Anti-Human Views

This is an interesting example of a site that is against people having power and control over what they do.

Mixed into a couple reasonable arguments, it mostly opposes the "nofollow" feature on links (which makes search engines not count them) because it lets people control who they give link credit to, so now they can sell it, or not give credit to sites they don't like.

The anti-nofollow people act like nofollow is dangerous. But no one has to use it. They are really against anyone who wants to use nofollow having the option to. In other words, they want to control people they disagree with. They advocate the world being such a way no one can do anything but enact their theory of how to live.

Usually anti-human-power views are associated with, say, gun control advocates or people who hate technology. But I think it's very widespread. Any sort of authoritarian view that does not want to allow people to make their own choices is anti-human.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Optimism

Paul Graham wrote:

Imagine if people in 1700 saw their lives the way we'd see them. It would have been unbearable. This denial is such a powerful force that, even when presented with possible solutions, people often prefer to believe they wouldn't work.
This is a very nice way to explain the issue, so I shall elaborate. People have, since the dawn of humanity, opposed new ideas that would reveal their lives as flawed and lacking and even miserable. This leaves two viewpoints we can take about the present: we are at the end of human progress and our lives have no serious flaws, or it is like 1700 and we are in denial about many problems.

Believing we are the best the Earth will ever offer goes against the facts. Everyone has problems. That's why it's possible to get a job as a psychotherapist or councilor. Saying there will be no more progress is really saying whatever problems we have now cannot be solved. Why say that? Because then our suffering isn't our fault. It might be possible to argue that some of our problems are insoluble, but certainly not all or most of them.

That leaves the other option: just like in 1700, we are in denial. I think this is broadly the case. When we say that temper tantrums are an inevitable part of parenting, that is not because there is no possible way to avoid fighting with our children, its because we don't want to see ourselves as failures. When we say children do bad things because they are children, that is avoiding facing the fact that we could have given better advice. (Some problems like that aren't foreseeable, but certainly some are.) When we say that "love hurts", we are denying that our own approach to relationships hurts us. When we divorce and insist vehemently that our partner is an evil bastard, we have to: if he wasn't a lying manipulator then it would have been possible to see the flaws in the relationship in advance. We didn't choose the wrong person, he tricked us! In all these examples we might be blameless, but sometimes there is something we could have done better, and assuming it might be partially our fault will help us find that out.

I want to move past this to a kinder view that expects mistakes and problems, and sees finding them as a positive step. We should feel good about discovering we were wrong: now we have a better shot at being right next time. Or if there won't be a next time for us, at least we could tell our children. And if it's important enough, we could write a book and tell the world.

We all have a lot of bad ideas. That's understandable. And it's excusable -- no, better than that: we don't need any excuse at all. But let's at least get one thing right: we aren't perfect. Most of the problems we face are caused by human mistakes. That's the most optimistic belief we can have because humans are capable of correcting their own mistakes.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)

Lectures

I have downloaded some lectures about computer science to watch. Some are from University, and some aren't.

I noticed the following:

I pause fairly often, and sometimes watch other videos instead then go back, or if I want to have some other sound (music, person talking).

I also pause sometimes to read the blackboard or slide, or consider something the lecturer said. Also if I don't understand part, or have a question, I might go find out the answer before continuing. Also I might try doing one of his examples.

I also need to have the option to pause if I think of something cool or important that I want to write about before I forget.

I skip forward or back in the lectures sometimes.

So so far: parts of the lecture are too fast, parts are too slow, parts are boring, and I rarely want to hear it all in one sitting.

I multi-task a lot. I am writing this with a lecture on. I also burned DVDs, chatted with people on AIM, organised files better, and read news articles.

For especially interesting parts, I watch with my full attention, but for most parts I only pay half attention. Sometimes I stop listening and miss parts. Later, I might or might not go back to hear it.

Missing stuff is OK. It's not important to understand everything the lecturer says. Not all parts of a subject are best learned through a lecture. Some gaps in my knowledge will be much easier to fill in when writing code, or watching a different lecture, or reading a book, or talking to someone.

Missing stuff does not make it impossible to learn about the later things. There are a lot of ways to understand later concepts without the previous concepts. Often I can just assume some feature works the way he says it does, and then the later features make perfect sense. Often later concepts are separate from earlier ones (perhaps they are both building blocks relevant to the conclusion).

So overall: I like to have, and extensively use, control over when I hear what parts of the lecture. Sitting through an entire lecture at once, not doing other things, is never ideal. It's not important whether I get the main point of the lecture or not.

In conclusion: the format of school lectures may be hard to change due to the practical problems presented by having in-person lectures with many students at once. But they are far from ideal for learning.

