April 26, 2024

The tower

by Suspended Reason

Molly Hitte, Ideas of Order in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon:

Gravity’s Rainbow itself seems held at the edge of discovery. In its encyclopedic scope, the novel appears dedicated to the proposition that everything is connected: there are insinuated links between synthetic polymerization and the evolution of the earth; between astrophysics and psychic phenomena; between African dialects and Rilkean poetics; between international cartels and Freemasonry; between comic books and covenant theology; between Orphism, Parsifalism, Tannhaüserism, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X; between German idealism, Pavlovian psychology, and the American cult of the good-guy loner. Just as these links could be extended, so the connections reach out in all directions, associating disparate bodies of knowledge in such intricate configurations that the universe seems on the point of cohering like a giant molecule dreamed by some macrocosmic Kekulé. But the novel remains at the level of secondary illumination and leading edges. The synthetic dream never occurs. The text refuses to yield a culminating vision of the universe as blindingly One…

One of the themes that keeps arising, in various Discords & reading groups I’m part of—including, of course, TIS—is the failure and impossibility of totalizing codes. We try to get to the bottom” of reality, and unify all our understanding into a single coherent picture, only to find that bottom, that coherence, continually eluding us. At some point we stop looking.

There are three ways—all treated at length by Pynchon—that the world stays mysterious to us, refuses to fully yield, defies attempts at a final, complete and coherent conceptualization.

First is the passage of time, and the inevitable information loss through material degradation, which is unrecoverable. We can never know what was spoken in an anonymous English sitting room in 1708, because the soundwaves did not leave a sufficiently lasting imprint in the environment. Perhaps they were partially written down, but the paper was destroyed. Perhaps they were only inscribed neuronally, but the individuals who remembered died without re-inscribing the information in print. Most of historical happenings are unrecoverable in this way.

Second is the active obfuscation of information by interested agents. Perhaps there is a record—whether meat-memory or ink-print—of what was said last year in a Defense Department conference room. But it is closely guarded; the information exists, but is suppressed. Moreover, any information that has leaked about the conference room discussion—which has escaped suppression—may still be strategically obfuscated through the emission of further information by interested parties (e.g. the DoD)—thus further confusing the situation. There may have once been sufficient information to make a reasonable guess about the contents of the conversation, but there is now insufficient information, not because there is less information available but, quasi-paradoxically, because there is more.

Finally, there is the simple fact of the terrain’s complexity, of the Borgesian map that is so vast it cannot be written or spoken. When dealing with inexactitude, we are dealing with lossy compression, and there will always be parts of the world which are left out. Pynchon thought of these left-out excesses through a frankenhybrid of Gödelian Incompleteness and Murphy’s Law: Whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and whatever can go wrong is whatever endless-excess-complexity has been excluded from your model. Which partial model we choose becomes a matter of pragmatism: the question is what you want to do with it.

We might call the first type paleontological or archaeological indeterminacy; the second type, strategic or ecological indeterminacy; the third type, pragmatic or ontological indeterminacy.

Thomas Pynchon literature ambiguity indeterminacy

April 25, 2024

The translator

by Cristóbal


The dominant subject today is subcultural. They are fluent in a language (slang, jargon, clothing, music, etc) originating within a circumscribed community. Acquiring the language is a natural process of affiliation with those around the individual, regardless of whether it is a response to concrete material conditions or interpellated into existence through marketing. Critically, it involves the explicit development of a particular field of competence, determining scarcity, as well as the performance of the language to be legible as member, both to peers and external watchers.

What is notable is the subculture’s financialization. As legible and scarce, they become a commodity to be transacted and attract the eyes of financial capital. Speaking the language gives access to not only the in-group and a sensation of belonging, but also the associated spoils. Once inserted into the marketplace, the subculture must respond to their new position as commodity—only consistency can guarantee fungibility.

As such, belonging to a subculture is not free. It is accompanied by a social rigidity—the necessity of continuing to enact the subculture chosen. If these demands become untenable, the house of cards collapses, and the subject is disgraced.

In the first volume of Rabelais’ comic work, upon hearing of his reputation, Thaumaste challenges Pantagruel to a public debate in order to test the protagonist’s erudition. To escape sophistry, it is proposed that the debate take place in the form of signs, rather than with words. The demand of performing his erudition leaves Pantagruel in a anxious state. He spends the evening reading up Bede, On Numbers and Signs; Plotinus, On Things Which Cannot be Told; Proclus, On Magic; Artemidorus, On the Meanings of Dreams; Anaxagoras, On Signs; Ynarius, On Things Which Cannot Be Uttered; and Philistion, Hipponax, On Things Not to Be Spoken, and a whole lot more.

