Charles Stross points out problems with bitcoin that I had never thought of and totally agree with

Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire, by Charles Stross

I've been pretty excited about Bitcoin, before reading this post, for a few reasons:

  • every time I thought about buying some, shortly after the price has skyrocketed.  If I hadn't been so anxious about doing it, and if I had cashed out immediately every time it doubled then bought back in after the next crash, I would have a reasonably larger amount of money than I have right now.[1. Astute readers may notice that there are two explicit, and one more implied, if in that sentence, as well as the dubious claim that my memory of when I wanted to buy Bitcoin is perfect and not at all distorted by confirmation bias.]
  • I really like the idea of a functional currency that's not dependent on any central storage location.
  • Infinite divisibility is built into the nature of Bitcoin, and I think that's an economic concept that's going to matter.[2. Not only am I not an economist, I'm not even reasonably experienced at guessing about economic theories.]
  • When I first heard about Bitcoin, I was significantly more sympathetic to libertarian politics than I am now.

It's embarrassing to open up a blog you really admire and discover a post viciously tearing apart something you'd previously thought well of.  I'm drawing attention to this one in particular because Stross's post not only totally changed my mind about Bitcoin,[3. I'm wary of sudden conversions of point of view in general, but this one seems more like a specific-application change to a broader, longer-term shift in views.] but helped dig up some of the libertarian political ideas that I hadn't realized were still hanging around in my head, being problematic and gross.

First and foremost, and the only one I have a huge amount to say about right now, the super popular internet-libertarian political view "Child pornography is a small price to pay for FREEDOM" -- You don't have to examine this view too deeply before dozens of things emerge that are horribly wrong with it, but there's a convincing surface-level argument in favor of it:  "You can't rule out a possibility just because it makes you feel gross" can be convincing if you don't look at it too hard, and can easily be enough to change someone's mind if they (Like I was at 19) are paranoid that they're not being intellectually rigorous enough.

By the way, just to make me feel a little less gross, here are some of the many problems with that argument: (a.) monitoring all the content on the internet and monitoring all exchanges of funds are hugely different levels of surveillance, and this case equates them; (b.) it dismisses the possibility of increased effectiveness by targeted surveillance, which is more possible with a monitorable currency; (c.) on this point the libertarian philosophy is self-contradictory:  it protects the rights of pedophiles and child pornographers to own and profit by their content, but not the rights of children to their likeness, bodily autonomy, or privacy; (d.) in the case of child porn, the squick factor is actually a pretty solid case.

Damn, this post got darker than I thought it was going to.  The stuff-I-used-to-think folder in my brain gets grosser every time I unpack it a little more.

Imaginary political arguments: the obligations of society to citizens

Sometimes I imagine myself arguing with Bill O'Reilly.  I'm bad at it -- I'm sure if I actually tried to defend my politics on his show I'd get owned.  (Not because he'd be right, but because he's a professional at making people sound wrong to his audience on TV.) I'm not trying to think through my actual views.  That's not the game.  The game is to come up with ways to use conservative presumptions about the world to force a conclusion that's similar in function to my beliefs, forcing an intellectually consistent opponent to agree with me.*

Today, I was imagining the responsibilities of the poor, and the idea of entitlement.  (I'm not going to try and actually write a back-and-forth with O'Reilly, that's a little more effort than I have time for today.)


If people in a society aren't entitled to anything, they cannot be expected to owe anything.  If we want to hold people responsible for anti-social behavior, we have to agree that there are things that pro-social behavior entitles them to.

Further, we can't blame people for anti-social behavior if pro-social behavior doesn't earn them enough benefit to outweigh the benefit of the anti-social behavior.

We can see this clearly laid out in the justification for the American Revolution.  I think it's safe to agree that war is an antisocial activity.  But we think of the American people as justified in rebelling.  Why?

Because the British government wasn't offering us enough to justify our pro-social cooperation.  We felt we could do better as a nation if we threw them off, so we did.

Now, America is an individualist nation.  We can't assume that we need to reach some sort of communistic agreement between all citizens before we decide whether disruption is appropriate or not.  Certainly, America started pursuing the revolution long before even a majority of Americans were on board with the idea -- even the debate and propaganda is anti-social, insofar as the social order is subjugation to the British crown.

So we can't say that rejecting the social order based on a notion of unmet entitlement is okay for the nation, but not okay for individuals.

