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.

Political movements suck

(Forgive me for lots of political posts, I am currently re-formulating my world view and this way, you are suffering the least. There are, however, emotionally demanding alternatives.)

For some time in the past, I had a grudge against political movements, but I could not pinpoint the reasons. As this state (“I don’t like it, but I have no idea, why”) did not really satisfy me, I tried to find reasons for this emotional condition.

The first reason is buzzwords. Buzzwords are words or phrases that provoke an intuitive response without actual meaning. As examples, you can look at the party names (Christian Democratic Union, doesn’t this sound nice? No goals, but this warm fuzzy feeling of being in the good old days), stuff any “political scientist” says, and even sometimes in whitepapers (will a double-blind test distinguish between Net platform neutrality and Ultra-Hardcore?). Buzzwords are bad, m-kay? No clear goals means no clear proposals means no clear requirements means no responsibility.

The second reason is something I call topic clustering. Since I don’t want it to become yet another buzzword, I’ll define it: topic clustering means that a voter chooses not between individual problems he’d like to have solved in a preferred order (with given solution methods), but between clusters of problems, represented by political movements or candidates. This profits the political movements, but not the individual voter. In the extreme case, the society will shape itself after the political spectrum with predefined thought patterns for the individual (What political cocktail do you prefer? Wait, do you want to mix it itself? That’s not available, sorry). For example, suppose you like (completely at random) science and technology, social progress (as in, worker rights, equality and stuff), and, let’s say, nuclear power since you are strongly convinced that this is a consistent, non-contradictory set of beliefs. It turns out that there is no party with completely the same goals, which is not a problem in itself, but makes you choose what goals you prefer. Fractional voting is not a thing, hence, you have to decide what part of that cocktail is really important and what is not.

Topic clustering leads also to the third unfavorable phenomenon, which I dislike most. Political movements are groups of people. Groups of people tend to work on a friend-or-foe basis, which is sometimes okay, except when it isn’t. I have had a feeling (and it becomes stronger and forms a suspicion) that as a member of a social circle you are somewhat pressured to subscribe to the complete cluster of topics formed by some movement, as political groups are, by definition, the subjects that also define the ideological agenda. This pressure is not a bad thing in itself, but it forms patterns of thought that lead to pigeonholing people. And pigeonholing leads you to believe that there are only finitely many (fingers-on-one-hand many) types of people, which mostly reduces to two kinds: the nice, smart, ones that share 99% of your ideas and the ugly, dumb ones. Which is, at least, insulting to the variety of experiences. However, the real problem is the pressure to run with the party line, which happens whenever the cluster of goals turns out to be not entirely conflict-free. In that case, some goal is decided to be the politically nicer one, which is an arbitrary, political decision that is done to attract popular support. I won’t give you extremely recent, wild examples, but consider the Alan Turing trial. Then, a political decision has been made to persecute Turing, because at that point, it was the status quo that a homosexual person was a liability to the state, disregarding any previous accomplishments, which were pretty recent back then. A more recent example involves the civil war in Lybia, where several political entities pursued the noble goal of supporting their side and immediately forgetting about the consequences instead of the less symbol-laden policy of decreasing entropy. Now, Lybia is a clusterfuck. Systems have failed, people have died and will die, but as this does not happen in the press, the situation seems not to be something to worry about; otherwise, one would defend the wrong side. This kind of thinking makes me actually cringe and think that if the people/political culture actually endorsing this way of thought will medially lose to cat gifs, I won’t exactly mourn.

See also [1], [2].

Your next gate of Hell

This post is motivated by a not very recent discovery of people who are propagating the cause of oppressed social groups. [0] I have stumbled upon some very dramatic (and in my opinion exaggerated) posts that have hit me in the general area of empathy and could be very roughly generalized as “everything is very bad”. Since my empathy actually exists, it was (and still is) somewhat emotionally straining to read all that. And the question that rises in my head is, then, what can I do? Because watching people suffer is worse if you have no idea how to stop that suffering.

At this point, I have installed in my mind a Great Divide [1], a non-Maxwellian demon, that tries to filter texts from the “everything is very bad” department into two categories: the ones that disclose what the authors actually want and everything else. To make clear what I say, let me provide an example. Suppose someone laments about lack of medical supplies in a given area. Then it is actually possible to say something like “Hey, I happen to have a car and some logistic capacities.” and actually do something. For contrast, suppose someone laments about how the evil NSA is spying on you and is manipulating your local politicians, hence DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD. Then it is actually impossible to ask anything. Obviously, the person does not want DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD and probably making the NSA go away would be a good beginning, but there is no possibility for this to happen. As you can not possibly solve the problem even in the tiniest way possible (other than ejecting yourself into some safe place where no bad things happen), this realization makes you feel bad.

The reason for the Great Divide is somewhat complex and requires further explanation. The first of the sub-reasons for me is actually very selfish: My personal willingness to deal with things I personally cannot change is limited. My personal willingness to hear lamentations about things that must be “dealt with somehow” is also limited. Most of all, my capacity for dealing with (mine and other people’s) emotions is finite, and currently rather full.

The second sub-reason is rather ad hominem [2]. People who regularly write dramatic posts of the “DOOM DOOM SURVEILLANCE GRAVEYARD” often promote themselves to online authority figures because they write about things that the general audience considers interesting and relevant (because conspiracies, Hidden Complex Plans and similar stuff are always interesting and relevant). This is a system with positive feedback; thus, the author who writes dramatic posts feels compelled to write more dramatic posts to gather more audience. Finally, this leads to induced stress on the side of the audience (which is an unforgivable sin already) and something my 4chan part of the brain would call “attention whoring”. My non-4chan part of the brain tend to call this “clickbait” or “commentbait”. Either way, if someone’s goals are more and more skewed towards gathering more attention, then, probably, this is a less trustworthy source of anything.

