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Hanlon’s Razor

March 1, 2017

“Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.”

Concerning Trump, that may be true, but treating it as if it is can be dangerous because it opens you up to deliberate attacks obfuscated as incompetence. One of the main things I have been worrying about lately is how Trump is sabotaging US counter-terrorism and preblaming rivals to power. In the event of a terrorist attack, Trump will benefit greatly. He is an authoritarian, and people turn to authoritarians when they feel unsafe. A self-aware authoritarian can exploit this tendency to great effect. The classic example of this is the Reichstag Fire which Hitler used to grab more power.

Trump has been implementing controversial policies quickly in order to stir up protests. He’s playing the law of large numbers. The more protests there are, the more riots there will be and the more there will be a potential for violence. He can also hire provacatreurs to stir up trouble if trouble doesn’t arise naturally. It’s fairly easy to throw a few thugs into the mix when large protests happen more or less continually.

Muslim Ban

The most harmful narrative for increasing terrorist attacks against the U.S. is that the U.S. is at war with all Muslims. When a group feels persecuted and oppressed because of their religion, they are far more likely to turn to violence than if they are met with tolerance and freedom. Trump has repeatedly stirred up religious hatred and scapegoated Muslims for problems, which dramatically increase the chance that Americans will be killed by terrorists. By banning 7 random Muslim countries, rather than trying to do a more effective and comprehensive security policy, Trump has ensured that any terrorist who does want to attack America will easily be able to do so.

Torture/killing families of “terrorists”

Torturing innocent civilians is about the most evil thing a government can do. Trump has promised to restart and amplify that policy, meaning Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups will have their ranks swelling with new recruits. Terrorists want to paint the U.S. as the Great Satan and evil. If you wanted to increase the number of terrorists who want to attack the U.S., you’d be hard pressed to find a better way to do it than to bring back torture, especially when that torture is not directed at people who are actually committing terrorist attacks.

Intelligence agencies

The CIA, FBI, and other intelligence agencies are at the frontline of the battle to protect America. So what does Trump do? Attacks and alienates them non-stop. Refuses to go to security briefings. Appoints untrustworthy advisers with foreign loyalties, so much that the CIA now assumes that the Kremlin has ears in the White House. Trump has also been undermining our relationships with other countries that have helped us fight the War on Terror, such as the U.K. and Australia. Without allies, we will be far more blind to potential threats.

So all this could just be an incompetent president who is undermining the safety of U.S. citizens because he’s a mendacious idiot, but the thing that makes me think it might be deliberate is how he’s preblaming his political enemies. “”Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril, if something happens blame him and court system.” He’s also preblamed the media, the generals, the Democrats, and a number of his other enemies. He’s already laying the groundwork for undermining democracy and assuming more control in the wake of the attack that is now far more likely.

I’m not sure what is to be done. Knowing human nature, even if we see it coming, that doesn’t mean we can stop it. Trump himself could set the bomb and his approval rating would probably go up.


Don’t Fear Wrongthink

March 1, 2017

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
– The Litany Against Fear

The most important behavioral skill for an aspiring intellectual is teaching yourself not to fear exposing yourself to wrongthink. Don’t be afraid to read the writings of people who disagree with you. Don’t be afraid to learn subjects that seem wrong or unappealing to you. If you find yourself thinking “I don’t want to learn X” or read a certain author, look inside yourself and ask yourself if it is because you fear what you might find out, or if you fear the discomfort from reading something that you don’t agree with. It is a difficult undertaking to expose yourself to things which go against what you believe, but it’s the only way to expand your horizons.

The wrongthink might be have a kernel of truth. There are very few totally false ideologies, and even those that are contain some insight into human behavior and beliefs. Understanding how it is that someone could believe wrongthink will let you recognize those mental failings in yourself and others more quickly. Understanding the kernels of truth will allow you to integrate those kernels into your own thinking.

You can’t refute something you don’t understand. Even if your goal is purely combative, if you demonstrate ignorance of your opponent’s position, they will dismiss you as an idiot. Try your best to pass Ideological Turing Tests.

You learn to use your own arguments better and more persuasively. Knowing what others say about your position will allow you to evaluate and correct your weaknesses, even if they are purely rhetorical.

If the wrongthink is wrong, you should have faith and confidence in your own morality to be able to reject it, even when you are exposed to it. Step back, take stock of your morals and beliefs, and have the courage of your convictions not to be afraid that they will be easily swayed by being exposed to other ideas.

