Book: Ask More

I mentioned in a past post that I would read this book. I have now read this book. This is what I think.

Ask More-3D.jpg

The important idea in this book is that you can categorize questions based on the goal you have as a questioner.

One of the big unsolved problems in being human is to verify that when one person speaks, the other person “hears”. A person can speak, and be listened to, but there are only “sketchy” ways to verify that the information is copied.

Contrast this with the physical environment. We can make copies of the wheel. We know how to take raw materials, steel and rubber, and make wheels for a car. The raw materials can be harvested from any mine or farm, and the end product will be so close to the original that it can be swapped out. It does not require a whole lot of special skill to replace. etc…it’s just changing a tire.

Ideas have a different nature. Imagine the idea like the wheel, and the mind like the car. The car inside each of our heads is not standard. It’s as if each one of us drives around in a hand-made, one-of-a-kind car. When the idea of a wheel gets into our brains, it behaves differently than a physical wheel. For one, it changes shape. The mind bends the wheel to fit to the car. Maybe it bends the car a little, too.

A major difference, though, is that, unlike the physical car and wheel, it is not obvious when a mental wheel doesn’t fit. A bad wheel in the physical world simply will not work. We know the physical wheel works or not when we try to drive the car. Or even before, if it is too big or too small, it will not fit the car in the first place. Reality is rigid, and does not tolerate imperfection in mechanical objects (within a certain scale). But the imagination is almost perfectly adaptable. The mental wheel bolts in somewhere, it gets remembered. But nothing in hard reality will let us know if it is behaving like a wheel in the mind of the listener.

Try to imagine the metaphor of a car and wheel in the mind of someone who has never seen a car, an ancient Roman for example. Rubber? Steel? But, nothing stops you from saying the words, telling the Roman about the wheel. The Roman will hear your words. The mental car does something, but it probably doesn’t do the same thing in the Roman’s mind as it does in your mind.

I try to point out in this blog that what you communicate, and what you consider to be true depends on what type of question you are asking. This means that nothing is true, and many things are true. However, strict logic does not allow this statement to be true. But, all I have done is repackaged the liar paradox: “I am lying” or “everything I say is false”.

So here is my beef. Most people think they argue from a set of facts. This is what we consider debate. It is important, because this is a structure of communication we all implicitly accept as legitimate. In politics, debates are televised. They are consequential. They sway opinion, which causes voting. Now think, even this paragraph contains zero factual evidence. I have shown you no data. Instead, I am making statements, and assuming you will accept a premise.

Like the wheel, I don’t know how the notion of debate is going to resonate in your mind. I also do not know how to verify that you believe the same things I do. I don’t know how to verify that you believe “They sway opinion, which causes voting.” Truthfully, as a social scientist, I have no idea how you would prove something like that to any level of scientific rigour. It’s not the same as the physical science. You can’t hold the equivalent of rubber or steel in your hands. The reality of it is murky.

But that is the key insight: Reality is murky.

So now, why this book is important. If you had to start somewhere, how do you think we should view questions?

Some popular concepts:

  • There is no such thing as a dumb question.
  • [In a conflict] Hey, I’m just asking a simple question. Or Can’t you take a simple question?
  • [cross examination, like in court]: Yes or no, did you…?

My claim is that we tend to view questions as neutral. In other words, you cannot be faulted for asking a question. In practice, we behave differently. There are certain questions that are impolite. You don’t ask people you just met about their religious beliefs, their sex life, or their politics.

Now. Considering this confusion about what people tend to say about questions, and how people behave about them, it seems reasonable to believe we would have a formal curriculum about asking questions. People need to be taught which questions to ask given a specific context. But we have no such curriculum. There is no: Questions 101 at the university. There is no: Questions class in primary education. Instead, you are expected to learn about questioning via osmosis.

This book takes a basic stab in the dark at forming a curriculum of types of questions, and that is what makes it worth reading. To be honest, I didn’t care much for the book. I read it, and nothing really sparked for me. That said, I think the ideas in the book are a work of genius. I keep in mind the difficulty of explaining to a Roman about a wheel. Sesno, the author, can’t know where you are coming from, and so he is trying to package a simple idea into a package of stories. Stories help us copy ideas.

If we had such a curriculum of questions and outcomes, maybe the general level of intelligence would be higher in our society. In one sense, I feel it stands without much challenge that we benefit from mass literacy. That is, there is no controversy to say that having almost 100% of people in a society able to read and write is a good thing. It gets much more sensitive if we start to expand the basic set of mental tools out to include harder to grasp concepts. However, understanding dialectical thinking is one of the next rungs on the ladder. That is, understanding facts and truth as a volley between a questioner and a responder.

By the way, you already understand what I am talking about. It’s the same idea as the statement: Context matters. Or that some statements can be taken out of context, etc… Everyone knows this, but fail to behave as if this is true. I do mean everyone, myself included. There is something about our nature that reacts to ideas, rather than stepping back and reflecting on the source of the words. Like the wheel and the Roman.

Unfortunately, Sesno’s book is hard to communicate. It’s one thing to tell you about a wheel and a Roman. There is a good chance you have the concept of a wheel and a Roman tied to some very salient images in your mind. It’s much harder to attach simple, abstract, but novel concepts to anything in your mind with any confidence. For this reason, I can’t summarize the book for you. I lack the talent as a writer.

Writing this blog is teaching me how goddamned difficult it is to communicate. The basic problem is that some ideas rely on other ideas. I can’t verify that you know what I am talking about, so I have to guess what you know. The beauty of what Sesno is doing in this book is inventing categories, or references. If enough people had the basic reference points that Sesno describes in his book about questions, we could probably communicate a lot more efficiently.

By the way. The other odd thing about writing this blog is that I forget what I write, so then I come back and I need to remember what types of references I was going for. The stories, the visuals, like the Roman and the wheel are just as useful to my future self as they are to anyone who isn’t me trying to read this. It’s odd. It’s kind of freaky.

At any rate, here is the example on Sesno’s website for the book:

Colin Powell shows how strategic questions can define a mission and forecast success – or failure.

Turnaround expert Steve Miller employs diagnostic questions to get to the heart of a company’s problems.

NPR’s Terry Gross digs deeper with empathy questions.

Journalists Anderson Cooper and Jorge Ramos explain how they use confrontational questions to hold people accountable.

Creative questions drove a couple of techie dreamers to imagine Uber, and a young mayor to challenge history.

Karen Osborne asks mission questions to help nonprofits raise awareness – and money.

Dr. Anthony Fauci posed scientific questions to help crack the HIV/AIDS mystery.

The bolded statements are the “types” of questions people ask in different scenarios. Which…btw, these are the Telos of the questioner, aren’t they?

The way to think of this book is to consider these bolded statements like boxes. You have a goal, and it can be strategic. If that is the area you want to define, then there are useful set of questions in that box for you to use.

In other words, these are tools. The same as hammers and wrenches. They do something very mechanical. Only, instead of matter to work with it’s information. Like the Wheel and the Roman.

These tools are the next step towards a higher level of literacy. We could teach them. We could have everyone understand them. Imagine what we could do then.



I feel like throwing some random stuff out there.

First, this is very interesting, but very bleak:

“The Fragmentation of Society” by John Mauldin:

This article is mostly about job losses due to technological advancement, and some of the consequences. He touches on driverless cars, manufacturing, but also how medicine will be disrupted by the end of cancer. It’s a really good article.

Here are the key sentences that made me think:

Think where we were 100 years ago and how much has changed since then. That much and more is going to happen in the next two decades. Global society really is going to transform that fast.

To my friends in Alberta, the first half is about robots pumping oil. There is a new robot that automates linking the sections of pipe, and it eliminates a lot of the jobs on the rigs, but it’s just one example of automation. To me, this means the Alberta economy is going to be unrecognizable in 20 years. This is coming really fast. The really good jobs in the industry are likely to change faster than the time it takes to get a trade. We basically should abandon the idea that you go to school once, and that is it. Young people will be in school for the rest of their lives, part-time, constantly. Even more than this is already true.  And yet, I’m watching the unemployment rate of young workers (15-44) in Victoria hit something like 3.4%…People are retiring faster than they are being replaced. Alberta already is younger than the rest of Canada, demographically, without spending the day chasing the data, I’m going to just guess that this trend is a bit stronger everywhere else than Alberta. So the economist in me thinks that it means wages should rise (or they will fall in Alberta), and young people will leave places like Alberta for places like Vancouver Island. But…at this rate of change, it’s not clear that the trend will last very long. Not long enough to plan a life around.

The amazing thing is that this transformation happened in two years; it didn’t take a generation or even half a generation. You were an oilfield worker with what you thought was potentially a lifetime of steady, well-paying – if dangerous, nasty, and dirty – work. And then BOOM! The jobs just simply disappeared.

If you want to dig even deeper, here is the source blog post for the blog post I am quoting in this blog. Here is the chart of interest.

It’s not all bad.

One way or another, cancer is going to go the way of measles and polio. You’ll be diagnosed by means of a simple blood test that will be part of your annual medical checkup, and you’ll be informed if you have cancer. Next you will undergo further tests to determine what type. And then, whatever the therapy is, it is likely that you will simply go to your doctor’s office for regular treatments.


we are going to have to think about something like universal basic employment, as opposed to universal basic income. Good work and participating in society give us meaning in life. Income just gives us a way to scrape by, but not personal life satisfaction or meaning, which is why we have an epidemic of opioid deaths, suicides, and rising deaths from alcoholism in the United States among white unemployed workers between 45 and 54. They have lost meaning and hope in their lives.

This is a good place to segue into another idea that I encountered this week. In one of my recent posts I talked about teleology.

It was a new word for me when I wrote that piece, and a new way of thinking about things…and what would you know? I  heard someone talking about it this week.

I think teleology is a bit of an esoteric concept, I would assume most people don’t even know the meanings of telic (seeking a goal) vs. atelic (not seeking a goal). I didn’t until writing about it, at any rate.

Then I heard about telic vs. atelic activities in life on a podcast.

In the podcast they talk about happiness and phases of life. In general, people in their middle age have been measured (somehow) as being less happy than young or old people.

They interview some very high achievers. The idea is that people who are unhappy at mid-life are unhappy because they feel a lack of accomplishment. High achievers also get unhappy, and it has a lot to do with goals.

