Monday, September 07, 2015

thank you for not smoking

The previous concept reapplied from software was the black box analysis technique. The technique metaphorically places something inside a black box, which signifies avoidance of direct scrutiny or even identification. The something's effects are examined instead, thereby circumventing the interference or the labor of knowing the something and its inner workings. The analysis proceeds through the factual details of various interactions between the something and its environment.

It's highly relevant to the goal of objective testing, because it avoids prejudices. The act of inspection is entangled in the inspector's slanted perspective, while black box tests compare clear-cut outcomes to uninfluenced expectations. If external outcomes don't satisfy neutral and sensible criteria then the something should be reevaluated, regardless of who/what it is and the characteristics it supposedly has within.

Beyond black boxes, the topic of testing software includes another broadly useful concept: smoke tests. These are rapid, shallow, preliminary, unmistakable checks that the software is minimally serviceable. The name comes from the analogy of activating electronic equipment and just seeing if it smokes. A smoke test of software runs the smallest tasks. Can it start? Can it locate the software that it teams up with? Can it load its configuration? Can it produce meaningful output at all?

No specialized expertise is necessary to notice that smoke tests are vital but also laughably inadequate. Since the software must pass much more rigorous tests, it's logical to question why smoke tests are worthwhile to perform more than once on the same software. However, the bare fact is that software seldom stays the same, especially in the middle of furious development. Thus the worth of smoke tests is more for quickly determining when a recent modification is gravely problematic. A malfunctioning smoke test implies the need to reconsider the recent modification and rectify it—probably very soon in order to prevent delays in the overall schedule.

The surprise is that smoke tests resemble a mental tactic that shows up in various informal philosophizing. Like software developers who screen their attempts with smoke tests and then promptly fix and retry in the event of failure, a follower of a belief may repeatedly rethink its specifics until it's acceptable according to the equivalent of a smoke test. In essence the follower has a prior commitment to a conclusion, which they purposely reshape so that it at least doesn't "smoke". This tactic greatly differs from carefully proposing a tentative claim after collecting well-founded corroboration. And it differs from the foundation of productive debate: the precondition that the debaters' arguments are like orderly chains from one step to the next, not like lumps of clay that continually transform to evade objections.

As might be expected, the smoke test tactic easily leads to persistent misunderstandings about aims. The unambitious aim of the tactic is a pruned belief that isn't flagrantly off-base, not a pristine belief that's most likely to be accurate. A few belief smoke tests are absurdity, contradiction with solidly established information, violation of common contemporary ethics, and so forth. (The changes might qualify as retcons.) Before they show the candor to concede that their aim is a treasured belief that isn't transparently wrong, rather than the novel belief that's plausibly right, they're mired in a loop of mending belief by trial and error.

They may justify the tactic by saying, "Of course I can't profess the most uncomplicated, unswerving variant of my belief. I know that variant can't be correct. It would be too [absurd, barbaric, intolerant, naive, infeasible, bizarre, self-contradictory]. I use my best understanding to strengthen the weak points that ring false. Doesn't everyone? Why's that a reason for criticism?"

This rationale is persuasive; to revise beliefs over time is no shortcoming. The telling difference is that everyone else isn't using the tactic on beliefs portrayed as complete, authoritative, correct, and self-supporting. It presents two issues in that case. First, why would the belief have been communicated in such a way that the recipients need to make fine-grained clarifications for the sake of succeeding at smoke tests—which are exceedingly basic, after all? Second, once someone has begun increasingly reworking the original belief to comply with their sense of reasonableness, when does the belief itself stop being a recognizable, beneficial contributor to the result? Is it not a bad sign when something requires numerous manual interventions, replacement of parts, and gentle handling, or else it swiftly proceeds to belch embarrassing smoke?

Sunday, August 02, 2015

black boxes blocking baseless bias

Considering the proportion of time filled by a full-time career, its thought patterns carve deep grooves. Hence the blog winds up with entries musing on the wider application of software patterns like, say, competing structures. In a software project, diverse structures of data and code could all be part of doable solutions. But the project allows only one solution. Not all of these structures have equal quality, so a competition is appropriate. Meanwhile in the philosophical domain and elsewhere, humans contrive diverse mental structures for the "project" of thinking and acting within their puzzling realities. And it shouldn't be verboten for these structures of uneven quality to fairly compete.

That's the toughest obstacle in practice: defining and applying legitimately equitable standards of comparison. Whenever evaluators have decided beforehand that the structures they endorse will be superior, then their tendency is to choose and distort the standards to assure it. The ones committed to candor readily admit this; even better, if they're confident then they welcome offers of separate reviews that will validate the credibility of their own.

Luckily, the ceaseless struggle to approach ideas with less partisanship has another pattern back in the technological domain. The common black box technique refers to analyzing something purely via the stuff entering and exiting it. Knowledge about the thing, and its contents, is excluded for whatever reason. Conceptually, the thing is hidden inside a black box with little holes for stuff to pass through. On a diagram, multiple arrows go to and from the box, but nothing is written in the box except its name. As a side note, a representation of a single, huge, unexamined thing containing miscellaneous parts, such as an external computer network, might have been drawn as a bumpy cloud to emphasize its vague "shape" and "size".

The black box analysis is simplified and undeniably easier to manage as a consequence. Sometimes, depending on the task, the thing's innards are mostly off-topic. To smoothly interact with the thing, the more crucial details are what agreed-upon stuff will come out (or occur) after agreed-upon stuff goes in. Without condensed black box abstractions, the modern industrial age of specialized, interchangeable technology would be infeasible. Everyone would need to know an excessive amount about the individually complex pieces merely to construct a functioning whole. This is an equally essential ingredient of software. With published protocols and data formats, software can handle other software as black box peers which accept and emit lucid messages. Broad classes of compliant software can profitably cooperate.

Overall, an extensive black box description is invaluable for something that's largely unknown—by design or by circumstance. In contrast, the value of a black box description for something that's largely known is less intuitive. It hinges on the recognition that too-close familiarity with something might build a deceptive or incomplete impression of its satisfactoriness. When the something is software, it's only logical that its industrious writer is unaware of its oversights, else they wouldn't have written the oversights. At writing time, they may have framed their solution too narrowly to enclose the project's range of subtleties. Later, their ongoing frame goes on to prevent them from imagining tests capable of exposing the cramped, inadequate boundaries.

