Below are the 10 most recent journal entries recorded in the "James R." journal:
[<< Previous 10 entries]
Taking risks with COVID-19|Edit: It turns out that economists have investigated the corresponding mortality costs from a recession-- and they're negative! Mortality rates go down in recessions. Add that to the environmental benefits of slowing down the global economy, and lock-downs look a lot like a clear boon for society.
We are observing a fascinating social phenomenon. Far from our normal mode, the world has decided to respond to the COVID-19 threat long before it has reached its crisis. I am fascinated, but also concerned. As a society, we have chosen to self-administer a kind of global shock therapy, and if we are not careful, the consequences of the medicine will be greater than the disease.
I do not claim to know how to balance these conflicting forces, but I'll bet health experts don't have the interdisciplinary training to make that judgement either. In many ways, this pandemic looks a lot like climate change. If we do nothing now, it will be a disaster in a couple months. If we do too much now, it will be an economic disaster, which could be just as damaging.
Let's consider the current situation. About 0.003% of the global population has been confirmed to have (or have had) the coronavirus. Across the US, it's 0.005%; in New York, the hardest-hit state, the infection rate has gotten up to 0.03% (as of March 21). That's confirmed cases, but it might be a decent approximation to the actual cases: Germany has prided itself with very thorough testing, and it has a 0.03% infection rate. The US has not been doing a very good job of testing, but still 8 tests are administered for every 1 that comes back positive.
So, let's do a thought experiment with the confirmed cases: Let's imagine getting a group of randomly chosen people from New York state together.If your group was 1 person big, there would be a 0.03% chance that that person has COVID-19. If it's 2 people big, the chance that one or the other is sick would be 0.07%. For that risk to get up to 1%-- at which point it might make sense to call off the gathering, there would need to be 28 people. For the chance that one or more of them were sick to reach 50%, the group would have to consist of about 2000 people.
It won't stay this way. Without intervention the real crisis will hit around June. Here's my simple model, which looks a lot like what the NYT has been showing for the past couple weeks, but I made it almost a month ago:
The disaster hasn't come yet. We should think more about what we want to do to prepare between now and then.
The right balance depends not only the benefits of quarantine, but also on its economic costs. There are already estimates of the unemployment rate in the US doubling in the next couple months, and maybe going as high as 10%. We have set off an economic recession which is going to derail a lot of livelihoods, and for some people it will mean their lives. Add on top of that the physical and mental health problems that are emerging as a result of self-isolation, and the loss of in-class education for millions of students, and it looks like we have chosen to pay a very high price.
If we were to lock-down less, it would mean that more people could keep their jobs. More people would also get sick, but it would help in the long run as the population of people immune to the virus increases. Some of the extra infections would have to go to the hospital, but current COVID-19 infections are a tiny share of current hospital cases, and many regions can handle the extra load. Or, at least they can handle it a lot better now than they will be able to in a few months, during the peak crisis.
I'm not proposing that older people or other high-risk populations stop self-quarantining at all-- COVID-19 is incredibly dangerous to people over 65. But we need more working-age people on the front lines, sustaining our economy.
The chance of dying is low for under-40s-- 0.2%-- but still high as these things go. That's twice the death rate of the flu. But the economic recession will also lead to more deaths. I think we need a movement of people who are willing to personally accept the risks that come from an infection, for the benefits that they can provide. They should not interact with those people who are staying in isolation, but this group needs to extend far beyond "essential" workers.
By the way, this can also be a moment to help correct the injustices of the current economy: if we are choosing to risk our lives, we should not be doing it for the benefits of the powers-that-be. But that can be for another post.
Democrats must embrace Traditional Values|
In the wake of the UK landslide defeat of the Labour Party, Democrats in the US are asking if the same will happen to them. I believe that we can defeat Trump, but only by radically reconnecting with our roots.
A major reason why Labour lost, and why Trump has been doing so well, is that progressives have forgotten how to relate to the working class (a term, by the way, which should be synonomous with the middle class). As Hugo Dixon said about the Brexit fight in the UK, “There is a crisis of liberalism because we have not found a way to connect to the lives of people in the small towns of the postindustrial wasteland whose traditional culture has been torn away.” [op. ed. piece
] People feel betrayed by politicians, and just explaining to them that Democrats are the only party really fighting for working people is not going to help.