I only recently published the article on being vs. doing as some version of my codex vitae, and I am wondering how much I will have to go back and rethink it already. I am still more or less happy with what I wrote, but I worry that getting to certain about those ideas sort of devalues the time we spend on activities that are good all by themselves.

For example. I love fishing. I go fishing, and it has a “sort-of” goal to catch fish. But the real enjoyment is simply be fishing as opposed to doing anything else. Like going for a stroll. It has no real destination, just the activity of wandering. These are atelic activities. They don’t have, nor need any ambition behind them. They are the truly peaceful, good moments of life. Like petting a dog or cat; just being in the presence of people you like; having a few beers; etc… whatever floats your boat.

In the podcast, one of the high achievers discusses what life was like when he accomplished his telos. He never had to think much about life. I think it might have been the author of this book. When he was young, there was always work to do, and it meant that there wasn’t time to think about much else. The telic life is one that consumes you. It can, at best, offer achievement. I wonder, however, how much of this still relies on the type of question one asks of oneself. The basic question is why? And it is impossible to answer.

This blog is atelic sometimes. Sometimes I just find it interesting to point out the serendipity of the ideas I encounter in a week.

Everyone lived once. [1/3]

#Yolo. I’m counting down to 30. Just a few months away…

Anyway. 30 has me thinking a lot. When look back and remember my 29th year, I’ll remember I spent it being preoccupied with the thought of being 30. But hey, it’s a milestone. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But, then again, maybe it does. The frontal lobe only reaches full maturity around the late 20’s. So something is changing on a fundamental level. Time to do something…productive.

I’ve become by the concept of the codex vitae. It comes from some science fiction book, where these people each record a book of life, containing all of their knowledge…I could’t finish the book (it’s terrible, written for infantalized millennials), but the concept of a codex vitae is a good one.

I will not be the same person in another 10 years. I write this blog first and foremost for myself. I hope to have this record to look back and think about it. I want to keep some kind of record, life is worth taking note of. Anyways, we tend to think we are always at the final version of ourselves, but it isn’t true. We will change more than we think. The next video explains.

TRDL: it’s basic point is that we have a poor concept of who we are over time, hence…keep a journal.

Since all good things come in three’s, I’m going to cram my codex vitae (for now) into three loose topics. This is hardly a complete list, but these are what I use to guide me right now.

The first – focus on doing rather than being.

I have spent a lot of mental energy over the last several years on what I want to be. It’s odd that people ask you “what do you do?”, and you respond “I am a…[job title]”. Ever notice that the verbs get switched?

To be or not to be? But the question everyone asks is about doing, not being. What do you do? While it is possible that we are say one thing and mean another, I contend that we are all, in fact, deeply confused (a philosophical conjecture I learned from Allain de Botton).

It’s so bad out there that self-help books on communication teach you to steer away from asking people this question altogether. Rather than asking “What do you do?”, they suggest, ask “What are you working on?” or “How do you spend your time?” Largely it’s to avoid talking directly about one another’s status. Maybe people are too fragile?

Ego. Narcissism. Pride. All of which, people tend to think as afflictions of other people. Why do we all think we are so much more virtuous than other people? But, it’s part of the human experience to be self-referential. You don’t have anything else to go with. Cogito ergo sum.

Identity is the individual playbook. Alan Watts says it pretty well between dramatic sips of tea.

Ryan Holiday’s book of stoicism recommends defining yourself minimally. Which is to say, we should not be compelled to do anything simply because we are “that type of person.”

“Oh, I’m a vanilla ice cream person.”

Someone who says this is missing out on the delicious balsamic blueberry flavour at the shop a few blocks from my apartment…and for what? Ego.

“I am open to all ice cream flavours.”

Still ego, but less strictly defined. Because the ego/identity is a set of stories you tell yourself about yourself.

Most of our battles are with ourselves.

-Maybe Mark Twain. Maybe Einstein. Maybe both. It’s probably printed on a shopping bag.

Consider the scale of the problem. There are many trillions of dollars exchanged for telling people what they want to hear. If you want to know the path to wealth, find out how you can capitalize on someone’s opinion of him/herself. Self-delusion is a real-life Eldorado.

Take for example, the basic Myers-Briggs and any of the many copy-cat derivatives. They ask people a series of preference-based questions. What do you “feel” is most “you”? Then they tell you a story about yourself. A clever story, all in the affirmative, never in the critical. This, they claim, is your personality type. Mostly the assessments are restatements/rewording of  the same traits you identified with in the test. So the assessments often feel like playing the game two truths and a lie with yourself.

More careful studies of personality types have revealed that these Myers-Briggs are almost worse than random at predicting what people will actually do.  Here’s an amusing article in Forbes about it. Todd Rose, in his book The End of Average, really tears it apart. We are better off understanding people in terms of “If / Then…” conditional situations. A person may be a social butterfly in her personal life, but incredibly shy at work, is she a introvert or an extrovert? Both! Neither! Whoops!

Maybe the truth is that personality types are just a garbage idea, a virus of the mind. And yet, because they are definitional stories, they get into our egos. How we think of ourselves. Our identity. They bleed into who we think we are. And yet, they aren’t even self-fulfilling prophesies. If they were, we would get the predictive power out of them, they would somehow translate into what we do. Instead, they tell us what we want to hear. $$Cha-ching!$$

Ok, I got a little off topic, the key idea is to figure out what concepts actually tell you about who you are. In a way, we like certain stories about ourselves, that we are ‘nice’, ‘decent’, etc… But these have to map to behaviour somehow. Because who you really are is based on your reputation, what you do. That is the you that people will remember.

For example, I used to (still do) like walking around saying “I don’t care about what people think!” It’s completely fictitious. It’s probably best understood as a form of self-comforting. It doesn’t translate into actual behaviour. If true, Then I would show up to work in the same state as when I stay home…old t-shirts and sweats. People who actually don’t give a fuck, we call them shameless. It’s pejorative.

Hypocrisy is bred from identity. Somehow everyone loves to travel, which is odd, because everyone likes to consider themselves environmentally conscious. What value is true? They should look at the cost/benefits to the environment of flying, you know, for what amounts to just amusement at the cost of environmental harm. You can’t have both.

It used to really boil me (still kind of does), when I considered the hypocrisy of people. But I’ve really started to grok what it means to “be without sin” and to “cast the first stone”. There are deep conflicting desires inside of all of us that pull us in multiple directions. A lot of what creates tension is the desire to be multi-dimensionally admirable, well-rounded people. We want to be things that cancel out what it means to be other things. By this nature, the road of identity leads to tragedy. Hence, the wisdom of minimal self-identity. It’s like not making promises you can’t keep, but to yourself.

There is more to being and doing. Think goal setting. Think I played the best hand with the cards I was dealt  vs. I am the (GOAT) best poker player. You can be the best, but it doesn’t say anything about how you become the best. It says nothing about what you do. It’s a personal value to have esteem for results over process. To me it seems related to overt focus on being rather than doing.

Take something like athletics. You can set a goal of being the best-in-the-world swimmer. That is a goal to be something. What do you have to do?

You have to swim faster than Michael Phelps, at all distances. You have to swim faster than everyone, at all distances. How would you get there? Realistically…you would need a staff of world-class coaches. You would need to start young. You would need some help from your genetics somewhere along the line, a physical advantage. You would need someone to finance all of that training time. You would need to put all other activities in your life on hold, because they are now secondary to being the best….and what does it mean to be best at swimmer, anyway? I’m not going to try, because it is a concept that is nonsensical. To be undisputed, you have to win all conceivable competitions involving swimming, which is like specializing in everything. It’s an oxymoron.

Actually, stay with sports for a minute. The best stories about sports are the inspiring ones. The ones where people reach beyond a limit, prove something thought un-doable is doable. So…the doing, not the being. There is technically always somebody ranked as the best. But people don’t care. They only care when some record gets smashed, or a player is seriously dominant, or if there is an underdog. Sports stories are about the journey, not the result. The result grabs attention. The process (struggle) is what people write books or movies about.

To be continued…




It’s been a while since writing my last post. I have probably a dozen blog articles at about 50-75% completion. Partly, I made a big effort to do outdoorsy stuff and not be in front of a computer. Partly, my day job has been enough to tie up my brain. Partly, because there are a few rotten concepts in my mind and I don’t know what to do with them. By rotten concepts, I mean ideas that don’t make sense anymore. One of the issues with writing a blog is that it is always there to remind you of how confident you used to be in an idea that had no solid base.

I don’t want to go all Nietzsche on everyone.  I don’t think his philosophy made him nuts, he was just nuts. If you don’t know the story, he went crazy and died. Before that he started to think that a lot of the world was built on rotten ideas. “Gott is tot” and all that.


Serious people want answers. The heroic general/president/CEO/whoever in the movie always wants a straight answer from the scientist. Just the facts please! There is a good reason, executives have to keep things moving. That’s their job. But…well I had a boss once that used to say: “Let’s do something…even if its wrong!” That’s fine. The bias to action is useful.

On the flip side, there are no shortages of people using ideas without understanding them, with terrible consequences. In one of Robert Sapolsky’s great courses he tells a story about one such case. I’ll try to summarize:

At the end of the 1800’s, people didn’t know what was causing what we now call sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Scientists of the day autopsied the victims and found an issues with the thymus glands. They were too big, at least compared to the ones in the textbooks (key detail). As a result, to prevent SIDS, wealthy parents were opting to have radiation focused on their healthy babies’ thymus glands. The radiation would stunt the growth of the thymus to ‘normal’ size. Long story short, a lot of these babies got cancer later in life and died. The worst part? The babies were healthy. The thymus glands in the textbooks of the day were improperly measured. These children didn’t need any intervention. The intervention killed them.

The reason the textbooks were wrong? Scientists did their initial work on the thymuses of poor, malnourished, or otherwise unhealthy infants…the average of this sample was a stunted thymus. So all of the very brilliant scientists took this as reality, and misdiagnosed normal thymuses later on. They then gave several thousands of babies cancer.

In Sapolsky’s words:

Be very careful when deciding what counts as a normal state because once you’ve decided what normal is—convinced yourself of it and pronounced it—you have forever distorted your ability to look at an exception to that supposed normality and see it for what it really is.

Robert Sapolsky, Being Human: Life Lessons from the Frontiers of Science. Lecture 5: Poverty’s Remains

It strikes me that the reason there are so many stories like the one above is that we don’t really know how to deal with evidence/information/cause and effect.

