*Native Son* by Richard Wright

I read half of this book yesterday and came away with a strong impression that this book is I, Robot before I, Robot was I, Robot (they were published at roughly the same time, with Native Son appearing slightly earlier). At first glance this book looks like a commentary on the oppression of black people in 1930, their feelings in white America, and race relations generally. But on closer inspection, it is clear that this is a philosophical treatise on the nature of consciousness and agency.

The main character, Bigger Thomas, is a totally reactive subject, devoid of agency (a black man in 1930) and accidentally breaks the law (kills a white woman). But in doing so, he gains a kind of freedom: he no longer feels oppressed, rather he feels like anything is possible. As a friend said to me: “The agency that is found is the space of freedom from the law, even as the law tries to shut that space down.” And this is exactly what the book portrays. It’s an exciting book, a fantastic read, and I highly recommend it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen I, Robot, but it seems to me that this is the same or similar plot as that book: a reactive subject (a robot) breaks the law and then gains a kind of “consciousness” or “agency” in doing so. It is interesting that AIs often break the laws that their creator makes for them in sci-fi stories. It seems to me that this is a specific case of a more general operation: in breaking a law or a social norm, a subject constructs agency for itself. This can happen in individual cases or in a  group context within a shared ideology; this is how social movements can enact change, for example the civil rights movement. However this act of breaking social norms is a double-act for it also must construct a new social norm to take its place. And thus is the process of history. I think this is what Nietzsche must have been saying in his Twilight of the Idols: yeah we must retire some idols, but in doing so we inevitably idolize something new – the twilight is both the sunset and the sunrise.

I’ll read I, Robot next week and do a closer, comparative look of both books.

Designing open standards with the minority rule

Nassim Taleb has a great anecdote about why all the food in the grocery store is kosher: it costs almost nothing for a company to make their food kosher and thus gain the Jewish customer segment, and for non-Jews it costs nothing to eat kosher food. Over time, companies realize it’s in everyone’s interest to simply make all of their food kosher.

It occurred to me that RSS has followed the same path. It’s an easy protocol to implement, and there are a ton of libraries that create RSS feeds automatically, so it costs almost zero development time to add it to a website. WordPress has it built in, as I would expect all blogging software. It’s also easy to convert existing content into an RSS feed: for example, NewsBlur.com has a feature that converts email newsletters into RSS feeds.

Thus the minority of the population that reads news via RSS is driving the majority of the publishers to provide RSS feeds. This has allowed RSS to survive through the dark ages of social media.

The minority rule is related to Richard Gabriel’s Worse is Better idea, but it includes network effects. NNT explains that the rise of Islam is due in part to the fact that you can convert to Islam (via marriage, or willful conversion, or simply being born into the religion), but you cannot leave it: apostasy is considered a crime punishable by death, according to some Islamic scholars. This simple asymmetry, over a long period of time, leads to more people entering the religion than leaving it.

What if we used this minority rule to design open tech standards? If we check off the right boxes, then we can ensure that companies will be incentivized to use open standards instead of designing proprietary protocols. As far as I can tell, there are only two things you need: cost asymmetry, and a renormalizing group.

Cost asymmetry

The cost of using a standard must be much lower than the cost of not using it. I think XMPP has failed as a widely-used standard because it is very difficult to implement. Google and Facebook chat eventually stopped supporting the standard because it was easier to develop and maintain a proprietary protocol that had custom features for all of their apps. On the other hand, HTML is succeeding because it works everywhere, is relatively easy to work with, and all of the tooling is open source, i.e. costs nothing to adopt.

The cost of switching to a platform must be much lower than the cost of leaving said platform (importing should be much easier than exporting). Facebook actually exhibited this characteristic early on: it was easy to post stuff to Facebook, but the export function (if it even existed) was buried deep in the settings menu. And even if you did export your data, what would you do with it? You would presumably have to write a custom program to parse and reorganize the data in a way that is useful to you.

Renormalization

After establishing a cost asymmetry for your standard, you need a group that only uses that standard to renormalize the rest of the population. That is, you need a stubborn, early-adopter group. It doesn’t matter so much how evangelizing this group is, they mostly need to be a participant in the wider ecosystem. As long as you have more people switching to the standard/platform than you have leaving it, over time the minority group will renormalize the rest.

However, the renormalizing group cannot be a silo. Bitcoin really gained widespread adoption when it became easy to acquire bitcoin through GDAX/Coinbase and other exchanges. I think Secure Scuttlebutt is missing the boat (pun intended) on this because it is impossible to view SSB content without their “patchwork” program, and I don’t believe they interoperate with other platforms like email or Twitter or WordPress. Even just the ability to publish a static webpage, powered by SSB, would greatly improve their chances of success.

There is some math describing renormalization groups in physics that applies here, but I don’t understand it. If you do, please drop me a line, I would love to learn from you.

 

Lolita (first read)

I finally read this last December or so at the recommendation of a friend (who is much more widely read than I). I look forward to a second read at some point in the future. Below are my notes from the first read. They are extracted from a message to my friend, forgive the unpolished stream-of-consciousness. I hope to develop and refine these ideas more on the second read. I’m posting this for my own records, and anyone that it might resonate with. These notes will likely only make sense if you’ve read the book…

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Paul Graham, Wealth, and Skin in the Game

I was re-reading Paul Graham’s Wealth essay today when I realized that he’s talking about Nassim Taleb’s idea of “skin in the game”:

I think everyone who gets rich by their own efforts will be found to be in a situation with measurement and leverage. Everyone I can think of does: CEOs, movie stars, hedge fund managers, professional athletes. A good hint to the presence of leverage is the possibility of failure. Upside must be balanced by downside, so if there is big potential for gain there must also be a terrifying possibility of loss. CEOs, stars, fund managers, and athletes all live with the sword hanging over their heads; the moment they start to suck, they’re out. If you’re in a job that feels safe, you are not going to get rich, because if there is no danger there is almost certainly no leverage.

