From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain

What can one neuron tell us about brain function?  It can tell if we are looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Brain surgeon and researcher Itzak Fried, in 2005, was probing a certain brain region in patients with epilepsy to pinpoint the source of their seizures.  This is open brain surgery done while the patient is conscious (the brain doesn’t have pain receptors).  These patients agreed to additional probing in the interest of science.  Fried was showing patients pictures, some of famous people, and kept running into neurons that would fire to multiple representations of the same person or object, and to nothing else (within the limited but large set of images used).  “The first time we saw a neuron firing to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston–and nothing else–we literally jumped out of our chairs,” recalled R. Quian Quiroga, who did subsequent work on the phenomenon with Fried.

In a study by Quiroga, Fried and others, severe epilepsy patients each had 64 tiny probes implanted in different parts of the brain, to study how the seizures manifested. The patients also agreed to view sets of images while the probes were monitored. A number of invariant responses (the same neuron firing to multiple views of the same person/thing) were found.  “In some patients, Jennifer Aniston neurons would also fire to her fellow actresses in Friends, … But they would never fire to other similar-looking, but otherwise unconnected, actresses” (Nature Magazine).  Either way, a connection was made between a concept and a single neuron.  Finding connections between a specific neuron and one specific memory has been going on for seven decades, and single neuron stimulation has triggered laughter, remembered childhood scenes or hearing snippets of music, but this association, apparently with the concept of a certain person, instantly became and remains a major focus of brain research.

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Been There, Done That

In a previous post, Thingness and Thereness, I introduced my goat-crow-rat triangle and the in-progress thinking associated with it. Here is my my next iteration of the diagram.


In the previous version, I didn’t have a label or annotations for the edge between the public and frontier vertices. Since I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive maniac with diagrams like this, I couldn’t rest easy till I had figured out a complete, maximally symmetric set of labels. So, here we go. A relatively complete version with no labeling gaps and some pleasing symmetries.

The edge between frontier and public is now officially the been there, done that edge. I hope the label is intuitive enough that at least some of the significance is obvious. Let’s talk about the non-obvious significance.

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Y Tribenator

I once saw a tourist with a shirt that said, in big letters on the back, “BOMB TECHNICIAN”. Then in smaller type underneath, “If you see me running, try to keep up“. That’s basically my strategy for exploring the new. For whatever reason I don’t have the temperament to be an early adopter. To fake it I surround myself with early adopters, and watch what they do.

This method doesn’t always work. In 2012 I got paid 5 Bitcoin at the insistence of a reader. I smiled and took the digital funny money. I’m sure it’s still on a hard drive somewhere. In 2014 my early-adopter friends were talking incessantly about a different digital funny money called Ether, which you could only buy with Bitcoin. I didn’t bother to look for the file. If I had converted that Bitcoin to Ether at the initial sale price of 2000:1, today I’d be over a million dollars richer. Sometimes I wish I was more reflexively willing to try new things.

Be careful what you wish for. I’m suddenly finding myself in the middle of a kind of tribe-generating metatribe of bloggers, helping coordinate a sprawling collection of highly weird writing projects through a clever Ether-based poker game slash taskboard called

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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Arguing About How the World Should Burn

After eavesdropping on a thousand Twitter arguments and reading just as many thinkpieces, I’ve noticed that there are two main ways of conceptualizing community governance. Both are normative. Both primarily arise when it comes to conflicts over free speech — or who it’s okay to punch.

glitched woman hitting neo-nazi with handbag

A glitched version of the famous photo of an old lady clobbering a Neo-Nazi with her purse. Original photo taken by Hans Runesson in Växjö, Sweden circa 1985.

One mode is to focus on content, and the other is to focus on process. These are two different paradigms that shape people’s reactions to a given controversial issue. For example, let’s say a major news event happens. How do you go about selecting the articles you’re going to read about it?

  1. Choose the outlets or individual writers who share your worldview, and see what they have to say.
  2. Seek out authors who signal thoughtfulness across the political spectrum, perhaps with an emphasis on original reporting.

Here’s another example: Computer scientist Curtis Yarvin applies to speak at a technical conference, and his talk is accepted in a blind evaluation process. After Yarvin’s speaking slot is announced, the conference organizers find out that he has an alter-ego as a blogger called Mencius Moldbug. His blog promotes views that much of the conference’s larger community finds abhorrent.

The content approach is to sever ties with Yarvin — because the content of his character has been judged to be objectionable. His work and their personality are deemed toxic or actively harmful. On the other hand, the process approach is to point out that Yarvin’s submission was selected blindly, on its own merits, and affirm that he will be ejected only via the process laid out in the pre-established code of conduct.

To put it in more abstract terms, content people focus on ends over means, and process people focus on means over ends. This is an imperfect way to summarize the principle, because the reason why process people focus on means is that they think this approach leads to better ends. But “ends over means and vice versa” will do as catchy shorthand. (The distinction is similar to the conflict between deontological ethics and consequentialism, although my emphasis is less on the philosophy and more on the praxis.) [Read more…]

Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor

“Businessmen are our only metaphysicians…”

–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

We were days away from closing a fresh fundraising round when our CFO pulled me aside to tell me the company did not have enough cash to cover the next payroll run.

