Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Grand irony

Perhaps it's surprising that association of economic progress with disillusion is western peculiarity. As a major political and social stream the left and the youth have always been conspicuously ungrateful for the benefits conferred by capitalism not the least of which has been functioning educational system and state institutions that has been instrumental to a conducive environment where they roam, think and live free. I wonder if they notice the irony.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

narrative fallacy

did you see John Kerry's article on Afghan unity government? link below and my thought is:

Politicians have us convinced that their measure is useful by pointing out instances where it proved helpful, not those where it was a waste of time, or, worse, those numerous objectives that were not met inflicted a severe cost on society owing to the highly unempirical nature of their approach. we naturally tend to look for instances that confirm our story and our vision of the world (narrative fallacy). one of those visions deal with the duality of nature - evil and good. this makes it possible for the government to construct stories that would fit our vision of the world and have us get behind it. You take past instances that corroborate your theories and you treat them as evidence. they will brush aside the numbers instances they failed. any fool with the tool can prove what they are looking for, a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence. The government has massive resources to hire researcher to prove whatever they needed to be proven.  the exploitation of our confirmatory bias is then mixed with attempts like this; they will deliberately confuse audience when it suits them, they will be happy to show us their "accomplishment” and frame it as social accomplishment while there is no societal benefit from them having their job done. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

knowledge is overrated

In the last decade and half that I was part of the Afghan media circle I have come to notice that journalists tended to focus not necessarily around the same opinions but frequently around the same framework of analyses. They assign the same importance to the same sets of circumstances and cut reality into the same categories, creating an environment where opinions and analysis are based on each other. The character of the Afghan state was reclaimed a democracy after three decades of roller coaster that took it from democracy to Islamic republic to Islamic emirate. While Afghanistan had traditionally been part of Central Asia with centuries of cultural and linguistic ties it was moved to south Asia overnight, the things the mind can do - heave off an entire country. but the natives did not become conditioned to any of this; as the years passed by this become a game of the elites and far removed from the people. this should already be surprising, people carry on with their lives no matter what others make of them or think of them.  A friend who happened to be a journalist too once asked me what is the news on the street and I gave him the usual run down he readily replied “no, no. not that, the word on the street, the small talks”. he travelled around in taxis and relished a chat with the cabdriver. I later realised that he was up to something. I noticed that very intelligent and informed persons were at no advantage over cabdrivers in their predictions, but there was a crucial difference. Cabdrivers did not believe that they understood as much as learned people—really, they were not the experts and they knew it. Nobody knew anything, but elite thinkers thought that they knew more than the rest because they were elite thinkers, and if you’re a member of the elite, you automatically know more than the non elite. you might think that I am being harsh of the educated but there is a whole lot of literature out there that reveals the relation between power and access on one hand and the monopoly over knowledge; I have first hand experience of western graduates and hillbillies running top organisations or setting agenda from an advisory position. The reason Afghans took the back seat role was because the westerners had access to information or at least sources that packaged information. It is not just knowledge but information that can be of dubious value. It came to my notice that almost everybody was acquainted with current events in their smallest details. hundreds of radio and television stations had been set up with assistance from westerners and sponsored by warlords. The overlap between news was so large that you would get less and less information the more you knew. Yet everyone was so eager to become familiar with every fact that they read every freshly printed document and listened to every radio station as if the great answer was going to be revealed to them in the next bulletin. as a member of the elites and one who worked parallel with the westerners I can confirm that the problem was even worst among the westerners. they spent most of their working day gathering news from mass media and most of the afternoon in networking, euphemism for an event dedicated to information exchange.

Another variation of the same event you can see in the banking and investment industry. after the financial crush of 2008 it should be obvious to us that nobody really knew what was going on but the bankers found away to wrap their information in mathematics. don’t get me wrong the maths were accurate so is much of the information in the media but then why are we fooled.  it is a problem of knowledge and science. My idea is that not only are some scientific results useless in real life, because they underestimate the impact of the highly improbable (or lead us to ignore it), but that many of them may be actually creating false expectations and distorted probabilities. worst of all the scientific method can convincingly explain unforeseen events after its occurrence, boosting our conviction to deal with the world as we did and by using science and information. 

