January 2021: murky half-drafts and a heap of links

Half-formed thoughts on Twitter, morality as alienation, and why mathematical Platonism is appealing despite its silliness

Hello again,

I finally finished my Worse Than Quantum Physics blog posts! The first one is here, and the second one will be out in the week sometime. These posts set up an analogy between two systems, the Popescu-Rohrlich box and Dan Piponi’s negative probability toy model, that are both ‘worse than quantum physics’ in a sense that I get into in the post (the short version is that they both violate a Bell-like inequality more strongly than any corresponding quantum system.) These took an unreasonable amount of time given their length, more like paper writing than normal blog post writing, so I’m happy to be done.

My Twitter break probably helped with getting them finished. It went really well, and I’m planning to have another one in March. More thoughts on Twitter below.

At the beginning of the month I did Complice’s Goal Crafting Intensive, which was very good, and one of the things that came out of that was that I wanted to restart some routines that fell apart or got mushy when I got a new job at the end of 2019. One of these was keeping a rough diary of what I’ve been reading or thinking about. It’s a very simple one, just a Google Doc for each month with an entry for every day I remember. These entries mostly consist of a few links to interesting things I read, but sometimes I also write a couple of paragraphs on whatever thoughts come into my head.

It turns out that this makes newsletter writing much easier. I’ve got a whole pile of potential ideas in front of me when I sit down at the end of the month to write something, and I just have to pick something to elaborate instead of starting from scratch. I’ve been wondering why I’ve been having a harder time with the newsletter this time round, and the answer is maybe just that this stupid minimal document was load-bearing and I didn’t realise. Routines are weird.

Most of the rest of this newsletter is pulling out some of those paragraphs from the diary, and expanding them into at least a half-draft level of coherence. At the end there are some links on what I found on the internet during my break this time.

Murky half-drafts

Thoughts on Twitter

I wrote this to try and articulate how I feel about Twitter (because I miss it when I’m off it, but also have complicated feelings and am glad to have some space from it):

Never been on anything so bimodal. Deeply life-enhancingly wonderful sometimes, other times it locks me into a deadened zombie state of refreshing for updates, or pulls out my worst social insecurities.

When I was first on Twitter I didn’t enjoy it much and was purely there to talk to people I liked and see what they were doing. The change from 140 -> 280 characters and improved threading support made it much more usable, and even fun. I’m not a twitter natural but I learned to play the games of threading and chatting in the replies fairly well.

Since then it’s got somewhat worse for me again, though not as bad as it was originally. It feels kind of pathetic to whine about, but one of the main reasons is that my stuff seems to sink without trace more often. I’ve probably got more boring, but also I think this is to do with a greater move to the algorithmic timeline. As far as I can tell, it shows your tweet to a subset of your followers, and then decides whether to show it to more people based on engagement. Facebook got remarkably shit when this happened, because now all you ever see is stuff that’s somewhat interesting to a large number of people, and so it’s just a bland soup of generic life updates interspersed with the odd political rant. Twitter isn’t that bad yet, but it’s not a promising direction to be going in. It’s particularly a pain for me, because I seem to mostly produce stuff where most people don’t care at all, but a small number get very interested. If you don’t get some of the interested people in the original test subset it just gets washed into oblivion.

(There’s also stuff going on that has nothing to do with twitter changes, just community changes. My part of twitter has got bigger, and there’s too much to keep up with. A lot of this is really good, but still I don’t have the time to follow it. Also inevitably some people are playing the let’s-get-popular game hard and optimising for number of followers, number of likes etc. This always happens if something is good, not sure there’s much you can do about that.)

This is hardly an original thought, but I wish I could pay for the same service and have no ads, no idiotic ‘feature’ switching me back to algorithmic timeline, and much more fine-grained control over notifications (batching would be a good start). Stuff like Mastodon is clever, probably, but seems to focus on nerd stuff I don’t really care about, and probably a lot of normal people don’t either. Decentralisation, data privacy, rules on what sort of speech is allowed. These things are very important but I’m completely missing whatever it is that makes you viscerally care about them. It’s a bonus if someone’s thought about them carefully but I don’t want them foregrounded, I just want to use a nicely designed thing that works. I really don’t want to think about implementation details… if I have to hear the word ‘server’ something has gone wrong.

‘Morality as alienation’

For some reason I ended up rereading my Marx on alienation speedrun and was intrigued by this quote from the Stanford philosophy article on alienation:

The broad suggestion is that certain conceptions of morality might embody, or encourage, alienation. More precisely, that certain conceptions of morality might embody or encourage a problematic division of self, and a problematic separation from much that is valuable in our lives. Consider, for example, accounts of the moral standpoint as requiring universalisation and equal consideration of all persons (Railton 1984: 138). It could seem that adopting such a standpoint requires individuals to disown or downplay the relevance of their more personal or partial beliefs and feelings.

