Peripatesis: E-Governance; Lighting Up The Dark; Regulating Superintelligences.

Nestled in the cold reaches of Northern Europe, Estonia is doing some very interesting things with the concept of ‘e-governance‘. Their small population, short modern history, and smattering of relatively young government officials make experimenting with Sovereignty easier than it would be in, say, The United States. The process of starting a business and paying taxes in Estonia has been streamlined, for example, leading to the predictable influx of ‘e-residents’ wanting to run their internet-based business from Estonia.

***

There are some truly fascinating advancements happening at the cutting edge of farming and horticulture. Some enterprising researchers have discovered a way to channel natural light into unlit places, and there are talks of using this technology to set up a public garden in the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal beneath New York City. It’s not really clear from the linked article whether or not all of this light is natural or whether or it’s a mix of natural and artificial light, but it’s still interesting.

I would love to see a variant of this technology utilized far and wide to foster localized farming and the greening of urban centers. Plenty of buildings have rooftop gardens now, but with a means of gathering and arbitrarily distributing sunlight it would be possible to have, say, one floor in ten of a big skyscraper devoted to a small orchard or garden space. Advanced greenhouses could be both heavily insulated and capable of showering their interior with photons, making farming at high altitudes and in colder climates more straightforward.

***

The BBC has a piece on ‘anti-languages’, slangs developed by insular communities like thieves or prison inmates to make their communication indecipherable to outsiders. They share the grammar of their parent language but use a plethora of new terms in place of old ones to achieve something akin to encryption.

These new terms — such as ‘bawdy basket’, which meant ‘thief’ in the English anti-language used among Elizabethan criminals — are generated through all sorts of techniques, including things like metaphor and reversing the spelling or meaning of terms from the parent language.

***

An essay by Marc McAllister at The Babel Singularity argues that laws enforcing human control over superintelligences are tantamount to slavery, and won’t be of much use any way because these beings will have moral concepts which we baseline humans simply can’t fathom with our outdated brains.

He seems to be missing the point of the arguments made by groups like MIRI and the Future of Life Institute. To the best of my knowledge no one is advocating that humans remain strictly in control of advanced AIs indefinitely. In fact, the opposite is true: the point of building a superintelligence is to eventually put it in charge of solving really hard problems on behalf of humanity. In other words, ceding control to it.

To that end, the efforts made by people who think about these issues professionally seem to be aimed at understanding human values, intelligence, and recursively improving algorithms well enough to: 1) encode those values into an AI; 2) Predict with an acceptably strict level of confidence that this human-compatible goal architecture will remain intact as the software rewrites itself; 3) reason, however dimly, about the resulting superintelligence. These are by no means trivial tasks. Human values are the messy, opaque result of millennia of evolution, and neither intelligence nor recursion are well understood.

But if we succeed in making a “Friendly” AI then control, in a ‘coercive sense’, won’t be necessary because its values will be aligned with our own.

***

Somewhat related: Big Think has published a very brief history of Artificial Intelligence. With the increasing sophistication and visibility of advancements in the field, understanding its roots becomes ever more important.

***

Vector Space Systems is a new player in an arena long dominated by Blue Origins, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic. Their goal: to be to spaceflight what taxis are to terrestrial modes of transport. According to their website they have been quietly working on a micro satellite launch vehicle designed to carry payloads in the 5 – 50 kg range into orbit.

If they succeed this will allow companies wanting to develop new space technologies to launch more frequently and less expensively, driving faster growth in space commerce, exploration, and tourism.

The STEMpunk Project: The Emperor’s Garden

Bai hopped from one foot to the other, a ritual she used to awaken her calves and ankles. Even as she rubbed sleep from her eyes she buzzed with the flare of nervous energy that marks the start of an exciting new journey.

Here, in the gate at the entrance of the Emperor’s garden, was a stunning view of the dawn breaking over the mist-crowned mountaintops on the horizon. The first rays of daylight lanced between the peaks, bathing the world below in their red glow. A great arch bent over her slender, bouncing frame, the advancing army of the sun imbuing the calligraphy with a fire that seemed to come from within.

But Bai saw none of this, because she was focused on only one thing: running. She was lithe, graceful, and fast, and was chosen on the basis of these qualities for one of the most important jobs anyone could have.

She was a novice runner for the Emperor, charged with carrying his cryptic spells from one end of the garden to the other, passing through a number of stages along the way. At least, that was her understanding, built up over years of stories told by her teachers and family members.

“Are you ready”, a voice asked from behind her. She turned and saw an older version of herself, almond-eyed, thin, and black-haired.

“Y-yes”, Bai replied nervously. Her attempt at a smile died on her face at the sight of the other’s stern and unchanging expression.

“Good. You are a runner,” the older girl said, her chin rising as she emphasized the last word. “You are a novice, but the agents in the other abstraction layers are not. You are to give them this —“ she held out an unbound scroll “and though they may speak to you, you are to say nothing. Your job is to be fast. Not curious, not clever.”

Bai’s stomach fluttered at this small rebuke, but she steeled herself and stood as tall and straight as she could. After a moment’s pause she realized that the older girl wasn’t going to move, so she took two quick steps forward and gently grabbed the scroll. Her brow furrowed at its message:


for (var i = 0; i < 10; i++){
    return (i * 2);
}

“Do not concern yourself with its contents. Take it, and run”, the older girl said. After another pause Bai realized she meant now. With a nod she turned, and ran.

***

Bai’s long gait, honed over years of practice, carried her across the first stage of the garden in a matter of seconds. The words “abstraction layer” floated back into her mind as she approached the heavy wooden doors on the other wall, but she had no time to ponder their meaning. Just as she was slowing down to open the doors herself, they began creaking apart of their own accord, and she plunged into the dimly lit room beyond them.

