Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Evils of Codification

Hearsay about Korea

A lot of people I went to grad school with have taught or are now teaching in Korea. A few of them never want to come back. Most hate Korea with all of hell's fury.

"I don't want to simplistically vilify an entire nation, but . . ."


Confucianism is hard for the non-native practitioner. Get-to-know-you questions like "How much money do you make? Are you married? Why not? Do you have children? How many are boys?" strike a lot of Americans as weird. Also weird for Americans is that this information is being ascertained so that Koreans will know how deeply to bow, who should enter rooms first, and what verb tenses to use.

Formalism gives me good feelings, personally. It reminds me of Jane Austin novels.

What sends my colleagues fleeing like pitiful hipster refugees, though, is not the formalism. It's that the formalism seems to psychologically absolve people of their social responsibilities. So long as you've kept to the code in terms of who sits down first and who you can smoke in front of, you're free to be barbarously terrible to people in all other matters.

I've never actually been to Korea. I have no idea if any of this is true. But something like this does, I think, happen with codification.

The invention of currency

The anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has a new book on debt. He says that (contrary to popular opinion) credit came first, to be followed by bartering, and then coinage. Because we moderns usually think about credit in terms of dollar-denominated ledgers, we get things confused, and assume that credit was the most recent invention.

Our confusion comes from our failure to imagine a world in which credit was not denominated. In primitive societies, you let someone stay over or let him eat one of your cows, and he tried to do something equivalent when you were needing and he was capable.

When this changed, it ushered in a wave of violence.

Why? Why does putting things in numbers make everyone evil? I think because of transferability. When debts could be precisely reckoned, recorded, and transferred, it allowed some pretty absurd levels of obligation to pile up. And when the moral terror involved in calling in these kinds of debts could be transferred to banks, governments, and other non-human entities, we could commit our atrocities by proxy, and never really think about what we were doing.

Jesus

God damn it if anarchism doesn't get its claws in you. You start by reading Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul because you don't like wars and the federal reserve, and then pretty soon the bible is, like, all about love and coercion, man.

In the bible, God makes man and puts him in this garden with this evil no-good Tree of Codification. Something like that. (Did you read my story, "The Tree", yet?) Man eats from it and starts codifying. Laws, money, you name it. God smiles and gives them a code that's explicitly impossible to keep.


And as we all know, "when the great Tao is declined/The doctrines of humanity (jen) and righteousness (yi) arose/When knowledge and wisdom appeared/There emerged great hypocrisy."

So stuff got bad. Codification hit fever pitch, and then God came down in the flesh and hung out with prostitutes, worked on the sabbath, and told a lot of parables about calling in debts and forgiving them.

He dies (quite artistically) on a tree, the Tree of Anti-Codification, and says (and I quote): "Look guys, here's the deal. You all have an insurmountable debt to me. If you want codification, I'll classify you, and you won't like it. If you want to call in your debts, I'll call yours in, and you're fucked. But here's another game we can play: the one we were playing before you picked the no-no tree. We can abide by the spirit of the law (it's more like guidelines, really), and not the letter. We can just try to be excellent to each other."

The point


I have absolutely no point. Maybe it's that humans can't draw for the same reason that governments suck and life is desperate and terrible, and Levi should move to Fannin County.

Or maybe this is just what happens when the anarchy tumor spreads up the stem of your brain.






Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Port Pairing, Space Pirates, and the Meaning of Life

When I was a kid with a 300 bps modem, I would dial into the local BBS and play a game called TradeWars 2002. TradeWars was one of the early online multiplayer worlds, and it functioned in much the same way its modern daughter universes do: you log in, you pick a name, start making money, make alliances, and live out the story of your secondary life.

An awesome view of the galaxy.


People plug into their matrix-es (matrices?) of choice for complicated reasons. One TED Talk I watched proposed that these artificial worlds have more justice than ours, so that effort and reward are more humanely correlated. Speaking for myself, I have to disagree. There are plenty of monotonous tasks I could choose for myself where effort and a meaningless, symbolic reward walked in lock-step. I could dig a hole in my back yard, and get my sweat's worth or dirt for every plunge of the shovel. For me, TradeWars was about narrative. It was about living out the kind of story that I couldn't otherwise live with a 13-year-old's resources.

There was, though, a strange breed of players that played TradeWars like a backyard shovel. These were the port-pairers.

Without struggle, any universe will get boring. (Life ain't all roses 'cause roses ain't fun.) In the TradeWars universe, as in ours, economic scarcity made our decisions more difficult and our winnings more proudly hard-won. One does not simply speak his rebel star empire into existence. One must find adjacent trading ports, and buy organics and raw ore for one dollar to sell them for two.  One must do this until he can buy weapons, planets, and ships. Only then can go on killing sprees, birth colonies, capture Tholian Sentinals, join the underground, storm the Ferengi citadel, or whatever.

But every now and again, you'd find strange players who seemed to have forgotten about this second part. They logged in and simply paired ports. They traded. They made money. And when they had enough money, they bought bigger ships and more cargo holds, and continued the process on a larger scale. It baffled me. Such a strange misuse of a person's time, this seemed. I'd rather watch an infomercial. I'd rather sleep. At least in sleep there is dreaming. This was like picking up a novel so you could count the letters on each page. 

I hadn't thought about TradeWars all that much lately until I was on the phone the other day with my cousin Levi. He was talking about people at his actuarial firm. The people where he works either refuse to believe him or are deeply freaked out when they learn (for instance) that he lived in a mud hut in Namibia for two years, or wants to live in a self-sufficient anarchist-agrarian commune. They also, apparently, aren't impressed by his paperclip necklaces. Me and Lee talk to each other as people with twenty years' worth of girlfriends, books, and inside jokes in common do. Lots of shorthand and metaphors. Some of these involve TradeWars.

So Levi's venting about someone at the office, and says:
"Man, just go pair your ports."
It hit me. My God. That same feeling. I get it. This is why I'm freaked out by most professionals. This is why I'm uneasy. They're pairing ports. Getting a job so they can get more experience and get the next job. Buying a plane ticket so they can seal the deal so they can buy another plane ticket. Where's the narrative? When is someone going to strap on an eye patch, helm their Havoc GunStar, and try to blow up stardock? Something central to my psyche tells me that the reason that we go through the drudgery of everyday life is that we have to, to be able to purchase the stuff of real stories. Burning your career down makes sense to me. Moving to the Philippines to learn staff fighting also sounds like a great narrative twist. Instead, the world of my grown-up associates is eerie, and without story. It's surreal. Like a dead door game on some ancient BBS that hasn't been dialed into for years, populated with orphan bots, saving up credits till the sysop runs the EXE to rebang and the stars fall out of the sky.

Maybe this is what they call growing up.

I'd just as soon stop playing.

