May 8, 2024


by Collin Lysford

an excerpt from Vasiliy Grossman’s Stalingrad

H — Living people take their energy to reform the environment in a certain way, a stable way. They have cached their energetic capital into order. If a building can be killed, how alive is it now?

C — Think of Cretto di Burri. To remake the lines of a destroyed city is to prohibit any future growth. No one can live there, but it can retain the trace of the past. This is the only way a structure is preserved.

a diagram of pace layering

S — The pace of change is the pace of reliability. Eddies form when water hits obstructions. The stuff right next to the rock goes slower, the stuff outside curls, goes faster, and turns the slow stuff into counterforces.

C — An extremely durable and reliable place is one that is de-identified. Individualism is less reliable.

S — The same sweatshirts keeps meaning something different because people want to seize cultural capital. The meaning of an artistic, indvidual object isn’t fixed the way a building is; it’s constantly open to re-interpretation.

H — It’s not always a case of individualism and durability being opposites. Think of a beaver in a cage who is released into the wild. Now he is free to do what he wants: manipulate his environment in a more stable way. The whole system of the beaver, the forest, the river, and the dam can settle at a non-random point that flows more easily through time because individuality” here meant building such a configuration.

C — All the people in Brooklyn doing the same watercolors in the park aren’t asserting individuality. It’s entirely form, with no aboutness.

M — Canopy trees grow tall not because they are in love with the sun, reaching out in the vain hope of someday touching the celestial sphere. The tall tree stretches out to strangle the shrubs below them to death, an inching murder that can be difficult for humans, in our everyday time consciousness, to fully apprehend.

H — Life is a special case where the information you send forward through time must be information about sending information forward through time; nothing else will do. There’s no such thing as life without aboutness, because being alive is the aboutness. Art does not have this restriction. Buildings dance in the space between; a blanket fort has meaning without durability and a commieblock has durability without meaning.

M — When a commieblock’ building no longer pleases, it may be swept away and replaced by another, and the commonly understood morality of the unique and the individual affords no refusal. The gaily-(muted) (shambles)-house stands out in both presence and absence: a million spectators may tut-tut, canvas with tents and banners tinted deeper than the paints, burn torches brighter than its sitting room, draw knives glittering colder than its windows, should anything ever change.

C — There is a canon of art that deliberately eschews aboutness, distinct from simply lacking it. A return to pure materiality. And yet it flows — because it is part of a canon that sustains it, in a way that Brooklyn watercolors are not.

H — Art can come alive because we send more than our fair share of information forward in time. Our genetic and cultural patterns not only let us flow, but give us plenty of space to take other ideas with us. This privilege is often pointed to by the word consciousness”. What a terrible responsibility! By keeping ideas alive that can’t perpetuate on their own, we have to decide when it’s their time to die.

an excerpt of Vasiliy Grossman’s “Everything Flows”

conversations information

May 7, 2024

Magic rites in the lore of economics


In the folklore of the men who call themselves economists there is a story of a magic ritual. In this ritual, when two men meet in body, they meet in mind. When two men meet in mind, and exchange one thing for another thing, there is a Determination of Value. The thing and the other thing are so alike in the world of the economist we might call them by the same name, say Th. Th and Th have such a poverty of difference that it cannot be said that Th has a value different from Th. And yet. To the economist, this is a time and place of great power.

For when one man and another exchange Th for Th, despite the two Th having precisely equal value, in the two worlds of the two men’s minds, they each see themselves, happier, prouder, standing ever so taller, if these two items change hands, are repossessed, and walk away with these two men as their paths through the world twist, shift, and judder away from one another. To the economist, Value stayed the same. but something that never before existed has been brought into the world: Expected Value.

(expected value, lowercased, is a crass term of the uncontrollable gambler, foretelling the prices they ought set for bookie’s tables and coins for cards, in the oldest etymology of the term. How the lowercased term came to coincide in speech sounds with the uppercased Expected Value of the decider is a mystery for another time.)

Let us sum up this exchange in a more expedient form: To the economist, when a thing and another are exchanged, their Values must be taken to be equal, for if their values were not equal, neither thing’s owner would accept a trade. And yet, at the exact same time, despite the equal Value, one owner or another must envision a greater Expected Value at the end of this transaction than they saw at its start, or else neither owner would be willing to spend their time and attention on this rite of exchange.

Let us be a little bit more expedient:

To the economist, there are Transactions. The Values of things are found by their transacting. When two things are transacted for one another, their Value must be exactly identical at the moment of transaction. Nevertheless, a second, immanent, more magical value is revealed, the Expected value. It increases with all exchanges.

More expedient still:

  • In a transaction, thing1 and thing2 are not identical objects.
  • In a transaction, the values of thing1 and thing2 are made identical.
  • In a transaction, a secondary quality called Expected Value is brought into the world from nothing.

To the economist, Expected Value is always increasing.

Even though Expected Value is bound up in objects whose values may not be measured or understood within the transaction, the Expected Value may be known through pure faith.

Expected value is immaterially connected to the material objects of exchange, and may only be brought about through their substitution.

So. Why would we care about the construction of the ritual of The Exchange, or the legend of the origin of the Expected Value in The Exchange? Because this is a post about moral hazard, and the explicitly magical foundation of the belief in the men of economics in the moral value of exchange.

