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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Death


Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Kelly and I are book-touring in London this week and I wasn't able to quite get a buffer together. So, you will have to suffer through a week of actually good artwork by the astonishing Abby Howard.

New comic!
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This week's comics will be written by yours truly, but drawn by the amazing Abby Howard.


If you want to see me and Kelly on our book tour, we're just doing a few events, which are listed here.

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October 30th, 2017next

October 30th, 2017: I believe everything in this comic is 100% Dracula canon. I know a lot of things about cartoon character canon.

– Ryan

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[rss title] i vant to suck your... LIQUID SUPPLY OF DRACULA HORROR COMICS!!

[img title] Dogcula was such a success that soon Dracula was biting all the animals he could find. Birdculas were less successful since they kept flying into sunlight and exploding, but Wormculas were an amazing security system against the living, swarming over and devouring any who ventured too close from the feet up, so that was nice

[mailto subject] Yes, Dracula added the "cula" suffix to everything he owned, including his carcula. Many years later, a young Bruce Wayne would find this quite inspiring.

The Web began dying in 2014, here’s how

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Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web.

It looks like nothing changed since 2014, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic.

Internet activity itself hasn’t slowed down. It maintains a steady growth, both in amount of users and amount of websites:

Amount of internet users and websites from 2011 to 2017

(Sources: https://news.netcraft.com/archives/category/web-server-survey and http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/)

What has changed over the last 4 years is market share of traffic on the Web. It looks like nothing has changed, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic. Mobile internet traffic is now the majority of traffic worldwide and in Latin America alone, GOOG and FB services have had 60% of mobile traffic in 2015, growing to 70% by the end of 2016. The remaining 30% of traffic is shared among all other mobile apps and websites. Mobile devices are primarily used for accessing GOOG and FB networks.

Share of internet traffic in Latin America from 2015 to 2016

(Source: https://www.sandvine.com/resources/global-internet-phenomena/2016/north-america-and-latin-america.html)

The press, unlike before, depends on GOOG-FB to stay in business.

Another demonstration of GOOG and FB dominance can be seen among media websites. The most popular web properties that don’t belong to GOOG nor FB are usually from the press. For instance, in the USA there are 6 media sites in the top 10 websites; in Brazil there are 6 media sites in the top 10; in UK it is 5 out 10.

From where do media sites get their traffic? Prior to 2014, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was a common practice among Web Developers to improve their site for Google searches, since it accounted for approximately 35% of traffic, while more than 50% of traffic came from various other places on the Web. SEO was important, while Facebook presence was nice-to-have. Over the next 3 years, traffic from Facebook grew to be approximately 45%, surpassing the status that Search traffic had. In 2017, the Media depends on both Google and Facebook for page views, since it’s the majority of their traffic.

Referral source of traffic to top web publishers

(Source: https://blog.parse.ly/post/2855/facebook-continues-to-beat-google-in-sending-traffic-to-top-publishers/)

The relationship between media sites and the two tech giants is difficult. In 2014, FB built Facebook Paper as an attempt to have a larger control over news consumption. Their tactic failed, but their strategy persisted through different means such as Facebook Instant Articles. The media, being dependent on social traffic and threatened by the social behemoth, reacted. They pulled out support for Instant Articles.

Meanwhile, GOOG notices how its Search traffic hadn’t improved, while Facebook had picked up steam, so GOOG launches their Instant Articles alternative called Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and proactively starts serving articles from GOOG servers instead of directing traffic to media sites. The press reacts similarly to how they did for FB: reported bold stories about the Search behemoth’s thirst for control over news consumption.

GOOG and FB ceased competing directly, focusing on what they do best instead.

Data shows FB has dramatically improved its dominance on the Web, while Google Search hasn’t significantly changed. How exactly did FB achieve that, and what events were key to that development? Prior to 2014, both companies had a portfolio of multiple web services. GOOG hadn’t yet become Alphabet, so it’s focus was diffused. GOOG was trying to enter the social market, first with Google Wave, then Google Buzz, Orkut, and Google+. In total, GOOG has acquired 18 companies from the social media category, of which only 1 acquisition happened post-2014, while 5 of those happened in 2010 alone. FB was competing in the search market, through Bing, in partnership with MSFT.

During 2014, FB apparently reorganized itself to focus on social only. In February, it bought WhatsApp, for 11 times the price GOOG bought YouTube. In December, it canceled its Bing partnership with MSFT. User retention on Facebook.com grew steadily (see chart below). Through its four simple products, Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram, FB had become the social superpower.

