Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Problems of specificity

Eleizer Yudkowsky on the virtues of specificity:

When the unenlightened ones try to be profound, they draw endless verbal comparisons between this topic, and that topic, which is like this, which is like that; until their graph is fully connected and also totally useless. The remedy is specific knowledge and in-depth study. When you understand things in detail, you can see how they are not alike, and start enthusiastically subtracting edges off your graph.

This is a problem that is ever-present online. Very rarely are online debates actual arguments, they are bickering contests between people who have completely different ideas about the actual definition of words and the scope of the debate.

I was impressed by Yudkowsky's thoughts on the three schools of the singularity because it addresses directly the oft-ignored problem of what exactly someone means when they talk about the singularity.

This was the problem with PZ Myers' objections to the singularity - he argued against a few elements of Kurzweil's thesis and used these inconsistencies to dismiss the whole thing out of hand.

I agree there are problems with various aspects of Kurzweilian singularitarianism but they need to be adressed clearly and specifically.

Delicious specificity

In a similar vein I've been trying to work out what the best way of organising my Delicious tags is.

There are some tags, like "technology", "economics", "politics", "science", and "toread" which are so wide-ranging they lose all meaning.

However if my intention is to be able to refer back to a specific article when I need a reference too much specificity can hinder my search.

Tag bundles help solve the first problem of overarching vagueness by promoting "technology", "economics", "science", and "politics" to a well-earned retirement on the board of directors {?}.

Could it be possible to build a system into Delicious whereby it is possible to say that something vaguely reminds me of something else?

I don't mean a tag like "remindsmeofStephenFry". I mean a way of tagging a document that doesn't explicitly reference Stephen Fry in any way but still reminds me of him. Something like remindsmeof:"StephenFry".

In this context remindsmeof would be a command recognised by the Delicious API to note that the article isn't explicitly about Stephen Fry but nevertheless puts me in mind of him.

I suspect that this sort of thing is less useful in practice than I imagine, particularly as much of the utility of Delicious comes from its simplicity and intuitiveness.

And as to Yudkowsky: obviously this respect for the specific can be taken too far: a general knowledge encompassing many fields can also be very valuable.

It's best to learn a lot about a little and little about a lot.

No comments: