Attention is Everything

Being human has one distinctive drawback.  Namely we are finite. Finite means we are limited.  We are limited in the number of things we can think about, the number of things we can experience, the number of things we can do and the number of things we can invest our energy into.  As such you should realize something.  Where you direct your attention isn’t just important it is everything.

Therefore you should closely guard what you pay attention to.

Don’t fill your head with garbage.  Fill it with the things of your choosing.  Things that are important to you.

This wasn’t supposed to be about life advice and back to probabilistic reasoning and the rational mind.

Because your attention and energy are limited the brain has to choose what it should pay attention to.  This is the primary reason people dislike dealing with uncertainty. Dealing with uncertainty distracts their attention away from what is important to them. And uncertainty requires more brain energy than dealing with certainty.  So as much as possible are mind will attempt at least in the conscience portion to make things certain.

A quick Google search on “stupid people politics” lead to the following question on quora.coma: “Why do Americans elect stupid politicians?”  To which the number one answer is “Because people are stupid?”  I disagree I don’t think people are stupid.  They might be under informed, but that doesn’t make them stupid.  For many people giving attention to politics decreases their quality of life, so they rationally choose to pay little attention to it.  Additionally many issues in politics are complicated.  Predictions in complicated systems are very difficult. Furthermore many decisions in politics are zero sum decisions.  That is they hurt as much as they help, or at least they help some people while hurting others.  For instance free trade hurts unskilled laborers, especially manufacturers.  But it helps people whose jobs are location dependent such as plumbers electricians real estate agents are helped by it (lower prices).

There are many issues other than politics where people rationally choose to be under informed How many of us don’t think deeply about the way engines are designed.  And why should we?  Knowing the details of engines is unlikely to make much of a difference in your life unless you happen to be an engineer or a mechanics.   And although to me, it seems ridiculous that people wouldn’t want to know how engines work, it is also true that there are many things that I don’t know or care to investigate such as pop culture (e.g. movies, entertainment and fashion) and professional sports.

The point here is that where we give our attention directs what we know about what we can speak intelligently about but also what it is that we are under informed about.  What we are good at and what we “need” more practice in.

Because attention and energy are limited, we should expect that the mind 1.) has good priors about things which are important for survival and reproduction and 2.) Uses very efficient “algorithms”  when making decisions and lots of short cuts.  That is we expect the mind to have intuition about “life” decisions.  And we expect that we will utilize processes that settle on a suboptimal solution in exchange for faster learning.

Attention is Everything

Experience Graphs and Road Maps

Recently research out of Carnegie Mellon, U Penn and Willow Garage developed a new optimization tool, namely Experience Graphs.  Their paper is available here.  Lets start with an example.

Suppose you are visiting a new city.  For example, London.  London is a good choice for me because I have never been there and it is also a popular tourist destination .  We are in London staying at a hotel and decide we want to go visit Big Ben.  So we pull up google maps and ask google the best way to get there. Now once we go there we have a good time, then we drive home.

On the next day we want to go to Buckingham Palace or Trafalgar Square.  Instead of plotting a new route from home, we might instead remember how to get to Big Ben, and then look up how to get to Buckingham Palace from Big Ben.  Eventually, we begin to learn a few of the main streets and figure out how to get to places using our known paths to get there.

I hope we would all agree that this is an efficient way to quickly learn your way around a city.  Since some of you like using your GPS lets try a different example.

I am beginning to learn how to woodwork.  I know how to use bolts but not nails. (Technically I know how to use nails, I just don’t know how to not hammer my thumb when putting them in so I avoid them like the plague). There are certainly many situations where nails are a better tool than screws.  (Screws and bolts are stronger but also more expensive and take longer to put in). Because I am familiar with screws, I use them instead of learning how to use nails.  Why? Because there is a cost associated with learning to become good with nails, so I accept a suboptimal, but sufficient, solution instead of creating the optimal solution.

These are, in a sense, bad examples of why experience is useful. But we all have many tasks which we can do more rapidly because we have done it before.  For instance, I have just started putting eye drops into my dogs eyes and it is finally beginning to become easier after three weeks.  That is experience.  What is interesting about the experience graph is that it is a mathematical method of apply experience into robots and artificial intelligence.

