The Star Chamber, Cancel Culture and Living for the Bench

“By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?” …

…Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

-Gina Kolata, “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus.” The New York Times. April 8, 2021.

The Star Chamber was an English court that was “originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded,” according to Wikipedia. It strikes me as an apt phrase to indicate received opinion and how power is used to enforce conformity, where there is often an inverse relationship between how much deviation and the power applied to deviants.

When I read about The Star Chamber, the analogy to Twitter was obvious. Of course, there are relevant differences too. For example, while both serve as a kind of extra-legal enforcement mechanism, the Star Chamber was a sanctioned institution populated by legal professionals, whereas Twitter is closer to a mob.

There’s a tension. On one hand, society needs some kind of mechanism to hold the powerful into account. On the other, this mechanism tends to get out of control and used arbitrarily.

A think one way of thinking about how it should be used is the same rule that makes for comedy. You need to punch up, at the rich, the powerful, or the famous. But, if your comedy is targeting the weak or defenseless, then it isn’t really comedy.

Same goes for the checks on the powerful. If it’s moving in to act on the weak, then it’s not really doing its job, and the critiques of “cancel culture” are on point.

But, I think the real nuance comes in with people that are different. People can be different, and not necessarily weak. Perhaps they have a different focus, like Dr. Kariko living for “the bench”. A think a real sign of a strength of a culture is how well variance is tolerated within niche communities of the larger culture. Among scientists doing bench top research, is there an effort to be inclusive of interests that lie outside of the mainstream?

All of which is academic. The people who are rich and powerful will make these decisions. What the general population thinks they “should” be doing is largely irrelevant to them. So, the question for each of us is what should we be doing? I think Dr. Kariko is one good answer. Focus on the things you care about and get by. Don’t get involved in the larger culture wars that sap your time and energy away from what you’d rather be doing.

On a slightly more broader level, I think it is a call for each of us to try to see where we can support people of divergent views, backgrounds, etc. because it is by fostering an environment where different perspectives can be expressed and supported that we create conditions better for human flourishing, which in turn helps for more flourishing communities – a virtuous circle.

Cryptocurrency Platform Cardano & Ada Coin

Disclosure: I own Ada. This is a condensed summary of what convinced me to start buying cryptocurrency, specifically Ada. I’m happy to share what I learned, but this is not investment advice. I don’t know you. I don’t know your situation. Cryptocurrencies are a speculative investment, and you could lose all your money. If that’s not something you can live with, then do something relatively safe, like invest in an index fund, a certificate of deposit at a major bank or U.S. Treasuries. Also, if you are making investment choices based solely on the suggestions of some random blog on WordPress, written by The Deity knows who, without engaging your own mind and taking responsibility for your own choices, then you deserve to lose all your money. Caveat emptor!

Cardano is an open source crypto platform that runs a decentralized public blockchain for the implementation of smart contracts. The native cryptocurrency, or coin, of Cardano is Ada. There are 45 billion Ada coins, something like 32 billion are in circulation at the moment. It is currently capable of 1,000 transactions per second, and with a future upgrade, it will be capable of millions, on the level of global payment systems like Visa. As a point of comparison, Ethereum and Bitcoin are both less than 20 transactions per second. It is also able to complete these transactions at a fraction of the cost of Ethereum and Bitcoin. But, the killer app for the Cardano platform is the Plutus integrated development environment (IDE) for smart contracts, which allows for programmers to write and “run end-to-end tests on their program without leaving the integrated development environment or deploying their [Haskell] code.”

All of these features will be available as of August 2021. Right now, the Plutus IDE is being tested for the August 2021 deployment. Once the new upgrades launch in August, there will also be a staking system that will allow holders of Ada coins to stake their coin in a pool that verifies the distributed ledger – a function that earns returns, a bit like interest or dividends. Cardano also has the capability of hosting other coins or minting new ones.

