Computational models as life skill, the Bruce Schneier perspective

You have probably been running into the concept of the Model if you have anything to do with web development, or programming in general. We have our Model-View-Controller pattern, which I have mentioned when writing about web frameworks. But that’s not all. When I was watching the MIT Open Course Ware lectures I learned that basically programming as such is based on mapping the world into something computational. We choose some aspects of the world to measure, to map, and concentrate on those. And that got me thinking – what if mapping into something “computational”, creating models, was a life skill? For instance, when I was finding myself in complicated situations, trying to sift out through intuitions, facts, observations, deceptions and strategies. what I ended up telling myself was – create a model. I told myself – pick some really important variables to follow, and concentrate on those. Period. Make it something you can compute, something you can handle with reason.

Well, who would have known that Bruce Schneier is on the same page with me on this. Tonight I figured that it would be motivational if I watched some TED Talks as I was doing some late night computer work, and I ended up watching Bruce Schneier: The security mirage. Which is pretty interesting in itself, but what got me blogging about it was that he uses the concept of models. Since the talk is basically about security as a feeling and security as objective reality based on facts, at a certain point he talks about feelings and models. Feelings are our interpretations based on intuitions, and models are based on reasoning, be it our own, or inherited. Very interesting stuff. I’m sure there are people studying psychology etc. to whom this will sound obvious, but to me and to many others, it isn’t.

Click here for transcript, here for Schneier’s own blog post, and “Continue reading” for some selected quotes and reasoning.

“So let me complicate things. I have feeling and reality. I want to add a third element. I want to add model. Feeling and model in our head, reality is the outside world. It doesn’t change; it’s real. So feeling is based on our intuition. Model is based on reason. That’s basically the difference. In a primitive and simple world, there’s really no reason for a model. Because feeling is close to reality. You don’t need a model. But in a modern and complex world, you need models to understand a lot of the risks we face. There’s no feeling about germs. You need a model to understand them. So this model is an intelligent representation of reality. It’s, of course, limited by science, by technology. We couldn’t have a germ theory of disease before we invented the microscope to see them. It’s limited by our cognitive biases. But it has the ability to override our feelings. ”

Schneier takes this various places, later on. He muses on how it is difficult, and slow, but possible and important to change models. He mentions cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias. He notes that models are especially tricky because not only do we often just inherit them or accept them from others, but models tend to fade into the background and become implicit. And if we are not aware of our models, how can we be reasonable about them?

“All examples of models changing. What we learn is that changing models is hard. Models are hard to dislodge. If they equal your feelings, you don’t even know you have a model.”

Where does security come in? The way we model reality hugely influences our evaluation of security, both in terms of feeling and in terms of reasoning. There are many mistakes we make, like perceiving the unknown as riskier than the familiar, the personified risks as bigger than the anonymous risks, underestimate risks in situations we control and the opposite in those we don’t. For example. Schneier sums it up well, if we keep in mind that security is always a trade-off. “What’s important is that they be about the same. it’s important that, if our feelings match reality, we make better security trade-offs.”

And, of course, this is not just about security, anyway. It’s about mapping, as far as I’m concerned. I love mapping and models. And I love learning about mapping and models. So it has been very inspiring to discover these interesting thoughts on the subject, and I figured I might share them with you. Hope it has been useful and interesting. I wish you all a lot of nice, inspiring, productive, reasonable and advantageous mappings.


About apprenticecoder

My blog is about me learning to program, and trying to narrate it in interesting ways. I love to learn and to learn through creativity. For example I like computers, but even more I like to see what computers can do for people. That's why I find web programming and scripting especially exciting. I was born in Split, Croatia, went to college in Bologna, Italy and now live in Milan. I like reading, especially non-fiction (lately). I'd like to read more poetry. I find architecture inspiring. Museums as well. Some more then others. Interfaces. Lifestyle magazines with interesting points of view. Semantic web. Strolls in nature. The sea.
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