Thursday, December 31, 2009

Make Mistakes on Purpose

My second blog post was on the The Value of Mistakes: Mistakes and Learning. Today there is a post linked from HN, Make a Mess, Clean It Up!, that showed me a point I missed.

Making mistakes on purpose so you can learn from them. One advantage of doing it on purpose is that you can choose your time, so you are fresh and ready to learn, but even more importantly so you can do your learning under controlled circumstances, where you are not going to irritate and inconvenience, or worse, anyone else.

The general idea of making mistakes on purpose I vaguely remember from old Whole Earth Catalogs (I think it was in them, or maybe a theme I took away from them). I should have remembered it when I wrote my earlier post.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

First Draft - Science - Idealistic Versus Signaling

This is a rough draft - I just had the idea this morning and spent a little time working on it. Please leave any comments - I am ordering several books which should provide more information - this essay will be further refined - but probably not for at least a month, maybe more, depending on my reading and your feedback.

The responses to the recent leaking of the CRU's information and emails, has led me to a changed understanding of science and how it is viewed by various people, especially people who claim to be scientists.

Among people who actually do or consume science there seem to be two broad views - what they "believe" about science, rather than what they normally "say" about science when asked.

The classical view, what I have begun thinking of as the idealistic view, is science as the search for reliable knowledge. This is the version most scientists (and many non-scientists) espouse when asked, but increasingly many scientists actually hold another view when their beliefs are evaluated by their actions.

This is the signaling and control view of science. This is the "social network" view that has been developed by many sociologists of science.

For an extended example of the two views in conflict, see this recent thread of 369 comments Facts to fit the theory? Actually, no facts at all! . PhysicistDave is the best exemplar of the idealistic view, with pete and several others having extreme signaling and control viewpoints.

I wonder how much of the fact that there hasn't been any fundamental breakthroughs in the last fifty years has to do with the effective takeover of science by academics and government - that is by the signaling and control view. Maybe we have too many "accredited" scientists and they are too beholden to government, and to a lesser extent other grant-making organizations - and they have crowded out or controlled real, idealistic science.

This can also explain the conflict between those who extol peer review, despite its many flaws, and downplay open source science. They are controlling view scientists protecting their turf and power and prerogatives. Anyone thinking about the ideals of science, the classical view of science, immediately realizes that open sourcing the arguments and data will meet the ends of extending knowledge much better than peer review, now that it is possible. Peer review was a stop gap means of getting a quick review of a paper that was necessary when the costs of distributing information was high, but it is now obsolescent at best. Instead the senior scientists and journal editors are protecting their power by protecting peer review.

Bureaucrats, and especially teachers, will tend strongly toward the signaling and control view.

Economics and other social "sciences" will tend toward signaling and control view - for examples see Robin Hanson's and Tyler Cowen's take on the CRU leak with their claims that this is just how academia really works and pete, who claims a Masters in economics, in the comment thread linked above.

Robin Hanson's It's News on Academia, Not Climate
Yup, this behavior has long been typical when academics form competing groups, whether the public hears about such groups or not. If you knew how academia worked, this news would not surprise you nor change your opinions on global warming. I’ve never done this stuff, and I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but that is cheap talk since I haven’t had the opportunity. This works as a “scandal” only because of academia’s overly idealistic public image.

And Tyler Cowen in The lessons of "Climategate",
In other words, I don't think there's much here, although the episode should remind us of some common yet easily forgotten lessons.
Of course, both Hanson and Cowen believe in AGW, so these might just be attempts to avoid facing anything they don't want to look at.

As I discussed earlier, those who continue to advocate the general use of peer review will tend strongly toward the signaling and control view.

Newer scientists will tend more toward the classical, idealistic view; while more mature scientists as they gain stature and power (especially as they enter administration and editing) will turn increasingly signaling and control oriented.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Many Ideas or One Idea - or Both

I read Present one idea at a time and let others build upon it after finding it linked in Hacker News. My first response to the title, even before I clicked on the link, was that it was probably going to be a restatement of the amateur SF writer's error of trying to dole out ideas in their stories. Ideas are plentiful, trying to not put them in stories, apparently because they believe there should be only one or a few ideas per story is one reason most amateurs have a hard time writing good science fiction.

On reading the essay, I realized Sivers had an excellent point, but it was a point about feedback. Presenting one idea at a time makes it easier for readers to give good feedback, and they are therefore more likely to provide it.

I wonder if there is any way to combine the two views? To provide more background and context, with the necessarily larger numbers of ideas being presented, while still getting useful feedback from readers.

Added: I linked to this on LW and added this in the comments there:

One idea at a time is great for getting feedback. It is not so good for a reader trying to develop understanding. And the "sequences" don't really help much, trying to read/reread several to try to get context for understanding something is too choppy. I don't know what the best trade-off may be, but I can hope things will improve.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Rules Destroys Intelligence

Size alone does not a bureaucracy make, though it always helps (or hurts, looking at it from a rational perspective). Rules exist in the first place to benefit the group and its production. A bureaucrat is someone who has forgotten that simple fact, and worships the rules as ends in themselves, rather than means to getting the job done. This is one reason large organizations are more bureaucratic than smaller ones, the distance of most workers from the actual job.

The ultimate in rule-bound work is automated work.

A Web example:

On September 30 I was reading a well-established post on a web site I generally like, that already had lots of comments. Since it has a [reply] button, I naturally replied to comments that warranted it. I didn't even realize how many I had posted until I had gone back to the homepage and found I had 9 of the top 10 comments. I knew from a discussion a year before that the site owners "would prefer" people not post more than 3 of the latest 10 comments - but that was before one of them left and before the reply button, so I didn't know if it would be a problem, and it really didn't even occur to me as I was replying to those comments.

Apparently it did. On October 11, I tried to comment on a new post, my first comment since the 30th, and got an error page with "You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down." Outstanding stupidity on the part of the web site. What an outstandingly stupid contradiction between the site's name and action.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Innovation and Blogging Software

I don't have anything against innovation - provided it's more useful than the inconsistency it introduces. Tools, including software, are used for other ends, they are not ends in themselves except for a few people who specialize in them, or are otherwise particularly interested in them.

Part of the problem is that different people value different things and, consequently, want different things in their tools. This inevitably introduces complexity, both in the variety of tools available and in the tools themselves.

When browsing the internet and blogs, I am interested in finding interesting or useful content, not in learning to manage a dozen different software systems. There are too many different blogging/commenting systems. For someone interested in finding useful or interesting content rather than in "communing", it is seriously annoying to keep track of how they work.

Standardize somewhat on the blogging/commenting systems. Reducing the number of different systems will lessen the complexity a lot more than adding features to one or another would increase it. Reduce the number of systems by making it easier for current sites to transfer to another system. Reduce forking of projects by making it easy to patch systems to a consistent standard.

What Is a Model?

A model is a simplified, abstracted representation of an object or system that presents only the information needed by its user. For example, the plastic models of aircraft I built as a kid abstract away everything except the external appearance, a mathematical model of a system shows only those dimensions and relationships useful to the model's users, a control system is a model of the relationships between the stimuli and the response desired by the designer and user of the larger system being controlled (evolution as designer and organism as user in biological analogy). A control system doesn't make a model of a system, to a large degree it is the designers' model of the system it controls.

At the simplest end are one-dimensional models, that we call measurements.

The most complex models are not explicit, they are too complex to be explicitly known, much less communicated; the model of the world that each person carries within his own mind.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Relationship of Software Engineering, Computer Science, and Programming

Computer science underlies programming rather like physics underlies engineering. You can do some programming or practical engineering with rules of thumb and copying from references, but they will ony take you so far.

What is needed for software engineering to become a reality, rather than a glorified name for programming, is a set of reliable principles for designing and building effective software, that is software that works as expected. Prototyping is the currently most effective way of building software, but it is not software engineering; it is an admission that there is not yet a discipline of software engineering.

