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shitbloggin with reid scoggin

link roundup 20


i apologize for the extended interlude. most of my spare reading time the last week or two have been absorbed by the urbit docs, and i also felt like the list wasn’t quite as high quality this go-round (though i still encourage you to look them over!)


People often blame the increasing complexity of US law on Talmudic scholars, but I think we’re actually looking at a case of convergent evolution–the process by which two different, not closely related species develop similar traits in response to similar environments or selective pressures. Aardvarks and echidnas, for example, are not closely related–aardvarks are placental mammals while echidnas lay eggs–but both creatures eat ants, and so have evolved similar looking noses. (Echidnas also look a lot like hedgehogs.)

US law has become more complex for the same reasons Jewish law did: because we no longer live in organic communities where tradition serves as a major guide to proper behavior, for both social and technical reasons. Groups of people whose ancestors were separated by thousands of miles of ocean or desert now interact on a daily basis; new technologies our ancestors could have never imagined are now commonplace. Even homeless people can go to the library, enjoy the air conditioning, log onto a computer, and post something on Facebook that can be read, in turn, by a smartphone-toting Afghan shepherd on the other side of the world.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

That has all changed. To see how completely, we need think only of current controversies over, say, transgendered people, whose struggle for legal recognition is based on the belief that while Bruce may think of himself as Caitlyn, Bruce cannot truly become Caitlyn until the state recognizes both the change in name and the change in sex. Caitlyn’s self-understanding could be clear and lasting: the person publicly known as Bruce may identify as (a telling phrase) a woman named Caitlyn; but the process of identity-formation is incomplete, truncated, until the state ratifies it. Social recognition may come easily and early: Wikipedia, for instance, may decide nearly instantly that the person who was Bruce is now Caitlyn. But only the ratification of the state is definitive. And in matters of identity, to ratify is almost to create: the decree of the state brings someone’s identity into being; that decree is what the speech-act theorists call a “performative utterance.”

For the Church of England in 1552, the power to make such an utterance was invested in family and church; for the British Foreign Office before 1858 — and for Miss Marple, in her informal and local way — it was invested in “some person of known respectability”; but for us the gift of identity is in the hands of the state. We learn, therefore, as James C. Scott might put it, to “see like a state”: to think of identity in the way the state does. Consider more closely, for instance, the act of naming. Scott points out that in pre-modern societies a person’s name might alter over time: “Among some peoples, it is not uncommon for individuals to have different names during different stages of life (infancy, childhood, adulthood) and in some cases after death…. A single individual will frequently be called by several different names, depending on the stage of life and the person questioning him or her.” The political regularization of names, and especially the creation of consistent surnames, is, Scott argues, essential to the stability and power of the modern nation-state. To give, establish, and ratify names is “to create a legible people.”

Corlett, Fritch, and Fletcher claim that an amphetamine-induced mania-like state may involve pathologically high confidence in neural predictions. I don’t remember if they took the obvious next step and claimed that depression was the opposite, but that sounds like another fruitful avenue to explore. So: what if depression is pathologically low confidence in neural predictions?

Chekroud’s theory of depression as high-level-depressing-beliefs bothers me because there are so many features of depression that aren’t cognitive or emotional or related to any of these higher-level functions at all. Depressed people move more slowly, in a characteristic pattern called “psychomotor retardation”. They display perceptual abnormalities. They’re more likely to get sick. There are lots of results like this.

Depression has to be about something more than just beliefs; it has to be something fundamental to the nervous system. And low confidence in neural predictions would do it. Since neural predictions are the basic unit of thought, encoding not just perception but also motivation, reward, and even movement – globally low confidence levels would have devastating effects on a whole host of processes.

i’ve been mulling over and trying to read more about the idea he mentions of mania as pathologically high confidence in top-down system predictions – it’s made a lot of sense out of a ~6-12 month period i went through of dramatically altered thinking that accompanied something along the lines of a mental breakdown. scott’s been knocking it out of the park with a few of his recent posts (see also… )

The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.

The bottom-up stream starts out as all that incomprehensible light and darkness and noise that we need to process. It gradually moves up all the cognitive layers that we already knew existed – the edge-detectors that resolve it into edges, the object-detectors that shape the edges into solid objects, et cetera.

The top-down stream starts with everything you know about the world, all your best heuristics, all your priors, everything that’s ever happened to you before – everything from “solid objects can’t pass through one another” to “e=mc^2” to “that guy in the blue uniform is probably a policeman”. It uses its knowledge of concepts to make predictions – not in the form of verbal statements, but in the form of expected sense data. It makes some guesses about what you’re going to see, hear, and feel next, and asks “Like this?” These predictions gradually move down all the cognitive layers to generate lower-level predictions. If that uniformed guy was a policeman, how would that affect the various objects in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the distribution of edges in the scene? Given the answer to that question, how would it affect the raw-sense data received?

