June 2023
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LA Metro

Unusually, I’m actually giving feedback to a local government office. All due to some videos I watched about proposed expansion of the system.

I’ve chosen _not_ to get a car, even though I could afford one, because investments in the Metro system have enabled me to traverse the city for the past 5 years.

As a former student of UCLA and as an Engineer, I would like to see the Heavy Rail plans for the Sepulveda Line (specifically proposal 4 or 5) adopted. The Monorail proposals strike me as insufficient for several reasons:

* The proposed stops reduce ridership because they are extra-ordinarily cumbersome and inconvenient for passengers, requiring long walks to transfer lines, and grotesque placement (no pedestrian wants to walk 300yards, sometimes with luggage or goods from shopping, to the middle of a freeway so they can wait in a noisy, polluted, and unfriendly liminal space). If you want to see _ridership adoption_ the heavy rail proposals do better.
* The monorail doesn’t match existing Metro infrastructure and will reduce systemic flexibility (train + car re-use, maintenance knowledge, parts + repair storage) in a way that increases yearly costs of operations. If you think want to keep costs per rider low, the heavy rail proposals do better.
* The monorail constrains system growth because it lacks max capacity and suffers extended headway times. Alleviating the increasing amounts of congestion on the Sepulveda pass means getting as many people out of their cars and onto Metro, doing that means high frequency service (reduce headway times) and high volume cars, which _strongly favors_ the heavy rail proposals. Only the heavy rail options offer Metro room to scale as ridership increases.

I believe in the Metro’s ability to increase ridership by offering a better alternative vs sitting in congested traffic. That means frequent, high-volume service (3rd bullet above) that riders find convenient and enjoyable (1st bullet above) and which operates at a low cost (2nd bullet above). For all these reasons, the heavy rail options look vastly better than the monorail.

Speaking as a regular Metro rider, I find the monorail options strictly inferior to the heavy rail proposals and encourage the committee to remove them from consideration.

Additionally, We should predict that _all_ proposals will have delays and overruns, but I think these “budgetary inconveniences” will be far worse with the monorail proposals than for the heavy rail.

High School Outcomes

The push for standards and metrics encourage High Schools to focus on delivery of content, to fulfill tests and other assessments. I propose an incremental change to the assessment of school so that it shall focus on development of the meta-cognitive processes that lead to personal and financial success in students, rather than deliver content.

First, I do have two pieces of content that I think schools should add to the curriculum, again for the benefit of the students, with the aim that the majority of students will soon find themselves in a marriage, supporting kids, and carrying a mortgage after graduation.

  1. Knowledge of personal finance that includes budgeting, responsible use of credit, the dramatic power of compound interest, and the value of early investment in retirement accounts (401K, IRA).
  2. Knowledge of child psychology, parenting, and interpersonal behavior that makes one a supportive partner.

Given that last item as a Key Result for the school itself, I propose the school adopt an entirely different structure that models the behavior it wishes the students to adopt.

We begin with the simple observation that curiosity motivates learning. So we arrange the school to foster curiosity by removing the neat rows of desks and boring hours of lecture that don’t interest students, for the traditional approach wastes precious hours of youth. Instead, students shall learn by doing.

A student starts by picking 3 solid skills that they wish to build, with the aim that development of these skills enhance employability. A triad of skills builds resilience, provides an interesting interplay between interests, and encourages topical breadth.

Next the school provides an environment, with instructors offering advice, guidance, and curated experience that grows competency in the chosen skills by addressing 3 pillars of meta-cognition.

Students graduate by executing a self-directed project in each of the three areas. Prior to the capstone exercise, they work under the guidance of instructors who assist them through each of meta-congnitive pillars.

1. Knowledge Acquisition

Using the chosen skills as content generators, the school has the student practice various techniques of acquiring knowledge, so that the student can figure out which work for them as a learner. These techniques work across subject areas and remain generally applicable for cognitive employment. By questioning the material, they learn to deconstruct, analyze, and recombine the material within a skill’s domain.

