How to Reformat Reality

We hear it every day: the future is here. If you didn’t think so last month — if you somehow thought we had more time before the Wired became real — take a look outside. Somewhere between 10 and 50 million humans have casually submerged themselves in augmented reality. We blinked and missed it. The individual pieces of tech had only just emerged when suddenly, they fused in a blinding instant.  It has happened before. It will happen again. It is only a matter of time before the next Big Shift blurs the boundary of the real even further. Meatspace and bitspace are converging, but you don’t need me to tell you that. 

You need me to tell you that you have been deceived.

History and technology have an uneasy relationship. Each one likes to change their partner, seemingly on a whim. Better minds than I have noticed this phenomenon:

Major technological possibilities, once uncovered, are invariably exploited in ways that maximally unleash their potential.

With major technologies, it becomes clear early on that the global impact is going to be of a certain magnitude and cause a corresponding amount of disruptive societal change.

In the broadest sense, tech enables history to change faster, or forces change to happen. But don’t take my word for it: just ask Martin Luther. The printing press ignited the Protestant Reformation and laid the foundations for the Renaissance by disrupting the Catholic Church’s stranglehold on culture and power. Ask the anonymous leaker of the Panama Papers, or Ed████ Sno████. The world will feel the ripples of their legacy forever. After all, the new PR stunt in Silicon Valley is to make efforts to eliminate unnecessary data collection on people who use your apps. (Unless, of course, you’re Big Zuck. But then again, does opium need PR? And do Facebook users count as people?)

Define the status quo of any time period as (a) the organization of power structures and (b) the dominant culture of that period, i.e. the zeitgeist. The Catholic Church, in medieval Europe, served both purposes. Today, the American government also plays both roles: starting with the world’s largest military, it co-opted public schools and media to attain near-complete dominance of both hearts and minds.

Organizations of this kind all but dictate their contemporary history. However, as we learned throughout the 20th century, stability is an equilibrium: if either the power structure or the zeitgeist of a nation experiences radical change, the other must change in turn, or be replaced — reformatted — by a superior equilibrium of power and culture.

You may ask: in the current year, isn’t it true we have more tech than ever? We should expect governments to adopt and enhance tech to efficiently maintain their power. Doesn’t that mean we would see fewer disruptions? Good question. After all, in Luther’s time, the power-to-culture ratio was weak. The Church could not send a cloud of drones to the Middle East. The Pope did not have eyes on every street, nor ears in every pocket. The priests had to rely on charisma and group cohesion to maintain the Pontifex. Small wonder Martin only needed a newspaper to unseat the old coot. The Panama leak, on the other hand, challenged a far more powerful tessellation of organizations, as did Mr. S██████. How did these two nail their ninety-five theses?

The answer: scalable tech is unimaginably powerful — yes, even more so than any modern government. You can set fire to a book and erase the work of a lifetime. You can duplicate a .pdf scan of a textbook in less than a minute. You can torrent an ebook in less than a second. The internet is the next best thing to limitless information, and by proxy, limitless power — or, more precisely, limitless culture. Today, the internet is the door on the community church. Everyone attends, and everyone sees the signs nailed thereupon. Yet if a billion signs upon a billion doors cannot disrupt today’s ruling power, today’s ruling power must be powerful indeed. Something is out of balance.

But where do you come into this?

You are a programmer. (If you’re not, you can be.) You pilot the machines that control the most complex system ever constructed by humankind. If you are employed, you use this power to do what a company tells you for around $30 an hour. This is a pretty safe bet. It pays the bills, and you sleep in your own bed. No one can blame you for following this path.

But if you think this is the only path, you have been deceived.

I am not from the Bay Area, although I have witnessed it. “Change the world,” the Bay choir sings, “by increasing advertising impressions.” Where I come from, that is what’s known as false advertising. Don’t wait up for Yelp to build factories that build factories.

If you want to change the world, study those who actually have.

Impactor Catalyst Technology
Martin Luther 95 Theses printing press
John D. Rockefeller Standard Oil industrial capitalism
Gavrilo Princip Assassinate Franz Ferdinand premodern geopolitics
Bill Gates, Steve Jobs Microsoft & Apple personal computing
Satoshi Nakamoto Bitcoin cryptocurrency * internet
Peter Thiel, Elon Musk Paypal, Founders Fund, Tesla, SpaceX, et al venture capital * internet
Mark Zuckerberg Facebook social media * internet

Each of these impactors catalyzed change with scalable technology. Martin Luther spread free thinking with the printing press, and killed the authority of the Church. Rockefeller saw the industrial Matrix, and simply bent the spoon. Princip believed he was fighting for his country, when in fact he and his friends just removed the a card at the base of the house. Gates and Jobs brought computers into every home and hand. Satoshi made money 100x faster and available everywhere. Thiel and Musk are geniuses at creating and capitalizing on massive opportunities. Zucky struck lucky, and made big friends.

What else did these humans have in common? Each of them was only one person. Somehow, the efforts of a single human brain were able to fundamentally restructure a huge part of the world. It follows, then, that at any given time, the world must have one or more human-brain-sized points of extreme sensitivity. For consistency’s sake, let’s call these points nodes. A node can be a city councilmember, a small business, or a community of artists. If it guides people to act in some way — that is, if it has the power to influence individuals — it is a node. If a node is sensitive enough to be affected by the actions of a single human, then it is “human-sized”. Each node can connect to any other node, and the sum of all nodes is the complete set of power forces that act on humankind. Sketching a comprehensive diagram is left as an exercise for the reader.

Certain nodes, by their nature, are exquisitely well-connected. Other nodes are overlooked by everyone around them, simply because of how hard they are to find. The most important nodes are both. Did you know that you can distribute 30,000 copies of whatever you want, wherever you want, with 10 lines of shell script? I didn’t. At least, not before somebody found and poked the node labeled <printer network>. Suddenly, the power flowed from <printers>, to <offices>, and downstream to <the media>, and finally to the minds of millions. Weev’s message notwithstanding, one cannot but acknowledge his efficiency. The <printer network> sat there for years before anyone poked it as hard as he did. The DAO’s access point was a little harder to find, but its bug bounty – a cool $40 million – was certainly worth the wade through Solidity. And <augmented reality> only needed an intellectual property from Nintendo to blast off in a matter of days.

Even the most well-guarded node structures that form the Power half of the status quo can be accessed and influenced in this way. The nodes labeled <state secrets> and <surveillance tyranny> happened to fall within reach of Ed████ Sno████. He didn’t plan to have access to these things, but because he did, he could act upon them. The Agency betrayed the trust of Americans, so Ed simply returned the favor. The resulting revelations shook the world’s foundations.

Hell, <Franz Ferdinand> parked right in front of Gavrilo Princip in an open-roof carriage. Gavrilo thought the assassination would avenge his people, but the fallout he precipitated would slaughter two generations of European children and bring the continent to its knees, while America rose to prominence on the utility bills. In terms of preventing downstream tragedies with a time machine, I would stop Princip before I stopped Hitler.

My point is, you don’t have to be a genius to reformat reality. (It helps, and if you don’t quite know what you’re doing there will be unintended consequences, but it’s not strictly necessary.) You simply need to apply well-directed pressure at a well-connected node. Take a look around. Determine which nodes are important. Determine the best action. Act.

The actors in the table above did not exactly “get away clean”. There are always unintended consequences to reformatting reality. However, it is impossible to blame (or credit) an impactor for the eventual consequences of an immediate action. The node-web is fractal and infinite, and the cascade of power is nigh unpredictable. A small twitch here could spiral out of control in any of a million directions. As such, one cannot fault an insurrectionist for having a poor model of the world. After all, if their model were more accurate, they wouldn’t get to have all the fun that a rioting revolutionary gets to have with other people’s property — they would have to settle for a more “standard” occupation, like sitting at a computer terminal and commanding the most powerful network in human history. You can’t make any money doing boring stuff like reading code. Code monkeys don’t get laid.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

For all of his ideological preoccupations, Sinclair knew what it was like to swim upstream. And although Michael Huemer misses the mark when he advocates passivity (let’s be precise: the world is undeniably better when most people take his advice, but you and I are different), he got the nature of the matter dead-on:

When one lacks a precise and detailed understanding of a complex system, any attempt to radically improve that system is more likely to disrupt the things that are working well than it is to repair the system’s imperfections.

