Profiting From The Written Word

– Mentorbox is a new subscription-based service which sends customers a monthly box containing interesting books filled with study sheets, detailed notes, summaries, and the like.

– Alain De Botton’s School of Life has a bibliotherapy service in which people are guided to penetrating works of literature that grapple with whatever problems they’re currently facing. Feeling depressed? — here is a list of ten of the greatest books talking about happiness/meaning/suicide/etc. Oh, and we’re eager to help you apply those messages to your unique situation for $100/hr.

– Bill Gates famously locks himself away for two weeks in an isolated cottage to read books which he believes will add value to his business.

– I once read an article (from The Economist, I think) which opined that businesses should forego generic team-building exercises in favor of having employees read and discuss books as a way of articulatinga shared vision.

Maria Popova famously makes a living reading awesome books and sharing their lessons on how to live well.

– There are entire college curricula geared toward the Great Books. For a long time this was the way of educating a society’s elite.

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Surely it should be possible to combine these business models in some way, right? You could have a monthly subscription service which sends you books and notes a la mentorbox, but maybe there could be different ‘tracks’; instead of only receiving books about productivity, you might also opt to receive books about happiness, intentionality, adventure, etc. Each month you could switch your focus depending on how you’re feeling and what your needs are. For an additional fee you could get 1-on-1 coaching, maybe even with the author if they’re still alive.

Offer a special package to businesses interested in a company reading list. Work with the CEOs to devise a company worldview and then have your professional readers build a curriculum on that basis. Have your own space for businesses wanting to do retreats — and charge $10,000 for two weeks, with unlimited individual and group coaching.

 

I can’t think of a better than job than ‘professional reader’.

Postmodernism

I just finished Christopher Butler’s “Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction”, and my impression of the philosophy is still that it consists of a half-dozen genuinely useful insights inflated to completely absurd dimensions.

Yes, to a surprisingly large extent the things we take for granted are social and linguistic constructions; yes, the ‘discourse’ of mutually connected and intersecting concepts we deploy throughout our lives can form a gravity well that obnubilates as much as it elucidates.

But the opening chapters of just about any book on General Semantics could tell you *that*. It does not follow from this that we should torpedo the whole enterprise of objectively seeking the truth.

Imagine it’s 1991, in the barbaric days before Google Maps when people had to navigate through the arcane methods of looking around at stuff. Wanting to do some hiking, you ask a friend where you can acquire a good map of the local trails.

She replies:

“Can you not see the fact that maps are just another means of encoding bourgeois power structures and keeping the lumpenproletariat shackled to the notion that there exists a world outside the text?! NOTHING is outside the text!! A geologist and a hydrologist would both draw *different* maps of the same territory!! WE MUST RISE ABOVE THE MAPS OF OUR MASTERS AND MARCH TOWARDS A TRANSFORMATIVE HERMENEUTICS OF TOPOLOGICAL REPRESENTATION!!!”

while chasing you down the street and hurling copies of “On Grammatology” at your head.

A geologist and a hydrologist would indeed pay attention to different facets of the same reality. What the hydrologist calls a ‘hill’ could be better described as a ‘kuppe’, and the geologist may not even notice the three separate estuaries lying along the coast.

But is there anyone who seriously believes that there isn’t an actual landscape out there, and that there aren’t better and worse ways of mapping its contours?

The sad answer is yes. Postmodernists have spent most of a century trying to convince us all of exactly that.

Duty and the Individual

Because I’m an individualist libertarian who cares deeply about the single greatest engine of human progress in the history of Earth: Western European Civilization, and its greatest modern expression: the United States of America, I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about how individualism intersects with duty.

On my view Ayn Rand was correct in pointing out that when people begin chattering about ‘the common good’ and ‘social responsibilities’ they’re usually trying to trick you into forging the instruments of your own destruction[1]. On the other hand, I have come to believe that there are several legitimate ways of thinking about a generalized ‘duty’ to civilization.

The first is to conceive of civilization as an unearned and un-earnable endowment. Like a vast fortune built by your forebears, Western Civilization provided the spiritual, philosophical, scientific, and technological framework which lifted untold billions out of poverty and put footprints on the moon. I am a son and heir of that tradition, and as such I have the same duty to it as I would to a $1 billion dollar deposit into my bank account on my eighteenth birthday: to become worthy of it.

That means: to cherish it as the priceless inheritance it is, to work to understand it, exalt in it, defend it, and improve it.

These last two dovetail into the second way of thinking about a responsibility to civilization. Duties are anchors tying us to the things we value. If you say you value your child’s life but are unwilling to work to keep her alive, then you’re either lying to me or lying to yourself. If you say you value knowledge but can’t be bothered to crack open a book, then you’re either lying to me or lying to yourself.

Having been born in the majesty and splendor of Europa, and being honest enough to see what she is worth, it is my personal, individual duty to defend her against the onslaughts of postmodernism, leftism, islamofascism, and the gradual decline that comes when a steadily-increasing fraction of her heirs become spoiled children unable to begin to conceive of what would happen if her light should go out.

