Nov 30, 2016

Flip a coin

I just read an essay that may turn out to be one of the more important things I've read.

The title is: How To Choose.

The subtitle: "When your reasons are worse than useless, sometimes the most rational choice is a random stab in the dark"

The short form: faced with a decision, it's easy to get rid of choices that are obviously stupid and wrong. But because of cognitive problems, when we choosing among non-stupid options we are more likely to be driven by bad reasons than good ones.


But, yes. It makes sense.

It may be that there may be no "best answer" in which case whatever I do is a waste of time. But, the article argues, when choosing among the somewhat good answers, my decision-making process is likely to be so broken that I am more likely to choose a worse answer than a better one.

So I'm not just wasting my time trying to find the better answer; I'm spending time making things worse.

So my policy is: once I've eliminated all the bad, stupid, completely idiotic options, I'm going to choose randomly rather than spending more time trying to come up with the best.

This makes sense.

So here I am with twenty-three (ish) ideas for things to write about sorting through them trying to decide what's the best. Or starting on one, and deciding another is better. And then switching to that one, and deciding that there's another one that comes first.

And along comes an article that tells me: "flip a coin."

That resonates. It seems better than "choose one and go with it." Because I've done it, and failed. And I think I know why: as long as I am doing the choosing, my choice is open to my questioning.

But if I surrender control to the coin or the twenty-three sided die or the wave function for the universe, then it's made the choice, not me.

I can argue with myself (and have) but who am I to argue with the wave function?

So am I done writing this?

Heads, I'm done and I post it. Tails, one more pass. OK, flip this.


Nov 12, 2016

Luck, Gratitude, Thanks, and One Shot

According to the best science we have, the universe appears to have been come into existence around 13.77 billion years ago. According to the best scientific theories we have, the universe will continue to exist for a long time: at least another 5 billion years, and possibly pretty much forever.

According to the best information that I have, I was not alive from the start of the universe until very recently. I've been alive for 73.8 years (a little more if you count intrauterine existence). I expect to be not alive for the rest of time, however long that is.

I would welcome any surprises on that account, but I'm not counting on it. Based on history, I've been mostly dead. Though as Miracle Max tells us: "mostly dead is slightly alive."

Still mostly dead, and currently alive makes me one of the lucky ones. Entirely dead is normal. Any amount of alive is an exception. Consciousness is even rarer. Self-reflective consciousness rarest of all.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive right now against all odds. I am conscious, against more odds. And I can examine my consciousness!

And you are alive and conscious too, on the reasonable assumption that you are reading this.

And I am grateful and thankful for all of that--that I am alive, and someone is reading this. This is the season of gratitude and thanksgiving and Thanksgiving and I am all of those?

To who? Or Who? Or Whom?

I don't know. I'm not a conventional believer-in-God. But it seems dickish when you discover you've got something unasked-for and pretty much undeserved to not want to say thanks. And I try not to be a dick.

Some lives suck, and I can imagine lives so sucky that they are not worth living. But I think few lives are that terrible (and then, most times, they can be ended). There have been periods when I have (stupidly) hoped for my existence to end. There have been periods when I have (stupidly) thought about helping the process along. I remember when the thought that stood between me and the next step toward killing myself was "it would set a bad example for my kids." I remember when the thought was "I don't have enough life insurance to kill myself, and it would be irresponsible."

Of course, that's overly dramatic. If I got rid of those thoughts, I'm pretty sure that my next step would not have been to off myself, but to invent another blocking thought. Because I've never really wanted to die. Otherwise, I expect, I'd already be dead.

Once upon a time there were millions of sperms swimming like crazy to get to that one egg.

I was that lucky sperm. I don't remember it, but that must have been me. I probably wasn't the fastest. I don't think I was any smarter. But I was good enough, and lucky enough, and here I am! I had one shot, and I took it.

When I say "one shot" I'm not talking about one shot at fame or riches, or enlightenment or whatever you are going for. As long as you are alive, you get a lot of shots. Every time a door closes, another one opens, and all that.

No, I'm talking about life. This is the only one I have. This is my one shot.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am grateful and thankful for the very fact of my existence.

