Wednesday, February 19, 2020

What defines culture

Here is a model. Culture is defined by how behaviour is evaluated. In the extreme, a culture is defined by the actions that are considered most honorable, and most shameful.

What is the consequence of this? It means the most succinct description of a culture is to say the most honorable and most shameful acts within this culture. Example, explaining hacker culture to my mom:

The most honorable thing a hacker can do is to make software that solves a problem that a lot of people (especially other hackers) have, and then give it away for free. The most shameful thing a hacker can do is to steal someone else's work and pass it off as their own. 

A description of science culture would be similar, replacing 'software' with 'insight'. What other cultures can we describe this way? Scouting culture:

The most honorable thing a Scout can do is to maintain a long and faithful service to the group, and to the well-being of the surrounding community and nature. The most shameful thing a scout can do is to betray the group, society at large, or destroy nature. 

I would say that scouting as a culture is less self-centered than other hobby cultures, in the sense that the well-being of things outside the culture itself, weighs so heavily on the scale. If you're reading this, objecting that "my hockey team helps the homeless in the community!", then you may be right that your group cannot be called self-centered. What I would ask as a follow-up question however is: "To what extent does helping the homeless raise your status within the hockey team?" It is this internal status measuring, rather than the outside world consequences, that I'm interested in right now.

(A common theme in all cultures taken as examples so far is that altruistic behaviour to the in-group is very rewarded, and egoistic behaviour is punished. Can we think of counterexamples to this? I would say that competitive cultures such as competitive mathematics and programming, and business and law are counterexamples. In cultures like this, it can be honorable to trick or outwit someone in the in-group at their expense. However, it usually comes with some unspoken rules about what is considered fair play. The culture here is more iron-law: it is more shameful to allow oneself to be brought harm to, than to be the one who passes out the harm. Is this the default? Actually, I doubt it. The most competitive cultures have something else in common: they have an external evaluating agent. One's 'score' is not set by the peers, but by a central authority. The honor passed out by the central authority is not absolute, but relative, and therefore a finite resource. So the cruelty of the most competitive cultures is the cruelty of zero sum games. I'm making a prediction: even prehistoric nomad cultures, that occasionally attacked and killed each other, were not as competitive as Harvard Law School. The bounded consequences of competitiveness at HLS does enable more egoistic behaviour, however.)

What can we say about online culture, on say twitter or reddit? Not much in general, since the same comment can either yield praise or raise a mob depending on which subreddit/ twitter cluster it is posted. So according to this model, online culture is very fragmented, which sounds about right.

Why are honor/shame markers good definitions of culture? For one thing, they are very actionable. They tell you what to do in order to be accepted by a culture. Do the honorable things, and do not do the shameful things. It is very direct. Even if the actionability is not relevant, for example if we are investigating an ancient culture, it is still very relatable. Knowing that cattle and horse theft was considered a worse crime than manslaughter in the Old West tells us more about what life was like on the frontier than seeing a bunch of boots and revolvers, I think.

A problem with culture-as-behaviour evaluation is that it is not easy to infer from archaeological evidence. Well, measuring culture as behaviour is perhaps not a mean, but an end, for archaeology.

Let's take a negative approach for a minute and consider: what measures are bad, or inefficient, at defining a culture?

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Value of Formalization

Suppose someone hires us to solve a problem that is currently being solved by trial and error, rules of thumb, or by professional tradition. We are supposed to solve this using math, or programming, or something similar. Or as we say between you and me: using formal methods. Here is a naïve description of where the value comes in to the problematic system when using a formal approach:

First, we take a description of the problem and turn it into an equation, or whatever. Then we calculate the logical consequence of the equation and Oh My God: look at the Result! Now we know; we put this piece of information back into our process helps us save money. 

Today, the "equation" part is almost always realized as software. But the thinking still applies: the value is expected to come at the end. Here is a more realistic version of what happens:

First, we take a description of the problem and turn it into an equation, but wait... this description contains a lot of holes. It's not that the computer has a hard time crunching the numbers, it's that we can't even tell it what to do in the first place. The way the problem is currently understood makes no sense, logically. Parts of the process that are thought to be clearly prescribed by rules actually require a lot of human judgement and discretion to work, and this is a large variational factor in practice. Before we can even begin to optimize this in software, we need to gain a more exact understanding of the process than anyone has had before. 

