Monday, December 25, 2017

Wrestling with God

Status: experimental

Jacob became Israel, which means “he who struggles with God”. His descendants became the nation of Israel, who struggle with God down to this very day. According to the stories, Jacob actually, physically, wrestled with God, or an angelic representative thereof. Apparently Jacob had some pretty good technique, as he held his own until sunrise, when the angel declared the match a tie but then touched Jacob’s hip, laming him. It’s as if to say that God allows you to wrestle him, in fact it might be the Right Thing To Do, but he’s still going to exact a price. You can’t just swing on the supreme monarch of the universe without penalty, he’s a cocky sonuvavirgin.

The outcome of Jacob’s wrestling match with God was a lame hip, a new name, Israel, a promise that his descendants would become a great nation, and a badass story to tell at the watering hole. 

I hadn’t thought about the story of that Jacob for a long time, when Jordan Peterson started covering it on his podcast. That’s when an uncanny parallel came to me. I’m a Jiu Jitsu fighter, which is wrestling, but pursued with the meticulous mind of the Japanese, and perfected through the gauntlet of Brazilian male competitiveness. If Jacob were alive today, he might go to my gym.

Jiu Jitsu is how I struggle with God, if you take the mystical/psychedelic leap of identifying God with his creation, and especially his conscious, human creation. In Jiu Jitsu, I come to face the reality of my limitations and my response to them. The emotional high of imposing my will on a sometimes stronger, larger opponent is mirrored exactly by the existential horror of having my face pinned to the floor by a sweaty, hairy chest, while the air is crushed out of my lungs by my opponent’s weight. In this moment my whole body shouts  “no!”, unified from nerve to sinew in the belief that there is something wrong with the universe. But what am I to do about it? Pray? The lord helps those who help themselves. 

The process of improvement in Jiu Jitsu is the same as in any difficult endeavor. It involves trial and failure, and more trial with the knowledge that you will certainly fail. It involves suffering, including a lot of physical suffering, which is somehow not the worst kind. At least physical suffering leaves you with a cool story to tell at the watering hole. It involves self-doubt and criticism, listening for and seeking feedback. It involves periods of obsession, when your conscious mind, anticipating the next roll, gorges on every bit of knowledge it can. It involves periods of rest while your subconscious mind consolidates knowledge into movement patterns and instincts. It involves injuries, as you learn your limits. It involves shame, as you learn the unwritten rules by breaking them, but only once. It involves feeling like an outsider as the higher belts ignore the beginners who mostly wash out in a few months, anyway. 

The process of improvement at Jiu Jitsu hinges on one of the most important virtues: the ability to tolerate suffering. It is great practice for other endeavors that require the ability to tolerate suffering, which happens to be everything worthwhile. The suffering of Jiu Jitsu is more mild than some other kinds, like an inoculation with a weaker virus. From experience, I can say that running a startup or losing a close relationship are far worse. 

Jiu Jitsu is culturally dissonant in the circles I run in, which are more interested in peace and love than the battle of two wills through the medium of limited violence. That’s one of the things I like about it. When I go to Jiu Jitsu class, I say to myself “I’m doing this for me”. It grants me no social status, it wins me no points with the ladies. It is this weird thing I do on my own, off to the side, in isolation. It is where I train my will to struggle with God. If I gave up, nobody would care, except for me and perhaps God. That’s one of the keys to struggling with God, the motivation to do so has to come from within. 

I wonder if I would have more peace had my parents named me differently. As a Jacob, my destiny is to struggle, so I might as well get good at it.

There is another way in which I have long been the one who struggles with God. I struggle with God through struggling to understand reality. I refuse to close my mind to any possibilities, and the result is an internal battle between conflicting ideas. Sometimes I’ll hold a belief for a while, and I’ll battle other people with it. Inevitably, my mind becomes aware of flaws in the beliefs I hold, and I am too honest to unsee them. The flaws worm their way through the edifice of belief, and the whole thing comes crashing down. 

I guess I’m looking for something to believe in. 

