Post-Postmodernism

Most interesting functions that describe the complexity of the world are too hard for even the smartest human to derive. I think it’s an interesting twist of reality that the nonlinear equations required to classify a cat are impossible for a human to derive, but every once in a while a guy like Dirac can conjure the equations that describe very fundamental features of reality. Weird.

Only very recently do neural networks classify pictures of cats better than humans (it’s still mostly a draw). And they are only now coming up to driving cars. The models themselves are black boxes, we can’t meaningfully look into the functions they are approximating. We do know though that they are approximating functions that are used to predict where the cat is in a video, or where the car should turn.

Scientists are still far off from stuff like literary or media criticism or analysis. It follows that if neural networks are approximations for our brain, and our brain uses classifications to understand the world, we are trying to filter out nonlinear and complex functions when we study the world.

Classification without scientific verification risks simply overfitting the fast and giving us bunk conclusions of the state of the world. On the other hand, scientific verification of things like analysis of the media is nearly impossible outside of really simple and contrived experiments.

Everyone seems to agree the way the media interacts and evolves with Americans and politics is clearly relevant to our lives.

This sucks. Only our brains can filter out equations. We have no way to tell if they are overfit. There is no experiment we can run to verify anything; other than casually using our brains to try and pseudo-test experiments by observing the future and doing our best to ‘control’ for the cacophony of the world.

If anyone were to get it right though, I would count on David Foster Wallace. In his essay E Unibus Pluram he wrote about the ‘post-postmodernism’ of media. His interest was in the dynamic interaction between the viewer and the media itself. He noted how we all agreed T.V. was an instrument of cultural decay and we all viewed it as though we were in on the joke, which then fed back into the creation of the media itself.

From the essay:

What explains the pointlessness of most published TV criticism is that television has become immune to charges that it lacks any meaningful connection to the world outside it. It’s not that charges of nonconnection have become untrue. It’s that any such connection has become otiose. Television used to point beyond itself. Those of us born in like the sixties were trained to look where it pointed, usually at versions of “real life” made prettier, sweeter, better by succumbing to a product or temptation. Today’s Audience is way better trained, and TV has discarded what’s not needed. A dog, if you point at something, will look only at your finger.

Metawatching

But TV is not low because it is vulgar or prurient or stupid. It is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.

Are we all metawatching the current election? Everyone hates the mainstream media. The left hate-watches it, then uses John Oliver, Rachel Maddow, the NYtimes, The Huffington Post and whoever else to dive into them for their unbalanced reporting. There are numerous articles accusing them (you know, them? CNN, MSNBC, whatever) of giving rise to Trump.

Meanwhile Trump, right-wing talk shows and blogger types accuse the mainstream media of launching an unprecedented assault on their campaign.

Even now, the mainstream media channels realize they are accused of misleading no matter what they do. Still, everyone metawatches them, using the reporting they hear to generate their own partisan commentary.

I wonder if, without purposefully doing this, the equilibrium is for mainstream media to be purposefully bad. This way we all metawatch it so that we can stomp on their broken toy arguments.

 

Week Review #2

Slavery Dynamics:

Overcoming Bias has an interesting article on the economic dynamics of American slavery. It reminds me of a recent EconTalk episode with Munger, who talks about how the intellectual culture of the south created incredibly clever pro-slavery arguments. Not that they are moral, or correct, but that they are clever enough that if you were born into that society they would be convincing. Presumably this is in contrast to most portrayals of the time, which involve almost comically evil folks.

Munger quotes a book called Cannibals All, which I had previously partially read. The book takes a sort of Marxist approach to slavery, claiming that given how awful working poor conditions are for wage-slaves, slavery is actually a good deal. The author’s reasoning is that the slave owner actually has an incentive to keep the slave healthy and safe, whereas the capitalist doesn’t own any particular worker and has no such incentive. Yet with his capital he has a residual claim on slave labor from all of the working poor.

It’s no wonder Munger was arguing these arguments are… surprisingly good. Not good good, but about as good as any modern PhD Sociology thesis (that is, pretty bad). But they sound good. And while sounding good often has no correlation with reality, it’s often enough.

It’s strange that there is tons of literature on American slavery, some of it by brilliant minds, most of it painting a different picture than what we were taught. Probably what happens is clever well read scholars devote a lifetime towards studying slavery, and come to shared conclusions. The problem is most people don’t have the ability or time to study all those texts. Cutting the texts down is dangerous, as a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The clever solution is to select a few core and simple texts on slavery that lead the reader to a one dimensional version of the slavery scholars final conclusions.  You can see the same thing in The Holocaust. The side effect of this is that those simple and selected texts are then mistake for the reality. So when someone starts digging a little into old books, and they spot inconsistencies, exaggerations, and exclusions, they immediately doubt the entire conclusion. Even though the conclusion is usually still generally right.

