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Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

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