When I was a teenager, my belief in God crumbled. Several nights, I got down on my knees and prayed with all my might that he would help me believe in him. God grant me faith, or a miracle, or something unexpected. Sometimes I cried in anguish, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. My parents and friends were disappointed in me when I left their faith. I wonder if they realize how hard I tried. I wonder if they understand how God failed me. 

Lately, the battle of ideas feels less like a struggle. Maybe it’s a Buddhist/Taoist influence, but I feel a lot of openness around these eternal battles. I’m okay with finding truth in several conflicting worldviews. It seems to be the natural state of the world. I find myself perpetually confused and curious, having lost faith that any things can really be “figured out” the way I used to want to. I was a mathematician in college. It took me a lot of experience before I could let go of trying to figure out the optimum social order or morality like a logic puzzle. 

Now I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God. Perhaps through the use of visionary medicines, perhaps with age, my brain has become excellent at pattern recognition. It can weave meaning out of facts if I let it. That’s what made the loss of a long term relationship so hard. I could see how it fulfilled the narrative pattern of my life in a beautiful way, and its loss was dissonant, jarring, pointless. It’s a change in genre, as if Sin City turned into a family comedy halfway through. 

With an overactive meaning-making capacity, I find the icy spirit of nihilism banished at last. It is not a danger for me. However, the drastic reorganization of meaning is still very painful. My danger is now clinging too tightly to meaning, rather than not having enough. We are all dancers in the water of life, and we should not pretend that its meanings are more or less solid than they are. 

The Taoist symbol of the yin and yang means a lot to me. I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God, but impossible to do either fully. I’ve become accustomed to this pattern of opposites that cannot escape each other. Do I believe in determinism or free will? Utilitarianism or virtue ethics? Scientific materialism or Christianity or Buddhism? The answer is yes. Fluidity is my natural state. 

Jacob was not just a wrestler. He was also a mystic that went off into the desert by himself and had visions. When he came back from his vision of the ladder to heaven, he found his fixed point, and laid a stone pillar at Bethel. That was what he believed in. I am also a mystic. When I went into the desert and had a vision, I found a fixed point in Chamomile tea. “In the beginning was the taste…”. But that's a Burning Man story that I'll save for another time. 

Sunday, December 24, 2017

One Weird Trick to increasing self-worth

A strange thing happened to me. I went through a time of horrible personal crisis that left the life I knew in shambles. Yet at the same time, I came out of it liking myself more than I ever have. 

This strange result came from realizing that I was not in control of the outcome of my crisis. So I focused on what I could control: myself. Was I actively deciding, moment to moment, to be the kind of person that I wanted to be? Was I speaking 100% the truth? Was I boldly leaving no important words unsaid? Was I avoiding the temptations of self-sabotage? Was I taking some time to think of others, and to leave those around me a little better off? 

As I focused on myself, I saw a lot to be proud of. I noticed all the ways I was already the kind of person I wanted to be, and the ways in which I was growing into it. I used to judge myself based on the outcomes of my actions. In the past, if someone responded negatively to my efforts I took that as evidence that I was a less worthy person. Now, how much I like myself is more outcome-independent. This habit of mind which I adopted as a crisis survival mechanism has become a permanent tool for navigating life.

Often, my adult life has not turned out the way that I wanted it to be. That can get me down, but it doesn’t have to lead to self-loathing. I like how I am showing up. I keep on getting better. In many ways my life is not at its peak, but my self-worth is at an all-time high. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Building a Better Anti-Capitalism

In my first political awakening, I became an ardent pro-capitalist libertarian. There were some anti-capitalists to debate around my university and on the internet, but the average quality of their arguments were so poor that engaging with these folks deepened my convictions instead of challenging them.

But over the years I have seen first hand some of the failures of capitalism. Burning Man and its ethos of public contribution was a major turning point in my attitude towards capitalism, illustrating the great good that can be created outside of formal exchange relationships. Now I see that there are plenty of circumstances where free markets fail to create an optimal outcome, either by failing to properly incentivize things that we value, or by failing to disincentivize bad behavior. Market capitalism alone is not a complete recipe for growing a good society.

