Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What I've been reading

1. Engines of Creation by Eric Drexler of Meta Modern. Although written over 20 years ago, this was one of the most hopeful books I've read all year. If mankind can harvest the asteroids for resources, design replicators that extend life, and using light sails to travel across the universe, what exactly are our limits? It's an old book but well worth the time if you ever find yourself pessimistic about the future of mankind.

2. Notes from Underground by F. Dostoevsky. Very sad book about a sad man. The protagonist provides a good counter-example of how not to approach the world but at times it is painfully awkward. I'd skip this one.

3. Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Overall I was underwhelmed, and the fact that there were discussion questions at the end of the novel didn't help. The critical mass reading this book is outrageous. 2500 reviews on Amazon? It is truly boom or bust in the world of fiction.

4. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. More than a thesis this is simply a different way of looking at the world. The first 100 pages or so is filled with definitions but once he has an infrastructure he applies it in a number of non-intuitive ways.

5. The Road, Outer Dark, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. Of the three Outer Dark was my favorite and All the Pretty Horses was my least favorite, probably because there was too much mushiness in the latter and none at all in the former. The character's attitudes are generally awesome though; we could all use more Cormac McCarthy in our lives.

6. How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. Filled with more nuggets that I knew what to do with, I ended up having to seriously limit myself to only a few observations per chapter so that things wouldn't get out of hand. If you're interested you can check out my detailed notes here.

7. Creative Destruction by Tyler Cowen. A book that is clearly the result of a lot of thinking outside the box. His chief thesis is that although globalization does lower the overall diversity worldwide as societies mix into the global melting pot, it also increases the diversity available for individuals in those societies. Recommended.

8. Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen. The common criticism of this book is that it reads more like a long blog post than a coherent narrative, and unfortunately it is in large part correct. It's not entirely lost cause, as there are at least a few awesome paragraphs that justify the short, leisurely read. But if you are a big Marginal Revolution fan and simply need to get more Tyler, I would read Creative Destruction over this.


My new year's resolution last year was to read 50 books in 2008 and I accomplished it. I'm not sure how much I will retain in the long run, but of course in the long run we are all cryogenically frozen.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"No-Brainer" Climate Change Proposal

Republicans Inglis and Arthur Laffer published a refreshing article yesterday in the NYT suggesting what policy wonks have been pushing for years: a revenue neutral carbon tax offset by a decrease in payroll and income taxes. They note that,
Conservatives do not have to agree that humans are causing climate change to recognize a sensible energy solution. All we need to assume is that burning less fossil fuels would be a good thing. Based on the current scientific consensus and the potential environmental benefits, it’s prudent to do what we can to reduce global carbon emissions. When you add the national security concerns, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels becomes a no-brainer.
So much energy is wasted on both sides of the climate change debate because the participants fail to reason probabilistically.

When you factor in the national security benefits of less income going to aggresive militant states as well as the nonzero probability that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause negative externalities, this proposal starts to look more and more like a "no brainer."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

How long would the soccer-ball-in-afro trick work?

As I detailed in My Contribution to Humanity, the soccer world is due for a shake down. One day, a tall player will grow a huge afro, cut a round hole in the middle of it, juggle the ball into the hole, and run across the field unopposed. This will happen eventually, all we can hope is that a US player does it first.

How long will it take before the quasi-nefarious tactic is banned? Before recently there was little historical precedent to use for predictions.

But earlier this year hockey player Sean Avery distracted the goalkeeper face-on, a hitherto unused tactic that technically speaking broke no rules.

The hockey referees did not call any infraction, and it is hard to see what exactly they could have called, although onlookers agreed that it was highly unsportsmanlike. However, the very next day the NHL created a rule colloquially known as the Sean Avery Rule banning face-on distraction of the goalie.

So the historical precedent is that the trick would work for one game and then the world soccer community would ban it. Now, soccer is more of an international game, and there is a lot of bureaucracy involved in any international affair. Just look at the UN. So it is possible that the tactic could be useful into the second or third games, but beyond that I don't see much hope.

