Rationality Quotes: February 2011

Take off every 'quote'! You know what you doing. For great insight. Move 'quote'.

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At home there was a game that all the parents played with their children. It was called, What Did You See? Mara was about Dann’s age when she was first called into her father’s room one evening, where he sat in his big carved and coloured chair. He said to her, ‘And now we are going to play a game. What was the thing you liked best today?’

At first she chattered: ‘I played with my cousin . . . I was out with Shera in the garden . . . I made a stone house.’ And then he had said, ‘Tell me about the house.’ And she said, ‘I made a house of the stones that come from the river bed.’ And he said, ‘Now tell me about the stones.’ And she said, ‘They were mostly smooth stones, but some were sharp and had different shapes.’ ‘Tell me what the stones looked like, what colour they were, what did they feel like.’

And by the time the game ended she knew why some stones were smooth and some sharp and why they were different colours, some cracked, some so small they were almost sand. She knew how rivers rolled stones along and how some of them came from far away. She knew that the river had once been twice as wide as it was now. There seemed no end to what she knew, and yet her father had not told her much, but kept asking questions so she found the answers in herself. Like, ‘Why do you think some stones are smooth and round and some still sharp?’ And she thought and replied, ‘Some have been in the water a long time, rubbing against other stones, and some have only just been broken off bigger stones.’ Every evening, either her father or her mother called her in for What Did You See? She loved it. During the day, playing outside or with her toys, alone or with other children, she found herself thinking, Now notice what you are doing, so you can tell them tonight what you saw.

She had thought that the game did not change; but then one evening she was there when her little brother was first asked, What Did You See? and she knew just how much the game had changed for her. Because now it was not just What Did You See? but: What were you thinking? What made you think that? Are you sure that thought is true?

When she became seven, not long ago, and it was time for school, she was in a room with about twenty children – all from her family or from the Big Family – and the teacher, her mother’s sister, said, ‘And now the game: What Did You See?’

Most of the children had played the game since they were tiny; but some had not, and they were pitied by the ones that had, for they did not notice much and were often silent when the others said, ‘I saw . . .’, whatever it was. Mara was at first upset that this game played with so many at once was simpler, more babyish, than when she was with her parents. It was like going right back to the earliest stages of the game: ‘What did you see?’ ‘I saw a bird.’ ‘What kind of a bird?’ ‘It was black and white and had a yellow beak.’ ‘What shape of beak? Why do you think the beak is shaped like that?’

Then she saw what she was supposed to be understanding: Why did one child see this and the other that? Why did it sometimes need several children to see everything about a stone or a bird or a person?

Doris Lessing, "Mara and Dann"

A long one:

. . . once upon a time men lived among the giants, who were like themselves but far more powerful, and these giants always had a supply of bread, fruit, milk, and all that was necessary to sustain life, which they must have acquired in ways that cost them little, for they would always give away their goods to whoever knew how to please them. And the giants would also carry them wherever they wanted to go, provided they asked in the proper way. So it came about that men never thought of working, nor of walking, nor of building wagons or ships; instead they became natural orators, and spent all of their time watching the giants, figuring out what would please or displease them, smiling at them or imploring them with tears in their eyes; or else simply pronouncing the necessary words, which had to be memorized exactly, though they had no understanding of the changes of humor that would come over the giants, their brusque refusals, or their sudden willingness. Now, if some man, in those days, had tried to get something for himself by his own industry, they would have laughed him to scorn; for the results of his labor would have been puny beside the immense provisions the giants had amassed; and besides with one false step the giants could easily have crushed those little beginnings of labor out of existence. That is why all human wisdom came down to knowing how to speak and how to persuade; and, rather than move things about with great effort, men chose to learn what words it would take to get one of the giants to do their moving. In short, their main business, or rather their only business, was to please, and above all not to displease, their incomprehensible masters, who seemed nevertheless to be charged with nourishing them and housing them and transporting them, and who eventually carried out their duties, provided they were prayed to. This kind of existence, in which men never knew whether they were the masters or the slaves, lasted for a long time, so that the habit of asking, of hoping, of counting on those stronger than themselves left indelible traces in human nature. . . . That is why, as if they were still waiting for the return of the giants, men do not forget to pray and make offerings, though no giant has ever shown himself . . .