Moral hazard, as it is commonly told, is a story about insurance. In the story, when people are insured’, they are blessed people. When the insured experiences extreme, unpredictable bad fortune, they may shrug off their ill fate, and continue their everyday affairs as if they were far luckier. To the economist, one of the greatest sins one might perpetrate, of course, is being the customer of an economist who has mispriced a contract. Were an insured party to hold a contract mispriced in their favor, the customer might choose many courses of action where their best laid plans are sure to be profitable, minus costs, (including insurance,) when all desired outcomes and undesired outcomes are fully considered. Most typically, the economist’s slang of moral hazard’ serves as a handle for the far longer statement: when my insured customers predict the economic returns of their own actions, they choose braver, more profitable actions. even though my contractual insurance fees did not adequately increase in proportion with the bravery-borne risks. I am bad at math.’

Amusing as this picture of the naive economist might be, it is worth considering that there is an interesting structure of morality embedded within the story, one that might resonate well with other sorts of thinkers. The notion of moral hazard’ can be extended to any distancing of one party from harms that their conduct might cause to others with which they contract. As with the economist’s happy insurance customers, errors in the structure of contracts can allow one participant to experience greater realized value even as their counterparty experiences lesser realized value. This has some interesting similarities of structure to the rite of the exchange’ described above: Situations with moral hazard’ seem to correspond to a violation of the critical assumption that the values of two sides of an exchange must be equal at the moment it is made real, or else there must be a negative expected value’. This interesting inequality need be explored no further, however, as it is adequate to explore the incentives to distort the signs and measures of the economist’s rite.

Economists are men of the markets, men of the futures, and literally subsist on the financialization of what has not yet been financialized.

However, this is a vocation so stratified and so demanding of resources that economists are compelled to huddle together into larger institutions to earn their thinly divided shares of real transactions. It is extremely unlikely for a self avowed economist to venture into the world as their own market-maker, to found their own brokerage, or to invent, profit from, and disseminate an original form of contract. While economic thinkers might found their reasoning on mercantilism, the mercantile spirit does not flow through their bodies.

So, for an economist to eat, he must take commissions on the settlement of transactions. They can’t just think about transactions, you know. If they don’t interpose themselves into human activity, there is no origin for their own ineffably-valued transactions’ and immanent expected value’. And, of course, where a person may only earn their keep in the world through inducing other people to enter into contracts, which they themselves are not prepared to support as buyer or seller, the second form of moral hazard emerges!

We should note that the positive immanent value’ theory of transactions is a story of a triple intersubjectivity, closer to the homestuckian troll romance quadrant of auspisticism (♣) than any relationship well developed in traditional human folklore. (the blessedly innocent reader may interpret auspistice’ as mediator between two rivals who otherwise might destroy one another’.) The economist need only spectate on a true relationship (of contracts) between two actual partners, and the economist is free to imbue the actual deal, whether auspicious or destructive, with the same conciliatory romantic feeling’ as any equal valued transaction that brings about positive expected value.

Ultimately, we might properly view the economist, as distinct from a contract lawyer, softare mercantilist upstart, or actual capitalist, as incentivized not to nurture and cultivate autopoietic contracts, where Values really do equalize, and Expected Values really do increase. Rather, the economist is under extensive selective pressure to persuade themselves and their counterparties to transact as many times, in as many ways, and in as many situations as can possibly sustained by the institutions which expose markets. Whether or not the transactions are truly of the axiomatic, internally legitimate form demanded by the foundations of their thought. In fact, the economist can survive even if both partners in a transaction are brought to ruin!

This difference in incentives, and the philosophies it encourages, might affect the rest of us.

economics value coordination exchange moral hazard risk assessment

May 6, 2024

Aesthetics as holistic systems analysis

by Suspended Reason

In the world of cars, there are whole subcultures of engine audiophiles who purr with delight when well-configured chrome comes to life.

My friend Jeff, straining to speak over the roar of a Monster Truck rally, asks, Is it a functional thing? The health and build of the engine? Or is it more aesthetic?” Then my usual razor sliced the distinction apart: ¿Por qué no los dos?. The aesthetic sense had developed as a holistic diagnosis of functional properties.

The aesthetic sensibility of a gearhead is a bit like sexual attraction. Human beauty correlates with all sorts of vitality markers and reproductive indicators, but we don’t experience it that way. We just find certain faces and bodies pleasing. So too with flavor. The concept of a maladaptive superstimulus is given platform by the base assumption of adaptive attraction.

And this is what Dennis Dutton has argued about landscapes: probably not coincidence that the generically beautiful vista has abundant amounts of water and verdure. Show a buncha eight-year-olds pictures of the savannah, and they’ll end up preferring (on vague aesthetic grounds) approximately the sorts of ecologies you’d pick if you were running a functional analysis on survival odds. Many of the elevated perspectives landscape paintings take match roughly to the predictions prospect-refuge theory makes.

No question: aesthetics decouple from function constantly, especially at the tail-end of the distribution, especially when competing agents are fucking with each others’ environmental distributions—hence heroin chic. But I think this aesthetic-functional duality begins pointing us in the same direction as Bourdieu’s habitus, in updating on standard rational-actor models. Sometimes, acting on gut feel, ineffable attraction, and the aesthetic is a form of strategic action.

