Other Opinions #52 – Can We Avoid a Surveillance State Dystopia?


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Betteridge’s Law suggests no, but the article itself is oddly optimistic. One thing is certain: technology is shifting the landscape of power faster than any government bureaucracy can adapt. We live in interesting times.


Authentic Service and Self-Improvement

I have recently been making my way through the book “Principle-Centered Leadership”, by Stephen Covey, the same man who wrote “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I am hesitant to say that it’s changed my life, as it’s only been a few weeks, I’m only fifty pages in, and I am generally suspicious of the whole self-help-book phenomenon in the first place. All that being said, if the ideas and habits that it have formed in me end up sticking I will be very impressed. Even if ninety percent of everything is crap, I guess that means there must be the occasional actually-helpful self-help book in existence.

The ideas in PCL are at once fairly straight-forward and fairly complicated. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) it very slowly, engaging each claim and suggestion one at a time and trying to synthesize out of it a model that makes sense for me. Basically, I’ve been doing the whole “put it in your own words” thing that teachers everywhere harp on in order to improve reading comprehension. It has obviously been slow going; this may be the slowest book I’ve ever read since I properly learned to read, as measured in pages per day. Even The Silmarillion didn’t take me this long.

At this point, exactly fifty-seven pages in, I have a model synthesized which is large enough now that I am going to lay it all out in a blog post before I forget. The intent here is absolutely just to organize my own thoughts on the subject and to serve as a reminder for tomorrow when I’ve already forgotten how neat this book seemed at the time. If it helps somebody else, then that’s just an added bonus.

I call my model the BAD SECS model; yes, it’s an acronym, and I will swear up and down that the letters came first. The words they happen to spell out are just humorous, ironic coincidence. The BAD SECS model actually splits into three stages, which should be followed fairly linearly. Master stage one before you even worry about what stage two is, and master stage two before you worry about stage three. The three stages are:

  1. knowing thyself (the “BAD” part of the acronym)
  2. knowing others (the “SEC” part of the acronym)
  3. serving humanity (the final “S”)

NB: The “three-step” approach and the single-blog-post format may lead some people to believe this is a “quick” or “easy” approach to self-improvement. It is not. It is both long and difficult. If you do not spend months of effort and learning on each stage, you are either doing it wrong, or you are Superman.

Stage One: Know Thyself, or The ABDs of Self-Improvement

The title here is not a typo: I do intend the “ABD”s not the “ABC”s. Like BAD SECS, the actual letters here were entirely accidental, but I really like the resulting pattern. It’s obviously memorable (there’s an ABCs of everything, but what else has an ABDs?) and the “negative space” left by the C actually ends up being important as a concept to avoid instead of focus on. As suggested by the title “know thyself”, the first stage focuses entirely on the self, on how we see ourselves, how we understand ourselves, and how we treat ourselves. This must come first, since without a proper grasp on our own beliefs and behaviours it is futile to try and deal with anything beyond ourself. The self is the foundation.

Without further ado, here are the ABDs:

  • Authenticity. Dig deep, and understand who you, as a person, really are. This step on its own can be difficult and scary, and you won’t necessarily like what you find. You don’t have to. The purpose here isn’t to judge or change. Just don’t hide from yourself or pretend to be someone you’re not. Live life as the person you are.
  • Belief. Beyond knowing who you are, it is important that you know what you believe, and accept that you have beliefs. This is by no means necessarily religious (I’m still an atheist). Everyone has beliefs and values, whether they be religious, feminist, rationalist, or something else. Again, the purpose isn’t to judge or change, just to accept. People lie to themselves about what they believe all the time because it would be inconvenient, or they’re afraid. Don’t hide from your beliefs.
  • Discipline. This one is borrowed straight from Covey, so I won’t say too much. I’ll just leave you a quote:

    The key to growth is to learn to make promises and to keep them.

    Before you can make promises to others, you must learn to keep the promises you make to yourself.

