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So I've recently fallen into the timesink that is Effulgence. The premise more-or-less being: take ultra-rational Bella from Alicorn's Luminosity/Radiance universe, and put versions of her in various fanfiction universes. Oh and it's a co-writing thing between two authors. It's well-written (otherwise I wouldn't be reading it, obviously), but after reading too much of it at a time some of Bella's personality quirks start to bother me.* . But worse than those are the parts where it just gets *boring* for me, which are the chapters that I like to refer to as "world domination porn", which are just page after page of the protagonists designing and implementing their utopian visions using whatever tools are available in that particular universe, and their utopias actually are utopian or at least are clearly presented as such by the author - none of that Brave New World business where the characters are happy but the reader is supposed to be horrified**. And around the part where I was wading through the 5th world domination chapter it occurred to me that this seems to be a thing in the core LessWrong crowd: Alicorn writes world-domination fiction Eliezer Yudkowsky recently wrote what amounts to utopian fiction in a society called dath ilan, and Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex has been working on his fantasy utopia Raikoth for years now. In each case, their fiction seems to spring from a deep sense of 'the world is seriously messed up, I could do so much better if I had the means to make drastic changes and/or build my own society from scratch". It's a combination of escapism and power fantasies. Whereas while many of the rest of us have no trouble seeing that the world is messed up in many ways, but our response seems to be more about pure escapism and/or making a deliberate choice to stop caring about the big problems in order to maintain our sanity.

If someone handed me ultimate power, I wouldn't use it to become Ruler of the Universe. It sounds stressful and tedious and liable to crush me under the weight of feeling responsible for everything and become burnt out in short order. I would probably try to find someone else to be Ruler of the Universe though. I know some people who I consider to be smart and insightful and compassionate and so forth who would probably be better at it than me and also much less prone to burnout. But my own power fantasies mostly center around being able to help on a more local scale and having various cool superpowers. 

* Like: Bella's obsession with privacy, her my-way-or-the-highway approach to everything, or the way so many of the interpersonal relationships end up all cuddly and snuggly, like there isn't any way to be friendly that doesn't translate into hugs.

** Although I wasn't at all horrified by Brave New World, for much the same reason that I don't particularly care what happens to my body after I die - the point being that I take into account the fact that after I'm dead I won't be around to have opinions. Similarly in BNW I don't find it horrific because I'm taking into account that if I lived there I would have been conditioned to be happy with it. Apparently this puts me in the minority.
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I play a lot of board games and card games (of both the regular and collectible types). I'm pretty good at most of them, too, although not brilliant. And one of the recurring questions that I frequently think about is the method I use to pick my moves in each game - am I just choosing whatever looks good at the time, am I planning two or three moves ahead, or do I have a long-term strategy that I'm sticking to? Or to put it another way, if I was going to design an AI to play the game for me, what would be the least effort for me to code that would still lead to optimal or near-optimal moves? I'm pretty sure that in a lot of games you can get away with choosing the most obvious 'best' move and end up with optimal play.

Some considerations involved:

* What do we actually mean by a local move versus a search throuh a solution space? The most obvious example I can think of here is that in chess one way to play would be to try to model an opponent's likely moves and work out which ones will lead to checkmate. But if you play chess enough that you can recognise good and bad board positions intuitively, a large part of play can be reframed as trying to get your pieces into a good overall position, without needing to make costly explicit predictions about the opponent. (disclaimer: I can count the number of times I've played chess on one hand, so I am very much open to being corrected on this). Although then the new problem would be how to formulate rules for what constitutes a 'good' position. Searching a solution space might be faster.

* Is there a meta-strategy for working out which games you need to plan ahead and which ones you can make local moves for? I'm pretty sure there is one, but at the moment my method can be summarised as knowing it when I see it. Part of it is obviously player interaction - if most of your points are gained from interplayer conflict then it's more likely that you'll need to predict what your opponent is up to. Another obvious factor is randomness - snakes and ladders is completely random and there's nothing to predict, while at the other end of the scale we have wargames like Diplomacy where the outcome is completely dependent on your skill as a player and you spend the entire game trying to predict and influence your opponents' moves. Other likely factors are whether the game is zero-sum (ie. your gain is your opponent's loss) and how large a gain or loss you can potentially make in a single turn, but they don't seem to be really strong predictors.

