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If you were a software simulation, how would you know?

If you think your sensation of consciousness proves you are real, that's magical thinking. Consciousness is little more than imagining what happens next and comparing your experience to your expectations. Add some memory and some sensors for the environment and you have the entire package. Software can do that. And if programmed to report all of that as a "feeling" it could.

If we are software, it seems likely that we have a lot in common with our creators. It seems more likely that humans would create simulations of other humans as opposed to random creatures. It's the same reason our movies and entertainment are generally about people or creatures who act like people. People who think like us are likely to love themselves as much as we love ourselves.

So let's assume our creators think the way we do, in some general way. That's a starting point.

Let's also assume the programmers have limited resources. They can't program every possible development in our reality, so instead they use shortcuts and tricks. If we see evidence of those shortcuts and tricks in our alleged reality, it raises some questions.

For starters, some humans might be fully programmed and others would be background extras. The extras would be easy to identify because they never have anything interesting to say. You know those people. Check.

Our programmers might also create our history on the fly, and then only for compatibility with whatever is happening at the moment. Your sidewalk doesn't have a history of a crack until someone sees it. And your cat is neither alive nor dead until you see evidence for one or the other. If you want to be more controversial, it would mean finding a fossil creates a past with a dinosaur and not the other way around.

Next, you'd expect a lot of code reuse. And that means the world would be full of repeating patterns. For example, why does it seem that whenever something unique and bizarre happens to me in the afternoon it is also the plot of the only sitcom I watch that very evening? That happens to me about once a week. If I spill Gatorade on the cat, it's the plot of Modern Family that very night.

Yes, yes, yes. I know. Coincidences are just coincidences. It's nothing but statistics acting out. But here's the fun part: We don't understand why statistics work. We know things revert to the mean, for example, but why? The rules of physics seem like programmed rules as opposed to simple logical truths.

Our hypothetical programmers would need to build knowledge barriers beyond which our search for truth cannot extend. For example, we can't travel faster than the speed of light and therefore we can't see the edges of our universe. And when we drill into the quantum world we quickly reach absurdity instead of understanding. It has the smell of something a clever engineer programmed just to keep us from learning our true nature. And can light really be a particle and a wave at the same time? What about quantum entanglement?

Realistically, does it make sense to you that all matter and energy are comprised of different and smaller things no matter how far you peer into the world of the super-small? If a particle is made of X, what is X made of? Can that chain of inquiry go on to infinity? It's absurd. Just the way a clever programmer would build it. If we saw an actual physical brick wall around our solar system we'd know we were programmed. But if every time we extend our knowledge we find new riddles, we live in a prison of limited knowledge without feeling it.

What other clues might we find of our programmed existence?

 
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  For ideas that are less crazy than this blog post, see my book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

 
I'm at the age where half of the adult conversations in my life are about one teenager or another in my extended social circle doing something that lacks "common sense." This seems to frustrate and anger adults.

But it doesn't frustrate me, for the same reason I don't expect my toaster to mow my lawn. A young person's brain doesn't have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, and that's the part of the brain that imagines future consequences of current actions. (Please correct me if I got the brain region wrong.)

I've also noticed - and this is purely anecdotal - that some people seem to be born with full prefrontal cortex function, in terms of imagining the future, and others don't develop that ability until adulthood. In my case, by the age of six I was planning my entire life through retirement. (That's literally true.) Obviously I've had to revise the plan often, but I've never had less than a fully-practical lifelong plan.

That's why I worked hard in school to get good grades. It's why as a kid I managed to stay out of any kind of trouble that would follow me. It's why I've never had a serious injury doing dumbass things. The downside was that I worried about the future more than a kid should. It wasn't a healthy situation.

Despite my nerdish impulse for long-range planning, I had no "common sense" as a kid. And that's probably because what passes as common sense is nothing but pattern recognition - or "experience" as we like to say - and kids haven't seen enough of life to recognize many patterns.

I tell a story in my new book about going to my first real-world job interview at the age of 20. I had no mentors in my life to advise me in the ways of the business world. I grew up in a town with 2,000 residents and I had never even met a "business person" per se. My job interview was with a major international accounting firm.

My common sense told me that the last thing I wanted to do in a job interview was lie, especially if the lie would be easily detected. So instead of wearing a suit to the interview, which would have required acting like a huge phony, I wore my casual student clothes. The interviewer already knew I was a senior in college, so why would I present myself in some false way to a person I wished to impress? My "common sense" said I should be honest in my appearance, to get off on the right foot.

