Books #1: King, go, human nature

Here are some thoughts about books I’ve been reading.


nearly finished King’s Needful things, but will probably end up not doing that. It’s a decent book, but in my opinion not one of King’s best. The book has the network-like quality of diving into several people’s stories at once, everything raveling and unraveling in a well-thought manner into – well, if you’ve read King, you know how it gets like.

  • What I liked about it: the book has a good touch of pop psychology and empathic descriptions of very different personalities.
  • Disliked: the story gets very predictable without a sufficient compensation in atmosphere; kind of like watching a movie with no music. Not many big questions.


I’ve been going through Davies’ Tesujiperhaps for the third time overall. Still can’t quite wrap my head around some of the problems, which most likely has more to do with my lack of (board) reading ability than the book. The explanations are very lucid, but sometimes I feel like I could use a figure or two more. Nice techniques presented; perhaps some more problems should be included.

  • Liked: Good explanations, a very thorough format, beginner-friendly
  • Disliked: not much.


Yilun Yang’s Fundamental principles of go is a well-structured book, which mostly focuses on invasions, reductions and separations in typical, recurring formations. I don’t think it lives up to its title, which should be something like “Fundamental patterns of go”, but whatever. It’s a good book, recommended.

  • Liked: the fact that the typical sequences are discussed thoroughly and without assuming much prior knowledge of them (although some L&D & joseki knowledge is required)
  • Disliked: misleading title, ideal audience (low kyu / high dan?) not defined


Richard Bozulich’s Get strong at Invading is a good treatise on the subject of invasions on the side of the board and in corners. Highly recommended; I’ve already made a good use of the book in some of my games. Essential knowledge for all players aspiring to improve their game.

  • Liked: the variety of different shapes and invasions
  • Disliked: the occasional lack of variations


Leslie Stevenson’s The Study of Human Nature: a reader includes a good selection of essays, sections of books and parts of longer treatises. Sources vary from the Upanisads and Bible to Kant, Mill and Hume to Sartre, Lorenz and Chomsky. Some parts of the books deal with a specific part of human nature (Lorenz’s On Aggression, Chomsky’s on language) while others attack more general questions (ancient Asian philosophers on whether humans are inherently good or evil).

  • Liked: The variety of different thinkers – I feel like I have been exposed to a great many points of view which aroused my curiosity towards the writers in general
  • Disliked: The brevity with which most subjects are handled – the book deserves to be longer.

Signpost says “Activity here!”

I’m kind of an ambivalent fan of signalling explanations of human behavior. They strike me as a model with particular power of explanation and prediction. Then again, they also seem to be able to predict and explain any and all kind of behaviors and have this unfalsifiable quality of “Yeah, sure, proximal reasons matter, but there are always the underlying reasons too, but of course sometimes the proximal reasons area all there is, but if you really think about it, X is not about Y.” So if they’re able to explain anything, we should mostly look at the predictions made by signalling arguments. Explanations are useless without predictions, although they do make us feel smart.


For those unfamiliar with the subject: signalling explanations usually convey the idea that things aren’t exactly what they look like wherever people’s motivations are considered. We might say that charity is not about helping people but about looking charitable and thereby increasing one’s status. Or that schooling is not about really helping kids learn the material, but about helping them conform to society. Robin Hanson is a loud and articulate advocate of this point of view, and he’s written a book about it.


But I do think it’s a great model for understanding a great many things. A recent example where it seems to fit quite well is the Finnish government’s effort to fight the unemployed unemployment by implementing something called the active model. Basically it means increasing sanctions for those who don’t have a job and don’t seem like they’re trying to get one.


I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that incentives actually exist and they do affect our behavior, so I have no trouble accepting that the active model has the capability to incentivize the lazier part of the unemployed to get a job. I predict it will have a positive impact on the level of employment of this population (hard to measure, but we should see some kind of an increase).


