Archive for July, 2016

The Twin Evils: Basically Good and Tabula Rasa

July 27, 2016

At the core of the discussion between liberals and conservatives is a key philosophical difference. That philosophical difference is seen in the answer to this question:

Are people basically good or basically evil?

There is a third option, tabula rasa, is the idea that people are a blank slate, neither good nor evil until they are taught to be so.

At the heart of conservatism is this assumption: people are basically evil. At the heart of liberalism is the other assumption: either people are basically good, or they are a blank slate (and we just need to program them the right way.)

I won’t go into much of the philosophical reasons for thinking one or the other things, but I will point out the implications in relation to government.

First, the conservative viewpoint. People are basically evil. Note: all people, not just other people or “those” people. When conservatives see BLM celebrating the murder of cops, or ISIS claiming credit for the killing of an elderly priest, we see ourselves. We know that without government, we would likely be doing the same things they are doing.

By government, I mean “governing” as in that thing you do to yourself and others to keep them behaving well and properly. Good government starts with self-government and self-mastery. This involves introspection and circumspection and careful consideration of the effects of our choices on our lives and others, and carefully selecting one course over another being aware of the fact that we are fallible, mortal beings prone to evil.

Once you can properly govern yourself, then you govern others, starting with your family and then reaching out into the community and the nation. Those who cannot govern themselves really have no right to govern others, while those who have mastered the government of self are likely good candidates for governing others.

While we recognize the need of government, self and otherwise, we also recognize the fact that governors are made of the same mortal, fallible and evil stuff as we are. Thus, you need to govern the government. This is the purpose behind the strict limits that the constitution places on our federal government, why it reads like a short list of things the government can do and a long, long list of thing the government cannot do. This is also why we like to keep a close eye on what government is doing and sound the alarms whenever it approaches those limits or dares to look over them.

In this way, we can create a system where basically evil creatures can act mostly good, most of the time.

There are parallels in the real world. Take, for instance, engineering. We know that we are fallible, illogical creatures and yet we are not only able to discern principles that govern how things behave, but create systems that are reliable when their components are not reliable. By carefully managing the complexities and intricacies of a design, we can uncover a combination that will self-govern to eliminate error. It takes a lot of work to get it right, and when you think you have it right, it takes even more work to make sure you know you have it right, but it can be done, as long as you follow some basic principles and don’t cut any corners.

People who believe that people are basically good logically shouldn’t see the need for any government. The only thing government can do is limit people from being the best they can be. Note that conservatives are not against government, they simply want limited, constrained government. People who advocate no government would be properly called anarchists, which means, literally, “no ruler.” In anarchy, people would be able to exercise their goodness to the fullest extent.

If there is a government, then these same people would advocate for unlimited powers for that government, for much of the same reason. If people are basically good, then we can trust the government, which is made of people, to be basically good.

Of course, I’ve only met a few people who actually believe that all people are basically good. Most try to juggle basic philosophy by saying “These people are basically good, while those people are basically evil.” This is nothing short of racism, classism, and every sort of -ism you can imagine. The lines we draw between good and evil people are arbitrary and capricious. Those who participate in this should worry that one day, they will be on the wrong side of that line.

Perhaps they try to resolve this philosophical dilemma with tabular rasa. Maybe it’s not fundamental human nature to be good or evil, but a product of our environment. To me, this is the worst sort of philosophy because of what it concludes.

The natural conclusion is, “We must teach everyone to be good!” If only it were that simple! Nevertheless, this is the driving force behind spending untold trillions on public education. Needless to say, it has been a colossal waste and failure. Build as many schools as you like, send as many teachers you like, and fund them with as much money as you like, you can never force anyone to get educated. At best, you can provide means, but in the end, it is up to them to obtain it for themselves.

The other natural conclusion is the horror of classism. That is, put the people with the proper education in control, and send the rest to forced education camps. You may catch a scientist expressing sentiments like these, uttered in phrases like “If only smart people ran the government” or “the science is simple, so simple only government can screw it up.” I beg people who hold these ideas to consider why they think they are superior to others, what makes them worthy to lead or decide while others with human brains that don’t operate much different than theirs should simply fall in line and obey without hesitation. The natural conclusion of this sort of thinking is the key element behind the ancient evil of aristocracy (rule by the noble). Sure, they may think they are setting up a perfect system that can never be corrupted, but it is odd, isn’t it, how that system often goes horribly corrupt even before the first generation has passed away?