However, there is a silver lining to this unknowable cloud of complexity. The world is shaped every day by advancements in technology. As tech increases in complexity and scale, the importance of tech grows, and so does its influence on the world. When technology defines reality, who understands technology understands reality.

What is a programmer if not an expert with a precise and detailed understanding of the software that runs our world, with its countless pulsing nodes? If we can see the Matrix, nothing can stop us from bending the spoon.

And if we don’t reformat reality, we are responsible for what happens to it.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

You Come At The King, You’d Best Not Miss

Lambdaconf‘s got me thinking a lot about what the purpose of a conference is. I think people have a variety of reasons for attending. Some go to network, find jobs or employees. Some go to socialize; conferences are good Schelling points for meeting other nerds. Lots of people go to learn. At least, that’s what they tell their manager when filing the expense report. More than a fair share go just to have an excuse to travel. And, as I’ve recently discovered, some go to parasitize (symbiotically, of course) and run their own conference-in-the-conference.

Conference organizers have the unenviable task of balancing these competing priorities and trying to accommodate all of them. This is hard. I would say it’s impossible, but Mammon provides. The only cost is, er, cost; we could accommodate everyone if we had infinite money.

But we don’t. And so organizers prioritize. In my experience, they primarily prioritize learning. It’s the easiest way to get the deeper pockets to pay for it, after all. And I think this is part of why political drama has been showing up more and more. Well-meaning individuals think that other things should be prioritized, and advocate for this in every way they can.

This hit me pretty explicitly while reading through some of the conference info. Thanks to the generosity of all of you fine folks, the organizers have had lots and lots of resources with which to accommodate different priorities. They advertise child care, ample diversity scholarships, all of those things that justice-minded folks ask for. I had the contrarian thought: why should we have to do this?

To many people, even anti-SJW folks, the answer is obvious: some people have valuable contributions to make, but can’t because the conference is inaccessible to them. But this does not suggest that diversity scholarships are the answer. If the purpose of the conference is to facilitate learning and creation, then giving out scholarships on the basis of need, instead of merit, is counterproductive. Why should we do it?

I think that the conflict between the SJWs and the rest of us is a conflict of worldviews. For many, the priority is just to do their jobs, build cool things, and exercise their brains. For SJWs, this is not the priority. It’s the secondary benefit. The priority is, well, it’s in the name: Social Justice. Excluding people for any reason, but especially for their socioeconomic class, is unjust. Justice, being their priority, drives them to push for this change. Not against people who oppose justice. But against people who have other priorities. This might sound cold and heartless, but as Scott laid out, if you don’t accept some ethical behaviours as supererogatory, you’ll be paralyzed by the sheer mass of injustice present in a population of 7 billion people.

In their advocacy of justice priorities over others, they pressure conference organizers to make substantial accommodations in order for the underprivileged people to have a seat at the table. To them, this is reasonable, because seat-at-the-table is the goal. To the organizers, this is frustrating and nonsensical, because the goal is learning. They don’t like having to deal with something irrelevant to their priorities.

All of the above is a build-up to a dumb joke. SJ techies want leaders and organizers to go out of their way, spending time and money, in order to bring a group of outsiders into a community dedicated to learning. They want us to do all the work. That’s strange, though, because I thought it’s not my job to educate you. 

You come at someone, you’d best not miss; enemies can pick up dropped weapons.


A long time ago, Scott wrote a blog post about superweapons, and the dangers associated with them. He focuses on the culture war aspect. I think there is a more general principle here, and one that could use a highlight. Since social justice activism is a touchy subject, I’m going to go for a more neutral subject.

As a Canadian, seeing the 2016 election from the outside, people’s reactions to Trump confuse me. Especially as someone who appreciates well-designed systems, I can’t believe people’s gross ignorance of their own nation. People are so afraid of the terrible things Trump will do that protests like this happen. And yet, the vast majority of things people are afraid of are things he can’t do. Was I the only person who paid attention in civics class?

The US was founded as a nation as a response to an uprising against an autocrat. Its founders were horrified at the potential for another such autocrat to arise, and they designed their government accordingly. There was to be a strict separation of powers, with mutually opposed groups keeping each other in check. Most importantly, the office of the executive was intentionally crippled. The president was supposed to have very little power. The founders thought that mitigating potential bad leaders was more important than empowering potential good leaders.

So if Trump can’t do these bad things, what’s the problem? Well, the theory that the country was based on is solid. But you know what they say: In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. Perfect, beautiful ideas never survive implementation. In this case, there are no backwards arcs in the state machine.

On paper, Trump can’t do anything too bad. In practice, he can, because previous presidents have set the precedent. People like to make fun of small-c conservatives who want government out of their lives. Libertarians are a favourite scapegoat online, for similar reasons. Every time a president said “we need the power to do X”, a libertarian said “no, we can’t let you do that; your powers are restricted for a reason.” In the case of, say, Obamacare, we looked at the libertarians and said “why do you hate poor people? Why do you want them to die? Can you be so heartless? Can’t you make an exception this one time?” You should have listened to them, in detail. Once a proof of concept is committed to master, it is the new feature. “One” time never is.

Over time, various factions have engaged in special pleading. “We need this superweapon, just this one time. Can’t you see the challenge we’re facing? Are you really going to demand principles when people are suffering?” The same argument turned Rome into a dictatorship, millennia ago. When you shoot your superweapon at the king, you’d best not miss. He can pick it up from your fallen comrades.


When we at Status 451 talk about libertarianism and anarchy, this is why. We recognize that the long-tail risk of a bad leader is a much, much greater cost than the benefit of a good leader, and seek to design the system to be robust in the face of such a threat. It’s an attitude that falls out pretty easily from systems-thinking backgrounds like engineering and software.

But when we talk about this, when anyone talks about this, there’s a subtle distinction to be made. There are two parallel systems being designed. One is the formal system, the law. The rules we draft regarding what people can and cannot do. This is the theory.

The other is the informal system, the social norms. These are the implicit rules. These are not what we permit or deny. These are what we tolerate or reject. This is the practice.

In many arguments, people will play one against the other, identifying discrepancies and inconsistencies in people’s positions on these subjects. Weaponized equivocation can be very useful, and hypocrisy is a damning accusation. I try very hard to be consistent. Above is a legal, formal, theoretical example. Below is the practice.

Recently, the New York Times revealed that Peter Thiel is Batman. It turns out, this Silicon Valley billionaire has been pursuing retribution against Gawker, ever since they targetted him. Since this dropped, many people have been highly critical. This is billionaires blatantly leveraging our legal system for personal vendettas, they say. We can’t let these plutocrats corrupt our society like this.

They only say this because they dropped the superweapon when they started to retreat.

The superweapon, counterintuitively, is not third party litigation financing. No, the superweapon is social in nature. The superweapon is the one that Gawker drew first. It is the superweapon of fighting in the culture wars By Any Means Necessary. It’s the superweapon of people willing to fight dirty against their identified enemies.

Gawker even admitted as much. They claimed, publicly, that they did this because they felt Thiel to be homophobic (so much for ‘oppressed people can’t be X-ist’), and that he deserved to be attacked. They chose to fight dirty. They took a private, intimate detail of someone’s life, and used it for their own agenda against his consent.

They chose to burn civility and common decency to score some points. Now, that floodgate is open. They’ve dropped that weapon, and now they’re in its sights.

The alternative is demilitarization, dismantling of the existing superweapons and an embargo on building more. This seems an unpopular position. People, so sure of their own rightness, stock the armory and prepare to go to war. They load, aim, fire…. and miss. And then it’s too late; the weapon is out there.

