The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

I really wanted to like this book. Neal Stephenson has written some of the best stories I’ve ever read and I’ve read most of them two or three times. And how can I say I read 740 pages and didn’t enjoy the book? At least a little.

But it just did not work for me. Maybe it was the witches and time travel. Maybe it was writing with a co-author (Nicole Galland). I don’t think I’ve ever read a book written by two people that I really enjoyed. Wait! Not true! James S. A. Corey, the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. I love the Expanse series. But I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.

I struggle with the paradoxes inherent in stories about time travel. I appreciated the premise of Memento and Loopers but my mind kept drifting as I tried to work out the time stuff. No such problem, however, with William Gibson’s The Peripheral.

On a scale of 1 to 5 (with Cryptonomicon and REAMDE being 5’s), I’d rate this latest book a 3. Maybe. I do hope you enjoy(ed) it more than I.

The “useless class” and a new quest for purpose

I was so impressed by Yuval Harari’s latest book it took me three blog posts to event touch on a few of his big ideas. In an article in The Guardian, he expands on a couple of (related) ideas: Basic Income and religion-as-virtual reality. He wrote at length about both of these in Homo Deus but I think the Guardian piece is new (not excerpts from his book).

I agree with Professor Harari that some kind of Basic Income is inevitable. It’ll happen because the wealthy will see it as the best (only?) way to protect all their shit. And what will we all do when we don’t have to have a job? One possibility is virtual reality.

For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.” […] What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

I really can’t see a flaw in that comparison. Unless you count, “Yeah, but Heaven and Hell are real and Grand Theft Auto Six is not.”

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

Whoa. The two big holy books as VR devices. And how about a game we all play?

Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game. You might object that people really enjoy their cars and vacations. That’s certainly true. But the religious really enjoy praying and performing ceremonies, and my nephew really enjoys hunting Pokémon. In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain.

What does it all mean?

The end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles.

As one who has not worked for the the last four-and-a-half years, I’m here to tell you it is not necessary to give your life meaning.

U.S. Marshal Lucas Davenport

New characters, new locales, new badge. Finished John Sandford’s new Prey novel this evening. One fine yarn. Lucas’ new job takes him (and the reader) to new parts of the country and introduces new characters I suspect we’ll be seeing again. Mobile phones play a key role in this story. So much so the author gives Lucas a page of dialogue on the topic near the end of the book. A fast-paced manhunt with plenty of shoot-outs.

William Gibson Reimagines World After 2016 Election

“Agency,” Mr. Gibson’s next novel, which Berkley will publish in January. The story unfolds in two timelines: San Francisco in 2017, in an alternate time track where Hillary Clinton won the election and Mr. Trump’s political ambitions were thwarted, and London in the 22nd century, after decades of cataclysmic events have killed 80 percent of humanity. In the present-day San Francisco setting, a shadowy start-up hires a young woman named Verity to test a new product: a “cross-platform personal avatar” that was developed by the military as a form of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, characters in the distant future are interfering with the events unfolding in 2017, through technological time travel that allows them to send digital communications to the past.”

New York Times book review »

“I am a fair witness, not a participant.”

“A fair witness is a character type from the 1961 science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land by the American author Robert A. Heinlein.”

“The novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who comes to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised by Martians. The novel explores his interaction with — and eventual transformation of — terrestrial culture.”

“Several later editions of the book have promoted it as “the most famous science fiction novel ever written”. While initially a success among science fiction readers, over the following years word-of-mouth caused sales to build, requiring numerous subsequent printings after the first edition. Eventually Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult classic.”

“A fair witness is a fictional profession invented for the novel. A fair witness is an individual trained to observe events and report exactly what he or she sees and hears, making no extrapolations or assumptions. A photographic memory is a prerequisite for the job, although this may be attainable with suitable training.”

“In Heinlein’s society, a fair witness is an absolutely reputable source of information. By custom, a fair witness acting professionally, generally wearing distinctive white robes, is never addressed directly, and is never acknowledged by anyone present.”

“A fair witness is prohibited from drawing conclusions about what they observe. For example, a character in the book is asked to describe the color of a house seen in the distance. The character responds, “It’s white on this side”; whereupon it is explained that one would not assume knowledge of the color of the other sides of the house without being able to see them. Furthermore, after observing another side of the house one should not then assume that any previously seen side was still the same color as last reported, even if only minutes before.”

