Monday, January 10, 2005

False Neutrals

In one of his blog posts, Clay Shirky writes:

We need a word for the class of comparisons that assumes that the status quo is cost-free, so that all new work, when it can be shown to have disadvantages to the status quo, is also assumed to be inferior to the status quo.
Hear hear! In my opinion that is a very common mistake. I use a term for such things, and here's a very quick, sketchy description:

I believe this is actually the conjunction of two mistakes. The first is the mistake is the assumption that if you can demonstrate that something has positive aspects then it is good, and similarly that if you can demonstrate that something has negative aspects then it is bad. (The reality is that you have to consider the combination of the positive and negative aspects, and compare them to those of the other options, and to see which aspects are important for what is being considered. You also need to not assume, when considernig a particular option that isn't the way things are now, that if was realised the world will be the same as is now, because otherwise you are unfairly biasing the evaluation against them... but I'm getting away from my point here).

The other mistake -- which is the thing Shirky is primarily talking about in that quote -- is to assume that one of the options is fine as it is, such that you don't evaluate it, only the others. I call these options false neutrals. I've got a feeling that this doesn't just apply to the status quo, though off the top of my head I can't think of any examples.

(BTW, that post of Shirky's is quite good, and I think it's a good example of how people tend to think of things in pretty much only in terms of their ostensible purpose and how they aren't very good at realising, or factoring in, 'economic' sorts of considerations).

Loud Sound, Bright Flash

Each night, some time after I've switched off the light (I'd say about 20 minutes after, but I'm not sure if it's always the same amount of time) and gone to bed there's this 'bang' sound that comes from the light fitting above my bed. I think the noise is caused by part of the fitting cooling down and at one point suddenly deforming. By the design of it, the light bulb actually touches part of the fitting, and consequently the fitting seems to get very hot.

Now what's strange about it all is that if I'm lying in bed when it happens, I see a flash of light. I'm pretty sure, however, that there isn't really any flash of light, and it's just a construct of my brain. There's been times when I've had my eyes open when the sound happened, and there was no flash, and there's something abou the flash that I see that makes me think it's a mental construct -- it kinda feels like what I'm seeing is "deeper" in the perceptual system than something that comes from the eyes, though I don't really know how to explain this. I'm not sure if I always see the flash, and I don't recall having this visual effect accompianing in sounds in other situations.

It's strange, but for a while I never thought about it being strange that I was seeing this flash of light. I'm wondering: how common/uncommon is this? I would not be surprised if it was quite common. I'm also wondering if this could be some sort of synthestisia effect, or whether it is it something else? If you're wondering, I don't think I have anything else that could be interpreted as synthestisia (and if you think it would be obvious whether you do or don't, it's not necessarily so -- my dad has been aware of synthestisia for a while, but it wasn't until he listened to some of the descriptions of it in a radio program he was listening to that he realised that he seem to have a mild form of synthestisia involving numbers -- it's apparently not all just perceiving things in terms of different types of perceptual sensations).

Cringely: How to Build a Global Internet Tsunami Warning System in a Month

Robert X. Cringely argues that governments are not the right people to build tsunami warning systems: too slow, too expensive -- and that it can be done, and quicker and cheaper, on a more grassroots level.