Perceiving his stage fright, Panurge intervenes recommending he go to sleep, but not before a good twenty-five or thirty drinks. Panurge is Pantagruel’s companion, who will subvert the demands of erudition through jest. He declares himself to Thaumaste as mere disciple of Pantagruel, and as such, a prelude to the real debate. After a series of comical back-and-forth signs (worth reading and re-enacting), Panurge lays the final blow—

Panurge put his two index fingers either side of his mouth, pulling it as far back as he could and baring all his teeth; and with his two thumbs he pulled his eyelids very deeply down, making a very ugly grimace”

Rabelais’ character does not take the challenge head on. It is a literature of lightness, of humor and wit, taking life not with the strong wide stance of a defender, but with the grace of deflection of Aikido, a matador’s olé at the bull fixed on the red cape. Life comes at you and you elegantly side-step and laugh at it strewn out against the floor. Is this not Calvino’s auspicious image for the millennium?

The sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing that with all his gravity he has the secret of lightness, and that what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.

Who is this subject that Rabelais presents us? Bakhtin offers the categories of the rogue’s subversion of rules, the clown’s playful mocking of language, and the fool’s stupidity which estranges us. I’ll offer a fourth: the translator. Their identity is not located within a group, but rather in the interstices between them. They too agents of heteroglossia”, many voices coexistent within the same entity, bringing into question the stability of any one frame. As we know, translation is the most intimate one can be with a text.

Only a cursory understanding of their role would suggest that they are unserious and unwilling to be invested in any particular identity, split between two poles. Both embedded within the habitus, while also able to step out of this frame, the translator must be able to deconstruct the vortexes that funnel behaviour into compact homogeneous points. Unlike the performer, the translator cannot simply sail in style, but must understand the ocean currents driving the movement of the waves from underneath. It is notable that two of the most incisive characterizations of the United States come from immigrants: a Swiss (Robert Frank’s The Americans) and a German (Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas).

The translator too longs for belonging. Philosophy is really homesickness,” says Novalis: it is the urge to be at home everywhere.” The nomad may pack light, but they are attuned to the changes of the land. Wim Wenders even has stated in interviews that, were he not a filmmaker, he’d be a tour guide.

April 24, 2024

Taste test

by Neil

This is a friend’s favorite pet anecdote, from Liquid Intelligence, Dave Arnold’s 2014 deep dive on cocktails.

Lime juice is an extremely common cocktail ingredient, and no self-respecting mixologist would use the stuff in the green plastic squirt bottles. Intuitively, we might expect fresh-squeezed lime juice to be the best — it’s fresh! But Dave Arnold had the idea to actually run a taste test, and:

Not surprisingly, the day-old juice always loses. Surprisingly, the lime juice that is several hours old usually wins over lime juice that is superfresh.

But why? He continues:

My subjects for these tests were predominately professional American bartenders. Most good American bartenders use lime juice that is juiced at the beginning of the shift and therefore is several hours old during service. My cocktail compatriot Don Lee ran this same test with a bunch of European bartenders, who typically juice their limes à la minute. They tended to choose fresh lime juice over any of the other batches. Best, therefore, may just be what you are used to.

In this situation, at least, good taste” emerges from the practical properties of the medium. Hours-old lime juice is not a priori the best, but once you learn unconsciously that the taste of hours-old lime juice is associated with high quality, it comes along for the ride.

April 23, 2024

On aliveness, pt 3: Ecological axes

by Suspended Reason


How else do environments—ecosystems; arenas of gameplay from the perspective of a player—differ?

They differ in the quality of a player’s sensory exposure to other players. This exposure may more or less direct, more or less mediated, more or less proximate and prolonged. There are those we know and interact with only through their public speeches, their press releases and fourth-hand rumors. There are those we live and deal with directly, day in day out. And our ability to falsify appearances—the ability of others to falsify their appearances—is much greater in the mediated, indirect and clipped” relation than the unmediated, direct and prolonged one.

These other players will vary in their alignment to us, and vary across contexts. The family burrow, the the clonal superorganism’s nest, are highly aligned social environments. Out in the open, we are more exposed. Alignment entails cooperation; cooperation entails upholding and assisting another’s accomplishment of intentions. Conflict, by converse, is marked by the subversion of another’s projects.