I found this on FAIR WITNESS: Street Photography for the 21st Century. The attributed Wikipedia but I couldn’t find this description there.

Our extended self

I’m rereading Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

“If I re-google my own email (stored in a cloud) to find out what I said (which I do) or rely on the cloud for my memory, where does my “I” end and the cloud start? If all the images of my life, and all the snippets of my interests, and all of my notes and all my chitchat with friends, and all my choices, and all my recommendations, and all my thoughts, and all my wishes — if all this is sitting somewhere, but nowhere in particular, it changes how I think of myself. […] The cloud is our extended soul. Or, if you prefer, our extended self.”

My relationship with the cloud has changed how I think about who or what I am. The best example of that is my fetish for saving excerpts from my favorite books in Google Docs. A few of those ideas might have stuck in the mush between my ears but not many.

Today I can open up Google Docs, enter a word or phrase (consciousness, self, universe, time, reality, media, etc) and instantly pull up every instance of that in every book or article I’ve read (and saved). And, increasingly, I’m linking these excerpts (someday Google will do that for me if I want).

Like Mr. Kelly, it doesn’t feel like Google et al are (is?) replacing my memory or intelligence so much as expanding and enhancing it.

Homo Deus: Dataism

This is the third of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The second post, free will and consciousness. The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on new religions that might replace the old.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.


The new religions are unlikely to emerge from the caves of Afghanistan or from the madrasas of the Middle East. Rather, they will emerge from research laboratories. […] Despite all the talk of radical Islam and Christian fundamentalism, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not the Islamic State or the Bible Belt, but Silicon Valley. That’s where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us brave new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology.

These new techno-religions can be divided into two main types: techno-humanism and data religion. Data religion argues that humans have completed their cosmic task and should now pass the torch on to entirely new kinds of entities. Techno-humanism still sees humans as the apex of creation and clings to many traditional humanist values […] but concludes we should use technology to create Homo deus — a much superior model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. (With the help of genetic engineering, nanotechnology and brain-computer interfaces.

What might replace desires and experiences as the source of all meaning and authority? Information. The most interesting emerging religion is Dataism.

Data (has been) seen as only the first step in a long chain of intellectual activity. Humans were supposed to distil data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom. However, Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flows of data.

Dataism is most firmly entrenched in its two mother disciplines: computer science and biology.

As data-processing conditions change again in the twenty-first century, democracy might decline and even disappear. As both volume and speed of data increase, venerable institutions like elections, political parties and parliaments might become obsolete — not because they are unethical, but because the can’t process data efficiently enough.

In the early twenty-first century politics is bereft of grand visions. Government has become mere administration. It manages the country, but no longer leads it. Government ensures that teachers are paid on time and sewage systems don’t overflow, but it has no idea where the country will be in twenty years.

We often imagine that democracy and the free market won because they were ‘good’. In truth, they won because they improved the global data-processing system.

Dataism is the first movement since 1789 that created a genuinely novel value: freedom of information.

Homo Deus: Free Will and Consciousness

This is the second of three posts featuring excerpts from the new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow). The first post dealt with traditional religions, creeds and ‘isms.’ The excerpts below are some of Dr. Harari’s thoughts on the concepts of free will and consciousness.

The obvious problem with posting selected excerpts the the absence of contest which you can only get by reading the book. I encourage you to do so.


Free will exists only in the imaginary stores we humans have invented. […] (The question is not whether humans) can act upon their inner desires — the question is whether they can choose their desires in the first place.

I feel a particular wish welling up within me because this is the feeling created by the biochemical processes in my brain. […] I don’t choose my desires. I only feel them, and act accordingly.

Once we accept that there is no soul and that humans have no inner essence called ‘the self’, it no longer makes sense to ask, ‘How does the self choose its desires?’ […] There is only a stream of consciousness, and desires arise and pass away within this stream, but there is no permanent self that owns the desires.

If I am indeed the master of my thoughts and decisions, can I decide not to think about anything at all for the next sixty seconds?