The problem is that these topics and conclusions become sacred, and are used as a shared signal for our morality. In Germany it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. So when someone starts digging into small inconsistencies or questioning the past it’s viewed very negatively. Even though you would have to be delusional to actually deny the Holocaust or claim American slavery was in any way not a horror show.

So what seems to happen is every time someone makes a claim everyone goes along with it, since you can’t question the sacred.

And that sucks. Because while it might convince some people to care more, it also becomes a really inconsistent documentation of history that gives far too much credibility to groups who use conspiracy theories for their own ideological reasons.

U.S. Growth:

Interesting article on Sam Altman and his work at the head of Y-combinator. His goal seems to be to save America through incredible growth. The article reminds me of the Unqualified Reservations post on how Altman almost gets it, but that we are focusing too much on ‘pig growth.’Pig growth is a copy of a term philosopher Thomas Carlyle used, which basically decomposes growth between short run rum consumption and growth from buying your daughter a wedding dress.

What he thinks we should really be focusing on is getting the type of growth that creates a civilization worthy of pride. Interestingly enough, this type of thinking seems to be gaining traction as an economics paper on the value of uplifting makework programs was linked in Marginal Revolution.

Personally I think small organic farms are a great place to start. I used to think the French were stupid for their farm subsidies. Now I still think they are stupid, but accidentally got this one right. Our farm subsidies in the U.S. these days suck, because they mainly go to massive industrial farms.

We can imagine a scenario where there is always a job for any American citizen on a small farm somewhere outside of a city. We would all subsidize the farms, and this would provide a healthy life with meaningful work for anyone who feels they can’t make it in the private sector or find a job.

This would have been an insane proposition during times of high growth, but I get the impression the future of our growth is concentrated in an increasingly smaller group of high-tech  and high-IQ group of people.

The Rational-Sphere and Reaction Watch:

Great Interview by Game Theory professor James Miller with Greg Cochran of West Hunt. My favorite part was at the end, when Miller notes he had to cut out parts of the interview because the topics could destroy his career if he was on record discussing them.

There is a fast growing reaction towards immigration in the US. There currently seems to be a break down between immigration preferences for somewhere between 20-50% of the US population, depending on how you define it, and those preferences working their way into legislation through the electoral connection. My theory is that the longer that connection between electorate and legislation is suppressed, the more radical it will become.

Evonomics article on immigrants importing their destiny. It still feels dangerous to discuss, but there are real differences in cost and benefit towards admitting different immigrant groups.

“History is written by the winners, but perhaps in the future science will also be written by the winners. I’m not sure that the truth will win out. Perhaps the glass will become darker, rather than clearer. “

Does this document the start of the Progressive-Trump dichotomy?

General Interest:

Apparently in the Ottoman Empire when the King died, the son to succeed him on the throne was legally allowed to kill all of his brothers. The idea being this lowered the chance of a civil war and limited the scope of damage.

A physician talks about his urge to save lives in Aleppo. He risks his life daily.

A university in Syria was bombed. As I saw the picture with blood on their math homework I looked over at the math books on my desk, realizing my own frustrations of knowing I will never be smart enough to truly understand what is inside is not a real concern.

A surprisingly interesting post on the investment philosophy of a portfolio manager. He writes about Warren Buffet wannabes, and how he navigates investing and keeping clients happy.

Nerdy Residuals:

Apparently Tensor Flow can simulate PDEs. I’m sure that will help me with all the daily PDE simulations I do.

This is also a cool write-up on Graph Convolution Networks. This is a really interesting system to map graph theory data into deep learning models. I don’t know a ton on this field, but it seems like it’s the next big step towards using highly complex relational graph data for machine learning problems.

Theresa May: Progressive Savior

Theresa May is a savior of progressivism.

There is dissent among non-progressives. It’s now safe to say a Brexit voter and a Trump voter would have more in common than they would with an elite professor from their country. This dissent is making its way through the democratic electoral connection, but as of yet hasn’t meaningfully changed mainstream legislation in the UK or US.

If May is able to incorporate the frustrations of Brexit voters into mainstream politics, while allowing the opposition to negotiate with them, she could present the country with a palatable set of policies. I predict by taking seriously their core concerns, while ignoring the more radical concerns, she will incorporate the populist anger into normal boring mainstream politics. The more extreme will lose their collective power, since 90%+ will be sufficiently satisfied with their representation.

What is extreme in this case? From some perspectives it’s all racist extremism. This is changing though, with even Ezra Klein and Tyler Cowen discussing the fact that there are ought to be a way to discuss demographic concerns and the heavy negatives of some types of diversity without calling it racist xenophobia. In my opinion extreme is when this macro-level frustration manifests itself into hatred or violence towards individuals in day-to-day life.

May’s recent speech was claimed to have been xenophobic and awful. Judging the response you would have thought she gave a speech similar to Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech. The reality is that by acknowledging the most reasonable, and least extreme, frustrations of a substantive amount of Brits, she brings the policies into real debate and negotiation. The alternative of ignoring voters who feel betrayed by not having a say in immigration and the composition of their communities, is to risk their continuing to become more extreme.