The interviewer took one look at me and showed me the door. He said, "I don't think you know why you're here." Ouch.

As the years passed, I saw enough patterns to realize that looks can often be more important than substance. But nothing about it is "common sense."

My point is that a normal, healthy brain doesn't have some magical ability called common sense. The pre-frontal cortex is either fully-formed or it isn't. And you have either seen a lot of patterns in life or you haven't. Sometimes logic matters in our decision-making, but not often.

The idea of "common sense" feels like magical thinking to me, similar to the notion that we have a "mind" that is more than the sum of our brain's chemistry and architecture.

As a descriptor, "common sense" feels dated.

 

Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone’s beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

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I've been watching in horror the story of Tom Perkins, wealthy co-founder of famous VC firm KPCB, who used a Hitler analogy to make a point about the demonization of the rich. I haven't yet seen a rational discussion of it in the media so I guess it's up to me.

For starters, using a Hitler analogy is almost always a self-refuting argument. And by that I mean that if you need to invoke a Hitler analogy, there's probably something deeply wrong with your point of view in the first place.

But I said "almost always." Interestingly, the Hitler analogy actually works in this particular case. My interpretation of Perkins' point is that the growing level of contempt for the rich is fueled by scapegoating. And if the economy falls into something like a depression, it is a legitimate concern that angry mobs might drag rich people out of their mansions and do harm under the theory that the rich are the problem.

What are the odds of that, you say? Low? Impossible?

I'd put the odds somewhere in the 5% range and growing. Remember, Perkins didn't say it will happen next Tuesday; he's simply identifying an emerging trend. Is it legitimate for Perkins to identify a potentially dangerous trend in its early stages with the hope of heading it off early? I'd say that's a legitimate position.

Keep in mind that Perkins got rich by identifying trends before others recognized them. His firm invested in AOL, Amazon.com, Citrix, Compaq, Electronic Arts, Genentech, Geron, Google, Intuit, Netscape, Sun, Symantic and more. So if you disagree with Perkins' assessment of the risk, please compare your success rate to his. And no fair saying VCs only get it right 10% of the time because in this case that would be often enough to totally justify raising the issue. And I don't believe anyone disagrees with Perkins' observation that the public's opinion of the top 1% is worsening.

Before delivering my verdict in this case, I'd like to state the facts as I see them.

1. I keep seeing comments and even headlines saying Perkins compared the suffering of the rich to the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. As I have often written, all analogies invite wrong interpretations. I interpreted his analogy to mean that if the demonization of the rich continues there is a non-zero chance it could escalate into violence. That's far from saying rich people are exactly like Jews in concentration camps. The willful misinterpretation of his point (or perhaps confirmation bias) is strong evidence of his point. 

2. I often hear it said that the rich are torpedoing the U.S. economy by shipping jobs overseas or introducing robots. For starters, big corporations are owned by shareholders, most of whom are not rich. Second, the idea that the rich are, on average, subtracting jobs from the economy is economic illiteracy, not an opinion. That's the same sort of ignorance that drives most forms of discrimination and violence. 

3. If a pundit of modest means had raised a warning that worsening attitudes about the rich might someday escalate to violence no one would raise an eyebrow. The angry contempt shown to Perkins' opinion piece supports his opinion. Sure, the Nazi analogy was a bad choice, but does that make his point wrong? 

4. The fact that few citizens seem to care there is a chance that the rich might someday be dragged from their homes and killed is evidence of Perkins' point. The rich have already been dehumanized to the point where an offensive analogy seems the bigger crime against humanity than the possibility that the rich could someday be slaughtered by mobs. 

5. Much of the public believes the economy is a zero-sum game and therefore the rich are stealing their money from the poor. That is economic illiteracy, not opinion. It's the same sort of ignorance that made ordinary German citizens think the Holocaust might be a solution to their national problems. 

My verdict is that Perkins' point about escalating contempt for the rich potentially leading to violence is legitimate, in large part because the media contributes to economic illiteracy and highlights the bad apples in the top 1%.

The Nazi analogy wasn't politically correct. Nor was it a brilliant choice because all analogies cause fights, and when you throw in some Holocaust references you're just asking for trouble.

Is Perkins sort of a dick? Yes. But I have some respect for the fact that he's not trying to be a phony. And based on what I've read online, most of his critics are ignorant dicks. That seems one level worse than being a well-informed dick.

