Posts Tagged ‘30 day experiment’

Nov 2nd (day 21): Obviously wrong truths

by Hang

When I was in my very first undergraduate programming class, they hammered into me on very important truth:

The compiler is never wrong

The compiler has no bugs in it, the libraries have no bugs. If you’re not getting the output you expect, then the bug is in your code. Nearly every week, someone would be there furiously muttering to the tutor that he just needs to LOOK at this example because the code is so OBVIOUSLY correct that it MUST be a compiler error of some kind. And every time it happened, the tutors would simply smile complacently back and remind the student that “The compiler is never wrong”. Eventually, with enough repetition, we understood this fact down deep into our bones and I think it’s made us better programmers as a result of it.

On the face of it, this is absurd. Compilers are programs just like anything else and they contain bugs like every other program. If we were talking about established, battle scarred compilers like gcc, you might be able to make a credible argument but we were working with the Glasgow Haskell Compiler which most certainly did have bugs in it.

The statement “The compiler is never wrong” has such power because it’s so patently easy to prove false. And as I grow older and think I understand more and more about the world, some of the most powerful beliefs that you can hold are the obviously wrong truths. You can never tell an obviously wrong truth to someone who is not ready to hear it because it’s so obviously wrong. You need to take a leap of faith and accept that something can be obviously wrong and still true for such things to make sense.

If this sounds supiciously like what you’ve heard religious people say, it’s because maybe this is what religion is…

Nov 1st (day 20): “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because we shouldn’t, doesn’t mean we won’t”

by Hang

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Just because we shouldn’t, doesn’t mean we won’t

It seems slightly curious to be how public debate on various technology issues fall neatly on two sides:

  • This is technologically inevitable and therefore, we should embrace it as progress for mankind
  • This is socially corrosive and so therefore we should fight as much as possible to combat it

These lines are relatively similar regardless of whether the debate is about music piracy, biofuels, strong encryption, ad blocking software, transhumanism or biotechnology. The obvious missing argument is: “This is technologically inevitable and also socially corrosive”.

It seems entirely reasonable to me that music piracy will be harmful to most artists, strong encryption will be used by terrorists more than “freedom fighters”, ad blocking will severely hamper the ability to monetize the internet and transhumanism will lead to humans being kept as pets of intelligent AI. Such a view is not popular because it presents no solutions, only a slow grind towards inevitability. What’s more, it’s in contrast to the standard stories about progress and the long steady march towards the future.

Bill Bishop in The Big Sort talks about how people are increasingly segregating themselves into more intelectually homogenous communities since the 70’s. What’s even more disturbing, the more educated you are, the less change you have of meeting someone who disagrees with you. The proximate causes of this are easy to explain, as our society has gotten more wealthy, “lifestyle” factors trump all else in the choice of where to live and people self-segregate into homogenous social groups.

I would consider myself as someone who actively works to meet people who disagree with me and yet even I’m no exception to the rule. On the eve of the 2008 election, I can count a total of two people within my social network who I know to be voting for McCain. Every single other person, I’m almost certain is an Obama supporter. What does this hold for the future or reasoned political discourse?

We’ve given people choice, we’ve given people liberty and diversity and the right to pursue wealth and happiness but the result is a stultifying, homogenous echo chamber. This wasn’t a bug, it’s not something that can be engineered out, it’s what people want.

Oct 31st (day 19): The easy problem

by Hang

This is a concept which I’m currently struggling to come up with a better name for but it’s about responses to an argument. A crucial part of argumentation is actually understanding the claims and assertions that the other person is making. In order to do this, one can either solve the easy problem or the hard problem.

The difference between the easy problem and the hard problem is one of recognition vs recall. When confronted by an argument, the easy problem is to scan through your list of pre-canned responses to arguments. It’s a matching between arguments and replies. Is reply 1 close enough to fit? No. Is reply 2 close enough to fit? Yes. Stop, you’re done, spit out response 2.

The easy problem is seductive because it’s well, easy. But it’s more than that as well, it’s gratifying to the ego. You come up with a substantive response and it’s clever so you feel like you’re doing real work. Moreover, you spend your time compiling a larger database of pre-compiled responses and the larger your database is, the closer and more encompassing your matches become so you feel like you’re making progress. But when you solve the easy problem, you stop at the FIRST match which is sufficiently close. If the difference between the actual question and what you perceive the question is suffciently close, then you completely ignore the difference.

