Short Cuts





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





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?





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.





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





"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.





“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'






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






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





[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





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'





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'





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?'





[...] 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





Society is composed of persons who cannot design, build, repair, or even operate most of the devices upon which their lives depend […]

In the complexity of this world people are confronted with extraordinary events and functions that are literally unintelligible to them. They are unable to give an adequate explanation of man-made phenomena in their immediate experience. They are unable to form a coherent, rational picture of the whole.

Under the circumstances, all persons do, and indeed must, accept a great number of things on faith […] Their way of understanding is basically religious, rather than scientific; only a small portion of one’s everyday experience in the technological society can be made scientific […]

The plight of members of the technological society can be compared to that of a newborn child. Much of the data that enters its sense does not form coherent wholes. There are many things the child cannot understand or, after it has learned to speak, cannot successfully explain to anyone […]

Citizens of the modern age in this respect are less fortunate than children. They never escape a fundamental bewilderment in the face of the complex world that their senses report. They are not able to organize all or even very much of this into sensible wholes […]

[Langdon Winner]
Autonomous Technology: Technics-Out-Of-Control





In the modeling of physics, a toy model is a deliberately simplistic model with many details removed so that it can be used to explain a mechanism concisely. It is also useful in a description of the fuller model.

In "toy" mathematical models, this is usually done by reducing or extending the number of dimensions or reducing the number of fields/variables or restricting them to a particular symmetric form.

In Macroeconomics modelling, are a class of models, some may be only loosely based on theory, others more explicitly so. But they have the same purpose. They allow for a quick first pass at some question, and present the essence of the answer from a more complicated model or from a class of models. For the researcher, they may come before writing a more elaborate model, or after, once the elaborate model has been worked out.

In "toy" physical descriptions, an analogous example of an everyday mechanism is often used for illustration.

'Toy model'
Wikipedia





NNT (that is, me): Assume that a coin is fair, i.e, has an equal probability of coming up heads or tails when flipped. I flip it ninety-nine times and get heads each time. What are the odds of my getting tails on my next throw?

Dr. John: Trivial question. One half, of course, since you are assuming 50 percent odds for each and independence between draws.

NNT: What do you say, Tony?

Fat Tony: I’d say no more than 1 percent, of course.

NNT: Why so? I gave you the initial assumption of a fair coin, meaning that it was 50 percent either way.

Fat Tony: You are either full of crap or a pure sucker to buy that “50 pehcent” business. The coin gotta be loaded. It can’t be a fair game. (Translation: It is far more likely that your assumptions about the fairness are wrong than the coin delivering ninety-nine heads in ninety-nine throws.)

NNT: But Dr. John said 50 percent.

Fat Tony (whispering in my ear): I know these guys with the nerd examples from the bank days. They think way too slow. Any they are too commoditised. You can take them for a ride.

Dr. John thinks entirely within the box, the box that was given to him; Fat Tony, almost entirely outside the box. 

To set the terminology straight, what I call “a nerd” here doesn’t have to look sloppy, unaesthetic, and sallow, and wear glasses and a portable computer on his belt as if it were an ostensible weapon. A nerd is simply someone who think exceedingly inside the box.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 124-5





[A] 2D view of [a] cylinder is a circle from one perspective and a rectangle from another. Both are true “slices” of the reality of the cylinder; neither alone give a clear sense of the higher dimensional shape’s reality. Or even that the shape is indeed of higher dimension. Both are necessarily limited because they are reducing the reality (without realizing it) to a view that simply can not adequately contain it.

We can argue over which slice is more right…which once we’ve seen the undeniable partial rightness of each (from their own perspective), is of course just silly. Or we can hold that both are somehow true, despite being mutually exclusive descriptions of reality (from a 2D view)…and surrender to calling it paradox and give up on congruent understanding altogether.

Or we can take another reconciliatory approach and say that they are both partially true so we must find a middle path…which in this case, still embedded in 2D, looks like something half way between a circle and a rectangle… which comes out to be a kind of rounded-corner rectangle. Which is actually further from the reality than either the circle or the rectangle had been, since at least they were each true slices of the cylinder.

The problem of course is in the reductionism.

There is no 2D slice of a 3D object that gives a real sense of what it is. Neither is any 2D negotiation of slices going to yield something in 3D. The cylinder is not somewhere between the two reductionistic views: 50% circle, 50% rectangle… It is 100% of both descriptions…which are only mutually exclusive and paradoxical if they are trying to be reconciled in the same plane, which is the essential mistake. In the higher dimensional reality the object actually lives in, the simultaneous full truth of both partial descriptions is obvious and non-paradoxical…as is the seamless way they fit together as parts of a congruent whole.

This metaphor points to a clear limit to the extent of reductionism possible without losing truth and creating a basis for perceiving false dichotomies. The key insight is recognizing these differing perspectives as orthogonal to each other rather than opposite ends of a gradient spectrum. 

The recognition of orthogonality…gives us the cylinder, recognizes both lower dimensional perspectives as 100% true from their limited vantage point, and forces the recognition that a congruent picture is possible but requires a fundamentally more complex kind of perspective.

Our perception of existential paradoxes often comes from exactly this kind of process: believing in false dichotomies through reducing reality to conceptual slices that are true but partial to the point of actually requiring a seemingly mutually exclusive perspective to explain the full phenomena.

[Daniel Schmachtenberger]
'Higher Dimensional Thinking, the End of Paradox, and a More Adequate Understanding of Reality'







Think about a tree in an ecosystem - what is the value of that tree?

