Regulating The Public Space

There are few things good about aging, but one of those benefits is you start seeing how history often repeats itself. There is nothing new under the sun, but when you are young most everything is new to you. When you get old, you have experienced enough to begin noticing the repeats of things you saw in your youth. For example, those old enough to remember the early the days of the internet, probably recognize what’s happening with the tech giants trying to regulate the public space.

By early days, I’m not talking about the iPhone 4 days. I’m talking about the Windows 3.1 days, when the internet was for weirdos, who knew how modems worked and liked tricking the phone company for free long distance. It was when hobbyists assembled their own computers It was when NewEgg was called Egghead and operated in shopping centers. That was before the phrase “social media” existed, but there was still plenty of social media and plenty of people on it, just smarter people.

Usenet and bulletin board systems served the same role as Twitter and Facebook, without the cute names and billionaires trying to control the platforms. Like the big social media platforms, they started with the same general idea. They would be open forums for people to debate and argue. The internet was going to be free from the censorship of the old media and free from government control. The same things people say about bitcoin today were said about the internet in the olden thymes.

What happened to those first public forums and those that succeeded them is a good lesson for understanding what is happening to the big social media platforms. Usenet, for example, started as an open platform for anyone with internet access. It did not take long for jerks and troublemakers to arrive. Soon, the squabbling and fighting fractured the community into separate channels. In short order, Usenet became a million little havens for like-minded people to talk about their thing in semi-private.

Bulletin boards followed a similar path. Their successor, the message board also followed a similar arc. The first boards for college sports, for example, soon turned into free-for-alls and shattered into hundreds of small, private boards. Unlike Usenet, the creators of these boards initially tried to regulate the content by having moderators ban trouble makers and people trolling for attention. That just encouraged the trouble makers to find clever ways around the rules, in order to disrupt the communities.

What was discovered in those early efforts of public forums is that the public is pretty awful and needs to be regulated. You just can’t let everyone into a public forum and have them say what they wish. On the other hand, the cost of regulating who enters and what is said is prohibitive. The more you regulate the forum, the cleverer the troublemakers get at disruption. This sets off an increasingly costly game of cat and mouse between the moderators and the people seeking to disrupt the forum.

The solution to the problem was the oldest of solutions. Peaceful separation allowed everyone to have a forum, but it reduced the incentives for the disruptive. Going into the forum of a rival group, for example, and posting a bunch of troll-bait, did not provide the same dopamine rush to the troll as it did on a public forum. There was no one around to see it and cheer it. It was like being a graffiti artist in a blind community. These trolling efforts were quietly removed and the community could easily ignore them.

That is what will happen with the big social media hubs. Twitter is the first that will splinter into a million separate channels, as it is the most public. Gab has weathered the assaults and now provides a home for dissidents. Telegram is now becoming the favorite tool for young people creating small communities. Others are working on alternatives for other tribes, looking for a place on-line both free of censorship and the sorts of people who just seek to disrupt. This is a repeat of the message board phenomenon.

YouTube and Facebook are a bit different. Facebook already has the ability to let users self-segregate within the forum. That solves the trolling a bit, but the company is run by the sorts of people who liked being moderators on chat boards in the old days. They can’t help but meddle in the discourse of others, even those in private groups on the platform. Given the demographics of the platform, it will probably collapse at some point as people realize its user base is old people, robots and gullible advertisers.

YouTube is the one to watch. As server capacity outstrips demand, the cost of hosting video will keep dropping. There are services popping up as alternatives to YouTube, with some starting as commercial enterprises. This service lets you create a branded channel that can be distributed on a variety of platforms. If you have talent and can hold an audience, the days of relying on YouTube are numbered. Since YouTube has never made money, it’s hard to see a future for the service as currently constructed.

None of this is to say that the tech oligopolies will come to their senses and stop trying to suppress speech on-line. In all probability, they will exhaust themselves trying to stamp out dissent, which means things will get much worse. Apple, for example, is now censoring speech within chat programs like Telegram. Microsoft is promising to moderate speech over Skype. The people behind these efforts are driven by hatred and self-loathing, so they lie awake at night thinking about this stuff.

The trouble is, it is expensive. The latest YouTube banning probably cost the company $10 million dollars to organize. It’s pretty clear they invested a lot of manpower in reviewing specific videos. The return on that investment was mostly bad press and greater awareness by regulators that there is a problem. That’s a lesson from the old days too. No matter how right they were to regulate users, the forum moderators were always looked upon unfavorably. They were the prison guards of the system.

That last bit is probably key. A decade ago, Apple was a cool brand run by an equally cool genius who liked wearing black turtlenecks. Now it is seen as a Chinese electronics company run by an angry homosexual. Similarly, YouTube used to be a place where young people could express themselves. Now it’s where old Jewish women yell at young people for using naughty language.With every censorship effort, the reputation of the oligopolies declines. Silicon Valley is now the universal villain.

The point of all this is not that libertarians are right that the market will magically sort out the problem for us. All of this could have been avoided if the government had done its job and cracked down on these oligopolies a long time ago. The natural disaggregation of the public space will not happen without help from the state either. It’s that wide open public forums cannot last. It was tried decades ago by smarter people and a much smarter user base. Eventually, peaceful separation became the only alternative.

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Apes Flying Planes

Imagine that archaeologists, digging around in the jungles somewhere, stumbled upon what they think are the remains of ancient buildings. Upon closer examination they learn that it is very old, but has technology that is advanced, more advanced than the most advanced technology of today. This is the sort of premise that makes for a good science fiction story or even a mediocre sci-fi series. The next step in the plot is a drama between the characters over what to do with the newly discovered alien technology.

