Darwin’s Theorem


Science, religion, evolution, romance, action, siphonophors!

Darwin’s Theorem is a story about stories(the working title for a long time was “Metastory”) that’s also a mystery, a romance, an adventure, and various other things besides. Not quite science fiction, excessively didactic… think of it as “Dan Brown meets ‘Origin of Species’.”

If you like to see plot, action and strong characters deployed in the pursuit of big, speculative ideas, you should check it out!

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Feminine Villanelle

Drifting down the channel of the river
Living life with pleasure and with ease
Striking out across the Lake of Never

Knowing that this life won’t last forever
Summer days give way to winter’s freeze
Drifting down the channel of the river

No matter how hardworking or how clever
Life will in the end drain down to lees
Striking out across the Lake of Never

Pulling on a paddle like a lever
Listening to the flowers buzz the bees
Drifting down the channel of the river

Time and chance will in a moment sever
Winter days from all the summer sees
Striking out across the Lake of Never

A beating heart that’s lighter than a feather
Floating on a sultry summer breeze
Drifting down the channel of the river
Striking out across the Lake of Never

A two syllable end-rhyme (-ev-er) is called a “feminine rhyme” for reasons entirely obscure, at least to me. In English it is a more profluent sound, tending to carry the poem forward. Single-syllable “masculine” rhymes are stronger and blunter (which sounds like some wildly sexist stereotype) as opposed to the softer edges of the “feminine” construction.

I consider this poem an interesting failure. It’s another experiment with a villanelle, but the feminine end-rhymes give it a weirdly unsatisfying finish. It was written in part as a description of a lovely weekend just past, but also influenced by the death of an old friend and colleague, a person I respected a great deal and who wasn’t so many years older than me. Maybe the open-endedness of it works in that context, but it’s not the effect I was looking for.

This is why it’s important to experiment. I would be very cautious using a feminine rhyme in a villanelle in future, but prior to writing this one I wouldn’t have guessed at the effect.

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Forms: villanelle

Beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky
there lies a quiet, still and peaceful Earth
so silently the evening stars drift by

Crows toward their distant aeries softly fly
faint sounds of children’s all-unknowing mirth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky

Somewhere in the dusk a baby’s cry
calls out to god a moment after birth
so silently the evening stars drift by

A moment’s joy when no one wonders why
or what this vale of tears is really worth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky

Shadows lengthen over grasses dry
where drought has given way to want and dearth
so silently the evening stars drift by

The end could be far distant or be nigh
hidden by the long horizon’s girth
beneath a silent summer night’s pale sky
so silently the evening stars drift by

This is an experiment in form. I’m a formal poet, and English poetry is full of interesting and odd forms. The villanelle is, like many of them, lifted from the French. Apparently they started out as relatively unstructured songs, but ended up with a very rigid structure of repeated lines and rhymes.

This is not a particularly good poem. The juxtaposition of hopeful and depressing images didn’t create the tension and contrast I was aiming for, and in the end it’s confusing and unsatisfactory. There’s aimless foreboding but nothing much is happening. What is going on here?

Still: the purpose of this blog is to fuck up forthrightly. I post a lot of stuff here that’s marginal thinking, or me trying stuff on. I believe artists ought to be more willing to produce crap. It’s how we learn, how we get better. And sometimes someone thinks are garbage is great, and that’s a decidedly surreal experience, and who doesn’t need more of those?

I’m going to experiment with the villenelle form more, as some very good poems have been written in it, but I’m not promising anything more than essays into an unfamiliar form. I’ve written thousands of sonnets and am willing to say I’m pretty good at them. It’ll take more than a dozen villanelle’s to get better.

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Improv and Interviews

This is an easy one: “How does improv help you in job interviews?”


We live in a culture that values authenticity and self-actualization, but expects people to also serve as disposable parts of faceless corporate machines. And that’s OK. All the adolescent angst in the world won’t actually feed the hungry. Corporate machines, despite their manifold faults, do that particular job better than any Central Committee ever did.

As a poet and writer and all-round human being, I get the authenticity thing. But authenticity is hard to do well and not always necessary, at least not beyond a certain level. Improv makes it easier to hit that level.

I’ve had the kind of experiences required to find out what I’m really made out of–mostly bloody-mindedness, doggedness, and obstinance, if you’re wondering–and I wouldn’t wish those experiences on my worst enemy. Not because I’m not proud of who I am, but because you only get to find out those things when you’re at the point where you “face a life-or-death decision/and make it in the certainty of doubt”, and that is a horrible situation to be in. It really is. Anything you believe about yourself up to that point is at least somewhat speculative, but honestly, if I had the choice… well, I’d probably not change anything, but that’s because I’m an ironclad idiot. And bloodyminded. And obstinant. But I still wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Improv enables us to navigate the world between the authentic and the artificial without going through the delightful process of encountering our true selves, raw and helpless blasted heath. Besides, “between the authentic and the artificial” is where all of us live most of the time. Even me. Improv teaches us to bring out the things we have inside us while making them useful to the scene, the situation, the world. This is powerful stuff, because this is what the world asks of us.

It’s also what Jesus asks of us, if you’re that-way minded (I’m not, but I’m willing to pull support from pretty much anywhere): in the Gospel of Thomas, (which is non-canonical, but still my favourite, and not just because he’s may namesake) Jesus says something along the lines of, “If you bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will save you. If you do not bring out that which is inside you, that which is inside you will destroy you.” How can you argue with Jesus? I mean, Jesus!

There’s a delightful essay on Cracked.com that points out the only thing that matters in the world is what you can do for other people. Full stop. It doesn’t matter how nice you are (exhibit a: me, a not-particularly-nice person who nevertheless manages to do nice things for other people now and then) or how evil you aren’t (a list of faults you don’t have is not of any value to others, but, uh… go you?) What matters is what you can do for others. Sometimes those things will make money, maybe lots of money. Other times they will mostly make happiness, or at least alleviate suffering. Sometimes they’ll do both. But regardless, the value is in what you can do for others.