Right before Cardano launches, Ethereum will launch Eth2, which will move Ethereum to a proof of stake model like Cardano’s and introduce many of the same features. However, it won’t have is the integrated development environment Plutus. Ethereum also uses Solidity and Vyper programming languages to program their smart contracts. The criticism section from the Solidity Wikipedia page basically says that Solidity is a hot mess.

Compare Solidity to Cardona’s Haskell language, which is an industrial strength language used in cryptography algorithms, semiconducter design, and was used to formally verify an OS microkernel. As a functional language, it doesn’t have side effects. It has type-safe operators and type inference. Basically, it is powerful and has many features designed to cut down on bugs in the code.

Of course, Haskell has drawbacks. It’s hard to learn, and the universe of people that can code in it is relatively small to other programming languages. Depending on your use case, there are other problems as well. But, every choice implies trade-offs, and Haskell is a good language for the implementation of smart contracts.

If you wanted to implement smart contracts into your business workflows. The more money, the higher the stakes, the more likely you’ll be to want to make sure you are not going to have problems later. You’re going to choose the best option available, Cardano.

Ethereum will have more name recognition, as the second highest capitalized cryptocurrency. It’s smart programs will be easier to implement, and they’ll, more often than not, be good enough for a given purpose, probably one that isn’t mission critical.

The good news is that these two systems, and others that come down the pike like PolkaDot, will likely all work together and have different niches. To illustrate, Occum.fi announced a liquidity bridge between Ethereum and Cardano, designed to encourage fund transfer between the two systems, which suggests there could be a symbiotic relationship between them in the future?

Anyway, I think this is going to change the world. These are the two choices in smart contracts, at the moment. And, one has clear advantages.

The current price of Ada on Sunday night, April 11, 2021 was $1.28. You can buy Ada coin through Coinbase.com and most other cryptocurrency exchanges.

This is the video that sold me on Cardano, Plutus and Ada.

For a slightly longer discussion, see this recent Reddit thread.

No. 1 Rule: Keep Your Shit to Yourself

“A day before I sent Malcolm the email saying I wanted to break up, I came across a term online: solo polyamory. It described a person who is romantically involved with many people but is not seeking a committed relationship with anyone. What makes this different from casual dating is that they’re not looking for a partner, and the relationship isn’t expected to escalate to long-term commitments, like marriage or children. More important, the relationship isn’t seen as wasted time or lacking significance because it doesn’t lead to those things.”

-Haili Blassingame, “My Choice Isn’t Marriage or Loneliness.” The New York Times. April 2, 2021.

It starts with an email that reads like a PR piece for an event. It has talking points. She’s trying to sell it.

This piece seems to be generating a lot of discussion on Twitter, to the point I’m hearing about it, and I don’t use Twitter. And, sure, it’s sophomoric and stupid. You don’t break up with people you are in relationships with over email. She’s adopted the passive voice of the corporation to try to spare herself, and perhaps this man, some pain.

The effort is inept, but I think the heart of it is kind. They graduated from college, and they lived on opposite coasts. This man was her first boyfriend. They’ve been together for five years. While there are a few exceptions to how this plays out, the normal course is a breakup, typically within a year. This is obvious to anyone with any life experience.

Another thing that becomes obvious to everyone over time is that relationships are defined by limits. She says:

“My entire girlhood had been consumed by fantasies that were force-fed to me. Love and relationships were presented as binary, and in this binary, the woman must get married or be lonely (or, in classic novels, die). The path to freedom and happiness was narrower still for Black women. Even in our extremely loving relationship, I had felt confined.

ibid.

To be in a relationship is to be confined. But, it is through constraints that we open up other kinds of freedom. Infinite options are just another kind of confinement. At some point, you choose or time chooses for you. Even in polyamorous relationships, there are limits. In fact, I’d wager that there are more limits in polyamorous relationships simply by virtue of the fact that there are more people involved, even if those limits may not apply all the time. But, there are limits because relationships imply limits.

