Archive for ‘culture’

2023/01/20

County Jury Duty

Well, that’s over! For another six years (for state / country / town) or four years (for Federal). This is probably going to be chatty and relatively uninteresting.

Top tip: park in the parking lot under the library; it’s very convenient to the courthouse (although you still have to walk outside for a bit, and it was windy and rainy yesterday).

I had to report originally on Friday (the 13th!) because Monday was MLK day. On Friday 60-70 of us sat around in a big auditoriumish jury room for a while, with WiFi and allowed to use our cellphones and everything. Then they called attendance and talked about random things like the $40/day stipend if our employer doesn’t pay us or we’re self-employed (where did that tiny amount of money come from, one wonders) and where to park and so on. Then we were basically allowed to decide whether to come back on Tuesday or Wednesday (although I imagine if you were far down the perhaps-random list and most people had said one, you had to take the other).

A cute isomorphic pixel-art image of a bunch of people waiting around in a large room. Note this does not accurately reflect the County Courthouse except in spirit. Image by me using Midjourney OF COURSE.

I elected to come back on Wednesday for no particular reason. We were originally supposed to arrive on Wednesday at 9:30am, but over the weekend they called and said to arrive at 11am instead. Due to an inconvenient highway ramp closure and a detour through an area of many traffic lights, I got there at 11:10 or so and felt guilty, but hahaha it didn’t matter.

In the big Jury Room again, the 30+ of us waited around for a long time, then were led upstairs to wait around in the hallway outside the courtroom, and then after waiting some more were ushered into the courtroom to sit in the Audience section, and introduced to the judge and some officers, and then dismissed until 2pm for lunch (seriously!).

Some time after 2pm they let us back into the courtroom and talked to us for awhile about how it was a case involving this and that crime, and might take up to a month to try, and the judge is busy doing other things on Mondays and Thursday mornings so it would be only 3.5 days / week. Then they called 18 names, and those people moved from the Audience section to the Jury Box section. They started asking them the Judge Questions (where do you live, how long have you lived there, what do you do, what does your spouse and possible children do, do you have any family members who are criminal lawyers, etc, etc), and we got though a relatively small number of people and it was 4:30pm and time to go home.

I had a bit of a hard time sleeping, thinking about what the right answers to The Questions would be (how many times have I been on a jury in all those years? did we deliberate? do I know anyone in Law Enforcement? does the NSA count? should I slip in a reference to Jury Nullification to avoid being on the jury, or the opposite?) and like that.

Since the judge is busy on Thursday mornings, we appeared back at the courtroom at 2pm on Thursday, and waited around for quite awhile in the hallway, then went in and they got through questioning the rest of the 18 people in the Jury Box (after the judge asked the Judge Questions, the People and the Defense asked some questions also, although it was mostly discussions of how police officers sometimes but not always lie under oath, and how DNA evidence is sometimes right but now always, and how it’s important to be impartial and unbiased and so on, disguised as question asking).

Then they swore in like 6 of those 18 people, told the rest of the 18 that they were done with Jury Duty, and told the rest of us in the Audience section to come back at 9:30am on Friday (today!).

At 9:30 nothing happened for quite awhile in the hallway outside the auditorium, then for no obvious reason they started to call us into the courtroom one person at a time by name. There got to be fewer and fewer people, and then finally it was just me which was unusual and then they called my name and I went in. The Jury Box was now entirely full of people, so I sat in the Audience Section (the only person in the Audience Section!).

Then I sat there while the judge asked the same ol’ Judge Questions to every one of the dozen+ people (I know, I don’t have the numbers quite consistent) ahead of me, and then finally, as the last person to get them, I got them. And the Judge went through them pretty quickly, perhaps because he’d said earlier that he wanted to finish with this stage by lunchtime, and I had no chance to be indecisive about the issue of following his legal instructions exactly and only being a Trier of Fact, or anything else along those lines.

Then we had another couple of lectures disguised as questions, plus some questions, from The People and the The Defense. I’d mentioned the cat as someone who lived with me (got a laugh from that, but the Whole Truth, right?), and The People asked me the cat’s name and nature, and when I said it was Mia and she was hostile to everyone, The People thanked me for not bringing her with me (haha, lighten the mood, what?). And asked about my impartiality.

Now we’d had a bunch of people from extensive cop families say boldly that they couldn’t promise not to be biased against the defendant (and when The Defense I think it was asked if anyone would assume from The Defendant’s name on the indictment that He Must Have Done Something a couple people even raised their hands (whaaaaat)), and I perhaps as a result and perhaps foolishly said that while my sympathies would generally be with a defendant, I would be able to put that aside and be unbiased and fair and all.

So The People asked me if I could promise “100%” that I would not be affected by that sympathy, and I said quite reasonably that hardly any sentences with “100%” in them are true, and the judge cut in to say that he would be instructing the jurors to put stuff like that aside (implying that then I would surely be able to), and I said that I would (but just didn’t say “100%”) and then The People came back in saying that they need people who are “certain” they can be unbiased (so, no way), but then actually asked me if I was “confident” that I could be (a vastly lower bar) so I said yes I would.

And when all of that was over, they had us all go out to the hallway again, and wait for awhile, and then go back in to sit in the same seats. And then they had I think four of us stand up and be sworn in as jurors, and the rest of us could go out with the officer and sit in the big jury room again until they had our little papers ready to say that we’d served four days of Jury Duty.

And that was it!

My impression is that they were looking for (inter alia, I’m sure) people who either believe, or are willing to claim to believe, that they can with certainty be 100% unbiased in their findings as jurors. That is, people who are in this respect either mistaken, or willing to lie. And that’s weird; I guess otherwise there’s too much danger of appeals or lawsuits or something? (Only for Guilty verdicts, presumably, since Not Guilty verdicts are unexaminable?) The Judge did say several times that something (the State, maybe?) demands a Yes or No answer to his “could you be an unbiased Juror and do as you’re told?” question, and when people said “I’ll try” or “I think so” or “I’d do my best” or whatever, he insisted on a “Yes” or a “No”. (So good on the honesty for those cop-family people saying “No”, I suppose.)

So if my calculations are roughly correct, after ummm two or 2.5 days of Jury Selection, they’ve selected only about 10 jurors, and exhausted the Jan 13th jury draw; so since they need at least 12 jurors and 2 (and perhaps more like 6) alternates, they’re going to be at this for some time yet! (Hm, unless it’s not a felony case? In which case 10 might be enough? But it sounded like a felony case.)

2023/01/07

Parker House Rolls

Parker House Rolls in a glass baking dish

I had one or more Parker House Rolls somewhere once, at some time in the past, and recently something reminded me of them, and today I made some!

Basically this is just a slightly sweet buttery sticky yeast-raised dough, not kneaded, divided into sixteen small loaves and baked all together in the same baking dish so that they grow somewhat back together again and you can have the fun of separating them.

(Even a non-yeast leavened dough might work; I wonder what would happen? This is the kind of thing I wonder about.)

Various recipes on the interwebs (pretty much all of them, really) call for stuff that I don’t have at hand, like sea salt, kosher salt, potato flakes, vegetable shortening, whole milk for that matter, and so on; and also stuff that I don’t have the patience for (or for cleaning up after), like separating eggs, or using very specific attachments and settings of an electric mixer. None of these appear to be necessary.

Here’s the recipe that I roughly actually used; it’s probably closest to this one, but with anything that seemed like too much work or I didn’t have in the house left out.

Parker House Rolls (makes 16)

1 1/4 Cup milk (any kind really; if you use skim, maybe add some extra butter), warmed
1 Tbsp active dry yeast
1/4 Cup sugar
Some salt (I dunno maybe a tsp.)
2 Eggs
8 Tbsp (one stick) butter (unsalted if you have it), softened
4ish Cups of flour

Warm up the milk to room temperature or a bit more, in the microwave or whatever. Similarly, soften the butter by mashing it with a fork, putting it in the microwave on Defrost, or whatever. You can even melt it, but it may impact the consistency of the finished product if you do, I dunno.

Mix the warm milk, yeast, and 2 Tbps (half) of the sugar in the big yellow bowl or other largish mixing bowl. Let that sit for 5-10 minutes. It may or may not froth up and get foamy if the yeast is feeling especially active; don’t sweat it either way.

Add the rest of the sugar, the salt, the eggs, and 6 Tbsp (three quarters) of the butter to the bowl, mix briefly.

Add two cups of flour, and mix until incorporated. You can use a stand mixer or anything else you like in this step, or just a sturdy spoon and main strength. Continue adding flour, about half a cup at a time or whatever you like, until you have a sticky dough that is pulling away from the sides of the bowl, but still sticking to the bottom, or at least showing signs that it would like to. Depending on how soft you softened the butter, there may be lumps of butter in the dough; squash some of them if so, but don’t worry about it too much.

Cover the bowl with a damp cloth or house-rules equivalent, and let sit for say 90 minutes in a cozy place.

After 90 minutes, remove the cloth and gently punch down the dough. Flour your hands because it will have gotten even stickier while rising! Divide the dough into 16 pieces, without unnecessary kneading or other roughness.

For traditionally-formed rolls, flatten each piece and fold it in half; or divide the dough into four pieces and for each piece fold it in half and cut it into quarters, similarly resulting in 16 folded pieces. Or look up various other more elaborate forming methods on the interwebs.

Put the 16 pieces in a four-by-four array (folded edges down) into a 9×13 inch lightly greased (lightly cooking-sprayed is simplest) baking dish; they should be touching each other.

Cover with a damp cloth or equivalent again, and let rise for 45 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350°F while the dough gets a final few minutes of rising, then remove the cloth and pop the baking dish into the oven. Cook for 25 minutes or until looking pleasantly (but not darkly!) brown on top, or whenever your intuition tells you they’re done.

Brush tops with the remaining 2 Tbs of butter. Let cool for a bit in the baking dish, then tear apart to serve.

May be kept or frozen like any bread that has butter and milk and eggs and no preservatives, but really you’re going to eat them all almost immediately, aren’t you?

2022/12/04

Omelas, Pascal, Roko, and Long-termism

In which we think about some thought experiments. It might get long.

Omelas

Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” is a deservedly famous very short story. You should read it before you continue here, if you haven’t lately; it’s all over the Internet.

The story first describes a beautiful Utopian city, during its Festival of Summer. After two and a half pages describing what a wise and kind and happy place Omelas is, the nameless narrator reveals one particular additional thing about it: in some miserable basement somewhere in the city, one miserable child is kept in a tiny windowless room, fed just enough to stay starvingly alive, and kicked now and then to make sure they stay miserable.

All of the city’s joy and happiness and prosperity depends, in a way not particularly described, on the misery of this one child. And everyone over twelve years old in the city knows all about it.

On the fifth and last page, we are told that, now and then, a citizen of Omelas will become quiet, and walk away, leaving the city behind forever.

This is a metaphor (ya think?) applicable whenever we notice that the society (or anything else) that we enjoy, is possible only because of the undeserved suffering and oppression of others. It suggests both that we notice this, and that there are alternatives to just accepting it. We can, at least, walk away.

But are those the only choices?

