Z

Zibaldone

A commonplace book.

Being offline

The need for being offline. Constantly being online shatters your attention. It makes it hard to get real, creative work done. It also makes it hard to relax.

Recently I've found myself glued to my screen in the morning and late at night. Usually my phone, and I'm stuck reading some inconsequential, but addictive, news. Or I'm talking with people, also usually about not very important or urgent matters. For example, yesterday evening I was having a conversation on Telegram 11pm, just before I went to bed, and then I read a long (somewhat interesting) Twitter thread when I woke up at 5am.

Sometimes I get into a routine of being offline the first and last hour around sleep. Whenever I've been in such a state I've generally found myself to be happier, calmer, more focused and more productive. I have time to read physical books, maybe meditate or journal, be more present with people in person, or even just start my day earlier.

The time spent online during those hours appears to be particularly destructive. At night, spending time online can make it difficult to fall asleep, as your mind is racing and you are unable to unwind. This can significantly impact the day after. For the morning, it leads to a generally sluggish and/or panicky start of the day. Not a day on your own terms, but on someone else's. Reactive state of mind.

There are other times where being online is a negative. And sometimes it isn't just about being online, but about addictive technology more generally. Cal Newport writes about this in his book Digital Minimalism (2018?). Especially on the dangers of things like social media and how it is hijacks the body's reward system. They often act like slot machines, with variable reward and social approval ("did someone like my post"). This is biological in terms of dopamine hits (N.B. at least it appears that way phenomenologically, even if this might not actually be the best scientific explanation).

What is desirable here? It is clear there are benefits to these technologies. But they can also be harmful. Furthermore, we can't rely on in the moment monitoring and action, since these things are addictive and hits us on a more primitive level.

Instead, it calls for new rules and habits. Rules and habits to deal with a new kind of world. Especially of the via negativa variety, where we remove bad stressors.

It strikes me as similar to what happened, - or what one could imagine happened with - alcohol and tobacco. Initially, people were drinking all the time. There's something here with the story of industrial revolution and so on and replacing beer with coffee, but that's for another time. In any case, a common solution most societies settled on is not to stop drinking completely, but to not do it during day time, and not to do it excessively. Naturally, these norms are different for different groups of people, and some people even choose to abstain completely. But a more normal case is to allow for it in moderation in evenings and weekends, as a form of social tool.

Paul Graham has also written an essay about acceleration of addiction, where he talks about rather living in a society with wine than without.

In the case of tobacco, it turns out it is quite dangerous, on top of being addictive. And most people would agree it is best not to do it at all. So in that sense the solution was to abstain completely, or not even try in the first place.

What does this look like for the Internet and social media? We are still in the process of finding that out. Cal Newport has this idea of having a clear demarcation between "any benefit" technology and "best benefit".

Essentially, instead of finding any reason to use tool, we identify what we want and then the best way to achieve that. That might mean using Twitter as a tool, for example.

We need some slack in the system too. We could say, we want to be healthy so the best way to achieve that is to only eat maximally nutritious food. But too strict of an interpretation here would not work for most people. If you go to a party you might want to enjoy the food and have dessert or whatever without worrying about "eating perfect". This is also a common fallacy in the diet world, especially for the more extreme proponents.

Sometimes extreme methods can be justified. Especially if it a slippery slope pattern. Hence the quit cold turkey approach. It isn't what things need a more moderate approach and which require cold turkey approach. It might be individual as well. E.g.: FB, YT, Twitter, Telegram and so on. I suspect there's something deeper here in terms of what pushes our buttons in what ways.

The goal is to find a way to re-orient ourselves to the tools we use. In a way that is the most useful for us, while still being robust and not negatively impacting the rest of our lives.

In terms of more direct trial and error, we have a clear enemy in sight: online around bedtime. Instead, envelope it with books and so on. How?

1) Put the phone and computer in a different room, in airplane mode.
2) Ensure you have a plan for what to do without, for the first and last hour.
3) Ensure there are other ways to accomplish time sensitive things, such as finding out the time, taking down notes, and so on.
4) Have a set period (say, 10-12h) during which you can't be online.

Formulated as a more concise rule:

No Internet one hour before bed and the first hour of waking up

Calling it 'No Internet' as opposed to no 'No devices' as I often use my tablet to read, especially when traveling. That's a potential vulnerability, but so far so good. It is dangerous to read on my phone though, since the toggle for airplane mode is so close, and I often find myself succumbing to its temptation.

Another subtlety here is in terms of bed time, where it implicitly assumes there's a specific bed time. That's another thing to watch out for, especially when it might change depending on your schedule. This type of rule gets easier if we have a clear bedtime.