Lecture Links (Lisp stuff):

Univ: http://swiss.csail.mit.edu/classes/6.001/abelson-sussman-lectures/

Not-Univ: http://www.iro.umontreal.ca/%7Eboucherd/mslug/meetings/20041020/minutes-en.html

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Information Flow

Suppose we are programming a game and want a hero to have a multishot spell that shoots 20 arrows at once. We decide a monster can only be hit by one of the arrows per casting of the spell.

You might expect we could just have the spell itself keep a list of monsters it has hit so far, and check the list when an arrow hits a monster to see if that monster has already been hit. And that is indeed possible. However, having a bunch of code that controls a spell with a central data structure that every aspect of the spell reports back to is not a very good model. It leads to confusing, hard-to-change code.

A different approach would be that the multishot spell creates 20 arrows, and gives them initial velocity, and then that's it, the spell is gone. The arrows are now all separate. There are two ways to avoid redundant hits now. Either the arrows can have a list of all the other arrows and send a message when they hit something so the others know not to damage it (alternatively arrows could have access to everything and then search through everything for the other arrows from the spell. As long as they are all uniquely marked as coming from that spell they could be found that way). Or option two is to have the monster keep track of what it's been hit by. Then when an arrow hits a monster, it can check that monster's list of multi-shot spells that already hit it to see if it should do damage.

This is interesting due to parallels with capitalism and with physics.

The capitalism parallel is that autonomous, smart agents are a better model than central control. Programmers have known this for decades (at least Lisp programmers!), and write lots of papers about it. Here is a paper on dividing problems up into smaller discrete tasks, with detailed examples, which shows how this makes programs easier to modify. It explicitly criticises trying to code single, large functions that keep track of everything, and criticises programming languages that encourage or require that. Similarly, capitalists know (and have since before Lisp existed) that central authorities don't work as well as distributed decision making. Another point in the Lisp paper I linked is that lazy evaluation making is very valuable. That means only calculating things when they are about to be used to prevent doing unnecessary calculations that might not be used. Similarly, when people make their own choices, they can frequently do it at the last moment, and they can avoid deciding things that become irrelevant. When central planners try to plan, they have to, in order to have time to tell everyone what to do, plan way in advance, so they end up calculating lots of things that, it turns out, don't matter.

The parallel with physics is that a huge amount of mysticism can be detected and refuted by a detailed analysis of information flow. For example, suppose someone claimed a certain arrow would only hurt you if you hadn't already been hit by another arrow from the same group. We would know there is no overall central control mechanism (located at the bow?) that arrows report back to (what do they report back with? light? we'd notice, and light has limited speed so it wouldn't work if the arrows went too fast). We also know arrows don't pass messages to each other about what targets they've hit (not only are arrows unable to identify what people they've hit, they don't have anything to send or receive messages with). And we know the model of the monster keeping a list of which arrows it was hit by wouldn't work either (that involved the arrow, on hitting something, checking the list, but arrows cannot do that. how would it read the list? compute whether it was on the list? also arrows aren't marked by what volley they were fired in). So we can call anyone who believes in a real multishot spell of this sort a mystic (after we ask his explanation, and it turns out he has no explanation of how his idea is possible within the laws of physics).

This arguing technique applies to a lot more than magic spells. Suppose someone said he spoke to God. We might well ask how the information got from God to him. If God communicated with light or sound it could be recorded with a video camera, and he'd need a convincing reason to think it wasn't just a natural process (there is a lot of light bouncing around. how do you know this light bounced off God?). People who believe in telepathy never explain how thoughts travel between brains, nor what they sense thoughts with (eyes? neurons?). Do psychics who do phone readings claim that reading thoughts is possible from many miles away? If it is, why can't they read the thoughts of people they aren't on the phone with? Do thoughts travel through telephone wires? Of course, phone psychics in fact just don't bother to address the issue at all. It'd be very amusing if they were asked questions like this more often. Some would be foolish enough to attempt to answer some of the questions. It's pretty hard to refuse to say the range of one's psychic powers. But it'd also be pretty embarrassing to claim telephones are a psychic amplifier. And if it's someone's voice that matters, why won't a recording do? And after the psychic says it recordings don't work, trick one and do an entire phone reading by playing pre-recorded sound bites over the phone and then ask why the psychic didn't notice he wasn't talking to a person (shouldn't his powers have not worked?).

It works on a lot of bad philosophy too. Imagine someone says that meaning is assigned to objects by humans, and can exist no other way. That is nonsense. The first thing to do is ask whether its possible to think about something before assigning it a meaning. If that's possible, begin asking about what difference it makes to human thinking whether a meaning has been assigned or not. What specifically, if anything, is impossible before a meaning is assigned? Why does assigning a meaning change that?

