Computers are alien to me

I’ve been reading a series of technical and computing books recently, as I pick up my Python studies. I naively stumbled into coding assuming all I needed were the terms and grammar of a knew “language”. But there’s so much more to learn for someone who has mostly had a liberal arts education.

It’s a completely different mode of thinking. You often see coding/development described as “problem solving”, but I don’t think that is quite acurate. I have been bumbling my way through a kind of alien logic.

Actually, the best example comes from a recent problem I encountered on Brilliant:


Define a comparison as an operation which takes in one number and tells you whether it is larger than, smaller than, or equal to, another. Suppose you are given a sorted array with 1000 elements, and you can use at most n comparisons to determine whether a certain number is in this array. What is the smallest value of n such that you will always be capable of making this determination, regardless of the values of the elements in the array?

Essentially what they are asking me to do is conjure up a number and find that same number in a sorted list of 1000 numbers. What’s the smallest number of comparisons I would need to make to find the match? I sat stumped for quite a while with this problem.

Eventually I gave up. I couldn’t fathom how to even approach it.  Having now seen the solution I can’t imagine I would ever have arrived there through deduction alone. It wasn’t so much a lack of knowledge of terms etc., my regular heuristics simply don’t apply.

Another example comes from a book called How Software Works, which I am currently working my way through. This is from a chapter on protecting passwords:


Authentication systems need a way to strengthen hashing without a performance-crushing number of hash iterations; that is, they need a method of storing passwords that requires an impractical time investment from attackers without creating an equally unrealistic time burden on legitimate access. That method is called salt… The salt is a string of characters, like a short, random password, that is combined with the user’s password before hashing. For example, user mrgutman chooses falcon as his password, and the system generates h38T2 as the salt….

The salt and password can be combined in various ways, but the simplest is appending the salt to the end of the password, resulting in falconh38T2 in this example. This combination is then hashed, and the hash code stored in the authentication table along with the username and the salt…

If there are, say, 100,000 users in a stolen authentication table, and the salts are numerous enough that no salt is duplicated in the table, the attacker will need to create 100,000 tables. At this point, we can’t even call them precomputed tables because the attacker is creating them for each attack.


Buried in a section about scrambling (not the right word I know) passwords so that they cannot be reverse engineererd and easily matched, we have this interesting solution. Simply append a random string to the password before scrambling. Put this way it’s quite simple and I can follow the logic. But getting this far requires a kind of thinking to which I am unaccustomed.

On the surface, that different fields have different approaches isn’t particularly profound. But it’s not often that we get to feel out of our depth on a “I don’t even understand how to logic this out” level. I am definitely feeling that right now.


(As always, my emphasis)

Never look at trees the same

When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with large machines.

I cannot remember a book that has affected me as much as the hidden life of trees.  Written by a German forester Peter Wohlleben, it contains stories of pain, opportunity, luck, loss, sharing, community, interdependence and equality. A tree is not just a tree, it seems.

Unfortunately, there is some controversy, and I am not capable of separating fact from anthropomorphic embellishment. Are trees really somewhat “conscious” (my word) of, and looking out for, their “children”? I don’t know.

But given reasoning, Wohlleben’s firsthand experience, and the numerous studies he cites, there must be a grain of truth to the notion that plants are more than I had imagined. That my tendency to rip up leaves as I walk along is not a victimless crime. That the “pain” compounds through generations.

Probably what struck me most were the descriptions of community, of interdependence. Passing on nutrients, creating shelter for one another. Partly because it requires the least blind belief – of course trees are better off together than alone. But also because it provides examples for the rest of us.


Scientists in the Harz mountains in Germany have discovered that this really is a case of interdependence, and most individual trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems. It appears that nutrient exchange and helping neighbors in times of need is the rule, and this leads to the conclusion that forests are superorganisms with interconnections much like ant colonies.

I don’t want to stretch this analogy too far, but of course this could describe us, with a few tweaks. That it doesn’t is a choice. Would trees be the same if given a choice?

