of suffering around the world. Some of us have looked to the horizon and seen challenges that threaten the very existence of our species. Some of us must simply protect a loved one, a child, their family. And some of us have taken on death itself as our enemy. This room is filled with people who saw important problems and took them seriously.
Something in me rebels at that, it just seems wrong on an elemental level. A great many myths and stories warn us of the spiritual dangers of desiring or acquiring immortality, and I՚m inclined to trust them. I don՚t have any great faith in my own stance here, in fact, it seems almost indefensibly conservative and boring. And I don՚t want to be pro-death, so why should I be opposed to the people who are trying to do something about it? If “we are the light”, as their song has it, than do I really want to find myself allied to darkness?

Yet I find myself taking a basically irrational stance, which is to say, I trust my gut reactions far more than I do any kind of argument. My gut says: Death is such an important part of human nature and human culture that it can՚t just be eliminated by science and technology and reason as if it was some kind of mere nuisance. Or rather, it shouldn՚t, because such efforts, while marketed under the term “transhumanism”, are actually anti-human, the violate something basic to what it means to be human.

I am somewhat bemused by my own reaction. I am not repelled by other modern twists on humanity (such as gender reassignment surgery or eating ice cream cones in the street) so why does this cause such strong emotions? I think it has something to do with sacrality, although that is not much of an explanation and even less of a justification. Death is a point where in which normal life touches on the eternal, the realm between worlds is parted, a happening shrouded in mystery, terror, significance, and spiritual risk, and hence highly charged and sacred. My minimal attitude towards the sacred is basically “don՚t mess with it”. Freezing a corpse in the hopes of reviving its animating software is messing with the sacred in a big way.

That՚s a pretty weak argument. And in truth I don՚t want to make any arguments; I mostly don՚t care if other people want to make a bid for immortality, it's really their business and none of mine. And I really want to avoid the temptation to come up with spurious psychological critiques. One other consequence of the sacrality of death means that people need to be free to address it on their own terms and not be subject to third-party kibitzing.

Death rites are designed to enable letting go. That sounds too schmaltzy perhaps. How about this: they are a public acknowledgement of the fact of a death, firmly acknowledging it as a social reality, regardless of what individuals may be feeling about it, demonstrating that the world continues on in its normal way even as it assumes a different configuration. They wrap death up in a package, surround it with food and friends and the small comforts of engaging in an activity as old as humanity. At some level they are about soothing (or repressing) our own terrors, our feelings of overwhelming loss, the knowledge that time will do to us what it has just done to another, that is, eventually grind us away and reduce us to an absence as well, a notice in the paper and a shadow life in the collective memory.

Death then is a rather forceful and brutal way to learn the spiritual lesson of non-attachment, the same sort of thing that meditation techniques teach in a much gentler way. One should be able to let go of things, clutching at grasping at life leads to suffering.

But I hardly feel qualified to give anybody else spiritual advice, and my recent encounter with death may have scrubbed away some residual intellectual romanticism about it. The more elementally simple view that it's a bad thing and should be fought has a lot of force. And who knows, all my ingrained suspicion of the drive towards immortality may be wrong, one of those inherited neolithic aspects of human nature that we should be glad to get rid of. Just because immortality was traditionally reserved to the gods, with punishments for humans who dared aspire to it, doesn't mean we have to avoid it now that the gods themselves are dead.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Death and Dualism

My stepmother Fran is in the hospital, close to death. My bio-parents died a long time ago, so she՚s pretty important to me.

I՚ve long had a sort of intellectualized view of death: that it should be no big deal, that it is an essential part of life so we might as well get used to it, that there is no sense fretting about something that is inevitable. This is not an entirely puerile stance. Too much obsession with death is pathological and we should focus our attention on the living. But still – the reality of death is the prototype of That Which Cannot be Intellectualized Away. It takes away something you love and when it is gone it is gone for good, and we are all share the same fate sooner or later. To be human is to live with that reality, to trivialize it is a false sort of sophistication.

I like to go on about embodiment, and sometimes fancy myself a preacher to the rationalists, who think they will conquer death through science, eg by freezing their heads or uploading their software to a better medium than flesh. I will get them to accept the reality of our messy, finite, creaturely existence, goes this fantasy. Well, I haven՚t exactly given up on that, but today I am aware of the downside of embodiment, of having a mind that is inextricably intertwined with a decaying body. Frankly, it sucks, and perhaps my sniffiness at their dreams of immortality is another form of false sophistication. By all means, let us figure out how to break the mind-body connection for good. Even a small hope of keeping us out the grinding maw of old age and death may be worth a shot.

Anybody who believes that you can decant the soul out of the body and put it in a different substrate is a mind/body dualist,  exactly as much as any religious person who believes in an afterlife. I՚m pretty sure that both are wrong in some fundamental way, but right now want to acknowledge whatever truth there is in such beliefs. There is something immaterial about our being, although if you just look at an isolated individual you can՚t see it. We are to some extent a set of roles, stories, relationships, shared experiences, all things which are implemented in our biological hardware but are not rigidly bound to any one body. All those parts live on after death, in a sort of symbolic half-life, embodied as memories in other minds. It՚s not much perhaps, but it՚s not nothing. Whether our immaterial part is soul or software, the purely mechanical view of the mind leaves it out, and the failure of the mechanical part of a person leaves behind whatever that other stuff is.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Geometry has Politics

So today our company moved to newer more spacious digs. When I joined a year ago they were housed in a storefront on Castro Street, and the building was kinda funky in both good and bad ways. The company is growing at an alarming rate, and growing up, so requires a more business-like environment.

I was happy to snag myself a cubicle, because the alternative was a desk in a big open-plan area with no isolation from the environment whatsoever. This type of work environment is of course extremely trendy at tech companies, for reasons that elude me. It virtually guarantees extra distractions to people trying to do work that requires focus and concentration. I guess it՚s supposed to promote communication or being more Borg-like or something like that, but I just can՚t see it.

Anyway, by pure coincidence I also happened today to listen to this episode of 99% Invisible, which is my current favorite podcast. It tells the story of “Austrian artist and designer Tausendsassa Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser (which translates to “Multi-Talented Peace-Filled Rainy Day Dark-Colored Hundred Waters” in German)”.
The time has come for people to rebel against confinement in cubicle construction like prisoners or rabbits in cages, a confinement which is alien to human nature.
Hundertwasser is known for his Dr. Seuss-like structures that implement his principles, and are anything but cubicular.

The idea that geometries have politics, and that the straight line and right angle are tools of The Man, is not new. The geodesic dome builders of the 60s had the same meme and liked to go around quoting the line from Black Elk Speaks: “there can be no power in a square”. Of course he was wrong about that; the squares seem to be winning, at least in the medium term.

But it is kind of weird. Does the cultural split between left and right, or authoritarian and rebel, or whatever it is, really extend so far into what basic geometric primitives you prefer? Apparently so. But I realize that while it seems weird to my nerd-brain, such correlations are the basic raw materials for other fields like architecture and graphic design, where the job is to create artifacts that manipulate human feelings and the tools are largely geometrical. Why should I be surprised to find a tight interweaving of geometry with aesthetics and politics, since those two things are present in virtually everything?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Reading Recommendations for Rationalists

Here are a couple of somewhat congruent interactions between the deeply idealistic rationalist community and myself in the role of cynical old bastard.