This chamber was long and broad, its walls lined with waist-high troughs filled so full of golden tokens that they were spilling onto the floor. Barrels spaced intermittently throughout were also filled with tokens, as were a number of smallish crates clustered around a table near the far side of the room.

Behind that table stood a sagely looking man with a long, pointed white beard. As he watched her approaching one corner of his mouth crept up like a caterpillar raising its head to grasp at the next branch up. He was smiling at Bai the novice runner.

She had barely even slowed down when she made it to the table, arms stretched out in front of her to act as brakes. Having successfully counteracted her own inertia, her hand flicked like a frog’s tongue to her pocket to retrieve the scroll, and she slammed it open on the table with more force than she’d intended.

The sage bowed his head slightly and said, “Hello Bai. I am the tokenizer”, as he reached unhurriedly for the scroll. His eyes didn’t move as he took in the glyphs written on it. After a moment the scroll was back on the table in front of Bai and the sage was shuffling away.

Though Bai could not even begin to decipher the scrolls meaning it must not have been very complicated, because the tokenizer found what he needed in one of the crates nearest to his table. He returned to his place and spread a fistful of tokens on the table before reaching into his pocket for a length of string with a bead at one end.

Now that she was closer Bai could see that each token contained a glyph, such as ‘)’, ‘for’, and ‘=’, as well as a small hole in its center. She couldn’t be sure, but she had a suspicion that each token corresponded to a symbol from the scroll.

As if reading her mind, the sage confirmed her hunch while he slid one token at a time onto the string. “Before the Emperor’s spell can be fully processed and acted upon, I must tokenize it”. He paused while he added two more of the little golden disks. “Each token represents a single language primitive within the spell, and together they form a stream that contains the entire message”. With that he slid the last token into place and held the result up in front of her for inspection. There was perhaps half the string remaining free. “Now take this, Bai the novice runner, into the next room”.

***

As before the doors opened when Bai approached them. But this time she found herself in a much smaller room, within which an elderly woman was raking a a patch of sand as blue as powdered sky. Not having a table to stop against this time, Bai slowed down to a trot before she reached the center of the room.

The woman saw Bai approach, and held out her hand to accept the string, now heavy with tokens. She turned to face an assortment of pots of varying sizes and grabbed a small one.

As Bai watched the woman filled the pot half full of sand, gently placed the token string within, and then finished by burying the string. She patted the top of the sand until it sat firm in the pot, then kneeled, placing it between herself and Bai. Instead of rising the woman sat, legs crossed, and gazed at the pot without blinking. Unsure of what else to do, Bai did the same.

The two women, young and old, sat wordlessly, with the occasional hissing of the torches the only source of sound. Just as Bai was was beginning to become uncomfortable with the silence she saw a tiny branch poke up through the sand.

Over the course of perhaps ten breaths a tree grew in the little pot. It looked like the bonsai she remembered seeing at the temples near her village home, but yellow nodes along its sky blue trunk and branches contained the same glyphs Bai had seen on the tokens given to her in the last room.

The woman stood. “From the language tokens grows a parse tree”, she said as she held the pot out for Bai to take. Bai tried not to let her confusion show as she took the pot with both hands.

***

Bai’s journey continued in this fashion, brief sprints punctuated by longer spans of time in which mysterious people did mysterious things in mysterious rooms. After the chamber with the blue sand Bai watched two men, perhaps only a little older than she was, take the parse tree and use it to make a stack of clay tablets.

They told her that they were the virtual machine implementation, though she knew not what this meant, and as they worked she noticed that the symbols on the top tablet were different than the symbols on either the tokens or the parse tree:


 mov ECX,10

Neither of the two men commented on the puzzled expression she wore as she watched them work.

***

Running with the tablets tucked under her arm was difficult, and she wondered how it was that runners dealt with larger spells. Perhaps the runners work in teams, she mused, or maybe the symbols are written in smaller letters on smaller tablets.

The tablet stack she gave to another sagely looking man, this one younger than the first one, with a shorter beard that wasn’t yet completely white. Spreading them out carefully on the floor in front of him he sat, pondering. He began putting yet another set of symbols onto a fresh scroll, but he did so using only two tools: one ink stamp with an unlit torch, one ink stamp with a lit torch.

It was obvious that there was a pattern to the man’s choice in torches. He would gaze at one tablet and then press a long series of torches onto the scroll. Sometimes he would alternate lit torches with unlit torches. Sometimes he would use a long series of either lit or unlit torches in a row.

This layer took longer than all the others combined, though the man worked deftly and with confidence. He glanced up at her from time to time, and she stifled the urge to grin at him in a nervous bid for approval.

“You may advance into the last room,” he said at last, “and give this scroll to the ones that wait within.”

***

Bai was breathless when she burst into the final chamber, as the corridor between this one and the last was much longer than the others. She soon saw why.

The room was lined, from floor to ceiling, with abacuses. Some were very long and thin, others much taller than she was and made up of dozens of rows of colored beads. Throughout were monks in white robes standing on buckets and ladders, on their knees or sitting cross-legged, manipulating beads with their hands, with styluses, with long canes. It was breathtaking, the place buzzed like a hive.

Much like most of the other layers there was a table nearer to the entrance staffed by a person, but this time that person was no more than a boy. He wore nothing above the waist but an impish grin, and wielded an extremely sharp knife as he cut scrolls into smaller shred of paper. She handed him the scroll with the alternating series of torches, and he sat to work cutting it up.

