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Election Day November 5, 2018

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Politics is like pro wrestling. It’s a show where some non insignificant portion of the audience think it’s real. Everyone thought Trump would run the economy to the ground, which I’ll grant he still has time to, but it hasn’t happened yet. Relationship between the two Koreas is better than it has ever been, despite Trump embarrassing himself in front of the whole world. I could go on but I’m you’ve heard it all.

However, I actually applaud Trump for standing up to China on behalf of the democratically elected government of Taiwan. Yes, I know he couldn’t care less about the Taiwanese people, but I just don’t see Obama care about them either.

Seems to me that, stuff happens, more or less randomly distributed between positive and negative developments, slightly biased toward positive, over the course of human history. Which accounts for the positive social changes, albeit at glacial pace, at least until the advent of the Internet.

Anyway, the point is, we care about politics because we think it shapes our reality. But the truth is, it’s culture that shapes reality. Government is an expression of the underlying culture, not the other way around. Government is an instrument for the culture to express itself in every last corner of our existence. A government loses legitimacy when it is out of sync with the culture, and if it stays out of sync for too long, it is replaced via revolution.

So who is in control of culture? Not politicians, they merely respond to it. Politicians respond to important cultural trends or they lose support. Trump didn’t create racists and bigots, he was just the first to directly respond to their call.

Who is control of culture? We are. So act accordingly, starting on Election Day.

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The Instrumentality of Religion November 4, 2018

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Science is not a Religion

Last night I saw “Outside the Bubble” on HBO, a documentary about the reality for Americans living outside of the bubble of coastal elites. The whole thing is worth watching, but one particular scene stuck with me. It was an old man pointing out the graves of his entire family, 9 of them including his grand child, who were all gunned down in a mass shooting. Which unfortunately is no longer noteworthy in recent years. The fact that he continues to support the Republican Party was puzzling, yet unsurprising. What struck me the most, however, was the demeanor of the old man. He was smiling and chuckling, almost as if he was pointing out flowers in his garden. The interviewer asked the question on my mind, “I just can’t understand why you are so upbeat?” The answer was that he believed they all went to heaven, so really something wonderful happened. “Don’t look at the tragedy, look at all the joy that came from it!”, he said with a genuine smile. He did acknowledge that, of course he’d be devastated if he’d lost his family, but as far as he’s concerned they just went to heaven early.

The power of belief defies belief. For a long time I believed that religion serves no purpose other than tribal identification. I’ve always imagined the abolition of religion to be the necessary next step in our evolution, but now I’m not so sure. Here’s a powerful example of how religion can unequivocally heal someone of the most unimaginable suffering, and it’s hard to imagine anything else being able to be as effective. If it could be put in a pill, it’d be a miracle drug. The point is, there is nothing that science and technology can produce that’ll help this man.

It can be difficult to think of religion as a mere instrument, as opposed to pointer to greater truths. But as powerful an instrument for behavioral change religion is, it has no perceivable bearing on the morality of its followers or the actions it inspires. That might sound strange, but remember it was the power of religion that brought down the Twin Towers, instigated the crusades and fueled countless other human tragedies. Almost all genocides were powered by religion, as are all cultures that treats women as second class humans. Most people would agree that murdering innocent people is wrong, yet religion seems to be able to provide the necessary justifications for pretty much any kind of atrocity imaginable, from honor killing to suicide bombing. Religion is a drug that can heal and poison, cause some to give their lives for the greater good, and others into indiscriminate mass murderers.

The power of holy text lies not within the truth or wisdom of its content, but what it claims to be – the absolute infallible word of an all powerful, all knowing creator of the universe. It’s not what God says or does that’s important, but the fact that you and everyone you care about are on God’s side, and he will make sure everything turns out fine, even if it takes place in the after life. So debating the merit of a religion based on its beliefs is missing the point. For the most part, people are religious not so much because of the wisdom of the holy text, but because it’s a membership to a tribe with unique benefits. Not only did religion allowed humans to cooperate at the empire level by providing a set of common rules of behavior,  it also gives true believers whatever they need to get through their life, no matter what happens. Even the end of the world is of no consequence. For those who feel perpetually downtrodden, it’s no small miracle that such a cure from a life without hope even exists. It’s free to try out, and you even set your own monthly payments!