Key Results

  • Spaced Repetition
  • The Feynman Learning Technique
  • Cornell Method of Taking Notes
  • Building a Knowledge Graph, such as Zettelkasten
  • Organization, such as Getting Things Done
  • Generation of Questions for a Field of Study
  • Discovering the Unsolved Problems of a Field
  • Bullshit Detection
  • How to Problem Solve

2. Psychology of Self

Through exercises of reflection, the school encourages students to reflect on their feelings and desires as they learn the material. They learn habits of personal psychology by which they can keep themselves motivated. As students acquire knowledge of themselves they engage in self-directed learning.

Key Results

  • Reflection, such as Journalling
  • Measurement of Learning Progress/Effectiveness
  • Formation of Habits
  • Practice with Deep Work
  • Value of Persistence and Flexibility
  • Big 5 Model of Personality
  • Growth Mindset
  • Cognitive Behavioral Techniques for Emotional Regulation
  • Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment

3. Psychology of Team

No field of study or business occurs in isolation. So students practice working on a team, building the skills for inter-personal relations, support, and leadership.

Key Results

  • What Makes Feedback Useful
  • Giving & Taking Constructive Feedback
  • Dealing with Disagreement, Reaching Consensus
  • Team Dynamics, such as Forming, Norming, Performing, Storming
  • Asking Questions

4. Bonus: Civics

The ambition curriculum produces business tycoons. The school supports entrepreneurial students with some additional content.

Key Knowledge

  • The Dictator’s Handbook, Keys to Power
  • The Federal Reserve, Economics
  • How to Be a Power Connector
  • Less Wrong sequences in Cognitive Bias and Bayesian Reasoning

Book Review: Lifespan

David Sinclair’s work Lifespan gives a nice overview of the state of longevity research for a lay audience. He describes his theory of aging: As cells cycle between “growth” and “repair” modes, they shuffle proteins in the epigenome to in/activate corresponding growth and repair genes. Over time the proteins get lost, failing to move where they need to be. Consequently, the cells lose their identity and/or become senescent.

He also addresses some ethical and social concerns around the fruits of his research: living longer. We must adjust some of our social systems, but none of these problems constitute a reason to prevent the research. I think he should argue even more forcefully than he did. He personalizes his experience with the inadequacy of our current institutions by relating from his own experience, a trip to the dentist who didn’t want to give him the treatment normal for a 20yr old and doctors willing to risk his daughter’s life while they waited on test results.

Many people pepper him with personal questions, most commonly: “What supplements do you take?”. So he has brief section on that as well. In several spots he highlights modern miracles: His own father seeing a renewed vigor from taking NMN, performing his own DNA sequencing to prove to doctors that his daughter had contracted Lyme, and some products and services (beyond his own research) that help him customize some lifestyle optimizations (diet, exercise, sauna, etc).

As long as you take steps to extend your healthspan, you can expect a good life. This means staying in the workforce longer, a chance for a second or third career, and increased earnings that derive from valuable experience. These improvements compound over your life, so trim your calorie intake and start exercising.

Some things you could look into and other brief notes.

  • Get your DNA analyzed and check for aging factors, Longevity and Genetics: FOXO3, CETP, IGF1, and more
  • Luigi Cornaro, a fifteenth-century Venetian nobleman who could, and probably should, be considered the father of the self-help book. The son of an innkeeper, Cornaro made a fortune as an entrepreneur and lavishly spent his money on wine and women. By his mid-30s, he was exhausted by food, drink, and sex—the poor guy—and resolved to limit himself in each regard
  • Roy Walford, a researcher from California whose studies on extending life in mice are still required reading for scientists entering the aging field
  • Xenohormesis: the idea that stressed plants have phytochemicals that our bodies detect, via our diet, and which trigger us to respond in kind, e.g. with an expectation of drought. If you’re looking for new drugs from the natural world, expect this area to bear fruit. Organic foods might be better for you due to the more stressful conditions of their growth.
  • NAD has an advantage over other STACs because it boosts the activity of all seven sirtuins.
  • The dream of personalized medicine has arrived: Patients with an RPE65 mutation that causes blindness, for example, can now be cured with a simple injection of a safe virus that infects the retina and delivers, forever, the functional RPE65 gene. The eye was targeted first for this therapy because it is immunologically isolated.
  • E. Topol, The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care, 2011

Choice quotes

The trick to revolutionary change is finding ways to make self-interest align with the common good.

Pessimism, it turns out, is often indicative of exceptional privilege.