You all should have listened to us when you had the chance.

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Miller’s Law in the Archipelago of Weird

How big is your filter bubble? bubbleWhat’s in it? What’s outside it?

Okay, next question: how can you tell?

In 2011, Eli Pariser defined a filter bubble as “that personal ecosystem of information that’s been catered by algorithms.” Unfortunately, he never defined a measure on filter bubbles. Like its name implies, a measure is a way to tell how big something is. Without one, we can talk qualitatively about filter bubbles, but if we want to get quantitative, we’re going to need to do some more work. We’ll start with a literature search.

Let’s assume that the continuum of human experience is a continuum in the mathematical sense. (Whether this is actually true has some interesting philosophical implications. If it is instead discrete, the analysis below is overkill, but still works.)

In the last few years, researchers have studied the frequency with which Facebook and web users, in aggregate, encounter news and opinions from a different ideological perspective. This is interesting, but doesn’t tell us anything about the size or interior of an individual user’s bubble. Dillahunt et al. 2015 defines a distance metric between search engine users based on the overlap between their personalized search results, but a metric only tells you how far apart two things are. If you want to know how much space a bubble takes up, you need a measure.

Nguyen et al. 2014 creates a similarity metric for movies from the Euclidean distance between vectors of descriptive tags, one vector per movie. The authors use this metric to evaluate a system that recommends movies based on titles a user has already rated. They take the top 15 recommendations for a user, compute their mean pairwise distance, and call that the content diversity of those recommendations. This still only tells us something analogous to the diameter of a filter bubble, though, and then only if you tilt your head and squint. However, because the set of all content that has ever been or ever will be created (and, thus, the set of topics that content has ever been or ever will be about) is finite (if unbounded), trivially a filter bubble in the real world is also a measure space. It’s not immediately clear to me whether there are any measures that tell us anything interesting about a filter bubble’s volume, but the Dirac measure δx(A) answers the question “is x inside or outside A’s filter bubble?” with 1 for “inside” and 0 for “outside.”

Facebook’s study found less of a difference between which news liberals see and which news conservatives see than Pariser expected. However, the researchers only looked at the liberal/conservative valence of articles, which they determined based on how the people who shared an article self-identified politically. They did not examine or identify the topics of articles. There’s been some work on topic identification in group filter bubbles, though, which still makes sense with our notion of filter bubbles as measure spaces. Here’s how.

Let T be all the topics a group discusses. The power set of T is all the possible subsets of T, so elements in the power set are also sets of topics. If each member of a group is only interested in some subset of the topics the overall group talks about, that means we can map each member of the group onto subsets of T. The resulting collection of subsets is a  σ-algebra, and along with T, it defines a measurable space: the topics in each member’s individual filter bubble constitute a measurable set which is an element of the power set of the overall set of topics. With our Dirac measure, the measurable space is also a measure space. (Mathematics nomenclature: not fucking helping since sometime before the 19th century.)

However, I have yet to see anyone attempt to empirically characterize topic filter bubbles outside of small political niches. What does it look like when, instead of along some increasingly meaningless two-party axis, you characterize groups by the topics they cluster around?

Well, it probably looks a little something like a continent and a bunch of islands:

Culture, in the part of the world in which I’ve been, and, for all I know, in other parts as well to which I cannot speak, has two rough parts: the Mainland and the Isles.

The Mainland is what calls itself the “mainstream” or “normal” culture.

You know… Mundania.

The Isles are everything else. Everything that’s not “mainstream” is an island.

Nobody knows how many Isles there are. They are wholly and utterly unmapped. Each one is its own subculture.

Some Isles are closer to the Mainland, and some further.

Some Isles are closer to others. Some are big. Some are small.

We — meaning I and a very large percentage of my readership — live in a collection of close Isles which form up an Archipelago. The SCA. Fandom. NERO. Etc.

This is the Archipelago of Weird.

No points for guessing I’m an Islander, obviously. I work on the Mainland, and I have acquaintances there, but I do my research and pretty much everything else that matters in the Isles. The Mainland can be a nice place to visit, but I have to speak Mainlander there, because they don’t understand my jargon. This has its annoying aspects, but also a tradeoff that’s sometimes useful: Mainlanders know nothing whatsoever about Island customs, history, or aspirations, nor do they care to. (“I work in computers.” “Oh! That must be interesting.”) The Isles can be fractious places, and from time to time it’s nice to evacuate away from the latest hostilities. Intra-Isle conflicts are the most exhausting, because they split a population into two or more groups, each with its own native shibboleths and taboos. Keeping track of norm proliferation takes a lot of attention.

Mainlanders, generally unaware that the Isles even exist, know nothing of Island norms either. And Mainlanders get really weirded out when Islanders try to explain them. Mainlanders dont want to understand Islander inside baseball. Hell, most Islanders don’t want to understand inside baseball from other islands, unless they’re like me and have a summer home on the Isle of Inside Baseball Dissectors. A Mainlander and someone from the Isle of Fen might both listen politely to an explanation of why the Burr-Feinstein encryption bill is a terrible idea, but neither one has any reason to be particularly interested, so if there’s something I need to get across to them, I’d better be entertaining first and informative second. Burr-Feinstein is inside baseball for someone from the Isle of Infosec, and technically so is the Wassenaar Arrangement, but international trade agreements are Isle of Policy inside baseball. δWassenaar(A) is almost certainly 0 for any Mainlander A, but it could be 1 or 0 even on my native island.

Being able to estimate δx(A) for many different topics (x) and people (A) is an incredibly useful skill for anyone who does much Isle-hopping, or anyone who travels between the Isles and the Mainland with any frequency. Being bad at estimating δx(A) is a recipe for awkward interactions at best, and interpersonal conflict at worst. Mainlanders who can’t estimate Dirac measures for Islanders can still usually get by if they find themselves on an Isle by mistake, depending on how amenable the local Islanders are to humoring foreigners. (Do not expect to be humored on the Isle of Outlaw Bikers.) Islanders who can’t estimate Dirac measures for Mainlanders are kind of screwed on the Mainland, especially if they don’t realize how far away the Mainland filter bubble is from their own. Double especially if they expect the Mainland filter bubble to overlap one-to-one, or even significantly, with their own.

This is something I have to keep firmly in mind every single time an allistic person comes to me with well-meaning questions about autism.

In my first post on this blog, I criticized a piece Sumana Harihareswara wrote about eliminating “inessential weirdnesses” in technology because of its inherently ableist stance on inclusion. Proclaiming command line interfaces and non-face-to-face interaction to be of a universally “unwelcoming” nature erases the subset of people for whom those affordances make a space more welcoming, not less, and many of those people are on the autism spectrum. Harihareswara reached out to me and linked me to a revision of the piece that she gave as a talk at LibrePlanet, hoping to “do better in discussion of ableism and competing access needs.” Encouraged by the lure of dialogue, I opened the transcript and started reading …

… only to discover that Inessential Weirdness Number One, LibrePlanet Edition was still “the command line.” The new Number Two was “not using small talk.”

robot-headdesk.gif

From the back, off the floor, through the hoop, nothing but headdesk.

In the OSCON version of the same talk, the “inessential weirdnesses” she digs into are contempt (which I can get behind, though frankly, contempt is a communication antipattern in all communities; tech isn’t special here), lack of consideration for religious observances (ditto) … and the command line. There’s also a laundry list of Inessential Weirdnesses Not Appearing In This Talk, and small talk is still one of them.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that the Archipelago of the Spectrum is a place most people just don’t visit. Particularly people from the allistic Mainland, unless they work in special education or have a relative who lives there. But when someone claims a position of moral authority on how to be inclusive of people with wildly varying levels of ability — and telling people how they should or shouldn’t behave is inherently claiming a position of moral authority — it is ever so slightly incumbent on that person to do at least the equivalent of visiting Wikitravel beforehand. Here’s what you get when you Google “autism ‘small talk’.” With 138,000 results focused on how much of a challenge small talk presents for autistic people, it’s reasonable to assume there’s at least some there there.