“Never miss payroll” is the most uncontroversial of all the startup advice out there. We held this hard-and-fast rule in mind and used our gross payroll figure as a fixed expense in forecasts. Black-and-white issues are rare in startups, yet once you get down to practice, you find that even this simple advice is not so black-and-white.

We called an urgent meeting of the executive team to discuss our cash emergency. The solution we came up with was for everyone on the management team to take a drastic pay cut, but leave all other employee salaries the same, allowing payroll to squeak through at just under our current cash balance. A week later we closed our round and soon things returned back to normal.

So, were we faithful followers of the startup maxim? Did we still “make payroll,” even though several management employees got paid less than their usual wage?

Even if you answer in the positive, the best you could say is something like “Yeah, you made payroll, but…” It’s not 100% clear cut. We only just made payroll because we redefined what it meant to make payroll, and shifted some atoms in the world (that month’s salary calculations) to make the outcome “Did employees get paid?” come out true.

In the annals of entrepreneurship, this tale is a dime a dozen. Every entrepreneur worth their salt can relate with a story of their own company’s near-death experience. In fact, because this story is so common, I believe it sheds light on the defining skill set of entrepreneurship.

Just as emotional labor is arguably the foundation of work in the service industry, I posit that the shared work domain of entrepreneurs the world over is one of metaphysical labor.

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Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort?

This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.

To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.

Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.

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The Winter King of the Internet

On May 23, 1618, in Prague, three Catholics, named Slavata, Borzita, and Fabricius, got themselves thrown out of a window by a bunch of Protestants. That marked the beginning of the Thirty Years War. About eight million died in what was the bloodiest — and arguably most pointless and unnecessary — religious war in European history. It was also, unfortunately, a war that was triggered by a set of conditions that are uncannily similar to those that prevail today, 400 years later, in the Western world of 2017.

Defenestration of Prague, Public Domain photograph from period woodcut.

Curiously, the Thirty Years War, and the events leading up to it, are discussed far less today than the event that ended it: the Peace of Westphalia. Over the last decade, the “Westphalian nation-state” has become the official spherical cow of Internet futurism. To murmur ominously about how the the rise of the internet and the blockchain presage the impending “death of the Westphalian nation-state” is to establish credibility in certain internet thought-leadership circles. In these circles, the Peace of Westphalia has become a notional origin-myth for an equally notional mental model of the modern nation-state.

Yet, it is the Thirty Years War that is the more interesting story for today. In the immediate aftermath of the Defenestration of Prague, for a brief period, an obscure minor noble, Frederick V of the Palatinate, known in the history books as the “Winter King” of Bohemia (and therefore, ex officio, of the Reformation), played a brief but pivotal role in triggering the Thirty Years War. His role bears a remarkable resemblance, with features not captured by other analogies, to the one being currently played in our own time by Donald Trump: The Winter King of the Internet.

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“Another Green World”

Graham Johnson is a guest contributor who joins us from Suspended Reason.


A world transfigured, or a world anew? A world anew, or a new world? And if a new world, in addition, or as alternative?


In September, Elon Musk announced plans to begin the colonization of Mars by 2024. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will transport up 100 tons of cargo and human passengers per ship; eventually, Musk expects the planet to reach a critical population mass of a few million, at which point the planet will become a self-sufficient colony. What was most striking, to many who watched the announcement’s promotional video, was its closing frames – unaccompanied by explanatory text, and raising only the tantalizing possibility – of a terraformed Mars.

Terraforming is an obvious long-shot (or what Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary X appropriately refers to in-house as a “moon-shot”) project. But Musk sees it as an essential existential safeguard: should something threaten humanity’s immediate survival, there will be another planet, and eventually other solar systems, available to escape to. Human civilizations elsewhere can continue their expansion of synthesis and sentience across the universe.

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Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency

I’d like to pretend that the long silence since my last proper post — that was November last year — has been due to the long queue of contributions we’ve been briskly working through, but truth be told, I’ve been sulking.

Sulking. Not depressed, fearful, angsty, or anxious. Sulking is really the only word for the tenor of my thoughts after the election of Trump and its aftermath. Not schoolyard sulking directed at jeering victors, but a deeper sort of philosophical sulking directed at the universe. For forcing me to think once more about things I thought I was done thinking about in my twenties. Things that I didn’t particularly enjoy thinking through the first time around, but believe I got roughly right and, more importantly, out of my system. Things that are fundamentally uninteresting to me, despite their importance to others who are less fortunate or more masochistic.

While I am not particularly coy about my political sympathies (or rather, antipathies) elsewhere, I like my politics to be illegible on this blog. When I write about matters societal, I like to tack between conceptual models and narratives a couple of levels of abstraction below politics and ideology.

Unfortunately, we may be headed into a future — a subprime presidency — where maintaining such a healthy creative distance from politics becomes impossible even in the best case. Fortunately, I’m beginning to find that philosophical sulking is not an entirely infertile state of mind.

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