Assorted Links

February 10, 2017

1. On mass incarceration

2. Cost disease

3. How to build an autocracy

4. R.I.P. Hans Rosling. You will be missed.


My Favorite Dubstep/Electronica Songs

January 25, 2017

I’m not going to be fussy with all the microgenres, etc.

Overwerk – Daybreak (GoPro HERO3 Edit)
This is the song that converted me from the “dubstep is complete trash” to “wow, there might be something here”. Still sends chills down my spine.

Ronald Jenkees – Throwing Fire
There’s a longer cleaner studio take, but the “live” version has more energy and it’s great to watch him having so much fun with the song. He’s got a lot of really good stuff out there. You really can’t help but smile and dance to the music while watching this.

Pendulum – Girl in the Fire
Pendulum’s other work is more rock than electronica, but this song has such great rhythm.

Stephen Walking – Shark City
Stephen Walking’s early work is pretty bad, but he’s improved a lot in a fairly short time. I’m really looking forward to new releases. Really fun and catchy melodies. Turtle town, Top of the World 2, and Pizza Planet are also good.

We are Presidents and Favulous – Pop Art

Shirobon – Born Survivor
Chiptuny, bouncy, and fun. If you like this stuff, also try FantomenK, Tokyo Rose, Power Glove, and Sound Remedy & Nitro Fun – Turbo Penguin.

Coyote Kisses – Acid Wolfpack

Klaypex – Game fire
Heavier and a bit harsher than most of the rest. Very rhythmically based.

Noisy Freaks – Selection

Tristam – Till it’s Over
One of the few songs on here with vocals. If you like, also try Au5, Headhunterz ft. Tatu = Colors, and Biometrix – Hush.

Pegboard Nerds – Self Destruct
These guys have a lot of fast paced songs similar to this.

Feint ft. Laura Brehm – Words

Full playlist


Rhetoric and Dangerous Questions

January 13, 2017

“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”
Adam Gurri

1. Question
Scientists usually begin their journeys with observations that seem strange to them, or questions they come up with following their curiosity. Rhetoric plays a substantial role in this step. What problems are important? What will other scientists be interested in? Once this question is answered, will the world improve? These questions can only be answered relative to other human beings.

– Alexander Fleming say that bacteria didn’t grow around a fungus.
– Louis Pasteur notices that milkmaids didn’t get smallpox.
– Coase noticed that although firms were a central part of the economy, Economics didn’t have a good explanation for them.
– The Great Depression happened and a whole bunch of economists said to themselves “let’s not do that again”.

2. Theory
What is the scientists’ hypothesis of how the world works? These mental models don’t spring from nothingness, but arise as the result of conversations scientists have with one another and storytelling. You’re ultimately trying to convince other scientists that your explanation is better than the previous one, which is squarely within the realm of rhetoric.

3. Test/observation
The scientist does a test and writes down what happens. The rhetorical power of science stems from the verification and replicability of this step. Science doesn’t depend on one authority. It depends on a network of independent people running the same test and replicating the results. This is why psychology had such trouble is that they had fallen away from that model and thus lost their rhetorical power.

Yes, scientific testing is rhetoric, but it is important to note how this sort of rhetoric gets its power. It’s not like the persuasiveness of rhetoric is merely determined arbitrarily or by the artfulness of oratory. Replication is powerful rhetoric because it is independent of the perspective and voice of the scientist themself. Anyone can verify a test. Post-modernists might say “well you’re just saying that because you’re a rich white male and you have false consciousness”. The retort of the scientist can be, well have a poor minority woman run the same test, and they will get the same result. It’s not just like your opinion, man.

4. Reporting results/Teaching/disseminating
Once scientists have convinced themselves that something is true and important, they must go about convincing others. This is the majority of effort spent by scientists and it’s pure rhetoric. They go to conferences, teach classes, talk to other professors, etc. Disseminating knowledge is dangerous if that knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands. Scientists have passive defense mechanisms for this by making their writing boring and obscure to limit their audiences to other intelligent and careful scholars.

Rhetoric and Social Sciences
In my last post, I argued that talking to scientists about rhetoric makes their culture worse by undermining the ideal of truth seeking. The post-modernism that has overtaken the humanities might be more true than a more black and white view of the world, but if taken too seriously it undermines cohesion and enthusiasm for truth-seeking. If everything is mere opinion, people aren’t willing to go to the barricades for it. Science is worth fighting for. It’s worth it even if many mistakes are made, because so many profound advances have been made which allow people to live safer, longer, happier lives.

I agree with him that rhetoric is an inescapable part of what scientists do, whether they want to or not. Those who try to escape the burden of rhetoric wind up marginalized and ignored.

