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The politics of “I don’t know”

My politics these days are increasingly vague, because I’m increasingly uncomfortable with proposing solutions when I don’t understand the problems.

If I had actual political power, that would be one thing – I would try things and see what worked – but I don’t, so I’m left with angry shouting about why everyone fails to see that my obviously correct solution is obviously correct as my main socially acceptable option for political expression.

And I don’t know what the correct solution is.

I’m not quite at the Socrates level of knowing that I know nothing. I know a few things. Unfortunately most of the things I know are “Wow this problem is hard, huh?”

(I also know that the current brand of politics in both my countries is very bad and should be opposed. This post is more about how I’d like things to work once everything isn’t on fire)

Unfortunately “This problem is hard” seems to be literally the only thing peoples’ politics are willing to universally unite against. If a politician admits that a problem is hard and they don’t know what to do about it, they might as well start writing their resignation letter now and save the papers the effort of raking them over the coals and you the time of voting them out of office.

Here are two problems I know to be hard beyond our current ability to deal with:

  1. Centralised planning of a complex system
  2. Decentralised coordination in response to large-scale problems

If you’ll forgive the horrendous oversimplification of politics in a post complaining about the horrendous oversimplification of politics, economic left vs right wing political opinion seems to be largely a split on which one of those two things we want to deny is hard.

Either we should let the market solve everything including the things that the market can’t solve because they require individuals to act against their best interests in order to achieve a collectively better result, or we nationalise everything and the people who are an inconveniently tiny fraction of the population to worry about in our centralised planning get crushed by the system.

How should we solve both of these problems simultaneously? I don’t know.

I sometimes refer to the problem of how you get a large group of people to coordinate for their mutual benefit as the fundamental problem of civilization. Many (most?) ideologies think they have an answer to this problem, but all of the answers I’ve seen seem to be pretty bad.

Which is not to say the current compromise system is good either. In many ways we’re suffering from a blend of the worst problems of each – we can’t coordinate properly, but the giant machine of society still crushes people. To some extent we’ve compromised by each side adopting the worst excesses of the other. Massive accumulation of capital in individuals results in people happily doing their own version of centralised planning, while states generally totally fail to solve coordination problems because politicians are more concerned with soundbites that will get them reelected than the good of the country or world.

Can we do better? I don’t know. Probably. Certainly I’m going to choose to believe we can. But I think as long as we deny hard problems are hard, we’re going to keep failing to solve them.

Does this make me a centrist? I guess this makes me a centrist, so I’ve probably now outed myself to my friends (who are mostly left-wing, as am I on a lot of issues) as literally/figuratively worse than Hitler. I can’t say I’ve found most centrist politicians any more appealing than the run of the mill on either side, but maybe the problem there is politicians and the system they work in, rather than their specific politics.

Does this mean I think better things aren’t possible? No. But I do think that whatever your current politics are, if you don’t admit “I don’t know” as an answer, the way you want us to be going probably won’t get us there.

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Surgery recovery update

I realised that announcing that I was going to have surgery and then stopping updating the blog from the surgery date might be considered less than ideal, so this is just a quick update to reassure readers that I aten’t dead.

Anyway, I had my surgery last Tuesday as planned. It went fine according to my surgeon. It’s hard for me to tell – it’s somewhat in the nature of surgery recovery is that you spend a period immediately after where the thing you wanted to get better gets worse instead, and this one is very much exemplifying that. A week later I’m just about at the point where I can almost kinda breathe through my nose.

In general the recovery has been not much fun but entirely manageable – I spent the first couple of days useless, but since then I’ve been able to think OK. Despite feeling a lot like a bad cold it doesn’t seem to turn my brain to mush in the same way.

Anyway, hopefully in another week or so I might start seeing some benefit, or at least get back to feature-parity with pre-surgery me, I shall report back with some updated notes on the war on sleep when that happens.

Update: Apparently I was being unduly pessimistic. My breathing through my nose, while it still feels congested and uncomfortable, is actually now as good as or maybe slightly better than it was prior to the surgery in terms of measured airflow.

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Talking to people at conferences

I’m currently at the Halmstad Summer School on Testing, where I know literally nobody. This means that I’m having to exercise one of my most useful and hardest won conference skills: Going up to new people and talking to them.

