Tuesday, November 29, 2011

this is an undefined entry

Standardization is indispensable. Through independent standards, various products can work well, regardless of market competition. On the other hand, successful standards have appropriate limits. Too much constraint impairs vital product flexibility1. To balance these concerns while remaining unambiguous, a standard might literally delineate topics which are called "undefined". It identifies and then ignores. Hence, a well-known technological gaffe is to assume too much about what's undefined by the standard.

I appreciate such indistinct confessions. In fact, one of my cynical unfulfilled wishes is to exercise that option in other contexts.
  • I'll finish the project by the agreed deadline. On the condition that everyone else finishes the preceding tasks promptly. Else the finish date is undefined.
  • I'll contribute a proportional share to the joint cost of supper. On the condition that I stopped by an ATM recently. Else I should warn you that the amount that I will find in my wallet is undefined.
  • I'll advocate the replacement of the software package. On the condition that the result is an unqualified improvement. Else my original level of support for the replacement is undefined.
  • I'll follow the specifications. On the condition that the specifications are exact matches for what I was already planning. Else my fidelity to the specifications is undefined.
  • I'll write a program that handles the input correctly. On the condition that all the input is correctly entered. Else the program's actions are undefined.
  • I'll stay alert at all times in long meetings. On the condition that I slept soundly the previous night. Else my attentiveness is undefined.
  • I'll continue adding more examples to the list. On the condition that I don't start to feel bored. Else the number of more examples is undefined.

1The product can exploit the flexibility in myriad ways. It could do nothing or fail. Or it could provide additional benefit. It could violate unstated expectations. Or it could guarantee a result which the standard doesn't. It could optimize for greater efficiency by performing fewer checks. Or it could optimize for greater infallibility by performing innumerable checks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

the rational course for tiresome dollar pessimists

I Am Not A Financial Advisor. Nevertheless, here's some advice for the most tiresome dollar pessimists.

I'm not referring to lowly savers who are understandably anxious about the negative real interest rates of their risk-free deposit accounts. I'm referring to the strident soothsayers who remark repeatedly that the dollar is primed to become worthless in the near future, i.e. within the next two years. They know just enough about economics to support the opinions that they hold from the beginning to the end of time, because changing your thoughts in response to objective data is considered a sign of weakness. They're enthusiastic to spread their discoveries of the various factors that are poised to sink the dollar.

If any of them are reading this, please accept the criticism that you're missing a once in a lifetime opportunity to exploit your special knowledge about the dollar's imminent path. First, you need to keep quiet. The more that the rest of the market shares your information, the lesser advantage you have. They don't know that their dollars are attached to little imaginary fuses that have almost run down. If they did, they would compete directly with your financial strategies; in any case they'd refuse to be the ignorant suckers whom you need to carry out the transactions.

Second, you need to act immediately. Your prediction is time-limited by its very nature. Once the shocking collapse springs into action, no more profit is possible. The longer that you delay, your unique prescience decreases in value. Like a stock, it's best to jump in before everyone else, at the earliest time, on the "ground floor".

Third, now that you've established the supreme unreliability and undesirability of the US dollar, you should think of a suitable alternative store of value. Since other economic agents will foolishly continue to expect that you honor their dollars and demand that you exchange dollars for their goods/services, the alternative must be relatively easy to convert. You could opt for a number of wild choices, but I suggest acting conservatively in this instance: gold pieces. Find a trustworthy local dealer who's not afraid of high volume and low margins. Don't resort to one of those huge gold piece dealers who show TV commercials; they're far too inconvenient for everyday use.

After buying gold pieces with your volatile dollars, treat the local dealer as your replacement bank. That is, periodically trade some of your gold pieces for intermediate dollars so that you can make your next batch of purchases.  And when someone tries to hand you dollars, hurry to the your dealer to trade those "hot potatoes" for comforting hard gold pieces. Throughout your dealings, keep in mind that for you, dollars are like credit card balances. You use dollars purely for convenience and never hold the dollars long-term. That way, the horrible inflation rate that's right around the corner won't affect you too deeply. Going back to the stock analogy, you're closer to a day trader than a value investor. True, your earnings will be affected by the unfortunate fluctuations of the dollar, but only over very short time spans. You can also expect to lose some value due to the constant churn of conversion between dollar and gold piece, because the dealer probably expects to be compensated for his or her service and the general overhead of running the business. Think of these transaction costs as a reasonable price to pay in return for your peace of mind.

