Max Barry is the author of seven novels and the creator of the popular online game NationStates. He also once found a sock full of pennies. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and two daughters. Sometimes he coaches kids' netball.

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Wed 07
Apr
2021

Thoughts On Whether A.I. Will Kill Us All

Providence Recently I read a 1,600-page book, “Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky. That’s a lot of pages. You wouldn’t be impressed if I read 160 ten-page books. I get through one whopper, though, that’s worth mentioning.

I usually dislike non-fiction, because it feels like cheating. I go to a lot of trouble to craft rich, internally logical dynamic systems of interacting people and parts, and some bozo comes along and just writes down what’s true. I feel like anyone can do that. But this non-fiction book was great, because it changed my most fundamental belief. (Previously, I thought the scientific method of investigation was the best way to figure out what’s true. Now I realize Bayesian inference is better.)

So that’s not bad. If I’m writing a book, any kind of book, and someone reads it and changes their most fundamental belief, I’m calling that job well done. I’m happy if my book changes anyone’s opinion about anything. I just want to have made a difference.

“Rationality” covers a lot of topics, including A.I. Previously, I thought A.I. might be just around the corner, because Google has gotten really good at recogizing pictures of cats. But this book disabused me of the notion that we might be able to push a whole lot of computers into a room and wait for self-awareness to pop out. Instead, it seems like we have to build a super-intelligent A.I. the same way we do everything else, i.e. one painstakingly difficult piece at a time.

Which is good, because I’m pretty sure that A.I. will kill us all. There’s a big debate on the subject, of course, but I hadn’t realized before how much it resembles climate change. By which I mean, in both cases, there’s a potential global catastrophe that we know how to avoid, but the solution requires powerful people and companies to act against their own short-term interests.

This hasn’t worked out so well with climate change. All we’ve managed to do so far is make climate change such a big issue, it’s now in the short-term interest of more of those people and companies to look like they give a crap. I feel like once we get to the point where they have to choose between a financial windfall and risking a runaway super-intelligent A.I., we’re in trouble.

I just listened to a great interview by Ezra Klein with Ted Chiang, who is a brilliant author that you should read, called “Why Sci-Fi Legend Ted Chiang Fears Capitalism, Not A.I.” Ted has a more optimistic view than mine, but I think the premise is exactly right. The danger isn’t that we can’t stop a super-intelligent A.I.; it’s that we’ll choose not to.

Thu 25
Mar
2021

I May Not Get Out

Max Now I’d like to talk about the pandemic’s real victim: me.

The first part, where my city locked its citizens in their houses for 112 days, that was fine. That was my regular life. The only differences were Jen and the kids were always around and the dog was super happy. I saw other people discovering the joys of not commuting and having blocks of time to schedule for themselves, and I was glad for them.

Working from home is the best. I would last about three days in an office now. I’m so in command of my time, the slightest imposition annoys me, like having to answer the front door. I read somewhere that bonobo apes exhibit stress based on how much control they have over their own lives, and I am a bonobo who gets to decide what he does all day long. I am a content bonobo.

But now there’s this new normal. Many things are returning to face-to-face, but only where it makes sense. If an online meeting will do, then you have it online. This is terrible for me, because I only ever got to leave the house for things that don’t make sense. Book tours, for example. I fly somewhere and stand in a room and talk to a few dozen people. Then they buy a few books. On the expense versus the sales, that’s ridiculous. It was always ridiculous, but we could justify it on the basis that publicity has to start somewhere. Now, though, it’s the kind of ridiculous that gets shuffled online.

So this is a problem. I don’t know when I will see sunshine again. Help.

Thu 11
Mar
2021

Leprosy and Orphans

What Max Reckons

Hi Max, do you think the limited availability of the corona vaccines is beneficial to the acceptance? What do you think the effect would be if someone would, hypothetically, shoot another person trying to get that person’s dose of the vaccine?

jonas

This is a great idea. You have a bright future ahead of you, Jonas, in marketing or as the head of some kind of dystopian government.

So we are talking about a Parmentier stunt. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was an 18th Century French land-owner who managed to convince people to eat potatoes, which had previously been considered to be a fine source of leprosy. It’s not easy to persuade people to eat things that cause leprosy, so let’s take a moment to admire that. Sometimes I hear people arguing that marketing doesn’t really have the power to persuade anyone, and I wish those people could travel back in time and look at French peasants putting perceived leprosy in their mouths.