Thus the environments we inhabit also take on cooperative or adversarial shapes; even the non-living, inert” aspects of an environment can be arranged so as to subvert or uphold our intentions. The termite mound minimizes both the thermodynamic and informational entropy of its occupants. A highway is built to be as predictable as possible: the road infrastructure all around the world is markedly similar in form and pattern, so as to assure safe navigability. Cooperative built environments are inductive, while adversarial built environments are anti-inductive.

Environments vary too in the number and diversity of players. An ecosystem may be more scarce or abundant in resources; and the more resources, the more energy, the more players. Areas nearer to the equator receive more sun; this increase of energy means more life, more diversity. But abundance is also a relational descriptor, the capacity of a player to harvest and use its environment. In carbon-rich environs, thick with life, abundance is another way of saying that that a player or set of players is temporarily advantaged or disadvantaged respective to other players—in other words, power and abundance may be different descriptions of the same ecological position.

An ecosystem may be more or less institutionalized, more or less formalized and ritualized. They may differ in their degree of virtualization and mediation (and hence, in how distant or proximate an average evaluation will be). And they may be more or less stable, may have higher or lower frequencies of disruption, and their players faster or slower rates of adaptation.

aliveness ecology generalized reading alignment coordination built environment legibility scarcity formalization anti-inductive

April 22, 2024

From the opus operatum to the modus operandi: habitus, a primer


Structuralism is viewed as a failed project. How could it not have failed? It desired the world entire, to render reality as a series of objective relationships that could be represented objectively—to stabilize the world’s fluidity in a diagram. In wanting to investigate and ultimately formalize society and its structures from a bird’s eye view, the distance inherent in looking at life from the outside of experience was never going to withstand the destabilizing force of perspectivism. Structuralism did a good job of diagramming how things are done, but it could never pierce the interior of why they’re done.

Enter Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of the habitus. It’s a solution to a problem he saw at the heart of structuralist anthropology: an emphasis on the results of a practice over the modes of a practice in trying to diagram a culture’s logic. In other words, confusing ends for means, using an action’s what’ to explain its why’. Bourdieu believed that was all wrong, that any framework trying to capture how a culture operates must incorporate the practical reasons that underlie our associations and actions, reasons that are often left unsaid. He theorized that our interactions with each other and social reality more generally are a product of the habitus, a model accounting for how we manage to have regular, efficacious responses to similarly structured situations across different contexts—responses common to a particular cultural set, too—that nonetheless are experienced as intuitive and natural, present and particular.

So what is the habitus? It’s the collection of dispositions that make up the field of possible ways that a person might read a situation and all the ways in which they might respond to that situation. The dispositions themselves are simultaneously frames and heuristics, lending consciousness its scope by gently nudging our interpretations and actions like a silent Virgil through life’s many turns. The habitus is the product of the structures that govern an environment, such as the educational opportunities afforded to members of a given class. While material conditions are integral in shaping one’s habitus, they aren’t deterministic. Two people growing up under the exact same economic conditions in the same city might not have the same family structure, a meaningful difference as far as the composition of the habitus is concerned. No single material condition will dictate the field of possibles—it’s about the totality of the conditions of one’s life, historically indexed and contextually sensitive. Habitus also isn’t deterministic as far as a particular interpretation or action is concerned; it’s not that you will necessarily have X-response to Y-situation, or that X-response was primed to be played before you entered into Y-situation. It’s akin to a deck of cards: the card pulled isn’t predetermined, but what is certain are the number and compositions of the cards that could have been pulled. Finally, the makeup of the field of possibles isn’t static—the habitus updates and changes as new situations are encountered, as old actions that once work fall flat or become outmoded.

Habitus is both structured and structuring: it is shaped by shared values and hierarchies, digesting the perspectives of others insofar as those perspectives reflect the relationships that shape society, and, conversely, the actions issued from the habitus mold the world to its past-in-present structuring. A product of the explicit and implicit statements that scaffold social reality; an organ that decodes and signals simultaneously.

We’ve learned that to be alive is to be in dialogue with the world, to be reading it and writing to it always. The habitus lends a new angle to the ecological perspective, one that allows for the objectivity of material conditions to exist alongside the subjective experience of how those conditions affect us. It admits that we are the product of our environments and that our actions and reactions are fit to past experiences, without tying the selection process to a mechanistic model of interaction that presupposes every move’s intent is to produce its explicit purpose. The habitus’ connective tissue is association, not unconditional reason or extra-rational biases. Through alignment and misalignment, through success and failure, through incentives and demoralization a sensitive, historical, and dynamic impression of the world is built through which information is processed, in which heuristics are stored, and from which actions are born. A response can be—in fact is—both conditioned and intuitive, pragmatic and spontaneous. Or it least it should be if you’re not a rock.