In real life, there would be an endless rounds of committee meetings and memorandum as the bureaucracy tried hard to not do anything with the new technology. The original discoverers would die of old age long before a decision was made. Even without the byzantine processes, nothing would be done, as no one would know what to do with the alien technology. Anything that far advanced would be the product of a race with an entirely different evolutionary arc. No one would know why they created the technology.

That’s the part that gets left out of the science fiction version of the story. Technological advance often seems like leaps and bounds, but in the long run it is glacial. For example, plow design remained fairly crude into the 19th century, then all of sudden it advanced rapidly to what we know as the modern design. That great leap in technology was the result of the glacial advance in material science, economics and social organization that started in the Middle Ages. The plow was the result of that.

That alien discovered in the jungle would have been the result of a similarly long evolution of an unknown race of beings. Without that long arc, their technology would be like the final pages of a mystery novel, without the rest of the book or even the knowledge surrounding the book. At best, we would be able to guess at parts of the arc, but we would have no idea why the thing was created, so we would have no idea what to do with it. An example of this is the Antikythera mechanism.

Now, this is not advanced alien technology, but it is alien technology. The ancient Greeks are alien to us, not quite as alien as people from space, but we really can’t know that for sure. The Antikythera mechanism was discovered in the spring of 1901 and it took 70 years to begin to understand it. In 2008, researchers announced that it was an instrument for predicting astronomical positions, eclipses and for maintaining a calendar. They still don’t know all of it.

Now, if it took a century to puzzle through a piece of alien technology from 2500 years in our past, from a people about whom we know a lot, how long would it take to unravel advanced technology from a mysterious alien people? It is a pretty safe bet that the CIA has learned nothing from that crashed alien spaceship they keep at Area 51 in Nevada. Unless the aliens sent scientists trained in working with retarded people, we would have no way of figuring out where to start with the technology.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? Technological advance is a feedback loop within a society. It’s why technological advances can move from one people to a similar people, but they take a long time to work into alien cultures. Europe went through a rapid technological advance starting around 1500, racing ahead of the rest of the world. Much of what the West created did not make it into Asia and Africa until the 20th century. Advances in social organization remain alien to much of the world.

Now, imagine what happens when a people become too stupid to maintain the technology created by their ancestors. This is something that would be predicted by social cycle theory. As the ruling elites, the smart fraction, sees its fertility rate decline, the overall IQ of the people declines. There could reach a point where the society no longer has the social capital to maintain the social and material complexity created by their ancestors. At some point, their world becomes chimps flying airplanes.

Think of it this way. Imagine if tomorrow, everyone with a working knowledge of turbines died from some awful disease. We would still have smart people capable of learning about turbines, but they would have to learn it. They would also have to acquire the experience of working with turbines. It would take years before we had enough people able to work on and maintain existing turbines. By that point, the work needed to repair existing turbines would be massive. It may never get done at all.

Now, the evidence is strong that Europeans are getting dumber, and that is putting aside the issues related to immigration. In fact, the decline into stupidity may be accelerating. When you add in immigration by people with significantly lower intelligence than existing European people, the effect is an acceleration toward a much lower average IQ for Western nations. Again, this is predicted by social cycle theory to a degree, but also backed up by research into the subject by people like Ed Dutton.

The social instability of the West, things like the inability to control borders and the revival of primitive beliefs, promoted by female shamans, could very well be due to the decline of general intelligence. The people populating the machinery for running a modern Western society no longer possess the intelligence to properly operate the machinery. They are like those researchers who discovered alien technology, except our rulers, bureaucrats, and intellectuals are convinced they know how all of it works.

There is another angle to this. Take the financial system, which is probably the most automated system today. It has reached a level of complexity where no one person knows how all of it works. This is not just the narrow technological stuff. Transactions have reached a level of complexity where specialists focus on just one part. About 70 percent of overall trading volume is now generated through algorithmic trading. The markets are literally run by robots that no one fully understands.

As a result of this realty, like the science fiction movies, the world markets now have what amount to dead man switches. If the robots get out of control, the breakers put a halt to trading in order to give humans a chance to figure out what’s happening. This is a preview of what lies ahead for Western society as a best case scenario. The apparatus of the state will be kitted out with circuit breakers and dead man switches, not to control the algos, but the stupid people operating the machinery. It is apes flying planes.

A more likely scenario is something beyond anarcho-tyranny. Instead of the authoritarian institutions harassing citizens over petty matters and ignoring the serious issues they were designed to address, the machinery of society will slowly grind to a halt, as happened in post-colonial Africa. The organizational systems, not just the physical machinery, will become too complex for the people to master. As a result, we will enter a period of technological and social regression toward the new mean IQ.

Put another way, the society created by our ancestors of just a few generations ago is beyond the event horizon of our modern ruling and intellectual elites. The physical manifestations are all around us, but the cultural aptitude to create and maintain such a world is now beyond the reach of our elites. While they remain smarter and more sophisticated than the main body of citizens, they are relatively primitive compared to their ancestors and as a result we are ruled by people puzzled by their own inheritance.

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Privacy In The Technological State

Privacy is something that has become a front burner topic for everyone, because every day we are treated to stories about how corporations are spying on us. They harvest information from our daily routines, put it into databases and then use it to push ads on us wherever we turn. They are now inserting surveillance devices in our homes to listen in on us as we go about our daily routines. Of course, no one knows how much is done with government blessing and cooperation, but we know it is there.

Of course, the fact that everyone is worried about this issue means the politicians never speak of it. The old Joe Sobran line was that America is a country where the political parties are significantly to the Left of their voters. Today, when Left and Right are meaningless artifacts from a bygone era, both parties simply make sure to never address the concerns of the people. While Democrats are analyzing spectral evidence for signs of Russian gremlins, the GOP is thanking you for not smoking.