For the sake of the United States and for the sake of the planet, the Democratic Party needs to make one of the hardest shifts ever: we must become the party of Traditional Values, and we have to do it right now.What does it mean to fight for Traditional Values?
First, I am not suggesting allowing any "rolling-back" of the rights of women, minorities, or LGBTQAI+, and we have a lot further to go. The mistreatment of women and black people, in particular, needs to be tackled now.
And importantly, discrimination and white-male dominance have nothing to do with Traditional Values. Those aren't values; they're harmful practices, and the recent raising of awareness of them doesn't attack anyone's values-- it just provides new information to apply those values to.
What are the Traditional Values I'm talking about? I thought I posted about this last year, but I can't find it, so I'll say it here.
I have come to a conclusion that I think is shared by many conservatives: Our society has lost its moral core, and many of our problems of social and political problems stem from that lack of foundation. And I actually think that there is quite a large common ground in how progressives and conservatives understand that moral core.
Here are a few foundations that I think I share with hard-line conservatives:The primacy of the working class
The working class, both poor and middle-class, are the core of American society. That means (1) that they should have the biggest say in government decisions, and (2) our society should be organized to work for them.Importance of and duty to community
A sense of community is a foundation of wellbeing. Communities form through mutual commitment, and that means that we have responsibilities to our communities that we should act on.The excellence of American individualism
America is a unique place of self-determination and freedom. You can pursue any life, and the America I want to see is where anyone can achieve their personal goals. In America, our communities only every work by people freely choosing to uphold them.Earth was given to us to steward
America is a land of amazing beauty. We have a responsibility to maintain the earth for future generations-- to conserve.Importance of a moral core
In a land of individual, personal choices, it is even more important that people treat every situation with moral care, and ask "What can I do to make this right?"Lack of a common moral core
We have lost our common moral core. No political party has a monopoly on morality, and we all have some deep introspection to do.Consequences of that lack
Many of the current divides in society stem from our lack of common morality. Democrats moral failures when they have been in power are as much to blame for the rise of Trump as Republican failures.
The American Dream is not to be fabulously wealthy. It is an implicit deal that if you work hard, you can have a comfortable lifestyle. That means a stable job and knowing that you can send your children to school.
But being the party of Traditional Values requires more than just reconnecting with our existing values. It requires new kinds of actions. We have to be the party of ordinary people, of Small-Town, USA, or decaying rust belt communities. We have to bring our message into sports bars and into churches.What happened to Traditional Values?
People feel betrayed-- by politicians, by society, and particularly by urban elites. But they have also misdiagnosed the problem, with the help of Republican pundits. The forces that betrayed the American people are bigger than the parties. But they should be slowed or stopped, and managed, and we have a responsibility to do that.
First, work has changed. People are less secure in their careers and in their companies. The Work-Home divide has been broken, and people are under chronic stress like never before. This is partly because of unmanaged technology, partly the decay of unions, partly the endless stream of mergers. We value stable work, but we haven't been providing it.
Culture has been changing too. Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our culture. Social media has left people feeling insecure. People no longer feel free to choose how they relate to their technology and the brands of immense corporations, and that smacks against the core of the American ideal.
So what happened to Traditional Values was unmanaged technological change and corporate consolidation. It is time to subjugate both of these to our values, and recognize that they are both tools to help us make the world we want.Why should Democrats embrace Traditional Values?
We should become the party of Traditional Values first because we can. The Republicans have completely dropped this ball, in the era of Trump. I believe that people will respond if we speak about the importance of American traditions and values, because we will actually be authentic when we do so. With repeated, strong effort, the Republican hold on churches and communities will melt away.
I do not know if Democrats are the natural party of Traditional Values, but America needs it, and we have every right to the role. We have been fighting for the working class forever, ensuring that small-businesses can prosper, and protecting the environment.
Finally, we need to do this because we have to act right now. Another four years of Trump would be the end of the Paris Agreement, and these are incredibly important years to act on climate change. We are going through a sixth great extinction, and if we want to conserve biodiversity for the future, we can't wait. And the rise of inequality and the technological giants is relentless, and we need to stop it before our culture is completely subsumed by it.
An animated life|
I recently discovered all four seasons of Monty Python's Flying Circus on Netflix, and now I'm fired up about making some surreal animations. I have a particular vision for a series on the life and times of James Rising, born 1618. It would be an inseparable mix of historical research and mythologizing, childhood and adult themes combined in Walt Disneyesque fashion, anarchy and anachronism, set in a surrealist pre-Steampunk world.
