Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bayesian 'Reasoning' vs. Judgment

Right, so what is the prior probability that a baby dying is worse than an adult woman dying?

How would you even start to collect such a statistic?

The purpose of Bayesian Reasoning is, ultimately, to make decisions. Beyond even its issues coming from being derived from an existing framework, the problem is that, even if priors can be calculated, all reasoning begins and ends at human judgment and human values. Bayesian calculations are just something that can make the middle part easier. I strongly suspect Reverend Bayes would have been the first one to tell the modern Bayesian this. (Would have replaced the concept 'human values' with 'divinity,' though.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Specifically, hardcore, chronic homelessness.

After having read that, I thought about homeless people for a while. Then, I decided that at the first opportunity I would talk to one. So I did.

People seem to have an instinct about me. I was sitting in the bus station waiting for an intercity bus, and he walked in. Tall man. Not stringy but not too meaty. Scruffy as you'd expect. The kind of hands that get called 'ham.' He made a beeline for me.

I tried to talk to him for a bit. According to plan, when he asked for money I obliged, in an attempt to gain goodwill. Fifty cents.

It was like speaking to a robot, a wind-up thing that reacted almost at random to my queries...unless the subject was money. His fuzzy incoherence was suddenly pierced by the subject; he talked almost like a normal. And my plan worked; he felt the need to continue the exchange while hugging me. I didn't object. He clearly didn't know any better.

But not with me. I was unable to get him to attend to me at all except when he decided to call me a 'good guy' or something. Instead he tried to panhandle the rest of the room. Now it was more like talking to a television.

I know he was sober. They only panhandle when sober, because the point is to get drunk, and they stop for a while when they reach their goal, if for no other reason than that they're busy passing out.

I've met people who had more mental cohesion when stoned out of their minds than this man was when stone cold sober. If it wasn't about money, he couldn't focus. In any real sense, he didn't have a human mind anymore.

The drink - or whatever it was that put him on the street - had drained his soul. He was already dead in every meaningful way.

I couldn't help wondering, where was this man's family? What tragedy befell him that he's now living on the street now? Why hasn't anyone just scooped him and up and kept him away from the booze? What happened to his parents? Does he have children? Siblings? What do they think of him?

I tried asking him.

These people are not really people anymore. The reason we generally don't interfere with the lives of other adults is that they're responsible for their actions, and since we don't want our responsibility taken from us, we don't take it from others. However, the chronically homeless are not responsible anymore. They're not on the street by choice, or because they're lazy.

"We also believe that the distribution of social benefits should not be arbitrary."

They're on the street because they're dead inside. That's why treating them for efficiency isn't arbitrary. The only ways to stop these people from acting like beasts, from harming themselves, from costing our social services millions of dollars, is to kill them or take away their 'freedom.' Institutionalize the chronically homeless.

Go on, try it yourself. Talk to a bum.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Code_of_Laws AND ~Code_of_Laws

Curiously, it appears my laws are circular. Here's theft:

"Every one commits theft who fraudulently and without colour of right takes, or fraudulently and without colour of right converts to his use or to the use of another person, anything, whether animate or inanimate, with intent"

So if you lie or don't have the right to take something, you don't have the right to take it. The code refrains from defining who actually has rights, and who does not, notwithstanding a few oddities like this one:

"No person commits theft by reason only that he takes, for the purpose of exploration or scientific investigation, a specimen of ore or mineral from land that is not enclosed and is not occupied or worked as a mine, quarry or digging."

So geologist definitely aren't thieves. (And a mining company will probably let you take a pebble or two if you ask nicely.)

Err. Hmm. So about that lying stuff...

"Every one who, by deceit, falsehood or other fraudulent means, whether or not it is a false pretence within the meaning of this Act, defrauds the public or any person, whether ascertained or not, of any property, money or valuable security or any service"

Committing fraud by fraudulent means. Nice. Was there an alternative about committing fraud without deceit or fraud?

But surely, the murder code will be more stringent?

"Culpable homicide is murder
(a) where the person who causes the death of a human being"

That's...that's actually pretty reasonable.

