Posts by @kmo

Logan's Run

I had it in mind to record something about democracy and how the people who are crowing loudest about how they desire to defend democracy from all threats are the ones most intent on preventing a certain candidate from appearing on Republican primary ballots in states that are controlled by Democrats. But instead of that, and instead of the other topic I was thinking of, which was news of Mark Zuckerberg's, I think, $250 million bunker complex in Hawaii, and the fact that the very same people who tell us that artificial intelligence and advanced technology are about to usher in utopia are all preparing for Mad Max, you know, collapse. But instead I think I'll talk about the novel and the movie, Logan's Run. I believe the novel is from 1967, the year before I was born. I read it as a teenager. I saw the film as a child, but I think I was too young to really remember the film that well. I do remember watching the TV series. I then saw the film again as an adult, and it does not hold up. It's not all that good. But, you know, I've read a whole lot of science fiction novels, and the science fiction novel of Logan's Run is interesting, but it's not a classic. It's not amazing. If you haven't read it, you're, you know, you're not missing out on all that much. But you know, it is a film that made a lot of money in the 1970s. It's a film that has iconic imagery that is still recognizable to this day. And so, of course, it is an obvious candidate for a remake or a reboot of some sort. And people have been trying to do that throughout the 20-teens. And yet, it can't get made. Now, in the novel, it's a society that seems to be either run by AI or just sort of, it's just kind of automated. Most of the people, I mean, all of the people in it are under the age of 21. When you hit 21 years of age, you're done. You are put to death. In the movie, they bumped that up to age 30 so that they could have popular stars in the film who, you know, would not pass for teenagers. And the novel centers around a sandman who is a police officer or bounty hunter who is assigned to make sure that everybody who has lived their full 21 years goes quietly or, you know, goes in one way or another. But he himself, you know, when his time comes, he decides to run. That is an interesting premise. In the novel, it's not executed all that well. There's a sequel novel as well, which is, again, not all that great. I listened to that on audiobook just a couple years ago. And then the movie, it's got some iconic images in it, but it's also kind of dumb. Now, when the Hunger Games movies were hitting big, and then that other series starts with Divergent, I think, which as far as I know, like the last film got broken up into two installments in the second installment, like never hit theaters. Or if it did, it hit with such a whimper that it was like a straight to streaming sort of thing. But, you know, there was a hot minute where it seemed like, yeah, a film about how, you know, a dystopian film starring all young people could work. And particularly with the success of the Hunger Games, they decided they were going to, you know, gender swap the lead and make Logan a woman. So it would be a female-led, young adults, dystopian sci-fi novel. But it didn't happen. And, you know, a lot of why it didn't happen is just Hollywood politics and just the sort of quirky functioning of the Hollywood system. But I think part of it is the zeitgeist. The idea that the world is only for kids and that as soon as you hit 21 or 30, depending on which version of the original Logan's Run you want to go with, the novel or the movie, by the time you hit 30, you know, it's all over for you. That just doesn't resonate today. Because today, the kids are the ones who've got it rough. The kids are the ones who can't really get their lives started because they can't make enough money to get houses and cars and get married and basically do what their parents did. And so they're kind of stalled out. So, you know, a movie that says, yeah, the old people are being kicked off and everything's about the youth, it just does not resonate with our current moment. Our current moment, it's the old people who are living large and it is the young people who are scrounging. And so Logan's Run in 2023 or 2024, I just don't see it. Not without some conceptual transformation that would make it relevant. All right. That is all. Happy New Year.

