The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 4

I am writing a science fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month.  I’m taking the Robot Lord Scenario as my inspiration, so that’s the working title.  Please give me feedback.  I want to be like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, and publish each rough draft chapter online and invite criticism so that I can get help refining it. 

And this draft is very rough, but I’m going for word count at this point.

Chapter 3 here.

Cyn lead the way as the trio left the Ithildin building, passing from the elevators through the soaring foyer.    Bad corporate office art reared above them, aggressive primary colored mediocrity on a grand scale.  Security systems scanned them as they departed into the cool night air.  The lack of street lighting made it easier to see the stars and Ivan was briefly struck by the beauty of the milky way soaring above him.  Ivan looked up and down the empty streets, but there was no one in view on the sidewalk, and the streets were practically deserted, just a single vehicle approached, a blunt teardrop shaped thing of indiscernible make.  The city was like a ghost town at this hour as Cyn’s car silently glided up to the curb and came to a halt, its falcon wing doors raising to admit them to the compact seating area with a small round table at the center.

“Wow, nice ride,” said Ivan.  He glanced around at the austere interior looking for a logo or some mark of the manufacturer, but he could find none.  “But why bother owning one?”

“Oh this is very custom ride,” said Cyn.  Her face lit up with excitement, Ivan could tell that she was very proud of her car and loved to talk about it.  He braced himself for a long list of specs and he wasn’t disappointed.  “Redundant satellite uplinks with subscriptions to both of the private space based providers.  Four long range wireless arrays, two medium range, and two short range.”

“Why the short range?” interrupted Batou who was following along more closely than Ivan.

“I use the IoT peer network a lot,” said Cyn.  “That’s a tricky network to trace.  It takes special chops to pry an access log out of an HVAC unit that has forwarding packets for me.”  She treated us to a wicked grin and pushed her blue bangs out of her eyes.  “It’s armored for special jobs and I’d be happy to tell you how many petaflops it’s running or what active countermeasures are onboard if you two want to sign an Non-Disclosure Agreement.  Also, I might need to check your security clearance.”

“Security clearance?  With which government?” Ivan asked with a smile.  He had worked with Batou before, but never with Cyn.  But she was starting to grow on him.  He liked girls who into heavy equipment.  But he wondered why Rasmussen who had put this team together had thought they would need someone with a tactical background.  

“I’ll pretend you didn’t ask that, Comrade,” teased Cyn, her hands weaving before her as she worked on some private interface.

“Can you find me an anti-Tor node on that IoT net, Cyn?” asked Batou, throwing a handful of terminal windows into the shared workspace.

Ivan tried to focus on the operation at hand, but he couldn’t stop thinking about his girlfriend out with these two strange guys.  He pulled up ChatTime, but she hadn’t posted any updates lately.  She had left her location unhidden though and was in fact at some bar in San Francisco.

“Certainly, my good man,” said Cyn.  She was gazing into the ether and  Ivan sighed and looked out the windows as the car executed some seemingly random turns around the empty downtown area, it’s algorithms scouting out an improperly secured building control mesh network.  They slowed to a crawl along the curb by a big non-descript building without windows near an old decommissioned BART station.  “Ah, here we go,” said Cyn.  “Lots of open devices here.  Sloppy admins.”

“What’s this place?” asked Ivan.  Then he answered his own question by looking up the address.  “Seem to be some sort of bio lab.”

“Yeah, lots of lab equipment, doesn’t really matter what we’ve got with a mesh like this, I’ll just send a worm through to dig up an internet connection,” said Cyn.  She paused for a second.  “Well that didn’t take long.  And here’s an anti-Tor node for you, Batou.”

Batou brought up an ultraSploit package he had been preparing.  “Can I run this locally?  See how much horsepower you have?  Or should I dig up a botnet?”

“No, you can run it here, this is a rolling datacenter,” said Cyn.  She could not hide her smug self-assurance as she passed Batou a container for him to drop his code into.

“Wow, that is impressive,” said Batou, with a grunt as the package rapidly cycled through it’s loading.  “That a pretty deep net it’s building.”

“I see that,” said Cyn, sharing a resource monitor as we watched the bars get pegged.

Batou got his program initialized and then unleashed a machine learning attack algorithm on the server in China that he had located earily.  Ivan couldn’t make sense of the interface that Ivan was showing them.

“What are we seeing here?” he asked.

“Uh, I think they locked this server down pretty tight,” said Batou.  “Everytime we find an exploit, it’s getting patched instantly and the connection resets.  Fucking machine learning defense systems.  Used to be that command and control servers were pushovers.  In the old days, hackers were all teeth and no shell.  But with automated patching, it’s tough to break a properly secured server.”

“Good thing so few admins properly secure their shit, or we would all be out of work,” laughed Cyn.

Just then Ivan’s glasses chimed in his ear and her ChatTime status updated with a picture of her and two guys dancing together in a bar.  It was a pretty suggestive dance, one guy behind Ivan’s girlfriend and the other in front in some sort of lewd crotch to rear conga line.  He gritted his teeth in anger as he blew up the picture and examined it in detail.  As he looked closely, though, he wondered if these guys Jayson and Franklin were queer.  They definitely had a queer look about them and he relaxed somewhat.  Maybe this was a harmless night out with the “girls” for Bryce after all.

“Ivan, what the hell are you doing?  Are you on ChatTime for christ’s sake?” asked Batou, clearly annoyed.  “Are you going to help us or not?  I’m not getting anywhere with this goddamn server, even after throwing a ton of iron at it.  I’m stuck.”

Ivan snapped his ChatTime window closed with a flourish.  “Alright, alright, I’m here, I’m here,” he snapped.

“What’s she doing?  Is she fooling around with one of those guys?” asked Cyn.  She was clearly delighted and wanted him to fill her in on the dirt.

“Maybe not, they look sort of gay,” said Ivan.

“Don’t be so sure, metroSexual is back in you know,” said Cyn, suppressing a grin.

“Cut the shit,” sighed Batou.  “Focus, people.  Focus.”

“Right, Batou. Right,” said Ivan. “Ok, then, let’s recap.  Somebody hits Ithildin, and big chunk of change goes missing.  We dig up at least one of their pivot points, a derelict HP printer from the turn of the century and trace them back to a Chinese datacenter but the bastards had the nerve to properly lock down their server and your finest algo’s can’t break in even with the heavy computing power of Cyn’s rolling datacenter.”

“Yes, we know all this, detective,” laughed Cyn.

“Ok, well, when in doubt, we go for the weakest link,” said Ivan.  “Who’s the hosting provider?”  He searched around a bit and found the name of the company responsible for that IP address.  “Ah, look at this, they have a Hong Kong number for tech support.  I’ll bet they will speak English.”

“Don’t be an idiot.  Even the Chinese outsource call center work to India, of course they will speak English,” said Cyn.

“All the better,” agreed Ivan.  “Batou, setup a server with a URL with that hosting providers name in it somewhere.”

“Oh, you are going the social engineering route?” asked Cyn.  “Impressive.  Let’s see what you can do.”

Ivan grabbed a proxy address in Hong Kong to route his call from and then loaded one of his default business avatars as he dialed the hosting technical support line.

He was greeted by a low resolution AI and groaned as it started spouting Mandarin at him which was quickly translated by Cyn’s workspace manager.  “Welcome to double six hosting support, can I have your customer number?”

“Oh, I know this system, I know this system,” whispered Cyn.  “There is a code to bypass the AI and get a human agent.”  She send a series of tones to the session and the support AI froze and was replaced by an animated scene sembling a classic Song period chinese painting with a river flowing through a valley with mountains rising into the mist beyond.

“Hello, hello, this is double six hosting, can I help you?” asked a tentative sounding human with a thick south Indian accent.

“Oh, hello, yes, this is Chadwick Xu from the main office,” said Ivan, using a voice filter that emulated a chinese speaker with an English accent.  “We are just doing a review of your training, this will only take few minutes.”

Cyn rolled her eyes at Ivan’s choice of names.

“So sorry, this is a customer line, so who are you with again?” asked the voice while the Song dynasty inspired painting placidly looped.

“I’m calling from the main office, there must have been some mixup with the call routing, you should be seeing this as an internal number.  No matter, I will take a note of that and open a ticket with our internal helpdesk.  This call is just an audit so that we can make sure everyone is up to date on their training.  We just go through a quick checklist.  It will  only take a few moments.  First question, have you had any security training?”

“Err, yes, we do security training every year.  I just completed that two months ago.  Don’t you have a record of that?” said the voice.

“I wouldn’t have access to that, I’m just a contractor hired to help with the audit,” explained Ivan.  “Now how long have you been with the company?”

“Uh, two years now.  This is really irregular I must say.  We never had any sort of call like this before,” said the voice, sounding nervous.

“Oh well, I’ve been doing these for a few months now, maybe they haven’t called your department yet.  Next question: what shift do you work normally?”

“Well it’s first shift obviously. Look, I’m not sure I should be answering these questions.  What’s your employee number?” asked the voice.

“Oh, I’m not an employee, I’m a contractor.  But I have a contractor number,” said Ivan.  He provided a random string of numbers and digits.  “Can you tell me what model visor you are using there?  Is it the Samsung or the Huawei?”

“We have glasses here, not visors, but it’s a Huawei I think.  This contractor number doesn’t seem to have the right number of digits,” the voice was sounding strained and Cyn cast Ivan a nervous glance.

“Call center like that would still be using version 7 or 8 at the latest, let me load something up for that,” mumbled Batou.

“Oh, well, that’s the number they gave me when I started,” said Ivan, trying to sound contrite.  “If you have some concerns, please open this URL and you can fill out our customer satisfaction survey, there is a feedback form at the bottom.” Ivan, passed the URL that Batou had constructed over to the skeptical technician.

Suspicious though he was, the poor tech support worker opened the link and fell right into Ivan’s trap.

“I’m seeing a resource not found error, this really doesn’t seem legitimate I must say.  I might need to talk to my manager about this,” said the voice.  “Hello? Hello?”

Ivan left the session open for a moment as Batou typed away rapidly, taking ownership of the hapless technician’s workstation via an exploit in his Huawei glasses.

“Oh, well, I certainly understand.  But please try reloading that page and do leave me a positive rating.  You know how important our rating our,” said Ivan before cutting off the connection.

“Wow, impressive, I thought you were going to lose him,” said Cyn.

“I’m better with Americans,” admitted Ivan.  “But it looks like we got in anyway.  Batou, what sort of access does our Indian friend have?”

“Very good access.  I was able to find the IP address of our Chinese command and control server in their hosting control panel.  I’m just creating a temporary user with sudo rights as we speak.”

“We’re getting a lot of incoming traffic here, Batou,” said Cyn.  She hunched forward and splayed a cluster of windows across the shared workspace.  The recessed interior lights dimmed suddenly, making Cyn gasp in shock.  “Holy shit, we are getting pounded here.  What are you doing?”

“I don’t see any problems on my side.  I’m about to get root on this Chinese server.  I don’t see how they could have traced us,” said Batou, finger flicking frantically before him.

Ivan tried to pick through all the displays before him, but was confused by the conflicting messages.  Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a car rapidly approaching down the street.  Cyn’s car chimed and the interior lights turned red.  

“Please fasten your seatbelts,” said a calm female voice.

“Are you shitting me?” asked Cyn, but Ivan didn’t know who she was talking to.  “This can’t be happening.”

“What’s going on?” asked Ivan, feeling his heart rate increasing and his palms growing sweaty.  He was never one of these tactical guys.  He was more comfortable in a nice safe office somewhere.

“Enabling countermeasures, you may need to grab onto something,” said Cyn.

Ivan looked out the back window and realized that the approaching car was driving insanely fast and headed directly toward them.  Cyn’s car started rocking very rapidly back and forth, as though testing it’s footing, but it didn’t move.

“Uh, Cyn, that car,” said Ivan.

“I see it,” she said, her face completely obscured by windows.

“We better get moving,” said Batou, craning his neck around.

“Systems are coming online,” said Cyn. Her voice was strained.

Ivan fought the urge to fling the door open and leap from Cyn’s car as the other vehicle barrelled toward them, he didn’t know how they could possibly escape collision at this point and he braced himself.  He could clearly read the approaching car’s Tesla-Uber logo and could see it’s frantic passengers pounding on the console as it swerved toward them when Cyn’s car suddenly lept onto the sidewalk, narrowly avoiding the Tesla-Uber which couldn’t correct it’s course and slammed into the side of the bio lab building, it’s interior filling with compression foam as it gouged an ugly gash into the stone face.

“Shit’s getting crazy,” muttered Cyn.  Her car sped away on the sidewalk and deftly flicked over the curb to get back onto the road surface.

“The cab is trying to back up,” noted Ivan.  His blood was running cold from the near collision.  He watched as the Tesla-Uber backed away from the building, but it’s suspension was damaged and it it crashed backward into a lamp post.

“I’ve got root on this server by the way, I’m trying to download logs now,” said Batou.