From what I have read, even the large scale, high reliability programs are built more by careful programming, testing, and debugging than by detailed up-front design, the way large scale engineering projects are.

The main reason is the incredible complexity of software projects. The only physical products that approach software in complexity are large scale integrated circuits.

Software engineering will be an engineering discipline when the development of a new operating system, the associated utilities, and APIs is as predictable and stable as the design and construction of a new skyscraper.

This is all from general reading and memory, if you agree or disagree with me, please leave links to any sources you may have in comments.

Benefits of Having a Purpose

To get the benefits of having a "purpose" it doesn't need to be spiritual or altruistic or even helpful to others, all that is necessary is that it keeps you from dwelling on yourself and your own problems. Serious study, if it is interesting enough to you and difficult enough to really engage your attention is more than enough to gain you the benefits of a "purpose".

Partially a response to a post on Less Wrong back in February.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Risks, Actions, and Benefits

Partially a response and clarification (at least I think it's clearer) to the strategies presented in Alicorn's post on Less Wrong, The Shadow Question. One of the big problems in her discussion of strategies is the conflation of up-front costs with risks.

"First, Do No Harm": When it is as easy to make things worse as better, be damn sure you know what you're doing before you start fixing things.

"Cherry on Top": An invitation to fiddle; small changes are very unlikely to make things worse, and may help.

"Lottery Ticket": She talks about a risk of making things worse, but it looks more like (from her examples and general discussion) that she means is an upfront cost with a chance of significant benefit later.

Insurance: The other headings were hers, but the one she uses here is misleading, as is her discussion. This is related to "Lottery Ticket" in having upfront costs, but in this case it's to prevent an unacceptable risk of harm. It can be something as simple as insuring your house against fire, so you have a temporary place to live and your house gets repaired (or you get a new house if that's easier/cheaper). To actually working to make a risky future less likely (for example, working on Friendly AI).

Another strategy mentioned by Morendil in a comment is "Go for broke" (a less functional version of this would be Russian Roulette), a big risk with the chance of a big reward, like First, Do No Harm, but higher potential risk/payoff matrix.

First, Do No Harm - Use knowledge to avoid as much risk as possible while still seeking the reward

Go for broke - Straightforward acceptance of large risk with large reward

Cherry on Top - Seek benefits at minimal risk

Lottery Ticket - Pay an up-front cost for a small chance at a large benefit

Insurance - Accept an up-front cost to hedge against a risk

Adventure sports isn't a risk management strategy, I mention it here because it feels like there should be a benefit - Seek the thrill of risk, while reducing actual risks, and not getting any benefit except the thrill

If you think of any other generic strategies, please leave a mention in the comments.

As an aside:

As for the title of the original post, I had to Google "Shadow Question". I don't watch television and have never seen an episode of Babylon 5. Given the page I found that describes the show, that was no loss. But the "two questions", "Who are you?" is the Vorlon question. "What do you want?" is the Shadow question. I guess you could call the first one silliness, and the Shadow question practical.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lies and Secrets I

Another problem that make lies worse than keeping secrets is that lies are tailored to be believable - they are often more believable than the truth is unless and until they are specifically investigated. This is also the problem with myths, such as religion, that we grow up believing. The Bible is rife with nonsense, the only reason anyone would consider it anything other than ancient fiction, like "The Illiad" and "The Odyssey", is that they grew up being conditioned to believe (or at least accept) it.

Also, "The truth is a valuable commodity that we do not automatically owe anyone." From memory from Smith's "Forge of the Elders" - not an argument from fiction, just that I cannot think of a better way of putting it. Of course there are often, probably usually, good reasons to make accurate information available to others, their actions being based on accurate knowledge generally improves your well being.

Exaggerations are lies, but a specific type, where the basic claim is true, but the statement goes beyond the basic claim in some way for a particular effect on the audience. Exaggerations are specifically manipulative lies.

Excuses are sort of junior grade lies; they may not be actually false, but they do not inform and often mislead. "An excuse is an abdication of responsibility", to quote Rands. If you don't know or if you messed up, admit it. It won't feel good, and won't make you look good; but making excuses just stretches out the pain, and will ultimately make you look and feel worse. If you feel tempted to make an excuse, stop and think about it for a moment, then say something useful about the situation; "I don't know, but I will go and find out".

Rands concludes:
Each time you open your mouth, you have an opportunity to build something. That’s the perspective you want during the uncomfortable dead silence, not the victim-based emotion of excuse.

I’m in a hurry, but being in a hurry isn’t an excuse for not taking a small amount of time to say something real.

This was partially a response to a post on Less Wrong Lies and Secrets

What Ifs - American History I

What if - the railroads had taken a different route or never been invented.
What if - the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal (C & O Canal) had continued on past Cumberland, MD, as it had originally been planned.

I had an interesting dream this morning as I awoke; actually the dream was pretty mundane, the alterations from the real landscape were what was interesting. I didn't notice the differences while asleep, the landscape in the dream was just accepted as dream images are. The dream images carried over as I woke and I then wondered about them.

I live in Cumberland, Maryland, the endpoint of the C&O Canal from Washington, DC to the south and east and the National Road to the west. The C & O Canal follows the Potomac River up to Cumberland and was supposed to continue west through The Narrows and up Wills Creek, then zigzag through the mountains to a branch of the Ohio River and down to Pittsburgh. But the railroads got to Pittsburgh first, and slower progress and cost overruns had plagued the Canal (along with nasty floods from the Potomac River) and progress was stopped at Cumberland. The Canal was finally closed completely after a flood in 1924. There are two railroads flanking the sides of The Narrows with the National Highway and Wills Creek between.

In my dream there was a paved footpath on the south bank of Wills Creek, where the road is in reality, and the road crossed the creek and followed the north bank, where the Chessie railroad, formerly the B&O (Baltimore and Ohio) railroad runs. Thinking about my dream images, I realized that not only were the B & O tracks missing, but the Iron Bridge supporting the Western Maryland Railway, that we should have passed under in my dream had been missing as well. After wondering about it, I realized why it could be like that. Hence, my opening what ifs.

If the C & O Canal had been continued up Wills Creek, the towpath would have continued also, right up the south bank of the creek, where my dream's paved footpath lay. If the railroad didn't pass through The Narrows, then the north bank would have been available for the National Highway right of way. I wonder what caused the dream images to come about, since I hadn't actually thought about those what-ifs before. It is enough to make one think about those SF stories where dreams are distorted images captured from "alternate-you"s in different history branches.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Is high IQ a curse? - Hacker News

From a question posted on Hacker News Is high IQ a curse?

Potential problems:
* unrealistic expectations of what you can accomplish
* difficulty in dealing with average people
* more likely to question things and annoy people in the process
* less likely to accept traditions
* less likely to enjoy the simple pleasures of life
* less likely to find a job as an employee rewarding

I first responded:
If it is a curse to you, then you probably have other specific difficulties. I am a high-functioning autistic with an IQ of 156; I have trouble with all but the last 2. In fact, working as an employee helps offset my problems with "unrealistic expectations" since my biggest problem with that is lack of focus, and when employed my employer provides the focus. Unfortunately, since my last good employer died in 2001, I have been bouncing around between low level jobs ever since. I cannot work closely with others more than briefly, so I either have to work alone, which is what I mostly did in the 1990s, or switch jobs every few years, and with the economy and the torture looking for work is for me, I have been mostly out of work since last October.

Then in response to a suggestion that maybe I didn't really need a job, I responded:
That's my biggest problem, I don't have any particular passion. I NEED an external source of focus; when I'm not working I read and study more or less at random when something catches my attention. I have tried all sorts of things to try to maintain a single focus, but so far nothing has worked at all. And I need income even more, I'm already in debt, I just have to take whatever I can get for work.

