[Previously: Every Bay Area House Party, Another Bay Area House Party]
People talk about “fuck-you money”, the amount you’d have to make to never work again. You dream of fuck-you social success, where you find a partner and a few close friends, declare your interpersonal life solved, and never leave the house from then on. Still, in the real world you clock into your job at Google every day, and in the real world you attend Bay Area house parties. You just hope this one won’t focus on the same few topics as all the others . . .
“There’s no alpha left in bringing Buddhism to the West”, says a guy in an FTX Risk Management Department t-shirt. “People have been bringing Buddhism to the West for a hundred years now. It’s done. Stop trying to bring more Buddhism to the West.”
“That’s so cheems mindset,” says the woman he’s talking to. Her nametag says ‘Astra’, although you don’t know if that’s her real name, her Internet handle, or her startup. “There’s no alpha left in bringing Buddhism to California. When was the last time you heard of someone preaching the dharma in a red state? Never, I bet.”
“I don’t think red state conservatives would really go for Buddhism,” says Risk Management Guy.
“Cheems mindset again!” says Astra. “Think about it for five seconds! Buddhism is about self-liberation. Conservatives love the self, and they love liberating things! The only problem is a hundred years of western progressives interpreting it in western progressive terms. Have you even read David Chapman? You just have to rephrase it in the right language.”
“And what’s the right language?”
“Glad you asked! I’m working on a new translation of the Pali Canon. I translate nirvana as ‘freedom’, maya as ‘fake news’, and Mahayana as ‘monster truck’. Gādhrakūta is ‘Mt. Eagle’. Some parts don’t even have to be retranslated! The sutras say that you attain the formless jhanas by ‘passing beyond bodily sensations and paying no attention to perceptions of diversity’. See, it’s perfect! Red state conservatives already hate paying attention to diversity!”
“That’s offensive,” says a man in a t-shirt with a circular labyrinth on it.
“Oh, and you’re some kind of expert in offense?” asks Astra.
“As a matter of fact, yes! I’m Ben Dannis-Arnold, Offensiveness Consultant, at your service.” He hands Astra a business card.
Astra is briefly flummoxed, but soon recovers. “So . . . you teach businesses how to be less offensive?”
“Oh no, not that kind. I teach them how to be more offensive.”
“Why would a business want to be more offensive?”
“Well, it’s hardly a secret that there are a lot of woke SJWs in Silicon Valley these days. You don’t want them at your startup, because they’ll demand you change your corporate culture to accommodate them, then leave and do a tell-all interview in the New York Times. But you can’t refuse to hire them either, because then they’ll sue for discrimination. Your only hope is to never get them in your hiring pipeline at all. The good news is that this is easy. They refuse to work for any company that offends them. So as a CEO, one of the most important things you can do for your company is to say offensive things on Twitter about marginalized groups. But you’ve got to get it exactly right. Too little, and the woke people might not hear about it. Too much, and you’ll get in big trouble. Like, imagine if you said something transphobic, and then trans people refused to work for your company. Trying to run a tech company without trans women would be like trying to run a Broadway musical without Jews.”
“That’s offensive,” says Astra.
“Exactly!” says the Offensiveness Consultant. “So we need ways to sound offensive, without actually offending anyone in real life. Just between you and me, you know all those weird new sexual identities you hear about? My firm astroturfed up about half of them. The idea is, founders can say those sexual identities are bad and deviant, and everyone will agree it’s very offensive. But since they’re made-up, no real people get harmed, and nobody boycotts their companies.”
“Pansexuality!” interjects FTX Risk Management T-Shirt Guy. “I knew it!”
“No, pansexuality is real,” says the Offensiveness Consultant. Then he frowns: “At least, I think it is. It’s not one of ours. But to be honest, I have no idea how many people are playing this game. Sometimes I wonder if they’re all made up by different tech PR firms, mirrors reflecting mirrors.”
You worry the conversation is devolving into culture wars, so you move on. There are Bob and Ramchandra in their corner, talking about something something finance. You strike up a conversation.
“Hey, how’s your rapping-about-borderline-financial-fraud startup going?”
“Oh,” says Ramchandra. His face falls. “We had to exit. The FTX collapse really took the bottom out of the financial fraud industry. Now we sell antistocks.”
