Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Post-Mortem

refactor camp 2018

Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding was a 2-day conference held in Austin Texas on May 12-13th 2018. The event featured talks, workshops, and breakout sessions focused on blockchain technology, the sociology of blockchains, and whatever other weird nonsense the speakers could come up with.

Our hope with this event was to “stretch the Overton window” a bit in terms of thinking about the implications and elements of blockchain technology and, in the Ribbonfarm tradition, facilitate some more speculative thinking and discussions than what happens at other cryptocurrency events.

Topics covered included:

  • Blockchain as Metaphor – Take some feature of a mature blockchain ecosystem and map it into another domain (e.g. Decentralization in urban infrastructure or.)
  • Sociology of Blockchain Geopolitical implications of blockchain
  • Magic, Ritual & Blockchain
  • Blockchain as an International / Multicultural Phenomenon
  • Crypto Econophysics

We were able to record most of the talks and have uploaded them to Youtube as well as embedding them below. Special thank you to all the speakers who took the time to prepare a talk. [Read more…]

Tarpits and Antiflocks

Computers used to be the size of buildings. Today my computer gets lost between the seat cushions. But two parts of the computer didn’t become a million times smaller and faster: the display and keyboard. They are the low speed, power hungry, monkey-compatible data ports. Our biology is holding us back.

Naturally, there are a hundred teams screwing around with every idea they can think of to connect directly to the brain. They are tickling neurons with magnets and brain monitors and even wires under the skull. They are training computers to pick up subvocal cues, theorizing about quantum tunneling, etc etc. Then they talk to journalists who put out breathless articles on “USB ports for your brain”.

The people who make fun of the dubious science in these projects are right. They also miss the point. Individually, each team’s approach is almost certainly wrong. But collectively they are doing the right thing. They are an antiflock, exploring a tarpit.

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Boilerplate

Most texts and speech utterances are produced on the spot, by a particular writer or speaker, translating meaning into a linear arrangement of words. The final products of this process tend to be amazingly unique: you usually only need to google a short string of words in order to find the single source that they come from. (Try it – you rarely need more than four or five words, even very common words, and a whole sentence is usually overkill.) How incredible that most short strings are never repeated! Meanings are repeated over and over, expressed in different ways, but their manner of expression varies. However, there is a class of texts and speech utterances that are interesting precisely because they are boilerplate: they are reproduced over and over, pretty much verbatim, by different writers and speakers.

One class of these texts is the chain letter: a document whose content implores the human reader to reproduce it (or to share it on social media). But some of the most widely copied texts and speech utterances do not themselves ask to be copied. These pieces of boilerplate language are copied verbatim for reasons outside the context of the texts themselves. For example, boilerplate language in legal contracts is included not because the language says “include me in your contracts or you will be visited by the Litigation Demon;” rather, they are included because specific linear arrangements of words have been judged in the past to have a specific legal effect. Historically, in contract law, it was difficult to tell when a late performance still counted as performance. Courts held that the boilerplate incantation “time is of the essence” demonstrated that a performance had to be on time to count, and that exact string words still makes its way into contracts in order to ward off claims that late performance is good enough. [Read more…]

Armpit Futures

I’ve long been on record as an August hater. Recently I decided that August will henceforth be known as Armpit, at least in my head. Armpit is the True Name of August; it is truly the armpit of the year. My greatest fear for the future is that it will be an Eternal August. I call such possible futures armpit futures. Listless, sweaty grey timelines where history just sort of runs out of narrative energy with a whimper rather than a bang, and settles into a shitty plotless equilibrium full of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men that everybody hates, but not energetically enough to do anything about. Sometimes, I think the explanation for the Fermi paradox is simply that it is August all the time, almost everywhere in the universe.

Anyhow, why is August, I mean Armpit, so bad?

Here’s the thing, besides all the obvious things wrong with it (ranging from listlessly ugly, enervated weather  to the ugly social calendar as documented in this David Plotz anti-August rant), Armpit is when people give up on the year. It is the month of abandoned hope. The inescapable liminal passage of refractory ennui you must get through before you can peel yourself off the floor (where you will have been lying sticky and facedown for 31 days) to take another swing at Destiny.

Through the end of July, which vaguely sounds like June and so vaguely feels like you’re still in the first half of the year with a shot at salvaging something, you’re basically fine. Armpit is when you realize it’s too late, but can’t do anything about it. In September, you can formally write off the year as a deadweight loss booked in Q4, reset your horizons and start thinking about the next year or seven.