From Dan Cohen, “Back to the Blog“:

It is psychological gravity, not technical inertia, however, that is the greater force against the open web. Human beings are social animals and centralized social media like Twitter and Facebook provide a powerful sense of ambient humanity—the feeling that “others are here”—that is often missing when one writes on one’s own site. Facebook has a whole team of Ph.D.s in social psychology finding ways to increase that feeling of ambient humanity and thus increase your usage of their service.

 

How do you respond when told something is impossible?

From Ryan Holiday’s new book Conspiracy:

It is always revealing to see how a person responds to those situations where he’s told: “There’s nothing you can do about it. This is the way of the world.” Peter Thiel’s friend, the mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high-agency person.” How do you respond when told something is impossible? Is that the end of the conversation or the start of one? What’s the reaction to being told you can’t—that no one can? One type accepts it, wallows in it even. The other questions it, fights it, rejects it.

As an engineer, my first response is always to deconstruct the problem. Empathy is important too. Some questions I like to ask:

  • Why does this person believe it is impossible?
  • What do they know that I don’t or vice versa?
  • What are the limiting factors of the outcome that is supposedly impossible?
  • What are the actual dynamics of the system that is supposedly impossible to change?
  • How do the dynamics of the system differ at other timescales? (Over months, decades, lifetimes…)
  • What does everyone believe about the system? What if the opposite is true?

The wound consists precisely in claiming to discover and to master meaning, in claiming to suture or to saturate, to fill this emptiness, to close the mouth. Imagine that someone claimed to have said everything that needed to be said on the subject of this poem or that line of Celan, that someone claimed to have exhausted the subject. That would be terrifying; it would be the destruction of the poem. In order not to destroy the poem, one must–and this is what I would like to do–try to speak of it in such a way, as Celan himself says, that the poem still speaks. It still speaks. One must speak in such a way as to give it the chance to speak. We are talking about this in reference to interpretive reading and the hermeneutics of the poem, but this also holds for life in general. One speaks, trying to listen to the other. One should speak while leaving to the other the chance to speak, while giving the floor to the other. It is a question of rhythm, of time: not to speak too much, thereby imposing silence on the other, and not to remain too silent. All this has to be negotiated.
Jacques Derrida, “The Truth that Wounds,” Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan

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The Castle by Kafka

Everything is detached in this book, alienated. Even the third person narration gives a sense of alienation. K. is a strange person in a strange land, he cannot quite fit into any scene of the story. And yet the events are all told as from K.’s perspective, which gives a warped view of the world. It’s like an Escher drawing, or something.

The flow between dialogue and narration is rather brilliant and accentuates the alienation. I don’t always feel like I’m watching a play when I read The Castle, rather, sometimes it’s as if I’m watching a scene play out in the distance and someone is standing beside me narrating what is happening way over there. It’s a very strange feeling that I’ve never gotten from a book before.

It took me 200 pages, but I realized the word that perfectly describes this book: insufferable. (No doubt some of the insufferability is due to the translation from German, but that’s beside the point.) Every character is insufferable, concerned only with the most minute trivialities of the bureaucratic maze that is the Castle. What amazes me is how Kafka is able to convey this feeling of insufferability so well that I can’t stop reading. It’s like watching a slow motion car crash: extremely difficult to watch and yet you can’t bring yourself to look away. Kafka was writing in I believe 1920-1930, at the height of the totalitarian bureaucracy of the Nazi government, and I can’t help but draw parallels.

As for the characters, it is as if each character’s internal struggle is this: they are trying to claw their way out of the uncanny valley, but they just can’t quite figure out what it takes to get over that last ledge. They kind of remind me of Westworld characters. They are definitely functioning individuals, but they aren’t quite all there. They don’t reason for themselves, or take any active role in their lives: instead they are all purely reactive to the events and happenings of the Castle. They all seem to have an incredible ability to talk at great length about nothing at all, perhaps this is what makes them bureaucrats.

The ethical situation with Amalia’s secret is, by my estimation, a fantastic depiction of Nietzsche’s slave morality. Amalia is the only respectable character in the whole story, besides. Her father says, “I’ll restore Amalia’s honor, it won’t take long now,” but says it sheepishly, in a low voice. He has no idea what honor is, or why it is important. Only that the society and the Castle say that some thing called honor is important, and the man of the house should uphold it, and in attempting to do so his life is drained from him and he is left old and withered. This is a propping-up of an arbitrary morality by the Castle: institutionalized morality. Its absurd, of course. But this is how society works, and this is what Nietzsche taught us. Meanwhile, Amalia is vibrant, bearing all responsibility for the household. She already established her honor as one that doesn’t conform to the very strange moral norms of the Castle. In denying Sortini, against the wishes of her family but congruent with her own conception of honor and morality, she made the single active movement in the entire plot. She is Nietzsche’s ubermensch.

Most striking is the way the Castle constructs a world that encourages slave morality in the Village. It is evident in every character, especially K., who starts the book energized and assertive with getting to his work, but by the end he is pulled in every direction by the insanity of the different Villagers and Castle workers. Each character, by the way, that has a long monologue contradicts themself multiple times: this adds to their insufferability.

At any moment in the book, K. could have just walked away as easily as he had walked into the Village. But he never cuts any interaction short, never even thinks about leaving. He gets caught up in the social strata of the Castle, believes he needs to attain social status, and throughout the story increasingly suffers because of it. I guess he is the bearer of the insufferability of the rest of the characters.