Now, it is certainly dangerous to put this out there before knowing the effectiveness of said remedy. The nature of trial and error is that we don't know which of our trials will work. But I'm going to do it anyway. I've had partial success with this in the past, but I've gotten out of practice. For habits to work and be effective, they have to be constantly reinforced, lest entropy takes over.

Tragedy of the commons and Bittorrent economics

Governing the Commons, Ostrom (1990) and Incentives Build Robustness in BitTorrent, Bram Cohen (2003)

Is Bittorrent solving a tragedy of the commons problems?

Tragedy of the commons is a concept that was popularized by Hardin in 1968. It has been observed for thousands of years before that, e.g. by Aristotle in his Politics. The idea is that a collection of individuals acting in their best interest results in a suboptimal outcome for the collective, or the commons. As a prototypical example: herding animals. Each herder wants to maximize profit, so they increase the amount of animals they have. This leads to to too many animals in a scarce field. A better solution would be to divide the area up somehow so that each farmer has enough animals to not overgraze the area. That this doesn't happen is precisely the tragedy of the common. It applies whenever a scrace resource is used in common by many individuals.

A bottom up solution to this is Common Pool Resources (CPR), that Ostrom studied in her Governing the commons. More on this later.

In Bittorrent, a file isn't scarce on its own. But in terms of downloading it is. Without Bittorrent, a file is usually uploaded to a single server, and then each additionally downloader causes things to slow down. Collectively, people would be better of if a few people downloaded the file first, then they uploaded it to the rest after, and so on. This would be the most effective way of solving the scarce bandwidth issue of distributing said resource as quickly as possible.

However, that is difficult in practice. Individuals have very little incentive to upload files to other people, especially strangers. Bittorrent largely solves this problem through game theory (tit-for-tat) and sharing of rare chunks. Each downloader automatically becomes an uploader, and if they don't provide to the system they are punished. It is thus a form of self-regulating, trust-minimized solution to a tragedy of commons problem.

Ostrom studies CPR problems and how they are solved through collective rules. Specifically, she looks at small-scale CPRs (50-15k people) where the individuals are heavily dependent on the resource for economic return. That doesn't appear to be the case for Bittorrent at all.

Ostrom defines a resource system and resource units as being the things extracted from said system. E.g. fishing grounds as resource system with fish as the resurce units. You have stock for resources and flow for harvest. This is interesting in its parallels with Bitcoin and stock to flow in such a system. In that case, scarcity is an asset! See stock-to-flow ratio, and so on.

Ostrom further studies these CPR institutions, all of which have existed for 100 years and some of which have existed for 1000 years.

Does it make sense to look at a file as a resource system, where download bandwidth is the resource unit? A provider provides this unit by uploading a specific file. Since we are talking about information, the file itself is "renewable" or infinite. But, over a given time horizon only so much of the file can be uploaded at a given time. This is what makes it scarce. One thing that is interesting about Bittorrent is that it doesn't rely on long-term games of trust. Nodes can come and go. While the benefit is not economic, there is a benefit. Additionally, since files are chunked, the rarest piece is uploaded first, as it is the most valuable (least likely to be replicated elsewhere).

A big issue is still in terms of the game being limited to a single file. Once a file is downloaded, there is no reason to stick around. Hence the use of private trackers which track a global seed ratio, albeit centrally. This strikes me as a form of Levithan approach, top down and heavy (censorship and control, etc). In that sense, it is is similar to the state.

Example of CPR: Swiss alps. For 500 year, they have an association to deal with common property. Rule simply "no citizen could send more cows to the alp than he could feed during the winter". Then enforcement and some form of distribution.

Design principles for long enduring CPR institutions. Clear boundaries/membership, collective choice arrangement, monitoring, conflict-resolution mechanism, etc.

It'd be interesting to use the design principles outlined and analyze various P2P networks in more detail. Bittorrent, Bitcoin, Ethereum etc. E.g. forking could be seen as a collective choice arena.

Another aspect: tragedy of the commons are about over utilization. What, if any, is the correspondence for under utilization?

Also see:

  • Free rider problem
  • Stock to flow ratio
  • Localism

Notes on Bitcoin, Institutions and Lindy

Nakamoto, Satoshi. "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System," (2008)

https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

Why am I re-reading this? I'm looking for something I'm missing. Something essential, and obvious. Something I already "know", but seen in a new light.

Vitalik calls it cryptoeconomics, Szabo trust-minimization. Whatever it is, it is what is new about Bitcoin. Many systems are copying it, but most will fail. There might be something new inspired by it that has different characteristics, but only Bitcoin has stood the test of time.

