The Future

We say ‘let go’ and let it (whatever it is) run by itself. It’s all about the initial articulation. That’s the power of The Future, leading the participant toward an exacting articulation of vision, building that articulation through questions, until it is strong enough to work with internal motivation: ‘Just let go.’

We are taking the ‘go with the flow’ principle of Daoism (there is no ‘future‘), and merging it with pointed Socratic questioning (which works towards an end goal, but without the weak consumerist clinging to a final product).

I am convinced that the best new ideas come from an intuitive merging of ‘good ideas’ from very different contexts.

The easiest two contexts are east and west. Steve Jobs injected capitalism with eastern wisdom – others try but care too much about the final result. You need to be a maverick, an outsider, to make the intuitive connections unhampered by conventions.  

Everything is a concept (Kantian), everything is part of a discourse, and once that is an accepted truth, those conventional/convenient concepts are there to be played with. Never more than play. That’s where those Silicon Valley knobs went wrong. They took play too literally and ended up slumping, overworked, on astroturf office floors. Slaves will never know how to play.

Interpreting Probability

What do we mean when we say that an event has a 50% chance of happening?

One straightforward interpretation is that if we played out some situation 100 times, we’d expect that the event would occur 50 times. This approach, called the frequentist interpretation in the philosophical literature, is an intuitive way of thinking about, for example, the chance that a fair coin will land heads up when flipped. We can easily imagine flipping a coin 100 times to check empirically how often it comes up heads. Note that each flip is similar to the last, but not entirely the same–assuming the coin flipping process is deterministic, if we held the initial conditions fixed, we would expect the same result every time. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on the Philosophy of Statistics:

This leads to a central problem for frequentist probability, the so-called reference class problem: it is not clear what class to associate with an individual event or item (cf. Reichenbach 1949, Hajek 2007). One may argue that the class needs to be as narrow as it can be, but in the extreme case of a singleton class of events, the chances of course trivialize to zero or one.
(Footnote about radioactive decay and quantum processes). That said, if we’re not being rigorous, it’s not too taxing to take these minor variations (height of the flip, wind conditions, ambient temperature, etc.) in stride and assume that we can all agree on what it means to flip a coin 100 times.

The same cannot be said for more complex (or time-sensitive) events, such as an earthquake hitting the San Francisco Bay area in the next 10 years, or someone surviving a cruise ship catastrophe. How would we reproduce these happenings? What would we need to hold fixed, and what could we change? Are such events amenable to a probabilistic description to begin with? If they are, whatever probabilities we ascribe to them don’t seem to make sense under the frequentist model described above.

In these cases, we can look to the models that produced those numbers to begin with to see what they mean. For instance, if our Titanic survival model made use of a Naive Bayes algorithm, we’d be mightily justified in making sense of it under a Bayesian (or subjective, or epistemic) interpretation. That is to say, the probability in question doesn’t represent some frequency of a physical process; rather, it’s more a measure of how strongly we believe in the outcome. Again from the SEP:

Probabilities may be taken to represent doxastic attitudes in the sense that they specify opinions about data and hypotheses of an idealized rational agent. The probability then expresses the strength or degree of belief… a view that places probabilities somewhere in the realm of the epistemic rather than the physical, i.e., not as part of a model of the world but rather as a means to model a representing system like the human mind.

There are other interpretations, e.g. ones involving a notion of “propensity”, but this is confusing enough as it is, so anyone interested can head to this Wikipedia article for a better explanation.

A somewhat orthogonal consideration is how to measure the accuracy of models that output probabilities… for instance a model could say person A has a 68% chance of surviving, which is enough to classify them as a survivor, and we can say the model itself is 76% accurate based on how it performs on historical data… but that’s a discussion for a different post.

P.S. My preferred take on this episode of Black Mirror (spoiler alert, sort of?) has it engaging with the frequentist interpretation as it pertains to relationships; maybe not saying much about it, but engaging with it nonetheless. The system in this episode could, on a very positive reading, be used to create couplings that have the best qualities of love-based relationships (e.g., a sense of agency, getting to pick who you want), and arranged marriages (enumerated in this article). But again, I digress.

She was fine when she left here – The Titanic museum and its implications for Battle School

Walking along the River Lagan to the Titanic Belfast, there’s a sign advertising something or other somewhere along the way that reads: “She was fine when she left here.” An allusion to the incredible feat of engineering proudly accomplished in Belfast, as well as to the Titanic’s deadly fate, it belied the fact that not all was fine in Belfast during the construction of the Titanic, and not just because of the dearth of lifeboats aboard. The museum itself presented a more nuanced exploration of the Titanic. As we develop an interactive application to help students learn about the Titanic and their own hypothetical chances for survival had they been aboard, we should look to the Titanic Belfast for inspiration.

After buying a ticket, visitors to the museum pose for a photograph with old-timey luggage and props, indicating that you are about to enjoy what otherwise is a rather macabre topic (~1,500 deaths). People like to have fun, after all, and students in particular are more likely to buy-in to a topic if they are enjoying it, or at least interacting with it (not every topic lends itself to fun). The opening exhibit is well-placed, a discussion of the history of tribal and religious conflicts between protestants and catholics, British and Irish, unionists and republicans, putting the Titanic and Belfast in an important social and political context. Although somewhat perfunctory, it would be entirely inappropriate for the Northern Irish museum to skirt this topic that the throngs of tourists may have otherwise never have learned of, which for hundreds of years has torn apart the region in which the Titanic was built.

The bulk of the museum is dedicated to the design, regality, and rediscovery of the Titanic. Although at times seeming to gloss over the death of hundreds of third class passengers (even the china in third class was so nice!), somewhere along the way there is a rather haunting, interactive exhibit discussing the horrible working conditions of those that built the ship, many of whom died on the job. The museum ends with an exhibit on the surrounding oceans and marine biology, along with a call to action to protect the environment and local habitats.

Titanic Belfast is an example of the fact that even when you are learning about a famous passenger-boat that sank, you are (or should be) learning about so much more. How can the strengths of the museum (past and future social context, interactivity, multidisciplinary approach) be applied to our survival prediction app? More generally, how will Battle School help ensure that instead of learning myopically and passively, students are pushed to interact with and understand the historical context (more often than not involving heartbreaking tragedy) of a given topic? How will Battle School inspire the student to consider historical and present context (i.e. social & economic injustice, environmental disaster) to critically evaluate a topic, inform their priorities, and achieve their goals?