- 07/12/17 News

Paradox: a perfect sociopath would have a really good sense of empathy.

In CS Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, a devil laments the fact that evil is crippled, unless it also contains a strain of good. Bill Maher expounded upon a similar point: the 9/11 hijackers were courageous. They wouldn’t have been able to fly a plane into a building otherwise.

I see a lot of “low-functioning sociopathy” in the world, where someone attempts shenanigans and fails because they don’t actually understand how normal humans think. To really fuck with someone, you’ve got to be one of them. Or at least, you have to be able to model the way they think. A sociopath with an intact theory of mind would be really dangerous.

Recently, there was a protest at Columbia University. A few people attempted to frame the protestors as pro-pedophilia by infiltrating their ranks and holding up a “NO PEDO BASHING” banner.

The trouble is, actual pedophiles never never refer to themselves as “pedos”. The word is used as a pejorative. They instead use words like “boylove” and “hebephilia”.

The most visible of such organisations is the North American Man/Boy Love Association, or NAMBLA. A Google search for “pedo”/”paedo” retrieves just seven results (out of 161 total pages) on their website, all of which are either quotes from other people, sarcastic gestures towards the media’s “pedo-hysteria”, or furious negation that the term applies to them.

A pedophile group with a “no pedo bashing” banner is about as believable as an anti-racist group with a “no nigger bashing” banner .

It’s a plant. An obvious plant, unless you’re stupid, or pretending to be stupid. The banner itself is large and attractive, with lots of colours. It’s the best banner at the protest, from what I can see. Someone spent money printing it. Too bad that it’s a sign that nobody actually holding pro-pedophilia views would write.

(Do you imagine that when the sociopath showed the banner to his friends, a couple of them thought “it’s too obvious” but kept their views to themselves? I mean, what benighted soul would chime in with “it should say ‘no boylove bashing'”? You’d be forever marked as “that guy who knows a lot about pedophilia.” It’s like how all men are required by law to mumble and get vague when talking about feminine hygiene products.)

Apparently, this was the same group of waterheads who planted that embarassingly fake Rape Melania sign at a protest outside a Trump International Hotel…angled perfectly towards the camera, even though the rest of the protestors are facing the opposite direction, at the hotel.

I’m torn. I mean, it’s a pretty ignoble thing to do…but since they’re so incompetent at it, maybe they should be encouraged?

(By theory of mind, I mean the one Sally-Anne False-Belief ability that we gain at around four years of age. Tell a child this story: Tweedledee puts a marble in a box and leaves the room. Then Tweedledum enters the room, takes the marble out of the box, and puts it in his left pocket. Tweedledee now wants his marble. Where will he look for it? If the child is three or younger, they will answer “in Tweedledum’s left pocket!” Only as they mature do they realise that although they they know the marble’s correct location, Tweedledee thinks it’s still in the box. Of course, maybe Tweedledee heard Tweedledum enter the room, knows that he likes to steal marbles, and furthermore, knows that he is left handed. In that case, you might expect him to check Tweedledum’s left pocket first. Your theory of mind must reason two levels deep: Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. Or suppose Tweedledum is sneaky and puts the marble in his right pocket to confound expectations. You’re now three levels deep: Tweedledum’s mind -> Tweedledee’s mind -> Tweedledum’s mind -> reality. This can be carried forward an infinite number of steps, minds mirroring minds, until the test subject reaches the end of their ability.)

My ARma ran over your Dogma

- 23/11/17 News

[Forgot to post this. No longer topical.]

Today, as on so many other days, America crouched in fear.

Why must history always repeat? We talk, and wring our hands, and promise to fix the problem, and yet here we are again: the quietness shatters like glass, and the air turns lethal. Once again, The United States is in the grip of an op-ed writing spree.

Right now, there are countless journalists picking firing words at defenseless strangers. Even as you read this, a delusional madman, prompted only by mental illness and a fetishistic need for attention, is about to unleash the terrifying staccato noise of a fully automatic keyboard.

In a just world, there would be a law banning civilians from owning unlicensed opinions. But thanks to lobbying by pro-opinion activists, American still labours under the loathsome “First Amendment”, allowing any psychotic to spray rapid-fire opinions at defenseless people.