I haven’t looked up the Railton paper yet, but this sounds interesting and reminded me of something similar. I’ve seen various people ask the question of why are we so threatened by people who are conspicuously more moral than us - why does it makes us angry so often, and not curious or impressed?

The normal answer I see is that it’s a threat to our own sense of being a good person. If you persuade me that I should stop eating meat and give a big chunk of my income to charity, then I’d either have to go do it, which would be a massive hassle, or I’d have to give up my sense of being a good person.

‘Morality as alienation’ suggests an explanation that’s related, but somewhat lower level - you’re threatened because you perceive an attack on your own taste. You’re being asked to override your current felt-sense understanding and instead conform to some external Should, which you are presumably somewhat alienated from (if you really felt the full force of that Should in your gut, after all, you’d already be trying to obey it). This isn’t always a bad thing, but certainly can be, and it’s completely understandable to treat it as a threat. It’s a deeper, less conceptualised threat than the ‘sense of being a good person’ one, more down at the animal level of defending boundaries.

It also feels like a closer match to the actual experience, for me at least, and helps me understand the feeling better. For example, many (not all!) effective altruists unnerve me in a particular way, and ‘this person is badly alienated from their own taste’ is a good way to describe it. Very focussed on outside-view defensible arguments and metrics, not much sense that they’re intrinsically interested in whatever problem that they’re talking about, kind of deficient in curiosity and playfulness. They might have something important to say anyway! But I appreciate my sense of suspicion. It’s coming from a good place.

Mathematical Platonism: silly but compelling

At some point in the month I went for a walk and started drafting a potential blog post in my head about how my understanding of ‘what mathematics is’ has developed over time, which then kind of derailed into a tangent about mathematical Platonism. It’s very muddled still and I don’t have a clear understanding of the point. Here’s the core anyway:

(Re: doing mathematics): I had good instincts but a bad story for how it works. And the bad story got me into a lot of useless, timewasting messes (and still does, sometimes, but I tend to get out of them quicker).

My good instinct was just to trust my instinct! I.e. pay close attention to felt sense and not disregard anything for being ‘unrigorous’. Nobody ever taught me to do this, but it felt important. I only picked up my weird side interest in reading obscure essays by famous mathematicians because that was the only source of information I could find.

My bad story (which was mostly implicit rather than carefully worked out) was about what these instincts were leading me to. This is going to be hard to explain as I don’t have very good language for it, but I thought that the felt sense was the theory, in some way. I.e. I could mine a big lump out of felt sense that would be a whole articulated theory by itself, and then the whole thing would just ‘feel right’ because it would make sense on an intuitive level and have no steps that are ‘just rote calculation’. In the language David Chapman uses in the Eggplant, I was taking reasonable and circumrational activity seriously, but expecting it to do something it wasn’t capable of. I expected it to exactly mirror the rational core of the theory, but make it fully embodied and present at last. Kind of romantic sensibility applied to mathematics, idk.

This got me into timewasting messes of endlessly banging my head against the pointless task of trying to understand what a mathematical theory ‘really meant’. (I said useless timewasting messes above, but that’s overstating it. I learned a lot of useful stuff as a byproduct. But there was a lot of wasted motion from trying to do something that just didn’t make sense.)

I think this view may have something in common with mathematical Platonism, or be the emotional core powering it, or something? Platonism is strange because it looks so weird and silly in some ways, but also seems to have had a strong grip on some great mathematicians. One example is the geometer René Thom, who defends a version of Platonism in his essay 'Modern Mathematics': An Educational and Philosophic Error? (I can’t quickly find it online, so that’s just the ADS citation link unfortunately. It’s reprinted in Tymoczko’s 1986 essay collection New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics, which I’m sure you all have a copy of sitting on your bookshelf.) I’m not going to type out the whole thing, but it starts by setting up some alternative options:

1) The formal view…

2) The realist or Platonic view. Mathematical entities exist independently of thought, as Platonic ideas. A proposition P is true when it expresses a relationship actually existing between ideas, i.e. when it is an idea of higher order, structuring a group of ideas that are subordinate to it.

3) The empirical or sociological view…

He doesn’t like 1) or 3) much (don’t blame him), but 2) has more appeal, though he accepts it runs into ‘ontological difficulties’. I don’t fully understand what he means by it, but he seems to be trying to capture our sense that the higher-order conceptual meanings we discover as we learn mathematics have some real existence, rather than just being an agglomeration of the heap of abstract propositions that they are built from in a particular formalism:

Any mathematician endowed with a modicum of intellectual honesty will recognise that in each of his proofs he is capable of giving a meaning to the symbols he uses…

If one gives up the formal definition of rigor, one must of necessity choose between the two remaining alternatives. Everything considered, mathematicians should have the courage of their most profound convictions and thus affirm that mathematical forms indeed have an existence that is independent of the mind considering them.