Philosophy is an important thing. The way you see the world, especially the way you see others, will dramatically influence the types of choices you make and the value system you see. Until we learn that we are all basically evil, we really haven’t a hope to overcoming that evil.

What about their jobs?

July 26, 2016

I work at a company involved in machine learning. Some of the applications of machine learning were mentioned, one of them being autonomous vehicles.

A lady in our company, not on the tech side, of course, wondered aloud, “Why do people want autonomous vehicles?” I replied to her, “It will save billions and billions of dollars.” She asked, “How?” I said, “Imagine never having to pay a taxi driver ever again.”

Her instinct was, “What about their jobs?” My reply was, “Go look up ‘luddite’ on Google.”

Any new technology is going to eliminate jobs. The bigger and better the change, the more jobs that will disappear. It has been this way ever since the beginning of time. Today, in America, only a tiny fraction of our population is involved in farming. It used to be the vast majority of people were working farms. This is one example of how technology has eliminated jobs.

People erroneously think that jobs are a zero-sum game. That is, there can only be so many jobs in the world, and when jobs are lost, they are never coming back. While it is true there can only be so many jobs in the world (after all, there are only so many people), it is not true that eliminating some jobs will mean there are fewer jobs overall.

See, jobs don’t really exist, not like tables and chairs. Jobs have zero mass, zero energy. Jobs can be created as quickly as they are destroyed. Jobs are created when a boss says, “You’re hired!” and disappear when they say “You’re fired!”

A better way to look at it is this. Consider each possible job there could ever be. This would be something much greater than the number of people in the world squared, since each person could potentially offer any particular other person an infinite number of possible jobs.

For each possible job, consider that the person hiring the other person can pay any amount of money, from $0 to all the money in the world. Also consider that the value of the work can be anything from negative to infinite. That is, I could hire someone, and they could burn down my business and get me thrown in jail, or they could make me the richest person in the history of the earth.

That’s the total number of jobs that can ever exist.

The jobs that are currently active are those jobs where the cost is smaller than the benefit. If it weren’t so, the person hiring would fire the employee, since they cost more than they bring in. That’s just simple math.

But that’s not enough. In addition to that, the person hired has to accept the job, meaning, they will likely look around for a better job if it exists. So really, the total number of current jobs is all those jobs where the employer would make some money at least, and all those people who are willing to work for that price because there’s not much better out there.

What happens when new technology, like autonomous vehicles, come alone, is the value of the jobs all shift. Driving is not so valuable anymore because a machine can do it for cheaper, faster, better. That means those jobs go away, but there are a very large number of other, potential jobs. All the taxi drives, all the uber drivers, everyone everywhere who drives, will find something else to do.

Granted, it might not pay as much. That’s sad. But the truth is, with the new technology, money is more valuable. It can buy more than it used to. So even if they get paid less, they can take a little solace in the fact that it’s now cheaper to get a ride.

But usually, new technologies create new opportunities. For instance, how many people were employed programming robots in automated factories in the 1920’s? Today, we have a very large number of people involved in the problem of programming robots and making new robots, opportunities that didn’t exist a long time ago. So while taxi drivers won’t be driving taxis anymore, they may be doing something much more valuable, like programming those taxi cabs or maybe something we can’t even imagine. After all, if I told you ten years ago that there would be a lot of people driving uber, you’d think I was crazy. Those jobs came into existence because technology made it cheap enough to do something like that.


July 21, 2016

This will be a fairly technical post, but it shouldn’t be too bad.

I’m currently working at a job where we do a ton of machine learning. Machine learning is basically do statistics with a lot of computers. There’s really no magic there, despite warnings from people with a lot of money and brainpower.

Machine learning is really a set of tricks that we’ve learned to solve a particularly hard kind of problem. The problem is summarized here.

  • Go get a bunch of data.
  • Look at the data really, really hard.
  • Try to figure out what the data is telling you about how the universe works.

