Hubris

I believe the evidence is clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity as one species out of millions in Earth’s biosphere. Hope and wish for otherwise as we will, there is no evidence of an external grace shining down upon us, no demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are, it seems, completely alone.

Edward O. Wilson

In Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, the title character hears a rumor that he may not be what he thinks he is: the son of Polybus and Merope, the King and Queen of Corinth. Polybus and Merope deny the rumor, but Oedipus seeks external confirmation, and visits the Oracle at Delphi. The oracle ignores his question, and instead prophecies that he will kill his father and wed his mother.

Oedipus has no evidence he is not his parents’ son. He has no evidence to suggest he will eventually kill Polybus and marry Merope. But the latter is a much bigger problem than the former, so Oedipus ignores the first small problem and acts on the second, leaving Corinth forever, so as to avoid this horrible fate. He then proceeds to live his life as if he had solved his problem. And, of course, because this is a Greek tragedy, he hadn’t.

Rumors are not facts. Prophecies are not proven theorems. Yet it is not true that Oedipus had no evidence that he was not his parents’ son. He had the rumor. He had the prophecy. In a Bayesian sense, he should have considered the odds of his being adopted having increased from 0% before hearing the rumor and the prophecy, to what–1%? 10%? 25%?–afterwards.

The odds being less than 50%, however, the logical thing for Oedipus to do when faced with any given binary decision is to act as if the rumor was false. That’s the choice that gives him the best odds of succeeding, based on the information he has.

 

Hubris is extreme pride and arrogance shown by a character that ultimately brings about his downfall.

Hubris is a typical flaw in the personality of a character who enjoys a powerful position; as a result of which, he overestimates his capabilities to such an extent that he loses contact with reality. A character suffering from Hubris tries to cross normal human limits and violates moral codes.

–Definition of Hubris from Literary Devices

Is it extreme pride and arrogance to make the most logical decision? If so, then the human condition is tragic no matter what decisions we make.

If we choose with the odds based on the best information we have, we risk making a catastrophic decision because we lacked a critical piece of data. If we choose out of rumor and superstition and fear, we risk living a life where bad decisions compound themselves with every choice we make, and we end up living a suboptimal life.

The more successful we are, however, the more likely we are to make the catastrophic decision that results in a classical, Greek-style tragedy. With every successful decision we make, the less likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that we are lacking that critical piece of information, and the more likely it is, in a Bayesian sense, that our decision-making process is sound.

If you have a decision-making algorithm, and you’re 50% sure it’s good, and then you test it, and it works, now you’re, what–51%? 55%? 60%?–sure that it works. Test it again and it works again, and the odds rise again. Eventually, if you reach the top of a hierarchy and stay there, you get really confident that you know what you’re doing. You’re the king!

Hubris, then, is the logical result of success. In every form of competition, somebody has to reach the top. The closer to the top you get, the more likely it is that you think your success is because of your knowledge and your decision-making process. The more you become certain that your data and your process are sound, the more you should logically make bigger and bigger bets based on that data and that process. And because of those bigger and bigger bets, the harder you will fall if and when it turns out that your data and/or your decision-making process was flawed.

 

But if you look at the impact those trades have on this particular team’s offense, it’s negligable. Offensively, the numbers tell us that losing Cespedes is no big deal.

Ken Arneson

If you look at Yoenis Cespedes statistically, there’s no real evidence that trading him would hurt the A’s very much. His numbers are mediocre, and easily replaced.

But looking back on the trade now, it feels like the A’s and their fans were focused on the wrong prophecy. The prophecy that a superstar ace pitcher was the missing piece to Moneyball. The significant rumor, the important piece of Bayesian evidence that we ignored was this: that the 2012-14 A’s team was not a product of Billy Beane’s genius. That this team played like complete and utter crap for five years, and then Yoenis Cespedes showed up, and it suddenly and immediately became good. That for 2 1/2 years, when Cespedes was in the lineup, the team played well, and when he was out of the lineup, the team played like crap, regardless of how well Cespedes was playing.