I've got enough credits for a few limpet mines and a Scout Marauder. Damn the credits. I want a story. Hail me if you want in.




Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Technological Unemployment, Looking Busy, and My Adventures in the Useless Future.

My Google+ feed, my RSS feed, and Hacker News have all been suggesting to me lately what while we blame China, Obama, and whoever else it is that we like to blame, one of the big reasons for the current low employment rates is efficiency.

This is a robot, I think.
 I found it on Google Image Search.


The old Luddite fears seem to have been somewhat founded. Factories are making cars and needing less workers to do it. Brad McClenny (who sits in the office next to mine), armed with the internet, MS Word, machine translation, and digital phones, runs the international student program for our college in a way that it took a team of three people to do ten years ago (Kathy, Amanda, and that other girl).

As a starry-eyed libertarian, I try to believe that for every job that efficiency kills, we'll get other ones, as all of the unemployed people begin to invent killer iPhone apps and musical masterpieces that we all can't live without, and sell them to the people holding the remaining old-school jobs. It might be true. It would be cool.

Another thing that might be cool (in a starry-eyed not-libertarian way) would be transitioning into something like the Star Trek economy, where there is sufficient efficiency to guarantee everyone exactly the clothes and meals they want replicated, and we spend our time following our callings, quite aside from any need for money. This would take futuristic levels of automation and efficiency. It would also take redistribution. Some historical re-distributive plans in other countries got ugly. Americans are taught about these in school, and don't like them. I don't think that America will go for this kind of re-distribution anytime soon. Well, not if we know we're going for it.

Earl Grey, hot.


I work at a college. I smoke outside at the smoker's corner with a bunch of foul-mouthed students. I'm not supposed to smoke in front of students. I'm young, though, so if I take off my suit jacket and my name tag, I blend in pretty well. I haven't been censured yet.

While I smoke, students talk. Most of these students are right about to get their associates degree in interior design and quickly thereafter go off to make six figures. They're investing in their futures. Here at Grayson College, they're almost all investing taxpayer money. It pays the professors' paychecks. It's a really nice arrangement for all of us.

One of the reasons that I got hired was that our old ESL program tanked. Students weren't learning English. It wasn't a problem for us: our international students did just fine here. But then strangely, when they'd finish up here and transfer to a four year university, they kept being turned away because their English skills were quite something below the level required to respond to arcane and complicated utterances like "Hi, what's your name?"


I kind of look like a student.


It never posed a problem for them at our college. Speaking the language of instruction, turning in papers, understanding coursework, and passing tests are necessary if you want a 4.0, but entirely optional if you only need to graduate. The students were happy. They got their money from the government (of Gabon) and got to live abroad, hang out, dress up nice, and post Facebook statuses about their glorious international lives. The students were, in fact, so happy, that sometimes they'd study for ten years at our two-year college. The college was happy. Professors got paid. Things were humming along. But the universities that we sent our international students to weren't happy. For whatever reason.

The practice of graduating students who didn't speak a common language with their professors ended up being hard for people to swallow, so we changed it. It's just too obvious. No one will believe that a student was educated if he can't tell you the name of the class he was in. Graduating native English speakers without educating them is hugely easier. It'd actually be really hard not to do it and keep the board of directors happy.

We all know that the game is about looking busy, and keeping the money circulating, even within the organization. Meetings are called with no real business at hand, because "they'll start to think we don't do anything down here if we don't have another meeting." An administrator closes down departments and creates new ones, frankly so he can be seen as an "agent of change."

Whatever we're not accomplishing here, it can't be denied that we're getting something done in terms of the distribution of wealth. Thousands of students and hundreds of professors who might otherwise be unemployed have dignity and money. They're not looked upon as bums or leeches by the local public. We look at them and say something about our glorious future. Maybe we're right. Maybe our glorious future is all of us trying to look busy so people don't feel so weird about the redistribution.

God, isn't my blog awesome? You should totally RSS it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Why People Hate James Altucher (by Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I'm a semi-popular blogger. The grand plan is to someday become the world's first (millionaire) professional philosopher-blogger. As such, I follow a couple blogger luminaries who seem to me to talk straight wisdom. Not just "blah blah blah iPhone JSON congress," but stuff I can take and home and use to change my mind, and my life.

One of these is Venkatesh Rao.

Another is James Altucher.


Ok. I just heard the crowd scream "booo." I'll put off checking feedburner for a while to see how many of you quit my RSS. If you don't know who Altucher is, this post will be meaningless to you; skip it.

If you do, you're either a die-hard fan or a hater. Probably a hater. Why? That's what I'm going to try to figure out.

Altucher is a guy who made one hundred bazillion dollars in the tech boom and then lost it all. He's tried to be an entrepreneur, go player, writer, and a half a dozen other things, in turns (or possibly at the same time). He admits this with scandaous candor (shouldn't he be ashamed!?). He writes honestly about times when he's been on top of the world and had no fucking idea what he was doing. He writes honestly about tricking his wife into loving him. He just writes honestly. And he gets a lot of mail, much of it containing the words "fucking" and "idiot." He recently wrote a post speculating about why this might be (maybe these people had hard lives and their mothers didn't love them?) I have my own ideas. Well, not my own.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson)

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instil is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

Altucher says what he thinks. How dare he. Where are the citations? A man can't just go around saying what he thinks. Who does he think he is, Ghandi? He's not even dead yet, or the founder of a religion. Doesn't he know that thought is the exclusive prerogative of the dead?

The nonchalance of boys who are sure of a dinner, and would disdain as much as a lord to do or say aught to conciliate one, is the healthy attitude of human nature. A boy is in the parlour what the pit is in the playhouse; independent, irresponsible, looking out from his corner on such people and facts as pass by, he tries and sentences them on their merits, in the swift, summary way of boys, as good, bad, interesting, silly, eloquent, troublesome. He cumbers himself never about consequences, about interests: he gives an independent, genuine verdict. You must court him: he does not court you.
Altucher doesn't care what you think. Isn't that what you're supposed to learn in college? Be conciliatory. Don't talk controversy. Hedge. What are you, a child? (Maybe the best thing I learned this year (hat-tip Johnstone, Venkat) was that adults are atrophied adults.)

I shun father and mother and wife and brother, when my genius calls me. I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.

Altucher values himself.  He links himself. He talks about himself as if he's interesting. That internalized restraint, ten thousand years in the offing (ever since the sedentary shift (buy my book!)) is somehow lessened in him. The asshole.

Ultimately, my take? People are jealous. Did you ever get furious in college when the dumb girl who wouldn't stop raising her hand told the class about something, yet again? That idea you already had, of course, bu weren't so annoying you'd say it? I did. I've come to see it as seething subconscious jealousy. Hatred for our own chains, and the fact that she's not dutifully wearing them.



