Thursday, May 31, 2018

The state illusion

This article has an important insight about government, but I think it misses the mark by a bit. Governments use more centralization and hierarchy than markets, but they are forced to adapt to the limitation on scaling the article describes, they just do it in a different way. When we think of government as purely top-down we are oversimplifying quite a lot. Does Trump control the deep state? Formally, congress and the president are in charge. In reality, no one is in control.

And the same criticism described in the article applies to corporations and other organizations that use explicit hierarchy as part of their structure. Yet they seem able to work around this limitation somehow, at least well enough to make a profit and keep the stakeholders mostly satisfied.

I've been trying to articulate a related insight. We think of government as distinct from other organizations, as deserving to be treated as an exception, but what essential difference can we point to that distinguishes them? If they are just organizations not so different from others, why do we treat them differently?

Weber and Hoppe offer flawed definitions of the state. Weber speaks of a legitimate monopoly on force, but the reality is closer to a cartel than a monopoly. Other organizations use force in various ways without becoming "the state". How many people must stop accepting the legitimacy of the state's violence before it transforms into a criminal gang? Does it experience a phase change like ice melting into water?

Hoppe says that the state "must be able to insist that all conflicts among the inhabitants [...] be subject to his final review. In particular, this agent must be able to insist that all conflicts involving [the state] be adjudicated by him or his agent. And implied in the power to exclude all others from acting as ultimate judge, as the second defining characteristic of a state, is the agent’s power to tax: to unilaterally determine the price that justice seekers must pay for his services." I can insist on this (though no one will pay much attention to it), am I a state? More charitably, Hoppe must mean that the state can actually accomplish this. How many conflicts adjudicated by other means will it take to transform the state into something else? When a mugger takes my wallet, does he become a state? When a club raises its dues, people can resign, but when a government raises taxes people can emigrate. There is no such thing as an ultimate judge. Participants in a dispute continue until they themselves consider their dispute to have been resolved. If some third party seeks to force a resolution, this merely imposes new constraints on their means of either engaging in or resolving their conflict.

Maybe territory and jurisdiction give us a clue? Can we observe a state without a territory? But does that mean that ordinary property owners, renters, or any other category of possessor that can legitimately exclude others from a specific location qualify as states?

Whatever activity or attitude you point to, if I start imitating government no one thinks I have become a government. When a random organization engages in evil or stupid behavior, it will not change their character if we start calling them governments. If I exaggerate a bit, this reveals the state as an illusion (or perhaps just a flawed abstraction). On a more practical level, this encourages us to use terminology that hinders our insight and understanding.

If we had a powerful general theory of social organization, then theories about states, firms, clubs and other variants of human organizations would fall out of it as corollaries, subsets or applications. Government provides a special case of a general phenomenon, and if we did not emphasize the difference so strongly we might find ways to transfer insights from one context to the other. The problems that can corrupt governments can corrupt other organizations, and vice versa.