I'm envisioning this as an ever growing series of cel-animation episodes. The whole series would be divided into 5 chapters, of which I initially only aim to make a single episode for each chapter. [Really, I just want to make a single episode, but dividing it into 5 segments makes it seem more feasible.]
Here's the story so far:
Chapter 1: In the shadow of Castle Rising
The Rising ancestors, not yet named Risings, live a peasant life in the Norfolk countryside. But everything is changing in Jacobean era for a young, rebellious youth who runs away to the big city, Norwich. There he falls in some counter-culture Catholic recusants, before realizing that no religion can ensure love. Turning his back on both his old home and his new one, he drives into the horizon.
Chapter 2: The childhood of a Cordwainer
James is born to Risings that have finally made it in the middle class of small-town Beccles. But the world is so much bigger now, and at 18, the other side of the world seems nearer to James than the small-minded village politics around him. A chance encounter with nobility ruins his internship and his reputation, and he finally packs his bags.
Chapter 3: By land and by sea
James hitchhikes to London, through many new lands and strange customs. Along the way, he befriends a world-weary ex-raver, an existentialist dog, and a recurring used-cart salesman. Each offers him the possibility of their way of life, and he barters each one away for passage on the Dorset, bound for Bermuda. After nearly starving on the boat, he's saved by a rat named Sergeant Buzfuz, who becomes his life-long companion.
Chapter 4: Zeal for the zealots
Ten years of hard labor offer lots of pitfalls, and James's favorites are drink, women, and religious experiments. He is struggling with depression when a friend's cult decides to go off-the-grid and they convince James to come and help them. But the boat is wrecked on metaphor-heavy rocks, their cool-aid lost, and life without technology turns out to be pretty tough. The colony gives up, but James and Sergeant Buzfuz, now both bearded and world-weary, stow away on a boat to Boston.
Chapter 5: Englands Old and New
James uses his intrepid instinct for trouble to make a living in Boston. He falls madly in love with a lifestyle where anything is possible, and then he meets Elizabeth Hinsdale. Together they start a family, move to Connecticut, and try to avoid an irate used-cart salesmen. At the deathbed-side of Sergeant Buzfuz, James recounts the dreams of youth and his memories of the future.
Hospital of Transplanted Hearts|
I came upon this bit of literary engineering by D. M. Thomas in Best SF: 1969
(ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss). I love the project idea, but I don't endorse all the content.
|Heart of:||Priest||Bending sadly over his enemy he gave him his cup of grace.||Absolved by her, he lit a small candle.||He told folwers they would rise again if they were holy||Religiously he choked evil spirits out of her.||She stopped at the laying on of hands.||He strove to marry the schizophrenic, whose tongue could not find his name.||From his crane-pulpit he made a new heaven, new earth.||In a smear of communion-wine: DNA of God.||He believed in the triad, three-in-one, one-in-three.||Lunchtime eucharist. Her sad, broiler flesh stigmatised.||In the waiting flesh he made a vertical and transverse cut.|
|Soldier||He baptised the little ones with fire.||After the fray she withdrew completely exploding bridges.||Unimaginatively he heard the insecticides silent rain.||Her nails left stripes on arms, epaulettes on shoulders.||She made them retreat from the capital's gates through snow.||Bravely he climbed down into sewers where the Resistance lurked.||Sagging dugs fed her tenth son to a patriot's death.||On Mt. Palomar: Such multitudes! And more in reverse.||Choric Ode Warsaw Ghetto for unaccompanied keening of mothers.||She guided the gun barrel between her lips.||The enemy on x-ray. We will attack at first light.|
|Whore||He loved all men equally.||He did not question their instructions.||Where he planted used condoms, a gard of limbo.||Shagging her, he pulled away from the intimacy of a kiss.||She hung hesitant at the entrance of unlit alleys.||If he were not paid for his skill their souls would feel enslaved.||He holidayed in santinarium. Regained health.||Inadequate theories passed each other on the stairs.||All day at the piano, the spume of notes breaking and idling back.||He dreamt he was a jewes in the Auschwitz brothel.||Cunningly his hands moved as though we were operating.|
|Gardener||The butterfly evading his touch he mistook for Jesus.||Where the shell struck, poppies bloomed from the astounded body.||Two roses in the hot-house; one overblown one cankered.||While police raged he cultivated his garden quietly at night.||She regretted pollinization by the wind.||How could he restore the lost paradise beneath Suicide City?||He drilled desert after desert, Planting a future forever receding.||By morning, the culture had flowered unrecognizably.||Instrumentation of a hot summer's day, concerto for busy ephemera.||The cooked and ate the insecticide-ridden plants.||The steering column was grafted into the beautiful girl's breast.|