Not all believers believe for the same reason, but rarely do they choose a religion after careful consideration of all other alternatives, including atheism. Most are merely born into it, and choose to stay for the social bond. In fact, it’s those who take the text seriously that you’ve got to watch out for. So it’s more useful to consider religion on the basis of what it provides for the believers, rather than the validity of the particular beliefs. For some octogenarian who just lost their entire family, what could possibly help except the belief that he’ll see them again? We don’t know how analgesics work, yet we use it routinely because it reliably works. Until we have effective replacements in the secular world for what religion provides for people, we are in no position to be judging those who do need it.

So I’m not in support of some of the so called “New Atheists”, like Richard Dawkins. It’s not that I object to his arrogant demeanor, but that his taunts and rants don’t help make anything better except maybe his fame. Atheism has nothing to offer someone who is facing insurmountable grief over losing people. What? We are all stardust? Tell that to someone who just lost their entire family to a stranger. Who are we to take away something that’ll help them move on and live a normal life, without prescription drugs and endless therapies.

But if insulting and debating them don’t work, and we know ignoring certainly doesn’t. What should we do in the face of all the harm religion does? Start by identifying what we have in common. We all pretty much want the same things, because we are the same species with the same neural wiring. Be humble enough to say “I don’t know” instead of insisting science has all the answers. I don’t know what happens to our consciousness after we die, nor does science because it doesn’t even know what consciousness is. We all know what we mean by “consciousness”, yet science has no explanation for it. Nor do we know why it exists or what function it serves. Sure, that doesn’t mean that any explanation will do. We seem to imagine science and religion to be in some sort of zero sum game where if one side is proven to be mistaken about something, the opposite side immediately claim to be the answer without any proof. But the truth, seems to me at least, is that nobody knows.

Driving with Half a Brain April 9, 2018

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Right_brain

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org

The recent tragic death of a colleague while driving the same car with the same self driving technology caused me to seriously reevaluate my previous optimism about self driving cars in general.

Truth is, I’ve always been an optimist when it comes to tech. It is, after all, a requisite quality for a Mac user in the 90s. So I’d bought into the idea of self driving cars from the day I heard it, and I preordered my Tesla Model X soon after they were announced. Sure, I waited for far longer than I’d expected, but I was convinced that self driving car is less than a decade away.

After spending some time researching and reflecting on my own experience with autonomous driving, I now believe we will not see fully autonomous self driving cars for the general public, the kind that Tesla promised, in our lifetime. Because in an important sense, we are only building half a brain — the left hemisphere, to be precise. The full details of my assertions on the hemisphere differences are laid out in Iain McGilchrists’s excellent book, “The Master and His Emissary”, a book that profoundly changed my perspective on many aspects of our lives. The gist is that the left brain evolved to specialize in manipulating the world while the right evolved to understand the world. Or put another way, the left brain evolved to eat and the right evolved to not get eaten. These two tasks are inherently opposite in nature, one requiring focused, goal oriented attention while the other requires open ended, discovery oriented attention. Clearly one cannot be both at the same time, hence the separation. You’ll have to forgive me for not trying to summarize a 400 page book that took 20 years to write, but believe me, it’s worth your time.


In any case, I don’t think it’s controversial to say that no computer can be relied upon to deal with situation it hasn’t encountered before. After all, we still can’t seem to ship software without bugs, despite the best efforts of developers and QA. Notice I didn’t say it’s impossible for computers to do the right thing some of the time, or even most of the time, but they cannot be relied upon not to drive into a stationary barrier the way you can rely on a human driver who isn’t otherwise impaired. No human driver would make the mistake the Autopilot did given the same input. This is because humans have a right brain, the half that was evolved to deal with open ended reality.

Despite recent leaps and bounds made by AI, from Deep Blue to Alpha Go. They are still fundamentally products of the left brain, as is computer science and indeed most of the industrial civilization itself. The left brain focuses on the reproducible, the concrete and its nature is close ended and self consistent. It is a perspective that allows ever more precise and powerful means to manipulate not just the physical world, but our perception of reality itself. From ICBM to social media, from mass production to analytics, the left brain perspective dominates and permeates the very fabric of our industrial civilization, and indeed how we see each other and reality itself. The predominant mechanical view of the universe and everything within, including humans, underpins much of our cultural assumptions and norms and is primarily the product of the left brain persepective.

