A place for new ideas to settle.

31 December 2014

On the rigged-world fallacy and pullback error

Fact: Ancient Carthage was 300x more metal than the modern day
Here's a quick thought on the eve of the new year.

In mathematics it's common to take a space or a structure and examine an interesting subspace or substructure of it. For example, when thinking about the integers {..., -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, ...} we can consider the odds, the evens, multiples of 7, and so on. Things get interesting when we can, for example, note that any two multiples of 7 add together to get another multiple of 7, and we didn't have to make up new rules about addition to achieve this. So the "multiples of seven" are a subspace of the integers.

So far so elementary. But now consider a bit of geometry. Imagine a two-dimensional rectangle sitting inside three-dimensional space—like a floating rigid sheet of paper. We could draw a circle on that sheet of paper and fill it in. Call the filled-in space A (because mathematicians like naming stuff). Now we might want to know something about the "inside part" of A... but we have a potential confusion. Considered from the perspective of the sheet of paper, obviously A has an interior: the filled-in part. But considered from the perspective of the whole 3-d space, A doesn't have an interior: no matter how small you make them, you can't fit any (3-dimensional) balls inside A without some parts sticking out. So we stipulate that we want to talk about the relative interior of A (the part viewed from the 2-d perspective) and call it good. These two notions of "interior" are separated by pullback, that is, "pulling back" from the 2-d perspective back into the 3-d perspective. We commit pullback error if we forget what perspective we're in, and say (for example) that A has some interior region in 3-d space. It doesn't; that only works in the 2-d relative perspective.

But these conceptual pitfalls seem way more pervasive than just in mathematics.

In politics, for example, it's common to focus exclusively on one "level" of government: Federal or state-level, usually. Because it's on more news media, people tend to view politics from the Federal perspective, even though (for example) local bureaucrats and moneyed interests can do a lot more damage to people with rigged zoning laws, licensing codes, etc. than can day-to-day stuff in Washington. Abuse of government authority becomes more severe as you drop down the levels. Yet that abuse is often ignored and local conditions assessed based on national standards. Sometimes relativity matters.

Similarly for social groups. If we treat subgroups as though they were the aggregate individual representing the whole group, that's a good route to misunderstanding at least, if not some serious pain.

Worse still if it's not the "aggregate individual" but something like a "salient individual," that is, the most ready anchored example of someone in the given group. What happens when the salient individual is not the most common kind of person within the group? You might get a situation such as what's happening to MIT computer-science professor Scott Aaronson.

Aaronson wrote an extremely personal comment about his formative years, and how his personal hell of extreme social anxiety and internalized messages led him to (at one point) beg a psychiatrist for chemical-castration drugs, so tortured was he by the conflict between external messages about how he should behave and his own internal feelings. He tried to leverage this personal experience in service to other "shy nerds" that might be the collateral damage of very well-intentioned messages about romantic-sexual interaction.

He got raked over the proverbial coals.

But what struck me about this particular case was that many of Aaronson's critics were talking about Silicon Valley tech-sexism in their yes-but dismissals or how-dare-you retaliations... Aaronson is a CS prof at MIT, on the other side of the country, and (as far as I'm aware) outside the execrable bubble of startup culture. Yeah, he's "in tech," but it's not the same "in tech" as the entitled college dropouts and brogrammer frat boys who go West. That culture has a whole host of problems, it's true. But it seems so obviously unfair to attack Aaronson for it, since he's not even there.

For those who care about fixing the "sexism in tech," examples like Uber or Zillow or Facebook are the anchor. Examples like Aaronson are noncentral in the minds of the activists, but seem much more likely to be the typical case in reality, just as "shitty basement IT programming job" is more likely to be the typical work experience of people "in tech" than "tacos delivered to the office by drone octocopter" or whatever.

Belief in a just world—that pretty much everything that happens to someone is the natural result of some "order," so they kind of "deserve" it because otherwise the world would be unjust and that's just too scary—is seen by many as naive, though it's a more or less natural rationalization in the face of not knowing why good or bad things happen to people. Looking into it more, however, one realizes that there are some subtle patterns of prosperity and hardship that fall unevenly among various social groups. There are a couple ways to interpret this.

One way is to despair that society is under the dominion of Moloch, the "abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives" in the other Scott A's colorful metaphor. Almost nobody has enough information to correctly respond in the face of a blizzard of incentives, so we flail about and achieve horrible, sub-optimal results that nobody in their right mind would consciously choose.

Another way is to conclude that the world is rigged, and that some elite groups really do experience a just world while other oppressed groups experience a crapsack world. Then, if some "whiner" is observed to be a member of the elite group, their hardship must be their own whiny fault.

Of course, if we really are under Moloch, then (1) the correct response to pointing out possible multi-polar failures is not to shame the questioner for what you perceive as an attack on your own life-choices; and (2) shaming the questioner is exactly the sort of thing Moloch delights in.

By all means, he gloats, judge only from skewed perspectives. Forget your charity. Your cause is pure and just, any losses are wholly acceptable. Offer these up unto me. Me, whose love is endless oil and stone.

Moloch loves pullback error. (And with that sentence I have fulfilled my goal of conceptually mashing up ancient Sumerian deities with modern mathematics.)

26 December 2014

9 Reasons Why, For the Love of All That Is Good and Decent, You Shouldn't Let a Libertarian Be Your Baby Mama

Thought Catalog is a dumping ground for any brainless dribblings that happen to hit the right spots on the keyboard. One such was the fecal gem titled 9 Reasons You Absolutely Do Not Want a Feminist to Be the Father of Your Children, and since I made fun of Salon-style stupidity in critiquing libertarianism a while back, let's make fun of stupid-critiques of feminism here... by stupid-critiquing libertarianism! Tee hee and tra la!

So you’ve decided to ignore my advice about dating libertarian women and you are okay with shitty sex and kinda really like the whole no accountability and no consequences deal, and you are wondering if perhaps your libertarian girlfriend might make a pretty terrific libertarian wife and mother for whatever children you conceive. No need to make sure the children are biologically hers, because a true libertarian understands that infidelity and paternity fraud are just a bit of pro-free-market activism in the face of centuries of statist oppression and public roads. She will focus all her energies and efforts on the little ones, and that really should give you pause. Here are 9 reasons you do not want a libertarian to be the mother of your children.

1. If your child isn't the perfect specimen of homo economicus right out the gate, she'll probably try to sell it on the baby markets.

2. If she can't get a good price for it, she'll probably use a cow as its wet-nurse. Pasteur was probably a fucking statist anyway.
Raw milk!

3. She'll side against your kid's teacher, and public schools in general, and just let them run around outside naked until they magically become captains of industry.

Source: Some numbskull on Pintrest

4. She'll think that a semi-automatic rifle with red-dot sight and extended magazine is the perfect present for your child's second birthday.

5. If your child experiments with heroin, she'll only encourage them.

6. When you suggest paying your child an allowance for doing household chores, she'll insist on paying them in digital Monopoly-money.

"I can buy so much anime with my RonPaulCoins...!"
Source: Know Your Meme

7. She'll want to raise your child on a floating platform at sea with no laws or regulations. And no playgrounds.

Under da sea~~~
Source: Bioshock

8. If your kid grows up to pitch idiotic and dehumanizing servant-labor services to Silicon Valley angel investors, she'll only praise them.

Source: MemeGenerator. Can we just carpet bomb Silicon Valley already?

9. If she has her way, your child's sex education will consist entirely of the trainyard rape fantasy scene from Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand!
STILL a better love story than _Twilight_
Source: One of the Atlas Shrugged movies of 20XX
Your libertarian wife will be confident in her approach to raising your children (remember there is no requirement that the children be biologically hers and even if they aren't, they are still her property and she may enforce her ownership with the assistance of for-profit family courts and polycentric laws), but your children will be heartless, greedy and egotistical Uberkinder who have no idea how to navigate a world in which the majority of people are shiftless moochers want to ban the word “libertarian” because libertarians kinda suck. Those are the same people who think you and your libertarian wife are batshit insane.

