Mind Without Borders

“ I resist anything better than my own diversity.”

—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

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Location: Columbus, OH, United States

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Cui bono", "Follow the money", and "Follow the status"

"Cui bono" is a Latin phrase meaning "Who benefits?"  Its use usually indicates that everything may not be as it seems.  It suggests we dig deeper in two ways:
1) The answer to who benefits may not be immediately obvious.  It may take at least some cogitation, and perhaps some investigation, to uncover this.
2) If a person or entity benefits from some turn of events, they may be playing a role in pushing events to take that turn to their advantage, even though it may not be immediately obvious how.

A related phrase is "Follow the money".  It too suggests we dig deeper in a couple of ways:
1) It can be a special case of "who benefits?"  Specifically, who financially benefits?
2) If a person or entity has spent money, they must have received something in return which they perceive to be of greater value to themselves.  What is that?

Another currency of human motivation is status.  Thus, in some situations it would be equally or more useful to say: "Follow the status" for two reasons:
1) Status is also a universal currency of human motivation and is pertinent in situations where, for whatever reason, money is not in question (or at least doesn't seem to be).
2) Money and resources may flow from status.

On the other hand, money has the useful property that its exchanges are objectively knowable and traceable in principle.  Even an exchange of cash is something a fly on the wall could see if it were there.

One might think that status exists in the eyes of other people and should also be observable.  However, the person or entity may only care about status within a select circle of people.  It would take some effort for an outsider to understand what is the relevant circle and what confers status within it.  In the extreme case, status may only exist in one person's own mind.  Only by keen observation and perhaps by winning the trust of that person can another person find out the role of status here.

Last week I saw Steve Pinker speak at the Long Now Foundation about The Decline in Violence, summarizing his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Gathering a lot of data from many sources, he demonstrated that on average, violence has declined over the long term, despite what one might think by watching the news.  He posited that one of the reasons was the greater availability of fiction, history, and journalism, enabling people to empathize with and understand others.  This led Saheli Datta  to muse earlier this week on the role of fiction in developing critical thinking.  Above I tried to express in principle some of the most useful lessons from fiction, history, and journalism.  As in most cases, going through examples is nearly essential to being able to apply the theory; fiction, history, and journalism supply such examples in abundance.

Cross-posted on Facebook

Saturday, May 19, 2012

My Personal Thank You To Facebook


To all of my friends who have worked, are working, and will continue to work to build Facebook:

My mother hesitated for a long time before joining Facebook. When she did, though, several months ago, she jumped in with both feet and took to it like a duck to water.

Over the last several years, my mother's chronic ill health and low energy had left her frequently housebound. Even speaking on the phone would tire her. Thus she was growing increasingly isolated.

Joining Facebook provided her the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with old friends and make new ones from across the globe. In the last months of her life, her loving and humorous exchanges with them were a great source of joy and happiness to her, and inspired her with renewed energy and enthusiasm for projects old and new. She became a wholehearted fan of Facebook. We feel greatly blessed that thanks to Facebook, these friends were all there for her.

When my mother passed away late last month, Facebook provided both a repository of her most recent activities, and a medium through which a flood of loving affection from friends and well-wishers around the world came, to honor her and to soothe and comfort us.

Expressing gratitude was one of my mother's strongly held values. I would like to express sincere and heartfelt gratitude to all of you, on her behalf as well as our own.

Thank you very much, and hearty congratulations to you all!

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Force Is More Than Violence

Inspired by discussions with Victor Ganata and others on FriendFeed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, I decided to post this bit I had written in a private mailing list a year and a half ago.

A lot of argument arises because of confusing voluntariness with actual freedom. This subtle distinction was very cogently elucidated by Serena Olsaretti in the argument summarized here. I learned of this argument from David Singh Grewal's Network Power (that's an affiliate link).

Libertarians object to the majority having power over the minority. Well, a majority already has power over a minority, by virtue of its numbers, completely regardless of the form of government or lack thereof. What is the libertarian solution to lynch mobs? In every country where the government has failed, warlords have arisen, through their own physical and mental strength and usually aided by being a member of the ethnic majority in that locale.

Power exists whether it is wielded by a government, a corporation, a group or an individual. Whoever has power over me restricts my freedom, i.e., my available set of choices about how to live my life. It is simply impossible to eliminate inequalities of power. They can only be managed dynamically through a system of checks and balances—which is what our system of government is meant to do.