Today the world still suffers from low quality anti-capitalists. To protest capitalism, they break shop windows, burn cars, block streets, and fight with the police. This makes little sense. Plentiful shops and safe, convenient vehicles are some of the good parts of capitalism. And the streets and police are non-capitalist institutions that may be imperfect, but also provide vital services for society. I bet that neutral observers are turned off.

It's because I take the failings of capitalism seriously that I'd like to offer a better playbook for protesting capitalism. Each of the following opportunities for direct action addresses a failing of capitalism while making the world a better place

  1. Love thy neighbors. Invite them over for dinner and don't charge
  2. Volunteer to pick up trash in your neighborhood for half an hour
  3. Volunteer at a Boys and Girls club or old folks home
  4. Learn how to make something that you would normally buy. Knit a sweater, grow some vegetables
  5. Produce a piece of public art that will delight people, amaze them, or make them think. Put it in your front yard or window
  6. Host an adult sleep-over. Talk, play games, and read stories 
  7. Perform a piece of music in a public space. Go caroling at Christmas time, or if you're not Christian, offer songs for the holy days of your tradition
  8. If it's your thing, become part of a church
  9. Sit at a table in a public place with a sign inviting people to play chess with you or converse with you
  10. Share knowledge. Offer a free class in yoga, art, juggling, or something else you know how to do at your home for your friends and neighbors. For bonus points, make it a regular event

In a market-driven society, life can be cold. It seems like every option to enjoy oneself costs money. Every smile is a customer service. These practices take back a portion of life's activities and relationships from the marketplace. 

In many American cities, there is little public space where a person can simply be without paying money. For a certain sum, you can buy a temporary right to exist in a theatre, restaurant or yoga class, but when your time is up you gotta get going, buddy. For every hour you spend away from home there is an invisible meter following you, running up a tab. In some small towns, I hear people repurpose Walmart as their public square, sitting and chatting with friends in the furniture aisle, or strolling through the store on a late-night date. Walmart is the closest approximation to the missing commons. 

I suggest we protest capitalism by providing what the market doesn't. Create social connections that are based on mutual enjoyment instead of formalized exchange. And create space and time for people to simply exist without a running meter.

Do you have any ideas for how to better protest capitalism? Leave a comment.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Dyadic Monist Therapy

There was no light here. No feeling. No sound. Only thought. Thought probing at the boundaries of nothingness and finding nothing. With increasing panic, the mind searched for something outside itself. Only the lack of lungs prevented the being from hyperventilating.

Finding no crack in the darkness, the mind’s activity settled, its energy dissipating. The change in state indicated the passage of time, a first orienting and comforting feature in the formless void. The mind waited.

With time, memory began to thaw, giving content to thoughts. The darkness became light, a white light, fringed by orange and red, the colors of fire. The mind remembered that somewhere there was another who was different from it and whose presence resembled the light, a female, although she was not here now. And by this, he remembered that he was a male.

The first concepts were wordless, but soon words came. And with the words, concepts poured in more rapidly. Visions and images flashed through his mind.

Human. He saw a body, perhaps his body, laid upon a bed.

Animal. Plant. He saw a large cat padding cautiously through green ferns in the freckled light of a forest floor. Next a whale swimming in the sea, it’s eye upon him. He felt a form of communion with the beast.

Earth. He saw a shining globe of green and blue suspended on a field of stars. Home.

Past. Future. Money. Economy. He saw a shining net superimposed on the globe, yellow energy flowing along its edges. He remembered that once he was afraid of money, but in the moment he felt gratitude, as for the first time he understood what it was for.

Friends. Family. Mother. Father. He saw his parents, standing together in his childhood home and looking at him. His heart ached with a mixture of gratitude and a yearning for them.

And then he became aware of a mouth. His mouth. Feeling! He remembered feeling. His tongue reminded him of the feeling of matter and weight. He squiggled it about, playing it over the lips and teeth, his lips and teeth.

