Deepfake Mythology

Yes, impeachment has become cheap. I think the Clinton impeachment set the tone. Mind you, he was a cretin, but still.

There’s an interesting trend in science fiction having to do with super-intelligence… in humans, not machines. The template was a wonderful novella (or novelette, no idea, not looking it up) called Understand. Highly recommended. His approach became the standard for movies like Limitless.

The premise is there’s a drug which increases the dendritic density of the brain. Blah blah blah. The end result is hyperintelligence.

In some of these stories, they end up running for office. Maybe that’s what we need. Someone who can play five moves ahead of everyone in the country.

But until then, anti-trust on FB. Break up the social media universe into many small bits. I believe that government needs a balance of anti-trust and regulation. You can have either one very heavily and the other light, or you can do both. I think that’s what it needs. It’s bad to do neither.

Also some kind of thought given to algorithm control. Same problem with facial recognition or any of those algorithmically driven businesses. One approach is to deny proprietary rights, like patents (I’m sure I’m using the words wrong) to algorithms. If they were totally open, we could break them apart and look inside… or pay someone to, anyway. We have as little insight into algorithms as we do into biology, which is why both of those things are lousy areas for Free Markets. You can’t have a free market if the thing being marketed is incomprehensible.

That’s why Hayek needed to come up with a Wisdom of Crowds philosophy. He knew that markets fail when the buyer is ignorant. So he figured out how the buyer wasn’t ignorant… in the aggregate.

Of course, I’m not an aggregate, I’m just me, so I’m fucked when shopping for medical care. Or algorithms.

Even if one buys the Wisdom of Crowds argument, which is perfectly good for things of which people have some understanding, like how many jelly beans are in that jar, it is also true that Crowds are cretinous. They can adopt a falsehood as quickly and easily as anything else. In fact, what a Crowd believes has more to do with how “sticky” the narrative is than with how “true” it is. Boring truths but exciting lies, is what drives the world.

Due to FB’s recent changes in its algorithm, someone can put out some crazy shit, get 10k followers or likes or whatever, right away. If they just did it for kicks and didn’t really believe it before, they believe it now. And they evangelize. Stickiest ideas win.

[Side Note: I believe Qanon started this way, by evolutionary algorithms. Plug in a few thousand notions into FB in robotically generated accounts, they get tried out and stickier ones proliferate. Less sticky one die out and are never heard of again. It’s like a deepfake mythology. If there’s a takeway from this whole email, it’s those words.]

As you know, our memories are faulty. We believe things that didn’t happen, remember things that we never saw. Our mind is a fucking mess, but perfectly functional on a day to day level.

You can’t sell a political platform on a premise of, You don’t know how to think right, people are taking advantage of that, we want to protect you. That would just be insulting.
So we need a government that is, to a degree, paternalistic, much like Behavioral Economics was, sort of. When Medicare Part D was set up, under Bush II, it gave citizens a choice of plans. It was totally clear which plans were better for whom, but we were given choices. Which choice would be first on the list? It’s well known that people preferentially pick the top choice. It would have been easy and fair and right to put the best choice first, but let people pick another one. Instead, the Bush II administration decided they should make it random. So, picking the way people are known to pick, most people would pick the wrong program for themselves. They couldn’t possibly be “educated consumers” unless they had medical degrees. And “experts”, those foul creatures, were not allowed to help; they were thwarted. It’s just not fair.

The Magic of Illusion!

We all think that what we experience during our waking hours is the World. This is called naive realism. I could link to Wikipedia for this, but I’ll let Googling be an exercise for the reader.

The gist is we see stuff, we think stuff, we don’t ask too many questions. In some corner cases, such as hallucinations, we may have good reason to question what we see, hear, and think. Other than that, it’s taken as given, and it works pretty well. We see a crack in the sidewalk, we avoid it because we might trip and hurt ourselves. We look at our plate and decide what we want to eat.

Our thoughts do interfere with our perceptions of things. We stereotype people and may see them in different ways depending on our preconceptions. We may cross the street to avoid a scary empty house, and have no good reason to do that but have a feeling in our gut. The house is just a house, but we have a network of thoughts and memories having to do with empty houses, with childhood stories, with imagining who might be in it, even if we don’t see anything.

That’s one level where our perception is not purely seeing and dealing with the fact of the material world in front of us, but is brightly colored and lit by our thoughts that might be completely wrong or inapt to the situation.

There are scientists (here’s a link to an interesting presentation) who go further, and say that what we are not actually perceiving the world with our senses directly at all, but it all gets processed by our brain’s operating system, and that what we experience in our conscious minds is an artifact of that operating system. That it has much less to do with the actual world than we’d like to think.

