Category Archives: Idle Speculation

The Basic Income Robot

It all started gradually. A few people discovered a MetaTrader Expert Advisor that worked well enough that it could be left alone to make money indefinitely. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to keep them in ramen.

So, they told a few of their friends about it. Then those friends told a few friends. Then some spammers got a hold of it, and started advertising it, with tag lines like “The financial robot makes money for you while you sleep” and “Give $1 to your financial robot and it will return with $100”. But oddly enough, people signed up with them, and it kept working. Soon thousands, and then millions of people were ‘roboting’.

Then something happened. People seemed happier. Even though the money the robot was bringing them was only just barely enough to live on, it gave them that extra bit of confidence and freedom. People would still go to work, but there would be a little more spring in their step, the feeling that they were working for themselves now.

Susan, a reporter for ‘The Beeker Online’ had been investigating the origins of these ‘robots’ for months, when she finally got her big break. One of the original programmers was willing to talk to her, but only in an undisclosed location, far away from prying eyes.

“Were you followed?”
“I don’t think so. I stopped and changed cars twice, like you asked, then took the subway using cash only.”
“So, what have you figured out so far?”
“Well, it seems that the ‘financial robot’ watches for a certain type of central bank action, ‘printing money’, if you will, then it skims just a little off the top for each person running the program.”
“Go on.”
“The really strange thing is that as more and more people start to use it, the central bank actions just get larger, as if to compensate, almost like they want this to happen.”
“So, what do you want to know?”
“How does this end? More and more people are taking advantage of this. Is there a tipping point we will reach? What happens when everyone is using this ‘robot’?”
The programmer laughed. “You’re really close. You don’t even need me to figure this out.”
“But what will happen? Why, how did you do this? Why has it not stopped yet?”
“I can’t tell you that. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”
“But there has to be some number of people where it breaks down, where it has to stop!”
“Does it? Think about what money actually is.”
And with that, the programmer was gone.

Enterprise: Broken Bow

So, we finally watched the pilot (Broken Bow) for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I thought it was pretty good. (I’ll try to keep this as spoilers-low as possible.)

The pacing felt good, through the action scenes, I was actually (figuratively) on the edge of my seat, genuinely tense about what would happen to the characters.

I feel like they captured the feeling of exploring into a completely unknown and dangerous galaxy, that any moment, they could be overwhelmed by an alien force, if they should do the wrong thing.

It was also a really interesting choice having the Vulcans being almost reluctant parent allies. Not quite adversaries, not quite obstacles, but always watching and judging…

It’s also interesting to see the first real human/vulcan team start to really learn to work together. To see the first tentative steps towards actual friendship…Two peoples who know they’re better together, but are still learning to trust each other well enough to actually find the synergy they know is there somewhere.

I had been worried about the T’Pol & co. ‘Decontamination Chamber’ scenes, that they would be pure fan service, uninteresting/unrelated to the show. Instead, they were a very odd, fascinating confrontation between the Id (Tucker) and the Superego (T’Pol). I’m not sure exactly how well the scene worked, but it was fascinatingly brave, having two characters who have to rub decontamination gel on each other, a very intimate act, while having an intense emotional argument about Human/Vulcan relations going back decades and discussing the future of the Human species. As the canonical Superego would say: ‘Fascinating’.

Perhaps the most jarring parts of the episode was the slightly too wordy exposition, setting out the political and historical landscape of the early Federation, especially the Human/Vulcan conflict.

At the same time, the Klingon-Human first contact was handled well, with the imperfect universal translator adding a nice touch.

Scott Bakula was a good choice for captain (although the cast felt a little white male focused, with little differentiation between them, even compared with TOS or TNG.) He genuinely seemed a little more afraid, pushing through with more bravado than even Kirk. But perhaps that’s because he didn’t have his Spock yet. Some reviews described him as somewhat of a ‘pirate’, but that hasn’t come out yet.

SPOILER:

I think the Temporal Cold War arc was introduced well, but I could see how it could get old hat if it becomes too commonplace.

