Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

Legitimate and cargo cult ideas

by Hang

There are two types of ideas which appear very similar yet behave very differently and the ability to distingush can be very useful. Legitimate ideas are not neccesarily ideas that are right but their distinguishing factor is that they have an adequate response to all developed criticism. That means one of the hallmark properties of a legitimate idea is that if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed. What’s more, the mere attempt at trying to demolish it looks foolish and woefully ignorant. If a legitimate idea is demolished, it’ll be demolished from the top, by the people who are most intimately familiar with it. Evolution, I believe is a legitimate idea. All attempts to debunk evolution merely reveal the debunker’s lack of understanding of evolution.

Cargo cult ideas are those which have all the outward trappings of a legitimate idea but without the social process that causes those trappings. It survives not because it can survive criticism, but because it carefully prevents legitimate criticism from affecting it. Cargo cult ideas can survive for a surprisingly long time despite the presence of arguments against it because their very survival involves aping legitimate ideas so closely that it can use the same refrain: “if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed”. Cargo cult ideas are undermined from the bottom up rather that from the top down as it involves a loss of faith in the system.

The structure of argument is so different between legitimate and cargo cult ideas that it becomes impossible to argue unless both people are on the same side. You can see this tension play out with the atheist vs Christian arguments where atheists take the side that Religion is a cargo cult idea masquarading as a legitimate one. Christians on the other hand feel safe dismissing atheist arguments because well, even though they personally don’t know the rebuttal to the argument, they’re sure some learned Christian scholar surely does. Why, this athiest simply doesn’t understand the full subtlety and intricacy of the Christian position and all they are doing is revealing their ignorance of it.

How do you distinguish between the two? There are some useful zero knowledge proofs but they’re tricky because ultimately, the goal of a cargo cult idea is to become indistinguishable. I think in order to do so, you need to learn enough about a subject to reach the cliff. The cliff is the point where a simple question, well stated will be rebuffed rather than answered. No good answer will be forthcoming. The problem with this is twofold: It’s impossible to assert that no answer can be found unless you’ve read all of the literature on the problem and it’s impossible to ever assert the cliff does not exist unless you reach the end of the field. Neither of these are practical goals so only probabilistic measures are possible.

January 5 2009

The natural grain of cynicism

by Hang

Every media type has a natural “grain”, a gentle structure that tugs and shapes the work within it. You can write a novel about your heroine that has piercing blue eyes and the audience with believe you. In a movie, to convince the audience that your heroine has piercing blue eyes requires that you go out and find an actress with piercing blue eyes and this is significantly more difficult.

The natural “grain” of movies is hucksterism. It’s easier to portray an artist who is a talentless, pretentious hack who exploits a gullible audience than it is to portray an artist with genuine talent who receives the accolades they deserve. It’s easier to show a motivational speaker who only speaks in pseudowisdom than one who says genuinely wise things.

Literature is the medium of heroes, of people who are admired by others because they do great things. Movies are the medium of dupes and cons, of the people who are admired by others despite having no discernable talent. Is it then a coincidence that the rise of the long form novel coincided with the spread of modernism with it’s exultation of progress and cinema coincided with the move towards post modernism and the admiration of aloof cynicism?

December 26 2008

My ideal high school curriculum

by Hang

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reflecting over, with everything I know now, what I would consider to be my ideal High School Curriculum. This isn’t a curriculum designed to be practical or even teachable, but it integrates some things I feel would have been a vital part of my high school experience:

  • Rhetoric & Language: Focusing on the interface between reason and language and the use of language as a tool for persuasion. How should we effectively engage with the modern world and how do we make sense of the world around us. Examination of the purpose and power of language in Science, Politics, Marketing & Literature.
  • Global Development: A broad sweep view of history from 100,000BC to the present day, designed to give a gestalt view of human history. Rather than take a strict chronological view, this course will instead explore thematic similarities between different eras and focus on how historical insight can be applied to better understand the modern world.
  • Perspectives on Human Understanding: This course will be a blend of psychology, economics, anthropology/sociology, history & literature that focuses on each fields’ differing perspectives on human understanding. This course explores the fundamental underpinnings that each approach takes and how such approaches can support but also come in conflict with each other and demonstrate the ability to move between different thematic paradigms as a lens onto different facets of human behavior.
  • Science & The Scientific Method: A combination of physics, chemistry and biology, this course will first begin with the scientific method and the foundational elements of science before demonstrating how science can work at multiple levels of abstraction. This course will move fluidly between the scientific disciplines and show how each has a differing but fundamentally compatible view of reality.
  • Mathematical Exploration: Focusing on the beauty of mathematics and the joy of exploration, this course is heavily proof based and designed to foster exploration and discovery rather than rote memorization.
  • Exploratory Programming: This course aims to expose both the power and beauty of programming through the use of more obscure but elegant languages such as Lisp, Forth, Haskell, Erlang and Ruby. This course will focus on the principles of computation and an understanding how how to rapidly build elegant and powerful programs.
  • Foreign Language & Culture: This course aims to expose how different cultures have radically different foundational assumptions and outlooks. It aims to show that there are underlying assumptions each of us have within our own culture which are so embedded we do not notice them until we experience a culture in which they are not present.
  • 2 * Professional Development: While all the other courses are compulsorily and designed to provide a generalized, gestalt view on various subjects, these two courses are of the student’s own choice and are designed to provide the necessary content for further professional studies in these fields.