When a dialogue reaches the point of “how could you possibly not know this,” I find it useful to apply Miller’s law:

In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to find out what it could be true of.

Harihareswara states her beliefs that not using small talk is “across-the-board inhospitable” and “off-putting to working-class people and women,” and that “some people get socialized” to “perform solo, freestanding utterances” while others don’t. I’m willing to assume that she believes these things. But what would have to be true in order for someone to form such beliefs?

Here is an incomplete list of possibilities, from least to most charitable:

  • She believes that the preferences of allistic people are more important than those of autistic people, and that autistic people should subordinate their needs to the preferences of the allistic majority.
  • She’s never met anyone for whom an expectation of small talk is itself inhospitable.
  • She’s never met anyone for whom freestanding explanations are the most natural way to communicate.
  • No one she’s met has been willing to admit having such uncanny-valley traits to her.
  • The possibility that there are actual people for whom her beliefs about human behavior do not hold did not occur to her.

I have to reject the first hypothesis, because a genuine allistic-supremacist wouldn’t have asked for feedback in the first place. Number four gets a bonus to its likelihood estimation because of the prevalence of the attitude that “indistinguishable from neurotypical is the same as cured” (protip: it isn’t), the stigma that people who are open about their mental health issues face, and how severely underdiagnosed autism is in women. (Here’s a partial taxonomy: white girls are highly sensitive people, white boys are autistic, and black boys have oppositional defiant disorder.)

I don’t have any further data to use in evaluating the likelihood of the other possibilities. One way or another, though, Miller’s Law leads me to conclude that δautism(Sumana) = 0. Whether it’s because she hasn’t gone looking for information or because no one has told her about it, the details of autistic lived experience are outside her filter bubble.

Thus, I went to the Isles for counsel. There’s a little place I like to hang out where all the regulars are autistic women, and all of them except me are feminists. I linked them the transcript of the LibrePlanet talk, and here’s what one of them — who also has some physical disabilities, and from whom I hope to have a guest post soon — had to say.

Look, the tech community is already not very inclusive of me.

It’s not very welcoming to women.

It’s not very welcoming to physically disabled people.

It’s not very welcoming to people with dyscalculia that affects their perception of time.

It’s not very welcoming to people who work best by focusing on one thing to completion or exhaustion instead of interleaving several tasks that must be mentally unpacked, expanded, reabsorbed in both breadth and depth of detail, then switched away from and packed back up again. The type of thinking that gives me wide-ranging expertise — jack of all trades, master of none, better than master of one — makes me nearly unemployable despite my skills and extensive crosstraining.

It’s not very welcoming to people who prefer both breadth and depth of detail instead of only one or the other, in general, come to that.

It’s not very welcoming to people who have suffered short-term memory loss and require, require, a single, assigned, constantly-messy space in which to work by viewing frequent reminders of work-in-progress as it shifts to long-term.

IT IS STILL MORE WELCOMING TO ME THAN MOST PROFESSIONS.

And there are areas where these things are close-to-least true of all the fields I am suited for: I do not have the emotional-labor aptitude for most traditionally-feminine work, I do not have the physical capacity to walk from office to office or lift 30 pounds or sit in the chair assigned to me for hours or perform repetitive arm/hand movements reliably, I do not have the ability to clock in or out on time, I do not have the ability to switch tasks flexibly during the day without excessive mental fatigue and loss of productivity, and I do not have the ability to leave a question unanswered without emotional fatigue and a need for frequent breaks, stimming, or other self-soothing behaviors.

There are areas of tech where these are serious barriers to employment.

There are areas of tech where these things matter less than whether I can pick up a problem, research it in detail, keep it all in my head, keep myself comfortable, and produce a result in shorter order than most people could.

If we’re going to talk about making tech more inclusive, we could talk about physical disability inclusion. We could talk about chronic illness inclusion. We could talk about cognitive disability inclusion. We could talk about neurodiversity inclusion in general.

We could even talk about the self-satisfied but false proclamation that tech is already a meritocracy where none of these things matter so long as I produce a result in shorter order (or of better quality, or both) than most people could, a proclamation that makes any of the other problems more difficult to solve by insisting that they cannot possibly exist, because we have always been a meritocracy (and at war with Eastasia) that would not tolerate such barriers and any such complaints therefore must come from special-snowflake syndrome harbored by incompetents.

We could also talk about the stuff the tech industry does/is/accommodates that still leaves it the closest thing I can have to self-sufficiency and a feeling of personal accomplishment and general utility, and the people who have been not just willing but eager to steer me into the small tech-harbors I’m most compatible with because they get it.

But hey, no, sure, allistic person, let’s talk about this one place you feel locked out of and how we can make it even better for the majority, who already run so many other industries to the exclusion of people like me, first. Let’s make sure the already-privileged majority is comfortable in all places, at all times, before appreciating small pockets of minority safety and accommodation, and asking what they used to do right before they, too, were colonized by the tyranny of the narrowly-defined “default” human being in need of additional comfort while I try to survive. THAT FEELS FUCKING INCLUSIVE TO ME, HELL YEAH.

The tech community is a place where many spectrum-dwellers feel welcome because people don’t expect us to engage in small talk or other social rituals that privilege the desire for a perception of harmony of experience over information sharing. Not everyone whose behavior supports anti-small-talk norms is autistic. In fact, I expect most people whose behavior upholds those norms are not merely not autistic, but have no idea that they’re making the community more welcoming for us. (Thanks for that, by the way, to everyone who does it, whether you knew that was what you were doing or not.)

In other words, anti-small-talk norms are a Chesterton’s fence. Expecting autistic people to get better at small talk in order to make allistics feel more welcome is like expecting people in wheelchairs to get better at walking in order to make physically abled people feel more welcome. It puts all the onus for change on the marginalized population rather than the marginalizing one, and it drives away people for whom the expectation is too much to ask. The fence is there because it protects marginalized people whose presence the community values, and people seeking to tear down the fence have not taken the time to follow Wikipedia’s editorial recommendations for handling that urge:

If you’re considering nominating something for deletion because it doesn’t appear to have any use or purpose, research its history first. You may find out why it was created, and perhaps understand that it still serves a purpose. Or if you do feel the issue it addressed is no longer valid, frame your argument for deletion in such a way that acknowledges that.

Deleting the norm of “small talk isn’t necessary here” and replacing it with a norm of “you must engage in small talk in order to make newcomers feel welcome” excludes those whom the original norm exists to include. For them, the issue the old norm addresses will remain valid no matter how many allistic women get tech jobs. Wouldn’t the truly inclusive solution be to give allistic newcomers more insight about autistic modes of interaction compared to allistic ones, explain how the tech community has evolved over time to include autistic communication styles, and encourage them to set aside their bias against not being small-talked to?

I’d think it would, at least. But this is a lot harder when people don’t even realize they have biases they need to examine, and worse still when the same people consider themselves to be the rightful arbiters of which biases are even worth examining.

As I mentioned earlier, Pariser defined a filter bubble as a personal ecosystem of information catered by algorithms. What this definition obscures, however, is that algorithm is nothing more than a fancy term for process, derived from the name of a 9th-century Persian mathematician. In every single one of those handwringing articles you see about “Are Algorithms Running Our Lives?”, you can safely replace “algorithm” with “process.” Do processes run our lives? Consider how many processes you ran through today on your way to taking out your phone or settling in at your computer, and you tell me. Taking a shower is a process. Making coffee is a process. Riding the bus and driving a car are processes. For that matter, so are the interactions you have with other people, whether you recognize those interactions as processes or not. Other people curate the information that they present to you just as you curate the information you present to them. The only novel purpose that “algorithms” in the handwringing-article sense serve is to remove the constraint of physical distance from the problem of who can curate information for whom. Whether online or in meatspace, there is still some process that filters what information you receive. The only salient difference is the extent to which you can control that process.