However, as powerful as the left brain is, its perspective is only half the picture, as is its capability. It is poor at dealing with ambiguity and open ended ness. Unless it can see the end of something, it is unwilling, and indeed incapable of making nuanced judgement calls other than wholesale rejection. Things that don’t have a clear utility are viewed with suspicion and considered frivolous. None of this is to say that the left brain or its perspective is bad or inferior. It is, after all, responsible for much of human progress since the Age of Enlightenment. However, unlike the right hemisphere, the left can lose touch with reality without input from the right hemisphere, a phenomenon observable in right brain stroke survivors. Typical symptoms include flat out denying the ownership of their own left arm when confronted with their inability to move it, and confidently make absurd statements simply because “it says so here on this piece of paper”. In other words, the left hemisphere, when left to its own devices, has serious trouble staying in touch with reality.


There are profound evolutionary reasons for this — the left brain specializes in operating within the realm of the known, and tends to be blind toward things it has no control over. This disposition evolved to optimize for utilizing resources to achieve goals, which makes sense as that is the domain of the left brain. But goals have to be known in advance and they require concrete steps that can be broken down into sub goals. This is a key feature of, and places a fundamental limit of what can be achieved by the computer or indeed the left brain. For example, as good as analytics can be, it cannot tell you anything about a specific person or a specific event. It can only make predictions in the aggregate, not the specific. For that, you need a judgement call based on an arbitrary number of external factors, some of which you do not know in advance, something only humans can do.

Could the key to breakthrough in AI lie in the right hemisphere? After all, we are literally building a mind with half a brain, the half that science understands, and incidentally, the half that produced science as we know it in the first place.

Here’s the problem — we don’t understand how the right brain works. At least not in a way that we can replicate in a computer. The computer is already much better at almost all the tasks the left brain specializes in — step by step, reproducible outcome based on predictable input. From being a paralegal to making predictions based on analytics, to playing Go. As long as something can be broke down into steps or simulated enough times to produce a pattern, the computer can be relied on producing the desired outcome. But how does one do that for the kind of tasks that require contextual understanding of a specific, individual instance that cannot be generalized into categories? Like forming and maintaining trust, or when 99.9% certain is not the same as “beyond reasonable doubt”, or anything that requires understanding rather than knowledge, like not drive into a barrier that it has never seen before.

Whenever the topic of AI comes up, I hear legitimate concerns of AI making all skills obsolete eventually. However, I believe that fear is misplaced, because there’s so much that the right brain does that computers cannot even begin to compete. Rather than worrying about AI taking our jobs, we should instead look for where AI is misused or our trust in them misplaced, based what our understanding of what they do best and what they can never do. We should look for opportunities where AI can augment rather than replace human cognition. For example, I believe it’s fine to trust computers to figure out what kind of ads to serve someone, but not when actual lives are at stake. I believe AI should never be put in a position to judge humans or be involved in the field of ethics and politics. I could go on but you get the idea.


At this stage of our evolution, one could say that technology is inextricably part of our species. Would a human still be human without understanding of language and use of fire? Since the invention of fire and language, the left brain and its greatest invention, technology has steadily evolved to magnify our ability to manipulate the world to ever greater degrees. But we are increasingly at the risk of destroying our very existence because the perspective of the right hemisphere has been largely ignored. What has been missing is a sense of proportion, awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, and the grounding of facts and knowledge into understanding and perspective. We know more yet understand less. We know the price of all things and the value of nothing. We are in the midst of unprecedented abundance, yet we have never been more impoverished. We are better off in almost ever aspect measurable and worse off in every aspect that’s not measurable.

