Immutable Intelligence

There’s a common opinion – embodied in the existence of intelligence quotients and the way our culture is impressed with geniuses – that intelligence is immutable, a thing you’re born with and can’t be changed.

This is arguably completely true: there is no way, yet, to change your “processing speed”; the hardware of your brain is fixed in stone. Memory’s the same way: there’s a limit on the number of neurons in your brain, therefore there’s a limit on how much information it can hold.

But there’s an obvious flaw in that argument, and that’s that it deals entirely with hardware. And the software – the software of our brain – is utterly atrocious. For example – our ability to recall locations and maps is better than our ability to recall random information: this is why a taxi driver can memorize the entire maze that is London and still forget his lunch money. (This is also why the memory-palace trick works: by creating a memory palace you convert the data you’re trying to remember into a location, which is stored differently.) This is stupid: there’s no particular reason that shouldn’t be the default setting for anything else you consciously want to store.

Similarly, the existence of cognitive biases. Oh, sure, some of them are legitimate approximations: peer pressure is a simple acknowledgement of the fact that it’s harder to trick a populace than a person, for example, and the ecological fallacy is a life-saver when giving someone of bad repute a chance can get you eaten by lions. But there’s just no excuse for, say, confirmation bias.

So while you can’t change your hardware, it doesn’t really matter, because our software can be changed – with great effort, mind, but I’d be shocked if we’ve found all the memory-palace-esque tricks that exist.


Magic Willpower

We change our minds significantly less often than we think. Generally, if you can predict what your decision will be – even if you, consciously, don’t think you’re all that certain – you’ll be right about 95% of the time.

This is particularly relevant when trying to make yourself do something. No matter what arguments you come up with or appeals to duty and consequences you use to cudgel yourself out of bed, say, if you pay attention you’ll know what you’ll end up doing before you even start.

For this reason, the idea of “willpower” as a magic force that you can use to just change your decision to the “right” one at the last minute is patently ludicrous. Rather like trying to tell a child to “think before you act” – if you’re the kind of person / in the kind of mood to “apply your willpower,” you’re also in the mood to just do whatever-it-is anyway. The application of willpower is a proxy, a way of implementing a decision already made – we control much less of our brains than we’d like.

So… there’s really, spectacularly no point in telling someone “Just Try Harder!” Go figure out how to put them in a willpower-using mood, instead.


The definition of cheating is an interesting one. If tests are intended to measure competence, then the concept of a closed-book test should naively be nonsensical. After all – in any realistic real-world situation, not only books and notes but also fellow professionals will of course be available; competence lies in correct execution.

Naively. The point of a test, of course, is the same as the point of a controlled experiment: removing other variables to simplify a problem, then correlate the results of the test to the real world. Then, formally, two factors determine the efficacy of a test: to what extent “competence” is one of the variables removed, and to what extent the test correlates to the real world.

(On a side note, while the SAT is reasonably competent at avoiding the former, it fails disastrously at the latter.)

Thus – the entire point of history is to be able to hold history in your mind and make inferences and analogies on the fly, so open-book tests would be completely pointless – correlate poorly to one’s ability to perform in reality. Meanwhile, the point of most STEM fields is practical – so long as you can solve a problem, the methods should not be overly penalized, and thus open-book tests are legitimate. (Of course, this only extends so far as the concepts are internalized.)

So far so good. Why penalize collaboration? Other experts are available for questioning in every field. Again, in a field like history one’s ability to readily access large swathes of time is much of the point, but even so there are times where it is entirely appropriate to simply ask a colleague. In the STEM fields, inter-field collaborations are finding massive amounts of unplucked low-hanging fruit that before had gone unnoticed by monofocus researchers.

This might be a rare case where our analysis does not add up to reality: it seems to make sense to test collaboration, group thinking and synthesis, at the very least in addition to individual capability.

Writer’s Block: The Noise Model

The phenomenon of writer’s block is interesting. The fact that it exists – that inspiration comes in spurts and that writing often follows all at once – implies that the creative process, however it works, is not reliable. Indeed, writing for this author has many of the same characteristics as noise: utterly unpredictable, fractally complex in its efficiency, micro-blocks in the middle of floods of ideas and occasional sentences in the middle of a “block.”