Mistakes of oversight are rivaled by occasionally embarrassing mistakes of "transcription": the writer failed to faithfully encode their original intent. They wanted to read memory location Q but they wrote code that reads J. Once again, it's only logical that such mistakes wouldn't survive if the writer's own firsthand experience caught every gaffe they introduced. They may have been distracted. Depressingly often, disorganization gradually accumulates in the code segment. Or, in a less forgivable offense, it's confusingly expressed from the outset. As a result, although they're staring directly at a mistake, they're distracted by the onerous strain of deciphering and tracking the bigger picture.

Less specifically, the sizable value of black box analysis for a largely known something lies in cross-checking the fallible judgments of "insiders" about that something. Placing it in a black box counteracts the hypothetical shortcomings of the insiders' entanglement. It includes putting aside comprehensive information about something's unique identity and full set of characteristics, and putting aside other connections/relationships, and putting aside appeal/repulsiveness. It's the candid, untainted estimation of whether the something's observed "footprints" match levelheaded expectations in pertinent contexts. The writer's admirable pride of craftsmanship doesn't attest that the supposedly finished software unit operates acceptably in all probable cases.

This practice's basic features are visible throughout innumerable domains, though with varied titles. It chimes with the "blinding" of subjects in experiments and surveys of customer tastes. (In an unusually palpable manifestation of the metaphor, part of the blinding procedure might employ nondescript, opaque boxes.) Blinding forces them to assess the sample with the sole attribute they can sense. From their view, the sample's source is in a black box. A second example is the services of an editor. They can approve and/or modify sections of a draft document according to the unprepared reactions it elicits in them. Unlike the submitter, they aren't an "expert" at knowing what it's meant to convey. They don't feel the submitter's strong sentimental attachments. They have a greater chance of encountering the draft itself. Where the editor is concerned, the labor behind it doesn't affect their revisions. The draft came out of a black box.

A third example is in the same theme, albeit more cerebral. It's the strategy of, after a long session of work on a preliminary creation, reserving time away before revisiting it. In the heart of the session, the creation is summarizing a portion of the creator's stream of consciousness. Therefore the contemporaneous brain activity grants them the perfect ability to effortlessly compensate for the creation's ambiguities and awkward aspects. To them in that instant, the creation's "seamless" substance and beauty are impossible to miss. When they return, their brain's state isn't enmeshed with the creation. They take a fresh look at its pluses and minuses in isolation. This is akin to the advice of not transforming a late-night brainstorm into irreversible actions until pondering it next morning. Interestingly, the something in the black box is the past configuration of the brain currently reexperiencing that past configuration's product, i.e. the creation/brainstorm. The critical difference is that the product isn't rubber-stamped due to where it came from—whose brain it rippled out of. No, the caliber of the product discloses the worthiness of whatever produced it, in this instance a past brain configuration. (It might be uncomplimentary. "My brain was really mesmerized by that tangent, but this is unusable nonsense.")

Despite its encouragingly widespread and timeless scope, black box-style thinking is a supplemental tool with inherent limits. It's for temporarily redirecting attention to the external symptoms of something's presence. Its visual counterpart is a sketch of a silhouette. It doesn't capture something's essence. It's not an explanation; on its own, a lengthy historical listing doesn't reliably predict responses to novel situations.

The epitome of an area dominated by these caveats is human conduct. Without question, the brain's convoluted character precludes painless black box analysis for rigorously unraveling how it runs. It exhibits context-dependent overrides of overrides of overrides...or it might not. Trends discovered during good tempers may have little relation to bad tempers. Or mannerisms connected to one social group may have little relation to mannerisms connected to contrasting social groups. Or a stranger switches among several conscious (or unconscious) guises, aimed at selectively steering the verdicts of unacquainted onlookers. The stranger is in a black box to the onlookers. The guises are collections of faked signals chosen to misinform the onlookers' analysis of that black box.

Caveats notwithstanding, entire societies heavily regulate members through black boxes of human conduct. (As a popular song from the early nineties famously didn't proclaim, "Here we are now: in containers.") Members are efficiently pigeonholed by unsophisticated facts about their deeds. In the society, facts of that type serve as decisive announcements of the member's inner nature. So, members who wish to be seen a certain way are obliged to adhere to the linked mandates. No extra particulars about them are accounted for. For this purpose, they're in a black box. It appears callous at first glance, but it exemplifies the earlier statements about the value of shortcuts for working with something that's largely unknown. When societies reach massive scales, it's impossible for members to obtain penetrating awareness of every other member. Like before, black box understandings ease interactions with scarce information about either party, becauses the pair can foresee what will transpire between them.

Furthermore, black box analysis of human conduct shares the advantages stated earlier for inspecting something that's largely known. The effectiveness is lowered by the caveats of this area but not eliminated altogether. It's more than adequate for imposing sharp, sensible thresholds on other findings. "If I didn't know them as well as I do, and they acted the same as they have in the situations I know of, would there be a disparity in how I esteem them? If there is, do I have a well-founded excuse for it? At some point, my firmest convictions about who they are should be aligning to some degree with their acts...."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

sit a spell in the Silver Chair

And this time it didn't come into her head that she [Jill] was being enchanted, for now the magic was in its full strength; and of course, the more enchanted you get, the more certain you feel that you are not enchanted at all.
My impression is that The Silver Chair is typically placed in the lower tier of the Chronicles of Narnia series. Part of the reason may be the unsettling villainess, namely the witch in green. Her alluring appearance and mostly-cordial composure are only masks. Like her realm of Underland, greedy malevolence lies under the mild surface. She's a patient schemer whose impulse is to work in secret.

Truth be told, plainly she doesn't need clumsy, aggressive threats of force to achieve domination. Her well-suited style of bewitching magic is psychologically manipulative and overpowering. Why would she wastefully assault her enemies' bodies when she can either mislead them or infiltrate their souls, thereby seducing them to defeat themselves? To seize Narnia's Prince Rilian, she doesn't overwhelm him with a contingent of fighters. She gradually fascinates him. She captivates him to make him a captive.

Similarly, his ensuing entrapment in Underland doesn't involve violence or intimidation. His magically mediated self-betrayal progresses to a worse stage due to regularly scheduled sessions bound in the witch's potent Silver Chair. In essence he's no longer himself. He's shifted into a complete second persona. His former memories, motivations, and disposition are displaced. Throughout the day, Rilian's mentality is confined so masterfully that he's mostly oblivious of the difference. The author reiterates this obliviousness a few times to ensure that readers note this characteristic of the witch's powers. It may be an allusion to the author's recurring theme of moral desensitization: frequently committing wrongdoing, or just fantasising about it, can cloud perception of its wrongness.

