s2e21: Hello babies; Post-Apocalyptic Duolingo; Recreational Capitalism

by danhon

0.0 Sitrep

I don’t know what to put here, so I had my slug puppy neural net shadow self prepare a few words:

There is the very least something like The Next Generation Between America – I had a weak signal with the hard written about what the tweet is that it’s not a connections of a business planet to do a business model to be a company that we have to be the one of them. And then we should be able to insurate and speed out of what it is that they don’t have to do with other things.

– Dan Hon (simple long short term model neural network, 400 neuron, 3 layer, Turing negative, unregistered) version: lm_lstm_epoch19.63_1.3194.t7

1.0 Hello babies

There are a number of things jostling around in my head that I think are starting to come to some sort of point. They are:

– Rob Rhinehart’s blog post, How I Gave Up Alternating Current[0], and its follow-up, The Appeal of Outsourcing[1]
– Kurt Vonnegut’s quote (those of you who’ll have recognised the “Hello babies” opener). You know the one:

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”[2]

​ – everything that I’ve ever written before about The Californian Ideology (see a whole bunch of newsletter episodes in my archive[3], which archive isn’t up-to-date anyway, so there’s probably a lot more)
– What the New York Times said about Amazon[4] and the response[5] and Bezos’ response[6]

The facetious thing, of course, is to just say: why can’t we just be nice. Why can’t we just be *kind*. The position that’s taken by someone like Mark Suster, though[5], is that we can’t have the things that we want and be kind at the same time. It’s just impossible. Whenever we want anything, we don’t really think about the consequences, we just like the end results. The ends justify the means, I suppose. Suster says this:

I think it’s the most successful startup of our era. It’s the most ambitious and has had the most impact on our daily lives basically creating the modern category of retailing. They push the boundaries on eReaders on video streaming on web hosting on logistics and a variety of other fronts. How could you expect this to occur in a laissez-faire culture? How many of you would be fine saying “sure, just get my my stuff some time next week.” No. You want it G-ddamn now and you demand it now and you demand the perfection out of Amazon and in a very Nicholsonesque way you want people with guns guarding walls and you don’t want to know about it behind the scenes.[5]

I’ll give him this: Amazon pushed the boundaries on eReaders, essentially creating the category. And yes, they did what no-one else did and commoditised compute services on the internet, pretty much helping to kickstart a new revolution in software-based companies and businesses. And they also are really, really, really ruthless about letting you buy whatever you want and have it turn up to wherever you want it, really quickly. I was going to say that they were going to also be really *cheap* about it, but it turns out Amazon aren’t always the cheapest, and not by a long shot. No: you go to Amazon to shop now, and they’re convenient. So yes, in the same “Nicholsonesque” way that people don’t like to look under the cover and see the true horror of what’s happening, we don’t *really* like being confronted with the types of culture that currently deliver, well, Amazon and Apple and Wal-Mart rates of return. That’s why we western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic people wring our hands when we hear about how our shiny phones are hand-assembled in China by people who, in some respects, are quite happy to get the work (as opposed to no work) and also wring our hands when we find out that *someone you know* might be working in an Amazon Distribution Center and only having thirty seconds every six years to sit down.

But this supposes that the *only* way to deliver Amazon-ish returns is to have such a culture. I feel like Suster is conflating hard work with, well, a masochistic and poisonous environment. Not one to simply throw out the correlation/causation thing all over again, but it’s not like we have loads of datapoints, right? And where does this go, exactly? Is the end-run of what Suster’s suggesting that hey, it turns out that we want our stuff right now, that means that we tolerate a shitty environment (if, indeed, it is shitty – lots of people say it is, other people – who on first glance look like they might be more privileged people, I have to say) for workers?

And so then we come to Rob Rhine. Rhine has done the maths, and the maths say that he should act a certain way. Fair enough, says I, but it would be good for him to *show his working* because that’s what we rationalists do these days, don’t just take studies and assertions on faith, we go and we do replication studies to make sure that what’s being asserted isn’t just noise in the jitter of packets across fiber.

Rhine wants to be efficient. He doesn’t want to waste. The result of this is that he wants to see if he can survive without the luxury of alternating current, which, as some people were quick to admit, is how a lot of the world survives at the moment. Or, at least, the part of the world that’s otherwise known as the bottom of the pyramid certainly doesn’t have access to reliable and consistent electricity.