But for the 31 days of Armpit, if you have a brain, you’re in that sweaty, muggy, hopeless, newsless, atemporal state of mild-to-medium existential despair that is not even severe enough to justify active intervention. Like airplane food that is just short of bad enough to complain about. Where eating it versus going hungry seem like equally bad options. You kinda just have to get through it. It won’t be good no matter what you decide.

Europeans and VCs in America try to put lipstick on the pig by collectively going on “vacation” but as Plotz argues, the good vacation month is actually July. Armpit is when you kind of just take a weak swing at pretending to be alive to keep up appearances, since it is not polite to act dead in the West. Adults have beach-time poisoned by dreading Fall Budgeting Bureaucracy. Kids have their last few weeks of vacation poisoned by looming schoolwork. Nobody is having a good time, and most people don’t even have the energy to pretend.

Anybody who is enjoying Armpit is either clueless, or powered by energy drawn from the dark dimensions. All signs of life in Armpit are hollow and fake, a case of civilizational premium mediocrity on display (not coincidentally, I wrote that post in Armpit last year).

Armpit is awful everywhere on the planet (even the southern hemisphere I suspect), and I think the reason is that it is the truest glimpse we get of the human condition. Yes, we’re most likely to end up in an armpit future, not a dystopian or utopian one. And Armpit is the one month of the year we cannot avoid facing that fact, like Sisyphus in the moment just after he summits and watches the rock wobble portentously.

September is the dawn of new hope. Even the Eternal September of the online world, despite the generally n00b-infested, culture-warring craptitude of it, is tinged with hope and demented stupid energy. October through July we have The Struggle, when we manage to steal a shred or two of dignity from the universe.

Other naturally bad months during The Struggle, like blazing-furnace-hot July and calamitously cold and depressing January, at least have interesting social action going on. Or present the kind of urgent stress you can feel good about tackling head-on and overcoming. The plot is moving along even if most people have lost it.

But Armpit? Pure zombie month. Not even a villain of a month. The entropic heat-death month of the calendar, during which Time may or may not choose to regenerate. Beating August doesn’t even feel like a win.

Enjoy your last week of July. As with every Armpit, there’s a small chance we’ll never come out of it, and end up in an Eternal August armpit future.

Quiver Doodles

I don’t know if this is still true, but I once read about exploited workers in the ship-breaking industry who were worked so hard, and paid so little, they could not even afford to buy enough calories to sustain themselves. They were slowly starving to death. I call this phenomenon entropic ruin, a generalization of the idea of gambler’s ruin to open-ended games that can be non-zero-sum and need not involve gambling. In this case, it’s a deterministic death march. If you systematically consume fewer calories than you expend long term, you will die a premature death.

Entropic ruin gives us an interesting way to measure the quality of a strategy. Here’s a 12-point reference scale based on the idea.  Entropic ruin is represented as a reference circle in all 12 cases. A bunch of arrows shows the set of activities that are trying to outrun ruin. I call the drawings on the scale quiver doodles (think of each as a quiver viewed from above).

Trivially, in the long term, we all face the ultimate case of entropic ruin, death, but what’s interesting about non-trivial cases is that you don’t even beat the house in the short term. So entropic ruin can be defined as predictably dying faster than you need to. No matter what you are doing, you can draw a little circle of entropic ruin around your activities. If you’re inside that circle, you’re heading for premature death.

If you have (or are generating) abundance on every resource you might need in relation to your goals, you don’t need a strategy. The circle can shrink to zero. This is the other end of the spectrum from entropic ruin: entropic flourishing. A wealthy person who is earning more in interest on their capital than they can spend in a day is an example. The scale is really more of a 6-point scale that zig-zags between entropic ruin and flourishing up 6 levels between complete chaos (Brownian motion) to complete order (laser beam).

If you’ve been through the ups and downs of enough projects, the 12 quiver doodles on the scale probably make intuitive sense to you, but let me offer a bit of additional explanation for those who need it.

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Hedonic Audit

 

Work and leisure are opposites inextricably entangled with each other, like yin and yang. In economics, the distinction has been formalized in a variety of ways. One distinction focuses on market work, and proposes that work is a disutility (a bad thing, an annoyance) that people have to be paid to do. Leisure, on the other hand, is a utility (a good thing) that people have to be paid to abandon. (See, e.g., Gratton & Taylor, “The Economics of Work and Leisure,” 2004.)