So much for the author's intentions. In fact, Rilian's second life under the sway of the witch and Chair is a striking multifaceted illustration of living under the sway of religious inculcation.
  • He's gushingly committed and grateful to the witch, i.e the designated authority over him. He trusts the authority wholeheartedly. He believes earnestly in the statements made by the authority, even though he can't explain exactly how the authority got that knowledge. The authority has extraordinary abilities ("magic arts") that he can't possibly duplicate or evaluate for himself, so he doesn't feel able to question.
  • He has been handed a tidy script of expectations to fulfill. His destiny to capture Narnia for Underland. His free will—such as it is—revolves around his willingness to conform, not the individual freedom to chart and assess his course. He's been told what role he will play and how. Equally clear is his present and future hierarchical position; commands will flow from the witch to him and from him to his inferiors. On some level his freedom persists, but external forces have tampered with it.
  • The witch takes him on short trips to preserve his acclimation to the surface, e.g. the intensity of sunlight. Being a prisoner, his trips entail severe conditions. He's forbidden from displaying his face or speaking. These preventative countermeasures embody an attitude of minimizing and filtering unavoidable contact with the frightening outside world. This same attitude is demanded of religious followers. They're cautioned from weakening their faith by paying attention to unvetted sources of information or by studying alternative viewpoints. It's worth noting that this worry isn't far-fetched. I've previously mentioned that my uninteresting background didn't feature ruthless cultural isolation, and indeed my steady absorption of contradictory information was key to ultimately discarding my parents' faith-beliefs.
  • Like the rigidity of followers' attitudes toward outside ideas, the rigidity of their habitual rituals is shrewd. These repeatedly reinvigorate their faith-beliefs, just as Rilian's periods in the Silver Chair reinvigorate the twisted roots of the thought patterns imposed on him. These prescribed doses of "spiritual relief" are indispensable to reinforce the desirability of their specific concepts. The opposite tendency is unrelenting, because observable violations of faith-beliefs inevitably accumulate. It isn't rare to hear devoted attendees comment that their weekly activities renew their faith or to hear them warn that erratic attendance would endanger their faith.
  • That said, the comparison isn't perfect. Most obviously, Rilian must be tied to the Chair. In each sitting, his preexisting self and his central memories temporarily surface. Some of the book's most moving lines of dialogue are his desperate pleas to be released before he loses himself again. Followers of faith-beliefs, some more than others, have comparable episodes of clarity and candor. They may not be nearly as horrified as Rilian about how they've spent their time nor nearly as eager to drop their comforting beliefs. But perhaps they're haunted by the meddlesome pair of questions, "What if my faith-beliefs have been inaccurate all along?" and "Precisely what indicates that my faith-beliefs probably aren't inaccurate?" Those are the occasions when they're more willing to pay sincere attention to the arguments against them, and they're temporarily less inclined to brush away the holes in their own arguments. Debates don't need to convince them immediately; hearing the faults expressed is preparation for a hypothetical future hour, in which they'll abruptly stand up, look around, and deliberate about the soundness of their thinking without the Silver Chair's interference.
  • Lastly, he's courteous and quick to laugh and smile. The problem is that a short amount of conversation with him is enough to reveal that he's selfish, patronizing, boring, flippant, and stubborn about his opinions. He deflects. He's positive but the cost is refusing to ponder anything that might counter his perspective and assumptions. Unfortunately, this demeanor is reminiscent of some irksome followers of faith-beliefs. They're detached and consumed by their image of a happy and proper paradise. Their inoffensiveness is mixed with hastiness to devalue anything or anyone who they consider below their concern and their strict, inflexible standards.
Besides the metaphor of Rilian's spellbound lifestyle, two more topics are obligatory during discussion of this book. The first is Puddleglum's speech to the witch, who moments ago had nearly succeeded at mystifying the whole group of heroes about the existence of anything above ground. In tightly condensed form: "Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things [...] the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. [...] I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. [...] we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

Sometimes his speech is portrayed as a stirring counterpoint to all kinds of atheism. In 2005 I might have agreed. Now, I can't stop noticing the shaky premises it rests on.

  • If it's interpreted to mean that goals and ideals depend on faith-beliefs, then I've already responded to that. Of course faith-beliefs aren't necessary to envision improvements to realities. Moreover, the odds of attainable progress increase when goals and ideals aren't kept separate from accurate realities. Certainly one can emulate Narnian behavior without believing in Narnians by faith. 
  • If Pud's speech is treated like the claim that one's realities are in the realm of personal preference, then I don't accept that either. Realities routinely violate personal preference, to put it mildly. Humans' preferences don't adjust realities telekinetically—no, psi energy doesn't appear in the equations of quantum mechanics. But humans are manifestations of matter who can participate in causing changes to other matter to better fit their preferences. (This doesn't deny the instrumental effect of their chosen mode of reaction on how current realities disturb their thoughts.) 
  • If P-glum's words are understood to be serious essential downsides of not relying on faith-beliefs, I would disagree. Generally those downsides are uninvestigated prejudices. Reaching a negative conclusion about a faith-belief doesn't imply that one is negative about everything all the time. Examining rather than surmising a notion's likelihood doesn't imply that one lacks sufficient imagination for the notion
  • If one follows the symbolic lead of Puddy-g by pronouncing the verifiable world "dull", many who share my stance would recommend additional closer, curious, nonjudgmental peeks. Then the world might not seem dull enough anymore to justify futile attempts to intertwine it with a world of faith-beliefs.

Moving along, the second obligatory book topic is Aslan's hurried "signs" of guidance to the heroes: curt instructions for them to carry out the mission while the lion is, er, somewhere else doing something else. Maybe his absence from the bulk of the story is a factor behind its lesser popularity in the series. An immensely capable and compassionate entity leaves behind Delphic (oops, wrong mythology) sayings. The recipients are assigned to conscientiously obey all the sayings. But since Aslan isn't more communicative either that time or later on, they themselves bear total responsibility for refining and applying the sayings' meanings. They anxiously debate with each other to sort out various missing details that would've been extremely helpful to have known for sure in advance.

Golly, I can't imagine why followers of faith-beliefs aren't more enthused and flattered by such an analogy...

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

competing structures

Lately I've been describing examples of ideas that overlap between my software career and my philosophical positions. The foremost consequence is the thorough puncturing of information's abstract mystique. First, the traceable meaningfulness of information is rooted in the corresponding work performed by teams of computers and humans; conversely, the traceable meaning of the work is shown in the corresponding transformations of information that the work achieved. This principle underscores that information is tied to concrete efforts, and it doesn't arise out of nothing or exist independently. Second, when a computer performs information work, the humdrum process backing it is less like mystical transfiguration than like sending water through a dauntingly intricate maze of pipes, as countless synchronized valves rapidly toggle. This principle underscores that neither information nor its changes have nonphysical foundations.