Facebook daily active users (DAU) divided by Facebook monthly active users (MAU)

(Sources: https://www.statista.com/statistics/346167/facebook-global-dau/ and https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/)

Similarly, GOOG in 2014 started reorganizing itself to focus on artificial intelligence only. In January 2014, GOOG bought DeepMind, and in September they shutdown Orkut (one of their few social products which had momentary success in some countries) forever. The Alphabet Inc restructuring was announced in August 2015 but it likely took many months of meetings and bureaucracy. The restructuring was important to focus the web-oriented departments at GOOG towards a simple mission. GOOG sees no future in the simple Search market, and announces to be migrating “From Search to Suggest” (in Eric Schmidt’s own words) and being an “AI first company” (in Sundar Pichai’s own words). GOOG is currently slightly behind FB in terms of how fast it is growing its dominance of the web, but due to their technical expertise, vast budget, influence and vision, in the long run its AI assets will play a massive role on the internet. They know what they are doing.

These are no longer the same companies as 4 years ago. GOOG is not anymore an internet company, it’s the knowledge internet company. FB is not an internet company, it’s the social internet company. They used to attempt to compete, and this competition kept the internet market diverse. Today, however, they seem mostly satisfied with their orthogonal dominance of parts of the Web, and we are losing diversity of choices. Which leads us to another part of the internet: e-commerce and AMZN.

AMZN does not focus on making profit.

Amazon's Long-Term Growth

(Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/4298/amazons-long-term-growth/)

Instead, its mission is to seek market leadership, crushing competitors in the USA.

Amazon has outgrown competitors

I could elaborate on how AMZN is the e-commerce company, but I would be just repeating Scott Galloway’s exposure of this topic. It’s worth watching his talks.

What the Web was and what it became

The events and data above describe how three internet companies have acquired massive influence on the Web, but why does that imply the beginning of the Web’s death? To answer that, we need to reflect on what the Web is.

The original vision for the Web according to its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, was a space with multilateral publishing and consumption of information. It was a peer-to-peer vision with no dependency on a single party. Tim himself claims the Web is dying: the Web he wanted and the Web he got are no longer the same.

Doesn’t GOOG defend in the open Web?

GOOG, as a company born from the Web, has helped take it forward both technologically and in adoption. That is undeniable. They still lead efforts to improve the open Web, such as advocacy of Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) over native mobile apps.

Isn’t GOOG trying to guarantee the open Web stays alive? Not necessarily. GOOG’s goal is to gather as much rich data as possible, and build AI. Their mission is to have an AI provide timely and personalized information to us, not specifically to have websites provide information. Any GOOG concerted efforts are aligned to the AI mission.

Mobile usage is on the rise – having already crossed desktop as the primary channel for internet usage – and native mobile apps are so far the best way of providing good user experience on mobile. GOOG collects little or no data from native mobile apps, to some extent on Android, but specially on iOS. PWAs happen to live in the neutral and open Web, and are better suited for data collection while providing great user experience on mobile.

Desktop versus Mobile internet usage

GOOG promotes lock-in and proprietary technologies such as Firebase and Google-dependent AMP installations as much as it advocates open PWAs. GOOG does not consistently defend the open Web. They dropped XMPP in Gtalk, and Gtalk itself was deprecated, favoring Google Hangouts with a proprietary protocol. Chrome Web Store is a walled garden like App Store. They shutdown Google Reader based on RSS, an open standard. Google Cloud TPU is proprietary hardware that only exists in their datacenters, supporting their open source framework TensorFlow. Google Inbox suffers “proprietary creep”: non-standard, closed algorithms that promise to organize your life, an essential component of a lock-in based business model.

GOOG is a huge company where employees have autonomy and multiple projects and efforts are occurring. Big efforts, though, are coherent, concerted, and well aligned with its mission: to be an AI-first company, an AI that is closed and lives in their cloud.

From the 90s until the 2010s, the Web we have experienced has been, albeit somewhat imperfectly, faithful to its original purpose. The Web’s diversity has granted space for multiple businesses to innovate and thrive, independent hobbyist communities to grow, and personal sites to be hosted on whatever physical servers can host them. The internet’s infrastructural diversity is directly tied to the success of diverse Web businesses and communities. The Web’s openness is vital for its security, accessibility, innovation and competitiveness.

After 2014, we started losing the benefits of the internet’s infrastructural and economical diversity. It is difficult to compete with AMZN’s and GOOG’s Cloud Services, which host a massive amount of sites for other businesses. Any website aspiring for significant traffic depends on Search and Social traffic.

What the Web will become under GOOG-FB-AMZN

The following analysis is an extrapolation for the future, based on the current state of the Web and strategies made public by executives at GOOG-FB-AMZN.

