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Hyperstition Americana

I like Lana Del Rey. She’s not super hot, and she's not a great singer — but she’s become an entity that is “super hot” and “great singer.” That’s true art.

She succeeded in the political game of occupying both of those categories, all the more impressively because she did it through an elaborate persona constructed out of thin air. Nobody thinks of her alongside someone like Andy Kaufman, but she’s more similar to Kaufman than she is similar to your typical female pop star. If you look at someone like Madonna, people always knew she was a performance artist. If you look at someone like Taylor Swift, she has achieved a remarkably duplicitous public image, but that’s mostly the work of her corporate leaders. The achievement of Lana Del Rey is epic mass deception, a conspiracy in plain sight, a long-term gaslighting of the entire spectacle, and by her own hand: True Art.

I admire this, it’s far more interesting and impressive than someone who just happens to be super hot and a great singer. Anyone can be blessed with those things. How many normal people with modest gifts for the criteria under selection, will use deep creative fabrications to counterfeit them on such a scale that nobody is powerful enough to stop it? You might only get a few of those per decade.

Is Facebook the Largest Corporate Fraud Ever?

Jaw-dropping new post up today on Naked Capitalism, “Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg’s Fake Accounts Ponzi Scheme,” by Aaron Greenspan.

Best quotes:

Old money goes out, and new money comes in to replace it. That’s how a traditional Ponzi scheme works. Madoff kept his going for decades, managing to attain the rank of Chairman of the NASDAQ while he was at it...

Zuckerberg’s version is slightly different, but only slightly: old users leave after getting bored, disgusted and distrustful, and new users come in to replace them. Except that as Mark’s friend and lieutenant, Sam Lessin told us, the “new users” part of the equation was already getting to be a problem in 2012. On October 26, Lessin, wrote, “we are running out of humans (and have run-out of valuable humans from an advertiser perspective)...”

A comprehensive look back at Facebook’s disclosures suggests that of the company’s 12 billion total accounts ever created, about 10 billion are fake...

Facebook is growing the fastest in the locations worldwide where one finds the most fraud. In other other words, Facebook isn’t growing anymore at all—it’s shrinking...

Facebook has been telling advertisers that it can “reach” more people than actually exist…

Facebook is a real product, but like Enron, it’s also a scam, now the largest corporate scandal ever...

Never heard about any of this, until now. Seems huge if true.

Unfair Competition (How Academia Got Pwned 13)

This is the thirteenth post in a series about the glorious completion of my academic career, the internet, and the future of intellectual life. It's going to become a book, so for updates be sure to subscribe.


You are probably reading the first and only blog that a university has ever accused of unfair competition. Congratulations, dear reader. I couldn't have done it without you.

In the last section on my departure narrative, I skipped ahead somewhat, as I was approaching (in real life) my hearing for "gross misconduct." Before that, I had only brought you up to the point of my suspension. In #5, I analyzed the evidence provided in support of my Dean's claim that I was harming the university's reputation. But the posts after that went into some other parallel lines of inquiry while, in real life, the events of my narrative were rapidly approaching their climax.

At the time of this writing, it's now official: I am no longer an employee of the University of Southampton. I will explain how this all came to an end, but first we need to circle back and fill in some gaps in the narrative thus far.

One of the reasons I chose the exit strategy I chose is that I'm now extremely free to share details that I would not be allowed to share right now if I decided to fight this with a lawyer. You're welcome, dear reader.

The gaps I need to fill are between my initial suspension (October 2, 2018) and my hearing for gross misconduct (scheduled February 13, 2019). There were two separate investigation meetings conducted in the period of my suspension. The first was on Friday 2nd November 2018.

There were two notable features of the first investigation meeting that took place after my suspension. Just like the first meeting (before my suspension), the guy simply amassed a dossier of copypasta capturing things I've said and done on the internet, and asked me about them in that stern FBI tone he probably learned watching crime shows. With all due respect to the guy — a very nice and fair man, bless him — my main impression was that he seemed utterly confused about what the frick had been placed in his lap. I got the impression he wanted to start by asking: "First, what is a Twitter?" Instead, he just shoved a bunch of screenshots in my face and asked me to explain what I meant. It was surreal how innocuous were many of the items. Consider the following item from my mile-long rap-sheet, which I'm screenshotting from the final report of the investigation.

