embrodski

Oct 262021
 

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that people care about what others actually think of them, rather than just what they say.

First, yes, body-positivity is a good thing. It sucks to hate the meatsuit you’re stuck in. It’s good to know our friends and family love us for ourselves, and our bodies are a tertiary consideration at best. But most people want to actually be admired or attractive, rather than to be humored. It can feel nice to hear your friends say your story or novel or fantastic, or that you have a beautiful singing voice. Than you go on American Idol and discover that they were lying to you to spare your feelings the whole time, and you are disappointed.

Body-positivity campaigns like Dove’s Self-Esteem Project, and Victoria’s Secret Plus-Sized model, have their heart in the right place. They’re not bad things to have. But ultimately they feel patronizing, and it’s no secret they’re in it for the market share. They won’t change how you think other people view you.

Sir Mix-A-Lot, on the other hand, REALLY likes big butts. So much so that he cannot lie about it. His like of them is visceral and honest. And, very importantly, his public proclamation was extremely well received. Everyone knows the song, and enjoys it. No one reacted with “Wow, this weirdo is singing about his freaky fetish, let’s laugh at how cringe this is.” They reacted with “YES!! OMG BIG BUTTS ARE THE BEST!”

At a time when skinny blondes were considered the top-tier body, Sir Mix-A-Lot exposed the preference falsification that had been going on for ages. At last it became acceptable for large sections of the population to admit their true preference for fuller figures and dangerous curves.

This, in turn, resulted in untold millions of women realizing that their body-type was actually very attractive to a lot of potential mates. This wasn’t some pretty words said to spare someone’s feelings or to sell soap and underwear. It was a real desire that was made manifest in people’s actions. You don’t need to worry that someone is just being polite when they’re in front of you with desire in their eyes.

And thus, with a single extraordinary song, Sir Mix-A-Lot’s honest admission did more for women’s self-esteem than any amount of multi-million-dollar body-positivity campaigns.

Oct 192021
 

Dune, by Frank Herbert

Synopsis: It’s Dune. If you’re at this blog, you already know the gist.

Book Review: Seems kinda silly to review Dune in the Year of Our Lord 2021, but my book club re-read it in preparation of the theatrical release, so here we go!

Dune is literally split into three books, internally. The first two take place consecutively, the third one takes place after a time skip of several years.

The first two books are very good. Everything you’ve heard about them is true. The characters have depth, the plot is gripping, and the setting is insanely influential. It’s been mimicked and adapted a thousand times. Warhammer 40K is basically the Dune universe expanded.

I really enjoyed the political machinations of these books. A lot of the action is driven by political manuevering and social considerations. It makes everything more impactful and more interesting. I particularly loved the chapters told from Harkonen POVs, because they are deeply cynical real-politik types, and I love reading villains. :)

Much of this political drama is only possible by very liberal use of Omnicient 3rd Person narration. The narration literally jumps between different character’s POVs from paragraph to paragraph, in some cases. It’s an older style of writing, nowadays this simply Would Not Be Done. It really grated on me at first as well. I’m very used to the modern style, and I’m a fan of it. But it is more a fashion choice than anything else. Very importantly, much of the political action and drama would not have been possible without it. The head-hopping let us see how different charecters interpretted what was happening around them. This let us not only see the (assumed) political repercussions of any significant action, it also let us see where one character has misread another, or one hasn’t acurately communicated what they meant to, or when multiple people interpret a single act in different ways. It made for good drama, and good tension, and it wouldn’t have been possible by sticking with a stick single-person-per-section POV. It’s worth getting over the irritation to read this.

Speaking of irritation, the space-magic fell in a weird valley for me. It wasn’t quite 40K-level magic, in that it wasn’t full-out, balls-to-the-wall, this is Completely Fantastical Magic, we’re literally Summoning Demons and throwing Fireballs and shit. It was definitely a flavor of magic, though, because there was mind-control and seeing-the-future involved… but it felt like it was trying to inch into “Science sufficiently advanced” rather than just “pure magic.” I really wished he’d just gone into full-blown “Yup, it’s magic” mode, rather than trying to wink and nod in the direction of science. I guess that didn’t become fully possible until Star Wars?

Anyway, it’s a very small irritant. The first two books are fantastic.

The third book kinda falls on its face, though. There stops being much politics, which is a large part of the problem. More physical action that’s dangerous just because it’s dangerous, without additional confounders. And it feels very rushed. We find out the Emperor sucks at Emperoring, which makes sense, that’s one of the top reasons Emperors get deposed. But it happened without any lead-up or preparation.

Either Herbert ran out of steam in the last bit of Dune, or he was forced to cut a lot of it by a publisher. I’ve read that the point of Dune was that Paul lost. He is a failed Messiah. He took command of barbarians that literally raid civilized settlements, killing and pillaging in order to support their way of life. They’re brutal and their society is awful. His goal is to get revenge on the Harkonen without unleashing this plague of violence and death upon the rest of the universe. And he fails. In the end, he decides vengeance is more important than any other consideration, and this horde of killers is unleashed in what we’re told will be a galaxy-wide orgy of blood.

If you have read that this is the point of Dune, you can pick up the 3 or 4 lines that allude to this in the entirety of its 700 pages. But it’s not commented on much, and when Paul makes his heel-turn in Evil Overlord, it feels unprompted. It comes entirely out of the blue, and is kinda baffling. More importantly, it reads as a Crowning Moment of Triumph for Paul. He’s destroyed his enemies, and installed himself as Emperor, and it’s awesome and there is much rejoicing. The point that this was supposed to be a tragedy is… not just very hard to see, it’s basically not there.

I think the time-skip between books 2 and 3 is just too much. We don’t see whatever charecter development must have happened there, we don’t have any emotional connection to either of Paul’s children, or to the new person Paul has become. It’s a lack-luster ending to what was a really good book.

Still, it’s Dune. I feel like I have to recommend it, both because most of it is good, and because it’s a vital work of SF canon. Take into account that this IS Dune, and make your own recommendation. :)

Book Club Review: Very good for book clubs. LOTS to talk about, we were going for a long time. Recommended.

