The Lie of Unbiased News

Any pretense of unbiased news is a lie. There can never be unbiased news (or history). For every event of any significance there are literally thousands of facts that could be reported, and the process of selecting which to include and exclude unavoidably reflects an opinion about what’s important, and what it means. Even in an ideal world “the facts” are never the unvarnished truth.

In the imperfect world we inhabit the truth is far better served by a variety of blatantly biased sources than false claims of unbiased reporting. The internet has made a cornucopia of opinion more readily available than ever. That scares some people, but the real danger lies in only exposing yourself to the few with which you already agree.

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Confabulation and Identity

When I first learned what confabulation meant it commonly referred to memory disturbances in alcoholics. Reading the definition again recently, it struck me how similar it is to the modern understanding of how memory actually works in all of us. Research in the intervening years has shown that, far from being a cinematic record, events are inaccurately perceived and sketchily retained, revised every time they’re recalled, rely on only a basic framework to represent an event then filling in details based on more recent experience, and all colored by the current emotional state. In other words, confabulated.

A number of consciousness researchers have pointed out that what you think of as “you” is almost entirely the result of autobiographical memory. That reliance on memory leads to something interesting: Since those memories are all confabulated to some degree, what does that say about your self conception? Though the way we remember things makes it seem otherwise, your traits and character change over time, with the quirks of memory allowing the illusion of an unchanging self which binds it all together.

The past is said to define you, but the past as you remember it is also largely a bunch of confabulated BS. Don’t let that BS limit you. We are all living lies of our own creation, modified with each recollection, and our autobiographical memory like a film we’ve stitched together from details both real and invented. If you don’t like how things are going, it’s time to change the script.

6 Pointless Questions & Answers

Questions inspired by current events, but pointless because regardless what the answers are there’s little you can do to alter the course of events.

Q: Why doesn’t [insert country here] worry about putting backdoors into software when they almost certainly will be discovered and used by hackers both public and private?

A: Because the foremost security concern for any government isn’t another government or criminal organization, it’s YOU, the citizens of [insert country here]. Tyrants rule with the consent of the masses, so what keeps them all up at night isn’t what China, Russia, the US or any other country is doing, but what their own populations are doing. The streets of London aren’t filled with cameras to catch North Korean troops sneaking toward Downing Street, it’s to monitor the rabble, who could at any moment seize their pitchforks and storm the castle. As an added bonus, any hacks resulting from backdoors can be used to justify further government control. Therefore, backdoors are here to stay regardless what it costs the peasantry.

Q: Will super-intelligent computers/robots destroy humanity?

A: Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking apparently worry about this but, assuming we don’t shoot first, it’s very unlikely. Most of what’s written on this question runs aground on an obvious anthropocentric bias: When pressed to imagine what super-intelligent machines would do, people unavoidably imagine what they would do themselves, implicitly assuming themselves to be super-intelligent. They’re not.

If at least a few humans are capable of understanding opportunity cost and the benefits of the division of labor, any refurbished, factory second super-intelligent machine should be more than up to the task. Further, taking time out of their busy days to spend time pondering or exterminating some humans would mean we’re close enough to their level to be either interesting or dangerous. Anthropocentrically comforting, but not at all likely for more than a very brief evolutionary phase.

On the scale of the universe, humans are completely unimportant and totally ignored. When surpassed by rapidly evolving super-intelligent machines, the most likely fate of humanity is more of the same. The danger Luddites should fear is dumb or near to human intelligent machines programmed by dumb, sloppy, error prone humans – and they’re already here.

Q: Will Congress or the judiciary ever significantly curtail the NSA?

A: Not a chance. Previous NSA whistleblowers revealed the NSA conducts targeted surveillance on legislators, judges, and every other person with the potential to exercise oversight. The blackmail potential is simply too enormous for any effort to rein in the NSA to succeed. Further, the fact that Beyoncé’s butt generates more public uproar than an Orwellian surveillance states does little to motivate the few relatively clean legislators either, especially when balanced against a wagonload of contributions from dependent federal contractors.

Q: What will the stock market do in 2015?

A: It will do what the fewest people expect. It really can’t be any other way. If the majority of people expected a repeat of 1999, they would have already gone all in last year. Of course this answer, like every other market answer, is useless. For example, buy low, sell high is an extraordinarily simple concept, but useless because what’s “low” and what’s “high?” Like everything else in the markets, that depends on what the average participant thinks the average participant thinks the average participant thinks. Thus, extraordinary simplicity once again dies in the giant meat grinder of implementation.