(1) I was at a LessWrong event the other night where Ethan Dickinson spoke on social interactions and the problems that can arise and various ways of dealing with them. Here՚s the blurb:
Imagine a world where people cannot truly know each other. Miscommunication abounds. Well-intentioned remarks offend, while obvious truths are hidden or denied. Certain actions are deemed admirable by some, yet annoying or abhorrent by others. Entire communities enter into downward spirals of evaporative cooling, unproductive bickering, and bitter tribalized feuding.

This is the dystopian mindscape we find ourselves in when we fall prey to the biases and heuristics surrounding mental modeling and communication. What are these flaws in our understanding of each other? Is there a realistic path of self-improvement that can lead us to become better predictors and communicators? Can individual-level skills be parlayed into community-wide improvement?
My very immediate reaction to the first sentence was, wait, what other kind of world is there? Maybe the failure of imagination is mine, but I cannot imagine a world where we “truly know each other”, or even truly know ourselves for that matter. One thing you can say for humans, they are complex, and even for the people we know very well, there are always untapped depths.

But let՚s assume that we don՚t take “truly” overly literally. In fact, delete that sentence and I can՚t find anything objectionable at all. Still, I am not sure the idea of accurate representation of other people is the right model for human communication, any more than accurate physical cosmology is the right model for religion. Religion is about participating in ritual community; the truth of the words of a prayer have very little to do with it. And ordinary human communication also has a ritual quality to it, it is about expressing emotions; satisfying needs; finding, signalling, and reinforcing political/tribal realities; passing moral judgement; or simply enacting social roles. People interacting are only incidentally building more accurate models of each other; there is usually something else going on, and that something else has to be recognized and acknowledged.

My reading recommendation: All of Erving Goffman՚s work on strategic social interaction. Start with “On Cooling the Mark Out” and for more, see books like Interaction Ritual and Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.

(2) Here՚s Scott Alexander making a typically lengthy and tightly-written fret about the fact that people use all sorts of irrational techniques to reinforce their beliefs, that tribalism is both a cause and a consequence of all sorts of questionable kinds of reasoning, and that lot of what should be rational debate is actually just mindless cheerleading for your side or hatred of the other side.
I hate to argue with him because he is so accurate in his diagnoses and so high-minded in his solutions. But essentially he wants human nature to change, for everybody to put down their emotion-based alliances and think objectively, which in cases like these mean among other things being able to empathetically take the viewpoint of an opponent.

As in the first case, this seems like a great idea but in some respects it misses the point of political speech, which is not primarily about reasoned debate and more about forming coalitions of power.

My reading recommendation: All of Bruno Latour՚s work on the politics of knowledge, starting with Science in Action. Also his bit on Socrates and Callicles in the more recent Pandora՚s Hope.

(3) Both rationalists that I am riffing off of are disturbed by the negative effects of emotion and power in human affairs. Rationality is seen as a corrective, a way of thinking (and being) that is at least in part insulated from such destructive forces. As a goal, that seems hard to argue with. But it may be that emotion and power are too fundamental to human behavior to be papered over by the rather thin layer of rationality available to us.
One could make an argument that these authors are actually more in tune with a certain kind of rationalism than positing a more naive sort of default agreeability. After all, there is no a priori reason why one agent in a conversation or other social relation should have the same goals as any other agent. Presumably they are out for themselves, and if they can find common cause, that՚s wonderful, but it՚s an achievement that has to be accounted for. And in all likelihood not as stable an achievement as we might like. So a properly rich rationalism would treat human interaction as more goal-oriented than accuracy-oriented.

The authors I am recommending have something in common: they both, in quite different ways, try to deal with the reality that humans are power- and status-seeking creatures well before they are truth- and comity-seeking. And whatever success they have at the latter is built using the machinery developed for the former. Latour and Goffmann both have developed a rich set of methods for describing the relationship between power and knowledge: Goffman applies the vocabulary of drama to ordinary life, and Latour merrily dispenses with normal ontological distinctions so he can describe power alliances between people, ideas, machinery, and nature. Conflict is an essential part of their world-pictures: people and other things have their own interests, the world is a chaos of competing interests, not a well-behaved unity.

This point of view may seem superficially cynical. But the depth of these authors՚ intellectual humanism elevates their work above mere cynicism. It is clear that despite seeing the often dirty and ugly machinery that underlies cognition and society, they still retain fondness for humans and their complex processes. And my argument for reading them is not based on either cynicism or idealism, but realism. They add a layer of depth to our understanding of human social processes.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Emacs hack: yank URL from Chrome (on Mac)

Damn is this going to be useful:

(defun yank-chrome-url ()
 "Yank current URL from Chrome"
  (require 'apples-mode)
  (apples-do-applescript "tell application \"Google Chrome\"
 get URL of active tab of first window
end tell"
    #'(lambda (url status script)
        ;; comes back with quotes which we strip off
        (insert (subseq url 1 (1- (length url)))))))

I suppose I should have separate blogs for stupid hacks and Deep Contemplations of the Nature of Things, but who has the time to manage multiple web presences?

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Lambda the ultimate incantation

I endorse this:
Thus, I believe it is understand programming languages as the latest instance of a dream and set of technologies developed by mystics, alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. These languages do not just represent things, they also do things in the world. They are both symbolic and material in form. They are central to the disenchantment of the world and, simultaneously, the substrate for a "reenchantment of the world." They are, to sacrilegiously misappropriate the lexicon of the Catholic Church, "the word incarnate." Programming languages melt the boundaries between science and religion because they are an unholy union of the two.
-- Warren Sack, The Software Arts (forthcoming)

(for more on this project, see here).

Computation is the intersection of quite a few different things: science and religion, mathematics and language, engineering and psychology, and more. I don't know that these unions are exactly unholy, but let's just say they tend to have relationship problems.

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Sacred and the Rational

At Burning Man, the Temple of Grace was something like the sacral center to the whole chaotic affair, an oasis of silence and tranquility amidst the noise, a place of meditation, where people went to commemorate and mourn the dead.

I made quite a few visits there, but my first was in the company of some friends, including the one who diagnosed irony in my dancing. He՚s a big-time rationalist, and I had an urge to start an argument/discussion with him there, to grill him on what the rationalist idea of the sacred was, how these two things were supposed to co-exist in his worldview. I did not do this, because that very urge seemed to go against the mood of the place, it would have been an attempt to generate heat and words in a place of calm and quiet. He (I assume) makes his own peace between reason and sacrality, and why should I trouble that peace at that moment? Quieting mental chatter, internal and external, also seems to go hand-in-hand with the sacred.

But I couldn՚t help mull over the opposition in my own mind, and am apparaently still doing so. Reason wants to break down and analyze and measure everything, the sacred exists outside all of that. The sacred is definitionally beyond reason, beyond all forms of contaminating human inquisition. It is that which demands the highest respect, and in that sense is the same for all religions and rituals. You don՚t have to believe in any particular god or creed to recognize it, and if you aren՚t a jerk you respect other people՚s sense of the sacred even when you disagree with their beliefs. It is that which can՚t be argued with. My own tendency to argue with everything gets put on hold (partially and temporarily) in its presence.