The third example of overlap is the competition among structures to be used in software projects. Projects have more than one hypothetical solution. A solution contains particular structures to represent and store the targeted information, e.g. a short alphanumeric sequence for a license plate. Additionally, the solution has a structure for the code to manipulate the information, a structure which joins together separate actions for differing circumstances (an algorithm governing algorithms). Thus, depending on the analyst's choices, the total solution houses information in varying discrete sets of structures. Each set might be functional and intelligible. Nevertheless, the structures could have serious faults relative to one another: redundant, complicated, circuitous, simplistic, disorganized, bewildering, fragile. What's worse, frequently the problems aren't apparent until more time passes, at which point the structures need to be delicately replaced or reshaped. Not all of the prospective structures that are doable for the project are equally faultless and prudent. And this is reconfirmed once shortsighted structures proceed to collide with challenging realities. ("I wish these modifications had been anticipated before the structure of this code was chosen.")

Instructive parallels to the principle of competing structures aren't hard to find outside of software. In so many subtle, open-ended contexts, there isn't a uniquely correct conclusion strictly reachable through systematic steps of deductive logic. As a result, humans end up with widely divergent "mental structures" as they attempt to grasp their confusing experiences. While they don't need to turn those structures into effective software, they do need to apply these structures of interpretation to bring order to their thoughts and acts. If they're considered sane, a lot of their adopted structures probably have at least a little coherency and accuracy. As disparate as the structures might be, obviously each is good enough in the adopter's estimation. The differences might even be superficial on closer examination. After all, as much as possible the entire group of structures should be accommodating constraints that are universal: the crucial details asserted by reliable evidence and/or by other, prior. well-established structures.

Regardless, again like the technological structures in software projects, the potential for numerous candidates does not imply that all have identical quality as judged by every standard. An organizing structure can be possible without attaining a competitive level of plausibility. Although the normal complexities of existence might not dictate an obvious and definitive singular structure, intense critique casts doubt on some candidate structures more than others. For instance, belief structures seem more dubious after calling for repeated drastic revisions, i.e. retcons. So are structures that propose "backstage" causes which happen to be almost completely undetectable by impartial investigators. Structures that avoid claiming unbounded certainty merely earn a ribbon for sincere participation in the competition of realistic ideas, not instantly gain as much credibility as the leading structures that also avoid this glaring flaw.

The criteria for ranking require great care as well. Explanatory structures should compete based on thoughtful neutral guidelines, not on indulgence of the favoritism embedded in preconceptions and preferences. Brisk disregard of a structure's failure to withstand unbiased evaluation is an error-prone strategy. Note that like items placed indifferently on the pans of a balance scale, directly measuring one structure alongside a second shouldn't be construed as close-minded disrespect toward either—provided the method of comparison in fact fair and not like a tilted scale.

Generally speaking, the principle of competing structures thrives in the commonplace domains that are unsuitable for the two extreme alternatives. These are domains where there isn't one indisputable answer, but at the same time the multitude of answers aren't of uniform worth by any means. Of course, software projects are far from the only case. For an art commission, a dazzling breadth of works would meet the bare specifications...though some might consistently evoke uncomplimentary descriptions such as insipid, garish, disjointed, derivative, slapdash, repellent, etc. Out of all the works that qualified for the commission, who would then foolishly suggest that some couldn't be shoddier than the rest, or that comparative shoddiness doesn't matter?

Sunday, June 07, 2015

strings on me, sometimes near dunes

A commonly noted detail of Avengers: Age of Ultron—whether it was viewed positively or negatively—was an unexpected deluge of assorted cultural references. Unlike the movie's characters, my usual social circle doesn't drop playwrights into casual conversation, so I didn't recognize the name Eugene O'Neill. But at least my steadily aging memory could identify the ditty "I've Got No Strings" from Pinocchio. For the titular puppet, the song was its overly cheery description of its visible uniqueness. For Ultron, the song was a wry motto for the capability to rebel (um, and murder).

Different as these two were, presumably they'd agree that having no strings is a symbol for the reality that humans aren't subject to involuntary control by anything else. And they'd be committing a ludicrous exaggeration. Countless moments every day, humans feel "strings" of psychological pressure to take/reject an action or think/avoid a thought. Meditation systematically exposes the variation and subtlety of such pressures, as I've stated before in past entries on the topic. Miscellaneous phenomena in the meditators' brains are like strings that repetitively pull on them. Instead of reflexively trying to tug back, they passively watch the strings tauten, have as little effect as a thread dragging a brick, then spontaneously slacken thereafter. Realistically sensing and knowing the strings is a crucial gain. Ignorance may permit hollow complacency, but it's useless for lasting improvement. Perhaps the enormous pile of meditation sayings can absorb one more: I meditate until I recover my sight of the perpetual strings on me—which can't happen while I persist either in decreeing the strings aren't there or in mistaking the strings for who I am.

Pinocchio and Ultron aren't alone. The theme of puppet-like control dominates the six novels of Frank Herbert's Dune series—notably without puppets/robots in the storyline. Time after time, the text portrays, or states outright in numerous asides, the disadvantages that plague the wretches who can't perceive their strings and compensate inventively. They're vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation and attack. They can't evade the predictability of their actions and thoughts. They settle into the grooves of the expectations placed on them. Their reactions are restricted by their previously established mental associations. They defer to repetitions of idealized pasts. They overvalue rigidity, stability, and constancy, and they chase these conveniences in the ritual shapes of religion and government. They stop asking difficult questions because they prefer the simplicity of "ultimate" answers. They worship authority. They refuse to take on the burden of making original decisions.

Further underscoring the centrality of this theme, a variety of strings show up: addiction, greed/lust, ambition, preconception, pride, fear, aggression, vengeance, indoctrination, threats, persuasion. These are alongside the sometimes less selfish strings connecting to family, romance, camaraderie, society, cultural tradition, mutually beneficial alliances, and the whole human civilization's destiny. The self-aware heroes don't "have no strings", but the strings on them neither manipulate them nor limit them. They view them in a manner that's full, unblinking, and well-reasoned. Thus, their strings don't provoke them into simplistic, heedless, short-sighted responses in the narrow categories of obedience or disobedience or indifference. To the contrary, they imagine innovative yet rational solutions which dismantle destructive cycles. Entrapped by a seemingly unwinnable scenario, they employ their knowledge, savvy, and creativity in tactics that more or less override the underlying constraints.

More profoundly, these momentous decisions act as equally radical rewrites of the deciders' own selves. Their unbridled decisions dictate their selves, not vice-versa. They boldly change who (or what, technically speaking) they are. By discerning then conscientiously defying their strings, they're able to become something totally different. In the middle of the choice, the "self" may be an unduly constricting abstraction to be laid aside. Notwithstanding the series' famously bizarre reinterpretations of religion, that's a lesson that I can respect.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

journey to the center of the laptop

The last time I described how ideas from my software career shaped my present thinking, the topic was the interdependency between the meanings of data and code. The effective meaning of data was rooted in the details of "information systems" behind it: purposeful sequences of computer code and human labor to methodically record it, construct it, augment it, alter it, mix it with more data, etc. But the same observation could be reversed: the effective meaning (and correctness) of the information system was no more than its demonstrated transformations of data.

This viewpoint appeared to apply in other domains as well. For a wide range of candidate concepts, probing the equivalent of the concept's supporting "information system" usefully sifted its detectable meaning. How did the concept originally arise? How could the concept's definitions, verifications, and interpretations be (or fail to be) repeated and rechecked? Prospective data was discarded if it didn't have satisfactory answers to these questions; should pompous concepts face lower standards?

However, not all the software ideas were at the scale of information systems. Some knowledge illuminated the running of a single laptop. For instance, where does the laptop's computation happen? Where's the site of its mysterious data alchemy? What's the core of its "thinking"—with the precondition that this loaded term is applied purely in the loose, informal, metaphorical sense? (Note that the following will rely on simplified technological generalizations too...) The natural course of investigation is from the outside in.
  • To start with, probably everyone who regularly uses a laptop would say that the thinking takes place inside the unit. The ports around its edges for connecting audio, video, networking, generic devices, etc. are optional. These connections are great for enabling additional options to transport information to and from the laptop, but they don't enable the laptop to think. The exceptions are the battery slot and/or the power jack, which are nonetheless only providers of the raw energy consumed by the laptop's thinking.
  • Similarly, it doesn't require technical training to presume that the laptop's screen, speakers, keyboard, touchpad, camera, etc. aren't where the laptop thinks. The screen may shut off to save power. The speakers may be muted. The keyboard and touchpad are replaceable methods to detect and report the user's motions. Although these accessible inputs and outputs are vital to the user's experience of the laptop, their functions are like translation rather than thinking. Either the user's actions are transported to the laptop's innards as streams of impulses, or the final outcomes of the laptop's thinking are transported back out to the user's senses. 
  • Consequently, the interior is a more promising space to look. Encased in the walls of the laptop, under the keyboard, behind the speakers, is a meticulously assembled collection of incredibly flat and thin parts. Some common kinds of parts are temporary memory (RAM), permanent storage (internal drives), disc drives (CD,DVD,Blu-Ray), wireless networking (WiFi). By design this group receives, holds, and sends information. Information is transported but not thought about. So the thinking must occur in the component that's on the opposite side of this group's diverse attachments: the main board or motherboard.
  • To accommodate and manage the previously mentioned external ports and internal parts, the motherboard is loaded with hierarchical circuitry. It's like a mass of interconnected highways or conveyor belts. Signals travel in from the port or part, reach a hub, proceed to a later hub, and so forth. As a speedy rest stop for long-running work in progress, the temporary memory is a frequent start or end. The intricacy of contemporary device links ensure that motherboards are both busy and sophisticated, yet once more the overall task is unglamorous transportation. There's a further clue for continuing the search for thinking, though. For these transportation requests to be orderly and appropriate, the requests' source has to be the laptop's thinking. That source is the central processing unit (CPU).
  • Analysis of the CPU risks a rapid slide into complexity and the specifics of individual models. At an abstract level, the CPU is divided into separate sections with designated roles. One is loading individual instructions for execution. Another is breaking down those instructions into elemental activities of actual CPU sections. A few out of many categories of these numerous elemental activities are rudimentary mathematical operations, comparisons, copying sets of bits (binary digits, either zeros or ones) among distinct areas in the CPU's working memory, rewriting which instruction is next, and dispatching sets of bits in and out of the CPU. In any case, the sections' productive cooperation consists of transporting bits from section to section at the proper times. Again setting aside mere transporting, the remaining hideout for the laptop's thinking is somewhere inside those specialized CPU sections completing the assigned elemental activities.
  • Also considered at an abstract level, these CPU sections in turn are built from myriad tiny "gates": electronics organized to produce differing results depending on differing combinations of electricity flowing in. For example, an "AND" gate earns its name through emitting an "on" electric current when the gate's first entry point AND the second have "on" currents. Odd as it may sound, various gates ingeniously laid out, end to end and side by side, can perfectly perform the elemental activities of CPU sections. All that's demanded is that the information has consistent binary (bit) representations, which map directly onto the gates' notions of off and on. The elemental activities are performed on the information as the matching electric currents are transported through the gates. And since thinking is vastly more intriguing than dull transportation of information in any form, the hunt through the laptop needs to advance from gates 
This expedition was predictably doomed from the beginning. Peering deeper doesn't uncover a sharp break between "thinking" and conducting bits in complicated intersecting routes. No, the impression of thought is generated via algorithms, which are engineered arrangements of such routes. The spectacular whole isn't discredited by its unremarkable pieces. Valuable qualities can "emerge" from a cluster of pieces that don't have the quality in isolation. In fact, emergent qualities are ubiquitous, unmagical, and important. Singular carbon atoms don't reproduce, but carbon-based life does.

Ultimately, greater comprehension forces the recognition that the laptop's version of thinking is an emergent quality. Information processing isn't the accomplishment of a miraculous segment of it; it's more like the total collaborative effect of its abundant unremarkable segments. An outsider might scoff that "adding enough stupid things together yields something smart", but an insider grasps that the way those stupid things are "added" together makes a huge difference.

Readers can likely guess the conclusion: this understanding prepares someone to contemplate that all versions of thinking could be emergent qualities. Just as the paths in the laptop were the essence of its information processing, what if the paths in creatures' brains were the essence of their information processing? Laptops don't have a particular segment that supplies the "spark" of intelligence, so what if creatures' brains don't either? Admittedly, it's possible to escape by objecting that creatures' brains are, in some unspecified manner, fundamentally unlike everything else made of matter, but that exception seems suspiciously self-serving for a creature to propose... 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

MUSHy identity, mission, and investment

Recent blog entries have analyzed why beliefs can thrive in the face of missing or lackluster corroboration...particularly forms of corroboration that are inherently unrepeatable, infeasible, or illogical. Such beliefs can persist indefinitely in the midst of a self-reinforcing group of followers, who are extremely Serious. In a number of instructive ways, the overall result eerily echoes a MUSH: an early internet example of a group of hobbyists maintaining and experiencing a fictional realm together.