To close—my hunch is that vibes operate on a similar logic:

In the most reductionist, rationalistic terms available, we can think of [social] vibes as coherent arrays of costly signals. An array might consist of body posture, facial microgestures, vocal tremors and tonality, the actual semiotic content of utterances, clothing. One of the most load-bearing forms of costly signals, in human communication, is the information signal. A given shibboleth—perhaps the pronunciation of a word, or an item of clothing—is easily performed granted one knows to perform it. What is costly and difficult to obtain is the tacit, procedural knowledge itself. It is difficult for a fed to personally infiltrate a countercultural group, because of how lacking in relevant shibboleths of speech, attire, and opinion he is. (Thus he more frequently resorts to turning and bribing insiders.) The best undercover agents spend years or decades gaining intimate familiarity with the worlds they live in; they come to be proper members of those worlds, not so much acting anymore as living their role; and here of course enters the danger of the long-embedded agent, who is helplessly compromised by his time undercover.(src)

We could never articulate this complex constellation of signals, but we carry an intuitive, felt sense of normalcy over our cognitive-sensory arrays—our external and internal landscapes—so that small, systematic deviations will set off our sensors.

aesthetics vibe

May 5, 2024

Boundaries and agents

by Frances Kafka

(Taking inspiration from What is an agent?”.)

If we were to start with biology, there’s no reason that we might not start with Freud. And such a Freudian biology gives us an apparatus to talk about what it means to be an agent. Being an agent is an achievement, as something that has to be continually fought for. It can never be a done act, and not something an agent can waver on. Each organism has a boundary that separates it from the world, it invests energy into this boundary, so that it can attain this consistency. Even lone cells have cell walls and cell membranes.

There is however, as Derrida put it, an autoimmune” element at play (see Vitale’s Biodeconstruction). The paradox: the boundary cannot be fully rigid, because this blocks off all external impulses, which include food and resources, which would kill the cell, and therefore the boundary has to be at least partly permeable. But it is through this partial permeability that allows toxins, poisons, to enter the organism and kill it. The same mechanism that allows an organism to live off its environment are the same mechanisms which allow the environment to kill it.1

Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle:

But we have more to say of the living vesicle with its receptive cortical layer. This little fragment of living substance is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies; and it would be killed by the stimulation emanating from these if it were not provided with a protective shield against stimuli. It acquires the shield in this way: its outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becomes to some degree inorganic and thence forward functions as a special envelope or membrane resistant to stimuli. In consequence, the energies of the external world are able to pass into the next underlying layers, which have remained living, with only a fragment of their original in tensity; and these layers can devote themselves, behind the protective shield, to the reception of the amounts of stimulus which have been allowed through it.

There is a primal narcissism where the agent has to make itself the focus of all its energies. The parts of an organism all refer to the whole, as Robert Rosen notes (how can there be a whole without a boundary?) Rosen’s work is in the formalization, in mathematical terms, of living systems as (M,R)-systems: metabolism and repair. This implies that among the products of metabolism are the materials necessary to keep the system maintained due to turn over of its components. What this simple symbolism connotes is truly profound. The system is in a constant turnover. Part of the turnover is the causal basis for the system’s self repair.” (Donald C. Mikulecky)

Freud again:

Towards the outside it is shielded against stimuli, and the amounts of excitation impinging on it have only a reduced effect. Towards the inside there can be no such shield; the excitations in the deeper layers extend into the system directly and in undiminished amount, in so far as certain of their characteristics give rise to feelings in the pleasure-unpleasure series. The excitations coming from within are, however, in their intensity and in other, qualitative, respects—in their amplitude, perhaps more commensurate with the system’s method of working than the stimuli which stream in from the external world.a This state of things produces two definite results. First, the feelings of pleasure and unpleasure (which are an index to what is happening in the interior of the apparatus) predominate over all external stimuli. And secondly, a particular way is adopted of dealing with any internal excitations which produce too great an increase of unpleasure: there is a tendency to treat them as though they were acting, not from the inside, but from the outside, so that it may be possible to bring the shield against stimuli into operation as a means of defence against them. This is the origin of projection, which is destined to play such a large part in the causation of pathological processes.

The agent not only has a membrane on the outside, but also on the inside, so that it can maintain its own self and individuality. Suspended points out that consciousness is a cost for this reason. This is where the entire apparatus of censors comes into place. The Freudian organism has to resort to a set of strategies to reframe the impulses coming from within from without for exactly this.

With boundaries inside and boundaries outside, the agent always finds itself split. It is not aligned with itself any more than it can be aligned with someone, because agency itself implies this fundamental difference which cannot be integrated.

  1. This is the same security paradox we see with computers: the same mechanisms which allow a computer to be connected to or communicate with the Internet, or just another computer are the same mechanisms which allow for its subversion.↩︎

Sigmund Freud agency boundaries

May 4, 2024

On dexterity

by Neil

I blame Gary Gygax. Dungeons & Dragons is where we learned that strength is for the hulking barbarian who wields a two-handed axe, and dexterity is for the acrobatic rogue, the supple contortionist. Of course, that division doesn’t even work in the scenarios the game was designed for. If you think longbows scale with DEX, try bringing a bunch of twinks to Agincourt, see how that works out for you.

If you learn any physical discipline, like dance, you quickly learn that what matters is your active range of motion. Anyone can put their arm behind their back, but not everyone can lift something heavy while it’s there. Ballet dancers can only be so graceful because their pelvic floors are girded with steel. It’s not about the ability to bend like so much gelatin, it’s about bending and staying strong while doing it.

This is what comes to mind for me, metaphorically, when Cris talks about the translator — and notice that Calvino can’t help drawing the metaphor with physical dexterity. But, as Cris notes, to fulfill this role, you can’t be equally unserious about everything; you can’t just coast by on style, nihilistically.