In this version, the value starts coming in at the beginning, and it's a different kind of value. A better understanding of one's process is not always actionable. On the other hand, it can be actionable in very unexpected and profitable ways. Knowledge has that property. Currently, knowledge has to pass through a person's brain to have a chance at being used at its full value. So when given the task of formalization, take the chance to discover something new about a familiar process. It's often not an option.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

What to remember

Prioritize Invariance

Only remember things that are true now, and that will always be true. An example of a statement that will not always be true:

Donald Trump is president.

An example of a statement that will always be true:

Donald Trump was elected president of the USA in 2016, and as of the 5th of February 2020, he held the position. 

So a statement that is not invariant can be made invariant by specifying a context to it. Why prioritize invariance? Simply put: so that you can trust your own memory. If you do not couple a conclusion with its assumptions in memory, you may miss when the assumptions change, and your knowledge is outdated. If you go to the movies and see The Wolf of Wall Street and come out unhappy, something like this can easily become a cached decision:

I do not like The Wolf of Wall Street. I will not agree to rewatch it.

Consider specifying this as an observation (about yourself)  instead:

When I came out of the cinema after seeing The Wolf of Wall Street, I remember feeling that the movie was too long. Also, the main character seemed unbelievable in the final 45 minutes.  

Suppose now that you are offered by a friend to rewatch The Wolf of Wall street some years later. The friend has a re-edit of the film with a shorter ending, that is meant to be more true to what really happened. With the first, emotion-based memory, you would not notice that this re-edit addresses exactly the issues you had with the movie. Furthermore, remembering things this way makes your opinions more interesting to others, since they are less subjective. Remembering reasons rather than personal general impressions makes it possible for people who hear your opinion to determine whether it applies to them as well. This is an example where the consequences are of little significance of course, but suppose the same thinking is applied to for example one's impression of a person, a new piece of technology, a travel destination, a political party, or a potential employer! One could easily miss things becoming desirable (or undesirable), despite having seen enough evidence to change one's opinion.


When opening a book, the first thing one should do is to check the year of publication. Why? If you know the year of publication, you know the information that was available to the author when writing the book. How do you know what information was available in such and such a year? By knowing the year of publication of other books! So by remembering a linear amount of information (i.e. one integer per book), it becomes possible to consider a quadratic number of connections (i.e. between any pair of books).

The same argument can be applied to people (knowing their birth and death year) and movies (year of release). I have found it less useful to remember years for music. Perhaps it is because I do not know enough music, so that I have not been able to see the effects of the quadratic number of connections. Another reason may be that since I am not trained in music, I do not realize that there is an interesting connection between two songs. In that case, becoming more learned in music would open up a world of interesting observations and conversation topics for me. A third possibility is that the people who do claim that there are interesting connections between different pop music songs for example, are just kind of faking it. But even with this suspicion, it might be worth it to practice a better ear for music.

Another field where I do not find it particularly useful to remember years, is in technology. There are some key inventions such as the transistor in 1947, that one should know. A reason why it is not so useful to remember certain years is that the important inventions were often created over some time. So an approximate year or decade is fine. Big inventions also take time to reach their potential. An example is the transistor radio that was released in 1954, seven years after the transistor was invented. The first neural network was demonstrated by Frank Rosenblatt in 1958. But of course, the neural network was not very important until 2012. Another reason why years are not so important for inventions is that it is more specific to remember things about the invention itself, that explain why they were able to replace the previous way of doing things. The problem with the 1958 neural network was that it lacked multilayeredness and backpropagation. This was fixed around 1978. The next missing features to greatness for neural networks was perceptive fields and layerwise training, which was introduced in the early 1990s and 2006 respectively. The final touch was data augmentation, and increasing the total amount of data and training by a lot, which was done in 2012 after which the big break finally came.


When someone tells me about a new development, one of the first things I ask is: who is doing this? Which company or university? This is often ignored in a news report of the new finding. The news segment may say "Italian researchers demonstrate such-and-such". Knowing that they are Italian is not enough: it is just as well to remember the university and/ or city. Why do I insist on this? 

One reason is it is more useful for networking. If you do read a good article from the University of Milan for example, and later meet someone in your field who studied in Milan, chances are quite good that they have met the authors of the article! This helps you ask more informed questions. It also shows that you have bothered to remember something related to them. In the best case they want to pay back in kind by asking about your research. 