And then Beane, in his moment of hubris, trusting the logic and the data and the decision-making process that had made a best-selling book and a Hollywood movie of his life and had seemingly landed him in first place for 2 1/2 years, traded Cespedes away, and the team reverted immediately to playing like complete and utter crap again.

Could this Cespedes anomaly possibly, actually be real thing? No one can explain it. The fans don’t know why this Cespedes anomaly exists, and all the statisticians don’t know why, and Bob Melvin doesn’t know why, and Billy Beane doesn’t know why. There no evidence! It’s just rumor, innuendo, speculation, unfactual gobbledygook, completely illogical bullshit ex-post-facto rationalization.

But it’s there. It exists. It hurts to look at it. And it has all of us A’s fans wanting to poke our eyes out.

The gods hate us. They want to punish us for our pride and arrogance.

And you may say, gods are superstitious nonsense, that there is no evidence of an external wrath raining down upon us, no demonstrable cruel destiny or fate assigned us, no eternal Sisyphean existence vouchsafed us for the end of the present one.

And that’s true. There is no evidence for the existence of God, or gods. Except for the small, annoying, persistent rumor that at this particular point in time, we are here.

Why I Have Stopped Tweeting

Because my hands are full. Literally. In each hand, I am carrying a whipped cream pie. I carry these pies with me 24/7, one in each hand, which prevents me from tweeting. I shall carry this burden with me until I find the inevitable person who is wearing both Google Glass and an AppleWatch at the same time, at which time I shall throw these pies at said person for being such a pretentious twit. And then, having completed what I was sent here on earth to accomplish, I shall at long last be satisfied with my life, and I shall immediately thereafter ascend into the heavens.

The End.

(26178) 1996 GV2

(26178) 1996 GV2 is an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is small, so small that scientists can’t tell how small it is, only how brightly it reflects sunlight.

(26178) 1996 GV2 is small, and also faint.But despite its faintness, (26178) 1996 GV2 has been observed 800 times since it was discovered in 1996.That’s enough observations to calculate that (26178) 1996 GV2 orbits the sun every 4.4 earth years.(26178) 1996 GV2 does not make for a particularly illuminating blog entry.Other blog entries get interesting things when trick-or-treating from old Random Wikipedia.Not this blog entry. This blog entry says, “I got a rock.”Nobody cares about rocks.Unless they slam into the earth and cause mass extinctions or something.Then the rock becomes famous.So this blog entry is to blog entries what (26178) 1996 GV2 is to celestial bodies.It will be ignored and forgotten, just sitting there like a boring rock among countless boring rocks, unless I do something to stand out, to make myself famous.And just as the more people there are, the harder it is for a person to stand out, the more rocks there are, the harder it is for a rock to stand out.Can you imagine what Wikipedia would look like by the time we master interstellar travel?By then, they’ll have catalogged every rock orbiting around every star in this quadrant of the galaxy.Damn near every Random Wikipedia article that comes up will be about one rock or another because there are so many of them.There are a lot of rocks in the galaxy, I’m sure, so there will be lots of rocks in Wikipedia.Maybe one day, though, rocks will get demoted out of Wikipedia, unless it’s a planet.Do you ever feel sad that a planet didn’t form out of the asteroid belt?I feel like we’re missing out on a potentially interesting planet, instead of a bunch of rocks.Although, if there had been a planet there instead of an asteroid belt, we probably wouldn’t have had those chase scenes in Star Wars.OK, I guess the asteroid belt is worth it after all.I wonder, if you sent a rocket ship randomly through the asteroid belt, what are the odds you would actually crash into an asteroid?A lot less than the odds 3CPO gave that’s for sure, our asteroid belt not that dense.It is more spread out.Blah blah blah blah blah blah

And that is why people who are as dumb as rocks turn into trolls when they get online. They think this is their big chance to be a star. Nope, we see you, but you don’t have any brilliant ideas of your own. You’re just a rock. Go disappear into a catalog, like (26178) 1996 GV2.