-- "Alain" (Émile Chartier) The Gods. A meditation on childhood.

I thought the punchline was going to be that the men were cats.

Nah, definitely dogs. They're the undisputed masters of manipulating humans in the animal kingdom.

I guess I'm far too literal-minded. The whole time I simply assumed the giants were a normal God parable. I was rather non-plussed about the whole quote until I saw "A meditation on childhood" and then my head exploded. I don't even remember being a kid anymore.

I saw it coming before I read the line that explicitly mentioned childhood.

On the next page in the book, the author mentions, "I decided to go through with the fiction of the giants, although the reader will have seen by the third line where I was leading him."

Personally, I didn't see it coming when I first read it. My first reaction was pretty much the same as Eneasz'.

This was wasted as a point about 'gods'. The commentary on human social instincts irrespective of belief in literal gods was far more insightful.

Ok, so it seems almost everyone got a different idea of who the giants and the men were. Children and adults, pets and humans, humans and gods, governments and populations (in both directions!), humans and computers...

My first impulse upon seeing this, is that this must be a very general phenomena that occurs in a great spectrum of situations. That all these different situations are isomorpic towards one another. The next is that we should come up with a generalized theory for the concept and maybe make up a word to access the concept quicker.

I didn't know where it was going at all until I hit the words "instead they became natural orators." It was a that point that I thought of my 17-month-old daughter. Thank you for a very timely message.

Hah; I read through that entire thing expecting the punchline to be that the giants were computers.

Maybe one day they will be.

Or we will be, or they'll make paperclips of us all.

For most of the time I spent reading this quote, I thought the men were celebrities or demagogues and the giants were the populace.

I thought it was a Marxist parable, or something of the sort...an allegorical critique of capitalism, supervalue, the elite exploiting the masses.

I must be in a bad mood because of the Cathie Black situation in NYC...where the "giants" are the democratic masses, who protested against the natural orators of our government...

Last night was a "change of humor that would come over the giants"... a "brusque refusal"...but in the end the middle/lower classes "seemed nevertheless to be charged with nourishing them and housing them and transporting them, and who eventually carried out their duties, provided they were prayed to" (the "praying" being only the making of promises, "I stand for the middle class", "we'll create jobs for you", "think of the children!!11!!1!").

The masses do, at times, crush the endeavors of the orators (more than one reference to Egypt was made last night)...but for the most part the giant masses do what they are told, as long as they hear the right things, and have a cookie or a coo tossed to them now and then.

I freely admit taking too much liberty with all of that...but it really is what I was thinking about as I read it.

I will not procrastinate regarding any ritual granting immortality.

--Evil Overlord List #230

Day ends, market closes up or down, reporter looks for good or bad news respectively, and writes that the market was up on news of Intel's earnings, or down on fears of instability in the Middle East. Suppose we could somehow feed these reporters false information about market closes, but give them all the other news intact. Does anyone believe they would notice the anomaly, and not simply write that stocks were up (or down) on whatever good (or bad) news there was that day? That they would say, hey, wait a minute, how can stocks be up with all this unrest in the Middle East?

--Paul Graham

An interesting concept...but I wonder. I bet at least some people would actually notice that. They'd see unrest in the middle east and say "hmm...oil prices didn't change the way I expected them to" or something. Sometimes you see things like " index rises in spite of ".

I think Graham's inference has merit: these people don't really know what's happening...but I think some people at least would notice the anomoly.

Well now I want to test this. Do we have anyone here who thinks they know a thing or two about the stock market? If so would they be amenable to an experiment?

I'm thinking that they would agree not to look at any stock price information for a day (viewing all the other news they want). At the end of the day they are presented with some possible sets of market closes, all but one of which of which are fake, and we see if they can reliably find the right one.

Finding the most probable market outcome given a few possibilities and a day's news is easier than noticing by yourself that the news and the market don't fit.

I will participate if you'd like to try, there are some problems with the experiment though

I'm still interested, what changes would you suggest?

Sorry for the slow reply, want to do this over email? im gbasin at gmail

I'm benelliott3 at gmail. To be honest I'm not very familiar with the stock-market so if you could suggest a procedure for the experiment, including such things as where to get the information that would be appreciated.

Care to precommit to a discussion post about the experiment regardless of the result?