(To some extent, this makes sense: if you assume that you have some chance of coming up with your next idea every second, then indeed writing should be a stochastic process.)

And yet, clearly we observe that some people are more creative than others, that some things are inspiring, that we work better under some conditions than others; this is rather like hitting on your next idea “manually,” finding something interesting rather than waiting for an idea to come to you.

Together, this suggests that we might model creativity as noise, with a cap (typing speed, usually, or thought-speed) beyond which further amplitude is wasted, and a total gain, a magnification. Inspiration just increases the “gain,” so mild spurts become great enough to be useful…

Hm. Test: do writing patterns really have fractal complexity? If I actually do the timing test, will I end up with something that looks like noise to a sound artist?


A man watches with horror as a tree begins to fall onto the car containing his young son. He rushes to push it aside, but he hasn’t been exercising since college; his strength fails to move the tree, and his son dies as a result.

Going to work, the same man in a different universe quite clearly remembers dropping off his young son at the daycare, and so leaves his sleeping son in the car through the broiling summer day. This is, unfortunately, fatal.

Our first instinct, as a society, is to assign more blame to the latter man than to the former. It’s one thing if you just don’t have the strength, but surely anyone can remember something?

Well… no. Even if our brains were so convenient as to remember important things better than trivial matters, there’s lots of literature suggesting that, for example, willpower is a resource. On top of, say, indications that intelligence is to some extent inherent, even if it’s often overwhelmed by nurture-factors (not all of which are under the person’s control)…

Of course, this isn’t to suggest we stop holding people responsible. Purely on game theory grounds, that would be rather disastrous. But we should be aware that, in a rather D&D-esque fashion, we are judging people who “failed a will save”, whose intelligence-statistic simply wasn’t high enough for the situation – not someone who somehow chose, with something not their brain – their physical brain, affected by nutrients and genetics and early development – to ignore their “platonic self.”

Authorial Meta-Intent

It is an unfortunate truism that we are not in nearly as much control over our own actions as we think we are, and there is no particular reason to exempt writing from the list of such affect actions. This is often cited as a reason to adopt Death of the Author – that there will be non-noise patterns in the text that nevertheless not intended by the author. The casual racism of most literature before the present day, for example; the extent to which Greco-Roman culture underlies much of modern life, and the availability of their pantheon versus, say, the Hindu pantheon, all leave their fingerprints in modern works.

This is not a reason for complete philosophical panic. There is generally never a reason for complete phlilosophical panic. If the purpose of humanities is to gain a greater understanding of, well, humanity – humans and their culture – well, certainly, then, analyzing literature to back out details of the author’s local zeitgeist is worthwhile.

So let’s just call this Authorial Meta-Intent, or perhaps Meta-Authorial Intent, and again discord Death of the Author as needlessly discarding half the value of every work.

The Sabre-Toothed Lolcat

There are ultimately three conditions which are required for consistent, complex evolution to occur:

  1. Frequently and accurately copied organisms
  2. Low, but nonzero/non-effectively-zero mutation rate.
  3. Presence of selection pressures

Interestingly, all three are true of memes: they are generally accurately restated from person to person, they are occasionally misquoted, and of course, “pithy sayings”, “wise words” and so on will be better remembered than a random English sentence.

Memes, of course, have had much less time to evolve; their generations are, perhaps, somewhat shorter, but not nearly enough to compete with biology’s 3.85 billion years. So we should expect significantly less complex memetic organisms than genetic. Still, we should expect “apex predators” as it were – the current state of the memetic art.

Borrowing inspiration from biology, we should expect such high-quality memes to be:

  1. Possessive. Memes should highly discourage people from being convinced of their falsehood.
  2. Persuasive. Obviously, a high-quality meme will be popular; the most competitive memes will be those with millions or billions of adherents.
  3. Competitive. Memes compete for head-space. We should expect adherents to memetic organisms to aggressively seek out other followers and attempt to convince or destroy adherents to other memes.

So we’re looking for ideas or sets of ideas that vehemently decry conversion, are extremely popular, evangelize constantly, and constantly get into violent conflict with other ideas in their reference class.