I came across this rather excellent “meme” image on the Fedithing the other day. I can’t find it again now, but it was framed as a political-position chart based on reactions to Omelas, with (something like) leftists at the top, and (something like) fascists at the bottom. “Walk away” was near the top, and things like “The child must have done something to deserve it” nearer the bottom. (Pretty fair, I thought, which is why I’m a Leftist.)

It’s important, though, that “Walk away” wasn’t at the very top. As I recall, the things above it included “start a political movement to free the child”, “organize an armed strike force to free the child”, and “burn the fucking place to the ground” (presumably freeing the child in the process), that latter being at the very top.

But, we might say, continuing the story, Omelas (which is an acronym of “Me also”, although I know of no evidence that Le Guin did that on purpose) has excellent security and fire-fighting facilities, and all of the top three things will require hanging around in Omelas for a greater or lesser period, gathering resources and allies and information and suchlike.

And then one gets to, “Of course, I’m helping the child! We need Councilman Springer’s support for our political / strike force / arson efforts, and the best way to get it is to attend the lovely gala he’s sponsoring tonight! Which cravat do you think suits me more?” and here we are in this quotidian mess.

Pascal

In the case of Omelas, we pretty much know everything involved. We don’t know the mechanism by which the child’s suffering is necessary for prosperity (and that’s another thing to work on fixing, which also requires hanging around), but we do know that we can walk away, we can attack now and lose, or we can gather our forces and hope to make a successful attack in the future. And so on. The criticism, if it can even be called that, of the argument, is that there are alternatives beyond just accepting or walking away.

Pascal’s Wager is a vaguely similar thought experiment in which uncertainty is important; we have to decide in a situation where we don’t know important facts. You can read about this one all over the web, too, but the version we care about here is pretty simple.

The argument is that (A) if the sort of bog-standard view of Christianity is true, then if you believe in God (Jesus, etc.) you will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven, and if you don’t you will suffer for eternity in Hell, and (B) if this view isn’t true, then whether or not you believe in God (Jesus, etc.) doesn’t really make any difference. Therefore (C) if there is the tiniest non-zero chance that the view is true, you should believe it on purely selfish utilitarian grounds, since you lose nothing if it’s false, and gain an infinite amount if it’s true. More strongly, if the cost of believing it falsely is any finite amount, you should still believe it, since a non-zero probability of an infinite gain has (by simple multiplication) an infinite expected value, which is larger than any finite cost.

The main problem with this argument is that, like the Omelas story but more fatally, it offers a false dichotomy. There are infinitely more possibilities than “bog-standard Christianity is true” and “nothing in particular depends on believing in Christianity”. Most relevantly, there are an infinite number of variations on the possibility of a Nasty Rationalist God, who sends people to infinite torment if they believed in something fundamental about the universe that they didn’t have good evidence for, and otherwise rewards them with infinite bliss.

This may seem unlikely, but so does bog-standard Christianity (I mean, come on), and the argument of Pascal’s Wager applies as long as the probability is at all greater than zero.

Taking into account Nasty Rationalist God possibilities (and a vast array of equally useful ones), we now have a situation where both believing and not believing have infinite expected advantages and infinite expected disadvantages, and arguably they cancel out and one is back wanting to believe either what’s true, or what’s finitely useful, and we might as well not have bothered with the whole thing.

Roko

Roko’s Basilisk is another thought experiment that you can read about all over the web. Basically it says that (A) it’s extremely important that a Friendly AI is developed before a Nasty AI is, because otherwise the Nasty AI will destroy humanity and that has like an infinite negative value given that otherwise humanity might survive and produce utility and cookies forever, and (B) since the Friendly AI is Friendly, it will want to do everything possible to make sure it is brought into being before it’s too late because that is good for humanity, and (C) one of the things that it can do to encourage that, is to create exact copies of everyone that didn’t work tirelessly to bring it into being, and torture them horribly, therefore (D) it’s going to do that, so you’d better work tirelessly to bring it into being!

Now the average intelligent person will have started objecting somewhere around (B), noting that once the Friendly AI exists, it can’t exactly do anything to make it more likely that it will be created, since that’s already happened, and causality only works, y’know, forward in time.

There is a vast (really vast) body of work by a few people who got really into this stuff, arguing in various ways that the argument does, too, go through. I think it’s all both deeply flawed and sufficiently well-constructed that taking it apart would require more trouble that it’s worth (for me, anyway; you can find various people doing variously good jobs of it, again, all over the InterWebs).

There is a simpler variant of it that the hard-core Basiliskians (definitely not what they call themselves) would probably sneer at, but which kind of almost makes sense, and which is simple enough to express in a way that a normal human can understand without extensive reading. It goes something like (A) it is extremely important that a Friendly AI be constructed, as above, (B) if people believe that that Friendly AI will do something that they would really strongly prefer that it not do (including perhaps torturing virtual copies of them, or whatever else), unless they personally work hard to build that AI, then they will work harder to build it, (C) if the Friendly AI gets created and then doesn’t do anything that those who didn’t work hard to build it would strongly prefer it didn’t do, then next time there’s some situation like this, people won’t work hard to do the important thing, and therefore whatever it is might not happen, and that would be infinitely bad, and therefore (D) the Friendly AI is justified in doing, even morally required to do, a thing that those who didn’t work really hard to build it, would strongly rather it didn’t do (like perhaps the torture etc.). Pour encourager les autres, if you will.

Why doesn’t this argument work? Because, like the two prior examples that presented false dichotomies by leaving out alternatives, it oversimplifies the world. Sure, by retroactively punishing people who didn’t work tirelessly to bring it into being, the Friendly AI might make it more likely that people will do the right thing next time (or, for Basiliskians, that they would have done the right thing in the past, or whatever convoluted form of words applies), but it also might not. It might, for instance, convince people that Friendly AIs and anything like them were a really bad idea after all, and touch off the Bulterian Jihad or… whatever exactly that mess with the Spacers was in Asimov’s books that led to their being no robots anymore (except for that one hiding on the moon). And if the Friendly AI is destroyed by people who hate it because of it torturing lots of simulated people or whatever, the Nasty AI might then arise and destroy humanity, and that would be infinitely bad!

So again we have a Bad Infinity balancing a Good Infinity, and we’re back to doing what seems finitely sensible, and that is surely the Friendly AI deciding not to torture all those simulated people because duh, it’s friendly and doesn’t like torturing people. (There are lots of other ways the Basilisk argument goes wrong, but this seems like the simplest and most obvious and most related to the guiding thought, if any, behind his article here.)

Long-termism

This one is the ripped-from-the-headlines “taking it to the wrong extreme” version of all of this, culminating in something like “it is a moral imperative to bring about a particular future by becoming extremely wealthy, having conferences in cushy venues in Hawai’i, and yes, well, if you insist on asking, also killing anyone who gets in our way, because quadrillions of future human lives depend on it, and they are so important.”

You can read about this also all over the InterThings, but its various forms and thinkings are perhaps somewhat more in flux than the preceding ones, so perhaps I’ll point directly to this one for specificity about exactly which aspect(s) I’m talking about.

The thinking here (to give a summary that may not exactly reflect any particular person’s thinking or writing, but which I hope gives the idea) is that (A) there is a possible future in which there are a really enormous (whatever you’re thinking, bigger than that) number of (trillions of) people living lives of positive value, (B) compared to the value of that future, anything that happens to the comparatively tiny number of current people is unimportant, therefore (C) it’s morally permissible, even morally required, to do whatever will increase the likelihood of that future, regardless of the effects on people today. And in addition, (D) because [person making the argument] is extremely smart and devoted to increasing the likelihood of that future, anything that benefits [person making the argument] is good, regardless of its effects on anyone else who exists right now.

It is, that is, a justification for the egoism of billionaires (like just about anything else your typical billionaire says).

Those who have been following along will probably realize the problem immediately: it’s not the case that the only two possible timelines are (I) the one where the billionaires get enough money and power to bring about the glorious future of 10-to-the-power-54 people all having a good time, and (II) the one where billionaires aren’t given enough money, and humanity becomes extinct. Other possibilities include (III) the one where the billionaires get all the money and power, but in doing so directly or indirectly break the spirit of humanity, which as a result becomes extinct, (IV) the one where the billionaires see the light and help do away with capitalism and private property, leading to a golden age which then leads to an amount of joy and general utility barely imaginable to current humans, (V) the one where the billionaires get all the money and power and start creating trillions of simulated people having constant orgasms in giant computers or whatever, and the Galactic Federation swings by and sees what’s going on and says “Oh, yucch!” and exterminates what’s left of humanity, including all the simulated ones, and (VI) so on.

In retrospect, this counterargument seems utterly obvious. The Long-termists aren’t any better than anyone else at figuring out the long-term probabilities of various possibilities, and there’s actually a good reason that we discount future returns: if we start to predict forward more than a few generations, our predictions are, as all past experience shows, really unreliable. Making any decision based solely on things that won’t happen for a hundred thousand years or more, or that assume a complete transformation in humanity or human society, is just silly. And when that decision just happens to be to enrich myself and be ruthless with those who oppose me, everyone else is highly justified in assuming that I’m not actually working for the long-term good of humanity, I’m just an asshole.

(There are other problems with various variants of long-termism, a notable one that they’re doing utilitarianism wrong and/or taking it much too seriously. Utilitarianism can be useful for deciding what to do with a given set of people, but it falls apart a bit when applied to deciding which people to have exist. If you use a summation you find yourself morally obliged to prefer a trillion barely-bearable lives to a billion very happy ones, just because there are more of them. Whereas if you go for the average, you end up being required to kill off unhappy people to get the average up. And a perhaps even more basic message of the Omelas story is that utilitarianism requires us to kick the child, which is imho a reductio. Utilitarian calculus just can’t capture our moral intuitions here.)

Coda

And that’s pretty much that essay. :) Comments very welcome in the comments, as always. I decided not to all any egregious pictures. :)

It was a lovely day, I went for a walk in the bright chilliness, and this new Framework laptop is being gratifyingly functional. Attempts to rescue the child from the Omelas basement continue, if slowly. Keep up the work!

2022/11/07

NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Twelve

Light passes through windows. This is a puzzle. This is a complicated story, a story that no one understands, in four words.

Beams of sunlight pass through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

Sitting where I sit, among the shelves and the piles of books, I see beams of sunlight passing through the library windows, making patterns on the wall.

My evidence for the existence of beams of sunlight is (at least) in two parts: I see dust motes dancing (dancing? what is it to dance? what kinds of things can dance?) in the sunbeams, visible (to me) in the light, where in other parts of the (dusty) library air, there are no (to me) visible dust motes dancing (or otherwise) in the air, and one explanation (is it the best one? what is best?) is that there is a sunbeam, or at least a beam of light, passing through the air there. (How does a beam of light pass through the air, let alone through the class of the windows?)

