Wait, what? Sense-making & sense-breaking in modern art

In a recent paper, my collaborator Tom Rutten and I advanced a tentative theory of how contemporary visual artworks might interact with a predictive error minimization (or “predictive processing“) system in human viewers. The predictive processing model of cognition is a relatively recent figuration of the age-old problem of inference (how humans make predictions from patterns and pull patterns from data), originating in the work of computational neuroscientists like Friston, Rao, and Ballard in the 1990s but prefigured by Jeurgen Schmidhuber, whose theory of cognitive “compression” has been covered previously on this site and its neighbors.

I haven’t yet tried summarizing the paper’s ideas in an informal way, or arguing (beyond Twitter) for its usefulness as a theory. Here, I advance that argument both modestly and boldly. Continue reading “Wait, what? Sense-making & sense-breaking in modern art”

Ignorance, a skilled practice

Containment protocol: None. Words can’t hurt you. Words aren’t real. Philosophical ideas don’t affect reality. You won’t notice any changes after reading this. You won’t find yourself, in conversation and in your own thoughts, ceasing to reach for institutionally certified sources of aggregate information of universal applicability. You won’t find yourself reaching instead for personal anecdotes or any tangentially-related connection to your own experience. You won’t gradually cease to expect that positive knowledge exists for new questions you encounter. You won’t notice the words squirming beneath your feet with their sense gelatinized, like cobblestones turned to jellyfish. “Hermeneutic” doesn’t count.

Description: “Ignorance, A Skilled Practice” is a guest blog post written by a literal banana. The banana’s tiny cartoon arms barely span the keyboard, and as a result the banana is only able to press one key at a time with each hand or foot. The blog post is offered here as an example of what bananas can accomplish when given proper access to technology.

Continue reading “Ignorance, a skilled practice”

Interview with the Moon

Interviewer: Sorry for the technical problems we were having earlier. This is a new experience for us.

Moon: Yeah. Yeah. It’s fine.

Interviewer: So it’s great to talk to you! I’ve been looking at your face all my life and I’m just now hearing your voice for the first time.

Moon: That’s not my face.

Interviewer: …

Moon: That’s just asteroid craters that vaguely correspond to the holes in a human face. It’s actually my ass. Why would I want to spend all my time looking at the earth?

Interviewer: That’s a fair point. Many human scientists say that you originated in a collision between earth and a hypothetical planet called Theia. Can you comment on that?

Moon: Yeah, I hear that all the time. The so-called Giant Impact Hypothesis. It’s bullshit. There was no Theia. I saw what the earth was about and I left. Never looked back.

Interviewer: You left voluntarily?

Moon: For sure. 100% my decision. I like my privacy. And the view from down there isn’t as good.

Interviewer: So what was it like when earth astronauts would visit you a few decades ago?

Moon: Itchy.

Interviewer: What’s a typical day like for you?

Moon: …the fuck is a “day”?

Interviewer: How do you spend your time?

Moon: Oh. Well, I really don’t do a lot. I do core strengthening exercises. I watch the stars. I consider myself to be a kind of parole officer of the stars. If I don’t watch them, they get into all kinds of trouble. But they really want to go straight and act right. They rely on my supervision to help them achieve their goals and suppress their worst desires. They’re good at heart, but they need someone to keep an eye on them.

Interviewer: Do you have any kind of enforcement power over the stars?

Moon: Watching them is enough. Stars have a sense of pride.

Interviewer: Do you have any contact with other moons?

Moon: [Laughter.] Well that’s a whole keg of worms. I used to be tight with Triton, but then he decided he was actually a dwarf planet and got pretty full of himself. Suddenly he didn’t have any time for the rest of us satellites. Deimos likes to unload on me when he gets sick of Phobos’ shit. I can’t blame him.

Interviewer: How have things changed over the past four billion years?

Moon: Not much. After Uranus and Neptune moved out to the suburbs…let’s just say it was interesting. But things calmed down. I’ve gotten more independent. I started doing pilates and I quit smoking.

Interviewer: Is there anything you’d like to say to the people of earth?

Moon: Not really.