“Fuck that shit, Batou,” said Cyn.  “Someone just hacked a fucking cab and flung it at us at 90 miles per hour.  Maybe you should leave their fucking server alone.”

“I’m with Cyn on this one,” Ivan said.

“Incoming,” blurted Cyn suddenly as the car swerved so sharply  that it went up on two wheels.  A massive window cleaner’s scaffold came crashing down where the car had just been moments before.  “Batou, seriously, we are getting pounded right here.  All my links are getting DDOSed.  I need you on deck, here.  Someone’s gone fully wile e coyote on us here.  I’m launching my drone swarm.  I need eyes in sky and I need you to help me right now.”

“Fuck!” shouted Batou in frustration.  “So goddamn close.”

Just then Rasmussen appeared in the shared work space, appearing mildly annoyed but superbly attired in a dark suit and white shirt without a tie.  Batou shoved his image aside and lit up the work space with a broader and broader 3d map of their surroundings as Cyn’s drones spread out and started gathering reconnaissance.

“What are you people doing?” asked Rasmussen.  “Will you stop poking at that command server?  The accountants have found something here.”

“We are kind of busy right now, Rasmussen,” said Ivan.  He was practically useless when it came to this tactical stuff but it looked like a lot of blinking red dots were converging rapidly on their position.

“Who are these fucking people,” asked Cyn.  “Is that a fucking cement truck?  Have these maniacs hacked every goddamn piece of equipment with an internet connection in a one mile radius.”

“Affirmative on the cement truck,” confirmed Batou.  “Radius looks more like one kilometer, but why split hairs?”

“They found a dummy vendor that was used to funnel the funds into,” continued Rasmussen, his image running a hand through his feathery blonde hair.  “I need you three to disengage from this ridiculous, totally unauthorized operation and go check it out.”

“Ras, we are in a tough spot right now,” said Ivan as Cyn’s car dodged a dumpster that had flung itself out onto the roadway.

“We appear to be headed toward that cement truck, not away from it, by the way,” said Batou.

“I know that,” said Cyn.  “I’m taking it back from them.”  

Ivan watched in horror as the massive truck  approached on the map.  But Cyn just calmly dropped a drone down onto it.

“Take out the antenna, and I can get right in there and do what I like,” said Cyn.  “It’s not a tactical goddamn cement truck, it’s radio gear isn’t hardened or anything.”

Ivan’s horror morphed into amazement as he watched the video feed of Cyn’s drone while it launched four tiny missiles which precisely blasted each of the truck’s antenna.  Some sort of onboard safety process finally kicked in and the truck pulled over to the side of the road.  A moment later, they were close enough for Ivan to see it with his own eyes through the window, a deafened killing machine, now sitting harmlessly at the side of the road. Unable to automatically deliver cement nor cush a car full of wayward hackers.

“Stop that, Cyn” scolded Rasmussen.  “The feds are on top of this and they are re-establishing control of the compromised systems and vehicles.  That construction company is probably going to send us a bill for those antennae and I will have it forwarded directly to you.  It’s not coming out of your expense account either.  You can’t just launch micro missiles in downtown Oakland, what are you thinking?”  Rasmussen paused for a moment.  “Well, you can’t launch missiles in the absence of civil unrest, but you know what I mean.”

“Jesus, it’s so easy to say that when you are sitting there safe and sound in your office,”  we had window cleaner’s scaffolds trying to kill us out here,” said Batou.

Rasmussen smiled and shook his head.  “It wasn’t my idea for you to go rogue and try illegally attacking a server of interest in a foreign country, Batou.  Luckily, I like you and I understand that I need to allow operators of your caliber some leeway.  But the feds are involved now and I will not even attempt to call in any favors to protect you from them.  So don’t do anything stupid.  I mean stupid-ER.  Because I need you for THIS project.  I’m sending over the files on the dummy vendor. Save some missles Cyn, that location might get hot.  It’s in Arkansas.  Have fun, kids.”  Rasmussen signed off.

Ivan’s phone buzzed in his pocket and a text window opened before his face.  “I won’t be home tonight, I got too drunk and I’m staying over at Jayson’s,” texted Bryce.  “On the couch of course, love you. Call me tomorrow when you get up.

“This gig sucks so far, you know that,” said Ivan as Cyn glumly looked up the pricing for replacement antenna for Mitsubishi automated cement trucks.

 Please provide constructive feedback.

The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 3

My http://nanowrimo.org/ contribution for 2015.  Please provide constructive feedback.

Chapter 2 here.

Evelyn Ardenwood stepped out of her car with the aid of Matherson, her head of security.  She frowned at the explosion of flashes that went off as she emerged and touched the diamond brooch at her neck.  It’s paparazzi countermeasures had always proven effective, but she often found herself wishing that she could use a more visceral deterrent.  She recognized that it would satisfy her to see lasers erupting from her throat and destroying the cameras hovering all around and she tried to quell that emotion.  Delighting in the destruction of other people’s property was a low emotion and it was beneath her.  Something must be bothering her.  She made a mental note to examine this later during meditation and her implanted personal assistant detected the thought and chimed demurely in her mind’s ear to let her know it was recorded.

She made a subtle motion to Matherson as she strode up the pathway leading to the entrance of the estate and he widened the area denial fields somewhat, pushing most of the camera drones back and catching a few off guard which fell unceremoniously to the ground, their control signals jammed.  It was gouche, she knew, but Evelyn allowed herself a tight little smile of satisfaction nonetheless.  Of course, her staff could wipe all the drones from the sky for miles in every direction, trace down their owners and sue them into bankruptcy within a month.  But it wouldn’t do to take such draconian measures as she was attending a charity ball for the poor and needy.  The social media gadflies would feast long and well on the irony.

Evelyn eyed the faux greek ruins of the park bordering the Kulkarni estate as she ascended the wide stone steps, flanked by towering palms.  The park was ostensibly public, but no member of the great unwashed was anywhere to be seen.  No gates or guards were necessary to keep them away, gentrification had pushed them to the outskirts of the Bay Area years ago.  

The columns had been restored many times over the years and she had to admit that they did look dramatic lit from below as they were this mild summer evening.  But their beauty was poisoned for her by the knowledge that they were merely new world replicas aspiring for old world grandeur, assembled for some rambunctious world fair or other in the distant past.  

It was as false and inauthentic as this English looking estate she was about to enter, erected by South Indian technology money here in San Francisco.  More bitterness within her, she sighed.  Amrita Kulkarni had been a rival of Evelyn’s back in their ivy league days.  Amrita always stealing away the boys that Evelyn fancied and then casting them aside with disdain.  And now, though her mansion lacked taste in Evelyn’s view, Amrita was outflanking her again by funding this American Refugee Project.

What a chuckle her brahim family must be having from the idea of a non-profit to help these pathetic unemployed Americans, displaced within their own country by economic upheaval.  How high it must make them feel, thought Evelyn.  While billions starved back on the sub-continent.  She paused to draw a deep breath.  She wasn’t going to allow herself to be like this.  She was going to be gracious and loving.  She was going to feel those emotions within herself because she wasn’t a low and common creature.

She smiled warmly at the greeter whose glasses authenticated Evelyn’s admittance via facial recognition and key exchange with Matherson’s portable system.  Evelyn hesitated to call it a phone or even a laptop.  The bulk of Matherson’s ballistic armor was comprised of a computational substrate.  For what reason she could never understand.  But she learned long ago not to question the man.  He got results and had solved some particularly sensitive matters for her father. So she entered the echoing foyer where other guests were loitering, chatting amicably with drinks in hand.  The room was comprised of a vast expanse of tan marble floor interspersed throughout with pink marble pillars and arches at regular intervals.

A preposterously huge woven tapestry depicting Amrita’s grandfather with a lotus flower in his hand hung in the hall along with other hindu influenced hangings which served to dampen the noise from the marble floors and columns.  She noticed that everyone had chosen extremely conservative and classic attire.  Black dresses and tuxedos were everywhere, and she felt a bit self conscious in her bias cut gown which was by a more avant garde designer.  Matherson deployed whatever host-approved tiny floating eyes he normally used at events such as this and he melted into the crowd as Evelyn forged deeper into the palace in search of a drink.

The American Refugee Project tried to attack the burgeoning problem of American poverty from multiple angles.  They contributed to the Social Stability Fund which produced the free food rations available at the ubiquitous temporary housing barracks across the nation.  And they contributed to the Internet Everywhere consortium which produced the free disposable visors so that the poor weren’t cut off from internet access.  But their crowning accomplishment was a scholarship program that used a surveillance algorithm to identify high IQ individuals by passively monitoring their online activity.  Interspersed in this very crowd were the latest class of poverty stricken geniuses, selected as they surfed the glorious web, slumped with cardboard visors blocking the slovenly reality of their circumstances.

Evelyn could spot them immediately, freshly scrubbed, in unfamiliar clothes.  Plucked from whatever filthy hovels they had been languishing in and transported to a special campus prepared by the AFP so that they could study the only field that seemed to have any prospects for future employment: software development.  Her heart went out to the brilliant peasants, raised without any manners or refinement of any kind, as they clumped together in little groups, cowed by the ferocious opulence of Amrita’s little SF estate.  Evelyn understood that the Kulkarni’s owned dozens of such places, all equally magnificent throughout the world.  She made a note to not bring this up to any of the scholarship winners.

She approached one group indulgently, finally feeling the generous warmth of compassion emerge in her breast, driving out the bitterness.  Her assistant whispered names and short introductions for each youngster, overlaying subtle captions onto her sensorium.  They stared at her like animals about to be run over, their own glasses no doubt telling them just how much the Ardenwoods were worth as she favored the sweaty, clever roadkill with a deprecating smile.

“Ah, some scholars I see,” she said, putting her hands on her hips.  “Manuel, Tucker, Sheila, Maglalang,” she nodded at each teenager in turn. “Please call me Evelyn. This must be so surreal for you all.  How are you holding up?”

“I’m so afraid of sayin’ the wrong thing,” said Maglalang, a lanky Filipino boy, maybe 16 or 17 with pimples and a horrid scar the went across his cheek and down his neck, plunging below his collar.  Evelyn had to hand to Amrita.  She couldn’t be accused of choosing scholars for being photogenic.

“I keep thinking that I’m going to break something expensive,” added Manuel, a chubby Hispanic boy with a stubborn cowlick.

“And then they’ll send us back out on the streets,” agreed Sheila, some sort of freckled Appalachian with a weak chin.

“Oh, no, no, my dears, please don’t worry about such things,” scolded Evelyn.  “Why AFP knows that everyone makes mistakes.  They wouldn’t hold it against you.”

“Err, it’s in the contract,” blurted Tucker, obviously deep in the autism spectrum.  “We will be billed for any damages.”

Evelyn listened to her assistant murmuring for a moment.  “AFP will be extending credit against your future earnings, which I’m sure will be quite sizable.  You would have to work very hard to break enough valuables to deplete that.”

“We won’t make anything compared to what YOU have,” said Tucker, completely unaware of how rude he was being.

His friends tried to shush him, but Evelyn just smiled.  “Well, no, perhaps not darling, but my father got his own start in software.  Maybe you will have what it takes as well.”

“Can I get you a drink, Evelyn?” asked Maglalang suddenly, clearing receiving a cue from his Social media peanut gallery.  “The bar is right over there.”

“That would be wonderful, Maglalang,” said Evelyn, offering him her arm.  “Please lead the way.”

The brash teenager gulped but gamely took Evelyn’s arm and then jerked away as though burned by the hydro-lipo-phobic material of her gown.

“Oh, that feels weird,” he gasped.

“Nevermind then, we can just walk together,” said Evelyn as she and the gawky younger threaded through the crowd.

Her own father would have approved of this scholarship program.  He had struggled between conflicting desires to help the poor directly and yet push innovation forward so that world economies would flourish and the poor would have opportunities to help themselves.  Here was the dilemma solved nicely in one fell swoop.

They reached the bar and Maglalang shyly turned to Evelyn,  “What do you drink?”

“Ask the man for a dry martini, thank you dear,” said Evelyn.

The bartender indulgently waited for Maglalang to repeat the order and then whipped up the drink, raising the shaker above his head with a flourish that captivated the unsophisticated teen.

“Are you making many new friends, dear?” asked Evelyn.

The bartender handed the drink to Maglalang who carefully took it by the stem and relayed it to Evelyn.  It all seemed perfectly harmless.  She had no idea why her assistant would be whispering warnings in her ear.

“Yeah, I have some new friends now,” said Maglalang, watching Evelyn carefully as she took a sip of the drink.  “But it’s my OLD friends that got a message for you, bitch.  You going down!  All you motherfucking plutocrats is going DOWN, bitches!”  The young man was shouting and waving his arms, and Evelyn was so shocked that she nearly dropped her drink.

Her assistant was chattering instructions madly in her ear, rudely superimposing an exit route onto her vision which was against her standing protocol.  Evelyn had a strict rule about what sort of visual overlays were allowed.  The crowd parted as Matherson came pounding toward them in full combat mode.  Maglalang turned to run but was dropped almost instantly, paralyzed by the neurotoxins delivered by one of Matherson’s darting insect sized drones.