----------
Hi. Blog post is done. 

Now, 

(1) RSS me. (Don't worry, you'll love it. I'm a genius.)

(2) Read about my book and tell me if you'd buy it.
(3) Buy Ralph Waldo Emerson's Self-Reliance.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Never say "no." Negotiations, the Japanese way.

I was a kid, an anthropology student, at the bar with my bad-ass cousin Dave Yaeger. Dave, in a way, lived my dream. Texas Instruments flew him all around Asia to do something—I don't know what— involving silicon chips. I launched my routine language-bother.

Me: "How do you say 'hello' in Japanese?
Dave: "sdf;lkjasdf"                     (look man, I don't remember)
Me: "Awesome! How do you say 'no'?"
Dave: "You don't."


Dave said that in Japan people circumnavigate and imply instead of refusing things. A few years later, on the subject of business deals, Dr. Thomas Ricento clarified, giving me the fateful socio-linguistic insight that turned into a way of life:

"Instead of saying 'no', just make the terms of agreement impossible."

I think that the Japanese are on to something. The fact is, my "yes" always has a price. There is always a "yes, if " that I can wholeheartedly mean.

There was a time in my life when I made $18 an hour teaching free workforce ESL classes in a community center. I had already been a professor and a writer, and I felt like this was one of my life's major downswings.  I had moved back in with my parents and felt like a complete waste of humanity. I got an offer for a $50/h full-time job writing textbooks. "Quit!" everyone said. I did. In a way.

I made an offer: "I love workforce ESL, and I'd love to stay here. Care raising my pay to $50 an hour?"

They said no.

This was, of course, patently absurd. My boss didn't even make that much. I was soon writing textbooks. You could say that all I did by asking was waste a few minutes of my time. Maybe.

Eventually, the textbook company went bankrupt. (It was absentee-run by an American expat on a beach in Thailand who was prone to impromptu month-long disappearances from the grid. Freaking cool guy, actually.) I scored an adjunct gig at the local college. It was hard times, again, and I was applying everywhere. I got a few strong maybes from the Georgetown English Language Fellows Program and an Emirati college, and later a solid offer from Yasar University in Izmir.

Serendipitously, I was introduced to my college vice president at an otherwise pointless thing that involved meatballs and powerpoints. She asked if I would stay around for the next semester.
Nnnn . . .yes.
. . . if, 
. . . well, the Emiratis pay $50K tax-free and throw in a house, a car, and private school for my kids. . . . so, yes, I'd love to keep working at Grayson, just {patently absurd demands listed here}.

I'm the only guy I've ever heard of working in college governance at under 30 years old.







Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Fixed gear bikes and programming languages (or, "This language is AWESOME: it can't do anything!")

Austin is Texas's San Francisco. I hate San Francisco. Well, I love San Francisco. I love-hate San Francisco. And Austin.

What I love about these places is their intellectual ferment and diversity of things to do. (Wanna play go? There's a free class by a 3-dan player at the Dobie Mall. Wanna learn Esperanto? Talk to Anderson at the go club.) What I hate is fixed gear bicycles. Fixies. 


When you ride a fixie, there's a certain kind of hat you're supposed to wear. Also, you need to put a playing card in the spokes. Also, fixed gear bikes are SO much better. Why? Because you can't shift gears. It's harder. It makes you a stronger bicyclist. Why be a stronger bicyclist? So you can ride your fixie without being winded. Why not just keep your old bike and choose not to shift gears? Because, man, just because.

Imposing needless difficulties on yourself to make yourself better can be a good thing. The Spartans opted not to build walls around their cities so soldiers would have to be more on-guard and ready for battle. I think it mostly worked out for them. A tribe in Africa refuses to sweep their floors with long-handled brooms because doing housework without back pain is just lazy. I don't know how that's working out. Sometime artificial difficulties are used to make you better. Other times they're kept around to signal status, folksy wisdom, totems, or team spirit.

Prolog taught me to think declaratively, and FORTH taught me to write re-invent a thousand wheels. There are tasks I would choose implement in these languages even if I knew I could do the same in something mainstream. But the real gifts of these explorations have been the satoris they have given me. Having cried in the dojo, I can laugh on the battlefield. Having removed the ankle-weights, I come back to Basic a stronger man.

I can always shift gears when I come up against a big hill. But I don't have to.



If you read this far, you should definitely RSS me, vote me up, send me fan mail, and all that. Also, I'm having a hard time deciding if I should write a book. If you have an opinion, it would mean a hell of a lot to me if you said so on this two-click form.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Go-bags and escape routes: your master plan when the shit hits the fan.

One of my best friends, let's call him Li Po (李白),  once had a pretty serious run-in with the federal government. It's a good story, involving Africa and anarchy, but I can't tell it to you.

I will tell you that the other night at 1:30 AM he got a knock at his door, and he grabbed the go-bag.



The knock was from a cute drunk stranger girl who rapidly became Po's friend. The go-bag is the portable toolkit for escaping this life and making another. In Po's case there is no physical bag, but he does have a well-considered escape plan, and several useful items for When The Shit Hits the Fan.

So fast forward. It's 1:30 AM last night, and I'm doing wine and machetes with Sgt. Matt Locke. Matt, too, has had some uncomfortable encounters the powers. Not least of which when he arrived to his army base having been AWOL for weeks, wearing Buddhist monk robes and refusing to re-deploy. I was telling Matt about Li Po, and Matt mentioned that he had a go-bag too. I started studying up.

Types of go-bags

There are apparently two types of go-bags. There is the "get me to a non-extradite country or a or one that doesn't care" go-bag, and there's the "I just need a tent in Montana and the open sky, screw civilization" go-bag.


I like civilization. Even prisons have conjugal visits. But I'm told that if you want to stock a bag for the most-days escape of humanity, some things to have are:

  • A fixed blade
  • A multi-tool
  • A waterproof sack
  • Baby wipes
  • Flashlights
  • A compass
  • A high-scale area map
  • Cord and rope
  • Duct tape
  • Rappelling rope and gear
  • Refillable water bottles
  • Socks
  • Baby powder
  • A collapsing pan
  • Magnesium fire starter with flint strike edge
  • Guns and ammunition. Tons of ammunition.

The ex patria go-bag is different. Here's what I've found in those:

  • Cash
  • A GoPhone and GoPhone charge cards, paid for in cash
  • A birth certificate bearing the name of a stranger (Read Paper Trip)
  • A passport
  • The Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable
  • Clothes that you would never normally wear (if you're a businessman, think skater punk)

While I'm new to the go-bag game. I do have some suggestions. I realize that I'm compromising my own plan by talking about this, but I figure no one's probably coming after me, and I'm not enough of a high-level target for the government to assign people to see if I mention anything compromising my plan in old blog posts. (Ok, I'm also planning on deleting this article after it's had its run.)