Walking into the Rigel X Trade Complex felt like a very Star Trek experience. I couldn’t put my finger exactly on why, but something about the atmosphere of the music (or the visuals!) was very Star Trek.

END SPOILER

Interestingly, this episode also featured the first in canon definition of a specific warp speed[1], when Archer says: “Neptune and back in six minutes”, when describing warp four point five.

(Neptune being around 4.5 billion km from Earth, that puts warp 4.5 as 9e12m/360s, or 83.3c. This is only slightly different from the TNG technical manual, which places warp 4 at 102c, which can be explained by the need to avoid using warp drive while close to gravity wells.)

I also greatly enjoyed the ‘mad scientist’ Doctor Phlox and his menagerie.

Overall, a good episode (and I believe lived up the ‘best Star Trek pilot’ that they were shooting for). It was more dramatic than usual Star Trek, probably more emotionally raw, but it worked well to keep the audience engaged, by having heightened emotion even while arguing important points of philosophy, almost like the best of the lightsaber battles.

4.5 stars, some of the best Star Trek I’ve seen. Even the opening credits, and their message of humans hopefully striving, made me cry[2].

[1]“Warp 6.” “Aye sir, full impulse.” doesn’t count.

[2]Interestingly, very similar to the “Cineplex – 100 Years of Movies” trailer.

When Your Partner Succeeds, How do You React?

Recently, a friend of mine posted this article, which talks about a study where the experimenters measured how participants felt about themselves after hearing that their partner either did very well or very poorly on a test.

Interestingly, the male participants[1] felt better about themselves when they were told[2] that their partners did poorly, and worse about themselves when they were told that their partners did well[3].

Perhaps more interestingly, this only happened when measuring ‘Implicit self-esteem[4]’, but was absent (or much less pronounced) when measuring ‘Explicit self-esteem[5]’.

So, what does this mean? Many or most of us are feeling something subconsciously. Unfortunately, this can be difficult to detect, as the expression can vary widely from person to person and event to event. In the article, the author described one example thus:

“Not long ago a friend’s first book was published, so when I arrived at her home for a visit I eagerly voiced my enthusiasm and congratulations for her accomplishment. Moments into the interaction, her husband strode across the living room to a bookcase and returned with a copy of a book he authored 15 years ago.”

I remember acting like this once[6], and ascribing it to “trying to take away someone else’s success”, or “trying to take their success for your own[7]”. I compensated for it by explicitly giving praise and support whenever someone told me something they were proud of[8].

More recently, I talk with pride about the accomplishments of my partner[9].

Similar things could also manifest as ‘waiting to talk’ rather than ‘listening’, a calling out I remember vividly from early on in my efforts to learn how to communicate.

So, if this is a subconscious feeling, what exactly is it that you’re feeling? Some kind of threat, but what kind of threat? Some kind of threat to yourself? Some kind of threat to how you see yourself or your place in the world? Why does your subconscious think it’s bad for someone else to succeed[10]?

Why does your subconscious see this as a zero-sum game? What are you afraid of? What is the training that you took in as you were growing up that motivated you to think/act this way?

Knowing that, how can you deal with it? You could start by imagining how your partner being successful would help the both of you. As Belgarion said[11], when you notice yourself reacting to something more strongly than you might expect, you can pause, delve into that emotion, try to understand it, and think about it.

Outwardly, you can try listening and praise. Figure out what the person is proud of, why they’re proud of it, and try to find something along that axis to compliment them on. Usually, when your partner is telling you something, it’s like a bird bringing a present back to the nest for their partner. It’s important to acknowledge them and their gift[12]. There will be more than enough time for you to talk about the things you’re proud of, to talk about how you feel. Let them have this moment.

So, how do you react when your partner succeeds? Do you have coping mechanisms for dealing with subconscious issues like this? Share them in the comments below!