Then, what entitlements are enough?

It can't be none.  That's absolutely clear:  if a person isn't entitled to anything from their government, then America has no justification in having rebelled.

It must at least include survival.  We can expect people to act in anti-social ways if it's the only way to get food and shelter, so if the government doesn't supply food and shelter or the means to get it, we can't expect anyone to agree to the legitimacy of that government.

And it must involve other protections as well:  if a person is threatened with violence or catastrophe, the government has to be ready to step in.  There's the police force and the fire department.  People would have to take up arms on their own, if there weren't an organized military.  So that's necessary.  And millions of examples have shown that people will do whatever it takes to get healthcare, so the government has to make that accessible.

Then, what do the people owe in return?

Well, first of all, taxes.  That's easy enough to agree to.  They also have to agree to pro-social behavior:  obedience to a code of laws.  But they are, in that case, entitled to a genuinely pro-social law code.  And those taxes can't reduce their resources to beneath a state of survival.

Do they have to agree to work?  That's one of the assumptions we definitely make in this dialogue.  People have to work if they want to earn survival.  But, then, working must always be an accessible option.  That means the government would have to step in to provide jobs for people without jobs.  An unemployment rate of above zero would be unacceptable -- people who couldn't find work would be morally justified in anti-social behavior.

And then, that work has to be good enough to meet a reasonable standard of living, or else it may be more profitable to prey on the cooperating citizens, which has better hours and probably a higher quality of life.  We know this to be legitimate because the American Revolution involved stealing 13 colonies worth of England's stuff.

So, we have: affordable housing, healthcare, and food, access to reasonably scheduled work at a living wage, either a guarantee of a job or a system of support for the unemployed,  and a just law code with good enforcement.

Anyone see anything I missed?


*Note: I know this doesn't work.  I realize that most political reasoning starts with the conclusion and the reasons are constructed to hold it in place.


I'm bored right now, so I've decided to ramble on a bit about postmodernism.  This isn't supposed to be a Treatise or anything, I'm just exploring my own thoughts.  There could be (there probably are) a huge number of things in this post that are horribly wrong. "There's no such thing as smurb."

Smurb is a word I've just invented. I've invented it because it's incredibly difficult to have a conversation about knowledge, objectivity, reality, or anything of the like, because people tend to come in with their own assumptions about what those words mean, and their assumptions tend to change faster than they can keep track of them.

Smurb means the experience, that humans have, where we experience actual insight into the unadulterated truth about reality. For an experience to qualify as smurb, it has to constitute an acquisition or unveiling of both (a.) truth and (b.) knowledge, it has to be verifiable -- that is, the person who experienced smurb must honestly know for sure that the thing they experienced was smurb, and smurb must be about a truth that Is, which means there can be no version of reality in which the subject of smurb might not Be.

Lots of people think they experience smurb. Plato's Idealism is entirely based on smurb. The notion of transcendence or numinous experience are notions of smurb. Some scientists believe that the process of experimentation is a mechanism for generating smurb -- and even more non-scientists think that's what scientists think they're doing.

When I say there's no such thing as smurb, I don't mean that the reality into which smurb provides insight doesn't exist. What I mean is, there's nothing in humans that makes us capable of having that experience, and there's nothing in the Reality outside humans that can penetrate into us to create that experience.

I've often heard people who've taken a lot of LSD explain to me that you can't truly know what color is until you've seen the colors LSD can show you. Personally, I've never seen colors that made me doubt the colors I see when I'm sober. In a casual sense, I'd say I know what colors are. These friends of mine would say that my experience of colors is inadequate, and that they know what colors are in a way that I fail to. Both of us could say that what we know of colors is smurb. Both of us would be lying, since color is nothing to do with the world outside people -- it's just a system our brains use for sorting visual data by light's wavelength. (Well, maybe not lying, but wrong. That's a different can of worms that I'd rather avoid today.)

I want to make it very clear: smurb is not the stuff outside people. Smurb is not the same thing as the noumenal world, or Plato's Forms, or Qualia. Smurb is humans' access to those things. To follow Plato's Allegory of the Cave, when I say there's no such thing as Smurb, I'm not saying there's no such thing as the sun -- I'm saying there's no way out of the cave.  (There are more problems with that allegory that I'm not in the mood for right now.)

The reason it's important to address this question is because, if there's no such thing as smurb, and people believe there is such a thing as smurb, people will take whatever experiences they happen to have decided are verified by smurb and bend the whole of their whole worldview around them.