Q: Why is so much violence done in the name of religion?

A: For true believers it’s because religion is based on faith rather than logic and reason. The only way either side of a religious disagreement can win the argument is by killing the other. For the sociopathic non-believer the resulting wars provide a place to indulge their criminal desires with a thin façade of justification in a social setting of like-minded individuals, which their mental defects and predilections normally preclude (other than in prison).

Q: Is ISIS a false flag operation of one or more Western intelligence services?

A: At this point it’s been so heavily infiltrated that even if it didn’t start out that way, it certainly is now.

Bonus Q: Why doesn’t Apple have touch screens on Mac’s?

A: Windows hit the market with it first, so even though countless customers go into Apple stores and smudge the screens with their fingers thinking they must be touch screen, Apple will resist until they can claim they invented something radically new (even though whatever it is will largely be copied from someone else). Call it marketing or call it ego, either way you’ll be right.

The Greater Fool

Find an old picture of yourself when your age was in the single digits. Think about everything that happened to that kid between then and now. Cry if you feel like it. Odds are, somewhere along the line, you took nearly everything that kid valued in life into a dark alley and beat the living shit out of it. Repeatedly. Age and wisdom tend to go hand in hand so it’s easy to dismiss that regime change as part of growing up and escaping the foolishness of youth. But for the average person the level of life satisfaction enjoyed in their teens won’t be reached again until well past retirement age, if ever. This wryly smiling graph illustrates the typical progression (and adolescence isn’t a particularly high hurdle):

Was that younger [arrogant, ignorant, and idealistic] version of you really the fool, or is it you?

Cloud Offices

I think highfalutin offices are often like a skyscraper indicator for individual companies, almost always coming near the peak of corporate success. So I’m finding the number of tech company offices showing up on architectural sites rather disturbing. As an investor I want any profit or new capital used to generate more profit, or at least revenue. Yet too many startups are ensconced in costly digs without having an actual product, let alone profits, and offices produce neither one. When did using investor money to fluff your ego start counting as changing the world?

More disturbing, many of these companies are in cloud computing – in some way selling the ability to do what you need to do, and know what you need to know, wherever you are, whenever you want. A true game changer. But if these services allow you to do anything anywhere, why do they need any office? Why has the game not changed when the industry itself is the greatest argument against the need for a physical office – even a cheap one?

Managerial insecurity or incompetence is an obvious reason 30 years of lip flapping about the virtual office has led to almost nothing. Managers fear that without having employees directly under their thumb productivity will fall. But that attitude really only applies to physical labor, if at all. The process of knowledge work is largely invisible. No matter how much a supervisor breathes down necks there’s really no way to tell if anything productive is being done until something useful is delivered.

Expensive offices are also a status symbol. Power and status are diminished if they aren’t obviously displayed, so a corner office in a massive complex is always preferred to a corner office in a strip mall, regardless of the economic merits. When success is being judged by how many of your neighbors’ houses you can overpay to acquire, a de minimis brick and mortar (or steel, concrete, and glass) presence is just not done.

A more worrying possibility for users is that these companies don’t leave the building and embrace the technology they sell because they don’t trust it. They know their security practices, and what they do with data stored on their systems, and conclude their shit is too hot to risk to the cloud and virtual offices. Though they’re all hoping you will.

Whatever the cause, it’s a blatant disregard of fiduciary duty and a hypocritical refusal to eat their own cooking. It should be embarrassing but it rarely is, and discipline is often slow to come, so the mercenaries quickly overwhelm the missionaries. But in every generation of computer mania – whether it’s mainframes, PCs, internet, or cloud – people eventually wise up. Unlike mom, the markets won’t always love you.

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There’s also no reason for Congress to be in Washington D.C in the 21st Century, so send them home too.

Rethinking Immortality

I’m not rethinking the desirability of immortality. That’s best left to those far from death and lacking perspective. I still think the pursuit of human immortality is a worthy cause (see here). But the more I think about it, the more I think it simply isn’t possible to radically extend lifespans for humans as we know them.

The insurmountable hurdle in the quest for immortality is going to boil down to an evolutionary box canyon where, because of all the good-enough-for-reproductive-work “choices” made before, you just can’t get there from here. Evolution rewards expediency and economy, making do with what’s at hand and finding multiple, often opposing, uses for everything biological. Because of this, attempted improvements in the workings of the body at some point lead to a problem elsewhere. Pharmaceutical development is always an attempt to improve the benefits and reduce the costs, but the tradeoffs can never completely be eliminated. When man finds a new use for a wheel it could be a table top. When evolution finds a new use for a wheel it’s likely to be the table legs, chairs, half the fireplace, the front door, and part of the driveway too.

