[Previously: Every Bay Area House Party]
Blaise Pascal said all human evil comes from inability to sit alone in a room. Your better nature - your rational soul - tells you that nothing good has ever come from attending large social events. But against that better nature stands the Devil, wielding a stick marked “FOMO”. If you don’t go to social events, maybe other people will go and have great times and live fuller lives than you. “As the dog returns to its vomit, so returns the fool to his folly”, says the Bible. And so you find yourself mumbling thanks to your Uber driver and crossing the threshold of another Bay Area house party.
“Heyyyyy, I haven’t seen you in forever!” says a person whose name is statistically likely to be Michael or David. “What have you been working on?”
“Resisting the urge to go to events like this”, you avoid saying. “What about you?”
“Oh man,” says Michael or David, “The most exciting startup. Just an amazing startup. We’re doing procedural myth generation with large language models.”
“Yeah. We fine-tune an AI on a collection of hundreds of myths from every culture in the world. Then we can prompt it. A myth about snowflakes. A myth about mountain-climbing. A myth about lunch.”
“How do you make money?”
“So think about it. Myths aren’t just old stories. They’re methods for understanding and relating to the universe. Have you ever listened to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on Genesis? They’re life changing. Myths are our psychic motor, our source of inspiration, the way that we make sense of our world. Without them we’d be spiritually adrift. Well, it stands to reason that if we had more of them, we’d be more inspired, and we’d be able to make sense of our world better. So far we’ve been limited by the number the Greeks or Norse or whoever passed down to us. But if we could generate new myths on demand, man, we’d be unstoppable. That’s why I’m pitching this to corporations. Imagine if your competitor’s still working out of Bulfinch’s Mythology, but you can generate thousands of myths, on any topic, whenever you want. You’d be unstoppable!”
“I know people say myths give life meaning,” you say, “but I think it’s just cope for galaxy-brainers who are too obsessed with the classical western humanities tradition. I definitely don’t think you can make life have extra meaning just by making more myths.”
“See, that’s the kind of negative talk that used to get me down. I would have given up. But now I just think to myself - did Jesus give up when the Minotaur kidnapped his daughter? No! He set out through the Fiery Forest to find the magic helmet that would bring her back! And that’s why I’m not going to give up either. See! I’ll let you have that one for free.”
Maybe Michael or David senses your skepticism. His tone becomes more confrontational. “And if myths are really just for ‘galaxy-brainers who are too obsessed with the classical western humanities tradition’, then explain why my startup has already gotten $10 million in funding from Peter Thiel!”
Rather than be forced to answer that, you push further into the party. You curse the Devil bitterly for tricking you into coming here. But like Jesus in the middle of the Fiery Forest, it’s too late to turn back now.
Bob and Ramchandra are on a colorful bean bag, arguing something something stocks. “Hey,” you say. “Still doing finance?”
“Oh yeah,” said Bob. “The crypto crash hit us pretty hard, but now we’re back on our feet. Ramchandra and I have started a financial communications consulting company.”
“What’s financial communications?”
“Like, one JP Morgan analyst talking to another JP Morgan analyst. It’s all got to be done over special recorded channels, because the SEC wants to be able to comb it over for evidence of crimes. And we’re not pro-crime, but - you know what they say, even model citizens commit three felonies a day by accident. And it’s more like thirty when a dour government bureaucrat is reading everything you say verbatim. The big banks used to solve this by holding all their important discussions in person, but now remote work makes that impossible and they’re having to follow basically impossible compliance standards. That’s where we come in. We’re going to leverage CA Bill 2799 for legal security enhancement. You heard about it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s the one about rap lyrics. Rappers are always performing songs bragging about all the drugs they’ve sold and the murders they’ve committed. But then sometimes they become suspects in drug murders, and the police use their lyrics as evidence in court. And this is unfair and racist because, you know, maybe they meant hypothetical drug murders. That’s why the new California Assembly Bill 2799 makes it extra hard to use rap lyrics as evidence of crimes. And that means financial analysts can just relocate to California and communicate by rapping. That’s where we come in. As finance industry veterans with a rap background, we’re in a perfect position to teach them how.”
“Can you really communicate complicated financial concepts in rap?”
“Oh yeah, definitely. Ramchandra, you want to demonstrate?”
Ramchandra took a plastic cup off the table, put it to his mouth like a microphone, made some beat box noises, then began:
Yo! TTE is down to 43
Sounds good to me! But it ain’t ESG.
