Short Cuts


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Concrete                     -                   Abstract
Simple                        -                   Complex
One                             -                    Many
Low resolution           -                    High resolution


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In interpreting the world we're constantly faced with the decision of what level of resolution - or level of analysis - to use.

If we take it as a given that we're always missing something, then the question is, exactly how much can we miss before it becomes a problem? The answer, it seems, depends on context - in other words, what are our goals, and what level of analysis do they demand? In other words, what level of detail is appropriate to this situation?

Complexity can be seen as noise, or entropy. It is a breaking-apart into ever more detail. The more detail we see the truer our picture. In this sense, the best map of the territory is the territory itself. And yet, we need our maps, our simple representations.

Sometimes short-cuts - low resolution interpretations - are useful and appropriate. But sometimes they prevent us from seeing something vital.

What are we leaving out? And is it important?


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As soon as we look into something - i.e. remove the lid, the capstone, and see what lurks inside or beneath - we find that we are much less able to make simple generalisations about it.

From the outside, from a distance, it is easy to characterise things - perhaps due in large part to the fact that we are largely ignorant to their inherent complexity. A distant view gives the comforting illusion of simplicity.

So, for instance, I can speculate about the various problems of the education system, or the problems with teachers, but were I to become a teacher myself, I would not, generally speaking, find it as easy to make the same sweeping pronouncements. The field would suddenly have become much more complex, and I may find myself pulling back from definitive statements; easing on the brake instead of the accelerator.

The more I experience of life, the more I realise this seems to apply to everything.

This implies that any firm judgement or pronouncement is always made in ignorance - by overlooking complexity - and as such every judgement, every bold move, can be criticised by making reference to the many details that have been overlooked - to all those things that have necessarily been ignored in order to provide the illusion of solidity and to make the judgement firm.


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Definitions do not contain any knowledge [...] they are simply shorthand labels introduced in order to cut a long story short.

[Jeremy Waldron]
Karl Popper: Critical Appraisals, p. 222


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"Why can't they get it together, they're so lazy"


"Laziness."

What is "laziness"? Does "laziness" describe an element of reality, a "real" phenomenon? Does "laziness" actually exist?

"Laziness" is, amongst other things, an explanatory principle that we use to describe a category of behaviours.

From the endless profusion of reality - the continuum of events and things - we sketch out some borders, and tell ourselves that everything in between them will be referred to as "lazy." It is a handy fiction. Like all explanatory principles, laziness is a shortcut, a label we wheel out to stop us from having to dig any deeper, from spending any time. It is an adaptive invention that conserves energy, allowing us to get from A to B in the shortest possible time. If we can only cram so much information into our consciousness - concentrate on a finite amount of things - then our shortcuts allow us to get on with things, to get things done. They bypass the long route, because the long route is wasteful.

And so more often than not, we take the short one: "he is lazy." But if we use "lazy" then we should be aware that we are using a placeholder; that we are, in fact, marking something for further examination. The problem with a fiction like "lazy" is when it is literalised; when we begin to believe that the dragon really exists, and that it is embodied by this person, or that person.

When we look beneath "lazy" we begin to see a number of other things; more words rush in. We begin to see "preoccupied," "depressed," "afraid." We see these and much more. And then these words begin to crack and crumble, revealing further intricacies.

"Laziness" is not designed to hold reality, or to reflect it. Whilst pretending to describe reality, "laziness" actually works to keep us at arms length from it. The actuality that lies beneath "laziness" in an unexploded bomb: remove the lid - the label - and it detonates into a million pieces; a million fragments of reality - so many that we cannot hold them all, understand them all. They whirl around us, spinning us into a confusion. Perhaps then, it is best not to remove the lid, to look beneath "lazy."

But if we care about this person - this lazy so and so - then perhaps we owe them more than "lazy." Is "lazy" ever excusable? Maybe it just needs untethering from the reality that we hang around it, so that it can float up and take its rightful place, among all the other nebulous words.

Perhaps to use terms like "lazy" might just be plain ... lazy.


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“I saw him every once in a while pass by, he was a very shy guy and tall, about 6ft 2in [1.88 metres]. He wasn’t very sporty, rather a little chubby,” said Stephan Baumanns, the 47-year-old owner of the Treemans bakery and coffee shop in the leafy Maxvorstadt neighbourhood.

“He seemed like a lazy guy. He had a job distributing a free newspaper, M√ľnchener Wochenblatt, but I often saw him rather than deliver them, throw them all away into the garbage bin.”

''He seemed like a lazy guy': locals describe Munich shooter'


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The choice is always the same. You can make your model more complex and more faithful to reality, or you can make it simpler and easier to handle.

Only the most naive scientist believes that the perfect model os the one that perfectly represents reality. Such a model would have the same drawbacks as a map as large and detailed as the city it represents, a map depicting every park, every street, every building, every tree, every pothole, every inhabitant, and every map.

Were such a map possible, its specificity would defeat its purpose: to generalise and abstract. Mapmakers highlight such features as their clients choose. Whatever their purpose, maps and models must simplify as much as they mimic the world.