Tangentially-related anecdote that is only of interest to people who've played Puerto Rico: I spent most of last week extremely sleep-deprived due to a combination of grad school applications and work. So when we sat down to play Puerto Rico, my ability to plan ahead was massively compromised*. I've played it enough that I have a good intuitive feel for what a 'good' move is most of the time, but my build orders were haphazard, and at least once I picked a role in such a way that the player to my left got most of the benefit from it. But I still did relatively well despite all of that - only 7 points behind the victor, and not last. So I would consider Puerto Rico to be a game that requires some planning ahead but not an extensive amount - at any given point you need to be able to predict what roles are likely to be chosen and in what order before it's your turn again and try to make sure you can benefit when they're called, and for the shipping phase you need to calculate everyone else's optimal move, to decide whether it's worth choosing Captain at all or you can afford to wait for someone else to choose it for you.

* Tangent to the tangent that will be of interest to no one: I was so sleep-deprived that after I'd finished explaining the game basics to Malcolm, when Anton asked whether I'd covered how the game ends, I couldn't remember what the conditions were - my vague impression was that you play until you stop, and then you count up your points. Oh and I double-counted the extra victory points from my Harbour during one of the last shipping phases and didn't realise until the next morning.
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I can't be the first person to have thought of this, but I feel like sharing it anyway.

There are still plenty of totalitarian governments around the world, and although we Western people would like it if everyone became a democracy and then held hands and sang kumbaya, it doesn't look like most of them are going anywhere anytime soon. China is the most obvious, and its control over its population is pretty impressive. At one point they moved a million or three people to make space for a dam, and then of course we have the Great Firewall which is scary in that by and large it works, and the One Child Policy, which could be taken as an awesome opportunity to study family dynamics, the effects of children on the economy, and all sorts of other stuff just by getting all that data from Chinese families and comparing it to regular multi-child families/economies/whatever in other places*.

So why not take it a step further? They have a billion people living there, after all, and the majority of them are uneducated rice farmers, so there's no shortage of potential research subjects. And their government has no qualms about telling them what they are and aren't allowed to do.

So, organisations and other countries could pay China (and other totalitarian places that have large populations and are willing) to carry out large-scale experiments on their behalf, experiments which can't be done in democracies due to pesky obstacles like freedom of speech and action. Want to study qualia by preventing people from seeing the colour purple for the first ten years of their life? China could provide two million-strong groups to compare, one with and one without exposure to purple. Or want to find out how much language really does effect thought? Hire the use of a few hundred thousand Chinese children and get them immersion-schooled in the languages of your choice. The possibilities are endless! And that's without getting into the highly unethical experiments you could pay them to conduct on the sly. Want to try the Forbidden Experiment**? You could probably buy the use of a few thousand unwanted girl babies and some mute women to take care of them, plus the hush money to make sure no one else gets their hands on the documentation. You could even try small-scale eugenics by sequencing a few thousand people, getting the government to order them to procreate in certain ways, then see how the babies turn out. Again, the possibiies are nigh-endless, all we need to do is outsource all this morally shady stuff over to this government who's willing to do relatively horrible things to their people in the name of profit (Most of our electronic junk ends up there, and apparently those things give out LOTS of toxic fumes when they're being destroyed, not to mention contamination of nearby water sources and so forth. But it's not like the people who have to deal with that are important, right?)

Basically, all I'm saying is that we're missing out on an opportunity here. An opportunity, I might add, that may not be around for much longer since any of these totalitarian places could become democratic any day now.

