Politics

Cherry-manning? Nut picking

Creating a straw-man by cherry-picking extreme outliers of large data sets, e.g. using Caligula as ‘proof’ that the Roman Empire was uncivilised, and going on from that to say that all ideas and artefacts from the Roman Empire should be discarded.

(I can think of plenty of examples from the modern world, but if I actually name one then someone will misunderstand and/or believe the thing which I would call a straw-man and mistake the cherry-picking for a valid data-point — I’ve seen this happen quite a few times online).

There’s got to be a better name for this — it’s coincidentally the name of at least one real person — but I can’t think of one.

Edit: “Nut picking”, a neologism coined by Kevin Drum, Wikipedia attributes it to The Washington Monthly, (August 11, 2006).

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Health, Psychology

Alzheimer’s

It’s as fascinating as it is sad to watch a relative fall, piece by piece, to Alzheimer’s. I had always thought it was just anterograde- and progressive retrograde amnesia of episodic memory, but its worse. It’s affecting:

  • Her skills (e.g. how to get dressed, or how much you need to chew in order to swallow).
  • Her semantic knowledge (e.g. [it is dark outside] ⇒ [it is night], or what a bath is for).
  • Her working memory (seems to be reduced to about 4 items: she can draw triangles and squares, but not higher polygons unless you walk her through it; and if you draw ◯◯▢◯▢▢ then ask her to count the circles, she says “one (pointing at the second circle), two (pointing at the third circle), that’s a square (pointing at the third square), three (pointing at the second circle again), four (pointing at the third circle again), that’s a pentagon (pointing at the pentagon I walked her through drawing); and if she is looking at a group of five cars, she’ll call it “lots of cars” rather than instantly seeing it’s five).
  • The general concept of things existing on the left side as looked at. (I always thought this was an urban legend or a misunderstanding of hemianopsia, but she will look at a plate half-covered in food and declare it finished, and rotating that plate 180° will enable her to eat more; if I ask her to draw a picture of me, she’ll stop at the nose and miss my right side (her left); if we get her to draw a clock she’ll usually miss all the numbers, but if prompted to add them will only put them on the side that should be clockwise from 12 to 6).
  • Connected-ness of objects, such as drawing the handle of a mug connected directly to the rim.
  • Object permanence — if she can’t see a thing, sometimes she forgets the thing exists. Fortunately not all the time, but she has asserted non-existence separately to “I’ve lost $thing”.
  • Vocabulary. I’m sure everyone has a fine example of word soup they can think of (I have examples, both of things I’ve said and also of frustratingly bad communications from a client), but this is high and increasing frequency — last night’s example was “this apple juice is much better than the apple juice”.

I know vision doesn’t work the way we subjectively feel it works. I hypothesise that it is roughly:

  1. Eyes →
  2. Object and feature detection, similar to current machine vision →
  3. Something that maps detected objects and features into a model of reality →
  4. “Awareness” is of that model

It fits with the way she’s losing her mind. Bit by bit, it seems like her vision is diminishing from a world full of objects, to a TV static with a few objects floating freely in that noise.

An artistic impression of her vision. The image is mostly hidden by noise, but a red British-style telephone box is visible, along with a shadow, and a flag. The 'telephone' sign is floating freely, away from the box.

How might she see the world?

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Professional

Utility function of meetings

A car will go faster if you lower the weight, for example by removing the passengers, luggage, steering wheel, and driver. If you do this, you will have a bad time and not go to space today anywhere nice ever.

Coders often share jokes about useless meetings; certainly, meetings can feel useless — they disrupt flow state, and nothing much seems to happen in them — but they’re not useless.

Meetings are for the business, not for the coder; they are to make sure that the coder is pointing in the right direction and solving important tasks; without it, the programmer may be more productive… but they’ll be producing random things, not money-making things.

Imagine the business has an internally-developed text editor. Left to themselves, a coder might produce something really well-documented with 100% code coverage in automatic tests, but if the business would’ve been fine with something that crashed every 1000 seconds, only did ASCII, and couldn’t open documents more than 2^15 characters long, then that effort was wasted.

The utility function of a meeting is how well it tells the drivers where the engine of production is pointing. The drivers of a company (just like the drivers of a car) may or may not be paying enough attention, may or may not be skilled at navigating the economic environment, may or may not be disregarding the business equivalents of speed limits — but even if the leaders of your company are wildly incompetent (and they’re probably better than any coder like you or I can realise unless we do a business degree), even in the worst case, the meetings can still do their job.

(Given the frailty of human memory, I bet you need someone recording those meetings or you’ll get Chinese Whispers up the corporate chain of command, which would make the meetings useless no matter how well people communicate).

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Psychology

Must we laugh to change our mind?

What’s long, hard, and something that men are unjustifiably proud of?

If someone is Wrong™, it’s really hard to get them to change their mind. If you just tell them, by default you will come across as a rude, mean, or contemptible person. If someone is looking for critique, they might listen… but, looking at the history of humans investigating reality, most people seem to want validation (or confirmation) rather than real tests.

A negative stimuli easily trains minds to dislike whatever they’re experiencing at the time they get experience that stimuli, for example the expert telling them “no”.

If laughter turns bad situations into good ones, might it turn a negative “no” into a positive “no”? Might it be that, rather than mere sadistic inverse-empathy, it is a way to learn from someone else’s mistakes when one laughs at, for example, “Ha ha, you should’ve see their face when they slipped on the floor and their beer went everywhere!”?

However, this doesn’t help with giving someone feedback; mocking someone for their mistakes is another way to make them dislike you even when you’re correct, so it does no good to — say — make fun of Trump’s hair, Bush’s bushisms, or David Davis not knowing that Holland and Czechoslovakia are not countries: “Stop mocking us!” is the gist of the responses of the former and the latter (and in retrospect it’s remarkable that Bush took such things in his stride).