It’s providing a home for pollinators and birds, it’s stabilising topsoil, it’s symbiotic with the fungus and bacteria in the soil, it’s proving shade, it’s pulling out CO2 and producing oxygen, it’s proving food for animals. It might have millions of value-metrics as part of this complex ecosystem.

But then we cut it down to make it ten-thousand dollars worth of two-by-fours, and its value is ten-thousand dollars. And the two-by-fours [aren’t] sequestering CO2 and stabilising top soil  - they are serving as a structural strut, as one really simple thing.

So we took this very complex thing and reduced the complexity of it radically, and made it a very simple thing. We downcycled it, because the metric we were seeking to optimise was dollars in my account.

How do I relate the value of an elephant tusk, or a person’s art, or a tree - these should not be fungible, these are fundamentally different things.

But I remove all of the information from them and all of the context [because] I want them to be simply exchangeable in terms of capital, so that I can maximise the ease of transaction. [This] is an extinctionary dynamic.

We’re taking complex value and turning it into simple value.

[Daniel Schmachtenberger]
'46: Daniel Schmachtenberger - Winning Humanity's Existential Game' (23:00)





Consider […] the case of families. How are families established? What constitutes membership in a particular family? […] even in the simplest cases the boundaries of families are far from clear: there isn’t always a definitive answer to the question whether two temporally distant individuals do or do not belong to the same family […]

In many cases this answer will depend on the purpose with which the question is asked and on what is at stake […]

[...] family connections are immensely more complex than our usual representations of family trees can ever suggest. When we appeal to family trees, we are concerned to trace, for particular reasons, an individual’s origin to a particular source though a particular path […]

[…] but a moment’s thought shows how crucial our “particular reasons” always are in such situations. On one occasion, for example, we may want to […] see how all the central characters of The Forsyte Chronicles are related to Old Jolyon, the figure Galsworthy quite arbitrarily chose as the family’s founder […] Galsworthy’s neat [family tree] makes it easy to forget [certain branches in the family tree that are of] no importance to [his] narrative.

None of this implies in any way that Galsworthy was “wrong” to omit this information: he could not have included all of it even if for some strange reason he had wanted to do so. In fact it is impossible to say exactly what “all” the information would be in this [context].

[…] the specific path traced through what are actually indefinitely complex family interconnections is essentially conditioned by background interests and values […] Particular families are generated out of this network by means of operations that are essentially conditioned by specific interests and values.

But “in the actual world, in which everything is bound to and conditioned by everything else,” families are nothing like what these neat representations suggest. It is not just difficult but actually impossible to determine the family to which an individual belongs without assumptions dictated by our conventions, purposes, and values […]

Our concept of the family is tied to the idea of shared behavioural, morphological, or genetic features. But this is only because we are usually concerned with what is really the very short run, with the few generations within which such similarities may be important and obvious.

[Alexander Nehamas]
Nietzsche: Life as Literature, p. 100-2





There has been both over-reaction and under-reaction. Power grabs and abdications of responsibility to use power properly in crisis alike.

As a reaction, no one is thinking in superpositions. They are breaking off whatever pisses them off and reacting to that fragment.

Elon is breaking off the over reactions, power grabs and alarmist messaging creating panic. Those are real. But there are also under reactions and failures to act which he is ignoring. It’s multi-variate.

So expect everyone to rebel against the bungling with a simplified take.

[Eric Weinstein]
Twitter




We cannot simply go from saying “things are ordered” to saying “things are un-ordered” and leave it at that; things are both ordered and un-ordered at once, because in reality order and un-order intertwine and interact.

Kostof puts it well in his description of cities: “. . . the two primary versions of urban arrangement, the planned and the ‘organic,’ often exist side by side. . . . Most historic towns, and virtually all those of metropolitan size, are puzzles of premeditated and spontaneous segments, variously interlocked or juxtaposed. . . .”

In other words, it is useful to artificially separate order and un-order so that we can understand the different dynamics involved, but we should not expect to find one without the other in real life.

[Cynthia Kurtz & Dave Snowden]
'The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world'




We like stories, we like to summarise, and we like to simplify, i.e., to reduce the dimension of matters. The [narrative] fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.

Think of the world around you, laden with trillions of details. Try to describe it and you will find yourself tempted to weave a thread into what you are saying. A novel, a story, a myth, or a tale, all have the same function: they spare us from the complexity of the world and shield us from its randomness.

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Explanations bind facts together. They make them all the more easily remembered; they help them make more sense [...] Myths impart order to the disorder of human perception and the perceived “chaos of human experience.” Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

[...] narrativity comes from an ingrained biological need to reduce dimensionality [...] Information wants to be reduced […] it is impossible for our brain to see anything in raw form without some interpretation [...]  Compression is vital to the performance of conscious work […] By finding the pattern, the logic of the series, you no longer need to memorise it all. You just store the pattern. 

Our propensity to impose meaning and concepts blocks our awareness of the details making up the concept. However, if you zap people’s left hemispheres, they become more realistic - they can draw better and with more verisimilitude. Their minds become better at seeing the objects themselves, cleared of theories, narratives, and prejudice.

Why is it hard to avoid interpretation? It is key that […] brain functions often operate outside our awareness. You interpret pretty much as you perform other activities deemed automatic and outside your control, like breathing.

[Nassim Nicholas Taleb]
The Black Swan, p. 64-9