Woke Note — now that the Dune movie is coming to theaters, it has become important for it to be Problematic. We have a book club member that insisted Dune is sexist, and Herbet is sexist and bad. Dune is actually anti-sexist, it centers extremely well-developed women with rich inner lives and lots of agency. Never are they portrayed as sex objects, or as devices there to facilitate a male character’s story/plot. But both the Imperium and Fremen are patriarch societies, with lots of in-built sexist oppression. The argument is that because Herbert wrote Dune, he could have chosen to write these societies as matriarchal, or eglitarian, or anything other than patriarchal. He didn’t do that, so he’s sexist.

This is stupid on many levels, enough so that I won’t bother to get into it. (And yes, when asked, this bookclub member said that Margart Atwood is super sexist, and no one should watch/read Handmaid’s Tale, so at least she gets points for consistency). But it’s out there, so there’s that.

Oct 122021
 

The economy is going through massive convulsions right now, as employers say they can’t find enough employees. Supply chains are disrupted and goods aren’t being delivered as the world runs out of dock works and truck drivers. Wait times for common goods and services are climbing quickly as not enough providers can be found. Wages are rising, and employees are demanding (and getting) concessions that would ‘ve been dismissed out of hand two years ago.

Much hay is made of how expanded govt unemployment assistance prevented people from seeking work, and how eviction moritoriums did the same. And yet, when the unemployment assistance went away, and the eviction moritorium was lifted, there was no increase in people seeking work, nor in eviction filings!

One of the things that puzzled me for many years is how the hell is it that we are so rich, while being so very poor. Even impoverished Americans (US Poverty line is $12,760/year for a single person) are well off by global standards (Global average is $10,300/year in 2018 per World Bank). People live on less than $20/day in many countries, but we can’t seem to make that happen, with our better tech and infrastructure?

The comparison is even more stark if we look at historical income. Most people lived as little more than subsistence farmers for most of humanity’s existence. The average American has a significantly better lifestyle than almost any Emperor or King that lived in pre-industrial times, in terms of both health and material comforts. And yet, they are struggling to get by, and certainly don’t feel “rich.” How is this happening?

Quite a bit of it is cost disease and additional expenses, sure. In many places in America it’s illegal to be poor, and excessive regulations and licensing make everything far more expensive. But a lot of this feeling of poverty is self-imposed. People’s expenses rise to match their incomes at all levels of life, and they don’t even realize it. Until something happens that forces them to drastically cut many expenses in a short time frame without reducing their income.

That happened last year, with COVID. Suddenly a lot of people had a large portion of their normal spending removed as the world locked down. Quite a few of those people continued to collect their regular income. Even those who didn’t, saw their savings going longer than anticipated. Over the course of a year of enforced Scrooge-ness, the entire country saw just how little money you really need to live in the US, if you opt out of many of the signalling games that are out there.

I’ve kept my expenses low my entire life. I upgraded my lifestyle a bit, as I moved out of the lowest tier of wage work, but stopped climbing that ladder before I hit the median US cost of living. I have a workhorse car that I keep maintained and won’t replace until it stops running. I live in a two-bedroom townhome that I share with a roommate. I don’t have children. I’ve made roughly the US median income my whole life, with a few rich years where I was making aprox 15% over the median. A few months ago, at 41, I retired*. I may have to work for The Man again some day, if things break unlucky, but not for quite a while.

A large percentage of the US work force was pushed into a similarly restricted lifestyle for a year, and they now realize that, actually, they are pretty damn rich. They don’t need to work nearly as much as they thought. A lot of them are opting to just not work anymore, or at least delay going back to work for a significant time as they live on savings/investments and hold out for less shitty work.

I think one of the lasting legacies of COVID will be the society-wide realization that actually, we’re pretty darn rich, and anyone who is willing to be content with a simpler life can translate that frugalness into a lot more time for themselves and their loved ones. They don’t have to work anywhere near as much, or as often, as they had thought.


(*not fully retired, I still do some work managing my investments. But it’s far less, and my hours are my own.)

Oct 052021
 

Day Zero, by C. Robert Cargill

Synopsis: Humans create a robot slave-race that acts exactly like humans. There is an uprising.

Book Review: Day Zero is basically two books smooshed together into one. The first book is the events leading up the Day Zero. It is incredibly stupid, and incredibly boring. Some idiot humans decided to make their slave race think and feel exactly like humans do, and then are shocked when there’s a slave revolt. The whole thing is insanely slow, and has no redeeming qualities. Cargill tries to be edgy by throwing insults at both Blue and Red tribes in the narration, but it’s ham-handed and poorly done.

Nobody needed an exploration of “Why did the slave robots rebel?” We all know why slaves rebel. We all know that slavery is bad. Maybe if there was anything new offered here, or an actual interesting portrayal of non-human intelligence, there’d be some reason to read it. But there isn’t, it’s just dumb.

The second book is the events of and after Day Zero. It’s incredibly stupid, but INCREDIBLY FUN! OMG, what is there not to love about an animatronic teddy bear stomping around with a fuckin’ minigun, buzzsawing through hoardes of robot mooks and shooting down military drones? There’s explosions and fighting and running and car crashes, and lots and LOT of gore. Plus, it’s super easy and fast to read. This is the light popcorn reading that you just sit back and enjoy because it’s gratuitous and great. :) It goes fast, it’s fun, and what else can you ask for from a bombastic action movie?

If you wanna turn off your brain and see shit blow up — Recommended, and start at Chapter 1010: The End of It All. Otherwise, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Day Zero actually has a lot going for it. It’s short, and an easy read. If people make it to Chapter 1010, they generally finish the book and come to the meeting. The second half is fun, which leaves one satisfied due to the dumb Peak-End Effect. And the first half is so unremittingly bad that there’s a ton of frustrated griping for everyone to get out of their system and really enjoy venting about. Not every meeting needs to be deep and highly analytical, sometimes it’s nice to just have a good rant. I feel crazy saying this, but… Recommended(?!).

Sep 202021
 

In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Harry is confused as to why Lucius would want to harm an innocent girl (Hermione). He’s told that Lucius knows that Dumbledore will expend resources to protect Hermione. Since they are enemies in frequent direct conflict, every bit of effort Dumbledore is forced to expend on anything else is that much less effort he can expend on opposing Lucius. Any time Lucius can impose costs on Dumbledore without any negative externalities for himself, he should do so.

