Category Archives: Personal Experience

Truth Telling Under Uncertainty

“Thou shalt not lie.” Perhaps the most misquoted commandment of them all is actually not that broad:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16, ESV)

As my pastor explained when we recently studied this passage in church, the point of this commandment, along with all of the other commandments, was to set up a working society. In particular, a society that generally obeys this commandment allowed for a functional legal system. The distinction is still important in the US today: Perjury, or lying under oath, carries much harsher penalties than lying while not under oath.

For Christians, though, Jesus does away with this distinction:

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. (Matthew 5:33-37, ESV)

This passage is perhaps a bit confusing. It occurs in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, as one of a series of guidelines collectively raising the bar for the standard of conduct of Jesus’ followers beyond what the Ten Commandments require. Beyond not murdering, Christians should not hate. Beyond not committing adultery, Christians should not lust.

In this context, it’s clear at least to me that Jesus isn’t telling his disciples not to use profanity, or never to show up in court and thereby have to swear an oath (although the Quakers famously interpreted this passage it in that direction). Instead, Jesus is saying that an oath should not be necessary to ensure the accuracy of what you say. Beyond not perjuring, Christians should not lie.

As a Christian, I take this seriously. As I interpret it, lying is not simply any false statement but an intent to deceive. Answering a question on a test wrongly is not lying, unless you then try to deceive the grader into thinking your answer is fine, such as with the classic “proof by page flip.” And if you’re thinking about what this means in board games where some of the roles require lying to not instantly lose, well, I already wrote about that in The Spiritual Side of Board Gaming, but the short version is that I see games like that as role-playing, and any lying we do as part of the act. There are concerns about this role-playing making us more desensitized, able and therefore tempted to lie in the future, similar to the concern that violent video games will make their players more prone to real-life violence, but the act of lying while playing such a role is not in itself a violation.

But sometimes it isn’t always so straightforward. Take a classic, common example, estimating arrival times, like this guy:

Estimation

Say I’m running late to a meeting with some friends, and I want to tell them how long they’ll have to wait for me. I am personally prone to frequently underestimating this time, saying I’ll be there in five minutes when I actually make it in ten. And that’s potentially excusable: Maybe I simply misremembered how long it would take, or forgot about some construction blocking my path. It’s not that I want to deceive my friends…

Or is it? Since noticing that I frequently err on the low end of such time estimates, I also came across a term for this phenomenon: The planning fallacy:

Buehler et. al. (1995) asked their students for estimates of when they (the students) thought they would complete their personal academic projects. Specifically, the researchers asked for estimated times by which the students thought it was 50%, 75%, and 99% probable their personal projects would be done. Would you care to guess how many students finished on or before their estimated 50%, 75%, and 99% probability levels?

  • 13% of subjects finished their project by the time they had assigned a 50% probability level;
  • 19% finished by the time assigned a 75% probability level;
  • and only 45% (less than half!) finished by the time of their 99% probability level.

As Buehler et. al. (2002) wrote, “The results for the 99% probability level are especially striking: Even when asked to make a highly conservative forecast, a prediction that they felt virtually certain that they would fulfill, students’ confidence in their time estimates far exceeded their accomplishments.”

Now that I’m aware of both the general and my specific tendency, I can see at least one reason that I give such optimistic estimates: I subconsciously don’t want to believe that I’m actually as late as I am, and I want my friends to think well of me for it, hoping they don’t glance at the clock when I do actually arrive. That’s explicit deception, with an added dose of self-deception as I try to justify to myself as well that I’m not actually that late.

So to fight that tendency, I’ve started trying to give a range of time to capture my own uncertainty. This usually involves starting with the estimate that pops into my head as a lower bound, and then adding 5 minutes or more to get the upper bound. And, predictably, I often end up near the end of that range, but at least I’m giving a more accurate impression to my friends that way.


Handling uncertainty is not just a problem on the individual level. Adding fuel to the dumpster fire of their already tarnished reputation, many media outlets famously predicted a sure Clinton victory last year:

All of these organizations were working from the same set of public polling, so this seems to me to be a clear-cut failure to properly deal with uncertainty. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, which famously expressed the least certainty, wrote extensively before and after the election about the factors that influenced their model’s treatment of uncertainty, particularly the number of people who told pollsters they were still uncertain.

But that’s old news now. These days, the biggest topic of discussion is what did or did not occur between Donald Trump, his associates, and agents of Vladimir Putin in the lead-up to the election. Everyone emphasizes that there’s a lot we don’t know, and some news reports have indeed turned up false. With so many anonymously-sourced articles (for fear of retribution), FiveThirtyEight is right there ahead of the curve explaining which anonymous sources are worth paying attention to, with helpful guidelines like these from Perry Bacon Jr., their Washington correspondent:

Quotes attributed to sources “familiar with the thinking” of a person are often quite reliable.