Even though it seems that the unwanted gaze is upon us everywhere, we are just at the start of a new problem. In the pre-industrial age, the privacy concern was the king’s men rummaging through your possessions or intercepting your courier. For most people this was never going to be a concern. In the industrial age, the state expanded to the point where everyone could be exposed to a government process. The concern then was your rights within the process. How much did you have to reveal to them?

In the technological age, where the lines between the state and the global technology companies are blurred, we have very different problems. These are the sorts of problems classical liberals, so beloved by libertarians and conservatives, never contemplated. It’s why civic nationalism sounds so ridiculous when debating what to do about these tech firms controlling our civil discourse. For example, this blog is blocked by corporate firewall makers, which are private companies doing the bidding of the political class.

Think about this. Police departments are now using services like Ancestory.com to help solve cold cases. They submit DNA evidence to the service and the service reports back members who have some connection. You committed the perfect crime in 1982, but left behind some DNA at the crime scene. Your cousin decides to trace her (it’s always a her in these cases) ancestry using a DNA service. All of a sudden you have cops at your door asking you about your whereabouts 40 years ago.

It’s easy to shrug this off as the person suddenly tangled in this new technological surveillance web is a criminal. We all want to see justice done. But, think about the implications of this new world. All of us now have a permanent record that is increasingly open to examination by unofficial agents of the state. How long before some tech company gets into the business of solving crimes? How long before the cops start purchasing their services on-line just like they are doing with ancestry?

There is another side to this. The tech companies can also spy on the state, by accessing the records of people working in the state. Every government has to keep secrets in order to function. It is why every modern society has developed processes for determining what can be revealed and what can be concealed by government. There are processes the public and government must follow and they are administered by the courts. What happens when the tech giants can bypass all of this?

Think of another problem. Before the media was completely owned by the government, private media operations would publish government secrets they thought the public had a right to see. It sounds crazy, but it used to happen. The courts carved out exceptions to permit this, basically putting the burden of keeping secrets on the state. Now, with help from technology, the state can fight back and go after the handful of independent media people snooping around government. This story will be interesting.

There are two problems we face in the technological age that are new. One is how to place hard limits on the synopticon. This unwanted stare called the surveillance state that is now on all of us will have to be blinded, unless there are hard limits on where anyone can peer into the lives of the people. In other words, it is no longer about the state and the citizens’ right to privacy. It is about society and the human right to a private space, free of the unwanted gaze. We will need absolute zones of privacy.

The other problem is how to fashion punishments that are so terrifying that they change behavior. What’s happened within these massive technology firms is the evolution of a culture where everyone sees themselves as a member of a clerisy, guarding the public from themselves. These decisions to ban books and censor speech are not made at the top, but in the middle, by functionaries doing what they assume is their duty. Either the firms are destroyed and the people chased off or we change the culture in them.

One way to change the culture is to attach liability to violating the safe zones. The reason every company in America spends money proving they are not racist is there are serious liabilities that come with doing otherwise. Something similar must happen with privacy. Companies need to be as berserk about not looking where they are prohibited from looking, as they are about conforming to current morality on race. Otherwise, the solution is to let a million flowers bloom in Silicon Valley.

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A New Ape In The Tree

It appears there is another ape in the neighborhood. Well, there was another ape and the neighborhood is the human family tree. Researchers have found parts of what they think is another species of human that lived roughly 50,000 years ago. The discovery was made in a cave on the island of Luzon, which is in the Philippines, a dozen years ago, but the announcement has just been made after years of research. There’s a lot of work to be done to figure out where this new species fits, but they seem sure it is a new species.

This is not the first time a new species has been found in the South Pacific. In 2004, Homo floresiensis was found on the island of Flores in Indonesia. They actually found quite a few skeletons, so they were able to more quickly figure out that it was a new species and not just some odd bits of an existing species. This was the one they nicknamed the hobbit, because the species stood about 4-feet tall as adults. Finding a second species of short people on another island adds another mystery to the human origin story.

That’s the real back story to these finds. For a very long time, the generally accepted narrative had modern Neanderthals leaving Africa first, followed by modern humans, who either out-competed or replaced Neanderthals. The out-of-Africa story not only fit the fossil record, but it fit the popular narratives of the modern West. The argument that people are all the same, except for the trivial differences in appearance, works a lot better when everyone has the same origin story. Recent data is calling that into question.

One important thing that these two discoveries confirm is something some have been denying for a long time. That is, evolution is recent and local. An important part of the important narrative has been that no real important changes in humans happened after our ancestors left Africa. These two finds make clear that evolution never stops and will accelerate when a species enters a new environment. In other words, humans not only kept evolving, they evolved to adapt to local conditions and local challenges.

Another issue raised by these finds is that there may have been many human species in Africa at the same time. It’s possible these bones are from another type of human that also made it out of Africa, settled on these islands and was cut-off. Genetics has found evidence of a “ghost” population in sub-Saharan Africans that does not exist in other humans. Just as Neanderthal DNA is found in Eurasians, but not Africans, this ghost population does not appear anywhere else. We may not all have the same ancestors.

The significant physical differences found in these skeletons confirms something else that has not always been popular. That is, small difference can have big differences downstream. In other words, having 99% of the same DNA may not mean the final product is 99% alike. These two species are dated to around the same time and most likely share a common recent ancestor, but small differences in their evolutionary history resulted in big differences in their appearance and big differences from their mainland relatives.

Of course, there is another aspect to a find like this. Any time new information undermines old assumptions, it calls into question other old assumptions. If the out-of-Africa narrative has been mostly wrong for decades, maybe it is just wrong. Maybe humans did not first appear in Africa, but maybe started to appear in several places. The evidence does not point this way, but maybe science has been looking in the wrong places for the wrong things, based on the old theory. Maybe there is many new chapters to the story.