“But don’t Facebook’s and Twitter’s algorithms limit what information I see?” Yes, and so do the choices you make in friends. The fact that your friends cater the information that ends up in your filter bubble means that your choices in who to listen to determine whether you’re a Mainlander or an Archipelagian, which inside baseball means something to you and which doesn’t. If your filter bubble contains no outliers, where do you expect to learn that outliers exist, much less what their lives are like? If your goal is to make existing spaces more welcoming to the mainstream, what effect do you think that has on outliers? Especially when only the mainstream gets a say? If your goal is, instead, inclusivity of both mainstream and outlier populations, what actions do you think you could take to learn more about outliers and the Chesterton’s fences they rely on?

I’m leaving those questions open-ended rather than answering them because, frankly, by the norms that Harihareswara claims to support, it’s not my job to answer them. They are, however, absolutely not rhetorical. Mainstream feminism has some serious catching-up to do when it comes to learning about the lives of people who aren’t nice normal middle- to upper-class ladies, not to mention a lot of earned distrust. When you tell people that a skill to which they are inherently maladapted is a new requirement for participating in some culture, you are telling those people that they are no longer welcome in that culture. Bluntly, that is not your decision to make, and people are right not to trust the motivations of anyone who behaves as if they think it is. Too many of us have been burned too many times by people who told us “we want to make this a great place for everyone!”, only to find out that in practice, “everyone” actually means “all the allistics.” If you really do intend to be inclusive, then it’s on you to find ways to discover what marginalizations people experience — including the ones they’ve been socialized into believing it’s shameful to tell you about — and what accommodations they need, because, as the saying goes, intent isn’t magic.

Nor is it lost on me that I am sitting here patiently spergsplaining theory of mind to people who supposedly have it when I supposedly don’t. Allistics can get away with developing a theory of one mind — their own — because they can expect most of the people they interact with to have knowledge, perspectives, and a sensorium not all that different from theirs. Autists don’t get that option. Reaching adulthood, for us, means first learning how to function through a distorted sensorium, then learning to develop a theory of minds, plural, starting with ones different from our own. (Even when it comes to other autists. As the saying goes, if you’ve met one autist, you’ve met one autist.) Developing good Dirac measures for other people’s filter bubbles is an autistic survival skill that allistics can go their entire lives without realizing other people have to acquire.

Except you, dear allistic reader. δpro-small-talk norms marginalize autists(you) = 1, now. What will you do with your newly expanded filter bubble? Think carefully, because your credibility now hinges on it. Granted, that’s credibility among autists and among people who expect others to behave in a manner consistent with the values those others claim to hold, which I’m starting to think may be the exact same set. If you want to prove me wrong, you can start by taking up Miller’s Law yourself: what are the things I’ve explained true of?

Finding an answer to that question is going to require a lot of traveling to unfamiliar islands where the natives may be hostile specifically to people with your neurotype. Understanding why they’re hostile, and why what’s already going right for them is going right, is going to require updating your theory of minds. If you’re not prepared to do that, it won’t be a pleasant trip. If you are, however, then please enjoy your stay in the Archipelago.

Posted in Uncategorized | 19 Comments

Ghosts in Every Machine

There was a time when I was lucky enough to take a ride in a hot air balloon. Standing above the world, you see things in a different light. Things that seemed random, chaotic, and mysterious display an ordering not obvious from the ground. Unique landmarks become ordinary and predictable. The rivers that seem unique become predictable contour lines across a very visible geography. The rational planning behind cities shows its hand. Everything takes on a deeper meaning.

For me, the most interesting thing, by far, is traffic. Traffic is a strange thing. We all have daily experience with it, and yet none of us understand it. We think we do, but university departments dedicated to its study beg to differ. When we’re down there, in the thick of it, traffic seems to be infinitely detailed. We drive our cars with a sense of agency. Hell, for a long time, the car was the symbol of individual freedom for Americans.

The sky shows a different view. From above, the traffic looks almost routine, predictable. The inexplicable mile-long jam over nothing reveals itself as a wave being propagated through a flesh and metal medium. You think your road trip up the Sea to Sky was a unique and special experience? So do the ten thousand others doing the same that day.

I could go on and on about the infinite lessons in the snarl of cars. Hell, when I’m done reading it, you can look forward to my take on this. But that day, up in the sky, one thing stood out. As I watched the cars driving along their routes, there seemed to be two classes of driver. One type drove their cars as any human would. A natural, organic movement. Each individual their own unique story. They started and stopped. They missed turns, traversing the cross-hatched judgment of a soft divider to get back on track. Sometimes they stopped, presumably to check a map, or maybe text. They took long, winding routes. No doubt some of them were on a scenic journey, but most just not knowing where they were going. We would all recognize ourselves in their shoes.

But the other group. They were… Unsettling. There was something alien about them. They drove with ruthless efficiency. Never a wrong lane, never a missed turnoff. No scenic route for them; they took the shortest path, no matter how desolate, opting for the industrial park, not the riverside parkway. As if they had telepathy, or divine foresight from God, no hidden speed trap could catch them; they would, without fail, slow before getting caught.

The worst part was how they moved. How they all moved. Like a giant steel snake, a steampunk Shai-Hulud, each following the tire tracks of the one ahead. They convoyed as one. This is insanity, I thought, high above. This is not an eldritch horror. These are people. I can see their faces. I have been their faces. Why would twenty cars convoy a road trip anyway? And yet, before my eyes, these beastly things were everywhere.

What is this? What ghastly spirit has possessed my countrymen? What makes it go?


Like the rest of the world, back in 2008 I was quite excited for Spore. And, like the rest of the world, I was even more disappointed when I got it. So, instead of playing an underwhelming, overpriced game, I imagined my own.

Fade from black. First person view. I am a cell wandering around an infinite 2-d space. I see delicious proteins, carbs, and minerals. Occasionally another cell floats my way. We fight, and, because it’s my game, I win.

But then the abominations show up.

Cells in thrall. Zombies. They come in packs, a mob so tight you could barely tell where one ends, the other begins. Stuck so close, their mobility is hampered. I could easily evade them, but they strike fear into my little mitochondrial heart. Are they even player characters?

Their movements are bizarre. Mechanical. Alien. They somehow know where all the food was, and even though I get there first, they always make a beeline through the mazes I struggle to navigate. I try to get through to them, but to no avail. Maybe a bot, maybe a troll clan? I’m faced with silence. Not knowing what to do, I run. They could easily overpower me. But will they? Or will they turn me into one of them? These horrors, these…. multicellular things, shake me to my cytoskeleton


Thanks to the magic of our modern Wikipedia state, I can drop the coy pretense. I’d imagined multicellular life. The guys from part two of Spore. Algae and slime molds. There’s nothing magical about it, it’s simple biology. What animated it? Complex signalling pathways. Each individual cell played no differently than I did. Find food, avoid predators. The only difference was their environment. These complex chemicals manipulated and falsified their perception to get the weird behaviour. Where did the chemicals come from? Other cells. It was a mutually reinforcing delusion. Why? Evolution. Some players did this. They got a higher score. So they kept doing it. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just is.

Thing is, we know this. We know how it works. We can control it, tease it all apart in a lab. The cells of our bodies are a dazzling array of mysterious signals, but they behave in a completely sensible fashion. They seek food, avoid predators, grow, reproduce, and die. The fact that they do it in an environment crafted specifically to support them changes little.

But put yourself in the shoes of my faux-Spore protagonist. Imagine an E. coli bacterium slipping in among your cells. Minding its own business, just eating the nearby fats and sugars. When suddenly, white blood cells. Everywhere. Seeking you out. How do they know? Why do they chase you, and not each other? Not these strange red cells floating about? As they shred your membrane, your last thoughts are of confusion: why me?

It must be even worse for parasites. A simple nematode takes up residence in your intestine. Suddenly, it’s as if the entire universe is out to destroy it. The temperature mysteriously rises. The land it’s built its house on swells and heaves. These white things, spirits of retribution, throw themselves at it mercilessly. The food, as if sentient, becomes poisonous.