This conception of dance interests me, also, because it points to something paradoxical. Culturally, we think of the dancer as someone who is comfortable with themselves, at home in their bodies and in the world. But any community of dancers is not so easy to slide into. You might be able to fake your way through a wine tasting or a book club, but dance is an unforgeable skill. And while we conceive of dance as a liberating form of natural expression, anyone really good has almost certainly spent a lot of time diligently practicing. This gives rise to some odd psychological types — some dancers seek to become the sort of person who experiences life lightly, and they pursue that ideal with powerful death-drive control.

But this dynamic is not all bad. One time an acquaintance, a rationalist-adjacent fellow I didn’t particularly care for, showed up to a weekly dance I was regularly attending at the time. He told me he had to step outside because he was experiencing strong, irrational negative emotions that he needed to analyze further, and I thought — there’s nothing to analyze, motherfucker, you feel bad because you suck! It wasn’t the most charitable thought, but, you know, gardens need walls. Even if there’s something sadistic and flagellatory about a narrow will to mastery, at least one comes by that sadism honestly.

It is better, I think, than the opposite error, of letting one’s desire to be universally fluent — a natural desire — curdle into a narcissism that sands off or disavows all parts of the world where one cannot already see oneself. Such a narcissist has an unhappy lot. He constrains himself only to the forgeable domains, often ones based on games of language, and so he is never put to the test. Since he can never definitively fail, he will never be cast out, but he will also never pass” and become initiated. He remains anxiously in limbo, waiting in fear and hope for some immanent sense of identity to emerge from the undifferentiated mass, not realizing that he has already precluded the possibility of any critical event.

May 3, 2024

A primer on auto-discourse

by Clinamenic

If traditional first-order discourse is characterized by the exploration of a given topic, with the author aptly assuming some degree of authority, there exists a second-order mode of discourse wherein the author’s own understanding of the topic is jointly, alongside the topic itself, the object of inquiry. This latter mode of discourse, here referred to auto-discourse’ insofar as it contains some degree of self-reference to the author’s own understanding of the topic, may perhaps lend itself to didactic applications which the former mode discourse may not, with such prospects being the focus of this piece.

In auto-discourse, the body of discourse itself is partitioned into discourse on the topic, and discourse on the author’s understanding of the topic. Traditional discourse, however, involves conventions whereby the author is often discouraged to foreground their own uncertainty or thought process, for fear of undermining the thesis or the confidence of the reader.

Epistemic intervention

One way of understanding the relationship between these two modes of discourse, is in terms of the stage of the reader’s understanding at which the author wishes to intervene. That is, if the author is writing for readers seeking definitive knowledge on a topic, the author may likewise wish to come to a more definitive understanding of the topic, and limit the discourse such that it pertains most directly to said topic, relatively unencumbered by epistemological reflections and metacommentary. If, on the other hand, the author wishes to intervene at an earlier epistemic stage of the reader, whereby the reader is exploring some number of possible understandings of a topic, the auto-discursive approach may be advisable.

What is perhaps the driver of any supposed efficacy of this auto-discursive approach, toward the aforementioned end of aiding the reader in their sensemaking process, rather than prescribing some ostensibly definitive understanding, is the degree to which the author can intuitively convey their own sensemaking processes regarding the topic at hand. In this sense, it is as if the author is tasked not only with conveying the topic at hand, but their own epistemic scaffolding around said topic, in such a manner that the reader may choose to emulate this scaffolding in their own efforts at understanding the topic.

Prescriptive and comparative epistemics

As above understood, auto-discourse may be employed according to a variety of imperatives, based on what the author is trying to achieve. For instance, if the author is trying to prescribe or at least suggest a particular understanding of a topic, they may erect and communicate such an epistemic framework which predisposes the reader toward a particular understanding of the topic. Insofar as this approach involves reconciling or discarding possible understandings into the single prescribed understanding, this may be understood as the arborescent approach to auto-discourse. The manner in which this arborescent auto-discourse differs from traditional discourse, at least according to how traditional discourse is depicted in this inquiry, is that the former involves the author foregrounding a greater bulk of their own sensemaking of the topic, as if the intention is to grease the wheels of the reader’s comprehension in the direction advocated by the author.

If the author, however, does not wish to prescribe any particular understanding of the topic, but rather to foreground a variety of possible understandings of a topic, they may be more drawn to a rhizomatic approach to auto-discourse. This approach would admittedly seem to contain a great deal of formal complexity relative to traditional discourse, and as such its adoption should be carefully considered. It would also seem to require the author to advance multiple fronts of understanding of a topic, thus rendering the topic itself an anisotropism within the context of the discourse, and thus presuming no small degree of cognitive dexterity on behalf of the reader. Not only would the author need to aptly convey the topic to be considered, but they would also need to convey some number of epistemic scaffoldings which the reader may alternatively wrap around the topic itself.

A mode for every season

Depending on the intentions of the author, a decision may be made between employing the traditional mode of discourse, or this mode of auto-discourse. Whereas the former generally limits its focus to the topic, advancing a more or less unified understanding of that topic while keeping the author’s development of said understanding in the background, auto-discourse foregrounds this development such that the focus is split between the topic and the development of the author’s understanding of the itself.