I have to admit that this is a *bit* like a tone argument, because Rhine says things like “I don’t see why everyone is so excited about Tesla charging $0.43 / Wh for the Powerwall” (Tesla’s new and apparently revolutionary piece of consumer hardware that is being spoken of as a sort of iPod-ish moment for home/personal power storage) is because most people don’t do the math and most people don’t go out and buy a $150 solar panel from Amazon and hook it up to a cheap lead acid battery. The point, though, is that Rhine makes it sound like the people who *are* excited by it are stupid, and they’re probably not. They probably have other things on their minds, which is absolutely fine, because our society allows for a) some people to be like Rhine and b) some people to be not-like Rhine.

Now, the thing about Rhine is that he also happens to be the inventory/CEO of Soylent, a food-replacement startup that’s being touted as a bit like the Star Trek era food pill. Note that Rhine doesn’t say that he doesn’t like *eating*. He also doesn’t say that he doesn’t like *food*. He just says that he doesn’t like *cooking*. He “goes out to eat when he craves company or flavour”. Rhine also – personally – doesn’t like and hates going grocery shopping, calling it a “multisensory living nightmare” which is something that I think a lot of people can sympathise with, and he doesn’t even have to go grocery shopping with a toddler.

But then, Rhine says things like “I buy my staple food online like a civilized person.” and it’s hard to not hear him sounding, bluntly, like a dick, because there are lots of people out there who think they’re civilized and they don’t buy their staple food online and now Rhine has called them uncivilized and if it wasn’t war already, it’s war now and the internet will have its comments, oh yes it will.

Rhine take this approach to optimisation further: he switched from beer to red wine (not sure what the utility function was here – presumably taste and texture have nothing to do with it, but “social interaction” must be a factor otherwise I expect Rhine would just be straight up injecting pure alcohol into his bloodstream or snorting it or eyeballing it or whatever, but maybe his friends don’t want to do that with him. I think the point is this: Rhine is pretty happy with what he’s got. It’s just that, well, there’s something judgey about it which means that there’s a bunch of reacting to the *how* he’s saying it, versus the *what* he’s saying. He’s right in that there’s a whole tonne of inertia built up in how we do a lot of things that we do, like, well, eating and drinking.

Rhine says things like this:

At some point we are going to have to admit that we suck at cooking, and we suck at driving. Let’s automate them already so we can focus on art, and science, and exploration. Food can be art, and driving can be exploration, but it’s mostly manufacturing and commuting. I don’t miss them.

which necessarily requires you to agree at least on *what the point of cooking is* and *what the point of driving is*. I think it’s clearer that the point of driving is mostly totally mundane and not necessarily pleasurable, especially in a country that’s as car-biased as America. So yeah, I take Rhine’s point on driving. The cooking bit, though? Not so much. Not entirely. And yes, it’s nicer to just have meals delivered to you. That totally works. But there’s a world of difference between sounding like you’re saying people who don’t have their entire food sources delivered by mail are uncivilized and that the ones who are are eating a singular dietary replacement. I mean, I like getting delivery food. I wish I could get it *most of the time*. I do not, however, necessarily want to replace all of that food with Soylent.

There are some parts where Rhine’s manifesto kind of falls loose: he buys clothing from China direct, custom made, and then says that shipping really sucks. (Yes, it does). But he doesn’t say how much he pays for it, which is a bit weird because everywhere else he’s talking about how much money he’s saving, or how much energy it takes.

The lede was buried, I think. Rhine’s pointing out that he can have a lifestyle that’s if not comfortable, then an actual improvement, for less money, all down to the fact that he can harvest solar energy directly and store it locally and massively reduce his energy needs. The supply side is great and one that counts for everyone: if only there were a way to massively incentivise people to install their own solar power and capture.

It’s this kind of thing that makes Google’s Project Sunroof[7] look so good: I can’t even figure out what Google’s angle is here other than: hey, we’ve got all the data, at least, most of it, and the bits we don’t have we can probably get, and anyway, no-one else is going to do this. Also, more energy is needed, in more places, to do the job of Google (whatever that now Alphabetised job may be). I mean, it’s not like Google’s going to make a tonne of money on the affiliate link fees by referring homeowners to solar cell installers and vendors, right?

But anyway, I got off the point. There’s all of this swirling around in my head and then this whole thing from Vox about effective altriusm[8] (which, I have to admit, I’ve only been watching for the last six months) where a bunch of really smart people are trying really hard to figure out the best ways to achieve the best good in the world by using system 2 thinking instead of system 1 thinking where system 1 thinking is seeing an ad for a kitten shelter and shouting TAKE ALL MY MONEY and system 2 is realising that maybe de-worming for a couple of cents is a REALLY BIG DEAL apart from recently there was the whole potential problem with the replication of the de-worming study. Anyway, so effective altruism might have (in some areas) been colonised by the people who are (legitimately) worried about a non-negligible outside context problem attack of some sort of artificial intelligence that we don’t know how to deal with, and some other people are a bit upset about that characterisation[9, 10] and are pointing out, rationally and in a system 2 kind of way, the system 1 kind of holes in the argument presented by Matthews in Vox.