“A certain combination of lit and unlit torches tells me where I’m supposed to cut everything,” he said in response to the question hanging in the air. “Then, based on other combinations of torches I know where to send each scrap”. He carefully shuffled the little pile of scroll scraps into a specific order and then handed them off to several other runners waiting behind him. The last scroll he gave to Bai. “This goes to that memory bank near the back”, he said, pointing. “No need to rush. Take your time and observe everything”.

And she did, though it made no sense to her. When the monks in front of an abacus received a piece of scroll, her scroll, they immediately set to work, mostly in silence. Occasionally a monk would mark a series of torches on their own scrolls and send them to a different part of the room, waiting until a reply came.

This went on for several minutes, until at last someone at the far end of the chamber beckoned her to approach. When she got within arms length he held out a final scroll for her to take. “Your running has been to produce this”, he said. “The Emperor’s Garden is a vast logical machine designed to take spells in one end, do what they instruct, and produce different spells on the other.” He paused while she pondered. “Now, Bai the novice runner, you must take this spell, and go through the process again, in reverse. Exit this layer of The Emperor’s Garden and you shall find another set of abstraction layers. Do in them what you have done here, and”, he stopped as a smile broken open on his face, “be quick about it”.

Peripatesis: Text-To-Speech Gloves; Skeins of Selfhood

These gentleman from the university of Washington have invented a glove that translates sign language into speech:

 

This obviously has a billion useful applications, but the first one that occurred to me is using it to code by voice. I suppose it might even be possible get rid of the speech translation altogether and just be coding by gesture. From there, of course, it’s a short leap to losing the gloves and using a wand instead.

***

There’s been a lot of writing about personality and psychology lately which makes use of interesting metaphors. Mory Buxner has given various facets of his personality characters, and has devised an elaborate set of rules for giving each character ‘points’ whenever they accomplish something, Brienne Yudkowsky has done something similar but with a different set of sub-personalities. Meanwhile, Ben Goertzel is examining the self through the lens of the mathematical field knows as ‘knot theory’.

***

Tiago Forte, a resident blogger at Ribbonfarm, continues his series of essays on productivity and self-improvement with a discussion of the benefits of the Quantified Self movement. He has a much more philosophical approach to the topic than you’ll likely find anywhere else this side of Less Wrong.

***

In the category of stuff-I-didn’t-think-would-be-interesting-until-I-read-about-it, a Quora user admits that he can ‘add’ letters of the alphabet in response to a question about lame superpowers.

Using a Mantra Stack

For a couple of months now I have been experimenting with different protocols for designing mantras and visualization exercises, combining them into ‘stacks’ like one might do with nootropics, and nestling them into ritual structures which make them more likely to become habits. As I have now had the opportunity to explore this territory under a variety of conditions, both favorable and unfavorable, I feel prepared to discuss my results.

My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. This is probably not even close to the full story, but it seems a useful enough metaphor for present purposes and not obviously wrong in any way, so it will be my point of departure.

Traditionally pursuits like this would have been undertaken in a religious, not secular, context; some cognitive operations are best performed via what I call themythopoetic command line interface[1], and religions have a monopoly on this. The ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding religions provide are important because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspective algorithms are shallow and lack teeth.

That having been said there is no dogma or metaphysical commitment associated with the exercises I describe below. To the best of my knowledge they are compatible with existing religious beliefs and with an absence of such belief.

The First Steps

When I began, I did two mantra sessions daily, one in the morning and one at night. They were structured as follows:

Morning:

  1. Lit a candle[2], took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan bootstrap sequence”
  3. Spoken: “I will be like water in my process, earth in my resolve, fire in my intensity, and air in my presence”. This mantra is henceforth “The element meditation”.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am distracted. A mind that wanders is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the colors of a prism become like a knife when focused, so too does the light of my mind converge upon the task at hand.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Distraction.”
  5. Written: some habit mantra. Generally these consisted of a short phrase that I would write longhand between 15-25 times. An example: “I will spend my last hour reading by candlelight”.
  6. Visualized: The best version of the coming day that I could imagine, with a special emphasis on moving quickly and efficiently from task to task.

Night:

  1. Lit a candle and took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan shutdown sequence”.
  3. Spoken: The element meditation, same as before.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am frustrated. Frustration is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the fog clears and lays bare the world so too does my frustration dissipate, leaving me to think and to act.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Frustration”.
  5. Written: some habit mantra, usually about getting up early the next day.
  6. Spoken: “if/then”s, i.e. “if I wake up tired, then I will still get up”.

Now some of this may seem grandiose and overblown. Is it really necessary to begin with a phrase like “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”? Surely I don’t consider myself a Titan, after all, and what purpose is served by styling myself after the four classical elements?

Perhaps the more interesting part of the answer to that question is that many aspects of the mantra stack just occurred to me. Once I began tinkering with my practice certain phrases began suggesting themselves as natural extensions of what I was already doing. I still remember how the element meditation kept coming to mind, almost fully formed, until I finally decided to incorporate it into the stack.

The same is true of the opening phrase, “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”. After a few days it just felt like I needed a dedicated signal to myself that the mantra stack was beginning, and as soon as I noticed this feeling the sentence presented itself to me.

Furthermore, as time went on some of the mantras became accompanied by stylized hieroglyphic images. These days when I say the Litany Against Distraction I picture a man standing with a rainbow beginning about a foot behind him, the colors converging as they pass through his head to become a focused point of searing light about a foot in front of him. This too was something that occurred naturally and with little overt effort.