More important, the evidence is mounting that a major claim of the ruling orthodoxy is flat out wrong. Science does not support their claims. Human evolution is real, it is recent and it is local. However humans got to Eurasia, whatever common ancestors they have with humans around the world, they started to change as soon as they settled in their new lands, in order to thrive in those new lands. The question is not how much are we the same, but rather how much are we different and how important is that now.

That’s what makes this an interesting age. Just as heliocentrism was seen as a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy, ancient DNA and the archaeological record is quickly becoming a challenge to the orthodoxy of this age. In fact, the current orthodoxy may be much more fragile than what Galileo faced 500 years ago. The organization of Europe did not depend on the sun revolving around the earth. Even the authority of the Church was not dependent on that model. Christian Europe was not invalidated by the telescope.

In this age, differences in origin stories and differences in evolutionary history will cripple our civic religion. You can’t claim people are amorphous blobs, if evolution is true, and you cannot claim all people are biologically equal if they are not. Further, the true believers cannot claim the mantle of science, if their beliefs are in conflict with science. The church of the secular Left is not just wrong about a few things, it turns out that its reason to exist is entirely false. That’s like discovering Christ never existed.

Spooky Stuff

One of the things that make dystopian science fiction fun for the audience is the understanding that it will never happen. It could happen, but only a long time in the future, when everyone seeing the warning is dead. Worst case, the “boot stomping the face” stuff happens when you’re ready to kick the bucket, so you’ll live to see it, but never really have to experience it. This adds a camp fire quality to it, allowing the creator to lay it on a bit thick to make his points. Horror movies often work the same way.

The same is true about doom and gloom in public commentary. The market predictor guy on TV, who thinks the market is about to tank, is not getting much traction if he claims a mild downturn is coming. If he warns that fire will rain down from the sky and Lucifer will rise from his pit somewhere on Wall Street, then people pay attention. The people consuming such content do so with an understanding that it’s not really going to be that bad, but it is kind of fun pretending it will be as you stock up on MRE’s.

You see this with the bogeyman of AI and his posse called automation. Any day now, so the story goes, the algorithms will come alive, enslave the population and replace every job with a robot. What usually follows, depending upon your inclination, is either the libertarian fantasy of a world where everyone smokes weed and plays hacky-sack or the dystopian sci-fi vision of a world like The Matrix or The Terminator. Most people assume it will not happen, but it is fun to pretend it will happen.

Of course, the one thing that rarely gets mentioned is that the future is never the nightmare people imagine. We know this because we are currently living in the nightmarish future imagined in the past. Orwell’s 1984 was nothing like our 1984. In fact, our 1984 was a lot better than Orwell’s 1948. London was still in rubble at the point. Food was still limited and general living standards were poor. Relative to life in 1984 London, life in 1948 was about as bad as Orwell imagined forty years or so on the future.

Probably the most relevant test case we have for this is 20th century Marxism. China and Russia underwent massive social experiments attempting to usher in the Marxist future of a worker’s paradise. At times, life was pretty awful for people in both countries. The purges of Stalin and the Cultural Revolution of Mao were dystopian nightmares for many of the people at the time. Yet, most buggered their way through. Their present was not our future. Instead, our future and theirs was our present, which is not so bad.

Still, the example of China and Russia show that even though things tend to work out for humanity in the long run, the short run can be quite terrible. It means were probably better off worrying about what’s right in front of us, rather than what lies far down the road. A good example is what is coming from behavioral science and genetics. The former is about establishing statistical patterns of human behavior in order to model it. The latter is about finding genes to explain the features of life, including human life.

On the behavioral side, China’s social credit system is a great example of the spooky future stuff happening in the present. The same tools China is using are now being applied to social media and public discourse in the West. The British cop sent out to investigate an offensive tweet is applying the same techniques China is using when they throttle internet access of dissidents. It’s a combination of shame and reduced access, intended to alter the behavior of people viewed as disruptive.

The Twitter cops are not just people sitting around reading tweets. The social media giants are using techniques from behavioral science to narrow the focus to those most likely to be a problem. China’s social credit system works the same way. It’s not predicative in the narrow sense, but more of a profile. When the cumulative score of someone’s activity reaches a certain point, they gets closer examination. The social media giants use this same approach to throttle users with the so-called shadow ban.

On the genetics side of the dystopian present, this will become increasingly common as the science gets better and cheaper. Future parents will soon have a chance to increase their child’s cognitive score, so to speak, rather than leave it to chance. What parent would not want their child to be smart or tall or handsome? If science can increase the odds of that happening, people will embrace it. Think of it this way. If science could tell you which fertilized egg was most likely to be the best, which would you choose?

Of course, Stephen Hsu cannot guarantee your child will be a genius. In fact, he can’t guarantee anything as no such guarantee is enforceable. His clients will not know if his technique worked until their child is well along in development and no one is going to enforce a return policy for children. That said, it is not about guarantees. It is about probabilities. What these techniques offer is better odds of getting the best genetic mix from the parents. It’s like moving closer to the target at the shooting range.

If that’s not enough, genetic research is slowing moving toward a time when minor corrections after the fact are possible. It’s unlikely, highly unlikely, that science will ever be able to rewrite the code of a living human, but they are starting to tinker. These techniques will no doubt be applied to artificial insemination, in combination with what Stephen Hsu is offering. Pick the best embryo, make a few tweak and the odds of your child being a combination of the best his parents contributed goes way up.

None of this is part of some dystopian future. It is spooky stuff happening right now. The most worrisome is probably the stuff coming from behavior science, as it allows for that dystopian future, where the authorities act as puppet masters. The genetics stuff is less spooky and less worrisome for now. Still, the point is we have plenty of monsters walking around in the present. If we want to be worried or have a reason to put away some more MRE’s, you just have to spend time on Twitter or talk to Stephen Hsu.