I wonder where they screw it up. Emphasis mine:

"(b) where a person, meaning to cause death to a human being or meaning to cause him bodily harm that he knows is likely to cause his death, and being reckless whether death ensues or not, by accident or mistake causes death to another human being, notwithstanding that he does not mean to cause death or bodily harm to that human being;"

"Yes I'd like to be tried under section 229(b)...yes, the one that's a contradiction."

The next is just amusing. Perhaps there's an obscure legal reason for this:

"(c) where a person, for an unlawful object, does anything that he knows or ought to know is likely to cause death, and thereby causes death to a human being, notwithstanding that he desires to effect his object without causing death or bodily harm to any human being."

So if I, for a lawful object, go ahead and kill someone, it's A-okay, as long as my goal was compatible with keeping them alive? I somehow doubt that would fly in court, and yet...

Even more amusingly, the code explicitly exempts effecting an execution by false evidence. Canada has no death penalty, and indeed if we did the executioner does not appear to have their own exemption.

But, actually, I've been taking you for a bit of a ride. There's a problem I've overlooked:

"(5) A person commits culpable homicide when he causes the death of a human being,
(a) by means of an unlawful act;
(b) by criminal negligence;
(c) by causing that human being, by threats or fear of violence or by deception, to do anything that causes his death; or
(d) by wilfully frightening that human being, in the case of a child or sick person."

All the listed punishments are for murder. All murders are special cases of culpable homicide. Culpable homicide is this special kind of homicide: unlawful homicide.

Progressive. Outlawing unlawful homicide. What will they come up with next? I guess the executioner doesn't really need their own exception.

My motivation for looking up this was the libertarian and anarchist bon mot "taxation is theft." I'd assumed there would be specific exemptions for taxation, but I found that the whole code is meaningless. Reality is more interesting than radical philosophies, it turns out.

I find this puzzling since many of the code's details go to great lengths to be logically rigorous. It would actually be beautiful, if the whole thing wasn't flying on dreams. I don't demand that the code justify itself entirely - it never actually states that it is outlawing crimes, never states that crimes are wrong, and never states who will hand down punishments, nor that these punishments are mandatory, and I don't expect it to do any of this. All logic must start at axioms, and while it's nice if they're explicit, I don't expect lawyers to follow philosophical best practise. I'm naturally too lazy to look up the precedents, and perhaps there's actual statements of 'doing X is fraud' there, but even if so, that just means the code itself is dead weight.

I have trouble imagining that the courts never use the code, though. (I could only find Supreme Court records, and they would never have a reason to cite basic code. They did, as expected, cite precedent often, and occasionally legislative act.) Since it is impossible that they use the actual logical content of the code, they must be reading something into it.

Ultimately, it's not the code but the attitude of the people who support and execute the system. I don't know who these people actually are, in practice, other than I know it isn't who we're told it is. The last thing I have difficulty with is how these people can be simultaneously responsible, and allow the code to remain like this. As it is, formal reality and actual reality cannot converge, which usually means that formal spirit and informal spirit will continue to diverge.

Monday, December 7, 2009

References to Hume's Ought

My youngest memory of the phenomenon:

"Our form of government and efforts at "emancipation" cannot change the fundamental fact of their existence (there is no way to get to "ought".)"

I often see similar constructions, all error. My apologies, but Hume never proved his is-ought distinction, he simply pointed out many instances of people failing to derive is from ought.

Additionally, it turns out I have a counter-proof.

Assume something has value. Intrinsically, avoiding or preventing this thing results in a less valuable world.

Actually that's a false start, which I'm leaving in to help steer you into the right frame of mind.

Imagine the world has no intrinsic value - that the world 'value' is actually meaningless. (Nihilism is true.)

Imagine the world does in fact have some contingent quantity of value in it - positive or negative.

We must prefer the latter world. The former world renders even our preferences meaningless; it cannot be preferred (or preferred against). In other words, this is another species of Cogito: by our having values, the world is imbued has value...even if our values somehow turn out to be inconsistent.

'Ought' is defined thusly; it is better to do what we ought to do, than not. The world we ought to work toward is more valuable than the world we ought not to.

The problem is not that 'oughts' may not be refined from 'is,' but only in defining 'value' and working out what it picks out.