I came back to the site after taking a nap, thinking that maybe I came across as too whiny. After rereading what I wrote, I wanted to edit it and add more useful content, but it was too late to edit or delete it, so I decided to add to it here, where it will be easier to maintain. (Finding HN entries after they've left the front page can be a bit tedious.)

I am going to respond more specifically to each point:

unrealistic expectations of what you can accomplish
If this is a problem for you, then you probably just aren't as smart as you think you are. You just need a more realistic self-assessment. My problem here is that I can accomplish a lot in a day, but staying focused for a sustained effort is impossible without help.

difficulty in dealing with average people
Being autistic, I have real trouble with this one, but I have learned and can deal with normal people in a relatively structured setting, where I know the parameters of the interaction in advance (I did okay working a Greyhound bus agency for a couple of years), if taken unawares I still can't. I also can't deal regularly with the same people for very long, since no one seems to learn from their mistakes, they keep doing the same stuff over and over and it gets on my nerves very quickly. To avoid this I usually work alone, night stocking in Walmart produce worked pretty well, but the best I had from this aspect was I spent the entire 1990s working for an architect and landscaper who dealt with the clients, then left me alone to get the work done.

more likely to question things and annoy people in the process
If you can't learn to keep your mouth shut, you really aren't very bright at all. I learned this very early in life, getting your ass kicked on the way home from school almost every day will do that.

less likely to accept traditions
Maybe not just because they are traditions, except that Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, and many others have pointed out that traditional knowledge may not be optimal, but it has survived the test of real world use, sometimes over substantial periods of time. (As a side note, many "traditions" aren't very old, despite what some seem to think.) Questioning traditions is good, just don't throw them out until you understand why they exist and have something better to replace them.

less likely to enjoy the simple pleasures of life
This depends too much on your definition of the "simple pleasures", but from what I have seen there is little difference, and what there is goes the other way; more intelligent people are generally more capable of enjoying "the simple pleasures", and indeed any pleasures.

less likely to find a job as an employee rewarding
I don't understand this one at all. Just as when you are doing independent contracting or have your own small business, you are providing a service to someone that the other values enough to pay you to do. In many ways, doing a job as an employee can be more rewarding if you like what you are doing, because you don't have to deal with the parts you may not like, such as collections, paying other employees, renting workspace, and the hundreds of other details needed to operate a successful business.

Some of the books by Thomas Sowell I have read and definitely recommend:
A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles
How to understand the fundamental difference between American liberals and small government conservatives. Does not defend Republicans nor the Judeo-Christian Socialists that have more recently been mis-labeled "conservatives".

Knowledge And Decisions
This is the single best book on the role of knowledge in the economy, and why planning does not work. Not as theoretical as some, but with more examples.

The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy
Sequel to A Conflict of Visions above; I do not recommend the third book in the series The Quest for Cosmic Justice. But even though I think it's weaker than the others, it is equally highly ranked on Amazon, so maybe you'll get more out of it than I did.

I've read and recommend others by Sowell, but these are the ones that bear most directly on the value of traditions. Hayek's books are more formally written, but I don't really think they are better than Sowell's in any real sense.

The single most accessible for general readers and referring to the value of tradition is The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek). Individualism and Economic Order is a collection of essays, and is harder reading, but I think it worth the effort.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

To Spread The Enlightenment and Western Civilization

From Scott Aaronson's "The Singularity Is Far"
And I can’t help thinking that, before we transcend the human condition and upload our brains to computers, a reasonable first step might be to bring the 18th-century Enlightenment to the 98% of the world that still hasn’t gotten the message.

No doubt lead by the sort of liberal halfwits that supported the Soviet Union and who try and fail to manage a couple dozen 9 year olds (ie, professional academics and teachers).

This is like the quote, which I can't find so can't attribute properly, that said intellectual supporters of revolutionaries expected to find themselves running things after the revolution, and in every real world revolution were unpleasantly surprised. But their intellectual descendants never seem to learn. Here what Scott wants to happen should happen; but most people don't want to become civilized, most in Western countries are actively or passively against the very civilization that they depend upon for their lives. The only reason civilization hasn't collapsed under the sheer weight of democratic arrogance and stupidity is that market forces have helped to counterbalance their incompetence and evil. And the only way to raise the rest of the world is by extending the market, and especially protecting it from gov't power, into the rest of the world.

Earlier in the post he wrote,
I see a few fragile and improbable victories against a backdrop of malice, stupidity, and greed—the tiny amount of good humans have accomplished in constant danger of drowning in a sea of blood and tears
Since destroying things is MUCH easier than building, if humans weren't substantially inclined toward helpful and constructive values, civilization would never have existed in the first place nor could it continue to exist at all. Of course, most of the world doesn't have much, largely because they aren't very civilized.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Time to Try Again

I've recently started an(other) effort to lose my excess weight. Since this time I am on the web I have been looking for more research. It appears there is very little useful information available. The biggest problem, it appears to me, is the lack of any financial incentive to run large controlled trials of diets as there is in drug trials. What we really, really need for nutritional science to advance much more, is for large-scale controlled experiments, but without the millions of dollars drug companies put into testing their products, in the hopes of making it back from sales on successful drugs, it is not going to happen.

With the lack of clear information, I am just going to go with moderate calorie restriction with no particular worries as to what I'm eating. And serious exercise to raise my caloric expenditure and tone my body at the same time. I am going to concentrate on aerobic or cardio exercise because that burns more calories since you can do it for longer periods than anaerobic or strength training; and because I am fairly strong, but my aerobic fitness sucks.

The best information I have found is Dr Sharkey's Fitness & Health. I read the first edition, then titled "The Physiology of Fitness", two decades ago and more recently the 4th edition; I just haven't really determined to lose my excess weight and worked at it before.

I am using a couple of Jillian Michaels's DVDs (Jillian Michaels - 30 Day Shred and Jillian Michaels: No More Trouble Zones) and just read two of her books, Winning by Losing: Drop the Weight, Change Your Life and Making the Cut: The 30-Day Diet and Fitness Plan for the Strongest, Sexiest You. Her fitness and exercise advice is very good, but the nutritional advice is not worth taking the time to read. The specific advice she gives goes far beyond what can be justified by what we know of nutrition; following it won't hurt you, it will just waste your time and money.

I am going to keep doing weights on alternate days to maintain my strength while working on the other, but I am in good shape there. Strength Training: Your Ultimate Weight Conditioning Program (Sports Illustrated Winner's Circle Books) is the best single book I have read on weight training. I have also found several of the Gold's Gym books useful, including The Gold's Gym Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding (Gold's Gym series) and The Gold's Gym Book of Bodybuilding. But The Gold's Gym Training Encyclopedia, though it doesn't provide much in the way of planning routines, has an incredible array of specific exercises, which allows you to switch around frequently, both to help keep from getting too bored with it and to work the muscles from as many directions as possible. I specifically don't recommend Gold's Gym Nutrition Bible (Gold's Gym Series) as it is full of nutritional nonsense.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Akrasia as Revealed Preference

I have begun wondering whether claiming to be victim of "akrasia" might just be a way of admitting that your real preferences, as revealed in your actions, don't match the preferences you want to signal (believing what you want to signal, even if untrue, makes the signals more effective).

Complaining about akrasia, the lack of will-power, to get done what you want to do, may show that your real preferences are not those you are claiming. You do what you choose to do - if you are not doing what you claim to want to do, then you are lying, definitely to others, and likely to yourself.

From a Less Wrong comment thread: "This is an insufficient explanation. I have on many occasions found myself doing superficially enjoyable but instant-gratification, low effort activities that I actually enjoyed less than some other, delayed-gratification and/or higher effort activity." (SoullessAutomaton 07 August 2009 10:39:56PM, in response to a comment from me)

Your situation, both immediate and longer-term, strongly influences your prefereneces; so many workable "anti-akrasia" efforts involve "situation management"; for some examples, people quitting smoking by avoiding cues that used to trigger habitual lighting-up; a dieter getting rid of snack foods so they have to think about and prepare anything they eat; posting reminders of your longer-term goals so they don't get so easily overwritten by the immediate preferences (this works short-term, until you stop seeing them because they become just part of your visual background).