However, I think the most important reason for remembering things by location, has to do with the concept of a mind palace. The idea of a mind palace is that you imagine this place with lots of different objects and textures and levels and whatnot, and you use the image of this place to connect different memories to each object. To me, using a mind palace seems so bogus. It seems totally arbitrary. Better then to connect things to an image that is not arbitrary at all: the map of the world! The world map is something that should be remembered anyway, so it costs very little extra. It also works well on different resolutions: one will know about more things in one's home country, but one also has a better idea of the geography of one's home country. 

Using the historical timeline as a third dimension to this world map-mind palace does also work very well. I don't see how it is possible to organize memories without having a good visualization of the historical timeline.  

Skeptical and Charitable

It is important to be skeptical. Being skeptical means that you do not accept things on hearsay. You do not accept a statement that contradicts your present beliefs without a demonstration that proves it. To a skeptical person, a proof is necessary. A person who is not sufficiently skeptical will accumulate false beliefs. Carrying a lot of false beliefs leads to contradictions in beliefs. Being used to contradictions makes you less sensitive to them. This makes it harder to notice important contradictions. Not being able to notice important contradictions makes it even harder to be skeptical. So it is a vicious cycle. A bad model of the world makes updating your model of the world harder, so be careful about what you put in yours.

Being charitable means that you are willing to accept a statement that contradicts your current beliefs, if given a demonstration. To a charitable person, a proof is sufficient. A person who is not sufficiently charitable will ignore data that contradicts their beliefs, despite there being good reason to accept the data. Such a person can miss good opportunities. So being charitable is also important.

Notice the two logical statements above:

  • If skeptical, then proof is necessary.
  • If charitable, then proof is sufficient.

So to a person who is both skeptical and charitable, beliefs are based the proofs that they have seen.

What if every time we were faced with an opportunity to choose to be skeptical, a red screen would flash saying "maybe you shouldn't believe this"? And what if every time we were faced with an opportunity to be charitable, a green screen would flash saying "maybe you should believe this"? In practice, one of the signs may fail to light up. If both signs fail to light up and we just ignore the data, what happens then? What is the default? Skeptical. Skeptical is the default. A person who ignores all data is trivially a skeptic.

Does that mean that if being skeptic is the default, should we make an effort to be more charitable, even if that means accepting some false beliefs? I think not. Having bad beliefs is worse than having no beliefs, because of the vicious cycle effect. Imagine being in a plane that is about to land in Stockholm, Arlanda. The captain says that they have lost the map they have of Arlanda, so instead they will use a map they have of Copenhagen, Kastrup. You would rather they just looked out the window then!

So much for the tradeoff between skepticism and charitability. Let's focus on increasing the total sum of them! How can we do this with limited resources of mental energy? An obvious thing that people don't do enough is "just google it". Especially things that have been believed for a long time, that one picked up on hearsay. Such cached beliefs can make one look very stupid, since it is so easy to look them up these days. Ok, suppose we are on google. Which source do we believe? Answer: the most upstream one. In matters of science, always go to the original article. In matters of politics and such, who to trust about who-said-what? Answer: don't bother with who-said-what.

Is the original article the most upstream source in science? No, the most upstream source is nature herself. Nature is the final arbiter, and I don't mean the journal. Asking nature is quite expensive in general. In programming and mathematics, we are more lucky. We can go through the proof step by step by ourselves, and check that everything is right. In programming, one can implement the algorithm, and check that the output is correct. Just checking the output from examples is worth less than a full proof. However, with a paper proof, there is the problem of self doubt: did I miss something? Currently, I have a higher confidence in the computer carrying out logical operations, than in myself.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

