Quantifying blame

You have probably heard the phrase “We are all to blame”.

I want now to argue that whoever says this is committing a fallacy, and for this, I have to build some argumentative infrastructure.

Some explanations first. I was motivated to write this piece after some politician has said somwhere online that “we are all to blame for [some unfortunate situation which is not really relevant to this piece]”. This has pressed my berserk buttons (all of them), and I had to think why I am so displeased with these words coming from this person. So, enjoy the results of my thoughts.

In today’s moral consensus (and my personal view), blame (and its less offensive sibling, responsibility) is a function of power. If you can change the situation, you are to blame. If you cannot, you are not. So far, so simple, and up to now, there is no contradiction to everyone being to blame for anything. However, the statement misses several issues.

First, what is the consequence? Usually, “we are all to blame” results in “you should pay and atone”, or just a deep-sounding “we should all atone”. However, other than sounding deep, these words do not really mean something material by themselves.

Second, what is the measure? The implied connotation is that everyone is equally to blame. And in the discussed cases, this is as much true as following “real possibility” from “nonzero probability”. In our world, the share of responsibility for any outcome is not equal. A politician has more power to change enviromental policies than a nurse, and a doctor has more power over a patient than a schoolchild 50 kilometers away, even taking into account that the schoolchild has the theoretical option to study medicine. But if no measure is supplied, the implied meaning is that everyone is equally responsible, by which no one is actually responsible.

What do we have in the end? I propose a heuristic: Everyone saying “We are all to blame” implies “we are all equally responsible” and tries hereby to scatter her share of responsibility. In the best case, this is a fallacy. In the worst case, this is an insult to reason and an attempt to evade judgment.

Lessons learned

I have been TAing the lectures “Computer Networks and Distributed Systems” and “Mathematics for CS students” for a term each and now I have gathered some experience with the exams. This is overall a very mixed experience.

Zeroth, most people do actually have some kind of understanding about the topics. But there is a long way from intuition towards understanding what is actually happening in the lecture and why it is happening the way it is happening. (Actually, this is a verification procedure for learning: If you know exactly what problems the lecture is solving and by what means, then you are most probably doing it right.)

First, some of the kids are pretty bad at reading and understanding. If the question is “What are the pros and cons of various methods of achieving X”, then the wrong approach is to tell me that a major downside is to implement X. Seriously? Let’s draw an analogy: A major disadvantage of owning a car is that you have to buy a car, and a major disadvantage of public transport is that you have to buy a ticket. Yeah, I’m not very impressed by this involved comparison, either.

Second, numbers and computation are a serious issue. This was evident in the networks exam, this is even more evident in the calculus exam, even if the students somehow managed to pass the initial “solve 50% of homework” filter. Integration seems to be like magic — sometimes it works, sometimes it does not, and most people seem to have no idea why. My hint “Solve 20 integrals and then you’ll know how” was not appreciated. In the networks exam, it was even worse, people failed at division of large numbers. (And it was awful to look at.)

Third, complex concepts are not easy to understand. (Captain Obvious reporting!) “This function is continuous and not continuous at the same time”, yeah, right. Sure, university lectures are not meant to be easy per se, but they are also not meant to be mandatory for everyone. And this is freshman material, not formal semantics from outer space. But this continues in the computer networks lecture, where some of the students write stuff like “Alice sends her private key to Bob”. If I were a columnist, I would write an awfully long lecture on how Facebook makes us disrespect privacy, but luckily I think that using “us” in the “us sinners” sense is a dirty rhetorical move, so I’ll just facepalm (or facedesk) one more time.

On the other hand, most people do seem to pass the exams, so it’s not all bad. But the aftertaste is pretty bitter.

Book review: Ancillary Justice/Sword/Mercy

Another book cycle finished. Actually, a longer time ago, but I got wound up in random events and did not find the time to blog. My bad.

I have already written something about the first part, and now I would like to revise my conclusion. I told you that Ann Leckie is an heir to Banks, and I probably will stay with that opinion. But she is also an heir to Asimov, in the sense that she likes to talk about evolution of social structures in the far future, over large distances.