Indeed, our medical system is built on ageism. When we are young, we don’t get treatments that could keep us healthy as we grow old. When we are old, we don’t get the treatments that are routinely used on the young.

Skillbaticals, which might take the shape of a government-supported paid year off for every ten worked, might ultimately become cultural and even legal requisites, just as many of the labor innovations of the twentieth century have. In this way, those who are tired of “working harder” would be afforded every opportunity to “work smarter” by returning to school or a vocational training program paid for by employers or the government.

“Might we be cheating ourselves,” the council asked, “by departing from the contour and constraint of natural life (our frailty and finitude), which serve as a lens for a larger vision that might give all of life coherence and sustaining significance?”[President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness, 2003]
Oh, for goodness’ sake, if we truly believed that frailty was a requisite for meaningful life, we’d never mend a broken bone, vaccinate against polio, or encourage women to stave off osteoporosis by maintaining adequate calcium levels and exercising.
… The chair of the committee that wrote it, Leon Kass, is one of the most influential bioethicists of our time and came to be known, during the tenure of George W. the report was issued, aging research was framed not as a fight against a disease but as a fight against our humanity. That’s hogwash, and, in my mind, it’s rather deadly hogwash.

But because of a lack of funding, people over sixty today may not live long enough to be helped. If you and your family members end up the last of humanity to live a life that ends all too early with decay and decrepitude, or our children never see the benefits of this research, you can thank those bioethicists.

Book Review: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Overall, very much enjoyed this book. Loved the imagery that enables visualization of Marcus and the narrative that buttresses the cognitive behavioral techniques found within Stoic literature.

If you have read Meditations, then the quotes Marcus wrote down may seem out of context from his life or the things going on in it at the time. Unlike a teenage girl’s diary, his journal doesn’t contain details of each day. Rather it encapsulates a litany of pithy statements that serve as context-free reminders of how to behave, how to strive for virtue. We can apply these in our daily life, when the context arises for us, but they shed little light on why he wrote them down, when he would have turned to each, or what in his life at the time motivated him to make the recording.

Robertson, helpfully provides that context. He embellishes details, long lost to history, that paint a realistic and believable description of the emperor as an ordinary person. Through the narrative, we can vividly imagine Marcus as he grows up, his grooming for the position of emperor, the hardships he faced, the wars he fought. We see how his stoicism leads to generosity, such as proactive forgiveness of a usurper that prevents a civil war. Each chapter opens with vivid detail that lets us visualize the emperor as someone dealing with strife and difficulty. Then each proceeds to show us what parts of stoicism Marcus turned to for support, which turns into a meaty catalog of techniques that we can use in our own lives.

Choice Quotes


Nevertheless, once I started working as a psychotherapist, it became evident to me that most of my clients who suffered from anxiety or depression benefited from the realization that their distress was due to their underlying values. Everyone knows that when we believe very strongly that something very bad has happened, we typically become upset as a result. Likewise, if we believe that something is very good and desirable, we become anxious when it’s threatened or sad if it has already been lost. For example, in order to feel social anxiety, you have to believe that other people’s negative opinions of you are worth getting upset about, that it’s really bad if they dislike you and really important to win their approval. Even people who suffer from severe social anxiety disorder (social phobia) tend to feel “normal” when speaking to children or to their close friends about trivial matters, with a few exceptions. Nevertheless, they feelhighly anxious when talking to people they think are very important about subjects they think are very important. If your fundamental worldview, by contrast, assumes that your status in the eyes of others is of negligible importance, then it follows that you should be beyond the reach of social anxiety.

A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora, the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, and so on. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?”

2. The Most Truthful Child in Rome

Indeed, Seneca also points out that there is no virtue in enduring things we do not feel. This is important to note: for a Stoic to exhibit the virtue of temperance, he must have at least some trace of desire to renounce

What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.

the “transactional” model of stress, developed by Richard Lazarus.32 Imagine a seesaw, with your appraisal of the severity of a situation—how threatening or dangerous it is—on one side. On the other side is your appraisal of your own ability to cope, your self-confidence if you like. If you believe that the threat outweighs your ability to cope and the seesaw tips toward danger, then you’ll probably feel extremely stressed or anxious. On the other hand, if you reckon that the severity of the threat is low and your ability to cope is high, then the seesaw will tip toward you, and you should feel calm and self-confident. The Stoics, like modern therapists, tried to modify both sides of this equation

When faced with fever, slander, or exile, he would compose Stoic “eulogies” praising these events as occasions to exercise strength of character. Agrippinus was truly a master decatastrophizer. He would reframe every hardship as an opportunity to cope by exercising wisdom and strength of character.