Pierre Bourdieu habitus structuralism generalized reading strategic interaction association

April 21, 2024

Free is easy, cheap is hard

by Collin Lysford

Here is a level one question from the PISA test aimed at 15 year olds:

an economic case study mirroring Shapman’er and Ariely’s “How Small is Zero Price?”

According to the text”, the answer is D. The word free” makes you less thoughtful. But is it such a bad thing to be less thoughtful?

If someone wants to hand you a free voucher, you can’t lose money for holding it in your hands. (Unless you’re someone easily bullied by fast-talking strangers, but then they could do that with anything.) Do you like the store or not? Does the voucher expire? Do you have time to read the terms? Did you just pop in to use the bathroom and have about five seconds before you piss all over this social sciences grad student? Free means not needing to care about all this. It makes you less thoughtful in the sense that catching a baseball is less thoughtful then doing trigonometry to figure out where the ball ought to go. You’re thinking less because you’re busy accomplishing the goal.

To the credit of Shapman’er and Ariely, in the original study, they mostly get there:

One reason for this could be that that the decision to take a chocolate for free is a much simpler decision, and that simplicity could be the driver of higher affect (Tversky and Shafir 1992, Luce 1998, Iyengar and Lepper 2000, Benartzi and Thaler 2002, Schwarz 2002, Diederich 2003, Gourville and Soman 2005). In particular, a free Hershey’s involves benefits and no costs, while a Lindt for any positive price involves both benefits and costs — it is possible that options that have only benefits create more positive affect compared with options that involve both benefits and cots [sic].

But positive affect” is just another head on that horrid hydra utility. Why does a zero cost option have to create more of an abstract measure to be a legible choice? The fact that you can shortcut away from numbers is exactly what’s so nice about free. If you need to encode that shortcut as a number, then of course that encoding is going to seem counter-intuitive. You don’t like thinking about a precise number of dollars? Interesting. Precisely how many dollars is that worth to you? In numbers, please.”

This is why I really dislike the frame of the word free shaking all rationality” out of you. Rationality here stands for an endless hunger for arbitrage, an utter devotion to the fungibilty of dollars. 20-for-7 forces you to orient yourself towards the market in a way 10-for-free doesn’t. If you have infinite trust in the market and always accept this orientation, this is fine. But that’s a real easy way to get scammed! If you get a DM from two twitter bots, one offering $100 of free bitcoin” and another offering $1000 worth of bitcoin for only $100”, then surely most of us would take the first one if we took any at all. There’s obviously a lot more risk involved in forking over money to get something than the risk in passively accepting. (And even that is not risk zero! If they are a cop they do not actually need to tell you.) This distinction is very salient in bounced check fake job scams: someone will ask I got this remote job that seems too good to be true, but I’m not paying anything, so I don’t understand how it can be a scam?” Then they learn the dirty trick: the scammer is going to give you an overgenerous check, ask you to pay them back the difference, and then the check will bounce in a couple of days and you’ll be on the hook.

Wow, that’s devious! If only there was a way to be safe to those sort of attacks! Wait, there is; just hold on to your $7 instead of giving it away to the researcher on the promise of making $3 more than you otherwise would just taking the free thing. Damn, that was easy. For only $3, you too can avoid needing to figure out the motives of a behavioral economist. It’s another case of missing the latent structure because the assumption Everyone in this experiment trusts me and is treating my offerings for trivial amounts of value according to an internal pricing structure they consistently use for all pricing decisions” is one of those untrue things everyone agrees to pretend is true enough that they can keep doing the studies.

What is the real pricing structure people actually use? Well, when stuff gets weird, maybe it’s not a structure at all. Maybe they aren’t represneting this as an internal currency that just has some bonus affect value around zero. Maybe it’s more of a slow, contextual muddle that can handle the increased uncertainty.

behavorial economics bias

April 20, 2024

Notes on Pride & Prejudice

by Suspended Reason

  1. Austen is obsessed with card games, carriages, conversation, cotillions & quadrilles. The books’ primary seasonal rhythm is social, the oscillation between the public and the domestic life. Home is where teams” (families, friends, business allies) process past (public) outings & plan future ones. The carriages—obeying specific customs, and communicating depths about their occupants (e.g. one character gets cold-shouldered for arriving at a ball in a hack chaise)—cart the players from their private to their public arenas, where they engage in game-playing with real stakes: alliance-building, marital pledges, business deals—much of which happens through the bowerbird-like performance of sexual and class fitness (a la piano recitals, witty repartee), or in the conversations that pepper otherwise low-stake card games. And the players, organized as they are in these seasonal-social rhythms, occupy strategic macro-orientations in the stream: personalities, or masks, or “ecosystems of heuristics” which become Austen’s titular subjects: Pride, Prejudice, Sense, Sensibility.