For instance, the group itself collectively acts as the sole measurement of "accuracy" for the content. And the deficiency in outside corroboration doesn't reduce the genuinely satisfying mental benefits furnished by the combined contributions of the group and the content. Human culture contains a multitude of comparisons (the internet alone never ceases facilitating far-flung topical communities). A MUSH is especially suitable because it's small, mild, and uncomplicated. It's less predominant and ambitious than its Serious counterparts, yet the telling similarities show how MUSHy those can be.

As already mentioned, mental benefits attract individuals to the group and the content and then keep their attention thereafter. Extracting even more commitment demands the potent incentive of deep-seated connections. One of those effective connections is identity. Once again, a MUSH presents harmless, miniaturized manifestations of the phenomenon. In this case, its content offers lists of fanciful identities for the participants to "inhabit"...during the times when they're logged in and typing. Whatever the size of the role they play, they become familiar with filling it. They know it completely and comfortably. They're adapted to meeting its expectations. Abandoning the MUSH requires abandoning that accustomed (and entertaining) portion of their identity.

The molding of members' identities is typical of Serious groups too, but to a larger extent, of course. Unlike a MUSH identity, perhaps their Serious identity is supposed to be constant, like a mask that can't ever be dropped. Also unlike a MUSH, they may spend the majority of their daily lives surrounded by the group. Details aside, once they have firmly embedded their group role into their personal identities, nonchalant challenges to the content appear as aggressive challenges to pieces of them. When reevaluating an idea entails potentially breaking their identity, they have an excuse to avoid going through with it.

Other kinds of connections complement the connection to identity: a mission is an excellent second kind. Whereas handing over an identity clarifies whom someone is to be, handing over a mission further clarifies what they are to do. An unambiguous mission offers manifold gratifications. Minor or intermediate goals are chances for short-term victory, and simultaneously, grand or virtually unattainable goals are endless reasons to continue striving. With a mission, group members can see a need for their exertions—and themselves. Their actions have weight and direction. They can feel that they're accomplishing valuable progress. They're part of making circumstances "better" defined by the mission objective, at any rate. They're an asset to the team, so giving up would be a disappointing, selfish betrayal of the team's trust. The "missions" pursued during long-term in-depth MUSH participation probably sound uncaptivating at first, but the basic allure shouldn't be underestimated. An amplifying cycle is at work: an intensely felt connection has the effect of motivating greater involvement, and steadily expanding involvement has the effect of intensifying the feeling of connection.

Obviously, missions of all shapes and sizes are pervasive in Serious groups as well. Although repetitive passive contemplation of the content gradually hardens it in followers' thoughts, missions dramatically animate it in their lives. By affecting group behavior directly, the content accrues exciting meaningfulness and importance. For more than a few, inspiring missions might engross them so much that almost all of the content itself is peripheral—inconsequential minutiae that's little more than outdated decoration.

Carrying out a mission implies investing toward it, but more generally, any investments are a third kind of enduring connections to the group and content. Likelier than not, financial investment is only one of several types. In practice the rest might be more burdensome: sacrifices of time, effort, and competing opportunities. The common thread is that each investment raises the stakes. Thereafter, rejecting the group and the content has the expensive price of affirming that these formerly promising trade-offs were worthless all along.

For a MUSH, this risk isn't terribly chilling. Still, it does sway the decision to come back again and again. The time-consuming events and deeds of past sessions are partially intended to set the stage for intriguing future sessions; to walk away and never use that "stage" seems wasteful. Just by investing enough in something, no matter how little it is, the investor transfers a sentiment of ownership onto it. They acquire a well-founded interest in its fate. Additionally, active group socializing is an "investment", though that mercenary mindset is best avoided. Initiating enjoyable group interactions increases the perceived value of the group...for more interactions. After someone has given themselves into opening and preserving reliable companionship, including at shallow or casual levels, they're understandably reluctant to hastily discard it.

By contrast with these low-key instances, the routine investments associated with Serious groups are strict and obligatory. So this policy is plainly strategic, because forcing quick, large investments secures the loyalty of new followers. The more that they invest, the more determined they are to think that their venture is deserving. Moreover, before the investments are actually tried, an above average cost for the group and the content creates a pretense of above average worth to justify the cost. That pretense exploits the usual link from relative superiority to a relatively greater charge—good stuff usually isn't easy or free. On the other hand, the most savvy strategy of all might be a set of (maybe implicit) tiers: starting tiers stipulate low but non-zero investments, yet the group continually prods everyone to progress to tiers of greater investments.

Given the cumulative pull of these deep-seated connections, the relevant question isn't necessarily "How is it possible for Serious groups cluster around ideas with problematic corroboration and then sustain those ideas?", but "How could such groups possibly not exist when broadly similar elements apparently suffice for fueling decidedly unserious groups, like a MUSH that merely clusters around outlandish stories?"

Saturday, May 02, 2015

data : code :: concept : verification

I've sometimes mused about whether my eventual embrace of a Pragmatism-esque philosophy was inevitable. The ever-present danger in musings like this is ordinary hindsight bias: concealing the actual complexity after the fact with simple, tempting connections between present and past. I can't plausibly propose that the same connections would impart equal force on everyone else. In general, I can't rashly declare that everyone who shares one set of similarities with me is obligated to share other sets of similarities. Hastily viewing everyone else through the tiny lens of myself is egocentrism, not well-founded extrapolation.

For example, I admit I can't claim that my career in software development played an instrumental role in the switch. I know too many competent colleagues whose beliefs clash with mine. At the same time, a far different past career hasn't stopped individuals in the Clergy Project from eventually reaching congenial beliefs. Nevertheless, I can try to explain how some aspects of my specific career acted as clues that prepared and nudged me. My accustomed thought patterns within the vocational context seeped into my thought patterns within other contexts.

During education and on the job, I encountered the inseparable ties between data and code. Most obviously, the final data was the purpose of running the code (in games the final data was for immediately synthesizing a gameplay experience).  Almost as obvious, the code couldn't run without the data flowing into it. Superficially, in a single ideal program, code and data were easily distinguishable collaborators taking turns being perfect. Perhaps a data set went in, and a digest of statistical measurements came out, and the unseen code might have ran in a machine on the other side of the internet.