The author’s decision between these two modes may depend on the targeted stage of the maturation of the reader’s understanding of the topic. Within the mode of auto-discourse, the author may prescribe a unified epistemic framework for the reader to emulate, or the author may choose to present a number of such frameworks for the reader to compare. This contingent decision between an arborescent auto-discourse and a rhizomatic auto-discourse would seem to depend primarily on the intentions of the author, namely whether the author wishes to advance, through their discourse, a particular interpretation of a topic, or if they wish to encourage a plurality of interpretations. In any event, an author may feel some additional degree of empowerment in adding these modes of discourse to their creative repertoire.

discourse auto-discourse epistemology

May 2, 2024

Everyone is not the same

by Suspended Reason

Pulled this together from old notes circa 2021. Reading Collin’s Representation & Uncertainty a few months later helped me clarify my thinking on some of these issues. As a wordcel, I no doubt make some mistakes here, but I wanted to lay out a crude/naive version of the argument, because (1) it helps me understand why early stages of the rigorizing pipeline need to be performed before statistical analysis becomes useful (2) my writing the clumsy version makes it more likely that @collin.lysford will be motivated to respond with a more sophisticated version and correct my errors… It’s also very possible that he’s already written about these ideas elsewhere, but perhaps it’s useful for them to be in the TIS ecosystem and written up in slightly different language. I have no problem if this doesn’t end up on the blog if we don’t think it’s rigorous enough or a meaningful contribution.

Isaac Sapphire writes:

Everyone is not the same

As I keep poking at the gordian knot that is nutrition, weight, diet, exercise, and all the cultural shit wrapped up around them, the biggest thing that jumps out is that different people are different. The plan that’s good for a 6’ 1” male movie star who’s prepping for a role under the guidance of the trainer he’s been with for a decade and literally goes to the gym as his job is going to be WAY different than the advice that’s good for a 5’ 3” mom who’s binge eating yoyo diet habit is clearly ballooning her weight and destroying her ability to walk and going land her in an electric scooter and probably a grave earlier than necessary, which is different advice than is good for an anorexic with a BMI of 16, which is different than advice that is good for a young person who just started a physically intense job or a person packing for a month-long back country hike.

Culture, class, race, religion/ethics, and gender are packed in to this so densely its insane.

Indexicality is everywhere, and yet inexact science fields’ over-reliance on statistics leads them to search for universal insights.

You know those studies of new medications, where they find it only improved outcomes for like 12% of people in their target demographic, so they abandon it? Sometimes that 12% constitutes its own meaningful subdemographic, for whom a cure with a near-universal success rate was just discovered and trashbinned because researchers couldn’t figure out what properties defined that subdemographic, or how to reliably identify its members. There are no statistics in the Kingdom of God: As we develop an increasingly comprehensive list of preconditions, the success rate of our interventions should approach 100%.

Race, gender, etc are only the most legible, conspicuous axes that people vary on. Most of the iceberg of interpersonal (psychological, neurological, biological, environmental) variation we don’t even have words to describe yet. This is why conceptual engineering—a mode of philosophy, taking place early in the rigorizing pipeline—is so essential to good statistical practices further down the pipeline. You’ll never get statistically significant results if your sampled population is too diluted, and you won’t know whether it’s diluted unless you’ve properly conceptualized the space.

A psychiatrist friend mentioned that the crappy statistics for SSRI efficacy are largely the result of SSRIs getting prescribed to lots of people who are depressed in very different ways for different reasons. You can imagine there being an SSRI-treatable neurochemical imbalance which displayed symptoms superficially similar to those of radically different sorts of problems. (E.g. people who are depressed because their lives are genuinely out of control and they never developed a strong sense of agency.). So SSRIs get used on a buncha people with Y condition, and a buncha people with !Y condition, so that the overall efficacy looks comparable to placebo; as a result, many rationalistic commentators dismiss SSRIs, and think we need to abandon neurochemical theories of depression. OTOH, actual practitioners in the field continue to use it, and to find it useful—likely in part because they themselves are already doing the informal, soft” conceptualization work up front of identifying patient profiles which are more or less amenable to SSRIs.

Another more cutting example: The same dose of Lexapro can lead to radically different blood/brain levels of Lexapro, depending on individuals’ liver metabolisms. This means that many people in a trial of 10mg Lexapro are functionally getting 2.5mg Lexapro in their bloodstreams, but they’re lumped in as interchangeable for the purposes of the study—which, no wonder why such a study might show poor results.

In conversation with RIPDCB and Neil last year about fantasy football, we talked about sports analytics, and how you’ll get radically different analytic claims depending on how you decide to represent a given situation. Neil called this the central postrationalist insight.” For instance, a naive statistical analysis would say, X player has Y injury, only 18% of players ever recover to peak performance after Y injury, don’t bet on this guy. But an analyst with a better understanding of the game would put together a finer-grained category for comparison: player X is under 30 years old, he plays a position where Y muscle group isn’t as important, and we know he has a lot of grit, he’ll be in the gym grinding his PT which expedites recovery time. Crispy Chicken called this conceptualization,” which I think is a good word for it.

NB: This dynamic must already be well-understood and accounted for in statistics—but it seems to be under-accounted for in actual practice, when it comes to statistical analyses performed by non-mathematicians in fields like psychology and nutrition. Perhaps in part out of a fear of (being accused of) p-hacking. (Have preregistration practices exacerbated the problem?) If anyone can point me to more information about these dynamics, I’d be indebted.