Important note—None of this has anything to do with intelligence. You could have the most impressive ability to process data, to retain information, and also have your perceptions heavily colored by your mental life. Someone might be a brilliant and very successful businessman or lawyer and yet see the world through a scrim of illusion. They may see numbers on a spreadsheet with perfect accuracy, but see the reality behind those numbers in a way very different from someone else.

It is a truism that a lawyer’s job is to tell a story. They have many facts in front of them and, like a Tarot card reader, make up a story incorporating all the facts. If the story has narrative juice, that makes it compelling. Does it have a hero with believable motivations? Are the obstacles facing them shown in the evidence? Is there a satisfying resolution? All these make a story sticky where a list of facts would be nearly impossible to remember.

How do you remember the alphabet if you’re in pre-school? You sing it. A pattern of notes is imposed on it, you find rhymes, and that makes it memorizable. So the lawyer who crafts the better story wins the case. They may have to run the facts through a process like an audio equalizer, where you adjust all the various tones and pitches until you get just the sound you want. Anyone who has ever participated in a story-telling event, like The Moth, knows this process. Life doesn’t often present us with great stories. A story is a synthetic thing, crafted out of events in order to produce the desired effect in an audience. Great storytellers may do this intuitively; the rest of us work hard at it, with mixed effect. I’ve been to, and told stories at, a number of Moth events, and it is remarkable how some people—people with the most ordinary lives—manage to tell amazingly wonderful stories. And there are plenty of examples of people who have lived through amazing events, can only tell fairly boring stories about them.

This process of telling stories, and of running the facts of life through an equalizer in order to produce memorable stories, happens all the time in our brain. As we exist and move through our days, we hear a narrative in our head. That phenomenon is called the Left-Brain Interpreter (LBI). Here’s an article I could understand, and I’m no neuro-anything. Our LBI produces post-hoc rationalizations for our instinctive actions, and we seize on that narration as the “reason” we did something. I think we kid ourselves if we think that reason is at all real. Actually, I think consciousness is, if not a complete and total illusion, than an intermittent thing, only sparking up every once in a while, and when it is alive, feeding us lies.

I believe that what we do when we meditate is to quiet down the jabbering of our LBI and make an attempt (however feeble!) to perceive as best we can without mediation. Of course, what we might be perceiving (see above) is artifacts generated by our brain’s operating system, but still, the mental state we labor to invoke via meditation may be the closest we can get.

Okay, why is this interesting? Aside from, consciousness and thoughts and human behavior are interesting.

My prior post was about Kenin Spivak’s letter to Columbia Magazine. It caught my eye because he graduated from the same school (Columbia College) in the same year (1977) that I did. I didn’t know him—he graduated in three years (I took the usual four), he was pre-law (I was Physics with some Medieval Studies courses and a lot of theater), and he did law school and business school in three years, simultaneously (I think this was an actual program, so maybe not quite the miracle I thought at first… still, pretty impressive!).

So, you know, smart. Driven. Energetic. Ambitious. And smart, very very smart.

Yet this letter is borderline loony. See my previous post for details. And it made me wonder what’s going on in his head?

Here’s my thinking. He was, apparently, conservative back in 1977-80 in Law School. So he didn’t come to it as an adult. He is at home in that world. Friends, family, colleagues presumably. He (I’m guessing here but he does live in Beverly Hills) plays golf with conservatives. They smoke cigars and drink fantastic single-malt whisky at lavish private clubs (I’m not criticizing! Anytime they want to invite me I’ll go and have a whiskey and cigar with them… after I get my COVID vaccination).

Now let’s zoom out for a panoramic view. There was a time when Democrats had a firm hold on Congress, by historical alliance with racist Dixiecrats in the South. Then came LBJ and Civil Rights legislation and those Dixiecrats got angry. Republicans (Nixon) saw an opening and took it. Those Dixiecrats became Republican, and that created what we now see as the 50/50 government. It also removed any incentive for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats, which they used to do, and which older Democrats (Biden) recall as the good old days when you could reach across the aisle and get things done.

It doesn’t take a degree in game theory to see how that was no longer a necessary strategy for Republicans in Congress. Now that they could win more elections and take over Congress, thanks to their co-opting of the Southern vote, incentive to cooperate vanished like the snows of yesteryear. That cooperation Biden remembers fondly was not due to some wonderful nostalgic comity, but rather it was their only route to getting anything they wanted. Now they have another, better route, they’re taking it. Perfectly reasonable.

But there were other potential voters on the table. For starters, there were Black voters, Hispanic voters, women, young people. These had traditionally been low-turnout voters, but natural Democratic constituents. Obama’s election turned out many who had no or sporadic history of voting. This gave an edge, a small one and maybe one totally dependent on Obama, to Democrats.

But they, it seems were not the only voters available. There were the famous Working-Class White voters. Not to mention disaffected groups who never saw the Government doing anything that benefited them (even, of course, as they and their parents received Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits… well, never mind) because there were people out there they didn’t like and the Government wasn’t doing anything about that! And the American myth of the majestic individual has a powerful draw.

