2017, Lists, and State of the Internet

  1. 2017 has been a busy year for this blog. I plan to eventually continue the topics.
  2. I’ve updated my Movies and Video Games ratings lists. Dunkirk and Star Wars: The Last Jedi were tied for the best movie of the year. I might make a TV shows list someday.
  3. Rick Webb on the current state of the Internet vs early utopian visions:

Being generous to the prophets Brand and Kelly et al, it’s entirely reasonable to argue that this version of a global village is not what they proposed or envisioned. Minorities are still denied equal voices on the internet — harassed off of it, or still unable to even get online. Massive amounts of data is still hidden behind firewalls or not online at all. Projects to bring more information online (such as Google Books) have foundered due to institutional obstruction or a change of priorities in those undertaking them. Governments still have secrets. Organizations such as Wikileaks that showed early promise in this regard have been re-cast as political tools through some mix of their own hubris and the adversarial efforts of the governments they seek to expose.

It’s quite easy to see the differences between the internet world we live in and the utopia we were promised. And a fair measure of that is because we didn’t actually make it to the utopia. The solution, then, the argument goes, is to keep at it. To keep taking our medicine even as the patient gets more sick, on the faith that we will one day reach that future state of total-information-freedom and equality of voices.

More Topics

I have several post ideas floating around but it’s always easy to get stuck in drafts. Here are topics that I’ve been interested in recently and might write about.

  • The meaninglessness of most things on the Internet, particularly due to the lack of context. A lot of “arguments” I see these days are made in short Facebook posts, tweets, or viral stock images with a sentence of text on them. This is actually fine in certain cases, precisely because there is context spanning much more than a sentence. If Nate Silver tweets one line about a something about an election, I can say “Hmm that’s interesting.” However, if the same tweet were made by a random person, I would immediately start thinking instead, “What are the credentials of this person? On what evidence is this claim based? Does this person have a political agenda? Do I expect certain biases to exist?” This isn’t to say that Nate Silver is a perfect being, but when I see a tweet from him, I really have much more to consider than just one sentence.
  • The one-upmanship or “Keeping up with the Joneses” effect in competitive or “socially competitive” gaming. This goes back to the early days of Diablo 3, and also applies to Hearthstone and many other games. There is a mathematically vast number of possible “builds” or “decks” that people can play. Of course, we don’t expect all of them to be very good, and there are probably some redundancies in how you count things, but there should probably be hundreds or at least dozens of “viable” styles of play. But with Hearthstone being a zero-sum game, any more viable deck will beat a less viable deck, and most people are competing to win, so everyone ends up using the same 1 to 3 decks. My quote from the last post was: “how optional, bonus things become requirements…. Things that were ‘amazing’ become ‘okay,’ things that were ‘okay’ are now ‘terrible.'” Also, how does this apply to real life?
  • Video game economics and socioeconomics. Namely, how emergent properties of trading and economics form in massively multiplayer games like WOW and Diablo 3 (w/auction house).
  • Social norms and social capital, versus financial capital. This is maybe a more personal topic. When I was in college and younger, despite how I hated certain social norms, I went along with many of them anyway. But now that I have a job and can easily support myself, I no longer feel the need to abide by certain social norms that I don’t particularly care for. Given this, I wonder how much of abiding with social norms before was just to build up social capital to improve expected earnings, whereas now I no longer care as much. One example is that even 5 years ago, I used to not blog about video games, and posting something like this would have been unthinkable.
  • Various economics, Effect Altruism, and rationality topics. In particular, a few below.
  • Cost disease. Regarding the famous Scott Alexander article on the topic earlier this year. This is really fascinating and the results of this really should matter for your political beliefs.
  • The meta confirmation bias – “Everyone who disagrees with me is under confirmation bias.” It seems like these days a lot more people know of the existence of the confirmation bias, but don’t understand it well enough to know that it applies to you even if you are aware of it. I think this occurring more and more. People are generally aware of echo chambers now, but the erroneous conclusion people have reached is now “oh, everyone on the side other than mine is in an echo chamber whereas my side is free speech.”
  • How my interests work, and how I categorically dismiss certain things. It’s my understanding from real-life conversations that I have a weird utility curve/set of preferences, and this could be a really boring or interesting topic. For instance, I despise eating food because I think it is a waste of time, and if there was a way to be just as healthy but not have to spend time eating anything, I would do it. For this reason I also don’t really understand eating meals over $25 (the threshold would be lower elsewhere but I live in Manhattan…). I  don’t like travel because I think the Internet is just better, and I also don’t play board games (besides some chess because I used to play it a lot) because I think video games are just better.
  • Sharing knowledge online. As a meta point, why do people say anything at all on message boards/yahoo answers/stack exchange/reddit/quora/etc.? I used to post a lot on online forums (though most of my posts are gone through let’s say a long story). And why do I blog?