So there it is, ridiculously impractical, highly individualised and probably something I wouldn’t have even appreciated if it had been offered to me. But it’s a wishlist of all the stuff I wish someone had taught me so I didn’t have to figure it all out on my own.

December 21 2008

What atheism isn’t

by Hang

Several of the reactions to my most recent post that “No one is born atheist” contain some variant of the argument:

Since atheism is defined as the lack of belief in a god or gods, and babies are born without any supernatural beliefs or opinions whatsoever, children are clearly atheist until they engage in this ‘animistic behavior’ – 180andback


Atheism is simply the lack of belief in a deity, nothing more. – Zaki

Sure, if you literally break the word down into a-theism then you can interpret it to mean the lack of a belief in a God but I don’t think this is a useful way to talk about atheism.

If I made the claim that “I don’t think dinosaurs exist” then your natural first reaction might be “Well, what about all those fossils?”.

If I went on about how Satan buried those fossils as a test of my faith, you could safely label me a-dinosaur as I’ve made an active assertion about how the world could be without dinosaurs.

On the other hand, if I simply choose to ignore your question about the existence of fossils, it would be more accurate to label me as a dinosaur denier. Someone who doesn’t want to confront the issue of dinosaur existence.

Furthermore, if I had simply never even heard of dinosaurs before and had no reason to suppose their existence, then it might be accurate to label me as a dinosaur agnostic.

In each of these three cases, I don’t hold a belief that dinosaurs exist but these three lack of beliefs are of a very different nature and calling them all a-dinosaurism confuses the issue.

It is not enough to claim that gods do not exist to become atheist, you must also provide a explanation that explains the evidence for the existence of gods. Any justifiable atheism must be at least about to adequately answer the following phenomena:

  • Every single day, hundreds of faith healers across the globe cause countless miracles of healing
  • I had a dream about my Aunt Marge dying and when I woke up, I got a phone call that she got into a horrific car accident
  • Every time I go to the 5th floor of my office,  I feel incredibly sad and lost. I later found out that someone had committed suicide on that floor. I had no idea it happened but I still felt the presence of his ghost.
  • My friend had a terminal cancer and the doctors told her that it was incurable but when she prayed to God, it miraculously went into remission. The doctors all said they had never seen anything like it.
  • When I rub my lucky coin 3 times in a clockwise fashion, I win much more at roulette
  • I can feel God guide me in my life and feel his presence in my soul. It’s impossible for such a feeling to be faked

What’s amazing about atheism is that it can adequately answer these seemingly amazing phenomena in a purely naturalistic manner. However, the answers to these questions are neither simple nor obvious. Any answer requires a great deal of sophisticated understanding of both philosophical and empirical matters and it’s the ability to answer these questions that separates genuine atheism from a simple denial of gods.

Such a confusion does atheists and atheism no favors. Because this distinction is not made clear, most of the Christians I talk to believe that atheists are God deniers. Atheists are atheists because the implications of a God existing is so morally threatening that atheists must construct a psychological shield that justifies their immorality and secularism. The idea that atheists are actually capable of answering the preceeding questions is so astounding that it’s never even considered.

Atheists need to become much more clear about what atheism is and isn’t if they want atheism to be given the respect it deserves as an intellectual position. Atheism is not simply a denial of gods. Instead, it’s an active assertion that the universe can be explained better in the absence of gods.

