FairPlay Canada is Propaganda

A friend emailed me a this:

Bell is petitioning the gov’t for anti piracy website censorship. Sounds like an issue with net neutrality. What do you think?

-friend

I started to reply, and figured it would make a decent blog post.
First and foremost. I have no idea what is going on. So this is my process:

Step 1) What is my reaction?

Net neutrality is good, because otherwise we don’t have freedom. The web will be pay-for-play, and powerful interest groups will control what I will see. If they can control the flow of information, it will bias me, and I’ll end up not being able to think for myself.

This is a little facetious, because I don’t actually believe this. It’s partially true, it’s just that…it’s poorly defined.

Step 2) What are my actual values here?

The golden rule, but aside from that, I worry about: Freedom, Fairness, and Truth (or at least Honesty)*.

There is also the goal of creating institutions that best allow people to reach their own potential. To me this is utopia. However, I don’t know how to get there, and won’t claim to know.

Step 3) Wait…but. What else sticks out from recent readings on net neutrality?

I read this a while ago.

John Cochrane’s blog post on net neutrality

The public and media discussion of “net neutrality” seems to have degenerated to “we want stuff for free.” In the end, it does cost something to deliver internet, and the bandwith is limited.
-John Cochrane

The key claim in the post is something like this: we might have had cell phones in the 1960’s if greater competition was allowed in the market for spectrum.

There’s also Tyler Cowen

Look, he framed it similarly:

Eliminating net neutrality is, in the best and worst case scenarios, either necessary to keep the internet up and running, or will lead to a dystopian future where a few major corporations control our thoughts.
-Tyler Cowen

I have trouble summarizing Cowen, because he is a very nuanced guy. Essentially he thinks it will be OK if net neutrality is lost, because there are enough ways, today, to go around throttled bandwidth. In other words, the net isn’t so easily controlled, other technologies are making it possible to access the net in the old way just fine.

Step 4) Figure out what’s up with the original question. I don’t really read the news, and I only hear of things from conversations, then I investigate.

I quickly googled it.

Lets acknowledge something: the private news companies did a pretty good job on this story, as far as I can tell. Both have a focus on different details, but the bare facts are substantially the same in the first two articles.

CBC, on the other hand, gets a fail. It is part of the coalition, Fairplay, and failed to mention that in their story. They also failed to provide much context beyond the intentions of the lobbying groups. It’s bare facts are correct, but the details are all missing. Makes me a little paranoid, especially considering that CBC is state owned.

As a note, I already have my guard up against CBC, after reading about state sponsored opinion columns recently.

So…I should state that my trust of the CBC is particularly low at this time.

I don’t feel the need to try and read more news, because there are some bare facts in all accounts so far. Here’s what I gather:

  • Some big media companies formed a group called FairPlay Canada.

First, before you do anything else, google FairPlay Canada. When I did it (Feb 3rd 2018) nothing came up. So the media companies absolutely do NOT want their brands associated with this lobbying. That is the first clue that there are less than “honorable” motives here. Ok. Crank up the bullshit detectors, people.

Turns out they do have a website! https://www.fairplaycanada.com/about-us/

But, the fact remains, these are professionals in public relations. They know how to do search engine optimisation (SEO). They specifically chose not to try. The absence of that level of promotion is a little sketchy. Like, try to find this website using google without typing in the url!

It looks like they want limit piracy, and they want the government to do it.

Let’s just take their claims at face value:

“We fully support net neutrality and the free flow of legal content on the internet. This balanced proposal is about stopping illegal acts of piracy to support Canadian programming and Canadian jobs,” Rogers said in an e-mailed statement.

Ok. Now I can start to form an opinion. I’ll outline it in step 6.

Step 5) Read an Op-Ed.

To be fully honest, I’m not going to waste all day on this. I’m just gonna read one opinion. I suspect I know enough about the story to form an opinion. Also, it doesn’t appear that there is so much attention on this story, as to attract a ton of op eds so far.

Michael Geist writes:

While that need not be the choice – Canada’s Copyright Act already features some of the world’s toughest anti-piracy laws – the government and the CRTC should not hesitate to firmly reject the website blocking plan as a disproportionate, unconstitutional proposal sorely lacking in due process that is inconsistent with the current communications law framework.

He has some more details, so if you are interested, go read the article.

Step 6) My opinion.

This is not about net neutrality at all. I view this story this way: these companies want taxpayer money rather than their own money to be spent on protecting a particular business model.

There is a much bigger trend here, and it has been going on for a long time. A lot of people call it disruption or creative destruction. I consider it a win for society, in the grander scheme of things.