Wanna tell Blackrock to suck my cock
But if they fuck us over we can't sell the stock
So here's what we do - fudge the CO2
You think that that pinko Fink will have a fucking clue?
We'll feed them lies, keep our eyes on the prize
And our ESG will stand for Eat Shit, Guys.
“That’s . . . definitely a rap” you say, then repeat “Yeah, uh . . . definitely a rap. Do you think finance companies will go for this?”
“Oh yeah,” said Bob. “We’re thinking we’ll approach Goldman Sachs first. Their CEO is a DJ himself, so it’ll be an easy sell.”
“Yeah,” you agree. “Sounds like an easy sell.”
You let them resume their argument and head further into the party. You spot a group of people in OpenAI t-shirts. You have found the AI Circle. Every Bay Area house party must have an AI Circle, just as it must have an Effective Altruism Nexus and an Urbanist Coven. Those are the rules, made during days of eld before the sun was born. You lean in closer to try to hear what they’re saying.
“It’s Art now,” says a woman in a SCALE IS ALL YOU NEED t-shirt. “But Science is next. Once the AIs can reason better than we can, it’s all over.”
“What’s all over?” asks a man with a tie-dye cap. “Humanity? You think we’ll get a fast takeoff?”
“No,” says SCALE woman. “Even if humanity survives, it’s over. Thought. Science. Reason. The AI will be better at all those things. Mankind is the rational animal, right? Once there’s no point in us thinking anymore, what’s left? Once AIs solve all the great problems of existence, do we just sit around, admire their answers, and eat potato chips all day?”
“Are you kidding?” asked tie-dye cap. “Humankind will never give up! Think about it. 99% of people are in this situation already. They’re not scientists or philosophers. Their IQs are way below the bar needed to contribute. Do they give up and let other people run the intellectual show? No! They come up with baseless conspiracy theories, then spread misinformation! And you know what? They are living the good life. They have found eudaimonia. When the AIs take over and solve all the great problems of existence, we’ll just say they’re conspiring to hide the truth from us, and come up with bone-headed paranoid solutions of our own. This is the most human intellectual activity that there is, and no matter how much AIs surpass us we will engage in it again and again until the stars go out.”
“Hmmmm,” says SCALE woman. “But they’ve still got art. Is spreading conspiracy theories really enough for the good life, if you can’t make art?”
“The most financially successful artist in the world today is Damien Hirst. His most famous work is putting a dead tiger shark in a giant formaldehyde cube. Somebody paid $12 million for it. Your move, AI.”
“AIs can put tiger sharks in formaldehyde cubes. If someone wants to program an AI to make weird transgressive art, it will make art which is weirder and more transgressive than we could even imagine.”
“Sure. And we’ll ignore it. It will encase a buffalo in tree sap or something, and we’ll say, bah, that’s just the output of dumb pattern-matching algorithms. And then some human will cover a tapir in toothpaste and we’ll be like - yes! - that is Art! AI’s ability to outdo us is no match for our ability to fool ourselves into thinking dumb stuff is cool if we like the people making it.”
The Devil informs you that this is not the sort of exciting socializing that would make you feel like you’re really partying instead of letting life pass you by. Maybe you should flirt with a girl. There is one next to you. She says her name is Lisa.
“Nice to meet you, Lisa. Tell me about yourself.”
“Oh, I’m always embarrassed to answer that. I don’t work for a startup or an effective charity. Actually, I’m a Wikipedia administrator.”
“A Wikipedia administrator! That’s really interesting! What kind of things do you do?”
“Mostly just, if someone says that there’s misinformation about them on their Wikipedia page, we try to clear it up.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“Not anymore. The vandals have gotten more creative.”
“Somebody edited a Controversy section into the Douglas Hofstadter article. It talked about how Hofstadter provoked criticism for forcing the Wikimedia Foundation to censor true but unflattering information from his Wikipedia page. Totally false. Never happened.”
“So did you remove it?”
“Well, the problem was, we only heard about it because somebody told Hofstadter about it. He was incensed. Demanded we take it down. Obviously you see our problem.”
“What did you do?”
“We had no idea what to do. If we took it down, then it would be true, and we have a policy against removing true information. But if we left it up, it would be false, and we also have a policy against letting false information stand. Finally we escalated to Jimbo himself. He said there was only one solution - we had to trick Hofstadter into forcing us to remove some other piece of true but unflattering information from his page, to break out of the loop. So we hired a private eye to snoop around, try to find dirt on him. Maybe some past offensive statements, or someone who felt “uncomfortable” around him. We figured once we get it, we could put it up on his page, Hofstadter would cry foul, and then we could delete it and leave the criticism up without causing any paradoxes. Problem is, the guy is squeaky clean. The best private eyes in the country couldn’t find anything on him.”