*yes, there would have to be lots of control stuff going on to take into account other factors. But most studies have to control for lots of confounding factors already, so I think it could be done

** It's when a bunch of linguists and sociologists get some very young children and throw them in a room together for the first X years of their life, with minimal human contact and no language contact. Then they study them as the years go by to see what (or if) aspects of language and culture emerge spontaneously. The creolist Derek Bickerton once came close to actually carrying out an experiment like this: he found a bunch of families with young kids from places that didn't have any languages in common with each other and got them to agree to be relocated to a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific for some number of years. He was then going to study the kids to see what happened to them linguistically, but at the last minute before the families were actually moved he got shut down by the Ethics Board and his grant money was revoked. When I heard the interview where he described this, he was still really bitter about the whole thing even though it was decades ago.
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* Dear paper authors: You are writing in English for an English-speaking audience. As such, I really wish that you wouldn't liberally fill your papers with random French and Latin phrases. It doesn't make your arguments any better and in fact only makes you look like a pretentious snob who only wants their paper to be comprehensible to other pretentious snobs.

* Me to my friends: "I was asking because some people theorise that the pseudo-knots in RNA are analogous to the way transformational grammar moves things around in sentences, like moving the auxiliary in questions. Morphology can be likened to viruses and transformational grammar to the immune system. And that's not just a wanky Arts analogy, they actually have some evidence for this!" (It sure does sound like a wanky Arts analogy when you try to explain it though...)

* Half these authors constantly reference their own papers, which seems a little like cheating, almost. It's like if you can get the same or a similar argument published enough times, it makes you more likely to be correct? At least, that's what it feels like, since referencing usually makes it look as though your research is all backed up by other research. It would be like if I claimed constantly for the last five years that pigs can fly, and then used the fact that I've been saying it for five years with various different justifications each time as proof that they really can. Having said that, it's pretty useful being able to see which of their previous papers relate to the same topic.

* Don't suppose anyone knows any really good papers about how features spread from language to language (or between dialects)?

* Why yes, I *am* writing this post as procrastination, why do you ask?
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* I don't think there can ever be a good ending to a sentence that starts "I don't want you to think I'm racist but.."

* last night I discovered that as a linguist there are few things more difficult to reply to than someone mildly remarking that they heard that Chomsky's theories were obsolete, especially when there's another linguist at the table whose teachers were all followers of Halliday. (mine believed in Chomsky and his theories with the fervour usually associated with messianic figures, and I'm inclined to follow Chomsky's model because it makes sense to me)

* I am heartily sick of the politics that goes on at work, especially the racially-motivated kind. And not donating to a charity drive specifically because you're pissed off at the politicking that went on at that meeting? Not cool.


Feb. 13th, 2009 01:02 pm
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One thing that used to confuse the hell out of me was how some of my friends, who are highly extroverted and can go to pretty much any event and come out with at least one new potential friend, could be so nervous about going to an event that none of their friends would be going to. I mean, if you're good at making friends then why worry about not knowing anyone, right?
My current theory to explain this is that it's precisely because they're used to having friends that they're reluctant to push that particular limit of theirs and experience a situation where they can't fall back on their existing social network. Whereas someone who has few friends and is bad at making more has to constantly push themselves against that limit if they want to have even a chance of socialising and making new friends. The awkwardness of trying to make themselves fit into a social situation where they may not necessarily belong is so omnipresent that it almost becomes part of the backdrop, a struggle that's as much a part of the normal routine as trying to get out of bed on time is for most people. But for natural extroverts that awkwardness must feel all the more terrible because they experience it so rarely.

This generalises out to pretty much everything that's a normal part of life. If you're part of the mainstream for that aspect of life, you almost never have to experience what it's like for things to be difficult, and as a result when things do get difficult you're much less likely to have the skills to deal with it gracefully. And the people who have to spend most of their lives banging their heads against that particular metaphorical wall tend to be somewhat disdainful that someone who has it so easy the rest of the time will just collapse in a heap at the least little problem (or so it seems to them).
(I think this might also be why a lot of black/aboriginal/$racially_different people tend to look down on other groups that try to sympathise with or draw parallels to them. "Oh sure, you gay people think you have it bad, but unlike you guys we can't pretend to have a different skin colour")
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Whenever I have exams my mind always goes into overdrive about all sorts of things.