What did Bitcoin do?
Bitcoin showed a way to reduce the need for trust for commerce on the internet. Specifically for trusted third parties, so two parties can exchange directly. This has several positive side effects compared to a trust based model. Since a third party isn't mediating the transaction anymore, there's no possibility of reversal. This means transactions costs are lower, since parties don't have to worry about fraud and so on. This also leads to a decoupling of identity and money, where (the equivalent of) financial institutions don't need to know who you are.

This quickly leads into notions of privacy, freedom and censorship resistance.

Institutions

One way of looking at institutions is as a set of rules in a society, or:

stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior (Samuel Huntington).

From the book Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington, 1968, which I haven't read but seems worth skimming at least. Examples of institutions (taken from Wikipedia): family, religion, peer group, economic system, legal system, penal system, language, mass media, education, research, medicine, military, industry/business, art/culture, nation state.

That's a lot! These are not to be underestimated. Many of them have a long, very long, history.

Why is the need for reducing trust so strong? Where does it come from, and where else can we see this? Nick Szabo has an essay on this, where he argues it is a form of social scalability.

Related reading:

Szabo writes that Bitcoin achieves social scalability through trust minimization, both to counterparties and third parties. This is a way to scale humanity by using computer science (cryptography, decentralization). Having an institution like this is more automated and secure, compared to an army of accountants, regulators, police and lawyers.

What will stay and what will go?

Is this true? At least partially. But I don't see all of these roles disappearing over night. Morphing yes, but not disappearing. Most have been around for a very long time and will likely remain.

What we might see if a form of change seen in agricultural, where remarkably fewer people are required for the same output.

Now, other things might well disappear, especially new things. The great fiat experience appears to be quite recent, though this requires further fact checking. Taking a long view, it seems as if all fiat currencies eventually go bust. JP Koning has some contrarian thoughts on this though:

Another thing: financial institution and this coupling between identity and money. Especially on the internet. The internet is still very new, so the rate of change is fairly rapid. A lot of it constrained by what is technologically possible. There's still a lot of inertia, and the rate of change operates at a different time scale. There definitely appears to be some new patterns that don't have a direct historical counterpart: these should be treated with suspicion, as per the Lindy effect.

Here are two facts that strike me as remarkable:

  • With cash, we can directly exchange goods for services, without anyone's approval or anyone else knowing.
  • When communicating, we can do so privately and securely in the context of our own home (sans bug-crazy states or spying neighbours).

What is remarkable isn't these two above things, it is how these... natural rights? are being taken away from us with new institutions online.

Now, it could be that this is bound to be and things are heading in this - dystopian - direction, fait accompli and all. There are fundamentally new aspects of this connected world that shouldn't be taken lightly. These are things such as:

  • Information multiplying freely and never disappearing
  • Ever connected Internet and travel (flights, see pandemics)
  • Centralization and expanding power of BigGov, BigCorp etc

Counterforces: information scarcity (Bitcoin, invite-only sites etc?), localism, indie companies / OSS

It isn't clear to me how new or fundamental the last 2-3 are. Not even the first one. They all have some historical counterparties (printing press for duplication; people travelled a lot in past too; large empires/companies existed before).

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

  • Ecclesiastes 1:9, Bible, ~200 BCE

Institutions that alienate these natural rights, if we may call them that, appear to me to be on the wrong side of history. They are fragile and likely to go extinct. Replaced by what? Replaced by something that is more similar to what has existed before.

Incentives

I never got to this part. For a future entry. It strikes me that this is more about the “how” as opposed to the “what”. How do we guarantee certain behavior? How do we make it stable and valuable to do the right thing (and vice versa)? In other words, how do we create institutions. More of a technological lens, as opposed to a social one.

Commonplace

A commonplace book is used to compile various forms of knowledge in one place. They’ve been used for hundreds if not thousands of years.

People who had a commonplace book or something very similar to it: John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Seneca (more of a journal), da Vinci, Leopardi (Zibaldone).

da Vinci said the following on his notebook:

A collection without order, drawn from many papers, which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later each in its place, according to the subjects of which they treat.

Many notes I personally take already resemble this form, so might as well put them out there. See where it leads.

I put down notes, I edit it. Writing disappears. - Zizek

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI1S-sko4T4

Which (published) commonplace books are worth reading? It strikes me that context makes them less interesting for general consumption. There is no clear narrative or instrumental purpose, like Harry Potter, the Bible or the latest IKEA catalog. Instead, the context much be shaped and filtered. In that sense they are like the bottom of an iceberg. The raw notes that percolate down into some digestible.

(When is the sausage factory more interesting than the sausage itself? When you want to make sausage.)

Their value is in themselves. If used right, they are generators and enable distillation. Writing-as-thinking.

I don’t know what making these notes semi-public will do. But seems worth a shot.