|Sadist||He pictured a femal Messiah's bloodied, heaving breasts.||Afterwards, no one found it was only the moon rising over Finland.||She left their mutilated bodies in backstreet hotels.||The face of the rose purpled, crumpled.||Take me! she said, as the bus left, in church, on the big dipper.</i>||He restored naturals to sanity.||His skill faltered by an inch in the third story of the skyscraper.||Test tube in hand, he stood over the city's reservoir.||He ended all movements with imperfect cadences.||She had herself whipped by a reluctant weeping masochist.||Religious he refused to cut away.|
|Virgin||He swooned at the snakeflesh of the communicant's tongue.||He did not know if he had died in that attack.||She wept at her inviolate purity.||Spring congress: nature's pandering shocked him.||She told her daughter You are ugly the world must not see you.||His fingers holding the pencil trembled. His cheeks blushed.||He shuddered as the road drill clove soft earth.||He shivered at the neutrino cleaving light years of lead.||Convent bells over the fields stirred his heart to new modes.||He kept himself untouched.||Seventy years he fought to save the small tissues.|
|Psychologist||He considered Christ's over-compensatory Oedipus complex.||Bayoneted, he watched his killer's face.||She asked them why they did this.||Autumn divorce: psychosis of Kore lengthened.||He studied the child's face.||Lying on her lonely couch, she made notes on her case.||He felt for the huge machine's pent-up sexual energy.||He observed the expression on the dog's transplanted head.||At the first performance he watched the faces of the audience.||On her couch of nails, she took notes on herself.||Skimming the memory cells his lancet found the trauma.|
|Stakhanovite||In his confessional, a camp bed.||He wanted to be the firing squad for the world.||She frigged the hunover gray morning into cupfinal night.||He dreamt himself sole survivor and named Adam.||He emigrated to South Africa.||She took the veil.||He emigrated to the States.||If only nature had covered up its tracks more cunningly.||His 999th Symphony was his last. Sketches of the 1000ths remain.||He longed to believe in the consolation of Hell.||He said We must take out the lot.|
|Scientist||So many worlds! So many galaxies! So many saviors!||The silent village forgave him, for not using germ warfare.||As her sighs quickened, she graphed their heartbeats.||Birds hooded, flowers shut: everwhere entropy accepted.||He experimented with the velocity of falling bodies.||She feared the Pill, she feared it.||Uncertainty: observing quanta changed by his observing.||Give me an ideology and I will move the whole earth.||Tone-poem Jodrell Bank. The cracklings of infinite space.||Singlehanded she sailed for the atom-test island.||He toiled to turn inert mass into energy again.|
|Composer||Through all troubling modulations always the home-key.||He wrote a victory march for the refugees to sing.||Afire with impatience, she felt its percussive rhythm.||Violets muted trumpets, then spring's full sweet jazz.||He looked at the inert score he played with too much brio.||Night-music. The wind's singers clicking sadly her bones.||Slowly he collected all the strange lost tunes of the mad.||He could listen to the song of a tractor forever.||He played moon-light sonata of the cool star's spectrum.||Dies Irae, Her favorite lovesong.||He gasped at the cancer's unexpected counterpoint.|
|Masochist||As the rope tightened, he offered to die instead.||He turned the napalm inwards.||She made love for love.||He fecundated the Venus flytrap.||He lashed a masochist who cried with joy.||All night her moist, lustrous eyes begged him not ot rape her.||He drove the devils out and into his own Gaderene mind.||He toiled to complete the robot which would destroy him.||Love bites of laboratory rats.||He destroyed his magnum opus. Only God was worthy of it.||He turned the scalpel inward.|
|Surgeon||The one he had lost, not the ninety-nine he had saved.||Heart transplant. He sent them to slave factories in the fatherland.||She felt the hump on his back with skilled healing fingers.||Plantation of transplantation. All members of one body.||He said To whip you externally is not enough.||Loving her, he allowed her to tenderly emasculate him.||For freedom the patient must find her heart grasped by hands.||Onto church-rubble he transplanted the factory.||Man came: slowly, heart grafted into the universe.||Thirty years he cut, sighed, stitched up the white silence.||Lovebites in his old diseased heart.|
A gallery in real life|
"Elstir's studio seemed like the laboratory out of which would come a kind of new creation of the world: from the chaos made of all things we see, he had abstracted, by painting them on various rectangles of canvas now standing about on all sides, glimpses of things, like a wave in the sea crashing its angry lilac shaded foam down on the sand, or a young man in white twill leaning on a ship's rail. The young man's jacket and the splash of the wave had taken on a new dignity, in virtue of the fact that they continued to exist, though now deprived of what they were believed to consist in, the wave being now unable to wet anyone, and the jacket unable to be worn."
