Posts tagged with context

But there were also more profound features, which took me a long time even to notice, because they are so at odds with modern experience that neither New Guineans nor I could even articulate them. Each of us took some aspects of our lifestyle for granted and couldn’t conceive of an alternative.

Those other New Guinea features included the non-existence of “friendship” (associating with someone just because you like them), a much greater awareness of rare hazards, war as an omnipresent reality, morality in a world without judicial recourse, and a vital role of very old people. …

Many of my experiences in New Guinea have been intense—a sudden encounter at night with a wild man, the prolonged agony of a nearly-fatal boat accident, one broken little stick in the forest warning us that nomads might be about to catch us as trespassers …

Jared Diamond, The World Before Yesterday

via University of David

If you buy a loaf of bread from the supermarket both you and the supermarket (its shareholders, its employees, its bread suppliers) are made to some degree better off. How do I know? Because the supermarket offered the bread voluntarily and you accepted the offer voluntarily. Both of you must have been made better off, a little or a lot—or else you two wouldn’t have done the deal.

Economists have long been in love with this simple argument. They have since the eighteenth century taken the argument a crucial and dramatic step further: that is, they have deduced something from it, namely, Free trade is neat.

If each deal between you & the supermarket, and the supermarket & Smith, and Smith & Jones, and so forth is betterment-producing (a little or a lot: we’re not talking quantities here), then (note the “then”: we’re talking deduction here) free trade between the entire body of French people and the entire body of English people is betterment-producing. Therefore (note the “therefore”) free trade between any two groups is neat.

The economist notes that if all trades are voluntary they all have some gain. So free trade in all its forms is neat. For example, a law restricting who can get into the pharmacy business is a bad idea, not neat at all, because free trade is good, so non-free trade is bad. Protection of French workers is bad, because free trade is good. And so forth, to literally thousands of policy conclusions.

Deirdre McCloskey, Secret Sins of Economics

A wonderful essay. I’ll just add what I think are some common answers to common objections:

When we do something in a default style acquired unconsciously, it is like typing on the only typewriter we have ever known: we do not notice the style of our activity any more than we notice the typeface on the machine. In such cases, we have an abstract concept of action that leaves style out of account.

We can have a concept of lying without being aware…that, in practice, we must have a style of lying. We can have a concept of quarreling without being aware…that in practice, we must have a style of quarreling.
from Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas & Mark Turner (via untilasinglesolitonsurvives)

One must be very naïve or dishonest to imagine that men choose their beliefs independently of their situation.

Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

(via hollovv, matryoshhka)

  • Roshi: What are we surrounded by--on all four sides?
  • Steve: Walls.
  • Roshi: What do the walls make?
  • Steve: The Zendo.
  • Roshi: Do they? What is inside the Zendo?
  • Steve: You, me, the Keisaku stick.
  • Roshi: But what is the _essence_ of the zendo? Could it be right here?
  • Steve: There isn't anything there.
  • Roshi: Aha! Now we are getting somewhere. Let's look at our big mistakes. What makes the lines of the characters on the page?
  • Steve: The space around them?
  • Roshi: Good! And the zendo?
  • Steve: The space in it.
  • Roshi: Yes! It is both the forms that surround us and the spaces with no form at all -- and how they interact together. It is what is in space and what is not. It is how we experience the relationship.

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia.

The question isn’t just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole.
Jaron Lanier


Ever since I took too many mathematics classes, I started using the concept of “upper bound” literally. It confuses people.

  • Girlfriend: How long do you think it’ll take you to work out?
  • Me: Oh, I don’t know. I’d say less than five hours.
  • Girlfriend: Five hours?! What are you planning to do there?
  • Me: I didn’t say it would take five hours. I said it would take less than five hours.

Well, it did take me less than five hours. It took me an hour and a half.


Same problem with confidence intervals — I give these very literal answers. My former boss told me a story about a “rationality test” she was given, by a statistician or something. First she was asked to guess some fact that only a 5th grader would know, like how many tons the moon weighs or what’s the square mileage of Antarctica. Then the statistician asked her to give 90% confidence bounds. That’s, you’re 90% sure that the value is between these two numbers. Most people fail by saying numbers close to their original guess.


My boss just said, "I’m confident that the number is somewhere between zero and a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion … trillion." Well she was correct! And she was one of the only ones.

You can make confidence bounds as wide as you want and be logically correct. People will look at you in bewilderment when you say things like “I’ll be gone somewhere between two seconds and seven days,” but you will not be a liar.


Mathematicians are the only people who go around making statements like “I found out that the answer is greater than 6 and less than 3→3→64→2. I’m pretty sure the answer is 13, though.

(3→3→64→2 is bigger than billions of universes.)


It’s not even the difference between certainty-of-proof and casual guesstimation. It’s the difference between giving an upper bound and giving the least upper bound (supremum).

I can say with complete confidence that I will never earn over 10^18737 pounds in my life, no matter how much hyperinflation or life extending medicines lie in the future. I can say the same about 10^18736 pounds. How low am I willing to go with these statements? Ay, there’s the lub.


No less of an intellect than Paul Graham swaps upper and lower bounds. In describing how he’s designing a new programming language (arc) with the goal that useful programs should be as short as possible in it, he writes:

That’s part of why I focus on code size. Length is an external constraint. If you start looking at code thinking "what is the lower bound on how long this has to be?" you’re one step from discovering the new operator that will make it that short.

I might be the only person who reads this and is confused. When I hear “lower bound” I think “Nothing is lower than the lower bound. It has to be bigger than the lower bound.” But then he is talking like putting a lower bound on the code means the code is shorter. Zoinks?

And then I’m like, oh. Duh. He means “the lower bound on the upper bound on how long this has to be.” Supremum. Well you could have just said that, Paul. Or I could not think so literally.