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...."