Identity: What's that all about?

11-Sep-2018

The quest to discover personal identity has become a mainstream movement. We are teaching courses about identity in our English classrooms. "Identity politics" is an oft-referred to term in certain circles, and more and more focus and value is being placed onto the celebration of our words gender and sexual identities. This ethical movement is certainly a win in that our society is finally acknowledging gays, aboriginal cultures and other disenfranchised minorities.

We are seeing extreme behavior coming from the fringes of some of these movements, especially in the US. Things such as humans identifying as animals, and contentious groups such as Antifa staging violent ideological protests that appear, at least to my foreign and uneducated eyes, to be examples of forming personal or group identities that are not adaptive, or valuable to our march towards human enlightenment.

Identity has become such a notable part of modern society that the term "gender politics" is bandied about to describe the battle over which lingua franca ought to become dominant. Should we allow anyone to choose their own gender identity? Or should each person be compelled to identify as their physical identity?

I am compelled to write this essay, because I feel that there is a tendency for our society to encourage identity exploration and expansions, without ever actually reflecting on or understanding what and identity actually is for. The purpose of this essay is to explore the purpose of identity in an abstract sense. The example of "gender identity" is only mentioned to acknowledge how emotionally laden this topic is. This author would rather avoid the typical vitriol that comes with opining the utility of personal or gender identity, but notes that typically debates around these issues do not choose a common frame of reference.

Much energy is poured into choosing the correct identity, and debating the reasonableness of a given identity. Saying "Humans should be allowed to identify as animals" at a party is bound to evoke a response. It is dryly observed that little of this energy is likely to discuss what identity is actually for.

To reiterate, this essay is not an attempt to form, portray or criticize any specific stance on gender identity. This essay only acknowledges these issues in order state that this essay is in no way an attempt to engage in the house-fire that is gender politics. :)

In my opinion, the purpose of identity in the abstract sense is often ignored when discussing identity. (Be it gender identity, or differentiating between cats and dogs.)

So What Is Identity?

As usually it's pretty difficult to discuss some word without defining it. Just remember to leave your Principle of Charity hat on here because this is a bit of a sensitive topic.

In this essay, the definition of "Identity" is:

Identity determines what a person or thing is and what characteristics it has. It is a word, or symbol that points towards some blob in our vision and says, "That furry meat-bag is a 'cat.'"

In practice, this means that a given identity such as "cat" or "dog" will have a bunch or characteristics associated with it (like "four legs", "barks") that can be observed, or inferred from observations.

What is identity for?

I am arguing that there are multiple uses of identity. Identity exists so that we can quickly determine how to deal with things that we think that we have seen before. Specifically, I am arguing that "Identity is an Optimization", in that it in each case where we apply identities to something it is in order to simplify and therefore speeds up our decision making. To do this, I will describe three ways in which we use identity to make decisions.

Identity to distinguish objects in language

The most simplistic form of identities are those that we apply to every day objects. In this, the meaning of identity is almost indistinguishable from the meaning of 'symbol', 'label' or 'word', in that we will identify some object or thing with a name.

This is all very abstract, so I will give an example. When we observe a certain furry, mouse-eating, walking sack of meat, we will all probably identify it as a "cat".

This may seem like a redundant or pointless thing to be writing about given that it is so fundamental, and as language-users, surely we are all familiar with this concept already. I believe that it is not, as this is an important frame of reference for when we are discussing personal and cultural identities. It is important, I think, not to to forget that when we are speaking of identity we are talking about a fundamental part of language. Any rules, cultural understanding, or identity politics that we happen to be engaging in to decide how identity should work needs to consider that outside of a few contentious ideas, identity is something that must be taken for granted in our day to day lives, lest we be unable to communicate with each other.

When we give a complex structure an identity this optimizes our thinking and communication. For example:

  • It is faster to say "cat" than "That furry meat-bag".
  • It is faster to say "man" than "person with XY genes".

Shared Identification

But identity is not just an optimization for our personal thinking, it is also a social optimization. That is, identities optimize our interactions with other people. The most obvious example of this is our shared language.

Any two English speakers will have shared meanings for what the word "cat" means. This shared meaning will not be perfect. This author may have very different associations with this word to the reader. For example, should a person who knows the authors relationships with the word "cat" ask, "Come over to my house so that you can pet my cat", the author who is allergic to cats, would be offended that this person wants to do him harm.

