Archive for April, 2012

Quantity, not quality

Monday, April 30th, 2012

I’m currently home in Singapore, and will be for all of May. Pace of life at home is a lot slower – getting out one blog post a day has been truly difficult!

Without any form of quality control, it really isn’t that difficult to keep writing. There is a precedent for encouraging writing regardless of quality – Nanowrimo. Nanowrimo is an activity held every November, which aims to, for whatever reason, encourage the writing of 50,000 words within the month. I will continue work on my weak derivative of this activity – one blog post a day.

Terry Pratchett

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett and enjoying it very much. So far I’ve finished three books from the watch series, set in discworld.
The series so far is very much centered on the actions of three principled actors, Vetinari the pragmatic non-interventionist dictator, Carrot the charismatic idealist, and Vimes, who is the protagonist. This setup reminds me of Stephen Fry’s commentary on star trek, where the pragmatic Spok and the idealist McCoy compete to influence Captain Kirk’s decisions.
The overall idealistic bent is somewhat libertarian, in my view, which probably accounts for why I am enjoying it so much.

Fulfilling what potential?

Saturday, April 28th, 2012

This is a recycled post from a mailing list. Apologies to salon-chaos!

Freedom is an extremely relative concept. Relatedly, purpose is also extremely context-driven. The search for purpose, for realizing what you are, is termed eudaimonism. In this article, Wilkinson judges the concept to lack integrity.


The eudaimonist says that eudamonia is the aim of life and the ultimate end of practical reason. Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but it’s better understood as flourishing or functioning excellently as the kind of thing one is. Acting in accordance with certain virtues is thought to be both instrumental to and constitutive of flourishing or excellent functioning. Both Long and Vallier accept a version of the unity of the virtues thesis, according to which the content the virtues can be fixed only by reference to the content of the others.

Relatedly, there is no non-stupid natural fact of the matter about what it would mean for you to realize or fulfill your potential, or to function most excellently as the kind of thing you are. Our potentialities are relative not only to individual biological make-up, but to culture and technology as well. Potential for mathematical or hockey greatness is meaningless in a world without mathematical notation or hockey. It may be that the world in which you have the greatest chance for really meaningful achievement and fulfillment, given your particular endowments, is one that does not yet exist. Bummer. What is means to function excellently in the here and now depends on the possibilities for functioning given the current cultural, economic, and technological dispensation.

Feeling free

Friday, April 27th, 2012

Freedom is important to happiness and well-being. However, freedom is not that straightforward to pin down. When do we perceive an influence as coercion, and when do we accept it as natural law? I’m sure the inability to violate the constraints of physics does not cause anyone grief. That’s because we are pretty certain that other people cannot violate those laws either.

Freedom is the possession of the relevant capabilities needed to pursue your goals, as measured against a specific reference. Even though being able to teleport to work is something that does aid me in the pursuit of my goals, my inability to do so does not cause me grief because it is a capability that is far beyond my reference point.

People feel more free when rules are clear, because in those situations choices are made by examining the different consequences in your head and then picking the choice with the consequences that you most prefer. This thought pattern pretty much defines what free will is. This is the reason why games are enjoyable. This is why computer programming is fun — the product is difficult to produce but easy to judge.

Freedom can bring unhappiness. A tough choice is a choice for which you know that the consequences vary widely but you don’t know in which direction. It’s uncertainty in outcomes resulting from ignorance, a situation where you know that it’s important to make the right decision but you don’t know which decision is correct. Feeling vexed in this situation is important because it motivates the improvement of knowledge – by necessity, the failure to improve knowledge has to feel frustrating.


Thursday, April 26th, 2012

I’ve started using It’s a website that integrates your Gmail, Facebook and LinkedIn contacts, and allows you to write down notes and also set intervals at which to remind yourself to keep in touch. This addresses one of my shortcomings, which is the inability to keep track of more than five people in my head for any decent period of time.

I’ve given some thought to the idea of networking recently, and so far the most sincere interpretation is that it’s a form of marketing – you basically advertise what you have to offer, and hope that a chance to fruitfully trade comes up in the future. To network effectively, you must have something to offer (in my case I think of that as a technical orientation towards the world, and the desire to give advice / nag at people) that people will remember. Trade is a truly rewarding activity, but in lieu of that I’m pretty much willing to blabber on and analyze random situations as long as it entertains everyone.

Starcraft 2 commentary

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Sports commentary was never my thing. It’s only when I started watching Starcraft 2 commentators a few months ago (mainly Day9, Force and Husky) that I’ve really started to find game commentary interesting.

Starcraft 2 is a competitive game that is played between people. In most professional games it is played 1 vs 1, and players aim to make the right choices between building up an economy and using that economy to build up different types of armies and air forces.

The game is pretty complex, and it’s often difficult for someone who is watching a professional game to understand the full significance of the professional’s actions. What the commentators do is to describe the game choices in the appropriate context, informing the viewer not only about the choice that was picked, but also the choices that were not picked.

In order for commentators to be able to do this, they need to have a certain depth of knowledge about the game themselves. The knowledge is necessary but not sufficient for someone to be a competitive player – it takes significant physical training and skill to execute some of the maneuvers, something which is measured in-game by the number of actions per minute (APM) the players are sending the game. I also imagine the type of insight needed to weave a good story is not the same as the type of insight needed to play well. For one thing, there are three species in Starcraft 2 and most professionals specialize to one, but commentators need to be familiar with all three.