And I don't know about you, but at 73.8 I am like that little sperm I once was, still moving forward.

And I am not throwing away my shot!

Nov 8, 2016

Thank you, Donald Trump

I am grateful for Donald Trump.
No, really. Hear me out. I really am grateful. I don’t want him to be president. In fact, I hate the idea. I hate the idea that this is even something that has a reasonable probability of happening. I rebel against it viscerally, but I don’t trust my gut. I rebel against it intellectually, and I do trust my intellect. And I don’t trust him.
But I am grateful.
I showed up at Democratic Headquarters in Ellsworth the other day and volunteered for duty canvassing. Someone said, “Thank you for your help.” I answered: “Don’t thank me. Thank Donald Trump. He’s the reason that I’m here.”
That’s the kind of gratitude I’m talking about.
It’s election night, and I’m deliberately staying away from news sites while I write this. When I’m done, I’m going to post it, turn off my internet connection, and go to sleep. In the morning I will wake up and either Hillary Clinton will be the winner or Trump. Or the agony will grind on the way it did with Bush/Gore.
And even if Clinton wins, there’s a good chance that Trump will make the agony drag on.
I care who wins, but in the end, as Scott Alexander says, unless there’s a blowout, it doesn’t matter who wins the election. Tuesday Shouldn’t Change the Narrative
If a Trump victory tomorrow would convince you that X is true, I suggest that you believe X is true regardless of whether or not Trump wins, because Trump’s victory almost certainly will depend more on noise than on X. If a Hillary victory tomorrow would convince you that Y is true, I suggest that you believe Y is true regardless of whether or not Hillary wins, for the same reason. If there’s some Z that you will believe only if Trump wins but not if Hillary wins, then I suggest you seriously reconsider what thought process has led you to decide that you will flip your views on politics and society depending on whether or not there’s a rainstorm or a 2% polling error or whatever.
Instead, I suggest people precommit to their views on politics and society now. We live in a country and a world where Hillary can be at about 47% and Trump at about 45%. This is pretty much all you need to know. It suggests that a lot of people are willing to support a nationalist candidate, and a lot of other people really hate that candidate. It suggests that political fundamentals are totally compatible with a situation where either Trump or Hillary could win based on noise in the electoral
The votes are being counted, and I’ve precomitted.
I want to help Democrats do a better job of explaining liberal policies—and do a better job crafting them. And I want to work to help Republicans do a better job of explaining conservative policies—and do a better job of crafting them.
Ideally, I’d like to see both parties working together to understand that the world ain’t what it used to be and combine the best ideas to deal with our changing reality. But I don’t think that much chance of happening.
But at a minimum, I’d like to help make sure that neither party nominates someone like Donald Trump again.
I don’t think that’s likely, either.
But the fact that it’s unlikely doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
I was an idiosyncratic political activist in the ‘60s, working for the military-industrial complex during the week, and marching with anti-war protesters on the weekend. I wasn’t against war and I’m still not. I think it sometimes is the answer. But I am against stupidity. My objection was not to the war in Vietnam, but its stupidity.
War sometimes is the answer. Stupidity should never be.
Trump is not stupid, and he is not without virtues. I value hard work and drive, and showmanship and risk-taking, and I believe he’s got those virtues. He’s also shown himself to be creative and innovative. And depending on your taste, you may find him charming.
Is he a misogynist? A racist? A xenophobe? I don’t know, and neither do you. Nor can you. These are states of mind, and none of us are mind readers. So let’s just take those questions off the table, and instead consider the attributes of his character, made visible by his behavior.
Trump has attributes that I admire, but he fails to show me that he has another set of attributes that I value: among them are consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control.
To the contrary, he shows himself to be inconsistent, dishonest, impolite, opaque, narcissistic, and temperamental. He showed those traits throughout the campaign, and most dramatically for me, in the debates.
Someone who I regard highly proposed that the ability to debate is not a job requirement for the president. And he’s right, as far as that argument goes.
But what are the job requirements? And how does one demonstrate them?
In the end, there’s only one job requirement, and that’s the ability to win a majority in the electoral college. Performance in the primaries, and in the campaign, and the debates aren’t job requirements. They’re a kind of ordeal—for the candidates and for us. They are a means for helping us understand some important job-related attributes of a potential president.
If you can’t put together a good-enough organization to contend, you’re probably not going to be a good president. Trump has done that. So has Clinton. If you don’t have the stamina to show up and keep showing up, you probably don’t have what it takes. Notwithstanding what seemed like a lack of stamina in the debates—after accusing Clinton—Trump has stamina. And so does Clinton. He is in great shape for a 70-year-old guy. And she’s in great shape for a woman who will be 70 within the year.
But if you show up for your debate, after bragging about how you don’t need to prepare, and demonstrate that you are unprepared; if you claim you’ve won—thereby accepting the premise that winning the debate is an important test of capability—and the majority of objective observers judge that you’ve lost, and lost badly—then we’ve learned some important things about you.