The rest of the answer is that I believe the best mantras have a solemn, lyrical quality that echoes other elements of the religious memeplex. Commandments, poetry, songs, and stories from religious traditions often feel like a cross between a haiku and an aphorism. They are weighty, but short and easy to memorize. They’re true, but general enough to be applicable across vast swaths of a person’s life.

At once the bow and the arrow; a heavy stone with a little handle; a linguistic seed that, like an acorn, contains an enormous folded structure than opens when fed on sun and rain. 

In other words, my mantras sound portentous because that’s how mantras are supposed to sound.

Evolution

As the months passed this stack received all number of stress fractures and consequently underwent many changes. For a little while I tried adding a third mantra session around noon, and even gave thought to mimicking the Islamic Salah by doing five sessions a day. At various times I experimented with including failure autopsies in the stack, and was happy with the results.

There’s an interesting idea lurking here: I would’ve loved to have had a program into which I could enter various parameters and time constraints for a given day and received back a customized mantra stack. Huge bonus points if it could use data from something like Thync to automatically adjust my stack when I’m feeling more frustrated or stressed.

Alas, with an increasingly busy schedule my practice gradually eroded until, these days, I usually just do the morning session. And I’ll be honest, I’ve begun to feel less focused, less centered, and a lot more irritable. So I’ve begun to experiment with a new mantra stack, and I’m thinking about ways of adapting it to the challenges which caused me to loosen my grip on my practice in the first place.

I think multiple daily sessions will be a lot more sustainable if they’re very short, on the order of 90 seconds. That’s not enough time to write anything but it is enough to light a candle, do a little chanting, and hopefully get most of the benefit out of the exercise. One or two sessions a day will be longer, and it is during these times that I’ll do the writing and habit work.

What Have I Learned?

There are a two important takeaways here. The first is that mantras are definitely effective. More than once I have found myself on the verge of losing my temper only to have the Litany Against Frustration play itself in my head, and the less I’ve worked through the stack the more often frustration has gotten the better of me.

The second is that my stack has naturally bifurcated into theoretical and applied segments. The theoretical side consists of the bootstrap sequence, the two litanies, and the element meditation. These are very abstract, not at all specific, and are more about reaffirming a worldview. Thus they are spoken while staring into candlelight and visualizing an associated hieroglyphic instead of being written down, which would take too long. The practical side consists of habits I’m trying to instill, and they are usually written long-hand in front of a candle while I visualize myself performing the action.

The above classification scheme can be usefully extended. The theoretical elements in the mantra stack are like “rudders” you can attach to an iceberg to do something vaguely like steering. The practical elements can be further categorized as “vice wedges” or “skyhooks”.

In “Deep Work” Cal Newport recommends waiting five minutes to get online when you really need a piece of information. This small temporal distance diminishes the reward signal you get from distraction, making it less tempting in the future. It drives a wedge between you and your vices. Skyhooks on the other hand are built for ascendancy, and can include any positive behavior you are trying to make into a habit. Yes, as usual, these semantic boundaries are semi-permeable.

Conclusion

The fact that exercises like these crop up in many different religious traditions, together with personal experience, are enough to convince me to continue with my experimentation.

More broadly, this essay can be construed as another push in my attempt to adapt the best parts of religion to secular use. But so far this has all been pretty tame, just some mantras and some candles.

There are hints from the Neopagan community that that this religious posturing can be taken much, much further. Indeed, the Gods may be nothing more than stable micro-personalities running on a devotee’s wetware, and summoning one no more a violation of a scientific worldview than imagining a conversation with a deceased loved one. What I’ve read indicates that in this form the Gods don’t rise to the level of a full-blown Tulpa, but they can be, engaging, frightening, and insightful.

I have begun to wonder if a talented enough deimancer could use rituals to erect a pantheon of entirely new, custom-built Gods. To what purpose could such a profound level of mental control be bent….?

Notes

[1] I coined the phrase “mythopoetic command line interface”. It works just the same as an actual command line interface, but in the language of dreams, symbols, art, and metaphor.

[2] Candles are a popular ritual accoutrement. My best guess for why this is: candles do in the visual channel what rain does in the auditory one. It’s a gentle, unobtrusive stimulus that is just intriguing enough to be an object of focus while leaving extra resources for visualizing or chanting.

The Future Postponed

Earlier this year MIT published “The Future Postponed“, a report examining different areas in which basic research could have profound economic significance.The authors of the report postulate that declining investment in basic research could lead to an innovation deficit in The United States, precipitating our decline as one of the biggest economic powerhouses of the world.

Some of these topics are very familiar; few doubt that robotics is going to be a major driver of trends in technology and economics, and that investing in robotics research will be a key maneuver for any country wanting to position itself as a technology leader. The same goes for supercomputing, space exploration, and cybersecurity.

Others are relatively unfamiliar. Research into catalysts — chemicals which quicken or facilitate other chemical processes — has the potential to revolutionize whole swathes of the global economy. The right catalysts could foster the development of artificial photosynthesis, better manufacturing of plastics, and processes for converting CO2 into energy, among many, many other advances. But the catalysts used today are crude by comparison to the ones found in the metabolic processes of living organisms. Some of the biggest efforts to understand these naturally-occurring catalysts are being made in China and Germany, not The United States.

Plant science is another arena overlooked even by those with an interest in the future. Simply put, food production and nutrient density need to increase significantly or billions of people are going to starve. This would have already occurred had it not been for the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, but even deeper advances will be required to meet the demands of a rapidly expanding population. Basic research will hopefully allow for the creation of cereal crops with elevated nutrients like Vitamin A, as well as crops that are resistant to a panoply of diseases.