Monday, May 28, 2018

MKP mission statement

I’ve been feeling dissatisfied with my mission statement. It started out like this:
I create a world of diversity, tolerance and openness by inviting others to explore and connect.
The target is vague and the method is vaguer. I’m going to describe how I modified it below, but I will start by giving the new version:
I nurture cooperation and adaptation by learning, growing and having fun with others.
The old one, in addition to its vagueness, failed to give me guidance about integrating things I do every day to try to make improvements with the lofty goals vaguely mentioned in the statement. I felt it commanded me to make grandeose commitments to ideas that currently lie outside my sphere of influence. The new one lets me move step by step in the right direction, instead of just skipping to the end. Maybe I can have a big impact, but I need to be able to see how to get there, what is the first step.
MKP uses visualization to get people to find their mission, but that didn’t work for me. I fell asleep instead. So I’ve used a more philosophical approach instead of pure intuition. I doubt the idea that everyone must agree on everything, and I don’t see how to achieve unanimity without coercion. I envision a world where people can disagree with each other and yet still cooperate to a large degree, even if it is just to keep out of each other's business. Societies face the challenge of integrating individual autonomy, creativity and inspiration into coordinated cooperation on a large scale. Obviously, we can’t accomplish this easily, but I seek that ideal.
A good mission statement will frame all my work and make its meaning and purpose clear to me. Don’t let it become a mental prison, though.
What is a positive way to express the idea of not placing demands on others? When I respect someone's autonomy, I do not make demands upon them. Instead, I make polite requests and negotiate from a position of mutual respect.
I read a book about depression that listed 6 areas of concern that can play a role in depression. I want to categorize my activities accordingly. The factors are diet, exercise, sleep, light, associations and ruminations. I used a web app to create an acronym for this: Rumination, Exercise, Diet, Sleep, Association and LighT - REDSALT. Light affects mood depending on how much and when during the day you are exposed. Association stands for your relations with other people - do you have friends and associates that care about youand interact   with you frequently? Rumination is a broad category, including the stories I tell myself, my self-talk, the judgements I make, the ideas I identify with, and probably most of what would go in my mission statement when I complete it. These are the things I take for granted, things I keep reminding myself of.
A mission statement says what I think I am and what I want to be. What effect do I want to have on others? What changes in myself do I want to encourage? That was who I was. This is what I want to become. By writing it down, I can criticize it, improve it, compare myself to it. Can I use it in this way without judging myself when I fail to keep perfectly aligned to my mission? If I do judge myself, will that make me more or less likely to get where I want to go?
What is my shadow mission, the mission of the shadow self who undermines many of my actions? Stay safe, hidden and isolated from others. Don’t trust anyone. Be boring, don’t let them see the real me.
Super powers
If I could have fun while satisfying my needs for RED SALT, that would give me a sort of super power. I would strengthen myself in each of these areas, not by exerting willpower but by having fun.
Another related topic comes to mind, the Japanese concept of ikigai. Perfect ikigai combines four accomplishments into one activity (or into one life): I do it well, I get paid to do it, I like doing it, and the world needs it. I can influence myself to increase my level of skill and enjoyment. I can learn how to get paid or to connect my skills to people's needs. I want that superpower too.
People tend to look for trouble when they aren’t already overwhelmed. The ones with superpowers pick their battles.

This draft is still rough and a bit flow-of-consciousness. But I decided to release it rather than edit it forever.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Chinese character stroke order rules and algorithms

Explains how to draw Chinese characters. This is not only useful for correct calligraphy, but useful to know when looking up characters in a Chinese dictionary. If you see a character you don’t recognize, you can’t look it up by Pinyin/pronunciation. So a particular dictionary style goes by stroke order. There is a list of first strokes, from there you get to a list of possible second strokes (given the first stroke) until things are narrowed down enough that you can just pick the character you seek from a list. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Walter Williams on freedom of association and discrimination

Walter Williams raises an interesting point. Are laws that force us to associate with each other better than laws that force us not to?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Critical thinking

Here is an interesting article on a priori knowledge in science.
Here is a discussion of authoritarian and libertarian rationality.
And a discussion of dogmatism.
And one on rationality that I can't quite describe but I like it. Here's part of the abstract:
"If the task of theoretical reason is to discover truth, or reasons for belief, then theoretical reason is impossible. Attempts to circumvent that by appeal to probabilities are self-defeating. If the task of practical reason is to discover what we ought to do or what actions are desirable or valuable, then practical reason is impossible. Appeals to the subjective ought or to subjective probabilities are self-defeating. Adapting Karl Popper, I argue that the task of theoretical reason is to obtain theories that we can agree to instate given that they appear to have greater explanatory merit than their rivals. I then argue that the task of practical reason is to decide which ought-propositions to act on."

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Frame of reference

Every question comes with a frame of reference, a set of assumptions that help it make sense, a background against which it blends or contrasts. If we examine our frame of reference, we must provide a new one. How does this process end?

Relativism recognizes that we can analyse the same thing from different perspectives, by changing our assumptions. It does not insist that we must value them all the same.  That sort of relativism deserves a different name or qualifier. Maybe we should call it value relativism, or meta-relativism, or just nihilism.