Less abstractly, this is applied to finding like-minded people. Simply by bagging a whole bunch of words into one label, we can quickly decide whether or not we want to hang out with someone or reject them based on what labels or identity we perceive them to have.

For example, "Fred" may have had valuable and empowering personal experiences when he bullied certain people at his school. He is able to apply a negative identity like "nerd" to identify those whom are more likely to give him a rewarding experience when he harasses them. When he meets new people, he will able to quickly describe this aspect of himself in a profoundly short sentence: "I hate nerds". This signalling allows him to quickly find people like-mind to himself allowing him to continue enjoying his learned reward-feedback loop.

In this way, our capacity to share identities with others, first enables, then (as we have more and more distinctive identities) optimizes our efficiency of communication.

Personal Identity

Beyond the identification we find in objects and community, most of us will have a personal identity. This has multiple facets and people like Freud try to categorize the various aspects of this with words like "Ego" and "Id". This is most used meaning of identity in current discourse, and it is considered with various degrees of seriousness. Reading material defining this aspect of identity is extensive, but so that we are all on the same page, I will describe what I think personal identity is.

A personal identity describes behavior, outcomes and relationships that we believe that we ought to maintain to fulfill that identity. For example, a self-identifying football fan will believe that true football fans ought to collect football memorabilia, watch football games, and know a lot of things about football.

In many cases, we will choose a personal identity to show what it is that we are already doing, but more interestingly, we will often choose an identity that we aspire to have rather than one that we naturally fulfill. This is more interesting because in this case, we will find ourselves acting in ways that we would not otherwise act in order to fulfill that role. For example a person that wants to be able to identify as a sports star will go through a grueling exercise regime for many years to achieve the identity that they are seeking out, and when they become a sports star, will maintain this regime.

In this case, the desire to have a personal identity is defining our desires, and we are using personal identity as the basis of our decision making. Because of this, I am arguing that personal identity itself is defining our choices. Asking an aspirational question "What would Michael Jordan do?" is a shortcut to deciding what it is that we want. Instead of deciding what to do in the afternoon based on physical desire, or careful reflection, many of us choose to go out for a run without really needing to have a deep think about why we'd bother.

This is the most sensible form of mental laziness, since it wouldn't do for us to be reevaluating our lives each day. And this applies to more than just maintaining healthy fitness. I would argue that a self-identifying musician plays music, because they think of themselves as a musician, and our geeks and nerds read books for the same reason. That is, the identity begets the behavior rather than the other way around.

As with all of the heading above, I declare that this form of mental laziness is in fact, and optimization to our thinking, since it enables us to more efficiently decide how we will behave. I note, that often attempting to maintain a valuable external identity makes us unhappy. (For example, someone who is aspiring to be successful may tend towards depression).

Commonalities

In each of the cases above you will see that things that we "know" about identities help us make snap decisions in our day to day lives. This could be called System 1 thinking in that the associations and decisions we make with identities are a form of pattern recognition. These decisions are making trade-offs between efficiency and avoiding bias.

Trade-offs in identity

"Premature optimization is the root of all evil" (D. Knuth), and in this respect dishing out labels that do not fit is a big problem. When you call someone with two heads a Tasmanian when they are born in Queensland, they could get offended.

There is a trade-off known as the "Speed-Quality" trade-off. When you are trying to make something new, you can either make it quickly or spend more time on it to make it high quality. Using identities is an example of this trade-off. Broad-stroke identities are useful as they can be applied to many things, but not as accurate as a fine grained identity.

A clear example of this is to compare the two identities "Eshay Lad" and "Australian": "Australian" is a form of national identity that describes over twenty million people. When one is called "Aussie", you can not even tell if they are of European, Asian, Aboriginal or whatever other cultural background. This makes "Australian" a pretty bad predictor of personality and behavior.

"Eshay Lad" is an identity with a much clearer definition: It is a young white male, who likes to wear striped polo-shirts and speak in pig-latin as an advertisement of his shared dissident culture. This is a much higher-fidelity description, but it has a problem: unless you have lived in Australia for a number of years, (and even then) you probably have never heard of an Eshay Lad.