Why? A major newspaper like The New York Times or The Washington Post is not going to suggest that a source is familiar with someone’s thinking without being pretty sure of it. This is a fairly precise term. It also puts the news organization at a clear risk, as person X can obviously deny what an article has said he or she is thinking. […]

There is one person causing some specific problems with this kind of sourcing: Trump. The president seems to speak with a wide range of people, both inside and outside the White House. And many of these people then tell reporters that they talked to the president. That leaves a lot of people for journalists to credibly say are “familiar with Trump’s thinking,” but that does not necessarily mean that these sources give an accurate picture of what the president will do. The constant stories about staff shake-ups at the White House may indeed come from people who have heard Trump muse about changes that he will never actually follow through on.

And fitting, given the recent news, Bacon was right to indicate his uncertainty with that last “may”.

Helping readers navigate uncertainty is a crucial step in communicating the news truthfully. And this is especially important, because many people are paying more attention to politics than before Trump was elected:

 


Before getting too drawn into politics, let me bring the discussion back to our own lives. Deception can actually be quite tricky to find, because the examples of common lies that come most readily to mind are actually more often examples where the communication isn’t taking place along the literal words being said, such as saying we’re good or fine when asked casually how we’re doing, or saying that a dress doesn’t make a woman look fat.

In both of those circumstances, whether the words one is saying are true is a red herring to what’s really going on; the questions of “How are you?” and “Does this dress make me look fat?” aren’t really questions in the usual sense. Instead of literally wanting to know your inner emotional state, they are instead just extending a warm greeting to you, a greeting that you continue by saying, “I’m good.” (In Chinese, this is actually codified: “Ni hao” literally translates as “You good?” but is actually a greeting, not a question.) And instead of literally asking about the dress, she’s really asking you to affirm her beauty and slim figure, which you do by telling her that it doesn’t make her look fat. Naturally, this kind of coded language leads easily to miscommunication, but it isn’t a problem of deception to continue to speak in a well-understood idiom, even if the words one speaks are not true if (mis)interpreted literally.

A better example of common deception comes when we make excuses for our mistakes. I, for one, find myself frequently voicing some self-justification to defend my actions even when none is required: “Sorry, I was just…” At its best, my explanations help whoever I offer them some understanding of my life and more effectively work with me in the future. But that at least requires the explanation to be true, and I’ve unfortunately become very good at making up not-quite-true explanations that make me look good and quickly checking that they could hypothetically apply in this circumstance and only I will know the difference.

Like with estimating arrival or completion times, there is always a degree of self-deception tied to this. “Here’s the innocuous explanation for my actions that makes me look noble and good — see, self, you’re actually not that bad!” It’s an attitude utterly contrary to the Christian gospel, which calls us to actually recognize our own sins, folly, and need for a savior. Seeking to justify ourselves with an invented explanation makes it that much harder to forego the pretense that we are worthy of heaven and fall into the waiting arms of Jesus. This is why He can simultaneously call us to a higher moral standard and promise this:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV)

Your Utility Function Does Not Compute

Last week, I wrote about some of the ways that we show that we don’t truly value everyone equally, despite the prevalence of such principles in popular discourse and the Declaration of Independence that we celebrated on Tuesday.

This week, I’d like to take a look at a couple more aspects of modern life that don’t make any sense to me from this perspective.

Fundraisers

Growing up in a somewhat suburban neighborhood, my only interactions with most neighbors came when I would knock on their door on two yearly occasions: Halloween, and whenever my baseball team had a popcorn fundraiser.

These fundraisers were clearly optimized to act like a game to us kids, with the standard “All of the following, plus…” reward structure. It was fun to try to hit those targets and get the rewards.

Looking back on it now, though, it all seems like a huge waste of effort. Kids go around to their neighbors essentially begging for a small donation to their cause in exchange for some small treat. They then have to put in a lot of work to distribute those treats to their neighbors. You then have to reward the kids for all of this effort with prizes, when then take a cut out of the value that the organization was originally trying to get, yet still criminally underpaying the kids for the effort.

It gets even more ridiculous to see teenagers and adults holding bake sales or car washes to raise a meager amount of money for some cause. As the Babylon Bee appropriately satirized, Successful Bake Sale Raises Over Two Dollars for Missions Trip.

I’m sure that bake sales and similar sorts of fundraisers started out as innocent attempts to try to make asking for money a little less awkward. Instead of simply donating, you get this token of appreciation in return. Given the difference between the cost of ingredients and of baked goods in typical grocery stores, this seemed to some like a reasonable way to turn some spare time into money.

But taking a step back, we have another word for activities that we spend time on to make money: work. And seen in that context, baking, washing cars, and distributing goods to neighbors is either a criminally underpaid profession or simply a way to get around restrictions on child labor.