Democracy seems to work best when it brings together voters who are able and willing to make political trades. Excluding half the population from having representatives who are able to build political capital and make legislative trades, on the basis that they are morally wrong, is not a successful strategy.

Is it really worth staking an entire political party and direction of a country on marginal amounts of immigration? Does the US really benefit so strongly from illegal Mexican immigration and relocating Syrian refugees to Texas that the Democratic party, and frankly large subsets of the GOP, ought to risk disenfranchising half the country, pushing them towards more extreme choices? I think if mainstream politicians took this subset of voters more seriously sooner, instead of a Trump we could have had a May.

May seems to understand this and is taking it seriously. Mainstream financial journalists claim her hard Brexit risks messing up the economy. May isn’t ignoring economic risks because she’s stupid, she’s taking a stand and making a show of it because that’s what the voters want.

Being unwilling to compromising on relatively marginal issues, such as letting major voting blocs have a say on who they allow into their communities and likening them to Hitler is a really bad strategy.

 

Related Links:
Taleb on the “Intellectual Yet Idiot”

Viktor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister’s immigration speech

Academic research on make-work programs

Evonomics on Immigrants importing instutitions

Bloomberg article on Breitbart executive

Berlin threatens to hold Facebook accountable for ‘racist posts’

Trump’s ratings let him scrimp on TV ad spending

A Few Thoughts on ML in Economic Predictions

I was recently talking to a friend about my work in economic forecasting and why the field hasn’t had much influence from more modern or trendy machine learning algorithms.The way most economic forecasting works is using a class of models called time-series. Unlike structural models they are based on identifying statistical dynamics of how series change over time, based on their past data, and their dynamic relationship with related series. For example, if you want to model GDP you would start with only GDP data and explain how it evolves based on its past data.

There are a few challenges with a large class of interesting economic time-series models. For one, the model you are  specifying is super dependent on economic theory. As an example, we never use more than one lagged value when using stock market data, because by definition a stock market embeds expectations of the future conditional on information known at the time. So having past data is not only meaningless, but misleading. Secondly, this is compounded by the problem that economic time-series data often has  little meaningful data. The amount of data in a model shouldn’t just be measured by it’s sample size, but by the amount of variation that is meaningful to build a mathematical connection between your models.

I ran into this problem when trying to forecast house prices in Seattle based on Zillow. Their data goes back about 20 years. That’s not much data, there are some economic issues around 2001-2003, a huge price increase up to 2007, a housing crash, and a new price increase. Not only is this not much variation (4 or 5 data points?), but the relationship between variables is structurally changing. Is the relationship between the macro-economy and Seattle house prices the same in 2004 as in the modern tech-boom Seattle?

How do you solve this? If you’re really really good you are able to build great priors based on economic theory. My economic priors come from years of reading Game Theory textbooks, economic principles, history, and the Philosophy of Economics and Science. Those books aggregate their knowledge on human behavior from centuries of observation, documentation, and modelling human action and markets.

That’s the cool part of economics, which is that lots of more complex systems can be understood from observations that we can use our brains to filter out to a low number of dimensions, which people often call economic theory. If I drop $30 on the ground, I strongly expect the first person to walk by to pick it up. I expect that because One, I know that it’s what I would do, because as a human I can simulate what another human will probably do. And Two, I’ve read lots of information involving other humans that suggests they would pick up the $30.

Let’s take this back to time-series modelling. The best economic models, before they are even estimated, are hypothesized by a human based on a combination of the specifics of their problem combined with their knowledge of economic theory. How do you get a machine to learn the right model to do this?  To replace a human it needs to understand economic theory, the structure of an economy as put through a textbook, the ability to try and simulate human behavior, and understand how this all interacts with the context of the specific problem.

Not only is it a problem type that requires massive high-dimensional data, but because the models are about other humans we are naturally suited to simulate what it’s like to be another human, and how their choices could dynamically evolve through the future.

In a sense the objective function we minimize for a given time-series model is only an approximation for the “true” objective function conditional on our having chosen the right model based on our prior data of economic systems.

Based on this I get the feeling solving economic models using advanced ML methods (where the model is able to incorporate prior economic system information) would require an AI-complete solution, which is able to read textbooks, human history, and simulate human behavior. There will definitely be smaller steps, particularly with respect to letting a machine search very high-dimensional datasets for useful predictors.

I have to think about in a more structured way, but my thought now is that the more a model relies on economic theory the less useful ML models will end up.

Week Review #1

Following Slate Star Codex I’m tracking my links and posting them to refer back to in the future.

I.) The S&P500 doesn’t seem to be sensitive to variations in Trump’s probability of wining (based on prediction market trends). This difference between what the marginal investor thinks, and what non-investors suggest will happen, is some sort of puzzle. The New York Times on the other hand claims the market could lose up to 10% based on debate data. The first paper, by Sweet, Ozimek, and Asher, uses a more formal econometric approach.