At the end of the day, it’s storytelling and analysis as entertainment. Day9 often pokes fun at the fact that a lot of the people watching his show probably don’t play much Starcraft 2 at all. It’s when he mentioned this that I realized it’s really not that different from football commentary.

In this clip, Day9 talks about how the canon of standard strategies changes over time. I think it’s interesting because it really speaks to a bit of what I experience in the financial markets. Some of the terminology is very game-specific, but you should be able to get the gist of things.

Blogging so far

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

So it’s become this daily routine where I have a deadline for writing this blog post, and I procrastinate until about 1 hour before the deadline and then just throw topics on the screen until one that I don’t hate sticks and I press “Publish.”

It’s slightly stressful, but that’s okay. I certainly do not buy into the notion that I have to wait for some creative mood to strike me. The way I see it it’s more like working out.

In fact, I’d be more worried if I were not feeling strain. Strain is the mark of effort, which is necessary – effortless practice doesn’t build muscle.

Calvinism and the hedonic treadmill

Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Am I having fun yet?

Calvinism is a branch of Christian thought which subscribes to the concept of predestination. Predestination is the concept that one’s actions do not influence whether one will go to heaven or not – all that has been predetermined. Now, you’d wonder how this could possibly work in a religion, since we normally think of the going to heaven as being determined by one’s actions and thus serving as incentive to do good.

The way it works is that you merely reverse the arrow of causality. Instead of doing good leading to salvation, you state that those who are destined for heaven would inevitably behave in a good way. The idea is that a Calvinist would be hoping to discover himself to be one of the heaven-bound, and thus be convincing himself that he was indeed doing good deeds out of his very core. It’s definitely plausible that this would be more powerful motivation, as someone would be thinking “I’m doing good because I am good” as opposed to “I’m doing good because I don’t like lava”. It seems to be a clever way to avoid motivational crowding and maximize intrinsic motivation.

There is a psychology phenomenon called the hedonic treadmill, which is the observation that people seem to revert to the same level of happiness regardless of what happens to them, be it winning a lottery or becoming paraplegic. Psychologists have observed that people are imbued with levels of happiness that are very difficult to change.

I’ve always thought that it was amusing how much this resembled predestination. I can imagine trying hard to convince myself that my hedonic set point was higher.

Quantitative Management vs. Quantitative Thinking

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong.
Carveth Read

When I first learned double-entry accounting, I was struck by how elegant some of the constructs were. There is a joy in knowing exactly where each number was supposed to go over the profit cycle of a business, when it bought assets and amortized fixed costs and generated a clear and continuous indication of profitability by using accounting as a type of low-pass filter smoothing out the cash flow.

I later realized accounting in reality doesn’t work nearly so neatly. It isn’t so much that the accounting constructs themselves are flawed – it’s more that when interpretation is needed it’s common to find the convention of conservatism being applied, and as such a precise but inaccurate answer being the standard.

This is due to the fact that the numbers that appear in accounting are more used for managerial oversight by owners, and not as quantitative thinking tools in their own right.

The statistics and biology used in clinical trials seem to fall in this category as well. Statistics is scientific accounting, and the audience in that case is the FDA.

The risk control applied in banks is another example. There statistics feed directly into accounting, and again are done in ways that are more precise than accurate.

Most of the numbers that appear in our daily lives are there for their ability to be objective. As such, the techniques which produce those numbers have been tweaked to be as precise and ungameable as practical. That precision often comes at the cost of accuracy and space for intelligent judgment.

To know “how” you need to know “why”

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

In the early 90s, when you wanted to drive from point A to point B you would consult a map and try to find the fastest route by tracing the route from local roads at A to highways and then back to local roads at B. If you went off your planned route along the way, you would stop to figure out where you were (maybe at a gas station) and then replan your route.

In the mid-90s, mapquest became available, and you could get directions online and print them. You’d run into a problem if you got too lost, as you would drive off the map you printed and not be able to see where you were.

Nowadays, you have a GPS unit that you enter the destination into, and no matter where you drive it would point to the destination. If there were a traffic jam along the freeway, I would often drive onto local roads in the general direction, ignoring the GPS for a little while to avoid the jam. I would then start following the GPS instructions after a bit.

Using printed online directions is less reliable than using a GPS, and also less reliable than using a paper map. This was because when you use printed directions, you are reduced to following a set of instructions which have a very rigid dependence on each other. If any earlier step is followed wrongly, the later step would be wrong too. There is a sensitivity to detail which amplifies little mistakes and makes them big.

Result-orientation is the state of mind where you keep your attention on the result that you are trying to attain. The GPS is always considering where you are and where you want to be, and the route it formulates is based on parts that all look the same in that way. If the original assumptions were correct, and both the roads and the driving were ideal, then it isn’t so different from following a fixed set of directions.

The differences appear when there are slight mistakes in the plan.
You have to break out of fixed instructions to account for mistakes (well, a smart person would try to salvage as much of the instructions as they can by trying to get back on the route). The GPS has actions at every point flowing from goal of getting to the destination, and so the overall activity becomes more robust, because mistakes or changes to details can be accounted for naturally as part of the same machinery.

In a changing world, a big part of learning “how” is learning “why”. It is sometimes important to break the goal into sub-goals, and only then generate actions from those sub-goals, as opposed to generating a long list of actions from the goal directly.