I can’t claim any special ability at doing this. If anything, I’m bad at it. But I started out terrible at it, so I thought I’d offer some advice for other people who are terrible at it and want to become less terrible (which, based on observational evidence at conferences and talking to friends, is a lot of us).

The big thing to know is that it’s not complicated (which is not the same as saying it’s easy). The following procedure works for me basically 100% of the time:

  1. Go up to somebody who isn’t currently talking to someone and doesn’t look like they’re busy.
  2. Say “Hi, I’m David” (you may wish to substitute your own name here if it is not also David).
  3. Make conference appropriate small talk.
  4. Part ways at a suitable juncture (e.g. beginning of next talk), and if you enjoyed each other’s company you can naturally say hi again later, and if not you won’t.

If you’re like me, that probably sounds impossible, but it’s actually surprisingly doable once you manage to suppress the associated feeling of mortal dread.

The thing that helped me the most was understanding what caused me stress (going up to groups where I didn’t know anyone) and just not doing that, which is why it’s about finding single people to go up and talk to. I generally don’t approach groups unless I already know some of the people in the group.

The second thing that helps is understanding that this behaviour is appropriate, socially acceptable, and often outright welcome.

You are at an event where a large part of the purpose is to meet people. Therefore introducing yourself to strangers is a thing that is part of the event and does not need an excuse. Also, the people around you are probably also struggling to do the same. By picking someone else who is also not talking to people, there’s a good chance you’ve found someone who is struggling the same way you are and have done them a massive favour by removing that struggle.

Is it sometimes a bit awkward? Yeah. Is it the perfect approach? No. But it works reliably, I am able to do it, and it does not rely on flawless execution to go smoothly. It is very unlikely to go terribly, and it will probably go well.

It’s still anxiety inducing, but for me the knowledge that this is acceptable behaviour and nothing bad is going to happen is enough to take it from terrifying to merely intimidating, at which point it’s fairly feasible to just force myself to do it.

Specific tips:

Picking who to talk to is tricky, but the nice thing about this just being a brief introductory conversation is that you don’t have to do it well. I don’t have a particularly good algorithm, but vaguely use the following guidelines:

  • People you’ve met in passing but not really properly talked to are an easy place to start.
  • If I see a speaker or someone I vaguely know something about, I’ll tend to default to them (as someone who regularly speaks at conferences, I can confirm speakers are just as socially awkward about doing this as the rest of us and will appreciate you talking to them).
  • I often preferentially try to talk to women or other people who are in a minority for the conference (obviously at some conferences women won’t be a minority, but I work in tech where sadly they usually are). This advice works better if you are yourself in a minority at the conference, but I figure that if people are feeling isolated it’s still better to have someone to talk to who isn’t going to be a jerk (which I’m told I’m mostly not), and they’re at least as likely (probably more) to be interesting people to talk to as anyone else.
  • Other than that, I just pick a random person nearby.

Once you’ve picked a person and introduced yourself, it’s time for the dread small talk. Fortunately, although small talk in general is hard, conference small talk is much easier. There are two reasons for this:

  • When you ask “What do you do?” the chances are good that it’s something relevant to the conference, and thus you have common ground to talk about.
  • You can always talk about the talks at the conference – which they have enjoyed, if there are any they are particularly looking forward to, etc.

The parting ways aspect is important largely to avoid the problem of finding one person to talk to and then latching on to them. It’s doubly important for me because of a moderate amount of insecurity about seeming to do that even when I’m probably not. Fortunately conferences come with a natural rhythm, so it’s fairly easy to do.

Another reason why it helps is that it keeps the entire interaction fairly low cost – you’re not committing to a new best friend for the entire conference, you’re just meeting someone new and having a brief chat with them.

So that’s how I introduce myself to new people. After that, I try to “pay it forward” in a couple of ways:

  • I try to introduce people I’ve talked to to each other. e.g. if I’m talking to someone and someone I’ve previously interacted with wanders past I say hi to them and ask “Have you two met?”
  • If I’m in a group (or even just talking to one other person) and see someone awkwardly standing around, I try to bring them into it (a “Hi, I’m David. Come join us” is usually sufficient).

Other people are also struggling with this, and helping them out is a good deed, which is the main way I do it, but conveniently it’s also a good way to meet people. It’s much easier to meet someone by bringing them into a group than it is to approach them on your own, and by forming a group you’ll tend to get other people members of the group know agglomerating on. Even if you don’t talk to them now, talking to them later becomes easier.


