Kairos and Spannungsbogen

“If there is any concept that demands our attention, it is Kairos.” – Curlington Q Curls

The novel Anathem had a set of martial arts practitioners who payed special attention to what they called “emergences”, which were unexpected situations where a story could change substantially in a short window of time, which were often dangerous, and which demanded a bias for decision and action.

The martial artists in the story viewed emergences with an almost spiritual reverence as great opportunities, and oriented their training to overcome the natural human tendency to lock up during these moments. They were training for kairos.

On the other hand, the novel Dune had the Fremen, who had the concept of “spannungsbogen”, rough German translation “bow under tension”.

To quote, “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’ – which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”

I find these are important concepts to pair, because while at first blush they seem to be in conflict, they’re well separated by context. In most moments, most quiet moments especially, spannungsbogen is called for. But here and there, if you sense an emergence, it is very healthy to switch to kairos.

So it is with most oppositional pairs: no right or wrong, only context.

But never freely mix greek and german words. That’s just always wrong.

The Predictive Part of Predictive Processing

[Prerequisite: a working understanding of Bayes’ Theorem, and ideally some time spent playing with other machine learning techniques]

One of my favorite blogs has a review of the book “Surfing Uncertainty”, a somewhat accessible text about Predictive Processing.

Avi’s Glean: Awesome! This is a good model of the brain, and you should read it. It (probably) allows us to attach hard numbers to any layer of cognitive science.

That said, I will be writing blurbs critiquing various sections of the book review, and eventually of the book. My long term intent is to refine the theory for myself.

“As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.”

Assuming that’s actually the theory and not just Scott’s interpretation, I have an intuition that this piece is where the theory is most wrong, the use of Bayes’ Theorem specifically. I think Bayes’ Theorem is posited here because:

1. It’s accurate.

2. It’s simple.

3. It’s what we understand.

But I don’t think that’s going to be correct because:

1. The brain isn’t necessarily going for what’s accurate. Accurate and effective can be divorced for a variety of reasons.

2. Neural layers are capable of much more nuanced and complex modeling (in your and my intuitions, in commonly held neural models, and specifically in the predictive processing model, this is true).

3. Since we’re in the early days of applied probability, there’s no reason, except as a placeholder, to guess what we know instead of what we don’t.

The Quality of Political Conversations

[Conceptual prerequisites: signalingcounter signaling, recent speech controversies]

A friend of a friend recently opined, “I am coming to think that most educated Bay Area people are incapable of discussing politics at a level of sophistication above that of angry babies”.

An issue of signaling is the cost of not signaling correctly. If you project the wrong image (which might mean wrong clothing, wrong speech, wrong behavior, or other things), are you ignored? Ostracized? Punished? Killed?

In some places the cost is low. You project the wrong image in the busy part of New York. Who cares? I’m in a hurry. Venice Beach, Los Angeles. Who cares? People live and let live.

In some places the cost is higher. Yesterday I read an article about some gay students in Missouri who had their yearbook quotes scrubbed from their yearbook. My great grandmother was ostracized right out of her husband’s small North Carolina town for having a famous Yankee general as a relative. Personally, I found the signaling costs were unpleasantly high in the American south.

In some places the cost of wrong signaling is extremely, dangerously high. Stalin’s Russia.

I agree with my friend’s friend. I would say that the Bay Area, while not Stalinist, has gradually increased the cost of wrong signaling until it’s even higher than in the American south. Substantially higher, with the result that the quality of political discussion here is now worse than it is in the south.

Politics is the business of collaboration, of building human capital. Political discussion is the business of finding agreement and disagreement in politics. If the cost of looking wrong is a strong dose of ostracization, freely discussing politics risks losing at actual politics. So nobody will freely discuss politics. We live in an era of angry news, so the easiest fallback is to discuss angry news. It’s hard to discuss angry news (and only angry news) as anything other than an angry baby.