The third sub-reason is also a little ad hominem. Multiple lamentations on how something is very bad and how we are all going to die reveal that the author has no willingness to get rid of this something. Even more, since this kind of “socio-humanitarian thinking” comes at zero cost (plus or minus some efforts for rationalization), it is a reason to suspect that this certain someone is actually either rooting for the “other side” or generally unwilling to put any effort to change the current state of affairs, which is from the result-oriented point of view indistinguishable. Either way, this person has lost her personal conflict. Raising awareness by hysteria does not count; even if you are willing to protect your cause by lethal force, even then it is best to keep calm. And do whatever you consider right, actually protect your cause and not whine about it.

Hence, my rising suspicion against people who regularly write hysterical posts about every kind of conflict.

[0] If you think that I am talking about “social justice” and evading the term, then you might be surprised, there are more causes than social justice. I describe very general patterns; this is applicable also to some of the so-called “patriotic bloggers” and all conspiracy theorists without exception 😉

[1] I notice that I am inventing terms. Please tell me if you have a problem with that. Please notify me immediately if I start furiously promoting my freshly-invented terms.

[2] Ad hominems are, however, not all bad. Sources of information may be more or less trustworthy. A non-trustworthy source with strange objectives is cognitively not more useful than white noise.

Public discussions on the Internet

I generally try to avoid public discussions. There are some reasons (partly emotional), but there is one thing in public discussions that puts me off and makes me uncomfortable. In general, the point of a discussion should be, funny enough, to make a point, ideally in such a way that you both agree on some conclusion. In the best-effort case, which is the best you can hope for in most situations, at least the audience shall have the chance to understand the topic, its complexity and come to a conclusion (which may be “I am not qualified”, “Not enough data”, “X is the right way to do”).

However, in most public discussions this contradicts the goals of the participating parties. On the Internet, nobody knows you are a cat the audience is virtually infinite and this is something that makes discussions harder as they devolve into virtual dominance competitions, because the parties at some point (the bigger the audience, the sooner) decide that losing would mean actually taking reputation damage and losing face. No matter how often you say “This is not about dominance”, the results seem to be the same.

I fear, this is an inherent problem. Though, there are spaces where these effects are not observable, and in general, they are characterized with

  • limited number of benevolent participants
  • a more or less strict intolerance towards any kind of superiority attitudes

Is this the final solution of the shitstorm question? I don’t know.

Games, rules, cooperation

Disclaimer: This is to be read as a personal position, not a hardcore philosophic work (For hardcore philosophic works, read Kant, he seems to say the same, but in a different way). Thus, the text may contain simplifications, logical shortcuts and things derived from personal or second-hand experiences and may not be generalizable to everyone.

Let’s talk about rules. Even in the age of Enlightenment, it is customary to consider rules as something holy and unalterable, like the Ten Commandments. Examples include the infamous “dating rules”, laws, and the (un)written social code. However, it is important to remember that rules have a purpose: they constrain everyone’s actions and thus impose a bound on entropy. Rules are a good thing, because they enable you to limit the diverse possibilities and allow you to concentrate more on the “allowed” alternatives; rules allow to expect behavior.

Continue reading “Games, rules, cooperation”

Identities and stuff

I have recently thought and talked about the concept of identity (or identities), and, while what I’m going to write is probably neither new nor unexpected, I’d like to write it down to at least laugh about it in a year or so.

So, basically, by “identity” or “identifying” with a group people mean that somebody belongs to a certain group. But how do you decide this? As with nearly everything, it seems that there are two (mainstream) radical opinions on this matter and one is compelled to align somewhere in the (suggested) spectrum. Continue reading “Identities and stuff”

The N-acronym

…the N-acronym being NSA, obviously. It does not really surprise me that the United States government (or whoever feels responsible) seems to be unwilling to sign a so-called No-Spy-treaty. So, in the light of all the revealing leaks, what is the problem?

Lots of things. However, there is something that needs to be pointed out since most people concentrate on the “Big Brother” aspect. While this is something the availability heuristic helpfully suggests, it is not the only problem with being spied on by legal institutions (or, for that matter, any institution). The other problem is that institutions consist of people and while no institution has an incentive to look into YOUR files and tamper with YOUR data, malicious individuals for sure have. If you think this is something that may happen in good old movies like Enemy of the State or True Lies (which I nevertheless recommend), here is something that suggests that even the police consists not only of law-abiding policemen whose primary job is to serve and to protect (For those too lazy to follow the link: this is not your average leftist ACAB stuff, there is evidence that some police departments have been infiltrated by organized crime). And this is only something that is obviously grossly inappropriate, lots of other things, like stalking or spying on a random person, cannot be detected as easily as pretty much everyone can do it without being connected to organized crime. The Big Brother or any big company is an abstract concept that is far away. Your neighbor is far more concrete and may be more interested in the vast amounts of data their employer can offer. Perhaps their relative works for a company that is your competitor. Perhaps they just like reading your romantic correspondence. For someone, you might truly be a very interesting person, you might never know.

I hope you are now at least as paranoid as I am, and so, I would like to phrase the question as follows: Do you trust a random middle-class person enough to let them spy on you? Not the big, abstract NSA, but your neighbor? Does the possible damage seem less than the security you can gain?

I want to stress that security and privacy are not something sacred and there is an obvious tradeoff. However, it seems that the security gained by mass surveillance of phone call metadata (which can provide a great lot of information) does not really compare to the problems it creates. And the profits from targeted advertising… well, at least in this case you can make your Internet experience more or less private. Unless someone at the NSA sells your browsing patterns to advertisers. You never know!