On the rigged-world fallacy and pullback error

Fact: Ancient Carthage was 300x more metal than the modern day
Here's a quick thought on the eve of the new year.

In mathematics it's common to take a space or a structure and examine an interesting subspace or substructure of it. For example, when thinking about the integers {..., -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, ...} we can consider the odds, the evens, multiples of 7, and so on. Things get interesting when we can, for example, note that any two multiples of 7 add together to get another multiple of 7, and we didn't have to make up new rules about addition to achieve this. So the "multiples of seven" are a subspace of the integers.

So far so elementary. But now consider a bit of geometry. Imagine a two-dimensional rectangle sitting inside three-dimensional space—like a floating rigid sheet of paper. We could draw a circle on that sheet of paper and fill it in. Call the filled-in space A (because mathematicians like naming stuff). Now we might want to know something about the "inside part" of A... but we have a potential confusion. Considered from the perspective of the sheet of paper, obviously A has an interior: the filled-in part. But considered from the perspective of the whole 3-d space, A doesn't have an interior: no matter how small you make them, you can't fit any (3-dimensional) balls inside A without some parts sticking out. So we stipulate that we want to talk about the relative interior of A (the part viewed from the 2-d perspective) and call it good. These two notions of "interior" are separated by pullback, that is, "pulling back" from the 2-d perspective back into the 3-d perspective. We commit pullback error if we forget what perspective we're in, and say (for example) that A has some interior region in 3-d space. It doesn't; that only works in the 2-d relative perspective.

But these conceptual pitfalls seem way more pervasive than just in mathematics.

In politics, for example, it's common to focus exclusively on one "level" of government: Federal or state-level, usually. Because it's on more news media, people tend to view politics from the Federal perspective, even though (for example) local bureaucrats and moneyed interests can do a lot more damage to people with rigged zoning laws, licensing codes, etc. than can day-to-day stuff in Washington. Abuse of government authority becomes more severe as you drop down the levels. Yet that abuse is often ignored and local conditions assessed based on national standards. Sometimes relativity matters.

Similarly for social groups. If we treat subgroups as though they were the aggregate individual representing the whole group, that's a good route to misunderstanding at least, if not some serious pain.

Worse still if it's not the "aggregate individual" but something like a "salient individual," that is, the most ready anchored example of someone in the given group. What happens when the salient individual is not the most common kind of person within the group? You might get a situation such as what's happening to MIT computer-science professor Scott Aaronson.

Aaronson wrote an extremely personal comment about his formative years, and how his personal hell of extreme social anxiety and internalized messages led him to (at one point) beg a psychiatrist for chemical-castration drugs, so tortured was he by the conflict between external messages about how he should behave and his own internal feelings. He tried to leverage this personal experience in service to other "shy nerds" that might be the collateral damage of very well-intentioned messages about romantic-sexual interaction.

He got raked over the proverbial coals.

But what struck me about this particular case was that many of Aaronson's critics were talking about Silicon Valley tech-sexism in their yes-but dismissals or how-dare-you retaliations... Aaronson is a CS prof at MIT, on the other side of the country, and (as far as I'm aware) outside the execrable bubble of startup culture. Yeah, he's "in tech," but it's not the same "in tech" as the entitled college dropouts and brogrammer frat boys who go West. That culture has a whole host of problems, it's true. But it seems so obviously unfair to attack Aaronson for it, since he's not even there.

For those who care about fixing the "sexism in tech," examples like Uber or Zillow or Facebook are the anchor. Examples like Aaronson are noncentral in the minds of the activists, but seem much more likely to be the typical case in reality, just as "shitty basement IT programming job" is more likely to be the typical work experience of people "in tech" than "tacos delivered to the office by drone octocopter" or whatever.

Belief in a just world—that pretty much everything that happens to someone is the natural result of some "order," so they kind of "deserve" it because otherwise the world would be unjust and that's just too scary—is seen by many as naive, though it's a more or less natural rationalization in the face of not knowing why good or bad things happen to people. Looking into it more, however, one realizes that there are some subtle patterns of prosperity and hardship that fall unevenly among various social groups. There are a couple ways to interpret this.

One way is to despair that society is under the dominion of Moloch, the "abstracted spirit of discoordination and flailing response to incentives" in the other Scott A's colorful metaphor. Almost nobody has enough information to correctly respond in the face of a blizzard of incentives, so we flail about and achieve horrible, sub-optimal results that nobody in their right mind would consciously choose.

Another way is to conclude that the world is rigged, and that some elite groups really do experience a just world while other oppressed groups experience a crapsack world. Then, if some "whiner" is observed to be a member of the elite group, their hardship must be their own whiny fault.