It’s easy to crack on the naiveté of the author of this article. But, there’s an important lesson to be learned. When you learn something new about yourself – your needs, your wants, your desires, your thoughts about who you are – keep it to yourself and the people that care about you, at least for a few years. Integrating insights is hard work, and it takes time, particularly when they are part of the process of identity formation and how we define ourselves.

In general, it’s a good idea to work with the garage door up, to share your thoughts and processes in how you think about the world and how you do whatever it is that you do. But, your feelings, your sense of identity and your issues, and we all have issues, are not where you do it.

When you close the door to go to the bathroom, everyone knows what you are doing in there. There’s no need to throw open the door and put yourself on display. It isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all yourself.

So, close the door. Keep that shit to yourself. Work it out. Flush when you’re done, and as a courtesy, light a candle or a match on the way out, so the person behind you can focus on their business and not yours.

Book Review | Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells | The Ultimate Reference Book For The Magical Arts | By Judika Illes

I love this book. It is one of my favorites in the occult section of my library. It is valuable as a practical and historical tool. The book is an excellent guide for the beginning as well as experienced witch. I have never seen another book that has so many spells.    Get this; […]

Book Review | Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells | The Ultimate Reference Book For The Magical Arts | By Judika Illes

Sometimes, I see something on WordPress that makes me think strange thoughts. A book of 5,000 spells? If I cast one spell a day, that would take me over 13 years to cast them all. Maybe I should just chose the top 365 spells and do it for a year? What would a year of spellcasting be like? In my mind, I become the sorcerer’s apprentice, except sure in the knowledge that no one is going to save me.

Ah, another life lived, in my imagination.

Possessed by Demons or Become Your Own?

It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in [Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch], because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings…

…Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.”

-Alan Jacobs, “It’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it.” ayjay.org. April 8, 2021.

Given the choice between being possessed by demons from some other culture or possessed by demons generated from one’s own, both are bad options, and your answer is probably determined by how much novelty you prefer. I think the more interesting question is whether you’d rather be possessed by a demon or become one yourself. Neitzsche hits on the point:

““Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Most people can’t imagine being (or that they are) a monster. So, this choice is really about one’s self-concept. Are you good? Then, you may be more willing to be possessed, so you aren’t responsible for acting like a monster. But, choosing to be a monster? The first casualty is conscience, and then the body count goes up from there. Still, it’s probably true most people, even good people, would rather be predator than prey. This fact probably explains a lot about the human condition.

People Aren’t Perfectable

“Progress is a possibility for the animal: it can be broken in, tamed and trained; but it is not a possibility for the fool, because the fool thinks he has nothing to learn. It is his place to dictate to others and put them right, and so it is impossible to reason with him. He will laugh you to scorn in saying that what he does not understand is not a meaningful proposition. ‘Why don’t I understand it, then?’, he asks you, with marvelous impudence. To tell him it is because he is a fool would only be taken as an insult, so there is nothing you can say in reply.”

-Eliphas Levi

“Telling the truth to someone who can’t understand it is tantamount to telling that person a lie.”

-Eliphas Levi

I’d go further than Eliphas and say this isn’t a problem just of fools. It’s a problem for the vast majority of humanity. It’s a rare person that is prepared to hear anything different than what they already think they know.

One of the things that most people seem to believe in is progress. In it’s most generic format, it’s doing well in school, getting a job, getting married, having children and so forth. If you look at it as a sequential timeline with markers to be hit, then it looks like progress. But, is it?

Let’s say we change the measuring stick to include various types of intelligence: analytical, emotional, social, psychological, et al. Are people that are older more advanced in these modes of intelligence?

Perhaps in some ways. It is probably true that, as we age, we refine out mental models for how the world works because we’ve done a lot of reality testing of different models and have found some that work much better than others. It’s probably also true that different social experiences have provided some depth in our ability to be graceful in a social setting, at least most people.