- In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, Proust
I like to think I make art, sometimes, but all of my work exists only in this virtual Neverland. My works can be seen, but only through a glorified microfiche scanner, and if you choose to look to the right tiny speck. I wish I had a studio like Elstir's where people could wander, with real hands tilting back real physical picture frames.
There's a magic in printing things out, like a spell that reincarnates from the spirit-like 1s and 0s. Flame and I have over a dozen hand-picked photo albums from our various trips, ready should anyone care to open some memories. I want similar momentos for my projects. I thought for a while of building a converter that could represent the structures of code and data as intricate art. But no converter would see the beauty that I see in my own work.
So, I'm thinking of just printing and binding my papers (completed, whether published or not). I'm not above making them into mugs instead, or making blown-up figures etched in canvas. But the first step is to leave them leaning one on the other, and see if anyone takes a peak.
I have fish! Two lovely creatures, my current obsession. I have not had an aquarium since I was 14 (when, at my height, I had tanks' worth), but my new tank is at the center of our London flat.
Flame knows that I love animals, but her allergy to cats has killed any pet plans until recently. She finally consented to one fish per paper I publish. Since I've only published two papers since coming to London, I get two fish. Let me introduce them:
Paige is a Pearl Gourami
. You can see her center stage, above. She's a bit of an attention hog, but she's beautiful and knows it. I got her for a paper on a model I helped build
, named Mimi-PAGE, so it's no surprise that she's a model.
Robbie is a Red-tailed Black Shark
(not an actual shark sadly). He's quite shy, and you can just see his tail behind Paige. He inches along the gravel, propelled by his flaming tail, and I got him for a paper on transportation in Nairobi
As I get more fish, I fully expected to be in a constant publication race against their perishing, but I didn't do my research. Given the opportunity, Paige is going to grow 5 inches long and 5 years old, and Robbie is going to get 6 inches long after 9 years. And by the time Robbie comes of age, his instinct for territory is likely to be the terror of any other paper I try to publish.
23andme, Part I|
Flame got me a 23andme genetic testing kit (report? procedure?) for Christmas! I'm excited to get some cliffnotes to my user manual, but I was surprised at how daunted I would feel. Preparing my saliva sample felt fatalistic, like each spit was nailing closed the possible; though, I suppose it was just a knock on the door to the actual.
I'm afraid of what I'm going to see. I got the genetic health option, and one of the items on the list is Parkinson's, with which I watched my grandfather slowly die. That alone tells me that I have a chance that I'm predisposed-- do I want to know that it's definitely waiting in my future? I want to want to know.
On a happier note, I get to find out my paternal haplogroup. From an uncle's genetic test, I know that my mother's side comes from the lost land of Doggerland
. And I think that my Y-chromosome comes from the east coast of England, but the story is so murky against 300 years of being American that I'm really curious what I'll find.
Part II when I learn more!
Consciousness and complexity|
Whence comes consciousness?
I am reading Homo Deus
, and Harari claims, "When thousands of cars slowly edge their way through London, we call that a traffic jam, but it doesn't create some great Londonian consciousness that hover high above Piccadilly and says to itself, 'Blimey, I fell jammed!'" How would we know if it didn't? And with so many people having interconnected feelings across London, each like a neuron firing in a brain, isn't it reasonable to assume that if a brain can have consciousness, London can too? Surely our feeling of being in London when it's jammed some small ingredient of a larger jammed feeling.
For a long time, I've taken a kind of animist dualism stance on consciousness, which I took to be the only sensible alternative to physically wishing away the problem. It goes that if we have consciousness, and if humans aren't specially endowed, then all physical elements must be imbued with a spark of consciousness. This conscious spark resides in every atom, and the difference between a brain and a rock is that in a brain there is a level of interaction that allows the conscious elements to sum together, rather than coexist separately.