[1]”The mean age of participants was 18.9 years (SD 1.52). The average relationship length was 10 months and did not moderate any study results.” All hetero- couples, presumably of college-going demographics.

[2]Interestingly: “Extensive debriefing revealed that all but two participants
believed the feedback. Data from those two participants were
dropped from analysis.”

[3]The effect was opposite, but not statistically significant for female participants.

[4]”The self-esteem IAT assesses associations among two concept categories (self and other) and two evaluative attributes (good and bad) by requiring that participants categorize stimulus items representing the four categories as quickly as possible using two keys of a computer keyboard.”

[5]”Global explicit self-esteem was measured using the Rosenberg (1965) Self-Esteem Scale (RSE). The RSE consists of 10 statements related to overall feelings of self-worth. The items were answered on a 4-point scale ranging from (1) Strongly Disagree to (4) Strongly Agree (Cronbach’s alpha = .77).”

[6]’once’ as ‘in the past’, not ‘one time’. 🙂 It would undoubtedly have taken me multiple occurrences to have noticed the pattern, and likely multiple calling-outs.

[7]’Trying to take their success for your own’ is a separate issue, with its own long and terrible history.

[8]This was actually quite difficult for me at first, as I had to learn it by rote, as my parents found this difficult to do for me as I was growing up.

[9]This may or may not be related. I like telling stories about how cool she is, and cool things she’s done or is doing make for good stories.

[10]There’s a long literature on this topic, probably the most explicit is Wired’s article on how male computer game players who are losing the game are more likely to harass women.

[11]I can’t find the exact quote, but basically, he discovered something about himself that he didn’t like, and he had to take it out, look at it, and think about it for a while. (I think it was him. It was in something by David and Leigh Eddings.)

[12]This is from ‘Blink‘s discussion of successful couples.

The Art and Words of Comics

What do you look for when you’re reading a comic? The words? The art? Both? Does one interfere with the other?

I was talking with S recently, and I was extolling the virtues of Casey and Andy[1], one of my favourite web comics. S mentioned that she had tried to read it multiple times (often at my behest), but had been unable to get into it because of the art[3].

For me, I had briefly noticed the bad art very early on in the run, but the ideas he played with, especially with non-standard comic framing were more than worth it. (And it didn’t really bother me much at all.)

Thinking about it, I realized that the webcomics I like are generally very simple art-wise. I’m not sure if I actively prefer webcomics with worse art, but I may prefer those with simpler art. Some of the ones I read most often:

Questionable Content (mature themes, sometimes nsfw)
Order of the Stick
XKCD

have very simple art, perhaps well done (I think), but very simple lines and drawing.

Some of my other favourites are still simple, but (I think) most would say that they are reasonable artists:

Freefall
Prequel Adventure
SSDD (sometimes nsfw)

I’ve stopped reading:
Dr. McNinja
Goblins (often disturbing cartoon violence)

perhaps because of the more complex/busy art. I know I stopped reading Goblins because I find the art a little too gory/uncanny valley/disquieting.

I also enjoy:

Cyanide & Happiness (Trigger warnings)
asdfmovie (NSFW/warning/etc.)

But they are both incredibly simple art. Cyanide & Happiness is probably the worst art of any on this list, but I enjoy it because of the humour.

Among the graphic novels I’ve enjoyed are:

Transmetropolitan (nsfw, probably triggers in there too)
Watchmen (natch) (movie was rated R)
Ex Machina (some adult themes)

I feel that all of these, their art enhances the story. In Transmet, it really brings the world alive, and it works that you have a really busy future city, where everything is happening all the time. You also get important information about Spider’s personality and how he treats people. Watchmen is just a work of beauty woven on so many levels, and I like the vibrant colours of Ex Machina. I feel that something more realistic would almost detract, bring things closer to the uncanny valley, perhaps.