The NYtimes article is a little more haphazard. Extrapolating a small change, based on the after-hours and illiquid S&P500 futures market. Plus, this implies the current market price is in equilibrium with the current expectation of Trump winning (let’s be incredibly conservative and say 20-30%). If this is true, shouldn’t it have already plummeted on that expectation over the past ~6 months?

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex would (almost surely) have agreed with the Marginal Revolution argument that there is, as of yet, no strong sign that Trump is bad for the market.

However, he has now officially has endorsed Clinton. He thinks she is less likely to fuck things up, even though she sucks. And our main goal has to be to keep the world stable so scientists can create a super-intelligence AI and fix (rebuild) our genetic code.

2.) John Cochrane gave a great podcast on EconTalk on economic growth, based on a paper he presented to the congressional Budget Committee. He argues that over-regulation of our economy– a “death by a thousand cuts” — is to blame for slow growth. This is in contrast to views of low demand or that we have ‘run out of ideas.’

3.) Statistical Icon Andrew Gelman laid into NPR for their incredibly lazy science reporting. The ‘scientific’ paper NPR reported on had to do with how class separation on air planes results in anti-social behavior. His best line: “NPR will love this paper. It directly targets their demographic of people who are rich enough to fly a lot but not rich enough to fly first class, and who think that inequality is the cause of the world’s ills.”

4.) Reddit user provides very strong evidence that an interview with a “rebel” (Nusra) group in Syria was staged. He does this entirely on his own, documenting video evidence and cross-comparing it to other combat footage, maps, and landmarks, that were previously uploaded. By doing this he is able to place the rebel commander in a location no rebel ever captured.

We’re at a point where the amount of information being poured into the internet from Syria a.) Both too great (and sometimes too unimportant) for the government to care about. And b.) Too unstructured for any algorithmic model to digest. So rogue internet analysts can in some sense be near equals with the government.

In related news, here is a picture of ISIS’ currency

5.) Relatively new Bayesian textbook (with R applications) is lauded as top of the line. The first chapter has no real stats/code, but is an awesome read for its Philosophy of Science insights.

I’ve been going over some probability stuff, and made a note to remind myself of Chebyshev’s inequality. People frequently use standard deviation rules assuming a normal distribution, often when it’s nonsensical. The Inequality states: “In practical usage, in contrast to the 68–95–99.7 rule, which applies to normal distributions, under Chebyshev’s inequality a minimum of just 75% of values must lie within two standard deviations of the mean and 89% within three standard deviations.”

6.) The newest edition of Econ Journal Watch has a great article on political representation in academia and the failure of Gender Sociology to ever seriously consider biological differences.

If I’m optimistic I would say these articles, combined with the growth of Heterodox Academy, and the rationalist-sphere online, are keeping the goal of scientific inference alive. Still, it’s depressing that it’s heterodox and controversial to tell people “maybe men and women really are different in ways that make us uncomfortable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Political Parameter Spaces

Modern conservative and progressive thought–mainly progressive thought as it controls the academy–reminds me of a biased algorithm trying to estimate a model with tons of parameters. You need an algorithm that keeps trying parameter numbers, evaluating how well the model fits, and trying new ones. When I did economic research to estimate these models I would watch the four series, which were filtered from the parameters, as they would drastically change depending on the numbers chosen. In 100 dimensional space there are many areas in the parameter space your model can’t explore.

You’re never sure if you have converged on a true estimate, or your model took a wrong turn on one parameter a few thousand iterations ago. If your algorithm gets stuck at a local maxima, it needs to take a huge guess in the right direction to escape. Our modern political thought–unlike all previous times and countries–might not be at a local maxima but is in fact progressing to the global maxima of a utopian society. If so, I hope to help prove that claim by exploring the most unfashionable arguments for you in order to help you build your confidence that we are approaching that global maximum.

We live in a world of more than 100 parameters. If the number of parameters that govern our interactions with the world can even be quantified in a meaningful sense. All the same, whether it’s a true comparison or an analogy–no way to tell–it’s a useful way of envisioning the world. After all, our best scientific discoveries tend to arise from mathematical and logical models with parameters, so it’s safe to assume the same logic applies to reality as a whole.

Let’s make some assumptions and impose structure on what we want to call our model of reality, and state that each parameter represents a clear factor that makes sense to the human brain. We recently had a mass shooting (I’m sure this sentence will still hold true even if you read this post a year from when I posted it).

In this case the primary parameters would be gun legislation, Islam, immigration, homophobia, and so forth. You’ll notice this is a little shaky, since homophobia and Islam might have a distinct relationship, but let’s just stick with it for now. What if we are missing parameters, and that these parameters have high-dimensional nonlinear interactions? If these are emergent properties from complex interactions every nice little argument would be dead wrong. Shorter arguments can be perceived as more persuasive. And the memetics of nice arguments can interact with the structures of our government.