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Suppose somebody asks you if you've read a particular book, and you haven't actually read it, but you've listened to the audiobook. You know the author, you know their voice, you know—and when I say voice, their authorial voice, that doesn't mean that they necessarily narrated the audiobook. But you know the characters, you know the general outline of the plot, but you didn't read it. Did you read the book? What's the answer? Yes or no? I mean, either answer is going to be misleading or incomplete, right? So I have a lifelong love affair with science fiction. I've been writing a reminiscence, you might say, or a recounting of my history with science fiction literature, which you can find on my Patreon blog, And in recent—I'd say not recent decades—in the last five years or so, almost all of the new sci-fi fiction that I have taken in has been in the form of audiobooks. I have not read a paper science fiction book in quite a long time. But I can go through my Audible library and list lots and lots of sci-fi authors whose work I'm familiar with from the audiobooks. And in some series of, you know, long series of audiobooks, I've read some of the books, and I've listened to others as audiobooks, and I can't tell you from memory which is which. In my memory, there's no difference. And in some cases, the narration brings something new to an audiobook. For example, I'm reading the Caiaphas Cain novels set in the Warhammer 40k universe, which is this super self-serious, grimdark setting. But Caiaphas Cain's books are very lighthearted, and they don't take the setting or the premise of the setting seriously. It's all about this guy, Commissar Caiaphas Cain, who is a hero of the Imperium. And yet these are his secret private memoirs in which he admits, possibly unfairly, that these actions that he took that other people saw as courageous and heroic were actually self-serving and cowardly. But, you know, the observers didn't have his viewpoint. And the narration is excellent. The narrator is very good, and then there's another narrator for the editor because there's lots of footnotes that have a different voice. And then sometimes the narrative is supplemented with excerpts from other works. And those other works have different authors, and they have different narrators for those as well. And it's really excellent. And, you know, there would be something lost if I only read the books. But at the same time, you know, if you're listening to an audiobook—or maybe I should just use the first person. When I'm listening to an audiobook, I get distracted. My thoughts go elsewhere, and I will miss big stretches. And even though, you know, I'm not even paying attention to the flow of words, they continue without my active participation. And so I can miss a lot. Or sometimes I'll listen in bed, and I'll fall asleep, and I'll forget to set the timer, and I'll wake up the next day, and I'll have a prompt from Audible asking me to rate the book that I slept through. You know, so reading, like actually physically reading a dead tree book, goes into the brain differently, or so research says, than text read from a screen, and certainly differently from text that is read to you. So what do you think? Does listening to an audiobook count as reading the book? If you've heard the audiobook, and somebody says, have you read it? What's the answer? Thank you.

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Crypto Bull Market

So, it seems like the crypto bull market might be back. I got into it, well, I took donations in Bitcoin from my podcast for years and sold way, way too early. But I basically got a laptop computer and a used pickup truck from my early Bitcoin donations that I received. But in terms of crypto that I purchased, I really got into it right around the beginning of the pandemic, I guess, and doubled my money pretty quickly and then lost three quarters of it to the point where I had funds on BlockFi, which were just gone. I had funds on, what was that, I can't even remember now, Voyager, gone. I had assets over on a South Korean exchange called Hotbit, gone, just evaporated, just gone. And then every now and again, I had to sell here and there at a loss because I was short on money. But I never touched the bulk of my assets, which I kept in Ethereum, and those are on Coinbase and Kraken, as far as I know. And most of them are staked, they're growing. So as far as I know, I still have access anyway, I know, not your keys, not your coins, still have access to my Ethereum. And it has grown a bit, you know, because I've held it for a few years. But I can't really bring myself to care all that much. Because I did sell Bitcoin way too early, like I sold my Amazon stock way too early, I missed out on big gains, I'm just not even tempted to do any profit taking in this bull market unless it gets, you know, crazy. I'm really interested in what people are going to do, what AI is going to do in the combination, with the combination of artificial intelligence and not necessarily cryptocurrencies, but blockchain technology. And I have no idea, you know, what the killer app will be, if it ever emerges. But it's kind of like the news right now, particularly political news, I just refuse to get sucked into it. The YouTube algorithm, you know, now that the Bitcoin price is up in the 40,000s and, you know, ETH is back over 2,000, the YouTube algorithm is very insistent that I check in with all my old sources and I'm like, nah, I don't really care. Because I don't, I just don't care. So questions for you, do you care? For those who are just, you know, they've had the same low information opinion about crypto for the last 10 years, you know, it's your business, I'm not interested in hearing it for the umpteenth time. So if, you know, if your position is it's a Ponzi scheme, it's all a scam, it's not worth anything, that's fine. You know, live your life that way, but you don't need to tell me about it because believe me, believe me, I have heard that position articulated sufficiently. But if you have a more interesting take, one that does not fit on a bumper sticker or a fortune cookie fortune, let me know. What are your thoughts on crypto?