Well, the time Steve Ballmer announced he was to quit the Microsoft, Microsoft's stock jumped quite a bit, clearly because Ballmer quit, even though one could perhaps explain either a raise or a fall with Ballmer quitting. Expected square of a change was big from Ballmer quitting, that's for sure. Same goes for any dramatic news, such as the recent gas attack in Syria.

And yes, over the time one could tell that something is up if the stock market graph is uneventful while there's dramatic news.

Bottom line is, a causal link can exist and be inferred even when there is no correlation.

In the past, also, war was one of the main instruments by which human societies were kept in touch with physical reality.

(...)

In philosophy, or religion, or ethics, or politics, two and two might make five, but when one was designing a gun or an aeroplane they had to make four.

-- George Orwell, 1984

"Great is Bankruptcy: the great bottomless gulf into which all Falsehoods, public and private, do sink, disappearing; whither, from the first origin of them, they were all doomed. For Nature is true and not a lie. No lie you can speak or act but it will come, after longer or shorter circulation, like a Bill drawn on Nature's Reality, and be presented there for payment, - with the answer, No effects.

Pity only that it often had so long a circulation: that the original forger were so seldom he who bore the final smart of it! Lies, and the burden of evil they bring, are passed on; shifted from back to back, and from rank to rank; and so land ultimately on the dumb lowest rank, who with spade and mattock, with sore heart and empty wallet, daily come in contact with reality, and can pass the cheat no further.
[...]
But with a Fortunatus' Purse in his pocket, through what length of time might not almost any Falsehood last! Your Society, your Household, practical or spiritual Arrangement, is untrue, unjust, offensive to the eye of God and man. Nevertheless its hearth is warm, its larder well replenished: the innumerable Swiss of Heaven, with a kind of Natural loyalty, gather round it; will prove, by pamphleteering, musketeering, that it is a truth; or if not an unmixed (unearthly, impossible) Truth, then better, a wholesomely attempered one, (as wind is to the shorn lamb), and works well.

Changed outlook, however, when purse and larder grow empty! Was your Arrangement so true, so accordant to Nature's ways, then how, in the name of wonder, has Nature, with her infinite bounty, come to leave it famishing there? To all men, to all women and all children, it is now indubitable that your Arrangement was false. Honour to Bankruptcy; ever righteous on the great scale, though in detail it is so cruel! Under all Falsehoods it works, unweariedly mining. No Falsehood, did it rise heaven-high and cover the world, but Bankruptcy, one day, will sweep it down, and make us free of it."

--The French Revolution: a history, by Thomas Carlyle; as quoted by Mencius Moldbug

There is no greater joy than riding the words of Thomas Carlyle.

He may not always be correct (although his point above is a blow of hard-hitting truth as great as any ever written) but his phrasing, his metaphors, his analogy, are all magnificent.

But ... but ... what about bankruptcies induced by a liquidity crunch -- the kind the political elite's propagandists have have been telling me entitle a "too big to fail" company to receive perpetual government assistance?

In those cases, bankruptcy wouldn't suck up falsehoods, would it?

No. But I think you* are guilty of affirming the consequent. If something is false, then it will end in bankruptcy - but that does not logically imply that everything ending in bankruptcy was false. So something true could still end in bankruptcy (for whatever reason, like a liquidity crunch).

* Or Carlyle, I suppose, but given the choice between accusing a famous thinker of an elementary fallacy and a quick off-the-cuff Internet comment, I'd rather accuse the latter.

If your business is structured such that a liquidity crunch will drive you bankrupt then some restructuring might be in order.

Now one can (and I certainly would be willing) to make the argument that it is almost impossible for a small to medium sized business to structure itself such that a liquidity crunch exacerbated by an inept political class and a rapacious bureaucracy (or a rapacious political class and an inept bureaucracy, whatever).

In that case it's best to take your ball and go home leaving the enlightened revolutionaries with the society they voted for.

If your business is structured such that a liquidity crunch will drive you bankrupt then some restructuring might be in order.

Eh, that's what I thought do, but the very idea looks to be beyond the pale. They tell me that we needed to make huge loans on terms no one else could get to prop up some large banks, and it's "only" to provide "liquidity". But my thought is: I find it extremely unsettling to be in an economy where such a huge fraction of it is based on business plans this brittle; and the sooner and more spectacularly they die off, the better a foundation future growth will be built on.

