Predictable Identities: 16 – Newcomblike, Part II

This entry is part 16 of 21 in the series Predictable Identities

A super-predictor millionaire child may seem like a fanciful example, but the general principle of Newcomb’s problem applies to almost every social interaction. People do nice things for you if they predict you are trustworthy, and the only way to be predicted as trustworthy is to be so: leave the cash, work hard, maintain the apartment.

Why not just deceive people? Lying is hard. People put significant cognitive resources into reading your mind, from processing your uncontrollable microexpressions to explicitly simulating your behavior. They also do so as a group, sharing information about your reputation. Conscious deception requires keeping track of two separate stories about your intentions. This imposes an extra cognitive burden when you are already facing a lot of combined brainpower that’s trying to predict you.

One way to lessen the effort of deception is to keep track of only one version — the wrong one. Self-deception is indispensable in social situations, believing yourself to be smarter, better informed, more talented and moral than you really are so that other people treat you as a smart, informed, talented and moral. But for self-deception to successfully affect people’s predictions about you, it must not leak into your conscious awareness. You must sincerely believe you will leave the cash on the ground at least until the child disappears.

If you make it too hard for people to predict you well, you will not be presented with Newcomblike opportunities in the first place. The child wouldn’t offer you money if they couldn’t hack your phone to study you. You won’t get the job offer if you refuse to drink at the networking event and “get to know each other”. The reason I write personal things on the internet every week is to make it easy for faraway strangers to predict my thoughts and values, and to occasionally offer me nice things.

Multitemporality: 1

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Multitemporality

Today I officially start my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute, working on my multitemporality project. At the moment the plan for the project is to write a book, but who knows. It might morph into a comic book or an interpretive dance, as I’ve been telling people who seem inclined to form oppressively burdensome presumptions about what I’m up to. I don’t want to ruin this pleasant snowflake buzz I have going on here by committing firmly to a particular output form too early. But it’s probably going to be a book.

What, you ask, is multitemporality? YOU HAD TO ASK HUH? YOU COULDN’T LEAVE ME ALONE?? Well, you asked for it.

This mind map represents the actual state of the project in all its inglorious messiness, after two years of back-burner nudging along in stolen moments here and there. It now needs to go front-burner. Since some of you have, in the past, expressed curiosity about my Certified Creative Genius™ working methods, I figured I’d start a blogchain as a way to track my progress on this project, as well as to put some social pressure on myself to stay disciplined and moving along.

For starters, lemme share my plan to tame this mess I’ve made.

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Meaning as Ambiguity

I can’t even tell if I was wrong or not. Maybe you’ll have better luck:

In June at Refactor Camp I gave a talk about voids (How To See Voids). The hook for my talk was a pretty picture of late afternoon conifers in the woods outside Truckee, California, and a mystery: why does the wolf lichen, a three-dimensional lace of radioactive yellow, grow in evenly-spaced rings around the trees like that?

connifers covered with bright yellow rings of lichen in the late afternoon sunlight
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Predictable Identities: 15 – Newcomblike, Part I

This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series Predictable Identities

“Do you like money?”

You spin around to see a strange child. You could’ve sworn you were alone on this street just a second ago. “Everyone likes money, kid,” you reply, “but I’m not getting sucked into another MLM scheme.” 

“This isn’t MLM, it’s LDT!” The child presses an envelope into your hand. “Open it.”

You do, it contains several $100 bills. “What’s the trick?” you ask. “And what’s your name?”

“The name’s Newcomb, and the trick was hacking into your phone last month.” The child smiles. “I’ve studied your behavior, and made some predictions. Specifically, I predicted whether you will take the envelope or leave the bills on the ground and go straight home after you hear me speak. If I predicted you would do the latter, I deposited $1,000,000 into your bank account 5 minutes ago. If I predicted you’ll take the cash, I retweeted Trump from your Twitter handle. By the way, I’ve been playing this game for a while and never got a prediction wrong. Goodbye!”

You look down at the cash. “Wait, what if…” but as you look up, the child is gone like an expired snap.

Do you take the cash or leave it and go home? Or do you hate philosophical thought experiments? Alright, let’s talk about something completely different.

Your employer decides on bonuses in December, but the bonuses are only paid out (and found out) in March. If the company predicted that you would slack off in Q1, your bonus is small, and if they thought you’d hustle it’s generous. You planned to quit at the end of March anyway, how hard do you work until then?

A leasing agent says she has another application for your dream apartment, but she’ll let you rent it because she feels you’ll work extra hard to maintain the furnishings. Do you?

Domestic Cozy: 7

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Domestic Cozy

Domestic cozy is something of a pre-emptive retreat from worldly affairs for a generation that, quite understandably, thinks the public sphere is falling apart. I’m not sure that’s wrong. The world looks forbiddingly difficult to break into today compared to when I turned 22 in 1996, or even compared to a few years ago. More to the point, it increasingly does not seem worth the effort.

The Zoomer slogan appears to be: the world is not mine oyster, I don’t have a sword to open it with, and there are no pearls to be found out there anyway.

I don’t entirely blame them. They have it far harder than the smug older generations — and this increasingly includes the oldest Millennials — yelling at them to toughen up. Software eating the world has made a lot of little things much easier, but a few big things incredibly tougher. Net, everybody above 25 had it easier, by a little or a lot.

The contrast between the 2019 zeitgeist, and the heady excitement of the dotcom era propelling me and my peers out into the world circa 1997, convinced we were going to have great lives, is just wild.

What is domestic cozy a retreat from? To probe the question, I tweeted a prompt asking for antonyms of cozy, and got a variety of intriguing responses, which I’ve attempted to plot in this word cloud.