Before finishing this section, I would like to say a few words about the missing letter “C”, as I mentioned earlier. The C stands for control, and is not something you should be aiming for in the realm of personal growth. People often mistake discipline for control, and the English language is not particularly helpful in this regard. When faced with temptation, we talk about self-control. We control our temper, our passion, our selves. But control, also known as willpower, is a fleeting thing which may or may not be linked to glucose. Even the verb is telling: control is something we exercise.

Discipline, on the other hand, is a habit. Where normally a person might have to exercise control in order to resist having that second cookie, a disciplined person doesn’t have to. A disciplined person has fully internalized not just the immediate costs of eating the extra cookie, but the long-term risk that an extra cookie could become a habit. A disciplined person values themselves much more highly than a small quantity of sugar, so while their mouth may still salivate, they have no real desire to eat the cookie. This allows a disciplined person to save their willpower, and focus it on things that they believe are truly important.

Before I am accused of being no fun at all, I should also point out that discipline actually allows you to have more fun (and eat more extra cookies) than control. A person relying on control will eat the cookie whenever their control is insufficient; perhaps they are tired, or hungry, or stressed, and so their control slips. Even the best-controlled person has off days, and almost tautologically they can’t control when that happens. This leads to making mistakes when you can least afford it: when your systems are already running at a low point. A disciplined person, though, knows when and what they can handle. They are free to eat the extra cookie when they know that any negative impacts are small or non-existent; they know when the cost of the cookie is small enough to be outweighed by the pleasure it brings.

Stage Two: Know Others, or the Securities and Exchange Commission

I’ll be perfectly honest, the Securities and Exchange Commission has nothing to do with anything here, it’s just what I think of now whenever I see the letters SEC. Yes, I work at a company which recently went public, why do you ask?

Once you’ve mastered yourself, it is time to master how you interact and understand other people. Human beings are social animals, and how we interact with each other is the most important part of how we interact with the world in general. In this context the letters SEC stand for:

  • Security. Before you can interact with others, you must be secure in yourself. This flows directly from Authenticity and Belief in stage one, but is also more. It is not enough just to know yourself, know your beliefs, and live authentically. To be secure in yourself is also to know why, to have trust in yourself. When you understand not just who you are but why, then you can stand firm against the people who will try to change you, and instead change when you think it is right for you.
    The extra layer of difficulty here is that you yourself are the most influential person who will try to change you. Everybody wants to fit in, and we are all under intense self-pressure to conform in one way or another. Even intensely counter-cultural groups have their own culture and standards of conformance. Be secure in who you are, and weigh conformance with all the other things you authentically value.
  • Empathy. This one gets talked about a lot already. It’s the ability to understand and feel how another person is feeling. Everybody can do it already, so it’s not difficult in that sense (unless you’re a literal psychopath), but people often forget. It’s important enough that it belongs in this list just as a reminder.
  • Compassion. This one also gets talked about a lot, often in the same breath as empathy, often mixing or confusing the two. I consider that a criminal waste of good language. Where empathy is the ability to feel another person’s emotions, compassion is a distinct emotion that you yourself feel towards others. Empathy often leads to compassion, but it is neither necessary nor sufficient. Without compassion, empathy is tool for manipulation. Without empathy, compassion flies blind and frequently does more harm than good.

As in stage one, there is a C-word here which comes up a lot but should be avoided. That word is confidence. Self-confidence and social confidence are some the most-talked-about ideas in self-help, and ninety percent of that conversation is about how to split the hair that divides confidence from arrogance. Any definition which needs that large a caveat is not worth using.

When you deal with others, do so with security. This is the smaller, inward-facing kernel of what normally gets mis-inflated into outward-facing confidence. When you deal with others, do so with empathy and compassion. These have nothing to do with confidence at all, but are still critically important. When you act and interact with security, empathy, and compassion, confidence will become irrelevant, and arrogance will seem like a different planet.

If you cannot act in this way reliably, step back. Build the authenticity to know who you are, the belief to know who you want to be, and the discipline to get there. There is no shame in taking this time. Try again.

Stage Three: To Serve Humanity

Again not really a direct relation to the point, but this is a truly excellent little sci-fi story.

Covey talks a great deal about service, and this is one of the things I had the most trouble understanding. He says:

The ethical person looks at every economic transaction as a test of his or her moral stewardship. That’s why humility is the mother of all other virtues – because it promotes stewardship. Then everything else that is good will work through you.