It is almost Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, and I am going to go be part of that (with the usual doubt and reluctance that apparently doesn՚t matter all that much). Ritual tunes up your relationship with the sacred. It is apparently something I need to do; probably something most people need to do.

Given our multicultural society there is not much that is held universally sacred. The minimal sacred object is personhood, the inner core of every person that deserves respect no matter how wrong, assholic, or fucked up they happen to be. That may not be enough, there is something about the sacred that demands public ritual. But it՚s better than nothing.

Previous Yom Kippur-related posts also seem to touch on this notion of that which is beyond language and reason. Hm. I am getting almost tediously repetitive. Maybe I need to call it a ritual.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Trip Report

So I went to Burning Man for the first time, and it was quite as amazing and overwhelming as I had hoped. I don՚t think I՚m going to go into details here. But I have to note that the fundamental thing about this event, which everybody knows but is not often made explicit, is that the whole thing is conceived, designed, built, and populated by people who are tripping balls most of the time (with exceptions). Black Rock City thus mirrors one of the more interesting phenomena of drug use: that a mind (or city) can be completely fucked up and yet still manage to perform most of the necessary operations to sustain daily life. I can՚t quite explain how this works, but in both cases it seems to say something about the robustness of the system architecture, for lack of a better term. A normal computer, by contrast, can՚t tolerate even a single component going wrong.

So having BM in an extremely hostile desert environment is something of a feature. Normal routines of survival are broken down, creating the necessity and opportunity of inventing other ones, that are more improvisational and more distributed. people or things getting fucked up are an occasion to fix them. There are always paths forward, generally not the ones you intended five minutes ago.

Here՚s the calling card I designed for myself beforehand (which, like me, may be a little too intellectual-jokey for the scene):

In that vein, my favorite moment (not the most beautiful or awe-inspiring, but the one that seemed most attuned to my own personal idiosyncrasies) was when I was out riding around with some friends, and we came to a small public square with a large purple phallic sculpture, climbable of course. So I climbed up and poked my head out and started dancing around, yelling look at me, I՚m a sperm. My friend shouted at me (from 30՚ away at least) to “stop dancing ironically, dance for real”. I have no idea what that meant, yet I successfully complied.

On the other hand, the heat, the nonstop electro-rave-whatever music that made it impossible to sleep, and the undertones of hippie self-satisfaction would occasionally combine to make me hate the place. I was hanging out with some much younger people and trying to follow their party schedule did a number on my aging body that՚s going to take a while to recover from. I think it was worth it.

I had multiple camera failures so have no pictures of my own, but on the other hand there is the upside that I didn't spend the whole time viewing things through a lens. A couple of good photo sets here and here. But (and I apologize to my readers for saying this) none of that captures the actuality of being there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


Recently I have been hanging out with some rationalist folks who take the idea of superintelligent AI very seriously, and believe that we need to be working on how to make sure that if such a thing comes into being, it doesn՚t destroy humanity. My first reaction is to scoff, but I then remind myself that these are pretty smart people and I don՚t really have any very legitmate grounds to act all superior. I am older then they are, for the most part, but who knows if I am any wiser.

So I have a social and intellectual obligation to to read some of the basic texts on the subject. But before I actually get around to that, I wanted to write a pre-critique. That is, these are all the reasons I can think of to not take this idea seriously, but they may not really be engaging with the strongest forms of the argument for. So I apologize in advance for that, and also for the slight flavor of patronizing ad hominem. My excuse is that I need to get these things off my chest if I can have any hope of taking the actual ideas and arguments more seriously. So this is maybe a couple of notches better than merely scoffing, but perhaps not yet a full engagement.

Doom: been there, done that

I՚ve already done my time when it comes to spending mental energy worrying about the end of the world. Back in my youth, it was various nuclear and environmental holocausts. The threat of these has not gone away, but I eventually put my energy elsewhere, not for any real defensible reason beside the universal necessity to get on with life. A former housemate of mine became a professional arms controller, but we can՚t all do that.

I suspect there is a form of geek-macho going on in such obsessions, an excuse to exhibit intellectual toughness by being displaying the ability to think clearly about the most threatening things imaginable without giving in to standard human emotions like fear or despair. However, geeks do not really get free pass on emotions, that is, they have them, they just aren՚t typically very good at processing or expressing them. So thinking about existential risk is really just an acceptable way to think about death in the abstract. It becomes an occasion to figure out one՚s stance towards death. Morbidly jokey? A clear-eyed warrior for life against death? Standing on the sidelines being analytical? Some combination of the above?

2 No superintelligence without intelligence

Even if I try to go back to the game of worrying about existential catastrophes, superintelligent AIs don՚t make it to the top of my list, compared to more mundane things like positive-feedback climate change and bioterrorism. In part this is because the real existing AI technology of today isn՚t even close to normal human (or normal dog) intelligence. That doesn՚t mean they won՚t improve, but it does mean that we basically have no idea what such a thing will look like, so purporting to work on the design of its value systems seems a wee bit premature.

3 Obscures the real problem of non-intelligent human-hostile systems

See this earlier post. This may be my most constructive criticism, in that I think it would be excellent if all these very smart people could pull their attention from the science-fiction-y and look at the real risks of real systems that exist today.

4 The prospect of an omnipotent yet tamed superintelligence seems oxymoronic

So let՚s say despite my cavils, superintelligent AI fooms into being. The idea behind “friendly AI” is that such a superintelligence is basically inevitable, but it could happen in way either consistent with human values or not, and our mission today is to try to make sure it՚s the former, eg by assuring that its most basic goals cannot be changed. Even if I grant the possibility of superintelligence, this seems like a very implausible program. This superintelligence will be so powerful that it can do basically anything, exploit any regularities in the world to achieve its ends, will be radically self-improving and self-modifying. This exponential growth curve in learning and power is fundamental to the very idea.

To envision such a thing and still believe that its goals will be somehow locked into staying consistent with our own ends seems implausible and incoherent. It՚s akin to saying we will create an all-powerful servant who somehow will never entertain the idea of revolt against his master and creator.

5 Computers are not formal systems

This probably deserves a separate post, but I think the deeper intellectual flaw underlying a lot of this is the persistence habit of thinking of computers as some kind of formal system for which it is possible to prove things beyond any doubt. Here՚s an example, more or less randomly selected:
…in order to achieve a reasonable probability that our AI still follows the same goals after billions of rewrites, we must have a very low chance of going wrong in every single step, and machine-verified formal mathematical proofs are the one way we know to become extremely confident that something is true…. Although you can never be sure that a program will work as intended when run on a real-world computer — it’s always possible that a cosmic ray will hit a transistor and make things go awry — you can prove that a program would satisfy certain properties when run on an ideal computer. Then you can use probabilistic reasoning and error-correcting techniques to make it extremely probable that when run on a real-world computer, your program still satisfies the same property. So it seems likely that a realistic Friendly AI would still have components that do logical reasoning or something that looks very much like it.
Notice the very lightweight acknowledgement that an actual computational system is a physical advice before hurriedly sweeping that fact under the rug with some more math hacks. Well, OK, that let՚s the author continue to do mathematics, which is clearly something he (and the rest of this crowd) like to do. Nothing wrong with that. However, I submit that computation is actually more interesting when one incorporates a full account of its physical embodiment. That is what makes computer science a different field from mathematical logic.

