Chosen Tidbits: June 2019

As some may know, I read a whole lot. So I thought to start a series to highlight the most interesting things I've read recently, along with some quotes or explanations why I liked it.

We're starting with stuff I read in June. More to follow when I have more time and enough material!


Weirding Diary: 8

It doesn’t matter if everything else gets cheaper with Moore’s Law, if rent, healthcare, and education costs race ahead of income. Those three costs drive hard choices, and that is putting existential pressures on institutions.

In the near future, all schools at all levels will either be de facto rentier-elite finishing schools, or indoctrination schools for socialist revolutionaries.


Identify the valuable squares on your life’s chessboard

I know what to do. I need to step outside the day-to-day challenges and struggles. I need to see the bigger picture and be clear about what my priorities are. What do I want? What do I not need to care about? I’m thinking of a conversation or exchange I had with someone about why people struggle to cope with everyday life – and I think that conversation went to a place that was something like… people are trying to do more than they can, instead of focusing on what’s most important. It’s a sort of… hedging. You hedge your bets because you don’t know what’s important, and so you try to do a little bit of everything. Better to score a few points in every bucket, than to put all your points in the wrong bucket. But the best thing you can do is to put most or all of your points in the right bucket. And can you know what the right bucket is? In a sort of probablistic sense, yes! Imagine a sort of… landscape, a grid. A chessboard, let’s say. 64 squares. That’s your life, that’s the number of things you could theoretically possibly Every day you have maybe 3-5 points you can assign to squares on the chessboard. You could put all the points on one square, or you could distribute them across multiple squares. The thing I think I ought to figure out is, which are the most valuable squares? Do I know this? I think I know it subconsciously, and I think I need to articulate it.


A Master Class in Jazz Performance and Creativity with Pianist Kenny Werner

This one is dense and packed with insight. If you do any kind of performance or even just practice a trainable skill, it's sure to resonate with you and give you an idea or two.

Here are some of the most striking insight for me, but again, yours will likely be different:


Epistemic Learned Helplessness

A friend recently complained about how many people lack the basic skill of believing arguments. That is, if you have a valid argument for something, then you should accept the conclusion. Even if the conclusion is unpopular, or inconvenient, or you don’t like it. He envisioned an art of rationality that would make people believe something after it had been proven to them.

And I nodded my head, because it sounded reasonable enough, and it wasn’t until a few hours later that I thought about it again and went “Wait, no, that would be a terrible idea.”


Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad

Every day we do things that we can’t easily justify. If someone were to argue that we shouldn’t do the thing, they would win easily. We would respond by cutting that person out of our life, and continuing to do the thing.


Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole

There are two hierarchies of social status: dominance and prestige.

  • Avoidance vs. approach. Dominance works by inspiring fear and other "avoidance" instincts, so that low-status people try to steer clear of dominant individuals. Prestige, on the other hand, inspires admiration and other "approach" instincts, so low-status people actively seek out prestigious individuals and enjoy spending time around them.

  • Taking vs. giving. The perks of dominance are taken by force by the high-status (dominant) individual. The perks of prestige, on the other hand, are given to the high-status (prestigious) individual, freely, by the low-status admirer.

  • Entitlement vs. gratitude. Dominant individuals expect deference from others and treat it as their natural right. Prestigious individuals, on the other hand, often make an elaborate show of humility when accepting the deference of others. Performers bow as they're being applauded. Oscar-winners profusely thank their supporters. Lay people often blush and smile awkwardly when they're being celebrated, e.g., at a birthday party. To do otherwise — to act entitled to admiration — would risk alienating one's supporters.


MLP: Immanetizing The Equestrian

(Note: MLP means "My Little Poney". Yup.)

One of the ways in which MLP is unusual is, in addition to episodes criticizing communism or egalitarianism, its implicit capitalist economy (in contrast to most media where markets or capitalism are portrayed negatively when any attention is paid to them); Equestria is not post-scarcity by magical fiat but is capitalist to the core, and its prosperity is due the capitalism and competition. And this capitalism contributes to the self-actualization of ponies: to gain a sense of self-worth which is genuine and grounded in reality, one must discover something one does well (finding one’s cutie-mark), which is of value to one’s peers and society, and said value is only honestly expressed when freely expressed against a background of genuinely competitive options.

Is it an accident that Jordan B. Peterson appeals to a similar demographic as MLP, or that he conveys a similar message in his books like 12 Rules for Life? He retells the cliches with conviction inside a societal vacuum. There is still hope, you can always change, if you start now, you can “"clean your room"”, and tame the chaos (Discord?) in your life to find a talent or niche and develop into a valued social role that can provide a sense of self-worth… There are some people who need to hear that specific message, just as there are people who need to read Atlas Shrugged (while there are other people for whom that’s the worst book possible—the right book for the right person). Both Peterson and MLP provide specific recommendations (if not necessarily flowcharts). But the key step is to simply start. Sometimes it takes just a word, an admission to oneself that one has made a mistake up until now, to reach out: “I’m sorry”. “I was wrong.” “I can’t do this any longer.” Saying that it’s “too late” or that “a leopard can’t change its spots” is an abdication of freedom and personal responsibility; when there is a choice to which one has always said “no” before, the next time, one can say “yes”. The tragedy of Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is he succumbs, like Walter in Breaking Bad, to the deadly sin of pride: not that he was a neglected child or that his soul is mutilated by murder, but that at the end, when he’s already lost, Harry gives him a final chance, and in front of everypony, he is unable to swallow his pride and surrender, and cannot, will not, choose to stop being Voldemort and become only Tom Riddle again; that is when he is truly damned and the end of his story.


Change Is Bad

The more optimized things currently are, the less likely any given change is to be good.


What is ergodicity?

Suppose you are concerned with determining what the most visited parks in a city are. One idea is to take a momentary snapshot: to see how many people are this moment in park A, how many are in park B and so on. Another idea is to look at one individual (or few of them) and to follow him for a certain period of time, e.g. a year. Then, you observe how often the individual is going to park A, how often he is going to park B and so on.

Thus, you obtain two different results: one statistical analysis over the entire ensemble of people at a certain moment in time, and one statistical analysis for one person over a certain period of time. The first one may not be representative for a longer period of time, while the second one may not be representative for all the people.

The idea is that an ensemble is ergodic if the two types of statistics give the same result. Many ensembles, like the human populations, are not ergodic.

We trust that a good/bad experience at a restaurant will repeat, but not that if more black persons commit crimes, no black person is to be trusted.

The answer is that the ensemble of meal in a restaurant is more or less ergodic, while the ensemble of black people is not at all ergodic.