Next a hand came into being. He gripped it and ungripped it, relishing motion, playing the fingers across each other and across the palm.

Changes accelerated. The proprioception of a whole body materialized. Stomach. Torso. Legs. Eyelids…

Eyelids opened, a crack at first, letting in the outside world. His eyes brought sight to match his sense of feeling. He saw the hands he had felt, and a blanket with the shape of a body underneath. My body, he supposed, I’ll have to get used to that.

Light streamed in through the many windows of a large loft apartment. The sounds of birds accompanied the dance of dust particles through the rays of light. Fiat lux.

Thoughts slowed to a halt as a wealth of content flowed into his senses. He had experienced a rebirth, not just of himself, but of the entire universe. The world made new, fresh, like damp grass after the rain.

He took pleasure in his chest rising and falling, in the cycles of his body prefiguring birth and death, experiencing the world as if for the first time. He lay for several minutes before desire came to him, the desire to see the other he had first remembered. Her.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Importance of Privacy

The United States constitution is a very libertarian document and the Fourth Amendment is the most libertarian piece of it. As it's short and supremely important to American life, let's quote it in its entirety:
Amendment IV. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
What this means for personal liberty is that the government can pass as intrusive laws as they would like, forbidding or mandating myriad behaviors, but unless those behaviors have impact outside your home the laws are unenforceable. The law may mandate that you sleep with an ostrich, eat broccoli for dinner, or keep your supply of toothpicks stocked to a multiple of five. But as these are private behaviors impacting only your private sphere, how are the police ever going to find evidence that you violated the law's mandates? Lacking evidence, they cannot get a warrant to enter your house, so your bed may remain ostrich-free.

Libertarians advocate that people should be free to do whatever they would like as long as their actions don't harm other people or their property. It turns out that harmless actions don't leak much evidence outside the sphere of private activity that is protected by the fourth amendment - your home, private property, and so fourth.

It is only because there exists a large sphere of private activity outside the law's reach that the law can evolve and change. There have always been moral busybodies that wanted to enshrine the social mores of the day into law. But the fourth amendment lets us violate silly intrusive laws. If violating the law isn't harmful, and is even beneficial, word will spread from person to person and more people will violate the law. Eventually culture changes, and the law catches up soon thereafter.

Widespread violation of law, shielded by the fourth amendment, has caused social change in a number of areas. It doubtlessly led to changing attitudes and laws concerning marijuana, and may change attitudes towards other recreational drugs with therapeutic benefits. Anti-sodomy law was largely unenforceable, as it regulates a behavior that mostly takes place in private bedrooms. Thus people pursued same sex romantic relationships illicitly in the privacy of their own homes, until culture and law changed to be more accommodating.

If law enforcement were perfect, we would live in a more static society. Our morals would more resemble the morals of the past because all the people who violated them would be in prison. The room for cultural experimentation would be small.

In a good society, law regulates the public sphere, and the private sphere remains a domain of individual freedom. It's important to keep these separate, to avoid the twin evils of anarchy (that is unruled which should be ruled) and tyranny (that is ruled which should be unruled).

Many historical court rulings have attacked the private sphere that the fourth amendment protects, allowing police to intrude into more places without warrants. The Cold War, war on drugs, and war on terrorism were used as excuse for the need for more intrusive police power, for example, ruling that infrared scans of your house or dog sniffs of your car in search of drugs are not "searches". But perhaps the biggest danger to privacy is the increasing digitization of life.

Law enforcement doesn't like the fourth amendment - it limits them. But in the amendment's defense it had the infeasible cost of surveilling the vast amount of private activity in the world. In the digital world, that is no longer the case. Surveillance is cheap, and automated systems can supplement the manpower needed to make sense of it.

As our life activity moves online, it enters an arena that is more exposed. The law is still evolving, and our intuitions are likely to guide us wrong. It might feel like your gmail folder is a private correspondence drawer, but the government may subpoena all messages older than 180 days without obtaining a warrant. It's easy to be lulled into thinking your phone is a private space, but it is not when you are traveling.