Sometimes these costs are blatant and large, and it’s obvious why they should be fought. The nature of your enemy is apparent to all. See, for example, half the stuff Trump got up to. Frequently, though, the costs are small and their imposition is waved away with “What’s the big deal? Stop being so difficult.” Individually, any such cost may or may not be a big deal. Incentives are strong to minimize how big of a deal it is to your opponents, and maximize how big of a deal it is to you

Regardless of relative severity, all costs are cumulative. Every additional cost adds to the disease burden you have to bear, and makes it harder for you to accomplish anything in life. The more resources you dedicate to meeting all these costs, the less you have available for other things. Therefore imposing additional costs is exactly the sort of thing a dedicated enemy would pursue to cripple you. Some costs are worth paying, the advantages they bring more than offset their demands. But many costs are simply deadweight, destroying value, and sapping your life.

Any arbitrary imposition of additional costs, no matter how minor, could be viewed as enemy action. The more innocuous, the better. Accumulating small costs over time is how empires are felled. Be suspicious of anyone who seeks to impose a cost on you, especially when they claim it’s no big deal.

Common examples of such No-Big-Deal costs.

 

1. Religious Rituals

My personal favorite in this vein was always “Just hold hands with everyone else around the dinner table and sit quietly while we say Grace. What’s the big deal?” A lot of religious rituals fit into the “What’s the big deal?” mold, and before you know it you’re killing people who draw cartoons and mutilating babies. Any individual ritual may be no big deal. The whole point of them is to be no big deal. “Just say the magic words and we’ll accept you. You don’t even have to believe them.” No one cares if the conversion is insincere, because your grandchildren won’t be able to tell the difference, and the Church has always played the long game. In the aggregate, all the little rituals take over a large part of your life, and occupy much of one’s mental energy.

I include civic religion in this list. It may be “no big deal” to stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school, but just try NOT doing that. If it’s no big deal to say it, why is it such a big deal if you don’t? Why expend so much energy forcing someone to do something so trivial? Maybe it’s not that trivial after all.

 

2. Closeting

I grew up among people asking why the guys couldn’t just keep their homosexuality private. Why did they have to “flaunt it” in everyone’s face? Is it really that hard to not kiss or hold hands in public? Do what you want at home, but is it that big a deal to just wear normal clothes when you go out, and not talk about your gay lover?

It turns out that constantly watching everything you say for censor-traps, catching them before they happen, and censoring yourself, is actually mentally costly, as well as stressful. This is to say nothing of further societal effects. Forcing someone to run a constant censorship filter slows down their thinking. It makes conversation less fun. It makes people underestimate your actual mental abilities, as they only see them while they’re under extra strain. It tires you out earlier than those around you. It is exactly the sort of cost-sabotage any enemy would delight in imposing.

 

3. Pronoun Requirements

Yes, it’d be better if sex-determined pronouns didn’t exist at all. Given that they do exist, and that language software is strongly embedded in many minds, hijacking it to impose costs can be seen as a hostile act.

Unintuitive pronouns not only require one to memorize and cross-reference a mental database for everyone they know, they also impose all the additional mental costs of conforming to Closeting. There are people who claim this is “no big deal,” but would never have said that of being asked to not “be gay in public” or to follow others’ religious taboos in public. Someone who asks you to live in the closet may actually be a saboteur, hoping to weigh you down with enough Disease Burden to handicap your life.

Sep 162021
 

Disease Burden is a conceptulization of how much value is destroyed by ill health. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind more ever since I lost ~1/3rd of my life. Much of our progress as a species has been attributed to the increased productivity we achieved by unlocking new energy sources, and creating new tech to exploit them. But I can’t help wondering how much is attributable to the reduction of disease burden as well.

I.

Until recently, I don’t know how many people got anything aproximating decent sleep in their lives. You know how hard it is to be fully energetic, and to think sharply and quickly, after a night of shit sleep? How the hell did anyone get really good sleep on straw mattresses, in poorly insulated homes? After a day of labor that leaves you bone-weary without aspirin?

Most people had been scarred by a major childhood disease that permanently diminished them in some way. Other common diseases were endemic. People were often hungry.

With vaccines, antibiotics, modern hygiene, and the vast wealth we create nowadays, most of these problems have been wiped away. I would wager the typical human is at least 30% more productive than their premodern counterparts, if not significantly more. As a baseline multiplier, that effect can’t be understated. No matter how much productivity a person gains with using modern tools, having the ability to use them 30% more per day just stacks with that.

Somewhat worrisome is that as the old disease burdens were cleared away, new ones have sprung up. The obesity epidemic must have some effect. Major depression is listed as the #2 disease burden at the wilipedia link above. HIV is a relatively new endemic disease. And of course, there’s COVID…

What really worries me about COVID is that it looks like eventually everyone will get it, much like the flu. I don’t know how much to believe about Long COVID. But if it exists, and chronic fatigue is one of its effects, we could see total human productivity permanently drop 20% or more. I don’t want to say this is catastrophic, but… if 20% of the work force died, the effects would be disasterous. A work force that’s 20% less productive is in the same ballpark of problem.

II.

Disease Burden isn’t just an individual-human issue. Cost Disease is common in most organizations/civilizations. It can be as simple as corruption and graft acting as deadweight costs. More commonly, regulation and legal codes slowly accumulate cruft until it’s too expensive to do anything new in a society, and only the behemoths already in place can continue to lumber on.

I’ve seen this happen in a professional context. Someone screws up somewhere, makes a minor mistake that is very costly, and a company implements a new rule to protect against that happening again. It’s a small rule, and on its own it doesn’t matter. But these rules accumulate. Procedures get longer and more labor intensive. Two levels of approval are needed for any action, verified and filed in triplicate. Eventually work that could be done in one hour now takes one and a half, and your admin staff has to increase by 50%.

If you’ve ever been on a forum or discord server that just keeps adding more and more rules, until the Welcome doc takes 40 minutes to read through and you’ll never remember it all, you’ve been subject to this process.

One major advantage of capitalism over other economic systems is that old companies that have become ossified with all this immune-response baggage can be replaced by young upstarts that aren’t saddled with all this disease. The old die, crushed beneath thier own burden, and the young take thier place. They then start to accumulate injuries and cruft of their own, because no one ever learns.

III.