Interestingly, I have a perhaps similar reaction to music, that when I’m listening to a piece of music, I can really only listen to the music part of it, the words I can almost never hear, except when they are very clearly in the foreground, and/or I’ve heard them many times before. This may be related to being an instrumentalist in my previous life.

tl;dr: I like the words of web comics. I like it when the art is simple, or when the art if more complex and is cast in a supporting role to the story. Art more than that can detract (for me, at least) from the words, which (in comics) are my favourite part.

[1]This comic is perhaps one of his more bizarre comics, but I think a fair example of his artistic style/talent. He mentioned in his AMA[2] that “I realized I hated doing the artwork. I just liked telling jokes to people and the art was a necessity for it. That was the main reason I stopped making the comic.”

[2]Also, you probably know him as Andy Weir, the guy who wrote ‘The Martian‘.

[3]You can see a takedown of his drawing of a different comic called ‘Cheshire Crossing’ here.

Trolley Problem Memes

Trigger warning: Conversation and possibly dark humour about fictional (and possibly not-so-fictional) people dying in car and train accidents.

How do you design a self-driving car to appropriately value human life? Can you use a Facebook group to speed the development of philosophical discourse?

The ‘Trolley Problem‘ is a problem in ethics, first known to be described in its modern form in the early 1950s. Basically, it boils down to the question:

If you have a choice between action and inaction, where both will cause harm, but your action will harm fewer people, is it moral to perform that action?

Interestingly, people answer this question differently, based on how active the action of harm is, the ratio of people hurt between the choices of action and inaction, and other reasons.

The astute will notice that this type of decision problem is a very common one, the most obvious being in military applications, but also vaccines (and invasive health procedures in general), firebreaks, and perhaps the canonical example, automobile design and manufacturing.

This type of decision making has become even more important with the advent of self-driving cars:

Would you drive a car that would choose to drive you into a brick wall rather than run over five pedestrians?

Overall, you would think that this would reduce your risk of fatality, but few people would choose that car, likely because it is a classic prisoner’s dilemma[1][2].

What is your self-driving car's ethical system?
What is your self-driving car’s ethical system?

Personally, I think that much of this conversation is sophistry[3]. If one is truly interested in preserving life, the solution is not to convince self-driving cars to kill different people, but perhaps to have more stringent driving training requirements, to invest in fixing known problem intersections, to invest in better public transit.

So, if these conversations are not useful for anything else, they must be useful in and of themselves, and therefore must be Philosophy[4]!

One of the places that these conversations are occurring is the ‘Trolley Problems Memes Facebook page‘[5].

Now, you can argue that this page is purely for entertainment, but I think there’s a lot more hidden there. There is a fomenting and interchange of ideas, much faster and more fluidly than at any time in history. The person who writes the next book[6] on the ethics of decision making could well be influenced by or be an avid user of a site such as this one.

They may have started with Rick-rolling, but image macros are helping the advancement of human knowledge. Stew on that one for a while.

And while you’re thinking about that, something which ties it all together[7]:

"The creator might argue that his robot is an 'individual', capable of his own decisions, while the opposition would say that he (the creator) is responsible for the algorithm that led to the action. Imagine this happening - it would give birth to one of the greatest on-court debates ever." From Patrice Leiteritz via Trolley Problem Memes
“The creator might argue that his robot is an ‘individual’, capable of his own decisions, while the opposition would say that he (the creator) is responsible for the algorithm that led to the action. Imagine this happening – it would give birth to one of the greatest on-court debates ever.” From Patrice Leiteritz via Trolley Problem Memes

[1]If everyone cooperates, overall they will receive a better result, but if any one of them betrays the others, they get an even better result, but everyone else’s result is much worse. This theoretically leads everyone to betray everyone else, leading to everyone having a worse overall outcome.

[2]People also like the feeling of control.

[3]Check out the article. Apparently, the Sophists were the first (recorded) right-wing think tanks.

[4]My undergrad Philosophy 101 prof. made the argument that because philosophy was not useful for anything else, it must be inherently be useful (and that that was better).

[5]Dark humour. You have been warned.

[6]And it might not even be a book! A blog post, even! 😀

[7]Not a deliberate pun.