On a T-shirt I saw a while back:
“Hard work pays off in the future,
Laziness pays off right now.”
Akrasia can also be an excuse for laziness.

Or it could possibly be an avoidance activity, where you had some reason (see Burka & Yuen's book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now for a long list of reasons for avoidance behaviors). Anyone who procrastinates much is going to find themselves doing this kind of stuff - you need to rout out the fears that tend to cause the avoidance. This would be an example where the avoidance of X is preferred to doing X even when you consciously think you want to do X.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Foresight versus Negativity and Pessimism

When I worked remodeling and landscaping I used to try to visualize what could go wrong and head potential problems off while we were still planning the work. I finally got tired of the man I was working for calling me a pessimist and complaining about my negativity and quit saying anything.

Stay well away from anyone who uses the word "negativity". Every time I have heard it used it was an attack on someone attempting to show some foresight.

Rationalists Should Win

Some Notes on Instrumental Rationality

a general response to several Less Wrong posts and comments

"Abandon reasonableness" is never necessary; though I think we may be using reasonable somewhat differently. I think "reasonable" includes the idea of "appropriate to the situation"

As to the overall point, I agree that rationalists should win. General randomness, unknowns, and opposition from other agents prevent consistent victories in the real world. But if you are not winning more than losing you definitely are not being rational.

Another reason for failure is a failure of knowledge. It's possible simply not to know something you need to succeed, at the time you need it. No one can know everything they might possibly need to. It is not irrational, if you did not know that you would need to know beforehand.

A bad reason for failure is the faulty assumption that something is possible to accomplish when it's not (eg, perpetual motion and its less obvious equivalents). And of course there's the complementary problem: "If the objection you think is real, is in fact real, well, then you've only lost a little time by trying. But if you believe an objection that isn't real, then you've lost much, much more than that.", P J Eby commenting on "Bad Reasons for Rationalist to Lose", that is not trying something because you wrongly think it is impossible.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Existential Risk Mitigation

This post is partially a response to

From the Less Wrong post (I replaced the bullets with numbers for ease of reference):

"Well, Bostrom has a paper on existential risks, and he lists the following risks as being "most likely":

1 Deliberate misuse of nanotechnology,
2 Nuclear holocaust,
3 Badly programmed superintelligence,
4 Genetically engineered biological agent,
5 Accidental misuse of nanotechnology (“gray goo”),
6 Physics disasters,
7 Naturally occurring disease,
8 Asteroid or comet impact,
9 Runaway global warming,
10 Resource depletion or ecological destruction,
11 Misguided world government or another static social equilibrium stops technological progress,
12 “Dysgenic” pressures (We might evolve into a less brainy but more fertile species, homo philoprogenitus “lover of many offspring”)
13 Our potential or even our core values are eroded by evolutionary development,
14 Technological arrest,
15 Take-over by a transcending upload,
16 Flawed superintelligence,
17 [Stable] Repressive totalitarian global regime, "

First, there are very few real existential risks.

Of these 3 and 16 are the same problem, and 15 is close enough.
And so are 11 and 14.
9, 10, 12, and 13 are not real problems.
2 is not an existential risk.
11, 14, and 17 are not existential problems in themselves, although they could limit our ability to deal with a real existential problem if one arose.

So that leaves:

1 Deliberate misuse of nanotechnology
3/15/16 Flawed superintelligence
4 Genetically engineered biological agent
5 Accidental misuse of nanotechnology
6 Physics disasters
7 Naturally occurring disease
8 Asteroid or comet impact

6 is not likely and the only way to prevent it is deliberately impose 11/14, which while not an existential risk itself will increase the difficulty in handling an existential (or other) danger that may eventually occur.

7 and 8 are so unlikely within any given time span that they are not worth worrying about until the other dangers can be handled.

I used to think 1 was most likely and 5 next, but Eliezer Yudkowsky's writings have convinced me that unfriendly AI (3/15/16) is a nearer term risk, even if not necessarily a worse one.

Libertarianism is the best available self-preservation mechanism. I am using libertarianism in a general sense of freedom from government interference. It is the social and memetic equivalent of genetic behavioral dispersion; that members of many species behave slightly differently which reduces the likelihood of a large percentage falling to the same cause. The only possible defense against the real risks is to have many people researching them from many different directions - the biggest danger with any of these only occur if someone has a substantial lead in the development/implementation of the technologies involved.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Some Notes on Responsibility

Slightly revised version of some comments I left on - Does Blind Review Slow Down Science?

First I should state that I disagree with anonymous review for the same reasons that I disagree with an unaccountable judiciary - the negative effects on responsibility.

However, there are several problems with the theory in this essay - the most important being that the editors know who the writer or researcher is and can decide to go ahead and publish on that score no matter what the reviewers say. The editors have a strong incentive to advance novel but true theories in that it will advance the reputation of the journal.

About the unaccountable judiciary, you might check out this book by Max Boot, Out Of Order: Arrogance, Corruption, And Incompetence On The Bench, a large proportion of the problems he wrote about arose from judges not being personally responsible for their actions on the bench.

Also, more generally, I am a libertarian largely because I believe that everyone is totally and completely responsible for their own actions. Even if someone is holding a gun to your head, you decide what you do in response (and are responsible for letting yourself get in that position). Or if you are drunk or drugged, you are responsible for putting yourself in that position and therefore for what you do while that way.

By "responsible", I mean that people should bear some part of the forseeable costs of their actions. I say "some part" because the actions of others also influence costs, and stress "foreseeable" because in any complex system things interact to such an extent that only very direct results can actually be attributed reliably to any one party. Most attributions of "fault" in complex systems is scapegoating or motivated by interpersonal status games.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Trial and Error Problem Solving

The most basic requirement of successful use of trial and error is all too often forgotten - you must keep track of what you have tried.

Systemic trial and error is based on a mutually exclusive and exhaustive listing of all possible solutions. In many real world problems this isn't possible, but it works in some areas such as mathematics and some areas of engineering. Even just attempting an exhaustive listing of solutions can help you find possible solutions that you may have overlooked otherwise, even if a truly exhausitve listing is not possible.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Alarm Clocks, Scheduling, and Deadlines

It's probably better not to set goals in the first place, if you are not going to keep them, than to get in the habit of ignoring them. I make it a point now not to set my alarm clock if I don't have to be up by particular time, and if I do set it to always get up.

Similarly, I try not to set a fixed schedule for things I don't need to do at a particular time. I make a list and work on something from the list (unless something gets near a deadline). I found that having the list also helps me to avoid spinning my wheels thinking about what to work on (provided your list isn't too long, then you have to decide what to work on).

Making arbitrary "deadlines" for yourself, then ignoring them, increases rather than decreases your procrastination.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

General Method of Problem Solving

1. Become conscious of problem
Identify opportunities to improve situation.
Identify opportunities for innovation.

2. Recognize and define problem.

3. Define the goal.

4. Search for and develop alternative solutions.
Explore possible strategies for achieving goals.
Formulate hypotheses.

5. Select alternative solution or strategies. Anticipate the precise outcome. Choose the hypothesis to test.

6. Implement solution or strategy. Act on it. Commit through action. Test the hypothesis (do the experiment).

7. Gain feedback and compare to anticipated outcome. Refine the solution.

Trying too hard to avoid complications often creates them.

When in total ignorance, try anything, at the least you will learn something that doesn't work. And watching how it fails should teach you a lot more than that. Seeing to what extent it looked like it could work before it finally failed should reveal interesting data also.

Edited to Add References: I was in a hurry yesterday when I posted the above and didn't have time to lokk these up in Amazon.

The greatest source for the above is The Ideal Problem Solver: A Guide to Improving Thinking, Learning, and Creativity by John D Bransford and Barry S Stein. The IDEAL in the title is an acronym for a five-step process, similar to the 7 steps I listed above.