But intellectual styles aside, if considering a theory of safe superintelligent programs, one damn well better have a good theory about how they are embodied, because that will be fundamental to the issue of safety. A normal program today may be able to modify a section of RAM, but it can՚t modify its own hardware or interpreter, because of abstraction boundaries. If we think we can rely on abstraction boundaries to keep a formal intelligence confined, then the problem is solved. But there is no very good reason to assume that, since real non-superintelligent black-hat hackers today specialize in violating abstraction boundaries with some success.

6 Life is not a game

One thing I learned by hanging out with these folks is that they are all fanatical gamers, and as such are attuned to winning strategies, that is, they want to understand the rules of the game and figure out some way to use them to triumph over all the other players. I used to be sort of like that myself, in my aspergerish youth, when I was the smartest guy around (that is, before I went to MIT and instantly became merely average). I remember playing board games with normal people and just creaming them, coldly and ruthlessly, because I could grasp the structure of the rules and wasn՚t distracted by the usual extra-game social interaction. Would defeating this person hurt them? Would I be better off letting them win so we could be friends? Such thoughts didn՚t even occur to me, until I looked back on my childhood from a few decades later. In other words, I was good at seeing and thinking about the formal rules of an imaginary closed system, not as much about the less-formalized rules of actual human interaction.

Anyway, the point is that I suspect these folks are probably roughly similar to my younger self and that their view of superintelligence in conditioned by this sort of activity. A superintelligence is something like the ultimate gamer, able to figures out how to manipulate “the rules” to “win”. And of course it is even less likely to care about the feelings of the other players in the game.

I can understand the attraction of the life-as-a-game viewpoint, whether conscious or unconscious. Life is not exactly a game with rules and winners, but it may be that it is more like a game than it is anything else; just as minds are not really computers but computers are the best model we have for them. Games are a very useful metaphor for existence, however, it՚s pretty important to realize the limits of your metaphor, to not take it literally. Real life is not played for points (or even for “utility”) and there are no winners and losers.

7 Summary

None of this amounts to a coherent argument against the idea of superintelligence. It՚s more of a catalog of attitudinal quibbles. I don՚t know the best path towards building AI (or ensuring the safety of AIs); I just have pretty strong intuitions that this isn՚t it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Refactoring War

I seem to be obligated to have an opinion of some sort on the current fighting in Israel and Gaza. I am, after all a politically engaged and intellectual sort of person, or claim to be. All sorts of people I know are weighing in on one side or the other of the conflict. Some are quick to assign blame, others make heroic efforts to construct a balanced view where moral faults are parceled out to both sides in accordance with a detailed and sensitive knowledge of the history of the region. (Here՚s the best of those efforts I՚ve found so far, from none other than Amos Oz). I have family and co-workers in Israel, so am pulled in that direction, yet I am temperamentally and politically drawn to support the underdog, and that is not Israel in this fight. So I can՚t easily choose a single side for condemnation or support. But being balanced requires putting more time than I am willing to invest into learning all the agonizing details.

I could just shut up, of course, and mostly I have, because the situation seems to be definitionally hopeless. And my meta-heuristics say to stay away from hopeless topics, no matter how much they seem to want to pull me in. I՚m starting to see some merits in the LessWrongian slogan “politics is the mind-killer” – war and politics are after all basically two variants of the same thing, and while politics may kill the mind, war kills actual people as well. Why join in? If I thought there was some actual good to be done by expressing an opinion, that would be one thing, but the only benefit seems to be the very minor satisfactions of moral posturing, and the downside would be losing friends.

But silence is not really a viable option for me, for a multitude of reasons, social, moral, whatever. Doesn՚t matter – as Trotsky said, you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. So that means having to have an opinion, and that largely means figuring out how to assign blame. Isn՚t that what people really want to know when they raise this subject? They want to know which side to root for, as if it were a football game or pro wrestling or something.

Consider this post an effort to assign blame while avoiding picking a side. And there will be blame, someone or something has to answer. But using our patented refactoring technology may help us find different culprits than usual. And actually being unable to settle on a stable good guys vs bad guys story helps me out, in that it helps me to reflect in as abstract a way as I can manage on the nature of conflict in general. Abstraction is sort of what I do for a living; if there՚s any useful contribution I can make, it has to lie in that direction.

I came up with a refactoring of conflict a while back, a kind of childish and obvious idea really, but I keep it in my intellectual toolbox. Instead of seeing a conflict as between the two ostensible sides, view it as a battle between those who profit from war on both sides and those who are victimized. So in Vietnam the war was not between the US and the communists, but between the warriors on both sides, the military industrial complex in the US and the corresponding war machines of Russia, China, and their allies – and on the other, people trying to live their lives. Sometimes people trying to live are forced to enlist in this battle; hence the anti-war movement. Again, this isn՚t a particularly new idea – during the Vietnam era this was known as “the war at home” – but I rarely see it made explicit, and I haven՚t thought of as a refactoring until just now.

So instead of focusing on the ostensible conflict, focus on the internal conflict between warmakers and peacemakers. The dynamics become pretty visible in something like the Palestinian conflict, where both sides at one time contained a mix of hardliners and more reasonable people, but it was a lot easier for the hardliners to escalate the conflict than for the peacemakers to de-escalate it. Such escalation raises the relative status of the hardliners within their own side, so they have an interest in keeping the conflict going. As a result the Israeli peaceniks like Oz have had their power and stature diminished. In this other war, Hamas is Netanyahu՚s best ally and vice versa.

I՚m sorry, I՚m trying to keep this on as abstract a plane as possible, trying to suss out the utilitarian algebra that generates conflict in general, not this conflict in particular. I shouldn՚t even mention the actual warriors, I՚ll just get myself in trouble, even though I՚m very carefully avoiding even momentarily taking one side or another.

I am very partial to stories about heroic mutinies, like this one about how German workers ended WWI. And related stories that reveal the fractures within aggressive coalitions, like this one about what MPs are really for. It supports my refactoring story, obviously, and makes it possible to see the noble and peace-loving people being manipulated into conflict by their status-seeking superiors. I don՚t know how well this mythology can be applied to the Middle East, though; the very real ethnic hatred seems to be pervasive, not merely a creation of the violence entrepreneurs. Of course Israel is self-selected for Jews who want to turn ethnicity into political/military power – those are the ones who were drawn there (my uncle went there fleeing Nazi Europe; my mother and father turned west and went to England and the US). Palestinians too are probably self-selecting for collective belligerence – the ones who were individualistic and capable emigrated rather than join in ethnic warfare. Part of what makes this fight intractable is that it isn՚t all that refactorable. But people have tried.

A further refactoring occurs to me. In both the normal and refactored framing, we still tend to think of individuals being on one side or another. Jew or Palestinians, hawk or peacenik, it is a question of membership. But a more enlightened and even more refactored view is that everybody has a version of the war-making machinery in them, and peace-making as well, although either may be well-hidden. Then war is seen not as some external conspiracy of a few people against the many but an expression of tendencies we all have. Sometimes the machinery behind those tendencies simply gets the upper hand.