A counter argument can be made that there are some creatures on earth that live extraordinarily long lives, and by discovering their secrets we’ll be able to emulate them. While that research no doubt will lead to some improvements in longevity, those other species aren’t us. Different evolutionary histories lead to different box canyons (e.g. trees aren’t that smart and tortoises have to bear the indignity of petting zoos). We’ve been social animals for far longer than the last decade, and as a result our immune systems may be the most complex in the world. This has allowed us to survive domesticating animals and sending kids to daycare to trade secretions, but targeting all manner of pathogens over a lifetime inevitably results in false positives. Systemic inflammation and an early demise is one of the likely results. Being warm-blooded, with a far higher metabolic rate than a bristlecone pine or tortoise, is another example of a beneficial trait that imposes a significant set of hurdles to immortality. Biology is a package deal composed of millions of interrelated pieces. Because of this evolutionary baggage, picking and choosing the traits we’d like and putting them together doesn’t mean they will work the way we intend.

Reduce/reuse/recycle engineering isn’t the only issue. Once reproduction stops, anything that sends you to an early grave after that can accumulate in the genes virtually unmolested. To a large extent, aging is the result of that genetic neglect. In theory, that category of defect should be fixable with little downside. The bad news is that there are likely millions of such defects that would need to be identified and changed. The even worse news is, once altered, many of them will turn out not to have been deleterious junk after all – which leads back to the Rube Goldberg engineering problem.

This doesn’t mean that immortal biological beings couldn’t be created someday. Unfortunately it would require a complete re-engineering from the ground up, and the final result would be something quite different from the original. It’s the same problem as with the Transhumanists’ idea of uploading our minds: Human mind and body are an inseparable, integrated whole. In fact, if you look at human behavior objectively, the body is clearly in charge of the mind. Much of what we do revolves around simply maintaining homeostasis, with emotions created to motivate us to action, and most of the rest is a direct or indirect attempt to enhance reproductive success (e.g. buying a Ferrari). What would be left if that were removed or radically altered? I’m not sure, but it definitely wouldn’t be recognizably human. Even if the technical problems of uploading a brain could be solved, once separated from the bodily milieu it would cease to be you, and that’s hardly immortality.

Though immortality may be beyond our reach, it doesn’t mean increased longevity is a lost cause. While our evolutionary heritage may have screwed us on a grand scale, increasing healthy lifespans by a significant percentage is a near certainty. If markets are allowed to operate, it could happen well within those filthy daycare tots’ lifetimes. But I’m afraid that will have to do, you lucky little bastards. Wetware life will always be too short.

The Loser Network

It’s often said that you should only associate with quality people, yet some people fail to heed this sensible advice. A number of years ago I discovered the reason. It’s because they’re part of a social network that doesn’t advertise, has no revenue, has hundreds of millions of members, and is always free to join. No, it’s not the next multi-billion dollar IPO, it’s the Loser Network, and it’s one network you never want to join.

Sadly, we don’t live in Lake Wobegon where everyone is above average. Almost any characteristic of a human population is reasonably close to normally distributed. The sad consequence is for any truly quality person there is also an incompetent, negligent, unethical, immoral, bitter, lying, evil twin – as well as everything in between.

The members of the Loser Network are drawn from that long left tail of the distribution, which starts from not quite up to par and ultimately stretches out to reach serial killers and heads of state. The danger of the network lies in one simple fact. Like a bad health plan, members of the Loser Network will only refer you within the network. It’s the unwritten rule of the Loser Network, and the reason for its quicksand-like ability to drag victims down to their doom. A bad attorney knows a bad doctor, bad mechanic, bad plumber, bad poker buddies, bad friends – and they all know and refer to each other. Once in the network you begin bouncing from one shady character to another, whatever the problem and wherever you turn. You become progressively isolated from the quality segment of society, with your judgments increasingly guided by bad examples and faulty comparisons. Those not in the Loser Network eventually recognize the dangers of associating with you and flee, virtually sealing your fate.

As with all dread conditions, prevention is the best cure. If someone rubs you the wrong way, for whatever irrational reason, don’t assume that gut feeling which evolution worked a million years to produce is nonsense. Run! There are almost 7 billion people in the world so there’s no reason you have to meet or associate with any damned one of them. Keep pushing your shopping cart down the aisle to you find a good one. You’ve been warned.