  2. Dance is the ultimate example of these dynamics: part performance, part coordination exercise—a test of two potential mates’ ability to read and react to one another in real-time—a test of whether their orientations and play styles jive. Dances are the ultimate locus of conversation among the domestic team, when they retire from public play and speak more freely: who danced with whom; how many times; who upheld a sense of honorable propriety (fittedness, appropriateness) in subtle, continuously graded displays of both their skill at—and inclination toward (recall Mr. Darcy)—coordinating. Society is a teaching machine, whose primary pedagogical instrument is language. Censure is passed (privately and publicly, as gossip) against norm violations and undesired behavior; praise is awarded to norm-observance and desired behavior; and the whole macro structure is an extended explicit metaphor for courtship—love and war being dance’s primary subjects. (See e.g. the way many of the dances have a primary partner who is punctuated by a series of flirtations, partner-swaps—the same exploratory pattern of mate-rotation that defines e.g. teen dramas ft. Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, & Penn Badgley.)

  3. Jane Austen was perhaps the first microsociologist, and also one of the great theorists of opticracy. Pride & Prejudice is the great opticratic tract of the 19th C. Our heroine Elizabeth Bennet initially writes off her eventual love interest, Mr. Darcy—a man who abhors disguise of every sort”—on early impression. He appears prideful, conceited, cold, misanthropic. These appearances lead her instead to a flirtation with Mr. Wickham, a man who wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming,” whose appearance was greatly in his favour,” with all the best parts of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address.” But we soon find that Wickham is the worst sort of scoundrel, and Darcy has been gravely misunderstood.

  4. What is Darcy’s greatest failure? He fails to dramatically realize (and reenact) his inner qualities and past actions.

  5. And there is regularly a distinction drawn between the extrinsic and intrinsic motivations—between Ms. Bingley’s view of a private library as a status symbol, and Mr. Darcy’s view of the private library as a resource for personal development. It is precisely extrinsic motivation, and the extrinsic motivation of an individual toward gaining Mr. Darcy’s regard, which repels him—“The fact is,” Elizabeth tells him near the novel’s end, when they compare notes on their courtship, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused and interested you, because I was so unlike them.”

  6. And opticsmization (optimization for optics) is everywhere. Prestige is one of the great motivators, for marriages in Austen’s world—second only, perhaps, to economic capital—and the youngest daughter’s eventual elopement with Wickham threatens to taint the family’s reputation through association, the possibility of scandal a mortifying and potentially engagement-ending affair.

Jane Austen literature opticracy dance dramatic realization prestige ecology of practice gossip coordination courtship conversation microsociology games extrinsic-intrinsic

April 19, 2024

Cycles of knowledge

by Cristóbal

Different domains speak differently of the way knowledge is held. A psychoanalyst may speak about the real, imaginary, and symbolic, whereas a sociologist may be inclined towards the categories of charisma, rulers, and rules. Slightly higher in abstraction, we find the categories of experience, theory, and systems.

Each domain denominates types of agents that work towards transforming knowledge between its forms. A scientist transforms experience into theory through abstraction, and an engineer transforms that theory into a system that operates autonomously, through reification. Analogous structures appear in the domain of politics.

cycle 1

This is not a straightforward progression. At the end of the road, the system or rules that is established can’t represent everything There’s a forgotten excess. This one of the insights of psychoanalysis, which denominates this excess the Real while also finding a role for those that break outside of the symbolic. We can think of this process as a cycle.

cycle 2

The parallelism between these structures is the central point. In each domain, the triad is manifest is different ways while preserving a fundamental meta-structure. Because of the parallelism, we are able to ask: what corresponds to the schizophrenic in the domain of science or in the domain of politics”. This introduces the figures of artist and clown.

Similarly, the precise words chosen don’t quite matter either. For example, instead of abstraction, reification, and defamilizariation, you may prefer the terms formalization, exploitation, and subversion.