Here is one shell casing. The NY Times declares that regulations in cars reduced the number of deaths via car, and that regulation for guns might produce a similar effect.

There’s a joke about economists who try to calculate the value of cows from the price of a steak in a restaurant. The NY Times appears to be doing the same thing, except the steak has already been processed through someone’s lower intestine.

They’ve taken a summary statistic (deaths per 100 million vehicle miles travelled), put it on a bar graph, and are implying that various regulations are the reason for the decrease. This sort of thing is difficult unless you know exactly how the sausage is made (ideally, the process should be reversible, with all the input variables known). Does the NY Times know this? Does anyone?

Urban roads are far safer than those in rural areas: “Based on data from 2009, highways in rural areas have a fatality risk that is 2.7 times greater than that in urban areas. In general the lower average speeds, greater provision of lighting, greater deployment of traffic control devices and fewer curves in urban areas more than compensate for factors such as the greater number of intersections and the presence of pedestrians.” Over the relevant period, the urban population of the US increased from around 50% of the total to nearly 90%. Could this affect anything?

Cars are safer and more reliable than they were in the 1950s. In some ways this is driven by regulatory requirements, such as the ones in the NY Times article. In other cases, they’re clearly not. Safer cars are more marketable, and I would expect them to out-compete unsafe cars. Early vehicles (such as the 1936 Cadillac had rigid dashboards, studded with knifelike projections. These were replaced with padded polyurethane dashboards, not through law, but apparently largely through market demands.

I’d also wonder about medical care, which is better today than it was in the past. This should have a reductive effect on car mortality, completely orthogonal to government regulation. If I stab someone in the chest in 2017, they’ll rush him to emergency, stabilize the injury, obtain a chest radiograph, perform an orotracheal intubation, clean the wound with saline, and if God is good, he might survive. If I stab someone in 1917, there’s probably nothing anyone can do.

You’ve got a summary statistic generated by a very complicated picture of background facts, and I don’t think we can even learn anything about car regulation from it, let alone gun regulation.

What It’s Like to Solve a Problem on the Internet

- 30/06/17 News

[You have a problem.]

[You google the problem.]

[The only relevant result is a forum thread from 2011.]

OP: [exact description of the problem you are having]

Person 1: [wrong answer]

Person 2: [wrong answer]

Person 3: [correct answer to a problem that is not this one]

Person 4: [“solution” that involves twenty hours of work, broken laws, $2000, and a fresh human kidney]

Person 5: [“solution” that amounts to “have you considered not doing the thing you’re trying to do?]

Person 6: [pointless chiming in that they don’t have that problem and therefore cannot help you]

Person 7: lol! Person 2 has a Better Call Saul avatar! Does anyone watch Better Call Saul?!? Let’s talk about Better Call Saul right here in this thread!

Person 8: [correction of spelling mistake that itself contains multiple spelling mistakes]

Person 9: [wrong answer, stated with utter confidence. Post contains the words “this WILL work” and ends with an unprompted “you’re welcome! :)” because clearly the problem is as good as fixed. Reacts with bafflement and hostility when their solution doesn’t work.]

Person 10: I have the same problem! [proceeds to describe a problem that, although superficially similar, is in fact wildly different to the one in the OP. Everyone rallies around Person 10 and starts trying to fix his totally different problem.]

Peanut gallery: [steady stream of inside jokes, innuendo, and resurrections of old catfights that nobody but they themselves understand.]

Person 11: Hey, OP, this should help [posts a link]

OP: Thanks Person 11, you fixed my problem! Wow, that was a real head-scratcher! I would NEVER have thought of that on my own!

Moderator: issue resolved. Thread locked.

[You click the link. The website went offline a long time ago, and the domain redirects to a Russian goat porn site. No backups exist on the Internet Archive.]

[You start your own thread asking for help]

Everyone: jeez, learn to search the forum! We already resolved this issue!