(There are) at least two different selves within us: the experiencing self and the narrating self. The experiencing self is our moment-to-moment consciousness. The narrating self is forever busy spinning yarns about the past and making plans for the future. […] It doesn’t narrate everything, and usually weaves the story using only peak moments and end results. […] Most of us identify with our narrating self. When we say ‘I’, we mean the story in our head not the onrushing stream of experiences we undergo. […] We always retain the feeling that we have a single unchanging identity from birth to death (and perhaps even beyond).

If you want to make people believe in imaginary entities such as gods and nations, you should make them sacrifice something valuable.

Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with sbits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. […] But in the end, they are all just stories.

Every moment the biochemical mechanisms of the brain create a flash of experience, which immediately disappears. Then more flashes appear and fade, appear and fade, in quick succession. These momentary experiences do not add up to any enduring essence.

Homo Deus: Religion

One measure of a good (non-fiction) book is how much highlighting and underlining I do. The new book by Yuval Harari (Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow) filled seven pages so I won’t include all of the excerpts here. The link above will take you to a Google Doc that has them all.

Like his previous book (Sapiens), Homo Deus made me think about a lot of Big Ideas in fresh, new and sometimes uncomfortable ways. He makes some bold predictions but presents them more in terms of trends and in this regard the book reminded me of Kevin Kelley’s The Inevitable. Dr. Harari specializes in World History and macro-historical processes. (Wikipedia)

And the “macro-historical” perspective is what really grabbed in this book. It was good to be jolted out of my ‘election cycle’ time frame. I’ll probably do two or three posts on this book just to keep them from getting impossible long.

I came away with a new — and much broader — understanding of religion which Harari defines as: “any all-encompassing story that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms and values.”

He includes Liberalism, Communism and other modern creeds but one quickly understand from context that he’s not talking about “liberals vs. conservatives” in the narrow sense of American politics.

“Liberals, communists and followers of other modern creeds dislike describing their own system as a ‘religion’, because they identify religion with superstitions and supernatural powers. If you tell communists or liberals that they are religious, they think you’re accusing them of blindly believing in groundless pipe dreams. In fact, it means only that they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, but humans must nevertheless obey.”

This topic gets really interesting in the final chapter of the book but we’ll save that for another post.


The communist laws of history are similar to the commandments of the Christian God, inasmuch as they are superhuman forces that humans cannot change at will. According to Marx, we cannot change the laws of history.

Religion is a tool for preserving social order and for organising large-scale cooperation. […] Without the guiding hand of some religion, it is impossible to maintain large-scale social orders.

Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. […] If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you’ll burn in hell. […] Spiritual journeys take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations (Who am I?). […] For religions, spirituality is a dangerous threat.

Religion is interested above all in order. Science is interested above all in power (e.g. to cure diseases, fight wars and produce food.)

Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal. Humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.

Is economic growth more important than family bonds? By presuming to make such ethical judgements, free-market capitalism has crossed the border from the land of science into that of religion.

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. The revolutionary technologies of the twenty-first century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds.

Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that ‘Islam is the answer’, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. […] Hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by backward-looking masses.

In the early twenty-first century the train of progress is again pulling out of the station — and this will probably be the last train to ever leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. In order to get a seat on it you need to understand twenty-first-century technology, and in particular the powers of biotechnology and computer algorithms. […] If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his few remaining disciples to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the Internet and the human genome.

Ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the twentieth century? That’s a difficult question, because it is hard to choose from a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers, and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: what was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of traditional religions such as Islam and Christianity in the twentieth century? This too is a very difficult question, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and muftis discover in the twentieth century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, from where do you think the big changes of the twenty-first century will emerge: from the Islamic State, or Google?

The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

From Bacteria to Bach and Back

From Bacteria to Back and Back. The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel C. Dennett. The book’s cover teased me with “How did we come to have minds?” The author dragged me through 300 pages of “groundwork” before providing anything I could recognize as an answer. But I took notes (below), if underlining counts as taking notes. And here’s a review by Thomas Nagel. And a 45 minute audio interview at The Big Think.

The immaterial mind, the conscious thinking thing that we know intimately through introspection, is somehow in communication with the material brain, which provides all the input but not of the understanding or experience. 

Can there be reasons without a reasoner, designs without a designer? (Dennett says yes)

A central feature of human interaction, and one of the features unique to our species, is the activity of asking others to explain themselves, to justify their choices and actions, and then judging, endorsing, rebutting their answers, in recursive rounds of the “why?”