David Bagares gata

Han vaknar långsamt i det mjuka ljuset från februariförmiddagen. Fram till lunchtid läser han tidningen. Dödsannonserna läser han encyklopediskt. Han tar en timspromenad genom kvarteren av tegelhus, talldungarna, och ner till vattnet. Vid tretiden bryter han fastan med stekta potatiskakor och blodpudding. Efter middagen läser han en bok om det stora nordiska kriget vid fönstret tills det mörknar och han måste tända den starka, varma, lampan. Ögonen blir trötta efter ett par timmar och han lägger sig och dåsar på soffan. Tricket för att somna på eftermiddagen är att ligga alldeles orörlig i några minuter. Han vaknar igen vid sju och känner sig mer energisk. Idag har han en bra syssla: att gå igenom några flyttlådor med gamla dagstidningar som en kille på antikvariatet ger honom en slant för att sålla igenom. Killen på antikvariatet har en bokidé som går ut på att samla dolda meddelanden från sovjetiska agenter som publicerats i svensk press. Det är en kul idé, tycker han. Alla suspekta annonser klipps ut, och bildar en fjäderlätt liten trave. Alla tunga tankar skingras genom arbetet. Det hinner bli elva, midnatt, ett. Vid kvart i två når han gränsen för orken och huvudet blir tungt. Prydligt ställer han tillbaka den senast påbörjade flyttlådan i tornet och går och borstar tänderna. Han bäddar ner sig bland de mjuka, ljusa lakanen. Efter att han släckt glödlampan börjar minnet igen, precis som varje kväll. Alltid samma minne. En smäll i natten. En smäll till, mindre ödesmättad. Breda löpsteg längs med Tunnelgatan, ger akt på isen. Feber och total koncentration i samma sinnesstämning, avverkar trappan upp till Malmskillnadsgatan med långa språng. Far förbi en mörkklädd figur vid den översta trappsatsen, korsar Malmskillnadsgatan, och fortsätter ner längs David Bagares gata. Följer figuren honom med blicken? Nej, personen har inte sinnesnärvaro nog. Där på David Bagares gata släpps blicken från honom i en sekund. En sekund är allt han behöver för att försvinna för alltid. En sekund räcker för att låta sig sväljas av natten. Just här somnar han, när han har avtjänat sitt straff. Straffet är att varje natt springa längs med David Bagares gata.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Missing Arrows

How to read a model chart

What is the problem with this picture?

First some translation. "Hållbarhet" means Sustainability. The other circles say, in clockwise order, "economical", "technological", "cultural", and "social". The boxes say, in clockwise order, "values", "knowledge", "skills", "ecological method".

The graph is a mess. Can we be specific about why it is a mess? First, there is a feeling of confusion. How is this to be interpreted? Are the "values" only related to "economy" and "technology", and not to "sociality" and "culture"? That seems like an odd point to make. And "skills" is not linked to "technology". My dominant hypothesis is that the words in the boxes have been thrown in at random.

Second, the what do we learn from this? We learn that Sustainability affects the Economy, and that the Economy affects Sustainability. Okay? And not only that: Sustainability affects all the other circles, and is in turn affected by all of them. All the arrows are also the same size, so all the interaction are given equal importance. What does it even mean to say that Sustainability affects Culture? The graph leaves this as an exercise to the reader. The cooperative reader will certainly come up with some interaction and be content. What has the cooperative reader learnt? To fantasize.

The problem with the graph is that everything affects everything. Any experience or observation that the reader has about an interaction between two of these concepts will fit into the model. The reader will not reject the graph based on experiment: it permits everything.

When reading a chart, pay attention to which arrows are missing. The missing arrows are what make the actual claims. In science, a model with many nodes and few arrows eliminate a large part of the hypotheses, which make for more powerful predictions. In engineering, a design with few interactions between different parts makes for a system that is easier to maintain and modify.

An example of a good model with only a couple of clear interactions is the Central Dogma of molecular biology:

The central dogma of molecular biology
What claim is made here? That DNA does not produce proteins directly, but that the information goes via RNA first. It also claims that information is never added to DNA, except at replication. Another claim is that RNA and proteins do not replicate.

The extended central dogma.
This model was falsified by experiment. It turns out that RNA sometimes does replicate by itself. And also that RNA can sometimes write to DNA. Perhaps not the way a human engineer would have done it, but we want to describe nature well, so the arrows have to be added.

How to start the scientific revolution

The enlightenment was about striking arrows, not adding them. Striking the arrow from morality to disease was the foundation of medicine. Striking the arrow from planetary movements and theology to the outcome of games of chance was the foundation of the mathematics of probability. Striking the "transmutation" arrows from elements to other elements was the foundation of chemistry. Striking the arrows between human relationships and financial transactions was the foundation of economics, a less successful example.