A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old…

…To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer…

Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping aroundfor as long as possible. And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover.

(My emphasis)


Working with diverse teams

The notion that diverse teams come up with more creative solutions (or at least ones that better reflect a diverse audience/customer base) seems to be pretty widespread. But how does it work in practice?

Some interesting research out of America suggests that “political correctness” may be necessary to make it work:

Our research shows that men and women both experience uncertainty when asked to generate ideas as members of a mixed-sex work group: men because they may fear offending the women in the group and women because they may fear having their ideas devalued or rejected. Most group creativity research begins with the assumption that creativity is unleashed by removing normative constraints, but our results show that the PC norm promotes rather than suppresses the free expression of ideas by reducing the uncertainty experienced by both sexes in mixed-sex work groups and signaling that the group is predictable enough to risk sharing more—and more-novel—ideas.

The researchers did a couple of interesting experiments, priming students with politically correct norms. There appears to be a negative affect in homogeneous groups, but in mixed groups it produced a marked increase in “creativity”.

What I appreciate about this research is the light touch. It fits with the view of political correctness as a form of decency. Like any notion of decency (swearing for instance), there can be social sanction, but the limitations also breed their own form of freedom.

We know how to act, and, more importantly, how not to. If you care about not making others uncomfortable then the restriction can be freeing.


(My emphasis)

Gender inequality and linguistic determinism

Our preferred specification suggests that grammatical gender is associated with a 12 percentage point reduction in women’s labor force participation and an almost 15 percentage point increase in the gender gap in labor force participation. These associations are robust to the inclusion of a wide range of geo-graphic controls (including suitability for the plough) that could not plausibly have beenimpacted by language. Taken at face value, our coefficient estimates suggest that gender languages keep approximately 125 million women around the world out of the labor force.


Stumbled across this fantastic paper about the subtle affect that grammar can have on how we think. In this case, languages that sort nouns into gendered categories are associated with poorer labour market outcomes for women.

It reminds me of similar research showing that people from language groups that don’t clearly separate the future from the present (such as German) “save more, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese”.

And it seems to fit with the findings from many other fields:


Our results are consistent with research in psychology, linguistics, and anthropology suggesting that languages shape patterns of thought in subtle and subconscious ways….


It all comes back to my main takeaway from The Heretics: we really don’t have a good working model for how we form beliefs, make decisions or even behave. There are profound contextual factors affecting all of these. I’m not sure how we fix this.

(My emphasis)

Time to update our democratic models

Throughout childhood and until late adolescence, our brains are building their internal models of what is out there and how it all works –physical, social, emotional and so on. After that, our core beliefs harden and we find change, according to Professor of Psychiatry Bruce Wexler, ‘difficult and painful’. The power of our many cognitive biases skews our view. We attack unwelcome information. The gravity of our personal worlds attracts us to other, similar worlds –people who ‘see it like we do’, whose opinions give us the warm, reassuring pleasure of comfort, familiarity, safety. It all thickens the illusion that our way is the trueway.

I’ve just finished reading The Heretics by Will Storr. It’s part investigation, part memoir, as Storr embeds with homeopaths, faith healers, neo nazis and others with “weird beliefs”.

I’m slowly going through my notes and may pull out some more, but the thing that consistently struck me throughout is what this means for institutional design.

Our democracies absolutely were not built, and have not evolved, with our more sophisticated understanding of how people build beliefs and make decisions. How fallible our memories are, how we capitulate to group think, react and then build post hoc justifications (etc.).

Meanwhile those who wish to take advantage of us certainly have.

In that strange, chemical and alchemical moment when an unconscious decision is made about what to believe, how much is genetic, how much is rational, how much is concerned solely with reinforcing our dearly held models of the world? And how does personality collide with all of this? How does the character of the decider – all that complex emotionality, the calculation of possible outcomes, the current state of mind, the kaleidoscope of motives, the autobiographical heromission – pollute the process? With these questions, we have struck rock. There is no answer.

(My emphasis)


Subscribe for a weekly digest of new posts.

You have Successfully Subscribed!