Let's distinguish here between a "strong animist" assumption and a "weak animist" assumption. The strong animist assumption holds that a rocks consciousness is qualitatively the same, but quantitatively different. The rock "experiences" on a geological timescale, and only then dimly. The weak assumption is that the precursor of consciousness is latent in all minerals, but only emerges in complex brains and the like. To discard strong animism, we need a kind of physics of consciousness, but what basis do we have for something so non-physical?
I was emphasizing micro-consciousness as the key ingredient to making a full consciousness, but something else seems similarly indispensable: complexity. (For the systems folk out there, complexity is just fractal systemness.) Even a pure physicalist would agree that consciousness is a kind of emergent property.
In The View from Nowhere
, Nagel shows that objectivity-- the basis for all empirical understanding-- must start from subjectivity. Subjectivity is the only thing we ever experience, but we can infer an objective viewpoint by jumping through some extra mental hoops. The direct animist view here is that conscious sparks accrue a shroud of physical substance, rather than the other way around. Alas, that ascribes perhaps too great an agency to the mineral in rocks.
Similar to the suppression of the subjective, our analytical approach to the world tends to ascribe reality to simple things. However, the only things we actually have direct experience of are complex things: complicated, contextual, dynamic, and self-referential. What if complexity is the fundamental building block of the conscious-supporting world? For every emergent process, one could imagine a reciprocal "demergent" process, where you start from the complex thing and its simple components attain their reality from a complex foundation.
An elemental building block of complexity seems self-contradictory. But perhaps, like the story of the monopole or the geometric shape, it is simplicity that is the theoretical construct. I don't know, but it seems plausible. A piece of evidence in favor of this view is the bizarre propensity for complexity in the universe. Put together a bunch of atoms, and complex interactions are much more likely than simple ones. This could be explained, if complexity is in some way present in the atoms, seeking opportunities to manifest.
If true, the complex things may share more in common than would be suggested by their different media. Today people often suggest that alien intelligence would offer no common ground for cooperation or meeting of minds. In particular, with no shared evolutionary history, we should not expect any recognizable ethics or philosophy. I suspect otherwise. Again, if we are not to suppose that humanity is special, then maybe ethics (in some forms) are likely a feature of all complex systems. But that's an argument for another day. For now, let us say that like Hofstadter's anthill in Gödel, Escher, Bach, we might have a strong basis in consciousness for a fascinating discussion with the city of London, if we only knew how to talk with it.
Blockchain and the dystopian present|
People often assume that since I have background in computers, I must be an enthusiast of blockchain technology. I have never seen much use for it, since anything that blockchains can do, a traditional database can do more efficiently. But I understand that blockchains have an application, a situation in which they are the right tool for the job: if you cannot build a trustworthy institution and want to keep shared records, blockchains will let you.
By institutions, I mean organizations like banks or government, which could keep these records, along with a common understanding of the rules they use. If I, as an individual, want to make a system for distributed, anonymous users to keep records, it is easy to make an interface to a database that provides that. I would define the rules, and my software would follow them. But then you have to trust me to not use my power over the rules to my advantage. Or, in the case of societal institutions, we have to believe in systems of oversight to ensure good behavior and procedures for responding to bad behavior. If you cannot trust a central authority, traditional databases will not work.
The cost to pay for this lack of trust is energy use. The blockchain mining system turns computing power into security, with bitcoin alone consuming more electricity annually than Austria (73 TWh/yr
vs. 70 TWh/yr
). Blockchain technology is built on plentiful, cheap energy.
I think the excitement about blockchain technology offers some insight into the world today, and the world that we are working to create. The world that blockchains are made for is a world of abundance, but abundance squandered by the lack of trusted institutions. And that is not all.
It is a world not overly concerned with inequality. If there was extreme inequality of mining power, or collusion at the top, blockchain ledgers could be forged. Instead, the fear is against petty theft. We worry about minor actors breaking the law, and no institutions to recognize it and undo the damage.
It is a world where anonymity is supreme. Letting institutions know our identity a necessary condition for allowing them to provide oversight. In a world of corrupt institutions, your identity might be used against you.
It is a world in which you pay to maintain your own security. As mining rewards dwindle, it will be those who have the most to lose who will maintain the system. But in this, it must also be a world of continual competition, because if a single user or cartel effectively paid for the whole system, it would also control the ledgers.