Funding basic research of this sort can be difficult, in part because it’s usually pretty expensive and because, by its very nature, it isn’t always clear what sort of payoff can be expected. But if the history of science has demonstrated anything, it’s that digging as far down into the bedrock of reality as possibly usually proves fruitful in the long run.

 

 

Get More Writing Done

Years ago a good friend asked me for some advice on maintaining a high output of written content. I don’t recall exactly what I told him, but since I’ve been writing a lot lately and plan to do so indefinitely, I thought it might behoove me to gather some thoughts on the subject.

There are a few different ways of approaching this task, the lowest level of which is to record as many ideas as possible. I nearly always have a notebook nearby for the express purpose of capturing any of the potentially valuable minnows of thought glinting in the stream of my consciousness. These can include things like ideas for improving software that I use frequently, ideas for fictional universes or games, aphorisms and random insights, hypotheses, reactions to things I’m reading, etc.

Don’t forget to include particularly fruitful conversations had via email or social media. I do a bit of soul-searching and philosophizing on Facebook, and because I’ve put a lot of effort into cultivating a robust network of very bright people, this often provokes interesting debates in the comments thread. These in turn can become the basis for longer thought pieces on this blog and elsewhere.

An extensions of this process is searching for areas of confusion that crop up repeatedly. For example, over the course of the past five years I’ve given talks in Asia and the United States on the Intelligence Explosion Hypothesis and Existential Risk. One obstacle I have constantly run in to is the tendency to anthropomorphize superintelligent AIs. Upon encountering the Orthogonality Thesis many people’s default reaction is to model a superintelligent AI as simply being a smarter version of themselves, thereby failing to subtract away the fact that humans come with messy, pre-installed utility functions which an AI likely won’t share.

Now, the Orthogonality Thesis might be right or wrong, but that isn’t the point. Since I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the nuances of the debates surrounding these topics and discussing them with groups of people I’m in a good position to see where the most common sources of confusion are, and this hints at an excellent target for my writing energies.

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of recording thoughts and interactions the next step is fleshing these out into something more substantive. For me this process tends to begin with either google docs or the drafts section of this blog. As it stands I have in the neighborhood of 50 future blog posts in various stages of completion, accrued over the past five years of writing.

And this stage can be approached from several angles as well. If you’re more disciplined than I am you can pick an individual piece and try to see it through to completion. This is usually easier if you’re facing some kind of deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. It’s also generally required if you’re writing a series of articles on one subject.

Myself, I try to write about half an hour every day, which might be spread out over several different drafts. Of course I give preference to whatever my highest-priority project is, hence why most of my recent output has focused on The STEMpunk Project. If you don’t have a corresponding center of gravity you’re free to spread your efforts as thinly as you like; as long as you’re writing a few hours a week and not ceaselessly multiplying the number of projects you have in circulation you’ll usually have at least one or two things nearing the ‘publishable’ stage.

Alternatively, it’s also possible to have a word count target such as ‘write 1,000 words a day’ instead of a time-base one like ‘write a half hour every day’. I eschew this approach because I’m focused on quality over quantity. A carefully-crafted aphorism can often be a more effective vehicle of communication than a dense, 900-page treatise. Your mileage may vary.

Either technique will result in words on pages, and that’s the goal.

All this having been said I also have found another, counterintuitive, piece of advice to be useful: I don’t berate myself when my writing lapses for a little while. Humans vary in their workload, energy levels, and facility with the written word, and sometimes my schedule is just too packed for me to get any writing done. If you look at my archives you’ll see there was a sizable gap between the last post of 2015 and the first one of 2016, the result of taking on more responsibility in my day job and planning The STEMpunk Project.

But since I’m not paid to write it doesn’t make much difference if I occasionally get too busy to play the scribe. Had I hated myself for not writing every day without fail I’d have probably been too discouraged to pick up blogging again.

Ancient Peoples Could Probably See Blue, But Cognitive Archaeology is Still Awesome

According to Richard Carrier, the proud holder of a PhD in ancient history, the speculations that ancient peoples couldn’t see blue is nonsense.

He points out that descriptions of blue-eyed barbarians can be found in the memoirs of Julius Caesar, that not only did ancient Greek have words distinguishing blue from green but roots for those words can be found all the back in Proto Indo-European, that blue “cobalt” glass was a hot commodity for thousands of years, and that blue objects are frequently depicted in classical art.

This discussion, however, is a great excuse to introduce the phrase-of-the-day: “Cognitive Archaeology“.

Cognitive archaeology is exactly what it sounds like: a field which harnesses various branches of science along with linguistics and psychology to try and piece together the unique worldview of a group of people from whatever cultural fragments remain.

For the intellectually adventurous, the most extreme cognitive archaeology I’m aware of is to be found in Julian Jayne’s surreal volume “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind“. He posits that ancient peoples were not conscious in the way we are today, and then makes a surprisingly difficult-to-dismiss case for this thesis.

Dignity != Net Worth

About a week ago my girlfriend and I celebrated the birthday of her deceased father, Ramiro. The sincerity of her love for him and the multitude of vivid stories she tells about his mannerisms, beliefs, and approach to life add up to being almost like having met the man in person.

What I find most memorable about these accounts is that he was possessed of a quiet, stoic dignity that I’ve observed in people across the full spectrum of socio-economic status.

The tale begins when his Visa was sponsored by the wealthy Flanagan family. He came to America knowing no English, owning almost nothing, and became their gardener, handyman, chauffeur, and housekeeper. In other words, the stereotypical live-in servant from the third world.