My College Experience


Yesterday, I took my final final exam. Now, short of receiving a piece of paper, I am done with college and also with the formal education system (for at least the time being).

I’m not a sentimental person, but I am a reflective person, so I feel compelled to write about my experience.

Several other posts already covered various aspects of college and also of Cornell specifically:

There are in total 35 blog posts (as of writing this) under the College category, including the ones listed above. But the most important post comes from before any of these, before even stepping onto the Cornell campus, and it is related not directly to Cornell, but to the University of Chicago, a post on Andrew Abbott’s “The Aims of Education” speech.

Abbott’s main argument is that education is not a means to an end, but the end in itself. He goes through why education is not best viewed as a way to improve financial status, a way to learn a specific skill, a way to improve general life skills, or a way to survive in a changing world. Instead, “The reason for getting an education here—or anywhere else—is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself.

This philosophical point I carried throughout my college experience. It is why I find it absurd to worry about the GPA of oneself and others so much: you’re here not to beat other people, but to be educated.

There is a lot of interest in the relation between academic study and the real-world job market. One hears jokes about English or psychology majors working in jobs having nothing to gain from an English or psych degree. But my situation is actually similar. As a math major pursuing a theoretical track (originally thinking about academia), I’ve encountered concepts that, at least currently, have no practical application. That’s a blessing and a curse. In the post I wrote about why I chose math, one of the pro points was precisely the abstraction of it. So, even though I will be working in a math-related area, it is almost certain that knowing that normal spaces are regular, or that the alternating group on 5 elements is simple, is useless.

Of course, it does help to know calculus and to have a good understanding of probability. But at least over the summer, we rarely ever used concepts that were outside my high-school understanding of probability or calculus. In other words, I could have majored in English and have been just as qualified.*

*(Perhaps taking many math classes trains you with a certain type of thinking, but this is hard to specify. I haven’t thought too much on this so if anyone has other ideas, please share them.)

Another thing I haven’t really talked about in other posts is socializing. I’m an introvert (INTP), and I could easily spend all day reading thought-provoking books or watching good movies without the slightest urge to unnecessarily talk to another person. I used to ponder this, but after reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet, I’ve decided to not worry.

Academically, I’ve expanded my horizons a lot since coming to Cornell, though not from math courses. While academia in general can be thought of as an ivory tower of sorts, math (and/or philosophy) is the ivory tower of ivory towers, so it is sometimes refreshing to take a class in a different subject that is only one step removed from reality.

In addition, I managed to keep this blog alive through college, though there was a period of time in late freshman/early sophomore year where there were few posts. By junior year, I was back in a weekly posting routine. And a couple of months ago, I started doing 2 posts per week, and that has been consistent so far.

Finally, I also subscribe to a quote allegedly by Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Even after college, I will always find opportunities to learn.

Overall, Cornell has been a great experience, and I would definitely recommend it, even if not for the reasons you were looking for. Enjoy, and keep learning!

My Blogging Philosophy


I sometimes get questions about the purpose of my blog, and also about the blog itself, such as why X is done instead of Y. This post is to answer these questions and to perhaps give you a better understanding of my blogging philosophy.

As with most things, the intents determine the characteristics. If I want to build a car that can go very fast, it will have to be aerodynamic. If I want to design a building to look modern, I would probably not include columns from classical Greece. Similarly, the intents of a blog will somewhat dictate its characteristics. By “characteristics,” I don’t mean the physical characteristics, like what font I use or where the widgets are placed—I’m not a graphic designer, and that is probably apparent from the elementary layout. Instead, what I mean by “characteristics” is the set of literary choices: Which topics do I write about? What tone/style/mood do I use? How much detail do I include? Should I avoid conflict or welcome it? And so on.