Imagine a very concerned Boomer sliding a screenshot of this tweet across the table, and asking "Could you explain what you meant by this?"

I was like, "Huh? That's all it means, I support student activism. I always have. Students should be free to criticize professors, even publicly, I applaud this." To this day, I still cannot even guess what esoteric meaning he thought this one could have had. It was stunning to learn just how badly university administrators are genuinely confused and paranoid about the most straightforward of internet communications.

Then things took a turn toward creepy. It appears that expressing doubts about the viability of academia is itself a punishable offense. When the questioning turned in this direction, again I couldn't even see what they were concerned about; it was only in the third investigation that I was able to decode this line of inquiry. Only later would I discover that they were beginning to investigate a possible breach of "the duty of fidelity." Do people realize academics have a duty of fidelity to their employers? I sure didn't; I had never heard of that, and I certainly never would have signed any pledge of fidelity. Here is a piece of evidence I was confronted with in Meeting 2 (again, 'capped from the hearing documentation):

They basically just asked me "What did you mean by that?" and I answered "Exactly what it says," regarding everything they brought to the table. It was pretty clear I didn't even need to be there. My physical presence was necessary to rubber-stamp the meeting as having taken place, but it was clearly a machinic process in which the purpose and outcome was perfectly impermeable to any combination of noises I might emit.

Apparently, being open to exit options is a punishable offense. As I reported in a previous post, at the time when my Dean handed me my suspension letter, I informed her explicitly that getting suspended would make me money on the internet. Confronted with this unfortunate little molehill in the intellectual topography today, they must have sent a lackey to go find some ordinance that prohibits it. A few weeks later, after I started blogging all the details of the story, the university launched a whole new, additional investigation. In their words:

"the investigation is to explore allegations that through social media posts (provided to JM on 24.01.2019) that JM:
• breached the duty of confidence; and/or
• breached the implied duty of fidelity; and/or
• breached the implied duty of mutual trust and confidence; and/or
• brought the University into disrepute.
"

I couldn't find anything about fidelity in the ordinance they cited. I guess that's why they call it "implied." But with my PhD it only took a few minutes of Googling to resolve what was going on here. In case law, the implied duty of fidelity is what prohibits an employee from taking business from the employer:

"A number of potential aspects of the duty of fidelity, including a duty not to compete with the employer, have been identified in case law... These issues often arise in "team move" situations, where a number of employees who work in the same business decide to leave and join a competitor, often with assistance from the new employer, or set up a competing business themselves." (Thompson Reuters Practical Law)

Because I was writing about what was happening in the university, and people from the public were giving me money for it, they must have realized what I was trying to warn them of: Their entire business model is in serious trouble. If they were intelligent, autonomous agents, then upon realizing this they would have taken my advice and not have suspended me. Of course, being what they are, they could do nothing other than escalate their own doomed institution to the highest possible level of self-ownage, by confirming and enshrining the accuracy of my vague wager in the majestic aura of their own legal strategy. Thus, likely for the first time ever (as far as I know), a university built a formal legal case to the effect that a single academic's blogging was unfair competition.

Let's start by savoring the irony of their two-pronged legal strategy. On the one hand: "Justin, you're awful words and inappropriate antics are harming the university's reputation." On the other hand: "How dare you enjoy a good reputation without us!"

So this is how academia gets pwned, ladies and gentlemen. If you wonder aloud whether academia is the best way to constitute a free intellectual life, people dissatisfied with academia will throw you money to encourage this line of inquiry, while academia will... make it harder to constitute a free intellectual life. It doesn't require advanced game theory to see the ineluctable equilibrium on the horizon, once the intellectually ambitious start to downgrade their valuation of status relative to independence. When I look at the dynamics of influence and attention, I see the relative payoff of status decreasing and that of independence increasing (1 , 2, just to cite a few places where I've developed these observations). Ergo, stick a fork in it, baby!