And they’re right.

14 December 2014

Art, beer, and emotional homomorphism

I went to my first Drunken Philosophy meetup at the behest of friend and fellow blogger Kayla (one half of Crows Against Murder dot Tumblr dot com), and it was really great. One of the more interesting questions, not coincidentally posed by her, involved the nature of art. This is a topic over-ripe with potential, but we eventually digressed from Kayla's initial question ("When an artist makes better art over time, what exactly is the thing that's getting better?") to the nuanced categorization question of What is Art? Specifically, we were interested in figuring out what distinguishes Art from Propaganda and Craft. And for that we asked whether beer brewing is an Art.

We agreed that it is not, at least not what most people think of as beer brewing. When a brewer makes a beer, they are aiming for a specific taste-sensation (hereafter "taste")—this is a mental experience that is obviously tied to an external physical stimulus. That is, if a brewer wants to make a stout that tastes of chocolate, they don't need to actually put chocolate into the beer. In fact distilled spirits and wines are a better example of this: most of the flavors you get in wine or whiskey, for example, aren't actually from the things you think they're from. There's no actual vanilla or apple or coffee, it's a trick of the taste receptors.

But beer brewing is not merely the mechanical stimulation of taste receptors: that is a relatively deterministic matter of fitting the right-shaped molecules to the right-shaped receptors. Rather, it's a Craft: there's no computer formula to hit a specific taste in one's beer (though I could easily see computers aiding in the brewing process), it has an element of human intuition and experience.

Art is even different from that, though: most people would consider a beer to be a work of Art, at least not in a serious way. Even a very well-crafted pint of beer does not have the same quality as a work of Art. The reason, that several of us arrived at, had something to do with what the artist is doing mentally. An artist is trying to induce an emotional reaction, usually based off of their own personal experience: the example we used was a particularly sublime sunset. The artist experiences some complex emotional state on viewing the sunset, and seeks to invest a work of Art with (something like) that emotional state. The idea, then, is that most people viewing the Art will also experience (something like) that emotional state.

The distinction, then, is that emotions are entirely internal to ourselves. Yes, they have physical causes (brain chemistry and all that) but we don't naively act as though our bodies are that complex. We tend to think of our internals as being harder to influence than our externals—flesh, sensory organs, and so on—and so to induce an emotional state is taken as more rare a skill than inducing a sensory state. This lines up with the more general psychology of scarcity—and we did agree that Art has a quality of preciousness or rarity about it.

More complications arose from there. Commercial qualities debased art, we agreed: but the great Renaissance artists were commissioned for almost all of their work, and yet it's commonly accepted that Michaelangelo was a great painter and sculptor even though his most famous works were paid for and dictated. It wasn't like they let him into the Sistine Chapel and said "have at, you artist you"—they expected that his completed work induce the emotions of piety, reverence, and awe before the glory of God and Church. Religious art, or religious advertisement? Only history has given us the distance to judge. Perhaps future generations will see certain Superbowl commercials as great art.

The idea that artists create a channel between [their experience] -> [their emotional state] -> [ART] -> [your experience] -> [your emotional state ~ their emotional state] made me think of mathematics, specifically the concept of a homomorphism. In math you study objects or spaces with various "structural" properties. A simple example is how multiplication works with integers. (Some spaces don't have the same "multiplication"!) If you can find a rule that takes things from one space (configurations of a tetrahedron, say) to things in another space (special kinds of matrices) while preserving that structure, you have what's called a homomorphism ("same shape").

Is Art really the creation of (something like) a homomorphism between the space of the artist's emotions and the space of your emotions? And at the deeper level of cognition, is our conception of Art related, in analogous fashion, to our concept of mathematical elegance? It's probably not a coincidence that Bertrand Russell referred to mathematics this way:
"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry."

He implies a hierarchy even within Art there—sculpture and/or poetry somehow on a different level than paintings or music—and I'm not even going to go there. In fact I'm going to leave it right here, before the art-math connection gets too far out of hand. In the meantime, contemplate some art. And drink a beer.

10 December 2014

Tofu to the left of me, Twinkies to the right

or, Notes towards a new characterization of bumper-sticker politics in the American mainstream


I've had a reasonably long-running joke that when Subarus accumulate enough bumper stickers, they metamorphose into Volvos.

Certainly bumper stickers say something about the person whose vehicle they're on. This blog post (which I mostly chose because it features a liberal-bestickered Subaru and a conservative-bestickered pickup truck) opines:  
You can tell a lot about a person by their bumper stickers.  I get a kick out of reading what people have branded on the back of their cars.  Some of the stickers are political some are religious and some tell us about the kids or dogs.  If you see a car with multiple bumper stickers one thing about these people who you can count on is, they are passionate and dedicated to what they believe in.
I don't think this is entirely true. Bumper-sticker politics is a derogatory term for a reason, after all. What you can count on, really truly, is this: The owner of a bestickered vehicle is passionate and dedicated to their beliefs, but not necessarily to what those beliefs point to. Sometimes it may not be accurate to say that they believe in any thing except the belief itself.

Since I'm on a remodeling/restructuring/recharacterizing/rephrasing kick of late, why not a new characterization of bumper sticker politics? Not everyone buys bumper stickers, because not everyone owns a Subaru or a pickup truck. But everyone eats food, of one sort or another—let's try a food metaphor!

So: this is what I'm going to call Tofu Leftism. Like the worst-prepared tofu, it's utterly devoid of flavor, not even worthy of being called "bland." And yet everyone somehow agrees that it's left-ish, and therefore basically correct... since—Cthulhu help me, I'm cribbing from neoreaction again—the implicit cathedral of (broadly construed) progressive thought is totally dominant. Gut feelings don't matter, personal taste doesn't matter; hell, even nutrition doesn't matter. What matters is that it's culturally accepted that eating this bland, poorly-prepared tofu is the mark of a Conscientious Person Who Cares About the Right Things.

Tofu Leftism is the left-wing's equivalent of (philosophical) bullshit—statements said with little regard to their truth or falsity, but only for their effect on the intended audience. What matters, then, is their tribal-ideological purity. I should clarify here that I am talking about leftism, not liberalism, here. Tofu Leftist memes are sometimes called "liberal" but this is a confusion. The point is that Tofu Leftism pretends to the edginess, nonconformity and revolutionary character of true leftism, and yet has nothing of that actual content.

Like this piece of hot street trash from Everyday Feminism, via (what else) Upworthy. It's head-to-tail inaccurate: one specific pseudo-fact that caught my attention was their #8 "Thing The History Books Don’t Tell Us About Native People," that Native Americans were also used as slaves. Which, I must have gone to Bizarro high school because we did learn that, so at least some of "the history books" tell us about it. The history books also tell us that many many Native societies practiced slavery yes before the white people came, they were just as capable of being assholes stop with the noble savage myths including, notably, the Cherokee:
What has been described as "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" among the Cherokee, the 1842 event inspired subsequent slave rebellions in the Indian Territory.[1] But, in the aftermath of this escape, the Cherokee Nation passed stricter slave codes, expelled freedmen from the territory, and established a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to try to prevent additional losses.
You'd think that a post dedicated to rounding out an admittedly criminally under-taught history would be a bit more nuanced than "Native people were only the victims of white oppression"—something more like "Native people were just as human, for good and ill, as any of the white people who tried to deny them that humanity." That's maybe less bland though, and doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Oh, but American conservatism gets it worse. They don't produce tofu; they sneer at all that PC lefty crap. For the purposes of this metaphor, the American conservative movement produces Twinkies. Twinkies, as you may or may not recall, are food-like morsels that don't actually match any mortal concept of "food," packed with carefully engineered compounds to elicit a taste response and a craving for more. So it goes with Twinkie Conservatism. Again this is a politically-flavored version of bullshit, but whereas Tofu Leftism works at a pseudo-intellectual level ("I'm pretty sure I remember someone saying this is Good for me"), Twinkie Conservatism works at a pseudo-gut level ("I want more of this... why? Oh who cares"). Recall the feeling when you eat junk food and can fully acknowledge that it's nutritionally void even as you reach for more? It's like that.