The ingredients I would add to the aforementioned tool kits are these little known facts:

  • The Pasporta Servo is a service run by Esperanto speakers all over the world who house and feed each other when travelling for free. Esperantists are bizarre, free people, who do not blindly love their countries.
  • There is a ferry in the town of Los Ebanos, Texas which serves as a little-trafficked official border crossing to Mexico. The ferry is pulled by ropes which are pulled by strong Mexicans. Document checks for people going into Mexico are non-electronic.
  • The World Citizen Passport is a junk passport, available to anyone, which was invented by a peace activist. It has somehow managed to obtain legal recognition in Ecuador. Ecuador is awesome.
  • There are many routes to EU citizenship for Americans of Irish or Italian descent. Italian citizenship is the easiest: if you have an Italian last name, you're basically in. The process takes a year or two, and is something that should be affected before TSHTF, but an EU-flavored passport will let you live and work in any one of the union's 27 countries.
  • Andorra has no extradition treaty with the US, and has a freakishly high standard of living.

Go-bag plans, like zombie apocalypse plans, do something cathartic for me, perhaps because they allow me to imagine the inhumanities of my present life being washed away. For other people, they're serious business.
 
Do you have a go-bag? I'd love to hear about it.

Why God Hates German Words

My grandmother had strong words for me.

Who the hell taught her how to use facebook, and why?

I had used the word "hell" in a facebook post. I didn't say "Hell is a wonderful empire, to which I swear my allegiance." I didn't even say "Dude, go to hell. I hate you." I said something like "Hell, I'll give them all to you right now for $9.95."

She drove to my house and scolded me. Just one more infernal consequence of the Battle of Hastings.


When the Normans came, they brought French. They enslaved the old German speakers of Britain, and the language of the people who bathed more often was, for centuries to come, Romance. Over time the languages fused into English, but the man in the high castle still tended to use his Roman words, and the man on the street still tended to use his old dumb ones. When a man on the street wanted to sound smart, he could try to pass for blue-blooded by switching words like "friendly" for "amicable", or "smart" for "intelligent."  It still happens. Lawyers are far too sophisticated for the oldspeak. Policemen, charged with high office but often born of a commoner strain, struggle with sloppy mismatches, calling a suspect "the individual," in utter subconscious terror of being labeled the sort of guy who uses the word "man."

Old religious words and words for bodily functions had it especially bad under the new regime. "Intercourse" is fine, but saying "fuck" is just mean. Grandma hates hell, but wouldn't bat an eye if I was looking for my other infernal shoe.

As with every other oppression in Christendom, justifications for this bigotry were soon found in the bible. Among my favorite tortured verses is Jesus's:

"You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned."

I'm told "empty words" are those Germanic ones from Carlin's list. Nevermind that "brood of vipers" is pretty precisely the Hellenistic phrase for "sons of bitches." 

The bible is full of this sailor-speak. 

And I'm convinced that Paul would have called the Corinthians fuck-ups, if his century were within reach of so perfect a word.

--

Oh hi there, Hacker News. Someone apparently submitted this and it's doing pretty well. Some sort of HN or reddit flare-up happens with more of my posts than not, and it always has me wanting to find a way to capitalize on it and become some professional writer-philosopher. One with muscles and a serious artist face.  Hey, a boy has got to dream. Anyways, I can write stuff. I'm a little bit smart. You should totally hire me or something. kenmyers@gmail.com. Or what if I wrote a book? Would that work? If I've got, like, 140 RSS subscribers, but 50,000 hits a month through sites like HN and reddit, do you think that's enough of a following to get me somewhere? Talk to me.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Google+ Venn Diagrams

The killer feature of Google+ is that you can put your friends into circles. (I've also noticed that the sky is blue, and water is wet.) But I think G+ needs one more tweak.

I became a true believer in Google+, an absolute convert, completely repentant of my tawdry affair with the facebox, today, when I wanted to post something on the theme of sexual intercourse.

It was at that moment that I realized that the names of my circles were all euphemisms.


The cutesy names for all my circles could be described in more formulaic prose as:

"People with whom I can talk about  without annoying them, scandalizing them, or starting a pointless argument."

This is incredible. And given the ability to create multiple affiliations, it's no problem tagging Levi as an anarchist, singularitarian, libertine, programmer, and friend.  

(The USS Prometheus has dual affiliations. So useful.)

This is almost social networking valhala. A million perfect personal bubble filters. I can be the whole me (or at least all the different mes I want to be.) Almost.

Here's the problem. Sometimes this happens:


What if I want to talk about sex and anarchy? Then what do I do? The circles betray me. I have to nominate recipients individually.

If Google+ allowed us to post to category intersections, for example "programmers who are moms" or "Christians who aren't offended by the word 'fuck'", I think that it would solve all the world's many problems.

Maybe it's not a feature that everyone would use. I think the mavens would use it, though, and their early loud-mouthed migrations to the clearly superior network would get things going for Google+ (as if things weren't already "going.")

And then it's onward to the land rush. And the eternal September.  





You should seriously consider RSSing my blog. I mean, have you read it? Wow. Some stuff, this. I had a global reach higher than James Altucher's for one week in May. We can do better than that, guys, I know it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why humans can't draw

When humans draw things, most of the time the product is something that wouldn't easily be confused with a photograph.

I lifted these prime examples, like a pirate, from the blog Bad Drawings of Famous Musicians.

I used to draw pretty badly myself before I discovered the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain some years ago, and literally became a decent artist in one minute, in a profound moment of enlightenment. I'm not joking. I never finished the book. I didn't have to. In my life, this was one of those game-changing books of quintessence.

Ok, so I'm not DaVinci, but to have gone in one minute from one who draws stick figures to one who draws recognizable likenesses feels like hearing God.

The life-changing insight was this: humans draw badly because they think in symbols. When we see a person's eye, our brain converts it to a symbol in the course of identifying it with the category of "eyes". We strip off data. We generalize. What comes out when we try to draw an eye ends up being pretty hieroglyphic.

So we draw this . . . 


as this . . .



Even as you think about the dissimilarity, you're probably still not doing it justice, because your brain is still doing its interpretive thing.

One awesome hack of a solution to the interpretive problem is to divide images up in ways where your brain can't recognize anything that has a match in its hieroglyphics archive. If you're drawing from a photo, you can cover up parts of the photo, leaving a visible square that doesn't look like anything that activates a definition. If you're hard core, you can then obscure things even more by rotating it.


With enough obfuscation, you should get to a place where you can see things as they truly are, and when you draw the lines and fill in the dark and light places as you see them with your unbiased eye, you'll likely produce something that looks a heck of a lot more like reality.