And if you behave during the debate the way Trump behaved—behavior consistent with his behavior through the campaign and compressed into a 90-minute concentrated dose of “raw Trump”—if you show yourself lacking the consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control that I want in my president—not to mention seeming ignorance or disregard of facts and an understanding of policy then you’ve told me something about yourself.
You’re not the person I want as my president.
Trump showed himself clearly to be inconsistent, dishonest, impolite, opaque, narcissistic, and temperamental. And if you don’t find those worrisome in a prospective president well—I guess we think very differently about these things.
But he’s a success. He is the CEO of a large organization and he’s running for CEO of the company. Doesn’t his success in business show there’s a good chance for him to be successful as president?
I don’t think it does.
Bono, front-man for U2 started from nothing and is reported to be worth $600 million. Some of that money is because of his ability as an entertainer. But a lot comes from investments. He and six partners made an investment in Facebook that was worth 1.4 billion more than he has ever made in his music career
Does that qualify Bono to be president (never mind he’s not a citizen)?
Oprah Winfrey, starting from nothing, is worth more than $3 Billion, close to what Forbes estimates Trump is worth—and he had a big head start. Oprah for president?
I grant that it takes a lot of skill to run a company that builds buildings and manages staffs of people. I think it takes a lot of skill to even run such a company badly. But there’s an argument to be made that Trump’s wealth is more the result of his status as a performer and a marketer, and less as an executive.
But never mind that. Let’s consider Trump’s virtues.
It’s true that it’s hard to be successful if you don’t have the virtues that Trump has. And I acknowledge he has them.
But you can’t even be a successful crook, con-man, or psychopath without those same virtues. Or a successful rock star.
So let me be clear: Trump’s having the set of virtues that I grant him is not sufficient to distinguish him from a crook, con-man or psychopath.
Maybe if he had shown consistency, honesty, politeness, transparency, self-perception, and self-control I would think differently. But in the debates and the campaign he did not.
She, on the other hand, did.
I started out disliking her. Looked at my feelings and wrote a post to explain that she did not deserve my disliking her as much as I did
And that changed my opinion of her—not much.
It was the debate that made the real difference. She agreed with Trump that winning was important. Her self-perception told her that she needed to prepare. She prepared.
Is she inconsistent? It is true that her opinions on some topics have changed. If you want to say that makes her inconsistent, you can. But his reversals are epic. He’s a pro-choice guy who has become pro-life. A guy who said he identified as a Democrat and who said the Republicans had become “too crazy right.” Listen to Trump.
As someone pointed out: the chances of Trump winning are about the same chances of losing at Russian roulette, and the consequences—well, let’s skip that.
I like the theory (or theories) of multiple universes, and if true, then in an infinite number of universes people wake up and he’s president. I hope that they all the people in those universes are NPCs and that tomorrow (as I write this) and today (as you read this) my consciousness wakes in a universe where Donald Trump is not going to be president.
Still, win or lose, I am grateful for Trump.
I’m grateful for Trump in the same way that I grateful for the pain I endured between July of 2015 and February 2016. I did something that in retrospect was stupid and hurt my back and my knee. I didn’t take the pain seriously enough, and it got worse and worse. Every time it got better, I went back to something like a “normal routine” and it got horribly worse again.
Finally, I learned some of the lessons that the pain was trying to teach me. I learned to be more considerate of my aging body; I learned to appreciate my wife’s heroic efforts to live with her own ongoing pain; I learned to care more about preserving my mind because I learned that pain makes you stupid.
I don’t think I would have learned those things by reading about them (although I am hoping that some people will read what I’ve written and will learn even a little from my experience.)
And since I’m grateful for the outcome, I must be grateful for the cause, mustn’t I?
Well, perhaps I need not be, in a moral sense. But I need to be because the person I have come to be is grateful.
And so, here I am, after years and years away from political involvement, rushing to finish up my draft of this essay so that I can run off to the local Democratic Headquarters and volunteer. And I’m determined to stick with it.
I’ve discovered that one of my almost-neighbors, a woman in nearby Brooksville named Libby Chamberlain started a facebook group supporting Hillary Clinton called “Pantsuit Nation.” It’s gone viral with about 2,400,000 members as I write the draft. So here’s someone nearby who is making a difference. Maybe I can help her make a bigger difference.
I don’t know, but my life’s direction has changed, thanks to Donald Trump.
I’ve been discussing and debating policy with some friends who hold differing views. The discussions have been enlightening. I’ve gained respect for people I used to dismiss, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, high on the list. I’ve come to have a higher regard for conservatism, not the jingoism of the neoCons, and not the people who say “let’s go back to the way it was” but the fundamental conservative idea that you need to conserve what works, and change things slowly and not radically.
To a degree. I thank my friends for leading me to greater understanding. But I also thank Donald Trump. He’s the one who has moved me to action.
Trump helps me appreciate rational conservatives, people with whom you can have policy discussions more than I did before. Not to say that I did not appreciate them before; I did. I just appreciate them much more than I used to.
My future activism is motivated by Trump.
If I ever do something politically useful, you can thank Donald Trump.