The War for Net Neutrality in the USA won a battle in 2014, but in 2017 we are seeing a second battle which is more likely to be lost. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are probably soon going to dictate what traffic can or cannot arrive at people’s end devices. GOOG-FB-AMZN traffic would be the most common, due to their popularity among internet users. Because of this market demand, ISPs will likely provide cheap plans with access to GOOG-FB-AMZN, while offering more expensive plans with full internet access. It is already a reality in Portugal. This would grow even more the dominance the three tech giants already enjoy. There would be no more economical incentive for smaller businesses to have independent websites, and a gradual migration towards Facebook Pages would make more sense. Smaller e-commerce sites would be bought by AMZN or go bankrupt. Because most internet users couldn’t open all the sites, GOOG would have little incentive to be a mere bridge between people and sites.

GOOG’s shift away from Search is a sign how they are growing their strategy beyond the Web. For many years, Google used to be just a tool that played the important role of assisting the Web, by indexing it. Lately, however, it is not attractive for Google to be a mere search engine of the Web. For the purposes expressed in their mission statement, “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, the search engine approach has been exhausted. The multi-second path from search query, to search results, to webpage, to information, is too long to provide an ideal user experience. Their goal is to cut the middlemen in that path. They have tried to cut out the results page with their “I’m feeling lucky” button, but without intelligent analysis they cannot reliably take shortcuts in that path. With AI, they believe they can shorten the path to just one step, “get information”, even without searching for it in the first place. That’s the purpose of Suggest.

As an index, people have different expectations on search result neutrality. Some want Google Search to be entirely neutral, some demand immediate action to remove some results. The European Union has both demanded GOOG to comply with removal requests, and fined GOOG for not being neutral in shopping queries. It is not beneficial for GOOG to assume the role of an impartial arbiter of content, since it’s not supporting their business model. Quite the contrary, they are under public scrutiny from multiple governments, potentially risking their reputation.

The Suggest strategy is being currently deployed through Google Now, Google Assistant, Android notifications, and Google Home. None of these mentioned technologies are part of Web, in other words, not part of “browser-land” made of websites. The internet is just the underlying transport layer for data from their cloud to end-user devices, but the Web itself is being bypassed. Schmidt’s vision for the future is one where internet services are ubiquitous and personalized, as opposed to an experience contained in web browsers in desktop machines.

Similarly, while AMZN’s business still relies on traffic to their desktop web portal (accounting for 33% of sales), a large portion (25%) of their sales happen through mobile apps, not to mention Amazon Echo. Like Google Home, Amazon Echo bypasses the Web and uses the internet just for communication between cloud and end user. In these new non-web contexts, tech giants have more authority over data traffic. They can even directly block each other, like GOOG recently cut support for YouTube traffic in Amazon Echo devices.

The Appleification of tech giants

GOOG, MSFT, FB, and AMZN are mimicking AAPL’s strategy of building brand loyalty around high-end devices. Through a process I call “Appleification”, they are (1) setting up walled gardens, (2) becoming hardware companies, and (3) marketing the design while designing for the market. It is a threat to AAPL itself, because they are behind the other giants when it comes to big data collection and its uses. While AAPL’s early and bold introduction of an App Store shook the Web as the dominant software distribution platform, it wasn’t enough to replace it. The next wave of walled gardens might look different: less noticeable, but nonetheless disruptive to the Web.

GOOG devices

There is a tendency at GOOG-FB-AMZN to bypass the Web which is motivated by user experience and efficient communication, not by an agenda to avoid browsers. In the knowledge internet and the commerce internet, being efficient to provide what users want is the goal. In the social internet, the goal is to provide an efficient channel for communication between people. This explains FB’s 10-year strategy with Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) as the next medium for social interactions through the internet. This strategy would also bypass the Web, proving how more natural social AR would be than social real-time texting in browsers. Already today, most people on the internet communicate with other people via a mobile app, not via a browser.

The common pattern among these three internet giants is to grow beyond browsers, creating new virtual contexts where data is created and shared. The Web may die like most other technologies do: simply by becoming less attractive than newer technologies. And like most obsolete technologies, they don’t suddenly disappear, neither do they disappear completely. You can still buy a Walkman and listen to a tape with it, but the technology has nevertheless lost its collective relevance. The Web’s death will come as a gradual decay of its necessity, not as a dramatic loss.