Revolt of the Machines

One of the great unanswered questions in science is how did the first building blocks of life arise from the primordial soup of early earth. It is believed that before even the simplest of life forms existed, earth was something like a thin stew that was getting thicker as more complex chemicals formed. At some point, and no one knows how, the first DNA molecules formed. The prevailing theory is that the first genetic molecule was a primitive form of RNA, which evolved into more complex RNA and then DNA.

No one knows how this could happened only that it did happen. The proof of which is all around us, including in the mirror. Life exists and it is based in DNA. Further, RNA is created from DNA to put that information to work, like controlling the creation of proteins and performing other chemical functions. How DNA became the code of life, while RNA, its predecessor, became its tool, is a great mystery in science. It is the question J.F. Gariepy tackles in his book The Revolutionary Phenotype.

Gariepy or “JF” as he is known by his fans, is an enigmatic YouTube personality, known for his willingness to talk with anyone. He has had everyone from science deniers to holocaust deniers on his show, as well as lots of normal people. His YouTube career is recent, as until 2017 he was a neurobiologist and post-doctoral researcher at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences. In this book, he endeavors to explain the origin of life 4 billion years ago and predict the end of DNA-based life on earth.

One of the challenges facing writers of science books for a general audience is they must first simplify the presentation. It’s not that the audience is dumb, but that they are unfamiliar with the jargon and unfamiliar with the way people in science communicate information through mathematics. A book full of complex proofs and splatter charts is not going to be popular with most readers. Gariepy gets past this first obstacle by sticking with a straight forward narrative format that is easy to follow.

The second challenge for science writers is to follow the old rule about essay writing that kids learn in school. The book should always be like a woman’s swimsuit; big enough to cover the important parts, but small enough to keep it interesting. This is probably a good rule for all writing in this age. Thanks to the internet and cable television, everyone’s attention span has collapsed. Gariepy gets past this hurdle, as the book is just 138 pages and written in a brisk style that makes for easy reading.

The question is, of course, does Gariepy deliver on his promise to explain the origin of life and how it will end. The answer is an unequivocal maybe. On the positive side, he does a very good job of explaining one possible narrative for how primitive RNA evolved into RNA and then DNA. He offers up an interesting theory as to how DNA came to be the master and RNA the slave, which is an important event in the history of life. The presentation here is a nice primer for the general reader on the basics of genetic theory.

What really works here is his use of simple concepts that he stacks together to explain more complex ideas. For example, describing the relationship between your genes and your body as something like the relationship between a machine operator and the machine, is useful in understanding why our bodies will evolve over time. Our body is there to serve our genes, so any innovation that is better for our DNA is adopted, while changes that are not useful are discarded. Our body is a vehicle for DNA.

The negative here is that the language and analogies don’t always work. Using the office printer to explain how gene mutation works is clever, but calling it a trickster printer will give the American reader the wrong impression. The same is true for his use of the phrase “fool replicator.” This is probably a language issue, as Gariepy is French. The word trickster and fool have different connotations to French speakers than they do to English speakers, especially Americans, who think tricksters and fools are immoral.

Another complaint about the book, and one of the trade-offs with brevity, is it assumes the reader has recently read Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins. In fact, it is probably a good idea to read The Selfish Gene before reading this book, as Gariepy refers to it extensively in the first third of the book. Again, this is the trade-off that comes from brevity and summarizing the material for a general audience. In this case, it is a minor complaint and it does not ruin the book or invalidate his arguments.

The final complaint about the book is that he spends 80% of the text explaining the transition from simple RNA molecules to the complex DNA-based life. That’s about 100 pages, which is a great short primer on a difficult to understand subject. The rest of the book is a dash to the finish line, explaining how the rise of artificial intelligence spells the end of DNA-based life. There’s a strong impression that this part was rushed in order to get the book done and ready for sale. The book sort of ends with a thud.

Without giving too much away, Gariepy argues that RNA used DNA as sort of a bank vault for its code base. When it needed to copy itself, it did so from that copy stored in the DNA molecule. Eventually, the DNA molecule was able to replicate itself, without help from its RNA master. This set off a battle between RNA and DNA, which DNA won, turning RNA into its servant. This same process is about to happen with artificial intelligence, as AI becomes self-aware and able to self-replicate.

That sounds like the premise of a lot of science fiction stories, but it is both an interesting entry point to understanding artificial intelligence and the dynamic between environment, humans and man’s ability to alter his environment. There’s enough there for another book and maybe that’s the plan, but Gariepy only gives it about twenty pages and it felt very rushed. Given his YouTube audience, most of his readers are more interested in how life ends, rather than how it begins. They will undoubtedly feel a bit cheated.

Overall, the first half of the promise, to tell the story of how life began, works pretty well for the intended audience. It’s not a research paper or a bold new hypothesis to explain the origin of life. It is more of a summary of current thinking in a style that the general reader can follow and understand. The second promise could have worked, but it needed a fuller treatment than what Gariepy delivers. Otherwise, it is a book worth reading, if you have an interest in evolutionary biology or the origins of life on earth.

Technology And Social Trust

People working in criminal law have been saying for years that Hollywood’s portrayal of forensic evidence has made it more difficult to prosecute criminals. They call it the “CSI Effect” named after a TV police drama. It is where jurors demand comprehensive forensic evidence, which effectively raises the burden of proof in criminal cases. Instead of eye witness testimony placing a suspect at the crime scene, jurors now expect physical evidence and testimony from an expert on the use of DNA to identify the suspect.