These companies have a problem. They don’t know how to make money when people can so easily make counterfeit versions of their shows. There is a real challenge to traditional economics here, though, so this does get rather complicated.

In the econ 101 world, firms produce goods, and compete with other firms, to the point where marginal cost is equal to marginal revenue.

Well, here is the first wrinkle. Marginal cost is basically zero. Copy & Paste costs only the electricity of the computer and the 3 seconds it takes to duplicate a file. Maybe you can add the cost of electricity of downloading it off the network. We are talking about fractions of cents. In the world of econ 101, all of this media should distributed at nearly zero cost.

Of course. Econ 101 is a bizarro land, and we should probably ignore anyone who thinks they have anything important to say when they utter the phrase “Econ 101 says…!”**

The product that people are consuming is actually a copy of something that did have marginal costs to produce. So there is the master film reel or file that contains the content. It seems obvious that content creators have some costs. Yet the fact remains, the distribution is nearly zero marginal cost.

In order for content creation to occur, there needs to be some complete market. All we need are studios that can pay the content creators. So the studios are actually the consumers of the content creators. Not you or I. We consume the digital copies. That is the “good” or “commodity” here. Not the show itself. That is why this is confusing.

Let me just say: in a perfect world, in the world described by econ 101, content creators would be able to directly sell their products to the consumers. The quality of the content would be the deciding factor in who gets rich. You wouldn’t need a middle (wo)man.

Oddly enough, we already have that, too! You can go to live shows, or sponsor people directly on Patreon.com (I do, check out this guy’s channel). The problem is that most people simply don’t engage with content creators directly. If you actually care about artists, go support them. Directly. You! That is far more effective and meaningful than lamenting the loss of bottleneck pricing.

Nonetheless, if we are worried about content creators. We should be concerned if the new disruption has rendered all distribution channels unprofitable.

But wait. We have Netflix and Amazon, and HBO. In fact, TV from these new business models is generally higher quality, as well. It seems that business has found a way to bottleneck distribution and charge a gate fee.

In addition, there is Facebook, Youtube etc… providing platforms to distribute content, and earn ad revenue. You don’t need to be a studio. Just get out there. This is probably the most empowering moment in history to be a talented content creator. Just don’t expect to get filthy rich.

You have to ask. If you were investing in the stocks, would you choose Netflix or would you chose Corus? These companies have to compete with Netflix. They have to solve the problem of distribution in a world of zero marginal cost. It is not society’s problem. It is their problem.

In the past, companies could charge a premium on the medium. You bought a VHS (in the before time), or a DVD, or a blue-ray or whatever…and this was a bottleneck to receive content. A way to artificially make the product scarce. It closed up the transaction nicely. Zero marginal cost was easy to contain.

Now, it seems, there is still zero marginal cost, but the bottleneck is the ability to restrict access to a subscription service or the traffic through a distribution website.

The piracy today is odd too. The business model is advertisements. They exploit the zero marginal costs by using a different bottleneck, typically the bottleneck is the torrent site. You have to visit the torrent site to get the content. Which means you are going to see ads there. That’s essentially their business model. It’s illegal already. Just really expensive and difficult to enforce.

But look. Airlines have to solve a similar problem. Who gets on the plane? We do not make it the government’s problem to verify tickets. WestJet and Air Canada seem best able to do that.

In a market, an airline that could not verify tickets is a businesses that will fail in the long run. Or, more likely, adapt. That means figuring out how to track who pays and who doesn’t, and properly exclude free riders.

At any rate, these companies know that instead of investing in adaption, there is another option. If they can convince the government to use taxpayer money, it might be possible to make it easier to bottleneck content. It will be a lot cheaper to find a way to bottleneck the zero-marginal cost if the government gets involved. That’s what they want. It’s a subsidy. They also know that it is not what people want. So they didn’t broadcast this issue. If anything, these are the people most able to get a message out in society. Think about it.

The particular concern for me is that CBC is actively lobbying the government. In other words, A crown corporation is spending taxpayer money to promote an ideology, and worse: they are lobbying to spend even more taxpayer money so that we might be deprived of better service as it becomes available. That’s not okay.

You know who isn’t in this lobby group? Netflix. Amazon. YouTube. Spotify.

The government, in my mind, should tell these people to pound salt. Not because of net neutrality, but because it isn’t up to the government to secure outdated business models.

—-

*Clarification: Truth is too hard to verify unless you already know more about a given topic. So we want truth, but it requires a lot of us. Like openness, and acceptance of our own ignorance. Honesty, however, we have ways of making this more likely. There is another concept called transparency. We could ask that when people make claims, they “cite their sources”.