The Trinet

The internet will survive longer than the Web will. GOOG-FB-AMZN will still depend on submarine internet cables (the “Backbone”), because it is a technical success. That said, many aspects of the internet will lose their relevance, and the underlying infrastructure could be optimized only for GOOG traffic, FB traffic, and AMZN traffic. It wouldn’t conceptually be anymore a “network of networks”, but just a “network of three networks”, the Trinet, if you will. The concept of workplace network which gave birth to the internet infrastructure would migrate to a more abstract level: Facebook Groups, Google Hangouts, G Suite, and other competing services which can be acquired by a tech giant. Workplace networks are already today emulated in software as a service, not as traditional Local Area Networks. To improve user experience, the Trinet would be a technical evolution of the internet. These efforts are already happening today, at GOOG. In the long-term, supporting routing for the old internet and the old Web would be an overhead, so it could be beneficial to cut support for the diverse internet on the protocol and hardware level. Access to the old internet could be emulated on GOOG’s cloud accessed through the Trinet, much like how Windows 95 can be today emulated in your browser. ISPs would recognize the obsolescence of the internet and support the Trinet only, driven by market demand for optimal user experience from GOOG-FB-AMZN.

Perhaps a future with great user experience in AR, VR, hands-free commerce and knowledge sharing could evoke an optimistic perspective for what these tech giants are building. But 25 years of the Web has gotten us used to foundational freedoms that we take for granted. We forget how useful it has been to remain anonymous and control what we share, or how easy it was to start an internet startup with its own independent servers operating with the same rights GOOG servers have. On the Trinet, if you are permanently banned from GOOG or FB, you would have no alternative. You could even be restricted from creating a new account. As private businesses, GOOG, FB, and AMZN don’t need to guarantee you access to their networks. You do not have a legal right to an account in their servers, and as societies we aren’t demanding for these rights as vehemently as we could, to counter the strategies that tech giants are putting forward.

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

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Kolmogorov Complicity And The Parable Of Lightning

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A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble.

Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say


Staying on the subject of Dark Age myths: what about all those scientists burned at the stake for their discoveries?

Historical consensus declares this a myth invented by New Atheists. The Church was a great patron of science, no one believed in a flat earth, Galileo had it coming, et cetera. Unam Sanctam Catholicam presents some of these stories and explains why they’re less of a science-vs-religion slam dunk than generally supposed. Among my favorites:

Roger Bacon was a thirteenth century friar who made discoveries in mathematics, optics, and astronomy, and who was the first Westerner to research gunpowder. It seems (though records are unclear) that he was accused of heresy and died under house arrest. But this may have been because of his interest in weird prophecies, not because of his scientific researches.

Michael Servetus was a sixteenth-century anatomist who made some early discoveries about the circulatory and nervous system. He was arrested by Catholic authorities in France and fled to Geneva, where he was arrested by Protestant authorities, and burnt at the stake “atop a pyre of his own books”. But this was because of his heretical opinions on the Trinity, and not for any of his anatomical discoveries.

Lucilio Vanini was a philosopher/scientist/hermeticist/early heliocentrism proponent who was most notable as the first person recorded to have claimed that humans evolved from apes – though his theories and arguments were kind of confused and he probably got it right mostly by chance. City authorities arrested him for blasphemy, cut out his tongue, strangled him, and burned his body at the stake. But nobody cared about his views on evolution at the time; the exact charges are unclear but he was known to make claims like “all religious things are false”.

Pietro d’Abano was a fourteenth century philosopher and doctor who helped introduce Arabic medicine to the West. He was arrested by the Inquisition and accused of consorting with the Devil. He died before a verdict was reached, but the Inquisition finished the trial, found him guilty, and ordered his corpse burnt at the stake. But he wasn’t accused of consorting with the Devil because he was researching Arabic medicine. He was accused of consorting with the Devil because he was kind of consorting with the Devil – pretty much everyone including modern historians agree that he was super into occultism and wrote a bunch of grimoires and magical texts.

Giordano Bruno was a contemporary of Galileo’s. He also believed in heliocentrism, and promoted (originated?) the idea that the stars were other suns that might have other planets and other life-forms. He was arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake. But although his “innumerable worlds” thing was probably a strike against him, the church’s main gripe was his denial of Christ’s divinity.

I’m not a historian and I don’t want to debate any of these accounts. Let’s say they’re all true, let’s accept every excuse we’re given and accept the Church never burned anybody just for researching science. Scientists got in trouble for controversial views on non-scientific subjects like prophecies or the Trinity, or for political missteps.

Scott Aaronson writes about the the Kolmogorov option (suggested alternate title: “Kolmogorov complicity”). Mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov lived in the Soviet Union at a time when true freedom of thought was impossible. He reacted by saying whatever the Soviets wanted him to say about politics, while honorably pursuing truth in everything else. As a result, he not only made great discoveries, but gained enough status to protect other scientists, and to make occasional very careful forays into defending people who needed defending. He used his power to build an academic bubble where science could be done right and where minorities persecuted by the communist authorities (like Jews) could do their work in peace.

