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Tag: epistemology

Look Ye on the Downsides

Today I’m test-driving an idea that will probably find its home in an upcoming Ribbonfarm essay. It’s loosely inspired by recent episodes of EconTalk. As always, feedback is welcome!

I’ve identified a fallacy within my own thinking, and I suspect it’s a widespread one. I tend to assume that if all my preferred policies were implemented, the world would be perfect. All problems would be solved. No child would ever go hungry and tax incentives would be perfect.

This is sort of an internal motte and bailey. When I think about it consciously, my rational side says, “Obviously switching to your preferred policies wouldn’t fix everything, even in the unlikely event that all of your choices were good ones. You can never escape tradeoffs!” Then my dreamy emotional mind lapses back into fantasizing about my hypothetical regime causing utopia.

In reality, almost every decision has a negative effect on somebody. The average policy debate isn’t one-sided, however much it may appear be. (In fact, both sides are motivated to portray their view as the only sensible or acceptable one. Both sides are stubbornly blind to the tradeoffs they’re accepting. Even if those tradeoffs are slight or defensible! We like to moralize them into oblivion, until anyone who admits that the tradeoffs exist is reflexively ostracized.)

Scott Alexander put it this way:

Political debates are pre-selected for “if it were a stupider idea no one would support it, if it were a better idea everyone would unanimously agree to do it.” We never debate legalizing murder, and we never debate banning glasses. The things we debate are pre-selected to be in a certain range of policy quality.

That range of policy quality seems pretty damn wide, but it’s like the Overton window — however nutty the ideas at the edges seem, you should hear the ones outside of them! Going back and forth about universal basic income is different from going back and forth about whether adult men should be allowed to work at all. The latter idea is obviously stupid. Although the occasional extremist makes proposals along those lines, they’re mostly ignored.


What’s dangerous, in the sense that change is always dangerous, is when extremists get to push on the Overton window and shift it. When extremists introduce ideas that are just a hair outside the mainstream, and therefore not suicide for public figures to adopt. Cthulhu may swim left in the long run, but in the short run there’s a lot of turmoil and we get buffeted back and forth.

But hey, that’s how progress happens! For example, decades of abolitionist activism helped make the Emancipation Proclamation politically possible. Along with a war.

The Internet of LOUD

On the way home from dinner, I wondered, “What am I gonna write about tonight?” Then I opened Twitter and faced this headline: “Hacker breaches the US agency that certifies voting machines” (only semi-confirmed).

So, ah, there’s that.

Cybersecurity is vital but hard and also the most important institutions seem to ignore it. Great!

Also, Adam Elkus said something funny:

This is 2016, so I should be able to back a secessionist kickstarter with bitcoins sent via virtual reality

It’s kinda possible if you donate to Liberland. Apparently a lot of their funds come through bitcoin.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.

Avalanche in progress. Photo by Sean Gillies.


What I really want to talk about is something else. I feel angsty. It’s a result of the cacophony. The unfettered flow of information that we’ve set up for ourselves, where people’s opinions about the news go straight into my face for hours on a daily basis. (What? I could choose not to do this? Preposterous.)

I like keeping track of what’s going on. But I hate putting up with the constant ambient wrongness.

Now, I’m a reasonable person, so I know that I’m not right about everything. I have natural biases, delusions engendered by tribalism, and often I must draw conclusions based on incomplete information. Some of these flaws will be discovered and fixed at some point, but others will continue to taint how I perceive and analyze the world. Just another stellar perk of being human!

Since I am human, even though I intellectually know that I’m wrong about some things, on an emotional level I think that all of my firm opinions are correct. It is extremely grating that everyone goes around disagreeing with me all the time. Especially since I have an agenda — a way that I want the world to proceed — and pesky other people never stop working against it.

This isn’t new, of course, but I can’t help but think that the volume has increased. There is so much of it. In the “olden days” did people with opinions have to restrain themselves from starting arguments left and right?

(Pun intended.)

Don’t Grudge What Changes

I thought most of this article was stupid, but here’s a statement that hit me:

[A] human being without any technological prostheses is nothing, an unsteady sac of flesh defined only by what it doesn’t have: no shelter, no protection, no society.

Without our material inventions, we are doomed. Without our cultural inventions, we are endangered. At least! Society depends on cohesion. We must cluster and justify our clustering.

The real reason why this doesn’t matter, beyond our hearts: only acceptable justifications matter. “Acceptable” is a malleable thing.

“Technology” is a very broad term that we’ve narrowed down to “computers and software” for no reason except the zeitgeist; no reason except length of existence. So many tools; so much material. We’ve narrowed what counts as “technology” for no proper reason — none that I’m aware of, anyway.