Improv is something you can do. And it does lots of things for others. In particular, it convinces them to hire you. This is good for you (obviously) and it’s also good for them (maybe less obviously) because you’re an awesome employee. You show up on time, you’re dedicated, you listen, you make offers, and you ask yourself how you can contribute to the scene company… but those are things for later posts.

I’ve done a lot of interviews over the past 20 years–particularly during my time as a consultant–and most of them have been successful, primarily thanks to early improv experience. The most recent round has been even better than most, thanks to the upgrading I’ve had from taking courses at the Improv Comedy Instutite.

Interviews are scenes, and your job in an interview is to construct a character that will result in the scene ending with an offer, or an invitation from the company to move on to the next stage of the interview process, or a decision on your part to let this one pass. All of which are wins for you.

We all have diverse skill sets, and how to present the bundle of skills that are most interesting to a given employer is basically a problem in character construction. Since an interview is a scene, we can ask the usual questions. “What is this scene about?” is simple: “Finding out about this company and making them impressed with me.” But “Who am I in this scene?” is a more complex question. There are certain aspects of the character you’re presenting–which should always be drawn from your best guess of your authentic self–that may make you more or less valuable to the company.

If you’re going for a management job, amping up your extroversion can be useful. If you’re going for a technical position, letting your inner geek out can’t hurt. If there is a lot of interpersonal stuff, find those soft-spots in your soul and build around them, and so on.

Doing this well requires listening intensely and carefully to what the people on the other side of the table or the other end of the phone are saying. What do they really want? I had a series of interviews with a company a while back and we both spent part of the time trying to put the other off: “You do realize this job is mostly XYZ and not ABC, which you said you’re really interested in?” they asked. And I told them, “You should hire the best person for the job. If it’s me, great. If not, no big deal.”

What we were both doing was working to figure out if the job and me were really a good fit. I listened carefully to what they were saying and responded in kind over the course of several weeks of interaction, and by the end of it we were in agreement on how well the job suited me. That’s a good outcome, regardless of whether the answer is “Really well” or “Not at all”.

Scenes are about building agreement, just like interviews. If at the end of the process you’ve decided you don’t want to work somewhere and they’ve decided they don’t want you, that’s a good scene. Problem solved.

It’s nicer if they decide they want you and you decide you want them, but regardless, the way to get to agreement is to build a character around those aspects of yourself you want to emphasize. If you’re interviewing for company X, think of it as a character named “X-me”. A friend who interviewed at GM for a summer position described his preparation in terms of his “GM haircut” and his “GM suit” and so on. He got the job, because he created a GM-person who simply had to be hired if the company was at all true to its own character.

The modern era of disposable employees makes this process easier: we all know the company will toss us overboard the moment we become inconvenient, and playing a character for them is good way to ensure that loyalty–or the lack thereof–is precisely reciprocal in the employer/employee relationship. The moment we step off stage we are done.

But while on stage, a character is more than a loose bundle of unrelated traits: canonically, a character has something they love, something they are passionate about, and something they hate. We all love, are passionate about, and hate many different things. For a given job, think about what things amongst your loves, passions and hates are the most useful to the company you are interviewing with.

In in one recent interview I emphasized my love of managing a team, my passion for products that enable creative individuals, and my hate of a particular IDE (which is quite appropriately named after an astronomical event associated with unexpected darkness and bad omens.) In another I emphasized my love of managing a team, my passion for embedded intelligence, and my hate of technological conservatism. Hate should not loom large, because it’s an unsavoury characteristic at the best of times, but it should be there. If you want to change the world, you want to eliminate something, hopefully by creating something new and better rather than doing something stupid and reactionary.

My new employer is paying me for a character I’ve built. They aren’t interested in me as a poet or firmware engineer or playwright or algorithm designer or novelist or software developer or screenwriter or physicist. They want a particular set of things I can do, and by creating a character–who is still drawn from my authentic self–I could present to them those skills, that love, that passion, across multiple interviews without muddying the waters with any of the other, irrelevant (to them) things I can do.

Character is one of the most fundamental ways of navigating an improv scene, and it’s just as useful in those real-life scenes we call interviews.

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Opinions, Judgements and the Bayesian Revolution

This article on what it means to “have an opinion” is not bad, but it muddles two fundamentally different types of “opinion” and as such fails to get at the root of the problem, and misses important ideas about diversity and knowledge.

People use words in messy and problematic ways and always will. As linguistic purists and logicians we may grind our teeth when we see ambiguity (single terms that are used to mean multiple things in the same argument) and amphiboly (whole sentences or clauses that can be interpreted in more than one way, and are, in a single argument) used to justify all manner of nonsense, even while as poets we can revel in those same phenomena.

As such, a great deal of philosophy has always started with getting our terms clear. Aristotle frequently introduced discussions of some idea or other with some variant of the statement “X is said in many ways…” and then went on to discuss them, teasing out the nuances and differences as well as the similarities.

The difference between “opinions” and “being wrong” is not that some opinions are wrong, but that opinions, properly understood, are statements of fact about the person giving them but stated as if they were a fact about some part of the world that is not the person giving them. Judgements, which the author conflates with opinions, are different animals.

To repeat myself, opinions are facts about ourselves stated as if they were facts about the world: “Penguins are the best!” is identical in meaning to “I like penguins” or “I think penguins are the best”, both of which are clearly and purely facts about me: what I like, what I think. In the first form, “Penguins are the best!”, I appear to be making a claim about the world when I’m actually making a claim about me.

Distinguishing between ourselves and the rest of the world is one of the greatest challenges any human being faces. It’s a process that starts in infancy and frequently also seems to stop there, which leads to us having all kinds of muddled opinions and ideas. Our internal state–our emotions, our ideas, our attitudes–are all real, but they are all facts about us, not facts about any other part of the world.

Confusion on this issue is commonplace. People say things like “We need to look at facts, not emotions!” or “We need to follow our hearts, not the facts!” as if “fact” and “emotion” were different kinds of thing.

They aren’t: emotions are facts… about us.