This is pretty much a summary of every scientific discipline ever.

Note that the “try to figure out” part is often expressed in different ways, the other two common forms being: “make a prediction that is accurate” or “decide what we should do differently to get different results.” Both of these are just restatements of the problem of figuring out what the data tells you about the universe.

Now, there are a number of ways people go wrong when they do this kind of thing. I won’t bore you with all the tiny details of how to even begin to understand what you are looking at and how to make sense of it.

One common problem is called “overfitting”. The way it manifests itself is you propose a theory about the data that explains the data really, really well. In fact, remarkably well. But then, when you try out the idea in reality, it is horrible.

In order to understand this, imagine a scatterplot of data points. You want to predict what value you should get depending on where you’re at along the X-axis. What you could do is just draw lines connecting all the point together. This graph will accurately predict every value you’ve seen in the data, but it will not be a very good predictor of how reality behaves (in the vast majority of cases.)

In physics, we sometimes do the same things. We have common patterns we follow to try and avoid this. One of the patterns is “Don’t look at the data before making your theories.” That is, try to make your theories out of previous theories and new assumptions. This is like trying to hit a bullseye wearing a blindfold. The problem with this method is it is very inefficient, and there is only so many ideas we can come up with. However, when you do find that needle in the haystack, the theory that does a good job at matching the data, then we think we’re pretty close to reality. The best part is we know how that theory was put together, and we can think about it and reason about it.

This is what Newton did. Or really, it would’ve been what he did except he was familiar with the data, and he was looking for a reason why things moved the way they did. So really, it didn’t work that way in practice. And it never does. Theoretical physicists do look at data. They get inspired by it.

The issue is when you look at the data, and you see shapes, you propose math that explains those shapes, and then you try to figure out what it all means. The truth is that there are a lot of shapes that will fit that data. Some of them are worse than others. And you really have no way of knowing that the shape that fits best is really the shape that represents reality. True, the more points of data you have, the more certain you are about that shape being the right shape, but you can never reach a point where you can say “This is the only shape that works well.” It gets even worse when you consider the fact that the data you have collected is not and never can be 100% accurate.

What does this have to do with conservatism?

Conservatism is one of those “inside out” philosophies on par with Newtonian Mechanics. It is a collection of ideas, “shapes” if you will, about how the world works. Philosophers and logicians have argued about these ideas for a very long time. They’ve been around for such a long time that they aren’t new anymore.

Granted, sometimes the shapes fit the data really well, and sometimes they don’t. There are other shapes you can find that fits the data better than conservatism. That isn’t really the problem we’re trying to solve, though. Focusing on what fits the data best gets you shapes that fit the data well but don’t have much power in understanding what is really going on.

The other type of philosophy when it comes to these sorts of things are the “outside in” philosophies. In these philosophies, you look really, really hard at the data, find a really good shape that fits, and then declare that to be the ultimate truth. Then from that newly discovered ultimate truth, you make predictions and take courses of action. This seems very reasonable, but as I said earlier, it has the fundamental flaw of overfitting.

The way this philosophy pops up is in comments like, “There are poor people. We have to do something!” or “The rich make a lot of money! We have to do something!”

And if that something is aimed at changing the metric, and you make proposals based on conclusions drawn solely on the data, you’re going to get some really bad ideas. For instance, we could kill all the rich people and the poor people and that would certainly eliminate the problem of poverty and wealth disparity. Obviously, something is hopefully telling you something is fundamentally wrong with this proposal. But don’t you also feel like there is something wrong with the idea of taxing and giving money away?

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve personally seen data-driven thinking lead people astray. When I worked at Amazon, we were almost cult-like in our devotion to data, but we knew about overfitting and we tried to avoid it. This was years ago, but we used to run A/B testing on various changes to the website. We developed ideas about why people clicked on some things and not other things. Some of our ideas were pretty fantastic, and entire teams were formed to pursue them. In the end, we discovered that the data seemed to be telling us people click on new things but they really don’t like things to change very much. That’s why doesn’t really look very much different than it did a decade ago.