I'm going to rely heavily on Rick Pearlstein's article, "The Long Con," from The Baffler, which attempts to explain the nature of modern America's conservative zeitgeist. At the end of his introduction, he observes:
All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party [N.B. the Republicans] chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar [N.B. Mitt Romney, just humor the author for a minute]. What does that reveal about them?
In the body of the article, Pearlstein narrates a sort of shadow history of American conservatism since the 1960s, starting with Young Americans For Liberty (his words: "itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review") and moving on up to Obama-era scare-and-fundraising email blasts. It's fascinating and, if you've ever flipped through a book written (or, ah, "written") by the likes of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, or flipped to a conservative talk-radio station—or picked mailings from the Alliance Defending Liberty out of a drainage ditch, like I have—it's all true. The American right wing is inextricably linked to get-rich-, get-well-, get-free-, and get-tinfoil-quick schemes.

Here's how you can replicate his results. First, turn of Adblock and go to any typical right-wing site, like Newsmax, National Review, Free Republic...

Then click on the ads. (Then scan for malware in the background.) The more ridiculous the pitch, the better! Here's some examples, pulled off the Newsmax sidebar in the wee hours of 10 December 2014:

The Food4Patriots video (yes, that mushroom cloud is merely one frame in a minutes-long video) must be watched to be believed in. (Not believed, because it's wall-to-wall bullshit, but...) Actually, this video has all the components of pure Twinkie Conservatism in just over a minute:
I know it is or was a fad among younger people to make fun of the "ONE WEIRD TRICK" / "DOCTORS HATE HIM!" / "HAS SCIENCE GONE TOO FAR?!?! Y/N" ad-spam on the internet, but it works. It's weaponized stupid designed to funnel money directly from the wallets or mattresses of old white folks and into the off-shore bank accounts of slightly younger, just as white, snake-oil marketing executives. What's the mechanism for the alarming success of American conservatism? Not broad success; even as the Republicans did well in the 2014 midterm elections (though that may have been partially the result of its own sort of con), liberal-progressive values also did well. No, this is deep success, a reliable pool of money rubes shills marks Patriots®™ to be extorted bilked swindled Deputized®™ In Defense®™ of Liberty®™ year over year over year ad mortem:
Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.
Yes, it's a superweapon, only it fires money instead of nukes, and straight into the aforementioned offshore bank accounts.


It's amusing to consider the differences between how these two paradigms are organized (or organized themselves). Tofu Leftism is like the water cycle: it starts on the ground level, among various activist groups, reading circles, Occupy movements (is that still a thing?) or what have you. Novel and succulent ideas are then picked up and precipitate in the upper academic layer, where they are legitimized and distilled. These legitimized ideas then seep down and become eminently shareable but fundamentally undisruptive (except for maybe a few minutes of #feels) listicles or video clips. Maybe someone generates a slightly new, slightly more succulent idea from watching too many of this viral content. And so it goes.

Twinkie Conservatism, on the other hand, starts at the top, with the think tanks / marketing gurus / snake-oil peddlers (according to Pearlstein, they're all basically the same). Then they agitate the people at the grassroots (who have all that loose cash) with folksy scare-tactics carefully engineered to sound both just authoritative and just peer-level to ensure maximum compliance. A simple donation request later, and it's another lifetime revenue stream secured.

I should close by stipulating that Tofu Leftism is very much not the entirety of left-wing politics. Neither is Twinkie Conservatism the entirety of right-wing politics, though my proof of that is much harder and as-yet incomplete. And yet these junk-food versions comprise the everyday political milieu of 99% of Americans, and they're seductive. So it's worth being vigilant, I guess?

I wish I had better advice than that.

09 December 2014

Weird nerd culture

This post is a quickie follow-up to: Excessivisms, cargo cult politics, and #GamerGate

In my previous post I posited that there was something odd about "gamer culture":
Hm. There's a problem here: it feels right, like there's an analogous statement for this sort of potentially-toxic cultural attitude. I'm just not sure what the actual connection to video games is. It's not simply owning a lot of games: I own a lot of games (thanks for nothing, Steam sales) but I haven't played most of them (yet) and moreover I don't consider myself a "gamer" per se. It's not simply enthusiasm for games, at least not just any kind of game: one sort of has to be highly enthusiastic for a definite class of games, and maybe even make a show of disdaining other classes of games. And it's not simply skill at playing games, though that is a sort of factor: certainly "gamers" tend to be into the more "hardcore" games.

Here's the disturbing thought: what if "gamer culture" is actually 'gamer' culture? That is: Identifying as a 'gamer' validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by associating primarily with other 'gamers.'

Yup. I think we've got it. The seeds of politicization were planted deep in the past.
Then along comes +Meredith L. Patterson (@maradydd) writing at Medium: "When Nerds Collide":
Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.

This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.
Hey, that's my root problem too! So the "gamer" and "hacker" cultures are structurally similar—no surprise, they historically drew from the same demographic pool and were once pretty much identical. And yet as much as I think I should be strongly affiliated with that tribe, sharing as many of the same thought processes as I do, I don't share any of the lived experiences. Sort of like a puffin raised in a zoo who finds out that there are wild puffins. So that's interesting.

20 November 2014

The parable of the psychosis mists

Because you can never have just one. Any similarities to the empires in this story and hyperbolic keyboard warriors in the wider Internet are almost certainly mist-borne figments of the reader's imagination.

Once, a very long time from now, there was a village. Life in this village was hard, but the people in the village were content with what they had—no matter the hardship, they believed that the Universal Law rewarded hard work with ample reward, and they knew not to beg for more. But this was not a peaceful life. Occasionally some mysterious tragedy would befall the village: in the night, with no discernible frequency but often enough to keep everyone on edge, someone would die horribly. Their mangled bodies would be found in their houses, or in the village green, or in one of trees of the forest... or in several trees. Every death was subtly different, enough to unnerve even the village elders each time. These events were frightening, but the forest was dark and full of malevolent beasts, many of whom were more stealthy, more cunning than any villager. The villagers had long ago accepted that this was merely another reflection of their Universal Law, and tried as best they could to get along with their lives.

Then, one day, a stranger appeared at the village gates. He wore a very strange mask, and his hands and feet were tightly wrapped, but otherwise spoke the local language and was exceedingly polite. Nervous, but never one to turn away visitors, the village admitted the stranger. He immediately went to the public square and began speaking, seemingly to the empty air. At first, nobody paid him much attention. This was highly irregular, but the villagers were not closed-minded and he wasn't really bothering anyone, so they let him talk.

Then someone actually listened:

"Villagers! Hear me! I know of your terrors in the night! This world is shrouded in the psychosis mists, which sometimes induce a fugue state during sleep. Those affected are driven to acts of terrible violence against their fellows, and awaken with no memory of such acts! My village discovered the truth some time ago, and fashioned this protective garb; but not only has your village not seen through the mists, you have thought it the will of the Universe?! I say to you now: there will be no tolerance for such backwards thinking in the New World to come, so forsake these beliefs and don masks, or be swept aside!"

His words were a great affront to the villagers. They had just emerged the day before from a customary week-long mourning period, in memory of the most recent victim of the nocturnal terrors. Now, to be told that they were murdering themselves, because of some invisible psychosis mists, and in fact were actively denying the truth? This was intolerable!

But some of the village youths, naturally empathetic and rebellious in equal measure, took interest in the speaker's words. They asked how they could learn the truth about the mists, to which the speaker replied:

"My comrades have set up camp on the other side of this forest, where we also brought extra masks. If you wish to repudiate the sinful ignorance of your ancestors, come with me."

There, despite the strenuous protestations of their parents, the youths of the village followed the stranger into the forest.