Unless the reason is “ease of classification and control” — but perhaps that is always the reason.

Maybe it’s just because we become accustomed to the tech that already exists. Technically speaking, pun intended, anything manmade counts as technology. It’s very mundane.

Header photo by Nadya Peek.

Wanted: Rigorous Intuition

A significant part of San Francisco’s public transit system was hit by a cyberattack this weekend. It looks like ransomware, but the hackers haven’t actually asked for anything yet. SFMTA is currently just giving everybody free rides. Their email system was also impacted. Employees aren’t sure if payroll will go through properly.

lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I saw two different people tweet that this virtual hijacking is a sign: we live in a dystopian sci-fi novel after all! (What else is new…) Immediately, I thought of the essay that I linked in response to the election, “On Trying Not To Be Wrong”:

Like many people, I’ve thought 2016 was a surreal year; the Cubs won the World Series, the Secretary of State went on television to warn people about white-supremacist memes, Elon Musk has landed rockets on ocean platforms and started an organization to develop Friendly AI. Surreal, right?


It’s real, not surreal. If reality looks weird, this means our stories about it are wrong. […] And being totally wrong about how the world works is a threat to survival.

Sarah Constantin is right. Reality marched on without those of us who misjudged it. Ironically, since I was so thoroughly deceived by 2016, “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” feels pretty damn correct right now. All those ’80s authors who pioneered computer-noir were more prescient than they probably realized.

Philip K. Dick reality quote. Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Image via ▓▒░ TORLEY ░▒▓. Quote purportedly from I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon.

Venkatesh Rao wrote about engaging with uncomfortable realities in a particularly good episode of Breaking Smart:

23/ This means accepting that your mind will need to go into both distressing and flow regimes as required by the situation, and accepting whatever emotions result.

24/ Perhaps the most important emotion to manage is that of feeling powerless. This causes acute distress and strong retreat-to-prowess urges.

25/ But you’re rarely entirely powerless. You can usually cobble together some meaningful, if clumsy, response to a situation with the skills you have.

26/ On the frontier, where there are no experts, and everybody is a beginner, this is often the only possible response. Unexplored nature is the ultimate asymmetrically superior adversary.


49/ The world is full of people and groups terrified of wandering beyond situations they are confident about handling. Those who make overcoming that terror a habit have an advantage.

50/ When a group of such people, with better-than-the-rest levels of emotional self-regulation, band together, they can form an unstoppable force. That’s what it takes for groups and organizations to break smart.

We can do it. Well, some of us. Which of us remains to be seen. Honestly, I am frightened that I may not be able to manage this.

Uh, Um

I don’t know why I feel the need to do this, since y’all haven’t noticed in the past when I’ve simply forgotten, but no dispatch tonight. (Unless this counts.) GUESS WHY.

Yeah, I’m displeased by the results of the election. I was never an HRC fan but I preferred her policies in every domain.

That said, I’m actually the most gutted by realizing that my perception of reality was so wrong. I said this on Twitter and I’ll say it here too — I was willing to bet money on Hillary Clinton the whole time and I would have rightfully lost that money.

So anyway, I need to process my epistemic failures before I can keep opining.

(inb4 someone replying to say that worrying about my perception of reality is selfish)

(it probably is but I don’t know how I can serve a world that I clearly don’t understand to the degree that I thought I did)

(brb updating my priors?)

Wanted: Efficacious Heuristics

A system is an arrangement of interlocking elements or moving parts that all affect each other, sometimes recursively. The world is full of them (and in fact each of those systems is itself an element of the larger system that comprises the whole universe).

Mathias Lafeldt wrote about how the human mind copes with this:

“Systems are invisible to our eyes. We try to understand them indirectly through mental models and then perform actions based on these models. […] Our built-in pattern detector is able to simplify complexity into manageable decision rules.”

Lafeldt’s explanation reminds me of the saying that the map is not the territory. Reality (which is a system) is the territory. Our mental models are maps that help us navigate that territory.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

Artwork by Kyung-Min Chung.

But no map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

This is why Occam’s Razor is so popular despite being incorrect much of the time. Some plans do go off without a hitch. But expecting the chaotic worst is a socioeconomically adaptive behavior, so we keep the idea around. [Edit: Hilariously, I mixed up Occam’s Razor and Murphy’s Law — thereby demonstrating Murphy’s Law.]

My personal favorite mental model is a simple one: “There are always tradeoffs.” One of the tradeoffs of using mental models at all is that you sacrifice understanding the full complexity of a situation. Mental models, like maps, hide the genuine texture of the ground. In return they give you efficiency.