In your own life, be very careful about making decisions based on data. Be careful about overfitting. Be careful about reading too much into the data you see. Remember that the shape you think fits the data isn’t necessarily true even if it is the best shape.

If you really want to understand something, you have to develop theories in an almost clean-room environment free from data. Once those ideas are developed, then you can test them to see if they pan out. But be careful about reading the data too closely, since it can lead you astray.

Also, this is why I don’t like string theory. It’s a plain and simple case of overfitting. They literally pick and choose which versions of string theory they like based on how well it fits the data.

And this is why I don’t like political decisions being made with graphs in the background.

The Law

July 17, 2016

Seeing the attacks in France and the attacks on our people here in the United States, both by ISIS and by the Black Lives Matter movement reminds me of how important law is. By law, I mean the natural law that applies everywhere at all time, that assigns a value of right or wrong to every action we take.

We live in a world where we think we can invent laws. This is not so. The universe is already governed by laws. Our choice is between governments which enact laws accordingly or governments which presume they can rewrite the laws of nature. We suffer under the fools who take upon themselves the role of God and decide they can control people and shape them with unjust and unworthy laws.

If you want to see what a moral law looks like, a law that is tuned to set a people free from their own faults and live in peace with themselves and their neighbors, you don’t have to look further than the Law of Moses as outlined in the Bible.

I shall revisit that law to recover some of the essential elements.

First, the laws that there shall be no God but God. This is encoded in the first three commandments. The first says that God is the same God who freed the Israelites from the Egyptians, and there shall be no other god before Him. The second that there shall be no worshipping of idols. The third that you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. The first law says that the position of God is already filled, and that by a God who redeems and liberates people. Can there be a greater God with greater good than this? The second says you should not worship things that aren’t God. We have a tendency to worship things rather than God, and doing so sets us up for disappointment. The third says that you should not invoke the name of God unless He told you to. It says that the false prophets who proclaim to represent God but fail to deliver should not be tolerated.

Can I emphasize how important it is that we, as a people, align our worshiping instinct and settle on the worship of a being who has at in his heart’s desire our freedom and liberty?

The next law has to do with the Sabbath. The Sabbath is more than a day off from work. It is a day to recognize the importance of rest and the importance of re-tuning ourselves to God. It is a sign that we believe there is something more important than work. It is a time to re-teach ourselves, our families, and our neighbors what is truly most important.

The fifth law is about family. The Bible only commands us to honor two beings: Our mother and our father. Without the family and a proper respect for parents, how long can a society last? Thus, the promise that we can live a long time in the land if we simply remember to honor our own parents.

The sixth law forbids murder. (Although it is often translated as killing, subsequent punishments make it clear that God wants certain people to be killed.) I think it is safe to say that we all agree, world-wide that murder is wrong. Or do we? How important it is that we place life at such a high priority!

The seventh has to do with sexual purity by forbidding adultery. The Laws of Moses made it clear that adultery or anything like it was a gross sin and violation of the fundamental commandments. In marriage we find the only appropriate place to express our sexual desires. The result of sexual activity is, of course, children. Certainly, the opposite of “thou shalt not commit adultery” is “thou shalt have plenty of sexual relations with your spouse.”

The eighth has to do with property. Don’t steal. Again, the opposite would be “respect other’s property.” Property rights is the key foundation to material wealth.

The ninth is a restriction on speech. “Thou shalt not bear false witness.” In other words, don’t lie about what you see. The punishment according to the Law of Moses for bearing false witness was to punish the liar with the same punishment the victim would’ve received. How sound our legal system would be if we prosecuted those who lie in their testimony! But more important, it sets a limit to how far you can exercise your speech, and deceiving and lying to people is not ok.

The last commandment has to do with coveting. The point of coveting is not to have the same things as what your neighbor has, but to have the very things your neighbor has. If we want something our neighbor has, we should work to make it ourselves, or trade for it. The converse of the commandment is “Be happy that your neighbor has nice things.” I am reminded of the tradition found in almost every society of people calling for celebration when something good happens to them. Not to brag, of course, but to share the joy.

These ten basic commandments are the foundation of Western Civilization. They are the key to peace and happiness in any society. We cannot omit one and expect good things to happen.

