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Posts tagged as “The Archapostle of Capitalism”

Effective Beverages

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So after a gut punch, one of the most important things to do is to take time out to recuperate.

effectivesangria.png

But funny thing is, the highly effective sangria above wasn’t the thing that broke me out of my funk. When something bad happens, I try one of the following strategies to feel better:

  • Take a nap. Or just go to bed. Sleeping can sometimes reset your emotional state. When I had my big crisis of faith in the 90’s, converting from Catholicism to Episcopalianism, I slept for like a day and a half, rethinking my whole life. Of course, if you can’t fall asleep, that’s no good - I was up to 5:50AM this morning, so blech.
  • Take a walk. This can also provide metaphorical distance from your problems. During my crisis of faith, I walked around my apartment complex again and again, taking an inventory of my whole life, weighing and evaluating everything I could think of. Today, when I tried the same strategy, I was snarling at the air, so blech.
  • Change your scene. Talking to uninvolved humans, not connected with your dramas, really can help. I had an interview with a candidate, a technical conversation about deep learning with a TL, and, later, after my mood was lifted, another technical conversation with my waitress at Opa! about the econometrics of developing nations.

As for why that last conversation happened …

20160211_192947.jpg

Which goes to the next item on the list ...

  • Try shopping therapy. Doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m a bookhound. I ended up going to the Stanford Bookstore to try to pick up a book on large scale machine learning (it had sold out). The books themselves weren’t the solution, but I’m getting to that - but it did involve the books in a tangential way.
  • Get some coffee. The inventor of the idea of separation of powers, Montesquieu, reportedly once said “coffee renders many foolish people temporarily capable of wise actions” and I’ve found that to be true - which perhaps suggests that we should install a Starbucks in the Congress and change the structure of our political debates, but nevermind. It helped.

You’ll note that nowhere in here is “get a drink.” That’s a terrible idea - if you think you need a drink, you probably shouldn’t have one, as needing a drink is the road to alcoholism. For that reason, and many others, I always stop at one drink per day - period. No matter how strong the drink, it’s almost impossible for a one hundred and eighty pound male to get drunk on just one.

Having a drink after you feel better, on the other hand, can be a great relaxer. But how do you get to that relaxed state? Well, one thing I try is, well, trying to resolve the problem.

  • Talk to the people involved. I have a theory that if you have a problem with a person and leave it alone, your emotional reaction will be frozen, even intensified over time - a theory based on my personal experience, but backed by cognitive emotional theories which say your emotions are derived from your stance, your relationship to the people, actions and events in the world - which doesn’t change if you don’t give yourself the chance to have new experiences with those people. Thanks to the fact that it’s the twenty-first century, this can be done via text, even when people don’t have time to talk.

But the point at which it turned wasn’t when I got a drink. It wasn’t after I took a nap, took a walk, talked to people, changed the scene, got a book on political economy, got coffee, or texted the involved parties to finalize the resolution of yesterday evening’s gut punch. It happened at very strange place, as I was drinking coffee, as I was reading, as I was texting with my friends to resolve the problem, I got sucked in to the problem that prompted me to get the book, a question I heard in an unrelated political debate from last night. As is usual in these cases, I found that the debate followed the rule of thirds: on a third of the topics, my buddy was definitively wrong, on a third, I was definitively wrong, and on the middle third, there were open unresolved questions worthy of debate. And as I started to look at those questions … I had a brainflash on how to solve them.

And then on a meta-brain-flash, as I realized what tacking the problem was doing to my mental state: it was fixing it.

  • Do the work. Find something you love, and cultivate the ability to throw yourself into it. If you’ve had a gut punch, you might have a bad taste in your mouth about a lot of the projects you were working on … but get your brain into a new space, and all those behavior programs will execute … and give you something new to fall (intellectually) in love with.

The particular question I was tracking - how to evaluate economic policies - is something I’m going to be working on for a while, but I can give you a flavor for it: how do you know whether a political candidate’s economic policies will work? Sometimes that’s easy: for example, Democrats like to spend when the economy’s doing well, and Republicans like to cut when the economy is doing poorly - and both sides are dead wrong. An economy is not a household - cutting spending in a slump will cut the state’s tax revenues and cause an austerity spiral and increased debt; spending in a boom incurs obligations that the state can’t sustain in the next slump and increased risk. These are pretty close to ironclad laws, that operate whether you believe in big government or small or low taxes or high; those are just the dynamics of economies whether you like it or not - whether you believe it or not, suck it up.