However, not all time outside of market work is truly leisure: there’s a big difference between washing the dishes and watching television. An alternative economic approach is to distinguish work and leisure by the degree to which they can be substituted with market inputs: work is something for which market substitutes exist (Aguiar and Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades,” 2006). For instance, the work of cooking can be substituted with restaurants, prepared meals, microwaves, and the like. Watching television is leisure, by this definition, because one “cannot use the market to reduce the time input into watching television (ibid.).” In this approach, “the leisure content of an activity is a function of technology rather than preferences.” It doesn’t matter if you enjoy cooking or not; it counts as work because there is a market substitute.

A synthesis of these might define work as a disutility for which one must be compensated, OR for which one would have to compensate others to do.

Consider an alternative definition by Robert E. P. Levy:

Any human activity or feature of human activity undertaken as a means to some desired state of affairs can be called work, and thus any kind of play is pervasively laden with elements of productive work

Work is different from play only in that the means are valued less than ends

Play is different from work only in that it is already realizing its value by its means, independent of what might come of it.

So clearly there is no dividing line between work and play, just work-like and play-like aspects of human activities.

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Into the Fediverse

As many of you already know, for the last few weeks, we’ve been running a Mastodon instance at refactorcamp.org on a pilot basis, kicking the tires and figuring things out. The requisite technical wizardry is being volunteered by Zach Faddis.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, Mastodon is an open-source, federated variant of Twitter, with a few key differences that make it a something of a quieter, slower-paced, more personal kind of space, somewhere in the twilight zone between private and public, local and global.

We are doing an open enrollment period for the next two weeks (till Tuesday, July 24th). You can register on the home page for an account. After the 24th, you will need an invite link from an existing user to join. If you already have an account on another instance, you can of course follow people on this instance.

But before you do either, please read the rest of this post.  Even if you’re already familiar with Mastodon.

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels. But Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Now for more details.

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Semi-Annual Roundup, 2018

It’s been a relatively slow first half of the year, thanks in part to a busier-than-normal work year for me on the consulting front. Not counting administrative posts, we’ve had 19 “real” posts so far.

Outside of publishing, we did manage to put out the The Art of Longform blogging course though (check it out, $100 for for a solid 6+ hours of video material with plenty of collateral).

We also did the 2018 Refactor Camp on Cryptoeconomics in Austin. I wrote up a glimpse of backstage stuff in the 2018 Annual Letter.

Here’s the roundup, organized by author. Happy 4th of July to US readers!

  1. Near-Deathness (6/21/2018) by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit (1/18/2018) by Stefano Zorzi
  3. Symmetry and Identity (4/19/2018) by Kenneth Shinozuka
  4. (Don’t) Be the Gray man (2/1/2018) by Patrick Steadman
  5. Justifiable AI (3/13/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  6. Glitches, uh, find a way (1/25/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  7. Notes on Doing Things (5/10/2018) by Sarah Perry
  8. Luxuriating in Privacy (3/1/2018) by Sarah Perry
  9. The Well-Being Machine (6/12/2018) by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies (2/8/2018) by Sarah Perry
  11. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences (1/11/2018) by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness (4/6/2018) by Sarah Perry
  13. Reality Maintenance (5/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (6/14/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Make Your Own Rules (2/15/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre (4/24/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  17. The Key to Act Two (3/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  18. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars (3/6/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  19. Boat Stories (1/9/2018) by Venkatesh Rao

Near-Deathness

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when someone attempts a submission—say they extend your arm and exert pressure onto the rear of your elbow joint—you have three options. The first, and the most desirable, is escape. Find a way out and continue to fight on. The second, either virtuous or stupid depending on the situation and your outlook, is refusal. Choose not to surrender. Recent examples include Romulo Barral getting his ankle snapped at the 2017 BJJ World Championship and Holly Holmes being choked into unconsciousness at UFC 196. The third option is to tap.

Roberto Abreu with a double collar choke in the 2009 Pan American Championship.

To tap is to admit defeat. It’s an acknowledgement that your opponent has you in a position that is either too painful to endure or too dominant to escape from. It’s also a consequence of the realisation that your adversary could do some serious damage.

Consider chokes, a common occurrence in BJJ bouts. They fall into two categories: blood chokes and air chokes. Air chokes occur when pressure is applied directly to the upper airway. Blood chokes occur when pressure is applied to the carotid arteries and/or the jugular vein. The former is much rougher and takes longer to come into effect than the latter, but the end result of both is unconsciousness, via restricted air flow or via restricted blood flow to the brain. Of course, depriving the brain of its essential nutrients is not something to be done lightly. Maintained for too long, chokes can result in permanent damage to the brain, and even death. That’s why you tap out. That’s why you submit. You’re asking your opponent to preserve the integrity of your anatomy and your existence. You’re issuing a polite request for the rest of your life back.

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Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

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