All Heil

- 11/05/17 News

Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will soon collapses inwards under its own largeness and lack of substance. Scene after scene of columns of soldiers marching, or standing in massed formation on parade grounds. The viewer gets bored, and starts trying to see signs of humanity intruding on the edge of the celluloid.

Wow, that sure is a lot of soldiers. Are some of them uncomfortable? Do they have itches they aren’t allowed to scratch? Where are they billeted and fed? Were there latrine pits dug somewhere? Where did Hitler go to the toilet? I would have liked a film made about these topics, and in a way, Riefenstahl made a film about the most boring aspect of Hitler’s rise to power.

I feel this way about many films: where the camera all but twists and cavorts to avoid capturing things that might be exciting. For example, although I don’t like the James Bond films, many things in their background are absolutely fascinating.

For example, the man called Ross Heilman.

He was a Jew from Florida who moved to Jamaica, renamed himself “Ross Kananga”, claimed Seminole heritage, and opened a crocodile farm. Some people have biographies that seem to be written by a random word generator, and he was one of them. At the height of his success Ross had more than a thousand crocodiles, and he would harvest their skins. In those days, crocodile skin sold for $2 a pound, and $450 for a reasonably good entire skin.

One day, location scouts for the film Live and Let Die discovered the farm, and wanted to use it as the fictional nation of San Monique. Ross obviously made quite an impression on the cast and crew, because they named the villain of the film “Kananga”. Ross doubled for Roger Moore in the infamous scene where he jumps across a river on the backs of living crocodiles, something that was hazardous to his health.

Something like that is almost impossible to do. So, I had to do it six times before I got it right. I fell five times. The film company kept sending to London for more clothes. The crocs were chewing off everything when I hit the water, including shoes. I received 193 stitches on my leg and face.”

Ross never became a film star, and he did not have long to live. In 1978, he died of cardiac arrest while spearfishing in the Everglades. Or so some stories say. There is a conspiracy.

This is from the autobiography of inventor, businessman, and filmmaker Arthur Jones.

“Later, he had so many people after him that he decided the only way out was to fake his own death, so that people would stop looking for him; so he took his grandmother out in a small boat in the Everglades in order to have a witness to his death. The plan being to turn over the boat in a spot where she could easily escape, but where he could get away; leaving the impression that he had drowned, even though his body was never supposed to be found.

“But it was found; it was a cold day, and he went into shock and did drown. The grandmother did get out alive, and was able to provide a true account of his death.

“I was after him for having done one of the cruelest things I ever witnessed; he tied a bunch of crocodiles very tightly, packed them in a big trailer and then left them there for weeks. When their legs were untied their feet were already rotting off, even though they were still alive. I figured tit for tat, nit for shit, and had similar plans for him; but he was dead before I could find him. Several other people had plans for him as a result of some of his other stunts.”

It sounds implausible and hard to believe (and might have pleased Ross Heilman in this regard), but I wonder if it’s common for a man to suffer cardiac arrest at the age of 32.

And Justice for Avto

- 06/05/17 News

“One” by Metallica has a famous section at 4:32 where Lars Ulrich plays a syncopated sextuplets on the kick drums (6 beats on, 2 beats off)…and then James Hetfield doubles it on guitar. The effect is dramatic: the guitar sounds like a machine gun.

The effect wouldn’t have worked if he’d played the cello. There’s something natural about the pairing of electric guitars and automatic guns. Although not a full rhyme, they’re at least a slant rhyme for each other. The force. The percussion. The volume. The way they harness bolts, pins, voltage, and steel to amplify something in the human condition.

But there are many guns, and if you’re drawing a comparison with high-gain metal, there’s only one gun that fits the bill. The most famous gun.

In 22 June 1941, the Wehrmacht tide overflowed Russia’s borders. Millions of Russians were killed, and millions more were wounded. In the latter category was a mechanically-inclined man called Mikhail Kalashnikov, who spent his convalescence studying mechanics and firearm design. After a few false starts and setbacks, he created his masterpiece: a gas-powered imitation of German assault rifles called the Avtomat Kalashnikova 1947 – more famously known as the AK-47.