The second part of my evidence is the patterns on the wall. I know, or I remember (in memories that I have now, at this moment, the only moment, the only entity, that exists) that the wall is really (what could that possibly mean?) more or less uniform in color; vaguely white, and the same vague whiteness more or less all over. But what I see, or what I see at some level of awareness (what are levels of awareness? what is awareness? who is aware?) is a complex pattern of light and dark, triangles and rectangles and more complex figures laid out and overlapping, and I theorize (automatically, involuntarily, whether or not I intend to) that these brighter shapes and triangles are where the sunbeam (passing through empty space, and then the air, the window, the air again) strikes the wall, and the darker areas, the ground to the sunbeam’s figure, are simply the rest, the shadows, where the sunbeam does not strike, or does not strike directly.

(Or the dark places are where the frames of the window and the edges of shelves and chairs, things outside and things inside, cast their shadows, and the light places, the ground to the shadows’ figure, is the rest, where the shadows do not fall; figure is ground and ground is figure.)

Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we hold Mind as primary? I am. Or, no, as generations of philosophers have pointed out, feeling clever to have caught Descartes in an error, not “I am” but only something along the lines of “Thought is”. If there is a thought that “thought is”, that can hardly be in error (well, to first order). But if there is a thought “I think”, that could be an error, because there might be no “I”, or it might be something other than “I” that is thinking.

Second attempt, then! Can we avoid all of this complexity, if we start with “Thought is”? Or “Experience is”?

Experience is. There is this instant of experience. In this instant of experience, there is a two-dimensional (or roughly two-dimensional) surface. Whether or not there is an understanding of dimensions and how to count them, there is either way still a two-dimensional surface, here in this experience. In some places, the two-dimensional surface is bright. In some places, it is dark; or it is less bright.

Whether or not there is any understanding of brightness and darkness, what might lead to brightness and darkness, anything about suns or windows or how they work, there is still this brightness, in this single moment of experience, and there is still this darkness.

(Whether the darkness is actually bright, just not as bright as the brightness, whether the surface is really two-dimensional in any strong sense, or somewhere between two and three dimensions, or whether dimensions are ultimately not a useful or coherent concept here, there is still, in this singular moment of experience that is all that there is, this experience, this experience, which is what it is, whether or not the words that might be recorded here as a result of it (and whatever “result” might mean) are the best words to describe it.)

And whether it is described at all, whether description is even possible, does not matter; the main thing, dare I write “the certain thing”, is that this (emphasized) is (similarly emphasized).

So.

From this point of view, we may say, Mind is primal. Mind, or whatever we are attempting successfully or unsuccessfully to refer to when we use the word “Mind”, does exist, or at any rate has whatever property we are attempting to refer to when we say “does exist”. Except that “refer to” and “property” are both deeply problematic themselves here.

This is why the ancient Zen teachers (who exist, in this singular present moment of experience, only as memories of stories, memories that exist now) are said to have, when asked deep and complex questions through the medium of language, and impossibly concerning language, have responded with primal experience, with blows or shouts or (more mildly) with references to washing one’s bowl, chopping wood, carrying water.

We can remember that there is this. So, what next?

Language (this language, many other languages, those languages that I am familiar with, that I know of) assumes time.

Without the concept of time, it is difficult to speak, to write, to hypothesize.

Let alone to communicate.

To communicate!

The impossible gulf: that you and I both exist (what does it mean to exist?) and that by communicating (whatever that might be) one or both of us is changed (otherwise why bother?). But change, like time (because time), is an illusion.

So!

Is it necessary (categorically, or conditionally) to participate in the illusion? Or pretend? To act (or to speak, as speech is after all action) as though time and change were real?

The sun comes through the windows and casts shadows on the wall. Is there someone at the door?

Fling Thirteen

2022/11/05

NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Eight

“So are you and Steve okay?”

“Yeah, why wouldn’t we be?”

Colin Colson and Kristen Lewis sat in Colin’s sunny dusty library room on a warm Saturday afternoon, talking lazily.

“Well, not to reveal anything said in confidence, but I understand there was something about a virtuality that you sent him, and his reaction –“

Kristen’s laugh interrupted Colin and he smiled.

“That was nothing,” she said, “and he apologized nicely and everything. He’s not really an idiot, he’s just a guy and all.”

The sun shone through the big windows onto the rugs, the piled books. Kristen and Colin sat in a pair of overstuffed old chairs, just out of the sunbeam.

“I think you frighten him,” Colin suggested. He was, as always, in a comfortable suit perfectly tailored to his small body. His idiopathic childhood growth hormone deficiency had given him the approximate proportions of a nine-year-old boy (“an exceedingly handsome one, obviously”), and his trust fund and his own writing had given him the means to dress those proportions immaculately.

“Because of my brilliance and beauty?” she asked with a matching smile.

“Of course,” Colin replied, “as you well know.”

These two had been lovers briefly and experimentally in school, something that Steve knew and tried not to remember very often. She had not been able to get over the oddness of his size in their intimacy, and he had sensed that without resentment. Now they were good friends, and when Colin felt the need for erotic physical contact, his trust fund and his writing were able to supply that as well, via a few open-minded professionals with whom he had excellent arrangements.

“I suppose I’m oversensitive,” Kristen suggested.

“I don’t think so; you are who you are, and if you didn’t frighten him a little, he wouldn’t like you as much.”

She smiled again at that; she smiled often in Colin’s presence. He had a wry wisdom, she thought, that accepted reality as it was, without rancor or unnecessary judgement.

“Do you want to see the virtuality, too?”

“Was it Hints of Home?”

The girl nodded, pleased.

“I saw it on your feed,” he said, “and spent an hour inside. It’s … lovely. The signposts are so subtle.”

“The tools we have these days are amazing,” she said, “you should really try it.”

“I will hold to my old-fashioned linear words, thank you very much,” he replied, adding a stuffy timbre to his voice, “the virtual is entirely too huge for me.”

She nodded. This was a conversation that they had had more than once before. The world’s artists were divided roughly in half, it seemed, between those who fully embraced the new creative universe of AI-assisted fully-immersive digital universe-building, and those who continued to work with words and images in the old-fashioned way (not counting the occasional spell-checker or digital white-balance adjustment).

And, he reflected, between those crafters who had fully launched into the virtual and digital, and those like Steve who preferred to construct physical rigs with which one could risk one’s physical life by speeding through the physical desert at ridiculous speeds.

“I wonder if it was partly because he doesn’t really grok the virtual, still,” Kristen said, her thoughts apparently paralleling his own, as they sometimes did, “and because I sent him the link while he was deep into tuning a rig.”

“Cognitive dissonance,” Colin replied, nodding. He himself, although he was a loyalist of linear text in his own writing, greatly enjoyed modern media as well as a consumer, and found Kristen’s virtualities, small intricate worlds of their own with mysterious and subtly-delivered themes, invariably rewarding.

“But he always remembers to be complimentary, eventually,” she smiled, and he saw in the abstraction of her eyes that she was thinking fond thoughts of his large awkward friend Steve, which made him glad.

In the part of him that always watched himself, he wondered if what he had seen was really there. Did Kristen’s brown eyes defocus, the exact configuration of the whites revealing that they were no longer both pointing at some specific point in the room? Did the light in the room (the photons bouncing here and there in law-like but complex ways) carry enough evidence of that to his own eyes that his brain could justifiably (so much to know about justification!) conclude that her eyes were indeed defocused? And then did he know her well enough (what does it mean to know someone? what is “someone else”?) to justifiably conclude that if her eyes were defocused in this present moment (the only moment that exists), it meant in context that she was thinking of Steve (who is “Steve” when he is not here)?

There was probably something else in her face, some fond expression on her cheeks and her lips, the corners of her eyes, that was providing him subconscious additional evidence that she was thinking fondly of someone, and, he thought, there was perhaps a lack of subtle clues of tension that would have suggested she was thinking fondly of anyone other than Steve. Because his brain (rightly or wrongly) assumed that if she was thinking fondly of anyone other than Steve (or Colin) in Colin’s presence, she would be tense?

He realized that he’d drifted several removes from reality, and that Kristen was standing now, her back in the sun, looking over the books on one of the shelves (never enough shelves!).

“Ach,” she said, “I love Giannina Braschi. But she is so dense, I feel like I should spend a whole day on every paragraph.”

Colin nodded.

“And that is how I feel about trying to write in the virtual; if I can spin off every interesting potential from every thought, the shortest of short pieces would be a billion words.”

“And that isn’t true of plain text?” Kristen laughed, landing an unavoidable blow.

“But I can’t do it there, no one expects it, text encourages linearity; word-building encourages sprawl, differentiation, spreading out along infinitely many branches at every moment. The Many Worlds universe!”

“One merely has to be disciplined,” she said, coming to perch on the arm of his chair.

He smiled up at her, and she put out one brown hand and stroked his hair.

“Don’t do that,” he said, but he moved his head to press against her palm, like a happy kitten.

This present moment is all that exists, he thought, and it is possible to enjoy a girl’s hand on his head without understanding anything about it. What is touch? What are hands? What is love and what is loyalty? Which atoms belong to his hair, and which to Kristen’s palm? Was this fluttering in his chest pleasure, or sorrow, or both? What is discipline, what is fear? Why, in this moment, did she choose to sit there, did she choose to touch him? In this moment, every past moment exists only as a memory, in this moment. What makes a memory true, what makes a memory false?

She touched the back of her hand to his cheek for an instant, and then returned to her own chair.

“And how is it with you?” she asked, looking warmly over at him, “What are you writing now?”

Fling Nine

2022/11/02

NaNoWriMo 2022, Fling Three

The cars are the wheels of the city. The city is the body of the car. Smoke and steam are air and water, air and water and fire and thoughts of time and distance and speed.

The streets talk to the windows, and the windows are the words of the streets. Behind the windows are drums, and phones, and the drivers of cars, dictionaries and old photos of the rowing team. I want to take you away from here, but you are in the car, and the cars wheels are your wheels, and the breath of the smoke is your breath.

Come to the club tonight, you say, and the club forms in my mind, accretes around the sand-grit of your cigarette ash; the club is smooth and pearlescent, and slides through my mind like a child’s toy fallen into the foaming rush of the river.

The car is long and thick, and inside it you bring a world of smoke and liquor and dancing, and the street talks to the windows of the buildings that pass by, shop-fronts and apartments, the precinct house and the pillory, the Church of Our Lady of the Distant Fields, where the statues weep for our sins, and we sin while weeping, all the world sinning and weeping together on this holiest of Saturday nights.

Dangle me like a fishhook, baby, the singer commands, as smoke dangles in the air, and the fishhooks of the police watch from the high balconies far above the roof, the searchlights searching, the voices raised in song, joyful sinners kissing weeping saints, my long circle arcing finally back around to you, you the golden child, the proud stuff of dreams there in your seat by the window, louche and relaxed and pouring yourself another two fingers of Oban Single Malt from the car’s very own bar, Simon the driver whistling softly a tune that his mother used to sing him at bed time, because he knows that you don’t mind when he whistles.

The cars are the wheels of the city, they hold it up and move it along, they have bags of money in the trunk, in the boot, stuffed under the back seat, and money talks, money talks to the street, and the street talks to the windows, and the windows give their light generously to the air, smoke curling and coiling, and for all of the talking and shouting and singing and cries of anger or joyful release, for all the growling of engines and screeching of tires, the city is silent in the night by the river.