Different movements along these domains can be exemplified by examples of concrete actors. The parallelism in structures permits us to understand these examples under a variety of parallel categories.

cycle 3

The aim is not to define a person as responsible for a single style of movement, but rather to show how different actors are operating on knowledge in different ways.

cycle 4

This process is not actually a cycle. The new system we land at is not the same as the previous time around. Rather, it spirals in time. We can apply this to processes operating together over time, across different individuals.

cycle 5

A bit more ambitiously, we can represent this in three dimensions.

cycle 6

When we advance from one system to the next, we call it innovation. A shift in theory is what we call a paradigm shift. Interestingly, for both to happen, they need to go through the other forms of knowledge.

cycles epistemology frames defamiliarization abstraction formalization reification Marcel Duchamp Alain Robbe-Grillet Dieter Rams detection Flannery O’Connor Jorge Luis Borges art craft Donald Trump Jesus charisma

April 18, 2024

Untitled piece on discursive warfare in the history of computing (or: the piece before the piece titled “Whitewashing the MIT death machine”)


If we look at the ancient history of computers, there was lot of craft, intuitionistic reasoning, and spectacular visions far preceding analysis and theory predicting their behavior. Jacquard machines used paper-punched sheets to physically control weaving robots for over a century before some weird old fellow called Babbage talks up a calculator that never hits production. Jigs, machine tools, and physical tokens encoding measurements as tools to control mechanical systems are omnipresent in the American 19th century, again, nearly 100 years before lay histories of technology imagine the industrial robot to be invented.

Even in a world not yet graced by a theory of control systems’, we cannot help but trip and stumble over pre-paradigmatic systems of machine control’. Weirdly, the systems of machine control seemed a lot better in these days before the paradigm of the computer.

The mathematics that informs systems like aircraft bomb sights, mechanical looms, or the radar-station-guided anti-aircraft missile systems is pretty light on computational complexity’ as we understand it today. Most of the design challenge we’ll discover if we stare at the Nike missile system’s implementation is in physically building machines that can simulate the computational processes needed for the entire system, as an aggregate, to steer a very large bottle rocket.

What we see, instead, if we focus on the latter half of the 20th century is remarkably dissociated from the triumphs and horrors of the early computer. There is no beautiful swords-to-plowshares mythopoetic closure, where the ancient analytical engine of death powering a million bombs, ten billion anti-aircraft cannon shots, and a hundred thousand hand-crushing sweatshops is defanged and given a new identity to upbeat corporate filler music and frutiger aero visuals.

Rather than a symbolic and meaningful transition of power, where a generation of military and industrial analysts designers cede their field, allowing a new generation of peace-scholars to wrap their death-machines in a theoretical general purpose’ computer, something else happens. A pure, abstract, and inadequate theory of computing emerges, driven by a bunch of hucksters who cannot build self-stabilizing systems with the detail or complexity of Ross Ashby or Isaac Newton Lewis.

This new school’, which we can presume to be centered on Marvin Minsky in particular, never take over the project of designing and controlling mechanical systms driven by feedback and abstractions over direct measurements in the world. Instead, the new school’ mostly… does nothing? Instead of doing analysis, building theory, or encapsulating previous fields into a greater field responsible for previously disparate concerns, the new programmers’ litigate conceptual and social divisions which weaken the responsibility and breadth of the computer. Internal combustion engines, themselves incredibly cybernetic machines in their operation and design are considered a totally different field from computers in abstract’, even while they are increasingly making use of integrated circuits to solve chemical reaction optimization problems. The design, implementation, and healing of computer networks is split off into a discipline of information technology’ even and especially as network design abstracts away the individual computer and develops greater theoretical strength. In fact, information technology’ is cultivated as a social stratification, inventing a social class coded as dullards unfit to handle or program any single computer in particular, suitable only to do maintenance’ over appliances’.

We can no doubt discover hundreds of examples of automatic control systems and computers used to implement, govern, or interrogate feedback control systems. What we will notice with distressing consistency is that any use of a computer-in-the-world is déclassé, profaned, less serious than the academic nexus of high prestige MIT type guys’. This is especially so for applications that are empirically rigorous, taxing, or expose more challenging mathematical limits.

I cannot speak to the specific history of what must have played out in the systems of social power that determine what is/is not (academically) meritorious, or those which determine what sort of problems are to be funded/centered, or defunded/marginalized. But we are afforded some certainty that the invention of the indexical term artificial intelligence’ marks a period in history where abstract’, pure’, or artificial intelligence’ programming is gentrified. Thereafter, the general’, universal’, or artificial’ intelligence is treated as a more serious or fundamental concern than all of the other ways matter can be brought to life and made to carry a human’s will past the human’s dying breath. Coincidentally, everything that Marvin Minsky was personally bad at also seems to have withered.