In doing so, he joined the ranks of men like Samuel Colt, Hiriam Maxim, John Browning, and Richard Gatling – men with names that have become death. The classical Greeks believed that a society grows great when old men plant trees. Kalashnikov and his ilk are the second sort: the ones who provide fertilizer for the trees. I wonder if Mr Kalashnikov ever stayed awake at night, thinking of the bodies. All the millions and millions of them.

The AK-47 is a pragmatic weapon, easy to use, even easier to die from. Despite being ergonomically uncomfortable (and not particularly accurate), they’re cheap, can be mass produced, and function even when clogged with dust, mud, blood, sweat, and unburnt propellant. At one point, they killed 250,000 people per year. They adorn the Mozambique flag. They are simple enough for a child to use. Children often have.

Functionally, they are similar to the WW2-era German MP42 Sturmgewehr (lit: “Storm-Rifle”). I haven’t found any sources to indicate that Kalashnikov was wounded by an MP42, but it would be funny if he had. In any case, the Germans lost. The world was changing, and superior rifles no longer won wars. Truthfully, by the time Kalashnikov arrived on the scene, they didn’t even win battles.

But the world no longer has battles. Now, almost all fighting is irregular, conducted by some flavour of guerilla forces. Afghanistan. Vietnam. Sudan. The Clauswitzian ideals of battle are over, and now being a soldier means you’re crouched in a jungle, motionless, made of matter almost indifferentiate from the the mud and leaves on the ground, so fascinated by what’s beyond your gunsight that you don’t even move when a mosquito lands on your lip. In this new era of undeclared wars and uniformless fighters, the AK-47 thrives. It’s the embodiment of a Communist weapon, a different, louder voice for the proletariat.

But what about guitars? What’s the connection?

Once, music was entertainment for the rich – formal, stultified, encased in tradition. A symphony orchestra contains four rigid groups of musicians – woodwinds, brass, percussion, and strings – with other subdivisions within. Everyone has a role to play, and roles that they cannot. What was that Heinlein quote about specialisation being for insects? Symphonies have always sounded cold to me, and maybe that’s why. They remind me of a hive.

Guitars are very much a common person’s instrument. They’re easy to make, easy to learn, and versatile. You can play them standing up or sitting down (evocative of the marksman’s choice of firing from the hip or the shoulder), you can play them while singing, and you can play them any way you want. There are no rules with guitar. You can change from strumming chords to playing lead melodies on the higher frets. If the guitar has a hollow body, you can slap it with your palm for percussion.

You can play a guitar sloppily and still sound good. For some styles of music (eg, grunge and shoegaze), it’s almost mandatory that you play sloppily. If a guitar goes out of tune, you can retune them in the middle of a performance. And they can take massive amounts of abuse. Ask any rock musician just how hard it is to smash a guitar on stage.

But guitars are quiet, and need amplification. The Beatles famously quit touring because they couldn’t hear their instruments over the sounds of screaming fans. Through the sixties and seventies, the wattage of stage equipment kept rising, and soon artists could impose their visions at literally deafening volumes.

In short, the guitar is to instruments what the AK-47 is to guns: a multi-purpose tool. They’re a transition from a world where maps dictate territories (the limitations of classical instruments and classical weaponry were both defining factors in the character of early war and music), to a place where the tool is servant and slave to the master’s voice.

Is there some link between the mutating forms of music and guns? Does it reflect some deeper change in the currents of the world? Biologically, evolution can follow two routes: divergence (where a species splits into two dissimilar lifeforms), and convergence (where two dissimilar species evolve to look like each other). A good example of convergence is the thylacine, which looked and acted rather like a fox despite belonging to the marsupial class. The stripes give the game away, but the skeletons are so close that it takes an expert eye to separate them.

Small arms and musical instruments almost seem to be following convergent evolution: fast, efficient, interchangeable, and they even look similar. Roy Orbison starred in a terrible movie called Fastest Guitar Alive, about a man who has a gun inside a guitar case. Maybe that’s generic, and every guitar is halfway to a gun (or vice versa). Guitars are sometimes called “axes”. We should update our terminology.

(For an earlier example of machine gun drumming, listen to “Darkness Descends” by Dark Angel at 0:53.)