“My god, Matherson,” exclaimed Evelyn, utterly shocked.  “That is a bit much, isn’t it?  Must you make such a scene?”  But before he could answer the entire world changed before her eyes.  Matherson’s face transformed into a Guy Fawkes mask.  Her assistant’s voice faded away and a computerized voice buzzed in her ears.

“Enjoy your drink, Evelyn?” asked the oddly distorted voice.  “I’m so glad you did.  Let us introduces ourselves.  We are legion.”

That was the last thing she heard before the world went dark and Evelyn descended into madness.

Chapter 4 here.

The Robot Lord Scenario – Chapter 2

My http://nanowrimo.org/ contribution.  Please provide constructive feedback.

Chapter 1 here.

Mira pulled a mildewy t-shirt across her face to keep some of the swirling dust out her nose and mouth as she trudged in the thin sliver of shade before the abandoned storefronts.  The California sun was pounding down like a molten hammer onto a filthy anvil.  Mira squinted across the broken pavement of the parking lot, dry weeds thrusting upward as nature reclaimed this place.  It had been a shopping complex of some kind once.  She had seen places like this in shows.  She looked down at her cardboard visor and shook it.  The power bar was good, she had been in the sun for hours so it better be, but the picture was dead.  She pinched the reset dot for a moment, nearly pushing her cracked and dirt encrusted thumbnail through the flimsy material.

“Fuck,” she spat.  She rarely had to look at default reality, and it made her feel bad.  This place was really goddamn ugly.  Everything was brown and dry and crappy.  With her visor on, she could just follow the map and it would abstract away all this ugliness.  It lit her path with little green dots, gave her points for avoiding obstacles and she could keep ChatTime running all the while, her friends never out of reach.  But without her visor, well, this whole thing just sucked.  She had no idea where she was or how to get to where she was going.  She wandered forward aimlessly, surveying the deserted plaza.

“What’s the matter, wirehead?  Your rig broke?” croaked a voice, making Mira jump.  She twirled around, trying to see where the voice was coming from, but she couldn’t see anything.  “Hee, hee, up here, idiot,” said the voice, and Mira looked up to see a tiny sparrow drone hovering above her.  “I jammed it!  That’s why.  This is my turf, you gotta pay the troll if you wanna pass.”

Mira scratched her temple and thought about this for a moment.  She’d never heard of a drone trolls before.  Usually the gang that controlled an area around a blood bank would just post some guys in a perimeter a few hundred meters out and they would tell her how much tax she would have to pay.  But she was trying out this new place because she heard they were paying more if you were young enough.  Maybe the gangs were different out here.  But they usually just had guns and didn’t mess around with this high tech stuff.

This sounded like bullshit to her.  Real gangs toted AK’s.  An AK will blow a big ragged hole in  you.  What’s a stupid little drone going to do?  Also, the voice sounded like a kid, someone her little brother’s age.  Maybe twelve or thirteen.  But still, her visor was toast and she was stuck.  “How’m I gonna pay you if my visor won’t work?” she asked the drone, hovering above her head, well out of reach.  She glanced around for a good rock.  There were plenty of loose stones around.

“That’s not how you’re gonna pay this troll tax,” said the voice.  “There’s another way.  With your body.”

Mira shivered with disgust and glanced around fearfully.  “Ew, don’t be fucking gross,” she shouted.  She doubted there was anyone with muscle around here to grab her.  And she was pretty fast if she had to run.

“That’s not what I meant, wirehead,” said the drone. The whiney tone of voice was definitely that of a petulant ‘tween.  “Put your visor back on, it will work again, sort of.  Just follow the blue dots this time.  You are gonna make a little detour on the way to the blood bank.”

Sure enough, when Mira donned the visor again, the display was lit.  But everything looked wrong.  It wasn’t setup as she liked.  She tried opening ChatTime windows, but they were all greyed out.  She could see her friends posting frantic updates about how Mira had dropped offline, but Mira couldn’t respond to any of the messages.  Still it felt good to see the hit counts ringing up for #whyMiraOffline.

“Can’t you stay off ChatTime for 5 seconds?” complained the drone.  “Just follow the blue dots.”

Mira saw the dots lead right up to the metal graffiti covered door of one of the shuttered shops.  She never bothered checking these any more.  There were always locked tight.  And if you found a way into one of these deserted places, someone had usually found their way in first.  Unsavory someones mostly.  So Mira only went into squats with a group of friends and only if they knew people who would vouch for the place.  But it looked like this snotty kid with the drone had truly hacked her visor, so she was sort of stuck and had to go along.

Mira pulled on the barred metal door and found that it swung open reluctantly.  She gasped in surprise at the lush green interior, and stepped eagerly inside, pulling the door shut behind her.  The roof of this place had mostly caved in long ago and sunlight was filtering in between the beams which offered bands of cool shade from the unrelenting sun.  A water main must be leaking somewhere because the bushes and small trees sprouting through the floor of the shop were fresh and healthy seeming.  Mira pulled off her visor and saw that this wasn’t an overlay, but part of default reality.  She couldn’t believe that this verdant garden was thriving behind that rusty metal door.  She wondered what other magical places hid behind the other battered storefronts.

The little drone dropped into the space between a gap in the rafters.  “Nice, huh?” said the voice, clearly full of boyish delight.

Mira noticed that one of the trees was an apple tree and had actual apples just dangling from it’s limbs.  She had never seen an apple tree in real life.  “Can I have an apple?” she begged the drone boy as she approached the tree in wonderment, visor tilted back on her head.

“What? Oh, yeah, sure, I guess. Are you hungry or something?  We have SocStab rations,” said the drone in surprise.

“I’m sick of social stability rations,” said Mira grabbing a ripe apple and yanking it down from the tree. Several other apples fell and she guiltily scrambled to grab those as well.  She crammed the loose apples into her bag and took a bite of one.  It’s crisp, sweet, juicy flesh exploded in her parched mouth and she nearly fainted with enjoyment.  It was undeniably the best apple she had ever had in her life.  Though she rarely had anything like a fresh fruit or vegetable, so that wasn’t saying much.

“Will you put the visor back on now and follow the blue dots? I can’t loiter long with this drone, it’s battery is almost done,” complained the little drone and then it was gone, buzzing quietly up through a gap in the roof and soaring away out of sight.

Mira idly consider blowing the drone boy off and hanging out here in this leafy refuge for a while. But they she remembered that he had fucked up her visor so that she couldn’t get on ChatTime and she needed to find that little bastard and make him fix it.  So she dropped the visor back down and found the blue dots, occasionally pawing impotently at the sem-disabled ChatTime windows as interest in her whereabouts quickly faded to be replaced by conversation about the latest shows.  At least she had the wonderful apple to comfort her as she gnawed it down to the core and picked her way through the miniature forest as the dots lead her toward the back of the building.

The forest ended abruptly 30 feet from the back wall of the store.  The tile floor was oddly intact there along this wall, somehow impervious to nature’s prying fingers.  The dots pointed Mira toward a pair of doors with crash bars, the exit sign above them, illuminated.  Mira was startled to see that electricity was still flowing through this destroyed place  She lifted her visor to be sure it was real, but sure enough, the exit sign glowed brightly.  She pushed through the doors and found herself in a massive warehouse.  The ceiling soared above her into darkness.  The only light was the sunlight filtering through the ruined roof behind her.  Her path lead down an aisle between towering racks stacked with cardboard boxes.  She let the doors shut behind her and was engulfed in darkness, her visor providing a wireframe of racks and any obstacles in her path.

She felt gypped when she scrambled over a pile of tumbled boxes but didn’t get any points for the effort and she watched the ChatTime feeds longingly, wishing she could post about this adventure right away.  Her social status would definitely spike up once she told this story.  She sure hoped her visor wasn’t too screwed up to be recording this part.  Going from that weird overgrown store into this huge warehouse was as interesting footage as any video game she ever played.  Her friends would love it.

After a while the dots lead Mira down an aisle to the right and she came to a door with a punch clock next to it and a little stand with a coffeemaker on it.  The light was lit and Mira could smell a fresh pot of coffee.  She found a stack of paper cups under the coffee machine and poured herself a cup.  It scalded the inside of her mouth, and it tasted bitter.  So she rummaged around the stand a bit more and found the non-dairy creamer.  She emptied five or six creamers into the cup which cooled the coffee and made it smoother,  though the creamers added a slightly greasy flavor.  Refreshed by a few sips of coffee, Mira pressed ahead and went through the door.

She would have been blinded by the bright fluorescent lights of the break room she found herself in if the visor hadn’t attenuated the brightness.  A middle aged woman in a white lab coat sat at a table, performing some virtual task as Mira entered, her finger flitting deftly above the bright white tabletop before her.  A young teenaged boy, maybe thirteen years old sat across from her kicking his legs as he manipulated something, probably the drone, Mira decided.

The woman promptly left off from her work and lifted her glasses when Mira entered.  She had brown hair streaked with grey and a hard expression on her face.  She looked like a rich woman, both she and the boy were in clean clothes that looked expensive.

“Close the door, sit down.  We don’t have much time,” said the woman gesturing tersely to a strange chair with one padded armrest and a reclined backrest.

“The fuck?” asked Mira lifting her visor to her head.  “Your boy messed up my visor!  Tell him to fix it.”

“I’m the one who told him to break it in the first place,” responded the woman, taking Mira by the shoulders and firmly pushing her down into the chair.  Mira complied because it felt good to sit down and when she leaned back to face the ceiling it felt pretty comfortable.  “Don’t worry, we have plenty of those cheap cardboard visors around her for you.  I can give you a whole box if you want them.  But I need you to run a little errand for my employers.”  The woman sat on a stool beside Mira and brusquely rolled her Mira’s sleeve.

“What the hell are you doing?” asked Mira, trying to struggle.  But the woman was surprisingly strong and quickly strapped Mira’s arm to the armrest.  Mira realized that this was sort of like the chairs in the blood bank.  “I’m not giving you any blood for free or even a box of visors, I was on my way to go get real money.”  Her heart started racing as she wondered if this woman was trying to steal her blood, but something about the woman’s demeanor gave her pause.  The woman wasn’t friendly by any means, but she wasn’t angry either.  She was business like, but her eyes didn’t have the deadness that Mira saw when people really intended to harm her.  And she had seen dead eyes plenty.

“Oh shuck, I messed up, ma,” said the boy.  “I must have missed a security system somewhere, private security is getting dispatched out here to check on the cameras.”

“That’s fine, son, this was to be expected, get us a car,” said the woman unwrapping a tiny hypodermic needle from a plastic bag.

“What are you shooting me with?” asked Mira, more curious than afraid.  “This is going to look so cray on my feeds when I get out of here.”

“You aren’t going to be able to put any of this on  your feeds,” said the boy smugly.  “I’m wiping your visor history.”

“You fucker, do you know how much status I could gain from this?” cried Mira, more upset about the loss of her social attention than whatever it was that this rich woman was about to shoot her up with.

“This isn’t for you, Mira,” said the woman calmly as she swabbed Mira’s filthy arm with alcohol and deftly sank the needle into Mira’s bulging vein.  “It’s a present for the blood bank.  You won’t feel a thing.  It’s perfectly harmless to you.”

Mira believed the woman, because she handled the needle so well that she could barely feel the prick as it pierced her and then a few seconds later the woman was done and had released the Mira’s arm from the restraint.  She then pocketed the needle and the plastic wrapper as she and her son got up to leave.

“There are some stability rations and a box of visors as I promised,” said the woman, pointed to a pair of cardboard boxes on a counter in the corner.  “Take them and get out.  Security will be here soon.”

“But what the fuck did you just do to me?” asked Mira, annoyed.  She felt that she should be standing up for herself more here.

“I don’t really know, dear,” admitted the woman with a shrug.  “I just took this gig off of a job board.  I did test the vial first and I can assure you it isn’t toxic, but that’s all I know.”

“But it’s for the blood bank?  Why?” Mira called after them as the woman and her son exited from another door opposite the one Mira had entered.

“That blood bank is a longevity clinic.  The blood goes to plutocrats,” giggled the boy.  But his mother shushed him and then the door was closed and they were gone.  

Mira sat stunned for a moment.  Looking at her arm, she found no evidence of the point where the needle entered her.  And she sure didn’t feel drugged up at all.  Maybe a little jittery from the coffee.  She jumped up and stuffed the boxes into bag and bolted out the back door, hoping to ask more questions of the mother and child.  But an autoCar was pulling away just as she exited the warehouse back into the pummelling heat of the day.  Mira found that the visor she had been wearing was dead again and she tossed it in frustration.  She pulled a fresh visor out of the box and it logged her in properly after scanning her for a moment.  The green dots leading to the new blood bank reappeared, and all her windows came up just as she liked them.  Her friends were practically shrieking with excitement when Mira’s feed came back up on chatTime and she was texting away so intensely that she didn’t even notice the security vans pulling up and all the security people jumping out and pounding into the warehouse behind her, laden in body armor with weapons out.