The purpose itself comes from my own values, experiences, and beliefs, and without going too much into detail, I’ve always been concerned with Truth. Sure, that sounds pretty cheesy, but one of the greatest lessons from history is that for vast amounts of time, whole civilizations were very confident in what they thought to be the truth, only to be proved wrong, time and time again, from factual truths like “Earth is flat” or “The world is about 6000 years old” to moral truths like “Slavery is okay” and “Women are inferior to men.” Each time, the people who first challenged these truths were brave individuals who stood up to society and were mocked and ridiculed, sometimes violently, for their beliefs. Such paradigm shifts are still happening today, within many beliefs in many countries. Hence, one of the major humanitarian imperatives of the 21st century is to be more open-minded than the past. Now, open-mindedness itself is a broad topic and has many questions (is rejecting a closed-minded worldview itself closed-minded?), but it really determines the purpose of this blog.

Primary intent: To get people to think in different ways.

With this directive in mind, it is probably much easier to see why I blog the way I blog. Here is a list of characteristics I came up with that are related to this objective:

1. (Try to) Write about interesting topics that someone would want to read. That is, if no one reads it, then it is pointless. In addition, I try to bring up unusual topics, because you probably already read about the usual topics elsewhere. Other times, I try to put an unusual twist on an otherwise normal topic. An example of this might be the previous post, which was on Internet trolling.

2. Be thought provoking. This is usually done by upfront making an unpopular or controversial claim. The religion and atheism posts are prime examples. To a lesser degree, so was the post against positive racism. These can sometimes provoke much more than just thought.

3. Use ethos and pathos, even when talking about things that fit under the realm of logos. This is especially difficult for me to do because I am a very logic-minded person to begin with, and furthermore, I generally treat arguments like mathematical proofs, which are not designed to be persuasive, but merely correct. On the other hand, I’m very aware that persuasion encompasses more than just proving you are correct, hence why I do try to include non-completely-logic-based rhetoric even in rational topics, like the rationality vs irrationality post.

4. Be very aware of cognitive biases and fallacies. As a counterpoint to #3, one benefit of being very logically minded is that it is easier to catch myself committing a logical fallacy or over/under-estimating something due to a cognitive bias. Of course, no one can be free of biases, but knowing what they are beforehand means you can work around them to some degree. Awareness and constant skepticism do help to construct a more accurate picture.

5. Avoid using mainstream arguments or sources, which are already familiar to everyone. Even though I consider my beliefs as moderately liberal, I rarely bring up many of the issues that liberals are typically concerned with. It is not because I don’t have views on those issues, but rather because I can’t contribute in those issues as much as someone else could. There is no value in my repeating what someone else said, especially if it is the consensus view. On the other hand, there is value in talking about what I am more knowledgeable in, rather than less. In addition, I have written posts that have criticized the typical liberal view on a few topics.

6. Avoid using authority. I don’t try to be an authority at X, and even when I start my job later this year, I doubt I will be writing any posts on quantitative trading. I talk about societal progress a lot, but I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. This is also part of the reason #5 exists: If I talk about a common issue that experts have exhaustively written about, you’re probably better off reading them. But on a very uncommon issue, I have more relative expertise since there is no authority.

7. Use generalist skills and areas of relative expertise. My general philosophy (no pun intended) is that I would rather know something about everything than everything about something. This is very easy to achieve today with the Internet literally at your fingertips. But using the information correctly and drawing the correct conclusions is the hard part, and it is not as easy as everyone thinks. This is where mathematical/statistical training really does help.

8. Pick topics that are not necessarily advanced, but look at them in a different way. Perhaps combine two simple or familiar topics together, like the victim blaming/religion post.

Overall, the objective of trying to get people to think in different ways is fairly successful. I post these on my Facebook wall timeline, and sometimes full-fledged arguments occur. But argument is better than no argument, and it shows that people at least have to think about and reevaluate their beliefs, leaving them in a better position than when they started, regardless of which side they were on.

2013 in Review

This is a societal and personal reflection on 2013. I’ll start with the societal, and I’ll keep the personal pretty short.