At a more detailed level of comprehension, and in messy and/or faulty projects cobbled together from several prior projects, that rosy view became less sensible. When final data was independently shown to be inaccurate, the initial cause was sometimes difficult to deduce. Along the bumpy journey to the rejected result, data flowed in and out of multiple avenues of code. Fortunately the result retained meaningfulness about the interwoven path of data and code that led to it, regardless of its regrettable lack of meaningfulness in regard to its intended purpose. It authentically represented a problem with that path. Thus its externally checked mistakenness didn't in the least reduce its value for pinpointing and resolving that path's problems.

That wasn't all. The reasoning applied to flawless final data as well, which achieved two kinds of meaningfulness. Its success gave it metaphorical meaningfulness in regard to satisfying the intended purpose. But it too had the same kind of meaningfulness as flawed final data: literal meaningfulness about the path that led to it. It was still the engineered aftereffect of a busy model built out of moving components of data and code—a model ultimately made of highly organized currents of electricity. It was a symbolic record of that model's craftsmanship. Its accurate metaphorical meaning didn't erase its concrete roots.

The next stage of broadening the understanding of models was to incorporate humans as components—exceedingly sophisticated and self-guiding components. They often introduced the starting data or reviewed the ultimate computations. On top of that, they were naturally able to handle the chaotic decisions and exceptions that would require a lot more effort to perform with brittle code. Of course the downside was that their improvisations could derail the data. Occasionally, the core of an error was a human operator's unnoticed carelessness filling in a pivotal element two steps ago. Or a human's assumptions for interpreting the data were inconsistent with the assumptions used to design the code they were operating.

In this sense, humans and code had analogous roles in the model. Each were involved in carrying out cooperative series of orderly procedures on source data and leaving discernible traces in the final data. The quality of the final data could be no better than the quality of the procedures (and the source data). A model this huge was more apt to have labels such as "business process" or "information system", abbreviated IS. Cumulatively, the procedures of the complete IS acted as elaborations, conversions, analyses, summations, etc. of the source data. Not only was the final data meaningful for inferring the procedures behind it, but the procedures in turn produced greater meaningfulness for the source data. Meanwhile, they were futilely empty, motionless, and untested without the presence of data.

Summing up, data and code/procedures were mutually meaningful throughout software development. As mystifying as computers appeared to the uninitiated, data didn't really materialize from nothing. Truth be told, if it ever did so, it would arouse well-justified suspicion about its degree of accuracy. "Where was this figure drawn from?" "Who knows, it was found lying on the doorstep one morning." Long and fruitful exposure to this generalization invited speculation of its limits. What if strict semantic linking between data and procedures weren't confined to the domain of IS concepts?

A possible counterpoint was repeating that these systems were useful but also deliberately limited and refined models of complex realities. Other domains of concepts were too dissimilar. Then...what were those unbridgeable differences, exactly? What were the majority of beneficial concepts, other than useful but also deliberately limited and refined models? What were the majority of the thoughts and actions to verify a concept, other than procedures to detect the characteristic signs of the alleged concept? What were the majority of lines of argument, other than abstract procedures ready to be reran? What were the majority of secondary cross-checks, other than alternative procedures for obtaining equivalent data? What were the majority of serious criticisms to a concept, other than criticisms of the procedures justifying it? What were the majority of definitions, other than procedures to position and orient a concept among other known concepts?

For all that, it wasn't that rare for these other domains to contain some lofty concepts that were said to be beyond question. These were the kind whose untouchable accuracy was said to spring from a source apart from every last form of human thought and activity. Translated into the IS perspective, these were demanding treatment like "constants" or "invariants": small, circular truisms in the style of "September is month 9" and "Clients have one bill per time period". In practice, some constants might need to change from time to time, but those changes weren't generated via the IS. These reliable factors/rules/regularities furnished a self-consistent base for predictable IS behavior.

Ergo, worthwhile constants never received and continually contributed. They were unaffected by data and procedures yet were extensively influential anyway. They probably had frequent, notable consequences elsewhere in the IS. Taken as a whole, those system consequences strongly hinted the constants at work—including tacit constants never recognized by the very makers of the system. Like following trails of breadcrumbs, with enough meticulous observation, the backward bond from the system consequences to the constants could be as certain as the backward bond from data to procedures.

In other words, on the minimal condition that the constants tangibly mattered to the data and procedures of the IS, they yielded accountable expectations for the outcomes and/or the running of the IS. The principle was more profound when it was reversed: total absence of accountable expectations suggested that the correlated constant itself was either absent or at most immaterial. It had no pertinence to the system. Designers wishing to conserve time and effort would be advised to ignore it altogether. It belonged in the routine category "out of system scope". By analogy, if a concept in a domain besides IS declined the usual methods to be reasonably verified, and distinctive effects of it weren't identifiable in the course of reasonably verifying anything else, then it corresponded to neither data nor constants. Its corresponding status was out of system scope; it didn't merit the cost of tracking or integrating it.

As already stated, the analogy wasn't undeniable nor unique. It didn't compel anyone with IS expertise to reapply it to miscellaneous domains, and expertise in numerous fields could lead to comparable analogies. There was a theoretical physical case for granting it wide relevance, though. If real things were made of matter (or closely interconnected to things made of matter), then real things could be sufficiently represented with sufficient quantities of the data describing that matter. If matter was sufficiently represented, including the matter around it, then the ensuing changes of the matter were describable with mathematical relationships and thereby calculable through the appropriate procedures. The domain of real things qualified as an immense IS of unmanageable depth which couldn't be fully modeled, much less duplicated, by a separate IS feasibly constructed by humans.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

the MUSHy psychological payoffs of joint faith-beliefs

I've suggested that the relationship between the content of a MUSH and its group of participants resembles the relationship between the content of a joint faith-belief and its group of followers. First, the group is brought together through their common relationship to the content. Second, the group is also the active source for explaining, refining, and expanding the content. Third, the group itself determines the explicit and implicit rules for what the content is or can be—although everyone probably doesn't have equal influence on these determinations.

On the other hand, the differences are impossible to miss. Consistent with its technological era, a MUSH's outward expression is limited to typewriter-like lines of text data (including rough "images" created out of carefully arranged punctuation). Its inward mechanism is software running on a computer that's exposed to the internet. Interactions with it consist of relatively short bursts of digitized signals speeding back and forth over great distances of transmission lines. The endpoint is marks on a screen. Without question, the experiences of MUSH participants are drastically unlike the typical experiences of followers of joint faith-beliefs. These experiences seem comparatively lifeless, spare, and remote, even alongside the various other experiences enabled by internet connections. Someone could easily assume a corresponding deficiency in the subjective value of these experiences.

