Course 17: Kilo

I was really bugged about this rationality paper for Prof. Kilo, who had degrees from the best Ivy League schools, a reputation for being smart, and an intimidating manner. Let me take a moment to explain my reasoning behind taking this goofy rationality class. I had studied artificial intelligence (AI) with a Course 6 (EE/CS) alumnus professor at Kansas Poly, Prof. Thayer, so I had an okay background in cognition and computational theory. However, I thought it was important to see how Course 17, political science, thought about how — people thought. The course was strange. It was team taught by multiple faculty, who gave lectures mostly on probability and game theory. Now of course that all makes sense given the impact of Judea Pearl on AI, but at the time I saw no empirical referent. That is, I didn’t see how all this discussion of cognition actually mapped to cognition in the real world because it all seemed to assume that actors had unlimited information and cognitive capacity to process that information, which just wasn’t plausible because it didn’t square with computational theory. A visiting professor lectured one afternoon on prospect theory, which argued people viewed equivalent positive gains and negative losses very differently. This made sense to me because it was based on experiments that showed how people’s actual cognition varied from strict rationality.

The class met in a small and dark room just off the Infinite Corridor, and I kept reading and figured that at some point I would “get it,” but I just never got it. It wasn’t just me though: after the last class, I saw another student in the hallway who commented to me in a low, conspiratorial tone, “The end of an error.” I went to see Kilo, and he was decidedly unhelpful. He just told me to write a paper on something. He had written a book on democracy, so I read it in hopes of figuring out what he was interested in as well as coming up with a paper topic. To put it bluntly, Kilo’s book was like the worst book I ever read — just plain dumb! His “idea” was that in an ideal society people would vote on everything. As an engineer, I figured it didn’t make too much sense to have people vote on circuit and software designs, and so I didn’t make sense to have people vote on all manner of public policy. Not only that, but the California recalls, referendums, and initiatives haven’t helped run the state any better or more efficiently. At the time I was familiar with the work of Friedrich von Hayek, who won the Nobel in Economics in 1974 and wrote that the central planning of the socialist economies did not have sufficient knowledge of the economy and computational capacity — that is, rationality — to process that knowledge even if they did, to set prices, which caused their economies, like that of the Soviet Union, to fail. The idea was that prices are best set in a decentralized manner by people throughout the economy in a distributed manner. Note that this does not sit well with politicians who, as a rule, have a nigh on insatiable appetite for power and its correlate, centralization.

So I reasoned that it was pretty obvious that having people vote on everything instead of having a central committee decide on everything was an analogous situation in that it still introduced excessive centralization. That is, how do people learn enough about an issue to vote and decide? Mostly people learn through television, and that introduced centralization because those who produce the programming can shape what ideas people are exposed to and how they are exposed to it. It seemed to me that Kilo was simply trading one form of centralization for another, so the societies the implemented his voting scheme would suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union because it would hinder the distributed decision-making necessary for a healthy economy because of limited information and limited rationality to process that information. I figure Kilo must have thought this through because it was so obvious — after all, the argument was based on the work of a Nobel Prize winner, so it wasn’t like it was secret — and after the fall of the Soviet Union, such concepts were certainly policy relevant. I wrote this up, but I was pretty sure I was wrong because Kilo had such a sterling academic background and reputation that he was sure to have thought of this, but I trusted my teacher that he would correct me gently, that I would learn something, and that this paper would likely lead to a productive conversation.

The first indication that there was trouble on the horizon was that Kilo did not turn my paper back and did not have a grade for me. I had already received three A’s, so I thought I was doing well, but this was my first semester in Course 17, so I didn’t really understand how things worked. He finally told me to meet him in his other office across the MIT campus. The building was an old wooden structure that had warped with age, which kind of had an out-of-kilter, fun house feel. I knocked on Kilo’s door and was invited in. The office was spare, and he was seated behind his desk, and I sat in a chair in front. There was a fading yellow light from the sunset. Kilo didn’t look me in the eye, and took the time to kill a fly before turning to me. He asked me how I could have done such a terrible thing. He said that was the worst paper he had ever seen as a professor. Kilo said the standard was clear, and I didn’t meet it. He said I had earned an F, but he was going to do me a favor and give me an incomplete. Kilo said he had checked my other grades, and he wanted to know what I had to say for myself. I was caught completely by surprise and didn’t know what to say. I told him my motivation that I hoped we could have a follow-on conversation, and he said he didn’t think that was possible. The paper was so bad that it was unrecoverable and couldn’t be re-written. He then said perhaps we should talk in couple of weeks after I had a chance to think about it.