3. Contemplating the Sage

That’s a rather clever mind trick that turns Stoic mentoring into a kind of mindfulness practice. Imagining that we’re being observed helps us to pay more attention to our own character and behavior

For example, they might be worrying about something and suddenly imagine the voice of their therapist challenging them with questions like “Where’s the evidence for those fears being true?” or “How’s worrying like this actually working out for you?”

He suggests that we call to mind each day the areas for improvement that our mentor has helped us identify. We should do this as frequently as possible but at the very least, he says, “at dawn, before we begin our daily tasks, and toward evening, before we are about to rest.”

The luxury of the landed gentry: they have time and intelligence for reflection and self-actualization.

We ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep.”

4. The Choice of Hercules

People still confuse pleasure with happiness

Hunger is the best relish, he said, whereas if we overeat we spoil our appetites

Nobody has ever had the words “I wish I’d watched more television” or “I wish I’d spent more time on Facebook”

me: But they might say that about books!

The same principle, that self-awareness disrupts the automatic quality of the behavior, can be very helpful when you actually want to break a bad habit.

Many types of urges only last a minute or so at a time, although they may recur throughout the day. You only have to deal with the present moment, though, one instance of an urge or craving at a time.

consider the double standard between the things you desire for yourself and the things you find admirable in others

5. Grasping the Nettle

Struggling to suppress, control, or eliminate unpleasant feelings adds another layer to our misery and frequently backfires by making the original problem worse.

People who strongly believe that unpleasant feelings are bad and try to suppress them from their minds often become more tense and preoccupied with the very feelings they’re trying to avoid, trapping themselves in a vicious cycle

6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations

By contrast, if you accept that the outcome couldn’t have been other than it was and wasn’t under your direct control, then you should suffer no harm or frustration. In this way, the mind is saved from anxiety and preserved in its natural equanimity

One of the most robustly established findings in the entire field of modern psychotherapy research is the fact that anxiety tends to abate naturally during prolonged exposure to feared situations, under normal conditions.

me: Note that JB Peterson observes that exposure therapy doesn’t seem to reduce fear. Instead it trains bravery, a trait that generalizes to surmount other anxieties in life.

if exposure is terminated too soon, the technique may actually backfire and increase anxiety and sensitization to the feared situation.

However, anxiety also habituates almost as reliably, in most cases, when the threat is merely imagined, something known as in vitro, or “imaginal,” exposure.

escape is not something we should demand from life or feel we really need as a coping tool—that sort of dependence on being able to escape from stressful situations just creates its own problems. Marcus tells himself that he doesn’t literally need to get away from it all because true inner peace comes from the nature of our thoughts rather than pleasant natural surroundings. He tells himself that resilience comes from his ability to regain his composure wherever he finds himself. This is the “inner citadel” to which he can retreat, even on the frigid battlefields of the northern campaign.

The universe is change: life is opinion.

Gaining cognitive distance is, in a sense, the most important aspect of Stoic anxiety management. This is what Marcus meant by “life is opinion”: that the quality of our life is determined by our value judgments, because those shape our emotions

7. Temporary Madness

No matter how perverse that conclusion may seem, it’s justified in their own mind. If we constantly think of others as being mistaken rather than simply malicious, as deprived of wisdom against their wishes, we will inevitably deal more gently with them

Often all that holds us back from committing one vice is another vice, he says (another idea that goes back at least to Socrates). Many people refrain from crime, for instance, because they’re afraid of being caught, not because they’re virtuous.

often requires more effort to deal with the consequences of losing our temper than it does just to tolerate the very acts with which we’re angry.

your own anger is a bigger threat to you than the thing you’re angry about

The actions of others are external to us and cannot touch our character, but our own anger transforms us into a different sort of person, almost like an animal, and for Stoics that’s the greater harm

to accept their wrongdoing toward others while expecting them never to wrong you is both inconsiderate and foolish

8. Death and the View from Above

seems more obvious to me now than ever before that the lives of most men are tragedies of their own making

Though men desire wealth and other such things, these no more improve a man’s soul than a golden bridle improves a horse. We contaminate ourselves with these externals, blending and merging into things when we confuse them with our soul’s natural good.