Ann Leckie’s concept of the Empire is a distributed personality ruling everything; the premise is that it is possible to link a human body to a distributed mind and let it act as an agent of the said mind. As the agent is semi-autonomus and may not necessarily be always in contact with her other selves, communication delays may let parts of her personality act independently; hence, the stability of the Empire may be in question.

As far as space operas go, this particular one is pretty constrained in time and space. However, this is not a bad thing, as the questions Leckie discusses are large and require attention, even in the far future. Again, in the tradition of early sci-fi, today’s questions are asked in the setting of a possible tomorrow to look at them from a different perspective.

What I liked most, however, were the characters. Not all of them are my favorites, but at least the main character, Breq, is exactly the rational and cold-blooded person I expected to see in her position. Not all of her surroundings are, sadly, but in most cases they don’t raise disbelief (which is already very good!).

Also, I liked the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, so I just say that it is not the one you’d typically expect and also the one that makes most sense. Yes, this is not a contradiction.

Election day

A disclosure: I am not American. Hence, my interests in American elections may be very alien to actual Americans (same as the interests of the candidates may be alien to me). I have a different background, my political views (as in: what should be a priority and what are good means) are clustered differently. I also have a strong hype allergy. Long story short: I have the freedom of not having to choose and the possibility of saying “I strongly dislike both candidates” without having an impact on the outcome. The reasons are manifold, but just to give you a hint: I dislike Trump for his far-right campaign and his attitudes. I also dislike Clinton for the “vote for me, you sexist pile of shit” campaign sentiments and her rather hawkish policy.

I went to sleep on Tuesday with the thought that I missed an excellent opportunity to bet on Clinton against some politically active bloggers. On Wednesday, I woke up and the first word on my phone’s display my mind has recognized was “immigration office”. I then thought that not betting was actually a wise move (and like many wise moves, this one was due to laziness). And then the Internet exploded with pain.

Continue reading “Election day”

Responsibility

I had twice an opportunity to talk about responsibility and thigs related to it, and probably I should sum up not only my but also others’ thoughts on the topic.

The first, and foremost, requirement for responsibility is the possibility to consciously decide on an action. Not deciding is also a decision, but being unable to decide has nothing to do with responsibility. Hence, learning responsible beahvior cannot be done by passively observing other people, the actions of other people, or the results of actions of other people. This does not mean that you don’t have to observe; this means that you cannot be called a responsible person kust because you have visited a (generalized) museum, read some books, and know some more or less relevant facts.

It’s a little like math:  Responsibility is an ability. You are not a math graduate just because you can cite the Banach-Tarski result on cocktail parties. Instead, you are a math graduate because you know how to apply your knowledge to new problems. Applying the same reasoning to responsible behavior, we get that being responsible means having an idea what the results of your actions will be, making a choice that will benefit te people you care about, and not denying accountability.

One can see that in this reasoning, the group of beneficiaries is not clearly defined. Moral or economic imperatives may alter the definition of benefit. The core, however, stays the same: You have several options, you choose the Right Thing™, you accept the outcome.

To sum up, “let’s look at others’ experiences to learn responsible behavior” misses the point completely.

Communication hardness

This is not a post on computational complexity. (I can write one, though, and even on communication.)

There have been several incidents in my life that follow a pattern, and I probably should summarize them at least to think about it. It happened to me for some times that I was trying to convey to another person a thought, an idea, or a concept and was utterly failing at the task. It has taken me hours to clarify what I meant, what I wanted to say and what, for me, the logical implications were. In the end, after the task was done and the idea communicated (or so I thought), my first reaction was “Oh wow, this was hard. I think I need a drink now”.

Now one could draw a conclusion that I am simply incapable of communicating my thoughts, but this hypothesis is invalidated by contradicting observations. And the simplest assumption that matches my observation is that it is, in fact, hard to communicate complex ideas; if the person I try to communicate with has a different intuition (even for the same problem!), then the explanations that are completely clear to me may come over as confusing.

This is very, very sad. It increases the amount of communication overhead, it reduces the flow of ideas, and it makes communication sometimes rather frustrating. Furthermore, it constrains the amount of people you have fun talking to. On the other hand, this is a very good reason to appreciate these people more.

One decade of not learning

Today is a remarkable anniversary.

On October 9, 2006, a seismic event originating somewhere in the Korean peninsula exposed a lot of interesting facts about political, economical, and military experts. The event itself was quickly characterized as an explosion, and several explanations were proposed.

  • North Korea has tested a nuclear device
  • North Korea has ignited a large bomb
  • North Korea has tested a nuclear device yet it failed to ignite

The second two were by far the most popular, as it seemed to be unimaginable how these hungry, backwards, Juche-hailing and ideologically incompetent people could ever design such a technical masterpiece. Ten days later, United States have confirmed that the event originated from a 0.8-kiloton nuclear explosion. Ten years later, the public perception of North Korea is by and large still where it was back in 2006, one even films epic movies about that.

Now saying “confirmation bias” would be just saying a spell and hoping that this magically explains everything. I think this effect has more components to it.

First, it seems that historic scale is not very easy to get an accurate intuition for. For example, all the cool technical advances in air and space travel are not that recent: The first flight of the Concorde is closer to Wright brothers’ plane as to 2016. The first satellite has flown 60(!) years ago. From this point of view, it is not entirely unintuitive that even with a 40-year technological handicap, one should be capable of creating rockets and nuclear weapons. (Just to remind you, 1966 corresponds to Saturn V, XB-70 and SR-73) This makes possible developments to a matter of resources and engineering capabilities.

Second, there is a question of ideology and existing stereotypes. Clearly, North Korea is not a nice place to live in. Clearly, the state exerts a lot of pressure and control on an individual, far more than anyone would deem acceptable. But even if this has an influence on the competence of North Korean engineers (it obviously does), it remains somewhat questionable to flatly deny them engineering capabilities from 1960s. People get surprisingly agnostic when it comes to weapons.

Thirdly, there arises a question about the results. So, ten years have passed, and did the perception of North Korea change? Does not seem so. One can still make funny jokes about Dear Leader, failures in their space program, yet this does not change the facts. And the facts are that the guys are pretty close to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Probably now would be a good moment to take them seriously.

Fighting fire with metaphors

Today, I have seen yet another article about the Brave Individuals™ who fight the Islamic State, now, with videos on YouTube. I thought I have a problem with this, so let’s find out what the problem is. Finding out what disturbs you is done best by thinking loudly, and the modern era equivalent of this procedure is writing blog posts. Welcome again to “Dimitri ranting about newspapers”.

My first issue with this is the problem of audience. There is obviously a difference between a guy or gal who would think that it is a good idea to join the jihad and someone who would think that “Moderate or not – Allah will find his own” is a good joke. This is actually the general problem with politics, hurting people with different world views (which is not necessarily bad in itself) is a very different objective from actually making them think what you think, for the same reasons.

My second issue is the inadequacy of means. No matter how hard you fight effects (with propaganda, water, electricity, e-mail advertisements), you only can do so much with persuading people not joining some strange guys. If the aforementioned strange guys have money and obvious, measurable success, then they will attract people in any case (because there always are some strange people who are into that kind of entertainment). So solving a problem of a large, organized group of people successfully spreading violence and attracting more people is best solved by dismantling the organization with all the nice tools the last two centuries have to offer, including, but not limited to, intelligence, investigations, and, in some cases, violence. And this is, as the last two centuries teach us, only doable with another large organizations. (Which brings me to the lack of a comprehensive theory of organizations.) The times of individuals, singular actions, and the one weird trick are not the times we live in. Even the sniper, the modern army hero guy, is a very specific tool whom a lot of people have worked hard to educate, deploy, and extract.

The core of my problem seems to be that, again, people seem to think that memes can help you in all situations, and that really existing things magically fade away when you have convinced yourself they do not matter anymore. In lots of cases, this is true, but in an equal or larger lot of cases, it isn’t. It is especially and most dramatically not true when the thing in question is a person with a gun.