And the point is this: just Vonnegut’s point.

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind””

[0] How I Gave Up Alternating Current | Mostly Harmless
[1] The Appeal of Outsourcing | Mostly Harmless
[2] Kurt Vonnegut – Wikiquote
[3] Californian Ideology : Things That Have Caught My Attention
[4] Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace – The New York Times
[5] What to Make of Amazon’s Work Practices? | Bothsides of the Table
[6] Jeff Bezos and Amazon Employees Join Debate Over Its Culture – The New York Times
[7] Project Sunroof | About
[8] I spent a weekend at Google talking with nerds about charity. I came away … worried. – Vox
[9] Stop Adding Zeroes | Slate Star Codex
[10] Figure/Ground Illusions | Slate Star Codex

2.0 Post-Apocalyptic Duolino

“Do you want attribution by name, or legal relationship?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well, it matters to you…”
“I don’t care, sweetheart”

Okay, so for clarity’s sake, *my wife* just observed that whilst playing (er, learning a language using) Duolingo that all the references are still about things like newspapers and that she hadn’t seen any mention of things like tablets or iPads yet. I have yet to ask her if the references include things like being able to write a letter to a youth hostel saying that you and five more friends are coming to stay in La Rochelle on the 8th of August for four nights and that you will be happy to bring your own bedding, or if the steam engine railway will be working during those days or if the hostel is capable of receiving telegrams from your mama and papa.

(I’m now reliably informed that Duolingo also goes on about writing letters, so let’s just say that if most language teaching is like Duolingo – and Duolingo seems to be one of the better ones, then people are going to be super prepared to speak to each other when the apocalypse come and our iPhones and Androids don’t work anymore)

Seriously, how do you send a Snapchat in French, anyway? It’s not like I need to know what the *word* for Snapchat is, but why are you teaching me how to write and talk about letters when most of the people I need to talk to are either using Slack or Twitter?

For which: CONVERSATIONAL SPANISH FOR TWITTER should totally be a thing.

3.0 Recreational Capitalism

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve already written about this one, but on the back of news that 40% of airbnb properties are now operated by hosts who own more than one property[0], there’s a difference now between what feels like Business As Usual Capitalism (ie: concentration and centralisation of power and influence, but made easier because of the network and software and so on) and the Paul Mason style Post-Capitalism which is the airbnb that we *used* to have which was people with a spare room letting it out. Only, maybe, not even letting it out! Letting it out in exchange for other goods and services! (But no, we invented money, and money turns out to be useful for things, and then other people have money, and they have more, so they want more and so on and so on)

I feel like the story that Uber and Airbnb *want* to tell, and the story that’s attractive for them is that of recreational capitalism. That it’s a hobby, you know? And not a business. It’s not like I *need* to rent out by spare bedroom, but I like meeting new people, you know? It’s just so fulfilling to be a host and to introduce people to my neighborhood! It’s, like, really enriching, and I always learn things that I never knew before. It is totally not the fact that I have decided to invest in properties that I let out through airbnb instead of through a 401k and now I have a thriving sub-business alongside my day job of around 5 properties that I manage all around the country, reliant upon another class of on-demand service workers who clean them and deal with key queries all the time. Why, it almost feels like I’m a hotel company now, only without any of the liability or regulatory impositions!

Etsy, right? Etsy is totally more on the side of the recreational capitalism on the scale that has recreational capitalism on one end and all out software-based, network-aware, real-time, market-priced, location-aware efficient maximisation of utilisation of resources, controlled by a few powerful actors. On the one hand you have a cottage industry of bed and breakfasts. On the other hand, you just have The New Hiltons, Just Like The Old Hiltons, But Not Evenly Distributed. Take a Hilton and explode it over the country. Five hundred rooms, but all in different cities. Hell, the next step would be to include a Premium Hilton Overlay on top of a regular Airbnb and say hey, if you want the, I dunno, Fairmont Experience at this Airbnb then that’ll be another $300/night.

But then there’ll always be the little basket-weavers at the side, trying to get by, I guess. Actual people running airbnbs are the vendors on the street, hustling storefronts right alongside the glowing neon of new-LA.

[0] Networks and the Nature of the Firm — The WTF Economy — Medium

3,031 words tonight, more food for the neural net.