I would not put any money on some kind of institutional course-correction, because even when they realize they've owned themselves, they are structurally barred from responding in any way other than owning themselves at a higher level. Academia is so pwned already that I didn't even need to bait it into a final round of self-destruction in order for my own exit plans to enjoy a satisfactorily high probability of success. I could afford to walk away, even before the university was done hitting itself with my hand. Unfair competition, indeed, so unfair I honestly started to feel bad.

And I assure you, the university was eager to hit itself with my hand at least one more time. In fact, the university is very lucky I'm not the attention whore my haters accuse me of being. Lucky for them that I would rather theorize this process in peace and quiet, than sacrifice myself on the altar of accelerating it. I am no saint, dear reader. I am now but a commoner, a peasant. It would have been easy for me to accelerate the process more aggressively, but then I would very likely be embroiled in a busy, exhausting, dizzying media spectacle of one kind or another, instead of writing this blog post with calm glee. Truly, at the end of the day, I only wish to till my own soil. That's all I've ever asked, dear reader. Instead of trying to accelerate the downfall of academia single-handedly — an Icarian dream, no doubt — it seems at once wiser and more radical for me to lay bare the system's underlying mechanics to the best of my ability, allowing dozens of others, potentially hundreds of others, to accelerate the process as well. With the knowledge I've gleaned from the belly of this beast, at the outer-most edges of its contemporary development, together we will accelerate the process without anyone ever having to fly too close to the sun.

Personal Genomics and Internet Intellectualism with Razib Khan

Razib Khan is a geneticist, blogger, and man about the internet. Razib is the kind of extremely online intellectual we like here at Other Life. Razib has written for publications including The New York Times, India Today, National Review Online, Slate, and The Guardian. You can find him at razib.com, Gene Expression, and the podcast The Insight.

Razib and I talked about the present and near-future of personal genomics; why Razib thinks Elizabeth Warren's genetic claims are reasonable (though Razib is a conservative); is 23andme worth it?; how sperm banks work; why skilled immigrants don't want to stay in the US anymore; why Razib doesn't like science videos on Youtube, etc. We also discussed academia vs. the internet, and different monetization models for intellectual work.

This conversation was first recorded as a livestream on Youtube. You can subscribe to my channel with one click, then click the bell to receive notifications when future livestreams begin.

As always, big thanks to all my patrons — I really could not keep all this running without you.

Download this episode.

Audience structure on the Left and Right of new indy media

It looks to me like the audience structure of public intellectuals and/or "content creators" differs across the Right and Left. Right-leaning writers/creators in contemporary culture seem to enjoy a larger variety of wide pyramids (anti-establishment populism), whereas left-leaning writers/creators produce for a smaller number of taller pyramids (prestige hierarchies). As Oliver Traldi recently discussed — I think his article was the proximal trigger for this post — Jordan Peterson and Chapo Trap House may even have an oddly overlapping target market. But whereas right-leaning figures — e.g., Mike Cernovich, Scott Adams and many, many others one or two notches down — enjoy huge audiences of lower-status people, there seem to be way fewer left-leaning content creators who eek out decent little livings from obscure Youtube channels or whatever.

On the left, most intellectual/entertainment attention is channeled into a smaller number of institutions considered legitimate, namely academic institutions, a small number of presses such as Verso, a small number of big podcasts such as Chapo Trap House, and a few small outlets such as Jacobin and the like. These left-leaning attention pyramids seem more premised on institutionalized forms of cachet. Whether that cachet is found in academic credentials or socialist hipster capital, it seems that individual lefties seem to distribute their attention in a way that is more conditional on what the other comrades consider good. People who are as far right as DSA members are far left watch whatever batshit Youtuber most satisfies their individual, idiosyncratic palates, but seemingly all the lefties on the hunt for something a little naughty converge on Chapo, rather than a whole bunch of different Chapos for their various consumer predilections.

Assuming my observation is at least partially consistent with the data, which I haven't checked, the question is why?

Leftists will say "capitalist ideology" and Koch-brothers funding and so on, and there is often some truth in some of these common takes.