December 19 2008

Noone is born atheist

by Hang

One argument I’ve been hearing about with increasing frequency from the atheist community is that “everyone is born atheist” with the implication that religion is some unwitting indoctrination forced upon children too young to object. To me, such an argument represents a shockingly naive tabula rasa view of human development and, what’s more, invalidates the significant intellectual achievements of atheism as an intellectual stance.

A far more accurate view of human development would reveal that “everyone is born animist”, that is, ascribing human like traits to naturalistic phenomena. Our propensity to find and explain patterns of behavior is a product of our deep evolutionary background and even in modern, technological society, we curse our computers as malicious and believe that we can influence the timing of traffic lights. All religion does is impose an organizational framework upon our original animist intuitions. It provides a ready explanation for what we were already pre-programmed to believe.

Only atheism seeks to directly challenge the validity of our animist intuition and promote a wholly naturalistic view of the world. As a result, atheism is a deeply counter intuitive claim and one which can only be justified by deep intellectual inquiry into rationalism, skepticism and the scientific method. The argument that “everyone is born atheist” wholly discredits the significant intellectual effort that atheists must take to reach an intellectually defensible point of view.

So let’s retire this tired old canard that “everyone is born atheist”. It’s intellectually embarrassing and gives a grossly inaccurate viewpoint to outsiders on what atheism actually is.

Provably Unsolvable Security

by Hang

One interesting, unnoticed property of security is that it often contains provably unsolvable problems. Generally, we tend to split problems into those that have been solved and those which we don’t know if they can be solved. Nobody knows right now how to build a 100 mpg+ Internal Combustion Engine but that’s because building a 100+ mpg engine is hard. We imagine that if we throw enough smart people and technology at a problem, it will inevitably be beaten down and solved or we’ll reach a point where it’s not worth the effort to solve. Nobody imagines that building fuel efficient engines is impossible.

Translating that same thinking to security, we imagine security problems are a matter of effort. If only we were willing to expend enough resources, security problems could get solved. The TSA takes this approach to airline security. Airline security breaches occur because there is a lack of political will and if we only had enough regulations, screeners, X-Ray backscatter machines and cameras, airport security would become a solved problem.

However, the fundamental flaw with airport security is that what makes a good “dangerous” is how you use it and not what its made out of and so it’s impossible to develop an effective screening process that is not in the context of use. A laptop battery is pretty much just an explosive which is designed not to explode (sometimes unsuccessfully). That planes aren’t being brought down every day from laptop explosions is not because they can’t explode but because nobody wants them to explode. Imagine all the technology you want, it’s impossible to look at a laptop battery sitting in a scanning machine and decide whether it will be wanted to explode.

Convincing people that security can be provably unsolvable is the hardest step because often, the actual proofs of unsolvability are fairly simple. Normally, we assume that an explanation of why something can’t be done is something only comprehensible to experts because it’s more accurately a proof of why it can’t be done yet which requires you to understand what can be done now. As a result, we take explanations of infeasibility on a certain degree of faith and deferral to expert opinion, we use zero knowledge rather than first order proofs.

Security flips this around. Proving something secure is hard because it requires you to know all the ways it can be attacked whereas proving something can never be secure is easy because it requires a simple application from first principles. This is an important consideration in policy debates because one common tactic of bamboozling your opponent is to force them into using first order proofs where zero knowledge proofs would have been more appropriate (the Intelligent Design movement uses this to great effect with their “teach the controversy” and “let the children decide” messages). This means that unless your opponent is aware of the curious inversion on the structure of a security debate, arguments about security can often seem seedy and underhanded because they resemble so much debates in other, less reputable areas.

The result of all this is that security is one of those areas where there is a disproportionate amount of astoundingly bad, poorly thought out policies and a large part of this can be explained through the communication mismatch between security experts and managers where “it can’t be done” means “It’s impossible to do” but is interpreted as “I don’t know how to do it and I’m too lazy to find out”.

November 21 2008

1000 car companies? Yeah right

by Hang

I’m a huge fan of Seth Godin but his most recent blog post is just really, really dumb:

I was in Detroit last week… I have family there. I also drive a car. And I would rather that the world doesn’t melt and the economy thrive. So I’m uniquely qualified to weigh in on the automobile industry.

Not only should Congress encourage/facilitate the organized bankruptcy of the Big Three, but it should also make it easy for them to be replaced by 500 new car companies.

Or perhaps a thousand.

The reason there was 1000 car companies in the very early days of automobiles was because it’s very easy to make a shitty car. Fortunately for them, everyone around them was making shitty cars as well and they could compete on the marketplace. Nowadays, it’s equally as easy to make a shitty car but everyone else is making awesome cars and so the only way to compete is to make awesome cars as well.