But, at the same time, it is also clear that there is accumulated damage that works against this notion of progress. Clearly, as we age, we become subject to a whole host of ailments that could probably be described as a general decline for most people after their twenties. For example, 20% of Americans aged 65 or older don’t have a single tooth. Or, 40% of Americans aged 80 or older have some level of dementia. Clearly, aging is not physical progress.

Does aging allow for other types of development? For example, does cognitive decline open up some other previous state, A Flowers for Algernon in reverse, where someone burdened with worries becomes care free? I’m sure it happens, just as I’m sure it happens only rarely.

When I think about the people I know, I don’t see strong signs of progress. I see a give and take, where certain qualities tend to be at a set point, which can be influenced, up and down, by effort, circumstances and other factors. But, I think the pattern I most commonly see is that people rarely change dramatically.

And, if we cannot make progress, what then of perfection? If only we were 10 pounds thinner, finally learned calculus, got in tune with our emotions, got the nose job or mole removed, found the “perfect” mate, won the lottery – you pick it, but it seems that a lot of people have notions about what is missing in their lives, and if they only had those things, their lives would be perfect.

Progress or perfection is probably a bad mythology to undergird our perceptions of the world with. Perhaps, it is time to accept the fact that we got dealt a hand, and it’s only going to get worse from here, a regression model, if you will. Then, we might think more in terms of maintenance, rather than perfectability, which strikes me as a better mental model.

Constraints Liberate, Liberties Constrain

Interesting throughout. Main points:

  • Build in abstractions, with symbols and functions.
  • Counter-intuitively, abstractions make precision possible.
  • The more expressive a language, the more ambiguous the content.
  • Or more generally, freedom at one level implies constraints at another level.
  • Plan for interoperability and extension, which also implies limits.
  • As much authority is necessary, but no more.
  • The more something can do, the less predictable what it will do becomes.
  • The more capable your syntax, the fewer semantics.
  • The larger the group, the less you can say about it and be accurate.
  • Don’t optimize too early.

If you aren’t a programmer, you might ask yourself: how is this applicable to me? And, I think the answer to that is that these are universal truths that programming, and perhaps math more generally, reveals about the larger world.

For example, when you have complete freedom to live your life in any way that you want, what do you choose? What ends up happening is that people don’t choose at all. Their lives become a series of accidents, which they accept and later rationalize as choice.

But, by imposing limits, which is a kind of choice, you can throw other choices into sharper relief. If you choose to be vegan, then that constraint effects a whole range of choices you might make from the food that you buy, restaurants you consider supporting, and even broader issues, such as your politics. You may, if you live in the United States, be unable to support either major political party since both support factory farming.

Or, perhaps you decide to adopt the religion of The Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. This implies ethics of peace, integrity, equality, and simplicity. These, in turn, might lead to other choices, such as non-violence protest, refusing to take oaths, working on freeing people in slavery in the modern world, or living on a certain level of income and avoiding participating in the money economy.

Or, you might decide to focus your efforts on becoming famous. That choice largely closes off the Quaker pathway, and vice versa. Although, perhaps if you limited your aspirations to fellow Quakers, it could be accommodated.

Constraints require making choices, but then, it opens up a freedom to choose within the context of those choices. This is obviously true in life, but so much so it is also easy to miss. A computer program makes the trade-off easier to see.

Sifting the Internet for Gold

“…which of my beliefs remain unchanged? What assumptions will remain in place? What trends will be accelerated, which delayed, and which stopped entirely? What do I care about that has become newly relevant, and what no longer matters?

-Toby Shorin, Drew Austin, Kara Kittel, Edouard Urcades, “Premonition.” subpixel.space. March 25, 2021.