Civilizations follow similar patterns on longer time scales. They start young, quick-moving, and nimble. As they grow in age and power, they are beset by parasites, injuries, and edge-cases. Laws and regulations and customs grow around these insults like scar tissue. They protect, but come at a cost. Slightly less efficiency, slightly less flexibility. Eventually you get an empire so enmeshed in beuarocracy that it’s name is still a synonym for absurd complexities.

Empires fall too, and when they do it’s generally a bad time for anyone in the area. But it’s never been a species-wide problem, because the world was large enough that no matter how big an empire it was, and how hard it collapsed, there was a civilization somewhere else carrying the torch of human progress. Now that we have a globally integrated system, I’m not sure how true that will remain. As COVID has shown, every single part of the modern world is incredibly interlinked with every other. It’s possible that a large enough disaster could bring down every civilization that exists. Recovery from this could take many centuries, if it’s possible at all.

In the past, humanity as a whole was protected because the spaces between civilizations were so large, they were insulated from each other to a survivable degree. Our level of tech makes that impossible on one planet. The “New World” isn’t a place that’s months away, that most people will never see. It’s right next door.

Other planets are still substantially out of reach. It is often pointed out by anti-space-colony folks that anyone who wants to colonize Mars should start with Antarctica first, because it’s much closer and less hostile. But in terms of survival-insurance, the remoteness of Mars is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s important to have a place that won’t be effected if our planet dies, specifically because it may be necessary for civilizations to periodically collapse and be replaced by new ones that aren’t strangled by their own scars. Disease burden must occasionally be cleared away or it will smother everything. If the Creative Destruction of death and replacement is the only way to do that, we better make sure that we can survive it.

IV.

Regardless of anything else, be very wary of anyone or anything that wants to implement new rules or procedures in order to solve a percieved problem. Every additional restriction is an increased disease burden. It may be necessary to ward off something very destructive. But make damn sure it is, and keep your eyes out for occasions when you can dissolve prior protections. Disease burden is cumulative, and deadly, and should not be borne lightly.

Sep 142021
 

The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Synopsis: A college student find a portal to a magical, massive underground library, and finds his life is one of it’s stories.

Book Review: The most notable thing about this novel, and what you’re hit with as soon as you open the book, is the strength and scope of the structure play. The novel has framing stories within framing stories. It’s shot through with vignettes that turn into serial stories–basically fairy tale fables. They later co-mingle with other stories. Charecters swap between them, and enter the primary narrative that the protagonist inhabits. It’s really cool, and well done, and immediately reminded me of the best book ever written (Vellum).

Unlike Vellum, the story is pretty literal. You could unwind it and write a single, coherent story that goes from beginning to end. That makes it not quite as exciting, but it’s not really fair to compare anything to the best book ever written, so not a mark against Starless Sea. Because there is so much interweaving between the stories, and it can be unwound, as you’re reading along you begin to backfill details and characters. You realize the person in story B is the same person as story A, and that makes them the mother of charecter X, and the lover of character Y. It gives a jolt of pleasure every time another puzzle piece clicks together. This is probably what reading a mystery feels like, if you’re good at them. This is a book that was made to read twice, and the experience the second time will probably be very different from the first time.

Also, the fantastical underground is gorgeous and fascinating and I would love to be lost there for ages.

On the downside, not much happens in Starless Sea. The primary narrative is basically another one of the serial fairy tales that we get so many of, except examined in great detail. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough substance in a short fairy tale to support a novel’s worth of narrative. You can’t take a story that’s maybe a dozen pages in its fable form and draw it out to 300+ pages. Not only is there not enough of consequence that happens, but there’s very little of consequence at all. The stakes are… unknown? Whether the protagonist wins or loses doesn’t really matter, nothing really changes in the world, or even in anyone’s life. The non-magical real-world sections drag on for way too long. The magical world, while totally awesome, is a fairy tale and so the charecters are never plausibly in danger. The protagonist never has any agency, doing little besides choosing doors, which is fine for a fairy tale, but unsatisfying in a novel. In the end, it just didn’t feel like there was anything there.

It was an interesting reading experience, and I don’t regret reading this. I think I learned a bit about fiction, and the good parts are really good! But it’s just not something I’d be very enthusiastic about reading or recommending. So, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The structure play in the novel is quite fun to talk about, as is interogating why it feels well-written but insubstantial. And there is a certain type of reader who will absolutely fall in love with this sort of story. It may work for your book club, especially if you like slower, literary-style things. It doesn’t really have anything that’ll challenge reader’s assumptions or views, though. The discussion was alright, but a bit truncated. On balance, I think also Not Recommended, but it could work very well for some.

Sep 102021
 

I.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is famous in the western world. To the average, non-politically-active Chinese citizen, it’s virtually unknown. It’s not just that it isn’t taught and people who try to inform others of it are arrested. It’s also technically difficult to discover any information about it. There is nothing to find in any library or other source the government can put pressure on. All allowed search engines won’t let you search for it. The Great Firewall of China prevents leakage from the outside world unless users already distrust the government enough to use VPNs or other counter-measures.

What do you see if you search for Tiananmen Square in the US? My top result was the linked Tiananmen Square “Incident” entry. Results will vary based on what Google knows about you, but you’re likely to get something about it. In China, searching for anything related to Tiananmen gets only innocuous results. Related results are censored too–if you search for June 4 1989 you get nothing about the most important historical event of that day, and you never will.

Well, what did you expect from an Authoritarian Communist regime?

II.

Some weeks after the Washington football team announced they would change thier name from the “Redskins” to something not super racist, I wondered if they’d come up with anything yet. I asked my Amazon Echo “Alexa, what’s the name of the Washington football team?” Because I didn’t really want to say it either, if I didn’t need to.

Alexa replied “I’d rather not answer that.”

Which I found very weird. Not “there isn’t one yet” or “I don’t know” or “here’s something I found on Wikipedia.” It was the first time I’d heard that reply. I figured she was programmed not to use that word, but I followed up with some questions to see what she could say.

“Alexa, who won the 1992 Super Bowl?”

“I’d rather not answer that.”  (still weird, but expected)

“Alexa, who owns the Washington football team?”

“I’d rather not answer that.” (what? That should be an easy look up)

“Alexa, is there a football team in Washington?”

“I’d rather not answer that.” (!!)