We struggle with our thoughts to make plans that succeed. We rationalize our actions and seek to justify them in retrospect, hoping to maintain or improve our status. Maybe we're just curious.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Attacking/Defending Donald Hoffman's reality

An uncharitable interpretation of Donald Hoffman might view him as claiming that a completely deluded agent has an advantage over an agent with some grip on reality. I hope he does not actually take this extreme view. 

Hoffman likes to use the graphic user interface of a PC as an analogy. Computer users do not wish to know everything about what is happening in their PC. They find it much easier to deal with an abstract representation that in some ways corresponds to the internal workings of the computer, and in other ways is just made up to make sense to the user. An icon's image or location on the desktop says nothing important about it at the deep level. These are just handles that the user can manipulate for reasons that have nothing to do with internal operations of the computer. But there are some important connections.

We can interpret his metaphor to cast the conscious mind in the role of the user, reality as the computer hardware, and the unconscious mind and perceptions as the GUI. Some aspects of what we perceive correspond indirectly to reality, others result from processes within the unconscious. Does this get us to agreement with Hoffman, or did he overstate his case?

Hoffman does not explain his work in a way that makes it easy to agree with him. But we should keep in mind what we are agreeing with and what we are disagreeing with.

Hoffman presents some very provocative results. He describes them verbally in absurd terms. I would summarize his conclusions as "evolution favors deluded agents over agents who perceive reality correctly" and "consciousness is the foundation of reality". These both seem ridiculous at first glance.

But Hoffman does not give us sufficient information to judge him fairly. These conclusions summarize the results of a computer simulation and a mathematical theory. We must understand those before we can give Hoffman a charitable interpretation. Does Hoffman interpret his models and his application of their terms to our reality accurately? Without the details, we can't know, and Hoffman does not provide much detail in his interviews for the popular press.

Does the following example parallel Hoffman's idea? Humans evolved a response to danger in our ancestral environment. Evolution favored strategies that may generate more non-fatal errors so long as they tend to avoid fatal errors more reliably. So we respond to dangers that do not actually exist more often than we ignore real dangers (in the ancestral environment). The costs of the two sorts of error differ; and heuristics that sacrifice one measure of accuracy to avoid the more costly sort of error can make sense. We can imagine simulating this idea and having nervous nellies outcompete others who more accurately predict danger but who make fatal mistakes more often.

Now imagine that Hoffman's simulation does something similar, but only allows perception to vary. All agents use the same strategy for avoiding danger, but have different abilities to perceive reality accurately. The perceptions that evolve may also reflect the difference in the cost of error. Hallucinating danger more often would be an acceptable cost, if it is counterbalanced by a sufficiently lower chance of ignoring potentially fatal danger.

I found this counterintuitive at first. I was tempted to think that more accurate perception always gives us an advantage over less accurate, and we should analyse any difference in strategy separately. But this artificial distinction misleads us. Scientists no longer think the brain works that way; The line between unconscious thought and perception is fuzzy. (E.g. the sensitivity of the rods and cones in the eye respond to our emotional state.) 
Even if we assume a separation between perception and strategic response, the speed and cognitive cost of perceptions could impact fitness in addition to their accuracy. Increases in accuracy may trade off with these other factors. We can't just assume that more accuracy always improves fitness. We have to count the cost of the accuracy in terms of other factors sacrificed.

So I can't be sure that I agree with Hoffman, but I am not sure I disagree either. Can we interpret what happened in his simulation unambiguously to support his conclusion? How far from accuracy could this process lead? I don't know.

Hoffman's mathematical model of a consciousness-based universe seems even more difficult to criticize from a simple verbal summary. He seems to say that he has some math that derives quantum reality from more primitive entities that can be interpreted as consciousness. It is up to mathematical physicists to say whether the math works. Can we interpret the math without understanding it?

Is the math correct? Does the interpretation work? We can view Hoffman's argument as a reductio ad absurdum. This gives us a choice; If the intervening logic works, we either accept the result or criticize the assumptions. Which assumptions specifically must we reject? Hoffman has not really made this clear in his popular summaries. We would need to read Hoffman's serious papers to find out what he assumes.