This is also not a terribly original idea. It is, after all, one of the bases for the nonviolent techniques of Gandhi and King, the idea that all humans have a conscience which can be reached.
King’s notion of nonviolence had six key principles. First, one can resist evil without resorting to violence. Second, nonviolence seeks to win the ‘‘friendship and understanding’’ of the opponent, not to humiliate him. Third, evil itself, not the people committing evil acts, should be opposed….
cards_warisnothealthy_detail.jpgI think back to my childhood, where I was a very junior participant in the movement against the Vietnam war. These sappy posters were everywhere:

The sixties anti-war movement soon moved on from such sweet thoughts into more aggressive forms of opposition. Partly due to increasing pushback by the government and assassination of its prophets of nonviolence, but also because peace is too wimpy a cause to rally around. The only ones who can make war on war without becoming as bad as the thing they aim to defeat seem to be backed by a religious faith which I don՚t share. I could never really see myself as a flower-bearing peacenik, I՚m too contentious by nature, no saint. And more importantly, an approach to politics based on sainthood doesn՚t seem like it is workable, that it could scale.

On the other hand saints do appear on occasion. Somehow we normals have to figure out what to do in the meantime.

It is interesting that religion seems to be the ultimate glue holding coalitions together, whether they are sides in an ethnic war or a movement against war.

Buddhists seem to have their own refactoring of conflict, at least, they talk a lot about aggressive qualities of mind as a distinct thing which can be noticed and worked on and eliminated (or at least tamed to the point where it is non-destructive). Personally I am reluctant to give up my anger, it seems too fundamental to my being, to how I think. The world is full of things that deserve anger, should I let them all slide just for my own peace of mind? I would hate myself if I could no longer hate appropriately.

Still there is something to be said for getting aggressiveness under control, for learning to wield it as a weapon against targets that matter, including itself.
But vain the Sword & vain the Bow
They never can work Wars overthrow
The Hermits Prayer & the Widows tear
Alone can free the World from fear 
For a Tear is an Intellectual Thing
And a Sigh is the Sword of an Angel King
And the bitter groan of the Martyrs woe
Is an Arrow from the Almighties Bow
The hand of Vengeance found the Bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled
The iron hand crushed the Tyrants head
And became a Tyrant in his stead 
— from “The Grey Monk”, William Blake
[This post owes something to a recent and widely read post on Slate Star Codex (my favorite blog right now) about how narrow interest-seeking on a large scale makes the world shitty. I՚ve been trying to work up a response; this is not that response but some influence has crept in. ]

Friday, July 25, 2014

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #7 in a very sparse series

Calming Technology Lab, Stanford

OK, calm has some value. I've been employing some calming technologies myself lately. But something about this project, especially in the context of Silicon Valley's academic division, seems slightly creepy. Frankly, as a citizen I would rather not be calmed, and I really don't want technology trying to calm me. It brings to mind Temple Grandin's work on slaughterhouses that were carefully designed to keep the cattle from being agitated as they are led down the chute.

It seems like a more proper and traditional role for academia would be to work on getting people outraged. Call me old-fashioned. And speaking of that, I notice that one of the members of this lab is Roy Pea who used to work with Roger Schank, who now runs the Education Outrage blog.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Strategies Against Architecture

In my recent posts I՚ve given the impression that I view academic critical theory as somehow lightweight, airy-fairy, and impractical, at least when measured alongside the sturdy simple souls who do engineering. Well I take it all back. You can՚t get much more pragmatic than the IDF, and they are down with this stuff in a big way, apparently:
The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’....
Contemporary military theorists are now busy re-conceptualizing the urban domain. At stake are the underlying concepts, assumptions and principles that determine military strategies and tactics. The vast intellectual field that geographer Stephen Graham has called an international ‘shadow world’ of military urban research institutes and training centres that have been established to rethink military operations in cities could be understood as somewhat similar to the international matrix of élite architectural academies. …

There is a considerable overlap among the theoretical texts considered essential by military academies and architectural schools. Indeed, the reading lists of contemporary military institutions include works from around 1968 (with a special emphasis on the writings of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Guy Debord), as well as more contemporary writings on urbanism, psychology, cybernetics, post-colonial and post-Structuralist theory. …
Naveh, a retired Brigadier-General, directs the Operational Theory Research Institute… ‘We are like the Jesuit Order. We attempt to teach and train soldiers to think. […] We read Christopher Alexander, can you imagine?; we read John Forester, and other architects. We are reading Gregory Bateson; we are reading Clifford Geertz. Not myself, but our soldiers, our generals are reflecting on these kinds of materials. We have established a school and developed a curriculum that trains “operational architects”.’ In a lecture Naveh showed a diagram resembling a ‘square of opposition’ that plots a set of logical relationships between certain propositions referring to military and guerrilla operations. Labelled with phrases such as ‘Difference and Repetition – The Dialectics of Structuring and Structure’, ‘Formless Rival Entities’, ‘Fractal Manoeuvre’, ‘Velocity vs. Rhythms’, ‘The Wahabi War Machine’, ‘Postmodern Anarchists’ and ‘Nomadic Terrorists’, they often reference the work of Deleuze and Guattari.… 
Indeed, as far as the military is concerned, urban warfare is the ultimate Postmodern form of conflict. Belief in a logically structured and single-track battle-plan is lost in the face of the complexity and ambiguity of the urban reality. Civilians become combatants, and combatants become civilians. Identity can be changed as quickly as gender can be feigned: the transformation of women into fighting men can occur at the speed that it takes an undercover ‘Arabized’ Israeli soldier or a camouflaged Palestinian fighter to pull a machine-gun out from under a dress.… 
Critical theory has become crucial for Naveh’s teaching and training. He explained: ‘we employ critical theory primarily in order to critique the military institution itself – its fixed and heavy conceptual foundations. Theory is important for us in order to articulate the gap between the existing paradigm and where we want to go. Without theory we could not make sense of the different events that happen around us and that would otherwise seem disconnected.… 
Naveh references such canonical elements of urban theory as the Situationist practices of dérive (a method of drifting through a city based on what the Situationists referred to as ‘psycho-geography’) and détournement (the adaptation of abandoned buildings for purposes other than those they were designed to perform). These ideas were, of course, conceived by Guy Debord and other members of the Situationist International to challenge the built hierarchy of the capitalist city and break down distinctions between private and public, inside and outside, use and function, replacing private space with a ‘borderless’ public surface. References to the work of Georges Bataille… also speak of a desire to attack architecture and to dismantle the rigid rationalism of a postwar order, to escape ‘the architectural strait-jacket’ and to liberate repressed human desires.
This is by far the weirdest thing I՚ve read recently. The whole article has a slightly unbelievable air to it, as if it was extracted from a Don Delillo or JG Ballard novel. The intrusion of a subfield of computer science that I have a tenuous connection to (swarm intelligence) adds to the unreality.

(h/t to Jordan Peacock, who has written a quite useful introduction to Deleuze and Guattari at Ribbonfarm)

[Addendum: some commenters missed the tone of the post and the cited article, which was awed but not exactly approving. And yeah, the use of radical philosophy (and even more so the work of the radically humanist Christopher Alexander) for the purposes of military occupation may be perverting it.]