I had about 350 more words after this point, but I think this idea is getting a little out of hand.  I'm going to call it here.  I may continue to use the word smurb in the future.

Nightvale, Lovecraft, Idea Channel, and an argument I had with one of my teachers today

We just got to the part of the history of western civilization in my Western Civ 1 class when Socrates shows up!  Yay... I shouldn't be totally surprised, but I was, that when we discussed Socrates, phrases like "Greatest philosopher ever" and "Still extremely relevant today" were thrown around.  I have some pretty strong contentions with that point, especially where Socrates fades into Plato, and the Western canonization of Essentialism and fundamental truths.

See, as the teacher told it, Socrates was the hero who freed Greece from the cynical Sophists, who believed there was no such thing as essential truth.  Now, I will grant that it's possible to get pretty cynical on that premise.  But I'm on the side of the Sophists -- at least, the ones who understood, if any of them did, that the point is humans don't have access to unrestrained truth, and that all we have to work with are narratives that are varyingly successful in describing and predicting the reality they attempt to describe and predict.

I brought this up with the teacher after class, and we had a fun discussion in which he asked me if I thought the Pythagorean theorem would go away if nobody knew about it, and I said "Yes."  The fact that triangles have certain relationships to themselves wouldn't, but the Pythagorean theorem isn't an insight into the core truth of the universe -- it's a narrative we use to arrive at certain among those truths.

Which is why it's pretty cool that today's Idea Channel decided to help me out by talking about H.P. Lovecraft, Welcome to Nightvale, and the huge problem most people have with accepting that some things just aren't knowable.  Whole video linked and embedded below, but I particularly want to emphasize this quote:

Philosopher Graham Harmon describes Lovecraft as a writer of gaps.  A gap specifically between what we understand to be possible, and what the characters are experiencing in the stories, expressed by the gap in the existence of something and the ability of language to accurately and appropriately describe that thing.

How Does Night Vale Confront Us With the Unknown? 

Here, I also want to throw out another Idea Channel video, Is Math a Feature of the Universe or a Feature of Human Creation?

There are totally people who believe math is a real thing, as Mike addresses above.  Personally, I think those people are nuts -- math is a narrative we use to describe things.  "Math comes from the human brain, and nowhere else."  Fictionalism ftw.

I will totally be sharing these videos with my professor.  But first!

The thing about essentialism, whether mathematical, Platonic, Christian, political, whatever -- (well, one of the things.  Well, one of the things, and the line about where it becomes and stops becoming a thing is fuzzy.  There's no real essential truth about essentialism.)  -- is that it encourages people to believe that everything should be relatively easy for humans to understand.

If we believe the Socratic claim that all knowledge is embedded in the human mind, and it just takes the right questions to unlock it, how do we ever understand Quantum Physics?  How do we even approach the question, "Can language even describe some things?"  How do we deal with incompleteness?

It also leads to a different, more cultural, problem: the danger of a single story.

In this point, I'm referring to an awesome TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a storyteller who grew up in Nigeria, embedded above.  The point I want to draw here is that the simplification of narratives that Essentialists pursue is not just wrongheaded, irresponsible, and doomed to fail:  it's also civilizationally corrosive and destructive.

Android's sentence suggestions

I think a lot about what it's going to mean when Google gets so good at predicting things about us that they really can finish our sentences. I think about it a lot when I'm texting, because sometimes when I'm in the middle of a text, the next word I was going to write pops up, so I click it.  Then the next one pops up, too, so I click that.  Then, a word that isn't the next word I was going to write, but is pretty close, pops up.  And I click that.

Once in a while, I get all the way to the end of the sentence I was going to write, and Google suggests a period, so I click that.  And I wonder, when Google gets better at predictive technology, when it's able to quickly and easily digest the entirety of

(a.) My history of online and textual communication

(b.) The recorded history of my relationship with the person I'm texting

(c.) The stuff I've been doing lately and my approximate mood and energy,

what's Google going to write?

Now, I don't think that Google is ever going to reach a point where it can perfectly predict everything I was going to say.  That's past superintelligent and into brain-scanning.  But I do suspect that eventually Google will hit a point where they have the technology to carry on a conversation as if it were me talking.  Or, a version of me.  The version of me that is averaged with the rest of Google-using humanity (which would notably skew white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, and so on) and then applied to this conversation.