**Ps…the bottlenecks are special cases in economics. I don’t really know if they are good or bad. One of the issues I would take with them is that it seems odd to me that consumers don’t have much bargaining power. They get basically one price, which is the subscription. Think…the little guy, the solo content provider. They don’t get a chance to engage with you, the end consumer, and haggle over the price. That is where all of the good parts of perfect competition are derived. Division of labour and gains from trade. Instead, we have this massive, impersonal, distribution mechanism. So I implore you, never, ever, ever invoke “econ 101” in this issue. It’s idiotic.

Advertisements

Embracing Ignorance

Thinking for oneself is hard. It’s probably not our default setting. Or maybe I am phrasing this wrong. Maybe I should say it is hard to know what is true, and to have confidence that what one thinks is on sound footing.

Almost nobody, most likely nobody, in the wild uses axiomatic and rigorous language. So we can be confident that a certain share of what gets said is factually wrong, or logically wrong, even among people who trust each-other and believe that truth is being told.

I have started to get a blunt sense that even most of the very smart people I know, in day to day life, really don’t do much critical thinking. I don’t want that to sound like a condemnation, it isn’t. It’s an observation that applies equally to me. There is a lot of talk today about mindfulness. We need this talk, and it offers benefits, because we are creatures of habit. Habit is the opposite of thinking, because thinking logically is using willpower. A + B = C. It doesn’t come to us without pausing and considering. We don’t spend the majority of our day doing this, or we wouldn’t understand the word pause in this context! We pause and think. So it is our normal way of being that we interrupt, which is not thinking.

An observation. I have been watching lectures online, because I am trying to learn. Students almost never ask the instructors questions. I also remember being in school, and almost never asked questions, myself. There are a couple reasons I can think about. The first, it’s because everything is so new. You barely grasp the material, let alone have the wherewithal to pose an intelligent question. We don’t know what we are ignorant about. But the second reason is that it’s because most of the lessons are simple, and so student’s think they understand, and so no need to ask questions. They don’t believe they are ignorant. They don’t pause and think!

The second reason is related to overconfidence, but also fear. Overconfidence, because, we don’t see our own ignorance. Fear because people don’t volunteer their lack of knowledge about simple concepts. Feynman talks a lot about this problem. It is a problem. We learn the labels of things, like the names of the different birds in the forest. We don’t spend time making predictions about how those birds will behave, and seeing if those observations end up coming true. Watching predictions be falsified or confirmed is how we know things are valid. It;s the essential difference between book smarts and street smarts. People with street smarts know what they saw with their own eyes. What do we really know if we can name all of the birds, but then can’t say anything else about them? That is what Feynman asks of us.

It’s up to us an individuals to go out there and learn what is true and what isn’t. If only we can pause, think, and have the wherewithal to test what people present to us as facts. Unfortunately, the only members of our society that do not have this fear are children.

Maybe that is why we find children so amusing, and so enjoyable to be around. It is exactly the title of the Feynman book. It is the pleasure of finding things out.

I still feel this pleasure a lot of the time. It is one of the most important things to me. It’s the reason I can spend an entire day watching lectures on YouTube or building charts. At work that is all I do, really, get some data, make a chart, and think about it. It’s also the reason I don’t get much pleasure out of a lot of pop culture.

I have been reading Feynman again. Specifically, The Pleasures of Finding Things Out. Most of what I have to say is regurgitating ideas from him.

It’s lonely and disheartening. The will of groups is how we mostly organise ourselves. It could be business, sports, whatever, doesn’t matter. Usually there is some version of going with the crowd.

It means that to engage in conversation with others, we first have to come to understand the groupthink, and this is hard to do. It takes a lot of the resources we have available in our brains. We also have to keep track of what we, as individuals, believe and hold true. We also have to keep track of where, specifically, there is disagreement between groupthink and our personal knowledge.

Other people also have a tendency to reject ideas out of hand. I am also equally guilty of this. It’s because I do not pause and think about what people are telling me. I am not always mindful. I am not always paying attention. But most of us aren’t. We are on some level of autopilot.

And this is perfectly fine. I think most of the time what we are actually doing, as people, is understanding what is in eachothers heart. Or you could say we are trying to figure out a host of other things about people around us. Whether they are happy or sad, whether they need help, whether we need them to help us. I think we sometimes look at other animals and think that they act out of instinct, and that somehow we have no instincts. We are social animals, and our instincts are mostly social. That is what separates us from pretty much all other animals. Its the basis of culture, after all. Which gets us to the ability to reason in the first place. In a way, what we do on autopilot is necessary to even have the luxury of pause and think. 