But looking long term, some policies promote growth, and some don’t; and it isn’t always clear which is which. What’s worse, exogenous factors - those pesky world events like wars and plagues and wardrobe malfunctions - throw an unavoidable amount of static on top of whatever we’re trying to measure.

The book I’m reading gives me, so far, the impression that individual outcomes are, roughly, helped by a country’s growth, and a country’s growth is affected by things it can't control, like the luck of history and geography, and things it can, like culture and institutions, with evidence strongly suggesting that institutions matter more than culture, since some countries have kept their cultures but changed their institutions and shown amazing growth. The factors that seem to affect this most are protecting private property, having enforceable contracts, reducing barriers for investment, having a level playing field for businesses, and creating equality of opportunity for citizens … but …

But how much of this is noise, and how much is reality?

And that got me thinking: if you assumed some randomness affecting growth, could you tell apart policies that caused 1 percent growth, or 2 percent growth, or 3 percent growth?

Turns out ... you can.

The Promise of Growth v1.png

The central red line is 2% growth, projected out over 20 years. The dotted lines above and below it are 1% and 3% growth … and the grey range is the max and min of a stochastic simulation of ten different histories, each with 5% random variation from year to year, which looks something like this:

The Alternatives to Growth v1.png

The point is, if you get a gut punch - like in the bottom trajectory above - it can look like you’re running a bad policy on a time range of a decade or more before things start to get back on track. On twenty year time horizons, however, you really can start to see an affect. On even longer time horizons, having the right polices can be the difference between a country like Nigeria - rich with oil wealth, yet having a flat growth range - versus a country like the US or Japan or even Botswana or South Korea.

This doesn’t show whether I or my buddy is right - in fact, this model, even as an abstract model, would need to be augmented greatly, to get a proper range of growth rates, of randomness, of the types of exogenous influences and their timescales. But even in its current state, it shows that under a very broad set of assumptions … I and my buddy were right to wrestle over this problem.

What we do now matters, not just in the next election, but twenty years down the road.

And doing that work took me out of my slump. It connected me to an earlier conversation, to earlier problem solving skills not engaged with what I’d been doing just prior to the gut punch. The gut punch still needs to be dealt with - but now it’s just an event, not a thing that causes random spikes of rage and anger when I’m trying to drink my coffee.

effectivecoffee.png

And that’s how I learned a new way to deal with a gut punch.

-the Centaur

Appendix. The graphs above were generated via the following Mathematica code:

RandomGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_] :=
initial (1 + rate) (1 + RandomReal[{-fuzz, fuzz}])

ProjectGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=
NestList[RandomGrowth[#, rate, fuzz] &, initial, years]

InterpolateGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=

Interpolation[ProjectGrowth[initial, rate, fuzz, years]]

FuzzyGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=
Table[InterpolateGrowth[initial, rate, fuzz, years], {iterations, 10}]


fuzzyTwoPercent = FuzzyGrowth[1, 0.02, 0.05, 100]

Plot[{
Min[Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]], Max[Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.02, 0.0, 100][x],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.01, 0.0, 100][x],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.03, 0.0, 100][x]},
{x, 1, 20},
Filling -> {1 -> {2}},
AxesOrigin -> {1, 1},
AxesLabel -> {"Years Downrange", "Growth Rate"},
PlotStyle -> {Thin, Thin, Thick,
   Directive[Thick, Dashed],
   Directive[Thick, Dashed]}]

The Promise of Growth v1.png

and

Plot[{InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.02, 0.0, 100][x], Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]},
{x, 1, 20},
AxesOrigin -> {1, 1},
AxesLabel -> {"Years Downrange", "Growth Rate"},
PlotStyle ->
{Thick,
Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin,
Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin}]

The Alternatives to Growth v1.png

I hope you enjoyed this exercise in computational therapy.

Happy Freedom Day

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fireworks at the end of the street

Recently, I had a potentially bad interaction with a powerful person. I didn't lose my head in the encounter, and I didn't lose my head as the result of the encounter. What's even better, both of us were in the encounter because we wanted to be: neither of us were trapped by vassalage or nobility. Both of us were free to walk away at any time. So ultimately I did the right thing in that situation, and ultimately they made the right decision required by the situation and we both walked away winners.

That's the kind of thing that can happen when people are free.

So yesterday, while our cats were hiding under the bed because of the rumblings echoing through the valley, my wife and I paused our preparation of our holiday dinner and went outside to watch the fireworks sparking at the end of the street … beyond the end of the street … and in all directions around us that we could hear or see.