Urease

Today, Random Wikipedia wants us to study urease, which is:

an enzyme that catalyzes the hydrolysis of urea into carbon dioxide and ammonia. The reaction occurs as follows:

(NH2)2CO + H2O → CO2 + 2NH3

I don’t really want to think about how pee breaks down. But I have been thinking about chemistry a lot lately. Mostly because I’ve been auditing an online course called the Fundamentals of Neuroscience.

I’ve been hoping to learn some juicy stuff about how the brain affects human behavior, but so far, the course has consisted entirely of the low-level details about the electrochemical properties of neurons. It’s all about how differences in the ratios of sodium, potassium and chlorine ions inside and outside a cell can lead to the flowing of electric currents via various chemical channels in the cell membrane. It blows my mind that this random soup of ions could arrange itself this complex way so as to send signals around a living body to respond to stimuli. And that this random soup of ions could arrange itself to make neurons, which arrange themselves to create networks of information, which arrange themselves to create human behavior, which arranges itself to create communities and nations — it’s hard to grasp the entire scope of all this.

Of course, we don’t grasp the entire scope of all this. We may know little pieces of it, like understanding exactly how to chemically block a sodium ion channel through a cell membrane in order to block pain signals. But the people who understand that probably don’t understand how drugs that block sodium ion channels get distributed through impoverished communities and create addiction and crime and distrust of poor people among authorities and distrust of authorities among poor people and economic vicious cycles that perpetuate that distrust.

Some people may have useful theories about how the big picture fits together but don’t understand the details. Others understand the details and but don’t see the big picture. The scope is too big for one human brain to comprehend. You have to hope there’s some mechanism through which a network of human brains can gather enough pieces to figure out a functional system instead of a disfunctional one, from low-level literal chemistry to higher-level figurative chemistry.

[insert sudden awkward segue to a very different topic here]

…and speaking of figurative chemistry, it’s amazing how poorly the Oakland A’s have played since trading away Yoenis Cespedes. On the spreadsheet, losing him shouldn’t make much of a difference. But no matter how brilliant Billy Beane is, he doesn’t understand the whole system from ion channel to World Series Champion. Nobody does, or can.

Who knew that how pee breaks down has anything to do with the Oakland A’s? Very few. But pee is part of the process, even if it’s not part of your model. Maybe there is some ununderstood literal or figurative chemistry that Cespedes provided which is affecting the A’s play.

I know that for me, as a fan, the trade has pretty much ended up ruining the season for me, and it would have even if the A’s were playing well. Because Cespedes, for me, provided the identity of the team. He was Us. Cespedes’ value as an entertainer was unmatched on the team. Every time he came to bat, and every time a ball was hit to him, my attention perked up, just in anticipation of what he might do. Even in a dreary game, he provided a reason to keep watching.

That reason is gone now. Jon Lester is a great pitcher, but he’s utterly joyless on the mound. And knowing that he’s a two-month mercenary, gone after the season is over, makes it difficult to create any emotional attachment to him. He’s not My Guy. Cespedes was My Guy.

As a result of trading the heart and soul of the team, I find that I’ve become detached. To me, the 2014 A’s season has now become all about The Destination instead of The Journey. So I find myself not caring whether I watch a game or not, because all that matters is the result. If they win, the trade was worth it. If they don’t, it wasn’t. So wake me up when the playoffs start, if the A’s even get there. In the meantime, I’ll hiding off here to the side, blocking all my sodium ion channels, numbing myself to all the inevitable pain that is soon to come.

Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters

NigerianEmbassy2

Random Wikipedia sends us today to the Committee on Trade, Customs, and Immigration Matters, which is a subdivision of the Pan-African Parliament. The Pan-African Parliament was established in 2004, and is similar in scope and goals to the European Parliament, aiming for central banking, unified currencies and free-trade zones. Obviously, to establish free-trade zones, you need rules and regulations regarding trade, customs and immigration between countries. Hence, this committee, probably tasked to create an African version of the Schengen Agreement.