Libertarians make much of the government monopoly on violence. But violence is not the only form of coercion. Imagine a spaceship where I live with Jack and Jim. Jack is physically stronger than me and willing to kill me if I don't do what he wants. Jim completely controls access to the ship's food supply and is willing to withhold it if I don't do what he wants. As far as I'm concerned, Jack and Jim each have power over me and can each coerce me. The fact that Jack may kill me quickly and Jim may kill me slowly doesn't change the fact that in the presence of either of them, I am not totally free. Perhaps Jack is also stronger than Jim, so Jack is the "government" of this little system. For me it doesn't make any difference: labeling one particular entity as the "government" doesn't entail anything special about the power wielded by that entity over me.

As a more down-to-earth and salient example, I may not be able to leave a job because it is my sole source of health insurance. Jobs that pay by time periods essentially restrict the employee's freedom: they require a certain level of obedience to the supervisor within working hours. There are many people stuck in jobs they hate specifically because of health insurance.

The choice to undergo bodily harm due to lack of medical care is not any more acceptable than the choice to undergo bodily harm while being arrested or imprisoned. Each can be seen as a voluntary choice, but the person who has only such unacceptable choices available is not free. This is the distinction between voluntarism and actual freedom to which I alluded at the start. As a liberal, I strive to maximize people's actual freedom--a constrained maximization problem, given the existence of other people. To me this is much more important than maximizing their freedom from government.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Perseverance and Zoomability

Ben Tilly's blogpost last week on What is intelligence? got me thinking about two other personal traits that impact the course of one's life. One is perseverance and the other doesn't have a name that I know of, so I'll make one up: zoomability.

The word “perseverance” has a positive connotation, whereas the word “inertia” has a negative connotation. But in reality, it may not always be clear how to distinguish the two. The advantages of perseverance are readily apparent: the path to any substantial accomplishment is rarely easy and usually strewn with obstacles, which it will take perseverance to surmount. Correspondingly, a person who tends not to persevere may have little to show for their time.

Yet any virtue can become a vice, when taken to an extreme. In particular, perseverance is a prerequisite for perfectionism, and a perfectionist may “let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Doing “just enough” is desirable in many areas of life besides working for a startup.

Furthermore, the person who tends to persevere may be slow to recognize when it's time to backtrack and take a different path. It's worth referring again to Robert Pirsig's train metaphor. Perseverance will keep the train going as long as there is a track ahead, regardless of whether it leads to the optimal destination. The person who tends not to persevere is more likely to be the first to spot the next new thing, the one that changes everything. Furthermore, this person will accumulate a wide range of skills and experiences, the combination of which may later turn out to be uniquely useful.

In machine learning, there's a classic tradeoff between exploration and exploitation. An agent who's always exploring for new solutions may never get a chance to derive the benefit from any of them, whereas an agent who milks a single solution for all it's worth may miss out on a better one. One approach to handling this tradeoff is simulated annealing: spend a lot of time exploring in the early stages, and try to settle down and persevere in one course during the later stages. Indeed, simulated annealing has even been recommended as A Mathematically Proven Way To Achieve Happiness. So it may be fortunate that the ability to persevere tends to increase during the life of an individual, or perhaps even an organization. But even once you're in the later “exploitation” stage, the landscape, your local circumstances, or even you yourself may change—perhaps without your even noticing it. So it's worthwhile every now and then to enter a playful, exploratory mode for a while before going back into a tenacious working mode.

Speaking of organizations, it might seem that the tradeoff could be solved by a division of labor: have one group of people persevering in getting things done, and another group of people on the lookout for the next new thing. But when the time comes to decide the future course, these two groups will always be in tension. So in order to move forward, flexibility in one's degree of perseverance will still always be necessary at the individual level as well.


To define zoomability, first I need to define the more basic concept of zoom. Some people are very meticulous and detail-oriented—they dot every i and cross every t. Others are very imaginative and like to look at the big picture—they are the dreamers of dreams. Think of the lens of your camera. Some people like to keep their lens zoomed in, and others like to keep their lens zoomed out. Each of them has a preferred level of zoom that they're most comfortable with. Think about your acquaintances: chances are you'll be able to categorize many of them as one or the other.

Both are needed, but people at one end of the spectrum may tend to distrust or dismiss those at the other. The detail-oriented people may think of the big-picture people as unmoored from reality; they may think that when the rubber hits the road, they're the ones who do the real work. On the other hand, the big-picture people may think of the detail-oriented people as plodders preoccupied with the trivial and mundane; they may pride themselves on experiencing life at a higher level.

Of course, the ideal position is “to have one's head in the clouds and one's feet on the ground.” In order to achieve this, a person needs zoomability: the ability to zoom in and out, from focusing on the details to surveying the big picture. Many people seem to go through life with their zoom lens stuck in one position, but it seems that zoomability would be strictly more desirable.