Nov 5, 2016

Electoral politics and the public mind

The election keeps bouncing back and forth. First Clinton is up. Then Trump ascending, then Clinton back on top, now Trump surging once more.

What's going on?

I have a theory.

There's a public mind, just as there are individual human minds. The public mind thinks, just as human minds think. Mostly the public mind's thoughts are automatic. Sometimes there is some reflective thought. Rarely is there introspective.

This essay is one part of the public mind's effort to look into that mind and see what, how and why it's thinking.

The public mind, like our individual minds, is flawed. We suffer collectively from cognitive biases. I think that the current electoral situation, with Trump a possible winner, is the result of our collective cognitive defects.


The public mind is the union of the responses of individual human minds, just as an individual human mind is the union of the responses of individual neurons and cortical substructures.

We can measure the beliefs of a human mind by asking questions and measuring the behavior of a human person. With the public mind, we can measure far less accurately, through polling. It's the best tool that we've got and is often predictive and explanatory.

We can ask a human mind the reasons for its belief. When we do we sometimes get more than one answer from the same mind at roughly the same time. Some of the answers are inconsistent with others. And we can show---under suitable experimental conditions--that sometimes the explanations are demonstrably untrue.

Still, we can make inferences based on our data, and attempt to understand a given mind. Sometimes we do a pretty good job of explaining and predicting behavior.

Can we do the same with the public mind?

Maybe. What I can tell you what this particular bit of the public mind thinks as the election rolls on. Some minds are made up and that's it.  New information can only confirm a set belief. The needle moves in only one direction.

My mind is not fixed on one answer, although it does have its preconceptions and biases. It changes as information comes in, and the way that my mind changes from time to time is, I think consistent with changes in the public mind as a whole.

I'm not special, except in this sense--most of the public mind does not introspect. It thinks--but does not think about its thinking. I do.

I started out disliking Clinton and, after introspection, I decided that my mind was leading me to dislike her more than she deserved. I wrote an essay about it. I disliked Trump even more, for reasons that I didn't think needed explaining. Still, I wrote an essay explaining why he was an interesting, and maybe even a good candidate.

I don't want to believe that Trump is as bad as some of the media portray him. And I don't want to believe the Clinton is as bad--or as good--as the media portray her.