Broken Signposts

- 06/04/17 News

One of the cool things about hell* is that you’re allowed to break stuff without guilt. Smash the furniture. Write on the walls in your own excrement. Hell is the worst place possible, so anything at all you do there would change it for the better (Like a maximally random jigsaw puzzle could be partially solved by lying on top of it and having a seizure). It’s fun to break stuff, and it’d be a shame to wait until the afterlife to start. Thankfully, I have an incantation that flings the gates of hell wide open:

“Here’s my views on sex and gender.”

Any discussion about sex and gender immediately becomes the worst conversation in the whole world. They all share this status, somehow. Everyone has an opinion, everyone brings emotional baggage to the subject, and nobody ever changes their mind. It is the most shrill, unpleasant, fact-averse topic of discussion on the internet.

That said, if we’re not afraid of breaking thngs…

For complicated reasons, humans have evolved into dimorphic sexes: male and female. Although this is biologically instantiated in our chromosomes, our sex has various outwards signs (bone structure, facial hair, sex organs, etc), which we call a gender.

Why do we need such thing as a gender? Because primitive humans had no way of telling whether someone has XX or XY chromosomes (nor can the average person today) so we needed fairly obvious outwards signs. And it works. Usually you can tell what someone’s sex is without even being aware of what chromosomes are. Diamonds are strictly defined as octahedronal lattices of carbon atoms, but a jeweller doesn’t need to fire up an electron microscope to tell whether something’s a diamond. A diamond leaves outward signs of its own nature.

Sex is the reality, gender is the signal.

But in the case of humans, sometimes the signs don’t match the reality. Sometimes accidents of nature (androgen insensitivity, sexual aphallia) or social choices (Ru Paul’s Drag Race) will leave a male displaying signs of femininity, or vice versa. What do we do in these cases, where the signs don’t match the reality?

Let’s break away from diamonds, and consider ships.

Some ships belong to England, some belong to Spain. To help differentiate them, they fly a flag of the nation that owns them. If you see a ship flying the Union Jack, you assume it belongs to England.

But suppose an English ship takes down the Union Jack, and runs a Spanish flag up the mizzenmast (ie, dressing in drag). What’s changed, exactly? Has it now become a Spanish ship? No. It might confuse other ships into thinking so, but absolutely nothing at the level of reality has changed. It’s still an English ship.

Suppose Queen Elizabeth sells the ship to King Philip (ie, transgenderism). Has it become a Spanish ship?

You can make an argument for or against. It is now subject to Spanish maritime law and can journey into Spain-controlled waters. But there’s a sense in which it’s still not a Spanish ship, and will never be a Spanish ship.

Up until now, I’ve assumed that English ships and Spanish ships are exactly equal, beyond the property of who owns them. That’s not the case for the human sexes. Men tend to be larger and stronger. Women carry more body fat. What if English ships have shallower drafts and narrower hulls, making them better for navigating rivers? And what if Spanish ships have wider beams and more ballast, making them better for navigating oceans? Has Queen Elizabeth selling a ship to King Philip changed anything about the nature of the ship? No, it hasn’t.

Presumeably, if Christopher Columbus asks for a Spanish ship, he doesn’t give a shit what flag is flying on its mast, or what piece of paper belongs to what person. All he wants is a ship that can cross an ocean! If King Philip gives him a purchased English ship, he’s not going to be happy, regardless of who insists it’s now a Spanish ship.

Sadly, I think this is the case for a lot of transgendered folk. Their bodies bear obvious signs of who they were. Women are not normally six feet tall, with hands big enough to palm a basketball. Men are not normally. They can think they’ve changed their gender, and society might decree that they’ve changed their gender, but ultimately, the signs are still in conflict with reality.

The only option is to haul the, hack away and refurbish the hull, so that it kind of looks like a Spanish ship (transsexualism). We cannot do this very convincingly for humans.