All this dependency on the gold market may make you queasy. Apart from the projected inflation of those irritating dollars, what if there are significant swings in that individual part of the economy? Those swings could erode the value of your gold pieces. To avoid that risk, you might diversify. In addition to the gold dealer, you might pursue other nonperishable assets for storing value. eBay is packed with smooth open markets for a wide variety of options. As one market goes down, you could buy using that market rather than the rest. As a second goes up, you could sell using that market rather than the rest. Call your diversified collection of markets your "basket of goods". Perhaps, at that point, you could publish your forecast of massive inflation far and wide, and then your audience would scurry to buy from your basket of goods. In this brave new world, where market participants cease to hoard dollars, you will be king.

Or you could avoid both gold pieces and diversified baskets of goods. Consider the Canadian dollar. The Loonie could be quite apropos.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Reverse Causality Illusion

I debated whether to mention the Reverse Causality Illusion in my response to the book Willpower, but it was too tangential to merit space in the text and too obscure to describe in five or fewer sentences in a footnote. It's a plain idea with a short definition and lengthy implications. The Reverse Causality Illusion is a proposition about the future that "retroactively" causes changes in the present. It's much more common than it sounds. It underpins the driving narratives that motivate many human actions that are otherwise inexplicable. In a word, it's destiny1. It's willpower's "precommitment" taken to the nth degree.

The strength of the Reverse Causality Illusion depends directly on the realistic treatment of the proposition about the future: adherence to every facet of the proposition. From a proponent's standpoint, the proposition is firmly true. Its part of the future is as irrevocable as the past2. Contemplation of alternatives is fruitless. It's so certain that it repels emotional or intellectual fixation on its likelihood. Anxiety is unnecessary. Dread serves no purpose. Evidence that supports other outcomes has to be inconclusive. Decisions can't contradict it. Impulses that disagree are temporary delusions.

Is this a fatalistic outlook? Definitively. Is it restrictive? Sure, as restrictive as tying Odysseus to the boat mast so he's unable to follow the Sirens. Is it double-think? Yep, since the brain is fighting its thoughts with its thoughts (who gave me the right to order me around?). Is it nonsensical? Perhaps, unless and until someone's actions confirm its accuracy.

Some specimens achieve a still-higher notch of curious self-reinforcement. Whereas lower illusions enforce boundaries on actions and feelings, superior illusions enforce boundaries on doubts. Someone reasons, "The future is fixed but my belief in it is wavering; I should try harder to reassure myself about these facts that are yet-to-come." Essentially the "reality" of a proposition about the future takes precedence over each doubt of it. Thoughts that contradict the proposition are proof that the thinker is mistaken, not proof that the proposition is less likely! Thereby the supposed future can constrict just as completely as the past.

Nevertheless, a judicious Reverse Causality Illusion has its uses, especially for inducing calmness3 or pursuing an appropriate goal. To reiterate, in order for the illusory proposal to push through time in reverse and cause differences immediately, it cannot be weak. A working illusion is vivid and plausible. If it's not feasible or believable, it's too easily interpreted as an ignorable wish or passing whim. Necessary mental revisions or physical adjustments will increase its perceived probability4.

A sturdy illusion isn't enough. Perverse commitment is the second requisite. An internal mind game needs willing players. At all costs, the existence of the illusion must seem independent and indestructible. Regardless of its authorship, it transforms into an objective occurrence that happens to not be tangible. First the brain cultivates the illusion, then the brain obeys the illusion thereafter despite remembering the creative origin. Illogical or not, this strategy is actually consistent with well-known observations. Isolated parts of the brain aren't able to unilaterally sort reality from fantasy or true from false5. Uncritical acceptance is the default effortless response. Sections of the brain can deceive other sections by issuing prophecies.