My bias knobs are set, though. It was pretty likely from the start that I was going to vote for the Democrat. But they were not so hard set that I couldn't change my perceptions. So from time to time I look into my mind to understand where my mind is leading me.

When nothing special is going on, and especially when Trump is moving up in the polls, my mind leads me to think: "Well, maybe it wouldn't be horrible if Trump won." Because, you know, that has always been a possibility. I parse through the anti-Trump arguments and find flaws. I read and listen to stuff by smart people who argue for Trump. I can construct a case for Trump in my mind. It's a weak case. But it is a case.

Then I see Clinton and Trump them both together. Not through the media, but through their own words and actions. Unfiltered. The RNC/DNC back-to-back followed by Trump's public fight with the parents of a dead American soldier was the start of that.

And then the debates. There's as clear a side-by-side comparison as you could want. Unfiltered. On one side Hillary. On the other, Donald. Pretty much the same questions. No home field advantage.

And my reaction to the first debate was:: "Holy shit! Is this real? Is he really the candidate of the Republican party? How do I explain those incoherent sentences coming out of his mouth?" Read the transcript of Debate 1, Debate 2, or Debate 3. Judge for yourself.

I mean really. Read what he says.

How has Trump managed to get where he's gotten to?


I have a theory.

If you watch a video of Trump at any of his unscripted campaign stops, he's terrific. He doesn't give a speech, he has a conversation with the audience. He connects with people.

Here's how it works. He says things. He listens to how people respond. If the people respond positively, he does more of that. If they don't respond well, he does less.

Simple algorithm. Very effective.

But not based on thought. It's based on channeling the reactions of the crowd. It's simple reinforcement training. The crowd is teaching Trump what to say.

Yes, but Trump has got policy positions. And some of them make good sense.

That's true. I've read them, and agree with some. In some cases, I prefer some of his positions to Clinton's.

But whose policy positions are they? If they were actually Trump's, if they were the result of deliberative thought on his part, then I'd expect him to make reasoned arguments for them in the debates.

But he didn't. Didn't seem able to.

The debates. Read the transcripts. Most often he answers a question or responds to Clinton by stating a relevant proposition, and then saying the same thing three or four different ways. This works on the campaign trail. You say something, they cheer. You say it again, they cheer again. You keep saying it until they quiet down, and then you move on.

But in the debate, we expect--well, debate. We expect reasoned argument. We expect persuasion.

I didn't see that from Trump. Instead, I saw behavior that supported the theory of his opponents: what pops into his head, spouts out of his mouth.

I've read transcripts of the debates several times and I can find very little that supports a theory that says he's got the sort of mind I'd want to see at the head of this country.

And a lot that supports the opposite.

And to my surprise, when I first listened to Clinton and read her answers, and I thought: "Holy shit, she's really on the ball. She's prepared. She's articulate. I'd be happy to have her as the face of my country." I liked her in spite of myself.

I'm not talking about Clinton's prepared speeches. Or Trump's prepared speeches. I grant his brilliance in front of a crowd. I grant her ability to speak the words that a speech-writer has written, possibly under her influence. Those things don't change my mind. That's the candidate through a filter.

I'm talking about the unfiltered Clinton and the unfiltered Trump.

Based on the unfiltered data, the most negative thing I can say about her is: "She does a very good imitation of someone who knows their stuff."

But by that same yardstick, I say: "He can't even do a good imitation of someone who knows their stuff."


Now we're in the period after the third debate. Things have quieted down. I don't see anything that he's doing other than his standard stump speech. She's not doing anything newsworthy.

And my mind goes back to "Maybe he's not so bad." I have some friends who say: "He's the ugly face of the ugly Republican Party." I don't buy that. I think better of the party than I think of him. So maybe he's not so bad?

But when I see him, unfiltered, I think he's a terrible candidate.

When he's not doing things that actively remind me how horrible I think he is, my mind goes to conditioned thinking. The thinking goes something like this: "Well, if he's the candidate of one of our two major parties, there must be something redeeming about him that I'm just unable to see."