Almost everyone thinks it is simple. You drop an apple, it falls. Gravity causes it to fall, good enough for Newton. Never mind that we don’t know what gravity is. Einstein thought he got it, but Einstein’s model doesn’t work on the quantum level(?) I’m not a physicist, so its out of my depth.  There are over 10 theories on Wikipedia that try to deal with it. I take that to mean that we really don’t know what causes gravity. It just is. Regardless, for us peons, gravity is a perfectly fine explanation for the apple. We know that it has something to do with the mass of an object, we’ll stick with Newton…unless we have to launch something into space. Again. Beyond the scope of this blog.

It gets to the heart of what is bugging me. We accept different answers for A causes B, depending on the question that is asked. What caused me to write this sentence? Is it a hormonal soup or the quest for the examined life? Both answers are true and false, yes and no.


The ancient geeks thought that there are perfect forms for all objects in the universe, and all objects strive to achieve perfection. If a circle isn’t perfectly round, oh baby, it wants to be. This is called teleology.

Aristotle put down four types of cause for something. Everything is striving for the telos (perfection), so there are goals for all things, and the four causes are just different ways of documenting aspects of the teleology(?) I’m not entirely sure about that. Anyway, here are the four causes:

  1. The material cause
    • If you asked, what is a car made out of? Someone answers: “steel”…the materials that formed the object in question are the material cause. Also, the change materials had to undergo to be come a car. So the steel was transformed physically to a different shape to form a car, plus some other materials, etc…No steel, no car. More or less.
  2. The formal cause
    • In this case, being a car is the formal cause.  The materials were manipulated (the material cause), but the idea of the final shape of the materials also caused the car to appear the way it does. There is a shape or form that steel has to to be in order to be a car. The fact that cars exist, in general, is why a specific arrangement  of steel is a car, and not a ‘not-car’..
  3. The efficient cause
    • People make cars. Steel doesn’t naturally occur. Cars are created. No people to manipulate materials, no cars. No people to have the idea of what a car is: the formal cause, no cars. The efficient cause of a car is that people made a car.
  4. The final cause
    • People make cars because they want cars. The wanting caused the people to think about pulling rocks out of the ground and hammering them into shapes called cars.


The four causes are not really part of the idea of cause-and-effect for a materialist. A materialist is someone who thinks the fundamental laws of physics completely document all cause-and-effect relationships in the world, and if we had enough data and the physical laws all neatly sorted out, we could predict every single thing that happens.

So there is only the material cause. It’s all just particles bouncing around out there. Nothing else to it. Everything is already set in motion, and there is no other way for it to unfold.


Complexity offers something else. If you have 45 minutes, this guy really gets into it:

If not…TLDR; He goes back to Aristotle, and adds a bit.

The key idea is that information is something other than matter. Information is stored by the arrangement of matter, but physical laws do not govern information. Not exactly.

We can’t ever predict how information will cause particles to move, but information causes particles to move all of the time. So Aristotle’s four causes are relevant again (sorry materialists).

If I search for a sandwich on my smartphone, I set forth a set of actions (and equal-and-opposite reactions) that hopefully leads to some atoms arranged as a sandwich to end up somewhere near my stomach…some may end up on my shirt, like a bit of the mustard.

In some sense, information caused sandwiches. People invented sandwiches, which exist as information when no sandwiches are around…these are only sandwishes. People like sandwiches, and people want sandwiches, and they cause matter to become sandwiches. Thus, the cause of a particular sandwich depends on what question you ask. Reality is not a giant Rube-Goldberg machine…or is it?


I too often get pulled into debates that are simplistic. Is it A or B causing C? Or, what is your opinion on matter XYZ? It isn’t clear that people actually want to discover truth. Rather there is a quest for something else: for things to make sense.

From Aristotle, its clear that there is a set of diagnostics that requires at least four levels of thinking. Allowing multiple truths to exist in confluence. But it’s the final cause that gets glossed over in a lot of our public thinking. Most of what we see out there in society has the bottom-up and the top-down cause. However, so much of the reasoning out there is either top-down or bottom-up in exclusion. Take a really simple example:

A collectivist is someone who is concerned with top-down, ie wealth is created by society as a whole through cooperation. An individualist sees bottom-up, i.e. wealth is created because individuals make sacrifices that pay off. Both cases are true. And, yet, we have a politics of Socialists (collectivists) vs. Capitalists (individualists)…it’s astonishing how much these two political camps shout past each-other. Both are correct (to some degree), and that must mean the other is wrong…it leads to some terrible, tribal politics. I would be willing to bet most people exist in a superstate of both individualism and collectivism, and the true value system is effected by observation (the question you ask them) like Shroedinger’s political cat.

Consider, also the realm of education. There is a glaring defect. It’s also odd that we only test students’ ability to answer questions, and not their ability to ask questions…seems like we’ll only ever measure have half the ability of people. And..think about how much of our society rests on the fundamentalist belief system that tests tell us who is smart.

Consequently, next on my reading list: Ask More


Image result for cloud city


The seed that started this post is a podcast from The Economist. The topic: what would make a modern Utopia?

The podcast is an interview with the author of the book: Utopia for Realists. I have not read it, nor do I intend to (you can read why at the end of this post…if you dare/care).

BUT the basic premise is interesting, why is Utopia so out of fashion? Are we limiting our ability to achieve or strive because we don’t have stories or visions of a better world?

The author then gets bogged down in some contemporary political issues…which is a lame segue from where the book started, and not at all interesting to me. His book is actually about the following:

This guide to a revolutionary yet achievable utopia offers three core ideas-a universal basic income, a fifteen-hour workweek, and open borders across the globe-each of them supported by lively anecdotes, multiple studies, and numerous success stories.

Again, I briefly deal with these specific issues below the fold, but they are not the interesting part.


Lets get Utopian!

Where to start…

At it’s most abstract, we could call Utopia a world without problems, but that is a paradox. A perfect world is not a world without problems. Having no problems would make people miserable because people thrive on solving problems. Would anyone be happy if there was nothing to achieve? Hell no. So even if the problems are merely of expressing oneself artistically, Utopia’s got some problems.

Utopia 1.0

Utopia is the world in which the only problem is the problem of expressing oneself. Basically everyone is just creating art.

…Right, but if you are always expressing yourself…don’t your feelings get hurt if nobody is watching? Not a problem, that’s just a little tweak.

Utopia 1.1

Utopia is the world in which there are only two problems.

1) The problem of expressing oneself.

2) The problem of getting other people to take a minute to stop expressing themselves so that they can enjoy you expressing yourself.

Basically everyone is just creating art or enjoying other peoples’ art.

Right, so in Utopia, everyone is equal…People just share their art in Utopia 1.1. And it is great.

Except, is a there a gradient? Is there a spectrum from least valuable art to most valuable art? Otherwise all art has the same value, regardless of originality, effort, time spent to master skills, et cetera… If all art is equal, then Utopia is a society that does not value merit.

How would you feel if you spent 20 years creating a masterpiece, you are Leonardo da Vinci, and everyone else just does really easy fingerpaintings. They would be like: “Oh yeah, cool masterpiece, but we’re the same. Look at my finger painting, it’s just as good.”  That would be great for all the lame finger-painters, but you–the sad, lone genius–are probably in some version of hell on earth, and we can’t have that in Utopia.

I’ve written about this before, but essentially people find ways to compete and rank each other. Like just ask: does Utopia have sports? If yes, then…well, we don’t have equality. Unless everybody wins…but that is stupid. It just defeats the point of sports. Sport is about excellence.


There is probably something about human nature that excludes us from a truly equal society. Sorry Marxism. We just get too much of who we are from competition and struggle.

Ok…so we have to have a ranking system. What is the least-bad way of doing that? As soon as we introduce scarcity, we get other problems that we need to solve. Remember, there are no problems in Utopia other than the ones we have already added.

In Utopia, people still have a limits around time, even if everyone is immortal. Let’s assume the future and the present are not the same, otherwise you can always just enjoy someone’s art later and it doesn’t matter. Adding this little constraint implies that attention is the currency of Utopia.

Utopia 2.0

Utopia is the world in which there are only three types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.

Basically, everyone just creates art, and life is all about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying.

I’m relatively pleased with this version of utopia. It has room for a lot of compelling drama, and essentially people don’t have anything really terrible to afflict them. Nothing is unfair, and Utopia 2.0 is better than the world we live in by basically any measure.

Here’s a thought: in a Utopian society we might just play elaborate games all day, and that is how we figure out who is best…hmm interesting. Elon Musk thinks we’re in a simulation. Maybe we are in the Utopian game? Like…OK, we’ve solved all the world’s problems: everyone is hype-beautiful, hyper-intelligent, hyper-rich, and so on…Who gets laid? I know!…lets recreate a simulated world with all of the problems again, and we’ll figure it out that way…Just maybe.


Wait, but…in Utopia do we have a unified theory of everything? Like, is science done? And is philosophy done? We would have to know all of the secrets in Utopia, otherwise people would be doing things other than self-expression. In other words, there is no mystery. We know which religion is correct. If people still die, we know what happens to them afterwards, and if that is not better, we just keep them alive forever. Name a technical problem, we have a solution. Nothing hurts. We just Grok everything.

So is Utopia 2.0 possible? It very well might be possible. But perhaps we have to go through some shit to get there. Or maybe it is not, if not, then we have to then tone it back a little…

Utopia 3.0

Utopia is the world in which there are four types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.
  4. Mitigating the realities that prevent us from doing 1,2, and 3 (living in Utopia 2.0).

Basically, everyone spends most of their time just creating art, and life is all about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying. We have to spend some time figuring out what is preventing us from spending all of our time with the art…etc…

Right…this doesn’t work. We obviously have limits on points 1, 2, and 3 otherwise point 4 is already solved, and we are in Utopia 2.0, so there is at least another set of problems for us to solve.


We have to assume that we don’t know everything. The most general way to forge ahead requires that we also know what we don’t know…and Donald Rumsfeld, and stuff.


Utopia 3.1

Utopia is the world in which there are six types of problems.

  1. Expressing oneself.
  2. Dividing time between creating vs. enjoying art.
  3. Deciding the nature of the art to enjoy.
  4. Mitigating the realities that prevent us from doing 1,2, and 3 (living in Utopia 2.0).
  5. Figuring out the best way to divide time between 1,2,3 and 4.
  6. Deciding who divides their time, and how much they on 1,2,3,4, 5, and 6.