*Though it depends on which hell you are formulating. The Bible conceives hell as. Some of these places are dark and cold, others are burning hot. The Islamic hell is more explicitly the latter. “The person who will receive the least punishment among the people of Hell on the Day Resurrection will be a man, a smoldering ember will be placed under the arch of his foot. His brains will boil because of it.” Pure Land Buddhism has many hells you can end up in, the most fearsome of which is Avici. It lasts for trillions of years, and has iron snakes, iron dogs, and iron walls. You can die there but will always be reborn inside. And presumeably you must take a pill, to prove to it that you are cool.


- 28/03/17 News

chernobyl-1986What’s the big advantage of having a monopoly? That you make lots of money?

No. It’s that you can enjoy a quiet life.

Traditional businesses succeed or fail by a power law. When you start one, you are staring down the barrel of a 71% failure rate over ten years. Success will depend on various factors, many of which you cannot control. And even if you succeed, uneasy hangs the head that wears the crown. Your continued success requires luck, skill, ability to respond to market changes, and on a long enough scale all businesses fail anyway. Uber (according to Yves Smith) is apparently “succeeding” by kicking the can down the alley, postponing the date of its inevitable failure until the guys at the top cash out.

But a monopolist is free. Free to grow complancent, free to deliver substandard products and services. When there’s no rivals nipping at your heels, you can walk, or trudge, or even sit down. You can even go backwards.

Piers Anthony once had an editor point out a continuity error, and he defended himself by saying “anything can happen in Xanth.” Monopolies have the same dubious virtue – anything can happen in them! As far as I can tell, this is the central argument to be made against monopolies, they have no reason to be excellent, or to do anything beyond ensuring that they continue to exist. It’s not as simple as the monopolist not having any competitors. I can imagine scenarios where a single monolithic entity produces excellent work. But there clearly needs to be some kind of pressure, otherwise innovation and quality in a market dawdles.

It’s a difficult pill to swallow, because other than this problem, you’d expect a monopolistic business to outperform a business in competition. Global co-ordination. The ability to leverage economics of scale. No wasted resources spent fighting competitors.

You could even argue that a benevolent monopoly would be in the interests of consumers. A big issue with fractured, balkanized industries is that they are susceptible to negative externalities – if I own a factory in Region 1 that pollutes a river running through Regions 2 and 3, sans regulations I might say “not my problem”. But if I own all the factories in all the regions (and hence am accountable to all customers), then maybe I’ll take pollution seriously.

A state can fulfill this role to an extent, but they’re not really anyone’s go-to example of efficiency par excellence (see Shturmovshchina), and an ideal solution seems like a fusion: how do we combine the best features of the free market (competitive drive, innovation, efficiency) without the crappy gridlock and balkanisation?

I don’t know that if this would just be good to have. I think we might need it. I was reading about nuclear power, and what’s stalling it in the US. It seems to be dying a death from a thousand cuts, including ever-changing regulations, competing standards, PR disasters such as 3 Mile Island and Fukushima, and the lack of a stable and reproducible plant model. Looming above everything, like Zeus throwing thunderbolts, is the fact that nobody’s on the same page.

“…our electricity sector is split up among dozens of different utilities and state regulators. As a result, US nuclear vendors had to develop dozens of variations on the light-water reactor to satisfy a variety of customers. “

(They also mention a few interesting things: although high-profile disasters didn’t help public acceptance of nuclear energy, construction of new plants was already tapering away before 3 Mile Island.)

The article also looks at the countries that have gotten this right, they mostly seem to have either state-owned utilities or a single industry working on a single solution. But statecraft also has the ability to choke nuclear power, as we see in France. What’s the solution? A market monopoly over nuclear energy, perhaps? But that introduces another wrinkle – this is really something we really need the regulation of a state over. Success means nuclear power lighting up America. Failure means…the exact same thing.


- 27/01/17 News

8bc36e32950abaedd048f05b16cce4dfWhen I was born, Australia had lots of wilderness and very few computers. I didn’t like this arrangement. But now that we have less wilderness and more computers every day, I’m starting to relax. My side is winning the war.

The years keep coming, and we need all of the computers we can get. They’re under our control. Predictable. Every single one of them has a known state, known behavior, and a known purpose. No more of them exist than we desire to exist. Nobody ever woke up and had to weed unwanted computers from their front lawn.