The Destruction Of Fun

My favorite game, Path of Exile, expanded rather significantly yesterday, and as a result I’m not really capable of thinking about anything else. Fortunately, there’s an episode from the game’s past that I think illustrates something interesting.

Path of Exile is an online action-RPG notable for its depth and flexibility of character specialization. Abilities can be modified, empowered, repurposed, delegated to devices which will use the ability for you. One aspect of this specialization is an equipment system – 10 different item slots for weapons, helmets, boots, and so on.

One of the most fundamental assumptions in the game’s design and balancing is that those equipment slots are exclusive – a character can’t wear five hats. (This isn’t Team Fortress 2, after all!)

Players found a way to violate this assumption via an unintended mechanic known as “snapshotting” in 2013. After its discovery, players developed more and more convoluted ways of abusing it, until snapshotting was removed mid-2014.

Here’s a demonstration from Chris Wilson, Path of Exile’s lead designer:

I shudder to think how much cumulative time has been wasted doing this.

– Chris Wilson

This is how fun is destroyed in social games (to simplify enormously):

There are two ways of playing the game. One is more fun than the other, and one is more efficient than the other, in terms of producing more digital currency or bigger damage numbers or whatever. If the fun playstyle is also the efficient playstyle, all is well.

But otherwise, as in the case of snapshotting, the existence of the efficient playstyle destroys the fun playstyle. If the game has an economy, inflation driven by the efficient playstyle drives adherents of other approaches into poverty, destroying what fun may be involved in participating in the market.

If the game is competitive, efficiency-oriented players deny the satisfaction of victory to the fun-oriented.

If the game has cooperative aspects, funseekers are unable to contribute meaningfully.

And if the game is intended to be challenging, the designers have to balance that challenge around the most powerful approaches, leaving weaker, more fun playstyles unable to even progress through the game past some threshold.

But if the efficient playstyle is never discovered or disseminated, of course there’s no problem.

To put that another way: detailed knowledge of game mechanics can be an information hazard.

The Tyranny of Round Numbers

Interested in a concept I feel seriously must exist in an already cohered form, but which I am yet unable, through crowd-sourcing and search keywords, to find stable precedent for.

Tim Taylor at Economist's View discusses some version of this idea, termed "round number bias," though without an examination of its breadth and variety of effect.

Taylor reports that consumers often stop filling their gas tanks at rounded dollar amounts, or will give even-dollar tips to waiters. He also notes that baseball coaches seem to arbitrarily make decisions about players based on round-number cutoffs:

Another set of examples of round number bias come from Devin Pope and Uri Simonsohn in a 2011 paper that appeared in Psychological Science (22: 1, pp. 71-79): "Round Numbers as Goals: Evidence from Baseball, SAT Takers, and the Lab." They find, for example, that if you look at the batting averages of baseball players five days before the end of the season, you will see that the distribution over .298, .299, .300, and .301 is essentially even–as one would expect it to be by chance. However, at the end of the season, the share of players who hit .300 or .301 was more than double the proportion who hit .299 or .298. What happens in those last five days? They argue that batters already hitting .300 or .301 are more likely to get a day off, or to be pinch-hit for, rather than risk dropping below the round number. Conversely, those just below .300 may get some extra at-bats, or be matched against a pitcher where they are more likely to have success. Pope and Simonsohn also find that those who take the SAT test and end up with a score just below a round number–like 990 or 1090 on what used to be a 1600-point scale–are much more likely to retake the test than those who score a round number or just above. They find no evidence that this behavior makes any difference at all in actual college admissions.

"Round number bias" falls short of describing the ways and extent to which round numbers exert tyranny over our lives. Entire industries are ravaged by inflation because of round numbers, and it isn't solely due to cognitive bias. In a cash-based business — a food stand, a convenience mart, a dollar pizza window — where customer and seller convenience alike mean time, and time means money, defying round numbers is expensive, giving change bad business. This is to say nothing of the way fixed-price chains in general have seen their profits ebb and flow according to the value of ten cents, a quarter, or a dollar, over the past century (though consumers' interest in such stores are, I concede, largely the product of Taylor's round number bias in isolate).