I also predict that it will result in a flood of useless applications for jobs people don’t believe they have a chance of getting, or even worse, don’t even want because it would mean them having to use five hours a day commuting or because the job sucks (I’ve also grown to appreciate the fact those kinds of jobs do exist and that they do affect our well-being). This means that the employers will have to waste either their time to go through the sea of applications to find those that actually matter or to waste their money by paying someone do it for them. Either case, they lose.


I also predict that it will result in countless useless appointments in TE services (our institution for helping jobseekers get employed) where both parties know what the case really is, how much of a chance the person actually has of getting a job and how much he’d actually like getting one, and that the vast majority of the appointments will have a slightly negative net effect on both parties’ well-being (except for the bureucrat who gets employed themselves).


I also predict it will result in a lot more activity in job search training areas, where people are paid to teach other people how to make CV:s and a bunch of other things it’s possible to learn with the help of, I don’t know, Internet or any book written on how to have a successful career. This will result in less people being in the job market for the time being. This counts for being employed on paper, so people are incentivized to take part in these courses even if they didn’t want a job, so I’m guessing that’ll reduce the net positive effect on employment.


I believe all this will have a slightly negative net effect on the society’s productivity as a whole, but that this effect will be masked by slight improvements in employment statistics which, naturally, include the people taking courses like the ones described above. It will also result in some people actually landing a job and improving their lives. It will probably also result in some people being shamed the spit out of them and then feeling like crap.


And I think most people actually agree with me here, on both sides of the political spectrum. The only thing that differs is whether people think it’s actually worth it.


A signalling explanation would say: the active model is not about unemployment, but about

  • politicians showing people that they’re fighting unemployment
  • well-faring people showing the unemployed that they should try harder
  • bureucratic institutions expanding their grip and thereby proving that they’re needed
  • the unemployed being asked to
    • signal they’re actually trying to get employed
    • signal that they’re really, really trying to get employed.


What connects these things is that none of them are really about unemployment but about the feeling that people are working for their money. Finnish people generally agree that social welfare is pretty good around here, and since we’ve read a lot about grim economic prospects for the last couple of decades, people most likely feel that everybody kind of needs to show that they’re doing their best. To serve this effect, I believe the active model will do a brilliant job.


Except for, of course, the fact that it was vigilantly opposed, that net productivity already suffered because of unexpected demonstrations it caused, and that all this served to divide the ones endorsing and those opposing the model even further. So I’m guessing that some of the people who used to think that the model would be good to encourage people to get a job will think that it’s actually good for punishing those lazy jerks a bit, since they’re opposing this nice model. And that some people opposing the model will just not even try to land a job since they’re pissed about this change in their lives.


So, to sum it up: I predict a slightly positive effect on the employment, mostly on the employment statistics, a slightly positive effect on the feelings of the society being just for those in the upper middle class and upwards, a positive effect from the point of view of bureucracy trying to expand, and slightly negative net effects on pretty much everything else. Not a big deal, if you ask me – but then again I expect to get employed.

Attractiveness to political polarization

A side note: I realize my English gets clumsy, repetitive and cumbersome every time I try to talk about something actually of value, but I ask the reader for patience. Developing fluency takes time and effort.


Robin Hanson is a truly remarkable man. If the reader is not familiar with Overcoming Bias, I suggest they try it out. A couple of days ago he wrote:


“Of course in a rising tide of polarization, more and more spheres of life may drown in political floods. Once major divisions within an area are seen as political, outside political allies may be drawn into a bitter fight, which one political side may win, enabling it to take over that area of life. But it is worth noticing that some social processes actively resist such widened polarization. (Or more precisely “pillarisation“.)

We would do well to study such processes. To identify which areas of life are now fighting how hard to resist being caught up in political polarization. Then to theorize on what causes this extra willingness to resist. Such theories may help resisting areas to better coordinate to resist polarization. Yes, many political groups are now organizing to infect more areas with political polarization. But there seems room for more coordination against such widened polarization. If only we understood at least the basics of what is going on here.”


