The 4th Humour
uninfluential words from an uninfluenced man
Bile humour Apathetic hemetic Fluent indifferent Emetic Phlegmatic

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Sunday, August 13, 2006
Comedians and Dicks

I've commented before in my self-proclaimed classic Shut Up article that miscommunication is not the cause of all conflict in the world, in spite of what our teachers often say (in fact, quite the opposite). Nonetheless, it is a cause, and I do fear that it grows worse every day, in part because our society's value systems are becoming increasingly ill-equipped to handle it. I might touch on that more later, but my main goal this time around is to show by means of example how our increasingly advanced methods of communication as a society is actually undermining our ability to communicate, and is thus helping to cause conflict.

Sarcasm, for example, is possibly the most blatant form of miscommunication, and it's intentional. "It's not just comedians and dicks anymore," as Seanbaby puts it. Lying is also intentional, but unlike sarcasm, lying will not cause confusion in a one-shot scenario. Consider Ford Prefect asking Arthur, "Look, are you busy?", to which he responds, "Well I've just got this bulldozer to lie in front of, but otherwise--no, not especially." This is confusing. First, because it doesn't accurately reconstruct Arthur's cognitive structure that he is in fact busy, and second, because Ford doesn't understand sarcasm. Now, one could argue that if Arthur had simply lied and said, "No, I'm not busy," the effect would be the same, because in both cases, the wrong cognitive structure is reproduced in Ford's mind. However, in the case of lying, Arthur would know for certain what was communicated to Ford, whereas with sarcasm, even the person guilty of using it can't be sure how it will be interpreted, even amongst the most savvy of conversational combatants.

So what's the problem, then? I mean, everyone in the real world understands sarcasm, right? And it's funny, right? I disagree. The day-to-day sarcasm we encounter is not funny--it's just a simple and sloppy method of telling the same tired old joke over and over and over again in a marginally effective way. "Ha ha! I said one thing, but really meant another! Can you guess what I really meant? Ha ha!" (Incidentally that is my favorite personal response to sarcasm, right along with pretending I'm an idiot and just don't get it at all, causing them to explain and thus ruin their "joke".)

Not everyone understands sarcasm, either, though this may not be obvious and also hard to believe. I did recently encounter a situation in which this is obvious, however, and where my linguistic shortcomings eliminated this de novo assumption and thus eliminated all sarcasm. I was recently in Indonesia, where I happened to meet a nice girl. While her "not so good English" was better than my Bahasa Indonesia, we still didn't have enough mutual proficiency to pull any advanced linguistic tricks. In other words, we each had to remove all assumptions (about Stranger) we would normally make when encountering someone who speaks the same language, including the assumption that the other person is socially savvy enough to understand (and execute) sarcasm. Even other cues, such as voice inflection and body language, could not be trusted to communicate sarcasm for a variety of reasons: the heightened importance of those cues, cultural differences, and unfamiliarly with one another's accents.

So what happened, then? We said what we meant to say; we said what we wanted the other to understand. We knew we were going to have communication problems, so any apparent misunderstanding was clarified, rather than taken incorrectly to heart and used maliciously later on. Sarcasm has no place in such a scenario. Some might argue that sarcasm is fun, but so is communication, because communication is sharing, and there is plenty of sharing to do for two people who have just met.

Unfortunately, sarcasm is a meta-meme; it affects all other memes. Fortunately, it only does so under one condition: a common language runtime. Placing barriers to communication nullifies it. No matter how many barriers to communication there are in the world, however, sarcasm will always be a dangerous one, because it is not culture-specific. It does not depend on the expressiveness of the language itself to spread. While different languages may not be able to express sarcasm as well as others in written form (languages without verb tenses or gender differences), or others in verbal form (languages that have rigid tonality), all are nonetheless capable. While sarcasm is universal, specific applications of it are not.

Each language thus provides a unique framework for which memes--including the sarcasm meta-meme--can survive. A catchy meme in one language won't catch on in another. Compare "The grass is always greener on the other side" to "The other Shaltanac's joopleberry shrub is always a slightly more mauve-y shade of pinky russet." See, it just doesn't work.