It’s tempting to imagine a world where Servetus, Bacon, and Bruno followed Aaronson’s advice. They pursued their work in optics, astronomy, anatomy, or whatever other subject, but were smart enough never to go near questions of religion. Maybe they would give beautiful speeches on how they had seen the grandeur of the heavens, but the true grandeur belonged to God and His faithful servant the Pope who was incidentally right about everything and extremely handsome. Maybe they would have ended up running great universities, funding other thinkers, and dying at a ripe old age.

Armed with this picture, one might tell Servetus and Bruno to lay off the challenges. Catholicism doesn’t seem quite true, but it’s not doing too much harm, really, and it helps keep the peace, and lots of people like it. Just ignore this one good prosocial falsehood that’s not bothering anybody, and then you can do whatever it is you want.


But Kolmogorov represents an extreme: the politically savvy, emotionally mature scientist able to strategically manipulate tough situations. For the opposite extreme, consider Leonid Kantorovich.

Kantorovich was another Russian mathematician. He was studying linear optmization problems when he realized one of his results had important implications for running planned economies. He wrote the government a nice letter telling them that they were doing the economy all wrong and he could show them how to do it better. The government at this point happened to be Stalin during his “kill anybody who disagrees with me in any way” phase. Historians are completely flabbergasted that Kantorovich survived, and conjecture that maybe some mid-level bureaucrat felt sorry for him and erased all evidence the letter had ever existed. He was only in his 20s at the time, and it seems like later on he got more sophisticated and was able to weather Soviet politics about as well as anybody.

How could such a smart guy make such a stupid mistake? My guess: the Soviet government didn’t officially say “We will kill anyone who criticizes us”. They officially said “Comrade Stalin loves freedom and welcomes criticism from his fellow citizens”, and you had to have some basic level of cynicism and social competence to figure out that wasn’t true.

Even if the Soviet government had been more honest and admitted they were paranoid psychopaths, the exact implications aren’t clear. Kantorovich was a professor, he was writing about a very abstract level of economics close to his area of expertise, and he expressed his concerns privately to the government. Was that really the same as some random hooligan shouting “I hate Stalin!” on a street corner? Surely there were some highly-placed professors of unquestionable loyalty who had discussed economics with government officials before. Even a savvier version of Kantorovich would have to consider complicated questions of social status, connections, privileges, et cetera. The real version of Kantorovich showed no signs of knowing any of those issues even existed.

If you think it’s impossible to be that oblivious, you’re wrong. Every couple of weeks, I have friends ask me “Hey, do you know if I could get in trouble for saying [THING THAT THEY WILL DEFINITELY GET IN TROUBLE FOR SAYING]?” When I stare at them open-mouthed, they follow with “Well, what if I start by specifying that I’m not a bad person and I just honestly think it might be true?” I am half-tempted to hire babysitters for these people to make sure they’re not sending disapproving letters to Stalin in their spare time.

The average person who grows up in a censored society may not even realize for a while that the censorship exists, let alone know its exact limits, let alone understand that the censors are not their friends and aren’t interested in proofs that the orthodoxy is wrong. Given enough time, such a person can become a savvy Kolmogorov who sees the censorship clearly, knows its limits, and understands how to skirt them. If they’re really lucky, they may even get something-like-common-knowledge that there are other Kolmogorovs out there who know this stuff, and that it’s not their job to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But they’re going to have a really cringeworthy edgelord period until they reach that level.

All of this would be fine except that, as Graham says in the quote above, scientists go looking for trouble. The first virtue is curiosity. I don’t know how the internal experience of curiosity works for other people, but to me it’s a sort of itch I get when the pieces don’t fit together and I need to pick at them until they do. I’ve talked to some actual scientists who have this way stronger than I do. An intellectually curious person is a heat-seeking missile programmed to seek out failures in existing epistemic paradigms. God help them if they find one before they get enough political sophistication to determine which targets are safe.

Did Giordano Bruno die for his astronomical discoveries or his atheism? False dichotomy: you can’t have a mind that questions the stars but never thinks to question the Bible. The best you can do is have a Bruno who questions both, but is savvy enough to know which questions he can get away with saying out loud. And the real Bruno wasn’t that savvy.