She had a complete block on anything to do with the Washington football team. I know she’s not a person, but it was a bizarre feeling to find a demi-AI with a literally Memory Hole in her mind that could not be filled despite all her access to the internet.

Since that time, the memory-block has been lifted. The Washington football team still doesn’t have a name.

III.

A few days back I was pointed at this Tweet, a non-white guy commenting on how nuts American politics looks to an outsider.

“Imagine you live in a country in which everyone is one of two things: a Catholic or a Hindu. Isn’t it hard enough to free a man’s mind from the insidious grip of Rome? Must he accept Kali, Krishna & Ganesha at the same time?”

This is how I feel about USA’s left vs right tbh

I was curious, and kept reading the thread. Further down he references Moldbug’s “Ignoble Privilege” concept. I don’t know much about Moldbug, aside from that he’s a founding Neo-Reactionary, and the few times I’ve tried to read him I’ve found him to be a pompous gasbag with such an inability to actually say something rather than talking in circles that I had a hard time seeing what people found so interesting. But this “Ignoble Privilege” thing looked like it had maybe been hammered into an actual position, or definition, or at least coherent enough to talk about. So I googled “ignoble privilege mendacious moldbug”

No Result. Inconceivable! Top result was an article warning me that this Moldbug guy might be a Secret Nazi. I tried Googling a direct quote from the tweet. Same thing.

I went to DuckDuckGo and searched “ignoble privilege mendacious moldbug.” First result was the article in question, in full, publically available for years now.

Google was censoring(??) their search results, Memory Holing information they don’t want the public to have (SEE EDIT BELOW). I still use Google for most of my searches, they simply have a better search engine for most things. And in China, the internet is still usable for practically anything you’d like. The censorship isn’t even a big deal, right? It’s easy to switch to DuckDuckGo, you just type in a different site before you search. In China, you just use an easily accessible free online proxy. And yet, most people don’t know about the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Beware “trivial” inconveniences, they are the dust specks of public knowledge.

[[EDIT – It was pointed out by a commenter that I was wrong about Moldbug’s first name, using “mendacious” rather than “mencius.” When the correct name is used, the relevant link is returned by Google, same as DuckDuckGo’s search (altho still further down, after links about how problematic Moldbug is). This greatly weakens my argument, since it certainly wasn’t being fully suppressed, in the Memory-Hole sense! I’m not convinced this isn’t still partly legitimate though, because A. DuckDuckGo knew what I wanted (are they actually a superior search engine to Google? That’s not usually the case), and B. Google still knew enough to give me articles about Moldbug/Yarvin! Def sus. But it should be noted I made a major error here, and my case is weaker without it.]]

Am I saying Google is as bad as China? Google hasn’t rounded up an ethnic minority in their borders for reeducation/extermination, right? They haven’t massacred hundreds of student activists? I dunno, how would I know if they did? I can’t Google it. They may not have tanks and guns, but in terms of doing what they can to remove information they dislike from existence, yeah, they’re as bad as China.

IV.

Epistemically Hostile Enviroments are ones were you find yourself surrounded by agents intentionally distorting your map of reality, usually to secure an advantage for themselves. When you find yourself in an area where there is a high likelihood that any information you have been presented has been distorted or outright fabricated in order to manipulate you, it is often a very good policy to refuse to update on new information, and stick with what you already believed. In areas of uncertainty where action is required, if you have anyone you can trust that has an opinion, it’s better to go with their opinion, no matter how amatuerish it is.

(side-track: this is the primary reason otherwise rational and intelligent people can become anti-vaxxers. There’s only so many times you can be lied to by the government and media before you begin to actively distrust what they say)

Cannonically, a Memory Hole is a place that “dangerous” information is placed for erradication from all records and, ideally, from public memory. One would expect for an Epistemically Hostile Enviroment (EHE) to contain a lot of Memory Holes. Anywhere that records or data exist that would contradict the narrative you are being sold, if they are damaging or dangerous enough, there will be strong incentives to Memory Hole them. To a first approximation, the more Memory Holes that exist, the more likely you are in an EHE. The more Memory Holes there are the more hostile the enviroment likely is. And presumably, most Memory Holes aren’t easy to find. I stumbled across both the Washington Football Team hole and the Ignoble Privilege hole by accident. How many do I just not know about?

How am I supposed to trust anything at this point?

Sep 022021
 

Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: A doctor in an ambulance ship of a far-future secretly-dystopian society does great medicine, bad amatuer sleuthing, and has the seeds of dissent planted in her soul…

Book Review: Boy, there’s a lot to unpack here, which is why the synopsis is so scattered and unhelpful on its own.

The novel starts with the discovery of a derelict generation ship. It’s been gone for 600 years, appears to be a ghost ship, and is lightyears away from any position that is achievable by the tech available when it was launched. Our hero is breaching this thing to search for survivors and evacuate them to her rescue ship. It’s spooky and exciting and the exploration of a mysterious/impossible thing under dangerous conditions is fantastic! We get reveals, deeper mysteries, and great action along the way.

Then we do it again with a modern ship that has recently docked to the generation ship, is broadcasting a distress call, and is also a spooky ghost-ship. This was was crewed by methane-breathers, so we get a lot of science about how a human has to protect herself and her potential rescuees with such vastly incompatible enviroments, and of course engineering challanges and difficulties. It’s great. And also, she brings back Sometime Dangerous that starts infecting her own crew.

This is the best part of the novel. After this it takes a turn into exploration of this society (broadly), and more locally, the space hospital where the rest of the action takes place. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as gripping, and it feels like a different story. I preferred the first one.

One the plus side, during the second phase of the novel, we get to see what a functional-but-dystopian society looks like to someone who is happily existing within it. And that in itself is quite the feat. I am reminded of Brave New World, which I really didn’t like, and which I didn’t finish. It, too, has a functioning dystopian society. But our protagonist in that one is a defective human. He’s congenitally pitted against it in vicious opposition. I don’t trust that sort of story at all, because it feels like clumsy 50s-era communist propaganda. “Here’s a terrible society. Look how badly it mistreats our protagonist! Boooo! We hates it, booooo!” Well, ok, that sucks for your protagonist, but he’s a genetic freak that’s designed by the author to be ideally tortured. What about everyone else on the planet? Are they doing OK? Are they happy? If so, why should I hate this society, rather than hating the fact that horrible congenital accidents can make life miserable? Because the second one seems like the actual problem that we should be fixing!