This is an established pattern in many industries: there is an initial burst of anarchy and creativity with many different ideas and paradigms being explored until the product gets to a sufficient level of complexity such that it essentially locks out new entrants to the field. From then on, only established players have the resources to compete and the rate of new ideas drops dramatically. There used to be a dozen CPU makers, a dozen airplane makers and a dozen operating system vendors. Now, there’s only two, two and three respectively.

November 20 2008

Helicopters and anti-Helicopters

by Hang

From a post on the straight dope:

I work in advertising, where frequently the challenge is to get the client to agree to pay you as much money as possible, then go away. The problem is that some clients (particularly new ones) will absolutely refuse to let an estimate pass their desk without making some alteration, just to show that they’re involved in the process. Now, if you go in with a carefully crafted ad campaign, where everything beautifully interlocks with everything else, then this moron blindly slashing away with his pen will inevitably cock it all up.

The solution is to give him a helicopter. A helicopter is something glaringly, obviously wrong, deliberately thrown in to satisfy a busybody’s need to “do something.”

It comes from a video producer I once knew who would always include an actual helicopter (for aerial shots of the city) in the estimate every new proposal he made. The helicopter was always obviously far more expensive than anything else on the list, and the client would always immediately cross it off before approving the proposal. End result: the producer got to do the project as he wanted, the manager got to feel useful, and everyone was happy.

An anti-helicopter is the opposite of this. It’s something you inadvertently put in which seems to make everyone fixate on it at the exclusion of what you were trying to show them. If you’ve been in enough debates or done enough blogging, you get a general sense of what the anti-helicopters are and yet it doesn’t stop you for occasionally throwing one out. You’ll be making this long, well structured, elaborate argument and add in a totally tangential sidenote and all of a sudden, everyone’s gone off in a huge 100 post argument about whether the sidenote is valid.

A proper understanding of helicopters and anti-helicopters can be very useful when trying to convince.

November 15 2008

On the auto industry bailout

by Hang

I’ve been reading various things about the audo industry bailout and various opinions of people for and against. Through all this confusion, I thought out I would point out a couple of invariants:

  • We’ll still be buying the same number of cars whether GM goes under or not. Those cars will still need parts and workers and those workers will still be working in North American plants. They might not be plants in Michigan but they’ll be somewhere in North America. So when you hear that GM and it’s subsidiaries employ 300,000 people, it does not mean that the employment rate in the US will drop by 300,000 just because GM is out of business.
  • The dislocation will be painful. On the flip side of the fence, the market idealists who like to think of creative destruction as an abstract force are wrong. There’s going to be plenty of economic cost before the economy rights itself again. Factories are going to have to be torn down in Michigan and built up in Kansas, assembly lines will have to be retooled from making GM widgets to Honda sprockets, Engineers who are used to working with Mac down the hall now have to work with Joe from Ontario, most of the R&D on the GM Volt isn’t going to be much use for the Toyota Prius.
  • Whether you support the bailout or not depends crucially on whether you feel GM can turn itself around. It’s curious that this case rarely seems to be made explicit. Those supporting the bailout make the fundamental assumption that GM can eventually be restored to a smaller yet functional corporation that will eventually return to profitability and those opposing it assume fundamental structural flaws in the company system. I’ve not yet found many articles which make such claims explicit and try to justify yet and yet this is the determining factor in whether the bailout makes economic sense.

Personally, I’m very much against the bailout. It seems to me that the problems that GM face are caused by an endemic failure of corporate culture spanning everything from an uncreative, insular management to obdurate union which is unable to make the concessions needed. Such a thing cannot be fixed through any sort of superficial restructuring or easy infusion of cash. Rather, GM needs to go through the sort of wrenching transition that IBM went through in the 90’s and I don’t see any evidence of such a thing occuring.

Yes, it sucks that GM is going out of business and it’s going to cause enormous economic pain for those involved. It would be great if we could wave a magic wand that would cause that pain to go away and I would wholeheartedly support a bailout plan if that looked realistic. But as it stands, it looks like GM going out of business will be inevitable and all a bailout will do is become an expensive way of forstalling the inevitable.