Of course, if we really are under Moloch, then (1) the correct response to pointing out possible multi-polar failures is not to shame the questioner for what you perceive as an attack on your own life-choices; and (2) shaming the questioner is exactly the sort of thing Moloch delights in.

By all means, he gloats, judge only from skewed perspectives. Forget your charity. Your cause is pure and just, any losses are wholly acceptable. Offer these up unto me. Me, whose love is endless oil and stone.

Moloch loves pullback error. (And with that sentence I have fulfilled my goal of conceptually mashing up ancient Sumerian deities with modern mathematics.)

9 Reasons Why, For the Love of All That Is Good and Decent, You Shouldn't Let a Libertarian Be Your Baby Mama

Thought Catalog is a dumping ground for any brainless dribblings that happen to hit the right spots on the keyboard. One such was the fecal gem titled 9 Reasons You Absolutely Do Not Want a Feminist to Be the Father of Your Children, and since I made fun of Salon-style stupidity in critiquing libertarianism a while back, let's make fun of stupid-critiques of feminism here... by stupid-critiquing libertarianism! Tee hee and tra la!

So you’ve decided to ignore my advice about dating libertarian women and you are okay with shitty sex and kinda really like the whole no accountability and no consequences deal, and you are wondering if perhaps your libertarian girlfriend might make a pretty terrific libertarian wife and mother for whatever children you conceive. No need to make sure the children are biologically hers, because a true libertarian understands that infidelity and paternity fraud are just a bit of pro-free-market activism in the face of centuries of statist oppression and public roads. She will focus all her energies and efforts on the little ones, and that really should give you pause. Here are 9 reasons you do not want a libertarian to be the mother of your children.

1. If your child isn't the perfect specimen of homo economicus right out the gate, she'll probably try to sell it on the baby markets.

2. If she can't get a good price for it, she'll probably use a cow as its wet-nurse. Pasteur was probably a fucking statist anyway.
Raw milk!

3. She'll side against your kid's teacher, and public schools in general, and just let them run around outside naked until they magically become captains of industry.

Source: Some numbskull on Pintrest

4. She'll think that a semi-automatic rifle with red-dot sight and extended magazine is the perfect present for your child's second birthday.

5. If your child experiments with heroin, she'll only encourage them.

6. When you suggest paying your child an allowance for doing household chores, she'll insist on paying them in digital Monopoly-money.

"I can buy so much anime with my RonPaulCoins...!"
Source: Know Your Meme

7. She'll want to raise your child on a floating platform at sea with no laws or regulations. And no playgrounds.

Under da sea~~~
Source: Bioshock

8. If your kid grows up to pitch idiotic and dehumanizing servant-labor services to Silicon Valley angel investors, she'll only praise them.

Source: MemeGenerator. Can we just carpet bomb Silicon Valley already?

9. If she has her way, your child's sex education will consist entirely of the trainyard rape fantasy scene from Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand!
STILL a better love story than _Twilight_
Source: One of the Atlas Shrugged movies of 20XX
Your libertarian wife will be confident in her approach to raising your children (remember there is no requirement that the children be biologically hers and even if they aren't, they are still her property and she may enforce her ownership with the assistance of for-profit family courts and polycentric laws), but your children will be heartless, greedy and egotistical Uberkinder who have no idea how to navigate a world in which the majority of people are shiftless moochers want to ban the word “libertarian” because libertarians kinda suck. Those are the same people who think you and your libertarian wife are batshit insane.

And they’re right.

Art, beer, and emotional homomorphism

I went to my first Drunken Philosophy meetup at the behest of friend and fellow blogger Kayla (one half of Crows Against Murder dot Tumblr dot com), and it was really great. One of the more interesting questions, not coincidentally posed by her, involved the nature of art. This is a topic over-ripe with potential, but we eventually digressed from Kayla's initial question ("When an artist makes better art over time, what exactly is the thing that's getting better?") to the nuanced categorization question of What is Art? Specifically, we were interested in figuring out what distinguishes Art from Propaganda and Craft. And for that we asked whether beer brewing is an Art.

We agreed that it is not, at least not what most people think of as beer brewing. When a brewer makes a beer, they are aiming for a specific taste-sensation (hereafter "taste")—this is a mental experience that is obviously tied to an external physical stimulus. That is, if a brewer wants to make a stout that tastes of chocolate, they don't need to actually put chocolate into the beer. In fact distilled spirits and wines are a better example of this: most of the flavors you get in wine or whiskey, for example, aren't actually from the things you think they're from. There's no actual vanilla or apple or coffee, it's a trick of the taste receptors.

