Thursday, January 27, 2022

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

Rationality explores the history of rational thought and the benefits that rationality provides. It also looks at cases of irrational behavior. Irrational actions can be harmless - until they are not. People can often fall prey to confirmation bias, claiming to be rational, but only accepting facts that confirm what they already believe. The true benefit of rationality comes when you are willing to change when overwhelming evidence presents itself.

The power of evidence can also be challenging. Novelty does get press. Thus we me be presented with many of the rare, but novel cases. This can cause us to feel that the rare is more common. Plane crashes are very rare, yet we hear a lot about them. Car crashes are a much more common way to die, but don't get nearly as much publicity. In science, the novel result gets a lot of press. A confirmation of something common would not. The novel result may have a very low probability that is difficult to reproduce. Bayesian logic would discount this rare items.

We must also be careful of logical leaps of faith. There are often small holes in our logical jumps.

The book ends with a look at the current state of the world. There is a great deal of political fragmentation. Trump and his reality distorting "fake news" mantras gets a lot of publicity for the irrational behavior. However, the left can be equally irrational. Both sides tend to hold on to the studies that favor their point of view, disregarding others. Academia has destroyed much of its credibility with the silencing of dissenting views. Rationality requires listening to all points of view to come up with the correct result. It is possible that what is correct today is not tomorrow. A rational should be willing to accept that.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories

This collection of Tolstoy short stories includes:
  • The Death of Ivan Ilyich
  • The Forged Coupon
  • After the Dance
  • My Dream
  • There Are No Guilty People
  • The Young Tsar

They explore ethical and religious topics. The title story focuses on a man that is dying. He had risen up in society and made some sacrifices along the way. However, his death is now leading to the unwinding of life in the relative unknown.

Others somewhat seem to connect together. The people explore their state in life. In one story, the hangman undergoes a religious conversion. How will people be killed? In another the Tsar contemplates his experience and that of his people. The purpose of God and the needs of men towards other are explored in detail.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rome Is Burning: Nero and the Fire that Ended a Dynasty

Nero fiddled as Rome burned. Or did he? This book analyzes the great Roman fire during the time of Nero and the impact on his reign. Nero was a fairly popular emperor among the common men. The wealthy did not respect him as much, especially after they had to pay to rebuild after the fire's destruction. He lost his empire 3 years after the fire. His reputation steadily moved downward. It is unclear if many of the atrocities attributed to him were accurate - most of them were written well after the fact. It seemed that many negative accounts may have been written as means to further bring down the reputation of the already dead leader.

Some later writers attributed the fire to Nero. Contemporaries generally did not. Nero did encourage post fire construction that was spaced further apart to decrease further blazes. He also set out a new grand architecture tradition in the rebuild. Fires had been a longstanding occurrence in Rome. The new changes helped to make them less destructive. 

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious

Sometimes we just "know" something without being able to understand it. A computer would take a huge amount of time to identify a face, but people do it easily all the time. Even something like chess includes a number of quick decisions that are made without going through the detailed calculations a computer would need. How do humans do this? Many things are completed by "gut feelings". Many times these are correct.

In many cases, more information can make decisions worse. In some tests done to name the largest city of a pair, those that knew more of the cities made worse decisions. Germans were better able to choose a larger American city than a German one. The knowledge caused deeper analysis, while lack of knowledge led to just guessing, or chosing the one that was most familiar. The act of choosing the most recognizable is surprisingly often a successful heuristic. Stock portfolio of most recognizable companies has been shown to beat the market (while one of least recognizable trails.) General recognition of tennis players has better predictive power than their ratings. This seems logical - the most successful will have more name recognition. Alas, marketers have also used this to make their brands more "recognizable", rather than better. People may express a strong preference for a given brand of peanut butter or beer, even if they often pick out others in blind taste tests.

Science and policy often has trouble with gut instincts. There are many efforts to establish logical standards that must be followed instead. These can lead to plenty of problems on their own (such as medical overt-testing to avoid liability.) However, in many cases the gut of the experienced practitioner remains superior to the test results. In cases where it does not, processes to "retrain" the instincts can often lead to superior outcomes. 

People can often carry around "fake" understandings that are reinforced by real occurrences. Social pressure can continue to drive these. Social pressure can also nudge people away. Does social pressure sometimes move people from truths to falsehoods also? Are we sometimes too logical for our own good? What is the proper balance of gut instinct and logical calculation? Oftentimes are first impression is better than are detailed analysis. Other times it is very wrong. How do we work towards the right path?

ReDawn: Skyward Flight, Novella 2

Alanik is a member of a species from the ReDawn planet. She has some special abilities and belongs to a group that does not like the Superiority. However, others are caving to them and she uses some of her powers to escape and recruit some humans for help. There are plenty of interesting "cross cultural" relationships between her and the humans. Some special slugs also have great powers, but simple emotions and communication abilities, leading to another type of cross cultural challenges. The ragtag group of humans sneaks away to help Alanik. However, the opposition has power to make people appear as somebody else making their quest even more challenging. There are just enough events from other books to tie it all together, while presenting a totally different story.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Prestige

The Prestige is the story of magicians that take their rivalry a little too far. It has an interesting structure, with a bounding narrative that eventually leads to the bulk of the nobel being in the form of a journal entry. The magicians try to one up each other in their performances. They also try to ruin the other's performance. This eventually leads to some science fiction elements. Nikola Tesla ends up providing a key bit of "magic" that allows people to be transmitted. This also leads to the interesting state of one of the magicians. However, this doesn't stop him from being able to ruin his rival.