Now I'm going to perform a check. Famous, prestigious philosopher, John Searle also tackles the is-ought problem. Can he (by proxy) refute my analysis?

Searle says that institutions, which require rules to exist at all, bind the participants by the rules. (Elaborated here, as Searle is not part of the internet generation and hasn't spoken for himself online.)

"For example, when it is my turn to bat I am obligated to step up to the plate." Or, you could fail to continue to play baseball by violating this rule. This is the twofold problem with Searle's analysis. Yes, to perpetuate the baseball game, one is required to adhere to the rules of baseball, but at no point is one obligated, by this analysis, to perpetuate baseball.

In one situation, baseball continues - the bat is swung, the ball is hit or not. In the other, baseball ceases, at least momentarily, perhaps people are angry, or confused. So what? Can we really say, objectively, that one is better than the other? (Hint: maybe.) Let's say you choose not to step up to the plate, for no reason other than that you just realized there's no ought here, and people are angry. Even on pure intuition, is that really so bad? Again: so what?

There will be consequences to each action, and again, so what? Say they find your behaviour so contrary you're off the team, despite it being a casual league. It's not important; baseball is not something anyone can prove you ought to do, nor is it necessary to define pissing people off as 'wrong' to persuade an agent to avoid doing it.

I will ignore the second problem - that from this account, there is no direct link between institutional rules and the definition of 'ought.' Even without this, the oughtness of baseball must be inherited from the more fundamental level, which Searle attempted to circumvent.

"Don't be Evil"

A promise made in ignorance.

I wistfully imagine a day when it's just known that our present companies are evil due to institutional evils, due to emergent evils, and not because some cackling bastard plans to take over the world.

Google can no more avoid these institutional situations than any other corporation. It was never possible that they'd follow their motto. We should let the journalists alone with their fauxtrage when we or they see Google's latest fall from grace.

Still, this site is called Accepting Ignorance, which includes me accepting that of course Google's "Don't Be Evil" will be taken seriously.

Atheists on Consciousness

"But defenders of religion like [Kathryn] Lofton and Karen Armstrong and the not-quite-pro-religion-but-getting-there types like Terry Eagleton invariably attack atheists for their lack of charm, style, empathy and another nebulous quality (I think of it as *mysterianism*) which keeps them from fully appreciating the true nature of religion."

Mysterianism, eh?

Only problem is that this 'nebulous quality,' does, in fact, exist. I think that confirms it; these atheists have the mental equivalent to colourblindness. Indeed, why would their from-scratch philosophy have to account for all facets of my experience?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kids and Kuriosity

"A child's never-ending "whys" aren't meant to exasperate parents, scientists say. Rather, the kiddy queries are genuine attempts at getting at the truth, and tots respond better to some answers than others."
I'm so glad scientists have been able to join us on planet Earth.

Still, I do wonder why parents are exasperated by tot's questions. It seems counter-productive to bar your own child from your knowledge.

The reason questions exasperate people is because it is a form of challenge, like a staring contest. Being challenged for the sake of challenge, especially when you're busy, is exasperating. Small children cannot credibly challenge you, which should, in theory, short-circuit the exasperation mechanism, just like how some people find threats from children, no matter how strident, adorable instead of scary. ("I'm gunna punch you till you fall down!" *Scowl*)

The other reason for exasperation is to avoid acknowledging that the askee doesn't have the answer. I think this is in play, as children are excellent epistemologists and can find logical holes without trying. Humans are born to use the Socratic method on their parents. Parents don't usually respond well.

But even this I find puzzling, as I can't find a reason to not just tell the kid you don't know.

There's no apparent reason question-asking should be annoying, and yet....

"Past research from the early to mid 1900s on child development had suggested that young children were only aware of temporal relationships between two events and couldn't differentiate cause from effect until about 7 or 8 years of age. More recent work has suggested otherwise, that as early as age 3 children get causality."

Never forget that scientists often use their skills to act as stupid as possible. Anyone with kids will immediately think, "They must have not had children!" and be able to cite chapter and verse on their kids getting causality. This is a mistake; they likely did have children. I'd guess the story goes as thus: at home, their personal observations aren't science and thus poor evidence, but their personal observations during a study at work are scientific, and thus good evidence.