Anyway, Parmentier hit upon the idea of posting guards all around his potato fields. That way, people thought the ultra-rich were hoarding potatoes for themselves. Then at nights, when the guards were instructed to go to sleep, peasants sneaked into the fields and stole potatoes and ate them. Then they didn’t get leprosy, so the word-of-mouth was good.

Parmentier was also in charge of France’s first compulsory vaccination program, for obvious reasons. If you can convince people to eat leprosy, you are a great person to lead a nationwide program that requires people to let drunk leech-doctors stick them with unwashed needles.

An easily-overlooked aspect of the anti-vax movement, I feel, is that vaccinations involve letting strangers put things you can’t see into your body. I’m strongly in favor of vaccines, but I have to admit, as a general principle, it is indeed a bad idea to let strangers put things you can’t see in your body. So I recognize why some people come at this from that default position.

Today, we have a solid history of the effects of vaccines, and it’s still hard to convince people to get them. In 1805, when doctors liked to try to cure SIDS by removing kids’ teeth, it was probably even tougher. Parmentier didn’t shoot anybody, as far as I’m aware, although it does sound like they vaccinated a lot of orphans up front, or, in marketing speak, initially targeted a low-risk demographic. People weren’t going to miss a few orphans, is what I’m saying.

What I especially like about Parmentier is that he engaged fantasy with fantasy. You think potatoes cause leprosy? Well, actually, they’re at the heart of a wealthy conspiracy. It’s always tempting to combat fantasy with reality, but that’s a loser’s gambit. You can almost never persuade anyone with the truth. But you can get them to believe a better story.

Thu 18
Feb
2021

Banned by Facebook

What Max Reckons This is what happens when I try to post a link to my website on Facebook:

Error saying This post can't be shared: In response to Australian government legislation, Facebook restricts the posting of news links and all posts from news Pages in Australia. Globally, the posting and sharing of news links from Australian publications is restricted.

First, I’d like to say how gratifying it is to finally be taken seriously as a news publication. But the interesting part is how Facebook has responded to an Australian law it doesn’t like by nuking users. Here is the story so far:

  • News companies got sad because it’s harder and harder to make money, even though what they do is arguably more important than ever, and their products are at the heart of a lot of online activity, generating ad revenue for social media companies.
  • The larger Australian media companies had the idea that Google and Facebook should have to pay them for this privilege, and the Australian government, always happy to help out a major media company, so long as it’s supportive, went right ahead and drew up legislation.
  • Google launched a PR and lobbying campaign to argue why this was a terrible idea. Facebook was all silent and mysterious and then yesterday just dropped the hammer on every single site that looked Australian, instantly wiping out the Facebook presence of hospitals, charities, newspapers, bald novelists, and everything in between.
  • The ban is also retrospective, so while all those home-grown 5G conspiracy theory posts are still up, any posts that debunked them by linking to a news site are gone.

I assume this situation is temporary and either Facebook or (more likely) the Australian government will back down. But it’s a fun reminder that there are now basically three companies in the world who control what everyone hears: Facebook, Google, Apple. When they choose to, as Facebook did, they can excise a big chunk of what would otherwise reach your attention, and it’s just gone.

What happened to antitrust? That’s what I want to know. I’m pretty sure we used to be a lot more interested in breaking companies into smaller parts before they reached Godzilla proportions and couldn’t be stopped from doing whatever they liked. I feel like we should have kept doing that.

But I’m glad I’ve maintained this site, even as we all gave up visiting a list of favorite bookmarked sites and switched over to reading whatever the algorithms told us to. If I’d relied on a Facebook page, everything I’d ever posted would be gone.

Thu 11
Feb
2021

Coach Max

Max I don’t want to brag, but I coach a kids’ sports team. I can’t post a picture, because, I have learned, when you coach a kids’ sports team, not all the parents want you posting pictures of their children on the internet. This is just one of the many insights I have gained, as coach of a kids’ sports team.

The kids are all girls aged under 11, and the sport is netball. You might not have heard of netball, if you live in one of those non-netball-playing nations, such as all of them except for a handful of ex-British colonies. It’s like basketball, except instead of dribbling the ball, as soon as you catch it, you have to come to a dead stop and try not to blow out your kneecap.

