The Hitchhiker’s Question

“The Answer to the Great Question… Of Life, the Universe and Everything… Is… Forty-two,’ said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

 

As arguably the most famous quote in his popular book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams suggests that it is just as important to know the question as the answer. He echoes Voltaire’s sentiment made 300 years prior to Adams of “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers”.

Firstly, lets address the elephant in the room: the question asked in his book is way too ambiguous and doesn’t really point to any specific possible answer. It’s like asking, “what is the colour red?”: it’s only half a question. The second part of the question needs to narrow this down to a point towards a specific answer, like, “what is the colour red in terms of wavelength of light?” Answer: 600-700 nm. Easy (we can be pedantic about the exact wavelength at which red ends and orange begins, but that is more of an exercise in definitions rather than science).  In this way, yes, Adams does indeed show that asking a question with a specific answer in mind is vital.  But by making such a poorly constructed question on purpose, I think he’s masking a more fundamental, interesting aspect of the problem. An aspect that is a lot more common than a poorly asked question. This aspect, I believe, has more to do with the answer, and the foundation on which that answer lies on.

Let’s assume that Adam’s question was actually properly constructed, like in the paragraph above. From there, asking a question like, “the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” implies that we have all the pre-requisite knowledge to understand the answer. I cannot ask, “how does salt form crystals” if I don’t understand the foundational science on which the answers rests. You’ll only reply, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” and I will be none the wiser as to what you meant. Yes, the initial question is still important as it implies a certain level of pre-requisite knowledge, but this implication leads us now to see that the problem is a lack of pre-requisite foundation, not the question. We do not blame the ocean for containing waves, consequently tipping us out of the inflatable lilo we were trying to float peacefully on top of. We blame the speedboat that hurtled past us a few seconds ago which had thus caused the waves.

Mapped out above is a hierarchical representation of the foundation on which our answer rests. We have three pieces of knowledge which form that foundation. Those pieces of foundational knowledge then are held up by their own pieces of foundational knowledge (not shown in the image), and back and back we go, like an annoying five-year-old who keeps asking his frazzled mother, “but why?” As Elon Musk says, “we need to get to first principles”, and I believe that viewing knowledge in this way is what he means. Now, I hear you ask in a slightly maniacal way, “well then where does it end?!” But don’t worry, I believe that there is an end, and it is when we manage to get down to a strong, stable foundation.

 

We don’t build our house on a weak foundation of sand: it’ll just fall down given the smallest push. In the same way, we don’t house ideas on a foundation that is weak. A weak intellectual foundation is one where we require more knowledge to understand the topic to a suitable level. There are a lot of areas of knowledge that have solid foundations on which we can learn new things, though. Apple have becoming a billion-dollar company on this fact. Do you need to know the thousands of lines of code, which come together in complex ways to eventually form the iOS on which all Apple phones run? No, of course not. We just know that the operating system exists and acts as a foundation on which we can download apps and use our phones. “It just works.” Yet it doesn’t work by accident: it has been meticulously engineered so that the users need as small amount of pre-requisite knowledge as possible.

 

In the same way, we have natural solid foundations in the hierarchy of knowledge that allow us to grow our own knowledge on top of. If we were to create a basic electrical circuit, we would need to know that electricity conducts, a few laws (like Ohm’s law) and a few other basic bits about the functionality of core components for circuits (where the power comes from, where it goes). We need not know any more. Even though the discipline of electrical engineering is founded upon the movement of electrons through conductors/semiconductors: this deep knowledge of electron movement is mostly unnecessary for the purpose of creating circuits. We have found a stable foundation.

 

We need a foundation of knowledge to understand the answer to a question, and that foundation needs to be stable. So in the same way as the answer, “it creates ionic bonds between sodium and chlorine in a repeatable face-centred cubic lattice,” “42” might well be the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, but if we don’t understand the foundation of knowledge on which that answer rests, the answer is meaningless. It is the responsibility of the questioner to be aware of whether the answer will hold any meaning to her or not. She must be critical in evaluating whether she has the correct foundational knowledge. And herein lies a more difficult problem with the answer of “42”. Not only does she need to continue probing until she has found a stable foundation, what happens when she doesn’t know what foundational knowledge she doesn’t know?

Intrinsic Value vs Book Value

We’ve all had an instance in our lives when we need to buy a product, and we just turn to the most known name in the industry. Or maybe we instantly refer to the name that’s most prestigious. We don’t look at what it can do on paper, we just trust that the product beats its competitors because of the badge that it has associated with it.

I’ve been looking at buying a Ducati recently. I put a few tentative bids down on eBay and I bought a book that describes the development of the specific bike I’ve been looking at. I got really engrossed into how they created the bike, how everything they do is derived from two principles: handling and power. How they pretty much build the whole bike around the engine, and the heritage they have with L-twin engines.