Anyway, the title of this post is embracing ignorance. So I will explain that.

I used to think I understood many things about the world. But as the saying goes, the more you know, the less you understand.

It’s because I have built up all of this education, and I think I know some things, and then I go and make a chart, and nothing about the chart makes any sense. After doing this for a few years now, I have started to come to grips with how little there is to take as fact.

And then I have to go sit in meetings, and watch people talk about the charts. They have such confidence, unless you ask them simple questions about the chart. They don’t have answers. They might even get angry with me for asking the questions. Actually, often they get angry.

Confidence is all anyone seems to care about. That’s the groupthink. So then, you have to ask questions about the sacred truths of the groupthink. You have to find a way that, even in their accounting of the chart, it doesn’t add up. This gets really difficult.

They say you have to know how to solve a lot of equations, first, before you can ask any questions. And there are infinitely many different types of equations, and different experts all have different ideas about which equations are important. And you can spend all of your day just doing equations. And then end up back to where you started. The chart still doesn’t make sense.

That is because we really are ignorant. We would do better off if we started with the premise that the chart doesn’t make sense. Maybe we could make some progress. And we will probably never solve this problem, that people are mostly on autopilot. That they don’t pause and think, and the natural response is rejection of questions, and the questioner. It’s part of life.

So it goes. 

But it poses us with a choice. Each of us. Everyday. You have to chose which pieces of your reality you are going to challenge or not. This is what it means to live the “Examined Life.”

Ignorance is something we should not fear. It is the natural state of being a person. Deciding that it is bad is living in denial. There are infinities that exist within larger infinities. We can shrink the infinite. So we can shrink an infinite ignorance. We can find things out. It’s just a choice we make, to engage with the world in an honest way. It is only a sense of  entitlement that holds us back. And maybe a fear of the crowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self Skepticism

Long time, no see.
Well… one of the challenges I have is that I don’t know how to begin topics.

 

I sat down to write about macroeconomics, because I have been reading a lot about it recently, and thinking about problems in macro. However, I am not good at macro, and never was. The problem I have is that I think macro is difficult because the ideas are not very good, I don’t think it is because I am not smart enough.

One of the biggest challenges for anyone to overcome is the feeling of inadequacy, and there are always people who will use their knowledge against you. However, you need not despair. People who really understand things, should, as a moral principle, try to bring more people into the fold. If they don’t, it is because they are jockeying for some sort of special status in society, whether they do this consciously or not is another matter…we all do it, let’s not get all up our own asses here. The trick is not to take it personally. There is always tomorrow, and people forget the dumb things you say if they are phrased as questions.

Back to macro. If it were in fact good, you would be able to write to the laymen the way that top physicists do. There is nothing comparable to “Brief History of Time” for macroeconomics. But not all of economics is this bad, microeconomics has “Freakonomics” which is pretty good. The ability to communicate is a very important litmus test for whether ideas are good, this is the thinking behind the “Feynman technique“.

But hold up. Let’s be “not wrong” for a minute. For macro, consider this: I may not have encountered good macro. So I reserve judgement at this point. The closest I have encountered to a good breakdown is probably my advanced undergraduate macro class. Credit where credit is due. I had one good teacher, at least, along the way. But even that class required me to master the basics of linear algebra, which is a bit of a barrier for the uninitiated.

As for the the graduate work. It got wayyy too math heavy, to the point that it was not philosophical at all. There is a difference between solving differential equations and understanding economic principles. We didn’t discuss the merits of using certain parameters, etc… it was all about “can you even solve for x, bro?”. Yes. I had adequate algebra to get the degree. Only to never, ever, not once ever use it in any job since.

Ok, math, as a subject is not under fire here. Thinking rigourously has been a useful skill, in every job or every person issue I have ever had. But it’s not economics!

For those who don’t know what I’m getting at: One of the dirty not-so-secrets about economics is that most academic economists only want students who can do the math, they aren’t there to teach so much as to weed-out. I presume they teach economics only to their favourite PhD students, which (I’m guessing) only happens around 2nd or 3rd year of of a PhD. And even then, I didn’t go that far, so I don’t know. But, a sad result is that I learned a lot of math, and how to solve problems, but I didn’t learn about the subject that my degree is for…at least not in macro. For that, I have had to turn to the economics in books after all that schooling to start to piece it together.

Food for thought: I was never required to actually read Adam Smith, I did that on my own. Nor was I required to read Keynes or Hayek. I still haven’t read Keynes. The economist we did read: Samuelson. Anyone heard of him? To be a little balanced here, we did read a lot of later scholars. B/c..that’s the idea of textbooks.
There are no shortage of moments where I read something in a book or The Economist or whatever and curse at my shitty education. Nobody likes to be the last one to get a joke.