Courts and legislatures have not extended analogous rights to privacy to our digital lives that we enjoyed in our pre-digital lives. However, there still remain statutory limits to government surveillance in the digital world. Unfortunately, it is easy for branches of the government to violate those limits with impunity while remaining undetected and unpunished, as demonstrated by the NSA. If law enforcement were violating its limits as blatantly in the physical world, say by performing door-to-door warrantless searches, it would get noticed and would encounter stiff resistance.

As vitally important as the private sphere is to a good society, the momentum of history is all against it. That is why encryption is so important. Applications that use strong encryption, like the Signal messaging App, Tresorit's dropbox-like storage app, protonmailZCash, and others are a shield against the forces that would eliminate private space. Encryption is the door defining and guarding a private space in the modern world.

People working on privacy-preserving applications are doing the Lord's work, often under-compensated. To support them, consider becoming their paying customers. There is also room for political activism. I donate regularly to the EFF, the most prominent organization fighting for digital privacy rights.

The technology to create a true panopticon is getting closer, when all life will be public and none private. That sounds like a hell to me. Let's stop it in its tracks.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Confessions of an Optionality Maximizer

I confess, I am an optionality maximizer. When life gives me a choice, I habitually choose the path that leaves open the most future possibilities. I am a qubit that refuses read 1 or 0, a cat that refuses to be dead or alive. 

In college, I chose my majors (Economics and Mathematics) based on my estimation of which would leave open the most career prospects, thereby delaying the time for choosing. In my spare time, I am acquainted with many hobbies, but I am a master of none of them. To invest my time in one hobby would mean to give up the possibility of pursuing greatness at another. So I find myself a mediocre writer, a mediocre guitar player, a mediocre painter, and an okay counselor with okay physical fitness. I meditate far more than the modal human but far less than anyone who dedicates serious time to it. 

Yes, the bane of the optionality maximizer is dedication or commitment. Without coincidence, I am 34 and unmarried. I have lived in five different cities in my adult life, and I have a hankering to add a sixth. 

My physical surroundings mirror my inner life. I stockpile goods and clothing used once, which may someday be used again. My introduction to Burning Man and festival culture has exacerbated this trend. I have boxes full of colorful costumes, wacky shirts, and light-up furry vests that I am saving to wear in some future year. Many are the delightfully quirky jackets (red suede!) that I have never worn. Besides the clothes, I own an impressive assortment of miscellaneous electronica, aspirational books, and seldom-used tools, despite several bouts of simplification. 

I met a fork in the wood, and I chose the path that would lead to the most future forks. Or, I walked a few steps down each of them, in order to make sure I didn't miss out on anything. 

What drives this impulse towards maximizing choice? Part of it is surely a greater-than-average drive for novelty. The life I chose has successfully provided plenty of it. Call it the “FOMO-driven life” (Fear Of Missing Out, for the unhip). 

Like all character classes, the FOMO-driven individual has strengths and weaknesses. The upside is a certain “wisdom-of-breadth”. I can form analogies across many fields and disciplines. When I run into a new idea, it reminds me of this concept from Plato, that concept from music, or some model in physics. Based on a person’s current interests, I can almost always direct them to a new fascination. 

The downside of the FOMO-driven life is that it carries with it the emotional tone of discontent. There is always, and will always be something that I am missing out on. I have never learned a new human language, or traveled very much, or.... done many other things.   

But I am beginning to suspect that the FOMO-driven life may be self-limiting. I sense a growing meta-boredom stirring in my soul. I have had enough shallow snacks of newness that I doubt how much more is to be gained out pursuing them further. Deepness, commitment, expertise, long-term projects - these are the things that I currently fear missing out on. I feel ready to face a great deal of boredom-the-emotion in order to alleviate the meta-boredom with the meaning of my life. 