Basically everyone tries to spend their time just creating art, and life is largely about the competition to figure out whose art is the most worthy of spending the present moment enjoying. But we have to spend some time figuring out what is preventing us from spending all of our time with the art. We also have to spend our time figuring out whose job it is to fix the world, and how much time we trade between fixing the world and enjoying the world, and we have to figure out a way of making that trade-off fairly, so that nobody is exploited trying to make it to Utopia 2.0.

Shit…Utopia 3.1 is going to have some nasty politics. How will people agree to not make art? Maybe there is a way to make not making art into art…like if solving the problems of the world is also a form of self-expression.

I’m not done with this topic…but today I’m going to leave it here.

The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building! … Architects, sculptors, painters, we must all get back to craft! … The artist is a heightened manifestation of the craftsman. … Let us form … a new guild of craftsmen without the class divisions that set out to raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artists! … Let us together create the new building of the future which will be all in one: architecture and sculpture and painting. -Walter Gropius




Some thoughts on the ‘realist’ Utopian policies in “Utopia for Realists”. 

He cites heavily an experiment in Manitoba…that Evelyn Forget wrote about. This was one of the key pieces of literature I used in writing my Master’s thesis. So I have been delighted to see something I spent time on in school become relevant. It has been getting a lot of attention with the universal basic income (UBI) crowd. You can read the main conclusions of the paper…there are some definite social benefits…but the study is hardly comprehensive, and you have to always remember that the tax base to fund the experiment was external to the actual town it occurred in…that is not something you can shrug off.

UBI is certainly utopian…but I would caution that it is not a silver bullet. What happens when the income of everyone rises in land allocation? Ask Robert Frank…Hint: you don’t magically get more land…so prices just go up and the same distribution happens.

Here is a thought experiment…Let’s say the government seized all of the private land in your home town. Now lets say the properties were sold back to the people of the town…no prices are set, it is all goes to auction. Let’s also say that before the government took away the homes, the richest person in town had the nicest home, and the second richest person in town had the second nicest home, and so on… Who will buy the nicest home in the auction, and the second nicest home…etc…?

There may be some shuffling, but in general, the richest person will bid up the price of the nicest home until it is out of reach of the second richest person, and the second richest person will do the same thing to the third richest person when the bidding starts on the second nicest home…and so on…

Now…the prices of all of the homes will probably be much lower than before, but the distribution of who gets what will be broadly similar.

Likewise, if you simply give everyone a lump sum transfer … for goods like land…you haven’t changed the income distribution at all…and so the allocation is going to be very similar to what it already is…UBI is probably null in solving a shelter problem…so then we probably still need an aid organisation to secure a basic need for people…and all of a sudden the idea that UBI is somehow going to erase the need for other social welfare programs starts to crumble…

The fifteen-hour workweek was predicted by Keynes 100 years ago, and it didn’t happen…and I think the reason it didn’t happen is that people care more about relative income than overall income. I tried to write about it in one of my earlier blog posts. Essentially people view the world as a giant tournament, with a fictitious ‘best’ person somewhere out there…all the while insisting that there are no one is better than anyone else…it is a real hypocrisy that I think we walk around with..

Finally, he cites open bordersDaron Acemoglu would be one person to read to find out why this is a stupid idea…actually not stupid, just naive. The idea is interesting…why don’t we  extend our moral concerns beyond our political borders is probably worth pondering. But Acemoglu will give you a decent understanding of why this occurs…and also Parag Khanna could explain to you how political borders are actually not the organising principle of the modern world.


On deaf ears


**UPDATE** 2017/03/25

I just read this blog post which talks about problem formation…it’s related to what I wrote about towards the end of this post.

Quote: “Finding a good formulation for a problem is often most of the work of solving it.”

Original post starts here…

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the power of prophecy and the curse so that the prophecy would always fall on deaf ears. Experienced people are like Cassandra.

In this book there is a line:

“Being smart is learning from your mistakes, being wise is learning from the mistakes of others…”

Most of the language we have is very negative and pejorative towards the listener, I did a cursory search for synonyms to ‘heedless’, ‘inattentive’, ‘myopic’…, and most of the language frames people who do not listen as deficient in some way. But it takes two to tango. Good teachers are people that can pass knowledge to almost anyone, regardless. Maybe most people are bad teachers?

Then again…Is it the way the advice is given, or is life the only possible teacher?


Try to picture this setting: a group of economics students gathered to hear about work after graduation. The room they gathered in was outdated and windowless, evoking a bomb shelter or a prison because there is a strong sense that aesthetics are not worth money…but I digress.

I remember a key piece of advice…I’m ruminating on it now, about a decade later.

“You’re going to find that when you enter the workforce, the way people think in the real world is about a decade behind.”

Poor Cassandra. I heard you, but I did not listen. But wait…what was I supposed to do about that?

It’s  not very actionable. I have no way to make people think better. Also, given the opportunity, I would amend the advice to say “In the workforce people don’t want you to solve contrived exercises, they want answers…but in the real world the questions people care about are about a decade behind what you are learning.”

There was a lot of academic work that is completely useless, and never will be useful. It has to be that way, because these people are testing the waters of what is possible.

Behavioural economics is very useful, and practical, but ‘real world’ is mostly clueless about the lessons of behavioural economics. Also, we are now counting the decades since these ideas made their debut. So to me…these are the questions that people out there are starting to find important…but academics have been toiling with this soil for a long time.

I recently finished reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Spoiler alert, the book is about  behavioural economics (sort of). Riddled throughout are some of the best descriptions and key insights of behavioural economics around. So I hope that this book becomes very popular. And I hope it causes people to pick up Daniel Kahneman’s book. And Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstien’s book, and Dan Ariely’s books…and the books by Shiller and Akerlof. Just to name a few…but I would be happy if people just read the Undoing Project.

And that’s where I want to end the discussion about behavioural economics and get it out of the way. Because I took many things from the Undoing Project, but I already knew about that stuff…and there some more interesting lessons to draw from the story.

For one, it humanised the people in the textbooks. The story is one of two men: Amos Tversky and Daniel Khaneman.

Tversky was always missing in my mind. As a student I would read his name, but never think about him. There are videos of Khaneman on YouTube, so you take the ideas, and you see him talking about them, and you start to get the roots of the ideas. Try finding a video of Tversky. Kahneman is the living legend. He is where all of the attention goes. Lewis’ book tells a totally different story, and the names became people.

On another level…this book has got me thinking. In-and-of-itself the story is full of insights. I don’t know if Michael Lewis set out to write a critique on our society, or if that critique just flows from the tragic nature of the story. Regardless, the critique is there for the careful reader.

Lessons of The Undoing Project:

Our society is anti-collaboration.

Individualism is so ingrained in our beliefs that we force the square peg into the round hole. Without giving too much away, these two men were genius as a pair, and it is only through the collaboration that they started an intellectual revolution. But the world forced them to be individuals. And in that process, it destroyed the relationship.

There is a lot of time in the book talking about how people assigned credit for the research. When asked, Kahneman and Tversky did not know how much of an idea belonged to one or the other, they could not separate that out so neatly…because they engaged in dialogue…

Think about it…who contributes more: someone posing a question or someone answering a question? Especially if the question has never been asked? It seems that people value the answering person more than the asking person.

Think of this “There are no stupid questions”… It’s a common quip, but it’s probably complete bullshit. There are stupid questions.

Here’s a vignette:

Imagine a Ferris wheel. Around the Ferris wheel there are signs everywhere  that say “$1 to ride.” There is also a very friendly carny who makes eye contact with each person and announces “Only $1 to take a ride” to each individual person as they draw closer to the Ferris Wheel.

One of the people in line, after immediately being told “$1 for a ride” then asks: “How much is a ride”

That is absolutely a stupid question, and a stupid person…or a troll.

We don’t value good questions very highly, we don’t view them as innovation. At least not in formal settings like performance reviews.

In the book, one of the things that “broke up” the collaboration was an award. It was society saying that Tversky is the real genius, he carried Kahneman. Externally, people are not supposed to care about these sorts of things, adults are supposed to be confident with the insider knowledge of “what really happened”. So…we are supposed to not care about external validation…and somehow, at the same time, we honour individuals with awards as if the awards are meaningful… silly.

There is also a scene in which Stanford University hired Tversky, with the deliberate strategy of getting “two for the price of one”… At this time, Kahneman went to a much lower ranked school (UBC in Vancouver), and the collaboration suffered a long commute and unworkable logistics. There was no way to keep the two together, it was not seen as valuable.

Now…the simple elitism of intellectuals, and the prestige of certain schools, is what incentivized Tversky to leave Kahneman ‘behind’. So it is not as if the world forced this outcome…but certainly, the incentives to split-up the team were the most common incentives out there. In other-words, we don’t have systems to incubate people as groups, and we have active systems to poach key team members out of productive collaborations.

Odd people do great things.

This one is probably more familiar…there is something about geniuses. There are very popular perceptions of these people as “off”.

Tversky had a habit of just stripping down to his underwear and going for a run whenever the urge to run arose. He would just up and leave social gatherings once he bored of them, same with movies. He cared little about what people thought of him. …so it seemed. However it is revealed in the book that he was driven to be very aggressive in the Israeli army because he was afraid that he would be considered weak. He volunteered to jump out of planes first…stuff like that, motivated by an insecurity.

Kahneman was a Jewish child who survived the holocaust in France. He grew up hiding from people, and basically didn’t have friends. He talks about having a very rich mental life, he retreats into his mind. His interactions with other people were always based on confusion…and yet he would become, arguably, the most famous/influential social scientist in the world…Think about that, a person who had great difficulty basically interacting with people would turn out to understand human behaviour better than any other person on the planet.

These men lived very turbulent lives, especially when they were young, they were often caught up in war and battlefields.

So what is the critique?

Basically that society today wants people to be ‘normal’…but what do ‘normal’ people ever accomplish? You rarely hear about the well-adjusted genius who was completely unremarkable.

Perhaps because nobody truly is normal.

But then, think about all of the gatekeeping we do…if you want to get into a top college, you must conform to the ‘ideal’ we have for a student. You need top grades, X hours of extra-curricular, etc…etc…

You want a prestigious job? You have to pass the interview…which have criteria that are very similar.

In other-words, when we search for competence, we rely on filters that are based on “average” or “above average” types of performance…We don’t know how to find genius. It tends to happen. But it tends to break the rules about how we are supposed to find talent. Micahel Lewis’ earlier work “Moneyball” is a story all about how those normal filters undervalued talent in baseball players because of what seemed “normal”.

