March - April, 2023

previous archive

March 6-10. Thread on Ask Old People: How do you guys feel about the new generation's idea that gender is malleable?

Most of the comments are agreeing that gender has always been varied and complex, it's just now becoming mainstream and politicized. I think the current looseness and complexity in gender is not an aberration -- it's been a long time coming. The dominant gender roles that we've been living under -- even if you include stereotypical gay men and lesbians -- are much simpler than the full range of human feeling and expression. Meanwhile, the whole subject of gender has been sucked into the engines of polarization, and not just in the world of politics. A key paragraph:

I also had kids in the 2000s-2010s and was really frustrated with the shopping choices. If you had a girl, everything had to be PINK! Even car seats for crying out loud. Things that should never ever be gender specific suddenly were. Cups and plates--can't kids even take a drink without being gender-conscious? I couldn't find plain pajamas for my kids. It was pink and purple princess and unicorns for girls, or red and blue sports and cars for boys. I actively searched for something that was just blank or stripes or something, but no. Everything had to be printed with words like "mommy's little princess" or else be covered in soccer balls. Suddenly girls can't like dinosaurs or planets. Boys can't wear any color that approaches pastel. I think that division drove a lot of backlash. I'm a girl who likes science and math. I must be part boy!

Calling gender a spectrum doesn't go far enough, because a spectrum is only one dimension, and both poles have been locked down by marketing and Hollywood. I don't want to be anywhere on a spectrum from sports cars to unicorns, or from Marilyn Monroe to Burt Reynolds.

As for where this is going, surely the way we think about gender now will not be the way we think about it in 50 years. My optimistic guess is that chromosomes will mainly be used for medical purposes, and the line between men's and women's sports will be drawn by testosterone testing. And then there will be clusters of common gender categories, not that different from the ones we have now, but more people comfortably outside them.

Matt comments: "Phenomenologically, I can't find any 'masculinity' in pure consciousness. Where should I look? What should I look for?"

If masculinity and femininity are real, but they're not in pure consciousness, nor reliably in DNA, then they must be real on a level between those things. This is what transgender people actually report: even though my chromosomes say one thing, I feel like another thing on a deeper level. We've been talking about this level for thousands of years, from Plato's allegory of the cave to Jung's collective unconscious.

Personally, over the last few years I've been really enjoying exploring my feminine side. I'm writing female protagonists in fiction and playing female avatars in video games. But I don't identify as trans because I feel comfortable in a male body. Even if I'd been born female, and if I had a magic sex changing power, I would still be male for going out in public, because testosterone is a cheat code, and I don't want to be creeped on.

I don't see anyone saying, "I'm the spirit of one gender in the body of another, and I like it." So I'll continue to say that I'm a cis male who's ambitious about developing my anima.

March 10. Three links about work-life balance. The Perks Workers Want Also Make Them More Productive. Specifically, working from home, working fewer hours, and paid leave.

A Reddit thread about why Americans want to move to Germany

And Gabriel sends this tweet from NEETWorldOrder:

It must be nice to live in one of those European countries that peaked 400 years ago. It's like playing the game after you've already finished it. There's no money to be made and nothing to do anymore except sit around and find high quality ingredients for dinner.

March 13. Samsung "space zoom" moon shots are fake, and here is the proof. Specifically, Samsung smart phone cameras are using neural networks, trained on images of the moon, to fill in details in moon photos, that are not there in the raw photographs. This is a dangerous precedent, of photos being stealthily enhanced to show what's supposed to be there, potentially veering off from what's actually being seen.

March 22. Quick thought on using AI for creative work, inspired by this blog post, Why Write?

Why write an essay when you can type a few words and have AI generate one for you?
Writing is the process by which you realize that you do not understand what you are talking about. Importantly, writing is also the process by which you figure it out.

This is true for all kinds of creative work: music, painting, even programming or making furniture. Anyone who doesn't do the work in question, tends to imagine that the most difficult and valuable part of the job is forming the idea in your head, and then it's just a matter of simple physical actions to stamp your idea on the world.

It's exactly the opposite. Getting ideas is so easy that it often can be outsourced to AI. The difficult and valuable part of the job is negotiating with the world, wrangling with the details, revising your original idea, and so on. Paraphrasing Don Draper: Getting it right can be really hard, but it's inevitable, and you know it when you see it.

March 24. Tech guru Jaron Lanier: 'The danger isn't that AI destroys us. It's that it drives us insane'. Coincidentally, I'm reading the novel The Secret History, and a character says this about the Greek Furies: "And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess."

Lanier says this about Twitter:

It has a way of taking people who start out as distinct individuals and converging them into the same personality.... The example I use is Trump, Kanye and Elon. Ten years ago they had distinct personalities. But they've converged to have a remarkable similarity of personality, and I think that's the personality you get if you spend too much time on Twitter."

March 27. And Yet It Understands, a Hacker News thread in which techies are getting squishy about whether AIs are people.

Intelligence, understanding, volition, sentience, sapience, consciousness. We're using a lot of words to try to triangulate this thing. So far the most human-like chatbot is Microsoft's Sydney, so I'll frame the question like this: Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be Sydney, outside of human perception of Sydney?

My answer is no, and will continue to be no, no matter how many bitflips this thing can do. But I expect more people to answer yes, and not just because of emotion, but because of thinking.