Both streams are probabilistic in nature. The bottom-up sensory stream has to deal with fog, static, darkness, and neural noise; it knows that whatever forms it tries to extract from this signal might or might not be real. For its part, the top-down predictive stream knows that predicting the future is inherently difficult and its models are often flawed. So both streams contain not only data but estimates of the precision of that data. A bottom-up percept of an elephant right in front of you on a clear day might be labelled “very high precision”; one of a a vague form in a swirling mist far away might be labelled “very low precision”. A top-down prediction that water will be wet might be labelled “very high precision”; one that the stock market will go up might be labelled “very low precision”.

i have close to zero proper knowledge about the science of cognition but i find this model really compelling.

Let’s call this alternate mechanism cultural imprinting, for reasons that I hope will become clear. It’s closely related to, but importantly distinct from, emotional inception. And my thesis today is that the effect of cultural imprinting is far larger than the effect of emotional inception (if such a thing even exists at all).

Cultural imprinting is the mechanism whereby an ad, rather than trying to change our minds individually, instead changes the landscape of cultural meanings — which in turn changes how we are perceived by others when we use a product. Whether you drink Corona or Heineken or Budweiser “says” something about you. But you aren’t in control of that message; it just sits there, out in the world, having been imprinted on the broader culture by an ad campaign. It’s then up to you to decide whether you want to align yourself with it. Do you want to be seen as a “chill” person? Then bring Corona to a party. Or maybe “chill” doesn’t work for you, based on your individual social niche — and if so, your winning (EV-maximizing) move is to look for some other beer. But that’s ok, because a successful ad campaign doesn’t need to work on everybody. It just needs to work on net — by turning “Product X” into a more winning option, for a broader demographic, than it was before the campaign.

Of course cultural imprinting works better for some products than others. What a product “says” about you is only important insofar as other people will notice your use of it — i.e., if there’s social or cultural signaling involved. But the class of products for which this is the case is surprisingly large. Beer, soft drinks, gum, every kind of food (think backyard barbecues). Restaurants, coffee shops, airlines. Cars, computers, clothing. Music, movies, and TV shows (think about the watercooler at work). Even household products send cultural signals, insofar as they’ll be noticed when you invite friends over to your home. Any product enjoyed or discussed in the presence of your peers is ripe for cultural imprinting.

revisited this recently – i don’t believe i’ve posted it on this blog, but it’s one of the most interesting essays i read last year. plus, this also finally got me to read some mcluhan.

Zero-knowledge proofs are an uncomfortable topic.

Mostly, they’re uncomfortable because they make people feel stupid, or make people worry that they’ll be made to look stupid. Cryptographers and developers alike struggle with the topic.

Zero-knowledge proofs are a category of cryptographic tool with many different flavors. As a concept, they aren’t scary, and are worth taking a little time to understand.

Like most things, there are layers to the topic that can be peeled back and studied. A little analogy can go a long way to understanding what zero-knowledge proofs are and what they can do.

A cryptographic hash function takes data and essentially translates it into a string of letters and numbers. Ever use a URL shortener like bitly or tinyURL? It’s sort of like that. You put in something long, and something short comes out that represents the longer thing. Except with cryptographic hash functions, the input doesn’t need to be long. It can be extremely short (e.g. the word “Dog”) or almost infinitely long (e.g. the entire text of A Tale of Two Cities), and you will still get a unique output string of uniform length. Also unlike URL shorteners, the hash functions involved in Bitcoin only work one-way. While the same data will always result in the same hash, it is impossible to reconstitute your original data from hash it produces.

So data goes into a hash function, the function runs, and a string of letters and numbers is produced (you can try it for yourself here). That string is called a hash. In the Bitcoin blockchain hashes are 256 bits, or 64 characters.

It may seem impossible that a near infinite amount of data can be translated consistently into a unique string of only 64 characters, but this miraculously how cryptographic functions work. Entire books full of text can be translated into a single string of 64 numbers and letters using this incredible technology. And every time you put the same data in, you will get not only the same identical hash, but one that is unique and different from any other hash.

But concretely, since Urbit keys are valuable, you don’t want to put them in an operating system that isn’t generally recognized as systematically secure. It’s hard to achieve this status while you’re a testnet. So the virtuous cycle never gets started.

Moving the Urbit land registry to Ethereum is an easy and obvious solution to this problem. If your urbit is owned by an offline Ethereum key, there’s now a mature ecosystem for protecting this property. And its security doesn’t depend on the security of Urbit. So, we realized, maybe Urbit actually does need a blockchain for its land registry. While the system matures, we can bootstrap off of Ethereum, without changing the design of the Urbit cryptosystem.

And best of all, you can get your Urbit star or planet entirely through the blockchain, without interacting with any centralized database or payment mechanism. So we’re really living in 2017.

remember how i said i was reading the urbit docs? (btw, i found this unlisted video that i used to explain urbit to a friend – the concepts assume so much prior knowledge about how computers and the internet work that i found it really difficult to describe in brief (and i still have no idea what a typed functional language is))

It is also not fun if you have no reliable way to share a poem in an appropiate environment. We are not talking about posting it on facebook. In case of poems (and nearly every other form of human creativity) there should exist a dedicated environment which would allow you to put your creation in context, facilitate discussion, its extension and ways to put it out for the benefit of you and others. In the past, people would actually meet and facilitate this process, and huge amount of resources were put to preserving and extension of already existing works. Somehow, a mere two decades after the discovery of the internet, it seems the creative processes which were freed by the creation of internet are repeating the pattern of the old ages, with the majority relapsing into the sleep of boredom and involuntary passivity. If it was possible, your aunt would probably want to run a blog about cats, a platform dedicated to their behavioral patterns and a live stream of cat whereabouts. Instead, on todays internet it is even a hassle to sign up for a clumsy looking forum about cats. And God or lastpass help you if you plan to sign up for several different forums.

i’ve been checking this blog regularly waiting for new updates. his description is much more approachable for laypeople than the official documentation.