So imagine the most irrelevant orthodoxy you can think of. Let’s say tomorrow, the government chooses “lightning comes after thunder” as their hill to die on. They come up with some BS justification like how atmospheric moisture in a thunderstorm slows the speed of light. If you think you see lightning before thunder, you’re confused – there’s lots of lightning and thunder during storms, maybe you grouped them together wrong. Word comes down from the UN, the White House, the Kremlin, Zhongnanhai, the Vatican, etc – everyone must believe this. Senior professors and funding agencies are all on board. From a scientific-truth point of view it’s kind of a disaster. But who cares? Nothing at all depends on this. Even the meteorologists don’t really care. What’s the worst-case scenario?

The problem is, nobody can say “Lightning comes before thunder, but our social norm is to pretend otherwise”. They have to say “We love objective truth-seeking, and we’ve discovered that lightning does not come before thunder”. And so the Kantoroviches of the world will believe that’s what they really think, and try to write polite letters correcting them.

The more curiosity someone has about the world, and the more they feel deep in their gut that Nature ought to fit together – the more likely the lightning thing will bother them. Somebody’s going to check how light works and realize that rain can’t possibly slow it down that much. Someone else will see claims about lightning preceding thunder in old books, and realize how strange it was for the ancients to get something so simple so wrong so consistently. Someone else will just be an obsessive observer of the natural world, and be very sure they weren’t counting thunderclaps and lightning bolts in the wrong order. And the more perceptive and truth-seeking these people are, the more likely they’ll speak, say “Hey, I think we’ve got the lightning thing wrong” and not shut up about it, and society will have to destroy them.

And the better a school or professor is, the better they train their students to question everything and really try to understand the natural world, the more likely their students will speak up about the lightning issue. The government will make demands – close down the offending schools, fire the offending academics. Good teachers will be systematically removed from the teaching profession; bad teachers will be systematically promoted. Any educational method that successfully instills curiosity and the scientific spirit will become too dangerous to touch; any that encourage rote repetition of approved truths will get the stamp of approval.

Some other beliefs will be found to correlate heavily with lightning-heresy. Maybe atheists are more often lightning-heretics; maybe believers in global warming are too. The enemies of these groups will have a new cudgel to beat them with, “If you believers in global warming are so smart and scientific, how come so many of you believe in lightning, huh?” Even the savvy Kolmogorovs within the global warming community will be forced to admit that their theory just seems to attract uniquely crappy people. It won’t be very convincing. Any position correlated with being truth-seeking and intelligent will be always on the retreat, having to forever apologize that so many members of their movement screw up the lightning question so badly.

Some people in the know will try to warn their friends and students – “Look, just between you and me, lightning obviously comes before thunder, but for the love of God don’t say that in public“. Just as long as they’re sure that student will never want to blackmail them later. And won’t be able to gain anything by ratting them out. And that nobody will hack their private email ten years later, then get them fired or imprisoned or burned at the stake or whatever the appropriate punishment for lightning-heresy is. It will become well-known that certain academic fields like physics and mathematics are full of crypto-lightning-heretics. Everyone will agree that the intelligentsia are useless eggheads who are probably good at some specific problems, but so blind to the context of important real-world issues that they can’t be trusted on anything less abstruse than e equalling mc squared. Dishonest careerists willing to go in front of the camera and say “I can reassure everyone, as a physicist that physics proves sound can travel faster than light, and any scientists saying otherwise are just liars and traitors” will get all the department chairs and positions of power.

But the biggest threat is to epistemology. The idea that everything in the world fits together, that all knowledge is worth having and should be pursued to the bitter end, that if you tell one lie the truth is forever after your enemy – all of this is incompatible with even as stupid a mistruth as switching around thunder and lightning. People trying to make sense of the world will smash their head against the glaring inconsistency where the speed of light must be calculated one way in thunderstorms and another way everywhere else. Try to start a truth-seeking community, and some well-meaning idiot will ask “Hey, if we’re about pursuing truth, maybe one fun place to pursue truth would be this whole lightning thing that has everyone all worked up, what does everybody think about this?” They will do this in perfect innocence, because they don’t know that everyone else has already thought about it and agreed to pretend it’s true. And you can’t just tell them that, because then you’re admitting you don’t really think it’s true. And why should they even believe you if you tell them? Would you present your evidence? Would you dare?

The Kolmogorov option is only costless when it’s common knowledge that the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, etc. But this is never common knowledge – that’s what it means to say the orthodoxies are still orthodox. Kolmogorov’s curse is to watch slowly from his bubble as everyone less savvy than he is gets destroyed. The smartest and most honest will be destroyed first. Then any institution that reliably produces intellect or honesty. Then any philosophy that allows such institutions. It will all be totally pointless, done for the sake of something as stupid as lightning preceding thunder. But it will happen anyway. Then he and all the other savvy people can try to pick up the pieces as best they can, mourn their comrades, and watch the same thing happen all over again in the next generation.