We achieve integrity through the dedication of ourselves to the selfless service of others.

Given that stage one included a focus on understanding oneself, and stage two included a focus on being secure in oneself, a sudden pivot to “selfless service” can be a bit hard to swallow.

I chose to resolve this tension by focusing on “selfless” not as a complete absence of self, or a subsumption to the needs of others, but instead as a balancing and alignment of values. Authenticity comes first, and if you cannot align your personal values with others in order to serve, you should not. However, this problem should be rare in actual practice, as most people in a culture tend to agree on most values, in broad strokes. We wouldn’t be able to live together if we couldn’t.

Instead, we expect to see at least a partial alignment of values. When you are secure in your authentic self, dealing with others with empathy and compassion, it is natural for service of a sort to come of this. People value each other, and when you master the first two stages it suddenly is both easy and desirable to serve. I call this authentic service.

Service that is not authentic in this way is what you get when you skip stages one and two. There are people who serve in order to feel fulfilled, or to lose themselves and give up responsibility for their own decisions. Their service may be valuable, but by sacrificing themselves in this way they are doing themselves a disservice.


It is tempting, after roughly two thousand words, to offer up some sort of witty conclusion like “Go have BAD SECS”! So tempting, in fact, that I snuck it into the previous sentence via a sort of meta-comment. But this topic is not something I feel comfortable actually concluding. This post hangs together as a semi-coherent framework for personal growth, but personal growth is not something that should stop. A framework is just a way of thinking, and as I grow my ways of thinking will change.

Another temptation, such as it is, is to leave a signpost for future me, a marker saying “I am here” so that, looking back from some future date, I will see how far I’ve come. But however linearly I may write out my ideas, the truth is always more complicated than that. BAD SECS is a set of principles by which one might live, not a list of tasks to be completed.

Whatever the end result, I am grateful to Stephen Covey for making me think.

Keep growing.

Other Opinions #51 – Tolerance is not a Moral Precept


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

This one is a really interesting take on tolerating intolerance and that whole mess, and unpacks it in a way that makes a lot of sense, but also I think fails to line up with how tolerance is actually often used. I’ve seen people with both conservative and liberal viewpoints try to open up what are essentially peace talks in the current ongoing culture war around diversity, only to be shouted down in the name of not tolerating intolerance.

Liberals need to recognize that not every form of conservatism is a fundamental threat to their very existence (some are, sure, but it’s not exactly difficult to tell them apart), and conservatives need to stop whining about their viewpoints not being tolerated just because they’re unpopular right now.

Tolerance is a peace treaty, but peace requires minimal trust and good faith, both of which are sorely lacking.

Gender and Brainwashing

One of the most common and confusing exchanges I hear when discussing issues of gender and feminism goes something like this:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Those preferences are socially conditioned. Women grow up in an environment where they are constantly exposed to strict feminine gender roles and the associated preferences.

You’ll note that the above isn’t really an argument but more of an argument-fragment, as it depends pretty heavily on the context of what point A is trying to defend. I note this in particular because the two claims are not mutually exclusive. It is possible and reasonable to believe that both are true, for many values of X.

The problems happen because the context of the argument usually indicates some subtextual moral claims going on which can get rather confused. For example, my previous post on The Dilemma of the Modern Romantic got several responses from people who objected along these lines to my claim that many people prefer traditional, gendered relationships. In order to respond properly, I’m going to unpack some of this subtext.

The underlying ethical argument is usually around the question of whether or not it’s right for preferences to be the result of social conditioning. Can a preference be considered legitimate, if the only reason it’s present is because societal context has hammered it home at every opportunity? This is the point I think B is raising; if the preferences are somehow illegitimate, then the fact they exist at all (which is usually harder to dispute) is less relevant.

It’s a fairly intuitive and defensible argument. The wording calls to mind Pavlovian experiments and the destruction of our free will, both with negative associations. It’s also well-supported in the way people talk about other issues: Stockholm Syndrome is a prime example of a case where people’s real, expressed preferences are widely considered illegitimate due to the nature of the situation. Nobody wants to be brain-washed.