But is it? Suppose you're Michelangelo and you're hiring assistants to help you paint the Sistine Chapel. (What I'm about to say isn't meant to be historically accurate, it's just an illustration.) You want every part of it to be perfect, so you want all of your assistants to be very detail-oriented. You hire a small army of skilled and meticulous painters to fill in your cartoons. But suppose one of them has high zoomability. He realizes that relatively few people will ever see this tiny patch of sky along the underside of a small arch that he's filling in. He'd much rather fill in the folds of God's robe—countless people over the course of centuries will look at that! That would be much more satisfying. Well, you could accomodate this one person by switching him to working on God's robe. But what if all of your assistants were like that? Someone has to paint the undersides of the arches!

You might think that we don't need individuals within an organization to be zoomable, as long as we have a proper division of labor. Choose detail-oriented people as the rank-and-file workers and put the big-picture thinkers in management positions. The engineers and the architects can work in tandem.

But this poses two problems. To completely specify every detail of a task may take nearly as long as to do the task itself. The rank-and-file workers may need some discretion to judge what the details should be, and for that they need to be able to see the big picture. Conversely, it may be that not all the details matter when painting the big picture. But there may be a critical few which change the nature and perhaps even the feasibility of the whole project. A manager without a firm grasp of the details may lead a whole team astray. So every individual needs at least some degree of zoomability.

So just as we concluded that it's worthwhile to spend some of our time in a playful, exploratory mode and some of it in a tenacious, working mode, it's also worthwhile to switch from our preferred level of zoom—to zoom out and zoom in from time to time.

Comment on FriendFeed:

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Memorial Service for Eric Tiedemann

Eric's memorial service will be held on Sunday, June 15th, at Cellspace in San Francisco, from 7 to 11 pm. There will be chill space to talk and reflect, as well as space for dancing, for those who are so moved. Please RSVP by emailing me so that we can get an idea of how many people are coming.

Sunday, June 15th
2050 Bryant St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Cellspace phone number: 415 648-7562

Update: Please bring your children if you wish.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

My Thought For Today

Regarding the disruption of Hindu priest Mr. Rajan Zed's prayer opening the Senate's July 12th session: I am a practicing Hindu and at first I felt that this disruption was deeply disturbing. But I have gone through a process which was deeply personal and deeply religious.

To those who were protesting I say this:

I forgive you.

To those who were hurt by the protest I say this:

Let us not let the actions of a few keep us from marking this historic moment. Let us celebrate our great nation:

E pluribus unum.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

John Edwards Tells Us: Your Country Needs You

When Saheli told me our little brother Ben Brandzel had chosen to work for John Edwards's campaign, I knew I wanted to learn more about Edwards. I was impressed by reading and viewing his speeches, and by his efforts to urge Congress to stand firm in ending the war on Iraq. On Thursday I attended Edwards's Small Change For Big Change event at San José State University.

We generally expect politicians to tell us what they will do for us. What moved me most was not what John Edwards promised us, but what he asked of us. John F. Kennedy famously said: "Ask not what your country can do for you---ask what you can do for your country." It's been a long time since I've heard a public call to sacrifice, yet this is precisely what constitutes leadership. John Edwards OneCorps is not just a campaign organization, but also puts these ideals into action: "John Edwards One Corps members aren't waiting until the election to help build the one America we all believe in - we also engage in local service projects and issue advocacy to start transforming America today." For instance, the Orlando One Corps is holding a Canned Food Drive today.

When Edwards called us to action against poverty and disease, in America and around the world, he said we could not just stand by: "We're better than this." The beauty of this statement is that if, looking through the jaundiced eyes of cynicism, we evaluate it as a vote-getting strategy, we can only conclude that he wouldn't think it is a vote-getting strategy unless he actually believed that we are better, or aspire to be.

I was particularly heartened when Edwards said, "Instead of spending 500 billion dollars in Iraq, ...suppose America led an international effort to make sanitation and clean drinking water available in the Third World." This is a cause that is dear to my heart, as Saheli noted when she mentioned my frequent touting of WaterPartners International. Improving sanitation and access to clean drinking water has enormous leverage in the effort to eradicate global poverty and disease. It doesn't require new ideas or technology, simply our will to make it happen. As Peter Singer wrote in the New York Times Magazine last December, we can achieve not only this but all the Millennium Development Goals, with little hardship to any of us. I hope that Edwards's vision will catalyze this movement.

Afterward I met Edwards briefly and asked him about maintaining America's scientific and technical leadership, specifically through the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. He said that funding for these agencies should be "significantly enhanced", and apologized that he wasn't able to give me more specifics right at that moment. I look forward to learning more about what he proposes from his campaign.

ToastyKen saw Edwards speak on Wednesday, and blogged about it.

Crossposted from More Fantasticness.