If you want to support some cause, just give money. If your cause needs support, just be up-front and ask for money. At our church, when a couple of the women wanted support to go on a missions trip, they just spoke about what they’d be doing and people designated their donations in the weekly offering. I was counting the offering that day, and we simply recorded those funds under a separate account for them. Simple as that.

Sometimes you can ask for money from an appropriate organization to support you. When my school’s Science Olympiad team made it to nationals (which happened pretty much every year), our coach would ask the district school board for funding to pay for our flights, which also gave him a chance to brag about us and give the school board a chance to learn about something positive going on at their schools. We heard stories, however of other schools having to put more effort into fundraising than preparing for the actual competition. In my view, that ruined the whole point of it all, which was the time spent learning through preparing for the competition.

You’d be surprised how generous some people can be. For the first two issues of our MIT Et Spiritus publication, the Day Foundation, an organization devoted to (among other things) starting up journals like these around the country, covered all of our publication costs. As we mature, though, they’re trying to wean us off of that funding, so we’ve been seeking a broader donor base of churches and MIT Christian fellowships to support us. In the process of asking around, one of our co-editors-in-chief went to the pastor of Park Street Church to ask for a donation, and he offered to pay for an entire issue. It’s a one-time solution, but will help us bridge the gap to that broad base of local donors to ultimately sustain the journal long-term.

Budgeting

Last post, when explaining what the ethic of equality means, I offered utility functions as a way to understand it:

In utilitarian terms, this means that we should act in order to maximize the sum of everyone’s personal utilities. Perhaps we should add a slight discount term on other people’s preferences due to our uncertainty about them. Otherwise, we might end up like the proverbial long-married couple who always split a piece of bread opposite to their preferences because they were just trying to be loving and thought the other person shared their preferences. But apart from those lower-order terms, this ethic means that we should be just as satisfied with someone else getting some benefit than ourselves.

Utilitarianism is sometimes seen as controversial, but I don’t think people fully grasp why. The claim that you can write down which states of the world you prefer over which other states of the world you prefer into a total ordering that can be mapped onto the real numbers should not be controversial; it actually follows from some simple assumptions like transitivity. The more important assumption is that this function isn’t completely opaque, and can actually be reasoned about.

The ethic of summing utility functions plays off of this more subtle assumption. Of course, we’d have to put everyone’s utility function on the same (differential) scale to do so, and we’d need a definition for that. Rather trying to write one that covers all edge cases, I chose to simply switch back to heuristic ethical language and extract the core principle without getting bogged down in those technical details.

Even if you assume we can map our assessments onto the same scale and accurately assess our own individual utility functions (a tall order to say the least), there’s still the individualist assumption that the collective good is exactly equal to the sum of its parts. This obviously doesn’t allow us to capture any arbitrary utility function, but sometimes we can add interaction terms whether positive (feedback loops) or negative (jealousy) to better approximate reality.

Still, I think it’s giving away too much to believe claims that people’s utility functions take arbitrary shapes. I think it’s reasonable to assert that we have some degree of smoothness and continuity in most circumstances, for instance. Apart from minimums imposed by banks, I think we actually value an extra $10 in our bank accounts to a similar degree under similar financial circumstances, and any policies we set for ourselves should accurately reflect that reality.

It’s in this context that the concept of budgeting simply doesn’t make sense to me, especially in personal finances. Instead of smooth gradients, polynomials or splines, budgeting tries to approximate your utility function with step functions. Spend no more than $X on food, $Y on transportation, $Z on housing. If you go over in any of those categories, you failed.

Think about it: If you’re near the end of the month but haven’t spent your full budget, is it suddenly okay to splurge up to the limit? If you’re almost at your limit but need one more ingredient for dinner tonight, should you try to do without just to fit within the budget? And if you used up your food budget but still have money left that you won’t be using in the transportation budget, do you really want to say that no, you can only spend that money on transportation?

Now, I completely understand that some people have such a poor grasp of the value of money that the practice of setting limits at all is the only way to actually encourage them to spend less. Setting a tangible goal also gives the satisfaction that comes with achieving the goal, or the reality check when it isn’t met.

But in the long run, we all need to develop the character trait of frugality. This is the approach that has guided how Grace and I have been approaching our finances together. We go over every purchase made in the past week (compiled from our bank accounts by Mint) and if anything is out of the ordinary, we talk about it. Sometimes we make changes to our habits, like prioritizing cooking over eating out, in order to spend less.

And I think that’s what all financially mature individuals and families should do. Develop a consistent intuition of what’s worth it to buy for what price, and apply the intuition to each purchase. After all, that’s probably much closer to what your utility function actually looks like.

I’m still not sure how to translate this approach to larger organizations like companies and churches. It’s difficult to compare spending habits across different individuals, and budgets are one somewhat reasonable way of communicating expectations, especially if the expenditures are fairly predictable. But they’re still crude approximations and lead to the same sorts of errors on the organizational level.