Facts about us may or may not be as relevant as facts about things that are not us when we’re making a decision, but treating emotions and the rest of our internal state as if it wasn’t factual is as big an error as ignoring facts about other things in favour of facts about us. All facts matter. Which facts matter most depends on the circumstances.

And when we get confused on this score, we get into trouble.

To take a personal example, “You don’t love me” has been known to come out of my mouth when an accurate statement of knowable fact has been, “I don’t feel loved.” This is the same phenomena that drives so many wacky claims in the public sphere.

One very common fact about themselves that people bring up when arguing for wacky ideas is what they personally can or cannot imagine. I harp on this a lot, but it bears repeating in this context, because what someone does or does not, or can or cannot, imagine is in most cases almost entirely due to facts about them, not facts about the rest of the world. We know the world is full of stuff–from quantum mechanics to Darwinian evolution–that no one could imagine, until it turned out to be true.

Its important to keep this view of opinions in mind because it makes clear that justifying a claim about something that is not us by pointing to a fact about ourselves makes no sense. It’s as if we said, “I have upward-sloping ear canals [+], therefore evolution is false.” Yet this is what a great many “it’s my opinion” claims amount to, and the facts being pointed to are generally the person’s feelings or emotional response to some part of the world.

Many people are unhappy with the idea of anthropogenic climate change, but “I am upset that my lifestyle might be contributing to a major economic and ecological disaster” is not a fact that should change the plausibility anyone gives to “The success of the anti-nuclear movement in the ’70’s and ’80’s means we are now facing a major crisis due to our vast CO2 emissions, 80% of which come from the coal and oil power plants that nuclear would have replaced.”

The other kind of “opinion”, which in contrast to the author of the article I’ve linked above is what I want to call “judgement”, is quite different. It’s just the legitimate effect of our prior beliefs and biases in an inherently uncertain world, which we know must influence our beliefs if they are to remain consistent.

This is a necessary consequence of the Great Bayesian Revolution that is slowly sweeping the world: the realization that for our beliefs to be consistent, they must reflect something about the subject who holds them. There is no view from nowhere–any more than there is a view of nowhere–and it turns out there is just one way of correctly accounting for where we stand when evaluating the evidence for or against some idea. [*]

In Bayesian language, our biases are called “priors”, as in “prior beliefs”, which are the things we bring to any idea when we are faced with new evidence. Bayes’ Rule, which I’ll describe below, is the only provably correct way of updating our prior beliefs in the face of new evidence, and that updated belief will be our prior the next time new evidence comes along.

Two people starting with different priors will always reach slightly different conclusions from the same evidence, and anything else would be a violation of Bayes’ Rule, which says the strength of our belief in an idea after we see some new evidence should be proportional to the strength of our prior belief, multiplied by a factor that depends on the strength of the evidence.

Strong evidence will make everyone’s beliefs stronger, but if I start out thinking something is pretty unlikely and you start out thinking “hey, it could happen”, then after we’ve seen the same strong evidence for it you’re still going to have a stronger belief than me, although my belief will be much stronger than before. “Differences of opinion” of this kind aren’t just natural, they are necessary if we are all to keep a reasonably consistent set of beliefs in our heads.

The Bayesian idea of “strength” of evidence for an idea is also pretty simple: if the evidence–the facts, the data–would be pretty likely if the idea was true and pretty unlikely regardless of whether it’s true or not, then the evidence is strong. When Galileo saw moving lights around Jupiter and only Jupiter using his telescope, he realized that if there were objects like the Earth’s moon orbiting Jupiter such an observation would be really likely. Someone objected that the objects could just be some kind of optical effect in his telescope, and he replied that if that was the case, why didn’t he see moving lights around any other celestial body? It’s that combination–the observed effect is likely if the idea is true, unlikely otherwise–that makes something good evidence for an idea.

If the evidence would be pretty likely to happen regardless, it’s not so good. And if the evidence is unlikely to happen if the idea is true but pretty likely otherwise, it’s actually a counter-argument.

As an example of evidence that shouldn’t change anyone’s beliefs very much, an acquaintance once argued that a psychic she’d been to was uncannily accurate because they had predicted “you will take a trip to the East, over water” and she was indeed travelling from Nanaimo to Vancouver in the next month, an occurrence that happens so frequently its prediction really doesn’t count for much.

Finally, the question of “how much evidence is enough” is a tricky one, because we don’t know what we don’t know in many cases, and nothing is certain… not even Bayes’ Rule itself: if you give me evidence against it, I’ll take it seriously, although I’m not holding my breath. But “maximally plausible” and “maximally implausible” are not “certainty” (which is also called “faith”: an idea held in such a way that no amount of evidence will change someone’s mind about it.)

So when we argue, we shouldn’t as good Bayesians be trying to prove anyone wrong in the sense of demonstrating that their belief is impossible. There could be unicorns. We should instead focus on demonstrating on the basis of the evidence that one particular proposition is way more (or less) plausible than the others. “The nineteen nitwits acted with a relatively small number of other faith-addled idiots of the same ilk to commit 9/11” is way more plausible than “Zionists faked it all”, and we don’t need to demonstrate anything more than that. Favouring a less plausible belief over a more plausible one is the root of a great deal of evil, and once it is clear someone is committing that error, we can consider the argument over.

Beyond that, however, we all don’t know much more than we do know.

There is a vast literature in economics, politics, sociology and history that I’m not conversant with, for example, although I’ve done a lot of reading on those subjects. And my experiences as a straight, white, Anglo, educated, middle-class, professional male might not cover the entire ground of human experience. Just guessing about that, mind.

Policy questions are hard, and our disagreements about them often stem from judgements that arise in a reasonably Bayesian way from our prior beliefs and the diversity of evidence–including personal experiences–we’ve encountered. Some ideas–vaccines cause autism, for example, or homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebos–are contradicted by so much data that no one can credibly claim to honestly believe them without admitting to priors that are conspiracy-theory-crazy. But many differences aren’t like that, even though they are nearly as radical on the face of it as those between the pro-vax and anti-vax sides. In those cases, digging in to “WyTF do you believe that?” is often surprisingly fruitful, if you can get past the “This person is nuts” reflex on both sides.