In place of a conclusion, a TL:DR;

It sounds like something happened in the politics of resource distribution in the sciences. This something’ seems structured to deprive the ford guys’ (engine designers, airplane designers, machine tool programmers) of citations, honor, and relevance to history. Students memorize the name of Babbage, a man who didn’t build a computer, instead of Jacquard, a man who did. However this resource-distribution politics played out, the winners seem to have won really hard, establishing stifling norms that create a mysterious discontinuity in how computing and information systems are understood by laymen. In the 21st century, it feels commonsense that computers must have only been invented in the 1990s, and are about to change everything.

Imagine how disastrous it would be if someone were to finally wire up one of those computers to a gun or a bomb! It could mean the end of all war.

cybernetics computing Marvin Minsky Joseph-Marie Jacquard Charles Babbage intellectual history military history

April 17, 2024

Frames (strategic advantages in slanted information states, pt. 2)


A few weeks ago, I looked at the continued effectiveness of the play-action pass in football, how a defender’s incredibly low threshold for deception allows for the play to succeed consistently even as teams put fewer and fewer resources into running the ball. I want to follow up briefly on the framing problem that underlies the ontological tension between pro- and anti-analytics people in football. Ultimately, the groups are often talking about two very different historical experiences of the game at which they both look. For anti-analytics people who were habituated into the game at its lower levels, the run game is the most important part of football. That’s indisputable: it’s what’s coached, it’s what’s called–the entire game is based around running well and stopping the run. And given that success in that part of the game is most correlated with success at all but the highest levels (top-tier college and pro ball), it makes perfect sense why the run game would be the basis of everything even if it isn’t the most analytically efficient. So when those who have been habituated from the bottom up, when they talk about football’, they’re talking about a historical football, a game circumscribed by one’s early and foundational experiences with the game itself.

When analytics folks talk about the game, they’re talking about the game at the professional level, where the competition is so high that every and all edge needs to be explored for potential exploitation. So, from their perspective, if the data bares out that you should deploy X or Y strategy with more regularity because it’s an underutilized efficiency, there’s no tension between ontologies, because their ontology is circumscribed by the highest levels of competition only. And it’s easy to see why pro-analytics people would feel a kind of smugness when debating those who are against analytics: the former are able to be flexible in their understanding of and approach to the game state, because the football’ that they know is one that isn’t embodied and temporal.

Ultimately, I think this debate is a good example of embodied knowledge vs. theoretical knowledge. For those whom football’ refers both to the breadth of their experiences playing and watching the sport–the environment in which they were habituated–as it does to the sport itself, the stakes are high for them as far the discourse entailed by the growing prominence of analytics is concerned. In other words, it is literally more than just a game—it’s a perceived attack on their experience of the world as it is composed.

strategic interaction adversarial epistemology sports football frequency dependency frames ontology analytics games

April 16, 2024

Sense & Sensibility

by Neil

At the end of Volume I of Sense & Sensibility, Marianne is ghosted by a guy (Willoughby) she thought was about to propose to her. She holds out hope that there’s been some kind of misunderstanding. But we’re following along from the perspective of Marianne’s older sister, Elinor1, and we’re inclined to be skeptical. How do you know whether the rapport you have with someone is real?

Marianne puts a lot of emphasis on sensibility,” personal feeling, aesthetics. So immediately, she falls back on shared taste. She and Willoughby agreed that Cowper is great and Pope is mid, so they must have a real connection. We see another way this might have come about: Marianne was very vocal about her opinions, and all Willoughby had to do was play along.

Did Willoughby really ever like her? It turns out this is sort of the wrong question. He actually did really like Marianne, he’s just a very unstable person. He’ll flirt with you today, and if tomorrow he’s more worried about his financial situation, he’ll go off to marry a rich woman. The day after that, now that he’s financially stable, he’ll regret trapping himself in a comfortable but loveless marriage. And so on and so on.

So the coordination problem here is not so much about identifying a shared feeling — it’s about identifying whether that feeling, or whatever you want to call it, will cash out in a way that is compatible with your own understanding. Liking the same poets is not a reliable indicator of this, as people continue to discover today.

For Austen’s characters, the solution involves seeking out people of integrity, who can be observed to behave consistently with respect to their circumstances. But Austen had the advantage of living in a tightly circumscribed society, with a well-understood common code of expected behavior (at least within her social class). If this can still be done, it would have to be done without reference to an implicit unwritten handbook. How might that work?