The world’s getting too big, too complex, and too interconnected for unpredictability. I want every idea, thought, and entity to either submit itself to humanity’s control or die. The big killer in the modern world isn’t technology, it’s wildness – by which I mean chaos, and unpredictability.

Cars are big stupid blocks of metal, exerting only a few hundred thousand joules of kinetic energy on impact. Meanwhile, the United States has thousands of nuclear warheads, each of which would release dozens of petajoules of energy on detonation. Yet cars massacre hundreds of thousands annually, while nuclear explosions have killed nobody in years not ending with “4” and “5”. You know why? Because are nukes are domesticated and cars are wild.

You could invent a disease par excellence, such as an airborn variant of Ebola, and so long as it stayed in a test tube or petri dish it would infect nobody. Meanwhile, 36,000 die per year thanks to the flu. It’s like having a foolproof plan to beat Mike Tyson/Mr Dream and instead you get knocked out by Glass Joe.

There’s a prayer that goes “God, don’t give me a lighter load, give me a stronger back.” Safety follows a similar precept: we don’t need a less dangerous world, we need a better control on that danger. And anyway, the world will keep getting more dangerous anyway, so what choice do we have?

I like the idea of a more mechanized world. Roads with perfect right angle intersections. Hills graded flat, so nobody has to switch gears. Maybe there’s a point where someone recognises me as wildness, but so far the domestication of our autonomous bodies has produced good fruit (glasses, artificial limbs, “Vote for Pedro” shirts for the continuation of one’s virginity, etc) and I’m interested in what happens next..

But there’s a risk: what happens when computers start to become wild? In September 2016, a malware called Mirai spread across the internet, brute-forcing unsecured devices using a table of common default usernames and passwords. The resultant effect was very wild: a large botnet of thousands of devices, capable of crashing web servers with a massive 1Tb/s influx of traffic. At the moment, such chaotic effects are only possible through human mismanagement. At the interface of the computers themselves, a transistor can only be on or off. Not much room for stochasm between those two points.

Maybe one day, we’ll have quantum computers that are capable of spontaneous wildness. They’d be machines par excellence, the highest echelon of computerhood. I’ve always been impressed by how the education of computers the same as the education of humans, just with the direction arrow reverse. They start out sane, and have to learn to be mad.

Dancers to an accordant system

- 20/12/16 News

images-5TV killed the radio star, but it created the radio star first. “Rock Around the Clock” was a megahit, the song that helped launch the rock and roll genre, but upon its initial release in 1954 it was a commercial failure. Only after it found its way into the credits of the Blackboard Jungle did it climb the charts. A lesson was learned: if you want a hit, get it in a movie.

Music benefits from a visual component, then, now, and always. Start pulling the threads that start with the ceremonial dancing of the Bhimbetka (documented thirty thousand years ago on a cave wall) and you can follow it through to the Greek tragedies, Japanese kabuki theater, the first “talkies”, Michael Jackson’s music videos, the tacky 8-bit LSD visualisations of mp3 players, and so forth. A photogenic element lets music work from another, more literal dimension – for example, taking the implied “scariness” of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor and making it explicit with horror visuals.

The visuals of a movie likewise benefit from sound, in a way that isn’t immediately obvious. We walk around with our experiences clouded by some emotional content, good or bad, and you never experience anything its own. When you eat a pastry you’re also eating the argument you had five minutes ago: you will enjoy the pastry less because you’re angry. When you spend money you’re only as happy or unhappy as the thought of how much is left in the balance. But most of this is gone in a movie – you’re watching a recorded slice of fake reality that you have no intrinsic attachment to. A soundtrack helps recolour all of the moments that have been bleached of their emotions by celluloid. The music acts as a little cue. “Feel sad here. Feel happy here.” That’s why scoring and foley is such an important part of film, even if it’s unmemorable on its own. Films are fake reality, and sound of all kinds is another graft of flesh over the mechanism.

But it must be depressing for a songwriter, knowing that your work will receive much of its impact from a visual component (which you had nothing to do with). It’s as bad works of literature getting culturally steamrolled by their film adaptations. Speaking of which I want to knock on Fitzgerald’s coffin and inform him that people will forevermore visualise Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay when they read The Great Gatsby. I am a bad man.