The way an experience graph works is lets assume we have a graph.  We then create a subgraph (that is a graph consisting of parts of the original graph) which is based on experiences, i.e. things we already know how to do.  This new graph is called the experience graph.  When problem solving, solutions which use processes from the experience graph are then prioritized over solutions which don’t use the experience graph.  This allows the “artificial intelligence” to learn.

Experience Graphs and Road Maps

Fake News, Facts and Opinions

I have a different view on facts than most. Before we get into that, lets look at their definition. A defines a fact as

a thing that is indisputably the case

While an opinion is

a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

These definitions mean the classification of fact or opinion is subjective.  Lets look at an example. Consider the following example

Russia influenced our latest election.  According to John Schiendler, a columnist at the Observer who I respect.

Crazy to deny: Russian espionage & covert action influenced the 2016 election.

Crazy to believe: Russians literally “hacked” our election.

And yet Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ann Coulter all deny the former.

So is the idea that Russian espionage & convert action influenced our election is that an opinion or is it a fact.  If I had to classify it, I would say that it is an opinion. But I suspect Mr. Schiendler would call the Russian influence a fact. If you agree, lets go down the rabbit hole a little more.

  • Wikileaks is a GRU (Russian Intelligence Front).
  • The Source of the hacks on Hillary’s emails were Russian.
  • Donald Trump was elected fairly.
  • Donald Trump is a buffoon.
  • Hillary Clinton had a pay for play scheme with the Clinton Foundation.

Fact, opinion or false fact?  Who knows.  To be frank, I have a hard time enough time figuring out what is true anymore.

Because of this, I prefer a different classification.  Data and conclusions.  Data consists of things we measure i.e. touch, taste, see, hear and smell while conclusions are what we believe to be true because of the data.  Each conclusion can then have a degree of confidence based on how strongly the data supports the conclusion.

I read John Schindler’s arguments for how and why Russian influences elections and the examples he gave with Brexit, Crimea, Ukraine and the US (the data being Schiendler claimed ____).  I therefore concluded that the Russians attempted to influence the U.S. election through social media and wiki leaks.  Or perhaps it is better to say that I accepted John’s conclusions. I further suspect that they also succeeded in their attempt.

Ignoring the concept of fact and opinion and instead focusing on data and conclusions has been helpful in keeping the different narratives from the many sources straight during the last confusing year.  I hope the framework helps you deal with the “era of fake news”.

Fake News, Facts and Opinions

LAMMPS indent example with comments

I have recently been learning LAMMPS for one of my projects and while the documentation is decent, learning everything is a bit of a challenge. I might turn this into a decent tutorial on how to run LAMMPS. But for now, I have gone through the indent example and commented all the lines of code.  If you are learning LAMMPS as I am, I hope this helps.

# 2d indenter simulation

dimension 2
boundary p s p
#periodic in the x and z, and shrink wrapped in the y direction

atom_style atomic #sets atom style to atomic (only default values position, mass,
neighbor 0.3 bin
neigh_modify delay 5

# create geometry

lattice hex 0.9 #hexagonal lattice with 0.9 units between atoms
region box block 0 20 0 10 -0.25 0.25 #creates a geometric domain
create_box 2 box #creates a simulation box in region box of atom type two
create_atoms 1 box #creates atoms of atom type 1 in a box pattern

mass 1 1.0 #mass of atom 1
mass 2 1.0 #mass of atom 2

# LJ potentials

pair_style lj/cut 2.5 #lennard jones with cutoff of 2.5
pair_coeff * * 1.0 1.0 2.5 #lenard jones potential for all atoms with epsilon =1 (energy), sigma = 1.0 (distance) cutoff1 = 2.5

# define groups

region 1 block INF INF INF 1.25 INF INF #creates infinite region of all atoms with x<1.25
group lower region 1 #groups atoms called lower in region 1 (just defined above)
group mobile subtract all lower #groups into group mobile all atoms that aren’t in lower. Note that mobile is the indenter and lower is the
set group lower type 2 #sets atoms in group lower to type 2