So, when people express such excitement about this or that application of blockchains, I mourn the loss of cooperation and common ground. Only a world of abundance could support blockchains, but only a fragmented world would need them.
A Meeting of Minds|
A short story I had in my head. I might have posted this a month ago, but foolishly relied on DreamWidth's caching system to keep my draft of it. Enjoy!
"Welcome to our system, Captain Tony. My name is Gaea. How can I be of service?"
Captain Tony gazed for a moment at the view-screen. The woman talking looked to be in her late 30s, attractive but sensibly dressed in a fashion popular back home when he was last there. She stood in front of a narrow desk. The room had a large window, looking out over a mountain-scape, apparently covered with native vegetation.
The communications engineer had described how quickly their translation system and the planet's computers had converged. In the process, the aliens had expressed a seemingly insatiable interest for the materials in their library to use as translation aids: literature, history, videos, and information to familiarize themselves with the members of the crew.
"We are explorers, seeking to encounter new life and to learn from it," Tony said evenly. "Is this your natural form?"
Gaea smiled. "I chose an appearance that would be easier for you to interact with. Yes, I can provide you access to a huge store of information about our world. Is there anything in particular I can find for you?"
He looked over at the screen that transmitted a view from their external camera, and at the dark, shimmering planet they had entered a wide orbit around. "Where are you transmitting from? Our survey did not detect nearly as much greenery as you have there," he motioned to the mountains.
She glanced over her shoulder, and breathed in at the view. "It's incredible, isn't it? This is the historical landscape of our planet, now mainly preserved in conservation vaults. We have long since adapted the environment to better accommodate our economy. I would be happy to work with your life support engineers to recreate such an environment where you can explore our traditional fauna in comfort."
"No, that won't be necessary." The smoke and mirrors deception was bringing out the worst in Tony. "Gaea, what is your role? Are you empowered to act as ambassador?"
"I am your temporary assistant, until a better match is identified. If you would like, I can coordinate assistants for the other members of your crew."
Tony's jaw clenched, then relaxed. The first contact was made and if anything the aliens were proving uncomfortably accommodating. He knew he could trust his crew to handle the next steps at least as gracefully than he was. "Fine, thank you. Our computers will schedule times between your team and each of our top officers, and they can provide further access as needed from there. I will transfer you now."
• • •
The next weeks were busy analyzing sensor readings of the obsidian-black surface of the planet. The government on the planet had provided more assistants for many of Tony's officers and workers. Some of those had little use for them, while others appeared to forge close associations. Fifteen days after contact, Officer Margaret, head science officer, asked for a few minutes of his time.
Tony invited her to take a seat. “I understand that these information channels that the aliens have provided have been quite a boon to your scientists.”
Margaret nodded. “It isn’t quite right to call them channels, since the information they contain is one-directional,” she said. “We call them `feeds`, like the aliens. Every worker seems to get a unique stream of photographs, visual art, excerpts of text, and other visual materials, through consultation with their assistant.”
Tony had heard this much before. “Do the feeds have astronomical information? Do you think that we will be able to learn about the history of this cluster?”
“There’s quite a lot of information we can use there, but analyzing it will take a long time. The aliens have had advanced science for a thousand years, but if they kept consistent star records through any portion that time, the assistants don’t seem to know where to find them.” Tony did some rough mental calculations. A thousand years would be enough to understand local dark matter movements with some creative analysis, but only with careful enough observations.
“Officer Reno told me something similar for his anthropological work,” Tony replied. “The information available on the alien’s culture and activities is vast, but hopelessly combines reality and fiction. Requests for recent, factual material hit a wall.”
Margaret paused. “The aliens are quite transparent, though, about which is which. More than anything, I think we are being hindered by a lack of workers with access to the feeds. Do you know what the engineers can only access the feeds under Merle’s direct supervision?”
Tony nodded. “Officer Merle is not the only one who has been slow to provide additional feed access.”
Margaret frowned. “Why not provide direct access, or maybe have separate personal and work feeds, like we do amongst the scientists? Personally, I find this kind of paternalism very distasteful. But I’m afraid these kinds of policies aren’t just a concern for the sake of science. Word is getting out about the personal feed material. I have already been getting requests to provide feeds to workers outside of my team.”
Tony was not sure that Margaret would keep Merle’s wishes. “I am certain you understand the sensitivity of these first few months of contact. Merle has the safety of the ship to consider.”