There’s nothing magical in the cells of our bodies. Each does its job, responding to the signals in its environment. The magic is in the signals. The magic is in the infinite complexity of its environment. As if out of nowhere, the final chemical gear clicks into place. Suddenly, the whole structure, the trillions and trillions of cells that make up your body, animates. The spirit of life has appeared.


I want to put forth a simple idea. It may seem radical. It may seem insane. But if you’re with me so far, I’ve already snuck it by you. You’ve already accepted it. Simply:

There are higher life forms than humans.

I cheated a little bit. I’m using a strange and mysterious definition of life. An expanded definition. A handwavy definition, maybe one born of one too many drug trips. But it makes sense. In Simon-Spore, all of the cells are the same cells. The cells are, by definition, alive. They all run the same cellular program. You wouldn’t deny the vitality of the multicellular organism just because it didn’t take the form of your player character. You wouldn’t deny that its constituent cells live, just because their life is so alien.

Just the same, I assert the cars in the car serpent are to the cars as the zombies are to my cell. All of the cars are executing the same script. They are at A, they want to be at B. They navigate to B as best they can. They maintain following distance with those in front, and move out of the way of those behind them. They take in the state of their surroundings and modify behaviour accordingly.

So what makes it go? The individual cars respond only to their observations. The serpents have more complex internal signalling pathways. Or, in this case, external pathways. In my stylized hypothetical, the serpents have Waze running on their phones. They follow the exact same behavioural script, but they have the added complex signals of the Waze app. Step by step instructions, delivered in realtime, capable of responding to shifting environmental conditions and seeing patterns no individual driver can. Early warning detection of hazards and police. When I watched, I saw the Waze cars slow for police. In reality, everyone tried to slow for police; the Waze cars were just better at it.

For those of you less prone to waving hands, you might call my “life” an illusion. After all, there is no real power or authority, no central consciousness orchestrating the movements of these cars. Sure, they move together, but you would do the same in their situation. The complex signals generated by the app are followed by lots of people, all who recognize the obvious benefit, and the synchronicity of their behaviour is just a ghost in the machine.

I say that ghosts are real. And ghosts live. After all, we are ghosts.

Once you think in this manner, you can analyze any collection of living things in this way. Hofstadter did it with ant colonies, and his wonderful careenium metaphor. Institutions and corporations are often said to “take on a life of their own,” doing strange and confusing things that, at every step of the way, are the result of rational actors responding to environmental incentives. We sometimes teleologize these things, talking about what “the company” wants. Maybe we’re on to something. Maybe there is a god, and he is naught but the collective motivations and institutional momentum of those in the pews.


In the case of the cars, this is just interesting navel-gazing, a discussion topic for your next toke. But remember the spore. The player character could not see the overarching logic of the multicellular organism. It did not have my 5000-foot view. All it saw was individual cells, acting strangely. Zombies, slaves to a larger process it couldn’t see, or understand. And it’s horrifying. Take it from me. I’ve been face to face with it for the past several months.

Last month was strange and horrifying. A guy with an interesting and novel project wanted to talk about it at a conference. A conference run by a solid, upstanding tech leader. And then everyone lost their shit. Suddenly, out of nowhere, everything was crazy. All I wanted to do was protect a conference I’ve enjoyed in the past, to do a nice thing for a guy who made a mistake in the eyes of the public. The next thing I know, I’m surrounded by zombies. News reporters made up lies about us. Communists on the internet joked (haha-no-but-really) about sending us to gulags. Coworkers of mine, not knowing who I am, told me to my face about this “crazy blog defending a horrible bigot,” and how they’re glad there aren’t any terrible people like that in our office. I’ll be laughing for a long time about how I’m officially certified “not supremacist” by the SPLC.

This is insanity. Why did these people do these strange things? Why did people I knew and trusted, interacted with daily, turn into horrible people yelling for my head? The most confusing part was their general ignorance of the details of the situation. Very few of them knew why they should be upset. None of them had ever read the speaker’s offending blog, and few of them had so much as seen the offending quotation. All they knew was that we’re the bad guys, and need to be punished.

Our critics are a part of something bigger than themselves. They’re keyed in to the Waze app, being the human serpents, while my Motorola flip-phone struggles to run the snake game. And why wouldn’t they? At every step along the way, it makes sense. Who cares why the narrative seems a little too perfect, they’re happy. It works for them. Their needs are met. By playing their part, responding to the signals in the memetwork, they enjoy health and happiness, wealth and social status. It would be stupid not to go along.

We here at Status451 have never really fit in. The signals are mangled by the mountains here in Zomia. We’re the single cells. The behaviours of everyone else made no sense to us, and the results were frightening. We can’t see the complex internal signals.

When the mass of cells is bearing down on you, just like in Simon-spore, you do have an option. You have mobility. Freedom. Our critics, keyed into the signal of their culture war narrative, gain a lot of benefits. They get their social needs provided for, in exchange for being the lifeblood of their egregore. But that is the cost: they must be the egregore. They lose the freedom to go their own way. We here have chosen the other path. Maybe “chosen” isn’t quite the right word; I’ve tried my whole life to fit in, be normal, and it just doesn’t work. But our other path, chosen or not, gives us the freedom to see things differently. We can be the masters of our own fate, hold a deeper, fuller agency over our lives. As long as we don’t wake the deep faceless things.

Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Pieter Hintjens’ Last Hack

Pieter Hintjens will most likely be dead before terribly much longer. Cancer, bile duct, metastatic. He is not exactly shy about any of it. Pretty much the exact opposite, in fact.

The process of dying and the moment of death are topics Western culture doesn’t like to talk about. We hide them behind walls, in rooms filled with adjustable beds, beeping machines, and uncomfortable visitor furniture. We ask doctors to make the important decisions, to do everything they can. We speak in hushed tones as relatives and friends troop in and back out, gripping kleenexes and determined to be strong. It would be disrespectful to pry, we tell ourselves. Whether that’s true or not, our beliefs about what’s appropriate constrain our responses. And thus we end up treating death, the very last thing that all of us will ever do, as if it, and the process of arriving at it, were something inherently shameful.

What’s that like?” is the fundamental question of phenomenology. What is it like to die? What will it be like, when our own times come? The question is at the same time car-wreck levels of fascinating and difficult to look at straight on. Our literature and poetry explore it, but always from the underlying perspective of the living; the dead do not write. What the living take away is that death may come suddenly and far too easily, or lingering and reluctantly, but at the last moment there is no flinching away from it. The living are always left with an unanswerable question: is it going to be like that for me?

I haven’t had a good relationship with death. My grandparents died one by one throughout my childhood, starting around age 8. About the only thing I remember about my maternal grandmother’s death is my paternal grandparents taking my sister and me out to dinner during the funeral and wondering why no one would tell me what the hell was going on. A few years later, my paternal grandmother developed breast cancer. She came to Houston for treatment at M. D. Anderson, famous for its cancer research, but hospital-acquired pneumonia got her. I didn’t watch her decline as it happened — perhaps my parents thought they could shield their children from it — but I saw its effects written on my father’s face. He developed an eyelid tic that didn’t go away until after the funeral. I mentioned it exactly once, felt like a giant asshole, and never brought it up again.

My maternal grandfather was an exception to the developing rule. He keeled over from a stroke one morning, in front of his refrigerator. When he didn’t show up for his golf game, his golfing buddy Helen called the police, and there they found him. It was July 4th weekend, and all the local ministers already had vacation plans, so my extended family put together our own version of a funeral, with readings from a high school English textbook (Bryant’s “Thanatopsis,” if memory serves) and Slaughterhouse-Five. He didn’t quite die doing what he loved, but he died about to do what he loved, which is almost as good. I learned that open-casket funerals involve a lot of stage makeup and nobody thinks the corpse looks anything like it did alive, but material disappointments aside, getting together with your loved ones to create something in the face of death — even something symbolic and ephemeral — feels right.