Humans and technology are like the left and right brain, they are two opposing and complementary aspects of one entity. The optimal arrangement is to let each half to do what it does best, and to take both perspectives into account whenever possible. AI is the ultimate product of the left brain, with it, we can manipulate the world and indeed each other to a degree hereto unimaginable. Yet, without the right brain perspective firmly in the driver’s seat, we risk sharing the fate of the driver who drives off the cliff because navigation says to. We will never be faster at doing math or process large amounts of data than computers. It’d make no more sense for us to compete in those areas than trying to outmuscle the motor. Rather than worried about being replaced by AI, our future lies in doing things that cannot be reduced to step by step instructions or run in a simulation. Our best bet to staying relevant is to focus on things that require creativity, empathy, and holistic understanding as opposed to routine, reproducibility and analysis of data points. If we can learn to leverage AI where appropriate and focus on developing our uniquely human capabilities, I believe there’s nothing we cannot achieve.

I guess I still am a tech optimist, after all.

My Last Post on Trump August 9, 2016

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I was writing another post about Trump supporters, ready to declare my intention to leave the US in the event of a Trump presidency when I caught myself in the thought that feeding our collective addiction to righteous indignation is what got us here in the first place.

keep-calm

Donald Trump is but a symptom of some long standing issues of unbridled capitalism, culminating in a culture of ego worshipping and rampant materialism. However, whatever happens to his candidacy, I believe the best response is to do your best to ignore it. Yes, a Trump presidency will likely be a series of disasters, some of which may be difficult or even impossible to recover from. But we need to deal with the world as it is, not to escape into childish fantasies of how it ought to be.

Some 40 percent of this country support Trump, that’s the reality we must face head on to have any chance of changing it. It’s not to say I give any credence to Trump and anything he stands for. But if all we do basically amounts to being mad at Trump supporters, we are no better than they are. We need to focus on being the well adjusted adults our society so desperately need us to be.

I am not naive enough to think that it’s just a matter of miscommunication, that all we really need to do is to “educate” people. No, Trump supporters are not going to be moved by pontifications about equality and human rights, nor pleads of cooperation and mutual self interest. But whatever they are, they are not monsters. Most of them are decent, hardworking people who have been sold out by their politicians. They think Donald Trump is their best chance of being heard, because he speaks their language. Even if what comes across often seem like nothing but snarls, we need to understand what they are trying to say, not criticize how they are saying it.

No, I don’t know how to prevent a Trump presidency. No, I don’t know any Trump supporters. However, I have resolved to not complain about Trump or his supporters, and to not run away if Trump wins presidency. Why not? Because even if I thought I was a Jew in Germany, 1939, where would my America be?

Short Story #1 February 10, 2015

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Alyson is getting to the age when she feels the ticking of her biological clock louder each day. But the price you pay for becoming a multimillionaire at the age of 35 is that all the good ones are taken, at least the ones you know. An ever present challenge for the rich is figuring out if someone is interested in you or your money. So it’ll have to be someone she has known for a long time.

All the good ones were taken, except Jack, that is. Jack has known Alyson since they were next door neighbors at the age of four, and have stayed friends ever since. Like Alyson, Jack is successful on his own. He’s recently divorced, luckily with no children. He’d be ideal, except he’s never seen Alyson “that way”, or so he says. However, this might have something to do with the fact that Alyson is the first plus sized supermodel in the world.

Alyson is not the kind of woman who accepts her fate quietly, even if she did make the conscious choice to engorge herself in a calculated move to go after the nascent plus sized niche. The truth was, she had the perfect body for conventional modeling, but decided it was worth trading it off for a shot at superstardom. That decision has made her more money than she could spend in many lifetimes, plus the name recognition to build whatever empire she wants next. But whereas a man in her position would not exactly lack for ladies’ interest, her suitors were few and far between. Some things are just never going to be equal between the sexes.

Alyson approached this problem the same way she approached everything in her life, a head on attack with the subtlety of a battle axe, yet always with an unusual twist. The kind that was obvious in hindsight, but for some reason nobody ever saw it before she did.

If my plus sized body is considered inferior by the standards of conventional beauty, it is the standards of beauty that needs to change, and fast! Alyson thought, before the idea revealed itself in the typical (to her anyway) blinding light fashion. A nudist colony full of beautiful plus sized models! She decided to call it – Radiance.

