Thursday, March 15, 2007

Feminists, anarchists, computational complexity, bounded rationality, nethack, and other things to do

I was planning to write some WordNet lookup code tonight. But instead I've learned of too many intersecting things.

First, there are a zillion things to do this weekend (hooray flavorpill):

  1. Picasso and American Art exhibit continuing at SFMOMA. I saw it very briefly last weekend but want some more. And Doug claims there's an interesting photography exhibit there too.
  2. Reading from We Don't Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists, a fascinating looking book I've seen many times in the bookstores around here. By that I mean at least Modern Times (the neat Mission bookstore) and the Anarchist Collective Bookstore (out on the Haight). And the reading is at Modern Times, just down the street from my house! Amazing. Tomorrow at 7:30.
  3. Since anarchists were just mentioned, fortuitously there also appears: the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair this Saturday and Sunday! Speakers and books down by Golden Gate Park, oh my.

Can't say I'm a radical feminist or even an anarchist, but I *loved* reading that stuff back in high school. Went through waay too much of An Anarchist FAQ (which is amazingly comprehensive and highly recommended -- ironically, everyone who's read it falls into calling it "The anarchist faq" because, I guess, it's so good); and that, with snippets of MacKinnon, Foucault and other easy-to-misunderstand social theorists, I went around denouncing capitalism, statism, and patriarchy left and right. Temporarily believing and advocating radical views is the most educational thing I know how to do. (Guess I've come a long way since then, writing posts in praise of Hobbes... Though I will say reading the conservatives was rarely as fun, though Burke is pretty insightful.)

And THEN -- also tonight, I learned about the Kevin Kelly computability and induction work. I've been thinking about complexity and social behavior a lot -- computational complexity is a pervasive phenomenon in all sorts of human endeavors. It's impossible for people or organizations to solve certain types of problems, and many of the things we are our best responses under these constraints. We can't know everything, we can't consider all possibilities, we can't radically change our own beliefs, and we can't even enumerate what we already know.

There's *tremendous* potential for computational complexity theory to be applied to formal epistemology -- mathematical philosophy really needs to get away from being so reliant on pure logic. (Or maybe this is already happening.) To say nothing of cognitive modeling and theoretical neuroscience. And perhaps behavioral economics, if they ever get around to rediscovering Herbert Simon in the right way, not the small-tweaks-to-neoclassicalism that dominates mainstream behavioral theories (e.g. contrast Camerer vs. Rubinstein, p. 44 here).

But computational theory can solve this! It's a principled way to describe bounded rationality without resort to procedural rationality and all its messy algorithms and ad-hoc state machines. You could make bounded rationality models with substance and generalizable principles. In the same way that neoclassical microeconomics makes interesting insights about market behavior using convex optimization and other mathematical techniques that allow them to make statements about large classes of market situations, not just one particular market situation, I could imagine models that let you make statements about the behavior of large classes of, say, bounded-memory computational automata, not just some particular algorithm that happens to implement useful heuristics for a bounded-memory agent.

Anyways, all you hordes of Social Science++ readers may know that in the old days the my tag line was:

{social, political, economic} cross {cognition, behavior, systems}

That is, the cross-product with 9 combinations -- cells in a 3x3 matrix:


In the spirit of insightful, serendipitous combinations of ideas, we can cross across feminism and anarchy versus computational complexity and, say, general equilibrium theory.

SYSTEM THEORY: Computational constraints (Turing, big-O, Chomsky hierarchy, etc.)
SOME RANDOM JOINT HYPOTHESIS: (1) Sexism is a result of computational constraints: A prerequisite to sexism is reasoning via gender. There's a bounded rational explanation: a person's gender is a neat little binary property of them, with which inferences can be made. It's more accurate than ignoring gender, but rather large mistakes can be made and when they are malicious or particularly suboptimal they are called sexism. (There are numerous issues with this hypothesis.)

SYSTEM THEORY: Computational constraints
SOME RANDOM JOINT HYPOTHESES: (1) Anarchy is crappy because it's too hard to compute things in a distributed manner. Centralization makes coordination easier. (2) Anarchy could work better by examining and borrowing from distributed computation work. (3) There are certain problems for which it is really hard to find the solution, but it's easy to test if a proposed solution is right. (E.g. NP-complete problems, I think.) If there are lots of problems like this facing a society, more individual and organizational autonomy might increase the chances of solving them since there are lots of different approaches being tried. (A rather standard innovation argument, I suppose.)

SYSTEM THEORY: Neoclassical general equilibrium theory (e.g. Arrow and Debreu, greatest hits-style market behavior under optimizing rational trading agents, the sort of stuff in MWG (A-D joke here).
SOME RANDOM JOINT HYPOTHESES: (1) Economics isn't evil and patriarchal. Equilibrium theory, at least, is kinda innocuous -- just a pile of math that lightly suggests things about the world, e.g. markets could be efficient. (2) Economics is evil and patriarchal. Men in an ivory tower produced piles of math that lie about the world and convince (or rather, justify) free market policies that actually hurt the disadvantaged. [To be clear, this can turn in either direction:] (3) (The discipline of) economics is good because it encourages free markets which liberate women. (e.g. liberation from the domestic sphere) (4) (The discipline of) economics is bad because it encourages free markets which hurt women (due to the usual way capitalism hurts the disadvantaged, or maybe for more specific reasons.)

SYSTEM THEORY: General equilibrium theory
SOME RANDOM JOINT HYPOTHESES: (1) Anarcho-capitalism (ok, so it's not anarchism proper) should work well because Arrow and Debreu say certain types of free markets achieve Pareto-optimal outcomes for their members. (2) General equilibrium theory is bunk because it doesn't take into account power relationships and the state (which are very important, according to leftist anarchist theory)

You can do this sort of thing forever and it is great. (I make no claim that these random hypotheses are actually true; they are merely interesting combinations of social and systems theory ideas.)

Finally: My roommate, Kevin, found, a telnet server for playing the most satirical, brilliant, and dramatic video game ever made, NetHack. Consider the following screenshots. He stepped on a polymorph trap and turned into a quivering blob, which forced him to drop all of his items. And he couldn't move, which was bad news when a troll started attacking. He managed to flee, but didn't have time to pick up all his dropped equipment. Naked and hungry, he made several attempts to slip past the troll -- now invisible and zapping him with magic missiles from a wand and other items it had jacked from the dropped pile of stuff. During one retrieval attempt, the troll moved to completely block the door, so Kevin went upstairs and found a pickaxe and, in a desperate final attempt, started chopping through a wall to create a shortcut on the other side. He almost made it, except for an invisible stalker -- appearing out of nowhere of course, since it's invisible -- that, with the troll, mercilessly destroyed him as he was starving from hunger.

Clearly this is the best game ever.

Finally^2: Muse in SF in a few weeks.


At 10:06 AM, Blogger L2K said...

Wow, Kevin's pretty good at Nethack :). Did he save?

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Brendan said...

The server saves every game that's played on it. You can download the recordings and replay them.

At 10:20 PM, Blogger L2K said...

A more serious comment on this and the last post: I think unlimited computational power is far from the worst assumption that economists/game theory makes about human behavior, although obviously it's a problem with these models.

I can't really understand your hypothesis. Couldn't you make inferences from gender with bounded rationality? Obviously we do all the time.


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