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Green Boots

I saw an image on Twitter this morning, or X if you want to call it that, of a body, a human corpse that is near the summit of Mount Everest. People don't know whose corpse it is, but it's wearing green boots and it's been there since the 90s, so people call it green boots. And elsewhere I saw a map of all the known dead bodies on Mount Everest, and there's a lot of them. And if you're climbing Everest and you die, nobody's going to bring your corpse back down. There's going to be no rescue mission. Maybe someday, when robots can climb Mount Everest with relative ease, they'll go up and collect all the corpses and all the trash. But it got me thinking about yesterday's question about why send humans to Mars? And I think for a lot of people, the answer, even if they can't articulate it, is the same as, okay, you're a successful doctor, lawyer, accountant, whatever, you're comfortable, you have achieved upper middle class status, you don't really have anything to worry about in your life. Why climb Mount Everest? It's very expensive, and while it's not that dangerous, I was asking Pi about it, and in the spring of 2022, 92.6% of the people who attempted Everest achieved the summit. In the autumn and in the winter, it is much more difficult, and in some years the weather's been so bad that nobody has achieved the summit in the autumn or the winter. But at certain times of year, it's doable. It's pretty doable, but you could still die. Why risk it? Well, I asked the AI Pi why... I asked it for a counter-argument to robots are better prepared, better equipped, better constituted to explore Mars than human beings are, and they can do it a lot cheaper in terms of the energy budget. And Pi said, well, pushing the achievements of... Pushing the boundaries, pushing back what were previously limits on what humans can do is inspirational. And it's just kind of something that's in the human psychological constitution, this desire to do more than we thought was possible, which I'm pretty sure is a good thing. If you like living in a technological society and doing things that kings and emperors of ages past could never even dream of, the desire to push the boundaries, it leads to good things. So I don't have a fully formulated question for people to use in response to this, but what do you think of that? Is just pure human achievement something worth expending enormous resources on and risking people's lives over?