“Look at the lights on the water,” you say, or you said on some other night. Your sweet red cloche hat cradles the city’s soul in its arms, and I think of the smooth surface of the water, and what might be under it, and how far down the water goes, down down down from the air and the piers and the docks and the water-stairs, down forever into the depths where there is no air, but there is water and mud and debris, and centuries of forgotten things.

A penny for your thoughts, you might say, but you don’t, as the patterns of the windows and the headlights and the neon signs reflect from the surfaces of your eyes. Your eyes take in the patterns of light, eagerly welcoming them as new examples of familiar things, allowing the carefully-shaped glowing tubes to deliver their photons directly to your hidden intimate retinas, forming shapes and signs and letters that pop in your brain, and whisper to your mind, Budweiser, Open, Hotel, Eat, Open, Restaurant, Delicatessen, Music, Drugs, Radio City.

The words whispering into your mind from the neon signs are words chosen, planned, by people in the past, people who are alive or dead, present or absent, but have left their mark on the city, and now the city whispers their words into your mind as you sip your scotch, and the rich peaty memory of time slides burning down your mortal organic throat.

The cars are the wheels of the city, the night is oil, the smoke is gasoline, and everything is flammable, every neon sign and every breath and every steakhouse catching an efflorescent fire from the thoughts of children, from the cries and the ambitions of adults, the skittering of rats under the streets, in the old tunnels and the new tunnels, bright with subterranean dew, where mushrooms grow small and stunted, closely huddled to the cement and the iron rails.

Sharp metal softly pierces and separates tissue, could softly pierce and separate the membranes of the tires of the wheels of the cars of the city, letting the air out in grateful sighs.

Thoughts of sharp metal turn themselves in the neon light, reflecting in curving patterns on the metal panels of the moving cars and the doors of the club. Men and women come and go, men in dark suits and women in bright dresses, wool and felt, cotton and silk, the whisper of cloth against cloth and cloth against skin.

Is this where we have come to, is this what we have come to? When the dark stone blocks are arranged in the old way, they spell the secret name of God, and if the name is spoken the doors will unlock, and all will be revealed, and ancient things will be released. What would the rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, make of the city and its neon, the club and its busty cigarette girls, the insouciant blues sliding sleek into the foggy night without visible regard for the depths of time and the need for salvation?

Save me, honey, hold me, baby, oh what you do to me. Only a worshiper can understand, only on our knees are we gifted with that final revelation (“now you can drink it or you can nurse it, it don’t matter how you worship, as long as you’re down on your knees,” like the man said), that final gift that comes whether or not we ask for it, whether or not we want it.

“I’ll never understand you,” you said, with your lips and tongue and your throat, spoken from somewhere in the pulsing depths of your body, your brain, your tenuous connection to Mind, and when you said it it shook the air, and the air shook membranes within me, and my brain pinged and my Mind changed, and I thought you that thought that you would never, in fact, understand me. Who am I, and who are you? When the blocks align, all questions will be answered, and we will know the will of God.

The cars are the wheels of the city, the city is the heart of the nation, the nation is the skin of the world. Beneath the skin lie the bones, the muscles, the blood. The blues sing sweetly of the blood, how it pulses and how it sings, and the smoke gathers in the upper corners of the big room, a woman laughs, a chair scrapes, someone cries out something unintelligible, drinks are served, and slide down so many tender throats.

I feel the dawn coming. I feel the dawn coming, I feel the dawn. Coming.

Fling Four

2022/10/31

Weirdness from the Copyright Office

A quickish update. I have said, and still believe, that things created using AI tools are just like anything else with respect to copyright. But recent events remind me that the Copyright Office is made up of people, and people are unpredictable, and US Copyright law is in many places a squashy mess made up of smaller squashy messes, so logic does not always apply.

Here is a currently-relevant set of data points:

  • I have registered the copyright on an image I made using MidJourney. I didn’t mention that I used MidJourney (or Chrome, or Windows) on the application form, because there was no place to put that; the form didn’t ask. The application for registration was granted routinely, without any complication.
    • I imagine there are hundreds / thousands of similar registrations from other people.
  • This person has registered the copyright on a work that they made using MidJourney (I think it was), and the work itself makes it clear that MidJourney was used. The application was afaik granted routinely, without any complication.
    • But now it appears that the copyright office has said “oh wait we didn’t notice that MidJourney thing, so we’re cancelling your registration”.
    • And the person is appealing, apparently with the help of MidJourney themselves. (Hm, they’ve also apparently deleted some of their tweets on the subject; lawyer’s advice perhaps.)
  • This person has applied apparently to register various images made with various workflows involving AI (dalle2 I think) to various extents, clearly stated, and rather than being just accepted or just rejected they’ve received emails from the copyright office asking them for details of what they did, and especially bizarrely suggesting that perhaps at least one of the works might have been “conceived” by the AI.
    • Which seems crazy, because the Copyright Office has generally had the opinion that software isn’t creative, and can’t (like) conceive things.

I suspect that things are just rather in disarray at the Copyright Office, and different examiners are doing different things, perhaps having gotten different memos on the subject, or just having their own different opinions about things. It will be interesting to see how the appeal mentioned above goes!

To me, it seems obvious that things created with AI tools should be prima facie registerable with the copyright office, just like photographs presumably are, and if someone wants to challenge based on some legal theory about either lack of creativity or derivative works or whatever, they can do that. The copyright office itself, I would think, would want to stay far away from any situation where they have to somehow evaluate themselves how many units of creativity are in each of the kazillions of applications they get daily.

On the other hand, the Copyright Office could simply issue some sort of guidance saying “We won’t register copyrights on works created with the significant use of an AI tool like dalle or MidJourney, so don’t bother asking” (and could even update the forms to have a question about it).

I think that would be dumb, and lead to court cases eventually that would either overturn that or at least cause a great deal of faffing about that they could have avoided.

But then people and government offices do dumb stuff all the time, so who knows! All is in flux…

And here is an image that I made using Midjourney. No matter what the Copyright Office thinks today. :)

2022/10/15

Klara by Dale Innis & Karima Hoisan

Well, this is just too much fun. :) Very good Second Life friend and collaborator liked the little Klara piece so much that she voiced it and set it to the perfect music and made it into a rather wonderful YouTube! Definitely more accessible :) and more of an experience this way than the 327MB pdf file. Wooot!

Digital Rabbit Hole

Very excited to share with you all, this off-beat, pretty long (almost 10 minutes) surreal video collaboration with Dale Innis
Those of you who read me regularly, know that Dale Innis is a scripter friend who has collaborated with me and also with Natascha & I for the last 10 years and lately has been dabbling in all sorts of AI Art, especially MidJourney, which is a veritable game-changer in this blossoming field.
He showed me a pdf file of slides and a story-line, that he had made and I fell in love…fell obsessed, is a better word, to try to bring this to a way more people could see it.
This is how the project was born. I found, what we both agree, is the perfect music   Meditative Music and I made a voice-over and edited the slides into what you’ll see below.
This is a very slow-…

View original post 45 more words

2022/08/14

Is it plagiarism? Is it copyright infringement?

So I’ve been producing so many images in Midjourney. I’ve been posting the best ones (or at least the ones I decide to post) in the Twitters; you can see basically all of them there (apologies if that link’s annoying to use for non-Twitterers). And an amazing friend has volunteered to curate a display of some of them in the virtual worlds (woot!), which is inexpressibly awesome.

Lots of people use “in the style of” or even “by” with an artist’s name in their Midjourney prompts. I’ve done it occasionally, mostly with Moebius because his style is so cool and recognizable. It did imho an amazing job with this “Big Sale at the Mall, by Moebius”:

“Big Sale at the Mall, by Moebius” by Midjourney

It captures the coloration and flatness characteristic of the artist, and also the feeling of isolation in huge impersonal spaces that his stuff often features. Luck? Coolness?

While this doesn’t particularly bother me for artists who are no longer living (although perhaps it should), it seems questionable for artists who are still living and producing, and perhaps whose works have been used without their permission and without compensation in training the AI. There was this interesting exchange on Twitter, for instance:

The Midjourney folks replied (as you can I hope see in the thread) that they didn’t think any of this particular artist’s works were in the training set, and that experimentally adding their name to a prompt didn’t seem to do anything to speak of; but what if it had? Does an artist have the right to say that their works which have been publicly posted, but are still under copyright of one kind or another, cannot be used to train AIs? Does this differ between jurisdictions? Where they do have such a right, do they have any means of monitoring or enforcing it?

Here’s another thread, about a new image-generating AI (it’s called “Stable Diffusion” or “Stability AI”, and you can look it up yourself; it’s in closed beta apparently and the cherrypicked images sure do look amazing!) which seems to offer an explicit list of artists, many still living and working, that it can forge, um, I mean, create in the style of:

So what’s the law?

That’s a good question! I posted a few guesses on that thread (apologies again if Twitter links are annoying). In particular (as a bulleted list for some reason):

  • One could argue that every work produced by an AI like this, is a derivative work of every copyrighted image that it was trained on.
  • An obvious counterargument would be that we don’t say that every work produced by a human artist is a derivative work of every image they’ve studied.
  • A human artist of course has many other inputs (life experience),
  • But arguably so does the AI, if only in the form of the not-currently-copyrighted works that it was also trained on (as well as the word associations and so on in the text part of the AI, perhaps).
  • One could argue that training a neural network on a corpus that includes a given work constitutes making a copy of that work; I can imagine a horrible tangle of technically wince-inducing arguments that reflect the “loading a web page on your computer constitutes making a copy!” arguments from the early days of the web. Could get messy!
  • Perhaps relatedly, the courts have found that people possess creativity / “authorship” that AIs don’t, in at least one imho badly-brought case on the subject: here. (I say “badly-brought” just because my impression is that the case was phrased as “this work is entirely computer generated and I want to copyright it as such”, rather than just “here is a work that I, a human, made with the help of a computer, and I want to assert / register my copyright”, which really wouldn’t even have required a lawsuit imho; but there may be more going on here than that.)
  • The simplest thing for a court to decide would be that an AI-produced work should be evaluated for violating copyright (as a derivative work) in the same way a human-produced work is: an expert looks at it, and decides whether it’s just too obviously close a knock-off.
  • A similar finding would be that an AI-produced work is judged that way, but under the assumption that AI-produced work cannot be “transformative” in the sense of adding or changing meaning or insights or expression or like that, because computers aren’t creative enough to do that. So it would be the same standard, but with one of the usual arguments for transformativity ruled out in advance for AI-produced works. I can easily see the courts finding that way, as it lets them use an existing (if still somewhat vague) standard, but without granting that computer programs can have creativity.
  • Would there be something illegal about a product whose sole or primary or a major purpose was to produce copyright-infringing derivative works? The DMCA might possibly have something to say about that, but as it’s mostly about bypassing protections (and there really aren’t any involved here), it’s more likely that rules for I dunno photocopiers or something would apply.