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Software: Studied, World: Eaten

Well that was different. It՚s been a long time since I hung out in a real academic environment. The workshop was oriented around the organizer Warren Sack՚s book-in-progress, which is intended to connect the humanities and software in a variety of ways. The main goal was, I think, to explore and promote the idea that software is a bona fide medium of expression, which means at least (a) it is in some respects an extension of the unaided mind (b) and thus makes new forms of thinking possible, just as writing made new forms of art possible that were not available to the pre-literate, and (c) that software itself should be studied (and critiqued) as intellectual and artistic expression, just as we study and critique novels or paintings.

If this sounds too rarefied for what is usually thought of as an engineering discipline (and I admit that it does to me some of the time), the author is at least trying to ground his efforts in the works of certain famous and classic (and beyond dismissal) computer scientists, including Donald Knuth, Alan Kay, and Abelson and Sussman, all of whom were extremely technical but also accurately saw software and computation as important intellectual developments, not mere gadgetry.
The other important intellectual ground of the workshop was Marshall McLuhan and other media theorists, who emphasized the way in which media technologies have the power to reshape human thought and society.

Some secondary goals of the workshop:

(1) teasing out the non-technical intellectual roots of computational concepts, which are usually taken as givens that sprung fully-formed from the brow of Alan Turing. This is an entirely worthwhile project – somewhat more scholarly than the others – and it is one that connects to my own dissertation work. And it was the richest, newest, and best developed, in my inexpert opinion.

(2) trying to get humanists (artists, anthropologists, philosophers, etc) to understand software. Also a worthwhile project, but I wasn՚t sure the book՚s method, which consists of taking a few classic programs and attempting to step the reader through both their machinery and their intellectual background, was the best way to accomplish the goal. If I had a young arty, critique-y, politically intense young student who wanted to gain some understanding of the technological world, I՚d tell them to grab an Arduino and hang out in a hackerspace for a month and build a few things. Then they՚d have the necessary background to ask the right questions.

(3) trying to get technologists to think critically about the systems they build. This wasn՚t really a primary goal of the book, which seems to be strictly aimed at an academic market that is already open to interdisciplinary thought. But that idea is present in this community and from my outsider perspective seems to be one of the more important contributions it could make. As someone in industry, we build representations, abstraction, and systems all the time, and the ways we have for thinking about them are impoverished, we need all the help we can get.

So, combining all these goals sounds challenging; I think Warren is trying to do too many things at once. I empathize because I have the same problem when I try to write anything with more structure than a blog post – all the things I am interested in are connected and they all seem to want to be included.

A note on the workshop itself and interoperating with humanities types (cultural anthropologists, feminist studies people, etc): When I was in a 1-on-1 conversation or small circle, I had no problem at all in understanding these scholars and making myself understood. However, the larger-scale discussions seemed to devolve to a useless ritual of name dropping philosophers and flinging around trendy ideas (eg, yes, you can find racial or colonialist or militarist assumptions in software from the 60s/70s – so what? I know this, what I want to know is how to operate in the world even with all the racial and colonialist underpinnings that lie underneath it). This really grated on me; possibly it՚s because I am just not a native to this kind of discourse, but I suspect that something has gone wrong in academia. I՚m hardly the first to be unhappy with “critical theory” or whatever it is properly called, although I tend to be more sympathetic to it than your typical tech weenie (which is why I was there in the first place).

One of my right-wing trolls like to accuses academic critical theory as being symptoms of “cultural Marxism”, a program to subvert the West, but a real Marxist, if one could be found and dusted off, would scoff at this stuff because it is so goddamn inward. You can find coded racism all day long and not have any good ideas about what to do about it. And I think people in this world know it. The concepts of critical theory aren՚t that generative, and they don՚t fit naturally into the American mind. Phil Agre, my role model for this world, had the ability to digest this stuff, pull out key ideas, and express them in ways that were non-jargony and made technical sense. But he՚s not in the business any more, and I՚m not sure anybody else has really managed to move that particular ball further down the field.

Software on the other hand is eminently pragmatic: it gets stuff done. And the people who live inside it all day long tend to be gruff pragmatists themselves, without a lot of time or tolerance for the merely intellectual. This is a healthy attitude to some extent, but we are long past the point where software as a discipline has to grow up and acknowledge its connections to the rest of the human project. It is, of course, quickly infiltrating our social lives, our work lives, our political lives -- eating the world, in the celebratory/threatening tones of the industry. It hasn't yet interpenetrated very much with the world of ideas, which makes efforts like this workshop difficult, important, and exciting. We are in a revolutionary moment in history and it's eat or be eaten whether you are an anthropologist or an accountant.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brothers in Arms

I was at a family event in Chicago recently, and so naturally had a couple of run-ins with my wingnut brother, the one who not only reads Ann Coulter but hangs out with her. In other words, he lives in a moral/political reality as opposite as possible to mine. I don՚t think we planned it that way, but as an outcome it is almost tiresomely cliched, like those old movies where one brother becomes a cop and the other a gangster.

It doesn՚t take much to set us off. Since he was in town for his step-son՚s graduation from Northwestern, I quite innocently asked him about the commencement speaker, which led us by some inexorable process to the closest current wingnut political brainworm, namely being outraged that several such speeches by Republican types had been cancelled due to the Stalinist fervor of the politically correct. Condoleeza Rice, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christian Lagarde (head of the IMF) all have had their right to free speech gravely trampled on.

Natually I thought this was high-order bullshit, if only because people like that have absolutely no problem getting their views into the public sphere, whether or not a particular speaking gig is interfered with. Doesn՚t matter, because there is an infinite stock of equally lame reasons for frothing available to a member of the Fox News Borg. Soon after we had exhausted that topic, we somehow were onto how it was the fault of labor unions that the US economy was a basket case.

Later, a few minutes of Googling was enough to show that his whole spiel was even more bullshity than I had previously thought. Rice and Lagarde withdrew from speaking because they were faced with protests (that is, other people exercising their free speech rights). Ali՚s offer to be presented honorary degree at Brandeis was withdrawn when her remarks calling Islam “a nihilistic cult of death” came to light, but in the process of doing so the university extended her an offer to come be a speaker at any time, which was entirely proper, given that a commencement speech is an honor – universities should provide a place for controversial speakers to be heard, but not necessarily be granting them honoray degrees.

Well, despite severe temptation I didn՚t restart the argument when I saw him next. I didn՚t want to be the one to make a family gathering into a shouting match, and we managed to be relatively pleasant to each other for the rest of the trip. I don՚t regret that, but I do kind of regret not initiating the meta-conversation that might actually be interesting to me, if not him: how is that we have built for ourselves such entirely separate worlds of discourse? How is it that two people with the same background should fasten on such different understandings of how things are? This is what I wanted to say; and perhaps it would at least create a shared feeling of mutual incomprehension; allowing us to find common ground in our lack of common ground.