Chapter 3 here.

The Robot Lord Scenario (My Novel) – Chapter 1

I am writing a science fiction novel for National Novel Writing Month.  I’m taking the Robot Lord Scenario as my inspiration, so that’s the working title.  Please give me feedback.  I want to be like Andy Weir, who wrote The Martian, and publish each rough draft chapter online and invite criticism so that I can get help refining it.

I looked out at the deserted nightscape of downtown skyscrapers below me, a warmly glowing stream of data, orange on black, obscuring my view.  The motion activated street lights were all dark, and most of the other office buildings were dark as well, hulking monoliths in the slumbering city.  But a random pattern of lighted windows in the building across the street illuminated the deep blackness of the night.  Cleaning people here and there vacuumed and emptied trash cans.  They were actual humans, which explained why they needed lights.  Inverse office denizens, they occupied the space left empty by the professionals at the end of their workday.

I felt a sort of kinship with these human cleaners toiling in the night.  They might not recognize our connection, but we IT people used to be relegated to the depths of the evening to do our own work, so that we didn’t disturb the ebb and flow of daytime business communications.  When human workers lose their internet connection, they complain, so IT must work at night.  But times have changed, software has replaced most of the office workers now, and software doesn’t complain if you take away its internet connection for a few minutes.  Software doesn’t complain about much actually, which is why so few of us can still find work at all.

I marveled at these massive structures around me.  Office buildings soaring thirty and forty stories all around, built in an era when tens of thousands of workers were needed to run an enterprise office.  Now floor after floor sat empty, mothballed, eerily silent.  On previous jobs, I passed through these dead spaces sometimes, tracing cables, the vasculature of business data.  Sometimes the building managers didn’t even bother tearing down the cube farms, and I would wind my way through the rodent mazes, shocked at how little space these old time office employees used to have.  Of course there are many fewer of us now, so it’s understandable that we would have more meatspace.

I watched the cleaning people doing their work and realized that my affinity with them went deeper than just sharing hours.  The cleaners empty the trash, and I was in that office, high above the city, to clean up a mess that night myself.  Only this mess didn’t clean up very easily.  This mess melted through the floor and turned into a rabbit hole that led me on a journey that changed my life.

I was working at the time as a security consultant doing forensics.  Anyone in computer security will tell you that the hardest part of doing that job is determining whether you’ve been hacked or not.  In many cases, companies simply aren’t aware that their systems have been compromised and it takes an outside party to clue them in.  This client was a typical example.  They were a big hedge fund called Ithildin, and they had a massive intrusion detection infrastructure in place.  Their internal security team insisted that there was no malicious activity on the network, nonetheless, several million dollars were unaccounted for during an audit.  So there was a huge struggle within the company between the IT department and the accountants.  The IT department was accusing the accountants of fraud and the accountants were accusing the IT department of overlooking a hack.  

In response, the CFO personally reached out to a forensic accounting firm with a computer security incident response department.  The incident response team was an ad hoc group from a handful of companies, but I had worked with a few of them before and recognized that they were some of the top people in the business.  I also knew one of the accounting people from the days when I used to do SOX compliance work.  There was a lot of tension in the meetings as the outside consultants found flaws in procedures across the board, in both accounting and IT.  This was typical, and it would have gone a lot smoother if they had just kept the IT and accounting people out of the loop until we presented the final report.  But management had somehow convinced the CFO that it was a good idea for their people to be closely involved in the investigation.  So I was escaping into this empty conference room to take a break from all the bickering and somehow found myself enjoying the deserted city nightscape.

My phone buzzed.  There was a text notification icon in corner of my vision, so I expanded the window to read it.  It was a message from my girlfriend, Bryce, “How much longer?”

“I told you that I’m working tonight,” I texted back.  “It’s hard to say, maybe a couple more hours.”

“Well, would you be pissed if I went out with some friends from work then?”

“Who is going?”

Just then a security consultant I knew well came into the room.  His name was Kumar, but he insisted on being called Batou after the Ghost in the Shell character.

“Wow, nice view.  Is that why you have the lights off in here?” he said, joining me at the window.  

“Yeah, and I don’t want to be found that easily. These meetings are horrid.”

“Tell me about it.  This network is lousy with malware,” he said, shaking his head.  “And that internal guy, Friedrich, keeps insisting that they have everything under control.  I can’t stand that guy.  Do you know what his favorite band is?  It’s NickelBack!  Jesus!”

“Really?” I said.  Batou had been a goth back in the day and I had been a new waver, so we had already established a certain amount of grudging respect for each other’s musical tastes.  But a Nickelback fan fell well outside the cool spectrum for either of us.  Of course the opposite was probably true as well.  No self-respecting Nickelback fan would wear eyeliner to a concert.

“I would say that there are at least three different crews operating on this network,” Batou said.

“Yeah, but that’s true of a lot of networks,” I replied.  The text message thread with Bryce was floating in the center of my field of vision, but she wasn’t responding and I felt my stomach tighten slightly.  It wasn’t like her to text me when she knew I was at work.  And she went out with her friends all the time, so why should she ask me about this one instance?

Cyn, another consultant from the firm Batou worked for, popped her head into the conference room.  “Hate to break up your romantic moment,” she said, carrying her laptop into the room, “But you need to see this.”  She didn’t bother turning the lights on, but just plopped down at the head of the conference table.  Data streams started lighting up my glasses as she threw some windows into our shared workspace.  “I captured some weird traffic coming from this printer back to the hosted finance servers.”

“Jesus, Cyn, why do you lug that chunk of computation around with you like that?” I asked.  Myself and everyone else I worked with generally just used our phones and connected to remote servers when we needed computing resources.

“I like to have local horsepower,” she said patting the matte black slab.

“That’s just stupid,” snorted Batou.  “Where do you ever go that doesn’t have bandwidth?”

“You’d be surprised how often having the ability to run offline processes comes in handy,” she said.  “Oh, and just let me know when you guys are done bitching about my hardware because this incident isn’t resolving itself, you know.”

“Let me see this printer,” Batou said.  He waved a hand to open a browser to the printer’s IP address.   A JetDirect logon screen appeared and he frowned as the default password failed to work.  

“JetDirect?  How old is this damn thing?” Cyn asked.

“I wasn’t actually expecting to see a logon screen.  If they hacked the printer, they would have replaced the web interface,” Batou said.

“If they were idiots, they would replace the standard logon screen,” she said.

“Cyn’s right, this packet trace doesn’t look legit,” I said.  I scanned a log file she had bookmarked.  “That’s not printer traffic.  Something’s up with that device.”

“Ok, ok,” Batou said, digging through some screen of transaction logs.

I scanned the printer with a fuzzing tool I had picked up on the forums recently, and somehow a shell prompt appeared before me.  It had a hash sign blinking as though I was root.

“Uh, I think I got something here,” I said.  Just then my phone buzzed and I passed the screen to Batou to examine.  

“Just some guys, Jayson and Franklin, anyway we are out already, so I guess I’ll text you later,”  said the message from Bryce.  What the hell?  Now my girlfriend was out drinking with two guys from her job?  And she somehow felt the need to tell me about it as though it were an item of concern?

“Fuck all, this printer is running some funky busybox,” Batou said.

“I told you,” Cyn said.  She flipped up her glasses and gestured at the building across the street.  “Whoa, nice view.  Are those actual human cleaners?” she asked.

“Yeah, I didn’t know anyone was still employing those,” I said.  But my mind was wandering.  I loved my girlfriend, but I didn’t trust her exactly.  She seemed pretty eager to be going out on the town with these two guys from her job.

A bot pulled up to the door, vacuuming as it went.  It sensed that there were warm bodies in the room and shut off its vacuum.  I watched as it dispassionately rolled over to the waste bin under the huge conference room table that had been fashioned from a highly shellacked slab of redwood.  It extended its manipulators to grab the basket and tilt it back and up, efficiently emptying the contents into its gut.

“The competition will put those poor slobs out of work soon enough,” I said, as the bot rolled silently back out of the room and restarted its vacuum once it was in the hallway again.

“Oh, shit, this is just a mess,” sighed Batou.  “And Friedrich will just act like a printer exfiltrating finance data back to China is no big deal.”

“Come on, Batou.  China?” asked Cyn.  “Seriously?”

“That’s a little convenient,” I said.

“Whatever, that’s where these IPs are registered to,” said Batou.

”Where are you going?” I texted Bryce.

“Are you paying attention, Ivan?” Cyn asked me.  “Who are you texting?”

“My girlfriend,” I said.  “She is going off drinking with two guys from work and I’m worried about it.”

“Woo, she’s trying get luck-ee,” Cyn said.  She spun around in her conference chair and laughed.  “Her fancy hacker boyfriend blew her off on a Friday night and she found some other guys to play with while he’s working.”

“Don’t rub it in,” I said, feeling stung.

“Can you guys focus please,” Batou said.  “This looks serious.  I think we found our exfiltration point right here.  I don’t want to hear about Ivan’s slutty girlfriend.  I want to hear how we are going to present this to management without Friedrich shooting us down.”

“The logs speak for themselves,” said Cyn, waving her hand dismissively.

“No, Batou’s right,” I said.  “We need to find a way to sell this.  Internal IT has a lot riding on this.  This will make them look bad.”

“I don’t play those games,” Cyn said.  “Facts are facts.”

“That’s why you’re stuck in lateral moves from place to place; you don’t understand business impact,” I said.  I was trying to score points on her and get her back for teasing me about Bryce.  I pulled up a channel to the Ithildin IT helpdesk in the shared workspace.  A fairly low resolution avatar appeared and I recognized that this was probably a low level AI, the convention generally being that lower resolution meant less intelligent.

“Hello, this is Ithildin Information Technology Services, how can I help you?” said the avatar, looking over my right shoulder with a wooden smile on its face.  It was presenting as an ambiguously gendered human of indeterminate race, which I thought was pretty progressive.

“We need some information about a printer,” I said, flipping through my open windows to find the name.  “Oak-3115-Prn3.”

The avatar paused for a moment; its smile fixed disturbingly. “That printer appears to be functional, would you like to print a test page?”

Cyn chuckled and raised her eyebrows at me.

“No, no,” I said.  “We want to know what this device is doing on the network, it must be fifteen years old.”

“Ah, printers produce hard copies,” said the avatar, without sounding the least bit condescending.  Then it paused again.  “For human consumption,” it added.

Did this AI really have some doubts as to whether I was a human or not?

“How do we escalate this thing?” asked Batou.  Cyn just giggled.  She thought this was hilarious.

“I know what a printer is, thanks,” I said.  “The question is, don’t you have a hardware retirement policy in place?  Why is this device still around?”

“Oh, this is a policy question?  One moment please, acquiring additional resources,” said the avatar.  Then the weirdest thing happened.  Instead of being replaced by a different, higher level avatar, or gasp, even a real human, the avatar’s features seemed to grow sharper and more well defined.  No gender or race clues emerged, but it became more attractive and there was a discernable gleam in its eye as it looked at me that sent a chill up my spine.

“Wow, this must be a new program,” said Cyn.

“Oh, hello, Ivan Rudnikov,” said the suddenly sharper avatar.  “I have been authorized to answer any questions you may have regarding policies and procedures.”  There was just the slightest smirk on the avatar’s face and I shuddered.  I had dealt with advanced AI before, but this one was spooky.

“Thank you,” I said, and then caught myself.  Why am I wasting niceties on a piece of software?  “Why is this ancient HP printer still on the network?  Shouldn’t it have been retired according to your hardware replacement policy?”  I decided not to reference the printer by name to see just how smart this thing was.  Did it really remember everything its dumber incarnation heard?

The avatar made a pained expression.  “I am terribly sorry, but it appears you have identified a problem with our policies, pardon me while I obtain additional capacities.”  A moment passed, and to our shock, the avatar became even MORE high resolution, beyond natural, like a super-realist painter’s rendition of a model human, genderless, raceless, painfully beautiful.

“Holy shit,” said Batou, dropping into a chair.

I looked significantly at Cyn, but she just scratched her cheek and tried to act unfazed.

“My goodness, Ivan, your team really is quite good,” said the avatar, casually perching on the edge of the table,  a trick I had only seen in very high end entertainment VR.  “Friedrich is going to be very displeased by this.”

“What do you know about Friedrich?” asked Cyn.  She sensed danger here, which was good.  It showed that she wasn’t totally clueless about corporate politics.

“We work closely with Friedrich’s team,” said the avatar.  It smiled, holding up a hand to calm her.  “But the hardware retirement policy only applies to certain classes of equipment, and it looks like it this little workgroup printer didn’t fall into any of the categories defined, so it was never replaced.”  The avatar paused for a moment, its eyes still, gazing into the ether.  “Oh dear.”