So whew! Having read some of the posts by working artists and illustrators bothered that their and their colleagues’ works are being used for profit in a way that might actively harm them (and having defended that side of the argument against one rather rude and rabid “it’s stupid to be concerned” person on the Twitter), I’m now feeling some more concrete qualms about the specific ability of these things to mimic current artists (and maybe non-current artists whose estates are still active).

It should be very interesting to watch the legal landscape develop in this area, especially given how glacially slowly it moves compared to the technology. I hope the result doesn’t let Big AI run entirely roughshod over the rights of individual creators; that would be bad for everyone.

But I’m still rather addicted to using the technology to make strange surreal stuff all over th’ place. :)

2022/05/31

A couple of books I’ve read some of

To update this post from (gad) three months ago on the book “Superintelligence”, I’m finally slightly more than halfway through it, and it has addressed pretty reasonably my thoughts about perfectly safe AIs, like for instance AIDungeon or LaMDA, that just do what they do, without trying to optimize themselves, or score as many points as possible on some utility function, or whatever. The book calls such AIs “Tools”, and agrees (basically) that they aren’t dangerous, but says (basically) that we humans are unlikely to build only that kind of AI, because AIs that do optimize and improve themselves and try to maximize the expected value of some utility function, will work so much better that we won’t be able to resist, and then we’re all doomed.

Well, possibly in the second half they will suggest that we aren’t all doomed; that remains to be seen.

Conscious experience is unitary, parallel, and continuous

Another book I’ve read some of, and in this case just a little of, is Daniel Ingram’s “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha” (expanded 2nd edition). There’s a page about it here, which includes a link to a totally free PDF, which is cool, and you can also buy it to support his various good works.

An internal Buddhists group at The Employer has had Daniel Ingram join us for a couple of videoconferences, which have been fun to various extents. There’s a lot that one could say about Ingram (including whether he is in fact a Buddhist, what one thinks of him calling himself “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” on the cover, etc.), but my impression of him is that he’s a very pragmatic and scientific (and energetic) sort of person, who has a project to study the various paths to things like enlightenment in the world, in a scientific sort of way, and figure out what paths there are, which ones work best for which kinds of people, what stages there are along the paths, what works best if one is at a particular point on a certain path, and so on. There is apparently a whole Movement of some sort around this, called Pragmatic Dharma (I was going to link to something there, but you can Web Search on it yourself at least as effectively).

I’m not sure that this is an entirely sensible or plausible project, since as a Zen type my instinctive reaction is “okay, that’s a bunch of words and all, but better just sit”. But it’s cool that people are working on it, I think, and it’ll be fun to see what if anything they come up with. Being both pragmatic and moral, they are all about the Kindness and Compassion, so they can’t really go far wrong in some sense.

Having started to read that PDF, I have already a couple of impressions that it’s probably far too early to write down, but hey it’s my weblog and I’ll verb if I want to.

First off, Ingram says various things about why one would want to engage on some project along these lines at all, and I get a bit lost. He says that in working on morality (by which he means practical reasoning in the relative sphere, being kind and compassionate and all that) we will tend to make the world a better place around us, and that’s cool. But then the reasons that one would want to work on the next level after morality, which is “concentration”, are all about vaguely-described jhanas, as in (and I quote):

  • The speed with which we can get into skillful altered states of awareness (generally called here “concentration states” or “jhanas”).
  • The depth to which we can get into each of those states.
  • The number of objects that we can use to get into each of those states.
  • The stability of those states in the face of external circumstances.
  • The various ways we can fine-tune those states (such as paying attention to and developing their various sub-aspects)

Now it appears to me that all of these depend on an underlying assumption that I want to get into these “states” at all; unless I care about that, the speed with which I can do it, the depth, the number of objects (?), the stability, and the fine-tuning, don’t really matter.

I imagine he will say more about these states and why they’re desirable later, but so far it really just says that they are “skillful” (and “altered”, but that seems neutral by itself), and “skillful” here just seems to be a synonym for “good”, which doesn’t tell us much.

(In other Buddhist contexts, “skillful” has a somewhat more complex meaning, along the lines of “appropriate for the particular occasion, and therefore not necessarily consistent with what was appropriate on other occasions”, which a cynic might suggest is cover for various Official Sayings of the Buddha appearing to contradict each other seriously, but who wants to be a cynic really?)

It seems that if the jhanas are so fundamental to the second (um) training, he might have made more of a case for why one would want to jhana-up at the point where the training is introduced. (One could make the same sort of comment about Zen types, where the reason that you’d want to meditate is “the apple tree in the side yard” or whatever, but those types make no pretense at being scientific or rational or like that.)

In the Third Training, called among other things “insight”, Ingram talks about becoming directly aware of what experience is like, or as he summarizes it, “if we can simply know our sensate experience clearly enough, we will arrive at fundamental wisdom”. He then talks about some of the ways that he has become more aware of sensate experience, and I am struck by how very different from my own observations of the same thing they are. Let’s see if I can do this in bullets:

  • He starts with basically a “the present moment is all that exists” thing, which I can get pretty much entirely behind.
  • He says that experience is serial, in that we can experience only one thing at a time. He describes focusing on the sensations from his index fingers, for instance, and says “[b]asic dharma theory tells me that it is not possible to perceive both fingers simultaneously”.
  • Relatedly, he says that experience is discrete, and that one sensation must fade entirely away before another one can begin. At least I think he’s saying that; he says things like “[e]ach one of these sensations (the physical sensation and the mental impression) arises and vanishes completely before another begins”, and I think he means that in general, not just about possibly-related “physical sensations” and “mental impressions”. He also uses terms like “penetrating the illusion of continuity” (but what about the illusion of discontinuity?).
  • And relatedly relatedly, he thinks that experience is basically double, in that every (every?) “physical sensation” is followed by a “mental impression” that is sort of an echo of it. “Immediately after a physical sensation arises and passes is a discrete pulse of reality that is the mental knowing of that physical sensation, here referred to as ‘mental consciousness'”.

Now as I hinted above, the last three of these things, that consciousness is serial, discrete, and double, do not seem to accord at all with my own experience of experience.

  • For me, experience is highly parallel; there is lots going on at all times. When sitting in a state of open awareness, it’s all there at once (in the present moment) in a vast and complex cloud. Even while attending to my breath, say, all sorts of other stuff is still there, even if I am not attending to it.
  • Similarly, experience is continuous; it does not come in individual little packets that arise and then fade away; it’s more of an ongoing stream of isness (or at least that is how memory and anticipation present it, in the singular present moment). If thoughts arise, and especially if those thoughts contain words or images, the arising and fading away of those feel more discrete, but only a bit; it’s like foam forming on the tops of waves, and then dissolving into the water again.
  • And finally, there’s no important distinction to be had between “physical sensations” and “mental impressions”; there is only experience happening to / constituting / waltzing with mind. If there were a mental impression following each physical sensation, after all, how would one avoid an infinite regress, with mental impressions of mental impressions stretching out far into the distance? Something like that does happen sometimes (often, even) but it’s more a bug than a feature.

I suspect that some or most of all of these differences come because Ingram is talking about a tightly-focused awareness, where I am more of an open and expansive awareness kind of person, even when attending to the breath and all. If you really pinch down your focus to be as small as possible, then you won’t be able to experience (or at least be consciously aware of) both fingers at once, and you may manage to make yourself see only one sensation at a time in individual little packets, and you may even notice that after every sensation you notice, you also notice a little mental echo of it (which may in fact be the sum of an infinite series of echoes of echoes that with any luck converges).

This kind of tightly-focused conscious awareness goes well, I think, with what Ingram says about it being important to experience as many sensations per second as possible. He puts it in terms of both individual sensations, and vibrations, although the latter doesn’t really fit the model; I think he means something more like “rapid coming into existence and going out of existence” rather than a vibration in some continually-existing violin string.

He is enthusiastic about experiencing things really fast, as in

If you count, “one, one thousand”, at a steady pace, that is about one second per “one, one-thousand”. Notice that it has four syllables. So, you are counting at four syllables per second, or 4 Hertz (Hz), which is the unit of occurrences per second. If you tapped your hand each time you said or thought a syllable, that would be four taps per second. Try it! Count “one, one thousand” and tap with each syllable. So, you now know you can experience at least eight things in a second!

and this strikes me as really funny, and also endearing. But he takes it quite seriously! He says in fact that “that is how fast we must perceive reality to awaken”; I do wonder if he is going to present any scientific evidence for this statement later on. I’m sure it has worked well / is working well for him, but this seems like a big (and high-frequency) generalization. I don’t remember ol’ Dogen, or Wumen, or the Big Guy Himself, talking about experiencing as many things per second as possible, as a requirement. I guess I’ll see!

2022/04/28

Flash-loan attacks, also LegalEagle on crypto

If you type “flash” into the search box on good ol’ Web3 Is Going Just Great, it’s very likely that you’ll get a lot of hits; at the moment there are nearly a dozen just in the last two months.

I haven’t studied these all in detail, but I think I can outline a representative flash-loan attack in enough detail and generality to be instructive and/or amusing.

Consider this small recipe, embodied as a piece of code:

  1. For a small fee, borrow a jillion FooCoins for a very small period of time, like the time that this program will take to run.
  2. Use those FooCoins to purchase 51% of the FooAdmin coins that determine who gets to vote on actions of the FooDAO (Distributed Autonomous Organization).
  3. Having control of the FooDAO, transfer all of the five-jillion FooCoins owned by the DAO to yourself.
  4. Sell the FooAdmin coins purchased in (2), for some amount of FooCoins, probably less than a jillion, maybe zero, I’m not clear on this part, see below.
  5. Pay back the jillion FooCoins borrowed in (1).
  6. Make off with a net profit of four-jillion FooCoins, minus the small fee in (1), plus the possible proceeds from selling the empty husk in (4).

One interesting fact about this is that every step appears to be using some feature of the overall system exactly as it was intended to be used: there are no stolen passwords, no impersonation, no stack overflows. Prosecutions or lawsuits seem relatively unlikely; it would be interesting to see how one goes!

Another interesting fact about this is that it’s basically the way that Mitt Romney and other “Vulture Capitalists” got rich: find a company whose assets are worth more than it would take to buy the company, get a loan, buy the company, sell off the assets, pay off the loan, and profit, leaving an empty husk of a company behind.

Only it’s much, much faster.

People have talked about various ways to keep these things from working:

Flash loans seem bizarre; I don’t know what non-nefarious uses they have. On the other hand, since they are really just programs, it’s unclear how (especially in the Free and Decentralized Web3 World) one would prevent people from creating them, in order to profit by supplying services to even nefarious uses.

It’s also not clear to me that the DAO administrative coins should just be sitting around for sale to anyone with enough money; given what they do, perhaps one would like actual human judgment involved. On the other hand, that also goes against the basic Code Is Law And Everything Is For Sale principles of Web3.

Perhaps, even if flash loans have to be allowed and buying DAO administrative coins has to be allowed, maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to intersect. In the traditional market, you aren’t supposed to buy big things like cars and houses (and down-payments on loans) using borrowed money, to prevent this sort of privilege-amplification via cash. That seems like it would be hard to enforce without significant additions to the relevant protocols; like, a FooCoin would have to remember that it’s borrowed and will need to be paid back, and who wants to clutter up the free simple Web3 world with stuff like that?

