Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: philosophy (page 1 of 2)

There is value in adapting to the world

When I was younger, I was obsessed with the following maxim from George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

That quote sprung to mind when I read this post by Sam Stephenson where he explains why he doesn’t invest too much effort in his dot files. Here’s the key bit:

What I discovered is that in many cases, my ability to adapt to a foreign environment without frustration is more important than the benefits of configuring a local environment to suit my whims. And that being able to quickly recreate my environment from scratch is an asset.

I fall more into Stephenson’s camp than I do into Shaw’s at this point, at least when it comes to my own tools. As software developers, we are trying to build things that adapt the world to ourselves, but with experience, I find it more and more important not to bind myself too tightly to any particular tool or process.

On the misuse of Occam’s Razor

This weekend I read an interesting post about Occam’s Razor but decided not to blog about it, until I came across someone misusing Occam’s Razor and couldn’t suppress the need to clear my throat. In a post about digital camera pricing, I read the following sentence:

Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest answer is the most likely one.

This is not correct. Here’s how Wikipedia defines Occam’s razor:

Occam’s razor, often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae, translating to law of parsimony, law of economy or law of succinctness, is a principle that generally recommends selecting the competing hypothesis that makes the fewest new assumptions, when the hypotheses are equal in other respects.

The important part of the sentence is not about simplicity, but about selecting a hypothesis. When you’re trying to figure out which explanation for something you’ve observed is correct, the best approach is to test the hypothesis that you can eliminate most quickly. This has nothing to do with the fact that the simplest answer is probably correct, but rather that it makes sense to start with the possibilities that are easiest to eliminate.

This is particularly relevant to scientific experimentation, but it applies to problem solving in general. When you find a bug in your application, Occam’s razor would suggest that it makes sense to start by examining the code you just wrote yourself rather than checking Google to see whether there’s a bug in MySQL that has suddenly manifested itself and caused the incorrect behavior.

Blaming your own code requires only one new assumption — that you made a mistake when you were writing code that has yet been tested. Blaming MySQL requires you to assume that there is a bug in MySQL that has not been fixed or perhaps even detected and that your code (which is theoretically correct) somehow causes this bug to manifest itself. Perhaps to you, looking at your own code first may seem blindingly obvious, but to many developers it is not.

The point here is that Occam’s razor is a tool for problem solving (or experiment design), not a short cut that lets us skip problem solving entirely. In many cases, the simplest explanation is not correct, but it’s hard to be sure until you’ve eliminated it as a possible explanation.

Where libertarians and liberals could find common ground

I’ve been reading the new Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog with interest. I’m not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I find myself in agreement with many of the principles that underpin it as a political philosophy. Jacob Levy gets at the heart of the differences between liberals and libertarians and then explains why, from a political perspective, they are not really very important:

So libertarianism as a doctrine in political philosophy had this distinctive contribution to make: it rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor. I think by gradual drift, that came to seem like all libertarianism was concerned with.

But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action. This is politically predictable, almost trivially so. But that means that the focus on libertarianism’s apparent philosophical difference with Rawlsian liberalism gives us a very distorted sense of the work libertarians could do politically in the world. We don’t live in a Rawlsian world, separated from Nozick’s by the existence of poverty-alleviation programs. We live in a world characterized by massive state action of all sorts, most of which does nothing to alleviate poverty and a great deal of which is actively regressive or harmful to the worst-off.

If everyone in America understood those two paragraphs, this country would be a much better place.

Paul Buchheit on living life

I didn’t link to the original “tiger mom” story that was published in the Wall Street Journal because I’m not a parent and I don’t know a whole lot about parenting. Besides, people who criticize other people’s parenting styles are jerks. (If you missed the original article, it’s here.)

Today I read Paul Buchheit’s response, which discusses intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation contains a lot of wisdom. You can’t beat his basic approach to life:

My strategy can be reduced to two rules: 1) Find a way to make it fun and 2) If that fails, find a way to do something else.

And this hit home for me, as I’m sure it does for many people:

One of the problems I’ve faced throughout life is that I’m kind of lazy, or maybe I lack will power or discipline or something. Either way, it’s very difficult for me to do anything that I don’t feel like doing.

I think that a life full of things you feel like doing is a pretty good life. Oddly enough, for me they don’t necessarily have to be fun as long as they enable to attain a goal that is genuinely important to me.