Gurri states that “All reasoning to a conclusion falls under rhetoric”, but I think that’s too broad. Rhetoric is usually used to denote communication with the intent to persuade. Referring to observing the world rhetoric is misleading. Calling reasoning about those observations without communication rhetoric is confusing to a modern audience, although perhaps Aristotle would have used it that way. I think that’s why Sam Wilson breaks it into two parts where Gurri only sees one.

There are countless examples of science being driven by practical problems – “we need to find a stronger/lighter material” “we need to do X Y or Z”. Knowledge is performative. How do we know we know things? Because we can do stuff with that knowledge. Social constructs can’t build airplanes – scientific knowledge can. Rhetoric doesn’t hold bridges aloft. Yes, social science is more touchy feely than physics, but at the end of the day, if a society adopts a certain institution and they become much richer, economists will be convinced it works. When monetarism stopped inflation, economists were convinced. When price controls cause shortages, people are convinced. The proof is still in the pudding, even for social science, it’s just harder to see.

Are there questions which are dangerous enough to justify putting ethical boundaries on science?
I don’t think there is a question – truthfully answered – that has a dangerous answer. There are sometimes horrible moral assumptions baked into questions, but it’s not the discovery of truth that makes the question dangerous.

“What should be done about the Jewish problem?”
The premise is how do you exterminate the Jews. The end is taken for granted. If you want to say that asking questions of the form “How do I perform some horrible crime against humanity” are dangerous, ok I concede that. But I don’t think that has anything to do with science or epistemology or limited inquiry in any meaningful way.

The Nazis would not have been stopped by someone saying “maybe we should limit inquiry into such and such”. The Mongols were perfectly capable of butchering millions of Arabs and Chinese hundreds of years earlier with nothing more than axes and bows. There’s nothing more scientific about the Holocaust than any other of the hundreds of genocides that humans have engaged in since the dawn of time.

Science does have the power to dissuade people that genocide is less necessary. We can discover new crops to feed even more people. We can cure new diseases. We can use social science to try to defuse racial and nationalistic tensions. I have faith that the more humans understand the world, the less they will feel the need to kill each other en mass. I believe that as humans become more prosperous, we will value human life more, as the trend has been in the past. As we communicate with each other more closely, we will learn to empathize. Knowledge is the savior of humanity, and limiting its discovery is the surest path to evil. As Voltaire said ‘Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.’ The worst evil of the last century was founded on absurd beliefs and an unwillingness to look for truth to correct them.


Truncated Distributions, Writing Quality, and Stories

January 7, 2017

A truncated distribution is a conditional distribution that results from restricting the domain of some other probability distribution.” That is, some data has been removed from the distribution based on some condition it meets. Much of the data we examine in the real world has been truncated to some degree, and this truncation can give rise to causeless correlations. You can remove data in a way that creates a correlation, even when there is no underlying casual relationship.

The first time I heard of this was with professional tennis players. Shorter tennis players tend to have better serves and hit the ball more accurately. At first you’d think the correlation would go the other way – tall players are stronger on average and thus hit harder, or that it would be uncorrelated. But the truncation was that short players had to become professionals to get into the distribution to begin with. Since they had shorter arm span, they better darn well have other traits that made up for that. The correlation goes away with the very best of the best, because any disadvantage kicks you out.





So, what does all this have to do with writing quality? Experienced culture is a truncated distribution. Of the culture that is created, only a small percentage is shared and passed down the ages. We mostly only see the good stuff, where good is judged by others who are in turn relying on the judgments of those around themselves.

To this I say, of course Poe is a bad writer – his stories are so good! He joins a select elite of creative geniuses whose creation transcends their terrible writing – Lovecraft, Tolkien, Asimov, Rand, and Orwell. People love them for the worlds they create, for the imagined stories they give life to. Not for their raw skill at writing.

The best written novel I ever read was The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I loathed every second of the experience. I frequently stopped reading in awe at the way he could describe someone walking down stairs or eating breakfast in a sublime and perfect way. But the story he told was inane to the point of agony. The characters were uninteresting and petty. His world didn’t spark the imagination, or cause any hint of further reflection of what his writing entailed. It was mere outstanding writing – nothing more. There are just as many writers in this camp, and they are celebrated greatly by the elites of the writing world. I would put Hemingway, Dickens, Joyce, and Faulkner in this category as well.

It is entirely possible for someone to be both a great writer and to create wondrous worlds and tell interesting stories, but such writers are extremely rare. Huxley and Pratchett fall into this category, perhaps a couple more. Even though being a good writer does not cause being a bad storyteller, the correlation exists nonetheless. Any time you see an unusual correlation, ask yourself if there is some truncation that could be causing it.