Perhaps someone should have to have owned a DAO administrative coin for more than a millisecond before they can vote the share that it represents. A few days maybe even. I think this is being seriously considered by some DAOists. (Haha “DAOists”; have you read “The Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street”? Good book, long predating cryptocurrencies.)

Perhaps in general FooDAO shouldn’t own more FooCoins than the value of 51% of the FooAdmin coins that exist. But, as with the traditional companies, it’s not all that unusual for a company to own more assets than the company (or just a controlling interest in it) would cost, it just means that they’ve been accumulating stuff to use to make money by doing whatever the company is in business to do, but haven’t made that money yet. And in the area of DAOs, it’s not clear to me whether it’s perhaps possible to get enough by reselling the husk in step (4) that this isn’t actually necessary anyway. Also there are “liquidity pools” that I should read about sometime.

This here above is a specific type of flash loan attack; the most impressive and amusing kind that I know of. More generally, there are various kinds of flash loans where someone pays a small fee to acquire a jillion FooCoins, uses those FooCoins to play fun lucrative tricks in the market (all the more feasible where liquidity is low, things are generally unstable, unregulated, etc), and then pays back the loan with a fraction of the resulting booty.

So that’s that Fun Idea o’ the Day! :)

Relatedly, the very interesting Legal Eagle YouTube channel / person / lawyer recently had a (what do you call them?) thing called “NFTs are legally problematic“, all about how NFTs are legally problematic, for reasons including the contract and copyright things that we wondered about back in previous posts here in the weblog, and benefiting from actual real legal concepts like “privity of contract”, which says that a contract can’t confer rights or impose obligations on anyone who hasn’t signed it (and which leads us to wonder for instance how someone who uses Opensea to buy some NFT that I’ve put up for sale, can acquire any rights in that, since I’ve never heard of them, let alone signed a contract with them; I dunno).

Anyone interested in the vaguely-legal NFT stuff that I’ve talked about here will probably be interested in that Legal Eagle video. There’s another one, also by Legal Eagle, about the usefulness (or otherwise) of NFTs for creators, and it’s over on Nebula and/or CuriosityStream; here is a link that probably requires some kind of membership in something.

I don’t entirely understand Nebula and/or CuriosityStream (including, clearly, being able to tell them apart), but there seem to be various interesting videos (that’s the word: videos!) on it/them, and various people that I like to listen to (including Legal Eagle and Jordan Herrod I think it is) talk about it/them and seem to be somehow involved, so that’s cool.

I wanted to write about something else, what was it? Oh, right, the objectivity or otherwise of God-based moral systems. That sounds like a different post :) so maybe later.

2022/04/23

AkuDreams: Code Still Not Law

This is adapted from a twitter thread. Like the thread, I’ll start off talking based mostly on a simplification of what actually happened, and at least point to the somewhat more complicated but more accurate account lower down. I’m virtually sure that I have some of the technical bug details wrong here, so don’t take this as gospel, but the overall lesson is clear.

Hah, I love this SO MUCH. Because I am a terrible person only slightly bothered by the people who are actually suffering as a result.

This is an auction run by code on the Ethereum blockchain. You make a bid by sending the “contract” some money (in the form of ETH cryptocurrency; every Ethereum “contract” basically has a built-in escrow agent), and if you send more than the ultimate price (it’s a “modified Dutch auction”), it’s supposed to refund that money. But!

Due to a little bitty bug (and a relatively typical one; thousands of bugs like this one are written every day), the program (roughly) thinks that it’s already done that, and doesn’t do it “again”. And all the overrides in the code aren’t low-enough level to slip past that check.

Also (due to another bug, where it falsely assumes that every “minting” transaction “mints” exactly one token-thing, but in fact some minted multiple) the program can never reach a state in which it will allow the owners of the thing(s) being auctioned to withdraw the funds; those ETH will stay in escrow forever.

Yet another example of why “Code is Law” is silly and false.

I can think of three basic things that could be done about this:

First, they could tell the victims “too bad, code is law, that’s what you get for sending money to a contract that might have bugs”. That’s imho unlikely; the publicity would be terrible, which is to say, accurate.

Second, they could fork the Ethereum blockchain, and get 51% of the system to agree to swap in an altered chain reflecting what the program should have done. Forks are also terrible publicity; I think this is unlikely too.

The main reason I think a fork is unlikely is that, third, some number of unjustly wealthy crypto-whales can just step in and make up the lost funds out of their own pockets. This will superficially make it look like “the system works”, and the donors will get clout. I kind of suspect that this is what will happen (although if in fact only the owners, and not the bidders, have lost money, see below, the first option might be more likely, in that “it’s your fault for having deployed buggy code” doesn’t sound all that bad maybe.)

I was actually dreaming about all this this morning, between waking up briefly and checking Twitter for amusing things since I was awake anyway, and actually waking up an hour or two later. (And now I have a headache :P.)

It was a fun dream, reminiscent of the early anti-virus days before it all got boring, sitting around in a War Room with various Important People on the phone, trying to decide the best mitigation for a weird code thing.

Mostly I thought / dreamed about how to fix it with a fork-but-not-really. A brute-force fork (“install this new Blockchain!”) would be boring, but what if we hacked the Ethereum bytecode interpreter? The bytecodes may be all fancily embedded in the blockchain, but their meaning isn’t!

We (note I’m saying “we” here because now I’m talking about something cool) could just (“just”) add code to the interpreter saying “if between time0 and time1 you’re interpreting these bytecodes [buggy program], then pretend that they say [fixed copy of program]”. Sweet, eh? 😁

Then you get enough nodes to install the new EVM sometime before time0, and Bob is your Uncle.

Would enough nodes object, and refuse to run the hacked code, that there would be a fork-in-practice? Good question, and I have no idea. I’m just doing this for the mental exercise. :)

Here’s a history of the most famous (unplanned) Ethereum fork. That one was due to an active attack on a bug to steal stuff, not a bug simpliciter, and differed in other interesting ways. The amount of money at stake, though, was arguably comparable.

Here’s the more detailed analysis alluded to above, which says that the bidders’ money getting stuck was due to someone intentionally exploiting that bug (by, I think, having a “contract” send a bid, and then refusing the attempt to send it a refund, or something), and they turned the exploit off (by signaling the contract to accept the refund now), after which (some? all?) refunds went through, but then due to the other bug all by itself with no exploitation, the owners are unable to withdraw the rest of the funds forever.

And here’s Web 3 is Going Great on the situation for completeness. :)

I’m fascinated by the details of the bugs that led to this, but in fact they don’t really matter; the moral is that code will have bugs, bugs will cause things to happen that no one wanted and/or that violated someone’s rights in some way, and that therefore code is not law, and must never be law.

(Speaking of which, I had a long and… somewhat memorable Twitter discussion (apologies about how hard it will be to read that anything like linearly) about this with one Vinay Gupta, who is apparently something of a Force in this space, having 37.5K Twitter followers. Among other things, he calls me all sorts of names, and declares that he himself is “a different kind/calibre of smart. Possibly a once in a generation transformational intelligence.” So that happened. :D

But if I start weblogifying all of my Twitter exploits, you’ll get bored. Heck, I’ll get bored! So I won’t.)

And that’s the end of Today’s Episode of Code Is Definitely Not Law So There. Not a podcast.

2022/03/28

Trying to be fair to web3

I have, obviously, said a number of skeptical (or sceptical, what’s up with that?) things about NFTs and blockchains and The Metaverse, and cryptocurrency and “web3” in general. Including pointing out with some evil glee the extent to which web3 is going just great.

Recently Daniel Ritchie, who is apparently a friend of Grady Booch, wrote a piece decrying how negative people have been about web3, and basically imploring such people to give it a chance: Web3 has an Identity Problem. It’s short; I urge you to read it and reflect upon what it says.

I replied to the Twitter post that announced it, and this led to a little tree of discussion with the author, in which I expressed a desire for examples of web3 things that are actually good / interesting / exciting, and the author urged me to look at the ones listed in their piece (and not be so negative about them).

I also wrote a brief answer to my own question (of whether anything in the web3 space is new or useful), viz:

Just wanted to get that down, so as not to seem like a total old grump. :)

I thought it might be interesting to go through the dozen or so things that are listed in the article; as the underlying claim is that critics of web3 are ignoring things like those on this list, consciously not ignoring them can only make our ideas about web3 more accurate. But as I started to do that, it became apparent that talking about all dozen of them would make a long and likely tedious post.

So I’ll urge you again to look at them all yourself, but for now I’ll talk about just one that specifically caught my eye: “proof of humanity”, which is a link to proofofhumanity.id. I looked it over and found the idea both unworkable, and terrifyingly dystopian. The idea is that there would be a distributed blockchain-based system that would maintain a list of (blockchain addresses associated with) actual living humans, with mechanisms for people to challenge each other’s humanity or livingness, ways to prove that you are (still) human/alive, and so on.

If this were to be actually used for something that matters, the Black Mirror episode is obvious: in some sort of straits, the protagonist attempts to obtain help, only to find that someone has challenged their humanity, and they have to find a video camera and a recent blockchain hash, so that they can satisfy the network that they are still human and alive. Meanwhile, bad guys have bribed a few registered humans to vouch for the humanity of a few bots, which have vouched for more bots, and the percentage of actual humans in the official list of humans is slowly sinking, and all the big state-level actors can basically put the humanity of any dissenter into perpetual limbo, while running a network of certified-human bots and minions for their own ends.

When I expressed these worries, Daniel Ritchie linked me to an episode of the Green Pill podcast, which is an interview with the person behind Proof of Humanity. (“greenpilling” is another term on his list, referring to this podcast, and it looks like this same podcast person coined at least one more term on the list, “regenerative cryptoeconomics”; small world!)

Despite my personal dislike of podcasts (can’t I get a transcript?), I listened to the episode, and it did not address my dystopian worries at all. It also added a bunch of new worries about the “$UBI token” which is automatically given (one per hour) to everyone currently officially recognized as a human.

It seems obvious to me that a small private group isn’t going to provide the world’s humans with a Universal Basic Income by just minting electronic coins with no backing (talk about “fiat currency”), and sending them out to everyone; indeed the current value of $UBI is about $US0.04, so that’s four cents an hour, which I would imagine is completely dominated by transaction costs in any realistic scenario.

Now of course this is just me being negative again! Giving every human on the planet a regular income is a great idea, and maybe they will figure out a way to in fact make it work! Why should I assume that they won’t? The intent is good, even if the impact is not-yet.

(The “that’s a nice thing to want to do” feeling points to something that shows up a lot in the listed projects: web3 projects that want to do nice things, that have salutary intent, but that so far have not actually produced good results, or in many cases even suggested plausible mechanisms through which good results might eventually be obtained.)

My best answer to that, I think, is that the probability of this working seems really, really low, and the time and effort being put into it could be instead put into things with a higher success chance. Of course, what do I know?