And then a weird realisation happened. I realised that I was buying the brand more than I was buying the product. I was buying the story of the bike and the association with Ducati, more than the technical ability of the bike. I had shifted from my product focused philosophy to a brand focused one.

Up until now, I’ve rarely cared about a brand. I’ve always judged a product’s merits based on it’s ability alone – untethered to where it actually came from. This is the process of making a decision using logic to quantify the specification of the product vs. it’s cost. The product with the most “bang for its buck” wins (i.e. specs:price ratio).  And I still think this is the correct approach if you’d like to be rational. On paper, the Ducati is seriously overpriced relative to bikes with similar stats from other manufacturers.

But other people judge a product’s merits, less on the actual product, but more on where that product came from. They have “Brand Focus”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it’s not a completely rational thing to do in my opinion – but there is definitely an intangible value about owning a specific brand: a bit like art has intangible value. You can’t rationally derive the value from specifications: speed, braking ability, durability etc; rather you start deriving value from how the product makes you feel. And that, in my opinion, is a slippery slope.

Famous stock broker Warren Buffett calls these two ways of valuating ‘intrinsic value’ (product focus) and ‘book value’ (brand focus/how much the stocks are actually selling for, regardless to how much their calculated worth is).

Regardless of all that, however, is that Ducatis seem to really maintain their value well.  With a Ducati, its perceived worth is not detrimentally affected by lacking in specs: it holds the price it was originally sold for simply because it is still a Ducati and people continue to perceive it as valuable. This is also an apparent fact when buying stocks. There’s the worth of the company based purely on stats: it’s assets. But then there’s the public opinion on how much the company will grow: which is pure speculation and creates the perceived worth of each stock.

So, in the end, does it really matter where the value is derived, as long as it’s stable and predictable? To some extent, I think: yes, it still does. Brands can fall out of grace with the public: people might start to perceive Ducati as less luxurious. And public perception of a company’s growth can change overnight: and with it, the perceived worth of a stock. Stats are less fickle. Horsepower won’t change overnight unless someone gets a wrench to the bike (or mistreats it). Will that stop me from buying a Ducati in the future? Only time will tell…

The Right Tools For The Right Job

I wake up to read an article on Trump this morning.

“It appears to be a recognition that Mr. Trump’s simplistic and angry campaign rhetoric may be much more difficult to accomplish.”

We all want simplistic ideas. But we live in a complex world. With complexity comes difficulty. Difficulty brings doubt. And in a complex world, doubt is not a pleasant condition… but certainty is absurd. When will we learn not to be seduced by overly simplistic, overly confident ideals? When will we learn to become comfortable with a complex system:  when we have to actually research what we’re jumping into before truly jumping?

Maybe the discrepancy lies in the scale of the task. Normal, every-day people don’t usually have to worry about how to overcome hugely networked, complex tasks. Normal every-day people tend to have to work out whether they should plan their dinner with friends for Friday or for Saturday.

We develop different problem solving tools throughout our lives based on the tasks we face. If all we’re doing is planning whether we should have dinner Friday or Saturday night, we’ll only ever develop the tools to overcome that task. On top of that, the implications at stake with this task aren’t that great: say you organise the dinner for Friday. If everyone says they can’t make it, you can change the dinner to Saturday. Even if you screw it up… you can just organise it for another weekend. The idea of creating research groups to study the full extent of whether Friday night or Saturday night is better, or to consult all the ‘stakeholders involved’ about the full implications of each nuance for the choice between Friday and Saturday probably sounds like overkill. And it is.

But when it comes to the direction of a government, we need highly developed tools and processes to overcome highly complex tasks. Millions of people’s lives can be affected, and yet it feels like we treat these problems like choosing what night to organise dinner. It’s like we’re using a sledgehammer and a chisel to change the fillings in someone’s teeth.

So now we have two choices. We can choose to equip everyone with the correct tools so that they are able to assess a problem and maintain the democracy we have. This will take people years to achieve: they’re essentially learning a new skill. You can’t become a piano master overnight. On top of this obstacle is the fact that not all people will want to put in the work to become a ‘piano master’.

The other choice is that we can start picking specific people who are equipped with the skills to actually assess a complex problem properly, and assign them responsibility to decide what to do.

Very extreme conclusion: maybe democracy isn’t the answer. Maybe it’s time to apply a more suitable tool for the job.

Ad Hominem Absurdities

My colleague was telling me the other day of an instance when Obama came to the UK to give advice. Obama said, “if you leave the EU, you’ll be at the back of the line when you come to negotiate trade agreements.”

My colleague told me that we didn’t like what we heard. Not because of the information we were told: rather, we thought Obama had no right to get involved with British politics.

We didn’t see the information. We didn’t say, “okay, thanks for the feedback, I’ll see how this information fits into what I already know and see if I need to re-assess my decision making.” We reacted, saying, “who are you to tell us what to do?”

Obama is part of the other tribe. He’s not part of us, therefore he has no authority over us. Him even trying to tell us what to do is an insult to us.