I’ll close with a quote from Slime Mold Time Mold responding to Maciej Cegłowski’s 2010 essay Scott And Scurvy.” Tracing the intellectual history back a bit (from Collin/SMTM/Mastroianni’s writing) Scott and Scurvy” seems to have played an important role in making these ideas intuitive:

We’re taught to see splitting — coming up with weird special cases or new distinctions between categories — as a tactic that people use to save their pet theories from contradictory evidence. You can salvage any theory just by saying that it only works sometimes and not others — it only happens at night, you need to use a special kind of wire, the vitamin D supplements from one supplier aren’t the same as from a different supplier, etc. Splitting has gotten a reputation as the sort of thing scientific cheats do to draw out the con as long as possible.

But as we see from the history of scurvy, sometimes splitting is the right answer! In fact, there were meaningful differences in different kinds of citrus, and meaningful differences in different animals. Making a splitting argument to save a theory — maybe our supplier switched to a different kind of citrus, we should check that out” — is a reasonable thing to do, especially if the theory was relatively successful up to that point.

Splitting is perfectly fair game, at least to an extent — doing it a few times is just prudent, though if you have gone down a dozen rabbitholes with no luck, then maybe it is time to start digging elsewhere.

Scurvy isn’t the only case where splitting was the right call. Maybe there’s more than one kind of fat. Maybe there are different kinds of air. Maybe there are different types of blood. It turns out, there are! So give splitting a chance.

Reality is weird, and you need to be prepared for that.

representation statistics science rigorizing pipeline conceptualization conceptual engineering Maciej Cegłowski Slime Mold Time Mold psychiatry scurvy splitting

May 1, 2024

Pragmatic information theory

by Crispy Chicken

Back in the day, I spent a lot of time thinking about information theory, and Suspended asked me to share some thoughts on what a more pragmatic” version of information theory might look like—one that describes actual human or animal communication, rather than just a passing of digital messages.

I’II start with a little preamble, which is that, basically, this isn’t a weakness of information theory, just a lack of ambition from the field. Claude Shannon didn’t get around to it was hard and he was working on other things, and most of those who have taken up information theory have either gone deeper into its use for digital protocols, or applied it to human language in a much more macro way than this. There are exceptions, but I haven’t seen anyone want to actually do something like Make linguistic ethnomethodology rigorous with information theory,” and that feels like money being left on the table.

Information theory today is about communicating a fixed set of symbols and making sure you get that out on the other end. That’s not what we usually think of as communication.

What we need more than anything is a definition that doesn’t force us to define all the psychological ways communication happens, but is closer to reality than just transfer this string of symbols.” I’d be willing to go far as saying that science has only helped us understand humans insofar as it has given us mathematical abstractions that are better than studying humans directly. So what’s the mathematical abstraction that will take us one step further than strings of symbols over a noisy channel?

I’d argue it’s a combination of information theory, causality, and statistics. Information theory introduces the idea of a noisy channel, where I write a bunch of symbols that can be corrupted or flipped in the transfer. Now in communication, what we actually care about, is I send you symbols, and what I get back is what you end up doing with those symbols.

And what we want to establish is the capacity of that channel. Now how do we establish the capacity of the channel, given that I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing to you with those symbols? I (for example) try to see all the ways in which I can manipulate you, and how reliably I can do so, and use that as a capacity of the channel. This definition is precisely causality, right? It’s what I can do, to flip different bits or symbols, that ends up causing something. I’m trying to deconstruct the system into a graphical model that tells me which nodes are causing which other ones, and which ones just happen to be correlated with each other, and are caused by some other, underlying variable. So what we want is information theory where we discover the capacity of different channels by probing the causal framework. We also have to think about what errors might arise from different kinds of channels and observations, so we’ll need some classical statistical machinery.

What we need is a description of communication a bit more nuanced than this that describes some of the boundary conditions of human social coordination, take a look at what kind of second order effects they might lead to, then see whether we can simulate them with LMs and look for their traces in people.

information theory pragmatism ethnomethodology communication causality statistics

April 30, 2024

An overflowing of difference

by Cristóbal

Information is encoded in the matter that surrounds us. Lack of information is pure noise, a uniform distribution of indistinguishable units. When the noise shuffles into a grouping, we have difference. We can identify one unit from another, perhaps by indexing them relative to the grouping. The difference is encoded by the distribution of units. All things are no longer the same.

The fact that hydrogen atoms bond strongly with oxygen atoms is information encoded by molecules of water. If one is attentive, it is possible to read this knowledge right off of the world. However, with sufficient energy, the hydrogen and oxygen molecules can be split, producing oxygen and hydrogen gases. One can read this by attentively observing how a pair of electrified diodes affect the molecular composition of water.

In order to communicate this information, we build contraptions that facilitate the reading. We draw diagrams that allow us to build the contraptions easily. We simulate the operations of the contraption through annotations on the diagrams. We imagine the contraptions operating in our heads. We use labels to denominate different parts of the diagram. We share these labels with others, so that they too can imagine the contraption in their head. This set of devices (contraption, diagram, annotations, labels) allows information to be transmitted.

The devices communicate the information by mirroring the information, the distribution of units which evinces difference. The contraption induces a distribution. The diagram mirrors the distribution schematically, with differences articulated through different symbols. The labels are mappings from symbols to words. What matters is that the words be different. If we use the same words for different processes, we lose information. The information about hydrogen and oxygen atoms is being transmitted through the world.

We too are just information. When we act in the world, we too generate difference. We turn right, instead of left. We move through the world, carrying matter from one place to another. We speak with particular words in a particular dialect of a particular language of a particular place. This information that we encode can also be transmitted. We use similar devices to communicate ourselves to others—body, pose, movement, spoken word, written language, etc… When a device fails to mirror difference, information is lost.