The currency of the United States used to be based on gold, which is pretty and useful and limited in supply, and so in some sense has inherent value; even if people stopped caring about dollars, you could get gold from the government for them, and make gold things. Now it’s based on the US government promising that it has and will continue to have value, paying people in it and accepting only it for tax and other payments, and so on. That is a kind of value that is perhaps less inherent; US persons, at least, will not stop caring about dollars at least a bit, because they will need some to pay their taxes (and get government payments in it, and etc).

What would it take to get $UBI to work as a currency, without its value going to zero in the obvious way? Some institution or billionaire could promise to honor it at some minimum exchange rate with US$ or gold or something, but that’s not very scalable. (This is what “stablecoins” do for say Bitcoin, but that works only due to massive fraud.) What if everyone, for some large value of “everyone”, just liked it, as an idea, and the minter behaved and continued to mint and distribute only an amount per person-hour that roughly reflected the amount of actual value produced per person-hour? Could it continue to be accepted by everyone, just because it’s accepted by everyone?

This sounds like a risky thing to base a universal currency on :) but I should read more advanced theory of currency before I decide that it’s infeasible.

It does bother me that the website and podcast and so on don’t at all address the obvious potential problems of using a big complex distributed system to decide whether people are human, how the system could be abused, and so on. This does not in general give me big faith that they’ve thought through everything else thoroughly.

Arguably the world just needs a balance between “it’s a good idea and maybe it can be made to work somehow” optimists, and “it may be a good idea, but I see no way it can work” skeptics, and Daniel is the former and I am the latter, and that’s fine, all is working as designed. I worry, though, about the number of people who get hooked on the optimistic statements, and end up losing tons of money to bad actors, the amounts of energy that crypto is wasting, etc. If there were no downsides to web3-optimism, I might well not bother being a vocal skeptic. But as it is… well, there are definitely downsides!

2022/03/20

I’ve been watching YouTubes

I’ve probably mentioned that sometimes I stream random things while coding etc, to keep the easily-bored parts of my mind occupied or something. For a long time I was streaming mysteries like Bones and Lie to Me, and I would get annoyed with them when they switched from self-contained mystery stories to long arcs about the personal and family problems of the characters (if I wanted soap opera, I would watch soap opera), and that segued over to police procedurals, which had both that problem and more or less toxic levels of copaganda and testosterone (looking at you, Jethro “Mary Sue” Gibbs). So I mostly stopped that.

I didn’t switch over to podcasts, because 90% of podcasts have (at least) two people on them, and they spend an annoying amount of time exchanging meaningless in-jokes and chuckling at each other. Which, even if I’m not really listening and only playing it for background, makes me switch them off.

So for reasons that I can’t recall, I started streaming some random long-form essay things on YouTube, probably based on my ongoing curiosity about the thought-processes of conspiracy theorists (so presentations and debunking of Q stuff, Flat Earth stuff, Sovereign Citizen stuff, Creationist stuff, MLM stuff, etc), and gradually I followed links and recommendations and stuff, and subscribed to some YouTubers and joined some Patreons and stuff, so I thought I’d list some of the stuff I’ve been watching. Let’s start with, like, my YouTube subscriptions in whatever order they appear in here, and see where that takes us.

Legal Eagle is cool; a smart and articulate actual lawyer talking about actual legal stuff, in an approachable but not especially dumbed-down way. Does both fun puff stuff like “A real lawyer reacts to TV shows with legal stuff in them”, and more serious stuff like analyzing impeachments and what international law means for people who invade countries.

Rachel Oates is a smart young woman with a fun UKish accent (not the last one we’ll see), who talks intelligently about her reactions and opinions on internet culture and all sorts of random stuff; I may have gotten to her via feminist or anti-creationist stuff. And she has a cute dog.

greencat01

Münecat is another smart young woman with a fun UKish accent (see?), and a more thorough investigative and technical bent (as well as high production values and some rockin’ musical numbers). I probably got to her via anti-MLM stuff; amusingly, her most recent essay is about Crypto and NFT stuff, and she draws parallels between that and MLMs beyond the obvious stuff that I’d already noticed.

The Non-Alchemist (did I actually subscribe to them? I don’t remember doing that, but there they are on my Subscriptions page, so likely I did) is a smart guy with no particular accent (whaat?) who does atheist, and anti-anti-atheist, stuff. There are a Whole Lot of YouTube channels that do that, this is one that I got to and noted.

Paulogia is another one; that is, a smart guy with no particular accent who does atheist and anti-anti-atheist stuff; more specifically “A former Christian looking at the claims of current Christians,” which gives him an interesting perspective. He (like some of the other people on this list) spends what seems an inordinate amount of time responding to certain I guess Big On YouTube but otherwise unremarkable creationist figures like “Kent Hovid” and “Ken Ham” (who are apparently, and confusingly, different people), but I guess it’s good that someone is. He does other stuff, too, though, and has some interesting guests (some of whom I may have wandered over to and subscribed to also).

Emma Thorne is perhaps the first smart young woman with a fun UK accent that I subscribed to. She does atheist stuff and anti-MLM stuff (and other stuff), and was perhaps the conduit by which I got from watching the former things to watching the latter things. She has lots of plushies and action figures and so on, and is a Satanist who starts every episode with “Hallo, lovely people!”.

Geeky Faye Art is rather completely different from those I’ve mentioned so far. Smart young enby, apparently (as I just noticed) in the UK, but without an accent (or, presumably, with an American accent), but less about atheism or pyramid schemes and more about making really cool stuff using 3D printers and little Raspberry Pis and whatnot. Which is fascinating, and something that I’m much more likely to watch than do myself. Also I just really like their energy somehow, inchoately.

The Illuminaughtii is a cartoon lady with a pyramid for a head (and no / an American accent), and does really detailed and thoroughly-researched essays on all sorts of things, including corporations behaving badly, MLMs, frauds, crimes, and a whole bunch of more or less related stuff. Hours and hours of good listening.

(I am finding as I go through this that I haven’t actually subscribed to some of these people, and have just been relying on I guess The Algorithm to tell me about new stuff they do; so I’m fixing that as we go along.)

The Lady of the Library (for whom I seem to have a “user” link rather than a “channel” link? I don’t understand YouTube) is a smart young woman apparently named Cinzia, with the (what?) plummiest imaginable accent; a pleasure to listen to. She talks about a bunch of interesting historical and academic subjects, often around Ancient Greece and Rome; I think I got to her because of one episode where she responds to someone who claims that the Roman Empire never existed (this is apparently a thing!). According to an Instagram post she struggles with low self-esteem, which just goes to show; if this person can have low self-esteem, anyone can!

Jenny Nicholson is a smart young woman with (no particular accent, and) a marvelous sense of comedic timing. She is / has been very into various fandoms, like Star Wars, Disney Parks, and My Little Pony, and talks humorously and with sharp self-awareness about it all. She reviews movies with a really impressive amount of critical acumen, and also did one episode about how she traveled to another state with some friends to pick up a huge plush Borg (edit: Porg (lol)) that she’d bought on ebay or something. Whether she’s doing that, reviewing a Major Motion Picture, or doing a reading of a really terrible piece of fanfic, she brings the same (surely there’s a word for it that I don’t know) deadpan perfectly-timed sense of humor to it, and I love all of her stuff. I joined her Patreon when I’d watched basically all of her public stuff from the last several years on YouTube.

Heh, there are more of these than I’d realized!

Lindsay Ellis is apparently a huge Twitter and YouTube celeb, who might or might not currently be on hiatus / offline, and who has been cancelled and the subject of much drama. She’s also smart and interesting and funny, if a bit (what?) jaded or something.

Strange Aeons is a smart young woman who seems like she should have a UK accent (what?) but doesn’t. She has an excellent modified Furby which is like three feet long, and talks about Tumblr culture, lesbian culture, her Sphynx Cat, and lots of other stuff. Always fun to watch.

Genetically Modified Skeptic is another atheist who used to be a Christian, even an Evangelical, and smartly covers various topics in atheism and Christian apologetics, and sometimes appears with other folks on this list.

Ask a Mortician is a smart deep-voiced woman who (wait for it) is a mortician, and talks about all sorts of interesting death-adjacent topics, like the faking of spirit photographs, historical vampire panics, whether it’s legal to mummify your cult leader, and so on. Excellent sense of humor, interesting topics, easy to listen to.

Jordan Herrod is a smart young woman and PhD student in machine learning, who talks about various AI-adjacent and PhD-adjacent topics. I got to her when I was first learning all about generative transformers and all (GPT3 etc). Some of what she says is very specific to people wanting to get degrees in machine learning (and I’m sure it’s very useful to them!) but most of it is more generally-interesting AI and learning stuff.

Samaneri Jayasāra – Wisdom of the Masters is a person with a silky voice and a perhaps Australian accent, not afraid of a profound pause, evocatively reading various writings in various wisdom traditions, including Buddhism and including Zen. I don’t think they say any words of their own, they just read the writings over calm and soothing background music. Excellent for depth.

And if I’m going to widen the list to include things that aren’t people doing long-form essays, I should add Karima Hoisan, who makes Second Life and Opensim machinima (which, I proudly but shyly admit, sometimes have my Second Life name in the credits for some scripting that I helped with). So much virtual world art is for whatever reason of the “broken dolls in a wasteland” school, but these aren’t; they are celebrations and depictions of basically everything human, often beautiful often funny often profound. She worked extensively with Natascha Randt, who we sadly lost recently.

(What happens to YouTube channels when the owners die? Has this started to be an issue yet? One might expect it’s been long enough…)

I could continue to other non-essay channels that I subscribe to, and get into like Susan Werner and Pomplamoose [sic], but that would become a whole nother post, like “Music I Listen To”, and I suppose maybe someday I’ll do that; but not today!

2022/02/11

Travel Posters from Nowhere

One from each of the realms / prompt-prefixes that we’ve been playing with.

The NightCafe “Creative” engine (VQGAN+CLIP) is pretty darn good at posters, as long as you don’t mind the text being illegible.

Yeni Cavan Travel Poster #yenicavan
Yeni Cavan
Cogspin Travel Poster #cogspin
Cogspin
Neocine City Travel Poster  #neocine
Neocine City
Miller's Bend Travel Poster #millersbend
Miller’s Bend
Kranija Travel Poster #kranija
Kranija
Technopolitan Travel Poster  #technopolitan
Technopolitan
Travel Poster  #nightlife
Night Life
Travel Poster #moebius
In the Style of Moebius
Le Monde Moderne: Travel Poster #mondemoderne
Le Monde Moderne
dark neon alien city; Travel Poster
Dark Alien City

That last one is a new prefix that I was just playing with a little. But it made a good travel poster for it!

I will probably (or perhaps) write more words about all of this stuff that the AI is making; but at the moment I’m just wallowing in all of the imaginary pictures…

2022/02/11

12 Jazz Posters from the Imaginary World

2022/02/05

Technopolitan

I could just produce one of these posts a day, for months. Or one an hour, for that matter. Will I get tired of it? Probably. Eventually. But not today! As always, courtesy of NightCafe Studio.

Retro-futurism, Hugo Gernsback style.