Looking at my habits with a different model, perhaps my novelty-seeking was rational when I didn’t know much about the world. Now that I have more information about what it is like to do and be so many different things, I no longer have to gather as much breadth of information. It is now time to go deeper.

This is an unfortunate impulse to be having at this moment in history. Most of the new developments in the social landscape in my lifetime encourage breadth over depth, explore over exploit. Fortunately, I am also an incorrigible contrarian.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

Economics 2.0 meets the Fifth Protocol

In the book Accelerando, Charles Stross describes a future world that runs on “Economics 2.0”, an indecipherable economic system used by post-human intelligences. Because its workings are beyond human understanding, Stross can provide little detail of how such a system works. But the concept of Economics 2.0 stokes my imagination. If machines are to become first-class economic actors, the economy will adapt to fit their preferences and modes of operation. Humans will find ourselves sharing a marketplace with what amounts to alien intelligence.

From our current viewpoint we already see some initial glimmers of the arrival of economics 2.0. Day-trading on public stock markets is dominated by competing algorithmic trading computers, making trades according to statistical models in fractions of a second. But this is an unimpressive example. The movements of stock prices was already so complex as to be indecipherable to human understanding. The entrance of machine intelligences into stock trading had a quantitative impact in the market, but not a qualitative one.

What is yet to come may be much stranger. The key technology is cryptocurrency, enabling the machine-payable web. Cryptocurrency allows computers to talk the language of money as easily as they currently talk the language of information. Currently, our computers and mobile phones are our information agents, transparently uploading and downloading relevant information in order to serve the tasks we have given them. With cryptocurrency, this constant chatter will be augmented by economic transactions.

This layer of economic exchange is described by Naval Ravikant in his essay titled “The Fifth Protocol”. He describes this new world where money is cheaply and easily exchanged by computer:

“Can a completely distributed grid of small generators trade power with each other, using a decentralized and trustless cryptocurrency? Can a traffic jam of self-driving cars clear itself as the computerized vehicles bid for right of way? Can a mass of people crossing a street take priority over a single car waiting at the traffic light, as their phones vote, trustlessly and reliably, for their presence?”

Money is a way for people to exchange scarce goods. Whenever we are in possession of a scarce good that someone else desires more than we do, a positive-sum transaction can be made so that both parties benefit. This is the basis of all economic activity in the world. Transaction in labor is founded on the scarcity of personal time - we are each given 24 hours in a day, and to scale our efforts beyond what we can achieve with that we must purchase the time of others.

But in real life many positive transactions are missed because the costs of coordinating the transaction outweigh its collective benefits. In the logic of the market, this is an inefficiency. Devices that are always on, collecting and communicating information can negotiate these transactions for us. The result may be quite odd, as scarce resources are monetized which before we would have never noticed.

For example, imagine waking up on a workday. Your phone chimes, offering you an anonymous payment if you delay your commute 15 minutes. You accept. 15 minutes later, you hop into your car and drive to the office. On the way your phone tells you to pick up a package from a store. Since your phone knows your commuting habits, it can sell your unused car space for partial routing of goods and people. A few miles later, you pull over and hand the package out your window to someone waiting on the sidewalk. He exchanges the package with another one destined for your office. You’ll get paid for both deliveries today.

Upon arriving at the office, you receive a request to take a parking space further out. You don’t mind walking and could use the extra cash, so you accept.

Some people will be shocked by the inequality of a world where all scarce goods can be traded. For the rich, life will be truly frictionless. The traffic lights will always be green, they will always start at the front of the line, and they will always find a parking spot in a crowded city. If they want to ship an item to someone else, they will simply hold it out in the air and someone or somedrone will come by and snatch it.

For the non-rich, a plethora of micro-tasks and trades in scarce goods throughout the day may supplement or even replace traditional trade in scarce labor. This has the potential to make them better off as well. After all, between globalization of capital, mass migration, and automation, labor isn’t quite as scarce as it used to be. Physical volume, auditory space, and visual environment are all scarce resources. The ultra-rich might be willing to pay others to turn down a radio, trade places in line, alter commute habits, route goods, wait at red lights, livestream a landscape, and even change their fashion. In this environment, the question “what do you do for a living?” become strange, as the answer may be “respond to dozens of micro-prompts throughout my ordinary day”.