Although I have nothing to offer to a man with such remarkable achievements and background, I find the subject of enough interest and importance to try imagining characteristics of an institution or an area of life resistant to political polarization. So here goes.


An area of life seemingly resisting political polarization has either to do with the area actually doing just that, in spite of active efforts to hijack it to advance political agendas, or with it being perceived useless for those purposes and thereby being left alone. I find it easier to first think of what would attract polarization and then define resistance on the contrary to that.


Some things that make an area of life attractive to polarization:

  1. Since both radical leftists and alt-right -advocates – both of whom I believe to be the main culprits of contemporary mainstream polarization – buy into conflict theoretical views of society, the most important aspect of any institution or area of life to be polarized should be power. Powerful positions should be affected by polarization, which seems to be the case. Politics is completely polarized (surprise!) and big companies get lobbied all the time, whereas small-time people and their behavior are left with less attention.
  2. Besides power, the potential to use a hijacked area of life as a vector to spread ideas determines the degree of political polarization. This also makes perfect sense: social media, news outlets, blogs and video publishing platforms are routinely used to promote polarized political agendas.
  3. A conflict of interests is easy to hijack to advance a polarized agenda. Already existing conflicts can be framed to reflect the polarized political conflicts and be defined on their terms. This explains why highly conservative people discover ever new ways the Left is undermining the core values of our society, and why social justice advocates find more and more oppression in all parts of life. Not all conflicts have to do with those things, but I don’t believe it’s dificult to make it look like they do.
  4. An area of life attractive to polarization includes mostly young people, since young people are prone to stand behind any values so long as the values promote the good ol’ militant enthusiasm reaction; the willingness to fight for one’s tribe and die for a greater good.


Conversely, an area of life which naturally resists political polarization most likely has few or none of those qualities. Naturally more qualities exist beside the ones I mentioned, but those I can come up with off the top of my head. An institution actively resisting polarization most likely has more complicated qualities, and a post investigating them will wait for some other time.



Accepting or rejecting status quo reflects expectations of one’s future

Epistemic status: most likely this has been discussed through and through in the academia and later in blogistan, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

I’ve noticed my acquaintances and friends have remarkably diverging attitudes towards wealth and the wealthy, and poverty and the poor.

On one hand, I have those who see the individual accumulation of wealth as a natural result of talent, effort and goodwill. These people are generally those who are born in middle class families or above, and most likely have a well-paid job or are studying in order to get one. They most likely plan to make money by investing or already have. There are some exceptions, but the general pattern is that these are people who take pride in putting effort to accumulate wealth on their own. They view the world as a game to be played, and regard the state of affairs as a result of people either knowing or not knowing how to play. Let’s call these group A.

On the other hand I have those who see the individual accumulation of wealth as a somewhat warped result of luck, unscrupulousness and socioeconomic privilege. They generally are either born in lower to middle class families, are unemployed or have a low-salary job, and possibly study humanities or some other area without a definite promise of secure, well-paid employment. These people generally take pride in being altruistic and ethical. They may view the world as a game, but a game with rules set against those who aren’t already far; like a 100m sprint with a 20m advantage for some and even more for others. If you’re hardworking and gifted enough, you might beat the odds, but make no mistake: they’re against you. These we’ll call group B.

So obviously the former group of people identify with the wealthy and tend to think of ways to explain why inequality is either a good thing or at least not a bad thing; perhaps just a natural result of biology, and therefore alright. The latter group of people identify with the poor and tend to think of ways to explain why inequality is either an evil ogre to be destroyed, or at least a bad thing resulting from blind natural laws not paying attention to human values and well-being.

Of course this dichotomy is somewhat arbitrary and most people do not fit exclusively to either of the two groups described here. I do believe, however, that such a division exists enough for us to try to model it and, of course, test that model.