The more interesting case is when the person says that thinking about something that your brain hasn't yet assigned a meaning is impossible. Next he will say that meaning is assigned immediately when a person first encounters something, and not before, and not after. One issue is this needs to be done instantly, so that stray thoughts don't try to think about the object before the meaning is assigned. Thinking instantly isn't possible because electrical impulses require time to move around. Further, when the assign-meaning function is called, it needs to know: A) what the object is B) what meaning to assign. All the information necessary to assign the meaning must be there before the meaning is assigned, and thus before the object has been thought about at all. That means all meanings are assigned without thinking about what they should be! But it gets worse. If Jack will respond to seeing a rock for the first time by assigning it "hard" (that's over-simplified), then we might say he already, right now, before interacting with his first rock ... has a worldview such that rocks will be assigned the meaning "hard". So what difference does it make if Jack assigns that meaning now or later? What's so special about the act of assigning when the result could have been worked out in advance? People may say Jack could change his worldview before seeing a rock. But that doesn't really change anything: as he changes his worldview, the implied meaning of rocks according to Jack changes as well. And what about assigning meaning to objects that don't exist anymore but that we've heard of? And objects that don't exist yet but will? Were cars meaningless until they were completely invented?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Arguers

There should be a profession called an arguer. This would not be like a lawyer, because few of their arguments would focus on the law. They would be called in when a company made a controversial decision and expected a lot of public discourse. They would accept jobs on a case-by-case basis so that they only argued for things they believed in (some wouldn't operate that way, but the good ones would).

Their job would be to engage with the public. This would be nothing like a Public Relations guy giving a statement, customer service giving a run around, or a press release. They would spend their time reading comments by the public -- both in public places and sent directly to the company -- and having conversations with those people. They would not give a statement and move on, instead they would actually engage with what the person was saying.

In some circumstances, this would be a far more effective use of money than advertising. There are all these people who want to interact with the company. So why not hire people to tell them a personalised version of the company's point of view?

A good arguer would persuade a few people that the company was right, and a fair amount would become less hostile. But more than winning arguing points, he'd show the company *has* arguing points that can hold up in a sustained debate and don't fall down after a few back and forths. He'd be demonstrating that people seriously believe the company is right and have thought it out.

Another part of his job would be to relay any opposition to the company that he considered especially interesting or thought had a good point. A company has a hard time reading and filtering a huge in basket, but when you cut down incoming arguments by a factor of a thousand or so (removing duplicates and bad arguments and fluff) it gets way more manageable.

Unfortunately the primary problem I see with this idea is the difficulty of hiring qualified, competent arguers. Letting people speak for your company is risky, so you need to be sure they are good at it. And the arguers job requires a lot more skill to avoid mishaps than a press release writer's job. The arguer will write a thousand times as many words, but every single one could end up quoted by the press if he messes up.

One day in the future, arguers will not be expected to be perfect and if they messed up now and then the press would realise this doesn't reflect badly on the company.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)

Anti-Voluntary

I think some liberals (in the modern sense meaning 'leftist') believe this or similar:

All voluntary actions are self-interest based, therefore to rise above self-interest and have an ideal society *requires* involuntary actions: government force.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (5)

A Few Thoughts About Education

We must bear in mind that the truth is never clear. If it was, no one would ever disagree with us.

We must bear in mind that the more ignorant a person is of a subject, the more receptive he will be to our advice. Every time a person asks a question he has recognised his own ignorance, so it is a commonplace occurrence for a person to know he doesn't know everything.

We must bear in mind that pessimism and defeatism never solve problems, so it is better to be optimistic about whether a person can or will be persuaded of a good idea.

We must not be scared to disagree. People disagree all the time. But this does not make them hurt each other. It is not necessary to force agreement from a child, or worry overly about what he believes. That is his choice.

We should keep a sense of perspective. The worst that could happen is frequently better than the price of intervening.

We must stop thinking of all situations as the parent choosing what will happen. That is the model of a benevolent dictator. And one of the flaws is the enormous pressure and responsibility it puts on the *parent*.

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Elliot Temple | Permalink | Message (1)

Solutions

If your child doesn't want to look for solutions, this does not mean your child doesn't want to solve problems. Really. Your child isn't insane and *would* prefer if things were better. What's going on is that previous time spent "problem solving" was unpleasant and was itself a problem. Perhaps because it seemed boring and fruitless. Or because it involved the child being pressured to make compromises or sacrifices (same thing), or lectured, or asked questions he didn't want to answer. Or maybe "problem solving" previously interrupted other things like video games.

True morality isn't unpleasant or burdensome. Moral knowledge is knowledge of how to make choices. It's a tool that has information about how to get what we want, and what we should want. It's not arbitrary or artificially limiting. If something is a bad idea, true moral knowledge on the subject will include reasons why it's a bad idea and explanations of what will actually work well. And they will be persuasive. If they aren't persuasive, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge. If the "moral" alternative proposed doesn't sound nice, that indicates a *lack of* moral knowledge (either the proposal is wrong, or the explanation for it isn't good enough).