But that can’t be helped. Like Barthes said, authors are corpses who haven’t got the memo. Millions think “Born in the USA” is a patriotic anthem. That’s a valid reading, and there’s nothing the Boss or anyone else can do.

But I’ve never liked obvious soundtrack biscuits. If movies are cyborgs and music is artificial flesh, soundtrack songs are like plastic doll skin. You’re watching a movie, and then the narrative is interrupted by a cringingly obvious wannabe music video sequence. You can almost see the MTV logo appear.

In the 90s, there was a trend of songs from Disney movies becoming crossover mainstream hits. “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid won a Grammy. “A Whole New World” from Aladdin was a number one hit. From then on, every animated film needed that song. The worst was that shitty song Phil Collins put in Tarzan. You know the one. Where he doesn’t even reference the movie at all but just blandly rhapsodizes about finding yourself, et cetera.

Music and film have a troubled relationship, but they’re never far apart. Although it might seem like songs get swallowed whole by movies, subsumed until they’re just another part of the great machinery, they sometimes outlast the films they’re in. “Rock Around the Clock” achieved fame through the Blackboard Jungle, but who remembers that movie now? Bill Haley had the last laugh.

Sometimes the most insignificant things are the most enduring. Dwarves might stand on the shoulders of giants when walking through a field, but history isn’t a field, it’s quicksand. When the dwarf and the giant hit a but when the ensemble hits some soft quicksand, the giant sinks into obscurity first.

Between Two Frames

- 24/11/16 News

spiderI didn’t believe in evolution once. There were a few reasons why, but one of them was that there didn’t seem to be enough transitional fossils. I’d heard various biologists and paleontologists say the same thing: the chain had missing links.

Now I realise that evolution, on a long enough timescale, often stops looking like a gradual slope, and starts looking like a series of steps.

Evolution often work in fits and jerks. There’s periods of rapid change (when there’s strong selective pressure), coupled with long pit stops where not much happens (the pressure relaxes). This conceit is found in several theories. Ernst Mayr’s “genetic revolutions.” Stephen Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium”.

Sometimes, this is dictated by outside pressures – climate change, or the introduction of a new competitor. Sometimes it’s dictated by the form itself. As WD Hamilton pointed out, you’d expect a complete flying creature to be more successful than a semi-evolved creature with half-grown wings. Once selection starts working, the creature rapidly moves through morphological space until it reaches the new optimum.

The fossil record can be likened to a ship traversing an ocean, while a satellite in space takes a photograph of it every day. Imagine the voyage takes 10 days – would you expect the 10 photos of the ship to be at perfect 10% intervals along the journey? Not hardly. There might be doldrums. There might have a strong tailwind. It might have to carefully navigate around some rocks. But this isn’t disproof of the mechanism of sail, and it’s not proof that the ship is magically teleporting from place to place. Evolution isn’t just a question of “where are we going”, it’s a question of “how quickly will we get there?”

This sort of adaptationist thinking isn’t trendy, but even an evolution driven by drift isn’t going to operate at a constant rate throughout history. The generation of mutations is modulated by a host of environmental factors (radiation, UV light), and their spread is capped by social factors. Maybe all kinds of interesting mutations developed in the humans living the New World. So what? Until 1948, none of that affected the gene pool of the humans living in Europe at all. There was a big natural barrier in the way: the Atlantic ocean.

Another thing: does something looking superficially unchanged mean it’s not evolving? The horseshoe crabs are a famous example of “living fossils”, nearly unchanged after hundreds of millions of years. But it seems they did actually change a little bit – fossilized horseshoe crabs have legs that split into two ends, while the modern kind have no split. (Perhaps there’s better examples of living fossils. Cladoselache is a Devonian fish that looks very much like a modern shark. Trigonotarbida is 400mYa old yet easily recognisable as a spider – some fossils even have spinerettes.)

I guess you always want more fossils. But when I die, the fossil record will likely keep no record of me, so who am I do to deny transitional fossils a hypothetical existence?

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