February 15th, 2009


A Troubled Skeptic

It is so hard to be a skeptic, that I really feel frustrated about it, I don't know how to cope with it. I mean, who has the time to check everything? You got to take things for granted, you simply don't have a choice. Knowledge is a collective effort.

And I think I just had an epiphany:
I am inevitably going to fall for some stupid shit, OK? This is going to happen. It is going to happen more than once. The key is: to bounce back. To keep bouncing back. Not to get caught in a downward spiral of clinging to a pet theory despite mounting evidence against it. To be able to admit – OK, I was wrong! It sounded good, it was beautiful, it was convincing – hey, you know, maybe I was stupid to believe it, but I'll certainly be more stupid if I don't admit my mistake now!

The key, I guess, sounds simple: being able to admit a mistake and let go. But it's not simple at all. The emotional attachment one can develop to some random "fact" about the world is just unbelievable. It's about investment, I guess – when something convinces you, you kind of "vouch for it", you unite your own being with it, to some degree.
Here is an example: I saw a news item on some "hydrogen mileage booster" shit, and I kind-of swallowed it. I checked around in a couple of articles… decided I'm unsure about it – maybe it does work. The funny thing is: when my cousin Boris proved to me using high-school arithmetic that there's no way this thing could work, I was dismayed… I still remember the feeling. I was happy, of course – I just learned something – but I remember the strong urge to resist the evidence he brought, to keep thinking maybe there's something we didn't understand, or something… The funny thing is: I don't give a flying f%@k about mileage boosters! I don't even have a car! I looked into the whole matter on the Internet, for like, an hour, tops. That was my whole investment. I wasn't even fully convinced. But the bad feeling was certainly very present – I had to overcome some noticeable internal resistance to let go.
So imagine, what degree would that same resistance reach if my investment was bigger than that? What if I had a car, and I had friends who claimed the booster worked, and I spent my money on one, and blogged about how great this shit was, and all that? I'm afraid it would be really, really, hard to let go of the delusion at that point. And what if it was not some booster shit (the whole harm of which is a few hundred bucks), but some serious stuff that royally screwed up my life? The investment would be enormous…

So, I'd say: being a skeptic is not so much about being really "smart" and all, and not accepting dubious claims to begin with – it's much more about being at ease with re-evaluating the claims you already accepted in light of new evidence. And I suspect that when you get good at that, the ability to filter out stuff to begin with will improve as well. Or so I hope… :-)


On Being a Third

This is a reply to Franklin's post on why is it unethical to be a third side in a cheating relationship – i.e., to have sex with someone in a monogamous relationship, without the other party's knowledge or consent. [Yeah, go read it now – or you won't understand what I'm talking about!]
First of all, I think his post demonstrates an absolutely great methodology of discussing ethical problems. I'm going to write a whole 'nother post some time about why it is so great and about its parallels to machine learning. So here, I'm going to stick to the same principle of discussion: identify which differences between his examples and the real issue caused the difference in my evaluation, and come up with other examples which illustrate these differences. 

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Common Misinterpretations of Ayn Rand's Writings

Or: what you always thought Ayn Rand has said, and guess what – she hasn't.

"Rand reasoned that it's illogical to do something that fulfills anything but one's immediate, material self-interest".
Wrong! It's amazing how many people think she said that, while what she and her protagonists believed is pretty much the opposite. I suspect that the thing that unites all people who assign this belief to Ayn Rand is: they never actually read her books. Some examples:
  • In "The Fountainhead" her protagonist, Howard Roark, an architect, is broke and looking for work, but refuses to build a lucrative mansion for one lady, because her stylistic preferences don't match his own. She offers him a lot of money for the job! He turns it down, preferring to work in a mine instead. Notice how he gives up not only the immediate material gain, but also the joy of doing his beloved art, and for what? For such a vague thing as artistic integrity – the ability to express himself through his art…
  • In "Atlas Shrugged" Hank Rearden invents a new kind of metal. The government offers him a huge amount of money for his idea – more than he would be able to make of it on his own. He refuses, because he knows that the government plans to bury his idea (it doesn't matter here why they do it). So he prefers to lose money, in order to follow through with his invention!
These examples do not stand out; this is absolutely standard behavior for all Ayn Rand's protagonists. For all of them, Quality is much more important than material gain. In this sense, her characters exemplify extreme idealism!

