Up Two

Photo: AE


Mysterious Package From Göteborg

MC Mechanic / Shane WillisA few months ago, I arrived home from vacation to find an unmarked package from Göteborg, Sweden, sitting on my desk. Inside the package was a very mysterious book entitled Being or Nothingness.  The package contained no return address, but only the handwritten message "Will tell you more when I return" in its place.  That's where the story begins...

At first I thought the package must have been sent by a friend. As I opened the book inside, I was greeted with a letter written to Douglas Hofstadter.  I glanced just over the book's cover to look at my own copy of Hofstadter's GEB, sitting no more than two feet away on the table.  It had all the markings of a book a friend would pick out for me.

A curious co-worker wasn't satisfied, and went to look for the book on the internet.  He found nothing but a blog post in Portuguese he couldn't read.  As I walked by his computer, he closed the browser window, and in the last second my eye caught something.  I had him re-open the page to find that the photos in the blog post pictured the exact envelope I had received, complete with the same stamps and handwriting style.  The book had also been sent to Brazil...

In the time since, I have been in contact with a half-dozen or so other individuals who have received the book.


  • The book appears to have been delivered to a fairly small number of targeted individuals.
  • These individuals are all over the world: UK, Iran, South Africa, Australia, US, Canada, Brazil.
  • They speak, work, and write in different languages, Farsi and others difficult to web translate.
  • They all work in philosophy, logic, mathematics, AI, or neuroscience.
  • Apart from their interest in the subject matter, little connection exists between the individuals.
  • The book contains hidden references, double entendres, puzzles?, words cut out, misquotes, riddles, and a variety of suggestive and confusing material that centers on self reflexivity.
  • To understand the book at all, one would have to know the inside stories of referenced works.
  • Even then, it is difficult to gather the meaning of the book (readers have diverse opinions).
  • No one yet knows for sure who wrote the book, why, or what it means.
  • It is written in British English, not American English.
  • A Swedish IP from the right area visited at least one of the recipient's blogs.
  • The book is hardback, and elegantly made, not for sale publicly.
  • Someone has gone to considerable effort, expense.

The book is called Being or Nothingness (not Sartre's Being AND Nothingness).

Escher's drawing hands on the cover. Joe K is an anagram for Joke, as well as a reference to Joseph Knecht from Hesse's work mentioned in the book.

The book claims to be a lost manuscript of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, recently translated into English from a copy found in Sweden.  It makes special reference to Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, as well as a number of other famous existentialist authors, philosophers, and logicians.  It also includes a ton of seemingly nonsense riddles and quotes, at least some with creative and hidden references.

There are explicit or implicit references to Sartre (title), Douglas Hofstadter (front cover, letter), Escher (front cover, letter) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (letter) Hume (p4) Godel (p4) Hermann Hesse (p6) Eckhart, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Foucault, Krauss, Einstein, Ibsen, Hobbes (pp 9-11) Douglas Adams (p13) Pythagoras (p13) The Bible (pp16, 17, 19, 20) Solzhenitsyn (p20) John Donne (or Hemingway) (p20), etc.

Even the format of the book itself is a philosophical trick. 


It has been conjectured on the internet that the purpose of the book is either:

  • Part of a viral marketing scheme (but no viral component or clear message).
  • To convert people to some religion or philosophy (but no clear philosophy).
  • To serve as a head hunting puzzle for a job offer.
  • To destroy "smart people's" minds.
  • Part of an assassination attempt from the Illuminati.

I have no clue.  But if any of you do, please clue me in.

In lieu of other explanations, I believe it is an artistic statement, delivered to its intended audience. When read metaphorically, the book is an abstract exercise in mystery and understanding.

Portuguese blog post

Back cover claims that it contains the lost manuscript of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Inside, a letter to Hofstadter, written in anticipation of "I am a strange loop". The book is a strange loop.

Update: Last weekend, I was at a tech conference in San Jose, and ran into a Ben I know who specializes in AI, matching a post on the blog entry.  Sure enough, he received the book, and the Portuguese blog author is an employee of his.  This is the first known connection between two recipients.  Do you know anyone else who has received it?  I am hoping that this post will bring about something.  I do have two strong leads, but haven't had the time to pursue them. 

A phrase, cut out from the page, can be solved by placing the letter behind. Easy puzzles appear designed to arouse your suspicion to look for more subtle clues.

