Mindful Cyborgs: A Positive Vision of Transhumanism and AI with Damien Williams

This week Damien Williams — aka Wolven — joined me to talk about pop culture portrayals of human enhancement and artificial intelligence and why we need to craft more nuanced narratives to explore these topics. Damien has been exploring the subject extensively at A Future Worth Thinking About.

Tune in next week to hear Damien talk about how AI and transhumanism intersects with magic and the occult.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Mindful Cyborgs: A Positive Vision of Transhumanism and AI with Damien Williams

On the State of “Careers”

Is digital journalism a viable career? Financial journalist and media pundit Felix Salmon says no.

His lengthy and dismal assessment of the future of journalism as a career path — ie, a job where your salary increases over time and you make enough money to support a family — was, shall we say, widely panned by other journalists who think he’s being a negative nancy and discouraging young people from entering the field. Personally, I think things are even worse than Salmon says.

Now, Salmon and I are in pretty good posiitons. Him more so than I, but neither of us is cranking out Examiner.com articles for $0 a pop just to build a portfolio in hopes of landing a staff writer job at a community newspaper that pays less than an entry level job at Home Depot. Neither of us is cranking out 10+ “stories” a day for a clickbait site just to make rent. Neither one of us just got laid off from a major urban daily after 20 years. We’re part of the lucky few that get paid a living wage, or better, to produce journalism.

But it’s not just journalism. The entire economy is now geared towards turning humans into fungible commodities. And it’s hard to build a career in an environment where there’s no point in asking for a raise because there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who would do your job for even less than you do.

This is nothing new to billions of manual laborers who are used to being treated like cogs in a machine. But once upon a time unions were able to help workers actually band together to demand things like predictable hours and livable working conditions. That has changed. but the do what you love mantra managed to turn those few jobs that robots can’t yet do into sub-minimum wage gigs that require graduate degrees.

You might think you can escape this fate by becoming a programmer. But code bootcamps are cranking out hundreds of people who can crank out CRUD apps all day. And when you start to go grey, the tech industry will toss you out like an 8-track tape.

I don’t mean to imply that all precariat — from the middle class white guy with a PhD to Rwandan woman who came to the U.S. with nothing — are equally affected by this mechanization of humanity. But we are all affected.

The answer isn’t in picking the right career for the machine age. It’s changing the system.

Chronic Fatigue Century

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a blanket term for a number of debilitating medical conditions that leave people exhausted all the time for no apparent reason. It’s not tied to any particular exertion. Rest doesn’t make it better. Patients are just left crushingly tired, often unable to get out of bed, and we don’t really know why.

Science is finally making some progress towards diagnosing and understanding at least some forms of the syndrome as an immune system disorder. But because it has historically been so hard to properly diagnose — and because people are dicks — it’s been dismissed as a purely psychological issue, as if that would make it any less serious. According to Wikipedia “many patients and advocacy groups, as well as some experts, believe the name trivializes the medical condition and they promote a name change.”

A new name would be clarifying. Then perhaps we can repurpose the term, because “chronic fatigue” seems to perfectly describe our epoch.

Unlike medical chronic fatigue syndrome, our societal fatigue does stem from exertion. But we can’t get the rest that we need. About 73 percent of Americans sleep less than eight hours a night. Not only do we take fewer vacations than the rest of the industrialized world, but we are taking fewer and fewer as the years grind on. It’s not much better if you’re un or underemployed. Poverty is exhausting. We’re willing to work but too tired to hustle.

To compensate, we’ve gone from coffee to Red Bull to Five Hour Energy to modafinil. As soon as DARPA perfects its sleepless serum we’ll move on to that.

We’ve got Kickstarter fatigue, social media stream fatigue, outrage fatigue, crisis fatigue, donor fatigue, future fatigue… fuck, I think I’ve probably got fatigue fatigue at this point.

Maybe it started with 9/11. Maybe it was the financial crisis. Or maybe it was earlier, with Y2K. All I know is that I’m bone tired, and I don’t see any rest on the horizon and that just about everyone I know feels the same way.

But maybe that’s how we start to get better. First we admit that we have a problem. Then maybe we can find a way to collectively pull the plug on this treadmill.

Mindful Cyborgs: Meme Culture, Writing, Contemplation, and Parenting with Paul Ford

Writer and programmer Paul Ford joins us again to talk about Buzzfeed, biking as contemplation and future-proofing his kids.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Meme Culture, Writing, Contemplation, and Parenting with Paul Ford, Part 2

Almond errata

I’ve found a better source of information on how much water almonds use and now have a better estimate of how much water per gram of fat and protein it takes to grow them. It’s about four times what I’d originally estimated, which makes them nowhere near as efficient as I’d originally estimated. Which makes sense — I always thought those numbers were wrong.

But even having adjusted those numbers, almonds are still slightly more efficient in terms of fat per gallon of water than cow’s milk, and use about half the amount of water per gram of protein as beef. So my original conclusion that beef is a far worse problem than almonds still stands, but I do now think almond farming is a problem.