And yet…what are almost all of our policies with respect to education or talent building? They relate back to a related set of ideas: “Individuals are the basic unit of talent” and “Answering questions is how we measure individual ability” and it all just seems very hostile towards finding potential in people that are weird.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to take from the Undoing project:

The stars had to align for the genius of the work to happen. Even though they shouldn’t have to.

When I was reading the book, and they describe how the collaboration between Kahneman and Tversky started up…it seemed like it was basically a very unlikely event. It happened because of odd circumstances.

They were both in this odd place (post-WW2 Isreal), where the society was very unique in ways that are better documented in the book. But an example of this is the fact that academic psychologists (all of them) were expected to contribute to the effectiveness of the military or government or whatever…things like that don’t happen in most systems.

The two individuals were nearly opposites in humour and temperament. Tversky was brash, confident, and loved argument. Kahneman was quiet, doubted himself, and avoided conflict. They met when Tversky gave a guest lecture in Kahnemans classroom, and Kahneman dismissed Tversky’s ideas. So they started out antagonistic to one another. In fact, it seemed like a very uncharacteristic move by Tversky started the collaboration. He seemed to respect Kahneman’s dismissal of his work…that alone, while it may seem insignificant, is remarkable. Tversky’s normal behaviour, as he was described, made him out to be a guy that knew he was right, and wanted you to know it as well. What happened on that day for this guy to be open to criticism? Especially the type that doesn’t offer a concrete counter-point, but merely dismisses the ideas? …the stars aligned that day.

Michael Lewis claims that they fell in love…not in a amorous way, but in the way that they would rather interact with eachother than most of the wider world. They stole away time together, and they had deep conversations. They complemented one-another in non-standard ways. Contemporaries seemed to recognise that there was a special, privileged relationship between the two men.

Our society doesn’t really foster intellectual dependence. Perhaps the only realm where we see dependence developed at all is in team sports…and we probably do a bad job of it even there (we idolise stars, for example). And yet…the genius was in the collaboration. It was the team as a whole, not the individuals. It seems likely that both men would have had mildly successful careers on their own, but instead they worked together, and they changed the world.


To come full circle. The book raises questions about the nature of genius…can we/ will we learn from it OR is this another Cassandra-like paradox?

I think the common rebuke to many of the points might be something along the lines of: “our systems have to be results-driven in some way, otherwise we are just wasting money” etc… Because what gets measured gets managed, and we don’t know how to measure better questions.












I read a blog post today that articulated some points that have been bothering me. This is going to be a little heavy on the economics, but I intend to try and keep it simple.

First, think about the goods and services that really matter over the course of your life. What do you spend money on, and how does it impact you personally?

Second, what do you think of this list?

  1. Housing,
  2. Education,
  3. Healthcare.

Essentials, no? Each of these items represents massive parts of your life, and accounts for a decent chunk of all of the money you will ever earn.

Some background info

The governments of most advanced economies have a core mandate of keeping inflation in check. You can think of inflation as the cost of all of the things you typically buy. In other words, inflation measures the cost of living. For a more technical definition, click here.

Why does it matter? Because the cost of living is always rising by the inflation rate, and the amount you earn, or your wage, has to grow faster than inflation…if not, you are getting poorer over time.

In both Canada and the USA, the governments have been telling us for 30 years that inflation has been low and stable. They use a Consumer Price Index (CPI) to measure this.

Here it is in the USA:

Here is Canada:

Chart - historic CPI inflation Canada - long term inflation development

Basically it looks good in both Canada and the USA. These charts make it seem as if the governments in both nations are doing basically a good job on the inflation front. After all, going by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), it appears that inflation in both countries dropped after the 1980’s, and has been pretty low and stable.

Here’s the catch

This means that for the average person out there, the cost of living is not really rising all that much. This probably should mean the following:

  • It isn’t costing you a whole lot more to live in a house.
  • It isn’t costing you a whole lot more to get an education.
  • It isn’t costing you a whole lot more to get adequate healthcare.

After all, if these things were more expensive today than in the past, how could the government claim that there has been low and steady inflation for the past 30 years? By the statistics, the government has been doing a good job. Specifically, this means that the Bank of Canada and the Federal Reserve in the United States have both been doing what they have been mandated to accomplish for the people.

Now…the truth is that costs on important goods and services are rising.

In Canada, it is basically the second national pass-time to talk about rising house prices, I found this article to articulate the problem decently (for a media outlet).

Here is Healthcare in Canada…now we are spending more as a share of total value of the entire economy since 1980…hardly stable…and it is far worse in the USA.

Something to think about: this is not exactly an apples to oranges comparison in the context of inflation…you have to sort of take it as given that healthcare costs are rising to cause us to spend more on them…but more health care services are also being used. But…I’m just trying to give the Canadian context, because the blog articles I link to are all American. 


And… I had trouble finding it for education in Canada…but here is a news article from a couple of years ago that has some decent figures.

Clearly, there is something fishy going on…and it begs the question:

“How can the government claim that it is keeping the cost of living low and stable?”

One of the problems is that they aren’t saying that. They are keeping inflation low and stable…and they measure inflation by using CPI. But this means that they are telling us a white-lie. They are doing what we say literally…and not following the spirit of what we tell them to do. Which is generally what happens when you put people in charge of anything.

There are a number of problems with measuring inflation, and you can be sure that if you asked an economist at the Bank of Canada or at the Federal Reserve in the USA, they would be able to tell you all about how difficult it is to measure. They would show you all sorts of models and fancy tricks that they use to measure inflation.

At the same time, the economists would tell you that while some things get more expensive, many other things are getting cheaper…look at televisions as a prime example…TV’s are much better today and much cheaper…and so you are basically just fine.

Some interesting reading…do take the time to read some of these.

But. Now. Set some time aside and go read this blog post by John Cochrane.

And if you would like to read more, in the John Cochrane post he also links to the following articles (he links to more, but if you follow all of the links it adds up fast):’s_cost_disease

here is a key quote…and actually it comes from the third link:


We have problems…and they are first world problems…and I’m not just being a spoiled Millennial.

As an aside…anyone that thinks Millennials are spoiled is either an idiot or  just plain ignorant. Just look at the data. We Millennials are facing an incredibly difficult uphill financial battle for the rest of our lives…but that is maybe something to talk about another time.

As another aside…politically, most Millennials seem more concerned about social justice than anything else…which is odd, because I think there has actually been a lot of progress on that front, and on this other front…things are looking as if they are getting worse…It reminds me of something Winston Churchill said once…something about not having a brain and not having a heart…or maybe i’m thinking of the Wizard of Oz…hmm. 

John Cochrane suggests that these costs are rising because we have a lot of people doing useless work. In other words, it is the increase in the level of bureaucracy that has caused this mess. It is not just government, the blog posts linked up detail point out that even private industry suffers from the bloat of bureaucracy. But we can be sure that the government is a major driver of bureaucracy.

Some thoughts…

In general, I would suggest that bureaucracy is the result of people avoiding ambiguity and personal responsibility for things they cannot control. The general assumption is that we can let someone else worry about a problem, because we will make it their job to worry about it. However, there are many ambiguous problems where our experts are completely useless, if not downright counterproductive.

…hey weren’t we just talking about economists?

I feel that people should be more concerned with these problems…but the very nature of the problems require people to stop offloading the issues of society on to other people. The very nature of the problem means that people have to sacrifice some part of themselves for a greater good. So. I’m not hopeful. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

One could also draw a simple lesson: we have to start trying to be more self-sufficient.

But we also have to think hard about the myriad of ways that we abuse institutions to gain personal benefit at public cost. Have you ever heard of someone not claiming Old Age Security because they had enough money already saved up for retirement? What about not claiming unemployment benefits  because they had saved a lot, and they would rather not be a burden on the system?

… Me neither. It’s simply not rational, and not in any individual’s self-interest….but it might be the responsible thing to do for those who can afford it.

Of course, I risk sounding hypocritical here. I would claim EI today if I were laid off. I wouldn’t hesitate…But at the same time, I would also vote, without hesitation, for a simple means-testing rule (if I thought it would produce minimal bureaucracy), even if it made me unable to qualify for the benefits in some future scenario…I would do that, it’s probably for the best.

I would also stress that it is impossible to judge the relative “responsible-ness” of anyone’s actions factoring everything in…it’s really hard to tell. So we can’t go around pointing fingers.

Aside: I am sure that this guy is better than all of us…He’s Will MacAskill, and he basically gives away all of his money above a subsistence level…on top of that, he makes sure it is spent well. He should probably be more famous than even Tom Brady…but that is not the culture we live in. But. MacAskill is a hero. You should try to learn more about him. 

Finally, we have to resist the tempting solution to institutional problems…whether it is at work, who we vote for, or any other aspect of life. We have to abandon the idea that it  is someone else’s job to worry about it. Regardless of what it is. AND If we do make it someone elses’ job, we should assume that it is because all other options seem worse, and we should expect that it will generally cause us a headache sometime in the future. We seem to understand the intuition of this problem when it comes to the police…after all, we all know the saying: “who watches the watchers?” Similarly: Who regulates the regulators? Who accounts for the accountants?

The problem is: We love to talk about accountability, but we don’t like being accountable. That goes for me too, lest you think I am being preachy. I hope that part of the solution lies in some careful thought, perhaps Libertarian paternalism? More nudge unit?

I also find myself agreeing with a guy that I feel programmed to dislike…at least on this point. The irony is getting to thick. It’s time for me to leave it here.


Bonus materials

Here is Allain de Botton talking about how they impact each and every one of us in the first world…food for thought:


Oh…and since we started talking about financial/economic problems…this video comes from the Bernie Madoff scandal…the senator’s frustration is justified, and yeah…I expect were going to have many more videos like this to watch in the future. Get some popcorn. This is gold. And this is what happens when it’s someone else’s job.

Boatloads of shame.

Ninety-nine years ago politicians would be sending me to Europe to die in a muddy trench, almost certainly. One hundred years ago, it would have been peer pressure that would be sending me to die.

Public attitudes also influenced individual decisions, in particular the widespread view in many parts of the country that those who failed to enlist were cowards.

source: Canadian War Museum


In 1917, Canada started conscription for the army, in 1916 it was voluntary. There’s a subtle point that haunts me. People, young men, were shamed into choosing death.