But these are only ten basic commandments.

The Savior spoke of the two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. These two commandments provide a framework for everything we do. Atheists might object to the “loving God” part, but let’s be clear: The worship of God is the worship of perfection and the embodiment of all that is good in the universe. Who can do anything but worship perfection? And by satisfying our in-grown desire to worship something, we eliminate any possibility of being lead to worship something less. And the commandment of our neighbor is the basis of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. What wise words!

But the Savior expanded upon the ten commandments, setting them as the bare minimum of behavior. He called for people to not even get angry with each other and call each other names. He called for people to forgive one another. He called for people to not even break the laws in their hearts. The Savior’s way is the better way. It doesn’t eliminate the Ten Commandments but elevates them as the bedrock of society. You can choose to live on the rock, but we can build our houses on that rock, too.

Once we agree to a law, the question then becomes: What should we do to those who refuse to keep them? The Law of Moses makes it clear what to do with murderers and rapists and thieves. It is even clear on what should be done to those who fail to acknowledge their parents or God. There must be some punishment attached to a violation of the law, and there must be some system of fairly distributing that punishment. Some of the commandments God reserves punishment for himself. Others he commands us to deal out the punishment. We would be wise to consider carefully which system makes the most sense for our people and our time.

The bottom line, though, is this: We cannot wish or hope the world would be a better place. We have been entrusted with sovereignty, the right to rule ourselves. We must acknowledge that our laws need to be enforced, our enemies fought, and victory won.

The Problem is Gun-Free Zones

July 14, 2016

If you were to compare all the recent mass-shootings in America with gun free zones, you’d notice a pattern. Almost all of them happen in gun-free zones.

We used to say that a gun society is a polite society. You are going to be respectful and polite to others when you know that they could lose their cool and shoot you in the face.

I would like to add that a gun society is a safe society. No one is going to attempt a mass shooting when they know that each one of their potential victims is packing heat. And if they are dumb enough to try, then they won’t get very far before being shot themselves.

As an individual, you can ask businesses which post “no guns allowed” at the door what they are doing to protect the people inside from mass shooters. You can remind them that almost all of the mass-shootings happen in gun-free zones, and you are putting your life in danger by entering their gun-free zone.

Perhaps one day we’ll have laws that require owners of gun-free zones to properly secure and protect those areas.

Whig Theory

July 5, 2016

There isn’t a lot written about Whig Theory. It is, however, a fundamental concept which we must understand.

The basic idea of Whig Theory is something like this.

  • God gives us rights. That is, the things we should do, moral imperatives.
  • We form governments, like kings and parliament, with the intent to secure those rights and protect them.
  • Governments tend to usurp those rights and oppress the people. Governments rarely, if ever, protect rights and cease oppression.
  • We should resist usurpations and oppressions with force if necessary, because they are wrong and against God’s commandments.
  • If God favors us because we are righteous, he will bless our efforts to resist with liberty. If He doesn’t favor us because we are not righteous, then we will fail. In either case, it is God’s will and how can we oppose his will?
  • Thus, it is the duty of the people to be righteous and to resist government oppression.

These ideas might sound foreign and strange, but they permeate many important episodes of our American history. In reality, the American Revolution began in England while the colonies were just being born. The political and religious movements born from the English Civil War found their way to our shores, and was the blackpowder that was lit with the American Revolution. When you look at English history, you are really looking at American history.

In fact, even in today’s society, these ideas are a part of our political discussion. IE, “We should abolish welfare and the taxes used to fund it.” “But what about the poor?” “The poor should work hard and feed themselves rather than being idle and eat other people’s food.” “But if they aren’t smart enough and good enough, what then?” “Are you arguing that the poor are somehow subhuman, incapable of feeding and clothing and sheltering themselves? If so, then they do not deserve liberty but should embrace their slavery.” “Are you comparing the poor on welfare to slaves?” “Yes, I am; the man who cannot feed himself and relies on someone else to feed them is no more than a slave to those who feed them.”

The ultimate question that Whigism asks is: “Are you good enough to be free?” If you’re not, then you deserve to be a serf, and you should pray that God lets the chains of servitude rest lightly on your wrists. If you are good enough to be free, then no one should be your master.