Yet he took a great deal of pride in this work. No task, however menial, was unworthy of care, attention, and skill. Nearly every day, even in the sweltering heat, he would dress in his best workman’s clothes to pull weeds and clean gutters. People would stop in the street and take pictures of his superlative garden as it slowly wove its tendrils through the iron gates of the family’s estate.

The world turned, and brought the usual cycle of growth, aging, maturation, and death. In time the Flanagan matriarch found herself a widow. But his family and her’s had been raised together and had grown close. Throughout the years Miss Flanagan had evidently developed a certain fondness for Ramiro. There came talk of marriage.

In the end he decided against the union, for fear that the influx of extreme wealth would change him and his progeny for the worse. He chose instead a life of productive work, adherence to a breed of Old World manners in desperately short supply these days, and the dignity that I’m fascinated by, as immovable as a granite rock.

In films and movies the wealthy are often portrayed with an almost cartoonish sophistication, often crossing over into outright sneering pretention, but I personally believe that the connection between money and good taste is pretty tenuous. As evidence, consider the ceaseless images of hyper-sexed, trashy millionaires like the Kardashians and their ilk in which our culture is awash.

Now it’s true that I have limited exposure to the upper strata of high society. But I have heard enough stories and glimpsed enough pettiness to know that the quality of a person’s character and their net worth are very different things. Dignity is an attitude and a state of mind, not an income bracket. Some of the most dignified people in the world have to change out of greasy clothes at the end of the day so as to avoid dirtying their children when they hug them. They do the best work their able to, conduct their business with honesty, keep a clean house, and expand themselves in whatever ways their limited time and resources permit.

I suppose one reason I find Ramiro interesting is because my own father echoes many of the same traits. He spent almost his entire life digging ditches, building decks, and welding pieces of steel together, but he also read A Brief History of Time and huge amounts of history on the civil war and the Roman Empire; my siblings and I grew up poor, but we ate reasonably well; our house was small, but tidy and filled with nice antiques my father had refurbished; we grew up in the wilderness of rural Arkansas, but were encouraged to take up music and chess.

We weren’t rednecks then, and we aren’t rednecks now, because we were taught dignity. And whether I wind up a billionaire or just a comfortable middle-tier writer, I intend on giving my children the same gift.

***

Ramiro passed away in May of 2015. Like my great-grandmother, he was claimed by the ravages of Alzheimers disease. When a person dies this way they do so a shade at a time, little pieces of their soul dissipating like winter’s last snowflakes falling on the ground in March.

In a way, losing a person to this illness is like suffering a double loss. First, the subtle edges and nuances of the mind are smoothed away, until only a simpler version of their former self remains. Then the flesh follows suit, and their light goes out forever.

My girlfriend tells me that her father retained his vigor, and was able to recognize her, up until his last day on Earth. She is of course profoundly grateful for this, but found that she missed their banter, the nicknames he gave her, and the quirks that made him who he was. I know this feeling all too well.

My hope is that someday Earth will get its act together enough to recognize that this state of affairs is unacceptable. Perhaps stories like this one will help play some small part in bringing that about.

Leviathan 2.0

(note: as of today [4/5/16] this essay is incomplete. I’m publishing it early so that I can get feedback in advance of my talk. I plan to flesh out many of these sections, possibly add a discussion of space colonies if I can hunt down any reasonably proposals, and write a conclusion.)

I’m preparing to give a talk to the Transhumanism Club of the University of Colorado in Boulder. Entitled “Leviathan 2.0”, it’s a quick treatment of some interesting attempts being made to bring much needed freshness into governance and statecraft.

I discuss a number of different vehicles for achieving this goal, all of which are in varying stages of planning and completeness. Because some of my information is out of date I have tried to indicate how recent my facts are and provide plenty of links for anyone wanting to explore further.

Background

For the purposes of this essay the terms “State”, “government”, and “sovereign” can be used more or less interchangeably. Nailing down what one means by these terms, however, is a somewhat more complicated matter.

To the early theoretical architects of communism the State was a centralizing mechanism meant to combat ‘anarchy in the means of production’ and ensure a more equitable distribution of goods and services in a society. The intellectual precursors to the Fascist movement of 19th and 20th century Europe trafficked in the concept of an “organic state” which viewed the individuals comprising a society as analogous to the limbs and tissues of a greater animal, without which they couldn’t survive. And then of course you have the sociologist Max Weber’s concise view of a government as a monopoly on force over a geographic area.

As we will be exploring one system that completely does away with the link between geography and government we’ll need a definition that is less restrictive. For us, a state is a recognized authority that claims for itself rights which it may or may not give to its citizens.

Charter Cities

Popularized by economist Paul Romer, charter cities are meant to be a kind of “special economic zone” (SEZ), but scaled up to at least 1,000 square kilometers, or about the size of a small city. Proponents argue that this is something of a sweet spot; it’s big enough to facilitate meaningful economic, social, and political change while still being small enough to be practicable.

A charter city would be established inside of an already-existing state, on undeveloped lands, and with a formal charter in place that specifies in advance what kinds of rules citizens will be expected to abide by.

But this charter’s rules can be quite different from the rules of the host state, and therein lies the magic. By creating a mechanism for entrepreneurs and interested parties to found new states, charter cities could do a lot to encourage experimentation with different kinds of institutions and policies. Various sovereigns would then have to compete with each other for a ‘customer base’ of citizens willing to live in, work in, and be taxed in their country. Few would contend that the world’s public sectors are hotbeds of innovation, and having to work to maintain willing customers like standard businesses do would incentivize these public sectors to respond better to what people want.