Of course the ultimate goal is to be able to see things as they are without needing to obfuscate. After a while you get to a point where you can just turn your interpretive machinery off. (Warning: this gives you a surprising euphoria if you're not already used to doing it. It feels really good to give that stuff a rest.)

So with this revelation I learned to draw. Yea! Go back to Hacker News now and vote me up. 

. . .

. . . Ok. And I may have learned something about living. Why am I typing this. (Hey Megan, I love you.)

The Tao Te Ching was another game-changing book of quintessence for me. Oh God, I know how your interpretive machinery just simplified me.

Taoism contends that people can get trapped in words, concepts, and "isms." When I was a kid I attended to an academic debate on the internet about whether or not the Taoist writer Chuang Tzu had been the world's first anarchist. The consensus that came out of the discussion was that Chuang Tzu would give the finger to anarchism itself because it was too still too much of an "ism," and the word was too much of a commitment.

Concepts can disadvantage us (and benefit us) in some ways because they're imprecise, but they're traps because they're commitments. I've spoken before about how I hate dichotomies like "I'm an intellectual, not a jock." But far more deleterious to our happiness, I think, are concepts like, "She's a bitch." Humans are prone to hieroglyph everything away, even each other, so that just as the hour-long drive from work becomes a single chunked "event" that can hardly be recalled, human souls of richness and complexity get written off, simplified to a few penstrokes, and ultimately never engaged with for what they are.

I've half-wanted to write an anarchistic spiritual manifesto growing from the insights that I gleaned in part from learning to draw faces, but I keep getting hung up on the words. "I can't say 'spiritual'" "'Anarchist' isn't right."

I guess "The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao."[1]

With that in mind, maybe some of you will bear with me.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

On Sadness

Sadness is a virus for which all common remedies are poisonous.

Anger, self-pity, self-hatred, self-praise, seeking praise, obsession, and denial are all infected poultices, regally aligned in the cabinet, some of them with very official looking doctor's notes and prescriptions. To use them is slow suicide. It's better to sit the fever out, and shiver, and lose sleep.

"I am sad. This shall pass."

And then remember which streams you drank from to make you sick, and find different ones.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Deaf Jew (or, "On doing what you love")

When I taught private lessons in English to rich women the University of Guadalajara's stateside campus, I got to hear a lot of interesting stories. I've become something of an expert on "la metafisica," Chilean wines, and astrologically informed child-naming. I also got to hear about some awesome rises to (and sometimes falls from) power. My favorite of these had to do with a deaf Jew.

The Deaf Jew was a friend of one of my clients. He was an old man living in Mexico City. He came to Mexico on a boat as a child having just been orphaned by the holocaust. He had no family, no friends, no money, and no understanding of Spanish.

Reaching the shores of Mexico, hungry, he exercised a starving boy's ingenuity and tore up a shirt to remake the cloth into a necktie. Someone bought the tie, likely for pity's sake, and Deaf Jew made some change. He immediately bought more cloth and repeated the process.

Long story short: being orphaned, handicapped, foreign, and initially penniless, Deaf Jew forced his will upon the universe and ultimately became a millionaire upscale clothier.

These kinds of stories make me wonder if the cosmos might not actually be somewhat benevolent towards those who act. "Knock and the door shall be opened", etc. Maybe everything we want is there for the taking. Or maybe Deaf Jew just got lucky.

Anyhow, that's not my point. My point is about doing what you love.

On Hacker News, there's been this debate as of late about doing what you love. For me, that's drinking wine and having heart-to-hearts with strangers and throwing machetes at a tree. God I wish I could just do what I love.

There's a deep river of feeling in the American psyche, growing from a confluence of influences from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Disney, and robber baron capitalism, that tells us that our jobs are divine callings, and that we should find our joy and our identity in our careers.

I never much figured, though, that Deaf Jew just loved the hell out of neckties. In the same way, I never much figured that Bob Dylan's middle class Jewish bourgeois Yankee family talked in y'alls and if'ns, ma's and pa's. Nope, these two geniuses just found something that sold, and went with it, relentlessly.

Ultimately, I like to think that with this work they purchased the opportunity to do what they loved.

That is, at least, what I will keep telling myself. Until I see that wine/machete job posted.

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Death to Dichotomy. (Lifestyle Business, Self-Teaching, AI, Lucid Dreaming, and the Interests of People Like Us)

I'm interested in artificial intelligence. I volunteer for the Singularity Institute, and I play at writing game AIs. When I do the game AI thing, I compete, and when I compete, it's with Levi. Levi's my cousin. We've been best friends since we were about 6. I always thought that was probably why we were interested in the same weird stuff, like AI and lucid dreaming.



Then, one day, I was reading an interview with AI maniac Ray Kurzweil where he said he did some of his best inventing in lucid dreams. Weird, ok. Gotta tell Levi about this one.

Later I started reading stuff by lucid dreaming prodigy Beverly D'Urso, and I thought "Holy crap, this girl is good." I had to look her up and stalk her a little. It turns out she has a PhD in artificial intelligence. Ok, now this is weird . . *flicks the light switch, counts fingers. *

Figuring out what accounts for weird clusterings of traits is a big passtime for me and Levi. Levi's an actuary/data scientist and I've got a background in anthropology. We're a good team.

Every time I go to the casino, I see three or four people with neck braces. I work at a pretty crowded college, and I can walk around for a month without seeing a neck brace. Why the clustering at casinos? Well, my running theory is that the kind of people who commit insurance fraud tend to also be addicted to gambling; they're preoccupied with making it big in a way that doesn't depend on conventional factors like skill, work, and heredity. The explanation fits well enough that I don't lie awake wondering about neck braces at casinos.

But the connection between me and my kinsmen proved more elusive. There seem to be all of these people, unknown to each other, inventing for themselves the same strange culture. When this blog started to get semi-popular, people started to email me. "You're into both Stoicism and anarchism, too? That's odd..."

So the other day, I was in the car, listening to Vampire Weekend's album Contra, and it came to me:

"Never pick sides / never choose between two."

(It took me a week to realize that the song I was listening to is probably what subconsciously prompted my revelation.)

If there is a sole attribution, a first cause for all of the eerily aligned interests of People Like Us, it is this: our profound distrust of canonical trade-offs.

I know professor types who won't work out because fitness is for dumb jocks. Fitness types I  know don't read because reading is for pathetic nerds. I've always wondered why one couldn't just as well be smart, cool, and buff. The brains/brawn dichotomy is false. That trade-off is a lie. Most people will agree to that. But to hang a question mark on some of the other canonical trade-offs, it would seem you have to be a Dork Like Me.

* Important note (mom): I don't identify with all of the following. I don't know anyone who does. But most of my eery similars align themselves with at least about half of the listed refutations.