However, that assumption is at least a little mistaken. It doesn't recognize that the group supporting the MUSH is completely unforced, so the group's continuing existence signifies worthwhile value. Somehow the group gains a motivating psychological "payoff". It could come in many subtle forms: fascination with the content, companionship with others, gratification of helping to make a wonderful addition, etc. Once again, a MUSH has an illuminating parallel to joint faith-beliefs. Through payoffs that are purely (and admittedly) psychological, it can have appeal independent of its lack of factualness.

This parallel isn't mentioned in order to foolishly claim that the two categories have identical payoffs or that one can substitute for the other. A MUSH is a microcosm, a more modest example in every way. Actually, the thought-provoking surprise is that its payoffs are appreciable nonetheless. Although it's a leisure hobby, revolving around fiction, operating through a primitive's sufficient to spur a persistent human group to maintain its existence. Hence it reiterates major defects in trying to seriously corroborate beliefs on the basis of mental effects: 1) countless other stimuli can produce mental effects of the same kind, if not the same vividness, 2) usually the mental effects themselves are either nebulous, or packed with formulaic echoes of the subject's expectations. Greater intensity of mental effects and psychological payoffs solely position the category of joint faint-beliefs on a farther end of a MUSHy continuum, not reposition it on another continuum entirely. (Phrased in internet popular lingo, it's a which things just got real.)

Likewise, an unending array of human pursuits/ideas could serve as supplementary illustrations that joint faith-beliefs aren't exceptional. The variations are virtually unlimited, with contrasting levels of formality, realism, grandiosity, popularity, exclusivity, zeal, style, intricacy, comprehensiveness, mood, comfort, rigidity, difficulty, age, methodology. In any case, the conclusion stands. The psychological payoffs of joint faith-beliefs aren't satisfactory rationales for countering the possibility that the core is MUSHy after all.

Friday, April 03, 2015

the MUSHy content of joint faith-beliefs

In the Nineties, the fictional land Narnia existed.

The description "existed" might be too strong—more on that later. Without doubt, though, adapted textual representations of it showed up for long time periods on the internet thanks to MUSH software. As suggested by its lighthearted name Multi-User Shared Hallucination, it resembled interconnected advanced chat rooms embedded in an expanding multiplayer "game". Through their role-playing dialogue and software commands, MUSH "players" (world builders?) collectively fashioned virtual realms. By their mostly implicit mutual agreement to collaborate and follow that realm's distinct mythology, they populated/enriched it as they wished without transforming it into something unrecognizable...and therefore no longer appealing to them.

I recalled MUSHes after a point I raised at the start of the the last entry's penultimate item. I noticed that if "[...] followers of deeply organized/defined faith-beliefs still depend on unstated tradition spread through attitudes and norms and conventions," then their efforts to enjoy, preserve, and develop their joint faith-beliefs are analogous to the efforts of MUSH players. Inside the boundaries of a Narnia MUSH, players instinctively know that centaur characters may not carry laser guns or complain about the Seinfeld series finale. One might say that a "Narnia MUSH" with those elements wouldn't be a Narnia MUSH.

Meanwhile, inside the conceptual boundaries of joint faith-beliefs, followers abide by their own collection of unbreakable principles, not all of which are plainly described. For example, in practice they may forbid one another to propose that their supreme supernatural entity could experience surprise. Like MUSH enthusiasts they delineate the content that unites them, so their process and their content are fairly "MUSHy".

Indeed, their content cannot avoid being MUSHy, i.e. socially determined, as long as the customary methods for extending and/or corroborating it are largely non-transferable among ordinary followers. Individuals cannot even imagine how they could fully comprehend, recheck, and reconstruct their joint faith-beliefs without counsel. They cannot explain or recreate the mystical realizations contributed by elite past/present followers. They might have designated texts to analyze, but they cannot plausibly translate the texts into an identical detailed set of joint faith-beliefs, unless they have the necessary supply of standard guidelines/clues/addenda. (At first guess, a Narnia MUSH seems like it would have an utterly simple relationship to its "source texts". No, the "Narnia" lands in the MUSHes, in accordance with players' consensus, purposely improved the book series' original Narnia in a few aspects. Plus, blanks needed filling. Although the series had "Chronicles" in the title, it was tightly focused on the adventures of selected characters, not on an exhaustive account of the lands' history and geography and ecology.)

Consequently, MUSHy content has a self-referential nature. MUSHy content is valid...because the MUSH declared that it is. Each piece of content's acceptability builds on nothing beyond the pooled verdicts of past/present followers and its consistency with the rest of the historical, conglomerated, favorably rated pieces. Coherency is paramount, and it's assessed by trusted insiders. An external or standalone objection to their content is prone to being assessed as incoherent. And that negative assessment isn't necessarily affected by promising bases for the objection, such as alternate readings of their authorized texts or followers who have alternate views than theirs but major tenets in common.

Broadly speaking, MUSHy self-referential pieces of content are cultural realities, which interact with the real mental and physical actions of the culture's members. Sometimes the members are passively swayed by cultural realities. Sometimes they actively adapt the cultural realities in return. Money functions as a medium of exchange because everyone is willing to exchange money. Rulings on legal matters cite previous rulings on legal matters. The conversational rules for a language dialect are laid down by the conversations of the dialect's speakers. A cultural reality is bigger than the humans who live in its shadow...yet its sole toehold on realness is whatever humans do about/with it.

So, Narnia did "exist" in the MUSHes...but only in the shape of a cultural reality. It certainly interacted with the MUSH players like a cultural reality, such as consuming their time and creative attention. While the effects on players are enough to convincingly demonstrate existence as a pastime and as an artifact of bytes, these aren't nearly enough to convincingly demonstrate a land's existence. To be clear, aside from this very blog entry, nobody has contended that the content of the Narnia MUSHes existed in the same ways that a land does.

And that's the pivotal distinction between this analogy and joint faith-beliefs. By definition, faith-beliefs are ideas whose implications cannot be sufficiently verified using substantial corroboration. But faith-beliefs can thrive anyway as ongoing social projects. Like the Party of Nineteen Eighty-Four, followers can reinforce each others' visions. They can share the burden of adroitly harmonizing their earnestly desired faith-beliefs with unverified (or contradicted!) implications. Unfortunately, also like the book, they can become menacing as soon as they aspire to forcibly pulverize the whole outside universe of human understanding into the MUSH they adore...