What sort of humour, if any, makes mistakes (and negative feedback) palatable? And is there any way to make them palatable without humour? Is laughter a necessary precondition to changing a mind?

“Laughing with”, rather than “laughing at”? That might work for requested feedback — “Tell me a joke about something that went wrong with $thing” — but how do you reach someone who doesn’t even realise they went wrong?

I think that’s what embarrassment is for, but what’s the border between embarrassment and the sort of resentment that Trump and Brexit ministers demonstrate (something which I don’t even have a word for)?

Jokes can certainly make you think, but do you have to be open to thinking for them to help you along, or do they work anyway if they’re done right?


And the punchline? It’s opinions: men have long-winded opinions that are hard to change and which we’re unjustifiably proud of.

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Philosophy

Normalised, n-dimensional, utility monster

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utility_monster:

Utilitarian theory is embarrassed by the possibility of utility monsters who get enormously greater sums of utility from any sacrifice of others than these others lose … the theory seems to require that we all be sacrificed in the monster’s maw, in order to increase total utility.

How would the problem be affected if all sentient beings have their utility functions normalised into the same range, say -1 to +1, before comparisons are made?

Example 1: 51% (this is not a Brexit metaphor) of a group gained maximum possible normalised utility, +1, from something that caused 49% maximum possible normalised anti-utility, -1. Is that ethical? Really? My mind keeps saying “in that case look for another solution”, and so I have to force myself to remember that this is a thought experiment where there is no alternative to do—or—do-not… I think it has to be ethical if there really is no alternative.

Example 2: Some event can cause 1% to experience +1 normalised utility while the other 99% to experience -0.01 normalised utility (totalling -0.99). This is the reverse of the plot of Doctor Who: The Beast Below. Again, my mind wants an alternative, but I think it’s valid, that “shut up and multiply” is correct here.


Even if that worked, it’s not sufficient.

If you consider utility to be a space, where each sentient being is their own axis, how do you maximise the vector representing total utility? If I understand correctly, there isn’t a well-defined > or < operator for even two dimensions. Unless you perform some function that collapses all utilities together, you cannot have Utilitarianism for more than just one single sentient being within a set of interacting sentient beings — that function, even if it’s just “sum” or “average”, is your “ethics”: Utilitarianism is no more than “how to not be stupid”.

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Science

I am not a quantum physicist

I am not a quantum physicist. I do not write this prediction thinking that it is true or a novel deduction on the nature of reality. I write this prediction in order to test my own understanding of quantum physics.

Given all particles are fields:

  1. Fermions are those fields where probability is in the range 0-1 (or possibly -1 to +1, depending on antimatter).
  2. Bosons are those fields where probability can take on any positive or zero value (possibly also any negative value, depending on antimatter).

This “explains” why two fermions cannot occupy the same quantum state, yet bosons can. Inverted quote marks, because this might turn out to not have any explanatory power.

I’m fine with that, just as I’m fine with being wrong. I am not a quantum physicist. I don’t expect to be right. It would be nicer to find I’m wrong rather than not even wrong, but even that’s OK — that’s why I’m writing this down before I see if someone else has already written about this.

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Politics

Irish border, WTO rules, Brexit

Disclaimer: I’m neither a lawyer nor involved in international trade, this is based on what I assume to be a massively over-simplified understanding of world trade rules.

The UK wants to leave the EU customs union. They are allowed to do this.

Leaving the EU customs union necessarily means that any goods crossing from the UK into the EU customs union will need to pass through customs checks. To stop this, the UK and the EU would have to agree (some sort of) trade deal — the UK does not have the power or the right to prevent this alone.

The UK has an agreement with the Republic of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, which reportedly means neither party is allowed to install customs checks on the border (does it? I’ve seen people claim that but I’ve not seen details). The terms of the Good Friday Agreement do not make it illegal for the UK to leave the EU customs union regardless, as there are ways to meet both requirements:

  1. The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU.
  2. The border between the EU customs union can be somewhere other than the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border:
    1. The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU.
    2. Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK.
    3. Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves.
    4. There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland.

All of these have problems, the question is which problems you’re willing to deal with.

The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU

World Trade Organisation rules say that (outside of free trade agreements), all trade must be on the same terms as the most favoured nation: if you drop tariffs for one nation, you must drop them for all; if you accept goods from one nation without checking them, you must do so for all; etc.

If the UK accepts all goods from the EU without checking them, then the UK is obliged to also accept all goods from everyone else, also without checking them.

This does not oblige the EU to accept goods coming from the UK, but would allow the UK to be following all the rules.

The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU

The Republic of Ireland has no desire to do this. (It might happen).

Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK / Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves

The UK government will probably fall if this happens. (It might happen).

There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland

I don’t know enough about the politics of Northern Ireland to be sure, but isn’t this sort of thinking exactly what caused all the fireworks between India and Pakistan, between and inside seemingly half of the nations in Africa, the reason the Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Cold War, and one of the main reasons Northern Ireland didn’t immediately become peaceful the moment the Republic of Ireland became independent from the UK?


Obviously, the only acceptable course from the perspective of the UK government is to try to force the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU. Fortunately for the Republic of Ireland, the UK government is wildly incompetent.


Oh, one more problem:

The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t just with the Republic of Ireland, it also involved the total disarming of all paramilitary groups. The paramilitary groups reportedly dragged their feet with that disarming, so even if the governments agree, there may be an undesirable fan-feces interaction.

Advice? I suppose you could invest in armoured reinforcement manufacturers, but this isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

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