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Space is for Robots

I once heard Neil deGrasse Tyson say in an interview that we've explored all the planets in our solar system and what we've learned is that Earth is the best one. True enough, Earth is the best one and at least you know in terms of supporting biological life which includes us and we are very much a product of this biosphere. This is where we exist, this is the place and these are the conditions to which we are adapted and going into space for human beings is very difficult. Staying in space on a permanent basis is lethal. Space is full of radiation and the the churning of the molten metal core of our planet creates a magnetic field that protects us from that radiation. We get out into space and eventually that radiation is going to mess up your DNA and you are going to die a very unpleasant death. It might be a lingering death but it's coming. And so I say space is for robots. Right now there are two working rovers on Mars. I think they are Curiosity and Perseverance. Curiosity has been there and it has been active and doing scientific work since 2012. Eleven years it's been on the surface of Mars doing good stuff. Now a lot of the times it's just sitting there doing nothing, waiting for instructions or waiting for its batteries to charge or whatever. But 11 years. AI is moving quickly now and rovers like Curiosity and Perseverance they're just going to get more and more sophisticated and more importantly more and more autonomous in their ability to decide what's important in the moment given the context, their immediate surroundings, their immediate conditions and they won't have to phone home for every little detail. For instructions for how to do and what to do in any given moment. They'll be in a better position to know what needs doing and know how to do it and to be in the best position to determine how to do it. These devices are the product of human intentionality. They are a human will in action on Mars. What significant improvement would it be to send humans there, humans who have to spend a year or more in transit each way, who will spend very little time there, who will take enormous risks getting down to the surface and then back up again and who will suffer for the rest of their lives most likely the damage done to their body by years of weightlessness and exposure to radiation. They'll be a big hullabaloo, a big you know big party when some human makes a boot print on Mars but from my perspective humans are already on Mars. Science fiction author Charles Stross has a phrase that he used in the book Accelerando which I just love. The phrase is canned apes which is to say if you send humans into space you have to send a pocket of human friendly environment. It's got to have the right mixture of gases, it's got to be at the right temperature, it's got to be shielded from radiation, it's got to be at the right pressure, you have to have water for them, you have to have food, you have to wait have to have a way to dispose of their waste and you know if humans are going to live and work continuously in a tight little space with one another they have to be really really adept at getting along because you can't have a workplace feud with your buddy or your former buddy, your work mate, if you live in something the size of a Winnebago and you never get to leave it, you never get to leave their presence. That's just really unworkable to me. You know there's a big I guess a rivalry you could say between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Both men want to get humanity off the planet. Musk wants to establish a permanent human presence on Mars and Jeff Bezos wants to build space-based habitats. Now from my perspective space-based habitats are the better way to go because you can once you can build them you can perfectly replicate the conditions that we human beings as biological organisms are adapted to survive in which is to say the right mix of gases, right temperature, right pressure, radiation shielding, lots of water and ways to not just dispose of our waste but recycle it or turn it back into something useful which you have to do you know unless you want to be continuously dependent on shipments to and from Earth to support your space colony. But these things aren't going to build themselves and if they do get built I'm pretty certain that it's going to be robots that build them. Very smart robots, very autonomous robots, robots that either have in and of themselves or are controlled locally by some artificial general intelligence or artificial super intelligence. So the question is NASA is looking to send humans back to the moon. They want to build a lunar gateway station in orbit around the moon and from there launch a human expedition to Mars. What is the benefit beyond just the psychological hurrah moment of putting human beings on the surface of Mars that could not be accomplished with very autonomous and sophisticated robots that don't need to come back? What do you think? What is the value of human beings in space?

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What's Science Fiction supposed to be?

October 21st, 2015. That was the day that Doc Brown and Marty McFly arrived in the future. They came forward from 1985 to 2015 to a world of actual hoverboards that hovered and other improbable technologies, and some that just don't seem all that exotic to us now, like the big TV screens and voice control of electronics, things like that. But, you know, self-drying sneakers and bizarre clothing, these sorts of things didn't come to pass. But the future doesn't really ever play out the way science fiction tells us that it should. And there's different levels of speculative fiction inside science fiction. You know, some types of science fiction attempt to be scientifically rigorous and to make thoroughgoing and good faith extrapolations as to what the world might be like in some degree, you know, along some axis, if we progress along the path that we're on. And others are just full of sci-fi tropes, skiffy tropes, that really don't have any basis in honest speculation. You just recognize them, you know, laser guns and spaceships and, you know, the worst of all, the most unrealistic, flying cars. And yet I still enjoy sci-fi from the 80s that looks forward, and, you know, even previous decades, although I find it difficult to go back much before the 70s, you know, and watch sci-fi from the 60s and the 50s and whatnot, but like from the 70s, but particularly in the 80s, they were looking forward to just past the turn of the century. And for most of my life, the year 2000 was in the future, and it seemed like a really futuristic date. And now we're long past it. And the world is not nearly as different as I thought it would be, and certainly not in the ways I thought it would be. You know, the movie Blade Runner, which came out, I think, in 1982, was set in the far future year of 2019, when there were off-world colonies, and most of the healthy people who were eligible to emigrate to the off-world colonies had gone, and the only people left on Earth were the damaged ones, the ones who couldn't pass the physical or who were just too poor or mentally defective to be, you know, to qualify for living off-world. Well, that's certainly not the 2019 that we got. But what I really loved about Blade Runner 2049 was that it just stuck to its guns. It said, yep, that's how things were in 2019, and here's how they are 30 years later. I really respected that, and I really love that movie. But I suppose this is all in the service of a question. If sci-fi is not meant to predict the future, is it really just a specific flavor of fantasy? You know, when you think of fantasy, or when I think of fantasy, I think of Tolkien, I think of elves and dwarves and hobbits and kings and wizards and those sorts of things. Is sci-fi, with its flying cars and its spaceships and its robots, is that just an alternate or a specific flavor of fantasy? Because I've always been bothered by the habit of bookstores, and I guess libraries as well, to have sections that they label as sci-fi slash fantasy. Because to me, that's like saying romance slash westerns. I mean, what do the genres have in common? But, you know, if decade after decade, speculative fictions, predictions fail to come about, what's it doing? What's sci-fi, science fiction as a genre, doing that fantasy isn't? Is it just a sub-genre of fantasy, or is it something distinctly different? What do you think?