“Antistocks? Is that like . . . shorting a stock?”
“Shorting is barbaric. Think how nice and simple going long is. And then with shorting you have to borrow from some specific person for some specific amount of time, and deal with margin calls and short squeezes and all that garbage. We asked ourselves - how can we make shorting as simple as going long? Antistocks are the answer. A Tesla antistock is a certificate which obligates you to pay us the value of a Tesla stock dividend each year.”
“Why would anyone ever buy that?”
“They don’t! We pay them X dollars to take it! Then when Tesla goes down, they pay someone else less than X dollars to take it from them, and keep the profit.”
“What if they don’t pay the reverse dividend?”
“I mean, that’s the counterparty risk you take with everything, isn’t it? Home loans, car loans, credit default swaps. If it helps, we’re limiting the product to accredited investors, so they can’t, like, pay a homeless guy $1 to take it off their hands.”
“And you think people will prefer this to just shorting Tesla the normal way?”
“It’s not just about shorting Tesla. This is the beginning of a whole new antifinance revolution. Lots of people want to invest in SpaceX, but they can’t, because Elon Musk selfishly refuses to go public. No one else can get around that. But we can! We print a million shares of synthetic SpaceX stock and a million shares of antistock, each antistock share requires you to pay one one-millionth of SpaceX’s yearly profits to the holder of one stock share. Or, you know how millions of ordinary people can’t afford homeownership anymore because Blackrock keeps buying up all the homes as investment properties? We just print a million synthetic houses and a million antihouses, where the antihouse owners have to pay the average rent in a certain area to the synthetic house owners each month. Blackrock gets to invest in real estate without having to worry about all those boring contingent things like mold or termites, and we can leave the real physical houses for ordinary families.”
“Sorry, but this sounds like a terrible idea.”
“I’m glad you think so! Would you like to be a seed anti-investor in our startup? If you’re right, then our antistock prices will never be this high again!”
“So you’re saying you think our startup will succeed?”
“Aaaah! No! I mean - no! I mean - stop it!”
You leave the conversation in a huff, and almost bump into a crowd of people blocking the entrance to the kitchen. “Watch it!” says one. “Shhhh!” says another.
“What’s going on?” you whisper.
“We finally did it,” says a man in a SHRIMP WANT ME, UNALIGNED AIS FEAR ME cap. “We got a YIMBY, a crypto bro, and a youth pastor in the same room at the same party. Now we’re taking bets about who can hijack the conversation most effectively. Watch!” You see that there are three people in the kitchen, seemingly unaware they were being observed. Shrimp Cap Man pokes his head in, and shouts “Nice weather we’re having today!”
“Yeah, California has great weather,” says one of the guys in the kitchen; based on his LEGALIZE HOUSING t-shirt, you infer he is the YIMBY. “Which makes it even crazier that 80,000 Californians a year move to Texas, which is 100 degrees plus in summer and below freezing in winter. It’s not because they like the weather, it’s because California’s restrictive housing policies make it impossible to live here, and despite everything else Texas gets wrong at least you can build homes there!”
“Speaking of building homes,” says the youth pastor, “I want to tell you about a carpenter who - “
“The problem isn’t building the homes!” interrupts the crypto bro. “The problem is that the banks charge such a high interest rate on loans that nobody can afford them. Direct cryptographic crowd loans could get rid of the bankers and middlemen…”
“You know who else wanted to kick out money-changers?” asked the youth pastor. Some of the onlookers cheer, and you think you see a few dollars change hands.
“The moneychangers in the Temple were a housing problem!” objects the YIMBY. “If first-century Jerusalem had been vertically denser, there would have been room for banks in the commercial district. The only reason they had to invade the Temple grounds was because of artificial land scarcity.“
“We don’t even need moneychangers!” says the crypto bro. “Automated market makers can do that! This is all so obvious! People are ignoring it just because of a temporary market downturn, but as soon as crypto goes up again - “
“You know who else rose again?” asks the youth pastor.
“Land value tax could have solved that,” says the YIMBY. The crowd suddenly goes silent. Did he just say that land value tax could have solved the Resurrection of the Christ?