2013 in Review

2013 was a year in which not much unusual happened, and that was perhaps the most unusual thing about it. Snowden leaked NSA data, but this didn’t seem all that surprising, given the power of the government and the precedent set by Julian Assange and others. The Boston marathon bombings happened unexpectedly, but it didn’t come as a shock that the perpetrators held extreme Islamist views; it was not as if the US suddenly gained new political enemies. The Obamacare website didn’t quite roll out as planned, but for people who are used to seeing server crashes upon the release of new content simultaneously being accessed by millions of people, it was again not a huge surprise. The Supreme Court struck down DOMA, but this was more like a delayed result of a larger trend: support for marriage equality had already been increasing for years. Overall, long-term trends in society, economy, and technology continued without much interruption; no one made a smartphone killer… yet.

Perhaps the signature event of 2013, therefore, was the government shutdown. I don’t even want to describe it. But it did signify the occurrence of nothing, which seemed to be the main idea of the year.

This doesn’t mean 2013 was a bad year, only that it was a relatively uneventful year. The markets rose a lot: [S&P 500]


Perhaps compared to 2012, which had a widely-believed but failed doomsday attached to its legacy, 2013 seemed like a bore.

2013 in Life

It was the first year (plus or minus a few days) that I was 21, which was enough by itself to make 2013 a very eventful year. I had an epic summer experience, which is the reason I now care about graphs like the one above. As a senior, I attended 10/23 for the first time. My classes this year were all in math or computer science; it was a year of specialization. My blogging schedule was the most consistent since 2010. And finally, this year I sorted out my plans for after college.

So, it was a great year. Here’s to 2014!

Blogging Topics for 2014


This is kind of like my list of topics for 2013, but more free-form and more of an actual list. These are all topics on which I eventually want to write a full post in the upcoming year.

  • 2013 in review – not too much important happened (perhaps the government shutdown was the signature event of the year, symbolizing the year’s inaction); for the most part, we saw the continuation of old trends rather than the rise of new ones.
  • Rational thinking – more on the thinking process, being aware of cognitive biases.
  • Utilitarianism – more on moral systems, in particular this one.
  • Internet trolling – on the internet it’s much harder to see the tone or context of people’s statements (no facial expressions or gestures), therefore they become easy to misinterpret even for a reader with good intentions. Related to some threads (mostly about religion) that occurred on Facebook in the past year.
  • Subjective vs objective truth/morality – related to rational thinking and utilitarianism as well. Also, are cultures really all equal to one another?
  • The spectrum of choice – attributes like race and gender are determined on birth and hence out of your control, while other attributes like favorite TV show or movie are completely in your control and could be changed on a whim. Somewhere in between are things like political or religious stance, which, while theoretically changeable, are very difficult to change in practice due to social/cultural pressures. I also want to argue that while it is absurd to judge someone based on something that they have no control over (such as race or gender), it makes more sense to judge someone on a choice they made, be it their religion or something else (though in religion, it gets fuzzy as to what degree most people have a choice in it).
  • Apathy in certain issues due to belief that they will resolve themselves – for example, during the government shutdown, I didn’t change my daily routine the slightest bit, because I knew the issue would be fixed and that there was nothing that I could personally about it. On the other hand, if everyone thought like this…
  • Interest in issues only when something goes horribly wrong – For example, no one talked about racial profiling… until the Zimmerman trial. And then afterwards, the commotion died down. No one cared fervently about gun control… until Newtown, but then we seem to have forgotten about it.
  • Contentlessness of most things on the internet – related to internet trolling. In the era of the Facebook status or the tweet or the 1-line meme or the one-paragraph thread reply, very little of what I read has any content. When someone expresses their stance on something, I usually have no knowledge of why they have that stance, what arguments they would use to justify it, what their context is, etc. And when someone tries to make an argument, they seem very shallow, focusing on one particular aspect (since it is hard to make a complete argument in one or two sentences).
  • Contentlessness of (extreme) postmodernism/relativism – related to above. Humanity did not toss aside physics and go back to superstition when Einstein came up with the theories of relativity. In a typical debate, “Well that’s just your opinion/truth is subjective” should not be used to stifle and invalidate the discussion.
  • The search for truth vs the proclamation of truth – i.e. science vs religion incompatibility.
  • Religion in general – of course, given that this was the most popular topic of 2013.
  • Keeping up with the Joneses – how optional, bonus things become requirements, esp. in a video game setting, as this is very fruitful for social comparison. Things that were “amazing” become “okay,” things that were “okay” are now “terrible.”
  • Capitalism, individualism – should a “winner” be able to do whatever they want? What is the standard? If one becomes a billionaire, is one obligated to give back? If so, how much?
  • Thinking ahead; people arguing such basic concepts assuming other people are on their level – perhaps this is related to internet trolling, but it happens in real life as well. Say Joe is a better-than-average chess player, and can look ahead a couple of moves. I see two moves to consider: A, which looks obviously right but fails after several moves; and B, which seems like a terrible move at first but wins after several moves. Joe looks a couple moves deep into line A, sees a winning tactic, and concludes that A is better. When asked, I say that B is the best move. Now Joe, not even considering B, looks at me like I’m an idiot for picking B (since it looks terrible), and then starts explaining to me very slowly how A is the best move, even though I know exactly where it fails. I’m about to object why it fails 4 moves later, but Joe hushes me, so I keep my silence. Indeed, 4 moves later, Joe triumphantly shows the winning move, only to realize it actually loses. Of course, this is a metaphor for conversations on other topics.
  • Priorities in morals – I watched the show Battlestar Galactica (the 2004 version) last year, and it was quite morally disturbing. Not that the show itself had disturbing scenes, but when I watched it, I often found myself rooting for martial law and military dictatorship, and shunning a representative government—this was disturbing. For a quick background, humanity is completely wiped out except for a ragtag group of ships, one military vessel and many civilian ones. Every time the enemies attack, the last remaining members of human species have a real chance to be annihilated. So when the military vessel demanded resources or de facto slave labor in extreme situations, I could not help but to feel like it was not only justified, but obligatory. And whenever the representative council assembled and listed its grievances, it seemed to be a waste of time and resources, with ridiculous demands and petty concerns. In this case, it seemed the survival of the human race overrode in priority any attempt at representative government.
  • Reactions to reactions – I often find people’s’ reactions to events more interesting than the events themselves. To tie it back to the first topic, 2013 in review, I thought the response of various factions to Pope Francis was far more interesting than his becoming the pope. The coverage of George Zimmerman was more interesting than the actual trial. The criticism of Miley Cyrus at the VMAs or in her music videos said more about society than what she did.