Next was Wayne A Wickelgren's How to Solve Mathematical Problems, the most complete view of problem solving techniques and heuristics I have seen. Some of the techniques don't work well on less well defined types of problems, but most do.

Polya's How to Solve It: A New Aspect of Mathematical Method (Princeton Science Library) had a significant impact when I read it, but that was more than 15 years ago. I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in math or general problem solving, before reading Wickelgren's book.

Two more books that made a significant impression on me at the time I read them, but that I didn't actually refer to for this are Thinking Better by David Lewis and James Greene and an earlier edition of Problem Solving & Comprehension.

I am currently reading Thinking and Deciding by Jonathan Baron. It is a more difficult read, and more psychologically oriented than the others. The author's claim that effectively all thinking, deciding, problem solving, creativity are a combination of search and selection is interesting and looks very useful.

Law and Outlawry

Justification of Law (Mala in se)

Government law is "justified", really defended in the psychological sense, by claiming to be needed to enforce prohibitions of universally recognized wrongs (mala in se), such as robbery and murder.

Perversion of Law (Mala prohibita)

Government perverts the law (mala in se) by making laws (mala prohibita) which mainly favor specific groups - mainly to increase its own power over its subjects/citizens/serfs.

Obedience to Law as Prudential Rule

Breaking the law, or even appearing to do so, increases the risks to your values (especially life and freedom) from government agents and their hordes of unpaid informers that infest the country. Given the errors and arbitrary enforcement (and willing dishonety), everyone who is not themselves members of the government is at some risk of attack by government agents.

Living Outside the Law

Given the various risks and dangers, on both sides of the divide, your values may be more effectively served by living outside the law. I don't think so for various reasons, but it is arguable enough that I decided to include a section discussing it.

Historically, the outlaw was not necessarily a criminal - but one who for whatever reason lived outside of the limits and protections of the law. It was often used as a punishment, sort of an extension of shunning and ostracism, sometimes to an explicit withdrawl of the law's protection - where anyone who wanted to, and could manage it, could kill the outlaw. But it was sometimes used by those who simply wanted to be left alone, given human nature any outlaws usually became the scapegoats for anything that went wrong in the area.

The growth of government power and the use of mala prohibita is likely closely related to the decline of voluntary outlawry.

The only benefit today in living outside the law is reduction in tax burden. Most other possible benefits I have heard of you can actually get legally with a little thought and care. And even the benefit of tax avoidance is questionable since it is harder to earn income outside the law, than it is without the need to evade detection. If discovered, or even suspected, it would be dangerous for the outlaw/evader and with modern computer databases and communications it would be likely to be noticed, and ever more likely to be noticed in the future.

Trying to live outside the law is not generally worth it, but may be worth keeping in mind. The only way it would be cost-effective would be if you were interested in
an extremely low, subsistence-level life where you would need almost no income. In that case you could do handyman work and day labor for cash. The biggest problem with that is getting older. Long before retirement age, if you are doing physical labor, you are going to start aching, eventually more or less continuously. I
don't recommend it.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Are Best Practices the New Mediocrity

Good point - if everyone is doing something it's mediocre, even if it's called "best practices". Probably, the use of "best practices" should be replaced with "standard practices", which is an almost as common synonym, and is more accurate.

The Road to Mediocrity is Paved with Best Practices

Why Gould Is a Waste of Time

Thomas Sowell criticized Newsweek for not giving a careful analysis to the ideas in "The Bell Curve" when they attacked it and its authors. Unfortunately, many so-called scientists, like Stephen Jay Gould, also presented criticisms of the book that looked as though they had never read it. There is more to read and do than I will ever have time to get to, there is no way I am going to waste time reading the writings of someone who has proven to be too prejudiced to write accurately. If someone, like Gould, has written nonsense where I can recognize it, how can I trust
anything he writes where I might not be able to recognize the nonsense.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Toleration means putting up with, not using force against others for their beliefs or actions that do not directly threaten me.

It does not imply approval, just acceptance that it is their business and not harming me. Too many people try to leverage toleration to mean approval - Leftists in their continuing attack on any standards in their continuing attempt to destroy civilization, especially industrial civilization, and Conservatives in their continuing attempt to destroy freedom of expression in their continuing attempt to homogenize culture into their mindless morass of Judeo-Christian faith.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Meaningless Philosophy

Philosophy that is not accessible to the field that is supposedly being analyzed, for example, philosophy of science that cannot be grasped by scientists because of idiosyncratic terms and proofs, is just intellectual masturbation.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Marketing Yourself

If you want to receive credit for what you do, you need to make sure that those who you want credit from know that you did it. If no one knows what you have done, not only will you not receive credit, but you will not receive anything else for your work either. Unless you are doing something for yourself, which will not be of interest to others, you need to let potentially interested parties know of it. You cannot sell items that no one knows about, you cannot provide services or skills that no one knows you possess. Even if you let them know, they may not buy, but if they don't know they CANNOT buy.

The obverse of marketing yourself is captured in the quote: "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit." The earliest version I have found is attributed to Harry S Truman.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Austrian Method

Based on Economic Science and the Austrian Method by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.

This book is very dry and difficult reading, as bad as Mises "Human Action", though thankfully much shorter, or I never would have read it, as I never finished "Human Action".

The Austrians try to base everything on fundamental ideas, what they call "synthetic a priori" after Kant; I have never read Kant so I can't tell you whether their claim that their ideas are Kant's "synthetic a priori" or not; but they are the same types of ideas I have been calling for years "undefinable primitives". These ideas that they try to base everything on, "action", "value", "cause and effect" aren't some mystical information from nowhere, which is what earlier reading about Kant had suggested he thought - I think they are ideas absorbed from observation of reality and how humans act (and, unfortunately, what people have absorbed through reading and stories, which is why so much "intuition" on larger issues where people don't have direct experience is often so irrational), but they are so basic that they are hard even to discuss intelligibly, much less define.

A second part of the Austrians' disagreement with conventional economics is based on the supposed differences between human motivations and interests and the natural world - "the impossiblity of causal predictions in the field of human knowledge and actions" (p.43). Human preditions must be based on actions and goals, and what the particular human knows at the time he chooses his actions and goals. The particualrity of what a human knows is another reason they dislike and distrust statistical knowledge, like the GDP, it loses too much necessary information.

"... empirical knowledge which is based on understanding - just as according to our intuitions economic propositions claim to be based on understanding - rather than on observations." (p.57) Actually, as I suggested above, our intuitions and understanding are based on internalized observations and knowledge received from others.

"In explicitly understanding knowledge as displayed in argumentation as a peculiar category of action, it becomes clear immediately why the perennial rationalist claim that the laws of logic - ... - are a priori true propositions about reality and not mere verbal stipulations regarding the transformation rules of arbitrarily chosen signs, as empiricist-formalists would have it, is indeed correct." (p.71)

A part of Hoppe's argument in the book is a misguided (in my opinion) attack on a sort of naive empiricism that I have never actually encountered. I haven't read much technical economics literature, so it's possible some economists are making these sort of shallow mistakes, but what I have read in economics suggests this is unlikely.

Another part of his argument is an attack on historicism in economics, I think this is even more misguided, without historical knowledge Austrian economics could not have been developed. Also, some of the best economic reading I have done has been by Thomas Sowell, an economic historian. Another good economics writer is David D Friedman, a non-economist.

The best part of Austrian economics is that they give a clear rational account of the few things nearly all economists agree on: minimum wages increase unemployment, wage and price and rent controls cause other (non-price) forms of rationing, and so on.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Overcoming Bias and Learning from the WWW

continuation of "The Web Is Still Not Adequate for Serious Study"

The theme of Overcoming Bias is more comprehensive than the name suggests. It is about improving, or at least not dis-improving, the future. Overcoming bias is only one of the means it discusses. Transhumanism, idea futures, friendly AI, all fit neatly into this more inclusive theme.