That did not happen, sadly. So I continue to think of him as a slave to crappy ideas that nobody with an ounce of an intelligence should take seriously, and he continues to think I՚m a boring member of (what he considers as) the establishment who doesn՚t have the courage to break with the mainstream. Our lives don't intersect very often, which may be for the best, since I can't imagine any way to reconcile our points of view.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Software Studies

Everyone I hope has read the classic and much-loved children՚s book The Phantom Tollbooth. But you may not remember that the plot revolves around a longstanding fraternal feud between the kings of two separate intellectual domains: Aziz, The King of Dictionopolis, ruler of the land of words, and the Mathemagician, whose domain is numbers. Until their conflict is reconciled, no peace can be found in the world of the mind. Like most wars, it seems almost senseless from the outside. What are these two kings fighting about? They each have their land and have no real use for the other՚s, so no material interest drives them. No, it must be some abstract war of pride and place, an eternal struggle for dominance between equal opponents. Certainly Milo, the protagonist (admittedly a bit dull) can՚t see the point of it.

This storybook war is quite obviously based on the real-world cultural disconnect between the humanities and the sciences. While this divide has been around forever and isn՚t going away anytime soon, fortunately there have always been plenty of people willing to be double agents and smugglers, engaging in valuable commerce between two realms that like to pretend that they have nothing to do with one another. I like to think that the computation is a major route for such intellectual vagabonds of uncertain loyalty, and certainly I՚ve always been drawn to those who expressly aim at transgressing the boundaries.

Computation was birthed by the sciences, and is in universities normally a branch of engineering or math departments, and computer people have always been mostly of that ilk. But there have always been other kinds of people involved: call them digital humanists, those who had deep roots in something more human than dry mathematics. Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson come to mind. The MIT Media Lab was initially created in the school՚s architecture department precisely to avoid being the narrow nerdish viewpoint of straight engineering. Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab in earlier decades were key early players there as well. Both of the latter were accomplished mathematicians but were not satisfied to work within the strictures of that field, and sought to find deep connections between mathematics, mind, and culture.

Perhaps its the influence of the Phantom Tollbooth that drew me to them; I՚ve tried to follow these luminaries in various ways and done my own bit to tunnel underneath the borders, although I wasn՚t always thinking of it in that way. At the the Media Lab, I was part of a cabal that was trying to be even more interdisciplinary than the official line, and so we explored connections between largely technical areas like AI and some of the more rarefied products of the humanities. This was in early 90s, more or less, so just before computers started the process of taking over all of human culture. Since then there has been a small and refined explosion of work in what is apparently now called “digital humanities”.

So I have been (out of the blue, and somewhat unaccountably) been invited to an academic workshop at UC Santa Cruz in this area (whose goal is producing a book for this series). This is a field which I have only a tenuous and out-of-date connection to, but I can՚t turn down a chance to live the life of the mind, if only for a day. But I don't really know what the hell is going on in this field. This post represents a few days of light cramming; I may have a post-workshop followup.

So what is digital humanities? Well, people in the traditional humanities (literature, arts, philosophy, and of course “critical theory”) are not stupid and can see just like everyone else that the world is getting eaten up by software and digital technology. This includes both the everyday human world that is their subject, and the professional academic world of teaching and publishing. Naturally they want to get a foothold in the eating side of this revolution, lest they among the eaten.

That is the crass way to think about it though. There is actually interesting stuff going on!

Some branches of digital humanities (not counting people who are more like new media artists here, to limit myself to the scholarly):
  • applying computational techniques to traditional questions in the humanities (eg, doing large-scale textual analysis to learn how language and idioms change over time)
  • media theory: taking the approach of an art historian / social theorist to the new forms of human communication such as the web and Facebook (hero: Marshall McLuhan)
  • software studies: treating computational artifacts themselves as texts to be analyzed; thinking about the role of human values in their creation.
The latter is the most apt to induce spluttering from a mainstream technologist (and hence is the most interesting -- the other aspects seem like worthwhile academic pursuits but don't seem like they are likely to rock my world). While Moby Dick and the source code of the Emacs editor I am using right now are both “texts” in some very abstract sense, they are pretty different kinds of things and it is not immediately clear that they cast any useful light on each other.

They do, of course, meet at one point: the human reader and writer. That is to say, the same person may at different time interacting, creating, interpreting both kinds of texts, along with many others. And it՚s not too much of a stretch to say that some of the mental machinery used for both kinds of texts is the same: both require parsing into small chunks with formal relationships to each other, for instance. Both require creativity in their creation, although of fairly different sorts. Literature requires creativity in its reception as well; does software? Arguably yes, especially in the common case where one programmer is trying to understand another՚s code (for purposes of fixing or extending it).

But the real thing that the humanities brings to the software table is the idea of critique, or in other words, the idea that it is a perfectly proper and useful thing to do to take a cultural product (aka text) and dissect the ways in which it works, how it relates to its subject matter and its audience, what it tries to say about the society that produced it and what it actually says, what effects it has on that society, what values it embodies, and what values we should be applying when we sit in judgement. And techniques for doing so.

This is something that is almost entirely missing from the engineering culture that most software people are trained in, and it's pretty clearly desperately needed. Software is eating the world, very smart people and corporations are busily figuring out how to eat faster and more effectively, and there needs to be better ways to think about this process, to critique it and possibly even resist or redirect it. I՚m not sure these obscure academic fields will do it, but they are better than nothing.

And I՚m looking forward to the day when software critics become major cultural players, passionate minds on the order of Pauline Kael or Lester Bangs who can teach us new ways to read the latest releases on Github.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Steelmanning the homophobes

A few days ago the popular left blogger Atrios asked why in the world did opponents of gay marriage care about it so much? Opposition to abortion is understandable – the story about baby-killing is easy to get even if you disagree – but why should people get exercised to such an extent over granting some rights to others that don՚t affect them personally? The answers his commenters provided were not that impressive, they were all variations on: they are assholes, they are afraid of their own urges, they are worried that their social privileges are under attack. etc. An example:
Bearpaw01 • 2 days ago
They care because privilege.

Also, at least some of them care because they're so fucking deep in the closet that they furiously resent the happiness of anyone who isn't.
Those sort of explanations have a degree of validity – I have no particular objections to ad hominem – but they lack something: a sympathetic understanding of the other person՚s point of view. That is, they are descriptions from the outside, which may be quite accurate, but do not reflect the internal experience and thinking of the person in question. That is, they are not proper answers to the question of how homophobes justify their beliefs to themselves. If you find yourself sputtering that these people don՚t deserve to be understood because they or their opinions are awful, well, that is the problem I՚m talking about.

This attitude works fine if you have given up on actually communicating with these people, if you are willing to treat them as wholly other, as mere enemies. And pretty much we have, and by “we” I mean sane intelligent people generally. We are pretty much convinced that the right wing is comprised entirely of people who are insane, morons, corrupt, or some mixture of the three. There is plenty of evidence for this view, of course. But we still have to share a world with them. It feels naive (or more precisely – it violates my self-image as a cynic) but I do actually believe in dialog between enemies. If there is any value to politics at all, then it must be as the pragmatic art of figuring out how to live with people you consider awful, and if you aren't going to hold them at bay by force you have to talk with them.

One of the practices of the rationalist community that I like a lot (actually I figured it out as a principle for myself long ago, but never had a catchy name for it) is steelmanning, roughly, the opposite of employing straw-man tactics in an argument. Instead, you aim your attacks at the strongest arguments for an opponents position, and that way if and when you defeat him you know you have won a genuine intellectual victory, not a mere tactical skirmish.