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

free riders

i wrote a few comments about free rider problems:

the first thing to keep in mind about free rider problems is that in many cases someone pays. if Europe is really free-riding on Iran defense, then despite the free rider problem the US *did* pay for it. this may violate someone's sense of fairness. however, if i want to buy something, and it happens to benefit others, and i know they won't consent to pay for it, and i still want to buy it at full price, that is perfectly reasonable.

the second thing to keep in mind is that what projects should be done is a tricky question. there are more available projects than their is wealth to complete them and we need to try to choose the best ones. so if a project doesn't get completed for whatever reason (such as people who stand to benefit refusing to pay for it), even if the project seems valuable, that does not prove anything has gone wrong.

the general solution to deciding which projects should be done is individualism. people complete whatever projects they want to using their own resources and free trade. this works well because it lets people put their knowledge to use if they believe it's important without having to convince the world, and the people who are more successful at their projects end up wealthier and thus more able to do more projects.

the general solution to free rider problems, and to selling things to people in general, is to use creativity to persuade people to trade with you.

some people believe the government is the solution to free rider problems. they believe that by applying force to make the project be completed, they can improve the situation, by making good things be done that wouldn't have been done otherwise. however, there is no guarantee the government will sponsor the right projects. governments have no special knowledge about which projects should be completed. governments also have problems with accountability and efficiency.

a critical issue besides which projects should be complete is: how should they be funded? when a government intervenes by force and takes $100 from all the farmers to build a dam, even if the dam ought to be built, this still may be the wrong way to build it and a bad deed. funding projects in good ways requires creativity.

the only way that force could be necessary, in principle, to make the right thing happen is if there were right things such that they should be done despite their being no possible way that anyone, or any group of people, would freely pay for it with his/their own wealth. if that's the case, in what sense is it really the right thing to be done?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Relationship Theory

This is a real conversation.

Katara: tell me about relationship theory :)
Elliot: there was an email list called ARR. autonomy respecting relationships. it's dead now. no traffic.
Elliot: ARR says that if you want to be monogamous, you have to make sure you won't break up. you have to make sure you don't learn/grow in different directions and drift apart. every time one person has a new interest that isn't shared, that's a threat. thus monogamy gets in the way of our learning. this is a problem.
Katara: omg yeah
Elliot: ARR also says that romance (used very broadly) .. at the very least it's bad to see romantic relationships as *the* type of relationship. there should be more diversity of approaches.
Katara: but romance is still good, right?
Elliot: i don't think so. i'm also against love. but on ARR list that is controversial. some people like romance. some people even claim to be anti-romance and pro-love.
Elliot: on ARR the main complaint about monogamy was it limits freedom. like you can't have sex with someone else. but what if you want to?
Elliot: the main complaint about romance and love was that it's not rational enough.
Elliot: one of my complaints about mono is that i don't think promising is rational.
Elliot: suppose i promise that i *will* do X at 3pm 2moro. 3pm comes around. i could now do X or Y.
Elliot: if I think X is the right thing to do, or best, i will do it whether i promised to or not
Elliot: if I think Y is right or best, then i will find my promise says "i will do the wrong thing"
Katara: this is true
Elliot: if you promise to stay with someone forever .. either it will be right to, or it won't. promising won't change that. it will just tempt you to do wrong.
Elliot: also, i think it's bad to make decisions early. we have less information early.
Katara: this is also true
Katara: I like romance because it makes me feel fuzzy and I like fuzzy. I'm sure there's a reason if you're a neuroscientist...
Elliot: i don't think we need to be neuroscientists to explain why many people find that romance feels nice. they believe romance *is* nice. they feel nice when they do things they consider nice.
Katara: maybe...
Elliot: the point of ARR is not to tell people to feel bad. however, if a person changes his mind about what is nice, then he can feel good about the new lifestyle. so i think what we feel nice about today cannot be a strong argument either way.
Katara: I agree
Katara: however, while I find romance nice surely there is nothing wrong with enjoying it?
Elliot: maybe. but what if you break someone's heart? or yours is broken? that won't be nice.
Katara: true
Katara: but that comes with human interaction
Elliot: maybe it doesn't have to
Elliot: one of my complaints about romance is it's too focussed on surface characteristics. eyes, appearance, charm. things you can learn about a person you just met 5 minutes ago.
Elliot: it also is too focussed on feelings. does the sex feel special/good/extraordinary? do you feel mushy when s/he looks at you? nervous/excited when with person?
Elliot: and too much on the future. can you see yourself having kids with this person? loving him for the rest of your life? moving in together? if not, the relationship is deemed not to be going anywhere.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)