[James Gleick]
Chaos, p. 278-9


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Kinds, and sameness of kind -what colossally useful denkmittel for finding our way among the many!

The manyness might conceivably have been absolute. Experiences might have all been singulars, no one of them occurring twice. In such a world logic would have had no application; for kind and sameness of kind are logic's only instruments.

Once we know that whatever is of a kind is also of that kind's kind, we can travel through the universe as if with seven-league boots. Brutes surely never use these abstractions, and civilized men use them in most various amounts.

[William James]
'Pragmatism and Common Sense', Pragmatism and Other Writings, p. 80


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[The historian] is back in his proper place when he takes us away from simple and absolute judgements and by returning to the historical context entangles everything up again.

The whole process of historical study is a movement towards historical research - it is to carry us from the general to the particular, from the abstract to the concrete, from the thesis that the Reformation led to liberty to an actual vision of all the chances and changes which brought about the modern world.

The volume and complexity of historical research are at the same time the result and the demonstration of the fact that the more we examine the way in which things happen, the more we are driven from the simple to the complex.

If history could be told in all its complexity and detail it would provide us with something as chaotic and baffling as life itself; but because it can be condensed there is nothing that cannot be made to seem simple, and the chaos acquires form by virtue of what we choose to omit.

There is a danger in all abridgments that acquire certainty by reason of what they omit, and so answer all questions more clearly than historical research is ever able to do.

Perhaps the greatest of all the lessons of history is this demonstration of the complexity of human change and the unpredictable character of the ultimate consequences of any given act or decision of men; and on the face of it this is a lesson that can only be learned in detail.

If history can do anything it is to remind us of those complications that undermine our certainties, and to show us that all our judgments are merely relative to time and circumstance.

So the last word of the historian is not some fine firm general statement; it is a piece of detailed research. It is a study of the complexity that underlies any generalisation that we can make [...] Indeed the historian is never more himself when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.

[Herbert Butterfield]
The Whig Interpretation of History, p. 69, 73-5, 97, 101-2


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One of the main themes on which Taleb touches in The Black Swan, is "Platonification", or our tendency as humans to simplify.

We like to explain history by using general themes when, in fact, history is very complex and cannot be simplified into one theme and a few pages. We not only simplify history, but we also generalize problems and make simplifying forecasts. Our tendency to Platonify also leads us to depend on averages and to believe that the future will be average. We then miss the "Black Swans".

'The Black Swan, by Taleb'


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When I wondered about the cause of the estuary die-off, an hypothesis may have jumped into your mind – climate change, the culprit du jour for nearly every environmental problem.  

If we could identify one thing as THE cause, the solution would be so much more accessible. 

As I was doing research for my book, I googled “effect of soil erosion on climate change,” and the first two pages of results showed the converse of my search – the effect of climate change on soil erosion. The same for biodiversity.

No doubt it is true that climate change exacerbates all kinds of environmental problems, but the rush to name a unitary cause to a complex problem should give us pause.

The pattern is familiar. Do you think the “fight against climate change,” which starts by identifying an enemy, CO2, will bring better results than the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, or the War on Poverty?

[Charles Eisenstein]
'Of Horseshoe Crabs and Empathy'


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Let’s take a moment to define the difference between a behaviour that’s simple and [a behaviour that's] complex.

A very practical way to think about this is that when you’re presented with [a pattern], how easily can you summarise what you see?

If it’s just a uniform [pattern], you’re done. You have a quick description that gets you the complete specification of the pattern.

When we see things as complex, what’s really going on is that we, as human analysers of what we’re seeing, don’t get very far. We can’t [capture] the thing we’re seeing with some simple description. We’re just stuck with saying, ‘it is what it is’.

We may be able to give some ornate description of what’s there, but we don’t get to summarise everything in a sentence or two.

[Stephen Wolfram]
'Stephen Wolfram - What is Complexity in the Cosmos?'


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[...] in the use of reason lies the eternal temptation to do with human data in experiment and argument what the child does with them in play: namely, to reduce them to a size and an order in which they seem manageable.

Thus human data are treated as if the human being were an animal, or a machine, or a statistical item. Much naive sense of power can be derived from the fact that, properly approached, the human being up to a point is all of these things, and under certain conditions can be reduced to being nothing but their facsimiles.

But the attempt to make man more exploitable by reducing him to a simpler model of himself cannot lead to an essentially human psychology.

[Erik H. Erikson]
Childhood and Society, p. 378


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Related posts:-
The Right Distance
Taking the Rough with the Smooth
Standing the Strain
Digging Deeper
A Difference that makes a Difference
Which difference makes a difference?
How Simple is Too Simple?
Discrimination 
Small Mind/Large Mind
Escaping Uncertainty
Simply Put
Complexity

1 comment:

  1. If you are just discovering you have adult ADD/ADHD, chances are you’ve suffered over the years for the unrecognized problem. People may have labeled you “lazy” or “stupid” because of your forgetfulness or difficulty completing tasks, and you may have begun to think of yourself in these negative terms as well.

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