In the book Snow Crash, we learn why the mythical Babel Infocalypse was necessary: if everyone understood the same langauge, and a virus of the mind were let loose in that language, we'd be doomed. The linguistic hacker-god Enki realized this and therefore devised a killer meme that disabled the common language runtime. I posit that a world with many languages has evolutionary advantages similar to how a species benefits from genetic variety. Unifying the world under a single language (or having everyone learn the same few languages) would not be a good thing. Sarcasm is just one example of why this is so.

Obviously sarcasm can't be stopped. You can't stop people from learning languages, either. You can't expect the world's values to change so radically that people won't use it. It will persist. All you can do as an individual is to use it with discretion, and then punish those who do not.

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Monday, November 15, 2004
Tit-for-Tat: The Dilemma

(very old draft, revived)

Anyone familiar with Axelrod's iterated Prisoner's Dilemma competitions also knows that the winning strategy has always been Tit-for-Tat. The Tit-for-Tat strategy, upon its first encounter with a competitor, cooperates. Thereafter it does whatever its competitor does; if its competitor defects, it defects; if its competitor cooperates again, it again cooperates.

I'll admit this seems like a good strategy because pride is not a factor. Good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior is punished. However, outside of a computational simulation--in real life--there is a problem if this simple tactic is followed: miscommunication.

What if some misunderstanding arose in the relationship that caused one agent to defect when it should have cooperated? A simple mistake of judgement. Two otherwise cooperative people could then be forever caught defecting against one another. Tragedy. I think this happens often, and the agents will often continue to defect, not as a matter of mechanism, but as a matter of "principle" or pride (I'm sure there's a name for this logical fallacy), even when later evidence suggests there was an initial misunderstanding. After all, the initial misunderstanding is likely the fault of one agent who does not want to admit its mistake and lose face.

Every once in a while, one of the agents will need to take a chance and start to trust again, to cooperate, measuring its potential future (mutual) gain against that of a potential temporary (amutual) loss. The game, then, isn't when to defect, as in a normal iteration, but when to again cooperate.


Friday, August 13, 2004
One Final Wank

You're always talking. About nothing. About yourself. Previous posts about pride and memetics aside, consider this: talking about yourself provides others with information (or meta-information), and information can and will be used against you. If you believe the legend that the word "I" is said with the most frequency in conversations, then your prideful-ass "self" could be putting itself in danger. This doesn't just hold for conversation, but for any sort of signal. The clothing you wear, the food you eat, the work you do, the places you go, and the people you're seen with.

It is best if I only know what you want me to know. Try to play stereotypes to your advantage by adopting a timeless style: talk and appear in such a way that minimal inside information is transmitted without your consent. You'll be tempted to say more than is necessary, but such words are merely self-indulgent.

Being raised in a post-modern world, you're familiar with the temptation to make known every dark secret, make very obscene gesture, and utilize social savvy to perform convoluted pseudo-scientific behavioral experiments for your own entertainment. It is perhaps this post-modern element in today's society--the lack of shame, the false loss of pride, the pride in having faults and making them known to the world--that almost invariably causes you to like someone less the more you know about them.

Most of this information processing, these signals, serve a single function: they get you high. You will advertise your political views; tote the accomplishments of your significant other, child, or special interest group (as if they were your own); and blather about the lines at Disneyland; often justifying it as meaingful debate, human bonding, or intellectual discourse. Truth is--nobody cares. At most, you get high together, but it's mere wankerism. You're like the romantic who never gets laid because he's always hoping for something and never doing anything to get it. You want everything to just fall into your lap. You see why it's such a popular ideal.

You have intellect, yes. It's what gives you the power of simulation, of experiencing things in your mind--your morally significant (if illusory) free will. Use intellect to govern yourself and society. Be pragmatic. Don't be a wanker like [some tosser whose blog has since been removed, and about time, too].

That said, I'm done wanking it here. By definition, there are just some things that can't be done. You can't teach the value of education. You can't judge the law-giver. You can't preach silence.

Act. Let the rest of the world figure it out for itself.

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