By a couple of thought experiments I’ve come to think that belonging to either of these groups reflects any particular individual’s expectations of where they will themselves end up. That would explain why people from poor backgrounds might end up endorsing hard-on-poor right-wing politics, and why people from relatively wealthy families might end up as poor scholars speaking for income equality.

If a person’s attitudes towards the wealthy and poor reflect their expectations of their own place in the world, I can make some predictions out of it.

Group A people view the wealthy as their ingroup, whereas group B people view the poor as their ingroup. Therefore group A people are more likely to excuse rich people’s bad behavior, whereas group B people will likely find excuses for poor people behaving badly – and vice versa for the outgroups.

If a person talks in a manner which reflects group A attitudes (accumulating wealth is good, the poor should work harder, social welfare costs too much), they most likely either come from wealthy backgrounds, have a well-paying job or are studying law, engineering, medicine or some other high-status area of expertise. They expect to fare well in the current society and will reject politics which promise a change in the status quo. They are optimistic about the future. And conversely, these facts raise the probability that a person endorses group A beliefs.

If a person talks in a manner which reflects group B attitudes (the rich accumulate too much wealth, the game is rigged against the poor, everyone deserves the same chances, more social welfare is needed), they most likely either come from poor backgrounds, are studying an area which doesn’t promise a steady income for most, are unemployed or work a low-salary job. They don’t expect to fare well in the current society and might campaign actively for social change. They are more pessimistic about the future of the society and the world. Again, if these describe a person, they are more likely to endorse group B beliefs.

Group A people view the status quo as positive, while group B view it as negative. Therefore group A people will reject any revolution even if it resulted as a similar status quo as now, if it means that they no longer have the promise of a secure future. Meanwhile group B people will endorse such a revolution. Some examples include communism, voting for populists and the fact that most likely the socioeconomic elite reject such phenomena unless they promise at least a similar difference in living standards as exists now.

Group A people will become more like group B people if they face severe challenges and if their security networks betray them; say, if they fall seriously ill and they have no one to turn to except the state. Conversely, group B people will become more like group A people if they manage to upgrade their living standards by any means; they’ll accept the status quo as a more natural state of affairs, put less effort into changing it and more effort into holding on to their current place or upgrading it.

These predictions are a straightforward result of accepting the premise and do not require deep thought, although some complications follow from the fact that reality is rarely so black and white. Most likely there are more interesting things to be found along that train of thought, but I think the above serves as a good start for a more thorough discussion.

Story impermanence

Oftentimes we tell ourselves stories of how things came to be this or that way, or how they will develop from here on out. This aspect of my life is the result of my ambition, since I never gave up my goals. That aspect of our society is the result of the liberal, laisez-faire politics of the early 2000s; the actions of our government induced people to behave in such and such way.


An interesting part of stories is, of course, that they’re never the whole truth. In fact, they may have very little to do with truth all the way. Stories are an intuitive way we use to make sense of the world; they serve as a platform for communicating abstract ideas and patterns; they are a form of rhetoric and convince our listeners by appealing to reason and emotion; and, naturally, they entertain us. Still, it is a rare moment when a story encapsulates the workings of the universe in such a powerful fashion that it has no qualities weakening its appeal whatsoever; most of  the time we recognize that even the best stories have their limits and only serve up to a point. Only at times do we realize that a story from years ago has woken up, only to fall asleep again.


JMG spoke of exactly this when writing about knowing only one story, and the weaknesses that it includes. Indeed, I feel that many would do well to read that text and try to actually apply it to their thinking; is there really no more to human societies than the conflict theories of the 20th century? Is there no more to economics than free trade? Is there no more to politics than military power? Ironically, the same goes somewhat for JMG, too, as we will learn in a few months’ time.


Stories aren’t permanent, nor are they ubiquitous, nor are they unbiased. Each story we tell ourselves or one another has its flaws and its strengths.