There’s no data to support this observation, but it is something that gets said a lot on TV, so everyone believes it. The increased expectation of what science can do has effectively raised the standard of proof. Another way to look at this is better technology has lowered the standard of trust. It used to be that people could trust themselves to judge the testimony of a witness. They could count on citizens being honest to them. Now, they want physical proof before taking the word of anyone in criminal court.

Of course, now that people in the legal system think this phenomenon is true, they operate on the assumption that no one will take anyone’s word for anything. That means the state invests in high tech forensic labs and pays a lot of experts to testify to jurors in criminal trials about the physical evidence. On the other side, the defense thinks simply being innocent is not enough, so they require experts and private labs to both provide an objective denial of guilt, as well as a counter to the state’s battery of experts.

It is a great example of how new technology can have unexpected results when introduced into a complex system like the criminal justice system. The underlying assumption of our system is that regular citizens can weigh the evidence and decide the guilt or innocence of the accused. Now the assumption is no one can weigh the evidence, other than specially trained experts. Technology has conjured into reality the idea of the fair witness from Stranger in a Strange Land.

The courtroom is not the only place where technology is causing us to lose faith in our senses. The advent of the hyperlink has made it so that any controversial assertion on-line is assumed to be false if it does not have a link to an authoritative source. In every on-line community you see demands for links to authoritative sources, whenever there is a dispute over something. These appeals to a neutral authority correspond to a decline in the lack of trust between people. It’s not true unless you have a link.

Something similar may be happening in the news. Take the Jussie Smollett incident in Chicago. Exactly no one believed him, because there was no video and no corroboration from a neutral technology source, like a cell phone camera. As soon as the cops revealed they could not find confirmation on their surveillance cameras, everyone just assumed it must be a hoax. There were plenty of doubters to begin with, given the number of prior hoaxes, but even the gullible are now expecting proof from technology.

The proliferation of cameras and now listening devices on public streets means it is increasingly difficult to do anything without being seen. Even if that is not true, it is assumed to be true. That means if there is no video, it did not happen. It also means if there is no video, there is no investigation, as the cops will soon figure out that it is waste of time to investigate crimes unless you can get video. The criminal mastermind of the future will be the guy who figures out how to avoid being identified by CCTV.

Another way the proliferation of technology changes social trust is seen on the college campus. In order to avoid being accused of rape, males now tape their interactions with coeds. They may have a buddy record audio so they can prove the encounter was consensual. Young people are growing up to expect everything to be recorded and to not trust anyone unless they can see video or hear audio. People mock the idea of getting consent in writing, but that’s probably better than everyone taping their encounters.

The other side of this coin is the casual way in which people allow themselves to be recorded by others. Every internet drama seems to involve one party publishing chats, video or audio of another party. Super villain Jeff Bezos is an obvious example. He broke the cardinal rule of super villains. Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod. Most important, never send pics of you wiener to people. He was cavalier about being recorded and now is the world’s silliest super villain.

The result of all this is two things. One is the total lack of privacy. The only place that will be safe for anyone to imagine bad things is in their own head. When the internet of things is quietly spying in every home, car and public place, there will no longer be the concept of privacy. Imagine a land where there are no walls and no clothes. Everyone walks around naked and in full view of everyone else. It sounds crazy, but people adapt. The citizens of the future custodial state will get used to a word without privacy.

The other thing is no one will take anyone’s word for anything. This will include people in authority. If you can’t trust your own senses, you’re unlikely to trust the senses of some guy on television claiming to be your leader. Civic duty will have to be replaced with some form of coercion. Perhaps nudge technology will reach a point where the nudged will think they are acting of their own free will. Maybe the people in charge will fit everyone with a WiFi enabled technology collar that ties them into the internet of things.

It is assumed that technological advance always improves the material world. It certainly seems that way. It’s possible, however, that the trade-off for technological advance is the decline in social trust, maybe even a decline in empathy. In order for these new technologies to thrive, people have to abandon their ability to share the feelings of others and maybe even abandon their sense of self. The future will be a world of indifferent automatons, living in glass houses, under the eye of the state.

Old And Busted

Way back in the before times, at the dawn of the interwebs, I had some dealings with a small niche publisher. He had a few small newspapers he sold that focused on narrow subjects. Before the internet, there were a lot of these publications. Some were in the magazine format, while others were like a small newspaper. The model was to charge a relatively high subscription fee to a small audience. They could not sell ads, so the only way they could survive was on high subscription rates to loyal fans.

One day, this publisher starts telling me about his plans to abandon the old model and move to the internet. That way he could cut his production and postage costs, which were the biggest part of his operation. I asked him how he was going to handle the revenue side, as this was before firewalls and on-line payment processing, He said he was going to make up the difference with clicks. After some back and forth, I told him banks don’t take clicks, so he better come up with a way to make money, rather than clicks.

The guy thought I was just ignorant about the way the future would work, so he dismissed my skepticism. He was not alone. In the 1990’s, everyone was given a disk and then a CD that allowed them to get on-line and feel like there were on the cutting edge of technology. They were in the new economy, with clicks and traffic, not the old economy with money and expenses. It was a good lesson in human nature. Take people out of their natural environment and you suddenly see their raw cognitive ability.

That story comes to mind whenever there are layoffs in media and the media people start analyzing what went wrong. This story at Wired is better than most, but the fact that it needs to be written at this late date says a lot about the people in the media. By now, everyone should know that the newspaper model was never about the news. It was about the distribution system. The newspaper brought ads and marketing material to the people at a cost and efficiency no one could match. That was always their business.

The news part was the marketing expense. People would buy the paper because of gossip or the sports pages. The news was only interesting when something interesting was happening. Otherwise, the so-called hard news side was a sinkhole. When the internet robbed these operations of their distribution hegemony, the logic of their business went with it. When the internet robbed them of gossip and sports, they were left with hard news, which has a tiny market, but huge expense.