In the social sciences our goal is to explore the parameter space. Sure we do this with math and models, but it all starts with our brain’s learning algorithms. We try to filter out areas worthy of study in our n-dimensional reality. Political systems tend to be useful areas to study, as they explain how humans interact. The Mariana trench is not useful in explaining how humans interact.

This is obvious, but it’s also not obvious. When you try to teach a computer the difference between obvious things, it often ends up being way way harder than you might expect. What, exactly, is our form of government? It’s a classification issue. There is no such thing, literally, as a Democracy (despite what the tombs of old political theorists tied to prove). It’s a word we assign when an extraordinary amount of attributes are satisfied falling into some boundaries. The definition changes over time, the attributes we consider change over time. A measure of the electoral connection seems to be one of the most salient features filtered out by political scientists. When we pretend we have firm definitions we are lying to ourselves. Our Democratic experiment continues, perhaps the defining attributes are yet to arise.

On Democracy, what exactly is a political centrist? As Soviet historian Martin Malia surveys academic thought in the introduction to his book, he writes that “The Soviet Union portrayed by Western social science represented a variant of ‘modernity,’ rough-hewn no doubt, yet in significant measure a success. Most specialists agreed, further, that the system was ‘stable.’” Malia continues to point out popular academic thought that the rise of Bolshevism was “Democratic” and tolerated “diverse views.”

But those are boring examples. Let’s try some more fashionable conservative click-bait. If you’re not aware of this strain of communist apologists you might be a little shocked. More likely you have an idea that there are some of these people that exist, and take it for granted. Anyway, the red scare is so 1964. What we should really be concerned about is too many white men in our curriculum. That’s a topical link for me since I’m from Seattle, but it is commonplace.

There are enough blogs that highlight the absurd standards on what issues academics are (or aren’t) morally judged on. The question that interests me is how many times has this fight been lost already? We have entire departments devoted to all forms (except white) of ethnic nationalism, gender identity, and activism. The goals of these departments are to build a cohesive worldview that will build a better society, and proposes the core assumptions and worldviews that we must hold and enact to approach this optimal society.

Does this work as intended? Not whether it sounds nice, because of course it sounds nice. Plus, who doesn’t want to battle evil in pursuit of justice? Battle is fun. Unfortunately for the battle ready, Karl Popper, the most famous Philosopher of Science of the 20th century, doesn’t seem to think these battles should exist. In The Poverty of Historicism from 1957 he notes:

“i) Unintended consequences: the implementation of Historicist programs such as Marxism often means a fundamental change to society. Due to the complexity of social interaction this results in lots of unintended consequences (i.e. it tends not to work properly). Equally it becomes impossible to tease out the cause of any given effect so nothing is learnt from the experiment / revolution.[20]

ii) Lack of information: large scale social experiments cannot increase our knowledge of the social process because as power is centralised to enable theories to put into practice, dissent must be repressed, and so it is harder and harder to find out what people really think, and so whether the utopian experiment is working properly. This assumes that a dictator in such a position could be benevolent and not corrupted by the accumulation of power, which may be doubted.”

Do you think Karl Popper is assigned in many modern activist departments? I might be getting ahead of myself – a few quotes on soviet era scholarship, a link to some radical student activists, and a claim that Popper isn’t assigned shouldn’t be enough to convince anyone that activist departments do exist, much less that they are more about gaining power than scientific discovery.

Still, there are reasons to be concerned. Certain questions are off-limits and cannot be discussed by any professor at an elite institution with a dream of tenure, power, or influence. They are left to a few brave academics and smart bloggers. The problem isn’t that these guys are right (those two links are on human biodiversity). It’s that they cannot be spoken. Try it, next time you meet up with your most fashionable friends bring up the arguments in The 10,000 Year explosion. Don’t assert that they could be right, or hint to it. Actually, don’t, because you’ll make everyone uncomfortable and might upset a few people.

Our philosophy of science works very well for the STEM fields, it’s rapidly improving for laboratory and medical experiments, and it’s making progress in some areas of the social sciences. Yet in a world where our supercomputers cannot simulate complex molecular interactions in any amount of reasonable time, with what hope do we have of constructing a story of history that has filtered out the true causal drivers of history, with all pesky interactions controlled. What if some of the views of history are dangerous?

If humans are tribal, than evidence supporting a tribe–even if it’s true–might lead to war, genocide, slavery, and a number of horrific outcomes. Would we then need to be shielded from these views? Conspiratorial logic is awful though, there is no conspiracy. No group of academics gathered in a musky view to suppress thought. It makes for good movies, but it’s unrealistic. It would come about from emergent properties.

I remember vividly I was forced to take a course in African American Political Thought. I say forced because I had no choice in the curriculum in the honors program. We read James Baldwin and Frederick Douglas exclusively. Growing a little bored of literature, I once asked my professor in a seminar what his view on Thomas Sowell’s argument was in his book White Rednecks Black Liberals.