The suggestions seem to cluster into four groups, representing retreats from discomfort, ceremony, deprivation, and danger respectively. There were also three proposals for archetypal antipodes to the domestic cozy condition, which map well to three of the four clusters. Domestic cozy is not an airport (discomfort), or a minefield (dangerous), or a mansion (ceremony). I added desert as a fourth archetypal location representing deprivation.

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Mediocratopia: 7

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Mediocratopia

I’ve had a rather stressful week due to a family emergency, and one of the things that’s been most helpful is the one day at a time and it’s a marathon, not a sprint genre of aphorisms. At first sight, the thought seems tautological and empty. After all you can’t literally live more than one day at a time. Or can you? Yes you can. The trick is to think in terms of gaits rather than time periods.

Credit: Stephen Cunane

Stephen Cunnane made this great video explaining various gaits in animals, and the gif above is a clip from that.

I want to talk about the gait appropriate for a life posture of mediocrity. This gait, I argue, is the amble.

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Predictable Identities: 14 – Frameworks are Fake

This entry is part 14 of 21 in the series Predictable Identities

Every rich-enough belief system wants to be the single source of answers to all questions. To fight against that it’s important to remember that every belief system is fake.

The first step is to notice that every single thing can be described using different frameworks, the way a single plot of land is represented using different maps.

Which of these two maps of Princeton is more “true”? Neither, since neither one is actually the town of Princeton itself. They each contain different elements: one has trees and roofs, the other has streets and parks. Certainly, Princeton contains all the above, and many things besides.

If you visit Princeton, you would notice other things it’s made of that don’t show up in the maps, things like people and pizza and noise. But those are also mere “maps” that your brain projects on the town, maps that miss a lot of detail. For example, you miss the fact that both the trees and the pizza are made mostly of carbon atoms. And if you think that “carbon atoms” are a real thing that exists you are at least a century behind on physics.

The fact that frameworks made of cities or trees or carbon atoms are fake doesn’t mean that they’re not useful. Your brain can only predict the world using concepts like “pizza” and “person”, fake though they are. But remembering that all frameworks are fake allows you to nimbly shift among them instead of believing that any single framework contains the only thing reality is really made of. Your brain won’t like this juggling effort at first, but it will appreciate not slamming into massive prediction errors caused by the limitations of a single ontology.

And if “pizza” is fake, how much flimsier are maps made of concepts like “conservative”, “chaos”, “female”, “sin”, “petit-bourgeoisie”, “freedom”, or “privilege”?


More than inspired by In Praise of Fake Frameworks

Domestic Cozy: 6

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Domestic Cozy

Playing with textures has long been a staple of modern art (I recall seeing an exhibition of odd objects like coffee mugs wrapped in fur and cloth nearly 20 years ago) but domestic cozy seems to adds an element of everyday utilitarian plausibility to the textural mods. Danielle Baskin is a Millennial, but her idea of sweaters for drones is pure domestic cozy (this is from 2016, so she was a little ahead of the curve). If teapots can have tea cozys to keep the tea warm, why not drone cozys to keep the drones warm?

In a related vein, Chenoe Hart recently noted the rise of the use of fabrics and other natural materials in the design of electronic products. This though, seems to be a broader trend intersecting with domestic cozy.

And to round off this vein of twitter-outtake thoughts with one of my own, it struck me that in many situations, domestic cozy adds an element of real comfort to situations where premium mediocre adds an element of theatrical faux-luxury. If premium mediocre is extended legroom on a plane, domestic cozy is bringing your own pillow. I suspect you can make many such apples-to-apples comparisons.

And finally, I was recently informed that the term “comfy” has seen a sudden uptick of broadened usage in places like 4chan. Twitter seems to have a lot of comfy thoughts as well.

Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

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Mediocratopia: 6

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Mediocratopia

My philosophy of mediocrity really started coming together last week, in the form of two tweets. First, a graph attributed to artist Marc Dalessio floated by my feed and I tweeted this modified and annotated version:

Second, a passing tweet by me seemed helpful enough to people that I did a double-take myself to see if I’d accidentally said something deeper than I’d thought:

A very compact way to explain mediocrity philosophy is this: non-attachment to finite games (5 words). Unfortunately those who can’t process the Carse reference will almost certainly misunderstand it.

Non-attachment to finite games. There’s a lot packed into those 5 words if you have the context to unpack them. It sounds similar to “don’t get stuck in local optima,” but is actually a statement about openness of domains and unconstrained evolution in notions of utility (I did a short explainer on optimization versus mediocritization 2 episodes ago in this blogchain).

The reference is to finite and infinite games in the sense of James Carse. A finite game is when you play to win. An infinite game is when you play to continue the game. Non-attachment to a finite game means being free to reject both winning and losing. This generally happens when you are able to see and choose ways to keep the infinite game going that are orthogonal to the win/loss logic of a particular finite game. This posture can look like betrayal, cowardice, or choking to those who are attached to a particular finite game, which is why the connotations of mediocrity are invariably negative for finite gamers.

The idea of non-attachment here is critical, and is where subjectivity reshapes the meaning of “objective” cost or utility without an alternative notion of value necessarily ready at hand. Mediocrity is a leap of faith that there’s more to life than whatever is going on right now. Whatever the hill, odds are, it’s not the one you want to die on.

Taken together, the two provide a usable map and compass for a praxis of mediocrity. A map of the territory (emotional roller coaster of open-ended growth), with a depiction of a subjective path through it (modes of humor that work as coping mechanisms for each regime), and a compass to guide you through it (non-attachment to particular peaks or troughs, which are the wins and losses you must look past to continue the game).