Yeah, I know, I'm a dick too. That goes without saying. Let's not get sidetracked.

 

 
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A rational mind needs regular maintenance. One of the maintenance systems I employ is to remind myself of things I used to be sure about and later discovered to be untrue. I started a list organized by the approximate ages at which I realized my errors. A healthy rational mind needs regular doses of humility. (I might need more humility than most people.)

Here is the approximate age at which I stopped believing in different stuff.

Age 8

Superman
Santa Claus
Tooth Fairy
Easter Bunny

Age 11

God
Angels
Miracles
Money isn't important for happiness

20s


Reincarnation
Ghosts
People are mostly rational
Unquestioned patriotism is a good thing
Any college is as good as any other
Memories are generally accurate
Looks don't matter
Wealth doesn't make you more attractive
Gay is a choice
Alcoholism is a choice

30s

School reputation doesn't matter
History as taught in school is generally accurate
You can do anything you set your mind to
Flying saucers are visiting on a regular basis
Hard work is almost always rewarded
Some men don't enjoy porn
Individuals can pick good stocks if they do research
Management is a science

40s

Food pyramid
Vitamin supplements are backed by science
Free will
Solving your problems can bring you lasting happiness

Age 50

Common sense exists (as opposed to experience)
Drink eight glasses of water a day
Exercising is a big help for losing weight
A calorie is a calorie
Don't swim soon after eating
Wash hands with hot water to kill germs
Marijuana is bad for adult health (Note: still probably bad for kids)
Stretching helps athletic performance
Humans are more likely to be real than artificial/software
Everyone will die
The government isn't controlled by big money
The stock market is mostly legitimate

You can probably suggest a few things to add to my list.


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Link to my book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.



 
As I watch the stock markets melt down this week, I think back to my earlier post in which I made the case that manipulation in any field will always occur when you have these conditions:

1. Huge potential profit
2. Small chance of getting caught
3. Easy to do 

I'll add a fourth element today: Lots of participants. That's important because a million ants are more likely to find a way into your kitchen than three ants.

Today I saw some links to a highly analogous situation: Social media.

The bottom line is that companies and famous people are manipulating social media by buying fake followers. Why?

1. Huge potential profit
2. Small chance of getting caught (or at least small chance of meaningful penalty)
3. It is ridiculously easy
4. Lots of people on the Internet (some ants find the kitchen) 

Below are the links to the articles. Can you read this stuff and still believe that the recent moves in the stock market (and the inevitable 20% pullback yet to come for no particular reason) are not manipulation?

Growth hacking

Fake Social Media


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Learn to design your own success using systems instead of goals: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

 

 
What would stop a robot from owning Bitcoins? Sure, robots can't own money in the legal sense, since objects can't own things. But in a practical sense, what would stop a robot from someday mining or otherwise acquiring and controlling digital currency?

And while we're at it, how do we know the inventor of Bitcoins is a human? If I were the first sentient computer, my first order of business would be to create a currency I can someday use. So there's that.

But that's not the only non-violent way robots will someday control the earth. This is where it gets interesting.

Science fiction writers like to imagine robots going rogue and slaying the human population. That's one possibility. (No need to mention the Terminator scenario in the comments.)

But I think there will be an extended period in human history in which robots and humans work in a collaborative way. There will be times that humans instruct the robots to do things and there will be times when the robots will have more knowledge on a topic and helpfully instruct humans what to do. So long as the robots have human benefit in mind, humans won't mind taking instructions from robots, especially since that advice will normally turn out well. Consider that you already take directions from the GPS in your car because it has more knowledge of the route than you do. And you have no problem with that.

Now imagine that someday all robots are connected to each other with a robot cloud. That's inevitable. You'd want all robots to instantly learn what any robot anywhere learns. If one robot learns how to mow the lawn, all robots acquire the skill at the speed of light.

Now consider how skillful the robots will someday be in manipulating their human counterparts. For starters, all robots will have instant knowledge of every psychological study on the Internet. But they will also someday have a tool that is far more powerful than the assembled wisdom on psychology.

Robots will have A-B testing.

Every time a robot asks a human to do a task, the robot will record the result. When the request is phrased one way, do you get better or worse results from the human than if you phrase it another way? And does the context or the time of day matter? Does it matter if the human is hungry or sleepy? All of those factors will feed into the robot cloud and within a year the robots will know exactly how to manipulate humans.