When the world fails to transmit the difference that we generate, we are lost. When the language that we use becomes uniform, some difference is not able to be transmitted. When the places we inhabit become uniform, some difference is not able to be transmitted. When the labor we enact does not affect the outcomes of a process, some difference is not able to be transmitted. Alienation is a failure to write difference.

Conviviality is an overflowing of difference in the environment. There is so much difference being communicated that the only device possible to transmit it is the world itself. The map expands to the size of the territory. When in the presence of so much information, we feel it is incommunicable. I can’t explain it… I don’t even know where to begin.

information theory information communication difference conviviality alienation

April 29, 2024

Cycling in a tiered world

by Suspended Reason

There is a girl in New York City / Who calls herself the human trampoline / And sometimes when I’m falling, flying / Or tumbling in turmoil I say / Whoa, so this is what she means” / She means we’re bouncing into Graceland /

—“Graceland,” Paul Simon

Between the rolling hills and peaks, valleys and troughs; between the local maxima of a fitness landscape, lie local minima where the water settles, pulled downward by gravity, unable to escape. Islands, they are called by ecologists—subenvironments, bounded by impassable terrains—be they bodies of water between lands, or bodies of land between waters, like the stretching miles of desert that separate isle oases. Thus a rock formation, protruding from a crater lake, is an island within an island, doubly separated, doubly bounded. And species’ gene pool, divided mitotically and separated by mountain range, begins to diverge, as iguanas might when castaway—500 miles from mainland—upon Ecuadorian magma.

The peaks of maxima, mythologically speaking: stable equilibria, working structures fitted and tailored to their environs. Heaven to a Christian, or Eden—but we, in the middle, on this earth, never accomplish such perfection. Disruption casts us out, from garden into the wilderness; casts us down, topples us from such great heights into the chaos of the trough—the middle way of media res—where only with labors may we ascend—modifying, experimenting—searching for a new peak, a new stable height, stable for a while. And the road to the summit, unreachable yet ever-sought, is littered with bodies, and they are the bodies of our unsuccessful brothers, the failed regulators, the disproven hypotheses.

Again and again I must submerge myself in the water of doubt. (Wittgenstein, Notes on Frazer’s Golden Bough”)

Or we are Icarus, our wax wings melted at the moment of our greatest joy, plunging us into the Sea below. (Another of Father’s experiments…) From light into darkness, thin air to heavy water: crashing and diving into underworld. Pulled by gravity, sucked by downdraught, whisked by whirlpool drowned. The heavens are a high-flying mania, the ecstasy of low entropies and immaculate conceptions—the world simplified, seeming (as a crack of light between the darkness) to fit a simple model—while Pluto mans the melancholia entropy reasserted, never defeated, the pit of all which escapes our models.

The Sea, the Sea—the unmarked and unstructured, the ever-shifting, the renewing chaos from which all life is born and into which all life dissolves. Violent yet womb-like, the saline of blood. (Blood the Sea taken inside ourselves, the ancestral environ replicated within skinsuit.) Here, in the pit, in the trough where water has settled—in unsimulatable Sea—is our opportunity for rebirth. Menace and carress. Ashen-faced and animated by water. Only in storing up energy, and devising a new form, may we combat its gravity, tame entropy again, and escape the Sea that sits between the mountains. Here, at rock-bottom, some pearl of insight must be retrieved, some realization about the raw reality one has been exposed to. Perhaps with such a shining pearl’s light will we rise again—ascend, awaken to higher faculties and upper airs.

In the mountains you can see for miles. The gaseous air is so thin there’s barely enough oxygen to breathe. Less pressure less gravitational force. Undersea, underground everything is dark, solid, compressing your body.

Undersea, the weight of water crushes us to death, crumples our lungs, forces water into us until our cells split. In the dark and the cold, homeostasis approaches hypothermia. But at too high altitude of altitudes, or the vacuum of space, the water is pulled from your cells—ebullient, evaporating, desiccating you. Oxygen expands rupturing the lungs, boiling and bubbling the blood—the Bends. The body exposed to extreme temperature fluctuations, where skin melts and freezes. We men are fitted to the mesa-, and are mesa-optimizers; the great heights are not ours to inhabit; in their polarity is their similarity.

And the Tower of Dedalus is the Tower of Tarot is the Tower of Babel, the great hope of Esperanto: ONE unified language, ONE god universe (Burroughs), ONE totalizing code and system. The structure of the local max personified, a working edifice built through labor which gives great vantage point in lofty airs. But which sooner or later is struck and brought down by a bolt of lightning, a bolt of reality intruding from outside the system (Murphy’s Law), a bolt of the unaccounted. Or it is overwhelmed and washed away by the tidal terrors of the Sea. Or it is blown over by great winds, or ransacked by vandals. Joyce uses the metaphor of eggshells, Humpty-Dumpty taking his great Fall. The structure of the shell—a protective barrier—cracking, Finn’s ladder tumble leading to resurrection.

But the bolt of lightning is also the lightning of epiphany, for the structure of the local maximum has become obsolete. It is too heavy, not light enough. It is oppressive tyrannical structure. Its collapse is terrifying and liberating. The lightning is the epiphany that wakes the giant from from habituated and ritual slumber, from ready-to-hand sleepwalking and into present-at-hand awareness consciousness. Which wakes us into consciousness. (Was it kykeons lightning-bolt that initiated Plato and began philosophy in the West? Through a cave darkly, Plato came to see the light.”[^1] ) Like a psychedelic, breaking us out of our naturalized norms and semaphores. Awakening-by-novelty, that-which-is-outside-the-tower, awakening-by-estrangement, the defamiliarization of the schema creating a self-consciousness which is at once a Fall from innocence a fall from hubris and also an ascension, the downward motion creating that momenumtum which lets us swing upward again. For diving and floating, ascending and descending, are yin and yangs each contained in each other, and none can say where transcendence ends and death begins.