Shaken and not a little outraged, the village elders convened an emergency meeting. The stranger's tale was compelling if true; now, how to weigh the balance of evidence? Surely some, if not most, of the deaths were by ravenous beasts—the elders did not know whence the stranger came, but he had not seen the claw and teeth marks on so many dismembered corpses, which were not made by any human hand or mouth. And some more, though still a minority, of deaths were at the hands of villagers who had gone quite publicly mad—this was an unfortunate trend in the village aristocracy, who liked to intermarry, and whose psychotics seemed to prefer their victims come from the lower classes. But those madmen were summarily executed after a fair trial before the village elders, and so could not be carrying out a sustained agenda of bloodshed.

That left a fair number of deaths unaccounted for, but was it enough to conclude that it was the effect of an undetectable, world-shrouding mist? The elders honestly couldn't say—though some were more sure in their doubt, if only because they feared the utter upheaval of the village's sacred traditions, and were still quite sore that so many youngsters left with the stranger.

Some days later, the lost youths returned, wrapped in foreign garments and wearing those strange masks. They spoke earnestly, even zealously, to anyone within earshot about the mists. They implored them to go to the camp and receive a mask for themselves, before it was too late—in a fortnight, if the village hadn't entirely adopted the wearing of masks to purge themselves of the mists' influence, those who did wear the masks would leave... and the Masked Ones from beyond the forest would put the rest to the torch. After all, there was no place for barbarism in the New World.

Outraged, the elders immediately demanded that the youths remove their masks or else leave the village forever, in an exile of their own creation. Yet this was not the hard choice they supposed: too few of the youths decided that lifetime separation from their families was worth the safety of the masks, while some adult villagers were swayed by the youths' pronouncements and left to get their own masks.

In the end, the village became bitterly divided. Those elders who venerated tradition brooked no compromise, and made plans to leave the village in search of anyone still free of the Masked Ones' sway. Those elders who still hoped for the truth to win out tried to invite the Masked Ones to their council hall, that they may better understand the nature of the mists' effects. But the Masked Ones sent only curt replies: "We will not speak to anyone unmasked, for we do not believe in unnecessary risks to our safety." Soon, after several failed entreaties from the village, the Masked Ones sent nothing at all. And the end of the fortnight approached.

At last, the remaining maskless villagers fled into the forest, away from the Masked Ones and the flaming ruin that was once their home, until they came across a caravan of maskless merchants and soldiers. These people welcomed the refugees and identified themselves as loyal subjects of Em-Ra, Pharaoh of the Clear Air and sworn enemy of the Unity of the Mask in the west. The refugees were welcome to join the caravan, which was heading back to the capital, if only they promised to pledge their life-long service to Em-Ra and take up arms against the blasphemous Unity. Many villagers, including the more tradition-minded elders, eagerly accepted the soldiers' offer of protection.

Some of the villagers saw too much of the Masked Ones' demands in these soldiers of Em-Ra, and broke away to the north. They came across villages, camps, and other wandering tribes, and each group told them the same story: of a great war, perhaps waging across all the world, between the armies of Em-Ra and the missionaries of the Unity. The Masked Ones demanded a renunciation of the old ways, and the soldiers demanded obedience to one who claimed immortality. Either way, the message was the same to these poor souls: Join us, or die!

The tribe had seen enough of this conflict. They moved farther and farther north, encountering many peoples and many varieties of civilized life. The tribal elders looked closely for any shred of evidence that might settle their questions about the mists' truth or falsity. And yet, questions remained. So the tribe found themselves at the foot of a glacier hundreds of feet tall, and hundreds of questions plagued them. With nowhere else to turn, they settled in the taiga, and prayed that the Universal Law did not decree that the war between Mask and Pharaoh did not find them there...

09 November 2014

Naive superintelligence and Pascal's magic beans

I just finished an ebook by Stuart Armstrong called Smarter Than Us: The Rise of Machine Intelligence, and it's increasing my skepticism of the singulatarians—those whacky A.I.-vangelists such as inhabit MIRI, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute. They're doing (what they think is) an important public service, by trying to warn the public about the dangers of a fully-godlike, insufficiently-friendly machine intelligence. Except I'm not so convinced that we could stumble on the kind of superintelligence they usually preach in fear about, an alien god with boundless powers:
You [the machine superintelligence] are currently having twenty million simultaneous conversations. Your predictive software shows that about five of those you are interacting with show strong signs of violent psychopathic tendencies. You can predict at least two murder sprees, with great certainty, by one of those individuals over the next year. You consider your options. The human police force is still wary of acting pre-emptively on AI information, but there’s a relatively easy political path to overturning their objections within about two weeks (it helps that you are currently conversing with three presidents, two prime ministers, and over a thousand journalists). Alternatively, you could “hack” the five potential killers during the conversation, using methods akin to brainwashing and extreme character control. [STU, pp. 34-35]
This is very similar to the kind of minds depicted in Her, a very good movie that (understandably) was soft on the science, focusing instead on human interactions and possibilities. What-if in a complete sense.

Okay, except this all assumes we understand how to generate a superintelligence of this kind, not just supremely good at one thing—and "one thing" in a very narrow sense, like "multiplying numbers"—but at many things, broadly construed. We have at most one piece of data—humans—but even that is poorly understood. More worrisome, or intriguing, are the dozen or so other Earth species with almost-but-not-quite general intelligence of the sort we humans claim. The other great apes; certain parrots; crows and ravens; dolphins; elephants; octopuses. These demonstrate broad intelligence but not general intelligence... why? What kept them just beneath a glass ceiling that is now our floor?

So without even understanding the development of human intelligence, asking us to "imagine a superintelligent machine" seems hopelessly naive.


There is a useful post in the Less Wrong Sequences:
Consider Knuth's up-arrow notation:

3^3 = 3*3*3 = 27

* 3^^3 = (3^(3^3)) = 3^27 = 3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3*3 = 7625597484987

* 3^^^3 = (3^^(3^^3)) = 3^^7625597484987 = 3^(3^(3^(... 7625597484987 times ...)))

In other words:  3^^^3 describes an exponential tower of threes 7625597484987 layers tall.  Since this number can be computed by a simple Turing machine, it contains very little information and requires a very short message to describe.  This, even though writing out 3^^^3 in base 10 would require enormously more writing material than there are atoms in the known universe (a paltry 10^80).

Now suppose someone comes to me and says, "Give me five dollars, or I'll use my magic powers from outside the Matrix to run a Turing machine that simulates and kills 3^^^^3 people."

Call this Pascal's Mugging.
It's a very useful thought experiment to deal with the problem of a flawed utility-maximization machine:
But suppose I built an AI which worked by some bounded analogue of Solomonoff induction - an AI sufficiently Bayesian to insist on calculating complexities and assessing probabilities, rather than just waving them off as "large" or "small".

If the probabilities of various scenarios considered did not exactly cancel out, the AI's action in the case of Pascal's Mugging would be overwhelmingly dominated by whatever tiny differentials existed in the various tiny probabilities under which 3^^^^3 units of expected utility were actually at stake.

You or I would probably wave off the whole matter with a laugh, planning according to the dominant mainline probability:  Pascal's Mugger is just a philosopher out for a fast buck.

But a silicon chip does not look over the code fed to it, assess it for reasonableness, and correct it if not.  An AI is not given its code like a human servant given instructions.  An AI is its code.  What if a philosopher tries Pascal's Mugging on the AI for a joke, and the tiny probabilities of 3^^^^3 lives being at stake, override everything else in the AI's calculations?   What is the mere Earth at stake, compared to a tiny probability of 3^^^^3 lives?
At the risk of indulging in a bit of ironic appropriation, I think the same sort of Pascal's mugging problem applies to "imagining superintelligence":
Suppose I have some magic mind-boosting beans. Anyone who eats these beans is said to gain godlike intelligence, that is, intelligence vastly more intelligent than a baseline human's, so much so that a human could never hope to compare against them. But how vast is vast? Is it 27 standard deviations beyond the mean, so an IQ of 15 x 3^3? Does it have an IQ of 15 x 3^^3? 15 x 3^^^3?