Perhaps a replacement to budgets could look like a training session for new volunteers or employees in charge of spending the organization’s finances. Maybe it would take the form of policies like “Buy store brand whenever possible.” Perhaps instead of reimbursing all meal expenses up to a certain price, companies could agree to reimburse only some designated percentage (half? or maybe only half after a certain amount), to generally encourage employees to keep their costs low. Of course, this would need to be paired with a corresponding increase in pay for jobs that require it. As is, though, it seems to me that budgeting per diems encourage people to spend far more than necessary.

A dollar saved is a dollar earned is a dollar given

I keep referencing it because this post really can’t be viewed on its own apart from last week’s. The main motivation I have for saving money is to be able to give more in the future, after taking care of my own needs and those of my family. While we haven’t explicitly tied our giving to our spending in that way because our future needs are uncertain, that’s the ultimate calculation to be done, assuming our spending habits stay the same.

And that’s really the other key to all of this: Preventing value drift. Moving from a budgeting system to something less explicit but more appropriate of course lends with it the possibility that the intuitions guiding our purchases will become warped by a consumerist culture and companies that want us to buy more and more. It’s in this context that Grace and I have found living in a small apartment to be a blessing.

But going forward in the future, I think the best hope for keeping those priorities does not lie in explicit budgets that we can change anyways if we end up making a bit more. Instead, as a whole, we need to do our best to keep each other accountable and set good examples for each other. Where Randian libertarians see groupthink, I see healthy community.

Last week’s post also helps paint the picture of why fundraisers seem so wasteful to me. If we actually do share money freely among our communities, we shouldn’t need to literally sugar coat requests for help. It should be commonplace, accepted, and part of community norms to ask for help and, in turn, give that help when asked.

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45 ESV)

Cherish Thick Communities

Since graduating from Caltech five years ago, I have gone back to visit on eight occasions, for at least a week each trip. Why? What keeps drawing me back there?

It’s definitely not because of the location; as much as I like In-N-Out and boba milk tea, they aren’t worth flying across the country for. Actually, each visit has driven home more and more to me that I don’t really want to live in LA long-term, with its ridiculous sprawl, traffic, and general lack of a third dimension.

Photo courtesy of Brynan Qiu, who was riding with me in a rental car I was driving.

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How’s Married Life?

Grace and I will be celebrating our first anniversary this coming Sunday, June 11th. While it’s difficult to grasp it’s been a whole year already, it’s also becoming harder and harder to remember our lives before it.

Happily ever after, right? No, life’s ups and downs continue to go on, and we thought we’d share some reflections on our one year of marriage so far.

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The Virtues of Living in a Small Apartment

In Empires, the tenth and latest expansion to the game Dominion (one of my favorite games), there is a Landmark called Wall that changes the rules of the game to penalize every player by a point for every extra card in their deck beyond the 15th.

Wall

If you’ve played Dominion before, you probably recognize that this makes any cards that trash cards from your deck super valuable, like Chapel:

Chapel

And people wonder why religious conservatives support Trump… 😛

Chapel is already widely considered the strongest card in the game for its cost, because trashing the relatively bad initial cards can dramatically increase the average value of your deck. But with Wall, it becomes even more important to cut down on the low-value cards, since they actually start hurting you.

There are other types of trashing cards that give you some sort of benefit depending on what you trash. A classic from the Seaside expansion is Salvager:

Salvager

Salvager isn’t quite as powerful as Chapel when playing with Wall, but it does let you keep your deck lean as you keep improving cards. These so-called “trash-for-benefit” cards tend to make it even more reasonable to exchange your best non-victory cards in the late game, since this way, you get some added value out of them, and with Wall, an extra point from not having them in your deck anymore.

Events, another new innovation from the last two Dominion expansions, also allow you to improve your deck in some way without adding cards, which is more valuable when playing with Wall. If there aren’t any Events or trashers, though, playing Wall becomes especially interesting. Every player who doesn’t sit on their hands will be losing points to it, but it’s still not enough to offset those 6-point Provinces or 3-point Duchies, so perhaps your strategies might look similar on the surface.

With Wall, though, you are forced to consider tradeoffs in a different way: maybe it isn’t worth the 1-point loss to buy anything if you only have $3 or $4, even as early as the mid-game. Estates (which only give 1 point) are now completely useless, so you might as well ignore them. In other words, your standards for what is worth buying go up, as your calculation is no longer about whether a card would improve your deck, but whether it would improve your deck by enough.

Why do I bring up the strategy around this one particular card in Dominion? Well, I’ve realized that living in a relatively small apartment has very much the same feel, and we’ve found ourselves adapting all of these strategies from time to time. Yes, this is another post where I derive life lessons from a board game.

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