 If you get a chance, pass this on to anyone you think may be the right demographic to receive this book, or perhaps to know someone who did.  If they did not catch the blog post, it is unlikely they would have known about the recipients and the larger plot. 

Perhaps something, perhaps nothing but an elaborate joke.  Regardless, I think it's a curious story.




Light grid; out supporting a friend.


Seeing the General the waterfront.


Convergence 2008

Patri Friedman, Seasteading Institute Director / Convergence group / Cameraman


Singularity Summit 2008


Justin Ratner, Intel CTO / Peter Diamandis, XPrize CEO / Dharmendra Modha, IBM Director of Cognitive Computing Tyler Emerson, SS Exec Director / Susan Fonseca-Klein, SI Chief Admin Officer; William Andregg, Halcyon Molecular CEO

Cameron Colby, SS Director of Strategy; Tyler Emerson, SS Exec Director; Glen Zorpeet, IEEE Exec Director; John Horgan, Author / Eric Baum, AI Researcher; Eliezer Yudkowsky, SI Research Fellow


TED Monterey 2008 

Sergey Brin; Andrew Mwenda; Queen Noor of Jordan; Robin Williams; Matt Frei; Carl BernsteinVusi Mahlasela


Paella Time











These are from a cousin's place in Spain. Peaceful.


TED Africa

Nairobi, Ngorongoro, then Arusha, Tanzania, for a TED Conference.



Outside London


Ethics and Economic Development

Photo: Tyler EmersonThis evening I attended a lecture on Ethics with keynote speaker Randy Cohen of New York Times and All Things Considered fame. The event was sponsored by the Center for Practical Bioethics, and I was rather expecting a focus on biology, but the issue never so much as came up.

Randy is the go-to guy for the nation's ethical issues, though he would be quick to denounce the height of his own ethical standards.  Moreover, he generally discounts the impact or even existence of personal character, and believes his success is due quite entirely to luck and social advantage, not any aptitude he might posses.  Randy is a believer in the idea that the community a person is surrounded by determines the moral choices and ethical behaviour of an individual rather than the character of that individual -- not just during youth, but from moment to moment.

The best indicator of your income is your parents income level, and according to Randy, the best indicator of your behaviour is the behaviour of the person sitting next to you at the time.  Essentially, there is no moral superiority or individual responsibility, but rather a systemic community responsibility bound to those with power to create an environment that encourages people to be ethical.  Randy cited numerous statistics and research studies to back up his claims.  The outcome of his conjecture is that people are mindless and flighty automotons who mirror behaviour and can neither be congratulated nor held responsible for their choices in the vast majority of cases.  From time to time there may be independently ethical individuals, but such behaviour is often inconsistent and exceedingly rare, and we cannot rely on it to create an ethical society.

He spoke for some time about poverty (and prosperity) not being indicative of character, but rather being indicative of the economic circumstances in which one is in.  When Randy's argument was countered by a speaker he said something to the effect of 'that would be nice to believe, but it is not my opinion that statistics support the existence of individual character'.

He pointed out that cheating in school, plagiarism, and music downloading are due to changes in technology that encourage these activities rather than any sort of moral decline, and that they continue due to our lack of creating innovative solutions to address them.  Note I said address and not legislate -- Randy is against RIAA lawsuits and school zero tolerance and affirmative honor codes.  He stresses that harsh penalties actually lead to more crimes because people refuse to turn others in or to convict them with such extreme penalties in place.  Rather, he asserts that there ought to be easier better alternatives to cheating created, and that there ought to be simple low-impact ways to discourage it.

A few experimental examples he referenced include:

  • Subjects were dramatically more likely to help an old lady in need if they serendipitously found a dime in a pay phone before hand.
  • Subjects were led across campus to an unimportant lecture event.  When they were told that they were very early and had time to waste they were quite likely to stop and help a man in dire need of medical attention.  When given no mention of time constraint they were moderately likely to help him, and when told they were in a hurry, they were extremely unlikely to help him. Being minutely late to a superfluous event dramatically affected ethical behaviour.
  • Subjects being interviewed in a room in which smoke was coming from the vent were dramatically less likely to report that the building was on fire, if other individuals were in the room did not appear to notice the event (diffusion of accountability, assumption that others must know what's going on).
  • In the Stanford Prison Experiment, normal people were committing prisoner abuse and sexual humiliation within 6 days on their own.  The soldiers at abu-girab were just normal people who had a failing of leadership to address a steadily declining situation.  People will adjust to anything over time as their expectations and justifications and peer-acceptance evolves.