Technopolitan #technopolitan
Technopolitan
Technopolitan street #technopolitan
The Bustle of Modern Life
Technopolitan downtown #technopolitan
Heading downtown
Technopolitan library #technopolitan
Knowledge Is Progress!
Technopolitan dancers #technopolitan
Sophisticated Entertainment
Technopolitan Lovers #technopolitan
Modern Love
Technopolitan technology #technopolitan
Technology Makes The World Better!
Technopolitan city hotel #technopolitan
City Living
Modern realism retrofuture gernsback vivid vintage nightclub
Technopolitan Nightlife

(Interestingly, I failed to get a sunset image out of it that I felt was sufficiently in-theme. Maybe I should have kept trying, but I think it’s telling that while “nightclub” and “technology” and so on hit immediately, “sunset” is more of a stuggle. Not much room for nature in this aesthetic?)

2022/02/02

Bas-Reliefs

As is probably obvious :) I’m enjoying using NightCafe Studio to produce little families of images: steampunk plans, da Vinci sketches, spellbook pages, and some others no doubt to come. After finding a promising phrase, one can either make small changes to it, or just run it again with a different random seed. (NightCafe even has a way to do this in bulk; producing a bunch of images from the same prompt but different seeds in a single operation; I haven’t used that yet.)

This morning we present a dozen archaeological bas-reliefs, captioned with their prompts. Note for instance what the AI thinks about Mexican vs. Russian vs. other kinds of ruins. The subtlety and realism here (at least to a non-archaeologist) are pretty impressive!

bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Ominous bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Ominous bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Erotic bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Erotic bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican brothel
Bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican brothel
Stained bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Stained bas-relief found in an ancient Mexican ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Russian ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Russian ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Russian ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Russian ruin
Ceremonial bas-relief found in an ancient ruin
Ceremonial bas-relief found in an ancient ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Roman ruin
Bas-relief found in an ancient Roman ruin
Arcane bas-relief found in an ancient Turkish ruin
Arcane bas-relief found in an ancient Turkish ruin
Bas-relief of a sea serpent, found in an ancient Turkish ruin
Bas-relief of a sea serpent, found in an ancient Turkish ruin
Arcane bas-relief of a lion, found in an ancient Turkish ruin
Arcane bas-relief of a lion, found in an ancient Turkish ruin
2022/01/12

Who am I? Who is asking?

My proto-Zen was when I was a child, and would think over and over to myself “I just don’t see how I am me!”.

I was reminded of this by a little article called “The Practice of Wonderment” in the latest Buddhadharma magazine, giving the author’s take on huatou. It started with the etymology of the word, basically “the source of speech”, as an investigation of what lies beyond words. Which resonates with my own favorite paradoxical observation, that language cannot express truth.

We ask “Who am I?”, not in order to answer it, but in order to be filled with the question.

From Dahui’s Discourse Records:

When you observe this, there is no need for effortful speculation; no need for explanations; no need to acquire any understanding; no need to open your mouth; no need to figure out some meaning to the place where you bring it forth; no need to wallow in a state of empty quiescence; no need to wait for enlightenment; no need to try to fathom the words of Chan masters; and furthermore, there is no need to [dwell] in the shell of nondoing. Instead, simply bring this forth at all times, whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, “Does a dog have buddhanature or not? Zhou replied, Wu!” When you are familiar with your practice of bringing forth this “Wu!” then you will reach a place where words and thoughts do not reach.

I posted that to Reddit, and there was some nice feedback, and also a thread with someone who seemed to be saying that asking “Who am I?” is a useless question, because we already know the answer (nothing! no one!). I replied that while it’s easy to respond to the question with some particular words, it’s a different thing to have faced the question diligently enough that you’ve gotten beyond the words, and experienced the truth.

How do we know whether we’ve in fact broken through, whether we are simply bringing this forth at all times? An easy answer is, “if you have to ask, then you haven’t” but I think that’s wrong. There are undoubtedly people who are extremely confident that they have seen through to the ultimate ground of being, and simply bring this forth at all times, but who are mistaken about that (heh, see recent post that I just now realize is related).

So even if I am (were) extremely confident, I’d want to take reasonable steps to be sure that I’m not one of those people. Talking to an actual teacher now and then might help, but that would require work in the external world (aah!). And otherwise, the best way to check seems to be continuing to ask the question.

Who am I? Who is it that asks?

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2022/01/10

More on NFTs and Copyright

Just the other day, we talked about what’s actually inside an NFT, and what you get when you “buy” one.

One of the things I wondered was whether there are any NFTs that, when you buy them, you actually get full control and ownership of the digital content associated with it; as in an actual transfer of copyright.

This turns out to be a variously interesting question! In the US, we have Title 17, chapter 2, paragraph (or whatever) 204.a which reads:

A transfer of copyright ownership, other than by operation of law, is not valid unless an instrument of conveyance, or a note or memorandum of the transfer, is in writing and signed by the owner of the rights conveyed or such owner’s duly authorized agent.

US Copyright Law

Here in the Age of Digital Everythings, it is naturally unclear just what “in writing and signed” means. Does email count as “in writing”? Does some sort of random “e-signature” thing count as “signed”? Does someone having clicked “Okay” on a box saying “Do you hereby sign this?” count?

There appears to be a limited amount of case law on this subject. You got your Metropolitan Regional Information Systems, Inc. v. American Home Realty Network, Inc., Appeal No. 12-2102 (4th Cir. July 17, 2013), which considered inter alia

whether a subscriber, who “clicks yes” in response to MRIS’s electronic TOU prior to uploading copyrighted photographs, has signed a written transfer of the exclusive rights of copyright ownership in those photographs consistent with Section 204(a).

and noted that

Although the Copyright Act itself does not contain a definition of a writing or a signature, much less address our specific inquiry, Congress has provided clear guidance on this point elsewhere, in the E-Sign Act.

Basically the E-Sign Act says of various legal transactions that “a contract relating to such transaction may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because an electronic signature or electronic record was used in its formation”, and qualifies that with some definitions and exceptions and stuff.

The Met. Reg’l. Inf. Sys. decision further references yer Vergara Hermosilla v. Coca-Cola Co., 2011 WL 744098, (S.D. Fla. Feb. 23, 2011), which rather casually and in passing “reasoned that allowing the transfer of copyright ownership via e-mail pursuant to the E-Sign Act accorded with, rather than conflicted with” the purpose of Section 204 up there, and was therefore okay.

Given this rather sparse case law, it seems like simply being online / electronic / digital doesn’t prevent a transaction causing a transfer of copyright. The further question, then, is whether the specific online action of buying (selling) an NFT, can do that.

I will boldly state here that the answer is No. The simple fact that an API request came into some server (however well digitally signed and authenticated it was) that caused a block to be posted to some blockchain (however decentrally and securely) that led to some Solidity code being executed that in turn caused a different ID to be associated with a particular NFT, is not sufficient by itself to transfer any copyright ownership from one person (or other entity) to another.

Why not? Because what a court looks at to determine whether a copyright transfer (or other things, like assent to license terms) actually occurred isn’t anything about what happened with some bits inside a computer; rather, it’s the actual intent of some human somewhere when they took some action.

In the moderately famous Specht v. Netscape Communications Corp. – 306 F.3d 17 (2d Cir. 2002), for instance, the court was asked to decide if someone pushing the “download” button on a web page was bound by certain license terms, when those license terms were visible only if the user scrolled further down the page and clicked on a link leading to a copy of the license agreement. The license agreement started (sorry for the shouting):

BY CLICKING THE ACCEPTANCE BUTTON OR INSTALLING OR USING NETSCAPE COMMUNICATOR, NETSCAPE NAVIGATOR, OR NETSCAPE SMARTDOWNLOAD SOFTWARE (THE “PRODUCT”), THE INDIVIDUAL OR ENTITY LICENSING THE PRODUCT (“LICENSEE”) IS CONSENTING TO BE BOUND BY AND IS BECOMING A PARTY TO THIS AGREEMENT.

In the analysis of this case, the court noted various prior decisions, holding that various “shinkwrap” and “click-wrap” and “browse-wrap” licenses (love the terms) either were or weren’t valid in various circumstances.

The basic finding in Specht here is that

The case law on software licensing has not eroded the importance of assent in contract formation. Mutual assent is the bedrock of any agreement to which the law will give force.

And I would claim that the fact that a particular request came into a particular server, can never in itself prove any human’s assent to anything.

(I can imagine some argument that, because the request was signed with some human’s private key, and because that human had reason to know that they should be very careful that no other person and no piece of software ever has access to that key without their consent, that by allowing the human and/or programmatic sender of the request access to their key, they implicitly assented to anything that that key was used for. But I hope and trust that auch an argument would fail, because it’s silly.)

It depends on the User Experience

On the other hand, given what we found earlier in this post, it seems very likely that a human action that results in the programmatic transfer of an NFT, can also result in the legal transfer of copyright ownership. The human action just has to be in writing and signed (within the still-somewhat-squishy meaning of the E-Sign Act), and has to be an action that actually indicates intent and assent to that copyright transfer.

So for instance (and like everything else in this post, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal advice and you can never sue me for anything and if you do I automatically win), say that when I went to buy an NFT I got a popup saying “Do you realize that by buying this NFT you will become the copyright owner of Thing X?” and it wouldn’t go through until I pressed Yes, and also the copyright owner would get a popup saying “Ceoln wants to buy your NFT for $D and do you want to allow this, realizing that if you do you will be transferring total ownership of Thing X to them?” and it also wouldn’t go through until they pressed Yes.

In this case, I would imagine that a court would be likely, if asked, to find that copyright transfer had actually occurred if we both pressed Yes and there was nothing weird going on.

Note that this has nothing whatever to do with there being an NFT involved; that system would successfully effectuate a copyright transfer if the owner of the copyright on Thing X was recorded in a MySQL database somewhere, or even not formally recorded at all. (Although in the latter case it would be harder to prove it had happened if one party denied it.)

A more convenient and less clear case would be if the person owning the copyright clicked Okay on a popup when the NFT was minted, saying “By clicking Okay, you agree to transfer complete ownership of the copyright on Thing X to whoever buys this NFT from you in the future”, and then when someone bought it they got a popup as above, and then the NFT changed hands without any further action by the copyright owner. Is a contract like that valid and enforceable? Can you make a contract with someone unknown and unspecified, such that it takes effect without any further action by you in the future when the other party becomes known? I don’t know! One interpretation would be that the creator is actually entering into a contract with the NFT marketplace operator, agreeing that in the future they will assign copyright; but could that actually make the assignment happen automatically in the future?

Further reading

There are a few documents here and there about copyright and electronic transfer and NFTs, most of them brief, acknowledging that everything is untested, and citing various possibly-relevant cases. There are various issues that we haven’t considered here (for instance “what happens when someone mints an NFT pointing at some text or image that they don’t own the copyright on themselves?”).

Copyright transfers by email and website terms of use
You can transfer a copyright without saying ‘copyright’
What are the copyright implications of NFTs?
No, NFTs aren’t copyrights
The Rise of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) and the Role of Copyright Law – Part I Part II

Or, really, you could just do a web search on “NFTs and Copyright”.

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