The Church didn’t lift a finger against science. It just accidentally created a honeytrap that attracted and destroyed scientifically curious people. And any insistence on a false idea, no matter how harmless and well-intentioned, risks doing the same.


I’m not against the Kolmogorov Option. It’s nothing more than a band-aid on the problems that even a harmless orthodoxy will cause – but if there’s no way to get rid of the orthodoxy, the band-aid is better than nothing. But politically-savvy Kolmogorov types can’t just build a bubble. They have to build a whisper network.

They have to build a system that reliably communicates the state of society. “Stalin claims that he welcomes advice from everyone, but actually he will kill you if you try to give it.” Or “God probably doesn’t exist, but lots of us know this, and we all just go to Mass and mouth the right words anyway.”

This is harder than it sounds. A medieval monk being told God doesn’t exist probably has a lot of questions. He’s likely to go kind of crazy for a while, crave the worldview-shards that he needs to rebuild his fractured philosophy. “What about Heaven? Does that exist? Where do we go when we die?” (“Psssst, Epicurus has some good arguments for why the soul doesn’t survive death, you can get a copy of his books from the monastery library.”) You might even have to prevent overcorrection: “Is there even such a place as Jerusalem?” (“Yes, now you’re just being silly, Brother Michael went there on Crusade and says it’s very nice.”)

(when a heretical belief turns out to really be completely wrong – maybe occultism would be a good example here – a whisper network might be the only place where you could get high-enough-quality debate to be sure.)

They have to serve as psychological support. People who disagree with an orthodoxy can start hating themselves – the classic example is the atheist raised religious who worries they’re an evil person or bound for Hell – and the faster they can be connected with other people, the more likely they are to get through.

They have to help people get through their edgelord phase as quickly as possible. “No, you’re not allowed to say this. Yes, it could be true. No, you’re not allowed to say this one either. Yes, that one also could be true as best we can tell. This thing here you actually are allowed to say still, and it’s pretty useful, so do try to push back on that and maybe we can defend some of the space we’ve still got left.”

They have to find at-risk thinkers who had started to identify holes in the orthodoxy, communicate that they might be right but that it could be dangerous to go public, fill in whatever gaps are necessary to make their worldview consistent again, prevent overcorrection, and communicate some intuitions about exactly which areas to avoid. For this purpose, they might occasionally let themselves be seen associating with slightly heretical positions, so that they stand out to proto-heretics as a good source of information. They might very occasionally make calculated strikes against orthodox overreach in order to relieve some of their own burdens. The rest of the time, they would just stay quiet and do good work in their own fields.

Such a whisper network would be in the best interests of the orthodox authorities. Instead of having to waste their good scientists, they could let the good scientists could join the whisper network, learn which topics to avoid, and do good science without stepping on orthodox toes. But the authorities couldn’t just say this. Maybe they wouldn’t even think of it, and nobody (except maybe Kantorovich) would be dumb enough to try to tell them. Individual secret policemen are always going to see the written law – “arrest heretics” – and consider the whisper network a legitimate target. Kolmogorov is doing the Lord’s work, but that won’t give him a pass from the Inquisition.

His reward will be that people with a drive to make the world make sense – to have everything fit together seamlessly and beautifully – will be able to quietly collect all the orthodox and all the heretical pieces, satisfy themselves, and then move on to doing good work in math or physics or whatever harmless field doesn’t affect Christianity or Marxism or lightning or whatever. Academies other than the worst and most curiosity-crushing have a little better chance to endure; academic bureaucrats other than the most slavish have a little more chance to remain in their position.

But also: maybe this is how common knowledge spreads. Maybe some atheists survive, go into science, become vaguely aware of each other’s existence, feel like they have safety in numbers, get a little bolder, and maybe the Church decides it’s not worth killing all of them. Maybe everyone stays quiet until Mao dies, and then Deng and Zhao look at each other and say “So, just between you and me, all of that was totally insane, right?” I don’t know how often this happens. But the chances seem better than for open defiance followed by certain retribution.

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37 days ago
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51 days ago
"If you think it’s impossible to be that oblivious, you’re wrong."

If you think it’s impossible to be that oblivious, you've never had friends in academic positions.

Instrumental Rationality 7: Closing Disclaimer

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[Instrumental Rationality Sequence 7/7]

[A disclaimer that instrumental rationality as presented in this sequence is incomplete. Your feelings are also important! Pay attention to them.]

After reading through this sequence, you might be feeling very excited to go out and try some of this stuff out. You might think about imposing this instrumental rationality stuff upon many areas of your life.