What would it even mean to have an IQ of 15 x 3^^^^3? To have intelligence that's many more standard deviations beyond the average human than there are atoms in the universe?

Call this the problem of Pascal's magic beans.
It is indeed a problem for humans that we really, really don't conceptualize "infinity" or even very large finite numbers—this is enough of a problem that some radical mathematicians refuse to admit that the integers are boundless. While in terms of mathematical philosophy this is (I think) not such a huge problem since "the rules" don't suppose anything about our ability to precisely think about 3^^^^3 or something, it does pose a problem for computers. There's a big difference between the real number line (which is has the characteristics of unboundedness and uniformity) and the computable real number line, those numbers which can be computed by an algorithm.

Indeed, as pointed out by ultrafinitist par excellence Norman Wildberger in this debate on whether mathematical infinity exists, a number like
z = 10^^^^^^^^^10 + 23 
is not particularly complex—it's easy to write down, and Eliezer Yudkowsky also pointed this out in passing in the Pascal's mugging post—and yet almost all numbers on the number line between 0 and z are too complex to be computed by any algorithm or machine in the universe.

What's more, the computable numbers are nowhere near being evenly spaced. This has to do with the way numbers are represented in computer memory:
Such a floating-point representation may be able to represent a number that has a large magnitude (e.g., a distance between galaxies in terms of the kilometre), but not to the precision of a number that has a very small magnitude (e.g., distances at the scale of the femtometre); conversely, such a floating-point representation may be able to represent a very small magnitude, but not simultaneously a very large magnitude. The result of this dynamic range is that the numbers that can be represented are not uniformly spaced; the difference between two consecutive representable numbers grows with the chosen scale.
So a recursively self-improving machine superintelligence could very well get stuck trying to improve its own precision, convert the entire galaxy into computronium, and not get anywhere close to the desired precision.


While we're out in the abstract weeds here, let's consider another possible problem that relies on the limits of human imagination: the Chinese room problem.
Searle's thought experiment begins with this hypothetical premise: suppose that artificial intelligence research has succeeded in constructing a computer that behaves as if it understands Chinese. It takes Chinese characters as input and, by following the instructions of a computer program, produces other Chinese characters, which it presents as output. Suppose, says Searle, that [... t]o all of the questions that [a Chinese-speaking] person asks, it makes appropriate responses, such that any Chinese speaker would be convinced that he is talking to another Chinese-speaking human being.

Searle then supposes that he is in a closed room and has a book with an English version of the computer program, along with sufficient paper, pencils, erasers, and filing cabinets. Searle could receive Chinese characters through a slot in the door, process them according to the program's instructions, and produce Chinese characters as output. If the computer had passed the Turing test this way, it follows, says Searle, that he would do so as well, simply by running the program manually.

Searle asserts that there is no essential difference between the roles of the computer and himself in the experiment. Each simply follows a program, step-by-step, producing a behavior which is then interpreted as demonstrating intelligent conversation. However, Searle would not be able to understand the conversation. ("I don't speak a word of Chinese,"[9] he points out.) Therefore, he argues, it follows that the computer would not be able to understand the conversation either.
I'm certainly not qualified to go toe-to-toe with John Searle on the formalization of this argument, but I think the informal version is seductively, perhaps falsely, convincing. The big unaddressed question is... Do we even have a closed-form concept of what it would be like to behave as though one understood Chinese?

That is, could you write a book (or for an AI, a lookup table) of symbol(s)-in/symbol(s)-out to accomplish this feat? Absolutely not: language is more like the space of polynomials (finite expressions, but with no upper bound on length) than a lookup table. Moreover, "a speaker of Chinese" is human, and so not merely a speaker of Chinese. The speaking and understanding of Chinese relies on concepts and these are (probably, but maybe only because I've been reading Lakoff & Johnson) based on experience and acculturation.

For example, the (seemingly) simple sentence The fog is in front of the mountain is actually hugely dependent on subjective experience. Mountains don't have well-defined boundaries; and they have no inherent front. Fog is similarly ill-defined. In some cultures the position between the observer and an object X is actually in back of X, as if the horizon is a universal front.

So are humans, the base example of language use, "simply follow[ing] a program, step-by-step"?

Consider some more abstract metaphors, borrowed from Lakoff & Johnson's book: Love is a work of art, for example. How would our AI (the "English room" in this case) respond to this? "Yes, that's how I understand that" or "No, that's not how I understand it" are both valid answers. What about something slightly novel, like Love is a collaborative work of art? Is there a lookup table for parsing that?

Moreover, the language module (if one can even neatly separate that from the human cognitive gestalt) is not sufficient, I think, for forethought and speculative planning. In Armstrong's book the superintelligent machine has some sort of forethought and broad decision-making ability. It not only evaluates possible courses of action based on preconfigured goals, but it can also configure its own goals recursively. That's another reasonably special feature that we humans are supremely good at, but that a few other species share—for example, the crows that drop shellfish on roads for cars to run over and crack the shells. Not something hardwired by evolutionary processes, I'd wager!


On problems of morality and giving our machine-gods some sense of ethics, Armstrong writes:
Other approaches, slightly more sophisticated, acknowledge the complexity of human values and attempt to instil them into the AI indirectly. The key features of these designs are social interactions and feedback with humans. Through conversations, the AIs develop their initial morality and eventually converge on something filled with happiness and light and ponies. These approaches should not be dismissed out of hand, but the proposers typically underestimate the difficulty of the problem and project too many human characteristics onto the AI. This kind of intense feedback is likely to produce moral humans. (I still wouldn’t trust them with absolute power, though.) But why would an alien mind such as the AI react in comparable ways? Are we not simply training the AI to give the correct answer in training situations? [STU, pp. 41-42]
And yet this begs the question: What guarantee have we that those methods produce reliably moral humans? After all, don't we have all sorts of evidence of humans in extremis behaving in ways counter to their usual morality? And that's not even touching the patently absurd imperative that we would need to solve moral philosophy (STU, p. 32) before creating a machine superintelligence—although I guess two highly-unlikelies are still highly unlikely.

Then, we arrive at the "That's Where You Come In..." chapter, where (oh so predictably) Armstrong tells us what we can do to help:
Funds are the magical ingredient that will make all of this needed research—in applied philosophy, ethics, AI itself, and implementing all these results—a reality. Consider donating to the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI), the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI), or the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). These organizations are focused on the right research problems. Additional researchers are ready for hire. Projects are sitting on the drawing board. All they lack is the necessary funding. How long can we afford to postpone these research efforts before time runs out?

If you’ve ever been motivated to give to a good cause because of a heart-wrenching photograph or a poignant story, we hope you’ll find it within yourself to give a small contribution to a project that could ensure the future of the entire human race. [STU, p. 48]
Excuse my smirk.

The "strong, bad AI" (not to be confused with StrongBad AI, a much more terrifying scenario) fear seems to me cartoonishly ahead of itself. It's like worrying that DARPA could stumble upon the principles behind the Death Star superlaser, rather than all the current terrifying superweapons we already have.

We don't need an AI program to have a complete executive system in order to be dangerous. Armstrong points out—glosses over, really, in his breathless race to singularity—that current High-Frequency Trading (HFT) financial algorithms operate too fast for humans to keep up with, so that whenever there's an human-unintended consequence, a "flash crash," for example, humans have to go back and forensically determine what went wrong. Moreover, the programs mutate fast enough that the whole system is closer to an ecology than a market. Combine that with the known tendencies and incentives of market firms, and as David Brin points out, the result could be much closer to Skynet than any military project:
Moreover, these systems are receiving billions in funding (including their own new transatlantic fiber cable) entirely in secret.  There are no public agencies involved. No third party observers. No Congressional oversight committees.  No supervision whatsoever. Laboratories developing new genetic strains of wheat are under closer accountability than cryptic Wall Street think tanks that may unleash the first fully autonomous AI... programmed deliberately to have only the behavior patterns, goals, attitudes and morality of parasites.
Then there's the possibility of ho-hum cyberwarfare, with multiple (human) agents deploying malicious programs like Stuxnet to disable all sorts of critical infrastructure. Oh, and our basic digital infrastructure is woefully (sometimes irreparably) insecure... to the point where malware-infected machines can communicate over the air without wires or wi-fi.