“So what now?”
“So we went to Jimbo again, and Jimbo said he had a hunch, and we needed to look into someone named ‘Egbert B. Gebstadter’. Well, sure enough, Gebstadter is in every criminal database we checked - the guy has practically left a trail of devastation across the entire country. Nobody’s ever been able to track him down. I have no idea what any of it means. Maybe Jimbo can explain the next time I see him.”
You remember that actually you have no idea how to flirt with people or how to know if someone is flirting back or what “flirting” even is, so you thank Lisa for the interesting gossip and move on. There were rumors that this party would have a cuddle room. You see a closed door down the hall and are hopeful.
You crack open the door. There is no cuddling. Five men sit in a pentagram, all clad in black hoodies concealing their faces. You realize with dread that you have stumbled into the Urbanist Coven. Before you can react, one of them speaks:
“I think our next campaign should be against stairs. Think about it. All that horizontal space wasted, just to travel a little distance vertically. Why not make people replace them with ladders?”
The hooded figure to his left scoffs. “There’s no alpha in banning stairs. I think our next campaign should be against park benches. Oooh, look at me, I’m a privileged suburbanite, too fancy to sit on the ground like the blacks and the poors!”
The figure at the far end of the room raises one finger, and both of the others fall silent. He speaks in a voice like treacle. “You’re both fools. I’ll tell you what our next campaign will be against. Why do people always reject our new buildings? Because of their precious view. Why do people protest skyscrapers? Because they’ll block their light. I say we strike at the heart of the problem! I say we ban windows!”
Everyone else is silent, maybe awestruck. Finally, someone whispers: “It will never work.”
“That’s what they said about ‘car free city centers’,” said the leader, “We will make it happen.”
The figure to his left spoke up. “I can post pictures on Twitter of some decaying McDonalds at a grimy rest stop with floor-to-ceiling windows, and tell everybody that this is #WindowCenteredDesign.”
The next person in the rotation chimed in. “I can find pictures of some quaint European village with a name like Brixendorf, where people haven’t had windows since 1445 because they were afraid the Turks would reach in and steal stuff, and then claim that all US towns would look exactly like this if it weren’t for windows.”
All eyes turn to you.
“Wait,” you say. “I thought urbanism was about finding ways to make cities more liveable and affordable! Not about trying to ban all the things that make residential life convenient and pleasant!”
“He is not one of us,” hisses one of the urbanists.
“A suburbanite!” hisses another.
“Seize the intruder!” yells the leader.
You run out of the room and into the biggest crowd of people you can find. The urbanists spend a few minutes looking for you, then eventually give up. You are safe for now - except that by coincidence, you have stumbled straight into the Effective Altruist Nexus!
“I quit my job at Google to work on promoting altruistic kidney donation,” says the woman you have almost bumped into. She wears a white dress, and statistically her name is most likely Elizabeth or Anna. “I’m the liaison between hospitals and religious groups.”
“Oh,” you say, desperately trying to blend in and keep the conversation going. “How does that work?”
“Well,” said Anna-or-Elizabeth, “it depends on the religion. Most Christian sects are okay with organ donation, except Jehovah’s Witnesses. Muslims are a little more complicated; some of the old-fashioned ones believe the body belongs to God and you shouldn’t give parts of it away, but most scholars have come around. As always, the worst is the Jews.”
“They’re against it?”
“Oh no, it’s more complicated than that. The Talmud - Berakhot 61a - says that ‘a person has two kidneys, one of which counsels him to do good, and the other counsels him to do evil.’ If the Sages are right, then someone who gives away one of their kidneys would end up either totally good or totally evil.”
“And I guess there aren’t medical tests you can perform to figure out which is the good vs. the evil one.”
“Oh no, the Talmud is very clear, the left kidney is the evil one. And most surgeons take the left kidney, because it has a longer associated renal vein.”
“Hm. So if you donate your evil kidney, then you become entirely good, but the recipient becomes entirely evil. So it’s kind of a wash.”
“Sort of. But the way I model it is - most donors are healthy young people. And most recipients are older people with a lot of comorbid conditions - in fact, the average life expectancy for a kidney recipient is only fifteen more years. So we’re making a healthy young person entirely good, at the cost of creating an entirely evil person who’s probably too old and sick to commit too many misdeeds anyway. Overall I think it’s positive utility.”