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Thoughts on the election

Beeminder is demanding that I blog today, but I’m not really feeling it, so I’m going to phone this one in, sorry.

I was trying to write something intelligent. Maybe something about delta debugging, maybe something about voting systems. When the dust settles and we have some data maybe I’ll do an analysis of what this election would have looked like under Random Ballot or something.

But, well, right now I’m too depressed, so here are some very ill-formed and ill-informed thoughts on the UK general election that is causing that impression.

This was a lot better than I feared, slightly worse than I expected, and a lot worse than I’d hoped it would be. I never expected a Labour majority (and I’m not the biggest Corbyn fan so would have felt only modestly positive if we’d got one), but I did think Labour might have been able to form a coalition.

Instead we get a Conservative + Democratic Unionist Party (think a more right-wing Irish version of the Conservatives. This is probably not a very fair description but I’m not very inclined to provide a fairer one) not-quite-a-coalition.

I confess I forgot completely about the DUP as a factor (English centric bias, sorry), and the Tory wins in Scotland were a complete surprise to me (Somewhat English centric bias, mostly that the Scots I know very strongly conform to the stereotype of Scotland being very left wing even though I know the reality is different), but I’d be lying if I said I ever really had a very firm sense of how the political landscape was going to go. I was mostly going on a mix of general knowledge and dread.

The dread turned out to be pretty warranted. Although I’m enjoying the schadenfreude of May losing her majority, this isn’t really much better than we started with. The DUP are terrible, and a Conservative/DUP alliance is going to be an improvement on the Conservative majority replaces in only three ways:

  • Their majority is smaller
  • They will be less able to get things done due to internal disagreements
  • They might go for a softer Brexit than they otherwise would have.

There’s also the argument that Brexit is going to be a disaster for whichever party deals with it, so in the long run this might be better by making the Conservative government pay the consequences. I’m not entirely sure I buy the calculus here, but it’s at least a small glimmer of hope.

Mostly I feel like as usual this election underlines the need for a better electoral system. The popular vote is so close between Labour and Conservative, with neither of them that close to a majority.

It is of course invalid to project how people would vote under a different voting system from this, but counting up the minority parties it is at least suggestive that if we’d had a more proportional system then we’d have likely been in the territory of the progressive alliance many people were hoping for – Labour + SNP + Lib Dem comes to 50.4% of the vote. Add the greens in and you’re up to 52%. Of course, in reality, that 52% of the vote came to 47.5% of the seats, so a small win became a small loss instead.

Oh well, so it goes. Another five years of something resembling this government.

Unless someone calls another general election I guess. So give it six months?

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Auction Update

You may recall that I ran an experiment last month where I put my time up for auction.

The auction was won by Zack M. Davis. He bid £550 and paid £501 for help working with some maths self-study on Causal Inference. We’re working through understanding a textbook he’s studying, and did one three hour session over Google hangouts and will do another one later this week.

I think we were both a little sceptical that the format would work well (even without the fact that I don’t know much about causal inference), but if so we were both wrong. There were some difficulties – communicating about maths without a shared blackboard (or, if you insist, whiteboard) is hard, but fortunately we had the textbook in front of us for reference and could fall back to typing if necessary, which worked more than well enough. At the end I think we both understood the material a lot better than at the beginning, and Zack seemed very happy with the result (and I enjoyed it too!).

So all told I’m calling that a success: I’m happy and Zack is happy. I got an amount of money for my time that I’m perfectly happy with (it’s a lot less than I’d do for my high priced consulting, but a pretty good day rate for general purpose dev contracting), and Zack got help that he found useful at a price he was happy to pay. A good time was had by all.

Some statistics for the interested:

  • There were a total of 15 bids.
  • The second and first prices were quite a lot higher than the others.  The third price bid was £200.
  • The lowest bid was £15
  • The median (and modal) bid was £100.
  • Not terribly surprisingly, almost every bid came from someone in a personal capacity rather than a company. The exceptions were people who were basically freelancers who have their own company for their work and Beeminder, probably partly because Danny heard “Vickrey auction” and came running.

In general, I’m very pleased with this experiment, and will be repeating it by running another auction next month (I’m skipping this month both because of the delay and because everything is a bit busy right now).

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