As the Islamic State continues to crumble, many of its adherents will be looking for new banners under which to fight. They are unlikely to pledge allegiance to al-Zawahiri, whom they see as an interloper unworthy of bin Ladin’s legacy. It would be an understatement to say that al-Zawahiri lacks the charisma of his predecessor. Moreover, as an Egyptian, he will always struggle to inspire loyalty among other Arabs, especially those from the Arabian Peninsula. Hamza, by contrast, suffers from none of these handicaps. His family pedigree, not to mention his dynastic marriage to the daughter of an al-Qaida charter member, automatically entitles him to respect from every jihadi who follows bin Ladin’s ideology, which includes every Islamic State fighter. As a Saudi descended from prominent families on both his father’s and his mother’s side, he is well-placed to pull in large donations from patrons in the Gulf, particularly at a time when sectarian fervor is running high in Saudi Arabia. It is significant in this regard that Hamza has returned to his father’s rhetoric castigating the House of Saud. As with bin Ladin’s 1996 declaration of jihad, this is not just a political message; it is designed to inspire potential donors.

One final aspect of Hamza’s messages is noteworthy here. Unlike other leading al-Qaida figures, he has never once explicitly criticized the Islamic State. True, he bemoans “strife” between the various groups fighting in Iraq and Syria and calls repeatedly for unity among jihadis to face down what he describes as a “unified enemy” of “Crusaders, Jews, Alawites, rejectionists, and apostate mercenaries.” But he carefully avoids naming the self-styled caliphate or its leaders. The Islamic State, for its part, reciprocates the favor; even as its propaganda castigates al-Zawahiri as a traitor to the cause, it never directly references Hamza. It is significant, too, that many Islamic State supporters who denounce “al-Zawahiri’s al-Qaida” nevertheless profess admiration for Usama bin Ladin. This is the best evidence that Hamza could be a unifying figure.

Lately the youthful adherents of the Trumpian right have returned to an allied preoccupation with civilizational collapse as a product of the permissive society—even as they enthusiastically championed Trump for ripping up other forms of self-restraint. Curiously, younger quasi-Trumpian supporters of the anti-PC resistance have rediscovered and revived Camille Paglia’s neo-Freudian 1990 tome Sexual Personae. The formidable Paglia herself has never identified as right-wing, but all of her strongest arguments about the sexual character of civilizational decline have proven more useful to the right. Her most ambivalent and qualified arguments have been the left-leaning ones, like her celebration of decadent culture and her claims that its key exponents, such as Oscar Wilde, had rescued aesthetic insights in the face of largely self-administered cultural collapse. In a related critical register, the recent revival of degeneration theory associated with Max Nordau and Oswald Spengler has helped shape the tone and content of a whole new wave of right-wing alternative media.

Part and parcel of this declensionist revival on the right is a challenge to the idea of progress. The urgency of Trump’s appeal for the online right seems to stem from the mounting conviction that the West is rapidly degenerating, usually under the rubric of progress as administered and championed by cultural liberals. Around 2015, 4chan’s /pol/ board popularized a meme using the phrase “Come on it’s (the current year)” to mock naïve progressives like satirist John Oliver. The meme questioned the arbitrary insistence that moving forward in time must necessarily mean having superior values. More recently, a widely shared meme read something like, “1970: ‘I can’t wait for flying cars/space colonies/a cure for cancer’” followed by the year 2017 and some absurd visual representation of contemporary identity politics—like an image of a man who identifies as a dog or an adult baby. The political message is clear: either progress itself is a myth, or we have stopped progressing and started regressing as a civilization and are now intractably sinking into a decivilizing process.

The real story of VR however, at present, is the incredible and terrifying potential it has to not merely reshape entertainment, but potentially the entire human experience itself. In potentially unexpected ways which many may prefer not to contemplate.

This potential goes far beyond the obvious implications, like the potential ability for companies to train employees and hold transatlantic meetings in a virtual space or for schools to use VR as a learning tool for students, etc. Such developments would not really be a profound improvement over presently existing computing and telecommunications technologies, and would merely represent an improvement of degree and not of kind.

The actual true paradigm shift for VR tech will be, not simply its ability to project fantasies out into the ether, but to project and integrate them with the very fabric of reality itself. Or as Werner Herzog put it when asked about his experiences with VR for his documentary films:

I am convinced that this is not going to be an extension of cinema or 3-D cinema or video games. It is something new, different, and not experienced yet… It’s a form of space that we haven’t experienced yet. It is a form of space that occurs in our nightmares.