How to use your time with an expert efficiently

Geology - always lower = older?
(suppose we chance upon a geologist)

Astronomy - assume that stars will move in a strictly periodic pattern? This is what tells planets apart.

Demography - humans are born, grow up, have children, and die - in a quite predictable pattern!

Ecology - what species do not interact directly?

How to ask questions in order to find out these hidden reductionist assumptions in different fields? [1] First of all, we should find out whether this field and this person is actually committed to being consistent. If the field makes no solid predictions and the person is agreeable, then we should be able to make them agree to pretty much any absurd hypothesis. If the field makes no predictions and the person is disagreeable, then we are dealing with a game of Mao. Mao is a card game where the rules are being made up on the fly by the game leader, the chairman. The chairman punishes transgressions of rules that have never been spoken. The disagreeable but scientifically empty field is just politics and fashion. The fiercest players win, instead of the most correct hypotheses. So as a way of finding out the truth, it serves no purpose.

Suppose now that we have good reason for believing that our expert will not agree to anything, but will also not discard our arguments simply on the basis of coming from an outsider. So the expert will treat our arguments skeptically but charitably. Now we have the basis for actually exchanging knowledge. How should we proceed to find the reductionist assumptions in the field? The problem is that these assumptions may not be so conscious for the expert. It does also not make for interesting conversation to simply ask directly "what are the hidden reductionist assumptions in your field?". One thereby misses a chance to prove to the expert that one is worthy of their best response. A clever person finds a way to find out the hidden assumptions with questions that seem to be leading a different way at first.

[1] Why even ask a person at all? Why can't we google it? This is the type of thing that is typically hard to find in written sources. Another problem is that before knowing a subject's hidden reductionist assumptions, basically nothing one reads within the subject makes deep sense.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Fragment of a sejour: Sunday in September

What did I do on the 22nd of September? This was representative of the Sundays in September and October.

This was the second Sunday after E had come. He was very tired from his first work week. We both woke up at 08 and had a very pleasant breakfast talk for an hour. I lectured about Borges, since he had read his first Borges fiction a day earlier. At 09 we got ready for church. I dressed quite seriously, he more casually. We went to the evangelical church in Stern. The day's service was held by the children's group, so the church was very full with parents and relatives. The children performed several songs and I wept quite much, for it was so touching.

On the way back home, we bought chocolate croissants. Regular shops are not allowed to be open on Sundays in Germany, but bakeries can stay open until noon. Restaurants can stay open all day. We had lunch at a restaurant near our room. We were both feeling very enthusiastic about our new country at the time, so we ordered two schnitzels and two tall glasses of wheat beer.

In the early afternoon I studied German for a couple of hours, in preparation for a rendez-vous with miss S at 15. I arrived punctually, she arrived 5 minutes late. Arriving late is acceptable on Sundays, for the same reason that having a clock on a wall inside a church sermon room would be wrong. Precise timekeeping should not be done on the holy day. We met at the Brandenburger Tor, the smaller one in Potsdam. We spent a bit more than two hours walking in Sanssouci park. The first thing that happened was that she managed to pay for my coffee. Luckily, I got an opportunity to buy entrance for both of us to the Chinese Tea House. I found the depicted Chinese in the tea house to be quite amusing, because they looked so much like Europeans wearing long mustaches. The painter had probably not seen many Asians.

The park Sanssouci was overall very beautiful. I felt blessed to live in a city where entrance to such a place with such palaces was free. In an average other city, it would have set you back at least 10 euros. Miss S had lived in Sweden for a number of years, so we talked about that and I prodded her for differences between Swedish and German music, which seemed to be our greatest common interest. We said goodbye in a friendly way and I believed we would meet again, but we never got around to it.

10 minutes after saying goodbye to miss S, was my appointed time with the afternoon's second date: miss B. Miss B was quite late however. She hadn't confirmed the appointment by text on the day (which means one may intend to flake), but she answered the phone when I called and got on her bike. E met up with us as well, and the three of us had a very good chemistry right away. She was very cheerful and immediately chummy, nudging my arm several times when making a joke about me. We had dinner at an Asian place, being served in very large bowls. The outdoor space was crammed with guests, but we got our own table. I got praise from E and B for pronouncing "check, please" very well in German. E was in a very good mood when biking back to Babelsberg. We became friends with miss B, and met with her on several occasions until the end of October.