In this mean world of wretchedness and misery, I thought that for once a ray of sunlight had broken upon my life. Alas, it was not sunlight, but a passing gleam, a falling star, which flashed upon me. In its light, in the course of a second, of a single moment, I beheld all the wretchedness of my existence and apprehended the glory and splendor of the star. After, that brightness disappeared again in the whirlpool of darkness in which it was bound inevitably to disappear. I was unable to retain that passing gleam. (Sadeq Hedayat)

[^1:] Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes, The Psychedelic Influence on Philosophy.”

cycles oscillation Sadeq Hedayat Paul Simon Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes Plato William Burroughs tarot James Joyce literature

April 28, 2024

The will of the playground

by Redxaxder

It’s time for recess, and the teacher is absent. The kids are free to play however they want. What happens?

They sort themselves into groups to play different games. Children drift between groups. Groups drift between games.

Some kids try to keep playing with the same group, regardless of the game. Some try to keep playing the same game, regardless of the group. Some keep others out of some groups.

Sometimes a group gradually trades out all of its participating kids for others. A group dissolves. Another splits. Those fuse. A group is formed. Sometimes a group is open. Anyone can join it. Sometimes an open group closes.

This has some unwritten rules. Their general shapes are if you act like that, nobody will want to play with you,” and if you’re too picky about who to play with, you’ll rule everyone out.” They’re enforced by local rejection. If you break them enough, local rejection turns into global rejection.

When this process is left to run as it will without interference, it finds answers to the questions:

  • Which games are good to play?
  • Who is good to play with?

The answers it discovers are not universal. They’re specific to person, time, and place. They’re not guaranteed to be right, but they tend toward that direction.

This process is usually not left to run as it will. Some people don’t like the costs associated with it. There are injuries from re-discovering which games are bad. Some people get excommunicated for not adapting.

Messing with it also has a cost. If the process isn’t allowed to run freely it might find the answers more slowly. Or maybe not at all.

With literal children, we’re happy to pay the second cost instead of the first. It doesn’t really matter if they find a better version of their game or their group. In playgrounds for adults, I think the balance sometimes favors the other side. Some of the games adults play are pretty consequential, and it’s more valuable to find the best versions of these games and the best people to play them with.

play school games sociology

April 27, 2024

Detective epistemology and science fiction ontology

by Frances Kafka

It’s Brian McHale’s suggestion in Postmodernist Fiction (1987) that postmodernist fiction is to modernist fiction what science fiction is to the detective tale.

I will formulate it as a general thesis about modernist fiction: the dominant of modernist fiction is epistemological. That is, modernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions such as those mentioned by Dick Higgins in my epigraph: How can I interpret this world of which I am a part? And what am I in it?” Other typical modernist questions might be added: What is there to be known?; Who knows it?; How do they know it, and with what degree of certainty?; How is knowledge transmitted from one knower to another, and with what degree of reliability?; How does the object of knowledge change as it passes from knower to knower?; What are the limits of the knowable? And so on.

This brings me to a second general thesis, this time about postmodernist fiction: the dominant of postmodernist fiction is ontological. That is, postmodernist fiction deploys strategies which engage and foreground questions like the ones Dick Higgins calls post-cognitive”: Which world is this? What is to be done in it? Which of my selves is to do it?” Other typical postmodernist questions bear either on the ontology of the literary text itself or on the ontology of the world which it projects, for instance: What is a world?; What kinds of world are there, how are they constituted, and how do they differ?; What happens when different kinds of world are placed in confrontation, or when boundaries between worlds are violated?; What is the mode of existence of a text, and what is the mode of existence of the world (or worlds) it projects?; How is a projected world structured? And so on.

We can leave aside for now McHale’s characterization of both postmodern and modernist fiction and focus on the opposition between science fiction and detective fiction. Both genres, in their highest levels, offer the pleasure of ratiocination, but in different directions. The classic scene involves an exposure when the reader is invited to recollect all the facts of the story and realise how she could have known the culprit, but didn’t. The analogous scene in science fiction is the conceptual breakthrough. The conceptual breakthrough is almost always ontological, concerning not just the characters, but the stakes of the entire world, as the Science Fiction Encyclopedia points out:

An important subset of conceptual-breakthrough stories consists of those in which the world is not what it seems. The structure of such stories is often that of a quest in which an intellectual nonconformist questions apparent certainties.

In the world of the conspiracy, though, the question of the ontological becomes blended with the epistemological, because the structure of the world itself begins to seem like the effects of some set of motives, a particular crime. We first get our inklings of this in Frederick Pohl’s The Tunnel Under the World”, in which a small town which is accidentally destroyed has its members resurrected as miniature robots, minds wiped every twenty-four hours for market research. There’s something here, a touch of paranoia, which isn’t there in 2001’s Star-gate, or even in Heinlein’s Universe”, where the characters discover that they live on a generation ship. There is perhaps a striking break when there is no longer just the modernist epistemological sundering but also the postmodern epistemological sundering.

science fiction detection literature ontology postmodernism conspiracy adversarial epistemology