Solving the hard problem is taking the opposite approach. Instead of figuring out what response matches the question, you instead look at the structure of the question and reason out a response free from any pre-concieved biases. You conciously don’t try and recognize the question and place it into a particular category. Solving the hard problem can be valuable because it occasionally leads to genuine surprise. Solving the easy problem will never tell you something you could not be convinced of but solving the hard problem occasionally leads you down a difficult path.

The hard problem is more intellectually pure, with less chances of making a mistake. But it’s well, hard, and quite often doesn’t seem neccesary. So many of the questions we are asked every day seem like the sort that can be answered with a pre-cached answer and so we feel comfortable solving them with the easy problem. The problem is, it’s impossible to tell whether a problem is indeed something solvable or not with the easy problem because once you’ve determined that, you’ve already solved the hard problem.

This is especially true of internet comments and conversations. Once you mention certain key words in a posting, people will come in and post based on what happened to match that filter. This makes it very hard to present an argument which is very similar to a common argument because most people will match for the common argument.

So how do you get around this? I think the only way is to gain the respect of a core group of readers and have them get to the point where they assume that you’re not stupid and that it’s worth trying to solve the hard problem when you present them with an idea.

Oct 30th (day 18): Further thoughts on the existance of god

by Hang

My post yesterday on how to think about the existance of god seemed to generate a fair bit of commentary, both on the blog and on reddit. Many people popped up with alternative rebuttals to the claim “you can’t prove that god exists”, all of which I was aware of. But here’s the fundamental problem with all the conventional claims: They don’t work. Yes, they might be strictly, logically sound. Yes, they might require less of a leap of logic. But the problem is that concepts like burden of proof and occam’s razor sound totally convincing to people who have already accepted that it’s true but it’s hard to overestimate just how bizarrely counterintuitive, highly abstract and just plain wrong-sounding these concepts are. Atheists don’t have an argumentation problem, they have a communication problem.

Here’s what atheists seem to be missing when they encounter a Christian who disagrees with them: There are actually two legitimate reasons why a Christian would hold the position that Atheism is not merely wrong, but absurd on the face.

the philosophical argument

One is that they disagree from a fundamentally philosophical standpoint. It’s a perfectly legitimate model to posit that God only reveals himself to those who have made the leap of faith and, indeed, the power of religion lies in the difficulty in finding God. The evidence for God does not lie in naturalistic experiment, it lies in the human quest for meaning or the structure and order of life. It’s not a position I agree with but it’s definately one I respect as a internally coherent explaination of the world. In this case, of course atheists can’t find any evidence of God’s existance, they’re simply too stubborn and persist in looking in the wrong place despite huge and obvious signs of their ineptitude.

The urn example in this case lays down explicitly the areas of agreement and disagreement. You can move from there to the much more philosophically demanding areas of how occam’s razor and burden of proof affect each side’s claims.

the factual argument

The second reason is that they simply disagree with you on a factual level. To them, faith healing is real and demons have a manifest effect on the world. Miracles happen all the time and you would have to be stupid and blind to be an atheist. It’s so obvious that supernatural events are happening that it becomes impossible to consider that another person could view the world differently.

What the urn example demonstrates is that yes, atheists too would be convinced by supernatural events. A ball with the number 417 would convince an atheist the urn is red just as easily as a bona fide miracle would convince them of God’s existence. The point of contention is on an interpretation of evidence and this can be used as a starting point to segue into skepticism, levels of evidence, basic human psychology and burdens of proof. If you differ on a factual level, then Occam’s Razor is completely a non convincing argument. If miracles are happening on a daily basis, then the simplest explaination really is that god exists.

The fundamental problem that I’ve seen is that the average atheist argues with a Christian like they’re an atheist but stupider and believing in silly things. This is a wholly ineffective way to argue with anyone and it’s not going to change anyone’s mind.

Oct 29th (day 17): Thinking about the existance of god

by Hang

I’m going to break my sequence of concepts to present an interesting analogy I just came up with to explain why this argument is subtly wrong:

“There’s no way to prove that god does not exist”

Say I have two urns:

  • One is filled with numbered green balls, all of which lie in the range of 1 to 100.
  • The other is filled with numbered red balls all of which lie in the range of 1 to 500.

I draw a sequence of balls from a single urn, announce the numbers and I then ask you what color you think the urn I picked was.