This is the other side of this Speed-Quality coin. It is impractical to learn many distinct identities.

Then what are the aspects of a useful identity?

The main implication of this, is that identity is a practical language tool and it needs to be treated like one. That is, we ought to treat identity like we would treat our other tools. We should focus on making our cultural and personal identities safe and and ethical, without making them unusable.

When we are choosing our personal identities, we should keep them small. Paul Graham wrote an interesting essay on this. This way we will not be making uninformed decisions that keep us stupid, and closed to change.

I think that prescriptive-style gatekeepers that want everyone to memorize the special words for their special personal identity ought to fuck off. It is impractical, tragedy of the commons behavior. If it was truly ethical to learn each persons identity concepts then the ethical person would not have time to sleep for want of learning seven billion names.

To finish, I will tell a joke. If gender were a tool, it would be a power saw as it when you are trying to cut the population into halves it sends bits of shrapnel everywhere.


Another year, another blog post

03-Sep-2018

It's been another year, so I suppose it is time for another blog post. Exciting times call for exciting changes, so I've made the background some kind of weird lavender colour that looks grotty when you turn Redshift) on.

This year, I learned... What? I joined a choir called Vox Canvas, and kept hammering away at the keyboard in the office. I caused some bugs and fixed more.

Here is my recommendation. Don't roll your own ORM. But if you have to, don't let people implement bespoke cache invalidation on top of it. There are just too many different data interactions that can happen. You will wind up spending months and months of your life just debugging shit, or edge-case after edge-case as you ham your way through one million data-integrity errors.

As a reward for reading this shit, how about you go listen to some weird throat-singing drone I recorded.


Books that I have read and remember

07-Oct-2017

Just for fun I wrote down a list of most of the fantasy novels that I read in my youth. Here it is, in no particular order, arranged by authors:


Thus Spake Zarathustra

23-Aug-2016

StumbleUpon is a fantastic website, and probably the best knowledge aggregation on the web. Let explain why - first by defining virtuous knowledge aggregation, and then via a comparison of StumbleUpon with other sites.

As is my usual overthink, I bucket everything into categories but then get bored and don't actually evaluate the outcome.

Here are the sites I compare StumbleUpon to:

  1. StumbleUpon
  2. Reddit
  3. YCombinator
  4. Wikipedia

These sites allow the community to index web pages and articles, so users can be both entertained and informed.

These sites are all virtuous or unvirtuous regarding several categories. These categories are:

  • Entertainment - What is the most fun that can be had reading the website?
  • Currentness - How recent are links?
  • Bias - How biased are links, on average.
  • Shitness - How much time do you spend parsing poo?
  • Positive Vibes - What is the general tone of links?

Isn't "spake" a fun word?


Snarky Cairo Etc.

07-Apr-2016

I'm tipsy, and listening to Snarky Puppy. And it is good. Speaking of Good, using 3D graphics API's for Common Lisp sure is a pain in the arse. Yes. Yes it is. Sure Common Lisp is an amazing language. I have spent most of this week trying to get things to build though, and that is not time well spent.

So what ought to be good? Sketch is a pretty cool idea. Or it would be if any of the examples would actually run. There is something to be said for having things work out of the box. Clinch also looks extremely cool. But the tutorial code does not work as described with the current version in QuickLisp. (The SDL window appears and the background turns blue, but no white triangle. I ought to raise a bug report, but I am sure the developers secretly know what they are doing.)

You know what does work though? The CL-SDL2 examples. That's pretty good right? I've been playing with these. Fun. What more could you want? How about a goal? The goal is to draw pretty pictures using only Common Lisp. Why Common Lisp? Because it doesn't hurt my hands. (Only my brain). And the debugger is pretty great too, unlike my limited experience debugging Clojure, which was not so good. -> This is because of stack-trace from hell see?

It is a shame that no programming language is perfect. There is something to be said for immutable by default data structures. I am dying for them with the work I am currently doing. There is also something to be said for being being able to hack using mutable structures. There is something to be said for macros, but also something to be said for having a stronger type system. Where is the balance though?

So I am listening to Snarky Puppy, and they are good. It is time to sleep.


Have you ever heard of a Q-Sort?