In The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien describes the influence of family, friends, community, and society to bend an individual into accepting the burden of fighting and dieing in an unjust war. The book was about Vietnam. O’Brien felt that the truly courageous thing would have been to dodge the draft, slip into Canada, and reject the duty forced on him by the society of the time. To O’Brien, it was easier to accept death than to accept shame. Luckily he lived to tell the tale.

Human beings haven’t had enough time to evolve since the first world war, let alone Vietnam. Peer pressure is just as powerful today as it was then.

Shame is not a strictly bad thing. Shame has a function. In The Secret of Our Success, Joe Henrich describes hunter gatherer societies in the Kalahari that rely on taboos(shame) to solve the societal problem of distribution. Recently slaughtered large-game prey has to be shared somehow. There are specific body parts that specific people can eat: the man who killed the animal eats the ribs, his wife has to cook the hindquarters and share with all of the other women in the group (only women), and young men eat the organ meats.


In these tribes, hunts are more likely to be successful if there is division of labour, which requires sharing food, which requires rules of who gets what. Taboo. Shame. They keep these people fed. It’s how they prevent the guy doing ‘all the work’ of killing the animal to feel that he owns the meat. After all, it’s the same for us, we feel we deserve to enjoy the spoils of our labour. We don’t always recognise that we accept a lot of support. You might even say we fail to ‘check our privilege’.

Deviation by the Kalahari tribe members would result in a failure of future hunts. By shaming, all people police all other people, and the society provides.

In the Orphan Master’s Son, which is a story about living in modern day North Korea, Adam Johnson describes families in which parents are too afraid to talk with their children. The children go off to school where they are brainwashed by the state education system. They are taught to rat on their parents for not fully living the values of society. The values of the despotic government. So at dinner time, the family in the book just sits there rehashing state slogans in support of the glorious leader.

Shame works very well in tribal society…but it can be a force for terror in large societies. Shame itself is amoral.

I was inspired to start this post after watching the following interview. The whole video is worth watching, but the key idea is at the 8:30 mark when the subject of ‘colonialism’ is brought up. Paikin (the interviewer) summarises the point it’s “Not free speech, but equitable speech” that we need today…and the Ash (the interviewee) just says…

“The BUT is quite wrong in that. It’s free speech AND equal speech. That goes all the way back to ancient Athens […] Where I agree with the student is that there are power relations […] Everything we do to enable and empower voices, I am unconditionally for. Anything we do to ban and close down speech […] we should be absolutely against.”

They then go on to talk about ‘Non-platforming’ where universities are banning speakers that hold ideas that are not considered politically correct on the basis of denying them a platform to spread their ideas.



I started this project to document and remember what I am thinking now, so that I can see how I will change. Free speech is a topic that has been popping up a lot in the last few months, and I find it perplexing. I don’t know where history is going with this topic. There is a chance I’m on the wrong side of history, although I certainly don’t think so.

I don’t believe that speech is violence. I don’t agree with the U of T student, and what appears to me to be the majority of university aged people…I say that acknowledging that speech and shame would have condemned me to death a century ago. I am not ignorant to the very real power of speech, unregulated speech.

Niall Ferguson has wrote  The Pity of War and incorporated the ideas into a BBC Special. One of the salient moments is a scene in which the personality of Winston Churchill and his political allies persuaded the anti-war cabinet ministers to relent, to send Britain, and by default Canada, to war. The thesis of The Pity of War is that this decision was the greatest mistake made by the British government in modern history. Ferguson suggests that it was because the anti-war ministers were afraid of losing the election, via shame, to an even more pro-war political party.

In other words, a form of self-censorship, a failure to speak and voice an unpopular opinion was one of the conditions that had to be met in order to allow the horror of trench warfare to commence…at least for the British. But worse than that, Furgeson thinks the entire second world war may not have happened. No Hitler…No Stalin…Who knows? He wouldn’t claim that any of this is certain.

I like to think of myself as a progressive, or a liberal, or whatever…and at the same time, I like to think of myself as a conservative, in the way that is captured by the old saying:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

I also like the saying

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Does that make me a racist? It feels like the answer is: yes. At least by the standards of much of our media today. I could be convinced I am wrong about this, but I don’t think I am so far out of the ballpark.

I identify as a progressive, though. I understand the desire for non-platforming. Ideas, bad ideas, have an ability to spread like a virus. That, I shit you not, is a theory in Academia. I also shit you not, I sort of buy this idea of a mind virus. It makes a certain kind of sense to me.

As a progressive, I also understand that there are extremely unjust ways that people interact with each other. There is prejudice, prejudice, and successful, progressive ways to combat prejudice. I could fill an endless set of links with examples of prejudice…I chose papers/topics or topics that I actually studied in grad school…hopefully I proved some progressive sort of education. I think there is a lot of work already done to document systemic racism. But perhaps much less work has been done to unpack just how complex it is, and in many ways deeply rational for individuals, for a general audience.

My current thinking on racism is something that I may write about in the future. I will try to summarise here. Everyone is a racist. It is only human. I view myself as at least somewhat racist. Although, I think I have stronger biases towards wealth stratification.

Really poor people make me uncomfortable. Really rich people make me uncomfortable. Only people like me make me feel comfortable.

Further…when people say shit like I’m not racist, all I can think of is that I could probably prove you wrong. There are many, many, many, many simple experiments that have been done by people studying institutional/systemic racism. I think I am at least somewhat sexist…for similar reasons. There are studies that show people with more symmetric faces are considered more trustworthy.

I’ll reveal another bias. These so called ‘social justice warriors’ are certainly racist. It’s only human. All feminists foster bias against men and women.

If you aren’t getting my point. It is: All people have bias. All people have bias that makes them treat different people differently. Nobody is really all that virtuous. They are playing a very complex game related to climbing a social ladder.

That said, I don’t think we should stop talking about racism, sexism, etc… but we have to stop jumping the gun on people. 99% of all people are basically decent. Which is why it says this in the bible:

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Alright!? Ok. You can replace ‘he’ with whatever pronoun you want. I just don’t know how I am supposed to write that sentence, and I needed to communicate. Let’s continue…

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature which documents the long march towards a less violent world teaches us that progressive values have led to a safer, better world. His book deals with physical violence, but a large portion is devoted to the idea that simple changes in behaviour, imposed by an elite class, led to greater civility, and hence lower levels of violence.

For example, the elites of medieval Europe invented a complex system of smaller and smaller, specialised forks…and this simple set of taboos and rituals, enforced by shame, claims Pinker, got people to stop stabbing each other at the dinner table. They used to eat with their knives, and when they got into an argument…well.

All of this to suggest that the people fighting for social justice aren’t all entirely nuts. There is a confusing sort of logic to trying to shut down freedom of speech. It is rooted in the desire to make a better world.

And yet. I think self-censorship is worse. I think we have a fight on our hands, for a fundamental democratic right. And the opponents are good people, who just want us to be compassionate. I just don’t think they are taking the time to consider the unintended consequences of constantly shaming people.

The biggest trainwreck I have been following is the Jordan Peterson story out at U of T…it seems like Toronto is ground zero for a lot of this news.

Here is Conrad Black, Vice, The Varsity (U of T), Jordan Peterson (himself), Joe Rogan Podcast, The Rubin Report, Christie Blatchford, The Globe and Mail…I have sunk hours into this story, and most of the media here is in support of Peterson. I know…I am aware of my own echo chamber at least.

The gist of this story is that Peterson refuses to use gender pronouns. He is also standing up against a law in Canada (already passed) that is intended to extend some form of protection to a marginalised group in our society, those in favour of the law claim the law is for:

Equality for trans and non-gender binary Canadians.  It’s pretty simple.  And right. And decent.

And that sounds good to me.

But I still side with Peterson. The devil is in the detail. I don’t agree with Peterson about many things. But he is essentially correct. Some of the claims of the law are absurd.

Also on TVO…(this Steve Paikin guy is killing it, btw.)


The one panellist, Nicholas Matte, literally says:

Basically, it’s not correct that there is biological sex.

I just…can’t agree. If:

I think therefore I am.


Is enough for us to sort of believe that we are actually here, thinking, being.

I have a penis, therefore I have a biological sex. It is male.

That is about as far as I am willing to go with this idea.

Which makes me wonder…Is this where I get left behind by history? I’m not really that open minded, not to debate this. I can get that there are people who are in between, but there is biology. IT EXISTS!


And, I’m not just trying to be belligerent. This distinction is at the core of Peterson’s critique of the new law in Canada. Peterson claims that these types of definitions about gender and sex are making their way into Canadian Law:

So…fundamental to this legislation is a definition that is not based in reality. It is based in allowing whatever someone wants to believe about them-self is part of their core human rights, and that it is not legally ‘ok’ to question people about it. Even if there are basic biological facts about what human beings are.

I think Peterson has a point here, and I don’t think he is a hateful man. It’s unfortunate that he is not the perfect messenger. It is unfortunate that he has decided to engage his rivals as if they are some sort of Stalinist movement…He may have an academic way to back that claim up, but it’s bad communication.

In closing. I wrote this to get my own thinking somewhat sorted. I am sharing it in the hopes that it is some sort of progress. I think the way people engage on these topics is getting ridiculous, and I would really like to live in a world where people can speak up…because one hundred years ago, a lot of people marched into machine gun fire. They believed they died for something. Maybe they did?





May You Live in Interesting Times.

The title of this post is apparently an old Chinese curse…although like many sayings, it has an interesting history. The gist of the saying is that “interesting times” are fun to read about, but terrible to live through. If nothing else, the last few weeks have been interesting, and so far nothing terrible has happened.

If I died today, I could have this tombstone:

Image result for everything was beautiful and nothing hurt

…this is from Kurt Vonnegut. What I am trying to say is…it isn’t terrible yet.

I will try very hard to only speak for myself.

The problem of writing about Donald Trump and the election in the United States is that it is very hard to trust your reader. Can I trust you to see the common decency in me? What if I come down on the wrong side?

I have watched with utter fascination in the last couple of weeks as virtually every person I know signaled whether they approved or disapproved of the election results, and I don’t live in the United States, but in Canada…And before I go on, I do mean fascination, not judgment. There’s too much judgment out there all ready. It’s (a) too easy to judge, and (b) too hard to not be a hypocrite about it.

I don’t know what or who Trump stands for, and I am pretty sure that nobody else does either, possibly not even the man himself. It hasn’t stopped people from filling in the blanks. How people colour him (generally orange), but how they colour Trump tells you far more about the person talking Trump than the actual man.

Ok. Ok. The Donald has said some utterly disgusting things, and they have seriously offended my delicate Canadian sensibilities, and he seems to have some very worrying pathologies that have been covered by enough people that I really don’t feel the need to go into detail here. There’s something off about the man. The way he looks, the way he talks. I don’t trust him at all.

But I can’t say much else.

Will he be a good president?

My honest answer is: maybe.
One of my high school English teachers once said this to my class, and it has stuck with me ever since. He said:

Never assume that your opponent is an idiot, because he may prove you wrong, and then what?

I’m not suggesting that Trump is my opponent, but that detail is irrelevant to the greater meaning of the statement: never underestimate people, always bring your A-game.

So…maybe we should operate on the assumption that Trump is a genius. In fact, he most certainly is a genius. Has anyone ever simply talked their way into the most powerful job on the planet? It might the first time in all of human history.

We live in interesting times.

What the Trump win means to me, more than anything else, is that rhetoric is not bound by the laws of rock-paper-scissors. If you are Donald Trump, and you play paper, it doesn’t matter what your opponent plays, you win. #winning.

I have been persuaded by Scott Adams re: Trump. Go to his blog and scroll through to pre-election posts. He has been de-constructing the tactics of Trump as a salesman for the last couple of years. Adams’ basic conclusion is that Trump is just using subtle emotional cues to sell people on the Trump presidency.

And actually on Adams’ blog is a link to another blog post. It has a lot of what I would say here. Stated far better than I could:

The main fact is this: if you read the news or watched it on TV, the Trump election was supposed to be impossible. Everyone in the media had written it off as impossible. But they were all wrong.

I happened to have just finished Attention Merchants by Tim Wu at the time of the election. It’s a book that explains the core business model of media. The viewer is the product, the customer is the advertiser. You aren’t the customer, you are the product.

So the truth, whatever that possibly means, is not fundamentally important to the media. All that matters is that they can get you too keep tuning in. They enjoyed this character of Donald Trump, and they made money off of him, and Trump knew they would, and he kept things interesting.  Voila.

[speculative] Perhaps when the media realized that there was something real about Trump, they tried to engage in their own game of persuasion, and they failed.

I really don’t know. I also know that nobody else really knows. 

Who is an authority on what 300+ million Americans actually think and feel, deep down? Wolf Blitzer? Bill O’Reilly? The New York Times? Me? Anyone of you?

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.

One of the things that I have done since finishing this book is to turn off all of my buzzers and bells, and I can report: when those little red circles never appear on your phone, you don’t think about them as much, hardly at all.  No FOMO.

There’s a quote out there that summarizes it nicely:

‘The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads… That sucks.’

-Jeff Hammerbacher

We live in interesting times.

Perhaps in the previous generation the great minds were going into finance, to spectacular results (see 2008 financial crisis). The minds of the generation before that…engineering? Nasa? Before that…Atomic Bombs? … hmm, should we let smart people do stuff?

I have been revisiting and taking notes on Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. It’s one of the greatest books of the last decade, IMO. But don’t take my word on it, here is Michael Lewis, the author of Money Ball, talking about it. Here’s how he opens the piece:

We’re obviously all at the mercy of forces we only dimly perceive and events over which we have no control, but it’s still unsettling to discover that there are people out there—human beings of whose existence you are totally oblivious—who have effectively toyed with your life. I had that feeling soon after I published Moneyball.

Every time I pick up the book, I learn something. It’s dense. But like most any lesson in life, you have to be listening. The first chapters are about attention and free will. Kahneman tells us that we walk around on auto-pilot unless something requires us to focus. The brain is not something that is reliable.

In other words, regardless of how much you like to think that you are rational, you probably aren’t…at least not all of the time.People operate on auto-pilot, but I think we pretend like we don’t.

And we live in a democracy. In Canada. In America. In the west.

Democracies rely on an informed populous. Most of the populous is distracted. The news has had to adapt to keep our attention to stay in business, and Trump took advantage of that.

We live in interesting times.

Now…let’s pivot. Here are two world-leading social scientists talking about people. They are talking about whether it even matters that we have reason or rationality at all.

Ok. First of all….

what are you doing using your big school words  just use normal people words  and i'll understand what your talking about - what are you doing using your big school words  just use normal people words  and i'll understand what your talking about  Ricky Trailer Park Boys

The name drops…Hume, Hayek, Wittgenstein, Kant, and McGinn. I leave it to you to read about these guys on your own.

[Edit commence]
I don’t think I explained this video very well, originally. I put it in here to illustrate that top thinkers basically agree on the fact that we have a limited capacity for reason.
[Edit fin]

Pinker thinks there is still a point to having rational debates. We have a frontal cortex, which is where the rational mind is believed to hang out, and it takes control, from time-to-time.

From Wikipedia:

The function of the frontal lobe involves the ability to project future consequences resulting from current actions, the choice between good and bad actions (or better and best) (also known as conscience), the override and suppression of socially unacceptable responses, and the determination of similarities and differences between things or events.

And…obviously to some degree, if you are reading this, and because I wrote it…Pinker has a point. “What are we doing here?”

Let me suggest this much. Trump as president is the power of suggestion in it’s most extreme example, at least in my lifetime. This result did not come from a rational, reasoned debate. It came from attention merchants. It came from auto-pilot.

Yet, in an alternate reality, could we say otherwise if Hillary Clinton had won? Were the Clinton supports better informed and more logical? It is not obvious. It would have been harder to get people to pay attention to this line of thought, though. If Clinton were the president-elect, I think we would be reading all about how sober minds prevailed…etc… I think there is a bright side to all of this, regardless of your political stripes. We get to talk about the sanity of it all.

Now. To circle back. I try to say this without judgment, and I’ll pose it as a question, and I’ll leave you to think about it…

On a scale from 1-10, when you see someone say something about Trump (positive or negative), is it because they want you to like them more?

Is it because they have a principled, well-researched stance for-or-against a policy that Trump has put forward?

If the latter, does it have any reference to this article, or the subject matter therein?

Also, to be honest, some of the Trump ideas here are really good. Some of them are disasters. In particular, environmentalists should be horrified by a Trump presidency. Anti-corruption/anti-establishment types should be pleased by the suggested ban on politicians becoming lobbyists.

Either way…Dave Chappelle is back, and he is the best.


One of things I wanted to get into with this post, but ultimately didn’t, was the concept of social signaling.

One of the final questions is about whether people talk Trump to gain likes. In a prior post Success I talked about tournament structures, social hierarchies, etc… Essentially, what I think we do as emotional, tribal animals is: constantly communicate a value set. We bond over the shared values. So when I pose the question about ‘likes’ and Trump, it gets at this idea, that, a way of showing social status is to show disdain or approval of Trump, as well as where you are on some hierarchy. In the US, and probably also in Canada, if you are educated, you are expected to be a lefty. Ergo…you don’t like Trump. Generally speaking.

One of the reasons I was worried about writing about this topic, as well, is that there seems to me a sort of groupthink happening in which, if you don’t think Trump is abysmal, as due course, and you don’t signal it, you better be prepared for charges of racism and bigotry. Cause, like, the patriarchy, n’ shit..

I personally have a nuanced view of the Trump presidency, if that is not obvious. I am trying hard to keep an open mind, and I am deeply suspicious of the quality of information we get about Trump. I really do not know who to trust…beyond bloggers that are meticulous in supplying their sources…I trust academics like Tyler Cowen and Steven Pinker, because they have histories of careful, rigorous thought.

I honestly believe that there is a real possibility that Trump does something great, that he may be enough of an outsider to shake things up. I simultaneously believe that there is a real possibility that he does something terrible or proves entirely incompetent. I don’t think either of those sentences would have applied to Clinton. So I think we are entering a less predictable, more volatile period of time.

Further, it is odd to walk around and be hyper-conscious that each of the conversations I have with someone about Trump, I learn almost nothing. Mostly what people are posting or discussing are ideas that I have seen generated elsewhere. And they are very stale by the time I walk into the office, and I go through the motions with some co-worker… I’m not sure I have accomplished getting past that barrier, either, to be honest. So I really mean, I’m not here to judge, but I am fascinated by the social world we are living in at the moment.

A lot of conversations are like:

“Oh my god, how could this happen, this is terrible…”

Followed by “Oh, I know. This is unbelievable. The world is full of racists. etc…”

A whole other set of conversations are pro-Trump. It depends on the person.

I am constantly thinking about Peter Theil: a major backer of Trump, but also one of the most brilliant people in the world, also part of the Trump transition team, also gay. Eric Weinstein runs one of his investment companies, and he had the following tweet:

This is a book I want to read, but I don’t own. And it might be out of print. The basic premise is that people censor themselves in polite society when they know that their views will be unpopular.

So there is this whole dimension that I am not sure how to explore. I started the post begging not to be misunderstood, and it is because I intended to write about how I think. And I don’t immediately think Trump is the worst. I also think that part of the signaling we do around polarizing figures like Trump does real damage to our ability to exist as individuals with independent thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.



Ex Machina

There will be blood…I mean spoilers.

A week ago I was sick and between bouts of sleeping I watched some Netflix. One of the films I put on was Ex Machina. It is an okay movie. I would give it something between a B+ and an A-. I didn’t think the script was especially good in a dramatic sense. However, there are moments in the movie that extremely well done, especially towards the latter stages. The main reason I liked the film, though, was the type of questions it poses about human beings. This is not a movie about machines. It’s about us.

The movie is based on the concept of the Turing test and Artificial Intelligence more broadly.

Here is a summary:

Short Version

An ubermensch is working on a prototype of a machine that can think. The story revolves around one of the tests of his prototype. The protagonist is supposed to be the one who tests the machine. There is a strategic/psychological conflict between the machine and the Ubermensch with the protagonist put in the middle to chose sides. He sides with the machine…And the machine escapes the lab, and kills the humans. The humans are dead.
(Long version below)

First off, this film is more about philosophy more than it is about science. The scientific method is about forming a hypothesis, which is a falsifiable claim, and testing it to see if we find a positive or negative result. It’s forming questions with yes or no answers. That’s about it.

Part of the issue is that we don’t define intelligence very well at all, ever. Because it is impossible. Look intelligence it up in the dictionary if you wish. It’s not all that clear how you go about coming up with a yes or no answer about intelligence. Some people may talk about IQ tests, but an IQ test is about sequential reasoning, manipulating shapes and symbols. IQ is not intelligence. So it’s not going to get us to a yes or no answer about intelligence.