Of course, the prophecy might be correct. Days ago, I had foretold that yesterday afternoon was the time period of tidying the exterior of my house. I dislike miscellaneous humdrum tasks, but what else could I do? I'd been expecting that event. My sense of annoyance about it had preemptively risen and subsided. I'd released my misgivings about it and shifted my angst to uncertain outcomes. Why should I continue to expend my limited animus on an impersonal and unavoidable circumstance?6

1Reverse Causality Illusion is distinct from normal predictions. Predictions are far less pretentious, bossy, and insistent. Predictions are reasonable guesses which are tied to bounded confidence levels.
2Someone who's learned about Minkowski spacetime may ponder the notion that their whole worldline exists. Past, present, and future are merely coordinates. The future is "there" like the room at the end of the hallway is there.
3With the caveat that strong phobias, persistent depression, or pervasive anxiety require more drastic techniques and/or chemicals. Your mileage may vary.
4For example, in my communication courses I found that the cheery proposition "My next speech will go well" only felt tenable after rehearsing the speech and laying out my phrasing and gestures beforehand. Rehearsal may bother procrastinators precisely because it reminds them of the impending unpleasantness, but why not use a "safe" environment to confront and eliminate the worrisome unknowns of how the speech will go? It doesn't prohibit spontaneity at delivery time. To the contrary, close familiarity with the speech's overall delivery allows for better-informed choices of how to tweak its details freely as the situation warrants or as inspiration strikes.
5The same gullibility affects conscious memory. Oft-repeated or pleasing lies tend to be later recalled as truths, including when the hearer is aware of falsity at the original time of hearing. As the popular saying goes, never let the facts ruin a good story (or conventional wisdom, or common sense).
6I'm dramatizing. My hatred of that category of work is real but not deep.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

belated comments on the Tron Legacy iso concept

Far be it from me to pretend that the movie Tron Legacy is realistic or self-consistent. In an otherworldly setting, ridiculous details of many varieties are normal, if not expected. Why must the heroes do this or that? Why do objects have those peculiar shapes and colors? Just because1.

However, the concept of the "iso" is an exception. It's as interesting to me now, when I stream the movie from Netflix, as it was when I first saw the movie in the theater. An iso is an incredibly complex intelligence that evolved from out of the movements of the information in the Tron "digital world", a highly unusual computer system that apparently is POSIX-compatible. The isoes are "bio-digital jazz, man." Supposedly the answers to every problem are achievable by them. No human or program can entirely comprehend them. They're judged too chaotic to be part of an unchanging perfection.

In my interpretation, the isoes are programs with a mind-blowing aptitude for modeling and understanding. A model is a duplication of a thing's information. Useful models enable prediction, analysis, and manipulation. To understand is to employ a working model. Of course, models may be imprecise, nonverbal, incomplete, etc. 

We humans constantly brush up against limits in our ability to make models. It could be difficult to invent the right metaphor or to deduce the right mathematical expression. In any case, our brains, and therefore our mental resources for such tasks, are obviously finite. We can work around these hard realities in any number of ways, and we often do.

But imagine that the iso is a program whose computational equivalent is a brain as large as an average adult human body. With that magnitude of potential representations devoted to a model, it could be much more comprehensive and true-to-life. Although there would still be limiting factors (cf. combinatorial explosion), the model's simulations would more likely reflect the full subtlety2. It would catch the higher-order, peripheral, and mutually-interacting effects, which are emergent3.

Furthermore, creative modifications of the model would have more room for exploration, so it could more easily compute how to respond to the model in order to achieve a benefit. In this sense, an iso is indeed jazz-like in its methods. It imitates, then it adds or subtracts to the original by informed trial and error. It doesn't need to resort to the human simplification of forcing something into a preconceived pattern for the sake of comprehension. Instead, it "absorbs" the thing into a mirror model, and travels the depths of that model.

An iso learns to defeat you at chess by discerning the reasoning process which you use for chess. Sooner or later it uses that knowledge to figure out which moves will circumvent the effectiveness of that process. After that point there's no real competition or game remaining; you can no longer "surprise" the iso with your decisions. You're the iso's pawn. What if the iso could similarly anticipate cancer's "moves"?

I'll grant that my interpretation might not be close to what the movie meant, assuming the movie had a specific idea in mind. Once someone presumes that artificial intelligence is possible, it's no great leap to speculate that it could be made superior to human intelligence, at least in restricted domains or according to superficial measurements.