Bayes’ Rule tells us that priors matter, and a diversity of priors in any group is likely to bring us closer to convergence on the most reasonable set of beliefs faster and more effectively than a prior monoculture would. The body of evidence worth considering, especially for complex social issues, is large and diverse and not uniformly available to everyone.

As such, Bayesiaism favours diversity even as it encourages and enables convergence on a common set of well-supported beliefs. And it helps us understand why and how people with different backgrounds can have legitimate differences in judgement–not opinion–about all kinds of things that seem pretty obvious to us, while at the same time making clear that anyone who persists in favouring the overwhelmingly implausible over the extremely plausible is probably just nuts.

[+] Which is true, by the way: every time a physician or audiologist sticks that thing in my ear and looks inside my head they say, “That’s odd…”, which I’ve learned not to take personally, as there really is a great deal that’s odd inside my head.

[*] In Bayesian terms, I am neither a subjectivist nor an objectivist. I distinguish between the subjective “plausibilities” that we assign to our ideas and the objective “probabilities” that we use as evidence. Since Bayes’ Rule is written as a ratio of probabilities that is used to update a prior plausibility to a posterior one, the difference in kind is not obvious, but understanding it is crucial to accounting for both the significance and limitations of subjectivity and objectivity in the Bayesian picture.

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The Mutant Flowers of Fukushima

This picture of deformed flowers near Fukushima is making the rounds today, and I figured it was worth commenting on it. I am physicist who has worked fairly heavily in radiation transport and health physics, as well as genomics.

It’s a compelling image, and it tells a story: “Radioactive mutant flowers growing in Japan.”

I’ve seen people say some very strange things in response to it, like “If it does this to flowers can you imagine what it will do to animals and marine life?”

For the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone would consult their imagination to figure out the likely consequences of low levels of radiation, given the spectacular failure of the human imagination as a way of knowing over the past many thousands of years. We imagined that bloodletting would cure disease. We imagined that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men. We imagined that people of a particular race or religion were more give to criminal (or to virtuous) behaviour… And so on. There’s hardly anything we didn’t imagine, except things like “most disease is caused by tiny organisms, too small for the eye to see, that grow in dead matter and foul water.” Missed that one, which is too bad, as it happens to be true. Our imaginations missed a whole lot of other truths as well. Ergo: imagination is not a good guide to truth or falsity. Don’t trust it.

What I do trust is science: the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.

The accompanying story says that this kind of odd flower can be triggered by various factors that upset the biochemical regulators of growth, including fungal infection and genetic defects.

The question is: what are the odds this is due to radiation from the reactor accident that killed two people and contaminated a significant swath of the surrounding area, as opposed to being caused by something else?

I first figured the way to approach this would be to look at how common this kind of growth is elsewhere, but it turns out there is another way to do the analysis: we are told that the radiation level in the vicinity is 0.5 μSv/hr, which lets us say some pretty definite things about the odds of this being a radioactive mutant flower that’ll end up becoming ambulatory and crushing Tokyo (spoiler: not high).

A sievert is a unit of equivalent dose. “Radiation” is a catch-all term for different classes of particles that are energetic enough to break chemical bonds between atoms in molecules, or to knock electrons out of atomic shells. In both cases what we get are atoms that have imbalanced electrical charge, so this is sometimes called “ionizing radiation”. Ions or charged molecular fragments called radicals tend to be highly reactive, so ionizing radiation results in a lot of damage to the cells it hits, including genetic damage.

Some kinds of particle deposit energy more efficiently, which means that some kinds of radiation can do a lot more damage than others, even though they have the same energy. Electrons or gamma-rays spread their energy over a considerable range, whereas alpha particles and fission fragments stop really quickly, doing a lot more damage in the process. All of this is summed up by a “quality factor”, which is about 10 for alpha particles and is 1 for electrons and gamma rays. The sievert is a unit that contains all that information, so it’s what we use when assessing health effects.

It’s useful to remember that the reason why alpha particles are more dangerous than electrons or gammas is that when there are multiple chemical bonds broken in a single cell, its a lot harder for the cell to repair itself. The quality factor is a necessary consequence of this non-linear effect.

0.5 μSv/hour turns out to be about 4 mSv/year (for historical reasons we use mSv for most radiation effects stuff, because it is just a factor of ten off the old pre-SI unit of REM).

Natural background radiation in most places is 1 – 2 mSv/year, and total radiation exposure for most people is around 3 mSv/year (the difference is made up of various other sources, like dental x-rays and so on).

But there are plenty of places where the background radiation levels are much higher, including one Ramsar in Iran where some residents are exposed to over 100 mSv/year, year in and year out. The first link is to an abstract that says the followup to the preliminary work on total mortality and cancer rates reported in the (more detailed but earlier) second link in fact bears out: there are no measureable health effects, and there do seem to be some adaptive changes to cell repair mechanisms amongst people living in the high-background areas. Their cells are more active in fixing radiation damage.

There are no reports of mutant flowers in Ramsar, with 25 times the radiation levels observed in the region around Fukushima where they are growing. Nor have any of the other high-radiation areas of the world been over-run by mutants. We’d have surely noticed by now. These are areas of high natural background, so things have been living there for millions of years.

Ergo: the mutant flowers of Fukushima likely aren’t due to radiation.

Sorry, Godzilla lovers. Radiation, like terrorism, is less scary than people with political agendas would have you believe.

One of the great ongoing debates in the health physics community is the so-called “linear no-threshold” model of radiation effects, which is contradicted by everything we know about observed epidemiological data, about the effects of different kinds of particle, and about the repair mechanisms of DNA.

Radiation hormesis is the hypothesis that there is a region of low radiation dose that is actually beneficial, possibly because it stimulates more activity on the part of other-wise little-used cellular repair mechanisms. It’s not a slam-dunk–because the data are noisy–but we simply don’t see the expected increases in cancer rates that the linear no-threshold model predicts. When a theory makes predictions that are not borne out, it becomes less plausible.