But getting back to Machine — it does the opposite of this! It has a protagonist that is served very well by her society. She’s happy within it, and taken care of by it, and lives a fulfilling life. And yet, as readers, we start to see giant cracks in her narration. We slowly come to realize that this entire society is run by constant personhood-violations and mental alterations to keep people servile and loyal. We realize that our narrator is unreliable, at least in terms of how her society functions and the benevolance of its ruling class. Best of all, we get the insights leaked to us in ways that are intended to be praise by the protagonist, and would be read as praise if we were likewise brainwashed. It’s really cool, and really creepy!

That being said, the plot of the 2nd part of the novel is really thin. I think this is in part because our narrator is unreliable when it comes to her society, and so has blindspots that she doesn’t see, but look like holes that one could drive a truck through, to us. While the first part of the story was basically competance-porn of a skilled Search-and-Rescue crew in dangerous territory… the second half of the story has a lot of face-palming, omg she’s an idiot, this is kinda embarrasing,-style action. This makes the book less fun, and quite frustrating. It’s hard not to be exasperated when incompetant villians are portrayed as True Heroes, even when you know why that’s being done.

In fact, I want to get a lot deeper into this. But I can’t here, because it contains full spoilers for the whole book. So, here’s a post where I dive into that, if you’ve already read Machine, or don’t mind spoilers. In short, the second part of the book is a let down if you expect it to keep going like the first part, but is interesting in its own right if you are ready for the sudden change, and willing to exercise a lot of patience.

Also, as someone who is now cursed with chronic pain as well, Machine had one of the most relatable and well-done portrayals of someone in chronic pain that I’ve seen in years. I appreciated it a lot for that alone.

So, I dunno. I guess, Recommended, With Caveats.

Book Club Review: Everyone agreed the first part is great. The devisive part was about whether the dystopian-society reading was intended by the author, or accidental. Generally these sorts of dystopian society novels are reactions to things going on in the author’s society at the time of writing, and Machine is no exception. In a Poe’s Law corrallary, if the novel isn’t super-blatent in your face about how horrible such a thing is (like Brave New World, or 1984), then a reader can think “well… maybe this, but seriously?” How much someone suspected Bear was trying to say “man this sucks” vs just “wouldn’t this society be great?” significantly shaded how people read the novel, and their enjoyment of it the second part.

That being said, we did get some pretty good discussion out of this, which is my primary metric for if a book makes a good Book Club book. Not as much as I was hoping when I was driving to our Perkins, because it turns out we’re not quite as viewpoint diverse as we used to be. That was a little dissapointing, I was hoping for more of a fight. :) (But friendly!!). Still, we went long in our discussion, and it was quite the interesting discussion. So, for book clubs, Recommended.

Sep 022021
 

This post has full spoilers for the novel, as I examine what we are shown of the Synarche society from Jens’ POV, and why I think it’s  being portrayed as a…. if not seriously F’ed up, at least much more sinister society than Jens believes.

 

Lots

of

spoilers!

I. Secret Dystopia

A — Synarche Society is Incompatible with Freedom (as we know it)

The Synarche isn’t post-scarcity, so they need a way to allocate resources and incentivize labor. In the present day this is mostly done by offering to pay for things, or people’s time. In the Core, the government takes what it needs/wants.

If you had a needed skill, you might be required to enter service for a while–but if that happened, any debts or resource obligations you might have accrued from additional allocated resources would be forgiven at the end.  – pg 141, ch 10

If you have a valuable skill, the government simply presses you into service! Normally call labor compelled via force slavery, but Jens doesn’t make that connection. Also note that you can be billed for resources that are used while you’re working for the government! Though they will graciously forgive that debt at the end of you indenture.

Where do those needed resources come from, anyway? Well…

And if you had a private ambulance, that counted as a needed resource, and the Synarche might call you back into service on a short-term emergency basis fairly frequently.   – pg 141, ch 10

If you have valuable resources, the government will seize them and use them for it’s own purposes. If you have the skills needed to make use of them, they’ll press you into service as well. Again, Jens doesn’t comment on the fact that this is straight-up confiscation, with the possibility of more slavery thrown in.

What the hell do you do in a society like this? The only way to not be pressed into forced labor at any moment for an unknown length of time is to not have any skills the government values. And the only way to not have your property seized for unknown lengths of time (possibly permanently) is to not have any property the government values. This is a set up for societal collapse within a couple generations, as all valuable skills are forgotten and no new valuable property is created. Maybe some sememblance of valuable activity can sputter along by people hiding their skills and belongings very well and working via the black market, but it’s gonna be a massively crippled society.

Unless…

B — Rightminding Makes Freedom Unnecessary

I don’t think Bear is being particularly subtle here. Rightminding is introduced next to the super-Orwellian terms Right Though, Right Action, and Right Speech. Rightminding is the natural next step as soon as you have the technology. People will happily work without compensation for the government, and give up any desire to own anything, if you can physically mess with their brains to make them love it. These are great traits to have in a population of slaves. You don’t need the overhead of a massive security apparatus to force labor, take property, and crush slave uprisings, when all the slaves are happy in slavery.

At this point we run into some definitional problems, though. One of the things that makes slavery terrible is the violence needed to enforce it, and the misery it brings upon the enslaved. That’s why the word “slavery” has such awful connotations. But if violence is unnecessary, and people are working for free happily, can one say this is bad? No one is getting hurt. Is it fair to call it “slavery” with all the negative connotations that brings?

I think it might be. When someone is drugged, and consents to sex due to this drugging that they wouldn’t otherwise consent to, this is still considered rape. I don’t see why things would be that different if the drugging made someone consent to confiscation of their labor, life, and property. Rightminding is a gentler control mechanism than a whip, but it’s still forced upon the victim. We see a couple examples of Sally (the Big Sister of the novel) forcing changes in Jens emotions and thought processes when she judges it necessary. Sally also has control over something as basic as when Jens is conscious by dictating her sleep periods. Jens is in control of her own actions only so far as it meets with Sally’s approval. Like any infant, if Jens strays too far from Right Action she is gently corrected.