Canonical Trade-Off
Refutation
"You can't have money and security without a nine-to-five."
Lifestyle business
"You can't have education without school."
Autodidactism/unschooling
"You can't have justice and order without government."
Anarchism/Libertarianism
"You can't be asleep and awake."
Lucid dreaming
"You can't have happiness without sadness."
Stoicism
"You can't have life without death."
Singularitarianism/Transhumanism
"You can't have heaven without hell."
Christian universalism
"You can't have commitment without exclusivity."
Polyamory


Having found that so many of my ways can be explained by an a priori impulse, I have to say I'm a little disheartened.

You can't explain something without explaining it away.

Or at least that's what they say :)

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Calculating Your Manliness in MS Excel


Half of programming is meditative, spiritual work.

The teachable parts of programming are its languages and concepts, with their syntaxes, constraints, and best practices.

But the greater, unteachable part has to do with looking at a task that humans are not accustomed to thinking about quantitatively--like playing a game of checkers or recommending a good movie--and perceiving the algorithmic truths beneath it (or at least good approximations.) There is no formal method for this. This process relies entirely on the programmer's ability to contemplate the true nature of things. This is an awesome skill. That's why it's on my manliness spreadsheet.

Three years ago, I was thinking about my personal shortcomings and the people I wanted to be more like, and I resolved to draft a plan of action. I would make a spreadsheet that would take various quantitative descriptors of me as inputs, and tabulate a composite "greatness" score, allowing me to track my progress on the way to becoming more worthwhile. I called this "The Good Man Spreadsheet."



I quickly found out that in making this spreadsheet I would be confronted with the mother of all Programmer's Vision Quests: discovering what I thought made a man a badass, and then putting that into numbers.



Here's what I ended up doing:

  1. I made a list of all of my heroes. If you don't have people of whom you can say "he/she is better than me", you can't work on the the Greatness problem. (If you can't think of anyone better than you, you're also probably a self-deluded jerk.)

    Anderson Mills is a pretty enviable dude, with his abs and his French and the physics research. Gramps is definitely up there, with his stoic discipline and his work in Chiapas.

  2. I lit a cigar and started pacing on the street outside my house and talking to myself. (Half of my billable hours when I'm contracted to do anything are spent pacing and muttering. One doesn't truly program in the cubicle; the cubicle is just where you sit to put things down in code.)

    What do the men I admire have in common? I found that diversity in competencies seemed to correlate well with what I thought of as greatness; being able to do calculus AND create masterworks of art, for example. I made mental notes about this.

  3. I drafted a spreadsheet, incorporating my provisional insights. I sent it to my best and nerdiest friends. We added stuff and took stuff off. We argued philosophy. We tinkered with the variables.

  4. I calibrated. If my model of greatness was right, the spreadsheet should give good scores to good people, and lower ones to mere mortals. I should be either a mere mortal or something mediocre. A spreadsheet that says I'm as good as Anderson is wrong.


Finally, I produced a functioning model which assigned a plausible score to every hero and mortal. The spreadsheet worked. It ranked people's badassity in the way I intuitively would (with very minor exceptions.)

This is not the functioning model. This is my departmental budget.

I can't show you the functioning model, because I have real life friends who read my blog and it would weird them out. Anyhow, it wouldn't be useful to you. This model approximates my view of greatness.

I can tell you that in the end there were several Boolean categories, denoting sharply defined capacities and attributes in everything from programming acumen to domestic skills. I can also tell you that I'm 42% great. Quite more towards the mortals on the scale than I am towards my role models.

But now I have a plan of action.

And "a grand goal of living is the first component of a philosophy of life."

And what you measure improves.


Since the last posting, this blog received $3 from Tina Gunnarsson of Redwood City, California. Tina, you are a patron of the fine arts, a true soul, and my hero.

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(If anyone gives me a dollar this time, I'll send them some weird digital artifact, like a dumb chart I've made, or an embarrassing song I wrote when I was 18. Really useful stuff.) 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Someone should make a site like this for real. I'll give you the domain.

Most of my posts are all overwrought and long and serious. This one is not.

Today, all I have to say is that I'm very, very tempted to re-skin and reboot my blog to be like this:



Please, someone, invent this site. I'm too tired.



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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Rabbit and the Mastodon: An Ancient Dilemma of Work and Wealth

Killing a mastodon probably made you pretty popular.

The guy who buys a round of drinks for the bar has got nothing on the guy who buys breakfast lunch and dinner for everyone he knows for a week. "Hey town - take the week off of work. Don't worry about it. It's on me."


That's roughly what I would've done with the Netflix Prize money. Every time I feel I'm on the tail of a big score, I start to divvy the money up in my mind. This much for mom and dad, that much to put Nathan through seminary, etc. I'm such a nice guy. People are going to love me.

An archaeologist named Hugh Robichaux once excavated a mammoth kill site on a campus close to mine when I was in undergrad. He got to learn a lot about Pleistocene megafauna, and he'd tell our class. He said that a mammoth kill was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, if that. The odds were bad, and the task was hard. But the glory was probably intense.

People didn't live on mastodons and mammoths. They lived on things like rabbits. Killing a rabbit is not a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It's an everyday thing. And it sucks. You go out every day, and you run around chasing something small and fast, wearing yourself out, and what you get in the end almost isn't worth the calories you burned to catch it.

That's why I've never been a Nine to Five man. Screw that. I'll hunt a few rabbits to keep me alive, but somewhere out there, there's a mastodon with my name on it. I was born for this. Aren't there some people who are just born for glory? That's what I would have told them in the Wired interview. You know, after the Netflix prize.

I imagine the paleolithic world had plenty of types like me. The modern world does too. Some pre-sedentary urge tells us that big game, with its slim-chance and big-payoff, is the only game in town if you want to be a hero. Rabbits just aren't as good for making everyone love you.

Or they weren't, until the sedentary shift.

One fine day, some anonymous demigod did something that changed the course of human history like nothing ever had or perhaps will again: he built a pen.


You put the rabbits inside. They breed. You eat. The running and sweating stops. It's like permanent mastodon week.

Our unsung Hero of Old and his village probably sat for months, shocked, after that. Will the gods be cool with this? What do we even do now?
Once having marched
Over the margins of animal necessity,
Over the grim line of sheer subsistence
    Then man came
To the deeper rituals of his bones,
To the time for thinking things over,
To the dance, the song, the story,
Or the hours given over to dreaming,
    Once having so marched.
[1]
Culture was born. And philosophy. And the professions.

And now we, in our own professions, can again chase mastodons. We can go for the Olympic tryouts, or the big record deal, or the Netflix prize. Or we can hunt rabbits, day in and day out, and make ends meet.

Or, we can take something small, and let it grow. We can be entrepreneurs.