Robin Hanson writes about textbooks for satisfying reading in a comment to
Recommended Rationalist Reading.
"My general advice for undervalued reading: textbooks. Go to your nearest college bookstore, sit in the aisles, and browse and read textbooks on your main subjects of interest. Until you've read and understood textbooks, why bother with anything else?"
- - Posted by: Robin Hanson | October 01, 2007 at 07:36 PM

The WWW is diametrically opposed to that sort of reading and learning. Like television, but even more so because you are interacting with it, it encourages a scatterring of attention. Bored, or don't feel like working out the meaning of a difficult section? Click a link or Google a keyword - maybe you'll find an easier explanation, but at least you won't have to keep working at it.

I don't agree with much in Steve Talbott's book The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, but he has a few good ideas, that's where I originally saw the "scattering of attention" criticism.

BMI and the Anti-Weightloss Crowd

It is possible, actually likely, that some fringe fanatics overstate the value of the BMI (body-mass index), but the most extreme statements I have seen from a fairly reputable source are Michael Fumento's in The Fat of the Land: The Obesity Epidemic and How Overweight Americans Can Help Themselves.

On page 3 he mentions a Norwegian study [H. T. Waaler,"Height, Weight, and Mortality: The Norwegian Experience", Acta Medica Scandinavia 679 (supp.[1984]): 1-56] that "found that the lowest death rates for men was below the Body Mass Index (BMI) 25 level, while for women it was a 27 BMI." And he shows how to calculate the BMI on this page.

On pages 8 and 9 he discusses BMI, calipers, underwater weighing, and the newer electircal methods of measuring overweight, as he points out the benefit of the BMI is that you can do it yourself to monitor your weight, the others all need knowledgable assistance (calipers) to expensive equipment.

Page 27 he writes, "In exceptional cases such as bodybuilders, BMI is not an accurate measurement, but for most of us it is accurate, and it is certainly accurate for studying the population in general." I am substantially stronger than average, though definitely no bodybuilder or powerlifter, at 22 before I started really gaining weight, I weighed 170 pounds at 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches tall, almost exactly a BMI of 25. My weight had varied between 160 and 180 pounds over the previous five years. Over the next four years I gained 10 pounds a year, so that by my 26th birthday I weighed 210 pounds. That is the lowest my weight has been since. Over the last 22 years my weight has gotten as high as 250 pounds (thankfully only once and briefly) and twice I've gotten it back down to 210. Mostly I run between 220 and 230 pounds. I got on this personal note because I am more muscular than most people, yet BMI was an accurate measure of my being overweight.

You might notice how many people who attack BMI write that it wouldn't work for Arnold Schwartzenegger. Which is true, but irrelevant. Even people who are substantially stronger than average, but not serious bodybuilders or powerlifters, are not going to have a large enough muscle mass to make it more than slightly off.

And the people who use this excuse are obviously not bodybuilders.

Also, the lower your body fat the healthier you are going to be, so overstating your BMI is not going to be a significant problem anyway. I have just started another attempt to get my body weight down (I'll let you know if it actually works this time) with the intention of getting my BMI as low as I can, I hope to end up getting my weight down to 155 pounds, a BMI of 22. Even if I start getting it down there, I am weight training as part of my effort, and my lean body weight might go up a little. We'll see.

By the way, I don't strongly recommend "Fat of the Land". Fumento too often overstates the case for what he wants to believe. The chapter on fiber is one case, he admits the case for fiber is weak but then says you should eat it anyway because it displaces caloric foods, which is one of the things investigated, and the evidence for this claim is weak. He also dismisses low-carb diets like the Atkins mostly with ad hominem attacks and appeals to authority. But if you really want to know current nutritional understanding this is a good presentation of the mainstream medical position.

(page numbers above are from the hardcover edition)

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Working More Effectively
Stop worrying, straining, trying, and just do it and you will probably do it better. Relax and you can be faster, more powerful, and more accurate.

Worrying about anything will interfere with doing it. To do something well, focus on what you are doing, set your emotions aside. Emotions are necessary to doing - as motivation to do anything in the first place and as further motivation to do it well. But emotion while you are working is a distraction and will interfere with doing first class work.

You need to prepare and learn in advance to do something well, all worrying when you are trying to do it does is interfere with your actions. No matter how poorly you may have prepared, when it comes time to act, then act without worrying, because worrying will only reduce your effectiveness even further.

Efficiency amounts to being effective using as few resources as possible.

Effective Ends
Effectiveness is most often used in relation to activities and processes and to how well they lead to achieving your goals. But it can also be used about the goals themselves. A more effective goal is one that contributes more to your highest Values; less effective, or even ineffective, goals only satisfy themselves and momentary interests or pleasures.

You should consider the effectiveness of your goals before investing too much time and resources in them.

Physical Effectiveness (capacity & capabilities) is more or less obvious, but I may do a post on this later.

Cautions when Dealing with Others

Caution is needed in dealing with others because they often don't know what is in their best interests; they only know what they want. And what has been "promised" them by politicians and their media allies.

Worse, the intelligent tend to overestimate the intelligence of those they have casual dealings with and the ethical tend to overestimate others' ethics.

Friday, April 17, 2009


Steady, regular training does far more good in skill acquisition than occasional intense sessions. Sporadic practice often does no good at all in acquisition - though it can be enough to maintain skills that you rarely use, but don't want to lose.

Systematic and progressive training is the only way to safely achieve heavy physical training. Spradic heavy physical training can actually cause injury. Plateaus in physical training are often caused by trying too much too quickly, that is, by overtraining, heavy training with inadequate recovery cycles.

For either skill training or physical training, keep to a regular schedule of steady practice - without rushing or becoming impatient, or losing motivation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


When you come up with a new idea, review how you came up with it, maybe you can improve it, or do better next time, or learn how to come up with even more ideas.

Spend time thinking - not reading or studying or talking. To get away from my normal "background" I do much of my creative thinking while walking. I keep a notepad in my pocket to write down my ideas so they're not forgotten. The changing, more random, background helps trigger new ideas and new ways of looking at old ideas. And sometimes reminds me of older ideas I had forgotten.

Browsing the web, especially when I push myself to follow links rather than reading more intensively, also has some of the same effects, though it's not as effective as walking - but sometimes the weather is too bad for writing down any ideas I get, either raining or snowing.

You must write down your ideas or you WILL forget them.

Play with ideas, explore unusual or random juxtapositions of ideas. Exploit ambiguity and metaphors to open up new ideas or approaches. Look for **more** solutions or ideas that could lead to solutions. Try changing one of the rules or constraints and see what happens.

Avoid premature evaluation - ideas that don't work can still lead you to ones that can - but only if you keep exploring them.

I prefer "creativeness" to the conventional "creativity", because the latter is too often reified into something in itself. Creativeness (or creativity) is actually a description of the originality of choices that we make - in design and in making decisions.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Declaration of Separation

Bravo. Except for that line about god.

A Declaration of Separation

Maybe it's time to go Galt.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Five Ways of Power

I am using power analogously to its use in physics; instead of power is the ability to do work, I am using it more generically as power is the ability to get work done.
In that sense, the title could just as easily have been:

The Five General Means of Getting Things Done

Love or Shared Purposes: People work for (with) another party for goals they both share. Political parties and families are common examples. For more on this Way, see David D. Friedman's chapter "Love Is Not Enough" in The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism.

Politico-Criminal Power or Coercion: People are forced to produce work for another party through violence or the threat of violence. People tend to resist or slack-off, so although this can be effective, it is inherently limited unless combined with fraud (legitimacy).

Politico-Religious Power or Fraud: People are tricked into doing work for another party's benefit. This is probably the most effective over the short term, but once people start seeing through the trickery they start ignoring the "message". Unless it is combined with force (police powers).