Something about the phrase “lifestyle performance and participation” bugs me, but I agree with the thrust of the commentary, i.e.:

  • More culture is shifting online
  • It will continue moving away from giant aggregators like Facebook
  • Much of it will not be generally accessible, moving away from clear net to more private modes
  • Smaller communities, by definition, introduce more variance in behavior, that is, they are weirder
  • The death of retail will open up spaces for small culture and these small communities formed online will reconstitute themselves in meatspace, making meatspace downstream of online life
  • There will be a general flight from most cities as work-from-home becomes a legitimate optionThis will give birth to a new suburban culture

However, there are obvious places where they are wrong too. For example, retail is going to be devastated, but it isn’t because of a recession, it will be because they have been made redundant by online stores and to your door delivery that is already impacting general retail, pharmacy, restaurants and practically every other area of retail you can think of.

“More self-organizing friend groups and professional networks are using video calls and enterprise chat as a way to socialize. As a result, many individuals will suddenly begin to experience their interactions as content that can be public and monetized, and will feel more pressure to externalize their communications for an audience.”

Specialist physicians, for example, can create “journal clubs” and presentations for little cost for Continuing Medical Education credit, which will probably will help in the cross-pollination of practices and lead to better health care.

“We are still exiting an era of defunct political parties that are failing and fragmenting, and making our way into an era of discovery and realignment.”

Possible, but I think the existing political parties in the United States are a Coke/Pepsi duopoly that serves elite interests. It’s possible these new movements will be captured, but if it goes off in a truly new direction, you can be sure that the old guard will protect their lunch.

“The culture war between the East Coast and West Coast, which has been going on for some time, is now all but over. It has self-evidently been lost by the East Coast.”

About as right as saying the United States is declining and China is replacing it, which is to say there’s a surface truth here that falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

Some of the ideas here are truly horrible. A digital graveyard? Want to imagine what your digital grave is going to look in a century in a culture like the U.S. that doesn’t believe in filial piety or worshiping ancestors? One is the loneliest number, indeed. There is something deeply sad about wanting desperately to be remembered and the reality that very few of us will be. Personally, I think it is better to think about this moment, this life as “tears in the rain”, lost forever once it is over. The transience of it, of the moment, is what is valuable about it. We are thinking about this issue all wrong.

“Breathe. Read the air. We are all going online in a new way, and we will never entirely leave again. In this new era, cultural literacy is a baseline requirement for making technology, for making policy, for living and for dying. Squad up. The real knowledge work begins now.

Let me say, with all sincerity, “Fuck that.” I’m going to stick in my own little weird subculture of one, and while I take an interest in the broader culture, since it is fascinating, let’s also understand Sturgeon’s Law applies, i.e., 90% of it is crap. The real knowledge work isn’t cultural literacy, it is taste making. In the deluge of terrible that comprises much of the Internet, who can distill all of that dross and find the nuggets, the pearls? No one can find them all, obviously, but there’s gold in them there hills! Well, reader, it’s probably as good of a description of what I’m up to with the site as any.

New sites I learned about from the article:

  • Figma helps teams create, test, and ship better designs from start to finish.
  • Notion: One tool for your whole team. Write, plan, and get organized. So, maybe a Slack/Roam?

Mineshaft Magazine

“March 20, 2021 UPDATE:   Mineshaft #40, with beautiful Front & Back Cover art & design by R. Crumb, is at the printer & coming this Spring, 2021!!! PLUS new work by Robert Crumb, Sophie Crumb, Drew Friedman, Laure Boin, Bill Griffith, Christoph Mueller, Mary Fleener, Max Clotfelter, Robert Armstrong, Denis Kitchen, Rika Deryckere, Aleksandar Zograf, John Porcellino, a GIANT Letters section, Mineshaft Index (#31-40) & More!   Mineshaft #39 is HERE! Featuring out-of-this-world front cover art by Christoph Mueller & back cover art by Robert Crumb!   Many MINESHAFT back issues will be sold out soon…

Mineshaft Magazine is the closest thing I’ve seen to a 1960s style underground comics magazine that is still being published.