Life is warfare and a sojourn in a foreign land

Commonplace Booking in the Digital Age

I’d like to first observe that, since we created an industrialized society, we have been trying to increase our productivity through planners, todo lists, task trackers, and various sundry mechanisms, each of which has its own style and tradeoffs. After highlighting some of these techniques, and recognizing the variability in workflow, I’ll naturally propose a plugin-based software solution.

The Commonplace Book

Let’s begin with a look at the commonplace book, used by many famously productive folks throughout the Rennaisance and into the late 1800’s.

In 1685 the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke wrote a treatise in French on commonplace books, translated into English in 1706 as A New Method of Making Common-Place-Books, “in which techniques for entering proverbs, quotations, ideas, speeches were formulated. Locke gave specific advice on how to arrange material by subject and category, using such key topics as love, politics, or religion. Commonplace books, it must be stressed, are not journals, which are chronological and introspective.”[1]

By the early eighteenth century they had become an information management device in which a note-taker stored quotations, observations and definitions. They were used in private households to collate ethical or informative texts, sometimes alongside recipes or medical formulae.

Locke’s method involved creating an index of prefixes for the various subjects that interested him (Pa for “passion”, Ha for “Happiness” which might also collide with “Harmony”, and the like) followed by a growing list of page numbers. To record a note or quote, he’d open to the first available blank page in the book, write down the keyword as a title followed by the note and then append that page number to the prefix in the index. Obviously, if we kept our notes as digital records, we could simply use brute force search for free-associative recall.

Modern Daily (Paper) Planners

Because I’ve done a search for planners, I keep getting interesting ads about them. This experience has been somewhat informative as I’ve noticed a compelling sales pitch: A planner designed for your unique personality, that follows scientific principles learned by psychologists who study productivity. They encourage breaking down large tasks into achievable small ones, similarly divide and conquer time itself through daily, weekly, and monthly pages, and encourage reflection by tracking progress on goals. Really, their marketing says more than I can put into words.

Example: The Panda Planner

Example: Evo Daily Planner

Has (at this time) 4 variants, each based on a personality assessment. Also has a companion app. You can see more examples on their  kickstarter campaign.

Example: The Hero’s Journal

Realizing that more compelling motivation comes from narratives following the classic call to action, quest with allies, face adversity, and triumph, the Hero’s Journal focuses more on encouraging you through telling your story rather than dry task lists.

Modern (Digital) Note/Task Managers

As technology progressed so has our office work. We much more commonly use digital equivalents of file cabinets. That should have decreased the barrier to digital notetaking, as we often find ourselves at a computer when we want to make a note of something.

Example: Evernote

A quite popular piece of software for taking notes that come equipped with cloud storage that synchronizes across 3 different interfaces: mobile, desktop web, and a browser plugin (quite handy for bookmarking content). Their image -> text conversion even enables search across pictures of handwritten sticky notes.

Because Evernote offers some built-in hierarchy (Stacks and Notebooks) and free-form tagging, folks have developed tag conventions that encode Ferris-style Getting Things Done systems:

Examples: Project Management

We have Asana, Monday.com, Jira, etc. All designed to track tasks and help a team of people coordinate. However, after using them at work, some people have brought them home to track their personal projects.


Example: reMarkable

Given that people still have a penchant for physically scribing their ideas and they can find themselves away from a computer when thinking (a reasonable methodology to remove distractions), reMarkable offers a digitized tablet that combines paper feel with digital organization.

Example: Digitization of Paper Planners

The Slice planner uses recent advances in image processing to transcribe written text (such as a clock, or cross-through on pre-placed icons for email. The Rocketbook, similarly lets you write freeform on the page and scan it later (with wipe and reuse paper), it tracks the scan using a QR code and has a list of icons along the page bottom that you’d configure for sending images to a cloud service (Google drive, Evernote, Dropbox, etc). Moleskine has an Ellipse Smart Writing product that equips a pen with an IR camera and bluetooth so that it can capture what you write on the page and upload it to a phone or tablet.