(This gets ironic if you read the comments on the other study just linked. I can easily understand the source of the above misperception.)

If I were a journalist I would say it's "frightening" that people like this are in charge of the education system. Calling the status quo frightening seems off. It's certainly depressing, though.

You may note that the science is getting better. Indeed it is, but nobody ever thinks to wait 20-50 years to properly verify a scientific finding before acting on it, despite the massive number of errors, like this one, freely admitted. (Or, you know, find a faster verification method, like logic.)

Incidentally, children as young as zero understand causality, you just don't yet know how to produce a statistically significant study showing this. Causality is innate the human brain - and to many nonhuman brains, for that matter.
"Lacking from such studies are kids' reactions to the information they get to their causal questions. "
A scientist failed at study design? Shocking. You'd almost think that universities don't demand courses on epistemology of their Ph.Ds.

I have no reason to believe the above quote is accurate. It certainly isn't precise. However, if it is right: told you so. You might wonder if the scientists have kids, I wonder if they have brains. They must be using them for something else.

Are the current crop of scientists less determined to be stupid, or are they just playing to my preconceptions better, being closer to my age? Ahh, questions....

"Results showed kids were more than twice as likely to re-ask their question after a non-explanation compared with a real answer. And when they did get an explanation, which was about 37 percent of the time, they were more than four times as likely to reply with a follow-up inquiry as if they had received a non-explanatory response."

First let me re-write that last part. "Kids ask [presumably meaningful] follow up questions to meaningful answers four times as often as to non-answers." I think that's what they're trying to say, but I'm not exactly sure how you ask a follow-up question to a non-answer unless you already know the answer. Given the ignorance on display, I also have to mention kids aren't sophisticated enough to ask questions they already know the answer to, and regardless have far too many questions to which they don't know the answer to bother with the former.

Incidentally, I wonder why parents hate their kids so much. Answer about a third of their questions? Do you want them to be educated, or not?

So, when they were highly curious and receptive, you answered about a third of their questions, and then you wonder why they don't listen to you as a teenager? Sorry bub, it's too late by then, you've already told them they can't rely on you for information.

How do you react if someone who won't answer your queries suddenly turns around and starts trying to dictate how you act?

At least there's no institution that supposedly gets paid based on its ability to teach parents to parent well, so lapses aren't anybody's fault, per se.
"Preliminary results from a separate new study of Frazier's suggest there is such a thing as too much information in a response. "It seems like kids might have an optimal level of detail they're interested in," Frazier said."
Again, I welcome you to planet Earth, journalists'-representation-of-Frazier. On Earth, you see, we pitch answers to children at their level of understanding. What do you do on your own planet?

For an example of the education system (shockingly) getting it right, when teaching addition, we don't start with the Peano axioms. We start with apples, and how if you have two apples in one basket and three in another, you have five total. Similarly, when teaching exponents, we don't do the full definition that allows x0 to be obviously one, but instead say, "exponents are repeated multiplication (which is repeated addition)." These statements are not fully correct, but kids understand when we later tell them that the simple things they learned earlier were not complete.

Plus, if they get into the habit of asking their parents and guardians when they're curious, if one notices a hole in their understanding, they'll ask you about it. Which makes me wonder whether odd behaviours like watering plants with coke could be largely prevented by answering questions consistently.

From a comment;
"Maybe when their whys get you riled up it becomes a game, but it's initially to learn."
If you allow your children to get one over on you, they enjoy it, and it starts Pavlovian conditioning. (Small children do not consciously plan these things.) That's why it's important to figure out why the questions are exasperating, and use the knowledge to short-circuit the exasperation.

As a bonus, letting your kids exasperate you can help you do this, because if you watch yourself carefully during the exasperation, you can figure out why it exasperates you. Often, this knowledge alone will alleviate the condition, without actually needing to act on it in any intentional way, albeit I've yet to try it on this particular example, and regardless my experience may or not mirror yours in particulars. At the very least, it will help you to understand when to stop the question flow - and to do it consciously and openly, before you actually become exasperated. If you want to do this, remember to stop a few questions short, because when you say, "That's enough questions for now," they will ask "Why?" and it would be nice if you could give them an answer.