A couple of years later, the idea took off like a rocket, like Alyson knew it would. She was soon on the cover of many magazines, including Playboy! Radiance spawned a burgeoning media empire by becoming the center of the fat acceptance movement that has increased in size explosively, so to speak, in recent years. For her impeccable timing, her bold imagination, not to mention her unshakable faith in herself, she was rewarded with a ballooning net worth, as her popularity soared to the peak of her career.

Finally, Alyson feels like she has accomplished enough in her life to devote the rest of her life to simply being a mother. That’s all she ever wanted at this point, said Alyson to herself, not much to ask, really. In other words, now that she’s had her cake, she would like to eat it now, too, please.

So the moment of truth. She invited Jack over for dinner tonight. She’s going to approach this the same way she approaches everything else – a head on attack with the subtlety of a battle axe, yet always with an unusual twist…

Apple vs. Microsoft November 16, 2014

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Came across this on Quora today.

“If you ever installed Microsoft Windows in the 90’s or early 2000’s you probably remember the interminable wait which happened after the OS was installed the the computer booted up for the first time. The scads of little applications which the OS included – the calculator, the calendar, notepad, and so on (which, let’s face it. hardly anybody ever actually used) had to initialize themselves and their registry settings for the first time. Each one was individually trivial, but collectively this little ritual added a long time – I remember it as being 30-40 minutes, but perhaps my memory exaggerates – to the process of installing a new copy of windows.

My informant told me that it would have been simple to include the initial files with the Windows. He said, however, that this was not done because the person(s) at Microsoft who did the final build of Windows release candidates didn’t like waiting thirty or forty minutes every time the release candidates were built and tested.  So, they decided to save themselves half an hour a few times during the release cycle by not including the settings…

…thereby sentencing every one of the tens of millions of people who installed Windows during that decade or so to an extra half an hour of waiting.

My guess is that this system affected something like 50 millions installations of Windows. At half an hour a apiece, that totals a bit more than 2,891 years of wasting other people’s time – including leap years. It’s the Great Pyramid of time wasting, the Taj Mahal of using other people’s precious moments on earth like disposable handi-wipes.”

Now compare that to this better known story about Steve Jobs:

One of the things that bothered Steve Jobs the most was the time that it took to boot when the Mac was first powered on. It could take a couple of minutes, or even more, to test memory, initialize the operating system, and load the Finder.

One afternoon, Steve came up with an original way to motivate us to make it faster. Larry Kenyon was the engineer working on the disk driver and file system. Steve came into his cubicle and started to exhort him. “The Macintosh boots too slowly. You’ve got to make it faster!”

Larry started to explain about some of the places where he thought that he could improve things, but Steve wasn’t interested. He continued, “You know, I’ve been thinking about it. How many people are going to be using the Macintosh? A million? No, more than that. In a few years, I bet five million people will be booting up their Macintoshes at least once a day.” “Well, let’s say you can shave 10 seconds off of the boot time. Multiply that by five million users and thats 50 million seconds, every single day. Over a year, that’s probably dozens of lifetimes. So if you make it boot ten seconds faster, you’ve saved a dozen lives. That’s really worth it, don’t you think?”

We were pretty motivated to make the software go as fast as we could anyway, so I’m not sure if this pitch had much effect, but we thought it was pretty humorous, and we did manage to shave more than ten seconds off the boot time over the next couple of months.

That is the difference between Microsoft and Apple. Not the hardware, not the software, not the UI, not the marketshare, not even the market cap. But in the relationship to the work itself in each and every employee who choose to work there.

Hearts and minds November 7, 2014

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I have been staying away from politics for the past year after I came to the realization that you have to fix yourself first before you can fix the world.

But this video deserves some attention, because it’s something new. It’s a propaganda piece, meaning that it’s making an one-sided argument, but with sophisticated techniques borrowed from the West.

The closing line was – “as soon as you promise to get out of ours”.

So you can be left alone to treat women as cattle, behead anyone who makes jokes about Muhammad and indoctrinate your children that no greater glory exists than dying for Allah?

I know we in the West are no saints. I’m so sick and tired of hearing about the horrible things the U.S. Government do domestically and aboard that I’ve stopped following news of any sort.

But honestly ask yourself – which society would you and your family rather live in? What human values are we willing to sacrifice in the name of religion? Do you think it would’ve been possible to make the same clip with a Muslim woman?