Anyways, looks like 2014 will be a cool year!

Rationality vs Irrationality

This article is based on several conversations I’ve had recently on rationality, and it is supposed to be an overview-type post that explores different areas of the subject. In fact, since this is a pretty heated topic that comes with misunderstandings by the handful, I will be going very slowly and throwing out as many caveats as possible to make sure I’m not misunderstood, though of course this is bound to happen. Because of this, the tone for this article will be rather informal.

Rationality vs Irrationality

It is obvious (to anyone who follows this blog or knows me in real life) that I stand on the side of rationality (though I often intentionally do things that would be considered irrational). Heck, even the blog name is “A Reasoner‘s Miscellany.” Note that the title is not “A Reasoner’s Manifesto” or “A Reasoner’s Main Ideas.” Rather, it is a “miscellany” of various ideas in various subjects and of various degrees of significance. The main purpose of this blog is to jot down random ideas, serve as a diary of thoughts, and also just to satisfy my urge to write. It is not to try to start a revolution or to promote any particular ideology.

Answering this question obviously depends on having precise definitions of what rationality and irrationality are, but as soon as I lay down definitions, some of you will start arguing the definitions rather than the actual concepts. And without this disclaimer, some of you will be arguing “Well it depends on the definitions” as if that refutes my overall argument. It turns out you’re in luck, because in this post, I’m not trying to make any grand overarching arguments, but instead just laying down a bunch of thoughts, which might be followed up on in later blog posts with more fully fleshed out arguments.

Now that many of the meta-caveats are out of the way, I suppose I can finally begin talking about rationality. Of course, even without giving detailed definitions, I feel as if I must give some overall definition to anchor the discussion. Basically, when I refer to rational thinking, I refer to thinking involving logic, facts, evidence, and reason. This is opposed to irrational thinking, which I consider to be thinking involving emotion, faith, or just not thinking (or even the refusal to think). These characterizations don’t exactly match the conventional philosophical terms (which are themselves sometimes disagreed upon), but I think this captures what is generally meant when someone says “That thought process is rational” or “That thought process is irrational.”