Would Google Me swear?

Would Google Me be more insensitive to the people I care about?  Or less insensitive?

Would I risk drifting out of consciously experiencing my conversations?  If I'm busy or distracted, would I just autofill whole chats and read them later?  Or forget to read them later?  Or assume that Google covered the important points?

What's more likely, I think, is that Google will step a little too close to acting like this, and there will be a huge ick-factor backlash (which I think would be justified in that case) and they'd dial back the functionality of their service until it didn't make people question their humanity and individuality.

Some quick thoughts on experiences that resemble transcendence

I mentioned yesterday that I've been listening to loads of They Might Be Giants lately -- and I had an interesting experience.  I've listened to Don't Let's Start a whole bunch, and learned the lyrics so I could sing it to myself at work. So when I started listening to They Might Be Giants's self-titled album, eventually I got to the actual recording of Don't Let's Start again, which I hadn't actually heard in a while.  And it was... different, than I remembered.  It wasn't as good.  Not by a huge amount, but it wasn't as good.

And, after thinking about it for a while, it reminded me of an argument I had with my philosophy professor a while ago, in which I argued that transcendent experiences are entirely natural phenomena, and that it's not selling short the experiences to say that it's possible for the human brain to create them on its own, it's selling short the brain to say it can't have those experiences.

To which she responded that those experiences by definition don't count as transcendent experiences, because transcendent means having some metaphysical element.

I responded that, then, there's no such thing as a transcendent experience, and everyone who claims they've had one are mistaken, and actually had something else, that was exactly identical to what they think a transcendent experience should be like, except their brain can do it on its own.

This relates to music because:

I know that I've had something that, if not for that semantic argument, I would describe as a transcendent experience listening to Don't Let's Start.  And when I found out the actual recording wasn't as good as that, it didn't make me feel cheated, or bad, or wrong.  Because the experience still happened.

So, the fact is, stuff that does that definitely exists.  It's not that art is cheaper or less meaningful because it's imperfect and human.  The lesson of this story is that it's, like, way easier to give someone an experience that feels miraculous than I thought it was before.

Plato is not the god of science fiction

SourceFed's Movie Club is a great series.  Members of the SourceFed team get together and watch old movies, invite the audience to watch old movies, then make videos about them, in which they talk about those movies and play clips of other people's videos in response to the same movies. The latest one, which came out yesterday, is about the Truman Show.  It's a very good movie, and Elliot and Steve did a great job making a show about it.  I have no problem with them.

I do, however, have a problem with YouTube user "TheProfessor," who said,

Now it's one of the many films that takes its inspiration from the Greek philosopher Plato, and his Allegory of the Cave, basically challenging the idea of what we perceive to be reality.

No.  No, for frak's sake, no.  Plato did not come up with the idea of a veiled or false reality -- and, really, it's not that hard an idea to come up with.  It comes pretty naturally, if you work professionally in fiction -- which is lying to people about reality for a living.

The ideas "A lot of people don't really know what's going on" and "It's in the interests of some people for that to be a case" aren't the central points of the Allegory of the Cave.  The Allegory of the Cave is about Plato's concept of the Forms, a comprehension of a fundamental trueness embedded in reality that can be arrived at within one's own mind.  A person being lied to, even a person being lied to a lot, is not enough to make something a retelling of the Allegory of the Cave.

Here are some of the things that would need to be present in a movie to make a reasonable case that it's inspired by, or heavily based on, the Allegory of the Cave:

  • The false reality should be a falsehood based on a falsehood -- in the cave, it was shadows of sculptures.  (In the Truman Show, Truman has real, complicated relationships with people who both live a lie in relation to him, and genuinely care about him in some way or another.)
  • The world outside should contain metaphysical truths not present in the standard reality.  (If The Truman Show is an allegory for Plato's Allegory, Truman escapes from who knows what obscure falsehood, and makes it out into the cave, chained to the wall.)
  • There should be multiple, distinct phases of revelation, and those phases should each seem to be reality for a while.  (The Truman show does actually have this, but I bring it up because the standard Cave-remake example, the Matrix, doesn't.)
  • The other people in the 'cave' should be deceived, too.  (The Truman Show is sort of solipsistic -- Truman is the only person trapped in the cave.  All the other people actually are the shadows.  ...And the puppets.  And the real world.)

In connection, I want to quote YouTube user "ClassyLibrarian," slightly earlier in the video, who said,

The overall idea of the plot is incredibly interesting, it's one that's used so much in sci fi, in films and literature, of course the classic is Big Brother, you've also got the Matrix, the Adjustment Bureau, Dark City, which have similar themes, they're all very different but they all have that kind of similar feeling of not being in control of your own destiny, of trying to fight the outward destiny.

I quote this one because she mentions a lot of movies that often get compared to the Allegory of the Cave, and I don't think it's fair to do it with any of them.

When critics (or, more frequently, philosophers) insist that any given false world narrative is based on the Allegory of the Cave, they are doing a number of problematic things, including, but not limited to:

  1. Burying a worldwide, much longer, much richer historical tradition of false world narratives throughout the whole of art and culture, not just the Greeks after Socrates.
  2. Dismissing the ingenuity and presence in time of the creators of the work in question.
  3. Artificially inflating Plato's significance by giving him credit for stuff he had, really, nothing to do with.
  4. Feeding into the fundamentally flawed idea of essentialism, which, by the way, Plato played a huge role in popularizing, by suggesting that false world narratives are all versions of a sort of master false world narrative:  a 'Platonic' story, if you will.
    1. Buying into the idea that the minuscule handful of connecting details between any given story and all the other stories that have ever existed is more important than the particularly relevant, unique and culturally present aspects that give the art its meaning in its context.
  5. Being lazy.
  6. Being assholes.
  7. Pissing me, personally, off.

Writing stories in which things are not what they seem is not always, or even generally, a love letter to the Western-World champion in egocentrism.  There are other important stories that the artist could be referencing, if reference is a central part of the work, which it doesn't have to be.  Other people have, and will continue to, notice that we are frequently lied to by people with a lot of power -- shockingly, sometimes this happens even without a metaphor involving shadows, campfires, and the sun.

TL;DR: Stories in which people with a lot of power lie to people with not very much power are not always retellings of Plato's Allegory of the Cave -- even if there's a lot of science-fictiony or high-concept stuff in the plot.

rambling late night thoughts on free will

I watched a talk Daniel Dennett gave at Google on YouTube today, which touched on free will quite a bit.  And, since it's a half hour to midnight and I haven't been able to think of something to blog about all day, here are some of my thoughts on that subject: One of the big dilemmas about whether people have free will is that if we don't, we're not responsible for any wrongs we commit, because we couldn't possibly have acted differently, meaning it's unjust to punish people for anything.  But, Dennett makes the point, if we do have free will, but we believe we don't, we tend to act more morally irresponsibly, because we feel as though we haven't got any choice in the matter.

I assume that means the inverse is true.  So, the experience of the feeling of choice makes us better people, even if that feeling is just a part of the deterministic path between the stimulus of a morally significant event, and the response of a morally responsible 'choice.'

So, whether or not determinism is true, it's morally right (from a utilitarian perspective) to act as though free will exists, and promote the idea that free will exists.  And from a deontological perspective, if free will exists, then it's morally mandatory to tell the truth about it.  And from either perspective, if free will doesn't exist, there's no sense in which anyone can be held responsible for lying about the fact.

And, in the same case, I'm pretty sure the inverse is true.  If there's no free will, then you're not morally responsible for believing there's no free will, acting as though you believe there's no free will, or promoting the idea that there's no free will.  But if free will does exist, then acting as if it doesn't, and promoting the idea that it doesn't, is a moral failure.  This is true even if only you have free will -- in fact, it's especially true if only you have free will, because if everybody else is totally deterministic, then you have a moral obligation to them (as conscious beings that will experience the pleasure and suffering that their deterministic lives drag them through) to insert the stimuli that will maximize their collective wellbeing.

I realize this is kind of a Pascal's Wager argument for believing in free will, and it raises a question I don't really know the answer to:  is it automatically the case that you should believe something to be true, just because it's true?  Or are their situations where the thing that is true and the thing that it is morally preferable to believe is true are different?  (I say morally preferable because I can't think of any other area off the top of my head in which preference has a place in philosophy.)

Anyway, I do think that the best way to go about the free will question is to assume that you have free will, and that everyone else doesn't.  That way, you can assume you are wholly responsible for the moral consequences of the world, insofar as your influence extends, and you can get over the annoying habit some people have of assuming that because other people act like assholes means it's okay for them to act like assholes, too.