“Oh yes,” I said.  The code on that printer was old, and old code is easily hacked.  I wondered how much the avatar could discern about what we’d found, and I started to become paranoid.  This was some serious tech at play.  You practically needed a dedicated nuclear plant to power an AI like this.  Did it have access to our shared workspace?  I checked the encryption and it seemed untampered with.  But there were lower tech ways to find out what we’d been up to.  A simple camera and microphone could have recorded our entire conversation.

“…and it looks like this oversight was a costly one,” the avatar said.  It pinned me with a vicious glare that stunned me with its intensity, like the most dramatic Shakespearean actor I’d ever seen.  “I think you should be very careful with this information, Ivan.  It’s very sensitive.  Careers are at stake.”

“Careers are always at stake when people like us are called in, Mr. Chatbot,” Batou said.

The avatar seemed to freeze for a moment, which gave me some relief.  It was comforting to see this monstrous software instance showing some signs of weakness; its resolution rapidly decayed down to a level below its initial incarnation.  It looked like a video game character from ten years ago.  “Well then, if you don’t mind, I will go ahead and close this service request.  Thank you for using the Ithildin IT helpdesk.  Please take a few moments to fill out our customer satisfaction survey…”

I closed the session in disgust, and the avatar disappeared.  An odd blue-black afterimage lingered in the air for a moment before my eyes.  I swept all the windows aside and flipped up my glasses to gaze at Cyn and Batou.

“Well, that escalated quickly,” said Cyn.  She had an unpleasant expression on her face and her knees caved in dejectedly as she slouched forward.

“I’m not going to be pushed around by some goddamn hedge fund neural net,” said Batou, slapping his hand on the redwood slab, then rubbing it ruefully.

“Come on, Batou,” I said.  “It is pretty crazy how much AI wattage is in use around here, but the creepy thing was right.  We need to be careful with how we release this.  Let’s call the home office and see what Rasmussen has to say about it.”

“The hell with that,” said Batou, compressing his lips and trying to look tough.  I really had to laugh, to see this skinny south Asian nerd acting like a hard guy.  “I’m backhacking that China server.  I’m going to crack this whole thing wide open.”

“Ooh, you bad boy,” said Cyn, perking up at the prospect of mayhem, “Let’s do it.”  I always said that there is no such thing as a truly pure whitehat hacker.  There is always a bit of the blackhat in all of us.  We like breaking things, software, hardware, rules, procedures, whatever you’ve got.  “Are you in, Ivan?” she asked me, arching a devilish brow at me.  I knew I would regret this, but I might as well regret my very nature, the very nature of the world.  “I’m in,” I sighed.

Chapter 2 here.

The Robot Lord Scenario

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. - photo by AP

A robot slices a ball of dough and drops the strips into a pot to make noodles at a food stall in Beijing. – photo by AP

I just finished reading Rise of the Robots, by Martin Ford. This is a nonfiction book in which Ford predicts that all jobs will soon be automated away, and that this will lead to an economic crash, since no one will have any money to buy anything.  I’ve written about this idea before, and Ford’s position hasn’t changed much since his previous book, Lights in the Tunnel.

Economists call the idea that automation makes jobs disappear the “Luddite fallacy,” and have long dismissed that this can happen.  Because, up until now, whenever jobs were taken away by automation in one area, new jobs were created in another, so there was nothing to worry about.  Luddites are named after Ned Ludd, who, along with his followers, smashed some weaving machines at some point in English history in order to save the jobs of weavers.  But progress rolled on and weavers apparently found other jobs to do.  Just as automation on the farm put farmhands out of work, new jobs opened up in factories.  This pattern has been repeated over and over since the Industrial Revolution.

So why should we even listen to Ford and his ranting that jobs are actually disappearing, not just changing?  Well, for one because he does a decent job of documenting actual job stagnation.  I had assumed that we were just sending jobs (such as call center jobs) overseas, i.e. offshoring.  And while this feels painful to us, if it means that even poorer and hungrier people in other countries get more food, then that doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff.  But while Ford acknowledges that maybe offshoring is the cause of employment stagnation in the US, most of our money is spent on services that can’t be offshored.  So he insists that jobs are being taken by machines, not by starving foreigners.

He documents an impressive array of recent machine accomplishments, from making hamburgers to composing emotionally compelling music.  I don’t doubt that this is happening.  There is almost nothing that humans do to earn money that machines won’t be able to do more cheaply at some point.  The key question is WHEN this will happen.  Ford thinks that this could happen somewhat soon, and that we’d better whip out the guaranteed minimum income pretty quickly, so we don’t have a massive social collapse.  He even digs up Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who is worshipped by free market libertarians, and who thought that the guaranteed minimum income was a good idea, in order to overcome their objections to this idea.

Unsurprisingly, he fails to placate the free market libertarian Robin Hanson, who rationalists know and love from his OvercomingBias blog.  Hanson wrote  a nice takedown piece of Ford’s book on Reason.com.  Hanson focuses on Ford’s egalitarian streak and is most annoyed that anyone would object to his beloved economic inequality, which he holds near and dear to his heart, as any proper conservative should.  Ford and Hanson have locked horns before, and I do find their sparring entertaining, but I don’t feel that Hanson properly dissects the core of Ford’s argument.

To me, the basic question is this: Can our world  economy continue to function in the absence of consumers at the bottom?

In Ford’s view, the economy will stall if there are only rich consumers, because the rich spend a smaller percentage of their income than the poor do.  This is called the “marginal propensity to consume” or something.  Yet, somehow, consumer spending has increased even as wages have remained stagnant, and also, the rich have made up a greater percentage of consumer spending.  Ford says that this is because debt has increased.  Hanson replies with the apparent non sequitur that debt hasn’t increased as much as inequality.  Uh, what?  Debt needs to increase enough to cover consumer spending, not to match inequality.  But the fact is that if consumer spending increases, and the percentage that the rich contribute to consumer spending also increases, well, maybe we don’t need poor people to run the economy.

I don’t really understand these economics.  But it does sort of seem that the Fed is just printing money and trucking it directly into the bank accounts of the super rich, who aren’t spending much, so that would explain how inflation is held in check.  Then again, deflation from automation would balance all that quantitative easing.  Um, I think I will shut up now.

Anyway, I figured that of course you need a lot of poor consumers because they will cover the space of all possible desires for products better than a few rich consumers, and thus provide a broader base for innovation.  But then again, the poor are just cattle that herd together like idiotic conformists, all consuming the same garbage media like Taylor Swift and wearing the same outfits from the mall.  Whereas the rich value eccentricities?  They probably spend more money on Cristal and superyachts than fine art and health extension.  I don’t know.  Next topic.

If it does play out that the poor are automated out of work, and yet the economy keeps running based on the demands of a tiny, super rich elite, we could end up with what Noah Smith calls the Robot Lord scenario:

“The day that robot armies become more cost-effective than human infantry is the day when people power becomes obsolete.  With robot armies, the few will be able to do whatever they want to the many.  And unlike the tyrannies of Stalin and Mao, robot enforced tyranny will be robust to shifts in popular opinion.  The rabble may think whatever they please, but the Robot Lords will have the guns.  Forever.”

Nice!  Noah is a futurist after my own heart.  Who is going to force the super rich to hand out guaranteed incomes if they can sequester themselves in gated communities protected by autonomous weapon systems?  Sick as this may seem, it’s a remarkably American way for things to play out.  So what would happen to the lumpen masses?  This is grist for a great sci-fi novel.  Ragged, unaugmented humans trying to scrape out a meager existence in the trash heaps of the super rich transhuman aristocrats.  I guess the film Elysium examines this sort of scenario.  I haven’t seen it, but I might check it out in spite of the Hollywood stench that surrounds it.  Bruce Sterling sees this trend of “dematerialization” as more than just a Silicon Valley buzzword and imagines a “favela chic” scenario:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

It’s not clear to me how the government fits into this scenario.  Governments do like to stockpile weapons and other real assets.  It is hard to see how they would go away entirely.  Maybe they will be the ones handing out the food bars while we fervently click the “like” buttons to trigger neurotransmitter spikes with our VR headsets on.

Nonetheless, we can imagine that hackers will play some unique role in this fully automated future.  They might be like Merlin, working magic for the future kings of capital.  Or perhaps some will be like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to feed the poor.  Still others will be like Loki, wreaking havoc and glorying in the chaos, as hackers have always done.  But maybe the aristos will simply be replaced by hackers in the end.  After all, when all you have are robots to protect you, you better not be vulnerable to any SQL injection attacks, or you will get owned by super class a hackers.  I better book my trip to Las Vegas for DefCon this year.  I’ve got a lot of studying up to do if I want to survive the next feudal age.

The Truth About Morals

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. - photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

A Sudanese man looks at the ruins of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in the yellow glow of a sandstorm in Khartoum, Sudan. – photo by Scott Peterson/TCSM/Getty Images

Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky recently argued (via email) about whether or not the intentions behind an action determined if the action was moral, and I thought this was an interesting question.  We are all busy people, so I will toss aside the nuances of this argument and try to reduce it to its simplest terms.

First, let me introduce the two people arguing:

  • Sam Harris is an author, philosopher, and neuroscientist, who is a critic of religion and proponent of scientific skepticism and the “New Atheism.”  He is also very publicly anti-Muslim (which I can appreciate).
  • Noam Chomsky is sometimes described as the “father of modern linguistics” and is a major figure in analytic philosophy.  He has written many books attacking US foreign policy, and after 9/11 he basically said that it was a terrible tragedy, but the US is the biggest terrorist state in the world.

Now let me get to the argument:

Harris tries to make the case that the US government, while it does do some terrible things, is morally superior to Islamic terrorists because it has good intentions and only kills lots of civilians by accident, whereas Islamic terrorists do not have good intentions and kill civilians on purpose.  Harris berates Chomsky for ignoring the intentions of the actors.

Chomsky sputters in response that he damn well has considered the intentions of the actors and, in fact, has been studying these questions for 50 years.  He treats Harris like a pipsqueak for not having done his homework, stating:

“As I’ve discussed for many years, in fact decades, benign intentions are virtually always professed, even by the worst monsters, and hence carry no information…”

So basically what he’s saying is that everyone believes that their intentions are good, and history can show that the worst atrocities have been committed with good intentions in mind.  For example, Chomsky points out that the Japanese fascists slaughtering the Chinese were sincerely trying to bring about an earthly paradise.  Similarly sincere intentions could be assigned to the Germans during WWII or to certain Stalinist officials, who also thought they were creating a utopia.  This reminds me of Haidt’s theory in the Righteous Mind that people generally think they are doing the right thing, even if they seem like bad actors from another point of view.

So Chomsky claims that nothing in general can be said about intentions in moral decisions, in other words, you can’t say that all acts done with good intentions are therefore good.

The main example Chomsky gives is a case in which the US did not appear to have good intentions.  Apparently, after a US embassy in Africa was bombed, President Clinton ordered the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory.  This factory was one of the only factories in Sudan that made pharmaceuticals.  It was bombed under the premise that it was producing chemical weapons, but no strong evidence of that was ever presented to the public.  This probably resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands who did not get the medicines they needed.

Chomsky takes the position that there was never any strong evidence that the factory actually produced nerve gas, and the timing of the event, which occurred just after the embassy bombing, makes it look like a retaliation.  Harris counters by parrotting the US government’s story and claiming that President Clinton didn’t want to kill innocent civilians, he just wanted to keep Al Qaeda from getting nerve gas.

Chomsky agrees that Clinton’s goal was not to kill civilians, but that he and his advisors must have known that destroying the main medicine factory in Sudan would have that result.  Yet he bombed away anyway, treating those African lives as so many ants one might crush on the street.  Ouch.  Then Chomsky wonders if this isn’t WORSE than a terrorist who intends to kill civilians, but at least recognizes the humanity of their victims.  This is a problem for me, since killing someone isn’t good evidence that you have recognized their humanity, but that’s beside the point.

Even Chomsky wasn’t cynical enough in my mind.  There is this thing called the military industrial complex and there is this thing called the secret government, which means that we sometimes drop bombs because we need to keep the work orders flowing for the defense industry.

“Rumsfeld complained that there were no decent targets for bombing in Afghanistan … we should consider bombing Iraq which he said had better targets.” – PBS.org

But I like Sam Harris and I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I agree that Western morals sure look a lot more sophisticated than those in the rest of the world.  We have PETA for chrissake.  We care about animals and gays and minorities now, which Peter Singer calls the expanding circle of empathy.

But I’m afraid Harris doesn’t consider the idea that our leaders might not share the moral values of our population.  In fact, it seems that our systems are set up such that the least empathetic psychopaths can rise to the top of many organizations because they aren’t hamstrung by what we might refer to as common decency.  The morals required to survive as a bureaucratic foreign policy maker probably look very strange to the common American.  If you don’t value defense industry profits over the lives of remote foreigners, you might not be able to keep your job for very long.

Harris has this other idea about morality that he calls the Moral Landscape.  In this theory, he proposes that there must be a way to find objective moral truths.  He takes as a premise that all morals basically boil down to achieving the greatest good for the greatest number of conscious minds, more or less.