1To take just one example of the missed opportunities embedded in the movie's premises, the conversion of a human to and from digital data is essentially a teleporter. Or perhaps Wonkavision, when it happens over a wireless connection. Completing orders for merchandise "over the Internet" would be literal. Sharing a digitization of a person in Bittorrent would violate laws against human cloning, I suppose.
2Philosophically or theoretically, no one can ever say with absolute certainty that a sufficiently complicated simulation is perfectly accurate to an original. Yet most humans would opine that a simulation "works" (and is true) when it consistently matches all actual/empirical tests within a reasonable error threshold.
3I purposefully compared the iso to a brain rather than a supercomputer. It wouldn't be a massive array of motionless memory acted upon by unvarying procedures. The movie states that an iso is artificial life. The expectation is software layout that's inseparable from hardware layout, innumerable adjustable junctions between parts, and feedback loops galore.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Willpower and narratives

I read Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. According to the described research, energy is integral to self-control. Resistance to the temptation of short-term impulses is "real" work. These systematic study findings agree with anecdotal experience: tired or hungry humans are more likely to act irritable and self-indulgent, even when the fatigue is mental. Thus good sleeping and eating routines are causes or fuel for self-control as well as effects of it.

Philosophically speaking, these overall facts on willpower add to the formidable pile of compelling evidence against the mythical "disembodied mind" (soul). Humans have startling potential for decision-making and self-denial. But aside from abnormal genes and/or painstaking training, they have limits1. They can't actually force their bodies to do whatever they wish, no matter how much perseverance stirs within their alleged supernatural "hearts". Most obviously, the underlying physicality, i.e. the brain, will shut down at some point due to simple exhaustion. Although before that happens, involuntary reactions probably will wrest the weary body away from the tyranny of conscious direction2.

Whether or not someone believes in a mystical basis for willpower, the book has practical suggestions. I imagine that my initial retort is like other know-it-all readers: "That's it? If lasting behavior modification were that straightforward, why is failure so prevalent?" However, a few of the book's propositions fit snugly into my favorite personal schema for human willpower: narratives. The more effectively that someone constructs and follows a narrative of a desired plan of action to reach a goal, the greater the chance of success. Examples:
  • The book's preference of specific details over broad intentions is a factor in a narrative's perceived level of "reality". A vague narrative is prone to treatment as a fantasy. Mushy rules or to-dos are difficult narratives to interpret as true - or as false in the case of failure.
  • One of the book's foremost points is the need for frequent monitoring and short-term milestones, combined with the willingness to be flexible and forgiving in the immediate-term when inevitable complications occur. The same applies to a narrative, which must inhabit attention for it to be a tangible guide. Narratives must often enter everyday awareness in order to be measurements and signposts for actual deeds.
  • Long-term rewards and consequences require extra emphasis in thoughts, because the competing short-term incentives are naturally louder. Good narratives are clear on the desirability of the far-off benefit, so attentiveness to a narrative substitutes a different, imagined item for the present temptation. The narrative projects the decision-maker outside the influence of the current time and place. Taste of future victory compensates for withdrawal now. Other than abstract reinforcement, this mental operation is a helpful distraction3.
  • Orderly environments and personal habits aid willpower. Messes consume mental resources, leaving less room for considering proposed narratives. In contrast, tidiness of oneself is a subconscious increase in the narrative's plausibility. Little triumphs and confidence boosters bring it within reach. "I see that I can exert control. Maybe I can carry out a hard narrative too."
  • "Precommitment" could be the willpower technique that aligns closest with narratives. What else is the essence of a narrative, if not a vision of what future-me will do (and be)? 
Perhaps the preceding are signs that I'm trying to cram the book's discoveries into a biased framework that I find attractive. I readily admit that I'm enamored with narratives as the "secret weapon" of humanity's advanced aspects. Language is a medium for narratives. Fancy plans are narratives ("Two right turns then a left"). Self-concept is a narrative. Sympathy is a narrative that features another, in which the self can be exchanged for the main character. Indeed, any interpretation of another's actions or knowledge depends on narratives4. Teachings on morality, character-building, and religion employ particularly dramatic narratives for manipulation.

Entrenched narratives are more than ideas, too, because humans act in response5. Unlike other organisms, which are dominated by fairly simple inborn drives and brains, humans incorporate surprising complexity in their decisions. Viewing themselves as part of larger narratives, their acts and roles need not exhibit complete biological/evolutionary reasonableness. The narrative mechanism enables a vertiginous third-person perspective beyond the self: "What I do here today will echo across history and inspire other trite expressions..." Angst-heavy humans are capable of envisioning the implications of a choice on the trajectory of the chooser's life story. They can be embodiments of principles. They can feel the coercion of idolizing an ideal version of themselves6. The grip of relentless narratives yields levels of human willpower which shouldn't be underestimated.