Obviously, if there is a single ball >= 101, then you can assert with 100% probability that the urn is red. However, there’s no possible sequence of balls that could definitively prove a green urn. But if I keep on drawing balls under 100, consistently and without a single ball over 100. The more balls are being drawn, the more sure you are that I picked the green urn.

I view this as analogous to the problem of the existence of god. The space of possible universes in which god does not exist is a strict subset of the space of possible universes in which god does exist. It’s therefore strictly impossible to prove that god does not exist.

Each observation is like drawing a ball out of the urn and each observation can be consistent with an atheistic or supernatural interpretation of the world. Say you observed stones independently arranging to form the words of the koran, the ten commandments written in fire across the sky and routine, repeatable, spontaneous limb regeneration after praying. If any one of these happened (and they were verified to be bona fide miracles and not just what seemed like miracles), it would be the equivilant of drawing ball 328: absolute proof that god exists. But we keep on picking balls and observing the world and they keep on being strictly naturalistic phenomena.

Sure, it’s still possible that god exists and we’re going to find evidence of him if we keep on looking harder. But to me, we’ve picked enough balls that it’s not where the smart money is anymore.

Oct 28th (day 16): Acting Sober

by Hang

Quite a while ago, I was reading an article on secret tips of the trade that different professions have which had the following quote:


Every actor eventually is called upon to act drunk. Most do this by slurring their speech, stumbling around, and perhaps drooling a bit. This is what a freshman drama teacher calls “indicating.” A better way to appear drunk is to act very, very sober. Walk very carefully, and try not to let anyone see that you’re inebriated. This is much more subtle and will register on a level the audience won’t immediately recognize.

How do we spot people who are drunk? They’re the ones who are acting sober. Drunk people behave like how they think sober people behave. We understand this instinctually and subconciously and we’re incredibly attenuated to it although we often can’t articulate why we feel something is off.

This applies to other aspects of human behaviour. We can spot when rich people are pretending to be middle class because they act like what they think middle class people act. We can spot unintelligent people trying to sound intellectual. Because in all these cases, these people are acting sober.

The converse side of this is that you can only spot acting sober if you’ve actually been sober before. If you’re a rich person, you’ll totally be convinced by another rich person pretending to be middle class because that’s totally how you think middle class people act.

Understanding acting sober allows you to see the various masks that people put on and, more importantly, it’s an inner lens on how they internally represent the world. It can be a window onto someone else’s soul.

Of course, there’s acting acting sober (which is what professional actors do) and acting acting acting sober and so on ad infinitum as well.

October 27 2008

Oct 27th (day 15): The halfway mark

by Hang

Today marks the halfway point in my little experiment to 30 days of blogging and I thought I would share a bit about my experiences. Making an external commitment to do something has definitely spurred my motivation and it’s been a positive influence on me. It’s been a great feeling that every day, no matter what, I managed to accomplish *something* with my day and it’s also spurred me to be more disciplined and be more aware of the shape of the day. It also means I’ve been much more aware of ideas, constantly on the lookout for new things to blog about. Paradoxically, on some days, it’s meant that I’ve been blogging less as I might have 2 or 3 ideas I deem worthy of blogging about but I want to save the extra ideas in case of a rainy day.

That being said, blogging continuously in this sort of fashion sucks too. Given that I have to fit blogging around the rest of my schedule, I always end up cramming it into this corner or that. All of these blog posts have pretty much been a straight shot, stream of conciousness from start to end and the quality, IMO reflects that. If you study great writers, what sounds like a breezy, casual reflection is actually the result of massive amounts of rewriting, organization and editing to get it into it’s final form. Amateur writers who make the mistake of trying to emulate the greats try and emulate the result rather than the process and, as a result, end up coming up with something clunky.

While the one blog post a day experiment has given me plenty of practise in dumping my raw thoughts on paper, the pace simply hasn’t allowed me to do that reshaping work to produce a piece of work that I am proud of. I know plenty of my blog posts suck (at least in my eyes) and I’m looking forward to having a more measured pace and drawing out a story rather than merely a concept.

Thinking more on how so much of skill is hidden under the surface got me to thinking about skills you didn’t know you needed and how so much of what makes someone skilled is completely underestimated by the outside observer. One of the skills I believe that I excel in is coming up with ideas, concepts and new ways of thinking about the world. Thinking up ideas seems like one of those mysterious things which some people are just naturally good at and people very rarely try and systematically become better at it. It’s often hard to see just how much work is required to become a good thinker.