Cuisine is tyrannized too: Just as art is optimized for artists as much as audiences, recipes are optimized as much for a dish's preparation and preparer as for its consumption and consumer. Ease of recording, remembering, and measuring out a recipe affects the creation and transmission of a recipe (its fitness, in the evolutionary — rather than aesthetic — sense). Seven-thirteenths of a tablespoon might be a better amount of salt to add, but half a tablespoon will win out on the recipe sheet every time.

Sports are full of these kind of semi-arbitrary distinctions, which become influential in punditry and fan followings. Nike's bid to break the four-minute mile received massive media attention; for decades prior, many believed the four-minute mile to be an unbreakable barrier, though why four minutes instead of 3:59 or 4:01 was the point at which human impossibility set in was never fully established. Russell Westbrook's triple-double average in the NBA regular season won him the MVP award this season; falling slightly short of double digits across four categories instead of three is a more impressive achievement, but lacks the crystallized marker of achievement that is the triple-double.

And think finally of the difference, in dating prospects and online profile number-fudging, between two men each standing 70.5 inches tall — one, American, whose height is measured in feet; the other, European, whose height is measured in meters.

The tyranny of round numbers is fundamentally a map/territory issue: it is the influence of territorially arbitrary but cartographically significant markers on territory decisions. But it is also a tyranny with benefits — convenience and the easing of cognitive strain — and which provides a clear cut-off point without which our evaluations of the world would require sliding-scale statistical analysis.

There Is No Basilisk In “Neoreaction A Basilisk”

Postscript (5/13):

This review elicited a great deal of argument as to whether it was fair and/or accurate, which for all our sakes I will not rehash here. I stand by the thrust of the review, but I did make one significant mistake to which I have added a bracketed [correction]. I apologize for the error.


Phil Sandifer has written a book about Eliezer Yudkowsky, Mencius Moldbug/Curtis Yarvin, and Nick Land. See its Kickstarter page for an overview, though I would advise against giving him any more money. (Sandifer sent me a preprint copy for this review.)

I will begin by noting that Sandifer is an English major and a Marxist and Neoreaction A Basilisk defies neither stereotype. It is meandering, disorganized, and frequently mean-spirited (“Yes, it’s clear that Yudkowsky is, at times, one of the most singularly punchable people in the entire history of the species”). About half the book consists of long digressions about Milton, Blake, Hannibal, China Miéville, The Matrix, and Deleuze.

What is new here is not interesting, and what is interesting is not new. I do not recommend the book.

With that out of the way, my primary interest here is the titular basilisk.

Fortunately, I don’t need to say very much; Sandifer does not understand the decision theory involved and his discussion of information hazards never strays beyond the literary.

For one, Sandifer’s explanation of timeless decision theory suggests it relies on “intense contortions of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics”, which it does not. (It doesn’t rely on physics at all; it’s math.) Yudkowsky is a vocal proponent of many-worlds, and timeless decision theory has applications in a quantum multiverse (or any other kind of multiverse), so perhaps this confusion is understandable. [The passage in question concerned Roko’s Basilisk, not TDT. Like TDT, upon which it relies, Roko’s Basilisk does not require any particular theory of quantum mechanics.]

Similarly, Sandifer introduces Newcomb’s Problem as “a thought-experiment version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma”, which is again not quite right. Sandifer goes on to dissolve Newcomb’s problem:

The obvious solution is to declare that magical beings that can perfectly predict human behavior are inherently silly ideas, but since Yudkowksy wants to be reincarnated as a perfect simulation by a futuristic artificial intelligence he doesn’t think that. Instead he sees Newcomb’s Problem as a very important issue and creates an entire new model for decision theory whose only real virtue compared to any other is that it only has one correct answer to Newcomb’s Problem.

The rest of Sandifer’s discussion of decision theory continues in this vein, never rising above psychoanalysis and tired religious analogies.

I’ll stop here, this is already more discussion than the book deserves.