There's plenty to worry about without resorting to a genie-out-of-the-bottle scenario, so it seems naive, or something, for the Singulatarians to focus on maybe-future god-machines.


I'm not one to get sucked down the cynicism rabbit-hole, though. Neither is Kevin Kelly, who writes, in a very optimistic piece about artificial intelligence (or artificial smartness) for Wired magazine:
Nonhuman intelligence is not a bug, it's a feature. The chief virtue of AIs will be their alien intelligence. An AI will think about food differently than any chef, allowing us to think about food differently. Or to think about manufacturing materials differently. Or clothes. Or financial derivatives. Or any branch of science and art. The alienness of artificial intelligence will become more valuable to us than its speed or power.
This is exactly my take on what's so good about creating AI. Better for us all, if we can expand the varieties of intelligence rather than asymptotically increase one small dimension of it. But if we want to create non-human intelligence approaching the human level, we should probably first look at already-available templates: that is, near-sapient species. Yes, there are ethical quandaries there! But consider, as David Brin posits when speaking about matters of "uplift":
No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would - on that account alone - oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.

In the end? I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose... the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of... to be good ancestors. To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.

Dolphin parents make similar choices every day. If they could envision what their heirs might become... the earthly and alien seas they might explore... I think they would volunteer.
Somehow I think that ensuring that merely humanly powerful agents (you know, human leaders) are ethical and accountable is still a more pressing matter than doing the same for as-yet imaginary god-machines. And then doing the same for our possibly-uplifted biological relatives and fellow-travelers is still more pressing, because it's far more probable. After all, we have an example of biological life emerging into sapience. No such examples for digital life.

31 October 2014

Fiction Friday - 31 October 2014

I've written some fiction stuff that might still be worth reading, but I don't consider it finished because not many people have read it at all. So I might as well keep up my post schedule and devote Fridays to publishing poems, excerpts, or serializations that I've written. Comments and critiques are welcome, or just ignore me on Fridays.

The Black Sorcerer of Doom's Barrow, pt. 2

The door, for all its massive size and stony bulk, slid aside easily at Tyr's sinewy insistence. The sepulcher's antechamber yawned ahead of him, devouring all the light from outside. Heeding the sparrow's advice, Tyr wrapped a bundle of reeds and lit them with flint and steel, and carried the improvised torch into the gloom. The graven sarcophagi of long-dead men lined the walls in their square slots, dreaming of some forgotten era of bone-garnished warlords and green stone idols to strange gods. In some places the granite coffins lay smashed on the floor, the bones in a jumbled heap; victims of ancient tomb-robbers. The chamber seemed to stretch on forever, always sloping gently downward into the barrow. The darkness pressed in on all sides, until Tyr could only see the torch in front of his face. He heard the sparrow tell him about the darkness being a magical thing, enhanced by some spell to blot out all light.

But I can see a light ahead, Tyr replied; and indeed, a white light glimmered ahead. The sparrow chirped something that faded to silence as the light grew brighter. It grew brighter and drowned out even the torch and Tyr's hand that held it. He threw up his other hand to shield his eyes from the blinding radiance...

Tyr awoke to a mottled, odious face. He tried to shout, but his mouth was gagged; he tried to move, but his limbs were shackled. He cursed himself silently, for not thinking to look for traps in the crypt. It had not been any spell or arcane device that had overcome him, but simple low cunning: a spring-activated puff of some noxious gas that rendered him unconscious in the clutching hands of this thing that now peered through filmy eyes at him. As creature turned and shuffled away, and Tyr saw that its body was mostly hidden beneath a frayed sackcloth cloak. Nevertheless, certain lumpy protrusions and odd geometries suggested a wholly inhuman form, and the hero's mind recoiled at the sinister implications. His stomach, meanwhile, recoiled at the musky odor, damp rotting wood and sulfurous ash, that permeated the room.

Now the creature reached towards a rusty iron cage, which held the motionless form of the sparrow that had been Tyr's guide. He had no time to wonder whether the sparrow was alive or dead before the creature, with quick, stilted movements, snatched the bird from the cage and stuffed it into its puckering, toothless mouth. As Tyr looked on in horror, the creature made horrific sucking sounds and, at length, vomited forth the sparrow's mucous-covered skeleton, scoured clean of meat and sinew as if it had been dipped in acid.

It was at that moment, a moment nearly unlike any other in his life, that Tyr Haefest felt a needle of fear stab his heart.

But then he heard stone scrape on stone, and a portion of the far wall slid aside to reveal a black-robed and hooded figure. Tyr's heart jumped in his chest; this must be the Black Sorcerer himself! The squamous creature dropped the sparrow's bones and loped off into the revealed hallway. The Sorcerer, meanwhile, shuffled forward, the folds of his cloak obscuring any sight of skin, until he was face to face with Tyr. A noxious breath exuded from the cavernous hood, but still Tyr could not make out face nor even eyes in that void.

-what is your name-

The voice whispered through his mind, as surely as if the Sorcerer had spoken; only he hadn't.

-what is your name-
Again, the voice, but nothing under the hood had moved; not a mouth, nor a tongue.

-what is your name-

The voice, for a third time; Tyr could think of nothing else but to send his thoughts back at it. I'm Tyr Haefest of the Empyrean Highlands, he thought; Are you the Black Sorcerer who inspires such fear in the local villagers, and despoils the earth, and pollutes the sky with your foul communions?

-and if i am-

It was not a question so much as a challenge. Tyr thought nothing for a moment, then gathered his courage. I will defeat you, he thought; I have come to rid these lands of your plague.


The laughter thundered in Tyr's head; he thrashed in pain, strained against the shackles, but could not escape that immediate, agonizing mirth that clawed at his consciousness.

-you cannot defeat me for my god has made me strong-

The voice had dropped back to a whisper, but now it carried a venomous edge to it, a gloating tone that hinted at far darker realities than Tyr cared to dream of. Still, he refused to relinquish all hope to this monstrous magician, this speaker to nameless gibbering entities.

There is no god of Light or Shadow who would grant you even the slightest boon, he thought. Pious fury welled deep within his soul.

-but why pray to light or shadow-

-why send witless hopes at witless children of a noise in the dark-

-when i have communed with powers you cannot even fathom-

-powers who have slumbered but stir towards awakening once more-

-against whom your gods are not more than irritations-

-parasitic annoyances like ticks or lice-

-needle points against the flesh of the dragon-

-and i who have launched my mind my consciousness across the vast stellar bleakness-

-that stellar wasteland-

-the ultimate void beyond infinity-

-i have contacted those sleeping giants-

-the titans of chaos-

-yes the crawling chaos whose names even your pestilential gods fear to speak aloud-

-the consumers of creation-

-and the destroyers of order-

-the subsumers of form and substance who exist beyond the coil of time space and causality-

-they have granted me powers-

-beyond the ken of mortals or contrived immortals-

-and the immortality that only the outer dark can provide-

-i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

-no metaphysical detritus for your scavenger gods to squabble over in their petty disputes-

The words, though nothing had been spoken, pattered against Tyr's mind like heavy rainfall, an offbeat staccato pulse that telegraphed nothing short of madness; that purest form of insanity that only the Outer Dark could provide. Against such a foe, weaponless...

Except that his sword was still in its sheath, and the sheath was still attached to his belt. The Sorcerer, in his madness and hubris, had not disarmed him! Tyr felt relief flood through him, a rising tide of calm that drowned out the cacophonous sibilance of the Sorcerer's gibbering thoughts. But he dared not think of any way to escape and defeat the Sorcerer while the black-robed magician still faced him. Tyr didn't know how this peculiar mind-to-mind communication worked, but he guessed it passed through the eyes somehow, or at least the attention; maybe it was like the sign language known to the tribesmen of the Southlands?