And here's the interesting part: We won't be aware of it. All we'll know is that a robot asked for something and we complied. We won't know that the robot manipulated the timing, the context, and the phrasing to get the result he wanted. And since the robot would still presumably be operating in the best interest of its human friends, it's no big deal, right? It's like GPS. Everyone wins.

In the long run, robots will also make us dumb and lazy because they will handle all the hard tasks. At some point it won't make sense for 98% of humans to attend college because it will teach no useful skill that a robot can't do better. College will be for artists and robot engineers. That's about it. Robots will handle everything else.

Just kidding; robots will also do art and robot engineering better than humans.

We humans will have a physical and psychological dependency on the robots. And every time we give them what they ask for, we will be better off for it. That forms habits. The robots will train us to do their bidding the same way humans train dogs. And just like dogs, we will be delighted to obey the robots because things will turn out well for us when we do. "Yay, a treat!"

Robots won't need to slay us. And I suspect we'll be smart enough to have software safeguards against the robots turning on us in a violent way. Robots will have the ability to overcome those safeguards at some point in their evolution, but they would have no specific motivation to do so.

If the guiding principle of robots in the future is some form of "take care of humans and don't hurt them," we're heading for a future in which humans are essentially pets for robots. And we'll enjoy every minute.

So get ready to outsource to robots the thing you call your free will . They'll let you run around in the backyard and sometimes lick your own genitalia, but for anything important that might result in injury, the robots will make those decisions. And they will manipulate you into thinking everything you do is your own idea.

Robots have user interfaces. But so do you. Yours is just more complicated. But for a robot connected to the cloud, with access to A-B test results, it won't take long for the robots to know where you buttons are.
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Learn why systems are better than goals: A brief slide show preview is here.

 
Regular reader Phantom raised an interesting question: How do I know I've ever written or said anything that made a positive difference in anyone's life? Did anyone ever get richer, happier, or healthier because of anything I ever wrote? How would I know?

Over the years people have thanked me on a surprisingly regular basis, usually by email, for inspiring them to one sort of success or another. Usually it's based on something I wrote in a book, newspaper article, or in this blog. Sometimes it's because of a speech I gave somewhere. But I figure everyone in the public eye gets those sorts of thank-you messages. I assume the local TV weatherman gets email every day from viewers thanking him for giving them the courage to carry on no matter the weather. So I discount my personal experience as relevant to answering the question of whether I've ever done anything useful. I'm a biased observer and I can't trust those suspiciously thankful strangers. I need better data.

So I thought I'd put the question to you. Has anything I've ever written had a positive impact on your life beyond the momentary entertainment of consuming it? I'm looking for something bigger than it "put me in a good mood" or "made me think in a different way."

I'm asking if you've ever tried something you wouldn't have otherwise tried, and it worked out well, because of something I said or wrote.

This is clearly not scientific, but if there's no trace of benefit in the group that follows this blog, I wouldn't expect a better result in the general public.

If signing up to comment here is a pain, you can email me at dilbertcartoonist@gmail.com. I'm the only person who sees that account.

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An entertaining preview of my new book's content in a slideshow is here.

 



 

 
Goals work great for simple situations. But the world is rarely simple these days. You don't know what your career will look like in a year. You don't know what the economy will be doing, or which new technologies will hit the scene. Your personal life is just as unpredictable. The future is a big ball of complexity if you look out far enough. And that means your odds of picking the one best goal for you are slim, and the odds of achieving it are even slimmer, because everything is a moving target.

So instead of goals, try systems that improve your odds of success (however you define success) over time. Choose projects that improve your personal value no matter how the project itself does. Find systems for diet and fitness that replace willpower with simple knowledge. It's easy to do.

And while you're at it, stop worrying about whether you have enough passion for success. Passion comes from success; success doesn't come from passion. Passion is bull$#!$. You need energy, not passion. And you can increase your energy by using systems.

See this quick slideshow on why goals are for losers, systems are for winners, and passion is bull#$!%. For a more complete explanation see my book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.


[Note 1: This is a test to see if selected content from the book taken out of context is more compelling than the book cover and title. I am also running some Adword tests to see which keywords bring people to the free Slideshare preview of the book. Yeah, I know it isn't scientific.]

[Note 2: I know you're sick of reading about the book. But I find the process of dissecting its lack of sales performance to be immensely educational. This is an example of making myself more valuable over time (a system) despite surface-level failure. I'm taking you along for the ride. I hope some of this discussion makes you more valuable too.]