Still, those were the deaths of childhood. Children, at least if they’re lucky, have parents to handle the heavy lifting of death: making phone calls, negotiating with funeral directors, executing the estate. The deaths you encounter as an adult are an entirely different ball game. Sometimes, the dead or dying person’s family, rather than your own, hides the details from you. Just as often, though, the person does that themselves.

By 2008, I knew that Eric Tiedemann wasn’t doing well. So did a lot of other people, the folks he IRCed with, but none of us knew what to do about it. Too depressed to leave the house, but too anxious to let anyone in, over the course of a few years he’d gone from cheerful burbling about compilers and buttocks to rarely speaking in channel or /query, even when spoken to. He’d fall offline and reconnect, fall offline and reconnect, without saying a word. Until one day he fell offline and didn’t come back on. Everyone worried, and I volunteered to go down to his house and check on him. If the flies clustering around the windows of his house hadn’t tipped me off, the sickly, overpowering smell when I opened the dining room window should have. But I didn’t take the hint, climbed through the window, and walked down the hall to his bedroom anyway, and that’s how I found out what a two-week-old corpse looks like. I don’t recommend it; very little about one looks human anymore. The coroner determined it an accidental overdose, but nobody takes that much MDMA accidentally.

Grief counseling is fairly easy to arrange, provided someone with the requisite executive function to arrange it is available. Finding-a-body counseling, not so much. My husband, Len, promised me that if he ever killed himself, I wouldn’t have to be the one to find him, and to his credit, he made good on that promise. I knew he was struggling with depression, and I knew he didn’t want me to talk to anyone about it because he was afraid of jeopardizing his academic career. So I kept his secret, and in return, without telling me the real reasons why, he quietly made sure that I would be out of the country when he committed suicide. That a friend of ours, an EMT, would be en route, but not soon enough that there would be anyone left to rescue. That nobody would have to know.

And then last year there was Caspar Bowden, who faced his own cancer with a characteristically British stiff upper lip. Like with the windows at Eric’s, I should have gotten the hint when he tweeted asking whether anyone could help transcribe his memoirs. But the rest of his Twitter feed was so practical, so focused on beating it, so steadfastly free of doubt, that he had me convinced too. When word went out that he’d died, it hit me with the intensity, though not the character, of a betrayal.

All of this primarily goes to say that it is profoundly liberating — more than I had really thought possible — for someone in my life to die without all the goddamn secrecy for once.

I haven’t gotten to know Pieter nearly as well as I’d like to, at least not in the meatspace-socializing ways that usually constitute getting to know someone. From his writing, though, I discovered someone who cares deeply about some of the same questions I do: how does anyone ever really understand anyone else, anyway? Or make themselves understood? How can we communicate more swiftly and surely, knowing that no matter how reliable our silicon and the algorithms that run on it, we’re still ambiguous, insecure creatures in an analog world? What do the patterns of our communication say about the work we do and the lives we live? How can we intentionally use and modify those patterns to make voluntary cooperation easier, but exploitation, defection, and coordination failures harder?

Pieter wrote protocols. It’s the thing he did. He wrote messaging protocols, and security protocols, and code contribution protocols, and quite a lot of advice on how to write protocols — the most important of which is “only as much protocol as necessary, and no more.” An elegant protocol can be a beautiful thing, but it has no inherent meaning outside of the context of the relationships it facilitates. The Collective Code Construction Contract, for example, is deliberately designed to make collaborative software development easier and bikeshedding harder:

  • Maintainers SHALL NOT make value judgments on correct patches.
  • Maintainers SHALL merge correct patches from other Contributors rapidly.

In other words, if contributors are arguing over a properly formatted-and-submitted patch, the maintainer’s obligation is not only to refrain from the argument, but to merge it immediately and let people have it out in code instead of comments. Bikeshedding over. He observed the patterns that arose in cultures, both community and corporate, and how those patterns gave rise to structure that soared, sagged, or collapsed entirely under their own weight. From those observations, he built prototypes of robustly self-modifying systems, and knew enough to get the hell out of the way when they started self-modifying without needing his help any more — a decision point every parent eventually reaches.

There’s a dark irony in the fact that soon, a champion of elegant, corruption-resistant systems will fall to an internal systemic cascade failure. Cancer is a master of biological signals intelligence and counterintelligence; it hides from the immune system, ignoring neighboring cells’ signals to stop growing as it constructs its own vasculature and internal structure. It also takes hostages, recruiting non-cancerous bystanders into the tumors it builds. In a very real sense, cancer hijacks and exploits the body’s native signaling mechanisms, introducing its own to engineer its secret defection, eventually killing the body that spawned it. It’s hard to get away from a self-modifying system that tightly coupled to you, that survives by diverting every resource of yours it can away from you and to itself.

So: we’re going to lose him. But he gets to decide the place and time, in a manner prescribed by Belgian medicine, pharmacy, and law. That alone takes away a lot of the ambiguity, the anxiety of knowing that the end is coming but not when or exactly how, the bracing for the eventual shock. And since a protocol describes a relationship, who’s on the other end of this protocol for dying? Well, it’s all of us: his readers, his users, his friends, his family. Like his other protocols, it embodies a number of contracts; to crib from his own words, a contract is “an agreement that lets different [people] … work together.” Isolation with one’s own sense of loss is one of the worst parts of other people’s deaths, and presumably one’s own as well. Humanity has many social technologies for connecting with others in the aftermath of a death, but precious few for the run up to it, most of them heavily formalized and limited in scope. Pieter’s is an unprotocol, only as formal as it needs to be, a scaffolding on which to build all that which remains to be done in the time remaining — a deliberately general scope, because even with social support, everyone comes to terms with tragedy in their own way. Madeleine L’Engle described a much more rigid form in her novel A Wrinkle in Time, but its function is just as flexible:

In your language you have a form of poetry called the sonnet…There are fourteen lines, I believe, all in iambic pentameter. That’s a very strict rhythm or meter…And each line has to end with a rigid pattern. And if the poet does not do it exactly this way, it is not a sonnet…But within this strict form the poet has complete freedom to say whatever he wants…You’re given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you.

Pieter Hintjens will most likely be dead before too much longer. In the grand scheme of things, so will you. So will I. Most of us are in the fortunate position of not having to think about that too hard, at least until a friend’s impending death preoccupies us. But this time it’s different. This time it’s bounded, rather than a source of rumination and dread that creeps in to occupy as many available CPU cycles as it can. Which frees up resources for me to say something about this protocol, this last hack of Pieter Hintjens’: it is working as designed. The fact that he’ll even get to receive the ACK is the cherry on top.

Thank you, Pieter. I’m going to miss you, though of course I’ll see you again before you go. If you have to go, the best way to do it is doing what you loved most, and you are.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

A Tale of Two Tyrannies

In the midst of all this controversy over Mr. Yarvin, something has come up that I feel the need to talk about.

One of the main points of the critics of Yarvin, of Lambdaconf, and of Status451’s actions is the idea that his attendance will create an emotionally unsafe environment, which will in turn prevent people who want to attend from attending. Because Mr. Yarvin is believed to have publicly supported the US institution of slavery, his presense will be alarming to people whos’ families were impacted by this dark history.

The official position of Lambdaconf, and the one that Status451 supports is twofold. First, that it is impractical and immoral to engage in thought policing, but easy and generally beneficial to engage in behaviour policing. As long as Mr. Yarvin refrains from harassing or antagonizing anyone while he is present, and stays on the topic of technology, he is welcome to give a relevant talk.

The second is the idea of defining social boundaries between different communities. The Lambdaconf community is a community separate from other communities, and will not hold people’s reputations in other communities against them in this one. This is a contentious position (a quick twitter search for our IGG page confirms this), but we believe a reasonable one. We come to this position because we recognize that people have a wide variety of beliefs, some diametrically opposed to others. Accepting this burden in the case of Mr. Yarvin obligates us either to accept this burden in other cases (forcing us to exclude large numbers of people), or to decide that Mr. Yarvin is a special case, and other peoples’ concerns do not matter. All of these alternatives involve excluding larger numbers of people, and enforce a conformity that threatens the diverse, pluralistic community that Lambdaconf wants to be.