The jihadists are right about one thing tho – some things are worth dying for. For me, it’s fundamental human rights and freedom of my loved ones.

What do you think theirs are?

Good, bad, I’m the one with a kid October 20, 2014

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We tend to focus on good parents and write off the bad ones. Countless books on parenting tips talk about what you should do, but we rarely talk about bad parenting and where it comes from. When we do, it’s usually attributed to something unhelpful (stupidity, ignorance or moral failure).

Seriously, where are these ideal parents anyway? Have you ever met anyone who honestly think their parents were perfect?

Truth is, all parents love their children, nobody sets out to be a bad parent. Understanding where bad parenting come from is just as useful, if not more, than studying the good ones.

So it is with everything else, really. We tend to celebrate success and ignore failures, when there’s so much to learn from them.

Good, bad, I’m the one responsible for my life.

Thought for the day February 4, 2014

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The last three US presidents, and a number of prominent politicians including Rich Santorum, Clarence Thomas, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Bloomberg, George Pataki, Howard Dean, Ed Koch, Andrew Cuomo, Bill Bradley, John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger have all admitted to using schedule one drugs.

Not one of them have spent a single night in jail, yet there are over 330,000 prisoners for drug offenses, costing over 10 billion dollars a year on average.

Magna Carta, in 1215, established that even the King was not above the law. It seems like we have gone backwards since then.

 

Binary nature of language considered harmful January 10, 2014

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It recently occurred to me that words are inherently binary, in that it divides the world into two – into what is and what isn’t that word. For example, the word “red” divides the world of colors into “red” and “not red”, but there’s a lot more to purple and brown simply “not red”. Pretty banal observation, but then I started thinking about further implications…

For example, conservative/liberal are actually two words for one way of looking at political views, but it is just one out of potentially infinite number, and therein lies the problem. Which is that it obscures all other ways of thinking about politics. Imagine a painter that only knows “red” and “not red”, that’s how our political views are being shaped right now.

It’s perhaps no accident that the mainstream media is perpetually preoccupied with presenting everything in terms of liberal/conservative divide, because it prevents anything else other than the two party system from getting traction. For example, mixed proportional representation does not fit into the liberal/conservative narrative, and as such it actually poses an existential threat to the status quo and will never be taken seriously until we recognize what’s going on. I think of myself as leaning liberal, but there are times I disagree with the Democrats. That doesn’t mean I am confused or wrong, it just means the language we use is too limited and needs to be expanded.

Posing a yes/no question is a great way to lock one into a false dichotomy, because it prevents one from thinking about anything else. That’s why No Smoking signs actually work against smoking cessation, because it keeps smokers thinking about smoking. Once a smoker starts thinking about (not) smoking, it’s only a matter of time before they give in, because willpower is finite after all.

Another example is masculine/feminine divide. We grab a bunch of random personality traits and forcibly assign them to one gender or the other. Why is being nurturing considered feminine and being aggressive masculine? What do those traits have to do with reproductive organs? It staggers me to think how much damage this way of thinking has done to our society on a massive scale. How many men are forced to hide their “feminine side” or made to feel ashamed of being caring and considerate? How many women are afraid to be assertive because they would be socially ostracized for being unfeminine?

It seems to me that the vast majority of personality traits have little or nothing to do with sex organs. As a result of trying to explain personality traits in terms of gender, we are forced to come up with all sort of ridiculous theories about why men are this way and women are that way, when the problem all along was the unnecessary division of personality traits into the gender binary. Even expanding the binary into a spectrum doesn’t help. Defining personality traits along a spectrum along male/female line is no more useful than defining colors in terms of tonal value (aka grayscale). Defining colors this way is useful only to the colorblind (no disrespect to the colorblind intended)

Contrary to the title, the binary nature of language is not in itself harmful, and in any case cannot be avoided. We simply need to recognize this inherent limit of language and not get locked into false dichotomies. Remember that words are merely a way to model reality, not reality itself, and that “yes and no” can often be the most accurate answer to a “yes or no” question. Whenever asked “a simple yes or no question”, resist the framing and look sideways to see what the question is obscuring.