The most immediately obvious thing about Randy is that he is quite a humorist and a rather vocal leftist.  He also seemed to be a bit down on America and its lack of upward mobility, citing that it is worse than Europe / England.  (I'm not sure I believe that, but he didn't reference a stat, so I can't specifically dispute it).

When he could brush his political opinions aside, he gave some strong insight into ethical behaviour.  What he did not do is point out very many solutions.  Several audience questions, including that of my friend Airick, ventured into the realm of "Okay, so what do we do about it".  Fortunately, after the event, I was able to catch a Thai dinner with two surprisingly action-oriented professors and a few bright young entrepreneurs who were apt to discuss just such issues.

During the course of the discussion, we ventured into cultural, social and economic development plans, which I will save for another day.  Perhaps if I'm "lucky", you will hear about them as part of a cohesive plan.  In fact, if a number of us aspiring citizens are very "lucky" day in and day out for a number of years, you may even see dramatic results. ;)

(Well, I suppose now that I've gone there, I might as well refer back to Lucky or Smart.)


Lucky vs E-Myth

These two books could hardly be more opposite if they tried.  The difference stems mostly from the disparity between the viewpoint of a humble technology entrepreneur and an insightful retail salesman.

  • E-Myth teaches you that you should hire idiots and orchestrate their every movement.  Lucky teaches you that you should hire geniuses and get out of the way.
  • E-Myth teaches you that you too can nourish and train your entrepreneurial spirit.  Lucky teaches you that entrepreneurs are born, not made, and that attempting to be one unnaturally is a sure recipe for failure.
  • E-Myth says good enough is the enemy of great.  Lucky says great is the enemy of good enough.
  • E-Myth preaches measured, quantified awareness.  Lucky preaches blind faith and idealism.
  • E-Myth teaches you to be powerful in sales by taking control.  Lucky teaches you to relax and embrace powerlessness.
  • E-Myth teaches that you haven’t been paying enough attention to management, and that experts are beyond useless to you.  Lucky teaches you to stay out of the management of your business and leave it to the people who are better suited to do it.

So what do they agree on?
Two things I can surmise:  Have a vision, and learn to love the word ‘No’.

Once you understand when and why both perspectives are right, ta da, you’ve learned something useful.


Taking Children Seriously

As I round out my career as a subject of formal education, I have been doing some reflecting back with regards to my childhood and educational experience.  I have some conflicting feelings about the nature of education, and on a bad day I can be plain John Taylor Gatto.

So where do I look for advice on such matters?  Why, theoretical physicists, of course.  I spent the last few hours reading on David Deutsch's co-brainchild Taking Children Seriously.  While it sounds a little "sissy libertarian" on the surface, I admit, I'm intrigued by some of the concepts.  It reminds me of the Love and Logic approach currently favored by a friend and elementary educator.

I'm a big fan of introducing personal responsibility and self-accountability at an early age.  The earlier you start learning your own lessons and creating your own moral compass, the better.  Likewise, I prefer authentic and transparent leadership and all the other warm and fuzzy stuff.

(Please, nobody notice that I'm drawing similarities between leading a successful company, and developing a relationship with my future child.)

Above are a few photos from a recent China trip.On the other hand, when the time comes to not ask questions and to not screw around, there has to be an understanding.  Joe Pesci does not fuck around.  Sometimes life isn't fair, sometimes things are out of your control, and in real life, the main character sometimes dies...of cholera.  I support warm and fuzzy, but only to the extent that it does not interfere with an accurate understanding of human reality; of entropy, resiliency and being tough.  It's a fine line, and I think it requires a bit of Buddhist wisdom, a bit of doing mysterious things that just don't make sense to your kid.  Throw in some Johnny Cash to temper the Judeo-Christian social values, and the new-age empathy system.  Fine, I don't know anything about raising children.

But rest assured, mine will be sweet.


Spirituality & Simulation

Nick BostromYes, I did in fact almost get through a whole entry on David Deutsch without saying anything like 'quantum mechanical multiverse'.  Instead, I'm going to leave you to ponder something entirely different.