# initial velocities

compute new mobile temp #id new computes temp of mobile group (indenter)
velocity mobile create 0.2 482748 temp new
fix 1 all nve
#holds constant number of particles, volume and total energy
fix 2 lower setforce 0.0 0.0 0.0
#zeros forces on all particles
fix 3 all temp/rescale 100 0.1 0.1 0.01 1.0
#resets the temperature of the particles by scaling their velocity every 100 steps with a desired temperature of 0.1. Will rescale temperature only if the temperature is more than .01 from its desired tempearture

# run with indenter

timestep 0.003 #sets time steps
variable k equal 1000.0/xlat
variable y equal “13.0*ylat – step*dt*0.02*ylat”

fix 4 all indent $k sphere 10 v_y 0 5.0 #command for creating an indenter with force k.
#the keyword sphere means
fix 5 all enforce2d
#forces model to be 2d, no movement in the z direction

thermo 1000
thermo_modify temp new

dump 1 all atom 250 dump.indent

#dump 2 all image 1000 image.*.jpg type type &
# zoom 1.6 adiam 1.5
#dump_modify 2 pad 5

#dump 3 all movie 1000 movie.mpg type type &
# zoom 1.6 adiam 1.5
#dump_modify 3 pad 5

run 30000 #runs for 30000 timesteps

# run without indenter

unfix 4 #removes indenter
run 30000 #runs for 30000 timesteps

LAMMPS indent example with comments


“Well, emotions are important”
*Blank Stare*
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten”

Having once been mistaken as autistic, I am not the authority on emotions.  But I am still going to write about them.  I grew up as a long distance runner and I read a saying by George Malley that went like this, “Yes you will get tired.  But what you need to understand is that it is just a feeling and it will pass”.  With that as my guiding light to feelings growing up, it’s no small surprise that I was mistaken as autistic later in life.  There is an important caveat.  I also learned to listen to my feelings.  If I was tired that didn’t necessarily mean I should or must stop, but it was feedback from my body.  That is my perspective on emotions is as follows:

All emotions are feedback.

That is emotions and feelings carry important information. Emotions and feeling are how your body communicates with itself.  If you are hungry: it is you body letting your conscious know “Hey you need to eat”.  If you are tired your body is telling you, “How about some rest, do you really need to be exercising so strenuously?”.  When my muscles are sore, they are telling me something isn’t perfect with them (sometimes it’s because they are rebuilding sometimes they are tied in knots and need to be stretched). If you dread seeing your boss, your mind is communicating with you.  If you are anger, it is because you believe something is wrong in the world.

Just because your emotions are telling you something doesn’t mean it is true. You could be angry with your friend because he/she isn’t treating you like the god-king of the world.  Even though you think you ought to be treated like the god-king of the world, they shouldn’t be treating you like the god-king, they should be treating you like their friend.  You start feeling tired long before you actually run out of energy.  You get hungry after three hours, but your body is capable of going weeks without food.  But in all cases your body is telling you what it thinks to be true.  It is sharing it’s conclusions with you.

Emotions are an information super highway.

They compact a ton of information into that wee little feeling. That cliff is scary don’t go too close. Emotions are the conclusions of your data and life experiences about your current situation. I am angry at you because you cheated on me and you promised me you wouldn’t.  Because emotions are conclusions from data, they tend to be weighted heavily.  That is are snippets that contain lots of information.  Emotions are then powerful communication tools either internally (between the body and the mind) or externally (between two or more people).  Because they are so powerful, they are the most effective communication and sales tools (why everyone tells you to sell with emotion).

So pay attention to emotions they are important data, but realize they will on occasion lead you wrong.

The most important thing though is not to conflate emotions with irrationality.  As that is the biggest mistake most people (and especially men) make.  Emotions are important.  That’s as far as I have gotten.