Economic Power or Trade: People are paid, through a fair exchange, to do something for another party's benefit. Though also for their own, through the payment they receive. This is the best long term, and often short term, way of dealing with people. The biggest advantage is a free economy's ability to harness the power of specialization to increase productivity. The only real weakness is in transaction costs, and they are less of a problem than the analogous costs in any of the previously mentioned Ways.

Personal Power: Do it yourself without depending on another party. This is the ground state. Most people can only do a limited amount for themselves, and for a whole society, depending on an economy mostly limited to what they can do would result in a very poor Paleolithic technology and standard of living. In a modern economy, though, a person who because of high-functioning autism (Aspies) or because they are "going Galt", can live far beyond what others would expect if they develop their own abilities sufficiently and invest a minimum of economic work to buy the necessary tools and supplies.

In Machinery of Freedom, especially the chapter "Love Is Not Enough", David Friedman writes specifically about dealing with others, so he doesn't mention Personal Power, and he conflates Coercion and Fraud, but even though they are often together in the real world, there are sufficiently different that they should be treated separately.

Friday, April 10, 2009

KISS: Keep It Simple and Succinct

Succinct means brief and concise, to the point. A succinct argument is one that more directly addresses the point under discussion.

The "traditional" meaning of KISS completely misses the point. The biggest problem KISS addresses is over-complication of plans - and it is not a problem of stupidity. Those most prone to over-complicate are the more intelligent, especially the highly intelligent and highly educated, but lacking in practical experience. Experience, especially wide experience, is the best prophylaxis for over-elaborate plans.

In large-scale planning, especially where the planner cannot see it through to completion or which has too many complications, it is easier to come up with excuses as to why it didn't work out than to actually figure out what caused any problems.
It is human nature to try to explain mistakes away - if you want to get better though you need to avoid situations that make it easy to do. Almost all government projects fall into this group, which is why many who tend towards libertarianism have practical experience and have dealt with the government enough to understand the way it actually works . (Former police, former military, and engineers, for example, tend to be over-represented among libertarians (in my reading and experience anyway, I haven't seen any really reliable statistics)).

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Space Fanatics Not Serious

I figured L-5 Society and similar space "fanatics" weren't serious. If they were serious they would have been working on getting to space, not jawboning, mostly to each other, about how important it is and how they need to get the government to spend more money on it or to do it.

Most of the cost of getting to space is spent on the people who do the work (except for bureacracy costs in NASA, that is). If the "space fanatics" had actually been willing to work at it, and cooperate and do the work themselves, they should have been able to build decnet quality rockets and start actually putting people into space. Instead, they all just sat around talking about how important it was to get someone to pony up the money for it.

And before someone starts talking about the space entrepreneurs, they were just a bunch of underfunded companies, trying to do "demonstration" project to get more funding. They weren't even trying to actually start a serious business of getting to space. To be fair they didn't have the resources for that anyway. But "space fanatics" as a group probably did have the abilities and resources needed, if they could work together and do it.

The closest anyone has come is Robert Zubrin, author of Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization and The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must. And most of his work was the cheaper problem of using Martian materials and was paid for by his aerospace employer. Unfortunately, the Mars Direct bunch is just like the earlier L-5 Society, instead of getting together to work, they're just getting together to whine.

In reality, they are just another version of welfare liberals who want the government to pay for what they want.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Avoiding Combat

followup to Violence

Everything has unintended, and often unpredictable, consequences. The side-effects of violence are almost never good. It can lead to feuding or to people avoiding dealing with the violent person. Provided you survive in the first place.

The best way to survive a fight is not to engage in one in the first place. No matter how good your skills, or how outnumbered your side has an opponent, you can still get killed. Your opponent is trying just as hard not to get killed as you are. And the confusion and "fog" in combat gives maximum opportunity for unknown factors to interfere (on both sides, the more numerous or skilled is still more likely to win). No matter how likely you are to win, you can still lose, or engage in mutual killing, you "win" the fight but still die afterwards. On the matter of fighting skills, consider the old adage, "The best swordsman in the world doesn't fear the second best, he fears the worst, because he can't predict what the silly son-of-a-bitch will do." (This particular wording of the quote, I have seen several equivalent versions, is from one of David Weber's Honor Harrington novels, I think from Honor of the Queen.)

The downside of avoiding fighting is a lack of deterrence. In the modern West, personal deterrence is less necessary because the criminal justice system provides a deterrent effect. Provided you avoid areas with concentrations of criminals,like many inner city neighborhoods. Also, personal deterrence is less useful, bordering on useless, where the aggressor is unlikely to know the victim. In general, though, "Violent crime is feasible only if its victims are cowards. A victim who fights back makes the whole business impractical." (Jeff Cooper, Principles of Personal Defense). Crime is a problem because most potential victims are cowards and incompetent.

Unless you are attacked, avoid combat, if you want a long, healthy life.
But if you are attacked, fight back.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Books on Self-Learning

My earlier post "Learning Journal and Record" besides my experience draws from The Independent Scholar's Handbook and This Way Out. And the opening quote from "Why Learning" is from the Prologue to The Independent Scholar's Handbook.

This way out;: A guide to alternatives to traditional college education in the United States, Europe and the Third World, John Coyne & Tom Hebert, 1972.

This book is divided into three sections, this review covers only the first, since the second and third, Experimental Colleges and Foreign Study, are too dated to be useful. The first section, Independent Study, is the best single source I have found on self education. It is geared more towards college age students (hence the title) with several chapters on moving out and for parents, but most of it deals with the nuts and bolts of learning and is applicable for everyone. As far as I can remember, it doesn't even mention computers, not surprising given its age.

The learning system in This Way Out is built around doing projects, though they also discuss tutorials and other ways to organize your study. I also found the brief description of an experimental program tried at MIT in 1968 interesting; instead of multiple regular classes per semester, they tried concentrated study, one class at a time, each for a solid month.

Two good quotes:

"Write lots of short papers. Long papers kill tutors and students alike. Write lots of short papers. It will teach you to write and that, as we will demonstrate later is essential."

"This is the big one. If you don't like to read, you'll have to stay in college. A college's faculty presumes that students don't read without threats of failure,. . . But if you like to read, if your natural desire to read wasn't thwarted in grade school, your education will take place, despite everything."

LIFELONG LEARNER (Touchstone Books), 1977, and The Independent Scholar's Handbook, revised edition 1993, both by Ronald Gross.

These are both largely inspirational with lots of vignettes of independent learners. Both also provide some techniques and resources for learning. The Independent Scholar's Handbook has more on techniques and is more up to date, which isn't saying much since even it is 16 years old. Neither, of course, has anything on the Web. The first half of chapter 2 in The Handbook has been the most useful part for me, the sections on keeping an intellectual journal and enterring new fields. The biggest drawbacks are the author's focus on the humanities, since I'm mainly interested in science and technology, and the liberal/Leftism peaking through his writing, especially in his choice of scholars to profile (e.g., Alvin Toffler and Barbara Tuchman).

Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Things Better, John Holt, various editions 1976 to 2004, though as far as I can tell the later editions have only different introductions.

This has some practical stuff, mostly on finding people and resources for learning, mostly it's inspirational. It also has lots of anti-schooling stuff. Holt is also pretty liberal in a sort of mushy, feel good way, fortunately it doesn't get much in the way here. Holt's later book, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, is worth a read even if you're not particularly into music, but is almost purely inspirational.

I have seen books on "Distance Learning" on the Web, but have found nothing good on using the Web for study, witness my last post, "The Web Is Still Not Adequate for Serious Study". If you know of any good sources, on line or books, please leave a note in the comment.

The Web Is Still Not Adequate for Serious Study

The Internet is the world's largest library. It's just that all the books are on the floor.
-- John Allen Paulos

Reading this just before I published it, I realized I should define what I mean by "serious study". Serious study is opposed to shallow reading, which is very good for exploratory learning, and the web is more helpful with, though still not sufficient. It is also opposed to directed research where you are already familiar with the area and are looking for a specific item, for which the web is very useful, though again not adequate since too much stuff still isn't on line, but it is better for this than serious study. Serious study is when you are learning a new field in depth, the equivalent of college classes. You need specific information, but even more important you need an understanding of how facts and theories relate to each other.