Deutsch's Law: Every problem that is interesting is also soluble.
  • Corollary #1: Inherently insoluble problems are inherently boring.
  • Corollary #2: In the long run, the distinction between what is interesting and what is boring is not a matter of subjective taste but an objective fact.
  • Corollary #3: The problem of why every problem that is interesting is also soluble, is soluble.

I think this law is perhaps most profound with regards to its religious implications. Is theism soluble?  Should agnostics be apathetic?  Questions for another day.

For now, check out your spiritual type and religious beliefs.

If that hasn't managed to mess up your day, let's go ahead and talk about computer simulation of life. Not only is this problem theoretically soluble and interesting, but it's more related to spirituality than one might think.  I am not talking matrix fiction here, I am talking the genuine philosophical theory of Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom.  (papersynopsis)

The simulation argument does not purport to demonstrate that you are in a simulation (nor does they author feel it is most likely that we are, he prefers #2).  Instead, it shows that we should accept as true at least one of the following three propositions:
  1. The chances that a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small.
  2. Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours.
  3. You are almost certainly in a simulation.

Apologists may want to listen up here. If you can manage to take this argument a bit more metaphorically than literally, it has the makings of something a lot more accessible than Anselm's Ontological treatises.

Didn't get what I mean?  I'm not positive I do either.

Yes, Jim, this is why I'm late to your and Emily's party tonight.  I'm a loser.


Nature of Space

I attended a lecture on the nature of space today by Sir Michael Atiyah. The lecture is the first in the American Mathematical Society's Einstein Public Lecture Series in Mathematics. This year, marks the 100th anniversary of the rather astounding year in which Albert Einstein published five ground breaking papers that "have shaped the direction of much of science and mathematics for the past century."

Now, I've been to these sort of lectures at the University before, and found them largely without attendance, so it was to my surprise when my friend Jim and I showed up to a packed house and a great many people being turned away at the door. In addition to a large turnout, apparently a great many students had been given extra credit for attendance. This became more obvious as the less visible portions of the room whipped out notebooks, scratched down about a page or so in said notebooks, awkwardly gazed into space for a few minutes, and then filed out of the auditorium. Still, it was a good crowd.

Abstract: The Nature of Space
For more than two thousand years philosophers, mathematicians and physicists have struggled to understand the nature of space. Kant studied the role of the human mind, mathematicians examined the logical ramifications of space and physicists investigated experimental phenomena. The story continues to the present day, with increasingly exotic scenarios of vibrating strings in ten dimensional space-time. I shall review the history and present status of the great philosophical controversies in the light of modern developments.

During the first half of his presentation, Atiyah traversed through the landscape of early philosophers, posed questions on the nature of reality and perception, and identified various past conceptions of the universe (including platonic solids, or as he calls them "Scottish Solids" and the like). He discussed whether various human accomplishments were inventions or discoveries. For instance, are complex numbers a human invention?.. Many assumed so, but now that they are an integral component of Quantum Mechanics, perhaps we merely discovered something that was already there? This concept raises new issues as even the most basic representation of String Theory requires a truckload of advanced mathematics soup. Anyhow, He discussed the relationship of mathematics to theoretical physics and made a number of witty asides to engage the audience. The second part focused on the relationship between Einstein's work, Quantum Mechanics and String Theory.

The single pervading message that I took away from this event was:

Question your assumptions. Question them in the most fundamentalof ways -- as Einstein did with space and time.

Specifically, Atiyah suggested that String Theory may have (or perhaps for the purposes of elegance ought to have) a simpler underlying representation. All classical theories and even quantum mechanics suggest that if you know the present state (position and velocities of particles) you can predict the future. (Never mind that quantum mechanical uncertainty forbids you from knowing both -- simply if you did know them, you could predict).

Atiyah suggested that perhaps we need to resign that notion, and assumede facto that we must know both the present and the past to know the future. Rather than simply affecting the present through differential equations, one would use retarded differential equations or related methods to actively engage the past. He asserted this as only his personal guess as to where we (the next generation) should look to question ourselves.

In all, though I didn't feel it earth shattering, I would highly recommend listening to Atiyah any time you get the chance. He is an excellent and accessible speaker, and a brilliant and well-regarded man.