Among educated westerners, the dominant philosophy is materialism: Lifeless matter is the fundamental reality, and aliveness and consciousness are emergent properties of matter once it gains enough complexity. It doesn't matter if the complexity is made out of cells or semiconductors. Inevitably, it stacks up into a person. Why not now?

My skeptical view of AI is based on a woo-woo philosophy: that what-its-like-to-be is fundamental, that "nature" is our interface with the greater sea of what-its-like-to-be, that matter is a story we tell each other to share the same world, and that our devices are made of our stories. So while the powers of AI may greatly exceed human powers, and will surely bring new dangers, the consciousness of AI remains a subset of human consciousness.

March 28. Continuing from yesterday, I'm going to go ahead and use the word "sentient". It's not perfect, but it means "having senses", which is close enough to what I think the key thing is, the quality of what-it's-like-to-be. And I'm going to keep saying "AI" instead of something more wordy and accurate, like "machine learning entity".

In sci-fi, AIs pass a magical threshold and become sentient, and suddenly everything changes. In reality, there's no way to know if AIs are sentient -- ever. Even other humans can't prove they're not figments of your imagination.

What's really going to happen is, AIs will behave more and more like we expect sentient beings to behave, until we kind of assume they are, even if we know better.

Matt points out something that hadn't occurred to me: AI personhood works against the interests of corporations, because corporations own AIs. We have a word for owning people, and it's bad. I have no idea how this is going to shake out.

March 30. Two months ago I asked, "What can we do or experience, as humans, that makes it worthwhile to be human and not something else?" My answer was creating our own environment, but it's also creating ourselves. The range of what it might be like to be human is much wider than the range for any other animal.

My favorite thing about being me is imagination. I'm sure that whales can daydream, but can they daydream about being space pirates or alternate world travelers? Of all the things that AI can do for us, the thing I value most is that it can buff our dreams.

For example, through Midjourney V5, Tim explores The Unlikely Hippy Past of Vladimir Putin. I understand the danger of not knowing what's real, but if you can keep a decent grip on what's real, young hippie Putin is a really cool unreal thing to think about, and I could not imagine it this well without help from technology.

What I'm most looking forward to is what AI can do for gaming. Even pencil and dice gaming has a shortage of good game masters. How far are we from a bot that can do it better than the average human? For video games, Diablo II did a great job with randomly generated wilderness and dungeons, more than 20 years ago. Imagine Zelda, or Fallout, or RDR, where you can recruit any NPC as a companion, and the map has no edge, because with your help, bots can fill it in forever.

April 3-10. The age of average has a lot of photos illustrating this conclusion:

The interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants all look the same. The buildings where we live and work all look the same. The cars we drive, their colours and their logos all look the same. The way we look and the way we dress all looks the same. Our movies, books and video games all look the same. And the brands we buy, their adverts, identities and taglines all look the same.

Another article on the same subject, largely focusing on Airbnb, Welcome to AirSpace.

From the subreddit, an interesting perspective, The age of average vs Fragmentation. While some things are getting more similar, other things are getting more varied, as you can see in the Aesthetics Wiki. What are we to make of this?

I don't want to get into political fragmentation, but if we're just talking about style, this subject reminds me of an old page about the L-curve of US income distribution.

The tall part of the L-curve is ruled by money. Whether it's McDonalds or the music industry, it pays to make things predictable, and stamp out weirdness.

The long part of the L-curve is ruled by love -- more precisely, by what particular people enjoy doing, if they don't have to make money from it. If something made for love accidentally makes money, then the money people buy it, polish it, and use it to keep people from getting bored, until it becomes the new boring.

The place where I really see the age of average is music. I believe there was a golden age of popular music from around 1965-1985. Some people say, you're just forgetting all the bad stuff, like Captain & Tennille. Well, there has not been a hit song in this century that I like as much as Captain & Tennille's "Love Will Keep Us Together". I can assemble about five hours of Billboard hot 100 songs from the 1970s that I really like. From the 2010s, not one song.

At the same time, there's still great music being made. It's just that the music industry has developed a formula, and a set of filters, such that the best stuff will be excluded as too weird for the mass market. The world of money, and the world of creativity, have given up on each other and gone their own way.

So if the best music of the 1970s was popular, and the best music of the 2010s was obscure, at what time was quality evenly balanced between popular and obscure? I think it was the late 80s or early 90s.

I'm also thinking about film. Good movies are still being made, even though it costs way more to make a movie than to record a song. But it's the same dynamic: movies made for mass audiences are bland and formulaic, while the best movies are made for niche audiences.

You can measure this phenomenon by asking: What was the last great film that made a lot of money? For me, it was The Witch in 2015 -- eight years ago. How many great films made money in the 70s, the 60s, the 50s? We can disagree about which ones they are, but you'll probably agree that there were more then than now.

But suppose this is not a doom scenario, but an evolution of the whole creative universe. Gabriel comments:

A friend of mine suggested that world creation is the art form to reckon with now, which implies that the viewer is an active instead of a passive participant, which leaves film mostly as a medium to mine for audiovisual techniques rather than one to express what it's like to live in the 21st century.

Or if we're talking about music, the role of popular music is to define craftsmanship in certain styles. I'm thinking of the metaphor of an artist's palette. It's not the job of the palette to be art.