Biases are one of the primary obstructions to reason. Two perfectly rational agents using perfect logic and starting with the same information should theoretically arrive at the same conclusion. However, the “perfect logic” assumption is ruined if one of the agents is biased towards one side from the beginning and uses that bias in their “logic,” at which point it is no longer logic. Of course, one of the most important biases is that you are less biased than other people. Thus I must try my best to account for major personal impacts in my life that would push me towards rationality.

The main event influencing my choice towards reason is when I started learning about astronomy when I was in first grade, in South Carolina of all places. We visited an observatory and I quickly became interested in space. Even then, I realized that knowing all these things about space must have occurred through some systematic method of observation, experimentation, and reasoning (though not in terms of these words). We knew there were nine planets (back then, Pluto was a planet) because we saw them through our telescopes and reasoned their existence through their movements and gravitational effects, not because we wished there were nine, or because it would be totally awesome if there were nine, or because it was divinely revealed to us that there were nine.

Religion and Tradition Both Oppose Rationality

Because of my early interest in space I learned by 1st grade about the Galileo incident with the Church (and also about Copernicus to a lesser degree). It didn’t just bother me that the vast majority of people were so ludicrously wrong about something like whether Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth, but rather, that the Church refused to believe the truth and instead demonized the bringer of truth, doing so because they so adamantly believed that the Sun orbits the Earth because their holy book said so. From the moment I learned about this, I could never take “religious logic” seriously (i.e., X is true because it says so in the Bible/Quran/etc).

My views on religion have changed a lot since 1st grade. For instance, my main objection to religion now is not so much that it is fictional, but rather because of the vast social harm it causes due to its irrationality. In fact, throughout most of my life I subscribed to multiculturalism (regarding religion, you have to respect religious ideas no matter how insane they are), and so I wasn’t an antitheist. It was only a year ago that I went from (agnostic) atheist to (agnostic) atheist antitheist.

Another great opponent to rationality is tradition. Similarly to religion, tradition in principle stifles new ideas and is very bad a providing reasonable justification for doing something, i.e. “Because it says so in the Bible” or “Because that’s how it has always been done.” Again along the lines of biases, I have to warn that I am probably personally vested in this topic of tradition vs rationality as I extremely resented how I was treated in my childhood from my Asian parents, and also due to my view of Chinese culture in general. For an explanation, see this post and this one. In context of this post, even at a young age I was capable of making logical arguments and it always frustrated me that whenever I argued with my parents, they could never actually refute what I said, only justifying their actions through tradition, superstition, and authority. I’ve never mentioned it on this blog before, and only to a few people in real life, but in my childhood I was driven by my parents to near suicide. These anti-tradition, anti-superstition, and anti-authority sentiments have persisted.

Intentional vs Unintentional Irrationality

This summer I probably thought about rationality more than I ever have in the past, as my work had to do with making rational decisions. The book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner), made an significant impact. The primary reason I wrote the post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control” was that it was something that I found deeply irrational even though it was being expressed by a number of highly rational people. The fact that it was on July 4th given the subject was pure coincidence.

But that topic was on something that most people probably never think about. Because of this, it’s much harder to call someone with this kind of view “irrational,” as they probably aren’t aware of it. On the other hand, if someone say read that post and thought about pride in randomness, and afterwards still thought it was rational to be proud of one’s race, then it is much easier to consider them irrational. Similarly, I don’t find most religious people irrational since most religious people (at least of the ones I know) never talk about religion, thus they probably aren’t ever in a serious state of questioning religion. On the other hand, some religious people read science books (particularly on evolution) and still believe in creationism, thus it is much easier to consider these people irrational. Just as refusing to accept that Earth orbits the Sun (based on religious texts) is worse than simply not knowing about it, refusing to learn about evolution (based on religious texts) is worse not knowing about evolution. See willful ignorance.

Rationality vs Irrationality in the Media

The distinction between rationality and irrationality is related to many others, like Enlightenment vs Romanticism, future utopia vs past utopia, objective truth vs subjective truth, or science vs religion. If anything, support of irrationality is significantly overrepresented in the media. Does the following movie setting sound (overly) familiar?: The future, advanced technology, but with social inequality, terrible quality of life, what it means to be “human” is gone, nature is destroyed, and evil technologists or even machines rule as the result of the rise of the “rational,” and the day is saved by someone with an old-fashioned, “irrational” mentality often involving some mythical power? Nah, that sounds like a completely original idea. What about the one where nature overcomes technology? Or the religious guy who no one believes who is right the whole time? Or the evil scientist showing that science is bad? Or society claims to know how to treat the “irrational,” using nefarious tactics?