But beer brewing is not merely the mechanical stimulation of taste receptors: that is a relatively deterministic matter of fitting the right-shaped molecules to the right-shaped receptors. Rather, it's a Craft: there's no computer formula to hit a specific taste in one's beer (though I could easily see computers aiding in the brewing process), it has an element of human intuition and experience.

Art is even different from that, though: most people would consider a beer to be a work of Art, at least not in a serious way. Even a very well-crafted pint of beer does not have the same quality as a work of Art. The reason, that several of us arrived at, had something to do with what the artist is doing mentally. An artist is trying to induce an emotional reaction, usually based off of their own personal experience: the example we used was a particularly sublime sunset. The artist experiences some complex emotional state on viewing the sunset, and seeks to invest a work of Art with (something like) that emotional state. The idea, then, is that most people viewing the Art will also experience (something like) that emotional state.

The distinction, then, is that emotions are entirely internal to ourselves. Yes, they have physical causes (brain chemistry and all that) but we don't naively act as though our bodies are that complex. We tend to think of our internals as being harder to influence than our externals—flesh, sensory organs, and so on—and so to induce an emotional state is taken as more rare a skill than inducing a sensory state. This lines up with the more general psychology of scarcity—and we did agree that Art has a quality of preciousness or rarity about it.

More complications arose from there. Commercial qualities debased art, we agreed: but the great Renaissance artists were commissioned for almost all of their work, and yet it's commonly accepted that Michaelangelo was a great painter and sculptor even though his most famous works were paid for and dictated. It wasn't like they let him into the Sistine Chapel and said "have at, you artist you"—they expected that his completed work induce the emotions of piety, reverence, and awe before the glory of God and Church. Religious art, or religious advertisement? Only history has given us the distance to judge. Perhaps future generations will see certain Superbowl commercials as great art.

The idea that artists create a channel between [their experience] -> [their emotional state] -> [ART] -> [your experience] -> [your emotional state ~ their emotional state] made me think of mathematics, specifically the concept of a homomorphism. In math you study objects or spaces with various "structural" properties. A simple example is how multiplication works with integers. (Some spaces don't have the same "multiplication"!) If you can find a rule that takes things from one space (configurations of a tetrahedron, say) to things in another space (special kinds of matrices) while preserving that structure, you have what's called a homomorphism ("same shape").

Is Art really the creation of (something like) a homomorphism between the space of the artist's emotions and the space of your emotions? And at the deeper level of cognition, is our conception of Art related, in analogous fashion, to our concept of mathematical elegance? It's probably not a coincidence that Bertrand Russell referred to mathematics this way:
"Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry."

He implies a hierarchy even within Art there—sculpture and/or poetry somehow on a different level than paintings or music—and I'm not even going to go there. In fact I'm going to leave it right here, before the art-math connection gets too far out of hand. In the meantime, contemplate some art. And drink a beer.

Tofu to the left of me, Twinkies to the right

or, Notes towards a new characterization of bumper-sticker politics in the American mainstream


I've had a reasonably long-running joke that when Subarus accumulate enough bumper stickers, they metamorphose into Volvos.

Certainly bumper stickers say something about the person whose vehicle they're on. This blog post (which I mostly chose because it features a liberal-bestickered Subaru and a conservative-bestickered pickup truck) opines:  
You can tell a lot about a person by their bumper stickers.  I get a kick out of reading what people have branded on the back of their cars.  Some of the stickers are political some are religious and some tell us about the kids or dogs.  If you see a car with multiple bumper stickers one thing about these people who you can count on is, they are passionate and dedicated to what they believe in.
I don't think this is entirely true. Bumper-sticker politics is a derogatory term for a reason, after all. What you can count on, really truly, is this: The owner of a bestickered vehicle is passionate and dedicated to their beliefs, but not necessarily to what those beliefs point to. Sometimes it may not be accurate to say that they believe in any thing except the belief itself.

Since I'm on a remodeling/restructuring/recharacterizing/rephrasing kick of late, why not a new characterization of bumper sticker politics? Not everyone buys bumper stickers, because not everyone owns a Subaru or a pickup truck. But everyone eats food, of one sort or another—let's try a food metaphor!