The Digital Commonplace Book

All of the ideas above have strong merits, otherwise they would not have survived in the marketplace. Each of the approaches above has a specific problem that it addresses, but they also compete with each other across some trade-offs (pen vs digital, task tracking vs free-recall) in the productivity space. Could we organize these examples and unify our approach? I think so!

Let us recognize that digitizing the information brings many benefits not available on paper: hyperlinking, tagging, cloud backup and synchronization across devices, and search. But paper also has utility: the feel of the pen, freeform drawing, lack of batteries. Fortunately that gap seems bridgeable via recent advances in image recognition and processing. Our notes might record various goals: todo lists, toread lists, task lists, deadline reminders, timeslots, ideas for later, brainstorms, etc. Digitization can bring us flexible views across the same data: calendar, kanban, gantt chart, checkbox lists, etc. The psychologists in productivity say we benefit from inspirational quotes, especially those that keep us focused on a goal-at-hand and regular reflections on progress and aptitude (achievable through scheduled prompts).

I propose that we can achieve all of the above with a plugin-based software. We establish an API that records note entries (text, bullet lists, checklists, photos, drawings) together with organizational metadata (tags), and a scheduler. Then we allow plugins to stitch those together for productive functionality. For example: the scheduler could watch for due time tag and then trigger a reminder action for filling out a reflection or alert that a task needs to be marked complete. A scheduler following IFTTT could watch for specific events (creation of a note with a tag) and then take a specific organizational action (set a reminder, upload and extract text, attach to a project). The plugins power a configurable dashboard of views that show the same data in different ways: a tag browser, a note editor, a calendar, a time chart, etc. If we streamline the customization (and somehow avoid overwhelming the user with paralysis of choice) then each person can interact with their material in a way that works for them (or continually seek The One True Way forever).

Our smartphone apps and the examples highlighted above already make incremental steps in the direction I outlined. But they remain as data silos and haven’t agreed on a unifying API, as market competition and the costly organizational efforts of standardization present strong incentives against doing so. They’d each rather do their own thing well, than become a plugin to a larger framework. But I see the pieces scattered, waiting for unification and stronger collaboration.


The Capitalist Religion

I was listening to Yuval Harari’s lecture series about his book Sapiens. He classified Capitalism as a religion and convinced me that I had already fully bought in. I’ve been practicing its creed without recognizing it as a religion. I now believe we should formalize it as religion in order to inform and enlighten other practitioners.

Major religions often have a supreme good, the capitalists worship Economic Growth. A Capitalist sins when they spend their profits on superfluous luxury. Rather, they should always reinvest profits to further growth, of their own business first, with the side effect of growing the economy generally.

The religion has a lower class: the Consumer, who should buy things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they don’t like. They assist Capitalists by consuming the excesses of over-abundant production, increasing the velocity of money, and bolstering economic metrics of activity.

The religion needs an embodiment. I propose creating The First Capitalist Church of Wealth. It also has an associated fraternity: The Spontaneous Order of Free Marketeers. Various Profits spread the the economic lessons. I propose coining Adam Smith and Frédéric Bastiat each the title of Mint (akin to Saint), or perhaps a higher rank such as one of the 12 Accountants (akin to Apostles). I have not yet ordained the the hierarchy.

We have a Holy Book: The Ledger. It contains various other books such as The Book of Acquisitions.

But we don’t speak of The Ledger as just a holy book. Each individual also has a personal ledger that tracks their economic contributions (like the chain worn by Ebenezer Scrooge). When a person dies and goes to the Golden Vault, they receive an accounting of their personal ledger. If they pass the audit, they may enter the vault. Otherwise, if their economic contributions net negative, they shall experience an eternal torment of shoddy products and bad service. Various levels of hellish inconvenience await them, as per the magnitude of their debts.

We have a guiding spirit: The Invisible Hand (as coined by Adam Smith), that directs entrepreneurs to generate value for the consumers.

I haven’t worked out yet how one pays penance for their misdeeds and malinvestments. But I think the religion can generate good interest, with membership appreciating the economic growth mindset.