My own belief is that the linear no-threshold model is far too conservative for low doses, and it is becoming more difficult to argue otherwise as epidemological data in high-dose areas get better and longer-term. The French Academy of Sciences came out against the linear no-threshold model in 2005, and I expect that other national scientific bodies will follow suit.

Nuclear disasters are bad things. Radiation released into the environment–as happens all the time from coal plants that are still operating because of the vigorous political opposition to nuclear in the ’70’s and ’80s’–is bad. Nuclear power can be made safer and less proliferating. There is a serious debate to be had about the place for nuclear in the carbon-free world of the hopefully relatively near) future, because it is our only drop-in replacement for base-load coal.

But pictures of mutant flowers don’t have a lot of place in that debate.

They are kind of pretty in a slightly creepy way, though.

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Narrative Predictions

The human brain is a machine for leaping to conclusions in a single bound. Activists and political agitators of every stripe use this to promote their nonsense by putting together narratives that appeal to our conclusion-jumping reflex. “Chemicals” are frequently the villains in these narratives, as are “corporations”, “liberals” and “The Government”.

It starts with facts and ends with predictions, both about the future and the hidden features of the past and present. Take any pair of otherwise-random observations of things that happen around the same time–the milk soured this morning and not two days ago I saw that old lady next door give me a funny look–and allow them to be metabolized by one of the stories that live in the air around us.

Stories like: “There are Satanic forces abroad in the world”, “Corporations control everything”, “Liberal do-gooders are coming for your free-dumb”. The random facts get consumed by the free-floating narratives and become the seeds of new stories, local stories, predictive stories. Stories grounded in but not justified by the observed facts: “That old woman is a witch”, “Big Agriculture is suppressing all the studies that show GMOs are deadly”, “Obama is going to issue an executive order to seize guns”.

Or in one recent case, “Chemicals will wipe out all the bees.”

The thing about these predictions is, they’re false. Predictions that bee populations are going to fall to unsustainable levels in the next few years have been out there for over a decade now. Beemaggeddon is the catastrophe of the future, and always will be.

Falsity never affects the living stories that encyst a few otherwise-unrelated facts and then thrive on organizing people into collectives whose purpose, like that of any living thing, is self-perpetuation.

One frequent move amongst fabulists who want to save the narrative that is guiding them is to deny that any predictions were actually made. This is remarkably successful, as we frequently let people get away with making things that sound like predictions, and that they and everyone else treats like predictions, but which when looked at carefully turn out to be nothing of the kind.

The financial press is full of this kind of thing: hedged statements full of weasel-words about what “might” or “could” happen. The thing to remember when reading such conditional statements is that their negation has exactly the same meaning. “The market might go up!” means exactly the same thing as “The market might go down!”

A headline that screams out “Something COULD Happen!” sounds impressive. But “Something MIGHT NOT Happen”, which means exactly the same thing? Not so much.

Quantitative reasoning can help with these things, but the simplest trick is to just swap all the “mights” and “coulds” with “might nots” in your mind as you read any news story that looks like it is predicting something. It takes a surprising amount of time for this habit to become really ingrained and for it to have a lasting affect on how you react to the news, because even simple–especially simple–narratives have enormous power.

In comparison, science–the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment, and Bayesian inference–has very little narrative power, so it splashes awkwardly amidst the sea of living stories that consume so many human lives.

Nevertheless: it still moves. And unlike our misbegotten narrative predictions, science doesn’t simply wander directionlessly across the plane of possibility, never getting anywhere after thousands of years of vigorous debate and Inquisition, but staggers unsteadily in a drunkard’s walk generally toward ideas that are more plausible than the ones it leaves behind. It’s not a particularly graceful or majestic process. It’s just the one that actually produces knowledge, and predictions more likely to be correct than not.

Posted in epistemology, politics, prediction, probability, psychology, science | Comments Off on Narrative Predictions

Fear and Vulnerability in Improv

The title is a half-nod to Hunter S. Thompson, I guess, because there was no loathing involved.

I’ve just completed a two day gym at the Improv Comedy Institute on Granville Island with Janet Davidson of the Second City Training Centre, which focused on “Turning Stage Fright Into Stage Fun”, and it was probably the best improv course I’ve done, which given the standards at ICI is saying something.

The course was taught in two sessions of four hours, one on each day, which was great because it gave some time for the first day’s material to settle.

There was a lot of object work and a lot of emotion work on the first day, particularly bringing the two together. I found this probably the most interesting purely technical thing in the course: the use of object work and mime as ways to express emotion and reinforce the onstage communication.

We talk a lot about communication in improv, and as I used to tell students on the robotics team back in the day, “There are two things human beings are really bad at: thinking, and communicating.” What we mean by “communication” varies by field. In the sciences and engineering it’s all about representing the abstractions unambiguously. In improv it’s much more about getting across concrete emotions and things.

There was a delightful, terrifying, game we played on the first day where we stood around in a circle and passed various objects: a red ball, a bread bowl, a Red Bull, a bed pole and a guy named Ken Hall. For a hearing impaired improvisor this is pretty much as scary as it gets, but between everyone’s clear enunciation and strong object work I actually had no problem determining what I was being handed. It is the most supported I’ve ever felt.

Trust, as I’ve said previously, doesn’t come easily to me. This group was about half people I’ve worked with before, but as a whole they were the most supportive and generous group I’ve worked with.

The importance of using multiple channels of communication, so emotions are not conveyed only by words but also by object work, action, expression and body language, is one of my big take-aways. Also: I never really appreciated just how loudly Margret Nyfors can scream.

One thing that I think helped bond the group was the interstitial games, like penguin tag and zombie tag, that were just energetic and fun as well as super-ridiculous.

There were other more static games that encouraged silliness and playfulness, which helped show everyone that we could do ridiculous things and it would be appreciated, not denigrated.

The creation of a shared environment in a game in which people hid a microfilm in different places was really cool, and encouraged close attention to what others were doing, how they created or embellished details of the space.

There were emotional orchestration exercises that showed me I’m better at turning emotion on and up than turning it off or down. This gives me a nice concrete thing to work on next.