Could the Soviet Union have Survived?

December 28, 2016

Betteridge’s Law applies.

A response to:

1.Stalin doesn’t kill all the smart Communists
Stalin is a bloodthirsty manic, but he realizes that the only way for him to hold on to power is to kill everyone who opposes him. The system Lenin creates was inherently cutthroat and Stalin mastered it. You don’t stay dictator in a cutthroat system by letting smart, highly motivated, ambitious people live.

The way the Leninist system works is that only a small percent of the population can belong to the Party. To get in, you must prove your loyalty, and anyone can be kicked out at any time for disloyalty, which can be even the subtlest hint of independent thinking. In return, they get decent houses, decent food, and maybe even some entertainment and a car. Being kicked out of the Party is horrible because the living conditions for non-Party members are atrocious and there is no possibility for advance.

A tiny percentage of the party rise to the Politburo, who form a committee that controls every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. What people eat, where they work, who they talk to, which books they read, everything. They are the royalty of Communism. The head of the Politburo is whoever can cow the rest into submission, but he effectively becomes Tsar.

The key difference between monarchy and Communism is the reason why Communism is so much more brutal and oppressive than monarchy – everyone is replaceable. In a monarchy, everyone is born into their station and cannot change. Thus, they have no reason to act a certain way to advance because there is no advance. Stability is the rule of the day, but that stability also provides a sort of freedom among its members. If several Barons don’t like the King, the King must compromise. The King can’t just remove swaths of the nobility haphazardly.

However, in Communism, if a Party member shows even the slightest hint of disloyalty, they can immediately be kicked out and replaced by a horde of willing applicants. If someone in the Politburo is getting uppity, they can be exiled to Siberia, killed, or simply shipped off to a obscure corner of the country and there are thousands of Party members completely willing to take their place. Loyalty and brutality become the ways people compete for ever greater power. Of course the winner of that contest is a paranoid psychopath like Stalin. Maybe it would have been some other paranoid psychopath, Lavrentiy Beria perhaps, but to say it would have been a nice guy or even a well minded technocrat like Bukharin is naiive to the point of absurdity.

2. 1947: Truman loses his nerve
Ok, even worst case scenario, the Red Army keeps on rolling after Germany and conquerors all of Continental Europe. That just means they have even more countries they have to keep under control. The larger the Soviet Union is, the more Russia has to spend keeping everyone else in line, and the further they have to stretch their army. Furthermore, unlike Belarus or Romania, western Europeans actually know what it’s like to have a functioning economy. If anything, the U.S. leaving Europe to the Soviets would have made the Cold War more intense, but shorter. Towards the end of the Soviet Union, Russia was actually losing money on their satellites, as happens in most colonial empires. Does anyone think the British Empire would still be around if they had just conquered a bit more of Africa? No? Then why would that apply to Russia?

3. 1976: Operation RED DAWN
It’s a good thing Communists are immune to radiation. Oh, what’s that? They aren’t?

Even best case scenario, you’re back to reason #2. The Soviet’s mighty military did not have the capacity for large offensive conventional operations in 1975. Western MBTs, aircraft, and other military hardware were far in advance of them. Russia’s population is smaller than Germany and France’s combined, let alone all of NATO. In the late Cold War, the Soviet Union was feared only because of their nuclear might.

4. 1979: Lenin stays out of the jungles
This one I agree with, but it stands in stark contrast to the previous possibilities. Empire is not profitable in the long run. Isolationism would have preserved Communism in Russia, maybe even until today. North Korea is a complete basket-case but since they don’t give a fig about anything outside their borders, they survive. This scenario would not threaten the West, nor would it lead to nuclear annihilation. Without a global Communist threat, perhaps the U.S. would have been less interventionist and the world would have had more democracy and less terrorism today, but that’s just speculation.

1988: The China Syndrome
The dictator’s dilemma is that if they cling tightly to power, they become unpopular and their economy goes to heck. But if they loosen their grip, they get deposed. In Russia’s case, collapse of the government did not turn out well for the Party leadership. China managed to do capitalist reforms while maintaining a totalitarian government, but it’s not easy at all. I don’t think Russia would have been able to pull it off. The Chinese are both more pragmatic and more entrepreneurial than Russians, and their economy is much less dependent on natural resources. Russia was industrialized under Communism, whereas China was not, and it seems to me that its easier to start an industrial revolution from scratch using capitalist principles than it is to reform an already Communist heavy industrial base. Either way, there are too few historical examples of a totalitarian regime reforming into a market economy to draw any sweeping conclusions.