So: this is what I'm going to call Tofu Leftism. Like the worst-prepared tofu, it's utterly devoid of flavor, not even worthy of being called "bland." And yet everyone somehow agrees that it's left-ish, and therefore basically correct... since—Cthulhu help me, I'm cribbing from neoreaction again—the implicit cathedral of (broadly construed) progressive thought is totally dominant. Gut feelings don't matter, personal taste doesn't matter; hell, even nutrition doesn't matter. What matters is that it's culturally accepted that eating this bland, poorly-prepared tofu is the mark of a Conscientious Person Who Cares About the Right Things.

Tofu Leftism is the left-wing's equivalent of (philosophical) bullshit—statements said with little regard to their truth or falsity, but only for their effect on the intended audience. What matters, then, is their tribal-ideological purity. I should clarify here that I am talking about leftism, not liberalism, here. Tofu Leftist memes are sometimes called "liberal" but this is a confusion. The point is that Tofu Leftism pretends to the edginess, nonconformity and revolutionary character of true leftism, and yet has nothing of that actual content.

Like this piece of hot street trash from Everyday Feminism, via (what else) Upworthy. It's head-to-tail inaccurate: one specific pseudo-fact that caught my attention was their #8 "Thing The History Books Don’t Tell Us About Native People," that Native Americans were also used as slaves. Which, I must have gone to Bizarro high school because we did learn that, so at least some of "the history books" tell us about it. The history books also tell us that many many Native societies practiced slavery yes before the white people came, they were just as capable of being assholes stop with the noble savage myths including, notably, the Cherokee:
What has been described as "the most spectacular act of rebellion against slavery" among the Cherokee, the 1842 event inspired subsequent slave rebellions in the Indian Territory.[1] But, in the aftermath of this escape, the Cherokee Nation passed stricter slave codes, expelled freedmen from the territory, and established a 'rescue' (slave-catching) company to try to prevent additional losses.
You'd think that a post dedicated to rounding out an admittedly criminally under-taught history would be a bit more nuanced than "Native people were only the victims of white oppression"—something more like "Native people were just as human, for good and ill, as any of the white people who tried to deny them that humanity." That's maybe less bland though, and doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.

Oh, but American conservatism gets it worse. They don't produce tofu; they sneer at all that PC lefty crap. For the purposes of this metaphor, the American conservative movement produces Twinkies. Twinkies, as you may or may not recall, are food-like morsels that don't actually match any mortal concept of "food," packed with carefully engineered compounds to elicit a taste response and a craving for more. So it goes with Twinkie Conservatism. Again this is a politically-flavored version of bullshit, but whereas Tofu Leftism works at a pseudo-intellectual level ("I'm pretty sure I remember someone saying this is Good for me"), Twinkie Conservatism works at a pseudo-gut level ("I want more of this... why? Oh who cares"). Recall the feeling when you eat junk food and can fully acknowledge that it's nutritionally void even as you reach for more? It's like that.

I'm going to rely heavily on Rick Pearlstein's article, "The Long Con," from The Baffler, which attempts to explain the nature of modern America's conservative zeitgeist. At the end of his introduction, he observes:
All righty, then: both the rank-and-file voters and the governing elites of a major American political party [N.B. the Republicans] chose as their standardbearer a pathological liar [N.B. Mitt Romney, just humor the author for a minute]. What does that reveal about them?
In the body of the article, Pearlstein narrates a sort of shadow history of American conservatism since the 1960s, starting with Young Americans For Liberty (his words: "itself something of a con, a front for the ideological ambitions of the grownups running National Review") and moving on up to Obama-era scare-and-fundraising email blasts. It's fascinating and, if you've ever flipped through a book written (or, ah, "written") by the likes of Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck, or flipped to a conservative talk-radio station—or picked mailings from the Alliance Defending Liberty out of a drainage ditch, like I have—it's all true. The American right wing is inextricably linked to get-rich-, get-well-, get-free-, and get-tinfoil-quick schemes.

Here's how you can replicate his results. First, turn of Adblock and go to any typical right-wing site, like Newsmax, National Review, Free Republic...

Then click on the ads. (Then scan for malware in the background.) The more ridiculous the pitch, the better! Here's some examples, pulled off the Newsmax sidebar in the wee hours of 10 December 2014:

The Food4Patriots video (yes, that mushroom cloud is merely one frame in a minutes-long video) must be watched to be believed in. (Not believed, because it's wall-to-wall bullshit, but...) Actually, this video has all the components of pure Twinkie Conservatism in just over a minute:
I know it is or was a fad among younger people to make fun of the "ONE WEIRD TRICK" / "DOCTORS HATE HIM!" / "HAS SCIENCE GONE TOO FAR?!?! Y/N" ad-spam on the internet, but it works. It's weaponized stupid designed to funnel money directly from the wallets or mattresses of old white folks and into the off-shore bank accounts of slightly younger, just as white, snake-oil marketing executives. What's the mechanism for the alarming success of American conservatism? Not broad success; even as the Republicans did well in the 2014 midterm elections (though that may have been partially the result of its own sort of con), liberal-progressive values also did well. No, this is deep success, a reliable pool of money rubes shills marks Patriots®™ to be extorted bilked swindled Deputized®™ In Defense®™ of Liberty®™ year over year over year ad mortem:
Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.
Yes, it's a superweapon, only it fires money instead of nukes, and straight into the aforementioned offshore bank accounts.