It looks a lot like hunting rabbits at first. Stocking a pen is hunting rabbits at first. But eventually, the sustenance begins to flow at a level completely incommensurate with one's effort.

And then comes the time for thinking things over.

And your chances are a lot better than they are with a mastodon.



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Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Stoic Meditation on Not Having the Internet

The practice of Stoicism (at least in William Irvine's modern recapitulation) involves deliberately setting aside time to visualize and make peace with all the horrible things that could happen to you. This serves a two-fold purpose:

(1) You prepare yourself psychologically for the caprices that Lady Fortune may indeed have in store for you,

and,

(2) You wake up from your self-imposed nightmares with a kind of survivor's euphoria, to the effect that you cherish the opportunity to change a diaper, and the river of brake lights in five o'clock traffic is just, well . . . beautiful.

This practice works for me. (Though I do have a particularly weird and cheesy constitution: one of my early childhood memories is of being reduced to an almost tearful thankfulness over having been born a man and not a raccoon.)

So today I found myself thinking about who I would have been if the internet never existed. You should ask yourself too. It's fun. But me first:

  • Without the internet I would have never discovered the art, music, and books that I live through. Holy Lord. If I hadn't found Danny Schmidt, would I know what a poem was? My local bookstores and libraries don't carry Schmidt. They also don't carry out-of-print hedonistic commentaries on Chuang Tzu. And nowhere, ever, have I seen a poster of this:


    The internet's ability to enable profitable business models catering to geographically dispersed long-tail customers created a world in which I could be me, and not just some grown-up extension of one of the five locally available stock models of high school personae (prep, jock, stoner, geek, cowboy.)

  • Without the internet I wouldn't be able to do much. My high school didn't have courses in computer programming. They also didn't teach me that you can make Arabic sounding music with Phrygian scales.

  • Without the internet I would have never gotten jobs. When I gigged as a textbook writer, I'd send thirty emails a day to folks in various countries offering my skills. I made the process semi-automatic with form letters and a craigslist-to-OPML program. I've been told by my workmates that the resume bullets from that season in my career are what got me out of the dark mire of adjunct professordom and into college administration. How on earth did people find gigs before? By looking only at their local papers' listings?

  • Without the internet I'd be missing out on some amazing friendships. When you first meet someone, even if you really like them, it's just plain weird to say "Hey dude, I click with you. Wanna be lifelong friends?" Calling someone days after an introduction and a 30 second conversation to propose hanging out is even creepier (unless you're making a romantic advance; then it can be cool and gutsy.) But friending someone you barely know on Facebook is easy. And then commenting. And then corresponding. And then hanging out...

  • Without the internet I wouldn't be able to write. In the realms of pre-internet media, one either comes to the publisher/editor/gatekeeper with mad skills and gets published, or he gets a generic pink slip with a one-line apology. You can't use this system of rejection to make yourself much better. But with blogging, things are different. If every time you write a more sarcastic post you get double the pageviews, you know that the sarcastic thing is working for you. You can try out different voices, registers, and angles, and see what happens. You can literally chart the effects of your different approaches. And when five guys on Hacker News call you an ass, you're probably being too much of an ass.


The sum effect of it all? I think that without the internet I would be less inspired, less skilled, and certainly bereft of the life-drunk night-swimming absinthe posse. And it's not an absurd thing to think about. Most people on earth don't have the internet.

We're lucky. Know that.

And tell me about who you would be. Your turn.



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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Using Your Journal to Become More Objective

When I started my first volume, I belonged to a cult.

My diary was intended to be something beneficial to historians. Here they would find that there were sages, even at the cusp of the century, who knew all along of the significance of Hale-Bopp, the impending fall of the Roman Catholic Church, and the ascendancy of its true successor. 


I made predictions. I laid it all out boldly, not wanting some sort of half-ass, subjective, Nostradamus fame. In my awful pettiness and vanity, I also made some pretty sure bets on myself, and some pretty good bets against my enemies. Joe's obviously wrong about the stock market. Jane's kids are going to turn out to be spoiled monsters.

You'll probably be shocked to know that it didn't work out. So was I.

I was more shocked, though, to see my cult-mates re-imagine their own past expectations when their (space)ships didn't come in. They had all, in their most recent telling, always expected things to go exactly as they went. I became pretty depressed and disgusted with those life-long friends, but I also noticed they weren't the only ones re-imagining. Everyone does it. Almost as often as someone switches jobs, they begin to say that they had never intended to keep the original one, but only used it as a strategic stopover. Almost as often as a man is rejected in love, he begins to say that he was never really in love with the girl anyways. Because I had written so much--made myself so utterly falsifiable--I didn't have this luxury. Perhaps my journals would be of the utmost import after all. Well, at least personally.

So I kept at it. I still make predictions. I force myself to. Constantly. And they seem to be getting better. I credit this discipline with moving me, politically, spiritually, intellectually,  and interpersonally, to turbulent waters into which I would've never ventured if all my former selves hadn't been laid so bare in their cluelessness.

Still, though, in moments of weakness, I think of scrapping my journals and re-writing them, deliberately revised and plotted like a good novel. I justify this to myself by saying I want to type them up, and "make them prettier", "correct the prose", or "add context." So humbling and grueling are the gifts of reckoning honestly with being so wrong.

Recently though, while squinting,  I do think I've caught a glimpse of my new country. It is a place of honesty and irony, vulnerability, and a good appreciation for how ridiculous we all are. It's a place where it's a lot easier to sleep.

I predict I'll make good friends there.

Time will tell.



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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bitcoin, Wikileaks, and the Rise of In-Spite-of-Archy

To vote, or not to vote. That is the question.

Well, it is if you're an anarchist.


The syndicates in revolutionary Spain forbade it. Voting was the tool by which the majority oppressed the minority. No real revolution could come of ballots. Real revolution would come from smashing the ballot box, and setting up an opt-in government. Pay your dues to the union, and they shall be your chosen government. Don't pay, and get out of the way. That was how it was supposed to work. You know, before the whole priest-killing thing got started. Oh, and Hitler's opposition. Well, and that final decision to start voting anyways . . .

I wish for the sake of Holy Knowledge Herself that anarchism would have had a longer go in Catalonia before Franco put it down. The experiment of parallel organization--not revolution, but evolution; a new abiogenesis of social order--deserves to have its results known, whatever they would have been.

I used to tell my wife I was born in the wrong century. I would have totally gone all Orwell and fought to see that one through.

But I'm starting to think this century's not half bad.

Kickstarter started it. Well, at least it started me thinking. Here, it seems, is a solution to the age-old problem of justly pooling resources. Not taxation, but an all-or-nothing drive for free-will financial commitments.

Nowadays, I see the black flag everywhere.

But let's rewind.

Some anthropology, first.