But what if we treat morals as memes?  What if morals are behaviors that evolve to allow us to survive in different environments?  The rich West has a different environment generally than the Global South.  The US Defence Department has a different environment than GreenPeace.  This fellow Axelrod used this thing called game theory to simulate simple games among agents to see which strategies survived.  He discovered that a tit-for-tat strategy was the most successful; so people who cooperate at first, but are willing to punish bad behavior, will be more successful.  There is also this idea that forgiveness can help people break out of the cycles of vengeance we see in Hatfield and McCoy sort of conflicts.  Morals are probably a lot more like these strategies, and Harris would do well to put survival as the starting premise.

If we recognize that morals are strategies that help us survive in our local environments, then we can move closer to discovering the real objective truth about morals.

Lovers and Daydreamers Conquer All

Many people appreciate love, art, and even daydreaming, without realizing that they inherently make you stronger.  While most people only think of evolution as a competitive tooth and nail fight to the top, in fact cooperation is also a strategy that evolved in this environment.  People who share and cooperate with each other simply outcompete those who don’t.

Many people appreciate love, art, and even daydreaming, without realizing that they inherently make you stronger.  While most people only think of evolution as a competitive tooth and nail fight to the top, in fact cooperation is also a strategy that evolved in this environment.  People who share and cooperate with each other simply outcompete those who don’t.

This past summer, Scott Alexander posted a piece called Meditations on Moloch on his excellent blog, Star Slate Codex.  I like this piece, since it is a strange mashup of ideas from Ginsberg’s Howl, AI disaster scenarios from Bostrum’s Superintelligence, and dark age ideas about how society should be structured from one of these new conservative types.  This piece has really captured the imagination of the rationalist community and many people I know seem to fully agree with his viewpoint.  I happen to disagree with some of the premises, so I want to clarify my thoughts on the matter.  

… Scott Alexander posted a piece called Meditations on Moloch on his excellent blog, Star Slate Codex.  I happen to disagree with some of the premises, so I want to clarify my thoughts on the matter.

It’s very hard to sum up Alexander’s post, as you might imagine from the disparate sources he is trying to bring together.  But one key focus is on “multipolar traps,” in which competition causes us to trade away things we value in order to optimize for one specific goal.  He gives many examples of multipolar traps, all of which are problematic for various reasons, but I will try to give one example that Bay Area home buyers can relate to: the two-income trap.  Alexander believes that two-income couples are driving up home prices, and that if everyone agreed to have only one earner per household, home prices would naturally drop.  Here is how Alexander sums up this particular multipolar trap:

It’s theorized that sufficiently intense competition for suburban houses in good school districts meant that people had to throw away lots of other values – time at home with their children, financial security – to optimize for house-buying-ability or else be consigned to the ghetto.

From a god’s-eye-view, if everyone agrees not to take on a second job to help win the competition for nice houses, then everyone will get exactly as nice a house as they did before, but only have to work one job. From within the system, absent a government literally willing to ban second jobs, everyone who doesn’t get one will be left behind.

So he is describing a sort of competition that helps no one, but that no one can escape from.  It’s hard to think of how folks could coordinate to solve this, though a law capping real estate prices seems more realistic than banning second jobs.  I actually think this is a bad example, since it seems to put the burden of driving up home prices on two-income families.  In fact, I am confident that home prices demand two middle income earners because of the huge amount of capital amassed by the very rich.  If all middle income earners coordinated their efforts and stopped buying homes priced above a certain level, I predict the crash in real estate prices wouldn’t last very long.  The very rich would just continue snapping up real estate and drive the price right back up.  

 Alexander believes that two-income couples are driving up home prices, and that if everyone agreed to have only one earner per household, home prices would naturally drop.  In fact, I am confident that home prices demand two middle income earners because of the huge amount of capital amassed by the very rich.  If all middle income earners … stopped buying homes priced above a certain level … the very rich would just continue snapping up real estate and drive the price right back up.

Of course I’m happy to allow that multipolar traps do exist, government corruption is a persistent bane to civilization, for example.  And Alexander himself points out that the universe has traits that protect humans from the destructive impact of multipolar traps.  In his view, there are four reasons human values aren’t essentially destroyed by competition: 1. Excess resources, 2. Physical limitations, 3. Utility maximization, and 4. Coordination.  Let me try to address each point in turn.

First, here is what Alexander says about excess resources:

This is … an age of excess carrying capacity, an age when we suddenly find ourselves with a thousand-mile head start on Malthus. As Hanson puts it, this is the dream time.

As long as resources aren’t scarce enough to lock us in a war of all against all, we can do silly non-optimal things – like art and music and philosophy and love – and not be outcompeted by merciless killing machines most of the time.

This actually seems like a misunderstanding of what resources actually are.  Humans aren’t like reindeer on an island who die out after eating up all the food.  Most animals are unable to manage the resources around them.  (Though those other farming species ARE fascinating.)  But for humans, resources are a function of raw materials and technology.  Innovation is what drives increases in efficiency or even entirely new classes of resources  (i.e. hunter and gatherers couldn’t make much use of petroleum).  So in fact we are always widening the available resources.

I don’t believe we are in some Dream Time, when humans have a strange abundance of resources, and that we are doomed to grow our population until we reach a miserable Malthusian equilibrium.  It’s well understood that human fertility goes down in advanced (rich) cultures and is more highly correlated with female education than food production.  Humans seem to be pretty good about reigning in their population once they are educated and healthy enough.  There is some concern about fertility cults like Mormons and Hutterites, but time isn’t kind to strange cults.  Alexander himself points out that their defection rates are very high.  It’s not fun taking care of so many kids, I hear.  

I don’t believe we are in some Dream Time, when humans have a strange abundance of resources, and that we are doomed to grow our population until we reach a miserable Malthusian equilibrium.  It’s well understood that human fertility goes down in advanced (rich) cultures and is more highly correlated with female education than food production. … Actually, innovation might just be a function of population, so the more people we have, the more innovation we will have.  Innovation (and conservation) will always expand the resources available to us.

But actually, innovation might just be a function of population, so the more people we have, the more innovation we will have.  Innovation (and conservation) will always expand the resources available to us.  It’s foolish to think that we have learned all there is to know about manipulating matter and energy or that we will somehow stop the trend of waste reduction.

But a more interesting point to consider is that art, music, philosophy, and love actually make cultures MORE competitive.  The battlefield of evolution is littered with “merciless killing machines” who have been conquered by playful, innovative humans.  This has been my most surprising insight as I examined my objections to Alexander’s Moloch or Hanson’s Dream Time.  In fact, it’s the cultures with art, philosophy, and love that have utterly crushed and destroyed their competitors.  And the reason is complex and hard to see.  Surely art and love are facilitators of cooperation, which allows groups to cohere around shared narratives and shared identities.  But Hanson and Alexander are dismissing these as frivolous when they actually form the basis of supremacy.  Even unstructured play is probably essential to this process of innovation that allows some cultures to dominate.  Madeline Levine has a lot to say about this.

Alexander alludes to this poem by Zack Davis that imagines a future world of such stiff competition that no one can indulge in even momentary daydreaming. … But a more interesting point to consider is that art, music, philosophy, and love actually make cultures MORE competitive. … In fact it’s (these) cultures that have utterly crushed and destroyed their competitors.

Alexander alludes to this poem by Zack Davis that imagines a future world of such stiff competition that no one can indulge in even momentary daydreaming.  But this is a deeply flawed understanding of innovation.  Innovation is about connecting ideas, and agents that aren’t allowed to explore idea space won’t be able to innovate.  So daydreaming is probably essential to creativity.  In rationalist terms, Davis imagines a world in which over-fitted hill climbers will dominate, when in fact, they will all only reach local maxima, just as they always have done.  They will be outcompeted by agents who can break out of the local maxima.  It’s especially ironic that he uses contract drafting as an example where each side has an incentive to scour ideaspace for advantageous provisions that will still be amenable to the counterparty.

It’s strikes me as very odd to think that human values are somehow at odds with natural forces.  Alexander brings up how horrible it is that a wasp would lay its eggs inside a caterpillar so that it’s young could hatch and consume from the inside out.  Yet, humans lovingly spoon beef baby food into their toddler’s mouths that is derived from factory farm feedlots, which are so filthy that some cows fall over and can no longer walk, but are just bulldozed up into the meat grinder anyway.  So much for tender human sensibilities.  This might be a good example of where sociopaths can play a role in the population dynamics.  A few psycho factory farmers can provide food for the vast squeamish billions who lack the stomach for such slaughter.

Because really, love conquers all, literally.  Alexander overlooks this:

But the current rulers of the universe – call them what you want, Moloch, Gnon, Azathoth, whatever – want us dead, and with us everything we value. Art, science, love, philosophy, consciousness itself, the entire bundle. And since I’m not down with that plan, I think defeating them and taking their place is a pretty high priority.

In fact, the universe has been putting coordination problems in front of living organisms for  billions of years.  Multicellular organisms overcame the competition between single cells, social animals herded together to survive, and humans harnessed art, science, philosophy, and maybe even consciousness, to take cooperation to a whole other level.  Far from being a strange weak anomaly, cooperation in all its forms is the tried and true strategy of evolutionary survivors.  Alexander makes an allusion to this at the end of his essay when he mentions Elua:

Elua. He is the god of flowers and free love and all soft and fragile things. Of art and science and philosophy and love. Of niceness, community, and civilization. He is a god of humans.

The other gods sit on their dark thrones and think “Ha ha, a god who doesn’t even control any hell-monsters or command his worshippers to become killing machines. What a weakling! This is going to be so easy!”

But somehow Elua is still here. No one knows exactly how. And the gods who oppose Him tend to find Themselves meeting with a surprising number of unfortunate accidents.

No one is sure how Elua survives?  Well, it’s clear that multicellular organisms outcompete single-celled organisms.  The cooperative armies of the early civilizations defeated whatever hunter gatherer tribes they came across.  The nonviolent resistance of India ended British rule, and the Civil Rights movement in America mirrored that success.  Modern America has drawn millions of immigrants in part due to its arts and culture, which are known around the world.  Coordination is a powerful strategy.  Love, art, and culture are all tools of coordination.  They are also probably tools of innovation.  If creativity is drawing connections between previously unconnected concepts, then having a broader palette of concepts to choose from is an obvious advantage.  

Love, art, and culture are all tools of coordination.  They are also probably tools of innovation.  If creativity is drawing connections between previously unconnected concepts, then having a broader palette of concepts to choose from is an obvious advantage.

Cooperation has certainly evolved, and so have human values.  I am with Pinker on this.  Alexander prefers to quote esoteric texts in which time flows downhill.  But in Pinker’s world, we are evolving upward.  Why not?  Life is some strange entropy ratchet after all, why not just go with it.  But if our values are tools that have evolved and are evolving, then it doesn’t make sense to lock them in place and jealously protect them.

Alexander is a good transhumanist, so he literally wants humanity to build a god-like Artificial Intelligence which will forever enshrine our noble human virtues and protect us against any alternative bad AI gods.  I can’t really swallow this proposition of recursively self-improving AI.  My most mundane objection is that all software has bugs and bugs are the result of unexpected input, so it seems impossible to build software that will become godlike without crashing.  A deeper argument might be that intelligence is a network effect that occurs between embodied, embedded agents, which are tightly coupled to their environment, and this whole hairy mess isn’t amenable to instantaneous ascension.

But I will set aside my minor objections because this idea of fixed goals is very beloved in the rationalist scene.  God forbid that anyone mess with our precious utility functions.  Yet, this seems like a toy model of goals.  Goals are something that animals have which are derived from our biological imperatives.  For most animals, the goals are fairly fixed, but humans have a biological imperative to sociability.  So our goals, and indeed our very desires, are subject to influence from others.   And, as we can see from history, human goals are becoming more refined.   We no longer indulge in cat burning, for example.  This even happens on the scale of the individual, as young children put aside candy and toys and take up alcohol and jobs.  An AI with fixed goals would be stunted in some important ways.  It would be unable to refine its goals based on new understandings of the universe.  It would actually be at a disadvantage to agents that are able to update their goals

If we simply extrapolate from historical evolution, we can imagine a world in which humans themselves are subsumed into a superorganism in the same way that single-celled organisms joined together to form multicellular organisms.  Humans are already superintelligences compared to bacteria, and yet we rely on bacteria for our survival.  The idea that a superintelligent AI would be able to use nano-replicators to take over the galaxy seems to overlook the fact that DNA has been building nano-replicators to do exactly that for billions of years.  Any new contestants to the field are entering a pretty tough neighborhood.

So my big takeaway from this whole train of thought is that surprisingly, love and cooperation are the strategies of conquerors.  Daydreamers are the masters of innovation.   These are the things I can put into effect in my everyday life.

So my big takeaway from this whole train of thought is that surprisingly, love and cooperation are the strategies of conquerors.  Daydreamers are the masters of innovation.   These are the things I can put into effect in my everyday life.  I want to take more time to play and daydream to find the solutions to my problems.  I want to love more and cooperate more.  I want to read more novels and indulge in more art.  Because, of course, this is the only way that I will be able to crush the competition.