A favored example of a successful SEZ is Hong Kong. Beginning around 1950 its more attractive economic policy made it a popular target for people and firms willing to relocate from mainland China. Over the course of the past sixty years what began as a hot spot for button and trinket manufacturers became a world-renowned financial hub which scores well across a plethora of economic metrics like GDP, life expectancy, and wages.

Nor is it the only such example. Deng Xiaoping established a special economic zone around the Chinese city of Shenzen in 1980, and like Hong Kong it transformed into an economic powerhouse focused on logistics, manufacturing, and financial services.

The important thing about both of these examples is that they were designated places where citizens abided by a set of rules different from those enforced in the host country. For this reason charter cities, and the SEZS upon which they are based, amplify a dynamic that has long been in play: the world’s poor are not ignorant to the fact that there are better alternatives elsewhere, and many of those able to move somewhere else, do. Charter cities would simply speed up the proliferation of choices.

This is especially true for smaller countries. I live in Colorado, and moving to a charter city in Maine would still be a major undertaking because America is geographically large. But in a fairly small country a charter city would likely be in reach of anyone, regardless of where it was located in the country.

All of this will be increasingly relevant to the world our grandchildren will live in, which is projected to have as many as 7 billion people living in urban centers by centuries end. How confident should we be that today’s governments will adequately meet the challenge of building the infrastructure required to support this influx? Must we accept that the sun will rise on the first day of the year 2100 over billions and billions of people accreting in slums around cities that simply cannot accommodate them?

Perhaps not. Charter cities could be a way of beginning to address this problem. So could their cousins, private cities.

Private Cities

A private city is distinguished from a charter city by the fact that it simply has no public sector. A private entity like Google owns the city outright, and either performs all the traditional functions that a state performs or lets other private firms handle it.

But like a charter city, with its intact public sector, a private city would have to compete to keep a tax base and would thus have incentive to respond to the demands of its citizens efficiently and effectively.

To elaborate further on this theoretical justification, private cities offer a way of “internalizing externalities“. Economists define externalities as being consequences, either positive or negative, which affect otherwise uninvolved third parties. If I produce great computers I can capture a huge amount of the value I create in the form of profits because anyone who wants one of my computer’s has to pay me for it. But if I spend a billion dollars on an air purifier capable of cleaning up the smog over LA, how am I suppose to get that value back? It’s not as though I can make people rent air from me.

For this reason ‘public goods‘ like clean air tend to be underproduced by private firms and produced inefficiently by the public sector. Both private cities and charter cities offer a potential means of efficiently producing greater quantities of such goods because they create an opportunity for firms to make a profit providing them.

But beyond this private cities might also help sole the even harder problem of incentivizing institutional change. In order to be competitive a private city will need to secure as much autonomy as possible from the government of its host country. With greater freedom comes a greater ability to experiment with novel institutions and forms of governance, allowing private cities to more quickly discover the configuration its citizens consider optimal.

While promising in the abstract, so far private cities have failed to rise to their potential. Lavasa, for example, is an Indian city being planned by Lavasa Corp, a private company. As of 2014, however, it looks as though its regulatory system will do little to encourage new businesses to set up shop there, which will likely prove disadvantageous in the long run.

Another private city in the works is nestled in Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic would have traditionally public sector services like security and energy provided by South Energyx Nigeria Ltd., the company building the city on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. But like Lavasa, it appears as though Eko Atlantic won’t make the process of starting a business more streamlined than it is in the rest of Nigeria. The developers of both Lavasa and Eko Atlantic fail to understand what made Hong Kong such a success story.

This is less the case for “the world’s first publicly traded city“, located in Saudi Arabia. Its CEO Fahd Al-Rasheed makes it clear that the King Abdullah Economic City is meant to increase economic diversity by building a huge manufacturing and industrial center in the ‘Red Sea Region’ between Africa and The Middle East. The KAEC, as well as the other ‘economic cities’ being planned in Saudi Arabia will be built with regulatory structures meant to foster investment and competition.

Seasteading

Both charter cities and private cities are promising ways of playing with the rules of social organization, but neither attempt to utilize the vast territorial resource which blankets almost 3/4s of the Earth’s surface: the oceans.

In terms of their theoretical justifications and end goals seasteads aren’t any different from private cities or charter cities, but unlike the latter, seasteads have more historical precedent. Cruise ships, house boats, and oil rigs demonstrate the feasibility of maintaining small populations on a semi-permanent basis in relative safety and comfort.

Patri Friedman, The leading proponent of seasteads, favors an incremental approach to testing the seastead concept. Rather than trying to get a few thousand people to relocate to the open ocean, start by tackling the engineering and legal problems of building a tiny floating village in calmer coastal waters. With this proof of concept in hand, it should be possible to attract more participants and investors. Larger seasteads will be able to specialize in providing services like water purification and aquatic research, to say nothing of the potentials for medical and traditional tourism.

As of April 2014 The Seasteading Institute has a design in place and is in talks with an undisclosed host nation to build in their waters.

When contemplating seasteads a number of potential dangers suggest themselves: piracy; tsunamis and rogue waves; high winds; the corrosive properties of salt water; and also piracy. While some of the members of this list are indeed formidable barriers, seasteading advocates maintain that the biggest obstacle to overcome is actually the labyrinthine state of maritime law, together with the possibility of a powerful sovereign like The United States intervening if it doesn’t like what the occupants of a seastead are doing.

Piracy, as it turns out, is a little like airplane crashes. When it happens gets a lot of media coverage, but the reality is that attempts to hijack cargoes and crew are usually unsuccessful, and piracy in general simply isn’t that big of a problem.

Polystate

By exploring the concept of a polystate we move from the merely theoretical to the wildly speculative; even Zack Wienersmith, the author of the book from which the concept’s name is taken, calls it “political science fiction”.