21-Mar-2016

See an explanation of Q-Sort

It is a fun experiment to try. Fun enough that it is worth writing software to make it easier to do.


On an unrelated note

This evening I fixed this website along with shadowwall.org which is hosted on the same server. I had three problems:

  1. Hyperlinks on shadowwall.org were directing to this domain.
  2. I was running a Postgres 9.3 and didn't upgrade or backup my cluster before upgrading my binaries. (So this website went down.)
  3. This domain was not exposed in any way.

How to fix?

Firstly, the database problem. It turns out I had to downgrade from 9.5 to 9.3. Luckily this was pretty easy on my Arch box because the AUR repository still has 9.3 available. Because I am super lazy and my database is tiny, I was able to just run /opt/pgsql-9.3/bin/pg_dumpall >> old_backup.sql as my backup. After re-installing the new version of postgres and setting up a fresh database psql -f old_backup.sql postgres put me back in the swing of things.

Secondly, the hyperlink problem. It turns out this is a configuration option in wordpress, so this was trivial to fix us using this guide here.

Finally, because I had to use wordpress and the backend of this site is in clojure, I needed to proxy through requests to danielkeogh.com to a service on a different port. This was again, another incantation. It was tricky to find. Documentation on Apache is good so long as you know how to correctly word your questions. I found the solution to my problem here.


Hackagong

23-Sep-2015

Last weekend was Hackagong.

https://github.com/DanielKeogh/ShoutSpec


Neglect

18-Aug-2015

Neglect is not looking at my webpage for six months. A lot has changed. I am not reading as much lately as I used to. This is because reading has become an egoic thing for me, rather than just something to enjoy.

Robert Persig:

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be “here”. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

This is nice, because it fits in well with what I have been learning from Ekhart Tolle about Ego. My model of what inner processes cause what behaviour is so far from complete though! I most definitely feel like a novice these days, but maybe if I begin writing down some of my thoughts I can erase this feeling. I would not want to accidentaly egoise it away though.

Let us start with this thought: There are multiple relationships between language and egoising. These relationships include:

  • We measure ego through language.
  • We often express ego through language.
  • Hypothesis: Ego is expressed when an identification would cause suffering if it were not expressed?
Maybe if Persig had focused on trying to define identity rather than quality, he would not have gone mad.


Things I want to learn this year

04-Jan-2015

  • Who shares the same values as me
  • What useful categories can I internalise for problem solving (other than Who What When Where Why)
  • What tools are good
  • What ideas will waste time
  • What do I think feels good, but isn't correct
  • What leverage do I have
  • When should I rest
  • When should I use discipline
  • When is hypocrisy not at the expense of others
  • When being passionate is good impression management
  • Where I can meet interesting people
  • Where I can sing
  • Why spontaneous behaviour is funny
  • How to cook
  • How to write better macro's
  • How to code without losing my train of thought
  • How to meta-program in C#
  • How to write essays that are valuable
  • How to think faster
  • How to reflect
  • How to align other people to my values
  • How to align myself to other peoples values

History Independent Data Structures

29-Sep-2014

This is for all of the many security nuts that follow this blog.

Have you ever heard of a History Independent Data Structure? If yes, good for you. Otherwise, I hadn't either until yesterday. So what is one?

The Problem

For some popular and useful data structures, it is possible to figure out the order in which data was inserted into the structure, or even derive information that should have been erased. The example in the document cited below, is a pdf in which key areas were blacked out, however the data being covered up still existed underneath the censored areas.

So what is a History Independent Data Structure?

A history independent data structure is one that disallows operation that leave it in a state that can reveal its past state. If a pdf was such a data structure, it would mean that putting a black bar over text would erase the text underneath and make it impossible to find hidden information.

Types of history independent structure

There are two categories, strong and weak. In short, the strong one means that if you observe the data structure multiple times, you shouldn't be able to figure out which versions of the data structure came first.

Conclusions

So it turns out that "History Independant Data Structure" is a conceited academic way of describing an obvious concept. They are just data structures that don't indicate the order in which data was added to the datastructure.

If you need some, probably settle for sets ordered by something other than time.

Citation:

www.eecs.northwestern.edu/~hartline/papers/hist-indep-ISAAC-02.pdf