But individualism and the right of each individual person to their own life are cornerstones of the Western European endowment. The key, then, is not to surrender individualism to a jack-booted right-wing collectivism, but to understand how the best representatives of a civilization keep it alive in their words and deeds. A civilization is like a God whose power waxes and wanes in direct proportion to the devotion of its followers. But a devotion born of force and fraud is a paltry thing indeed.

Let us speak honestly and without contradict about individual rights and duties, secure in the knowledge that the *only* way to maintain freedom is to know the price that must be paid to sustain its foundation, and to know the far greater price to be paid for its neglect.

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[1] This is not to say that kindness, compassion, and basic decency are unimportant.

What is a Simulation?

While reading Paul Rosenbloom’s outstanding book “On Computing” I came across an interesting question: what is a simulation, and how is it different from an implementation? I posed this question on Facebook and, thanks to the superlative quality of my HiveMind I had a productive back-and-forth which helped me nail down a tentative answer. Here it is:

‘Simulation’ is a weaker designation than ‘implementation’. Things without moving parts (like rocks) can be simulated but not implemented. Engines, planets, and minds can be either simulated or implemented.

A simulation needs to lie within a certain band of verisimilitude, being minimally convincing at the lower end but not-quite-an-implementation on the other. An implementation amounts to a preservation of the components, their interactions, and the higher-level processes (in other words: the structure), but in a different medium. Further, implementation is neither process- nor medium-agnostic; not every system can rise to the level of an implementation in any arbitrarily-chosen medium.

A few examples will make this clearer.

Mario is neither a simulation not an implementation of an Italian plumber. If we ran him on the Sunway TaihuLight supercomputer and he could pass a casual version of the Turing test, I’d be prepared to say that he is a simulation of a human, but not an implementation. Were he vastly upgraded, run on a quantum computer, and able to pass as a human indefinitely, I’d say that counts as an implementation, so long as the architecture of his mind was isomorphic to that of an actual human. If it wasn’t, he would be an implementation of a human-level intelligence but not of a human per se.

A digital vehicle counts as a simulation if it behaves like a real vehicle within the approximate physics of the virtual environment. But it can never be an implementation of a vehicle because vehicles must bear a certain kind of relationship to physical reality. There has to be actual rubber on an actual road, metaphorically speaking. But a steam-powered Porsche might count as an implementation of a Porsche if it could be driven like one.

An art auction in the Sims universe would only be a simulation of an art auction, and not a very convincing one. But if the agents involved were at human-level intelligence, that would be an implementation of an art auction. Any replicated art within the virtual world wouldn’t even count as a simulation, and would just be a copy. Original art pieces within a virtual world might count as real art, however, because art doesn’t have the same requirement of being physically instantiated as a vehicle does.

Though we might have simulated rocks in video games, I’m not prepared to say a rock can ever be implemented. There just doesn’t seem to be anything to implement. Building an implementation implies that there is a process which can be transmogrified into a different medium, and, well, rocks just don’t do that much. But you could implement geological processes.

Conway’s Game of Life is only barely a simulation of life; it would probably be more accurate to say it’s the minimum viable system exhibiting life-like properties. But with the addition of a few more rules and more computing power it could become a simulation. It would take vastly more of both for it to ever be an implementation, however.

My friends’ answers differed somewhat from the above, and many correctly pointed out that the relevant definitions will depend somewhat on the context involved. But as of March 29th, 2017, I’m happy with the above and will use it while grappling with issues in AI, computing, and philosophy.

Does Biology Drive ‘Pebble Formation’ in Ideologies?

In ‘pebble form ideologies‘ I advanced the idea that over time information topologies degrade into much smaller ‘pebble forms’ which are are recognizably religious in nature, and I stipulated that part of what drives this process are ‘religion-shaped grooves’ worn deep into mammalian nervous systems. Elsewhere a commenter challenged this notion, questioning why I invoked biology as an explanation when I might instead assume this phenomenon to be an artifact of language.

My reply is that humans exhibit a property known as ‘hyper-active agency detection (HAAD)’, which is a tendency to posit agents as the cause for unknown phenomena instead of, say, the interactions of underlying components. If this were not the case, and  language were to blame for HAAD, we might expect there to be cultures whose members don’t exhibit this property. I’m unaware of a single case in which this is true. Even in situations where a mechanistic causal relationship is obvious (i.e. ‘the wall fell down because a rock hit it’) the ultimate cause is almost always assumed to be the will of some god. This is true despite the staggering diversity of the world’s languages.

That’s why I think the reliable degradation of even secular worldviews into quasi-religious ones is rooted in biology and not (solely) in language.

Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Profundis: “Rapt”

Winifred Gallagher’s “Rapt” is a breezy, uplifting treatise on attention — that prism through which the light of experience is filtered, refracted, and bent. In an age that finds us buried 140 characters at a time, knowing how this vital process works is paramount for anyone seeking to live better by getting outside their own head. The science in Gallagher’s slim NYT-bestseller is elucidated with patient visual metaphors, and the prose is sprinkled with ample references from literature, science, history, and philosophy.

If you’ve been paying attention to the field of psychology then Gallagher’s insights into the relationship between attention and motivation, flow, visual perception, and the like won’t be particularly new. It’s nevertheless an entertaining and accessible treatment of the subject topics filled with all manner of interesting tangents.