The second day added character into the mix, with exploration of characters based on real people and ones that were completely synthetic, as well as a fascinating exercise of putting five people on stage in an environment, interviewing them about themselves and each other, and then setting the scene in motion. This breaking out of the process by which relationships and situations are created on stage was really interesting and demonstrated the kind of intense listening required to process a scene in realtime. I can see a little more clearly just how intensely really good improvisors must be listening to create the kind of apparently magical synchronization they exhibit.

The class ended with different exercises for each of us selected to put us somewhat outside of our comfort zone. I did a scene where my partner and I swapped characters when told to do so, which I found enormously challenging. What I could see going on in my head was that I was comfortable with the character I had chosen but much less so with the one my partner had chosen. This is a matter of trust: I knew why I’d chosen as I did and the character was inside my comfort zone. The other character–which was also objectively inside my comfort zone–wasn’t one I had chosen so I had to worry about it, for a certain value of “had to”.

Trust is a gift to yourself. If you trust your fellow players they do work for you, in this case, creating a character. I didn’t have to think of it, I just had to step into it. How cool is that? But I could only do that if I trusted my scene partner. There have been scenes where I’ve really felt that trust, and it’s literally like I’m doing just a fraction of the work, not because my partner’s aren’t doing their bit at other times, but because I don’t trust them enough to take their work at face value and simply accept it.

There was a lot more to the class than a thousand words knocked out in the immediate aftermath can capture. But there is one more thing.

I rarely know why I’m doing anything until after I’ve done it, which makes how I’ve managed to get where I am on that basis is one of life’s great mysteries. Either my subconscious is a super-genius, or there it a god. I’m about equally skeptical of both alternatives.

In the case of this course, I wasn’t sure why I was taking it. I don’t experience stage fright and never have: I like being in front of an audience. But in improv, I know I’ve been limited in some important ways. I got to work on a couple of those during this class, but the most important thing I realized was that I was letting anxiety due to lack of trust get to me at times. When I’m anxious I over-think, and I’ve felt myself doing that on stage at times in recent months, particularly when thinking about entering a scene. I hesitate, and I hesitate because I’m anxious. I’m pretty sure now I’ll be more able to simply plunge in, trusting in my (possibly super-genius) subconscious to have chosen the right moment, and in my fellow-players to support me on those inevitable occasions when my subconscious turns out to have been not so bright after all.

Posted in Blog, improv, life, psychology | Comments Off on Fear and Vulnerability in Improv

Partisan Politics and Confirmation Bias

As wildfires burn in the Canadian province of British Columbia, partisans made a fuss about why the provincial premier isn’t front-and-centre responding to the disaster:

  • Issues once #FindChristyClark locates her: Transit vote, Fires – MARS, Drought – salmon, Health firings, Deleted emails (others?) #bcpoli — David Schreck (@StrategicThghts) July 7, 2015
  • Does anybody know where @christyclarkbc is? #FindChristyClark — Robert van den Ouden (@rcvdo) July 6, 2015
  • #FindChristyClark May everyone check your spare room, local bridge, yoga studio, awards show green room, closet for our Premier? @lailayuile — KJS (@casualcactii) July 2, 2015

When she shows up at one of the big fires, partisans say:

  • the photo op queen! she should stay away, what can she possibly do except make things worse.
  • Never let a good photo op go to waste, right Christy?
  • Ooo, ooo, ooo, photo op, photo op!!!
  • Too little too late, she should have started to deal with the fire issue of this province 2 weeks ago… Now I can only imagine her standing there posing for a picture thinking to herself, “Look smoke over there, that’s bad, now were is my latte”…haha

I can’t help but suspect that if the Premier had instead given a press conference she would have been pilloried by the same people as being aloof and unwilling to go near the fire area out of cowardice or disdain for the little people. Or perhaps I’m being unkind in my judgement. There’s a lot of that about.

This event crystallized a thought that’s been floating around my head for a while: that strongly partisan beliefs are only sustainable with the help of massive amounts of confirmation bias and a solid push from fundamental attribution error, which is the belief that all human behaviour–especially stuff that annoys us–is attributable entirely to the personality and inner workings of the mind of the person engaged in it.

So Christy Clark didn’t just go to the fire site, she did so for purely Machiavellian reasons, and her friends and enemies quite remarkably claim to know those reasons in detail simply based on their external observation of her behaviour. Since her friends and enemies impute completely different motives based on the same observations, they must actually be judging based on something else entirely: their biases.

What I’m arguing for here is not that confirmation bias and the fundamental error of attribution are contributors to partisan reasoning, I am saying that partisan reasoning is nothing but confirmation bias and the fundamental error of attribution. In other words: if you see a member or leader of a party you are for/against do something, your entire response to it is a cognitive error.

I hear cries that I am overstating the case, and perhaps I am, but I’d rather err on the side of dismissing partisan judgements as pure cognitive bias than fall into the trap of believing my response to partisan activity is remotely objective. Been there, done that, been embarrassed by the results.

It’s easy to see this bias operating in the reaction of partisans we don’t agree with to actions by partisans we do agree with. In the US, Republicans suddenly came to oppose RomneyCare, a purely Republican idea, when it was executed at the federal level by a Democratic president. The ridiculousness of this stance is obvious to anyone to the right of John Birch, but when President Obama decided that illegal spying and whatnot was all OK, most Democrats were completely silent on the it.

Seeing the beam in our own eye is much harder than seeing the mote in our neighbour’s eye. If it was easy to be aware of our own biases we wouldn’t have them. But it’s far from impossible to catch them in the act and alleviate their effect on our thinking.

Unfortunately, one of the best tools for doing this is our imagination, and it’s a much better tool for fooling us into thinking we’re unbiased. But used with a modicum of discipline it can help. For example: imagine Rachel Notley’s recent pro-oil-sands speech in Alberta was given by right-wing Wildrose party leader Brian Jean, who used to be an MP in Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party:

“Expanding existing oilsands projects, establishing new ones and pioneering advanced technologies — all this requires spending on a large scale… We will maintain a warm welcome for investors and uphold their right to earn fair returns … Alberta will continue to be a healthy place for private investment under our government.”