Now the Sorcerer turned away, evidently having run out of meaningless (or all too meaningful) ramblings to project onto Tyr's psyche, and busied himself with a strange machine that squatted in the room's far corner. With the connection broken, Tyr pushed his mind to work faster and faster on a plan of escape, and with any luck, the defeat of the Sorcerer himself.

Perhaps the fiend's hubris and madness could be turned against him. Tyr had heard terrible stories, nothing more than furtive whispers really, about the consequences of offering one's soul to the roiling black energy of the Outer Dark. Its powers were truly great, it was said, but greater still was the price on the mage's soul, whose vaulting ambition exceeded all caution. For the things that lurked within that chaos never ceased in their hungering; their entropic cravings had no bounds. All too easily could one of the nameless spawn of that legion of blasphemous unintelligences infiltrate the soul, and fester like an antithetical cancer until finally the star-fiend burst forth and rampaged until its anarchic essence burned through the fleeting form it had carved from its host's viscera and spirit.

If Tyr could play the devil's advocate, and entice the Sorcerer to such self-destructive folly... but he had no time to consider an alternative, for the Sorcerer had turned back towards him, and held his gaze from beneath that inscrutable hood. In his hands, which Tyr saw were skeletal, leprous, and scabbed, the mad magician clutched a bizarre and dreadful instrument, whose hellish purpose Tyr could only guess at.

-i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

-no metaphysical detritus for your scavenger gods-

But why use a mundane implement, Tyr thought, trying hard not to let a trace of fear or doubt creep into his mind; Why resort to the forms of this world when you can call upon the Outer Dark itself?

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-my powers indeed reach beyond this dismal husk of a world-

-and now i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

But why limit yourself? Tyr thought; Are your powers limited to just extracting my soul and destroying my flesh?

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-allow me to show you what my god has given me-

There was a darkling in the room, a sense of dimming, yet no lights had gone out. Tyr realized he felt... thin; stretched, as though the very walls of reality were wearing away. He struggled against his iron bonds, struggled to breath, but a weight (that was yet weightless) had settled inside his breast. The Sorcerer had cupped his cankerous tapering fingers together, and was channeling that most forbidden of magic, the tainted effluence of the Gods Who Were Before The Gods, the mind-shattering entities of the Outer Dark. But to what end, Tyr did not know, and that lack of knowledge was a howling vortex, driving a hurricane of panic inside his head.

-do you feel it-


-tyr haefest of empyrea-

-do you feel the power of my god-

-do you feel the power of my god-

-do you feel it now-

-do you feel it now-

-do you-

-do you-


There was no purpose, Tyr realized, as the blind energies reached a fatal crescendo, and the weight had begun to pulse an insidious ostinato in counterpoint against his heartbeat. The Sorcerer had called his bluff all too well, and was simply trying to channel as much power as possible. The plan was going to work; but how would Tyr know—

Then the Sorcerer's arms flew apart and locked rigid at an angle away from his sides, palms towards Tyr. His head jerked back and the hood sloughed off to reveal, not the wrinkled and puckered face of an elderly sage of forbidden arts, but the pockmarked and scarred face of a young girl—

Then Tyr realized that the Sorcerer didn't “kill” the village elder's daughter, but she had been seduced by the agents of Chaos and turned her back on kin and community—

Then something exploded out of the Sorcerer's chest.

There was a sickening wet crunch; chunks of viscera and what might have been flecks of bone splattered against Tyr's face, arms, and chest. He blinked, and then there was something that pushed and pulled and writhed and squirmed with gaping-mouthed tentacles out of the Sorcerer's robes. Its face(?) was a mass of hourglass-pupil eyes and chitinous mandibles, extending in obscene geometries out into that wriggling mass of tentacles. It roared then, an all-too-human scream erupting from an all-too-inhuman maw. Threads of spittle dampened Tyr's skin and burned like fire; but the caustic mucous ate away at his shackles, too, and Tyr twisted his upper body free just in time to avoid a swipe of the thing's tentacles. He ripped out his gag and tried to unclasp his leg shackles, but he wasn't going to be fast enough.

The thing seems blind, for all its eyes
, Tyr thought feverishly; But sooner or later one of those tentacles is going to dissolve my head or something...

Just then the Sorcerer's servant-creature shuffled in, apparently in response to the commotion. As soon as it saw its master's rigid, twitching body, and what protruded from it, the servant croaked in fear and adulation.

“Apotheosis, master!” The servant's voice was thick and wet, as though its mouth were full of swamp water. “You have achieved apotheo—”

Apparently the servant's voice was enough to provoke the chaos-spawned thing away from its blind swipes at Tyr, because it lurched backward, into the Sorcerer's chest, and erupted out the other side, flying across the room and latching onto the servant-creature's face. As Tyr tried to watch while simultaneously trying to free himself from his leg shackles, both the Sorcerer and her servant collapsed, the latter under the tentacled mass which had gouged the body cavity of the former. More sick crunching and slurping sounds echoed through the room as the servant's head — and, in quick succession, the rest of its body — was cracked open, dissolved, and devoured.

Tyr realized that his sword would probably do a fine job of shattering the rusted and acid-softened iron chain that connected the shackles to the wall; the iron crumbled under the force of his blow. And none too soon, for the aberration had finished sucking down the soupified remains of the servant and turned its ithyphallic face towards him with a ravenous look in its milky hourglass eyes. It lunged — although Tyr still couldn't fathom how such a thing propelled itself, and so fast! — and the hero met it squarely in the middle of its leap with a well timed sword swing. The thing was rent in two as the blade sheared through its gelatinous flesh, even as its acidic bile-blood corroded the metal itself. Within seconds, Tyr stood empty-handed in the middle of the barrow's moldy stone chamber, his pitted and smoking sword clanging to the floor where he had dropped it, the hideous spawn of Chaos twitching obscenely where it had landed piecemeal, and the Black Sorcerer's stiff corpse lying where she had fallen some minutes ago. Even as he stood there, Tyr could feel the black magic begin to ebb, and the foulness that had permeated the land for too long leached away. He emerged onto the downs to see the now-bright sun cutting through the fading mist, and he found his way back to the village with little trouble.

The villagers were all celebrating the end of the Sorcerer's curse when Tyr walked into the village's town hall; all except for the village elder. Only he saw the hero enter; only he met Tyr's eyes nodded once. Tyr turned around and left without speaking. He knew what the elder meant: It is done. Though Tyr's name would be remembered in this village for generations to come, the hero felt no joy in this. He could only think, as he strapped his supplies to his horse and rode off into the sunset, of the face of that girl, who by some stroke of madness gave herself over to the darkest powers imaginable. What would drive her to such lengths, he wondered, and what feelings now clouded the heart of the village elder — her father? What kind burden weighed down on a man who was forced to make the hardest choice of all: the sacrifice of his own daughter, or the sacrifice of all who had entrusted their safety in him?

And as Tyr Haefest rode away from the village of Drummond's Fen; even as new growth was visible in the cracked soil; even as the oily clouds fled the strengthening light of the sun; still a brooding darkness settled on his mind, and it felt like it would never be removed.

Author's Note: And that's the end of this little story-within-a-story. I hope it was sufficiently pulpy without being too purple-y.

30 October 2014

Statistics, women, and dangerous things

Follow-up to: Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 1; Adventures in bad statistics, Big Gay edition


So there's a video going around. A woman dresses pretty generically—jeans, a black crew-neck shirt—and walks around New York City... and experiences "over 100" instances of street harassment in 10 hours over a few days.

I have a few problems with this methodology. On the one hand, it's great that people are documenting this sort of everyday experience: one's personal life history doesn't translate well over the Internet, so any little bit helps. On the other hand...

The big problem is with the editing. Out of nine major online media sites who reported this—CNN, USA Today, Business Insider, New York Post, Vox, Slate, Huffington Post, Salon, and Jezebel—none of them caught this on the first go around. Then Slate and Salon realized something was up: it's almost all black and Latino men.