Eliminating economic friction is only one half of economics 2.0. The other is autonomous non-human economic agents joining the marketplace. But I am not so inspired to write about that for the moment, so I’ll leave it to your imagination. Accelerando has several depictions of what this might be like if you are interested.

Before I conclude, I should note that Economics 2.0 is a misnomer. The qualitative nature of economic life has evolved through several epochs already in the history of human society, we ought to be on version 4.0 at least (the first three being early markets and trade, globalized trade, and the information age). Already in Adam Smith’s time, Smith marveled at how the expanding division of labor had created an economic system beyond all comprehension. A single piece of clothing was the product of thousands of laborers, sourcing materials from several continents. It was a system of human creation, but not human design. The systems of production have grown orders of magnitudes more complicated since then. Witnessing global capitalism, we may already feel that we are in the ghostly presence of an alien intelligence, where humans are its neurons.

Edit: A friend points out that an AI agent that knows our preferences could negotiate all these microtransactions for us, perhaps with Pandora-like training system. So there is no need for pings. The user interface would be simply an agenda for the day. What is your job? You do the things on your agenda. It may have some repeating items, but it may have many one-offs. It may have tasks whose purposes are opaque to you or that seem nonsensical. The possibility of life as such an absurd dance intrigues me.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Look upon Syria, and despair

We should stay the hell out of Syria, the "rebels" are just as bad as the current regime. WHAT WILL WE GET FOR OUR LIVES AND $ BILLIONS?ZERO — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 16, 2013

American involvement in the Syrian civil war is stupid for the same reason that previous American actions in the Middle East have been stupid. There is no realistic end game.

Syria will suffer, and her neighbors will suffer, as long as she is at war. The most important strategic and humanitarian objective is to end the war. To obtain peace, some party must grab and hold a monopoly on the use of force in the region.

There is only one option for peace as far as I can see. The rebels are a fractious bunch that don't look capable of holding the country, so write them off. That leaves us with the existing Assad regime as the most likely and capable victors.

"But he's a dictator" you say. But what makes you think anything else can survive in a country where the borders were drawn on the back of a napkin by a British colonel? Democracy requires opposing factions to trust each other so that they won't be screwed over when they lose an election. Perhaps you notice that opposing factions in Syria are currently killing each other. The probability of convincing them to trade bullets for votes is low.

By using military force to aid the Syrian rebels, America prevents a stable equilibrium from being reached. Her intervention prolongs the conflict, and therefore the death and destruction. Short of explicit and thorough genocide, nothing is worse for a population than prolonged war.

The primary role of the United States in the Middle East over the last 15 years is that of a chaos monkey. It overthrows stable governments, installs unstable governments, and then abandons those unstable governments when the home audience gets bored. It prolongs conflicts by handicapping likely winning factions and supporting losing factions that have no realistic chance of pacifying the territory.

The result of all this is trillions of dollars wasted, probably a million deaths attributable to US actions, millions more made refugees, and a power vacuum that was the breeding ground of ISIS. Trump's opposition to this policy was one of the smartest things about his campaign, and his betrayal is disappointing yet unsurprising.

I have no doubt that the individual foreign policy minds in the United States government are far more intelligent and informed than I am. And yet somehow, you plug them into this bureaucracy, and they churn out the same stupidity for decades. Some of the faces change, even a supposedly radical outsider can win an election, and the bipartisan Washington consensus stays the same. This is both impressive and terrifying. If spitting in the face of 99% of the elite and by some miracle electing a man they hate and fear is not enough to change course, then what will it take?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Outside

This is a conceptual post. I attempt to explain "the Outside", an abstract concept that I find useful in modeling the world. The Outside is not a single thing, but rather Inside/Outside is a pattern that frequently appears in human society.