On the Revue mailing list there's been several interesting discussions lately, one of them about the nature of the free market. And recently I've gotten into a long and involved debate about the nature of morality, and whether objective good and evil exist or whether it's all subjective. My own belief turns out to be a sort of free market mentality towards morals. That they're determined by society as a whole and that the market determines what morals are best for society as a whole, the same way that the free market tends to converge towards the fairest price for any given good for society as a whole. And just like the free market, while market forces ensure that in most cases the 'best' morals are chosen, in some places it breaks down and needs to be specifically targeted by governments and so forth. Also it means that you can believe anything you want to but you can't legitimately expect other people to follow it or even necessarily allow it unless your beliefs happen to line up with the market opinion.

It occurs to me though that while I don't have any solid idea of what Good is, I most certainly have an idea of what constitutes Evil, and that's moral apathy/selfishness. Not caring whether something is moral but only whether it suits your purposes for the moment. Or having a set of values that you supposedly subscribe to and choosing not to care because a situation isn't affecting you directly enough to actually apply those morals. Basically, I think that there was evil in the Holocaust but that it didn't come from Hitler, who was a raving loony but was doing his best to save the world from a threat that only he believed in, but instead that it came from all the hundreds of thousands of people who didn't agree with him but let him do it anyway because it was expedient at the time.

The other main thing I've been reading and thinking about lately is feminism, and more specifically into the more radical types, like here. I've found that their stuff can be separated into three broad categories: simple anarchistic man-hate (everything wrong with society is the fault of men, let's make our own lesbian enclaves where we can live without the interference of men!), deconstructing EVERYTHING for hidden messages of feminism or lack thereof and making a fuss every single time a movie, book, ad, or whatever shows a woman being some kind of negative stereotype (cos you know, it's not like men aren't also portrayed as negative stereotypes sometimes or that sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar), and pointing things out that are genuinely wrong (such as the complete lack of strong feminine characters pretty much everywhere, the strong perpetuation of some really destructive female stereotypes, and atrocities committed against women (although again, it sort of invalidates the fact that Bad Stuff can happen to men too). And they frustrate me so much, because here they have all these excellent analyses and legitimate points and then they go and ruin them by throwing in some random man-hate or showing that their only concern is for women and men can go jump off the nearest cliff as far as they care.
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A lot of people I know seem to find comfort and security in their absolute knowledge that God exists. My understanding of this is that it lets one make sense of seemingly senseless events because then you can say that your cousin didn't die in a car accident because of a meaningless set of coincidences, but that God works in mysterious ways and his death somehow serves a higher purpose, even if as humans we can't understand what that purpose is.

As for me, I find the opposite to be true. If I try to imagine that everything in life happens because some omnipotent being out there made it like this I feel trapped and rageful at said being for dumping us into such a crappy world. I find it liberating to believe that life is complete and utter randomness. On the one hand it means that yes, horrible stuff happens to good people for no reason at all. But on the other it means that you really are free to do whatever you want. If you want to be a complete asshole, that's ok, but there's plenty of consequences in this world for that kind of behaviour such as lack of friends and stuff. And if you want to be good then that's fine too, and better yet, you don't need to listen to anything but your own conscience to decide what constitutes good. Hmm, that came out implying that you can be lazy by setting the bar as low as you want, which isn't what I meant. What I meant was that most people have certain moral ideas about what is right and wrong, and not believing in a higher power leaves you free to follow that inner compass rather than trying to reconcile your views with that of your religious institution.

I think I believe in an ideal world that doesn't really exist. I assume that everyone has a strong moral voice that, in the absence of an authority figure (eg god) would still lead people to act in a good/responsible way. I know from experience that there are a lot of people out there who are like that, but that there's also a lot of people out there who either don't possess or don't listen to that voice, who take the easy way out, who act in petty and malicious ways because they're bored or having a bad day or whatever. But then, the majority of those people wouldn't change their ways for religious purposes anyway..

As usual, I have no idea where I'm going with this. But I know that I find the idea of God as a kind of Big Brother to be oppressive, even if he had my best interests at heart. I want to be free, whether that means screwing up big time or becoming something amazing I never knew I could be. And without the capacity for the first the second loses a lot of its savour.


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