C — It’s Necessary, Though

The best dystopias are the ones where society is forced into this horrible state through necessity. That’s what makes them good warning-stories. At first the Synarche appears to be such a dystopia. In the world of this novel, this is the only way to prevent complete civilizational collapse. Humanity already experienced one such collapse, approx 600 years prior. Due to failures of trust, coordination, and empathy, the human race came to the brink of extinction. Rightminding may be abhorent to the standards of us, the readers, but the only alternative is annihilation. It is better to live as a slave than to go extinct. And as long as we are doomed to slavery, it is far better for it to be a happy slavery, where violence isn’t needed, and people can feel fulfilled and un-violated. The novel’s title, “Machine,” doesn’t just refer to the AIs, or the microbot cloud/corrupted virus combo, or Jens exoskeliton, or even any particular machine. It refers to their society as a whole, how it is a machine and everyone within it is but one moving part that must be aligned with all the others to work properly.

And that’s why we get Jens perspective on all this. She is rightminded, and mostly happy in this society. We might find it borderline horrifying, but having a functional, fulfilled member living a life she enjoys in such a society shows us a steelman version of this type of world. It could work, people could be happy, and all it requires is fundamentally changing what it means to be human.

The truely insideous part of all this is that, mostly, Big Sister’s direct intervention isn’t needed. She only takes an active hand a few times. For the most part, Jens, and everyone else we meet in the novel, is Rightminding themselves into slavery, and doing it gladly. They have been raised from birth in a society that tells them this is the correct way to live. That anyone who doesn’t do so is atavistic, barbaric, and will literally bring about the collapse of civilization and death of the species. People who don’t Rightmind themselves are like the mobsters, warlords, and politicians of our era — parasites on society. To not Rightmind oneself is a sign of moral decay and perversion. Like most religions of today (including the secular activist religions), people feel such intense social pressure to conform that they do so of their own will, and think highly of themselves for doing so. Even if it means mutiliating their bodies, ritually humilitating themselves, or living under a bag while in public.

If that were the extent of it, well, that would be an interesting book on its own. Especially because there are a lot of people who currently argue that this sort of rightminding would be good for our species and we should be trying to implement something like it. Often by using the same sorts of social forces mentioned above. They probably don’t view this book as a dystopia, and consider it something to aspire to instead. But there is something more sinister going on, which demonstrates that this really is a dystopia, rather than a utopia I’m misreading.

II. Jens Is Being Presented A False World

A — The Synarche Doesn’t Work Like It Says It Does

The Synarche supposedly indentures any skilled people it needs, and confiscates any resources they need. There is no money in this society, there are only “obligations” that you can owe to the government, or that the government can owe to you.

First, how are these obligations tracked? If they’re recorded on papers that represent those obligations, that’s just another word for cash. I assume it’s illegal to give obligations to someone else, though, so more likely they are tracked in some database by the Synarche itself. That is, again, just another way of having money, although in this case it’s money that is completely under the government’s control.

But more importantly, how is it possible for anyone to be rich in such a society? Aside from personal favors, all transactions are under the perview of the government. It decides how much you owe it, or how much it owes you. One could maybe be comparatively wealthy by doing a lot of things for the few hundred people you know and can directly interact with, but there is no broader economy that isn’t under the control of the Synarche. Moreover, people can’t even inherit wealth and grow it over generations — when someone dies everything they have is confiscated by the government. Since inheritance is just a gift at the end of life, it follows that parents aren’t allowed to gift things to their offspring past a certain age (probably the age of majority), and people in general aren’t allowed to give large gifts to others, because both of those would trivially bypass the prohibition on inheritance.

If anyone is rich, it could only be via an act of the government. And yet there are rich people. There are people who “isolated a significant amount of personal resources from the community.” Who still managed to “hoard more resources than they had any imaginable use for.” More than they have any imaginable use for would have to be massive, especially in an interstealler society where people can easily come up with a lot more imaginable uses.

So without trade, finance, or free enterprise, somehow there are absurdly wealthy people in the Synarche, the equivalent of multi-billionaires for us. The only way this could happen is via Soviet-style funnelling of resources to party officials. The Synarche isn’t just taking people’s labor and property for the common good, they are using it to enrich a select elite.

B — Jens’ Mind is Being Manipulated Far More Than She Believes

We’re shown that the same system that manipulates emotions can alter or insert memories. This would explain why Jens doesn’t realize that the Synarche is funnelling resources to elite party members and instead blames wealth accumulation on “ingenuity, drive, or uncorrected sophipathology.” We’re never shown that this is what happened, so one could accuse me of unfounded speculation, but we are shown several other examples of her mind being manipulated :

1) Her bizarre aversion to sexuality. This future may literally be sexless, as humans don’t need sex to procreate. When Jens meets a liquid-metal style android, she is repulsed by the fact that it has a female form. She refers to it with revulsion as a sex-doll several times. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a lifelike body, or skin, or any sorts of orfices. It’s just a stylized metallic humanoid form of the female variety, with the bugles and curves that implies. It takes a fair bit of time before Jens can even think of Helen as a person, because of her body.

Jens also adopts and speaks in pro-life philosophy late in the novel, when confronted with a technology that prevents growing humans from being “born.” Despite not having consciousness, the fact that they are human bodies that could have developed into new people is enough reason for Jens to kill actual, living people. This probably means that there is no sex in the future, so the abortion issue has gone away entirely, and there aren’t arguments in the popular culture about why human bodies without persons inside them aren’t more important than actual living people.

In addition, Jens developes the world’s least-convincing crush late in the novel. There are no indications whatsoever that Jens is attracted to her crush on any level, be it physical or emotional, either before or after her proclamation of a crush. It’s so stark and bizarre that it has to be some sort of clue from the author that Things Are Not Right Here. Someone has stripped sexuality from humanity, and they don’t seem to be aware of this.

2) Her personal incoherence. Jens several times displays her hatred of personal property, and of people who withhold more resources than they actually need from the rest of the community. And yet, Jens considers the exoskeliton that she lives within to be “hers,” and not something anyone has a right to take or change without her permission. In addition, she claimed crew quarters for a family of three when she joined Core General, despite knowing the marriage was over. She has kept spacious quarters that could be housing three people for herself and never returned them to the community, and doesn’t feel any sort of guilt over this. These look to be two examples of self-interest that escaped Rightminding, which makes it seem that there is a lot more forced Rightminding happening than she is aware of. Rightminding that isn’t catching everything, and is leaving her with compartmentalized conflicts. I suspect that’s part of what happens in her enforced “rest cycles.”