This discussion lets us rephrase B’s objection in significantly stronger, clearer terms, hopefully without changing the nature of the argument:

A: Women and men have different aggregate preferences around topic X.

B: Women are brainwashed by cultural gender roles which include those preferences. Therefore those preferences are illegitimate. Also, we should probably stop brainwashing women.

I consider this re-phrasing helpful, because it offers up a bullet I intend to bite: I agree that women (and everyone else too) are brainwashed by cultural gender roles. What I disagree with are the subsequent claims that those preferences are therefore illegitimate, and that we should necessarily stop.

One way to see this is to substitute any other culturally-shared value in place of “gender roles”. Women are brainwashed by our shared values against murder, therefore that preference is illegitimate? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. Perhaps more tellingly, consider how we raise our children.

Children learn from their parents, both explicitly by using language to convey facts and opinions, and implicitly via observation and mimicry. This process of growth and learning indelibly shapes who the child will become and what preferences they will have. It is a natural part of childhood that your parents and your society impart their values and preferences to you, teaching you right from wrong and good from bad. Without this process, you don’t end up with some sort of tabula rasa child capable of pure and perfect free expression of their own preferences. You end up with the kids from Lord of the Flies.

There has been a recent trend of parents eschewing traditional gender roles for their kids. I have nothing against this practice. What I disagree with are the claims that it is imperative to give children “the freedom to develop their full potential without preconceptions about what girls or boys should do or how they should behave”. Children need to be taught, and whether you impart the values of traditional gender roles or the values of social-constructionist feminism, you are still teaching. You can argue that we should be teaching different preferences and values, but it is absurd to claim that we shouldn’t be teaching any at all.

In the end, I suppose what I’m arguing against is the idea that gender roles and gendered preferences are prima facie to be avoided just because they permeate our culture. I am open to arguments that we should replace them with a different set of values, and I grant that this is the argument a number of academic feminists are actually making. But as is usual, something has gotten lost in translation between academia and the Daily Mail.

Other Opinions #50 – Everyone Says I Am Running Away

Everyone Says I Am Running Away

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

On the one hand, the fiftieth of these feels like it should be more substantial or important or something. On the other hand, fifty isn’t that significant a number, and I’m feeling lazy.

The author of this one is trying to explain himself to people who say he’s running away from “real life”. On the one hand, axiological relativism, and life is what you make of it, etc. On the other hand, socio-cultural conformance is a powerful force multiplier because it builds trust and lets people work towards implicit common goals. Society can afford and absorb some people who break the mold, but eventually the system decoheres. Be careful what you wish for.

An Incremental Solution to an Artificial Apocalypse

So smart/famous/rich people are publicly clashing over the dangers of Artificial Intelligence again. It’s happened before. Depending on who you talk to, there are several explanations of why that apocalypse might actually happen. However, as somebody with a degree in computer science and a bent for philosophy of mind, I’m not exactly worried.

The Setup

Loosely speaking, there are two different kinds of AI: “weak” and “strong”. Weak AI is the kind we have right now; if you have a modern smartphone you’re carrying around a weak AI in your pocket. This technology uses AI strategies like reinforcement learning and artificial neural networks to solve simple singular problems: speech recognition, or face recognition, or translation, or (hopefully soon) self-driving cars. Perhaps the most recent publicized success of this kind of AI was when IBM’s Watson managed to win the Jeopardy! game show.

Strong AI, on the other hand, is still strictly hypothetical. It’s the realm of sci-fi, where a robot or computer program “wakes up” one day and is suddenly conscious, probably capable of passing the Turing test. While weak AIs are clearly still machines, a strong AI would basically be a person instead, just one that happens to be really good at math.

While the routes to apocalypse tend to vary quite a bit, there are really only two end states depending on whether you worry about weak AI or strong AI.


If you go in for strong AI, then your apocalypse of choice basically ends up looking like Skynet. In this scenario, a strong AI wakes up, decides that it’s better off without humanity for some reason (potentially related to its own self-preservation or desires), and proceeds to exterminate us. This one is pretty easy for most people to grasp.