The world of human values is a tiny island in an ocean of darkness. That darkness is The Outside. It is a place of complexity, illegibility, and indifference. It is not actively hostile to humans, but it is a wild and dangerous place. Humans build institutions to keep the Outside out. But somebody has to man the walls. And sometimes the Outside leaks in.

Service on the walls makes a person cold and hard. The defender learns objective reasoning, logic, effective violence, tolerance for ambiguity, toughness, and competence. These are the virtues needed to wring human values from a world of chaos.

The oldest human institution is probably the family. Within a family, parents create an illusion of safety for children. Food, shelter, and material goods appear for the children as if by magic. This is a bubble of Insideness. Inside, there is plenty, comfort, and play. It is a world where every human is cared for, where every person is gifted what they need to thrive with nothing asked in return.

The inside is less real than the outside. The maintenance of the bubble requires constant work and risk-taking. The breadwinners of the family interact with an outside world more hostile to the fulfillment of human desires, whether it be a farm, capitalist labor market, or jungle. If a breadwinner gets sick or injured, the outside leaks in, and the children know want and hunger.
In a modern society, nested institutions serve to buffer the people inside from some of the hardship of the outside. Human families ban together for mutual support in church groups. State welfare takes over for injured breadwinners. Police keep citizens safe from domestic predators and warriors keep countries safe from conquest.

Law, property, rights - these are not features of the natural world. These are fictions of the Inside that are maintained through constant effort. The presumption of safety is an artifact of this illusion. In the natural world, a person is always at risk of arbitrary accident or capricious attack.

Capitalism is a curious human institution that mirrors some aspects of the outside. We have heard of “the corporate jungle” and “social darwinism”. The ideal free market allows corporations to live and die, to suffer real consequences of risk, in a way that society has decided is inappropriate for individuals humans. This has benefits for society - it makes corporations more productive and effective.

Different roles in a corporation have different levels of exposure to the outside. Executives are in touch with the fragility of the company. They know that it must profit or die. There is no instruction manual for their jobs, they search through an infinite possibility space to find a solution for the company to survive. Each successful company's solution is unique.

Lower-level workers are shielded from this reality. They are given artificial quotas, rules, and goals in a framework created by management. For them, job performance is legible. They know which goals they need to make in what time frame in order to produce satisfactory performance.

The closer a worker is to the market, the more uncertain their job performance becomes. Salespeople are closer to the outside. Their performance is objectively measurable and highly variable. They have to deal with the complicated world of human emotion where there is no rulebook. It is possible for a good salesperson to have a bad quarter based on sheer luck. On the other end of the spectrum, a person working in HR faces almost no risk or variability at all. HR is nestled far on the inside of the organization.

Engineering is somewhere in between. The objective nature of the engineer's job is a whiff of outside air. The engineer’s product either works or it doesn’t, and it’s the engineer’s job to figure it out how to make it work. There are no A’s for effort. But the engineer bears no responsibility for the success or failure of a product after it is built. That responsibility falls on executives. In the work world, there is a correlation between responsibility, risk-taking, and the degree of outsideness of a particular role.

Startup founders bear a lot of risk and are constantly aware of the outside. Employees get free lunches, founders know exactly how many days of runway those lunches cost.

The cultural differences between people closer to the outside and the inside lead to a survive-thrive conflict. Outsiders have survival-based values, and they see Insiders as weak. Insiders have values based around self-fulfillment, and they see Outsiders as brutish.

Scientists and technologists fulfill a role in society with substantial exposure to the outside. They wrestle with raw nature, to make it legible to human minds malleable to human efforts. People who work in science and technology are often seen as cold and blunt by people in softer fields.

Superintelligent A.I. will be a powerful incarnation of the Outside or of the Inside. Intelligence is humanity’s greatest weapon in taming the outside. A friendly A.I. is a champion which will build a stronger wall than any human civilization could conceive of.

Ultimately, the outside wins. An implacable cold death creeps upon us. Physics dictates that the last particle of love will fade into the background radiation of the universe. Whatever bubbles of human values we create are destined to be temporary.