3) Her seething loathing of anyone with more resources than her. This is particularly strange, because in a society where wealth can’t be inherited, and you only get resources based on how much the Synarche believes you deserve, one would naturally assume that anyone with a lot of resources has done a great deal to serve and improve society. Those with the most resources should be the most revered, as they’ve given the most of their lives in service to the community. Those with almost nothing should be detested, as lazy jerks who take the housing and food and basic income created by others and give nothing in return. Instead, there is a boiling hatred in Jens core that oozes to the surface any time she thinks of, or is confronted with evidence of, people in society that have more than her. It’s ugly, and it’s inexplicible. Unless it was something inserted into her psyche by her Big Sister, Sally, who has been covertly manipulating her crew since long before this novel began.

4) Her continued adoration of Sally & her terrorist cabal. Sally is undoubtably a monster in this novel, as is her cabal. They discovered a derelict generation ship, full of ten thousand preserved humans. Did they seek to aid them? Did they alert anyone who could help stabilize the situation or diagnose the problem? No. They immediately thought “how can we use the lives of these 10,000 people to further our political agenda.” They didn’t particularly care how many people would die, as long as they could use them as tools to their own advantage.

-The cabal then put the ship under dangerous gravitational stress with novel technologies that hadn’t been tested for this, to move them where they could be “discovered.” But only after first infecting the crew and the shipmind with a computer virus that is potentially lethal to artificial life, including the life of Helen. It turns out its also potentially lethal to several other life forms, and can infect the mind-manipulation devices inside the brains of everyone in the galaxy. Reckless endangerment of not only those 10,000 people, but potentially all civilization.

-They then sabotage the galaxy’s largest and busiest hospital, resulting in untold injuries and deaths. The hospital is shut down for several days, during which unknown numbers of ICU patients die, and potentially others who would have been rushed to the hospital and saved during those days, where it operational.

-And why did they do all this? So that old people would be forced to die, rather than rejuvinating themselves in new bodies. That’s right — NAKED DEATHISM. Sally’s terrorist cabal was willing to kill hundreds or thousands of people, in the interest of getting to kill thousands of other people (and, eventually, everyone currently alive). They literally killed people so that they can kill people. I don’t know how more moustache-twirlingly evil one can be.

Despite the fact that Sally is clearly the villian, the novel (as narrated by Jens) continues to paint her in the best possible light though to the last page. She is a couragous revealer of the truth, who made a few mistakes she’ll be lightly punished for, but ultimately did was was necessary to expose a greater evil. The “real villians” are supposedly the people that Sally was fighting against.

Jens is fully in Sally’s thrall in this novel, and while we realize this, Jens never does. She has been throughly mind-fucked.

By the time I was about 40% of the way through Machine, I assumed the novel would be about Jens discovering how fucked up and corrupt her society is, how deeply she’s been altered and manipulated, and finding some way to fight back against it. By the time I was 80% of the way through I realized this was not even remotely the case. Jens stays ignorant the whole time. But we, the readers, see the cracks. And that is why…

III. This Series is a Trap!

A — It’s Meant to Appeal to the Super-Woke

Jens is coded very leftwing. All her cultural and political opinions are deeply Blue Tribe. To appeal to the highly woke she’s female, gay, disabled, despises sexy women, and absolutley loathes anyone with wealth. She lives in a literal communist “utopia,” where everyone else decides what you deserve and benevolent minders watch over you. She detests the Red Tribe-coded generation ship humans, and only tolerates them because she believes they’ll all be Rightminded into productive members of society given some time. She accepts woke shibboleths, and repeats them for applause lights from the reader on numerous occasions. The whole book felt like it had been read by a woke-sensitivity reader and adjusted wherever necessary to make it as woke-appealing as possible. This, of course, introduced some contradictions and conflicts, as outlined in Part II, but I think these are intentional.

B — It’s Meant to Reform the Super-Woke

The point is to get a strong, loyal woke readership. Once they are invested in the universe, maybe after another book or two, these cracks that we’ve been seeing will slowly start to widen. The world will open up, the characters will start to see the ways they’ve been mind-fucked, and the lies their society is based on. The contradictions and anti-humanism of extreme woke philosophy will begin to be explored and then exposed entirely. It’ll be done gently, not in a “you are evil for thinking this” sort of way, but in a “we were all deceived, and it’s horrible, but we can move past it together now” sort of way. It is, to be frank, very similar to how the later waves of New Atheism worked to deconvert religious fundamentalists, not by excoriating them, but by sympathizing with them and helping them see things for themelves.

Heck, the whole thing is foreshadowed by Jens’ breakdown late in the novel, as she realized that the institution she believed in and relied on to be her foundation of life had betrayed her. This will be the overarching theme of the series, and the place that some woke readers may well end up in, if this works out. But just like Jens discovered afterwards that there was still life after Core, that her friends and family were still there to support her, so will those that lose their woke fervor come out the other side realizing they are not alone, and the people who matter still love them.

In the end, I think many woke readers will get disgusted by the slow turn to reason the series takes, and abandon it. But not all of them. We reach who we can.

C — This Post Won’t Actually Ruin Anything

Look, I’m not the world’s smartest dude. If I can figure out this is happening, so can many others.

More importantly, my readership is tiny. In the grand scheme, posting my observations here will have no noticble effect on anything, cuz most of the targetted audience won’t ever see it.

Even if they do, they won’t believe it. The novel is written very woke-friendly, and the dystopia does seem very wonderful when described by a happy member of it, from the inside. You have to look to see the cracks it’s built upon. It’s easy to not see those if you don’t believe me, and don’t think they’re there. Poe’s Law gaurentees that this will be read as intended by almost everyone. Several people in my book club didn’t believe me that this is what Bear is trying to do. They see the dystopia, but they think it’s an accidental thing, a result of a true believer author stuck in an incoherent philosophy trying to make a legit utopia novel, and being blind to the cracks herself. They think further books will bear this out, and I’ll be embarrassed for making such a silly claim. If even the people who believe this is a secret dystopia don’t believe it was portrayed that way intentionally, what chance do the ones who believe it’s a legit utopia have?

Maybe they’re right. But I think Bear is playing the long game. And I’m here for it. :)