It's amusing to consider the differences between how these two paradigms are organized (or organized themselves). Tofu Leftism is like the water cycle: it starts on the ground level, among various activist groups, reading circles, Occupy movements (is that still a thing?) or what have you. Novel and succulent ideas are then picked up and precipitate in the upper academic layer, where they are legitimized and distilled. These legitimized ideas then seep down and become eminently shareable but fundamentally undisruptive (except for maybe a few minutes of #feels) listicles or video clips. Maybe someone generates a slightly new, slightly more succulent idea from watching too many of this viral content. And so it goes.

Twinkie Conservatism, on the other hand, starts at the top, with the think tanks / marketing gurus / snake-oil peddlers (according to Pearlstein, they're all basically the same). Then they agitate the people at the grassroots (who have all that loose cash) with folksy scare-tactics carefully engineered to sound both just authoritative and just peer-level to ensure maximum compliance. A simple donation request later, and it's another lifetime revenue stream secured.

I should close by stipulating that Tofu Leftism is very much not the entirety of left-wing politics. Neither is Twinkie Conservatism the entirety of right-wing politics, though my proof of that is much harder and as-yet incomplete. And yet these junk-food versions comprise the everyday political milieu of 99% of Americans, and they're seductive. So it's worth being vigilant, I guess?

I wish I had better advice than that.

Weird nerd culture

This post is a quickie follow-up to: Excessivisms, cargo cult politics, and #GamerGate

In my previous post I posited that there was something odd about "gamer culture":
Hm. There's a problem here: it feels right, like there's an analogous statement for this sort of potentially-toxic cultural attitude. I'm just not sure what the actual connection to video games is. It's not simply owning a lot of games: I own a lot of games (thanks for nothing, Steam sales) but I haven't played most of them (yet) and moreover I don't consider myself a "gamer" per se. It's not simply enthusiasm for games, at least not just any kind of game: one sort of has to be highly enthusiastic for a definite class of games, and maybe even make a show of disdaining other classes of games. And it's not simply skill at playing games, though that is a sort of factor: certainly "gamers" tend to be into the more "hardcore" games.

Here's the disturbing thought: what if "gamer culture" is actually 'gamer' culture? That is: Identifying as a 'gamer' validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by associating primarily with other 'gamers.'

Yup. I think we've got it. The seeds of politicization were planted deep in the past.
Then along comes +Meredith L. Patterson (@maradydd) writing at Medium: "When Nerds Collide":
Even so, science, technology, and mathematics continue to attract the same awkward, isolated, and lonely personalities they have always attracted. Weird nerds are made, not born, and our society turns them out at a young age. Tufekci argues that “life’s not just high school,” but the process of unlearning lessons ingrained from childhood takes a lot more than a cap and gown or even a $10 million VC check, especially when life continues to reinforce those lessons well into adulthood. When weird nerds watch the cool kids jockeying for social position on Twitter, we see no difference between these status games and the ones we opted out of in high school. No one’s offered evidence to the contrary, so what incentive do we have to play that game? Telling us to grow up, get over it, and play a game we’re certain to lose is a demand that we deny the evidence of our senses and an infantilising insult rolled into one.

This phenomenon explains much of the backlash from weird nerds against “brogrammers” and “geek feminists” alike. (If you thought the conflict was only between those two groups, or that someone who criticises one group must necessarily be a member of the other, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention.) Both groups are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us, and we don’t appreciate either group bringing its cultural conflicts into our space in a way that demands we choose one side or the other. That’s a false dichotomy, and false dichotomies make us want to tear our hair out.
Hey, that's my root problem too! So the "gamer" and "hacker" cultures are structurally similar—no surprise, they historically drew from the same demographic pool and were once pretty much identical. And yet as much as I think I should be strongly affiliated with that tribe, sharing as many of the same thought processes as I do, I don't share any of the lived experiences. Sort of like a puffin raised in a zoo who finds out that there are wild puffins. So that's interesting.