Sounds different, doesn’t it? If it does, you might be in the grip of cognitive bias.

There may even be tools that could help this is a systematic way. It should be possible to strip news stories of partisan content, reporting only what what was said, not who said it. Frequently the “who” would still be obvious from context, but my bet is that a significant amount of the time it would be difficult to tell, and that people’s response to “Party leader announces new childcare initiative” would be very different from “Tom Muclair/Justin Trudeau/Stephen Harper announces new childcare initiative.”

Given I’ve got some spare time at the moment, I may add this to my list of things to do: a little web app that runs a simple departisanization on news stories. It would never be popular, because without the tribal tagging most readers will be unable to tell whether or not they should like a policy. Avoidance of that feeling of being adrift in a complex and hard-to-understand world is what drives partisanship in the first place, and while it isn’t going away so long as people are small-minded tribalists there may at least be ways to make ourselves uncomfortable about it, and it is with such small steps that genuine change begins.

Posted in language, politics, psychology | Comments Off on Partisan Politics and Confirmation Bias

The Word vs The World

I’ve made the mistake of arguing with scripturalists recently, and while this won’t convince them of anything it’ll reduce my motivation to engage with them in future because there’ll be no point in just repeating what I’ve said here, which is a variation on things I’ve said before, but hopefully more clearly.

A few years ago former US President Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist Convention because he rejects the authority of scriptural passages that denigrate women.

I’m impressed by Carter putting his principles ahead of the people of the Southern Baptist Convention, who are his friends and colleagues. This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, even for someone famous and well-connected, and his action is courageous and admirable.

His theology, on the other hand, is a load of bollocks.

He writes, “The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.”

The problem with this is that as soon as you start rejecting the parts of scripture you don’t like, you are proclaiming, “There is a higher principle of moral judgement, one that is not based on scripture, that over-rides scripture.” This is well and good. Most sane people believe this in some form or another. There are very few strict scriptural literalists out there, although notably the members of the Southern Baptist Convention claim to be.

Unfortunately, people aren’t very good at thinking–I’m certainly not–and it takes a long, slow slog for us to figure out the implications of our beliefs. One of the things that people often say, having rejected parts of scripture on the basis of some higher principle, is that that principle itself is encoded in scripture. But this won’t do, because there is no way of knowing which aspects of scripture encode that principle without again bringing to scripture, from the outside, some non-scriptural decoding principle.

Even something as mild as “self-consistency” is not a scriptural principle–no where does scripture say it is self-consistent, and worse yet it contradicts itself all over the place (in fairness, the Quran is slightly less self-contradictory than the Bible, but not much, and it clashes with reality even more). As such anyone who uses self-consistency to interpret scripture is saying, “Scripture is NOT the final authority, this other, higher, non-scriptural principle is.” And they do not have–and cannot have–any scriptural warrant for the authority of that principle. For the Bible in particular, since it is a compendium whose boundaries are historically and doctrinally uncertain, no one can even claim with any scriptural authority what books should be in it, much less that all those books are consistent with one another.

Bringing in a higher, non-scriptural principle is precisely what Carter is doing when he claims that scripture has been “distorted” by the Church fathers of the 4th century. He’s jumping on the slipperiest of slippery slopes, because if you acknowledge that scripture has been distorted, why believe any of it on its own merits? Why not just jump to the higher principle being used to interpret it, and forget scripture entirely, since it has no authority?

Because it’s not like the contradictions and room for distortion in scripture are small.

For a sense of scale: let’s say the only histories of the American Rebellion had been written around 1825 by a group of fanatical partisans of Jefferson who believed in his ideal of a loosely-governed agrarian republic against the Hamiltonian ideal of a strong federal state, and today a commission was struck to edit a compendium of such documents to become the “official” historical doctrine of the United States. Republicans and Democrats would fight like mad for editorial control and work hard at “fixing up” the final document to conform to their beliefs. Would scholars two thousand years hence be able to find very much in that compendium that told them what George Washington really thought about almost anything? Maybe a tiny bit, but only if they used a big box of non-scriptural historical and analytical tools.

That’s the actual situation with scripture, and Christian scripture is the worst of all in this regard, being a politically-motivated mashup of diverse viewpoints that disagree on virtually every single point of doctrine, from the nature of god (one person or one substance?), the immortality of the soul (collective or individual?), to the path to salvation (works or faith?).

The only way to interpret such a body of work is to bring strong and comprehensive non-scriptural principles to it, which is what Carter does. The people of the Southern Baptist Convention do the same thing. It just happens their principles are different, so both groups claim the other is “distorting scripture”.

The only reasonable response to this is to recognize that scripture has no moral authority whatsoever. It cannot be used to justify any belief or practice. It is no more authoritative than a poem and considerably less authoritative than the leaf of a tree when it comes to ascertaining god’s will, because at least we know that god made the leaf.

If it’s possible to know god’s will at all, it isn’t through scripture, because scripture was made by human hands and passed down to us through human hands. It is not just possible but overwhelmingly plausible that human beings have got scripture wrong.

What is not plausible is that god got the world wrong, so if there is some unifying principle, some transcendent aspect of being or existence that is behind all this stuff we experience, we should aim to learn about it by studying the world, not the words. The discipline that does that is called science: publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.

Posted in ethics, god, history, politics, science | Comments Off on The Word vs The World

Scattered Thoughts on Greece

I had my own reasons for hoping Greece would vote ‘yes’, but that’s not what happened.

Given how nonsensical the whole thing is I’m wondering if this is the most likely scenario:

“Granddad, how did World War III start?”

“Well, the Greeks voted in a referendum and said ‘No’, and that led to their country becoming a failed state that left NATO and was used as a forward base by Russia, and then it was probably just an accidental shot fired by a Russian soldier at some NATO troops on the border with Bulgaria that triggered the final conflagration.”

“What was the Greek referendum about?”

“The question was whether or not to accept an offer to loan Greece more money under some pretty tough conditions.”

“Why did they reject it?”

“Hard to say, with people.”

“Would it have all been different if they’d said yes?”