I think the main explanatory factor is that social status conditions intellectual attention and deference very differently on the Left and Right. Roughly, it's a crucial and ineluctable principle of selection and attention on the Left, but less so on the Right. (Each one obviously has internal status hierarchies, I'm just talking about the degree to which social status = attention). Because the Left is supposed to be morally enlightened relative to the status quo, then within the Left, that which is the most morally enlightened deserves the most attention and deference. "Enlightened" or "moral" is interchangeable with "cool" or cultural capital, these are really just different labels for social standing. There is a particularly interesting and perverse layer here, which I might comment on briefly without getting too sidetracked, which is that one of the factors shaping what's cool on the Left is how likely something is to gain power (it's not really enlightened morally unless it's a real threat to capitalism, or appears to be closer to threatening than all the rest of the stuff that has no teeth). For this reason, simple coolness/fashion dynamics get loaded with intellectual and moral gravitas: if some radical Left thing gains cachet, well of course you see through mere fashion appeal but if the kids are excited about it then it's your duty to support it, because to win we need something that catches on...

In other words, I am kind of curious how many of the Chapo patrons are young men who would quite prefer something a little edgier, but this is as edgy as they can get away with while keeping their feminist-careerist wife or that philosophy grad student they're sleeping with. The people who watch the cacophony of figures from Alex Jones all the way to mild-mannered liberal Dave Rubin are not any less concerned with their social identity, as if they are above such concerns, it's just that they're generally more detached from competition for high status. They're more or less adapted to whatever status they have, whereas very many activated leftists are status insecure, trying really hard to be upwardly mobile (e.g., their parents were poor and they'll say and do anything not to be), or negotiating inescapable downward mobility (e.g., their parents were comfortable profs and they tried but will not be). The activated left is just filled with these types of people, who fight tooth and nail for the lowest rungs of high status. If you've never been there, you cannot understand the amount of constraint and discipline it imposes on your personal lifestyle choices, especially around intellectual and entertainment consumption choices, because these are one of the coins you can trade up for admiration, sex, jobs, etc.

This might be why the left contains a smaller number of intellectuals/creators and each will enjoy proportionally larger audiences (proportional to the population with that degree of ideology) in part because those audiences are somewhat "captured" by the risk-aversion enforced by intense competition for high status. This is why there can only be a few big-money podcasts such as Chapo, whereas there seem to be way more right-leaners making that kind of money or more: There is only so much DSA / socialist Brooklyn cultural capital to go around before creative forking efforts would dilute that capital to structurally unsustainable levels — for the dilution of one's Left status to structurally unsustainable manifests concretely as a vague defection to right-wing populism, no matter what the actual beliefs of the person involved.

You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base with a "Chapo but for IQ realists" or "Chapo but with a taste for Moldbug" — trust me, I'm trying. 🙂 But then you can't stay in good standing on the Left (meaning even if some leftists like you, most can't tell their friends about you, which for people in cut-throat competition for the low rungs of high status, means they just can't listen to you). You can syphon off a subset of the Chapo patron base while staying in good standing on the Left, but your room for differentiation is so constrained that you'll have a hard time constituting a fundamentally unique product different than what Chapo is providing. This is why you do see a few Chapo-like podcasts out there but they are tiny or they fade out. Anyway, this is my best shot at a possible explanation for why the Right can somehow fund a huge number of idiosyncratic intellectuals/creators with big populist audiences but the Left appears to have only a few. I'm not even too sure about the data, to be honest, so caveat emptor — I just wanted to lay out some of these hypotheses I've had for a little while now.

Against the Epistemic Status

I've been considering the idea of assigning an "epistemic status" to each of my blog posts, in the fashion of Scott Alexander. Basically: adding an addendum at the top of each blog post indicating the degree to which I really believe what is said in the blog post. Perhaps I no longer believe what I wrote a year ago — in that case, I might add an epistemic status warning readers that I no longer believe it. That's the idea.

I've decided I'm against epistemic statuses. TLDR: I think at best they are useless, begging the problem they seek to address; and at worst, I think they could very well decrease the total, long-run truth-value obtained within a writing/reading community.