  1. They have a third, younger sister, Margaret, who appears in maybe three scenes. It’s one of the least economical writing choices I’ve ever seen. Why does Jane Austen put her in there at all? Just to say the letter F”? Please DM me on Twitter if you have a better explanation.↩︎

Jane Austen literature coordination

April 15, 2024

On aliveness, pt 2: To make oneself a rock

by Suspended Reason


At first the jackals ignored him, but then two of them came straying over. He had the conviction that terror, his terror, would doom him and that the first thing he would have to do was make himself into a nonreacting entity: that is, stop thinking and make himself as much like the ground or the trees as he could. He had to stop sending out waves of fear and supplication. It was a process of deidentification, he called it. It soothed him to have this task.

He found it hard to talk about how he got into this deidentified condition. It was a formula, a certain order of images he made himself experience. It was an inner contortion. It had to do with making himself not feel the passage of time. In any case the jackals left him alone.

Mating, Norman Rush

I’m sitting in the sun, writing these lines, keeping still and closing my eyes as a dog and its walker pass my thin strip of meridian grass. If I were to noticeably notice them, I might feel obliged to shuffle my position, or look away, or play at occupation, or smile assuringly their way. But I am not in the mood to make space, or to recursively model. If I am plausibly ignorant of their presence, meditative or napping, then I am provided an excuse for any lapse of manner, any inappropriateness or lack of consideration. How could I be expected to have acted otherwise? And I can register, to the dog and the walker alike, as a non-presence—if I can make myself a rock—then the interaction becomes simpler for everyone.

The thing about rocks is that they don’t change, not based on information you leak. You don’t have to watch yourself, don’t have to watch yourself watching them watching you. Don’t have to micromanage your microemissions, make sacrifices in the name of the rock’s reading. Nothing you say or shout alters the rock. The rock does not change when it is observed. I am not a rock, but I am closer to a rock, and that makes the math simpler.

(All the cultural and literal technologies that make you more rock-like—putting in headphones, averting your eyes, wearing sunglasses, feigning sleep—also expose you to danger. By deafening your senses you are less responsive, less adaptive—you are more vulnerable. There is a way in which becoming more like a rock also operates as a costly signal, to those capable of discerning it.)

Entities in a landscape of play vary in their aliveness—in their sensory bandwidth, and their adaptive range and readiness. To be alive is to be alive to subtleties of alteration in the environment, so that a far-off soundwave can dramatically alter the entity’s behavior. A rock, a corpse—these require significant force to alter their behavior. To be alive is to be sensitive to, and manipulable by, subtle waves. (Sensitive and manipulable: the first entails the latter.) We do not walk on eggshells” (or tiptoe) around the comatose.

When we are around the highly alive, we watch ourselves more closely. The subtlest of lip twitches can end an interaction, if the players are sufficiently attuned.

If we take aliveness as subtle attunement and responsivity—that an alive player is one that can be subtly communicated with, and also as one who will detect the subtlest of unintentional leaks” (that is, cues and tells)—then aliveness must also be something relational. Significant others (long-term romantic partners) and family members are more alive’ to one another than they are to casual acquaintances. Members of the same culture may be said to be more alive to one another than to members of distant cultures. Our intuitive moral weightings may correspond to organisms’ relative aliveness.’

To be a dead player—to be highly predictable. To not respond anti-inductively. To not act to thwart others’ exploitation of you. To not monitor the environment, all its sound and lightwaves, its olfactory particles and ground-tremors, for relevant disturbance.

The dead are inductive: Simple inference of past behavior allows prediction of future behavior. The dead are less context-sensitive, less complex in a complex-systems sense. This is why physics (the study of the dead world) is a nearly exact science, while psychology and sociology remain inexact. Representation is easier when the represented do not respond to representations.

On the one end of our rigorizing pipeline is the living ecosystem, the conspiracy theory viewed from outside: a complex web of highly alive actors, who are intentionally altering and obfuscating their information emissions, and who may only be observed across vast distances of time, space, and mediated indirectness. On the other end are concepts like F=MA, or the rate of gravitational acceleration.

A rock, as it drops from a great height, does not alter its behavior, in response of observers’ understanding, to subvert that understanding. Our apprehension of its drop is mediated only by those robust and constant tools, honed by natural or cultural evolution for stability: the eye, the stopwatch or sand-dial, the measuring rod.

aliveness ecology strategic ignorance passivity generalized reading anti-inductive epistemology rigorizing pipeline lithification