ȘȈǤƝȘ 64: Only Physicists and Dancers Escape

"Anyone who has a child today should train him to be either a physicist or a ballet dancer. Then he'll escape." —W.H. Auden

Master Baby by William Quiller Orchardson (1886)
Master Baby by William Quiller Orchardson (1886)
Welcome to Signs of Life, the coolest newsletter in the world.

It's about philosophy and science on the frontiers of internet culture.

If someone sent you this, it must be pretty cool. Subscribe for yourself.

In this issue, you’ll learn about

  • Life-History Theory
  • How to understand the NXIVM sex cult
  • Why I might start scouting for investors
  • How home printers are surveillance devices
  • The surprising history of point-and-shoot cameras
  • News and events coming up (Based Mansion, Austin)

A really other life

I haven’t shared this very publicly until now, but it looks like I’m going to be a father—God willing, sometime around December. I’m very happy, excited. Nervous, but ready. At the ripe age of 35, it’s about time.

It’s boosting my drive and motivation, but it’s also clarifying my priorities. When people ask me what I do, I still say the same thing I've always said... Usually just “writer” or “social scientist.” But as I wrote about recently, I’ve spent most of the past year doing business operations. A kid would have noticed that their "writer" dad does pitifully little writing…

I'm only slightly nervous about our future finances; I'm more nervous about financial ambition blowing me off course.

That’s one reason I’ve resuscitated this weekly letter, and updated the format to feature more original ideas. Putting my heart and soul into this letter every week is my way of guaranteeing I’ll remain a writer no matter how badly parenting and business may encroach upon my vita contemplativa.


Affordable point-and-shoot cameras arrived in 1900

I was stunned to discover that the Eastman Kodak Company released the first point-and-shoot camera—meaning it was usable and affordable for untrained consumers, with no manual adjustments for focus or aperture—in the year 1900. The original Kodak Brownie only cost $1. A quarter of a million were sold in the year 1900. And no, the low price is not an illusion due to inflation. $1 in 1900 had the purchasing power of about $32 today.

Kodak Brownie No.2 Model F (1924)
Kodak Brownie No.2 Model F (1924)

NXIVM was a rationality cult

From 1998 to 2018, Keith Raniere built one of the most rationally optimized private enterprises in recorded history. NXIVM was a private company that synthesized all of the most powerful and lucrative motifs across the entire history of modern human organizations. It combined the fantastic profitability of pyramid schemes with the perceived pricelessness of “personal development” training, the scientifically valid mechanisms of cognitive behavioral therapy, the aesthetics of Asimovian futurism, and the authentic charisma of a well-read, articulate intellectual leader with patents to prove it.

With these ingredients, Keith Raniere maximized his personal utility more radically than any man in recent memory. At the culmination of all his effort, he did the only thing that a strictly utility-maximizing man can do. He successfully built a harem of female sex slaves. Of course, he slightly overshot the mark, which landed him in prison for the rest of his life. The harem of sex slaves didn’t last forever, so he could have optimized more fully. But he was significantly more intelligent and optimized than your average David Koresh…

Almost all of the people he worked with, at any time in the 20 years of NXIVM’s lifespan, would have sworn that NXIVM was a beneficial, positive-sum game between consenting adults looking to better themselves and the world.

NXIVM’s marquee “self development” protocol was called Rational Inquiry. The internal training curriculum stresses that the founder has one of the highest IQ scores in the world. The founder’s many patents were frequently cited and much admired by members. The HBO documentary The Vow reports that the patent for Rational Inquiry was filed under artificial intelligence.

Rationalism pursued with sufficient fervor can also take on a gnostic hue. As one of their internal documents put it:

“Success is an internal state of clear honest knowledge…”

Everyone’s commitment was to their own success, which includes cooperation with others who are maximizing their own success. If one person is disproportionately supplying the intellectual and organizational horsepower underwriting the circulation of this mutual success promotion, he rightfully deserves a disproportionate share of the respect, deference, money, and power. If commitment to the base-level NXIVM membership demonstrably helps confused or unmotivated people self-actualize— or “integrate” as they call it—then voluntarily submitting to the secret sex-slavery level is perfectly logical. It should only multiply the benefits of the lower level, by raising all the stakes that worked so well at the lower level. This was precisely how Raniere sold it, and how Sarah Edmondson rationalized her own submission in the documentary.

The NXIVM cult isn’t fascinating because it’s evil. The NXIVM cult is fascinating because it’s rational. It’s perfectly consistent with utilitarian or consequentialist ethics.

Modern secular intellectuals generally believe that utility-maximization is intrinsically aligned with the Good, but it’s not. For a consistent rationalist and ethical utilitarian, Keith Raniere did nothing wrong. His only sin is that he handled his slaves with insufficient sophistication, leading some of them to feel unhappy and complain to law enforcement. If he handled them with more perfectly optimized finesse, this collective utopia would be unimpeachable.

Unconstrained rationality leads to evil, if pursued with sufficient intensity. I’m friends with many rationalists who are not evil, but the reason they are not evil is because they—thankfully!—don’t maximize their utility with unconstrained fervor.