The epistemic status gives a false sense of rigor and humility. One reason is because there's no epistemic status for the epistemic status. An ES is not a confidence interval, derived by some transparent calculation procedure. It is probably more subjective and error-prone than the full blog post. One reason I never post an ES — when I've sometimes had the urge to, especially after weaker posts — is that I always feel so radically unsure of my post-writing impressions that for an ES to actually increase the transparency/reliability of the post, I feel like I'd have to say I'm also utterly unsure of the ES, and so on to infinite regression. Thus, tacking on an ES at the top of the article feels to me primarily like rational self-skepticism/humility-signaling, which doesn't in any way solve the problem. Also, from the reader's perspective, the epistemic status begs the question of how reliable any blog post is, because they still have to decide whether they trust the epistemic status. For new visitors, the epistemic status therefore solves no problem, and merely adds text while bumping the trust/credibility problem up a level.

The practice of adding post-hoc epistemic statuses lends to the entire blog an impression of always being epistemically up to date, but I don't feel I will ever have the time or conscientiousness to really keep all the posts' epistemic statuses up to date with my current judgment. Therefore if I simply overlook some old posts I don't really care about anymore, and readers see there is no epistemic status downgrading them, they might reasonably infer I still fully own those beliefs.

For return visitors and regular readers of a blog, the ES is essentially an appeal to one's own authority, a cashing-in on past trust and cultural capital earned by the author's substantive content.

Ultimately, every claim I make, or inference I imply, nested in every article I write, nested in every collection of articles, has to be given some level of credence by each individual reader. Whether one line is a joke or not, whether one claim is likely to be true or mistaken — these are questions every reader must make for themselves based on whatever information they have about my claims, and the project I'm embarked on, and my reliability as a source. Assigning an ES to each unit I publish would be to lull the reader's vigilance into an unjustifiably comfortable slumber. It might make them feel like I can take care of their meta-rationality for them, when in fact it's an irreducible existential burden for all thinking adults. I don't want my readers to feel like they are cast adrift in the wilderness, but alas they are. So I don't really want to make them feel otherwise.

I think the normal presumptions about the nature of blogging are meta-rationally superior to epistemic statuses. It's just a blog: take everything with a huge grain of salt, but if something is really well demonstrated and supported then believe it, as you see fit. If you see a post from three years ago, of course the author has probably changed their views to some degree. The best response to this is to read more contemporary posts, to judge for yourself what this author really thinks on the whole. If a reader doesn't care to do this, no epistemic status is going to ensure their initial exposure is lodged into their long-term memory correctly. Such a person will either never remember the blog post or, if they are so unwise as to memorize and repeat to their friends something I reported in one blog post three years ago, I suspect they would bulldoze right over even the most cautious epistemic status warnings.

Better is to just put super-wide confidence intervals on everything one writes. Some things I say will be dumb, biased, and/or mistaken. But some things I write will — hopefully — get closer to way bigger truths than I can even appreciate! If you assign epistemic statuses to your blog posts, you really should also say when and where you think you are super correct. Most sane people will not want to place at the top of a blog post "Epistemic status: I feel a 5% chance that the claims below could change the course of world history." But any serious and passionate intellectual gets some taste of this genuine feeling every now and then! Thus, if this epistemic status business does not include such self-aggrandizing caveats, that too might be systematically biasing. I'd rather just give one big caveat about my whole body of writing, that it is merely the inspired guesswork of one person trying their best to be correct. Implicitly, some stuff will be more wrong than it might seem, and some stuff will be even more right than it seems. The only commitment one needs to make is to do one's best, in a way that updates moving forward, rather than attempting to move backward with post-hoc re-evaluations.

I admit that some of my intuition on this question is due to my temperament: I like to work fast, always move forward, never look back. I can do the disciplined work of editing but I'm not exceptionally high in Orderliness; I run mostly on the dopaminergic movements of exploration, inspiration and creation, adding just enough conscientiousness to complete things responsibly. As far as bloggers and "content creators" go, I'm high-variance: I put out a lot of high-quality stuff that I take very seriously, but I also put out a lot of random stuff sometimes bordering on bad comedy. So part of what I wrote above is just rationalizing all of this. But this is also my personal alternative to the epistemic status: self-conscious reflections weaved immanently into any given unit of production.

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