Maybe Sowell was right, maybe he wasn’t, I didn’t know, I was a student. I was told we weren’t to discuss him because my professor didn’t respect Sowell’s authority. That seemed a little strange. Plus, in what sense is literature science? I don’t think it’s obvious one way or another how to incorporate literature into scientific thought. It is a valid question, but not obvious. There was no conspiracy here, was this just one of those emergent properties in action?

How do we incorporate old books, stories, or the news into our conception of government? We must though, as we all have opinions on these that are a direct result of more than just some textbooks and courses.When I think of the success of capitalism, what goes on in my head? It’s a cacophony of sources, models, and stores that I have read. They fire through the neural network of my synapses and I filter out a reason why capitalism is probably good.

All this conditional on there being an already filtered set of attributes that we can consistently classify as capitalism. My experience of the world seems that trying to derive complex systems from first principles doesn’t work. No matter how reasonable the axioms appear. What actually seems to happen is that we filter out key components from empirical observations. If that’s true though, teaching the field from assumptions, as I learned it, doesn’t really make sense.

The rest of my courses focused on a standard liberal education. I was lucky enough to have a professor that introduced me to the great libertarian thinkers of the 20th century. That was independent study, of course. It’s incredibly rare for Hayek or Milton Friedman to be taught in class. Other than the libertarian perspective, there aren’t many academics who disagree with modern progressive thought. Some Economists will have a conservative bend, typically due to economic policy, and there are some unfashionable religious schools that disagree with abortion and perceived debauchery of the left.

At the time the libertarian thinkers seemed to be the dark side. I was never willing to fully commit, in the back of my mind gay marriage, universal healthcare, and legalized marijuana were the defining fights of my generation.

I remember vividly the feeling of outrage and hate when I saw the religious right fight against gay marriage. Who do these people think they are? I saw myself as an underdog fighting against an oppressive power. Sure we had the entire academic system, most policy makers, the presidency, the NYtimes, and everyone under age 25 on our side.

Of course, that’s not to say some of the points aren’t legitimate. While tough on crime policy can’t be obviously attributed to one evil side, it’s no secret that modern public opinion has the right favoring the death penalty and tough on crime approaches. Plus, depriving women of reproductive health care and preventing gays from marrying is needless and petty.

The reason I’m not worried is because the religious right is boring because they are losing. Every time progressives beat them on an issue they push the line forward and start the next battle while lamenting that war never ends. The difference seems to be that progressives will actually define the 21st century. Does anyone really think the American right will?

The problem is that as you obsess over your in-group and fighting the out-group, you slowly form a contorted and twisted version of the world. You’re presented with a picture of reality that states some set of issues are the issues. Your opponents take their stance on the issues. What are the issues? They tend to be the specific policy questions that best split the population into two and can be incorporated into one of two parties.

The question we have to ask yourselves is does this group vs. group battle over the issues portray an accurate picture of reality? Or do we get so caught up in our side, our battle, our righteousness, that we completely lose sight of just how complex our world is? And if we do lose sight, who is going to tell us? Where is the guy, detached from any group mentality, reading primary sources from the past and present, that will tap you on the shoulder and say “I think you’ve given in to the hot blooded excitement of tribalism, and have gone slightly off course.”

I’m not convinced what I learned accurately represents reality, or a meaningful history of thought. The academy handed me a set of base assumptions. I started out with half my worldview assumed to be true, without realizing I was at all learning on assumptions. It’s not that what I was taught was necessarily wrong, but after seeing the world of high-fashion in the academy and corruption of scientific thought, I have no reason to trust anything I was taught as an unbiased picture.

Curtis Yarvin started the neoreactionary movement online, which really just amounted to him breathing life into a once renowned, now less popular philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. Is he right? Well, his combined evidence and criticism of modern progressive thought is overwhelming. Is his solution the right one–that Democracy is a broken system? They are interesting questions.

Why aren’t they asked in the academy? One reason is that because they are so obviously wrong, like anti-vaccination or numerology, that they serve no purpose. They aren’t obviously wrong to me and at least a few other smart people I know. Maybe we aren’t that bright and everyone else has it figured out, honestly though, I don’t think that’s it.

In our developed countries the inertia required to exercise political violence is large, as it rarely promises rewards. This is due to centuries of institutional architecture. In other countries and times it hasn’t worked as well. Looking back these revolutions, insane political experiments, massacres, famines, and wars, seem wrong. They were brainwashed people, probably evil. Except they didn’t view themselves as evil, they truly believed what they were doing was right and would save their country. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist stationed in the USSR. He met with many of the British liberals who had come to visit the grand Soviet experiment with optimism:

You would be amazed at the gullibility that’s expressed. We foreign journalists in Moscow used to amuse ourselves, as a matter of fact, by competing with one another as to who could wish upon one of these intelligentsia visitors to the USSR the most outrageous fantasy. We would tell them, for instance, that the shortage of milk in Moscow was entirely due to the fact that all milk was given nursing mothers – things like that. If they put it in the articles they subsequently wrote, then you’d score a point. One story I floated myself, for which I received considerable acclaim, was that the huge queues outside food shops came about because the Soviet workers were so ardent in building Socialism that they just wouldn’t rest, and the only way the government could get them to rest for even two or three hours was organizing a queue for them to stand in. I laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an instant.