But current mainstream thinking doesn't even allow such a thought.

I also saw people present, as "evidence" of a liquidity crunch, the fact that overnight lending rights spiked from 4% to 6% annualized. Considering that these are the annualized rates for loans with a life of a few weeks at most, this is a trivial increase in borrowing costs. A business so fragile that it can't withstand paying a few extra pennies for ultra-cheap loans every once in a while ... well, any economy dependent on such brittle business plans is living on borrowed time anyway.

Well, I don't know. The sort of gun you had before modern precision machining, 4.2 would be good enough, maybe 4.3 at a pinch.

"Programmers waste enormous amounts of time thinking about, or worrying about, the speed of noncritical parts of their programs, and these attempts at efficiency actually have a strong negative impact when debugging and maintenance are considered.
We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time; premature optimization is the root of all evil."

--Donald Knuth (see also Amdahl's law)

A premature really powerful Optimization Process is the root of all future evil.

"The first rule of code optimization: Don't."

I never thought of this quote outside the context of programming before reading it here, but it does seem pretty generally applicable. The force behind premature optimization is the force that causes me to spend so much time comparison shopping that the time lost eventually outvalues the price difference; or to fail to give money to charity at all because there may be a better charity to give it to. (I've recently started donating the dollar to Vague Good Cause at stores and restaurants when asked, because it's all well and good to say "SIAI is better," but that defense only works if I then actually give the dollar to SIAI.)

The Company that needs a new machine tool is already paying for it.

-old Warner & Swasey ad

Just saw on reddit a perfect accidental metaphor: jakeredfield posted this in r/gaming:

For the people that have no played Portal yet, be warned, there may be spoilers up ahead for you.

So anyway, I am a huge fan of Portal, I love everything about the game. I bought it upon release and have played through it multiple times. My friends aren't as big of gamers as me so it took them some time to get their hands on Portal. My one friend didn't have a computer capable of running Portal so I let him play on mine.

I pulled up a chair besides him and eagerly watched him play then entire time. He loved the game. I expected him to. It's an awesome game. But here comes the WTF part...(SPOILERS AHEAD)

He go to the part at the last puzzle, right before GlaDOS tries to kill you in the fire. So then, my friend is like, "Oh, so it's one of those games where you die at the end. Haha, it was a good game." And then he immediately shuts it down. I just sat there. Shocked. In awe. I couldn't believe what I just saw. He turns to me and goes, "Good game, I'd play that again."

This is the part where I just hit him and yell, "IT WASN'T OVER YET!" He was so confused. He loaded it back up to that part and couldn't figure it out. I then pointed it out to him what he needed to do from there. He eventually fully finished the game.

Imagine what would have happened if I wasn't there? How many other people do you think only experienced the game up to this part, because they didn't have someone tell them?

What makes it even more perfect is this reply by Aleitheo:

So rather than try to see if he could live or even just die in the fire he turned off the game before he even saw the "ending"?

KanadianLogik adds:

[...] Imagine if you really were Chell, and just accepted your fate....

It's possible that if there were several copies of Chell, some of them did.

Unfortunately, I think I saw somebody else play that section correctly before I played it myself. Still, if I had died, I would've come back at the last time I saved. That would've clued me in that I was supposed to survive, and I probably would've figured it out in one or two more tries tops.

I am going to shamelessly and totally steal this example for when talking about anti-deathism to anyone.

Seriously, thank you so much.

You're welcome. No need really to thank me. After all, I shamelessly stole it too. It was just too perfect. :)

Kräht der Hahn am Mist, ändert sich's Wetter oder es bleibt wie's ist.

-- Common German folk saying

Translates as "If the rooster crows on the manure pile, the weather will change or stay as it is." In other words, P(W|R) = P(W) when W is uncorrelated with R.

Another good one:

Ist's zu Sylvester hell und klar, ist am nächsten Tag Neujahr.

"If it's bright and clear on New Year's Eve, the next day will be New Year's."

I'll chip in with this Russian saying:

"It is better to be rich and healthy than to be poor and sick!"

Woody Allen had a take on it too:

Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.

Als het regent in mei, is april al voorbij. (If it rains in May, April is already past)