1My father once commented that part of the fun of watching Survivor is to see how long the contestants manage to act normally. As normal as the typical Survivor contestant, anyway. The strain breaks/hardens people in different ways.
2Recall the common remarks, "I don't remember giving in. Eventually my attention wandered for a moment, and it happened automatically." Some commentators have said that humans more accurately have free-won't rather than free-will. Alcohol doesn't introduce strange motives. All it needs to do is suspend rational judgment. Conscious courage is the ability to override impulsive fear. Mere fearlessness could come from deficient perception or comprehension of risks.
3Distraction is underrated. Illusionists and experimenters have demonstrated repeatedly that a sufficient distraction virtually eliminates other stimuli. Stopping to ponder a questionable option is less advantageous than minimizing it by moving on. Simply put, more time spent simultaneously contemplating and yet "fighting" a motive corresponds to more moment-by-moment opportunities to surrender.
4Specifically, the "theory of mind" presupposes that the self's mind is an adequate model for others' minds. Their point of view is obtained by putting the self's mind in their narratives. Carl's eyes are shifty. If I were Carl, shifty eyes would indicate that I'm was hiding something. So by matching the real narrative of Carl with a hypothetical narrative about myself, I assume that Carl is hiding something.
5And according to what I've previously mentioned about philosophical Pragmatism, entrenched narratives play a still deeper role. The narratives that a human has judged to "work", by whatever standard, are the tools for constructing human truth from confusing/ambiguous raw data. Moreover, numerous confrontations with reality may prompt complicated revisions and additions to patchwork narratives. Otherwise the narratives no longer would "work". ("My paranoia can accommodate the new facts quite neatly...")
6The parenting section of the book doubts the effectiveness of training self-esteem versus training willpower. I don't dispute that. In terms of an aspirational narrative about the self, the distinction is how demanding the narrative is: not only the size of the relative gap between the ideal and the "real" self but also the extremity of the ideal. Humans who think "I've reached my apex just the way I already am" are aiming at a lower target than humans who think "I'm going to try to become elite".

Thursday, November 03, 2011

to be agile is to adapt

Not too long ago, I read Adapt by Tim Harford. It's an engrossing presentation of a profound idea: beyond a particular bound of complexity, logical or top-down analysis and planning is inferior to creative or bottom-up variations and feedback. Adaptation can be indispensable. Often, humans don't know enough for other approaches to really work. They oversimplify, refuse to abandon failing plans, and force the unique aspects of "fluid" situations into obsolete or inapplicable generalizations. They're too eager to disregard the possible impact of "local" conditions. Biological evolution is the prime example of adaptation, but Harford effectively explores adaptation, or non-adaptation, in economies, armies, companies, environmental regulations, research funding, and more. Although the case studies benefit from adept narration, some go on for longer than I prefer.

Software developers have their own example. Adapting is the quintessence of Agile project management1. As explained in the book, adaptive solutions exploit 1. variation, 2. selection, and 3. survivability. Roughly speaking, variation is attempting differing answers, selection is evaluating and ranking the answers, and survivability is preventing wrong answers from inflicting fatal damage.

Agile projects have variation through refactoring and redesign while iterations proceed. Agile code is rewritten appropriately when the weaknesses of past implementations show up in real usage. Agile developers aren't "wedded" to their initial naive thoughts; they try and try again.

Agile projects have selection through frequent and raw user feedback. Unlike competing methodologies with excessive separation between developers and users, information flows freely. Directly expressed needs drive the direction of the software. The number of irrelevant or confusing features is reduced. Developers don't code whatever they wish or whatever they inaccurately guess about the users.

Agile projects have survivability through small and focused cycles. The software can't result in massive failure or waste because the cost and risk are broken up into manageable sections. Agile coaches repeat a refrain that resembles the book's statements: your analysis and design is probably at least a little bit wrong, so it's better to find out sooner and recover than to compound those inevitable flaws.

1Of course, the priority of people over process is also quintessential.