Statistical Measures

In the stats book that I used at college, A First Course in Probability (sixth ed) by Sheldon Ross, I found two problems that seem paradoxical when juxtaposed. Can you explain the opposite results?

Ch 2 Axioms of Probability, Self-Test Exercise #15.

Show that if P(A_i) = 1 for all i\geq1, then P\left(\bigcap\limits_{i=1}^{\infty} A_i\right) = 1.

Ch 5 Continuous Random Variables, Theoretical Exercise #6.

Define a collection of events E_a, 0 < a < 1, having the property that P(E_a) = 1 for all a, but P\left(\bigcap\limits_{a} E_a\right) = 0.
Hint: Let random variable X be uniform over (0,1) and define E_a in terms of X.

Acer Swift 1

I decided to upgrade my laptop, and chose to get the Acer Swift 1 SF113-31-P6XP (the rose gold color). The Acer website indicated that this model would have a keyboard backlight, but it does not. It has 3 stuck pixels and a weird bright spot in the display that looks like a reflection, which I only notice when showing bright colors. Since I changed all my settings over to dark mode, I don’t notice these issues at all.

The laptop itself is slightly underpowered, so occasionally an application will behave as if it got paused for a second. Because my main use case for this device is just surfing the web in bed, I don’t mind that behavior at all, and have come to expect it even on workhorse machines. I blame javascript, plugins, and browser architecture generally. Bonus points: the device has no fan and runs completely silent. I find the trade-off worth it. The N4200 supports bursting up to 2.5GHz and Linux makes good use of that ability. I had no problem streaming videos and playing them full-screen.

My biggest complaint comes from the trackpad, which kept freezing. So, I took some steps to remedy that problem (in Ubuntu).

  1. apt install xserver-xorg-input-synaptics, for some reason this does not install with xserver-xorg-input-all. It’s presence opens up a bunch of configuration options regarding click behavior, scrolling, palm detection, etc.
  2. Create a script that will cycle the touchpad when it freezes and create global keyboard shortcut to run it. If the touchpad freezes, at least you have a button to get it back.
    declare -i ID
    ID=`xinput list | grep -Eio '(touchpad|glidepoint)\s*id\=[0-9]{1,2}' | grep -Eo '[0-9]{1,2}'`
    xinput disable $ID
    sleep 0.1
    xinput enable $ID

    I spent a day using this setup and must have hit the cycle button at least 50 times. Though it was quick, it got really annoying.

  3. One time the touchpad didn’t respond after resuming from sleep. So I dug deeper to see if I could virtually unplug and replug it.

    If the touchpad doesn’t come back after using the above script, then you can cycle the responsible kernel module.

    sudo modprobe -r hid_multitouch
    sudo modprobe hid_multitouch
  4. After some more research, I learned that other Acer models had similar issues, but they could be fixed with a change to the bios settings. During bootup press F2 to access the bios, then switch Main > Touchpad from Advanced to Basic.

For the past five days, I have not had to cycle the touchpad (step 2) since changing the bios flag (step 4).

Debunking the Intrinsic Value Argument

I have to admit to having updated my mind about the “intrinsic value” argument that many people cite as a justification for treating gold as a money (vs paper currency). I’ve previously attempted to explain away this argument as a side-effect of other properties[Gold is Money] or to dismiss it as an unrelated feature[The Commodity Money Myth]. Now I have some good reasons to believe that the entire argument is unsound.

First, a conversation that I had with a fellow camper at the Jackalope festival.

Person: Gold is money and Bitcoin only a currency.
Me: Ok, what’s the difference?
Person: Well, money can operate as a store of value.
Me: Interesting, how do you store something subjective?
Person: *mumble something about intrinsic value that I find unconvincing and irrelevant*

If you take the Subjective theory of value seriously, then it’s obvious that “intrinsic value” is an illusion. Gold has held its value for a long time, sure, but that’s because people, individuals, continue to have a high subjective value for that material. I don’t see a big problem expecting similar valuations in the future, but that position says much more about human preferences than it does about a shiny yellowish metal.

Next, a dismantling of the argument’s structure.