It was dark when I left Kilo’s building, and the walk across campus was surreal. I felt as if I was in a fog. I felt sick. I had left my job, and started my studies in a whole new field, and it had all been going so well but in a single meeting, all my hopes and dreams had been dashed. How could I have been so wrong? I went back to my room and reviewed my logic and arguments, and it all still made sense to me. I scheduled another appointment with Kilo, and made my way to Kilo’s fun house, which to be completely honest, wasn’t that fun. I went into his office with as much confidence as I could muster. I apologized for the paper and said I was sorry that it had upset him. I then tried to guide the conversation in a productive direction by stating what I had been trying to do, to which Kilo interrupted and shouted me down, “Your paper meant nothing — NOTHING!” I looked at him evenly as he composed himself and said there was little benefit for us continuing this conversation, and it would be best if I just concentrated on my next semester’s classes. That made sense to me, and I left Kilo’s office. As I walked across campus this time though, I felt strangely better because even though I had an incomplete on my record, I thought to myself, “If my paper meant nothing Professor Kilo, then why were you so upset?”

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Course 17: Arrival

When I went to Course 17 — political science — I was young. I was idealistic. Let’s be honest — I was naive. Course 17 beat that out of me. It was painful in the short-term, but perhaps healthful in the long-term? We’ll have to see, but I went to Course 17 to receive an education in politics, and I did, so to that extent, Course 17 delivered. Let me state right off though that I survived, but some didn’t, which I will describe. It’s a dangerous game, but it didn’t seem so at the time.

However, Course 17 is set within an engineering school — possibly the most famous engineering school in the world, so let’s not be coy, MIT — so I went thinking it was possible to blend engineering and political science. It turns out that, in my experience anyways, that is not possible. In Course 17, it was not enough to be merely correct, one needed to be politically correct. The problem is, the requirements of political correctness are not advertised. They are not made available for scrutiny because they would not pass scrutiny. Instead, those who are in the know have inculcated the rules, and the club — as I came to understand years later — is socialism.

I went to Course 17 as a kind of experiment. I didn’t want to be an “in your face” conservative, but I didn’t want to back down in the face of socialism either. I figured that sticking to engineering-based arguments in an engineering school would provide safety and prove a winning strategy. I figured the conservatives who had tried academia and failed were insufficiently brave, or committed, or smart. Perhaps I was being arrogant, but I was going to put my money where my mouth was. I was going to give it a go. Part of the experiment would be to find out if I did get into trouble, what form would it take? How would I find out? How would the threat become manifest? And to be perfectly honest, I didn’t sweat getting kicked out too much because I’m a good computer scientist, so I trusted in my ability to land on my feet because I had a backup plan.

So why am I writing this? Because I want to take you behind the doors of a socialist incubator, right here on American soil. People don’t believe socialism exists. And if they do, then they think it is slightly nutty, academic, and benign. I used to believe that too, but I don’t believe it any longer. Socialism threatens America, and an unblinking analysis of it is uncomfortable. Confronting it requires intelligence, bravery, and confrontation, which doesn’t blend naturally with most Americans’ love of leisure, wealth, and peace.

With that preamble, I came to Course 17 with an engineering background from Kansas Polytechnique, or Kansas Poly in Manhattan, KS, where I was taught by an alumnus, Professor Thayer, from real-MIT, electrical engineering / computer science (EE/CS), or Course 6. So at first I was ecstatic at the thought of going to Course 17, and initially it turned out super well. I signed up for four courses, and in three of them I earned As. The fourth one didn’t go as well, a course that went by the deceptively simple name, “Rationality,” which was taught by an academic superstar and supposedly the brightest person in the department, Professor Kilo. Coming from an engineering background, I thought it would be important to understand how Course 17 thought about cognition, and having studied artificial intelligence (AI), I thought I had the correct background. But the course was odd because it didn’t square with what I knew about the world.

Let’s me be a bit more specific here. I had been working as a computer programmer in Lawrence, KS after getting a master’s degree in computer science. My thesis was based on 10,000 lines of pretty complex code, and the way I worked with it may not be familiar to non-programmers, so let me describe that. When programs are fairly small, they are predictable. So when you change something, you pretty much know what the change will do and can predict what the results will be. At some point though, the code hit a level of complexity where I could no longer predict what was going to happen. I had ideas. I had theories, but I needed to create code just to test my code. And when I ran these tests, I needed to be prepared for the test not to work and to go back to a known configuration that I know did work. And this is with code in which I am the world’s foremost expert because it’s my code! Nothing is more painful than spending a lot of time on the code, realizing that it’s a fruitless path, and then trying to undo what you’ve been doing.