The only rationality that can be applied with maximum intensity, without turning evil, is utility-maximization constrained by Thomist virtue ethics. In short, Christianity. But to spell this out in detail would require another post.


Want to improve your output, and meet some of the other writers, hackers, and artists who read this newsletter? Join a Tuesday morning Work Session hosted by IndieThinkers.org. These sessions are free for anyone who reads this newsletter, just drop your email here to get the Zoom link.

Why do home printers require yellow ink cartridges even if you only print black and white?

Home printers embed invisible tracking devices in your printed papers. A “machine identification code” is a digital watermark that links any printed sheet to the device that printed it. This technology was developed by Xerox and Canon in the 1980s. It did not become public until 2004. (Via @ded_ruckus)


Based Mansion, Austin — Nov. 5-7

Once again, I am renting a mansion for a weekend, to host an informal conference/party for people in my internet communities. Specifically for indie thinker types working on independent intellectual or creative projects outside of institutions. This time it will be in Austin, Texas over the weekend of November 5 to November 7. To learn more about the concept, read this review of Based Mansion LA in 2020.

There are many ways to join the weekend. We have a limited number of bedrooms, but for people who have their own place to stay, we'd love to have you over for particular events throughout the weekend. Space will be limited and we may not be able to have over everyone who wants to come; but if demand really outsizes capacity, I'll seriously think about doing more things like this. I'd love to eventually welcome and connect with anyone who wants to join.

If you'd like to attend Based Mansion in Austin, please RSVP here and I'll get back to you personally.


On scouting for investors

I’ve become friends with some of the based VCs and angel investors in Austin and it’s got me thinking a lot about the investing game. I’m not particularly drawn to building and maintaining a fund myself, but the podcast and newsletter already attract exactly the kind of inbound that investors want: a high-variance pool of wild thinkers and builders, where only 1 out of 100 needs to be a big winner. One of the biggest challenges for investors is accessing asymmetric bets, promising companies that most people haven’t heard of yet. And the Other Life brand is a lightning rod for high-quality but underground thinkers, hackers, and builders. Often just slightly outside the current Overton window, or a little too weird, or a little too something—many readers of this newsletter or listeners of the podcast are precisely the kind of founders that based investors are dying to meet. I just never really thought about it until recently. So I’m toying with the idea of perhaps, informally or formally, becoming a scout.


Life-History Theory

I have a friend who occasionally turns to me for choice redpills. This weekend he asked for one, and I gave him a quick rundown on… Life-History Theory. I figured I’d type it for you all.

The core intuition is as follows. Organisms can advance themselves by increasing the number of offspring or devoting more resources to a smaller number of offspring. There is a tradeoff between these two strategies, roughly quantity vs. quality. So given variation in environments, natural selection will cause some organisms to prefer quantity-based strategies while other organisms will prefer quality-based strategies. The former is a “fast life” strategy and the latter is a “slow life” strategy, also known as r-selection and k-selection respectively. The main dimensions of environmental variation that matter here are roughly stability/predictability, and the threat of dying from external threats. The more stable and safe the environment, the more slow-life strategies will dominate; you can afford to invest in the future. The more unstable and dangerous, the more fast-life strategies will dominate; you have to spray and pray, as it were. The best known examples of observable implications are age at sexual maturity, parental investment, etc. It turns out an impressive variety of traits can be predicted, and they seem to correlate fairly well. I find the theory pretty convincing, overall.

For an accessible introduction, I’d suggest Scott Barry Kaufman’s multi-part series, Life in the Fast Lane.

For a readable academic overview of the theory as it applies to humans, with a catalogue of the classic examples, try Kaplan and Gangestad (2005).

The main reason that Life-History Theory gets edgy is that people have argued that different ethnic or racial groups tend toward faster or slower strategies. Some patterns seem uncontroversial, and not a big deal. There is evidence, for instance, that black girls’ sexual maturity comes quicker than that of Hispanic girls or white girls. Black males probably have their first sexual experience earlier than white or Asian males, on average.

None of the above is too controversial, the links above are fairly recent studies in respectable journals.

The reason this stuff gets edgy is really only because there were a few high-profile social scientists who went balls-to-the-wall at the same time that the first wave of the political correctness revolution was taking off. These scientists seemed to believe that the PC wave could be countered with... extremely flagrant lack of concern. Philippe Rushton is probably the most notorious example. His 1995 Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective is, well… it's insane this book was published in 1995. It makes Charles Murray's The Bell Curve (1994) read like a Disney story. If you want to taste the reddest pill in life-history theory, that would probably be the one. I'm neither recommending nor condemning it, but if you have a guilty pleasure for social science outside the Overton window, well there you go.

In the drawing room

“It is true that children pick up coarse expressions and bad manners in the company of servants; but in the drawing room they learn coarse ideas and bad feelings.” —Alexander Herzen
Blue Drawing-Room in the Mariinsky Palace by Eduard Hau (mid 19th century).
Blue Drawing-Room in the Mariinsky Palace by Eduard Hau (mid 19th century).