Effective Altruism: How to Give Money Directly to the Poor

give-directly

Effective Altruism is the idea that charitable giving should actually produce measurable results.  It’s an evidence-based approach that is supposedly in contrast to more conventional charities.

I attended the 2014 Effective Altruism Summit, and here is what I learned.  Effective Altruism is the idea that charitable giving should actually produce measurable results.  It’s an evidence-based approach that is supposedly in contrast to more conventional charities.  Some people have told me that large groups like the Gates Foundation do demand evidence of efficacy when funding projects, so it’s not clear how different Effective Altruism really is.  Apparently Peter Singer is a big promoter of this movement, but I haven’t read his work. One of the other attendees suggested that I start with Singer’s essay entitled: Famine, Affluence, and Morality.

I have been fairly successful in my career, but one thing I do feel that I am lacking is meaning.  I feel that giving to help people in need will actually help my own well-being by adding more meaning to my life.

I am attracted to this idea of measurably effective giving because I feel that I have been fairly successful in my life, but I have been failing to give back enough.  I have been very influenced by Seligman’s PERMA model when considering my own self-actualization.  PERMA is an acronym describing well-being.  It encompasses Positive emotions (happiness), Engagement (state of flow), Relationships (social life), Meaning (involvement in things greater than ourselves), and Accomplishment (success).  I am not really a very happy person (I suspect I’ve always had a more active right prefrontal cortex.), but I do find my work engaging and I have some decent relationships.  I have been fairly successful in my career, but one thing I do feel that I am lacking is Meaning.  I feel that giving to help people in need will actually help my own well-being by adding more meaning to my life.

I heard about the Effective Altruism movement at various rationalist meetups and also at CFAR.  I have been very inspired by the many bright people in these communities that truly hold the greater good as their highest life goals.  I have met many gifted folks who feel obligated to apply their talents to having a positive impact on the world.  I often feel humbled when I compare their ambitious and noble sentiments to my own narrow self-interest, and I am grateful to them for providing a model of altruism and service which I can strive to emulate.  Of course there are always murmurings from the Dark Enlightenment fringe that perhaps seeking the greater good is not the the most virtuous goal.  But I haven’t been turned to the dark side yet and remain in light for the moment.

One of the most influential Effective Altruism organizations is GiveWell, which evaluates charities to find the ones that that are “evidence backed, thoroughly vetted, and underfunded.”  I  heard about this group a couple of years ago and have previously donated to the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, which focuses on deworming efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and is still a top-rated GiveWell charity.  I had no idea that intestinal worms were such a problem and that it was so cheap to treat.  I guess it stands to reason that folks won’t be able to work or go to school if they are too sick from parasitic illness.

Currently, GiveWell’s top rated charity is GiveDirectly, which donates cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda.  They give recipients a single lump sum (equivalent to about 1-year’s income) and allow the recipients to spend the money any way they see fit.

Currently, GiveWell’s top rated charity is GiveDirectly, which donates cash directly to poor people in Kenya and Uganda.  They give recipients a single lump sum (equivalent to about 1-year’s income) and allow the recipients to spend the money any way they see fit.  I was initially attracted to this idea since it lacked the paternalistic quality that most charities have.  The mechanism of cash transfer is M-Pesa.  I gave a small amount earlier this year, but when I saw Paul Neihaus’ presentation, I was completely blown away.  I had no idea how rigorous GiveDirectly’s methodology was.  The most impressive thing to me was the fact that GiveDirectly conducted a preregistered Randomized Controlled Trial to test the effectiveness of their giving.  This is basically the gold standard of research, and many academic studies don’t meet this level of rigor.  The study confirmed the following benefits of GiveDirectly’s program:

Transfers from GiveDirectly have large, positive, sustainable impacts across a diverse set of outcomes, including:

  •  Assets, with recipients increasing asset holdings by 58% primarily through investments in livestock and home improvements (including iron roofs)
  • Business and agricultural income, with income gains implying a 28% annual rate of return on transfers
  • Expenditures, with increases in nearly every category, but not tobacco, alcohol, or gambling
  • Food security, with a 42% reduction in the number of days children go without food
  • Mental health, with large reductions in stress and depression and increases in life satisfaction, as measured using validated psychological scales

The study also found no evidence of impacts on crime, conflict, or inflation.
–http://www.givedirectly.org/evidence.php

One detail Niehaus noted in his presentation at the EA Summit was that domestic violence was reduced and recipient’s cortisol levels actually went down.  This is just amazing to me.  It’s one thing to give people a self-report questionnaire asking how stressed they are, but actually measuring this physiological marker for stress provided even more evidence of a benefit.

thatched-roof-hut-kenya

A simple way to identify the poorest people who are most in need is that they tend to have thatched vs. metal roofs.

I can’t emphasize enough how truly impressed I was by GiveDirectly’s methodology.  They are extremely transparent and actually track the number of bribes paid by recipients in the process of receiving the cash.  This is an extremely hard-nosed and realistic thing to track…

I can’t emphasize enough how truly impressed I was by GiveDirectly’s methodology.  They are extremely transparent and actually track the number of bribes paid by recipients in the process of receiving the cash.  This is an extremely hard-nosed and realistic thing to track, and Niehaus suggested that few other charities are tracking this sort of information.  GiveDirectly also makes excellent use of technology.  In Kenya, they use a service called M-Pesa, which is a mobile phone based way to transfer money.  They pay a lot of attention to fraud prevention and have several high tech solutions for this.  They discovered that a simple way to identify the poorest people who are most in need is that they tend to have thatched vs. metal roofs.  GiveDirectly used satellite imagery to help validate eligibility by having the images judged cheaply via Mechanical Turk.  Their data entry procedures are also first rate, and include geotagged timestamps for every data point as it’s collected in the field.  This also helps cut down on fraud.

It’s interesting to hear stories about how the money is spent.  The payments are in one big chunk deliberately, so that people can make real investments.  One person built a fish pond, another bought a power saw and set up a business cutting wood for hire.

It’s interesting to hear stories about how the money is spent.  The payments are in one big chunk deliberately, so that people can make real investments.  One person built a fish pond, another bought a power saw and set up a business cutting wood for hire.  All sorts of little livelihoods were launched, from musicians who bought guitars to earn money playing in clubs, to a person who bought a motorbike to taxi folks around on.  As Niehaus pointed out, there is no charity donating power saws to the poor, and not every person would be inspired to set up a sawing business.  But giving a chunk of cash to each person allows them to turn their own skills and inclinations into vocations for themselves.  This is not something that could have been planned from above.

As impressed as I was by GiveDirectly, I must say that I was surprised that their presentation was in a side room, while a CFAR presentation was given in the main theatre.  If this was a principled decision, it suggests that the organizers have an interesting philosophy.  They appeared to privilege the importance of CFAR, which teaches rationality techniques to high functioning first world people, over GiveDirectly, which is helping some of the poorest people in the developing world.  This is an interesting proposition that seems to mirror Peter Thiel’s thesis that innovation is more likely to save the world than globalization.

Thiel’s general thesis is hard to argue with, the world clearly needs huge innovations in energy, water, and food to support the world’s burgeoning middle classes.  Innovation is more frequently driven by highly functional developed world people than low functioning developing world people, so I can see why Thiel would want to invest here.  But I will say that this bet is a long shot.  It’s much harder to throw money at the innovation problem.  I attended a CFAR workshop and have a great deal of respect for their team and their approach, but it’s very hard to estimate how much world saving innovation will be created by each dollar donated to them.  Risk averse turtle that I am, I prefer the sure bet that my cash will directly improve the lives of people who are the worst off.

Ephemerisle 2014: An Intentional Community on the Water

ephemerisle-night-lights-on-water

Photo by Matt Bell

Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms… Though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.

I attended Ephemerisle for the first time this year, and it was quite an amazing experience.  Ephemerisle is sort of a floating community set up in the Sacramento Delta, comprised of several “islands” that are formed by joining together houseboats and floating platforms.  I understand this sort of thing is also known as a raft-up.  This event was originally conceived by seasteader Patri Friedman, and though it resembles more of a floating Burning Man, it still retains some of that libertarian seasteading flavor.  I found myself in several friendly arguments about the overreach of governments. (Though I have yet to hear a convincing libertarian story on how to handle externalities.)  One fellow joked that the original idea was to promote seasteading by moving this floating party from the delta, out to the bay, and finally to the ocean, where it would attract folks from far and wide just to the enjoy the freewheeling celebration.

I was bunked on the big island of Titan, known as the authoritarian party island, since this island had rules(!) such as wearing a safety whistle and having a life vest handy.  Risk averse nerd that I am, I was more than happy to comply with rules bent on keeping me alive.  Titan’s party credentials were sealed by its huge floating dance floor and DJs blasting electronic music late into the night.  Every night.  Until sunrise practically.  Which was challenging for me since I am not generally a party animal.

I have never been to Burning Man, and I do love my comfort, but I decided to take the plunge and attend Ephemerisle this year as an experiment in Comfort Zone Expansion.  I attended a CFAR workshop in June, and this was one idea that stood out for me: CoZE or Comfort Zone Expansion.  It’s the idea that we need to gather more data by trying new things.  CFAR’s seminars generally rely on Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 model of cognition:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

System 1 is something of a pattern matcher, it needs a database of experiences to match against.  Trying new things expands that database and makes your intuition more powerful.  Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.

Thus, I found myself at Ephemerisle on a purloined bunk at 5 am for 5 nights in a row with music pounding in my ears, in spite of the ear plugs screwed tightly in place.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible…

Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that I was really purchasing a shared bunk, not a bunk for myself, when I signed up.  At 6’6”, I found that arrangement too cramped for my taste.  Luckily, the assigned sleeping was fairly flexible and I was able to locate ad hoc bunks each night to sprawl my gangly frame out on.

ephemerisle-panarama

Photo by Sean Dwyer

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

So what was this Ephemerisle thing?  It was certainly a dance party at night, and a hot, sunny boating vacation during the day, and a non-stop intellectual smorgasbord with insightful conversations to be had around every corner.  But one unexpected aspect of this trip that I hadn’t foreseen was the uncanny sense of community.

 Though the small circle of friends I had back in Buffalo who lived in shared housing was somewhat similar, I had the sense of living in a little village for perhaps the first time in my life.  There were about 150 people on the island most of the time, which is a nice comfortable Dunbar number.  When I woke up each day, I would go forth in search of caffeine and bacon, and, lo and behold, I was surrounded by other folks doing exactly that same thing.

I am used to quiet mornings by myself shuffling around my apartment making my own tea and breakfast while by girlfriend snoozes away in the bedroom.  But mornings on Ephemerisle were communal affairs.  I saw others around me pursuing the same morning goals and it felt … comforting.  Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.

Modern life is so isolating with each little nuclear family tucked away, separate from all the others.  It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.

 It’s a warm, inclusive feeling to share experiences with your neighbors.  Each evening at sunset, the entire population of Titan was up on the roofs of the houseboats, taking in the beautiful view, enjoying the golden hour together, socially.  It felt really natural and compelling.  We humans probably evolved in little groups about this size, and I love the neo-paleo idea of intentional communities like this.  We need to bring back the village and the shared community.  But these should be communities of choice rather than the forced obligation of villages in the past.  (Of course I would think that, being a liberal.)

So what else did I learn at Ephemerisle?

Being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.

 Well, being a Bay Area crowd, of course there were lightning talks, since we do love our talks.  At Ephemerisle these are called Memocracy.  Christine Peterson urged the women of the crowd to forsake the bad boys and give the good guys a chance by dating them for at least two months to give the oxytocin a chance to kick in.  Though she acknowledged the allure of bad boys and noted the common strategy of women marrying good guys and cheating with bad boys (cuckolding!), she warned of the dangers involved with that approach.  Good guy that I perceive myself to be, I fully concur with her sage advice.  Stay away from those players, you wise females, it’ll end in tears.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill… Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.

Divia Caroline Eden talked about TagTeach and operant conditioning.  She reiterated the idea that one should make as few errors as possible when learning a new skill.  This was non-obvious to me at first, but was also touched on by Michael Valentine at the CFAR workshop.  It made more sense to me when I considered that you shouldn’t practice making mistakes.  Thus to learn a task, Divia recommended breaking it down into the smallest blocks possible and focusing on precision before speed.  She suggested that if you can’t perform a task in the first two or three attempts, to make it simpler.  I hadn’t heard her speak before, but she seemed very knowledgeable on this topic.

All the talks were quite interesting, but I will gloss over some others briefly.  Fellow QS’er Dan Dascalescu talked about a blood work service called Inside Tracker that recommends optimal supplementation based on your actual nutrient levels.  Conor White-Sullivan spoke on his passion for learning and being inspired by Ben Franklin’s Junto.  Randy Hencken spoke about the opportunities being explored by the Seasteading Institute and clued me in to some show called Silicon Valley that had a seasteading episode.  I have to check out any show with a character modeled after Peter Thiel.  A fellow from Honduras was promoting the opportunities for libertarians to experiment with new forms of government in Honduras’ new autonomous free trade zones.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction… (He) dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.