Among those disaffected groups were the classic American Racists—John Birchers, Klansfolk, neo-Nazis, and all their brethren and sistern.

Now, here’s a puzzler—If you’re an old-line Republican, devoted to the cult of the Tax Cut and lower regulation and the myth that your contract with your workers is an agreement reached by equals after a fair negotiation, and suddenly you look to your left and your right and you see Nazis and Klansmen, what do you do?

You could jump up in horror and say, This isn’t for me anymore. Any club that would have these monsters isn’t a club I want to be in! But it’s hard—all your friends and family are still there, and there’s a tremendous social cost to leaving the tribe. We see this with young people who leave the Satmar Hasidic sect. They lose everything and they’re barely trained to deal with the modern world.

So you don’t leave. What else can you do? You can fight to exclude them. That’s hard, too, because now you depend on their votes. And the longer you do nothing, the harder it is to do anything. After all, why did you tolerate them for so long?

You could just ignore them. Whatever…

But if you’re a thinking person, that’s hard too. So you make excuses. You put them through your Mental Equalizer. You tweak them subtly so they’re just harmless clowns. If one of them is actually violent, well, they’re mentally ill.

You also need to balance it out. After all, if all the horrible people are on your side, what does that say about you? So if you don’t fight to get rid of them and you don’t ignore them, you need equally terrible people on the other side so you can engage in whataboutism and distraction.

It’s about turning beams into motes and motes into beams, basically.

If you’re on the right, and sitting with Nazis, who can you point to on the Left? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. But if you’re Kenin Spivak, esq., it’s “anarchists.” I find this a particularly inapt scare term, because Republicans also consider Democrats the party of Big Government. Anarchists, of course, want to do away with government altogether, at least if you go by the name. But you have to find a scary enough word. I would have thought Communists would do it, because I suppose there are actual Communists out there in the wild, but they want nothing to do with Democrats either. So he says the Democrats “appease” anarchists.

It’s very weird. On the other hand, he’s a storyteller, though not a great one. He has credit for co-writing a book, a thriller (fictional) about, I believe, Canadian pharma being sent to the US? Something like that… I believe (I haven’t read it, I did read a couple of reviews) it was intended to scare people away from cheaper Canadian pharmacies and rely instead on the wildly overpriced American drugs. Anyway, I never heard of it until I looked it up.

I actually believe that he believes, on some level, in scary anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family, rather than just people who have alternative family structures and don’t want to be denigrated or denied benefits available to other, more standard, families.

Or maybe it’s not a firm belief but a narrative that he has found useful at the Beverly Hills Country Club bar. I don’t know, I’ve never met him. I hope to, one day, and have a cigar and a whiskey while we talk about Alma Mater. And scary anarchists.

Smart guy, nutty letter…

So I get my new issue of Columbia (Winter 20/21) and took a look at the letters. There was an article in the previous issue that was pretty lame, actually, along the lines of “why can’t we get along” with the Red/Blue divide. I skimmed it, but thought I’d look at the letters it engendered. Okay, the usual… wouldn’t it be nice if we could get along, we can’t possibly get along… that kind of thing.

Then I get to a quite long letter from the Right flank, from a certain Kenin Spivak, from my school and my year (CC77). He finished his BA in three years, and then got his business and law degrees at the same time over the next three years! Very impressive. Also, his address is Beverly Hills, and I rather doubt we’re talking about the flats of Beverly Hills (i.e., the cheap part… well, relatively cheap) or a Beverly Hills post office box. I expect we’re talking about the Good Parts. The parts where you don’t want to be a pedestrian because you’ll be stopped by the police… or a brown-colored driver in any kind of car.

I wondered if I ever met him. I was a Physics major and never had the most impressive work ethic (I think I pulled two all-nighters in four years; I still regret them), so I’m sure I never hung out with a driven, ambitious pre-law student. I doubt he was in the Columbia Players or Barnard Gilbert & Sullivan, which was my social circle. He probably was in the Sachems and the Nacoms, the group of high-achieving strivers. Basically, Columbia’s version of Skull and Bones, I guess, though I was never in either one so who knows. For all I know, they had a soup kitchen. Doubt it, though.

What struck me as odd were his many references to anarchists; he says it 4 or 5 times. Anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family. Anarchists who seek the violent overthrow of the government (ironic, now). Anarchists who oppose Democracy (also kind of ironic at this point). Anarchists who are appeased by the Democrats, so Democrats become terrorists-by-proxy, of course.

I’m looking around and thinking, Anarchists? Really? Where? Terrifying! Is it like anarchists at the turn of the 20th century, who were scruffy and unshaven and carried bombs that were shaped like cannonballs, with fuses? Interestingly, those anarchists were branded as being predominantly Jewish. Like Mr. Spivak, esq.