The reason that government is everywhere is that government wins. It's a Darwin thing. The reason that government wins is that a bigger ship is more seaworthy, and a big enough ship needs a thousand builders, and a thousand builders need an organizer to deal out paychecks, and sooner or later the organizer's paychecks become more important than the ship. The ship is still made, of course, and it crosses the world conquering savages for loot. But in the end, the organizer is a king, and we all swear the pledge of allegiance. The original reason for building the ship? Shit, no one remembers. Anyways, here we go. (Ever watch Cube?)

(Ok, that was a sloppy seven-sentence caricature of the pull factors leading to the universal adoption of government, but anthropologically it's right in its essence.)

The take-home: oppression exists because we need organization. No way out of it. I sure accepted it. Then came Megatrends. Its punchline made me stagger.
“The Computer will smash the pyramid. We created the hierarchical, pyramidal managerial system because we needed it to keep track of people and things people did; with the computer to keep track, we can restructure our institutions horizontally.”
In '88 that sounded like an awesome plot for a novel. Now I think it sounds like an awesome plot for a newspaper.

In my own lifetime, the anarchic ferment of the internet has at least delivered one hell of an encyclopedia. It also gave me a great place to stay in Puerto Rico (via airbnb), sans the exorbitant fees that normally accompany travel so that the organizers can be well paid.

But even these promising endeavors are still centralized, and still nipping at the heels of big business and not Big Brother.

Enter Bitcoin.

Some people don't like that the world's monetary policy is controlled by unelected elites. Other people think that these unelected mandarins are our best, safest bet.

Under the paradigm that's governed civilization thus far, this would ultimately culminate in a vote fight. If you want to abolish the Fed, you vote for Ron Paul, and if you win, the supporters of the old way lose.

Bitcoin changes everything.

If you want an alternate currency, you buy in. If you don't, you don't.

Still history suggests that if Bitcoin ever got to be a big enough challenge to the Powers That Be, they'd undo it. But in these brave new days of non-hierarchically organized networks, that looks to be impossible.

"The Computer will smash the pyramid . . . "


Bitcoin doesn't need to be legal to operate. And it's encroaching on the sort of grand scale project space that first gave governments their legitimacy. I think this is significant.

"Where to? What next?"

I don't know.

But the black flags don't stop there.

Wikileaks has made a forward assault on the governments of the world, and as of yet seems immune to their prosecutions, in part because of their "insurance" file, distributed on non-hierarchical networks, and encrypted using methods that the government once sought to make illegal, eventually giving up in the face of unenforceability.

Perhaps in our days, we will see our cyber-syndicates rise. Perhaps we will have nations without coercion of compromise.

Perhaps Romer's charter cities will take off, or the seasteading movement will swell, and offer us our first physical buy-in cities.

Whatever the case, the question of voting will again be asked.



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Saturday, April 30, 2011

A Rough Guide to Social Skills for Awkward Smart People

I am a full-on dork. The things that make me want to get up in the morning are things that make normal people lose interest in the conversation, or giggle. These are things like lucid dreaming, artificial intelligence, utopian movements, and Esperanto.



Be that as it may, I'm mostly fine with boring the normals and living in the Vibrant True World of Beauty with its other full-on dork denizens. Amazingly, I've found that Esperantists seem to be anarcho-Taoists, that AI researchers tend to have experimented with lucid dreaming, and that other secret threads hold the seemingly disparate interests of Dorks Like Me together. I have countrymen. Just not yet my country.

The other thing that holds my kinsmen together, though, is an unfortunate thing: they are all asses. They decimate the chances of their ideas' success by offending everyone they meet, making it look like being happy and having friends are suspicious, counterrevolutionary behaviors.

In case you're wondering if my sermon is directed to you, there are some common tropes in our oft-reenacted social suicide:
  1. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic."
  2. We call someone's beliefs "idiotic" within five minutes of meeting them.
  3. We happily inform strangers of our vast and superior intelligence.
  4. We derail a conversation about American Idol to bring it back to the real issue at hand: that there is no God.
  5. When given a compliment, "Oh, you're so well-read!", we look blankly in the eyes of the complimenter, and respond "Yes, I know."
I can hear your retort, oh ye smart and lonely. "But I am the smartest person in the room"/"But their beliefs are idiotic."/"I'm not going to compromise the truth to make some idiot happy."

Great. Good luck with that. Oh, and by the way, your cause will die, I promise.

People don't respond well to being told that they're idiots, even if they are. Ideas don't spread by beating their enemies to a pulp. They spread by subterfuge and incalculable subtlety.

I would propose that sacrificing some smaller truths in your day-to-day interactions is the only way for the greater truth to prevail.

Be a Good Spy

As a short exercise, I invite you to think of it this way: it is World War II, and you are an Allied spy. You are in Germany, and you have attained a mid-level rank in the Nazi bureaucracy. Your superiors speak well of the Führer.



Now ask yourself, which response probably achieves the most towards the furtherance of your objectives?

(A) "No, he's actually an idiot, and killing Jews is wrong, and I'm an Allied spy, and there are Jews in my attic."

or

(B) "Heil Hitler."

The Old One-Two

Now of course we'll never achieve anything good if we simply walk around saying "Heil Hitler" all day. If you do have an important mission in the world, you'll have to face dangers, and at some time show your true colors.

Doing this in the wrong way Schrutes your whole mission. Doing this in the right way makes you Ani Difranco, or Bob Dylan.

Ani Difranco has a trick. She gets up on the stage, and her guitar is un-tuned. While tuning it, she ad-libs a story. The story isn't funny. There are a lot of pauses, and a lot of "uh"s. The crowd starts to get uncomfortable. We feel sympathetic embarrassment. Massive pity. Poor little girl. Then, suddenly, she rips into everyone's soul, fast. Now she's confident and smarter than you can handle. Now she's referencing poets and playing brilliantly with language. The whole dumb scared thing was an act (she doesn't do it in interviews). It works. I call this The Old One-Two.

One: Disarm. Don't be an ass. Be weak. Be self-deprecating. Build Ethos.

Two: Be brilliant.



The Old One-Two is charm at its atomistic simplest. Most good actors use it (though not so much in their stage performances as in interviews.) Bob Dylan is the absolute king of the game, ripping off Milton and making it sound like something he misheard his grandfather say.

What I find the most interesting about The Old One-Two is that even after I realize I've been duped, I still love the guy who's scammed me.

"Oh no, I really don't play piano, I just mess around"

"Aw, come on, pleeease?"

"Oh, alright" {Flawless Bach Piece}

"Whoah."

Even after you know it was a lie, the false-humility still gives you warm feelings. Now when this guy later turns around and says "Aw, naw, not really; well, I guess kind of I dabble in The Ultimate Truth", I'll probably listen.



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