Bleys Goodson gave a talk on harm reduction, which I missed, but I did have a chance to talk with him and his thesis is similar to David Pearce, who also dreams of removing all suffering from the world, even to the extent of modifying ecosystems so that predators won’t need to prey on other creatures.  I had been skeptical of this approach, arguing that once we remove suffering, we will effectively narrow the full range of sensation.  It may even turn out that any state short of complete bliss will seem like suffering in this world.  To which Bleys effectively replied, “So what, that would be better than this world.”  I thought this over for a minute and I had to concede the point.  I really can’t argue against those who would reduce the suffering in this world.  It’s really a worthy goal that’s worth the trade-off of a compressed range of experience.

Of course I chatted with a bunch of tech people here and there.  I learned that there is a stealthy hierarchical social network platform being built called Urbit.  I heard about a distributed internet resource platform called MaidSafe.  One fellow made the misinformed claim that the Deep Web was resistant to government control, neglecting the fact that the NSA can tap all the pipes and capture data in transit, so it doesn’t matter if the websites you visit are indexed or not.  But it’s interesting to think about the fact that the majority of the internet is unavailable to search engines.

There was much discussion of leadership, and it was pointed out that leaders must not show fear or uncertainty, since we all mimic each other and it’s unhelpful for a team to mimic fear when undertaking a project.  I was reminded of a new age woo weaver, called the Visionary Activist, who asserted that:

We now know that the alpha wolf is the charismatic one who invites everyone in the pack into creative play. And you can identify an alpha wolf within 10 days of birth because it is the cub in the litter with the lowest resting heart rate. The calmest, coolest wolf turns out to be the most charismatic, the most fun.

I couldn’t actually find any supporting evidence for this “fact,” which appears to have been pulled out of some rear orifice, but I like the idea nonetheless.  I don’t like the idea of a domineering leader.  I am more comfortable striving to be a leader who invites allies into creative play.

I was also turned on to René Girard’s Mimetic Desire thesis, which suggests that desire is essentially social in nature, which fits into my conceptual framework nicely.  It seems to fit into the whole friendly AI question, and might give a clue as to how a group of agents with diverse desires could actually outcompete a single agent with static desires.  It also throws more cold water on hard individualism, which I will always delight in doing.

… There was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books… People read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.

Unlike a lot of events that I normally attend, there was much talk of poetry and music.  Jim O. coordinated a poetry reading and brought a wonderful collection of books.  I literally had tears streaming down my face as people read selections like Robert Frost’s Acquainted with the Night and ee cummings’ What of a Much of a Which of the Wind.  I learned that I truly admire the work of Wallace Stevens, who I hadn’t heard of before.  Joe B. shared poems like Six Significant Landscapes and The Man with the Blue Guitar.  And then there was the hilarious and apropos I’m a Modern Man by George Carlin, who might well have been mocking half the attendees at Ephemerisle.  Selections like Tim Minchin’s Storm, Circus Animals Desertion by Yeats, and Elizabeth Bishop’s Questions of Travel rounded out the reading.  I was remarkably moved by this moment of culture, and it reminded me that I haven’t read poetry in years, let alone heard it read aloud with strong emotions.  This is a deficit I look forward to correcting.

ephemerisle-dancing

Photo by Matt Bell

As for music, I learned that there is a genre called ElectroSwing, which proved to be quite popular.  It combines old-timey jazz with modern progressive beats, and I actually found that I could dance to it just a little bit, unlike the jarring DubStep that the kids like to spaz out to these days.  I asked around and the consensus was that Caravan Palace is one of the bands to definitely check out in this style.  Though there was a diverse range of tastes represented with some people preferring trap music artists like Dirty South Joe, 90s artists Fantastic Plastic Machine, and even modern harpist Joanna Newsom.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.

Now I want to address a sensitive topic that presented something of a moral dilemma for me.  A small number of women at Ephemerisle were topless or nude at certain times during the event.  (Some men were nude as well.)  Now, I would certainly never disparage public nudity at an event like this that has liberty as a core value.  But newbie that I am to these sorts of events, I had a difficult time dealing with it.  Given the puritanical and even prudish norms of American society, public nudity would be expected to trigger some amount of sexual arousal in onlookers.  I am willing to allow that different social norms have been established in communities like this and Burning Man.  Yet, I remain skeptical that at least some of the people that chose to be nude weren’t engaging in some sort of explicit exhibitionist sexual play.

Even if the nudists just wanted to feel free of arbitrary social constraints, that’s fine.  All of the participants at this event were well-behaved, and the only rumors I heard of unpleasant incidents involved party crashers who were quickly escorted off of the island.  I mentioned my discomfort at seeing these naked young women to a friend of mine and he reassured me that they wanted to share their beauty and there was nothing wrong with appreciating that beauty.  And that made me feel better to a degree.  But seeing a topless twenty-something woman hula-hooping or giving a lap dance to the judges in a cooking contest triggers more of a physiological response than some dispassionate admiration of beauty.  Really, even a young woman sitting topless and nodding along sagely as conversation turns to Federal Reserve policy strikes me as remarkably kinky. 

The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

I’m the first to admit that I am being a prude here.  When Christine Peterson notes the attraction that women have for bad boys, the converse should also be noted.  Men are often attracted to bad girls as well.  Esther Perel points this out in her excellent Ted Talk on maintaining the spark in long-term relationships.  The forbidden is erotic.  Transgression makes desire more potent.  The most obvious moral dilemma I ran into was this: At what point does a forty-something like myself cross the line into perversion by ogling naked women in their twenties?  Regardless of how the Ephemerisle community may view this sort of thing, I don’t want to think of myself as a dirty old man.  I subscribe to virtue ethics in these scenarios.  Style and character matter.

And yet when faced with a moral challenge, I had a remarkably difficult time resisting the urge to look at these nude women.  I had the slightly unpleasant experience of struggling for control of my own involuntary physiological responses.  I will grant that this dilemma would have been greatly reduced if more of the nude women had been my own age.  (Is Generation X more modest than Millennials?  You sure won’t see me getting naked in public any time soon.)  Large age disparities equate to large power disparities, which I find ugly in any relationship.  There is a beauty to symmetry in relationships.  And this is where I realize that the sexual play between a voyeur and exhibitionist inherently lacks symmetry, even when the ages of the participants are comparable.  The arousal of the voyeur simply cannot be reciprocated by a exhibitionist exposing herself to a large group.  So yeah, I guess I am going to be a stick-in-the-mud on principle here.

And, of course, bringing this discussion home to my girlfriend of 17 years led to some fairly passionate discussions.  She’s quite a jealous person, so we had to work hard to come to a mutual agreement on the matter.  In the end she conceded that it’s unreasonable for her to expect me not to ever be attracted to other women, and that we both value honesty enough to deal with the consequences of talking about it.  For her part, she acknowledged feeling undervalued by a society that places such a premium on the youthful beauty of women.  But she dresses very androgynously (a throwback to when her queer sister used to help dress her), and she learned that showing off her figure a bit more will garner more attention from both men and women, which I don’t have a problem with, so this was a productive crisis for both of us.

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle… I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections…

Overall, I was deeply impacted by my experience at Ephemerisle. It certainly far surpassed any expectations I had about Comfort Zone Expansion.  I came out of it with a renewed interest in intentional communities, a newfound love of boating, a new favorite musical genre (ElectroSwing!), a whole plethora of new ideas to explore, a greater capacity to gracefully deal with public nudity, and really many new social connections, because I met some amazing people that I look forward to getting to know better in the future.  I want to extend many thanks to all of the people who worked so hard to make this event happen, it really was a transformational experience for me.

Liberals Should Defend Marriage

two-birds

Nope, I’m not talking about gay marriage, but I will come back to that.  I am actually talking about contraceptives.  Let me explain.  See, I have been mulling over the implications of Haidt’s moral foundations, which suggest that some of the cultural impasse we face in America is due to liberals and conservatives valuing some moral foundations differently.  For instance, conservatives value loyalty much more than liberals.  But Haidt’s overall point is that both sides should stop demonizing each other and recognize that the other side does have a moral compass, just one that is calibrated differently.

I have an old friend from my Buffalo days, let’s call him Al for the sake of this argument, who frequently beats up on conservatives.  Al is a good liberal and solid atheist and I have always tended to agree with his injunctions against the right.  Responding to the recent Supreme Court decision in which companies are allowed to exercise religious views, Al pointed out that conservatives seem to hate the idea of consequence-free sex, and this gave me pause.  It sounds plausible, if damning, on the surface of it.  But then I considered how Haidt would respond, and I tried to find a way to justify this position.  After all, I know smart, rational conservatives here in the Bay Area, and they often make the case that liberal values tear apart our traditional social fabric.  Normally, I would say, “Eh, no great loss if they do,” but I decided to seriously entertain this idea.

So I thought, “Ok, in what way is ‘consequence-free sex’ bad?”  And it occurred to me that contraceptives actually help undermine the institution of marriage.  Consider this: In the absence of contraceptives, women will inevitably end up with children.  Marriage has value for women in this scenario since it offers a committed partner who is contractually obligated to help care for the child.  Now that we have contraceptives, marriage arguably has lost this particular advantage.  A woman doesn’t need to have children if she doesn’t want to, and thus won’t need marriage for that benefit.  And I thought, “Huh!  That was unexpected.” 

The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Yes, we need contraceptives because they grant us freedom and prevent unwanted pregnancies, which are devastating for both mothers and children.  It’s ridiculously unrealistic to expect humans to simply refrain from sex.  But who cares?  What is the actual value of marriage?  Well, it turns out that marriage as an institution provides surprising benefits.  The most universal and compelling benefit of marriage is that married people are healthier and live longer.  Married men do benefit more than married women, but women enjoy some longevity benefits from marriage too.  So this is a desirable, but perhaps non-obvious, outcome of marriage that helps everyone.

Of course there are other benefits.  Single women are poorer that married women, so women seem to get some economic benefit from marriage.  Ensuring women equal pay might nullify this. Interestingly, men and women who have a partner that does the housework actually make more money.  Again the effect is more pronounced in men, probably due to wage inequality.  In addition, children born out of wedlock have much worse social outcomes, such as cognitive problems and aggressive behavior.  Of course the causal arrow might be backward here since it’s been shown that higher IQ* people are more likely to have long-term relationships.

I am not married myself and my feminist girlfriend cites patriarchy as the reason.  We have lived together since 1997, and we would be married by common law in other states.  I certainly don’t want to try to shove marriage down the throats of women, let alone feminists.  But since marriage has all these social and health benefits for everyone involved, it seems that we should try to find non-coercive ways to reward marriage using positive reinforcement.  (Negative reinforcement simply doesn’t work.)  So perhaps we could offer real tax breaks to married couples or something.

Also, my girlfriend believes that monogamy can be a stifling thing after many years together.  (In fact her conviction makes me a bit suspicious.)  But seriously, I am sympathetic to this point of view, and it seems that the old French tradition of older married couples having discrete, outside liaisons might be promoted to counteract this problem.  I find it silly when I see older couples breaking up over a sexual indiscretion, casting aside relationships that took decades to forge. 

It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Correct me if I am wrong, but liberals don’t seem to be very interested in programs to promote or bolster marriage as an institution.  And this brings me to the larger problem: It seems that conservatives often use crude, outdated tools to try to fix social problems, and the liberal response is to attack the tool and ignore the problem that still needs solving.

Sure, one could argue that fixing pay inequality and offering child care could solve a lot of these problems.  But those solutions don’t address the health or even the emotional benefits of marriage.  The state can’t really step in and serve as your personal life companion.  Economic policy cannot replace a committed partner who sticks with you to share your ups and downs, both offering you care and someone for you to care for.  A reason to keep going, some deeper meaning in life.  Somebody slap me now, please.

Imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.

So yes, I will now assert that marriage is a Good Thing in its own right.  But imagine what would happen if liberals came out strongly in favor of this position.  I would predict that this would undermine the objections of conservatives to a lot of liberal ideas like free contraceptives or legalizing gay marriage.  Of course the frothing fringe will still stamp their feet in protest, but I would bet that the moderate middle and center right would be more disposed toward these liberal ideas if liberals could offer some ways to mend the social fabric.

My friend Al berates me for suggesting compromise with these irrational people that believe in the imaginary man in the sky.  But I assert that my approach actually disarms religious solutions, such as making it harder to get contraceptives, by offering an alternative.  I actually do agree that liberal values undermine tradition and the old social order.  That’s generally a good thing.  But conservatives rightly point out that this disruption causes some problems that were previously solved by institutions like marriage.  It would be in everyone’s best interest to heed these concerns and work together to find solutions, instead of just ignoring the problems.

* For people who oppose the idea of an IQ (intelligence quotient), I am perfectly happy to replace that term with “obedience quotient.”