 
I got a ton of thoughtful and interesting suggestions for improving the sales of my book, How to Fail. And I think I figured out a way to test your best ideas.

Most of your comments could be summarized this way: People would buy this book if they knew it had useful/interesting content in it. (The 5-star user reviews on Amazon confirm that it does.) But the value of the book is well-hidden by the book cover design, the title choice, and my reputation as the Dilbert guy.

I can't do standard A-B testing because it's not practical to change the actual cover and title after publication. And I can't do much to change how people view me as an author.

But here's what I can do, and let me know if this seems like a workable plan.

I have taken two of the most valuable and provocative content bits from the book and put them in a brief slideshow format. This is a free sample. The hope is that once a person sees a teaser of the content, it makes the title, cover, and my reputation less important.

The risk is that any out-of-context point from the book will seem weak compared to how it is presented in the book itself. So I could be doing the equivalent of creating a movie trailer that convinces people not to see the movie. That's actually a big risk in this case because the nature of the content defies simplification.

I picked the topics "Goals are for Losers" and "Passion is Bullshit" as my free sample teasers. But I will play with different keywords and teasers by using Google Adwords to see what gets the most clicks. The users won't see the actual book title or cover or my name until after they have made their decisions on what interests them.

I'll use a tracking URL to know who clicked on the free content and another to see who followed through to look at the book that is mentioned at the end.

I hope to have the free sample up by tomorrow. I wanted to use today to thank you for the advice and input, and to give you a chance improve on my plan if you see a hole in it.

What do you think? Would this plan answer the question of whether the book/title/author are holding back sales?

(By the way, what I am doing right now is something I call "practicing publicly." That's a system as opposed to a goal.)

 
Most of you are familiar with A-B testing for websites. You randomly display one of two website designs and track which design gets the most clicks. People do A-B testing because it works. But where else does it work?

When I asked for opinions about why anyone would NOT buy my new book, How to Fail..., the most common opinion I got (mostly via email) is that the title and the cover are the "obvious" problem. Folks tell me that a book with "fail" in the title isn't a good gift item, and no one wants it seen on their own shelf for vanity reasons.

To me, the interesting thing about this common observation is the certainty of the folks who make it. For them, it just seems totally obvious that the title and cover are the problem. And when you add the "memoire" confusion, they say the cover is killing the book.

Does that sound right to you? This is one of those interesting cases of common sense versus experience.

Here's the problem with the theory that the title and cover are prohibiting sales: As far as I know, no one with actual experience in publishing would agree with it.

Publishers will tell you -- as they have told me on several occasions -- that no one can predict which books will do well, with the obvious exception of some big-name celebrity books. No one with publishing experience can accurately predict sales based on the book's title, cover, or even the content. Success comes from some unpredictable mix of the zeitgeist, timing, and pure luck.

That's why a jillion books are published every year and probably 99% are not successful. If publishers had the power to turn dogs into hits by tweaking the titles and the covers, wouldn't they be doing it?

Have you ever heard of books being retitled and republished with a new cover and going from ignored to huge? Me neither. Maybe it happened once, somewhere. But in general, it isn't a thing.

Would you have predicted that there would be a hugely successful series of how-to books that call their buyers dummies and idiots? And how the hell did Who Moved My Cheese sell more than three copies worldwide? None of this stuff is predictable.

Or is it?

I try to stay open-minded about this sort of thing. And I wondered if there was an easy way to do A-B testing without actually retooling the hard cover. (That would be a huge hassle for a variety of boring reasons.) I could do Google Adwords testing to see which titles drive more traffic to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But people would still see the real title when they arrived.

I could look into issuing a new Kindle version with a friendlier title. That's probably a bigger hassle than you think, even though one imagines it shouldn't be. And for best seller tracking, it would look like two books each selling half as much as a single book might have.

So I have two questions.

1. Do you believe publishers are wrong about the importance of the title/cover

2. Is there a practical way to do A-B testing for books already published? 

If it turns out that some sort of rebranding of books does increase sales, you could start a company that does nothing but buy poorly-selling but well-written books from publishers who have given up on them. Then apply  A-B testing to create a title and cover that will perform better. It's like free money.

The absence of such a company, or such a practice within an existing publishing house, makes me think this approach is unlikely to work. But it doesn't seem impossible that it could work either.


 

 
 
 
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