So I read and listen to things that intelligent surrogates say about him. The things that they say make some sense. Not enough to convince me to support him, but enough to convince me he might not that bad. Because my mind desperately wants to believe that.

God! If we're actually a country that would nominate someone that bad, what does it say? No. My mind does not want to go there. Maybe he's not that bad.

And then I go back to Trump--unfiltered by the media and unfiltered by his surrogates--and I'm horrified all over again.

That's the thing. If I look at him through any filter, I tend to see him through that filter, modulated by my trust in the filter. I'm more inclined to trust a criticism of Trump in the Wall Street Journal than in the New York Times. And I don't believe a thing I've read in Breitbart.

If I hear an argument for him through the filter of Scott Adams (before I flipped the bit on him) or the filter of Stephen Hsu, or Peter Theil, I can find some merit in their arguments. (I find flaws as well, just as I find flaws in every argument for Clinton).

So if there's no direct way to get information--I think I do what I think independent-minded people do--we try to get data indirectly and to try to understand what we don't understand.

So right now, even while I'm writing this, a part of my mind is saying things like "Maybe he wouldn't be so bad." And "Maybe I don't get it." And "Yes, there are a bunch of yahoos for him, but there are a bunch of smart people who favor him for what seem like good reasons." And "Maybe I'm just not smart enough to see it."

And then I go back to "raw Trump." Not Trump as filtered through Theil or Hsu, or Adams. Not Trump as filtered through the people who write the policy positions on his website. But Trump the man. Trump on his own terms. Trump engaged in an unscripted articulation of his beliefs, And especially Trump, alongside Hillary, doing the same thing.

Trump raw and Clinton raw.

And I'm utterly gobsmacked.

When Trump, the man, speaks, unfiltered, I agree with Sam Harris analysis (Podcast  YouTubemy transcript).

Minds are not like that. Ideas are connected. The ability to reason well, for instance, is transferable from one domain to another. And so is is an inability to reason. A desire not to seem incoherent, this is something that intelligent, well-informed people tend to have.

When you hear someone speak, at length, on topics that are crucial to the most important enterprise they are engaged in, and all you've got is bluster, and bombast, and banality, strewn with factual errors, it is quite irrational to believe that there is a brilliant mind behind all of that, just waiting to get out.

Trump is not hiding his light under a bushel. He is all bushel. And bizarrely, I have heard from many people who think that because he is rich he must be deeply knowledgeable about economics, at the very least. No! You should really read what largely conservative economists have written about the prospects of a Trump presidency. They are terrified of this.

I don't get to decide who wins. I'm just a subcomponent of the public mind, and the mind as a whole will decide.

I'm like most of the other parts of the public mind. Some of us are purely stimulus-response creatures. Data goes in, the answer comes out.  Some of us are more reflective. Data comes in, gets compared to a bunch of other data hypothesis are formed, compared to data; gaps are discovered and filled by reading. Then the answer comes out.

If there's anything that distinguishes my mind from parts of the public mind it's that most there's anything to distinguish my mind and--and others like mine--from most it's that we introspect. We not only think, we examine our thinking process.

Based on my own introspection, here's what I think is happening. Republicans who are horrified by unfiltered Trump decide--when there's no unfiltered Trump around--that he's not so bad. He can't be as bad as he seemed (in distant memory when he was unfiltered). And so, they say, I'll vote with my party.

Democrats who have questions about Clinton, and who were horrified by unfiltered Trump when exposed to him will settle into thinking: "He's not so horrible, I'll vote for Jill. Or Gary. Or not make the effort." The race will tighten, as it's tightening.

And if Trump wins, I think it will be because the public mind has the same defects as my mind. My mind rejects that idea that he's as bad as he seemed during the debate, He can't be that bad. The Republican Party, for all its flaws, could not have nominated someone that bad. Smart surrogates could not argue in favor of someone that bad.

And then I drag my mind back to the evidence of the senses. I go back and read what he said. And I conclude again--yes, they've nominated someone that bad.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this is all a genius plan on his part,

I might get to find out.

I'm a person who would almost always rather know the answer than not know.

This is an exception.

In this case, I'd really rather not find out.