This was obvious by the middle of the Bush years. Yet people in the news business have never noticed. Today, in a world where most everyone knows most news is fake, just made up by desperate losers looking for attention, the point should be impossible to ignore, but here we are anyway. After Vice, Huffington Post and Buzzfeed cut staff in what will be a long journey into insolvency, the media was full of hand wringing about the state of journalism. It suggests the people in the media are not terribly bright.

That still leaves open the question as to why no one can find a model for news that is sustainable, without rigging the market or relying on the charity of billionaires. The on-line advertising model was always a bit of sham and that is becoming increasingly clear as Google and Facebook monopolize the space. Even there, the viewership of the ads is declining, as people employ counter measures. The result is more people are exposed to ads, but fewer people are watching them. At some point, that becomes a problem.

What may be true of the news business is that without monopoly or oligopoly power, it cannot exist beyond some scale. That is, a form of Brook’s Law comes into play. The more journalists that are added to a news enterprise, beyond some optimal number, the faster the enterprise descends into insolvency. A single journalist can create enough content for a theoretical maximum of consumers. Two journalists, however, can produce something less than the sum of those theoretical maximums.

This would explain why local papers somehow manage to bugger on, despite what is happening to city broadsheets and even tabloids. It’s not that the local paper fills a niche, which is certainly true. It’s that it never grows beyond a certain size and that size is well below the failure point. The people working in it don’t see themselves as a secular clerisy and instead take a practical view of their job. As a result, the cultural dynamic inside the organization is like you see inside any small local business.

Another point worth mentioning is that it has always been assumed a new economy would evolve to take advantage of the new efficiency brought on by technology, particularly the free flow of information on-line. What’s going on with mass media suggests maybe there is another option. Technology eliminates large chunks of economic activity, not through automation, but by making it impossible maintain barriers to entry. That is, when the price of something fully reflects all available information, the price drops to zero.

The Risk Of Speed

When it comes to automation, people tend to assume the robots will perform the same tasks as the humans they replace, just with fewer mistakes and fewer days off. While that is true, automation almost always means changing how the work gets done, in order to break it into discrete operations. Instead of a man at a workstation, doing a series of tasks, each task is done as a single event by a single robot. This simplifies the task of automation and reduces the cost of the automation by eliminating variables.

This atomization of the work not only makes the work process more efficient, it changes how the humans have to analyze it. Instead of focusing on the people, they must focus on the process. That’s always part of process improvement, but because the process changes and the variables change, new phenomenon turn up in the process. In statistics, they say quantity has a quality all its own. In automated systems, speed has a quality all its own. Those super fast, super accurate robots change the nature of the process.

Think of the game of table tennis. It is a pretty simple game, in terms of strategy. The players try to trick one another with various tactics like setting up a shot or putting spin on the ball so it is hard to return. Player A will use top spin to force Player B to change how he strikes the ball. At some point Player A will change, thus fooling Player B, who then hits the ball beyond the far edge of the table. Alternatively, one player will make the other player move side to side, increasing the chances of a physical error.

If you are coaching table tennis, it is all about training the human to play against the other human. Now, replace the players with robots. The first thing that changes is the players will not make physical errors. So, the side to side business no longer makes sense. The same is true of using ball spin to induce a physical error. The robots will strike the ball correctly each time. In other words, when you remove human error and human emotion from the game, the strategy of the game has to change as well.

It also means the game changes. For example, the team that makes the first robot player will build it to capitalize on human error. Soon, other teams will replace their humans with robots. At that point, everyone stops trying to exploit human error. Instead, they are trying to make faster robots. If their robots can exceed the physical limits of the other robots, then they win. Soon, there is an arms race between the robot builders to make the fastest robot, in terms of physical response, along with the faster processors.

If you stop and think about what this would look like, it sounds kind of cool at first. The first robots would be slow and stupid, but eventually they would pretty amazing. They would go from amusing to terrifying as the speed of the game would become incomprehensible to humans. The speed, agility and processing power of the machines would have the ball flying through the air near its maximum velocity of 900 miles per hour. The paddles would be made of special material, in order to prevent them from flying apart.

Automating the game of table tennis would first result in removing the strategy of the game that exploits human failure. This would be true of any system that is being automated. System analysis would also change as the speed of the machines would create new points of failure and new challenges, in terms of finding efficiency and a competitive edge. In other words, as the problem solving shifts from the human variable to the engineering issues, system analysis has to change accordingly.

Now, instead of robots playing table tennis, let’s think of something else. Currently, close to 90% of trades in the equities markets are done by robots, which are just computer programs attached to the financial system. These programs have access to financial data throughout the system, which is inputted into their systems and the output is the buy and sell decisions. Teams of smart people called “quants” spend endless hours fine-tuning their programs to make them faster and more efficient at trading equities.

If you read the book The Money Game, which was written in the 1960’s, it presciently predicted the rise of the machines in the financial markets. What was clear to smart people at the dawn of the robot age, but not clear to most people, is the old systems regulating and controlling markets would not hold up to automation. It took the Black Monday crash of 1987 for everyone to realize that the controls had to change in order to accommodate the new robot players in the financial system.

In the 2000’s, the rise of high speed trading algorithms and large scale trading models eventually broke the system again. The emergence of the so-called “flash-crash” was entirely due to speed. While the first phase of automation removed the normal human checks on trading, resulting in runaway selling, the next phase of automation allowed for bad human decisions, like errors in trading algorithms, to be implemented so quickly, the systems could not respond. The result was erroneous sell-offs.