And that is a big problem, actually! It is interesting that Ayn Rand laughs at the communists for proposing a social mechanism that, in order to work, requires people to forego their best interests; but then she does nearly the same! Her own mechanism doesn't work for pretty much the same reasons -- very few real people are such extreme idealists about their work. And it just bothers me as a game theorist. In game theory, if you say "I have this cool mechanism, but it has the incentives wrong" we say "Your mechanism doesn't work". You can't say "Oh, or it will work, all we need is different people!" Unless you're joking, that is :-) But that's a topic for a different post.

[To be continued...]

Group Sex

I just noticed a small change in one opinion I had… not a particularly important one, but still. It's interesting, because I know what caused the shift: my recent ongoing exposure to the poly community.

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My First GT Idea

This is what I thought about a couple of weeks after Moshe first explained to me the basic concepts of game theory. It won't save the world… but maybe it might help a bit.

Suppose you have an important problem that everyone wants to solve, and which can be solved by throwing money at it. I mean, a problem on which people already made a whole lot of research and are pretty confident that doing X,Y,Z will solve it – now all is needed is funding for X,Y,Z. I'm not sure such problems exist; for example, "world hunger" is not in this category – to much of my (limited) knowledge, this problem cannot be solved by money alone. But suppose, for the sake of discussion, that we do have such a problem, and solving it will require $M. The question is, how to gain the money? 

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My Moral Code – Excerpt

  • Knowledge and understanding (of the world and the people in it) have ethical value for me.
  • Critical thinking and freedom of mind have ethical value.
  • Constantly striving to improve is a value.
  • Lesser evil: if in a given situation all the available alternatives are wrong, the least wrong one is the ethically right choice.

Why isn't there anything about theft, murder, pain, love, war, compassion, envy, revenge, freedom, tolerance, justice or whatever? Even nothing on sex!
Answer: because it's tough!!! :-)

No, seriously, these topics are very difficult. I found myself unable to even formulate rules of thumb that would leave me content – too many complex definitions are needed in order to handle the issues in general. So let's stay with this for now; maybe not only for now. There is nothing wrong in a case by case analysis and judgment, as long as I strive for consistency.



There is this thing I want to do. I dream about it. I fantasize – someday, it will happen. But the thing is: it won't. Because I need to do something to make it happen. And this step is frightening… because, chances are, it won't work. And then… not only I won't have it, but I'll lose the dream, too. I'll lose the hope. You understand? As long as I don't try, I can hope that someday, I will try. Exceptionally convoluted logic, right? Or maybe, someday, I'll get very lucky, and it will happen by itself… or so I dream.
The problem is, with the specific thing that I want, there is only one chance. If I make the step and fail – that's it. From there on, I'll have to live knowing that it will never happen. And this prospect is so scary that it locks me in.

There is also this control issue, you see. Psychologists tell us that people are happier the more control they have over their lives. It's funny: as long as I don't make the step, I have control. Because, you know, I can make it whenever I choose! So I decide to wait… but it is my decision. I can comfort myself with the feeling that my dream is somewhat in my control, you understand? If I try and fail, it won't be any longer. No control, no comfort, no hope…

It will never happen. I know it won't… because I don't deserve it.

  • Current Music
    REM, "Dream"
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Where Ayn Rand Was Wrong

"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" creates a world where need is rewarded and ability is punished, profoundly screwing up the incentives for everyone involved. That's not what Ayn Rand got wrong – that's what she got right. The thing is, what she proposed – laissez-faire capitalism – also has the incentives wrong.

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Win A Date With Tom Brady – Doing It Right

Ever hear of these "Win a date with ***" charity fundraisers? Ever wondered why A-list celebrities rarely participate? I wondered, did some research, and I have an answer: because these things just don't work. Meaning, they don't raise much money at all. Michael Strahan, for example, got $20000 for a dinner (and this one is a rare success; usually, it's even less). But this answer only begs the question: why on earth is everyone doing it wrong?! Can anybody out there please explain to me why these things are almost always some kind of an auction, when you really don't have to be a big game-theorist to understand that a lottery would be an order of magnitude more effective for this setting?  

I mean, think about it – suppose you can win a dinner with [your favorite celebrity], let's say George Bush. Okay :-) …let's say Tom Brady. If it's an auction, how much would you bid? Answer is: probably none, because you know you don't stand a chance against some of the richer fans, who'll bid 5 figures. So very few people bid at all, and anyway the proceedings are only the winning bid (which won't be high, given that few people will bid at all!). And if, in attempt to maximize revenue, you take all bids as proceedings, this will discourage people even further from bidding. But imagine you could buy a ticket to win this dinner, with every ticket giving an equal chance to win. Wouldn't you pay $20? Or, more importantly, imagine just how many people would pay $20 (or even purchase as many tickets as they can, to maximize their chances), and do the math. I think we could easily be talking about 7 figure proceedings here – for just a couple of hours of Tom's precious time. I believe that the perspective of raising so much money for important causes would convince him (and many others) to participate.

Remember, it doesn't have to be a "date" date! Actually, I think that a great marketing trick would be not to advertise it as a date, but rather as a simple opportunity to personally meet someone that you have long admired, while helping to raise money for a good cause. That way, much more people will feel eligible to participate – and also, it will be much, much easier to convince the celebrities to go for it.

I thought that the reason this isn't done is because gambling is illegal in most of the US. But then I checked the anti-gambling laws information on the Internet, and discovered that, in most states, charity raffles are specifically exempt from these laws. So, where's the catch?


Good and Bad Compliments

A lot of things can make a compliment sound bad. Some of them are obvious – if it is insincere, for example. Some people don't like to receive compliments at all – they perceive all compliments a-priori as fake, shallow and/or controlling. I'm not one of these people (actually, I sincerely pity them…), but I understand their point. I think I managed to pin down one particular undertone that distinguishes between good and bad compliments:

The good ones sound like: "You made me happier now! Thank you!"
The bad ones sound like: "I made you happier now! Thank me!"

That's it. That's the big difference. Some people disperse compliments like they are making favors. "Wow, the great me thinks you are worthy! Rejoice!" These are the people who are perceived very badly, and rightfully so. It's not the objectification or the disrespect that are annoying (although these are often cited as reasons) – it is plain old arrogance. Good compliments come from position of humility.
It all boils down to this: when you give a compliment, do you feel like you are giving something, or do you feel grateful for something that was given to you?
In the former case – just shut up. I mean it.


Value of Honesty

I was six, I think. Maybe even younger, I'm not sure. I was rocking on a swing in a yard, and my heart was singing with a unique sense of pride. I had a Secret. That evening, I was different from everybody else. I wasn't wearing panties!

No special backstory there – that evening we were visiting some friends of my parents, and they set up a small blow-up swimming pool indoors for the kids. My mom allowed me to play in the pool with my panties on; when I got out, naturally, they were wet – so mom insisted that I take them off to dry. I wore a long dress that day, so it was no big deal. She even allowed me to go play outside.

So, there I was, rocking on a swing in the yard all by myself, when a little boy, my age, sat alongside me. Soon, we engaged in conversation; and of course, I just had to brag.
"And I have a secret", I said. For the next few minutes, he was increasingly begging me to tell the secret, and I was building tension and putting it off. Then, I told him.
"Wow", he said. "Really?"
We sat quietly for a while. I was happy that he didn't shrug and say "So what?" – clearly, he understood why it was a big deal. We were on the same page. In his eyes I could see envy and respect – just what I expected to see. And a bit of something else, too… intense curiosity.
"Can I have a look? Please!" he finally asked.
I considered this for a while. Well, why not? He asked nicely; it was not a big deal, really. I lifted my skirt for a few seconds, allowing him to get a good look, and then put it back down.
At first, he was speechless – the impression was serious.
"Wow, thanks!" he said at last, "Really, that was totally awesome of you!"
I beamed with pride and happiness. My secret and my gift were appreciated! That was so cool. We rocked on the swing silently for a while, each deep in his own thoughts. "I'll be right back, please don't go!" he blurted suddenly, and ran away.

After a few minutes, he returned with four or five other boys. Some were a bit older, some a bit younger than me. "My friends here don't believe me" – he said, avoiding eye contact, "Can you show again?"
I looked at his friends. They all held their breath, it seemed; their eyes burned with curiosity and anticipation.

Now, at that moment, all I consciously realized was: the good feeling went away, and was replaced by a bad feeling; so I just shook my head fiercely, and ran back inside. I didn't try to analyze what happened. Only after many years I recalled this incident and understood the motives of my actions.
If the boy had said something like "You know how everyone always hides these things from us? We are never allowed to even sneak a peak, and we get punished if we try! Everyone says we shouldn't know what girls have there, and that we should feel ashamed for being curious. But we really, really want to know! Please, if you still don't mind, please, can you show us? Please?!" – if only he said something like that, I'd probably show them! I was a kind girl. It was no biggie, really – after all, I simply have that thingie, you know? I see it every day. If they've never seen one, and they really want to… why not?

But he tried to fool me. Big mistake. I sensed the dishonesty right away, and this was what decided my actions. The gift he asked for was based on trust; he tried to get it by deceit, shattering the trust and eliminating all his chances.

I wonder if that boy remembers what happened, or if he was able to draw the right insights. I highly doubt it.


The Order of the Stick

The Order of the Stick, by Rich Burlew. Started as a satire of the D&D world, a gag-at-a-time webcomic intended for a narrow audience of hard-core players… and grew into one of the best fantasy stories I've ever read. Noteworthy: I've never played D&D! And it's still one of my favorite comics in the history of ever. (Well, OK, it shares the title with a couple of others… all the really great things in life are incomparable). Problem is, it's really one of those unfortunate cases where I'm left hyperventilating and waving my hands frantically, only able to say "Wow, this thing is made of pure awesome with a side dish of incredible, and you've got to try it!!" – which conveys the emotional state alright, but isn't very useful. So until I gain a few more ranks in Writing (Coherent Reviews), I'll try to jump-start things by an old reliable method: quote a coherent review by someone else :-) Collapse )

The Birds and Bees Talk

Well, it didn't actually involve any birds and bees… but this is what happened when I returned home one day and told mom that I heard how people make babies. I turned to my parents to verify the rumors, because what I heard seemed a bit too weird to be true – even for a kid who believed in conjuring spirits that bring you chewing gum.
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Elizabeth -- The Golden Age

Another one of this long line of crappy films such as "Lord of the Ring" series, "Alexander", "300", "Titanic", and others, which give Hollywood its bad name. It is interesting to try and name all the common annoying elements of those flicks – what is it that makes them all so bad? The main motive, I think, is the lack of nuances and subtleties. As xkcd put it, "Subtlety is my middle name, dawg. And also the first, second, and third, in case they don't get the point!" So it is with all those films. Every moment has to be stressed and underlined, every aspect of feeling has to be mercilessly dissected and exposed, insides out – and if they still don't get the point, there's always the appropriate background music, isn't there? Horrible, horrible…

As always, I'm just sorry about all the things that got killed, that deserved a better treatment – not necessarily the historical truths, but the (possibly fictional) personal stories. There were elements of this movie that actually had potential. Too bad nothing could come out of it. Oh, man, what did the great actress Cate Blanchett do to deserve this?...

My advice: skip this and see "Notes On A Scandal" instead, just to do Cate Blanchett some justice.


A Desperate Plea

OK, I really have to take it off my chest now:

Guys!! If you notice I'm in love with you, and think it's going to hurt me less if you simply stop seeing me, then you're being a HUGE IDIOT. I admit, being in love with you and not being able to kiss you feels less than great, but I can deal with it just fine; not being able to talk with you and get to know you is what REALLY HURTS. It's shit like this that leaves scars on my soul. Please, please don't do it! Please, I'm begging you, seriously, let's just be friends!

I mean, OK – of course you should do what you want to do – if you don't want to talk with me because you have more pleasant/interesting ways to spend your time – then, by all means, don't talk to me! But if your only reason for avoiding me is that you think it will be better for me this way… then see above.

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    not very hopeful
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Attachment Therapy

While reading Randi's "Flim-Flam!", "The Faith Healers", or Hassan's "Releasing the Bonds", I saw unbelievable amounts of stupid shit that some people believe and practice – some of it both very stupid and very harmful. But one particular thing I encountered on this site http://whatstheharm.net/ broke all the records. This is positively the most stupidly evil shit I have ever seen:


I'm not a violent person. But I have to admit – this article got me thinking about inflicting pain, in very particular ways. The motherfuckers who practice this shit – I just want to break their both fucking arms. To smash their face into a wall, repeatedly. To give them a taste of their own "therapy", perhaps.

The sad thing is, it won't help. A bad thing with violence – it can be satisfying, but never convincing. Those fucking idiots will keep thinking they're doing what's best…

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BJJ Diaries

Xabi is standing in the middle of the circle, with each student taking on him, in turns. Objective: takedown – make the opponent hit the ground first (although, from what I saw, if the guy takes you down first, but you land having him in a submission hold, then you win). I watch intently, trying to understand as much as I can. Both men hold on tightly to each other's collar and sleeve, playing around, but keeping a wide base, bent, hips far apart. Understandable – stability is the most important thing here. If one of them steps in, the other will either hook his foot or shoot down for the leg. Time is an issue; finally, Xabi shoots in, grabs both knees and pushes before the opponent manages to sprawl. Nice! 