“I dunno… the offer they were voting on had been withdrawn a week before.”


“Yes sweetie?”

“People are stupid.”

“Now you understand how World War III started.”

The notion of a sovereign state that can’t issue its own currency may or may not be stupid, but it’s certainly weird. When one part of a nation-state suffers from chronic economic backwardness–think Newfoundland in Canada–there are various natural responses. Out-migration from the affected region is a major one, which makes living cheaper for those who remain behind. I can get a detached 3000 square foot home in St John’s for the price of a one bedroom condo in Vancouver. Subsidization is another, which is viable because there is political representation in Parliament from Atlantic Canada, and there is a certain degree of national feeling from the rest of us that allow us to tolerate the perpetual sinking of our tax dollars into various failed economic development projects.

Those things work because language and culture and politics all allow a high degree of mobility, and political representation ensures that there is an incentive for Parliament to take care of the struggling regions. After all, it might be Alberta that needs a hand-out next. We’re all in this together.

Europe does not have strong central political institutions of the kind Canada has. It has a bunch of national governments attempting to conform to the technocratic dictates from Brussels. The European Parliament passes regulations, not laws, and has little independent enforcement capacity and if it did that capacity would have little democratic legitimacy.

European nations also have significant barriers to mass migration. The average Newfoundlander can become an Albertan by doning a cowboy hat and learning that a fish is something accidentally dropped down a borehole rather than something eradicated by excess harvesting.

I’ve worked in three Canadian provinces–and am licensed in a regulated profession in two of them–and no one knows or cares where I’m from, because all Canadians are pretty much interchangeable. All Europeans are not.

The average Greek cannot become a German. Differences in language, laws and culture prevent it. Some few certainly can, but the barrier is many times higher than the barrier to moving within a nation. A drilling company hiring Newfoundlanders in Fort McMurray knows they are getting basically standard-issue Canadians with funny accents. A German company hiring Greeks knows much less, and humans err on the side of caution. That’s one of the big reasons why under-employment is a problem for immigrants everywhere, including in Canada where we strive to only accept the best and brightest from abroad. In a mass migration you get everyone, and unemployment in the migrant population skyrockets. So Greeks aren’t mass-migrating, because they aren’t idiots and would rather be unemployed in Greece than unemployed in Germany.

One day, maybe, Europe will have a unified identity that will result in common standards, common education and common culture that will make all that a thing of the past. But that day is not today, and I’m not personally convinced it would be a good thing if it did happen. Diversity has value.

In my own experience, even so small a move as across the border to the US, where I’ve worked in two very different states, requires noticeable cultural adjustment. I’ve never lived in Quebec–still on my bucket list–but in the time I’ve spent there I’ve never felt as much as an alien as I have in the US, and I speak French like a deaf Anglo with a speech impediment. Changing countries is hard.

So when Greece finds itself “shocked, shocked” to discover that widespread corruption, over-generous and inefficient social programs, and cushy public-sector pensions are not the road to national prosperity, out-migration is not really an option.

In a country that has sovereignity over its currency, devaluation is generally what happens instead. People who have loaned money to that country denominated in the national currency get their loans paid back with little pieces of paper that are a smaller claim on the national wealth than they had anticipated. Sucks to be them, but that is the risk lenders take when they put their money out to use. In the meantime, imports drop and exports get cheaper, and the national economy recovers. This is not a cure for all ills, and nothing can fix the breakdown of the rule of law, but it’s pretty much taylor-made for what is happening in Greece.

But Greece can’t implement it, or anything like it. There’s a whole lot of middle ground between Canada’s completely-floating currency and Greece’s use of the euro, and any of those alternative arrangements–like a peg to the euro or some kind of lagged approximation to a basket of other currencies–would have allowed Greece to respond to the consequences of the country being run by generations of corrupt incompetents.

Instead, Greek goods and services are being priced in the same currency as German goods and services. It is possible for Greek merchants to just drop their prices, but people aren’t that flexible, and even so the price signal would be misleading, because one of the hallmarks of a corrupt, inefficient economy is failure to deliver. Pricing in drachma signals that risk as well as others.

Economies can be viewed as calculating machines, where the aggregate wisdom–such as it is–determines the prices of goods and services. Relative currency values reflect collective judgements better than any other known mechanism: the kind of hands-on collective judgement that was attempted by the Politburo back in the day is an example of what the failure of that mechanism looks like.

Greece today is an example of a different kind of failure of the same mechanism. The euro is a lie, a breaking of the market’s most fundamental mechanism. By not allowing Greek debt to devalue to reflect the economic realities of the country the euro is making a claim that is not true: that the Greek economy is just as able to pay creditors as the German economy. Greece can’t pay its debts, and when that happens, people who were foolish enough to loan money to them… lose.

The problem is that the euro is as much a political statement as an economic one. Greece leaving the euro would be bad for creditors (mostly the IMF and ECB) and not great for Greeks, who will find themselves destitute pariahs using a new currency backed by a borderline failed state that has the Russians cozying up to it in the kind of sincere and genuine friendship that Russia is so well known for.

Beyond that, the idea of a unified Europe would be damaged. Probably not permanently, because European institutions are robust and generations old now, but it’s still not a good thing.

The EU is a machine that is supposed to solve the problem of war in Europe. It has done OK so far. The euro is over-reach, and the Greek mess is a result of that over-reach. The euro was introduced to reduce friction due to exchange rates and risk to due fluctuations between national currencies. As someone whose level of American earnings has always been almost perfectly counter-cyclical with US-Canadian exchange rates, I appreciate the the reality of exchange risk in particular. But it is very difficult to argue today that the benefits of the euro have been sufficient to outweigh the costs.

Perhaps the solution will ultimately be the continued existence of the euro alongside floating national currencies. This would allow exchange rate risk to be largely managed, and in these days when money is mostly ones and zeros in computers, the cost of currency conversion should be the cost of doing the calculation, which in terms of computational burden is roughly 0.00001% of the cost of loading this Web page.

Posted in economics, politics | Comments Off on Scattered Thoughts on Greece