One of the first cognitive skills a human child learns is object permanence; that is, the understanding that the world will not disappear if we turn away from it. I would like to propose a similar understanding concerning stories: the story impermanence. By this I mean the exact opposite of object permanence – that stories in fact do vanish into thin air whenever we aren’t looking at them.


This way of thinking of stories as flickering, impermanent phenomena instead of as permanent, concrete objects has several advantages. It reminds us that our stories only make sense inasmuch we disregard other parts of reality; conversely, if we forget it, we’ll fall victim to confirmation bias. It helps us realize that we needn’t have everything make sense according to a simplistic worldview; this is an especially important thing to remember if you’re into politics. And perhaps most importantly, when understood right, it forces us to let go of our stories at times and endeavor to look at the world as-is, see the patterns for what they are, and try to make sense of them without relying on cached stories.


(Robert Pirsig has written wonderfully of that one.)


Yet, sometimes stories do appear right in front of us, and make perfect sense. We check our biases and conclude that the story in fact seems to have got it right; this is how this particular piece of reality works right now. Let us marvel at its completeness and be happy that we can predict how this story will evolve; and when we see it flickering and disappearing like smoke, let us not hold onto it, because doing so would trap us into an illusion; it would make us rainbow-chasers. Stories are free, so let them run wild; and only take a good look at one when it is so clear and brilliant as to defy any denial – and know that there are many others around, so that when this one vanishes, there’s more to grasp.

Archdruid Report and resource economics, part 1

Today I’ll begin a series of posts that’ll revolve around John Michael Greer’s powerful work Archdruid Report. The series will be thirteen posts long, as I will dedicate a single post to a year’s worth of blog posts by JMG. Here I’ll explain how I decided to start this project and state my goals (jump to the end if only the goals interest you).


I was first introduced to Archdruid Report by an acquaintance of mine, who had made a Facebook update in the spirit of “Oil resources aren’t limitless, yet our society is pretty much built on oil, which will lead to problems”. It aroused my curiosity and we ended up discussing the matter a bit, although fruitlessly.


I read on the subject from a few sources, mostly relying on Wikipedia’s articles on peak oil, food security and such, but failed to convince myself of the urgency of the matter then. It seemed to me that although it would be impossible to continue as a highly specialized oil-based civilization indefinitely, there was no consensus on whether peak oil – that is, the time when the maximum amount of petroleum will be extracted, followed by an inevitable decline – was in the near or far future or possibly long past. Its implications on society, food security, manufacturing, logistics and such also seemed to be debated. At least for now, I thought, oil business was doing well (which obviously doesn’t say much about the future of oil production).


The person in question had a more dim view on the present and future state of affairs, and he explained to me something along the lines of the current state of relatively cheap oil, high oil production and well-faring oil companies being the result of hype, price manipulation, politics based on short-sightedness and, of course, the discovery of fracking techniques. He concluded that the issues surrounding oil production were growing, not being solved, and that however long that house of cards would remain standing, related issues such as climate change would eventually force us to seriously re-evaluate the basis upon which our civilization has been built. He also linked to a couple of posts by JMG, paving way for this series of posts here.


Partly I agreed, but I still wasn’t convinced of how serious and urgent the matter could be. However, I did entertain the thought of the post-70’s Western society being built on somewhat of a false hope of a better tomorrow, as it tickled my built-in instinct to be wary of human hubris and arrogance. I started reading Archdruid Report here and there and was quickly convinced that JMG was highly intelligent, very civilized and also very immodest in his epistemology and conclusions (which, I’ve come to notice, is a trait many of these powerful minds share; I wonder why).


I left the subject be for a couple of years and carried on with other hobbies, but the thought kept coming back to me: what is the basis on which our future rests? I came to realize that it was not merely a question of philosophy or something that would have to be guessed. I read up a little and found out that we actually have relatively reliable estimates of many resources and of the near future of food production and manufacturing in general. However, the thought kept tickling me: if Greer is so smart and has read so much about the subject, how come he seems to think that we’re already on the path of accelerated self-destruction as a society? Why don’t other great minds talk about this? If it’s a matter of such immediacy, how come Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Noam Chomsky and others aren’t completely flabbergasted by the lack of attention the subject receives as of now?