Russell Conjugation and Bayesian Thought

Russell Conjugation or emotive conjugations is the idea that a words connotation is more important than its denotation.  That is the emotional content of the word is more important than the factual content of the word.  Eric R. Weinstein in his essay on Russell conjugation puts it as follows

Where words can be considered “synonyms” if they carry the same factual content (I) regardless of the emotional content (II). This however leads to the peculiar effect that the synonyms for a positive word like “whistle-blower” cannot be used in its place as they are almost universally negative (with “snitch,” “fink,” “tattletale” being representative examples). This is our first clue that something is wrong, or at least incomplete with our concept of synonym requiring an upgrade to distinguish words that may be content synonyms but emotional antonyms.

The basic principle of Russell Conjugation is that the human mind is constantly looking ahead well beyond what is true or false to ask “What is the social consequence of accepting the facts as they are?”  While this line of thinking is obviously self-serving, we are descended from social creatures who could not safely form opinions around pure facts so much as around how those facts are presented to us by those we ape, trust or fear. Thus, as listeners and readers our minds generally mirror the emotional state of the source, while in our roles as authoritative narrators presenting the facts, we maintain an arsenal of language to subliminally instruct our listeners and readers on how we expect them to color their perceptions. Russell discussed this by putting three such presentations of a common underlying fact in the form in which a verb is typically conjugated:

I am firm. [Positive empathy]
You are obstinate. [Neutral to mildly negative empathy]
He/She/It is pigheaded.  [Very negative empathy]

In all three cases, Russell was describing people who did not readily change their minds. Yet by putting these descriptions so close together and without further factual information to separate the individual cases, we were forced to confront the fact that most of us feel positively towards the steadfast narrator and negatively towards the pigheaded fool, all without any basis in fact.

The key phrase is “without any basis in fact”.  The three statements have the same denotation, however, the differences in emotional connotation of the word conveys more information. That is, there are two pieces of evidence or data in each of these sentences. The first is the speakers belief that the subject does not change its views easily.  The second tells piece of information tells us about its effects.  The use of firm lets us know that speaker believes the quality is a good thing.  Whereas pig-headed lets us know that it’s a problem. Our language cleverly allows us to pass multiple pieces of information across such a short sentence. Imagine if we had to say the sentences as follows

I do not change my mind easily and this has good consequences for myself and the people around me.
You do not change your mind easily and it is mildly annoying.
He/She/It does not change his/her/its/ mind easily and it is a problem.

It becomes very obvious why we place most of the importance on the second piece of information–because the first piece of information is the same for each of the three sentences and only the differentiation is the second piece of information.

But back to “without any basis in fact” why would the listener pay heed to the first part of sentence (that the speakers believes the subject does not change opinions frequently) without believing the second part: whether the expression of this trait is good, bad, or mildly annoying.  It is very easy to confuse emotion with irrationality unless you realize that emotion is a summary of the facts weighted by importance. An intelligent listener will pay attention to both pieces of information. Unsurprisingly, humans do.

Pollster Frank Luntz stumbled onto the same concept by holding focus-groups with real time technology.  Luntz tested the concept (unaware of Russell’s philosophy) by comparing emotional response with changes in the connotation of words. From Weinstein’s essay:

What he found is that most people form their opinions solely on the Russell conjugation without thinking through the effects for themselves. That is, the very same person will oppose a “death tax” while having supported an “estate tax” seconds earlier even though these taxes are two descriptions of the exact same underlying object.

On the surface this seems very, surprising.  However this falls in line with what we discussed earlier.  Given two pieces of information about a subject in which case the first is the same.  We will use the second piece of information.

Since my mind was spinning at first, lets go back to a simple example to make sure we all understand.  Lets say you have to hire an employee.  You have two choices. Both went to the same college and got the same (appropriate) degree.  However one was a good student and one was a bad student.  Which do you hire?  Most of you would want to know what I mean by good and bad, but supposing you that information was unavailable to you (because I am mean and like to hide information), which would you choose?  I think we would all choose the “good” student. This is exactly what is happing with our estate and death tax.  The negative underlying connotation of death tax gives us information that it is the bad student (or unfair) while the lack of extra information about the estate tax tells us nothing about whether it is good or bad.

If we think of people as “logical”, then Russell conjugation doesn’t make any sense.  If however, we think of them as rational but working with incomplete information, not only does Russell conjugation make sense, but it also is what we should expect.

Russell Conjugation and Bayesian Thought