The ultimate struggle of Whigs is not the political struggle, it is the struggle of oneself against one’s nature. Overcome the limiting factors we each face, and you will find the wealth and prosperity God promises to those willing to keep his commandments.

I should add a note about what it is that God commands us. One of the first commandments is to be fruitful and multiply. Another commandment is to be wise and treat your neighbors like yourself. Another commandment is to be charitable and kind to those less fortunate than you, but do not make them into your servants and slaves. Still another is to be faithful to your family and teach them the principles that will make them successful in their own lives. Really, the commandments of God are the commandments of perfect reason and sincerity and natural law. Those who act according to them find themselves in control of their circumstances and those who do not find themselves subject to their circumstances.

Ramadan Violence

July 5, 2016

It seems not even Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been spared suicide bombers in public places. ISIS claims credit, of course.

What does it mean?

I have a few thoughts.

I think people don’t really understand what ISIS is. It is not a rogue nation. It is, in fact, a restoration of an old system that the Muslims used to rule the world. ISIS is a caliphate, an are of the world ruled by a caliph. A caliph is a person who claims to be a successor of the prophet Mohammed. The caliph combines these roles as heads of both church and state for the Muslim people.

The caliphate is the ultimate government, and all people under the jurisdiction of the caliphate must be subject to them. That means that they must be abolished, or become subject to the new caliph.

What the newspapers and media aren’t talking about when they talk about ISIS is this fundamental fact. The entire nation of ISIS isn’t something we’re familiar with nor do we remember how to deal with. It’s time we remembered.

The other thought is that Muslim extremists are more likely to kill other Muslims than Christians or Buddhists or Jews. That is, the greatest danger to Islam is not Christianity or Hindus or anything like that — it is Islam. If we are, in any way, compassionate towards the Muslim people or Islam, then it demands we identify and eliminate the radical portions of their community. It is because of people like George W. Bush who waged war on Iraq and Afghanistan and terrorism worldwide that so many Muslim lives have been spared. The greatest liberator of the Muslims and the greatest protector of Muslims has been him.

Keep in mind that our if the radical Islams waged war only on themselves, we would have no moral justification to wage war on them. It is only when they pour out of their borders and wage war on us that we are morally obligated to fight.

On Hillary Clinton

July 5, 2016

So the FBI Director Comey announced that he has found that Hillary has broken the law through “gross negligence” but he is not recommending prosecution. It isn’t his call to make whether prosecution should be done. But it seems people are focusing on this part of his statement and concluding that the government will not prosecute Hillary Clinton.

What he did say absolutely condemns Hillary Clinton. She was “grossly negligent” when it came to our national secrets. Echoes of the Clinton administration selling state secrets to China can be heard.

It’s up to the attorney general to decide whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton. She certainly has plenty of evidence, and she’s convicted people of far less than what Clinton has done.

If she decides she doesn’t want to prosecute, then that’s her call, and the sin be on her head.

As for public sentiment, in what universe would Director Comey’s statement help Hillary get elected? I have a Venn Diagram in my head where one circle is whether or not to say that Hillary Clinton broke the law, and the other is whether or not she should be prosecuted. Let’s look at the four possibilities:

  • She broke the law and should be prosecuted.  Makes perfect sense.
  • She did not break the law and she should not be prosecuted. Makes perfect sense.
  • She did not break the law and she should be prosecuted. Makes no sense whatsoever, and just sounds silly and vindictive. This is something Obama would say the republicans would say.
  • She broke the law and should not be prosecuted. This makes it sound like Hillary is above the law, untouchable, and that the director is either corrupt himself or somehow being manipulated by her.

I mean, really? If I were Director Comey, and I didn’t want Hillary to get elected, and I wanted to discredit the entire Obama administration and the democratic party, I would go for the last one. I would probably add, “And Hillary Clinton promised me a position in her cabinet, a couple million dollars, and that she wouldn’t expose the dark secret I am hiding from my wife.” But in this context, it hardly needs to be said.

Could Donald Trump have asked for a better statement? This is pretty much exactly what he’s basing his entire campaign on.