If you worry more about weak AI then your apocalypse looks like paperclips, because that’s the canonical thought experiment for this case. In this scenario, a weak AI built for producing paperclips learns enough about the universe to understand that it can, in fact, produce more paperclips if it exterminates humanity and uses our corpses for raw materials.

In both scenarios, the threat is predicated upon the idea of an intelligence explosion. Because AIs (weak or strong) run on digital computers, they can do math really inconceivably fast, and thus can also work at speed in a host of other disciplines which boil down to math pretty easily: physics, electrical engineering, computer science, etc.

This means that once our apocalyptic AI gets started, it will be able to redesign its own software and hardware in order to better achieve its goals. Since this task is one to which it is ideally suited, it will quickly surpass anything a human could possibly design and achieve god-like intelligence. Game over humanity.

On Waking Up

Strong AI has been “just around the corner” since Alan Turing’s time, but in that time nobody has ever created anything remotely close to a real conscious computer. There are two potential explanations for this:

First, perhaps consciousness is magic. Whether you believe in a traditional soul or something weird like a quantum mind, maybe consciousness depends on something more than the arrangement of atoms. In this world, current AI research is barking up entirely the wrong tree and is never going to produce anything remotely like Skynet. The nature of consciousness is entirely unknown, so we can’t know if the idea of something like an intelligence explosion is even a coherent concept yet.

Alternatively, perhaps consciousness is complicated. If there’s no actual magic involved then the other reasonable alternative is that consciousness is incredibly complex. In this world, strong AI is almost certainly impossible with current hardware: even the best modern super-computer has only a tiny fraction of the power needed to run a simplistic rat brain let alone a human one. Even in a world where Moore’s law continues unabated, human-brain-level computer hardware is still centuries away, not decades. We may be only a decade away from having as many transistors as there are neurons, but they’re not comparable; neurons are massively more complex building blocks.

It’s also worth noting that if consciousness is hard because it’s complicated, our hypothetical strong AI would wake up very, very slowly. We’re not going to suddenly jump from current processors to AI-capable ones that are millions of times more powerful; there will be numerous incremental designs in between. As our processing power improves, our AI will get stronger and stronger but there will be no eureka moment where Skynet both suddenly decides humanity has to go and is smart enough to make it happen. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to study primitive artificial consciousnesses, learn about them in an environment we control, and iteratively incorporate our findings into subsequent generations.

Regardless of why we’ve never gotten anywhere with strong AI, we haven’t, and there is no indication that this time it really is “just around the corner”.

On Paperclips

While the idea of Skynet is common in popular culture, it’s the paperclip maximizer which tends to worry the people who actually seriously worry about this stuff. It’s already true that we don’t really understand how weak AI actually works: we understand the principles which drive something like Watson, but no human could describe the series of specific decisions it performs to arrive at a given answer.

It also seems a lot more plausible that weak AI (which we already have) will just keep getting smarter (which it has definitely done so far) than that we’ll have some weird magic breakthrough in strong AI, when nobody still even understands what that would look like. So, why couldn’t some future self-driving car learn just enough about the world to figure out that it would be able to drive much more efficiently if it could just get rid of all of those pesky pedestrians? As it turns out, I think something like this could actually happen; it’s just not the end of the world when it does.

As with the consciousness-is-complicated explanation for strong AI, our saving grace against paperclips and homicidal cars is the incremental nature of the technology. The first self-driving car smart enough to decide to murder pedestrians is not also going to be smart enough to redesign its own hardware, create biological weapons, and do all of this in secret without hinting to its owners that it “has plans”. No, the only thing it’s going to know how to do to achieve this goal is to try and intentionally run people over, which is obviously bad, but not exactly apocalyptic. It also has the benefit of being really freaking obvious.

Here’s a hint to future AI developers: maybe you should stop making it smarter when your cars start trying to run you over in the name of optimizing the number of pedestrians.

Other Opinions #49 – Everything Except Country and Rap


Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

One has to wonder how something like Hamilton (the musical) affects the perception of this sort of thing. Does it make hip-hop “cool” among white people? Is that OK?