Scattering your attention; the Web simply has too many distractions. It's hard to study from the web for the same reason most real studying in libraries is done in carrels rather than at tables.

Very hard and time consuming to find useful information; Google is NOT adequate. Google's ranking by links is a measure of popularity not value. It could be improved for this purpose, but made harder to use, if you could restrict "links from" in some way. I've had somewhat more luck in browsing blogs related to the topic, then following links from there - but that's still time consuming following the blogs. Bruce Schneier's blog, Freedom to Tinker, and Overcoming Bias have been the most productive recently for me.

Most pages are very shallow; many others are too narrow for learning, though decent papers for those already knowledgeable in field for research. Too much emphasis on new results, but most new results are wrong, many of the rest are incomplete. There are reprints of some older papers with proven value, but they are often hard to find.

Another problem that I have, from what I've read it doesn't seem to be a common problem though, is that I read easily and quickly from the screen, but have retention and recall difficulties for what I read on screen. This is one reason I tend to concentrate on blogs, very short pieces tend to be more memorable.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Knowing Lots of Facts

Knowing lots of facts absolutely matters in the real world. Having a good theoretical framework to organize them and logic (formal, informal, probablistic, or otherwise) to manipulate them help too - but not without real facts. Facts alone are worthless, you need good judgement too, but you cannot function at all without facts.

"How emotionally entangled are you with your point of view? Test yourself - defend an opposing view, believing your life depends upon it."
-- Marc Stiegler, David's Sling

This is really only useful for non-factual arguments, where your emotions are more likely to interfere. You can prove ANYTHING if you can ignore disconfirming evidence. It reminds me of a point in decision making - almost all of our choices are over-determined; that is, there are always good reasons to do almost anything we may want to; to make a good decision we also have to balance the reasons not to choose particular things.

"What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what "the stars foretell," avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable "verdict of history" -- what are the facts and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!"
-- Robert A Heinlein, Notebooks of Lazarus Long and Time Enough for Love

One must be ready to discard his own ideas and theories if new facts overturn them. I think knowing lots of facts is the simplest way to notice and correct for your own biases. You are more likely to notice a contradiction between what you have just decided and a previously known fact than you are to directly notice a bias in your thinking; even after setting the decision aside and coming back to it you are still more likely to notice a contradiction than a bias.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Classification of Science Fiction

Hard Science Fiction is the rarest variety, where the science is integral to the story. Recent examples include Cramer's Einstein's Bridge and Charles Stross's Accelerando (Singularity).

Soft Science Fiction itself falls into several categories, military, romantic, and humorous science fiction are all common, where the science is reasonably accurate, but other aspects of the story dominate. Most of David Weber's and John Ringo's military SF fall in here. Also, Lois McMaster Bujold's Barrayar series, most of the works of Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, and many others who primarily tell stories but with accurate science in the background.

Pseudo-science Fiction is by far the most common. Pseudo-science is nonsense that pretends to be scientific; non-entertainment versions include perpetual motion machines, the Dean drive, homeopathy, chiropractic, quantum mysticism, and much more. Virtually all SF movies are pseudo-science based; they cannot usually get even the most basic facts right. Star Wars, Star Trek, Armageddon, The Core, none of these or many others I could list have anything resembling real science in their stories. Many write "science fiction" with little or no real science; L Neil Smith's libertarian fiction; Steve Perry's martial arts fiction; Frank Herbert's Dune series (Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson's prequels and sequels are even worse); Lee and Miller's Liaden Universe novels; superhero movies and novels.

Fantasy - Not even related to science. I have never quite figured out how "Fantasy and Science Fiction" came to be considered a single category. I mean "Mystery and Science Fiction" or "Romance and Fantasy" make as much sense as categories.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Why Learning

"Begin at once - not today, or tomorrow, or at some remote indefinite date, but right now, at this precise moment - to choose some subject, some concept, some great name or idea or event in history on which you can eventually make yourself the world's supreme expert. Start a crash program immediately to qualify yourself for this self-assignment through reading, research, and reflection.

"I don't mean the sort of expert who avoids all the small errors as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy. I mean one who has the most knowledge, the deepest insight, and the most audacious willingness to break new ground."

-- Max Schuster, quoted in Ron Gross, The Independent Scholar's Handbook, p.xiv

Curiosity and Learning in Advance of need AND
Generality of Knowledge and Abilities LEAD TO
Flexibility of Means and the Ability to Make
Better Choices in the Future

The more you know, the more alternative courses of action are available to you.

Learn to broaden your capabilities, strengthen your weaknesses, and hone your strengths.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
-- Robert A Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

And in fact, I can do most of these, and many more.

As I become increasingly accomplished my ability to earn, pay, and create increase.

Knowledge is nothing without judgement - how it relates to other knowledge, how it can be used, what kinds of side effects (consequences) its use may have. Wisdom commonly refers to the ability to make good judgements.

Plausibility - Entertainment Versus Survival

Apparently people are willing to consider gov't incompetence or evil or both for entertainment purposes (entertainment plausibility) but not where it may involve their life or economic future. Wildly improbable gov't actions that could almost certainly not be covered up regularly occur in movies (eg, Quarantine). Even more destructive gov't policies (eg, the Federal Reserve and Social Security) occur regularly in the real world and most people dismiss arguements and complaints about them as "conspiracy theories" or exaggerations.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."
-- Salvor Hardin; Isaac Asimov, Foundation (Foundation Novels)

is total garbage. It is one of the first means used by the incompetent; it is the last refuge of the competent. Competent people tend to try (or at least consider) almost everything else first.

"Asimov maintains the theme throughout the entire series, always showing how creativity and reason can overcome the simple strategy of the bigger gun every time." Adam Hobson

At least it can if you're writing fiction for academic twits. Even as a teenager I thought the Foundation trilogy was pretty shallow.

The real world doesn't care about a person's beliefs, just because you want to be able to solve a problem without violence is no evidence at all that such a solution is possible, much less the best way out. Sometimes violence is necessary.

"Anyone who clings to the historically untrue - and thoroughly immoral - doctrine that 'violence never settles anything' I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk, and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst."
Robert A Heinlein, Starship Troopers

I think everyone should read this novel for its fairly thorough discussion of military morality and the ethics of violence. Not just everyone who might use violence, but also everyone who may be affected by organized violence, that is, by military action. Professional philosophers will pick lots of nits about Heinlein's claims and illustrations, I don't agree with all of it myself, but it may get some people thinking, including many who will likely never read any nonfiction.

Everything has unintended, and often unpredictable, consequences. The side-effects of violence are almost never good. Especially if you make the mistake of using it against a Flinter, or one who believes with them:

"Never initiate force against another. This should be the underlying principle of your life. But should someone do violence to you, retaliate without hesitation, without reservation, without quarter, until you are sure that he will never wish to harm - or never be capable of harming - you or yours again."
-- from THE SECOND BOOK OF KYHFO (Revised Eastern Sect Edition)
-- F Paul Wilson, Lanague Chronicles

No one sane would use violence against someone who believed like that. The risks would simply be worth more than they could possibly gain. You might also like to check out F Paul Wilson's contemporary fantasy series about Repairman Jack, the first and one of the best of them was The Tomb (Adversary Cycle/Repairman Jack). Even in those people with less extreme beliefs, it can lead to feuding or to people avoiding dealing with the violent person.

There is a supposed "old Chinese saying": The wise man defends himself by never being attacked. Which is excellent, if incomplete, advice. I completed it myself with "But only an idiot counts on not being attacked." Don't use violence unless you really need to, but if you need to don't hold back. Nothing else matters much if you don't survive.