Corporate Ecology

Sci-fi author Charlie Stross wrote the following in 2010:

“Corporations do not share our priorities. They are hive organisms constructed out of teeming workers who join or leave the collective: those who participate within it subordinate their goals to that of the collective, which pursues the three corporate objectives of growth, profitability, and pain avoidance. (The sources of pain a corporate organism seeks to avoid are lawsuits, prosecution, and a drop in shareholder value.) […]

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.”

This is true to an extent, insofar as any way of regarding a system can be true. But it’s more complex than what Stross has laid out. Real life is always more complex than the aesthetically appealing description.

To grab the most recent counterexample, the results of the Brexit referendum were abhorrent to London’s financial sector. It remains to be seen whether and how the UK will withdraw from the EU, or if it will have to relinquish Scotland in the process, but it’s pretty clear that outcomes fiercely opposed by the corporatized elite can come to pass and gain tremendous public prominence.

This is also a simplification: “those who participate within [a corporation] subordinate their goals to that of the collective”. Not exactly. I might say “those who participate in a given system act according to the system’s incentive structure” instead.

You get ahead in a big company — companies of most sizes, actually — by making your boss look good. Raises and promotions are allocated to employees who boost their supervisors’ status. (Wisdom from my dad, who’s worked for the same giant enterprise tech company for thirty years.) Making your boss look good may or may not align with helping the company succeed as a whole.

In 2007, political humorist and journalist Jon Schwarz defined the Iron Law of Institutions:

“[T]he people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in powerwithin the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.” [Italics in original.]

This could be summarized as “people care about their status among members of their ingroup, not members of the outgroup(s)”. Almost all cultural entities — and corporations are encrusted with culture — can be examined as communities going through hipster hype cycles and jockeying for power among themselves.

But of course, reality is also more complex than this paradigm. People can and do raise a cause above their individual wellbeing.

Corporations are assemblages of different types of people arranged in various idiosyncratic feedback loops. For the corporation to be sufficiently successful and stick around, the system must be reasonably optimized for its own survival. But it doesn’t have to work well from any objective standpoint. It can lurch in one direction or another on both macro and micro levels (the infamous Nokia acquisition and employee rating system are beautiful examples).

Anyway, we should not forget that regarding a company as a united entity with clear goals is just a rhetorical device, not a 1:1 reflection of reality.

Imaginary Numerical Encroachment

Remember imaginary numbers? In case you need a refresher — I did — here’s what Wikipedia says:

“An imaginary number is a complex number that can be written as a real number multiplied by the imaginary unit i, which is defined by its property i2 = −1. The square of an imaginary number bi is −b2. For example, 5i is an imaginary number, and its square is −25. Except for 0 (which is both real and imaginary), imaginary numbers produce negative real numbers when squared.”

The square root of a negative number has no representation in the physical world. You can hold a couple of apples in your hand, but you can’t hold the square root of -4 apples in your hand. Searching for i leads you to a paradox. Of course, the idea of a negative item is already nonsensical — even regular negative numbers are concepts without material form. And yet they’re “real”, if that term can be judged applicable. The most simple example of IRL negative numbers is finance: any balance you owe can be represented by negatives. But imaginary numbers specifically are used in electrical engineering and physics.

Image by fdecomite.

Image by fdecomite.

There are two basic ways of looking at math. Either math powers the universe — it’s the underlying engine — or math simply describes the universe. In the latter scheme, arithmetic is a human construct. I think both of these frameworks are somewhat right. Math is a logical system based on units, and there is no logic without a mind to perceive it. And yet the regularity and accuracy with which numerical manipulation explains our world says that we’re onto something.

In an old Guardian article, Gareth Owen commented on imaginary numbers:

“They are of enormous use in applied maths and physics. Complex numbers (the sum of real and imaginary numbers) occur quite naturally in the study of quantum physics. They’re useful for modelling periodic motions (such as water or light waves) as well as alternating currents.”

Imaginary numbers are imaginary — it’s right there in the name — but they’re not exactly made up.

You know the joke, right? Literature is psychology is biology is chemistry is physics is math. Scientific inquiry always leads us back to numbers. Computer science is a kind of applied math (artificial intelligence even more so) and now I’m getting to my point. The internet emerged from this tension between real and unreal, and the way we talk about it reflects that. VR will be a new realm for us, even less solid in the everyday sense. The requisite devices are built with engineering expertise, founded on a system that no one can observe — we must rely on paradoxical tricks to make it work.

So what’s the conclusion? To be honest, I don’t have a profound insight to wrap things up. Maybe the takeaway is just that humans invented the term “real” and language is a flawed tool. Math is not inherent to the universe, and it doesn’t always function as a mirror of the physical world.