Generalisation is necessary for humans, but it becomes pathological when the category is seen as definitive, preventing people from considering the fuzziness of boundaries, let alone revising their categories. intellectual contagion was the culprit. If you selected one hundred independent-minded journalists capable of seeing factors in isolation from one another, you would get one hundred different opinions. But the process of having these people report in lockstep caused the dimensionality of the opinion set to shrink considerably—they converged on opinions and used the same items as causes. For instance, to depart from Afghanistan for a moment, reporters now refer to “2013 UK chart” assuming that there was something particularly distinct about music, bankers agreed on crazy indicators as explanatory factors of the quality of worthiness of individuals. If you want to see what I mean by the arbitrariness of categories, check the situation of polarized politics. The next time a Martian visits earth, try to explain to him why strong Scottish independence fever is in response to the rise of Euro Scepticism in England, Scotland would rather exit the Union with Celtic and anglo-saxon neighbours and enter one with a few dozen countries which are thousands of miles away;  or while Scottish politician are in favour of more political freedoms they oppose economic freedoms. try explaining that while Obama administration seeks to address factionalism in Iraq by supporting a central government its trying to achieve the same aim at the same time in Syria by fighting against the government. or try riddling the reason Obama administration is planning to remove Syrian president is because he is seen as evil while the administration is allied with Saudi King or Qatari government or Iraqi government which is as evil and corrupt. I noticed the absurdity of categorisation when I was quite young. The best way to prove the arbitrary character of these categories, and the contagion effect they produce, is to remember how frequently these generalisations reverse in history. Libertarians used to be left-wing. Saddam Hussain was american ally. Christian Intellectuals until mid 20 century were anti-Semite while Muslims were Jewish allies. Ukraine was Russian slav brothers. Poland has a two century experience of partition and occupation and now is at the forefront and payroll of American quasi imperial expeditionary wars. Afghan political elites were staunched anti foreign who fought the Soviets and Pakistan for  two decades and now under American thumbs. any student of history can not stop once they start the counts of these ironies. What is interesting to me is that some random event makes one group that initially supports an issue ally itself with another group that supports another issue, thus causing the two items to fuse and unify … until the surprise of separation. Categorising always produces reduction in true complexity. Any reduction of the world around us can have explosive consequences since it rules out some sources of uncertainty; it drives us to a misunderstanding of the fabric of the world. For instance, killing teachers, destroying schools, killing health professionals and destroying hospitals were legitimate targets and pursued  by American Administration in Afghanistan through Islamic radicals for a decade until the same people destroyed a few of your buildings.  

Since I have moved to the UK I have been astonished and bewlidered at how efficiently this country functions. there is no doubt that British people and those in charge of the country are knowedgable but according to my narrative knowledge is useless so what was the secret of the success. until it finally hit me, it was freedom. intelligent people and decision makers do not create prosperity; its efficient systems that create prosperity by nurturing an environment where contradictory opinions shape and struggle against each other and individual and group sets on various courses, some would fail while others would succeed. its this fertile ground for trial and error that is the reason for success. the opposite of intelligent society is not unintelligent society but efficient society. you need the opposite of intelligent society to achieve property. my idea of efficient society was reinforced when I took up for awhile trading futures, forex and other financial commodities. I realised that there is no way to derive profits from traded securities since these instruments have automatically incorporated all the available information. Public information can therefore be useless, particularly to a businessman, since prices can already “include” all such information, and news shared with millions gives you no real advantage. Odds are that one or more of the hundreds of millions of other readers of such information will already have bought the security, thus pushing up the price. I then give up watching Bloomberg and reading Financial Times. I also thought myself mathematics and run technical analysis on the market. this too was useless as i realised the strain of technical trading would wear me down and panic would easily set in when we face losses.markets are efficient not because of scientific tools or perfect information but because of the participant interaction. 

I would like to use this arguement to drive a couple of lessons that we can apply to the current events. I think the election in Afghanistan is a farce, it has no impact on prosperity as a matter of fact it has negative impact on property by causing ethnic agitation and factional confrontation. the salvation of Afghanistan is to stop elections and create an efficient system of governance. the same argument applies to Scottish independence. the question scots should ask is whether the system is working or not and whether they feel nationalistic or not. having a Scottish government led by Scottish politician will have no impact on prosperity.