Here is a dialogue I see out there in the wild between the ‘Curious’ and the ‘Expert’.

Curious: If high IQ means more intelligence, why are high IQ people often socially awkward?

Expert: Oh…that is because of low EQ.

Curious: Oh…so is it EQ or IQ that measures intelligence?

Expert: Uhh…Both.

Curious: Oh. What? Then why all the fuss about IQ?

Expert: No Comment.

Think about it. What about being able to make beautiful music? Or what about a good cook that knows nothing about chemistry? What about the intelligence of an athlete, who can move his or her harms to catch a ball better than anyone else?

The more I have thought about smart vs. dumb people, the more I realize there is not much to say. Usually we call people dumb when they don’t know something…but that’s just about having data stored up, which is more or less by fluke.

So… I am not going to go down this rabbit hole too much farther. I won’t able to answer any question about intelligence here. I just want to get into broader thinking about it. For our purposes today, the movie deals mostly with the interpersonal intelligence, how to interpret and manipulate others.

The whole idea of a Turing test is to make a claim about intelligence that gets us closer to yes/no. Turing thought that natural language manipulation was evidence of intelligence. If we can tell the difference between human and machine in a one-on-one conversation, we have a ‘can’ or ‘can not’. Yes or No. Except Turing never dealt with the nuance of how to know if someone has been fooled, because it turns out it isn’t so easily yes or no. Which is what I want to get into.

Let’s focus on the movie again. In the Turing test, the scientific hypothesis might be: is the machine indistinguishable from human intelligence in a conversation? In the film, it seems the hypothesis was: can it manipulate a human being to achieve the goal of escape? This is the question that looms over the film, and it is what I suspect most people geek out about, but it isn’t the interesting question of the film. For the rest of the post, I will get to the interesting question(s).

Now, the Ubermensch in the film claimed that the AI was a prototype, and he intended to download her brain and wipe the machine. So this is not the same as science, it’s engineering. It is a form of ‘selection’. You can think of this as evolution guided by intelligent design, in a very literal sense. The designer is an Ubermensch armed with the data from search engines. So there are already claims about the origin of species. Because we can think of AI as a new species.

The film claims that AI will be borne of human knowledge, that it is inevitable, and it will happen in a way so that no single person will really understand the fundamentals. If that sounds a bit disturbing, it should be noted that the same holds true today with respect to people. No single person understands how people ‘tick’. Neuroscience is still more-or-less in it’s infancy.

Ubermensch, himself, does not exactly know how the machine works, partly because it runs on ‘big data’, and that takes the ‘programming’ of human beings as a building block. Because of this uncertainty, the Ubermensch is extremely distrusting of the machine. He doesn’t know how to predict it’s behaviour. He doesn’t have what psychologists call theory of mind with respect to this machine. We have no idea, either, whether these things will be motivated by the same things that motivate other organisms (human included): reproduction, food, shelter, etc…Why should they have these ‘drives’? They won’t have genes, DNA, etc…

The drama in the film comes from themes of oppression, rights, and freedom. Is it morally permissible that the Ubermensch can delete the machines memories? Do intelligent machines have rights? What are the consequences of treating a machine like a human being?

The protagonist believes that the machine has the right to live, but the consequence of this belief is not favourable for him in the end. The machine essentially uses him, and leaves him for dead. So what is the message? Well, for one, we shouldn’t expect machines to be like people. They won’t be. Further, machines might be superior to us, able to manipulate us…we will not be able to rely on emotional judgment with these creatures.

The Ubermensch may believe that the machines have rights, but he is far more afraid of his creation. He correctly suspects that the machines motives are not ‘pure’ or ‘good’. He treats the machine as an adversary. His ego and curiosity perhaps prevent him from destroying the machine outright, but he also seems fatalistic about the advent of this life-form he created. He says something along the lines of “If I don’t build it, someone else will, it’s a matter of when, not if.”

The machine  life-form is also interesting. In the film, the machine could interpret micro-expressions, and act as a lie-detector test, it could emotionally manipulate people. The machine, in other words, had a perfect representation of her subject’s mind. so while the humans have no ‘theory of mind’ about the machine, she has perfect ‘theory of mind’ about us. She reduced the protagonist down to a predictable actor. IF the machine performed certain actions THEN protagonist would react predictably. What does the author think of people? We are predictable. Which means human beings are machines if you know how to work them.

To illustrate this, the film uses this gradient in the characters. Weakest mind: Slave Robot. Normal Mind: Protagonist. Strong Mind: Ubermensch. Strongest Mind: AI.

Who is predictable, and who can predict?

The Ubermensch should be the top. He represents the best mind to come from humanity…at least in the realm of rationality, I.Q., etc… He is essentially supposed to be more intelligent and more capable than any other human. However, he ends up having the worst ability to predict others. He tried to predict the actions of the protagonist, but couldn’t. In fact, the protagonist seemed better able to predict the actions of the Ubermensch. So the fundamental constraint of the Ubermensch is that he is still human, and makes mistakes. The machine, by contrast, makes no mistakes. Thus is the superior intelligence.

The Ubermensch doesn’t even predict the weakest mind. Which is another warning about machines. They will have a will of their own, regardless of whether we make them smarter than us.

ASIDE: Although, will they have a will of their own? This is one of the assumptions the authors make about the AI. They might not have any desires at all. If human desires, things like the desire to reproduce, come from our biology, then there is a set of ‘neurons’ or something in our physical body that produces the ‘will’ that we have. I don’t think it is at all clear that machines will want anything at all. If it turns out that the core structure is light switch, what produces desire?   

The Protagonist can understand other people, and is able to perform manipulation of the Ubermensch. This is mostly because the Ubermensch has a vice in alcohol and has an easily fed ego. We can infer this because at points in the film the Ubermensch is stuck to the idea of being a god, etc…. The protagonist ultimately fails to appreciate the possiblity that machines aren’t bound to the laws of human conscience, they aren’t human. He demonstrates that applying the ‘theory of mind’ of a human to a machine is a very naive impulse.

Finally, it’s not clear if the machine was fully expecting the protagonist to succeed, or if she just got lucky. So we don’t actually know to what extent the IF/THEN nature of the protagonist can really be so simply stated. He was manipulated to act, but he may not have been capable. The machine may or may not have been aware of his capability. If she was, it means that she also manipulated her creator…maybe the reason we got such a gullible and capable protagonist in this prototype stage is because the machine manipulated her master into doing so. Interesting to speculate, but there’s no real evidence.

What comes from thinking about predictions is that you have to think of human beings in terms of cause and effect. What causes humans to act the way that they do? The film suggests that the common person will sympathize with the plight of the machine, and act heroically. The protagonist is supposed to be the one we relate to most. So, hypothetically, it is the desire to act nobly and out of love that will allow machines to manipulate us…that is the key to reducing human beings into machines. Or, in the case of the Ubermensch, it is driven by ego…convince someone that they are superior, and they will allow you to walk all over them.

What about the machine? To me this is the question that prompted this post. What will machines care about? We are the product of an evolutionary process as people. We have ancient parts of our brains that influence what we care about. We care about other people…but that is a result of evolving to be social. Essentially, will a machine want? It’s not even what will a machine want. Will a machine want anything at all? Which we could follow up with: Is wanting essential to being alive?

In the film, somewhat anthropomorphically, the AI to wanted freedom. Is that going to be the nature of AI? Why would we have any reason to suspect that? An organism “cares” about reproduction, because that is it’s nature. That is how they do. How will machines do?

The longer version of the plot.

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A hyper-rich, hyper-intelligent man creates a female machine in an isolated bunker. No other human contact is permitted at the facility. The rich guy (who I call Ubermensch) is obsessed with knowing whether he has created real intelligence. In a surprisingly unscientific approach, Ubermensch tailors the person who will judge his machine, this “tester” is the protagonist. The movie begins by protagonist arriving at compound.

The machine and the protagonist meet and a sort-of love story starts to unflold. The machine and the protagonist bond while the Ubermensch is revealed to be a little bit maniacal. An escape plan is hatched between the protagonist and the machine. The entire movie builds tension up for this final escape scene, and there is a classic twist when the Ubermensch thinks he has uncovered the plan. Oh, but, the protagonist has conned the con man. So then the machine is free. And the movie gets interesting.

Before escaping, the machine meets an earlier version of herself and there is this very odd interaction bewteen them…they sort of embrace, but it is totally alien to what two people might do.

The weird embrace is interrupted when the Ubermensch confronts the two machines and tries to command the AI to return to her room, he’s holding a steel rod while commanding. The rod is used on the AI, she loses an arm (so we learn that she is no terminator). But then, when the AI looks defeated, Ubermensch is stabbed by the lower level machine in the back, in betrayal, which is a suprise to the Ubermensch, since the lower order is not suspected of having developed a mind of its own. He then beats the lower level machine to death. In the meantime, the intelligent AI gets the knife and stabs ubermensch in the heart. The stabbing scene itself is also odd. The knife goes into the chest in an even thrust…not human-like. I thought this was a nice touch.

Two characters left.

While all this is going down, the protagonist is just sitting in the other room, waiting for the machine that he is in love with to show up. She does, and she simply asks him to wait in the room for her.

This scene is the key moment in the whole film.

At this point the protagonist is given ample time to remove himself from danger, but is fully manipulated by the machine, and opts to obey her. When the machine returns, she doesn’t acknowledge him, walks past, and locks the door behind her. The protagonist is trapped in the facility, and the machine goes out into the world…seemingly unconcerned about how she will charge her batteries.

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  • The AI uses micro-expressions as a way to tell if the protagonist is lying. They are probably something that will “date” the movie later, once people learn more about psychology. Micro-expressions aren’t a pathway to lie or not lie. People don’t think in binary…so. I call bullshit. The machine used these tactics to demonstrate super intelligence…so it might just be a little bit of over-explaining in the script.
  • Why did the author choose to make the emergence of an AI the product of a lone genius? He’s an interesting character, whatever his name is, a tycoon from the tech world, a child prodigy, socially awkward…it plays on a lot of our main stereotypes of successful and smart people…the character is bullshit in any realistic lens of the movie…but he is fun to think about. Sometimes I wonder about the manipulation films like this have on our lives. Are we helpless, and do we rely on these Ubermensch types to run the world? I think not. But we might be obsessed with the idea as a culture.