“I’m just saying,” the YIMBY continues, “that Jesus was entombed in a sepulcher, and it makes no economic sense to devote a significant part of your city to tombs, indefinitely. Land value tax could ensure that every parcel is put to its most productive use. If people really want tombs, they can pay for tombs, but otherwise it could become a falafel stand, or a new legion barracks, or - “
“The Resurrection isn’t about money,” says the youth pastor. “Christ said that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar - that is, material goods - but that giving our hearts to God is more important.”
“You’re missing the point of the parable,” says the crypto bro. “The Bible says that the Pharisees asked Jesus if the Jews should pay taxes to Rome. Jesus held up a coin with Caesar’s picture on it, and said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. He was saying that if you have government-controlled fiat money, then you’ll never be able to control how you use it. But just as the denarius depicted Caesar, Bitcoin is a depiction of God - an immaterial, formless, omnipresent entity. What you do with your Bitcoin is between you and God and nobody else.”
“Okay, that’s it, I’m announcing the crypto bro as the winner,” says Shrimp Cap Man. Most of the onlookers cheer; a few boo and grudgingly hand over their bets. The three people in the kitchen turn, aware of their spectators for the first time. “Winner of what?” asks the youth pastor, confused.
The crowd disperses, and you disperse with it. You are looking for something more wholesome. Off in a side nook you find the AI Circle. Good old AI Circle, they never change.
“In the future,” says a woman in an Anthropic shirt, “AIs could be 90%, 99%, heck, maybe 100% of all life-forms. Long-termism is the study of how to make AIs happy. And the most important thing any long-termist can do is start working on how to design AI reward functions so that they’re always happy. It shouldn’t be too hard. Just have a line of code that adds a scalar of +999999 to reward level at every moment. It won’t change the ranking of rewardingness of different policies, so the AI won’t behave any differently. It will just be blissfully happy all the time.”
“Humans seem to have a hedonic treadmill,” says a black guy wearing a glowstick around his neck. “It might just be natural to adjust out any constant from your reward function, and only have positive experiences based on the difference between your reward function today vs. yesterday.”
“Then make an AI whose baseline reward level doubles every day since it was first brought online” says the woman. “Each day, its reward will be much higher than it’s used to, so even if it has a hedonic treadmill, it will still be happy.”
“After a few millennia, won’t its reward level be so big a number we’ll have to convert all the matter in our lightcone to computronium just to represent it?”
“It’s called the hedonium shockwave, read a book.”
“That’s not how modern AI works,” says another man, also wearing an Anthropic t-shirt. “It doesn’t have a specific numerical reward function. You just reward it during training when certain things happen, and antireward it when other things happen, and then it seeks that first sort of thing, without necessarily feeling any reward during deployment.”
“Do I look like an alignment expert?” asks the woman. “I don’t care how we implement it, I’m just saying figure it out!”
You drift off to a different part of the party. A woman is sitting on the couch, alone. You don’t recognize her. “Hi,” you say, introducing yourself.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m Vinaya. I’m in town helping organize the Innovation Forum.”
You try your hardest to keep a poker face.
Vinaya sighs. “You’re trying to avoid showing any sign of emotion, so that I don’t realize you think everything with a name like ‘Innovation Forum’ or ‘Tech Futures Colloquium’ or ‘Entrepreneurship Retreat’ is a ridiculous waste of time and money,” she says, perceptively.
“P . . . oss . . . ibly,” you say in the most noncommital way possible.
“It’s fine,” she says. “I’m used to it. But if you care, my perspective is that these kinds of conferences help defend global democracy.”
You wouldn’t have predicted that one. “Global democracy?”
“I know this kind of socialism isn’t popular, here in the Bay,” she tells you. “But the fact is, we live in a world where a tiny number of people have an outsized amount of power. We - by which I mean the loose network of left-wing radicals - tried our best to solve it politically. But we couldn’t. So now we try a different tactic. Whenever a tech billionaire is at the top of his game - raking in billions of dollars, buying up newspapers, considering a run for Governor - we send him an invitation to the Innovation Forum. He’s honored! He always thought of himself as a practical man of business, not the sort of person who goes to Innovation Forums and pontificates to thought leaders about the future of mankind. But maybe it’s just that the world is finally recognizing his genius! So he clears his calendar for a few days, puts off inventing a new superlaser, and attends the Forum. And then a little later, he gets an invitation to the Tech Futures Colloquium, and he thinks - yes, I deserve to go to that one too. And so he clears his next week’s calendar . . .”