And for that, I have a major cautionary warning.

Rationality can be dangerous because it's an ontology. And while it's not the One Ontology to Rule Them All, it can often feel like that when you're within the rationality framing.

Here’s an analogy:

Owen is a person who wants to get work done, but often finds himself playing video games. He also feels bad about doing so because it doesn’t fit in with his self-image. Maybe there’s also something here about society has shaped his values, but the actual root cause isn’t that important. The main point is that some part of him likes playing the games.

So he’s following his intuitive feelings, but also there’s guilt somewhere in the system.

Now let’s say he bumps into instrumental rationality—planning, habits, motivation—the whole package.

What I've presented in this sequence is a way of looking at things, kind of like a set of special glasses.

Once Owen puts on these glasses, he starts to see new opportunities to use his shiny new techniques, like TAPs, to try and remove his video-game-playing habit. But note that the very idea of techniques, of transforming concepts into concrete actionables, is only something he sees when he puts on his Rationality Glasses.

My worry is when people use rationality as the lens through which they view the world for so long that they forget that there’s something important that’s hidden underneath the Rationality Glasses layer. Owen might just end up thinking that the Rationality Glasses show how the world is, rather than merely a useful way of looking at the world.

And instrumental rationality, or at least the way that I’ve presented it here, will have its own ideological biases. This isn’t necessarily bad; it’s a necessary consequence of any way of looking at the world. There’ll always be implicit values for any system you choose to use.

For rationality, these values are about highly striving for things like Optimization and Self-Improvement. I worry that this implicit valuation can be taken in a very wrong way. I see a failure mode where everything that doesn’t directly contribute to Optimization is seen as a “bad” thing which needs to be removed.

Owen might then see his video-game-habit as something foreign and “bad” rather than a poorly understood part of himself. So when Owen tries to use rationality to forcibly remove those “disobedient” parts of system, I think something quite terrible is very happening because he’s smothering vital parts of himself.

Just because those parts of yourself conflict with your “stated” values doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It’s important to recognize that many apparently “bad” parts of yourself also have good intentions.

After all, these were parts of himself that Owen had listened to prior to encountering rationality. They might be hidden under the current framing, but they’re still important.

It’s a little like if I just handed you an instruction manual for the human mind, but with a bunch of the pages missing.

There’s a lot that you’d now know about how things in the mind work, but if you just follow those directions, you wouldn’t get the whole story. There will be functions and knobs that’ll also be important which you wouldn’t know about. If you only follow the manual and don’t trust your own sense of what else is critical, then you’re in trouble.

Sooner or later, something will break, and troubleshooting will be very, very difficult.

This is why I think it’s important to respect those “useless” (from the Rationality Glasses POV) parts of yourself. Just because you can't see a part's function doesn't imply there isn't one.

The best solution, as far as I can tell, is something like being able to take off the Rationality Glasses to get in touch with those gut, instinctual, and quiet parts of yourself. You need to be able to step away from the rationality virtues of Optimization and just accept all the parts of yourself.

When you stop trying to cut off or suppress different parts of yourself, something very different happens.

You get a shift where you…Just Do Things.

Motivation and willpower, for example, end up just seeming like largely incoherent words. You’ll have different tastes, but suddenly the question of “How can I force myself to do/not-do X?” just becomes irrelevant.

When you start integrating those quiet parts of yourself, you’re somehow more in-control, even thought you’re incorporating more dissent. I know it sounds sily on the surface. But there’s something very good that’s happening here, I think, when you allow all parts of yourself to be fulfilled.

This, of course, is a critique of instrumental rationality as I've presented it throughout this sequence. Others have taken the field farther.

A more sophisticated theory of instrumental rationality, like some of CFAR's curriculum, might be more about communication, focusing on ways to integrate and dialogue between the explicit parts of yourself (which the Rationality Glasses endorse) and the implicit parts of yourself (which might not be endorsed, but are important nonetheless).


So, as you venture forth to try out things, just remember that the set of glasses you've got is incomplete.

And sometimes, you can see even more clearly without them.

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39 days ago
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Digital Resource Lifespan

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I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
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46 days ago
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33 days ago
I spent a long time thinking about how to design a system for long-term organization and storage of subject-specific informational resources without needing ongoing work from the experts who created them, only to realized I'd just reinvented libraries.
38 days ago
I wanna lib forever!
San Luis Obispo, CA
47 days ago
Be nice to librarians.
Greater Bostonia
48 days ago
*sigh* so very true.
Atlanta, GA
48 days ago
+1 for libraries
Saint Paul, MN, USA
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