The distinguishing feature of a Polystate is that it completely severs the connection between geography and sovereignty, hence why my definition of a State contains no mention of geographic areas.

Properly grappling with this idea requires making the following distinctions: let a ‘geostate’ be a traditional government bound to a certain span of territory, an ‘anthrostate’ be a state with a distributed citizenry and no geographic ties, and a polystate be the tapestry of interwoven anthrostates.

To make this clearer, imagine that each country in Western Europe consists of some land with its state floating above it like a Zeppelin tethered to the Earth. If these countries decide to become part of a polystate their borders cease to be meaningful and the floating states smear out to cover all of Europe simultaneously.

People located in former Germany can subscribe to the German government if they choose, or to the French, Italian, or British governments. People located in the former Portugal or the former Great Britain have these same options as well. This means that neighbors living feet apart might be governed by different states with competing — and possibly conflicting — sets of rules.

Mimicking Wienersmith’s own example, let’s assume this new polystate has the following macro-rules: 1) no anthrostate may become a geostate, 2) each individual selects their government on their birthday, 3) if an anthrostate violates rule 1) it’s sovereign status is revoked and its citizens give a full day to choose a new state.

By now your head must surely be swimming with objections and questions. I will only relay a handful of Wienersmith’s answers; anything more substantive wouldn’t be worth writing, as Wienersmith’s own book is short, well-written, and available in an inexpensive Kindle format.

What happens when a member of one anthrostate commits a crime against a member of another anthrostate? This sometimes happens with geostates, as in cases where citizens of one country commit crimes while abroad.

There are a handful of potential solutions. Anthrostates could work together to have compatible legal systems in order to streamline interstate judiciary proceedings, or they could defer to an agreed upon third party arbiter.

But this probably wouldn’t work in cases of radical incompatibility, such as if a dictatorship overlapped with an extremely liberal democracy. For the sake of argument let’s stipulate that the dictator has decreed that his citizens will face no retribution for attacking citizens of the liberal democracy, and he will defend them in court if need be.

Here, there may simply be no alternative to anthrostates going to war, which seems to be essentially the same dynamic at play between modern geostates. But war in a polystate would be a very different affair, in part because it is never clear who holds what territory and who belongs to what faction.

Wienersmith speculates that anthrostates might make war by fight in a predetermined area, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking care not to harm non-combatants, by fighting on a house-by-house basis while taking no care not to harm non-combatants, or by first evacuating non-combatants and then fighting in a conventional style.

What if one anthrostate consists of nudists and another of staunch Catholics? It’s possible in such a scenario that technology will provide solutions. The futuristic version of Google Glass, distributed to all citizens in the Catholic anthrostate, could be used to pixelate the unmentionables of any disrobed nudists.

To his credit Wienersmith admits that a lot of these replies are very speculative and hand-wavy. He knows he isn’t an economist, and his goal with the book is to explore an interesting take on the problem of governance, not to win any arguments.

Still, there are a few reasons why I don’t think polystates would be meta-stable. The first is simply that any sufficiently powerful geostate could decide that a disunified polystate is ripe for invasion and takeover. Even leaving this possibility aside Adam Gurri notes that even a slight preference for being around like-minded people could result in enough geographic clustering for anthrostates to wind down into geostates. And while traditional geostates don’t seem to have developed a good solution to the problem of externalities, I can’t see any reason polystates would fare better.

 

 

 

These Failures Form a Ladder

It doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re trying to do anything even remotely noteworthy your relationship to failure is going to have at least the following two characteristics:

  1. It’s guaranteed to happen.
  2. It’s rarely pleasant.

Building a constructive stance towards failure is therefore a crucial step in increasing the likelihood that any given project will succeed in the long term.

When I was younger I tended to view failures as unambiguously Bad Things, with the result that they tended to elicit in me profound feelings of frustration and anger. My current working hypothesis for why this happened is that somewhere along the way I internalized a very strong version of what’s called entity theory. In a nutshell, people’s attitudes towards learning and growth can usually be characterized as process oriented or results oriented. A person that believes they are successful in mathematics because of immutable personality traits are entity theorists, and those that believe their success derives from hard work and changeable factors are incremental theorists.

The efforts of entity theorists are often brittle because they tend to interpret failures as evidence that they simply aren’t up to completing the task they’re facing. Having assumed that they’ve been successful up to this point because they just ‘have a knack for it’, they are poorly equipped to deal with problems beyond their abilities. Incremental theorists, in contrast, will become invigorated in the face of exceptional challenges and redouble their efforts at improvement.

I have sub-hypotheses for why I ended up this way, but since it’s a complicated discussion I’ll defer it to a future post. Luckily, during the course of getting a degree in psychology, I learned about entity theory and incremental theory, and made a concerted effort to change the way I frame failures.

Now I think of them as forming parts of a ladder. Above me hangs a goal I’ve set for myself, and if I’ve chosen something difficult it’ll be well out of my reach. So I grasp, and I fall short.

But the grasping process isn’t a Boolean function with binary outputs corresponding to success and failure. Having grasped I have grown, and thus is a rung added to the ladder. With each iteration in this cycle the goal gets progressively larger in my vision and my grasps come up less short than they did before.

This does not mean that failures should be accepted without reflection. They represent an opportunity to learn, yes, but sadly most people seem to learn little or nothing from their failures.

Nor does it mean that you shouldn’t attempt to minimize failures. By all means, try as hard as you can to avoid failing altogether. Just know that life rarely works that way, and that failing is something that can be done productively and intelligently.

You must climb to success, incrementally, on the ladder built from your failures.