At the time if you were an intellectual liberal in Britain it was expected that you would fawn over the USSR and the great promises of communism. How can we be confident we aren’t falling into the same traps?

None of us want to be made fun of in 100 years for being misguided. If you took an incredibly unfashionable argument, something well thought out and not base, and presented it on Facebook how many friends would revel in their disgust for you? Sharing fashionable posts is a great way to signal how smart you are, and historically they have been misguided (as newsletters and pamphlets before Facebook). They aren’t always wrong, but what would it take to instill a seed of doubt in your mind?

On the other hand, the neo-reactionary view stating that progressivism and Democracy is completely broken is outrageous. So there might be a simpler explanation for why we don’t consider these seemingly radical ideas: They are stupid. If we assume a sort of efficient market hypothesis ideas it makes sense that the intellectuals of our past would have already vetted and discarded the areas of parameter space that make no sense.

Unfortunately, the existence today of academics who take seriously the mysticism of philosophers like Hegel and the unfalsifiability of Marx doesn’t support that argument. As Stove points out, wherein he quotes Hegel:

“His book is, naturally, full of quotations from Hegel’s early writings. In subject-matter these passages range from the astronomical to the zoological. For the examples which I promised earlier in this essay, I have chosen two of the astronomical ones. First:

In the indifferences of light, the aether has scattered its absolute indifference into a multiplicity; in the blooms of the solar system it has borne its inner Reason and totality out into expansion. But the individualizations of light are dispersed in multiplicity [i.e. the fixed stars], while those which form the orbiting petals of the solar system must behave towards them with rigid individuality [i.e. they have their fixed orbits]. And so the unity of the stars lacks the form of universality, while that of the solar system lacks pure unity, and neither carries in itself the absolute Concept as such.

Second:

In the spirit the absolutely simple aether has returned to itself by way of the infinity of the Earth; in the Earth as such this union of the absolute simplicity of aether and infinity exists; it spreads into the universal fluidity, but its spreading fixates itself as singular things; and the numerical unit of singularity, which is the essential characteristic (Bestimmtheit) for the brute becomes itself an ideal factor, a moment. The concept of Spirit, as thus determined, is Consciousness, the concept of the union of the simple with infinity;

Do you know any example of the corruption of thought which is more extreme than these two? Did you even know, until now, that human thought was capable of this degree of corruption?

Yet Hegel grew out of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, as naturally as Green, Bradley, and all the other later idealists, grew out of him. I mention these historical commonplaces, in case anyone should entertain the groundless hope of writing Hegel off as an isolated freak. But now, remembering those historical facts, while also keeping our eyes firmly on the two passages I have just given, will someone please tell me again that the Logical Positivists were on the wrong track, and that we ought to revere the ‘great thinkers’, and that the human race is not mad?

We’ve been handed a set of great thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and lessons from our historical past. Combined together they tell a story of how the world unfolded, the best form of government, and the most refined ideas. If we could look backwards and pull out a different set of thought that has been forgotten, but that is equally robust and suggests our current conclusions are completely incorrect, what would that look like?

Learning from War and Peace

I’ve spent the past two years learning economics, coding, and what I want from my own life. When we model any system, we use past measured data series that we suspect are related to our questions. Our brains operate the same way as they turn our sensory information and experiences into inferences on the world and ourselves.

When I was a child my grandma told me a story about a child who didn’t listen to his parents, and spilled boiling water all over himself. The story is so simple, and the goal is to replace the desire to experience a new dangerous sensation without actually experiencing it in reality. Why was it a story, and not just a statement to stay away from boiling water and hot stoves? Because humans prefer experiences to calibrate their brains. If you tell a child not to touch, he still wants to touch it because of a base desire to build new experiences from sensory information. This same command wrapped in a story let me experience a simulation of the experience rather than just a mandate to avoid it, which I’d rebelliously ignore.

This is the same reason why the death of a fictional character can move me to tears, but the headline loss of civilian life doesn’t pull that same emotional feeling from my brain. I know it’s sad when people die, but without knowing the emotional bonds underlying that sadness, even if it’s simulated in a book, I won’t feel that profound sense of loss. That shouldn’t surprise you, because you’re probably the same. But when you stop to think about it it’s pretty weird huh?