Many people online have rejected the reasoning of that last paragraph, and most of the arguments are some variation of “can’t you see that slavery and racism are so much worse than everything else?”. The history of racism in the US is a great tragedy (worse even than our own history with Native Americans), but this argument betrays an ignorance at some of the atrocities that the rest of us have suffered. We quite reasonably get upset at instances of racism, because we’ve seen enough of its evil to develop the appropriate memetic immune response. But our immune system is not perfect, and has a few alarming gaps.

I support the consensus of Status451 on this issue. Not because I’m a cold, heartless person who ignores the emotional pain that our critics are experiencing. Far from it, I understand this pain. Because I understand it, I see all the other instances of it that don’t have people willing to engage in supportive activism. I see the tradeoffs being made when conference organizers support one group of disadvantaged people and ignore the other. The only way to avoid the tradeoff is to do what Mr. De Goes has done: define a simple, enforcable, uniform code of conduct, hold everyone to it, and make people responsible for settling everything else on their own terms. Anything else takes a side, for one group of people, against another.

“This is all fine and good”, I hear you say, “but we don’t care if we hurt some racist’s feelings. We even prefer it that way. Why are you wasting your time fighting for his rights?” I couldn’t care less about his unqualified reservations. He’s 99% off his rocker, and the 1% of useful ideas is buried beneath so much verbosity that it’s not worth looking for. It’s not him I’m concerned about. It’s people who have gone through the same hell that my family has. A hell that few know or understand, and none care to give us support for.

I’m fortunate enough to live in a wonderful place, filled with kind people. A place where few let ideology drive the agenda, and most people are pragmatists with their hearts in the right place. My grandparents, though, were not so lucky. Between my dad’s Russian family, and my mom’s Chinese, we got to enjoy not one, but two communist revolutions.

On the Russian front, we had the unfortunate situation of being an ethnic minority. Nobody cares much for minorities when the nation is in open rebellion. They’re dangerous. They’re outsiders. They were probably responsible for all the terrible things in the first place. GET THEM! On the Chinese side, well… it’s a really, really bad idea to be a landowner during a communist revolution.

Many of my male family members were murdered. Many of my female family members were raped. The ones who got through it had most of their things confiscated. Many were forced to keep their heads down and shut up or else. Some didn’t, and found out what or-else the powers that be had in store for them.

Somehow through it all, my parents made it through and escaped to the west, where I was able to have a better life than they did. I’m thankful every day that I’m one of the lucky ones.

So, when I see that Lambdaconf will be hosting a speaker who openly speaks about sending landlords to gulags, to say I feel emotionally unsafe would be an understatement. A quick trip to Mr. Sterling’s twitter account has him proudly showing off a hammer and sickle in his display name. To my family, that symbol might as well be a swastika, for all the pain and suffering it’s caused.

Thing is, I see things like this in tech communities all the time. There are lots of people who advocate communism, and more than a handful who brag about their Marxist affiliation. And nobody is stepping up to defend us, to give us safe spaces away from this. Moldbug’s writings are absurd and offensive, but at least they didn’t motivate the murder of millions.

But you know, I get it. It all falls back to the memetic immune response. Slavery was a horrifying atrocity. It caused untold amounts of human suffering, and to this day we still grapple with it’s legacy. That suffering is personal, real, for many people, and so of course we’re hyper-vigilant on this subject.

But for most of you, my atrocities aren’t real. They’re abstract. They’re facts you learned about in school. A million deaths is a statistic, after all. You studied the ideologies neutrally, while some people winked suggestively and said “Well, you know, capitalism isn’t that great either.” You can all think of this as abstract history in a far away land. I don’t have that privilege.

To the people asking Lambdaconf to ban Mr. Yarvin on the basis of his blog posts: do you support banning Mr. Sterling on the basis of his Twitter account? I don’t. The casual admiration of Marxist leaders is hurtful to me, but I don’t think he understands the impact his actions have. He certainly doesn’t mean me malice, and I don’t for a second think he wants to send me to the gulag, the way his intellectual heroes did to my family.

This is why Lambdaconf has made the decision that it has made. It’s a position born out of respect for the people like me, who don’t have anybody defending our safety in the same way. Mr. De Goes doesn’t decide to protect one group and not the other. He does the best he can and asserts his right to political neutrality. He can’t accommodate all of our tragic histories, and playing oppression olympics to decide whose concerns take priority is not reasonable. Instead, he asserts a simple rule: There are expectations regarding civil behaviour at his conference. He will make sure that, at his conference, we are all welcome and we are all safe. He can’t police what we do outside of his space, and so he won’t make promises he can’t keep.

If you think about it, this is a very appropriate policy for a technology conference. Core to most programming langauges is the idea of interfaces and encapsulation. A programmer defines an interface, a strict requirement that all programs must satisfy in order to talk to each other. This interface allows programs to hide the details of their operation, as long as they conform to the interface. Encapsulation.

Lambdaconf’s pledge of conduct is the interface that supports encapsulation. Nobody needs to know or care what you do outside the conference. Inside the conference, they get a guarantee that you will act within the scope of the pledge. This enforces safety and civility for everyone, while respecting peoples’ rights to have a private life. Respecting their rights to believe in crazy, offensive, or otherwise antagonistic things. I don’t have to worry about whether or not Mr. Sterling thinks I should be murdered. As long as I’m at Lambdaconf, I know he won’t do it.

Please, the next time you want to advocate against a policy you see as negative, check your own privilege and consider how you might be hurting others, before you cast blame.

Posted in Uncategorized | 26 Comments

Against Blacklists

Against tribalism, rather than against a tribe

As many will now be aware, a certain person whose handle makes an unfortunate monogram has entered the LambdaConf controversy.  Like many on the SJ side of this long-running conflict, he appears to be making his living as a culture war profiteer, only by selling books rather than consulting services to monetize the tribal conflict he has stoked.  Now, just like some on the other side, he is compiling a targeting database of ideological enemies.

Lately the use of mobbing and ostracism tactics by SJ advocates has been a matter of much concern for me and for this blog. However, we must make it clear that our interest is in opposing these tactics and the mentality of total cultural war they arise from, rather than siding with the opposing tribe.  They’d be just as vicious if they had equivalent influence, as VD’s McCarthy-esque enemies list illustrates.

Instead, we must fight for the establishment of norms which allow peaceful coexistence and free association – and thus, against the authoritarian, universalizing tendencies within every cultural-ideological tribe – and for the possibility of pluralistic technical spaces with norms that protect the purpose they serve for technologists regardless of tribal affiliation, and resist being transformed into a no man’s land in between red and blue tribe trenches.  We must resist the growing atmosphere of pressure to fall into line with one side or the other, with instant mendacious vilification as the penalty for failure to conform, and defend the existence of social contexts wherein it is possible to decline to do so.  In short, we need to build the rudiments of a social technology of political toleration.

In the last week, following supporting LambdaConf publicly on Twitter, I’ve had my work attacked by tribalists fearing it obstructs the exercise of power in accordance with their wishes. I’ve had sockpuppeteers blatantly lie about me and my associates here at Status 451. Now, enter the other tribalists with their list of enemies and their angry trolls who will no doubt attack the first set like rabid animals and denounce me for being a degenerate lesbian in the process.  The image of a thousand tankies swearing Stalin did nothing wrong locked in eternal struggle with an equal force of anime nazis chuckling idiotically about ‘cucks’ like so many enraged capons is hilarious, and they really do deserve each other, but the rest of us must live in the blasted, battle-scarred world that a tech antifa vs. war profiteer trench war will create.  Let’s build a non-universalizing refuge from it all instead.

Posted in Uncategorized | 65 Comments