To say that gold makes a good money because it has some other uses (jewelry for the Ancients, electronics also for modern society) is to cite competing non-monetary uses! Do you really find it convincing to hear someone say “Y is a good X because its useful for non-X” or “Let’s trade with this substance instead of putting it to these other uses”? Consider some of the implications:

  • If the other uses become more highly valued than facilitation of trade, your commodity money will disappear from circulation.
  • Those other uses have to compete with use as money, making them have a higher price than they otherwise would.

Wouldn’t the world be better off to use that gold industrially or culturally rather than sequester it away in a vault? Cryptocoins can help with that liberation, for they have no competing uses. By explicit design, their highest value use is to facilitate trade.

Furthermore, under the theory of intrinsic value: the more competing uses a substance has, the better a money it becomes. Ridiculous! The very structure of the intrinsic value argument undermines what it attempts to buttress.

Cognitive Bias in Artificial Intelligence

I believe that artificial intelligence will suffer from cognitive biases, just as humans do. They might be altogether different kinds of bias, I won’t speculate about the details. I came to this conclusion by reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by psychologist Daniel Kahneman, which proposes the brain has two modes of analysis: a “snap judgement” or “first impression” system and a more methodical or calculating system. Often we engage the quick system out of computational laziness. Why wouldn’t a machine do the same?

Researchers in machine learning already take careful steps to avoid many biases: data collection bias, overfitting, initial connection bias in the neural net, etc. But, I haven’t yet heard of any addressing computation biases in the resulting neural net. I think precursors of biased behavior have been observed already, but was explained away as being present in the input data or as resulting from the reward function during training, or some other statistical inadequacy.

Let me give a simplified example (and admittedly poor example for my argument) of cognitive bias present in humans and reflect on why it would be difficult to filter out such bias in a machine learning algorithm.

In the Muller-Lyer Illusion, which consists of a pair of arrows with fins pointing away or toward the center. Each shaft has the same length, but one appears longer. As a human familiar with this illusion, I will report that the shafts have equal length. Yet, subjectively, I do indeed perceive them as being different. My familiarity with the illusion allows me to report accurate information, lying about my subjective experience.

Now suppose that we train a neural net to gauge linear distances. And we have a way of asking it whether the lines in the Muller-Lyer diagram have the same length. What will it report? Well that depends, being a machine it might have a better mechanism for measuring lines directly in pixels and thus be immune to the extraneous information presented by the fins on the ends of those lines. But, humans ought to have that functionality as well on the cellular sensory level, yet we don’t. But, if the Muller-Lyer Illusion doesn’t fool the neural net, does a different picture confuse it? So far, yes, such things happen: the ML categorizes incorrectly when a human wouldn’t. We tend to interpret this as a one-off “mistake” rather than a “bias”. But the researchers succumb to evidence bias: they have only one example of incorrect categorization and they don’t perform a follow-up investigation into whether that example represents a whole class, demonstrating a cognitive bias in the neural net.

Now suppose the researcher do perform the diligence necessary and discover a cognitive bias. They generate new examples and retrain the net. Now it performs correct categorization for those examples. Have they really removed the bias at a fundamental level? or does the net now have a corrective layer, like I do? I presume the answer here depends on the computation capacity of the net: simple nets will have been retrained, while more complex ones might only have trained a fixer circuit, which identifies the image as being a specific kind of illusion. Thus, the more capable the neural net, the more likely it starts looking like a human: with a first impression followed by a second guess.

How ought research approach this problem? Should the biases get identified one at a time and subsequently be removed with additional training? Due to the large number of biases (c.f. all of Less Wrong, or  this list of cognitive biases), I think that approach doesn’t scale well. Especially considering that biases result from cognitive architecture and trained neural nets differ from human brains, I think the biases in ML will be new to us. Those should be exciting discoveries! I propose training with multiple adversarial nets, each trying to confuse the categorizer. This approach contains architectural symmetry, so it probably won’t work for biases that result from differences in wet-ware vs. hard-ware computation. Those should be even more interesting discoveries!

Humans clearly have a large reliance on contextual clues and the whole point of investing in ML is to capture and replicate that level of cognition. But contextual clues can mislead as easily as they help. So ML ought to have cognitive bias, as humans do, but very likely different kinds. Efforts to train out that bias might even be met with repulsion. Humans feel comfort with the familiar, so cognition which has our biases removed should feel viscerally unwelcome. For example, robots which lack biases associated with empathy will be perceived as sociopathic.