Coconut milk appears to be a good alternative to almond milk, at least based on the So Delicious environmental footprint website. And based on the same report that I got my updated almond numbers from, hazelnuts use almost as much water, in total, as almonds, but use very little irrigated water.

Mindful Cyborgs: AnxietyBox, Alerts, and Attention with Paul Ford

This week on Mindful Cyborgs we talk with former Harper’s editor and hobbyist programmer Paul Ford about AnxietyBox, a tool he built to help manage his own anxiety.

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: AnxietyBox, Alerts, and Attention with Paul Ford, Part 1

Plus, I’m behind on our releases. It turns out the second part of our interview with Eleanor Saitta, in which we do a deeper dive on Nordic Larp, has been up for a couple weeks:

Why I think the anti-almond movement is overblown: beef is the real issue

I published some research I did on the water footprint of almonds compared to other foods on Medium. I’m pretty sure I messed something up, but it’s hard not to conclude that beef, not almonds, are the real issue in California’s drought.

Update: I redid the almond numbers based on a better source, and think I underestimated the amount of water per pound of almonds by about 4x. Here’s the new version of the conclusion to this piece:

There’s a pretty strong case against beef here. While almond critics like to point out that 10 percent of California’s water goes to almond farming, they don’t tend to mention that 50 percent goes towards livestock. While there’s no silver bullet answer to the drought crisis, it seems clear that best policy interventions would be those that curb beef production.

At the personal level, unless you have some medical condition that necessitates eating lots of beef, it seems hard to justify. Just cutting beef and lamb out of your diet would be almost as good as giving up meat altogether. But, as always, consult your doctor before making any sort of dietary changes.

Based on my math, almonds aren’t as bad as dairy milk or beef, but they certainly lag behind other alternatives, such as hazelnuts (which use almost as much water, but relatively little irrigation water) and coconut milk.

Those who want to err on the side of caution, but still want plant based alternatives, might consider diversifying their sources of fat. Personally, I’ve added pumpkin seeds and Oregon hazelnuts to my snack rotation, just to mix things up a little.

Full Story: Medium: Should I Quit Eating Almonds Because of the California Drought?

Please do keep on checking my math though!

Should legalizing weed be young people’s top priority?

One thing that’s bugging me about Vice‘s interview with Obama is that how dismissive the president is is about the importance of marijuana legalization.

“I understand this is important to you, but you should be thinking about climate change, the economy, jobs, war and peace,” he said. “Maybe way at the bottom you should be thinking about marijuana.”

He goes on to give an answer that’s surprisingly supportive of the idea of decriminalizing pot, and that’s been grabbing headlines all day. But is it fair to say that marijuana should be at the bottom of people’s list of political priorities?

Well, first of all, I don’t think it actually is young people’s top priority, it was just the question that got asked the most online in advance of the interview. People are interested to hear what the president has to say on the matter because he talks about it a lot less than he talks about the economy and ISIS. But even if it were their top priority, would they be wrong?

Drug policy touches almost every major issue of our time, from social justice to education to, most obviously, the economy. The benefits of legalization have been discussed to death, but we’re starting to see evidence of the effectiveness in Colorado, where tax revenues are strong and unemployment is low. I wasn’t able to easily find comparable information for Washington, but if you’re interested in creating jobs and improving tax revenues, you could sure do a lot worse than legalizing weed. Then there are the social justice benefits. As the president said in the interview, drug policies disproportionately affect people of color. Legalization could improve educational opportunities, since students who with marijuana convictions can lose their financial aid. The list goes on and on.

But most importantly, it’s a concrete and achievable policy idea. It’s low hanging fruit. If I had to pick one thing to make the world a more prosperous and just place, marijuana legalization would definitely be near the top of my list of ideas, not the bottom.

Shocked, But Not Surprised

That’s how I felt when I read about the the Chicago PD’s “black sites” last week. In fact, that seems to my perpetual state these days. From drone strikes and assassinations to the Snowden documents to the Zimmerman acquittal to the ongoing, relentless of women in the public sphere.

The shocks just keep mounting. A man sentenced to life in prison for delivering $20 worth of weed. Seven police officers and prosecutors lie and say a man assaulted a prosecutor. Junk science sends man to prison for life.

The truly disturbing thing about all of these things, I think, is that the perpetrators fully expected to get away with the things they did. I mean, the NSA has had whistle blower problems for 30 years. The Chicago PD knew the people they detained in their black sites wouldn’t stay there forever. Those police and prosecutors had to have known it was possible that the incident they lied about could have been filmed. But they all did — do — these things anyway. Because they know that they won’t face any serious repercussions for it. That’s the shock that just keeps reverberating.

Data-driven Introspection and Surveillance Culture with Eleanor Saitta

Latest Mindful Cyborgs:

Eleanor Saitta works professionally as a computer security expert, but more generally she “looks at how systems break” – computer, social, infrastructural, legal, and more. She comes on the show today to share a unique perspective on surveillance / security culture that we have found ourselves enmeshed in. Don’t miss this one (or part 2!).

Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Data-driven Introspection and Surveillance Culture with Eleanor Saitta

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