But I digress…
Another issue I have is that I am very worried about “confirmation bias“. Which is the issue that you are more likely to accept one-sided explanations for things you already believe.

There is a line in 1984 that goes:

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”

― George Orwell1984

So, this works as an emotional truth, but not as a rational truth. The trick is with the word ‘best’. If by best, you mean the books that gives you that ‘rush’ of solving a mystery or whatever, sure…you are going to like things that validate your world view.

So my bias: I don’t like standard macroeconomics. As a student, I was on board with it up until I got to the part where they tried to teach me how to build aggregate demand functions. The models use a universal human being to solve their problem. This is not wrong, though. It’s like trying to simplify the world down to particles in physics. You want to know the “base” of your economy? It’s people, not one person.

The problem is NOT whether this is absolutely true, the problem is whether a model that uses the universal person creates useful predictions.

Does this crazy leap in logic give us a better understanding or not?

I think the jury is still out. But … what do I know?

I think people are diverse as a fundamental reality to confront. So there are population dynamics to consider. It matters what mix of people you have. I don’t think you can model past this. You have to bring it in to the modelling.

BTW: Holding this idea casts me outside of “correct” or “orthodox” economics. Every MACROeconomist (99%) you read in the news has submit to the “expedience” of the representative consumer. To do otherwise is to lose the special privilege of having your ideas taken seriously. I’m pretty sure. This drives me crazy. But I’m not really an expert. I admit I don’t understand the stuff.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to go that far into it today. Instead I wanted to jot down a guide for myself. Some sort of simple tool to help me know if I understand something. Actually, what follows is my attempt to redress the Feynman technique.
The reason is that I am starting to study alternative theories from the orthodox. There are a few, and they seem pretty good. There’s complexity theory, Minsky’s theories of debt cycles, and a few others. They all seem better to me than what is in the textbooks. And I want them to be true. So I need to devise a way to know whether I should buy these ideas where I reject the standard ideas.

It seems to me, I am likely to accept new theories more easily…so I should go back and get better at the classical stuff. But I need to know whether I understand it will enough to be able to choose the better alternative.
It’s probably beyond me to do this, but it’s healthy to have ambitions.


Self Skepticism

This is a rough guide, and I am open to suggestions. Please do comment.

If you understand an idea you can communicate through or handle these three challenges:

  1. Uniqueness: You can precisely separate the idea from more general ideas.
    1. E.G. The sky is different from ‘up’, because there are other concepts like ‘ceiling’ or ‘canopy’ that are also part of ‘up’.
    2. [Optional] you can pinpoint the first utterance of the idea: “This idea was first written down by Plato in ancient Greece”
  2. Existence/truth: You can support the idea with appeal to something in the real-world, it will be at least difficult to refute.
    1. I can tell you to go outside, in an open area, and look up.
    2. Where are the clouds? What else would you call that place?
    3. Sometimes people call this the “sniff test” or “common sense”.
    4. [optional] In the special case of scientific concepts, this might be synonymous with ‘reproducibility’.
  3. Play: You can bend the rules forwards and backwards with the idea, meaning you can search the for the ways in which an idea breaks down.
    1. You can play devil’s advocate.
    2. You know the common misuse of a concept (you know when other people are wrong).
    3. You can be creative, and enter discovery of new ideas.

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.

#HangoverSaturdayBlog

I feel like throwing some random stuff out there.

First, this is very interesting, but very bleak:

“The Fragmentation of Society” by John Mauldin: http://www.mauldineconomics.com/frontlinethoughts/the-fragmentation-of-society

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.

And

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…

 

Causation

Preamble:

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.

Causation

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.

Aristotle.

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.

Materialism

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

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?

Conclusions/Thoughts

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

Utopia

Image result for cloud city

Preamble/Context

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.

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

cassandra_stratford_gallery


**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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#first_world_problems

homer4pres

 

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):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baumol’s_cost_disease

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-01-18/this-economic-phenomenon-is-making-government-sick 

http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/02/09/considerations-on-cost-disease/

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

 I don’t know why more people don’t just come out and say “LOOK, REALLY OUR MAIN PROBLEM IS THAT ALL THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS COST TEN TIMES AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO FOR NO REASON, PLUS THEY SEEM TO BE GOING DOWN IN QUALITY, AND NOBODY KNOWS WHY, AND WE’RE MOSTLY JUST DESPERATELY FLAILING AROUND LOOKING FOR SOLUTIONS HERE.” State that clearly, and a lot of political debates take on a different light.

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.