The Oft-Hidden Fringe Benefit of a Liberal Arts Education

“In retrospect, it was so cheap. Only 30,000 a year for people to care about your opinion on art history!”

http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/final-exam-dram

How does it affect the world to have people in school be told that their (often wrong and terrible) opinions matter? That someone actually cares about their ideas? How does this affect issues of privilege?

Even before grade inflation and students’ expectation of full feedback, students would perform work, someone from the establishment (TA or prof.) would peruse the work, and assign some sort of grade, sometimes with suggestions on how to improve.

But this is not generally true outside of undergrad classes. Questions are not so well defined, answers are often illusory, and generally many fewer people immediately care about the quality of one’s work.

Learning to accept these, I feel, is an important part of growing up. Teaching classes where things are not so well defined is inherently more difficult, and is generally reserved for extremely small class sizes. Illusory answers, or avoiding the ‘easy answer’ can also be difficult for many, as it requires significant introspection. This introspection can also be directed more easily in extremely small class sizes. One also needs to internalize the importance of the quality of one’s work, which is more difficult when someone in power is watching every assignment/essay/exam that one writes.

“No, it was a fantasy. All of those people cared about the quality of my work. Everything mattered so much.”

Perhaps marking of exams and essays persuades people to focus on the minutiae[1], rather than striking out[2] and saying something truly novel and interesting in the ‘real world’ that people actually care about. But maybe it’s important to have small, provable ideas.

But back to the original question. Is it a good or a bad thing to pay money for someone to care about your opinions on art history?

Those with more money can effectively pay to be seen as more important, those with less are forced into other disciplines, or more precarious positions.

At the same time, those in positions of less privilege may find it beneficial to have anyone at all in a position of power care about their writings[3].

“Everything mattered so much.”

When everything matters so much, it can disguise what is actually important[4], but it can also help find new important new things not discoverable by normal methods[5].

Thoughts? Comment below!

[1]I’m not going to address how formal education enhances conformity, that’s a well-known first-order effect.

[2]In this context, ‘striking out’ is an amusing auto-antonym.

[3]Although it can probably be even more devastating if those people in positions of power say that their writings are bad or unimportant.

[4]Analogy: Human civilization changing which traits are passed down.

[5]Analogy: Simulated Annealing.

“Senseless Juxtaposition of Wildcards.”

He had to admire the the gall of the programmer who wrote the error messages.

“Senseless Juxtaposition of Wildcards.”

It might as well have said:

“Grow a brain!”

Or:

“Try listening to classical music.”

But then it got him thinking…

What would be a senseful juxtaposition of wildcards?

First, we would have to make a list of possible wildcards:

The ‘standard’ wildcard character, specifically referring to a character is the question mark, ‘?’. Generally standing in for any one of some set of things (or in Perl, 0 or 1 of a thing).

The ‘larger’ wildcard character, ‘*’, which stands for any number of something (including 0), sometimes expressed as ‘%’, if you’re speaking SQL.

The ‘even larger’ wildcard character, ‘…’, which is like a recursive ‘*’.

But could there be something larger still? Something which climbs the directory hierarchy in the oppsosite direction, perhaps? Something which can make it past all of the automatic filters, but is clearly wrong? Something like typing ‘NaN‘[1] into a number field box? Something which steps outside the usual boundaries, like Thiotimoline?

In a biological context, there are entire alphabets of more-and-less-specific wildcards.

So, knowing all of this, what would be a senseful juxtaposition of wildcards? Something like ‘**’, or ‘?*’, or ‘*?’ would be meaninglessly equivalent to ‘*’.

You could attempt to mix SQL with bash-isms: “WHERE ID LIKE ‘%*’ “, showing that you expect an SQL character string followed by a bash character string, but that is again non-sensical.

Maybe it would have to be something like ‘hello??????'[2], to say that there are 6 characters of some type after your ‘hello’.