Nov 12th (day 30): No Evil Geniuses

by Hang

Yesterday, I wrote about the mystery of why spam was so bad at being spam and I claimed that it was a mystery that seemingly defied explanation. None of what I proposed as possible answers was really satisfying. In order to answer this question, I think you have to look further afield and ask some other interesting questions: “Why has there not been a non-pathetic foreign terrorist attempt on US soil since 9/11?” and “Why has there only been a handful of truly crippling computer viruses in the last 10 years”

Our first instinct is that such occurrences are rare because they are difficult. However, neither of these tasks actually are difficult. Two guys in a van managed to terrorize Washington DC for a month and no amount of security precautions could have prevented them from doing so. The Sasser worm was written “by someone that could barely get the code working” and attacked a security flaw that had been noted and patched months ago and other worms haven’t been much more sophisticated. Such things are not trivial but they aren’t of such herculean difficulty that would be sufficient to explain their rarity. Just why exactly isn’t there a legion of evil geniuses who are routinely executing the downfall of society?

An evil genius is anyone who is both a genius and evil where “Evil” encompasses everything from trolling to keying someone’s car to pedophilia, “Genius” is anything which evokes any degree of “huh, why didn’t I think of that?” or “That’s clever”. As a rough approximation, we assume that the number of evil geniuses can be calculated by multiplying the proportion of people who are geniuses with the proportion of people who are evil. But what I’ve noticed through looking at a huge range of diverse social systems is that evil geniuses exist at a stunningly lower frequency than this naive calculation would have us believe. The number of evil geniuses is so off base from the naive calculation that it indicates a our model of the world with regards to evil geniuses is unsalvagable and needs to be replaced, not just tweaked.

Such a claim has radical implications for the design of social systems as so much of our thinking about security, about design and about society is obsessed with preventing evil geniuses from wreaking havoc that we don’t even stop to notice that they aren’t.

Part of the reason we’re so obsessed with evil geniuses is because we think we know what they’re like: they’re just like us except they actually do the evil things we think about. Bruce Schneier, one of the most widely read security experts in the world writes about how

Uncle Milton Industries has been selling ant farms to children since 1956. Some years ago, I remember opening one up with a friend. There were no actual ants included in the box. Instead, there was a card that you filled in with your address, and the company would mail you some ants. My friend expressed surprise that you could get ants sent to you in the mail.

I replied: “What’s really interesting is that these people will send a tube of live ants to anyone you tell them to.”

The Security Mindset

“Why golly”, the man with the Security Mindset says, “I’ve found a great way to exploit this system. It’s lucky I’m a good person because all that is stopping me from executing this exploit for my personal gain is my innate goodness.”

It’s easy to imagine a person who is just like me except without my innate goodness. As a result, it’s easy to design a system with defenses against such a mythical attacker. What we completely fail to notice is that, most of the time, such an attacker simply does not materialize. But even though evil geniuses might not be a major problem, evil behavior most definitely is and it’s in our best interests to design a system which is resilient to pathological actions such as trolling, flaming and abuse.

Our naive view of the world is that we mentally segment people out into “good people” and “bad people”. Good people are people like us and bad people are people like us, except without any morality. The work of Milgram and Zimbardo shows though that goodness is largely a property of circumstance and the more correct way of thinking about the world is that most people are ordinary people and there are good situations and bad situations. If evil people are inherently evil, then it’s easy to imagine an evil genius. However, if evil is a product of the situation, then maybe the reason there are no evil geniuses was because noone gave them permission to be evil geniuses. The reason why Milgram and and Zimbardo managed to cause people to become evil was by relying on authority to signal that such actions were permissible. Genius, by definition, cannot provide be provided such social proof because you’re doing something new and unexpected. Without such social proof, it’s very hard to create an evil situation and, as a result, evil genius is hard to come by.

Such a statement has radical implications for design: you can cause pathological behavior simply by putting in visible mechanisms to prevent pathological behavior. We look to social cues within the system to understand acceptable bounds of behavior and in certain cases, one could reason that if the designer spent so much time building safeguards against certain behaviors into the system, such behavior must be prevalent and thus, acceptable to experiment with. In some cases, the correct approach to obsessing about the security of a system is to leave the system deliberately unsecured so that it does not even occur to people to test the security.

The “No Evil Geniuses” hypothesis is a radically different way to think about the world and one I don’t even think I can completely justify. At the same time, after having looked at all of these disparate cases in which there simply isn’t any other good explaination, it’s one I’ve been increasingly forced to take. Whenever I’ve gone out on a hunt to spot a rich treasure trove of evil geniuses, I’ve never been able to find them. Maybe there’s a simpler, more coherent explaination for all of this but until I find it, I’m going to bill this the No Evil Geniuses Paradox.

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