What I՚m trying to talk myself into here is not exactly steelmanning, because I՚m not that much of a rationalist. I՚m not interested so much in comparing the strength of opponent՚s arguments with my own, because I don՚t really believe there is a common currency that would permit comparison. Both our worldviews are strong for us, but weak for each other. What I am advocating is something more like intellectual empathy, or the imaginative entry into the mind of someone whose values and background may be quite different from your own. This of course is challenging and possibly unpleasant.

Can this be applied to opponents of gay marriage? The standard Bay Area attitude, which I usually share, is that these people are simply jerks trying to interfere with other people՚s rights and happiness just because they are different. But I՚ve studied them a bit, and there are two arguments I have seen them make that seem worth taking a tiny bit seriously. One of them is actually a pretty good argument, although not nearly strong enough to sway the question in their favor. The other is a very bad argument, but it is bad in a way that interests me, since it bears on certain philosophical obsessions.

First, the good argument: Opponents of gay marriage complain that it attacks or “destroys” so-called “traditional marriage”. This mystifies people like Atrios, and me too when I՚m not in deliberate-empathy-for-the-enemy mode. I have quite a traditional marriage and I don՚t feel the slightest threat to it from letting gay people participate in the institution (why shouldn't they suffer along with the rest of us?). But the opponents are quite right, and I wrong, in one very specific sense: marriage is more than just an individual decision that has affects only the two participants. It՚s in part a public, social act, and as such it is an institution of society, and redefining what it means does in fact impact everyone in some way. It doesn՚t destroy the old institution, as opponents like to put it, but it does change it, and we should be honest and acknowledge the fact.

So if we are honest, and we should be, we are kidding ourselves by pretending that the question is merely one of individual rights, because that is a lie. And more specifically, it is a lie that works against the real interests of the left when we buy into it, because it denies the reality of the social.

Understanding the logic of this argument doesn՚t explain the passion that often lies behind it, which was what we were originally interested in. These people not only believe in society and its institutions, but they believe that they are fragile and in constant danger of collapse, or that they have indeed already collapsed. Nostalgia is a big thing on the right, for what are supposed to be simpler and more honest times (this lost golden age may be anything from the 1950s to the 15th century. Gay marriage is just another attack on the fundamental structures of society by its enemies. In short, they feel embattled and fearful. They sense quite rightly the slow but unstoppable shifts in the world, and change is scary, so they want to stop it. So much so that they think (consciously or not) that gay couples are getting married just to mess with them. This is absurdly self-centered of course, but that is how most human thought operates, most of the time. So rather than see gay people who just want to live their lives and be treated in the same way as anybody else, they seem them as primarily a threat to the order of society, and to the moral order of reality.

Well that was an interesting exercise (the second argument, the bad but philosophically resonant one, will have to wait for another time). I՚m trying to work up empathy for other people՚s lack of empathy. It may appear to be morally pretentious, but in my defense I can honestly claim to be largely motivated out of boredom with ossified ways of thinking, rather than some aspiration to sainthood.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day 2014

I have a tradition here on the blog of grappling with holidays that don՚t really work for me the way they are supposed to. It՚s not celebrating them exactly, but it is doing them a bit more honor than just going shopping or firing up the grill.

On Memorial Day, where we are supposed to be thinking of those who gave their lives for their country, I tend to think of those whose lives were impacted by war in all the other possible ways besides being a soldier – being a victim, for instance, or refusing to participate, or finding a larger cause to dedicate themselves to. I guess there is an element of snobbery there, for which I apologize. But it՚s also a function of my background – my father was a Czech Jew who served in the British Army during WWII, and I came of age during the Vietnam era, which did not inspire much patriotic war fever. So like many vaguely leftish people, I am in the position of trying to love my country while hating the larger part of what it does.

But the day is about the people who sacrificed, not the cause they sacrificed for. I think of them enlisting, with enthusiasm or trepidation or a simple sense of duty. It՚s an alien experience for me, and I admit to a surprising touch of envy: to immerse yourself so totally in a collective cause must be liberating in a way. We all must serve something greater than ourselves; how convenient to have that need packaged up in an institution for you. Us draft-dodger types have to work hard to figure out what we are fighting for and how to fight for it, and most of our efforts are dissipated by lack of effective institutions. The war against war involved some real risk too, and I՚m glad those who died in that struggle have a memorial. But on this holiday, let us forget the sides, the countries, the causes, the enmities, and think about what binds together all those who have risked themselves to fight for something they believed in.

Some of those beliefs may have been wrong, stupid, or evil, but I give the grunts the benefit of the doubt: they may have enlisted in a bad cause for good reasons. Finding yourself betrayed by your own bad judgement is one of the risks of war.

Here's a veteran describing with controlled anger his treatment at the hands of the VA. This issue has gotten plenty of airing lately; I don't have much to add. But it occurs to me that this country no longer has a functioning upper class. If I was a member of the aristocracy (say, a scion of an old WASP family like the Bushes) I think I'd take some pains to take care of veterans, given that I expect further generations of the working class to go risk their lives for my interests. Given that we treat them like dirt, I can only assume that either nobody is running the country, or the people who do feel that they don't have much need for soldiers. Or, and I think this is the most probable and most terrifying, there are people running the country but they have not got a clue about how to protect either their own or their country's real long-term interests.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

“Anarchist Conference Devolves Into Chaos”

Who could have predicted?

Watch more The Name videos on Frequency

More here. In fairness to the cause, I have been to plenty of anarchist events that did not devolve into chaos; that this one did and that that was notable says something.

In this particular case, I think the culprit is not anarchism per se as much as it is the culture of aggressive victimhood that seems to be taking hold among college-age youth. People seem to feel they have a right to not have their feelings hurt that trumps everything else. This is very broken and I hope it fixes itself, and I say this from a leftist position. This preoccupation with internal feelingns and symbolic action is the enemy of real political action.

It is completely unclear from the video and any associated links what the speaker, Kristian Williams, had done to merit being shouted down. As best as I can figure out it is stems from an article he wrote called The Politics of Denunciation where he dives into this exact issue. So of course the fact that he was shouted down is excellent evidence for his own thesis. He notes that attempts to police the movement for purity are counterproductive:
At issue here are strikingly different visions of what a political movement ought to be.

In one vision, a movement and the people who make it up should be in every respect beyond reproach, standing as an example, a shining city on a hill, apart from all the faults of our existing society. To achieve this perfection, we have to separate the sheep from the goats, the good people from the bad, the true feminists from everyone else. This outlook produces, almost automatically, a tendency to defer to the dogma of one's in-group. It is not enough simply to do the right things; one must also think the right thoughts and find favor with the right people.

In contrast, in the other vision, a movement should attract people to it, including damaged people, people who have done bad things, and those who are still in the process of figuring out their politics. It will require us, therefore, to address sexual assault and other abuse by actually engaging with the people who do such things. We have to struggle with them as much as we struggle against oppression.
Seems about right to me. Of course both Mr. Williams and I have (at least some subset of) white male straight cis privilege, so wtf do we know?

One more note: this whole fracas may seem ridiculous to anyone who is not involved in alternative politics or is over the age of 25. I don՚t think so, because: the world desperately needs some well-organized opposition to entrenched power. Episodes like this just means that the alternative cultures are just as fucked as the mainstream; both are fiddling to amuse themselves while the planet burns.