But there it was. The senseful juxtaposition of wildcards… bash statements inside command-line SQL statements.

That was it! But he had to think. How would he use this?

[1]And like the link says, you really don’t want to confuse it with NaN3. You really don’t want to confuse *anything* with NaN3.

[2]Or ‘hello……’.

No Basis for a System of Government!

ARTHUR: Old woman!
DENNIS: Man!
ARTHUR: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
DENNIS: I’m thirty seven.
ARTHUR: What?
DENNIS: I’m thirty seven — I’m not old!
ARTHUR: Well, I can’t just call you `Man’.
DENNIS: Well, you could say `Dennis’.

As you’re reading this, I will no longer be able to pretend to be Dennis in quite the same way.

I think I’m at peace with this (although it is really fun to be able to say those lines and have them ring truer than usual).

Speaking of being at peace with things, I wonder if meditation and relaxation can help you deal with nightmares.

Anyways, off to my day off. Enjoy the video!

[script link]

New Job, New Flows, New Structures

So you’re moving to a new organization. You know that what you will be doing will be different, you may even have read up on it.

But there are going to be all kinds of unexpected differences, and they’re likely going to come from the most unexpected directions.

Each organization has its own flows (I’m going to talk about software, as those are the flows I know best).

When an organization is writing software, there is generally some sort of version control-coding-testing-release pipeline. However, there are many different pieces of helper software for each of these steps.

There’s the flow of information as clients are using software. Information supplied by the clients, information supplied by your organization, and these all have to work together smoothly to solve whatever the client’s problem is.

The way that feedback from clients is turned into actionable items can be vastly different between organizations.

On the transition line between flow and structure, the way that teams are divided often reflect historical decisions made in antiquity, often the division of labour of the first few people writing the code for the first iteration of the product.

Information will be flowing through this system while the software is running, effectively handing off from team to team.

There will be structured and unstructured information flows in the organization. Many people are at their most effective when they receive all of their new information before it arrives through official channels.

Even the structured flow of information can be very different, for example in a very flat organization such as Valve.

So, be mindful, and watch for the different flows. You may be surprised at how different each organization is (or how similar).

New Divisions of Five Management Roles

Yesterday, we talked about five management roles:

Performance Manager (Worker Evaluation)
Estimatrix (Estimator)
Product Owner (Prioritization)
Scrum Master (Removing Obstacles)
(People) Development Manager (Development Conversations)

In a traditional corporate structure, these five roles are combined in one person (your boss).

However, there are many ways to divide these roles, and many reasons to do so (the simplest being that different people are good at different things).

Valve famously has an incredibly flat structure, where each person has a set of peers (the rest of the company) who handle performance management, and all of the rest of the roles are performed by each person themselves. As they say, occasionally teams will form with people splitting off into roles, but that’s all dynamically allocated by the people involved.

Your standard ‘Scrum‘ Agile shop will tend to put the ‘Performance Management’ and ‘Development Management’ into a ‘People Manager’. ‘Estimation’ is done by the team as a whole, the ‘Scrum Master’ or ‘Obstacle Remover’ is traditionally not the people manager, but is a separate role. The ‘Product Owner’ can be the ‘People Manager’, or someone else, sometimes an external product or project manager, but is generally not the same person as the ‘Scrum Master’.

I would argue that this tension between prioritization and removing obstacles is one of the reasons the system works better than many.

There seems to be a growing trend to separate Performance from Development[1], with some companies having separate reviews in different parts of the year for each of these. This can be especially helpful as many people are unlikely to be relaxed enough to think about how to take beneficial risks in the future when they’re tied up in knots about whether their boss wants to fire them.

I think it might make sense to push this to its logical conclusion, and have separate people for these separate roles in a company. The ‘Development’ role feels almost like a traditional HR thing, but I feel like to best serve employees, it would really need to be a separate department, called ’employee growth’ or something similar.

What do you think? What have you heard about how different organizations split these roles? How do you think they should be split?

[1]Development as in ‘where is your career going?’