Natural selection doesn’t have a mind, doesn’t itself have reasons. […] For instance, there are reasons why termite colonies have the features they do, but the termites do not have or represent reasons, and their excellent designs are not products of an intelligent designer.

Turing showed that it was possible to design mindless machines that were Absolutely Ignorant, but that could do arithmetic perfectly. […] He foresaw that there was a traversable path from Absolute Ignorance to Artificial Intelligence. […] Both Darwin and Turing claim to have discovered something truly unsettling to a human mind — competence without comprehension.

Why and how did human-style comprehension arrive on the scene?

Ontology – the set of “things” a person believes to exist.

Comprehension is an emergent effect of systems of uncomprehending competence.

What is consciousness for (if anything)? If unconscious processes are fully competent to perform all the cognitive operations of perception and control.

Information is always relative to what the receiver already knows.

If DNA can convey information about how to build a nest without any terms for “build” and “nest,” why couldn’t a nervous system do something equally inscrutable?

Intentional mind-clearing, jettisoning information or habits that endanger one’s welfare, is not an unusual phenomenon, sometimes called unlearning. […] The brain’s job in perception is to filter out, discard, and ignore all but the noteworthy features of the flux of energy striking one’s sensory organs.

One of Darwin’s most important contributions to thought was his denial of  essentialism, the ancient philosophical doctrine that claimed for each type of thing, each natural kind, there is an essence, a set of necessary and sufficient properties for being that kind of thing.

Children learn about seven words a day, on average, from birth to age six.

Understanding a word is not the same as having acquired a definition of it.

Words don’t exist,  strictly speaking. They have no mass, no energy, no chemical composition.

Memes are transmitted perceptually, not genetically.

Words are memes that can be pronounced.

“In terms of the brain, we know that concepts are somehow stored there, but we have little idea of exactly how.”

The acquisition of a language — and of memes more generally — is very much like the installation of a predesigned software app of considerable power, like Adobe Photoshop, a tool for professionals with many layers that most amateur users never encounter.

We may “know things” in one part of our brain that cannot be accessed by other parts of the brain when needed. The practice of talking to yourself creates new channels for communication that may, on occasion, tease the hidden knowledge into the open.

Nature makes heavy use of the Need to Know principle, and designs highly successful, adept, even cunning creatures who have no idea what they are doing or why.

Our thinking is enabled by the installation of a virtual machine made of virtual machines made of virtual machines.

We learn about others from hearing or reading what they say to us, and that’s how we learn about ourselves as well.

“We speak not only to tell others what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think.” — John Hughlings Jackson

Bare meanings, with no words yet attached, (can) occupy our attention in consciousness.

Evolution has given us a gift (the mind?) that sacrifices literal truth for utility.

(The mind is) that thinking thing with which you are so intimately acquainted that is hardly distinguishable from you, yourself. No wonder we are reluctant to see it as illusory; if it is illusory, so are we!

If free will is an illusion then so are (we).

Human consciousness is unlike all other varieties of animal consciousness in that it is a product in large part of cultural evolution, which installs a bounty of words and many other thinking tools in our brains, creating thereby a cognitive architecture unlike the “bottom-up” minds of animals. By supplying our minds with systems of representations, this architecture furnishes each of us with a perspective—a user-illusion—from which we have a limited, biased access to the workings of our brains, which we involuntarily misinterpret as a rendering of both the world’s external properties (colors, aromas, sounds,. . . ) and many of our own internal responses (expectations satisfied, desires identified, etc.).

Deep learning will not give us — in the next fifty years — anything like the “superhuman intelligence” that has attracted so much alarmed attention recently. […] I have always affirmed that “strong AI” is “possible in principle” — but I viewed it as a negligible practical possibility, because it would cost too much and not give us anything we really needed.

The real danger, I think, is not that machines more intelligent than we are will usurp our roles as captains of our destinies, but that we will over-estimate the comprehension of our latest thinking tools, prematurely ceding authority to them far beyond their competence.

When you are interacting with a computer, you should know you are interacting with a computer. Systems that deliberately conceal their shortcuts and gaps of incompetence should be deemed  fraudulent, and their creators should go to jail for committing the crime of creating or using an artificial intelligence that impersonates a human being.