Fourth of July is an American celebration, and yes, technically it's a celebration of our independence from England, but the idea behind the celebration is far more important than that history. We're celebrating freedom: the right for each individual to do what they want with their lives as long as they're not directly harming anyone else.

And that's an idea which belongs to everyone in the world.

It may be a long time before freedom is implemented for everyone in practice, equitably, with sensitivity to each culture's unique sensibilities. It's tricky, because many people in this world think that they have the right to control others, or think that they're being actually harmed when someone else's choices simply make them feel uncomfortable. We have a lot of work to do.

But we knew all that. The Fourth isn't a time to mourn for victories not yet achieved; it's a time to celebrate, and cherish, the victories we have in hand. So hugged, and smiled, and watched the fireworks, and then went inside and called our neighbors to make sure they'd left their garage door open on purpose (they had; they were also watching the fireworks, just up the street). Then we had tabbouleh and vegan crab cakes and watched a Doctor Who story about haunted houses, time travel and love.

It was a good day to be free.

-the Centaur

My Labors Are Not Ended

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lenora at rest in the library

But I am going to take a rest for a bit.

Above you see a shot of my cat Lenora resting in front of the "To Read Science Fiction" section of my Library, the enormous book collection I've been accumulating over the last quarter century. I have books older than that, of course, but they're stored in my mother's house in my hometown. It's only over the last 25 years or so have I been accumulating my own personal library.

But why am I, if not resting, at least thinking about it? I finished organizing the books in my Library.

lenora at rest in the library 2

I have an enormous amount of papers, bills, bric a brac and other memorabilia still to organize, file, trash or donate, but the Library itself is organized, at last. It's even possible to use it.

How organized? Well...

Religion, politics, economics, the environment, women's studies, Ayn Rand, read books, Lovecraft, centaur books, read urban fantasy, read science fiction, Atlanta, read comics, to-read comics, to-read science fiction magazines, comic reference books, drawing reference books, steampunk, urban fantasy, miscellaneous writing projects, Dakota Frost, books to donate, science fiction to-reads: Asimov, Clarke, Banks, Cherryh, miscellaneous, other fiction to-reads, non-fiction to-reads, general art books, genre art books, BDSM and fetish magazines and art books, fetish and sexuality theory and culture, military, war, law, space travel, astronomy, popular science, physics of time travel, Einstein, quantum mechanics, Feynman, more physics, mathematics, philosophy, martial arts, health, nutrition, home care, ancient computer manuals, more recent computer manuals, popular computer books, the practice of computer programming, programming language theory, ancient computer languages, Web languages, Perl, Java, C and C++, Lisp, APL, the Art of Computer Programming, popular cognitive science, Schankian cognitive science, animal cognition, animal biology, consciousness, dreaming, sleep, emotion, personality, cognitive science theory, brain theory, brain philosophy, evolution, human evolution, cognitive evolution, brain cognition, memory, "Readings in …" various AI and cogsci disciplines, oversized AI and science books, conference proceedings, technical reports, game AI, game development, robotics, imagery, vision, information retrieval, natural language processing, linguistics, popular AI, theory of AI, programming AI, AI textbooks, AI notes from recent projects, notes from college from undergraduate through my thesis, more Dakota Frost, GURPS, other roleplaying games, Magic the Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, more Dakota Frost, recent projects, literary theory of Asimov and Clarke, literary theory of science fiction, science fiction shows and TV, writing science fiction, mythology, travel, writing science, writing reference, writers on writing, writing markets, poetry, improv, voice acting, film, writing film, history of literature, representative examples, oversized reference, history, anthropology, dictionaries, thesauri, topical dictionaries, language dictionaries, language learning, Japanese, culture of Japan, recent project papers, comic archives, older project papers, tubs containing things to file … and the single volume version of the Oxford English Dictionary, complete with magnifying glass.

lenora at rest in the library 2

I deliberately left out the details of many categories and outright omitted a few others not stored in the library proper, like my cookbooks, my display shelves of Arkham House editions, Harry Potter and other hardbacks, my "favorite" nonfiction books, some spot reading materials, a stash of transhumanist science fiction, all the technical books I keep in the shelf next to me at work … and, of course, my wife and I's enormous collection of audiobooks.

What's really interesting about all that to me is there are far more categories out there in the world not in my Library than there are in my Library. Try it sometime - go into a bookstore or library, or peruse the list of categories in the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal System Classifications. There's far more things to think about than even I, a borderline hoarder with a generous income and enormous knowledge of bookstores, have been able to accumulate in a quarter century.

Makes you think, doesn't it?

-the Centaur