Daemon Maps - Repair Guy

6 May 2024

I admit, YouTube University has let me down on this one. I’ve spent the past two days staring at the kitchen drain, the terrible rubber circle leading to the garbage disposal appearing first as some charred Star Wars critter then as (equally terrifying) a mechanical engineering problem. Every ten minutes or so I flip the power switch, hear the arrested yawp of the motor, and immediately shut it off before the plumbing failure grows electrical. 

And yes, thank you, I have turned the cylinder, rotated it from its base with an Allen wrench, jarred it with a broomstick from above, imperiled my lights and fingers into its maw like an amateur orthodontist. And I hit the reset button. All this was taught me (via UTubeU) by the likes of MrPlumber, DaRepairGuy, and Molly’s Simple Fixes at Home. All promised–with vows, confidence, and despairingly clean kitchen sets–that this would fix 95% of garbage disposal problems and save hundreds of dollars professionals charge.

And at the end of the repair, he and kitchen will still look like this. Now if he would only repair his eyes!


Yup, it’s literally from Google’s “AITestKitchen.”

Ratchet Up the Tension

And oh, that 95%. Did they, in some coffee klatch somewhere, meet before marking this pathway to savings, to make a small quiet bet against themselves? They knew, absolutely and with complete assurance, that their claim to knowledge was fallible: their kitchens were not my kitchens, their maps were not my reality, and they’d be damned if some commenters bombed their social media accounts.

And so we are left with a tension. We know absolutely and without exception that our claims to knowledge are only a partial knowing. And we know absolutely, with the rarest of exceptions, absolute knowing is what we want. The Map is Not the Territory; but we want to navigate it with determined confidence.

For two days–and likely far more as you read this–I have been staring at this 5% misalignment in my kitchen sink, paralyzed. What is left to me, with far less confidence, are choices. The professional plumber asks for $80 minimum before beginning work; I can nearly replace the entire unit for the final bill. I can wait for an epiphany. I can even wait for the kitchen remodel in three years and hope I never drop a rottable scrap down the drain in that time. I can phone a friend and we can pool our 5%s into something resembling confidence, not unlike the days men of yore might gather around an open car hood.  So far: no epiphany, anyway.

“In place of knowledge, we are more than ready to substitute ‘confident pleasurable outcome.’”

What We Really Really Want

My confidence requires certain knowledge; where it is missing lie the lands of the brave and the fools, their national borders fuzzy and skittish. You and I have both been there. That tenth grade math test wasn’t going to pass itself; it required a pre-inked palm. Asking Lora to the dance wasn’t going to happen until she first answered a few courageously-penciled Yes or No questions. (And even then . . . !)  But we have to be careful here: “Certain knowledge” is not at all the same as “certain result.” 

It’s an easy distinction to forget. I want the garbage disposal working, and tbh, I don’t care as much if I ever understand what I did to fix it. I want to be at the dance with Lora, but this doesn’t mean she really likes me. Trigonometry is trigonometry, after all. And if a political lie compels my constituents to vote for me, didn’t I get what I wanted? It seems that, in place of knowledge (here we might think of Aristotle’s definition of “justified true belief”), we are more than ready to substitute “confident pleasurable outcome.”

And oh, that dreaded “Maybe!”

Beta-Testing Certainty

The world is tragi-foolishly full of such seeming confidences. I trust GoogleMaps to redirect my car, even when I know the right route, because I imagine it has inside information somewhere, that some magical algorithm has performed a performance analysis on my gas mileage, Google calendar arrival need, local train schedules, and where the nearest radar gun hides. I review my 403(b) retirement fund updates and–no matter what questions or scowls I bring–meet the smiling confidence of my hired financial planner. I (well, others) spray Terminix on the lawn so we can have that cookover Saturday. AI is my future thinker. These become the routine “knowledge maps” (themselves constantly revised) we place faith in.

Yesterday’s Alpha test is today’s Beta. As I write, my Chrome browser is on version 124.0.6367.91, which I have to note is a significant improvement in performance confidence over version 124.0.6367.90. (Update immediately and automatically.)

Now, I am not about to argue against improvements, better accuracy, better durability, and the like. And I am certainly not arguing against gains in the sciences, medicines, and environmental engineering. We have, instead, two different classes of problem before us: we too often mistake the emotional need for confidence and pleasure (“Our Caribbean cruise is 99.9% fecal contamination free or your next trip is on us!”) with genuine knowing. And even when we are on a genuine path to knowing more, our very efforts obscure the object of our success.


Knowing At a 1:1 Scale

What even would knowing everything look like? Borges’s short story  “On Exactitude in Science” (quoted in full at the end of this article) tries to imagine it: a map designed at a 1:1 scale so as to absolutely and completely accurately represent the world itself. Of course, the people find the Borges map “useless” for, when unfolded, it completely covers over the world it represents, replacing it. They destroy it, of course, for living must, in the end and for most, be valued over knowing. Such complete knowledge with complete confidence (LaPlace’s Demon) is apparently not for us, after all. 

The sign or signifier may never fully be–cannot be, will not be, must not be– the signified. Yet we often act as if the two are interchangeable, even discounting the signified reality altogether beneath our self-assuredness. Ah, and such spirit and tenacity! The Romantic tales of knowing we weave thereby determine our futures, even dissolve freedom of will. After all, if we “know” everything, what choices are truly left before us? 

My paralysis before this black Insinkerator hole is not insignificant. Beneath this 95% and the subtle waft of stale lettuce, chicken fat, and molding strawberry sleeps the question of Uncertainty and the nature of character.

On Exactitude in Science

Jorge Luis Borges, 1946,
Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley.

…In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography. 

—Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658 


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