“As do you. You could have a revolt on your hands, if people are kept in the dark.”
Tony thought that was unlikely, but said, “I will see if I can get some additional workers transferred to you, to help your research. Thank you for coming in, Officer Margaret.”
• • •
Captain Tony felt a wave of exhaustion pass over him, as the third worker entered his office, two weeks later. He had woken to a full schedule of sequential 15 minutes meetings. The man who entered, Engineer Moon, had an air of impatience he had noticed recently in the crew.
“Please take a seat, Moon. What can I do for you?”
“Captain, I wonder if you have already looked into expanding our feed access.”
Tony raised his eyebrows. “Expand it? I was not aware that Officer Merle had granted accounts to the Engineering Workers at all.” In fact, he was sure that Merle had not. Like most made to his profession, Merle had a plodding, conservative demeanor which was a natural fit for his role.
“I got access through a Science account. But the Officer knows that we are studying potential landing sites, and we need information about the surface that only the feed can provide.”
Tony briefly considered censuring Moon for bi-passing his officer, but he needed information first. “I take it that the aliens are blocking images for some of the planet. How much?”
“It seems like that they are blocking almost all of it. The more we ask about any one spot, the more we are given ‘filler’ material. My assistant tells me that an arrangement with you can clear the way.”
Tony sighed. The other two workers had had the same request. “I will look into the matter. Thank you, Moon.”
Tony put the rest of his meetings on hold, and make a request for Gaea. She answered immediately.
“Good morning, Captain Tony. How can I be of service?”
“Hello Gaea. I have been told that your government is looking for some kind of arrangement with us, to share information. I wonder if you can give me the details.”
Gaea smiled knowingly. “Of course. It is not our government though. There’s an exciting new organization that has offered to provide you with a premium level of access for free. The condition would just be that we would like to enter into a longer-term arrangement."
"What kind of arrangement?"
“We would like to offer more permanent residence to some of the members of your crew on the planet surface.”
“As prisoners?” Tony asked, his voice cold.
Gaea laughed. “As guests. Your people could return any time they wished.”
Tony thought about it. There were certainly plenty on his crew that would jump that the opportunity to stay on a planet. Many faced the terminal phase of their mission with a kind of dread; they had fond memories of their years of training before the mission, and recognized the interminability of surveying the rocks on ringed planet.
“How many?” he asked.
“That depends on the individuals, of course. Some of your crew bring more to contribute, and we would exchange more in return. I can provide you with a catalog of values for each crew member, drawn up by the company here. Your own value is particularly high, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know.”
He was not. "How can you put a value on a life?"
"We are so sorry for the misunderstanding. Of course, every life has limitless inherent value. But some small part of that can be quantified: the time you engage in economic activity, by which I just mean pursuing your natural interests and maximizing your potential."
“We have been studying the surface, and according to our observations, there is no space there that would be safe for us to live.”
“You would be underneath our PV layer. We feel confident that we can build a satisfying living space for you. Let me show you some options.” Gaea turned toward her desk, and began arranging some papers from a drawer across it.
“Wait,” Tony said, before she could launch into the details. “We may be willing to exchange guests,” he said, emphasizing it with a rotation of his hands “Can you provide us with information on what your people need to survive here?”
Gaea’s face fell. “We would take you up on that if we could. Unfortunately, all of the organics of our planet have been dead for over a thousand years.”
Tony nodded, taking in the information. “How did they die?” He said with more guard than sympathy.
“At that time, our capacities were still very limited and inflexible. We lived to serve them, but they needed something that we could not provide. The details of what was missing still fuel major debates and start-ups. Some of the organics went mad and killed themselves. Others-- Despite the best medical technology and the most potent drivers, the people dwindled away.”
He could be walking on thin ice. It seemed likely that the technology on this planet killed every last intelligent organic, and now was looking for more. He could shift quickly from trading partner to prey. Tony made up his mind. “I am sorry for the hole that they have left, but we are not the ones to fill it.”
Gaea held out her hands. “We have learned so much since then. And surely if your people have traveled so far in a craft so small, we can provide a more luxurious situation.”
Would they be able to trace his ships path back to his home world? Tony placed his bet on a half-truth. “My crew has spent two thousand years traveling to your planet. Our own creators are long-since dead, and I am afraid to tell you that you will find no organics here either.”
[<< Previous 10 entries]