Back in 1988-89 when I worked as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm (shown above, with me in the open window), I would not have envisioned that Africa would have come this far in 25 years. But they’re about at the same place the European Union was back then. In 1989, it wasn’t called the EU yet; it was the European Community. There were economic subgroups like the EEC and EFTA, but no common currency. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen, and as a consequence, Sweden and Finland were not yet willing to join such an alliance. The pieces were there, but it had not yet all come together.

Of course, there are some unstable countries in Africa, especially in North Africa after the Arab Spring revolutions. But Europe in 1989 similarly unstable when the Berlin Wall fell. It would have been really interesting to still be working in the Embassy to experience the Nigerian reaction to the Berlin Wall falling, but I left that job in June of 1989, and the Berlin Wall fell in November. My successor as translator worked there in interesting times, to be sure.

NigerianEmbassy1

Wow, look at how serious those young professional translators looked back in 1989!

“Please! Spare me your egotistical musings on your pivotal role in history. Nothing you do here will cause the Federation to collapse or galaxies to explode. To be blunt, you’re not that important.”
–Q, to Jean-Luc Picard, in the Star Trek TNG episode, “Tapestry”

You know, sometimes I feel like I’m living the life of the version of Jean-Luc Picard who didn’t get stabbed in the heart by a Nausicaan in that episode of Star Trek– the one who didn’t become a famous captain, the one who lived life too cautiously, who didn’t take risks, who drifted in life with no particular plan, and who as a result ended up with a decent, but forgettable and unremarkable career. But then I think, wow, I worked in European diplomacy as Communism was falling, and I worked in Silicon Valley as the Internet was starting, I got involved in blogging as social media became a thing, I covered the A’s as Moneyball introduced the world to statistical analysis. I’ve witnessed a lot of history unfolding, even if I never was the one who captained any ships to glory. All those events probably would have rolled on more or less the same without my being there. We can’t all be a Jean-Luc Picard (primary version). It is the nature of hierarchies that most of us, at best, are lucky just to be a Jean-Luc Picard (alternate version). I’ve been lucky.

Book Peddler

Today’s trip down Random Wikipedia lane introduces us to book peddlers, who were ‘travelling vendors (“peddlers”) of books.’ I’m not sure why book peddlers warrant a wikipedia entry, when other door-to-door salespeople like broom peddlers or brush peddlers don’t.

I’ve never peddled books much, but I’ve peddled blogs plenty of times. I’m a lousy peddler, though. I admire a good peddler, but it’s not for me. There is a good reason why in my career I have ended up in engineering departments instead of sales departments. I just want to focus on making good products and leave the sales work to teammates who are much better at it.

I am beginning a Twitter exile, partly to devote some of the time that Twitter sucked away to my family, but also to take some of that time to get back to doing some blogging. I don’t seem to be able to both blog and tweet at the same time. For me, it’s either one or the other.

So in exiling myself from Twitter to return to blogging, the arises whether to peddle my blog entries over on Twitter, despite my absence there otherwise. The question boils down to this: why do I write at all? Is it for the social rewards of praise from others? Or is it for the reward of a job well done?

Twitter in its purest form provides the former, blogging in its purest form provides the latter. While I have, on occasion, created a well-crafted tweet, it is more a source of quick, easy, (though ephemeral) social rewards than a place where to get the satisfaction of a job well done. And while I have, on occasion, written a blog entry that provided the social rewards of being widely praised, most of the time, even the blog entries I gained deep satisfaction from writing have largely gone unnoticed and/or unfeedbacked.

And so an experiment: I’m going to quit peddling what I write, and I’m going to remove all analytics from my web site, and all comments, so unless someone takes the trouble to email me, I will have no idea whether anyone reads my stuff or not. Any peddling will come purely from the kindness of strangers, not from me. Is writing well its own reward? I guess I’ll soon find out.