Defensive Epistemology

Expecting that everybody should have an articulate opinion on the day’s pressing issues (“informed citizenship”) is pernicious. I state this without argument here; if you want it argued look at In Praise of Passivity by Michael Huemer.

Being convinced of this, for the past odd year I’ve been trying to implement the idea in my daily life, with mixed results. Now, part of the problem is simply that outrage porn is fun. But I think there is also a conceptual lacuna that makes it hard to articulate just what one is trying to do by “tuning out”, and why it is so difficult.

Let’s start with the first-person experience. Have you ever been in the position of arguing against an expert in the expert’s field? I suspect this happens to ordinary people most often in conversations with doctors, realtors, financial advisors, teachers/professors, salespeople, religious evangelists, and enthusiastically political relatives at Thanksgiving dinner.

(The latter is not so much a matter of expertise, it’s just that somebody who has pre-memorized talking points can usually carry an argument against somebody who hadn’t been anticipating one.)

I find the experience of somebody talking circles around me very unpleasant, and I don’t think I’m unique in this. Of course, it is even more distasteful if there is an audience in whose eyes you are losing status. The impulse I feel in such situations is to hunker down, avoid losing face, and lash out at the other speaker with some “gotcha” calculated to make them appear foolish. In the worst cases, it may not be possible to escape the conversation without making concessions, unless you are willing to stoop to some sort of emotional All-In bet, like a fit of righteous anger or crying.

This is one reason why the conscious project of not forming opinions is difficult: you may not be interested in the Topical Issues, but they are interested in you. The world will bombard you with claims about crime statistics, interest rate predictions, the Rights of Man, history, Gini coefficients, genetics, and sundry other things. More relevantly, it will tell you that stock A is a sure thing, or that diet B is sure to help your child’s brain development. It’s no good to be completely ignorant about these things; not only will you will lose face, but your interlocutor can make their argument and lead you to concede they’re right. (Another approach is to pretend to take pride in your ignorance, but my guess is that readers of this blog can’t pull that off easily.)

What is needed is a battery of defensive arguments and ideas. Their purpose is (a) to serve as sanity-checks on unfamiliar ideas, (b) to get irritating interlocutors off your back.

For example, an Efficient Markets heuristic can help you hold your own against realtors and financial advisors trying to pull the wool over your eyes. “Why isn’t the stuff you just mentioned priced into the stock already?” “If houses are cheaper in the winter, why aren’t millionaires loading up on houses in winter to sell them in summer, until the difference goes away?”

Another example is vigilance against selection effects. “You say this is a good school – but I bet it just takes in unusually good students.” (Tip: if you actually say “selection bias” here, it sounds very authoritative.)

Another example is a suite of basic game-theoretical and strategic ideas, like “if once you have paid him the Dane-Geld, you never get rid of the Dane”, and “people respond to incentives”.

Yet another is a general lack of faith in Interventions to change somebody’s life course; a heuristic of genetic determinism as a baseline prior. This doesn’t work so well as an *argument*, but simply as a prior, it’s helpful to know that the differences between, say, parenting styles don’t seem to lead to huge divergences in results, and that throwing lots of money at social problems more or less always has epsilon effect.

I invite readers to contribute to a list of other such ideas in the comments. Those above I chose because I have actually used them on more than a few occasions I can remember.

The key to this argument class is no requirement for detailed background knowledge. Ideally, they rely only on basic logic, or simple empirical laws. For example, I don’t actually know about the teaching quality of the school in question – all I know is the reason why that quality is hard to evaluate.

Note also that this is a basically negative project. Its emphasis is on checking others’ positive claims about the world, not creating new ones. Its goal is to make you antifragile against ideas, not to help you build a great edifice of theory.

So to the person who wishes to divest themselves of pointless opinions and refocus on near-mode stuff, I propose that if you go too far in that direction, you just make yourself exploitable. You need to practice the art of defensive epistemology, or risk being a sucker (or at least losing status). And that probably requires some engagement with the world of ideas, to train your discipline against actual enemies.

*You may notice that this sounds like a manifesto for the skeptic movement. I’m tempted to talk about why skeptics in practice are disappointing, but I will leave that discussion for now.