So I was left with two ways out: either I was to conclude that Greer was probably overstating his case, falling victim to confirmation bias over and over again, or I was to actually take a good look at his arguments and try to form an opinion of them on my own. The matter is of interest to me, so I decided to do the latter.


During these posts I’ll attempt to do several things. First, I’ll try to condense and relay as much information from Archdruid Report’s posts as conveniently possible. Second, I’ll place Greer’s ideas under scrutiny, critique them, question his sources and his thought process. Third, I’ll read more on the subject using sources such as resource economics journals, thinktanks etc and compare them to Greer’s. Fourth, I’ll attempt to form an opinion of my own and try to answer the following questions:

  • What is the future of oil production?
  • What is the future of our civilization, assuming that peak oil
    • has occurred
    • will occur in the near future
    • will occur in the far future
  • Is JMG right to be so highly cautious of the near future of Western, especially American civilization?
  • Is JMG right to propose that the time of our industrial civilization is coming to an end?


All in all, I’m very excited about this and hope to attract the attention of anyone interested in sustainability. I’m expecting to publish once per month, but I believe the rate of the first four posts will set the timeline for the rest.


On a side note: I published a post last year on sustainability, riddled with fervor, urgency and moral high ground. Here I’ll attempt to be much more articulate and systematic in my approach, but time will tell how I am to succeed.

Against against steelmanning

Lately I’ve seen an article published by Thing of things linked often when someone mentions steelmanning. The text is a fine contribution, promoting healthy discussion; however, it has little to do with steelmanning.


I find it kind of funny that Ozymandias presents “the least obnoxious version” of steelmanning as strawmanning an argument and then steelmanning that strawman – which, of course, is itself a strawman of steelmanning. This wouldn’t be an issue were Ozymandias to say that this is a troublesome aspect of people trying to steelman arguments they don’t understand (which it is), but that’s not the case. The text says that that is literally the best version of making a steelman.


So, yeah. I hear extravagant claims are a remarkable rhetoric tool when wielded by a fine wit, but seeing as the article’s point is to criticize malevolent, badly defined or ill-informed discussion, I’m afraid it’ll only make things worse.


Steelmanning is indeed a very thin and brittle blade only meant for those thoroughly acquainted with the subject and possessing an unwavering dedication to understanding the reality of the matter. It is a poor tool for those without a proper understanding of the opponent’s arguments and a downright dangerous toxin when used by those with the intent to sabotage the discussion. Ozymandias does a good job bringing these to broad daylight, however, making the mistake of assuming they are the best that can be done.


Of course this is also mentioned in the article. What I find troublesome is when people instantaneously react to any attempt to steelman anything by linking the article, pointing out that “steelmans ain’t gonna cut it”. That’s not really the case, is it? Pointing out issues with bad steelmanning hasn’t got much to do with good steelmanning. However, I do agree with Ozymandias that if you’re incapable of steelmanning an argument, you probably shouldn’t try steelmanning it.


I don’t think that the healthy habits Ozymandias suggests are alternatives to steelmanning but prerequisites for it. Unless you’ve attempted to thoroughly discuss one’s real arguments and engaged with them, there’s really no way to tell whether there’s something deeper in them or if they were maybe just presented badly in the first place. Only when you are sure you actually understand the arguments, can a steelman take place – and, of course, a humble manner will help doing so. “If I understand correctly, you’re saying this and that. I disagree with you for reasons A and B. I think a more powerful version of what you’re saying is Z, because it takes into account A and B but leads to the same conclusion.”


So we see that it’s actually possible to steelman an argument while engaging what the opponent has said.