One of the things which is never seen from the outside is the private vocabulary that I use to scaffold and structure ideas in my head. Words are shortcuts for concepts and the richer your vocabulary is, the more efficiently you can represent and develop a concept. So, as an experiment, I will dedicate this next 15 days to explaining one piece of personal vocabulary a day to give insight into the mental scaffolding that I use.

One of the reasons I started the Figuring Shit Out blog was precisely so I could talk more about this sort of stuff but I stumbled upon a major problem: describing an internal vocabulary is hard. The internal vocabulary is not made up of just english words, it’s got associations, images and visualizations. It’s linked to a bunch of other concepts and whats more, it’s constantly morphing as well. Whenever I tried to pin a concept down on paper, I found that the concept itself was being reconceptualised faster than I could write about it.

Given this, I think this will be a good forcing tool in making me grapple seriously with how I explain things to others but at the same time, I know that I’m going to be immensely disappointed with these next 15 posts. So here’s the deal: all of these next 15 posts will become password protected and hidden once the experiment is over. If you want to read them, you need to be reading them now because you won’t be seeing them again until I’m ready to talk about them again. If you have an RSS reader, now is the time to subscribe to the feed if you don’t want to miss out on anything.

As a rough dump, here are some of the terms I will be talking about:

  • The ego dilemma
  • p+1
  • Acting sober
  • Advanced wisdom
  • The easy problem
  • Life is drama
  • The unavoidably essential nature of reality
  • Zero knowledge proofs
  • The unbearable weirdness of meta
  • Grinding
  • Movieverse
  • The best of all possible universes
  • Sheepdogs and Wolves
  • Obviously wrong truths
  • Everything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both
  • the no evil geniuses paradox
  • bumblebees

More as I remember them…

October 26 2008

Oct 26th (day 14): Hangovers suck

by Hang

I had my first ever hangover today and it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mind still a bit fuzzy, a more substantive blog post tomorrow…

Oct 25th (day 13): “If Republicans were convinced by facts, they would be Democrats”

by Hang

I made a seemingly flippant comment the other day in response to some Republican glurge:

“If Republicans were convinced by facts, they would be Democrats”

For people who operate via reason and argumentation, it can sometimes be frustrating and immensely counterproductive to be arguing someone who is unreasonable. So much time and effort is spent arguing in the only way a reasonable person knows how: through dilligent research and arraying a formidable array of facts for one’s side. However, so few reasonable people seem to every ask why reason has been such a poor strategey historically in changing people’s minds.

Imagine that you had a friend who literally had a hypnotic voice. When he speaks to you, he could convince you that up was down or bats were bird or that bacon was not delicious. He’s your friend and you know that he cares for you and would never do anything actively to harm you but at the same time, wouldn’t the most prudent form of action be to block your ears every time he comes by and to listen to none of what he is saying?

For those who are adept at reason and believe they can hold their own in an argument, reason is a value free tool, neither good nor evil. But for a large bulk of society, reason is not a tool but a weapon. It’s the hypnotic ray that the privledged elite use to mind control an entire country. And what’s more, reason is outside of their grasp and they know it. If you were part of the disengfranchised majority, wouldn’t you decide that shutting your brain off is the only reasonable defense?

Oct 24th (day 12): Conversations around porn

by Hang

I gave a talk today to the iSchool Research Conversation class about my work on building better commenting systems for aminormalornot. Overall, the presentation went really well and there was some interesting conversation that came out of it but there was one segment of the discussion which verged into the surreal.

We were talking about communities and quality conversation and some people were trying to define an example of where awesome comments would not yield a high quality conversation and porn came up. For some reason, everyone seemed to get really attached to the porn thing and the debate over whether there was community around porn.

While I admit that I consume porn, I’m not especially interested in sharing my porn with others or getting into in depth discussion about my porn and I get the impression that not many people that I know are. As a result, I had a hard time imagining what a community around porn looked like and I was pretty sceptical that they existed to any great extent.

What was the really surreal part though, was that all the women in the room seemed adamant that porn communities exist while all the guys in the room just sat back and seemed like they clearly wanted to have no part in this conversation. Maybe women know something men don’t about porn but one woman seemed to speak with quite some experience about how there were connoisseurs of porn who cared deeply about the lighting and cinematography and passionate enough to share such thoughts with others.

I know it’s mean but after she said it, I couldn’t help imagining her stumbling upon her boyfriend surreptitiously watching a piece of graphic erotica and then accepting at face value, his explaination of “Honey, I’m just watching it for the lighting…”

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