Kilo’s Rationality class had almost the exact opposite flavor. People were talking about very complex political-economic systems, and they were proposing radical changes to them confident that they would know what would happen. Note that I’m using the word “radical” fairly precisely and not pejoratively but in the sense of, “very different from the usual or traditional;¬† favoring extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions,” which is what he was doing.

Now that I’m thinking about it, there was another quality to the Kilo’s class. Everything was so abstract, idealized, and simple, so then people did this really fanciful math based on these heroic assumptions that made the math easier, but to me it felt that the reality and vitality had all been squeezed out. There was no connection to the real world, and it was never discussed. I wasn’t afraid of the math, but I at least thought that it should be connect to and describe the real world. I had left AI for that reason — creating interesting programs about idealized and simple, artificial worlds, and that’s one of the reasons I came to Course 17, through a passion for applied problems.

So I’m sitting there in Rationality class, listening to Kilo, and I’m thinking, “This can’t be right. How can this guy assume he knows what will happen when making these radical changes to system more complex than my code, which I didn’t know what was going to happen to my code and it was a much simpler system and I was the world’s foremost expert.” Moreover, there’s a whole sub-field of computer science called computational theory, and the takeaway is that there are all sorts of questions that are seemingly simple but cannot be answered definitively! One of the reasons they teach that to students is to help them not waste time on unsolvable problems. .

Those who have spent serious time in academia are probably getting a queasy feeling and thinking, “You didn’t go there? You didn’t express these thoughts to Kilo did you?” If fools go where angels fear to tread, then yes, I went there. I did so with such lack of guile, and such trust that looking back, it’s kind of inconceivable. I thought Kilo had thought through these issues and that we would have a nice discussion and that I would learn something. What actually happened was different — very different.

 

Tom Wolfe, RIP

Outstanding American and writer Tom Wolfe just died at the age of 88. He is one of the primary inspirations that, to the extent that I am a writer, I became a writer. Where do I begin? If you haven’t read Michael Lewis’s “How Tom Wolfe Became… Tom Wolfe”, then please do because it’s a treat if not a touch poignant and prescient. You see, Lewis takes to son to meet Wolfe because someday he’ll want to say he met the man. It talks about Wolfe’s childhood, education, early training as a journalist, and then his inexplicable ascent into the upper realms of writing.

There are so many great Wolfe essays, entirely beyond his masterworks The Right Stuff and Bonfire of the Vanities, that it’s tough to select, so let’s identify three. First, let’s start with “Those Radical Chic Evenings.” Wolfe famously got his PhD at Yale in American Studies, a kind of sociology, but he got in trouble with his professors for expressing anti-Marxist sentiments, which he had to rewrite. He got his revenge by later reporting on a Black Panther fund-raiser given by Leonard Bernstein in Manhattan. The juxtaposition of the elite and proletariat is a naturally interesting story, but Wolfe’s handling of it is — well, you just have to read it. It can be found in edited volume, The Purple Decades, which also features his drawings which I am told are an acquired taste but, truth be told, I haven’t acquired it yet.

Second is, “Stalking the Billion Footed Beast,” which appeared in Harpers in the 80s. Wolfe talked about “The New journalism,” in which the literary techniques that were used to create fictional novels were used for reporting and journalism. This made a lot of sense to me and impacted me greatly as well as other writers. I remember reading about Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic trekking across and writing about Africa and thinking to myself, “What a brave guy! I totally trust what he’s telling¬† me because he actually went out there and reported on what he saw.” Wolfe’s “billion-footed beast” is his idea of writing novel about a city — in his case, New York — which he accomplished with Bonfire.

Finally, Wolfe’s “The Great Relearning,” (TGR) which was published in The American Spectator, again in the eighties, is a gem. He makes the point that academics and intellectuals all have these great ideas but somehow they never quite work out as originally articulated. He talks about how the 60s sexual revolution results in a host of unintended consequences, a calling card of complexity, which were deeply problematic. In fact, this essay set me down a bunch of intellectual and career paths that resulted in this blog. In fact, I need to re-read TGR — what an appropriate way to end this initial post!