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BJJ Diaries

Yoni is exhausted. Today he came here after his boxing class, and he was tired already. Now, after a few fights, he is completely out of energy, resting, his face red, breathing deeply. I know he wants to relax before his last fight with David, the teacher; but I figure that Yoni won't be needing any energy with me, so I ask him if he's ready. And, as I expected, he agrees.
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BJJ Diaries

The next day, first thing I want to practice is the takedowns. And of course, when I try Yoni's single-leg trick, I cannot get it to work. Not me on Danny, not even Danny on me (which is supposed to be much easier because of the weight difference). Surely, I forgot some key detail of how it was done… as always. Never mind – I'll check on YouTube, and also ask Yoni. 

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BJJ Diaries

One thing I fully understood today: in BJJ – unlike in, I don't know, science – if it's not instinctive, then you don't know it. If you are in the middle of a fight and you start wondering "Wait, how did that triangle escape go?..." – you're not going to escape :-)

Quotes I Like (But Not Necessarily Agree With!)

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
--    Aristotle

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.
--    Aristotle

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.
-- Paul Dirac

A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar
conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.
-- Socrates


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Some Thoughts on Poly vs. Mono

Almost all poly people I've seen take every chance to state that there's absolutely nothing wrong with monogamy (see e.g. http://www.xeromag.com/fvpoly.html). Mono and poly are both valid relationship models, everyone chooses the one which best fits them; both models can happily coexist in society, yada yada yada. While I'm all for mutual tolerance and happy coexistence, I don't think we should attempt to cover up the problems; rather, I believe we should approach them with open eyes. 

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What's Wrong With Monogamy

For most poly people out there, there's really nothing wrong with monogamy. Both mono and poly are valid relationship models, and everyone chooses the one which best fits them. I really wish I could wholeheartedly agree with this... however, I must admit that monogamy clashes with my ethics. And here's why:

It makes a person feel guilty about having a feeling that I consider to be one of the most important feelings of all. Our ability to connect with other people, to admire other people for their greatness, to be attracted to what we value (spiritually and physically), the ability to love – is probably our most vital characteristic in this life. Monogamy takes a somewhat controversial stance towards it – this property is considered wonderful in a person if he is single, but once he already has one romantic relationship, this very same property is labeled as extremely immoral and wrong. Well, newsflash, everyone: the ability to fall in love does not miraculously disappear when one finds a partner! OK, so maybe for some people it does. Maybe. For most of us, it does not; and polyamory finds this wonderful. In monogamy, however, it is usually considered very wrong to even be attracted to someone else – even if you never act upon these feelings. So, basically, if you're in a monogamous relationship, and there's this other person that you realize is absolutely awesome, then you should feel somewhat guilty. You should reject this realization. (Especially if it accompanies a realization that you love the way her eyes look when she smiles. Boy, if you even think that, you're in trouble, and you should be very ashamed of yourself. Monogamy usually asserts that it is OK to communicate with people of the opposite sex as long as you don't notice that they have a body at all, eyes included.)

And this is what ticks me off. For me, it's all very simple, really: Love is great. Sex is great. If a doctrine states that love and sex between two consenting adults is immoral, then that doctrine is wrong.

Note: some mono folks will say that in their eyes it is OK to be attracted to other people, as long as you don't have sex with them. Usually, however, there's a great deal of hypocrisy involved – the same people who state this as their belief get extremely pissed off if their partner actually admits to having such feelings.

I must stress that when I say "monogamy is wrong", I am nevertheless extremely tolerant to it. (OK, this world is monogamous, so I'd be in big trouble if I weren't tolerant…) I feel about it in about the same way as a vegetarian feels about eating murdered animals – he believes that it is wrong and people shouldn't do it, but he doesn't actually stop talking to all people who eat meat. Moreover, he doesn't start preaching about it at every meal; but he will also not try hard to avoid the topic. This belief is an important part of him, and he doesn't feel like he should hide it. This is more or less exactly how I feel about polyamory.


Ooh, How Disrespectful of You!

There's this guy, Rener Gracie.
This post isn’t about him; it's a rant about all the complaints on how women are treated as sex objects when men comment on their looks (http://joreth.livejournal.com/97329.html), or how women who want men to appreciate their bodies have nothing better to offer (http://cafe.themarker.com/view.php?t=44957 – in Hebrew).
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