I understand the impulse behind this - mathematicians understand that the heart of their powers comes from this ability to make contact with the meaning of their symbols, through felt sense and envisioning, and use that to bring back mathematical theories. And this feels vivid and embodied and deeply real and important, and it is deeply real and important both because it leads to this very satisfying state of being, and because it produces new theories that work.

But luckily we have more options than 1), 2) and 3) available. The current summary of Part 3 of the Eggplant sketches out the best synthesis I’ve seen of how formalism can be built on top of the embodied knowledge it’s grounded in. They’re complementary activities, but not the same thing. There’s a parallel section in that summary about a similar bad idea:

The implicit story is that you sit back, close your eyes, enter the rationality trance, and mentally step through the Pythagorean Portal into the Metaphysical Realm of Pure Forms. In your astral body, you quest amongst the quaternions; your etheric eyes survey the serried rows of the regression matrix; with your ghostly hands you invert cyclic subgroups like phantom bicycle wheels.

And later:

(This is the sense in which the rationalist fantasy of entering the Platonic realm is “not entirely wrong.” It probably has much more to do with the internalization of visuo-motor routines than metaphysics, however.)

I think in a more fully worked-out blog post version, this would be the part where I wrench the point back round to the earlier bit about timewasting messes, and explain how I’m learning to avoid these now. I’ll leave that for another time.

Heap of links

Here’s what I found on my Constructive Loaf round the internet this time:

Software design. I’ve finally started to get interested in it (previously my ambitions topped out at pasting a bunch of stuff together until it works). I’m currently really enjoying Robert Nystrom’s Game Programming Patterns (available in web book form, yay!) I’m not interested in games particularly, but, as he says,

…. I think games make for more engaging examples. Do you really want to read yet another book about employee records and bank accounts?

Plus it’s very entertainingly written and thoughtful about the various tradeoffs involved. Other recommendations welcome!

Less Wrong. I read more of it, instead of Twitter. They’ve been doing a review of 2019, which was about the time I started to lose interest in new Less Wrong, so it was good to see what I missed. I love the review concept, and the culture of building on previous work that they’re trying to create. Looking at the list of 2019 posts confirmed that it had gone in a direction that I wasn’t especially interested in (lots more AI risk, game theory, and other classic LW topics), but I did dig up a couple of unusual-for-LW posts that I enjoyed. Elrigg’s Trauma, Meditation and a Cool Scar is a very personal account of recovering from a severe industrial drone accident. In the comments ryan_b links to Death in groups, on his experience of serious injury after his truck ran into explosives as a soldier in Afghanistan. This one is also fascinating for the crazy situation they were in (ordered to go back and risk their lives to retrieve a $650 gun they’d lost, as a punishment), and what this implies about military culture (this is unpacked further in the comments).

I’d already read and liked this one, but I’ll put in another plug for Hazard’s How to Ignore Your Emotions (while also thinking you're awesome at emotions). I found this surprisingly useful, plus the comments are great, plus something about the writing style really appeals to me. Unpolished but very direct and fun.

As well as the old stuff I read one new post, Mintheism, that interested me… slightly weird, and not sure what I think of it overall, but it’s an intriguing coinage and very relevant to last month’s news:

Put like an SAT analogy, mintheism is to atheism as minarchy is to anarchy. 

… In this mintheist framing, religions can play a critical role in society as semi-permeable containers of nonsense ideas …

… When people are religious they're usually willing to admit that they're religious. When they attempt to push nonsense out of their religious framework we can point out the wisdom and precedent of separating church and state. Voila! We have a mechanism to contain the nonsense, without taking much away from the tribes that believe in the nonsense. It may not be perfect, but it's becoming more and more obvious it's better than the alternative. 

… when nonsense is coated in conspiracy theorism the barriers preventing it from contaminating other workbenches are much less effective. Overtime the nonsense starts gumming up everything else in the factory and the stations for science, engineering, mathematics, journalism and sensemaking are making products tainted with nonsense. 

Also everyone seems to have got interested in Baudrillard’s idea of simulacra? Haven’t tried to follow this one, there’s a confusing multiplicity of posts, but this tag page might be a good starting point.

Miscellaneous. Here’s some of the other stuff I read:

Next month

I’m not quite sure what I’ll do but there are many options. There’s some follow-up stuff I want to do with the ‘Worse than quantum physics’ posts, emailing people and asking questions. I’m building up a pile of computer annoyances and life admin chores that I’ve been putting off, so it would be good to make progress on that. I quite fancy writing a new Crackpot Time post like these two old ones, talking about my progress on attempting to do physics research and distillation outside of academia. It’s a long time since the last one in 2017. And I’d also like to think some more about the ideas in the ‘mathematical Platonism’ section of this newsletter.

The one thing I’m certain to do is spend a lot of time mucking about on Twitter.