The book also presents a story of the "secret lives" of magicians. They have books and information that "common" people do not see. They are illusionists, yet they highly protect their "skill"


I had trouble getting excited about Mageborn. There were people that lived somewhere. Some people could do magic. The people that did magic liked to bring potential magic people to school to train them. There was fighting and trickery. There wasn't much of anything to keep me interested.

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Afropean: Notes from Black Europe

Afropean explores the lives of the "outsiders" in Europe. While the focus is on blacks, the plights of Arabas and other "outsiders" is covered. The author takes us through many places with different views of race and ethnicity. Even in the same country, there can be very different experiences (such as Paris vs. Marseilles and Amsterdam vs. Rotterdam). There are also historical interludes and trips to places such as Ethiopia and New York City. 

In many places in Europe, blacks reside in the immigrant underclass. There is an odd relationship of partial toleration. In France, everyone is considered "French", yet black French are often looked down on. The police will regularly sweep through the vendors in Paris, only for the vendors to go back to their old locations. Most cities have the "poor neighborhood" that is filled with blacks. There is a separate culture there, not quite African and not quite European. It is Afropean.

The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age

The Sovereign Individual has some great analysis, but I don't quite buy the conclusions. The authors follow history and conclude that the time of the nation state is nearing an end. With the rise in technology and the ability to "work from anywhere", the sovereign individual will arise. They will buy the resources that provide the greatest benefit. Different people may choose different regulatory regimes that suit them better. The large states we have today will splinter off into smaller units that provide greater benefit for like minded people. We will not have a regime like today where people pay large amounts in tax and have very little say in what services are provided.

The authors note that tax rates were highest right after World War II. The nation states had strong military strength and ability to provide "protection" for individuals. The power was much smaller in earlier times when individuals had significant arms themselves and had little dependence on the state.

The "transition" away from nation states is the part that I do not find credible. The nations still have great military power. Furthermore, they also control the infrastructure that allows digital nomads. (For example, Kazakhstan was able to recently shut down the internet in the country.) Blockchains are distributed. However, they rely on communication across fairly tightly controlled networks and enormous amounts of computing power. (Not to mention transportation infrastructure to ship those computers.)

The book had some additional insights on morality. People usually assume that their "morality" is an absolute standard. However, others with different morality assume the same. People with different views appeal to their "higher standard" to advocate for their beliefs. Different sides thus often share the same framework for morality. However, with a different absolute source, agreement is near impossible.

The book is also critical of international income distribution. Places that receive the benefit of international programs without going through the struggles can often be worse of. Cynically, this income distribution is a means to provide more markets for the countries providing the distribution. This can leave the receiver worse of. Even when a country tries it on their own, they can find themselves copying other models. (China is an example of a country that has been copying the western model of development.) Why should we focus on similar models of development? Do we need roads, McDonalds and credit cards to have a healthy lifestyle?

Saturday, January 08, 2022

Flying Blind: The 737 MAX Tragedy and the Fall of Boeing

Flying Blind is a hatchet job on the modern Boeing. The bean counters took over. The beginning of the end was the late 90s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. The later had a much more competitive, hostile culture. The joke was that MCD bought Boeing with Boeing's money. The culture soon permeated the company. Things got worse as the company sought out a Jack Welch proteges for CEO. The financial manipulation continued in full force. GE management concepts such as stack ranking were introduced. There was an emphasis on managing for financial results. Stock buybacks were preferred over research and development. The headquarters was moved to Chicago, away from the engineering center. Many functions were divested and contracted out. Operations were moved to non-union locations. At the same time, government oversight had been reduced, with airlines doing the bulk of the certification effort.

This was the situation under which the 737max was developed. Boeing needed a refresh to compete with Airbus and the increased inroads of regional jet manufacturers. By calling it an update of the 737, Boeing could save on a lot of the expenses. Certification would be straightforward and pilot training would be minimized. The plane was different from other 737s. To compensate for some of the changes, software fixes were implemented. The MCAS system would rely on sensor data to correct flight patterns to prevent stalls. It seemed like a good idea. However, later changes were made to account for another possible situation by relying on only a single sensor. To make matters worse, it was an extra charge to be able to see details on the status of this sensor. There were also no details as to what MCAS would do and how to avoid it. 

Sure enough a plane crashed due to the system activating on take off due to faulty sensor data. This was on a third world airline with a questionable record. It was easy to chalk it up to poor maintenance or pilot error. Boeing tried to brush it away and pay off the victims. Then a similar thing happened to Ethiopian airlines. This was also on the "other side of the globe". However, this was a well run airline and pilots had seemed to do everything they should. With multiple planes falling out of the sky, governments soon moved to ground the 737max. It would take over a year before it was back up. The government now had a much stronger interest in regulation. This was a sad case of a software bug killing people due to a lack of testing of edge cases and human reaction. Some people did voice concerns, but they were hushed. Boeing didn't want the small additional cost of more simulator training.  (According to sources, Southwest had copy and pasted language for a $1 million penalty per plane if simulator training were required. Boing has paid over a $1 billion in compensation alone for the MAX incident - and Southwest is training pilots with simulators.)

There are a lot of angles to view the source of the MAX tragedy. This book zeroes in on corporate culture.