Netball
Imagine my netball team like this, but with players a quarter of the size, and some looking in the wrong direction.

Also the players are restricted to particular zones. This makes netball very tactical. One thing that makes it less tactical is when the players are under 11 years old. But it’s super-engrossing to a person like me, who loves closed systems where you set up a bunch of agents with instructions and let them loose and see what happens. It’s like writing novels, and programming, but with real little humans.

Another similarity I noticed between writing and coaching a kids’ sports team is that delusion is helpful. It’s best to be heavily deluded while writing, to avoid the awareness that your first draft is garbage. You need to think it’s fantastic right up until it’s time to rewrite it, so that you actually get there. Coaching kids’ sports is the same: There’s really no place for objectivity. I’m not there to tell a ten-year-old what her weaknesses are; I’m there to make her feel good about the time she made a smart pass, so she’ll want to do it again. In both cases, there is a lot of wilful blindness to incompetence while seizing on hints of gold.

It’s way more fun than I expected when I answered the netball club’s call for volunteer coaches, no experience, expertise, or prior knowledge necessary. One thing I love about sport is how it creates a tension-soaked contest that is 100% artificial, with no real-life consequences. You can watch a game of something and get happy or sad and then go right back to whatever you were doing. This works even with kids’ sports, apparently, because I care a lot about what happens on the court each Saturday morning, and it also doesn’t matter at all.

I value things like this, because I have a habit of turning my hobbies into jobs, and then a thing I was doing just for fun becomes work. Not real work. Not the kind most people do, with bosses. But it’s fun and invigorating to do something new that doesn’t overlap with anything else.

Having said that, I did build a website to generate netball rosters, since it gets complicated when you have eight or nine players and seven positions and four quarters and at the last minute Stephanie can’t play Wing Attack because she hurt her foot chasing a butterfly. It runs a mutating genetic algorithm to sift through tens of thousands of combinations and find the most efficient one. It’s free and public, so you can use it for your kids’ sports team, too.

Mon 18
Jan
2021

2017-2020: Well That Could Have Been Worse

What Max Reckons I don’t want to be that guy, but honestly, I feel those Trump years could have been worse. They weren’t great, obviously. Not as as good as they would have been if the President had been, say, a random person you pulled off the street. With a random person, you’d have good odds of drawing someone who wasn’t a narcissistic liar with no sense of empathy. So that would be better.

Given the person we did have, I think we got out of that one okay. By “we,” I mean the world. And that’s mainly because Trump didn’t really care about the rest of the world: He was all about America First. I really thought Trump would be unable to resist invading another country, since that’s an excellent, time-proven way to reap some personal benefits while pushing the costs onto other people, a tactic businesspeople especially enjoy. Somewhere around half of all business activity, in my opinion, is about genuinely creating value, while the other half is about gaming the system in order to capture profits while pushing costs onto somebody else.

One of the most shocking things I ever saw was the US after 9/11 transforming into a scary militaristic vengeance machine with no patience for concepts that had previously seemed to be core values, like tolerance and dissent. That was disturbing: watching TV networks and newspapers line up behind the White House like good soldiers, and cheerlead the invasion of an unrelated country. So I’m happy Trump didn’t try to lead a return to that.

Instead, all his enemies were domestic, and he attacked them so crudely and blatantly that they were able to rally and defend themselves, and may even be able to grow back stronger, like an immune system after an inoculation. I’ve always liked how Americans have so many principles, or at least lay claim to them—not at all like Australians, who will roll with whatever seems to make the most practical sense at the time—and 2017-2020 was a great time for putting principles to the test, and finding out who had them, and what they really were.

Therefore, I have to say, as someone who half-expects the world to fall into a corpo-anarchist apocalypse any day now, that definitely could have been worse. I didn’t like the 2017 tax cuts (more inequality, bringing forward the day when the common people begin guillotining the capital classes), the COVID bungling, and the continued breeding of alt-right brain viruses, which don’t just affect the US but also get exported to the rest of the world and spawn things like this:

Make Australia Great

Kelly Barnes/AAP Image

But nobody got nuked, no-one got sucked into an international conflict that will drag on for ten years, and we all got a good look at what’s actually happening in social media, which might have otherwise bubbled away quietly until it was permanently entrenched.

So that’s pretty good.

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