Sure, these are just movies mostly for entertainment purpose, and any societal warnings are a secondary effect. Perhaps I’m way overreacting. I mean, a movie or a novel has to have dramatic conflict, and movie about the future being an awesome place would be really boring to watch. But this does not mean the framing of which side is “good” and which side is “bad” should be so one-sided. One of the only shows that takes the pro-rational side is Star Trek (the [earlier] TV shows, not so much the recent movies). Characters like Spock and Data are as logical as you can possibly get, yet they are on the team of the protagonists. Technology is shown as overall beneficial, and even religion has almost disappeared from humanity (though some of the aliens they encounter have their own religions). In fact, it seems like if some show like Star Trek, The Original Series or The Next Generation, were to be released in modern day, 2013, it would be canned and be deemed far too political and “anti-religious,” as American society is far more anti-science than before (I find it hard to imagine the modern US having a warm reaction to a hypothetical modern-day version of Albert Einstein.)

The only other type of show I can think of that is pro-reason is crime investigation shows, where the protagonists try to rationally deduce facts from clues and from suspects, many of whom committed crimes for highly irrational purposes. But the main theme for these shows are normally concerned with justice, not rationality vs irrationality.

The Rationality of Irrationality

In the second paragraph, I mentioned that I sometimes intentionally act “irrationally.” However, many of these irrationalities are still made from an overall rational decision. In the post “Spontaneous Decision Making,” I talked about how I generally “…don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths.” I will re-quote here an interesting behavior from my Fall 2010 semester:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

But as I later reasoned in the “Spontaneous Decisions” post, there was a method in the madness. I go against patterns on purpose, but all this increases versatility. I try to be prepared for anything, and if I always do the same pattern or plan everything out ahead of time, then I may not be able to adapt quickly to a new situation.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking…

To have a quick response, I try to be accustomed to every scenario, and moreover, practice responding quickly. It is a sort of planned spontaneity. Intentionally making spontaneous decisions is like handicapping yourself during practice. But then when you get to the real thing, you remove the handicap and perform much better. If you can make a good assessment of a situation in 10 seconds, imagine how much better it would be with 10 hours.

In addition, the planned spontaneity is very much like preparing for a later event. Comedians spend a bunch of time preparing content so that it seems spontaneous when they perform it. In speed chess, when you don’t have time to think, the only thing that helps is prior experience. To quote Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Is Art Irrational?

Anti-rationalists often point to art, implying that to be rational is to see art as pointless. Art is indeed a more subjective experience, but is it totally subjective? Many great artists and novelists created works that expressed the style or discontent of their times. In the same way I see history as useful because it provides us with a context with which to view the modern world and the future, I see art as useful to see not just the time period of the artist, but also the lives of the artists themselves. To say “art is subjective” and end discussion with that is a very naive move that shows either a shallow understanding of art or a participation card in the “all truth is subjective” movement.

I can have rational discussions of art, novels, films, TV shows, video games, etc. When you want another’s opinion on a new painting from a famous artist and you have artist friends, who do you consult? Do you go on the streets and find a hobo or crack dealer and ask him about the art? Do you ask your favorite 6-year old relative? Do you consult a physics professor? No, probably not. Even though “art is subjective” and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you go to the fellow artist or art critic to hear their professional, trained opinion. If the art critic’s opinion is worth more than that of the average person, then there must be some part of art that is objective. If you met someone at a formal event who said, “I hate the Mona Lisa, it’s a terrible piece of art!” you would probably think this person is uncultured and has an inferior art opinion despite your belief that art is subjective.

Ordinary Faith vs Religious Faith

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me $1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a $50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.


This article wasn’t really written in a way that lends to a conclusion, but given the length, I find it nonetheless necessary to include a “Conclusion” section. The post was much longer than I expected (around 2900 words), but I think I gained a more organized view of these ideas. The topic is, of course, open to rational debate.