That brings us to the current market volatility. The decline itself is getting all of the attention, mostly for marketing and political reasons. The dullards in the media know how to sell gloom and they like blaming bad news on Trump. Historically, this bear market is not important. Whether it is called a correction or a bear market, the numbers are not all that significant. We’ve seen much worse. No one is jumping from their office windows and the public is not banging the sell button on the investment account.

What’s unique about this market is the weirdness. There is sustained volatility, but also a sustained decline, that does not appear to correlate to factors in the economy or in the financial system. The tiniest bit of news can cause wild swings. Apple announced what everyone should have known by now, that their toys are not selling as well as in the past, and the market takes a big tumble. Apple shares dropped 10% in minutes. Of course, this ripples to the rest of the market in seconds as well.

What could be happening is the next phase of automation. The speed and complexity of the algorithms are no longer comprehensible by the humans involved in the system. Like our table tennis playing robots, a level of speed and complexity passes the event horizon of humans to comprehend. Watching the robots play table tennis would be like watching a whirl of stars, beautiful, but impossible for the mind to fathom. Similarly, the new market dynamics may be reaching the limits of human regulators to fathom.

This is not to imply that the robot traders have become aware and are now taking control of the system from humans. That would be interesting, but the robots are still relatively dumb. Instead, they have reached levels of efficiency and speed that exceeds our ability to model properly. The result is the wild volatility and the seemingly irrational behavior of the markets. Put another way, this is the age of basic ideas implemented so fast and with such efficiency, they become irrational to their human creators.

The Persistence of Bad Ideas

The old line about a lie being halfway around the world before the truth is out of bed is a keen observation, but it also suggests something about the nature of lies. That is, a lie that gets around has some appealing quality to it. The reason it spreads so quickly is people want to believe it. There’s something about it that ticks all the right boxes. As a result, even smart and skeptical people, not only want to believe it, but they want to help everyone else believe it. Some lies turn everyone they touch into willing accomplices.

Bad ideas are like that too. For some reason, people want to believe them, even when it really makes no sense to believe them. For example, most people still think your diet can have a significant impact on your health. That if you eat fatty foods, you will have a heart attack. At the extremes this is true, but most disease is genetic. When it comes to heart disease, diet has nothing to do with it. The same is true of things like cholesterol levels, where there is little data to support a link between “bad” cholesterol and heart disease.

Part of what drives the persistence of bad ideas is they seem to address a need among modern people to believe in free will. As the human sciences build the case that we are the product of our genetic coding, the need to believe we can overcome that by force of will becomes stronger. Therefore, if you have a family history of heart disease, you want to believe eating unpleasant food, like some form of preemptive penance, will ward off the reality of your genetic makeup. Your diet becomes a moral issue for you.

The concept of epigenetics seems to be following a similar path. It is becoming this catchall idea that lets people ignore what we know, in favor of speculative nonsense that has no supporting data. This set of long posts on the Arktos site the other day are a good example of the phenomenon. The argument from the author is that epigenetics is proving that experiences can be passed onto subsequent generation through a biological process, just as genetic traits like eye color are passed on from parent to child.

The author is picking up on something Oswald Spengler argued. That is, the land of a people shapes their sense of identity, how they see themselves and their purpose. This in turn shapes their culture. The author of the Arktos piece thinks science is proving that these collective cultural experiences as a people are shared, but also passed on to subsequent generations via the miracle of epigenetics. He points to some papers on the subject and this study on the children of holocaust survivors.

The original definition of epigenetics¹ is the study of how genes are expressed, from a biological perspective. Your DNA contains instructions for determining your eye and hair color, for example, but it also contains instructions for more subtle things like personality traits. You inherit your DNA from your parents. Epigenetics refers to ways in which those genes are turned on and off. Genes are the blueprint for creating proteins, while epigenetics is the study of how genes are read.

The way in which epigenetics is used here and in popular writing is the claim that your experiences can somehow be passed onto your children. This is complete nonsense and there is no evidence to support it. You cannot pass on your experiences to your off-spring through any known biological processes. This nutty idea was cooked up by left-wing agitators so they could claim victim-hood by proxy. Their ancestors were treated poorly, so they are now suffering from the same effects, as part of their biological inheritance.

To now put this bad idea to use in the name of race realism or the moral philosophy of Oswald Spengler is amusing, but every bit as a nutty. As Greg Cochran once put it, this line of reasoning is like saying if you chop off a cat’s tale, it’s kittens will be born without tales. There’s simply no known biological process for passing on experiences or learned behavior. In fact, the changes to how your genes are read as a result of environmental factors are reset in the zygote. In other words, you can’t pass on your experiences.

Now, the author of the Arktos piece is probably a nice guy with good intentions. His background is history and theology, so he can be forgiven for not understanding the human sciences part of this. That raises the question of why epigenetics is so attractive an explanation for someone without math or science. Why embrace something about which you know nothing? The obvious answer is it supports his main point, but another aspect of it is that old need to believe in free will. We are not just moist robots.

In this way, bad ideas are like great salesmen. The bad idea always flatters the person willing to believe it. Pitchmen and motivational speakers have relied on flattery since forever, because people like being flattered. The flattery of free will is that you, unlike the rest of those slobs out there, control your destiny. The promise of epigenetics is that your decisions today will alter the lives of generations to come, because your decisions will be passed onto them, whether they like it or not. You are a god.

Of course, it also suggests something about the future. Many think that the unriddling of the human genome will usher in an age of reason. The fact that our theological overlords have suddenly become evangelical opponents of the human sciences, while embracing things like epigenetics, suggests otherwise. Belief is powerful magic, that has always found a way to override factual reality. That’s probably the main reason bad ideas are like drug resistant viruses. They make it easy to avoid facing reality.

¹I’m not writing a biology textbook here, so if you’re tempted to sperg out on the science, restrain yourself. This is not a post about science.