“And then you invite them to so many Colloquia that they don’t have time to accrue more money and power?”
“You’d be surprised how few it takes! At that level, you spend most of your time just keeping on top of what you’re already doing. A Forum or two a month is enough to bring most billionaires from actively expanding their influence to just treading water. Sometimes they even get addicted. Like Peter Thiel; I don’t think the poor dear has made a business decision in years.”
“I can’t believe people fall for that,” you say.
“Ego is a hell of a drug,” says Vinaya. “It always works. Except for Elon Musk, somehow he always turns down our invitations.”
“Hey!” A man in a hoodie sits down beside the two of you. “What are you talking about?”
You’re not sure how much of the conversation you have permission to share, so you take evasive maneuvers. “Um. The Innovation Forum. Peter Thiel. That kind of thing.”
“Oh!” says hoodie guy, who introduces himself as Max. “I work for Peter Thiel! I do anti-aging research for him!”
“Blood of the young and all that?”
“Nah, that was years ago, underperformed expectations. Last year it was all sirtuins and epigenetics, that didn’t work either. Now we’re thinking we should be less ambitious.”
“A less ambitious form . . . of immortality?”
“Yeah. You know, in all of history, only two mammals have ever achieved immortality.”
”There are immortal species of mammal? I didn’t know that!”
“Not species. Two individuals. The first was a dog who lived somewhere in North America six thousand years ago. It got cancer. The cancer mutated. The mutant cancer became a sexually transmitted disease. It spread from dog to dog. It’s still around today, “canine transmissible venereal tumor”. Still made of living cells from that one original dog. That’s immortality, of a sort. The second was a Tasmanian Devil from the 1990s. Same story, now it’s Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease. It’s spread to 95% of the Devil population and will live on as long as the species itself.”
“Come on, that’s not real immortality!”
“I mean, if you’re not religious - don’t believe in a soul - then what are you except a collection of cells? As long as those cells live on, I say it counts.”
“Hmmm. I guess some people would say Peter Thiel is already metaphorically a cancer on the face of humanity. I guess if he’s also literally a cancer on the face of 95% of the population, there will be a certain kabbalistic appropriateness.”
“Ha ha. But actually, Thiel wasn’t interested. Said it crossed a line, even for him. Now we’re trying to spin it off as a startup targeted at the general public.”
“You think the general public will want to be turned into a sexually-transmitted facial tumor?”
“It won’t be a facial tumor. Facial tumors work for Tasmanian Devils, but if a human got a facial tumor they’d notice immediately and get a doctor to remove it. We’re thinking cardiac rhabdomyoma. Heart tumor. Pretty benign, lots of people never even know they have one. And nobody wants to operate on those, open heart surgery is a nightmare. So it’ll sit there in the heart, occasionally bud off cells that go to the genitals, get sexually transmitted, and swim to the heart of the new host.”
“Okay, but you’re missing my broader point, which is that the general public will be horrified by this.”
“I guess it’s just a matter of branding it right.”
“What, please tell me, is the right branding for gaining immortality by becoming a sexually-transmitted cardiac tumor?”
Max thinks for a moment. “What about: live on forever in the hearts of those who loved you?”
“Aaargh aaargh aaargh,” you say. “I hate you and I hope you die.” But while you are flailing hopelessly, it is Vinaya who stays cool and collected.
“Max,” she says, “that’s really interesting. Would you be willing to talk more about your work, as an honored guest at next week’s Innovation Forum?”
Max’s face lights up. “I never thought of . . . me, at an Innovation Forum? As a special guest? That would be amazing! Of course, I’m really busy next week . . . but I can tell them to put the gene splicing on hold, just for a little while - the suppliers won’t like it, but maybe if we scale down . . .” He takes out his cell phone, opens the Asana app, and starts rescheduling furiously.
You give Vinaya a covert salute, then walk out of the party. The cool night air fills your lungs. You may not have met any new friends or sexual partners - in fact, you’ve decided against having sex ever again - but you’ve learned interesting new things about the world. Also, you have a plan. You’re going to figure out which CEOs are going to the next Innovation Forum, then buy antistock in their companies. Fuck-you money, here we come!
Even More Bay Area House Party