“But just to play devil’s advocate - the people doing altruistic kidney donation are probably already selected for being more altruistic than the general population. But there’s no reason to think kidney recipients are inherently more evil. So there might be a ceiling effect on how much better you can make the donor, but there’s no floor effect on how much worse you make the recipient.”
“Darn!” says Anna-or-Elizabeth, “I hadn’t considered that! It’s all so complicated!” She thought for a while and frowned. “This is why I can’t stand Jews!”
A few people look up, mildly alarmed, then decide that it’s probably just some new kind of trad heterodox reactionary thing they don’t want to know about. A few decide they do want to know about it, and invite themselves into your conversation. A trans woman introduces herself as Alice or Allison or Alicia, or maybe you just assumed that she did.
“What’s your cause area?” asks Anna-or-Elizabeth.
“I’m working on reversing dementia and cognitive decline,” says Alice. “You know, the amyloid hypothesis seems pretty debunked now, but nobody’s really come up with a new paradigm. My theory is - you know how sometimes you hear a really catchy song, and it’s in your head for days? And how sometimes you’re doing something else, and you suddenly realize that the song has been playing in a loop in your head for the past hour without you even thinking about it?”
“Yeah, that happens to me all the time.”
“Well, my theory is that this never really stops. You hear a catchy song, it runs in a loop in your brain, and even when you consciously forget about it, there are still some brain cells dedicated to looping it, all the time. Over time you learn more and more catchy songs, and more and more of your brain is devoted to looping them. By the time you reach 70 or 80, maybe half of your brain is playing jingles from old commercials again and again, and you don’t have that much left to think with.”
“What’s your evidence?”
“Partly just personal observation. But there’s also a lot of research on who doesn’t get cognitive decline. The answer is - people living ancestral hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Nuns. And people who do strenuous intellectual work long into old age. What do all these people have in common? They’re probably not listening to many TV commercials or pop songs.”
“So how do you reverse this?”
“Okay,” said Alice, “I admit I don’t really know. I’m not sure how to erase a song, and I worry that calling people’s attention to it would just retrigger the songs into consciousness and make them worse. But you know what they say, Jesus didn’t beat the Minotaur in a day.” She cut herself off. “Uh, sorry, there’s this guy who - “
“Yeah,” you say, “I met him.”
“Anyway, I don’t have to have everything figured right away. I’m trying to get funding for a nonprofit to conduct further research and maybe future interventions. We call ourselves De-Earworm The World.”
Everyone groans. The Effective Altruist Nexus might not be as superficially sinister as the Urbanist Coven, but you realize it carries dangers of its own. You wander off, looking for more familiar faces. You see one you recognize and decide to open, praying to the Social Skills Gods that you are remembering everything right.
“Hi . . . . . . John. How’s the . . . . . . restaurant startup?”
You sigh with relief as John does not immediately object to your characterization of his name or profession. “Oh, there was no alpha left in restaurants. Now I’m in aerospace. Have you ever heard of Skyhook?”
“No, tell me about it.”
“We’re planning to offer app-based surface-to-air recovery from anywhere in the Bay Area within ten minutes.”
“What’s surface-to-air recovery?”
“Usually it’s a military thing. We use a system called Fulton STARS. Basically a plane flies overhead, trailing a really long rope with a harness at the end. You’re on the ground, you grab on and hook the harness around your chest, the plane flies off, and away you go. ”
“Who’s the customer?”
“So imagine you’re on a terrible date. Let’s say you’re seated at a table at a restaurant patio. You try to make some kind of excuse to leave, but she keeps interrupting you. You can’t figure out how to extract yourself. So you covertly open an app, click a button, and within ten minutes, boom, a rope drops from the sky, you grab on, and before she can object you shoot up into the air. Awkwardness averted! It doesn’t have to be a date. Conversations! Job interviews! VC pitches! Weddings! The possibilities are endless.”
You let him go on. You may not be living life to the fullest, you may not have cuddled any pretty girls, but you are satisfied with your decision to come here tonight. You feel the way Jesus must have felt, when he found the magic helmet at long last. Amid the heap of doomed schemes that will never work, you are pretty sure you have spotted the future billionaire.
Someone has finally come up with a scalable solution to Bay Area house parties.
[Thanks to Davis Tower Kingsley for pitching Skyhook to me, to eigenrobot for alerting me of CA 2799, and to Tom Wolfe’s Wikipedia page for the inspiration for the Hofstadter article]
Another Bay Area House Party