It’s the same logic as football fans:  “you’re evil because you support x whereas I support y. Don’t even try to look at me because, although we both are fiercely passionate about the same thing, you’re not part of my group”.

Football fans are an example of when you take the Ad Hominem argument to attack groups rather than individuals. But it’s the same reaction: they’re not part of our tribe, so we attack them based on their lack of association with us rather than what they do.

And when you start seeing how this plays out in groups: when applying it to sales, we might glean an insight into another reason why Trump won. Trump is very good at targeting a market. You’ll notice Ivanka Trump has also picked up this ability. Ivanka is always talking about how she’s trying to represent womens rights: and although I would like to believe her, this is a a sound business market target as well. By making her ‘tribe’ women, she’s creating a very strong brand for half the population to associate with. And half of the population is a huge market to sell to.

Donald Trump did the same thing. While Hilary was busy alienating all the bigoted/racist people by calling them ‘deplorables’, Trump recognised that these ‘deplorables’ still had exactly power to sway the vote as other, more ‘upstanding citizens’. By giving some rhetoric that advocated a bigoted mindset, he created a tribe that included all those people. Suddenly his popularity rocketed. These people, plus the people who felt disenfranchised with politicians and their ability to positively impact their lives, were a huge influence for Trump’s success. Trump also gets double points for using tribalism as a tool to win popularity, because he gains the racist people’s votes by using their hate for other tribes: in the case, Mexicans, by blaming Mexicans for all their shared shortcomings.

Although, at times, watching this kind of behaviour makes me lose a tiny bit of faith in humanity, to isolate myself from it and to say “humans are idiots” would be the highest form of hypocrisy. I would be making the rest of humanity the ‘other tribe’ and then be carrying out the same behaviour I condemn so much. Sometimes all we can do is to take a big breath, go to sleep, wake up the next day, and try again to work together so that we can move ourselves forwards and create a better future for ourselves.

First Post!

Hello. Welcome to Solidifying Nebulous Ideas. Come in. Take a look around.

I’ve written quite a few posts up to this point, so I’ll populate this blog with the ones already written in the next few days. Before I do that, though, I figured that a fresh, new, first post would be good to set the scene. But what new content can I talk about to represent what’s in store for this blog?

I thought I’d take the time to explain what this blog’s favicon (the icon that sits in your browser’s tab for this site) is – and why I chose it – as it holds quite a bit of meaning to me. You’ll probably see it popping up around the site in due course.

The favicon is a hypercube:

To me, it’s a symbol for ideas that are beyond our comprehension. This blog can be summed up as a collection of ideas that have developed from chaos into understandable order throughout my life. But, in my opinion, the hypercube will never be comprehensible. It represents the limit to our understanding.

“Okay, okay, the hypercube symbolises something for you,” I hear you say. “But what physically is a hypercube?” A hypercube is a 4D square. But as we can’t see 4D objects, what you’re looking at is a 3D shadow of the 4D shape. It’s the best we can achieve in our meager 3 dimensions. Actually, because you’re looking at it on a 2D screen, it’s a 2D representation of a 3D shadow of a 4D shape. The picture below is the same translation from 2D to 3D as our interpretations for a hypercube from 3D to 4D:

All edges of the hypercube are in a direction perpendicular or parallel to each other. So the edges that look like they’re moving into the centre of the cube are actually moving away from the cube in a direction perpendicular to it, in the 4th dimension. A bit of a mind-fuck, right?

I challenge anyone to be able to conceptualise the hypercube. Personally, I think it’s outside the realms of any human understanding, because it’s beyond our perception to be able to imagine a 4D world. Nothing in everyday life equips us to imagine how something would behave in 4D. However, maybe with new games coming out that allow us to explore the environment of 4 dimensions, we can become more intuitive with the idea. The 2D to 3D equivalent of a game that explores dimensions is a game called Fez (one of my favourite games). In Fez, the 3D layout of the world is mapped out, but you only need to traverse it in 2D. Because of this, you can change the angle you perceive each 3D environment to make platforms closer/further away, from the gamer’s 2D perspective. Then if we go one step further, a game that will allow us to explore a 4D environment while perceiving a 3D space (Fez + 1D) – is Miegakure.

Just like apes, who look at skyscrapers and can only fathom the geometric shape as something that exists within the rest of nature – they can’t imagine the careful material selection, the stress calculations on each of the supporting framework, the aesthetic design process – we can’t grasp the hypercube. And maybe in the future, when we create superintelligent AI (ASI), computers will be able to imagine a hypercube intuitively and we will be the apes. But for now, the hypercube is also a symbol of how far we’ve come throughout our lives. When we are born, we are like the ape. Then as we grow in the world, we move more and more towards the ASI. There will always be things beyond our comprehension, but these posts contain the success stories that create order out of chaos. The concepts that have been solidified from the nebulous.