The false choice between career and relationships

Yesterday, David Brooks wrote a column on relationships and happiness that gave me a lot to think about yesterday. I was quite taken with it at first, but the more I thought about it, the less impressed I was. In it, he argues that a successful marriage trumps a successful career when it comes to the pursuit if happiness:

Nonetheless, if you had to take more than three seconds to think about this question, you are absolutely crazy. Marital happiness is far more important than anything else in determining personal well-being. If you have a successful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many professional setbacks you endure, you will be reasonably happy. If you have an unsuccessful marriage, it doesn’t matter how many career triumphs you record, you will remain significantly unfulfilled.

The question was, would Sandra Bullock have been better off with a happy marriage or her Oscar? But that’s really a stupid question, because clearly Sandra Bullock would have chosen the type of person to marry that she described in her acceptance speech rather than someone who pretended to be that type of person while cheating on her at every opportunity had she known better. To pretend that there was any kind of choice to make is silly.

I think the positive aspect of his column is that it serves to remind people that good relationships are a big part of being happy, and that the government should evaluate policy in terms of whether it encourages good relationships. (On that note, given that marriage is such a huge contributor to happiness, disallowing same-sex marriage seems even more inhumane than ever.) But I think that Brooks’ column sets up a false choice.

In some cases career advancement and personal relationships are in opposition, but in many cases they are not. Generally speaking, the best recipe for happiness is to have a fulfilling career and to have a fulfilling marriage. If one is unfulfilling, it tends to rub off on the other.

Every once in awhile it does come down to a tough choice between the two. Do you really want to take that job that is going to require you to travel 26 weeks a year? Is it worth taking a job that means you will often come home too late to have dinner with the family? More often than not, though, people make poor decisions when choosing between negative impulses and the goals they claim to have. And it’s those bad decisions that ruin their careers and their marriages.

Time versus priorities

Here’s Scott Berkun on The Cult of Busy:

The phrase “I don’t have time for” should never be said. We all get the same amount of time every day. If you can’t do something it’s not about the quantity of time. It’s really about how important the task is to you.

When I was in college around 20 years ago, I remember a friend telling me that he tried to read the Wall Street Journal every day. I told him I didn’t have time to read the newspaper, which was a ridiculous statement, because I always had plenty of time to play Tetris in the dorm or go out and eat cheap Tex-Mex. He told me that it wasn’t a question of time, but of priorities. I don’t know that I ever claimed not to do something because I didn’t have time again. This was one of the few really useful lessons that I really picked up early.

Tyler Cowen on happiness

People should strive to be more interesting and more responsible.  Happiness may result as a byproduct, but those are more important values.

Tyler Cowen discussing Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I’m a conservative

Here’s Andrew Sullivan’s definition of a real conservative:

At the core of real conservatism is a distinction between theory and practice, a deep resistance to ideology, a respect for free inquiry and the philosophic spirit, a respect for social stability and coherence, a moderation in governance and a deliberation in action.

Is purity ever really a virtue?

Humans have a strange obsession with purity — it’s often accepted that the more “pure” something is, the better it is. By way of Simon Willison, I saw this quotation from Mark Pilgrim about HTML:

Anyone who tells you that HTML should be kept “pure” (presumably by ignoring browser makers, or ignoring authors, or both) is simply misinformed. HTML has never been pure, and all attempts to purify it have been spectacular failures, matched only by the attempts to replace it.

It made me really think about the utility of the concept of purity. I think that placing a high value on purity is in nearly all cases a case of intellectual laziness. An obsession with purity allows you to avoid critically evaluating factors that might otherwise go into making the best decision. For example, let’s say I’m writing an application using Ruby on Rails and I need an XML parser. Some would argue that I should only use “pure Ruby” XML parsers and leave it at that, but that’s not helpful. Impure parsers may be faster, or offer more features. On the other hand, pure Ruby parser may be easier to deploy. But the discussion should center on those competing benefits, not on the abstract concept of purity.

If you look at the history of purity as a virtue over the course of human history, you will certainly find that any fixation on it has been unrealistic at best and disastrous at worst. Reject purity. It’s overrated.

Half of life is showing up (and asking questions)

One of my favorite old saws is the saying, “Half of life is just showing up.” I like it because it’s true — one of the keys to getting the most out of life is having a large number and variety of experience. Chris Dixon adds a key corollary to that point — don’t forget to ask questions.

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