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Posts mentioning @kmo

Karma, Policed

KMO published a Substack article yesterday, which I wanted to comment on.

The article deals with the decline in the quality of online discussions on any topic. So... the thrust of his argument is that the big online platforms that have been kind of accumulating more and more, a bigger and bigger percentage of our discussions, have been moving to implement various algorithms designed to optimize specific metrics. And the metrics had to do with reactions that people give in response to various posts. These reactions can come in different forms. For example, the most primitive form is the ubiquitous like button, but there are other feedback mechanisms. For example, Reddit utilizes so-called karma, which the way I understand it boils down to like a sum total of upvotes and downvotes on your posts. Now, that may seem like a logical way to create like auto-regulation for each board or subreddit, but over time what it does, it actually constructs a very effective echo chamber. And the meaning of those upvotes and downvotes becomes simply upvote means I agree, downvotes means I disagree. People who I disagree with will be voted out of this board because their posts will become invisible. And so this group devolves into an echo chamber. KMO described it much more eloquently than I just did. And I really recommend that you go and read the whole article for yourself. But I wanted to make two comments.

First, if anyone still remembers a big online empire that was called Gawker that went bankrupt as a result of a somewhat frivolous lawsuit, was it 10 years ago or maybe it's not quite, maybe eight years ago, that empire was presided over by a publisher called Nick Denton. Now, Nick is a somewhat controversial figure, but it's completely irrelevant to what I'm going to say. Now, one thing to notice on Gawker properties, comments were kind of important. They were actually the main reason people often read this website. So Denton was very concerned about maintaining a certain level of vigor and insightfulness within those comments. And I think it was somewhere around 2011 when he went to the South by Southwest conference and gave an extended talk on the subject of online comments. And I think during that talk, he made some excellent points. One of them was that he was very aware of the fact that if you let people vote for the popularity of each comment or poster, which would then result in comments that represented the majority opinion rising to the top. And for Nick, with his muckraking instincts, that was the exact wrong thing to do. Now, the second point he was making, which was kind of similar, is if you keep doing it, you keep rewarding people expressing that prevailing opinion, then you're actually attracting the exact wrong type of commenter. It's the commenter who has absolutely nothing to add, nothing interesting, nothing insightful, nothing new. And if that person is attracted by having a high karma, high number of points, stars, upvotes, or whatever, that actually makes it only worse. So in summary, this is the person you definitely don't want to give too much visibility to. On the other hand, if a story has a villain, and that villain shows up in the discussion board, you should definitely give that person number one spot, regardless of how popular or unpopular they are. Of course, they're going to be unpopular. This is the villain.

So I think Denton's talk from more than 10 years ago and KMO's article from yesterday, they both make the same general point, which is that the comments whose visibility is based on this kind of social signal, upvote, or karma, or things of that nature, they're going to be fundamentally broken. So it's a wrong thing to optimize for. And it results in poor, more echo chamber discussions.

Now, I don't want this to happen to this platform. And of course, there are major differences between Gromco and Reddit, for example. But still, as we build our tool set for moderation, and for discovery, we're going to try to do our best not to fall into the same traps that all the major platforms seem to have fallen into, as argued masterfully by KMO in his article yesterday on Substack, which you should probably go and read yourself, because I probably didn't do justice discussing it here. But once you do that, feel free to come back and leave a voice comment with your opinion on this whole issue. Because that's just good karma.

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Shout-outs for @kmo