It’s important to me to live my life correctly, really important. I don’t believe there is no right or wrong way, I’m pretty sure there is a right way, and that’s the way I intend to live. Similar to my innate ability at math and scientific inference, my innate ability at how to live the right life is probably wrong and poorly calibrated. We take for granted that scientific inference makes sense, but as I’ve written before, it was far from obvious. If you taught a 10th grade principles of scientific inference and sent him back to 16th century Britain, he could revolutionize epidemiology and save millions of lives based on a few concepts of controls and experiments. There is no reason to think we’ve solved science.

As we are born and grow up our calibration is set through a shared societal knowledge, historical stories, apocryphal stories, and religion. If you’re lucky, your family helped in your calibration. Maybe your school. But not everything is done by others, we’re responsible for calibrating our views of the world as well. To do this we need to simulate experiences we have never felt, and might never feel.

I have read many books that have moved or shifted my outlook on life by letting me simulate experiences I might never experience. I read the Brothers Karamazov a few years ago, which improved my outlook on the pious. The youngest brother of the Karamazov’s was the purest and kindest Christian. I hadn’t met anyone like him, but now I know people like him exist. I updated my model of the world by simulating experiences I haven’t had. It’s true that it was a fictional novel, but I trust Dostoevsky to get these things right.

This past year I read War and Peace by Tolstoy. Andrei Bolkonsky is a prince in War and Peace who claims to be an atheist and holds a nihilistic philosophy of the world. His view of the world is one where he acts and lives for himself, he acknowledges that this by extension means he will love his family and wife, but thinks it follows simply from his own self-love. Throughout the Napoleonic wars this shifts as he experiences pain and beauty in a way he had never felt before. There is a scene where after being injured he lies on the battlefield and looks up at the sky, overwhelmed by all the world has to offer and how he has never taken advantage of it.

I’ve kept thinking about the book, and not just this book but the experiences of others real and fictional. Why is it that so many soldiers who made it out of great wars physically and mentally together have radical changes in their life outlook? Why do refugees and immigrants have such different metrics for success? What is it about profound suffering, pain, struggle, and loss, that changes choices and views of the world?

The truth is when I’m unhappy it’s because my quality of life as a human across time and space has been something like only in the top 0.001%, when I wish it was in the top 0.0006%. Even if we collapse the time dimension, my life is still pretty good. Relative quality of life isn’t everything though, although it is important, and that’s where it gets interesting. Whether it’s in War and Peace or present-day Syria, the day-to-day trauma and suffering realigns peoples view on what is most important. We have all seen it in our lives as well, even if we haven’t experienced it, and we see how people change their view of the world following a grand or traumatic event.

So why do we all wait to change how we live our lives and evaluate our happiness? We know that we will have to re-evaluate eventually when we reach the painful experiences that lie waiting for all of us in the future (sorry). But if we look at those who have survived some sort of trauma, or those like Buddhists who practice detachment, or those who meditate, those who volunteer their time to those less fortunate, those who read and pay close attention to suffering, they seem to me to have a view of the world that helps keep them happier. We can use their experiences to train and calibrate our own brain on their data. If we simulate what they have gone through we can avoid deep regret or suboptimal choices in our own lives.

This is why I think War and Peace is such an incredible book. It’s a full simulation of the lessons of war and peace written down for you to learn from whenever you want. It is a story about individual men and women, and their search for meaning in a complex and messy world. The world around them is thrown into war. Tolstoy rejects the idea that this is a world driven by individual men and their quest for greatness. Instead the path of the world is unpredictable and detached from our best laid plans. In other words, they follow from a set of hyper-parameters that no individual can meaningfully change.

The character Pierre is a bastard who inherits a phenomenal amount of wealth from his estranged father. The arc of his character and who he is starts with his despair at having done so little with his life in comparison to his aspirations of greatness. As Moscow is lost to the French, he dreams a plan to kill Napolean, which he imagines will alter the course of history and in his sacrifice give meaning to his life. For unrelated reasons he is captured as a French prisoner, and meets a peasant who holds joy close to his heart and shares a potato with Pierre as they are locked in prison. As they are forced to march through Russia in retreat with the French in winter, his friend is shot when he lags behind, and Pierre is on the brink of death when rescued by a man whom he shot in a dual before the war. Sobbing, he hugs him and calls him his dear friend.

As Pierre regains his health his outlook on his own life shifts. In our lives this realization is never as profound. Tolstoy brings us close and walks us through, using his exceptional skills at telling stories along with his own experiences in war. We see that even in our machinations, there is beauty. Pierre calibrated his own view on the world. It no longer was an obsession to be one of the great, men who claimed to have been able to push a hyper-parameter in a certain direction and alter the course of humanity. It was about his own journey through life, and his discovery on the personal parameters that influenced him.

Tolstoy’s argument was that an obsession with greatness misunderstands how history unfolds and the roles we play. The purpose is to find value in our own individual sincerity. In my view, Tolstoy is right. He figured it out, and I’m glad he wrote it down for me to learn.