I see he also goes on about the specter of cancel culture, which “…directly threaten(s) the safety and welfare of nearly every American.” I think he should really have a chat with Ross Douthat, a fellow (not to me, to Spivak) conservative, who wrote a really cogent editorial about cancel culture. I recommend it.

Spivak sounds batty to me, and I really have to wonder about the specter of these unnamed anarchists. Like many, primarily on the Right, he seems to have created a Fantasy Enemy. This Enemy’s existence is vital, because it allows Spivak to vote to, say, lower his own taxes and regulations on his business, but feel like he’s voting to Save Civilization. Much more satisfying! But it also provides a tool to rebut those who accuse Republicans of cozying up to White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other disreputable and frankly actually dangerous sorts. You need scary, unnamed “anarchists” if you want to say, No, YOU!

I try to think statistically, that all kinds of things are possible if not probably, and of course there are folk who consider themselves lefty who are murderous assholes. I’m sure there are Stalinists around. But, honestly, at this point in history, with the left in America being what it is, they are the party that wants to provide services. They are the party that is horrified at COVID going through nursing homes. Republicans, at this point in history, are the party that says, so what? They were old anyway. Republicans now are the people who can’t admit COVID is real or dangerous because they want to protect the Trump that lives inside them, like an organ. So if you’re looking for murderous assholes, I think you’ll have a much better chance finding them over there, on the Right.

At this point in history. Who can speak for the future.

Does anyone know this guy? I assume he’s alright, since he’s in Beverly Hills and all… Maybe a family member could call him and speak in a soothing voice. Tell him that they’ve checked, and there are no anarchists in Beverly Hills today.

(That we know of! Bwah-hah-hah!)

Putsch up or Shut up

In light of yesterday’s putsch. I generally feel perfectly comfortable ignoring Tablet, but a friend reminded me of this:

That’s a good analysis (i.e., I agree with it, which makes it “good”).

There is something very deep going on, brainwise, with people so invested in a public personality. Similar to Elvis, the Beatles, Hitler, anyone else who could command an adoring crowd. What is happening in the audience member’s brain? They’re focused intently on the person, and something something mirror neurons, and they start to imitate them and internalize them. Protect them as an element of their own identity; when people feel their identity attacked, they feel the same as if their body were being threatened by wild animals. With rock/pop stars, young women are the most vulnerable (they group-bond very readily), and this might be related to mass hysteria phenomena, as in Salem et alibi (just learned that from a crossword — it means “and other places”! Sweeeet…).

I’ve always believed that all of us have an opera in our headwe’re the hero, of course, and there are villains and all the other stock characters of opera. And the emotions are ridiculously heightened. Of course, it might be an action movie or a comic book—they’re all closely related. High emotions, high stakes, unmistakable heroes and villains.

How do we distinguish between the very compelling detailed, emotional story being told in the opera in our heads from the real world? At one extreme, there are true paranoid or schizophrenic delusions (I’m sure I’m using the terms wrong… sorry) and at the other end… I don’t know where the other end is, though I bet a lot of people (everyone?) thinks that’s where they’re at—everyone believes they are perfectly rational and that they can distinguish reality from illusion instantly and intuitively. I think at our absolute best and most rational (for whatever value of that word) we float in and out of our delusions, and maybe for some the delusions are like John Nash’s voices in his head that he learned to identify as hallucinations, couldn’t get rid of, but learned to ignore. To some degree we can probably switch back and forth, when we’re engaged in an activity that doesn’t bear much emotional freight. But as soon as our identity/emotion hair-trigger is touched, all bets are off. When you hear about subconscious or implicit bias, that’s what is happening. The continual noise in our head includes noises from the actual world and noises generated inside. In the rough and tumble of everyday existence, we’re lousy at distinguishing them. One tool for training that skill is meditation—mindfulness training. I’ve let it slide, I should get back to it.

Our perception is always mediated by what’s actually out there and our brain’s internal sound and light show. And what’s out there is cobbled together from the various bits and pieces retrieved by our senses to give us the comforting illusion of continuity and uniformity. Dreams are a great example of when the information from the world is very muted and attenuated and the noise inside is more vivid in comparison. During the day, it flips around. But it’s never, I think, all one or all the other.

Religion interacts with this system. Hence the conundrum of whose voice that is in your head: your own everyday voice, memory of important voices, or a supernatural entity? The notion that we can hear the voice in our head and interpret it as our own thoughts is sometimes considered a recent (in the history of humanity) innovation. Before that, thoughts were always someone’s voice.

Here’s a great article on how we fool ourselves into thinking we’re conscious (for our naive definition of consciousness, as a unitary mind making conscious decisions based on real-world observations, and then acting on those conscious decisions):

That pesky left-brain interpreter!