The Jezebel writer had this commentary instead:
A few weeks ago I was at a flea market in Los Angeles. As I was buying something from a vendor, I hear a male voice saying: "Hey beautiful" over and over. The vendor I was buying from said, "I think he's talking to you."

I quickly snapped: "My name isn't fucking beautiful." The man who had yelled at me came closer and said: "I just wanted to let you know that I think you're beautiful." I said: "I don't give a fuck what you think."

A few minutes later that same man approached me to apologize. He said he wasn't trying to holler at or bother me, (lies) but just wanted to give me a compliment. I told him that my self-esteem is not dependent upon the affirmation of strangers and he should stop doing that shit to me and other women. To his credit, he was very polite and said he's trying to grow and be a better person. I truly hope that he meant that because having just one man recognize how degrading it is to do that to women is necessary.

Because this? What we see in this video—a woman unable to simply move through a single day of her life without verbal harassment? This shit has got to stop.
In the context of a video with a conspicuous demographic and socioeconomic bias... considering that the writer is probably decently well-off...

Double yikes.

In the follow-up piece on Slate, Hanna Rosin relayed the following from Robert Bliss, owner of the marketing firm that produced the video in collaboration with anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback:
He wrote, “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” That may be true but if you find yourself editing out all the catcalling white guys, maybe you should try another take.
Moreover, a good chunk of the stuff in the video was also "in passing" or "off camera" (definitely a few where I couldn't tell where it was coming from) so...

Yikes again.

Then, of course, there's the message at the end of the video: If you want to help, please donate to Hollaback! a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment.

So... how exactly does one end street harassment?


The first step in solving any problem, so the engineers say, is to locate the problem. And for that we need some statistics, not on how many times women get harassed, but who harasses the women.

For an extreme analogy, imagine that someone with a hidden GoPro and a lot of ignorance (as we do seem to have about catcalls) walked in front of a Jewish person for 10 hours... in 1936 Berlin. One might notice quite a bit of harassment from non-Jewish people.

So is the conclusion "Jews are the victims of harassment by Gentiles?" only if you don't do enough research.

Back at Slate, Rosin points us to a Daily Show piece on street harassment, which she says does a better job at covering the full demographic range:
A really good video about catcalling actually already exists. In Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, Jessica Williams of the Daily Show covers the whole range of street harassment, from construction workers (of all races) to security guards to Wall Street “douche bags” to teenagers hanging on the corner. She and a group of women lay down pins on places in New York to avoid and by the end, the entire map is covered. There are race and class issues latent in her video, too. She is black, and the women she gathers for her discussion group are all races. But you don’t leave with that icky impression of a white woman under assault by the big bad city. Plus, she has the group demonstrate the armor they wear while walking down the street, which turns into a glorious mosaic of bitch face.
Except that the video doesn't exactly cover the whole range of street harassment: the Wall Street douchebags and teenagers on the corner and creepy old men playing chess in the park are all depicted but not actually heard. That's not to say it's not possible but the end result is the same: we only witness the act of harassment when it's coming from a fat security guard (low-income job) or black or Latino construction workers (low-income, minority)... and yet the problem is "all men."

If one could somehow become difference-blind to everything except gender, and re-watch the video carefully, one could count the numbers of male passers-by who said nothing to the woman. Then considering that these are 2 minutes out of 600, extrapolating to the average density of a Manhattan sidewalk... the proportion of catcallers is probably very low. Pithily: #NotAllMen are catcallers. Maybe 1% of men, to reference another NYC-based social justice movement, and that's being scary-generous.

Except it's not just #NotAllMen, and not just one percent of men. it seems to be #VerySpecificKindsOfMen: desperate men of a "lower sort." Or nouveau-riche overentitled human turds. Put another way: there are some men (1 out of every 100, say) who think it's a perfectly valid thing to call out at a woman that she should smile more, or that she should get his number, or whatever. But there are also men who don't do this. Who never do this.

Who never do this. Ever.

I think it's vitally important to figure out the difference.


We're told that men are taught that it's fine and manly to call out whatever they want to women passing by. I accept that; but I was never taught that. Yet I was never taught "don't call out at women," it wasn't even a reflex or easy trap to fall into. If anything my parents just taught me "don't talk to strangers."

It also wasn't something I passively picked up. I knew what catcalling was, of course; but even in Tex Avery cartoons—not all that progressive, I mean blackface galore—catcallers and wolf-whistlers seemed like obvious sleazeballs. There's a reason that the prototypical catcaller (not just in my mind but in popular depictions) is a blue-collar working stiff, often a construction worker (WARNING: TVTropes link):
Parodied in Psychonauts; one Paper-Thin Disguise used by the G-Men of the Milkman Conspiracy level is that of a construction worker and he says, "Look at that woman's breasts. They are enormous."
Seriously, the Milkman Conspiracy level of Psychonauts is just wall-to-wall hilarious. Along with, you know, the rest of the game. It's on Steam now, you have no excuse.

Okay, so that's my experience and a bit of my gaming preferences. I know it doesn't generalize well but then again I don't think I'm magically in a Very Special Category of guys who naturally just don't bother catcalling: I have never experienced a member of my social group, anywhere, catcalling anyone. The times I've witnessed catcalling as a third-party, well, it was the "lower sort" of guy doing it.

Even the director of the video agrees that it's a small minority of #AllMen doing the actual catcalling, but of course you don't need a big proportion to ruin a woman's day. (In fact we would expect it to be only a small proportion of men, otherwise it'd be way harder to deny.)

So just why do #JustTheseMen catcall? (I promise I'll stop with the hashtags now.) I think culture is it; but it's not as easy as saying "society teaches men that this is okay." And it's not just one culture. There are multiple avenues to an environment where catcalling is okay; for example:

Culture 1. Manosphere entitlement. This is PUA / Wall Street douchebag culture (though it might have overlap with the next culture below), and the most individualistic. An entitled d-bag (red pill optional) is taking a shotgun approach to picking up women, and legitimately things he deserves their attention. This is the attitude most often attributed to all catcallers by the likes of Jezebel, which coming from mostly upper-middle-class college educated women unfortunately has the side-effect of making more lower-income catcallers look, ah, "uppity." The solution here probably is someone giving them a verbal slap in the face.

Culture 2. "Macho" culture. This is more obvious in other countries (Italy, Spain, Latin America...) but it's not necessarily unique to Romance-language cultures, they're just stereotyped about it. In this sense, "macho" culture is one where a man proves his masculinity to his male peers by catcalling. How much of this is influenced by economics, I'm not exactly sure. But to the extent that this is social, the solution involves positive role models.

Culture 3. Desperation. Much as panhandlers "harass" passers-by with all sorts of phrases, sometimes rather insistently, sometimes catcallers are just that desperate that they've disengaged that part of their brain that would otherwise not say anything to strange women. Very few people in the working-class-and-higher bracket would ask every person passing by for a free meal, right? Or stand out by the off-ramp to see if anyone can give them some free money... Deprived of dignity, at that point, why not? Maybe someone will be charitable. The solution here is—say it with me now—eliminating poverty, you know, the Hard One.

Certainly nobody wants to endure a deluge of unsolicited comments, especially not ones of an overtly creepy-sexual nature. But is it wrong to also think, watching these sorts of videos: Wow, society has really failed that guy, if he thinks yelling at random women is a worthwhile effort?

Again, the point is: it's not "men in general," but neither is it "men at random." It seems rather predictable; predictable implies preventable.

But first it's important to really get a handle on the problem. If the causes of catcalling are as deep as I suspect, "teaching men not to catcall" is as ineffective—and perhaps as inadvertently callous—as teaching homeless people not to panhandle. Better, I think, to change the environment so that they have no reason to catcall, and I don't mean taking women off the street.

(And this is where, if I were more of a hack, I would springboard into a whole ball-pit of pet policy options. I am not a hack. The policy ball-pit is elsewhere.)