Bottom line: Aspiring soccer players should continue to work hard on their overall game, but they should also devote some effort to growing really long hair that can be sculpted with enough gel into an afro. The Sean Avery incident indicates that this tactic would work for between one and three games, meaning that there is an almost infinite first mover advantage.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The importance of a skeptical attitude

Karl Popper has been an influential philosopher of science because of his insistence upon empiricism and falsification. I have long (naively) assumed that an emphasis on falsification is best for the group but relies upon each individual subjugating her own interests. However, as Popper explains in Conjectures and Refutations,
The critical attitude may be described as the conscious attempt to make our theories, our conjectures, suffer in our stead in the struggle for the survival of the fittest. It gives us a chance to survive the elimination of an inadequate hypothesis--when a more dogmatic attitude would eliminate it by eliminating us.
If you are publicly skeptical of your own ideas, then they can turn out to be false without ruining your reputation. Viewed in this light, a skeptical and scientific approach is not selfless, it is indeed selfish! Perhaps this is obvious to other people, but it was non-intuitive to me.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Workoholism -- Does it lead to higher productivity?

Michael Cottle at the New Republic details how the upcoming Obama administration is filled with self-avowed workaholics. Hard work is clearly necessary for success, but these staff members are at the extremes: working late nights, weekends, and eschewing a personal life.

There are plenty of arguments against devoting your life to your work. Folk tales like Ebenezer Scrooge warn that if you are too devoted to one thing it will turn your heart black. And we've all heard stories of retired workaholics who wish that they had spent more time with their kids.

But what I'm wondering about is if working every waking moment of the day will actually make you more productive. I don't think it will. There is a reason that LeBron James and Steve Nash don't play 48 minutes every night, and it isn't entirely physical. Even the best performers need some time away from the action to see the big picture.

One of the workaholics mentioned in Cottle's article is the new white house chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Maybe that's why he mentioned a month ago that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste," because it is "an opportunity to do things you could not do before."

I think the workoholism so encouraged in Washington these days helps to breed even more fervent partisanship. Without time to stand back and get perspective, all that we focus on is our short-term goals. Perhaps the new admin should consider a mandatory nap time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Modern archers in Kenya

The year in photographs has some pretty cool pictures in it, although I think at times they went a little overboard with the Obamarama.

The craziest one to me was picture #23 in part 1, which shows Maasai warriors in Western Kenya preparing to attack their enemies with bows and arrows. For some reason it makes armed conflict look even stupider than if the technology was top of the line.

As depressing as it is to look at the battle striken scenes in these pictures, it's important to remember Steven Pinker's point that the world is more peaceful today than it ever has been and realize that things could conceivably be much worse.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's the probability of conspiracy?

There are two ways to make inferences based on Rod Blagojevic's bribery case. Although they are not technically mutually exclusive they appear to me to be quite disctinct:

1) He is stupid. Because of his low intelligence level and his inability to project his actions onto future probability states, he committed mistakes that no rational actor with higher intelligence ever would have made. Evidence: Wikipedia says that he was a poor student (how much of an indicator that is, I don't know), and that when he attended Pepperdine Law School he didn't know where the library was. More incriminatory, when he was interviewed on The Daily Show in 2006 he did not realize that it was a comedy show!

2) He had access to inside information that the general public does not have access to. This information persuaded him that the risk of being caught are much lower than you or I would expect. Therefore his decision to sell senate seats may have held up to a rational a priori cost-benefit analysis. Evidence: We have no way of knowing how many public figures commit similarly illegal acts to Blagojevic without being caught. However, he would really have to be quite stupid for #1 to be true, and the fact that he was skilled enough to work his way to governer casts doubt that it is the full explanation.

I myself am not a conspiracy theorist, but I must admit that there is a nonzero probability of the second explanation being true. This kind of thing could happen all of the time without disclosure to the general public.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Cultural variance in saying good-bye

As the majority of the students left each of my finals, they often told each other to have a good break. This is a standard response, I'm not sure I remember anything else besides, "thanks for a good semester."

But why focus on just winter break? Chances are, the teacher and student will never interact in a substantial way again. So shouldn't they be offering each other good luck for the rest of their lives?

The only two options to get that connotation across would be, "have a good life," or, "fare thee well." However, these are both awful. It seems that there is no way to say this in English without seeming snarky or old-fashioned.

Is this a cross-cultural phenomenon? Or is it just because of the way our language has evolved? In Spanish I know that you can say "que vaya con dios", but I'm not sure if this is what people actually say or merely what they teach you to say to pass the AP spanish test.

One intruiging explanation is that more religious cultures might be more likely to wish people good luck for the rest of their lives instead of for the rest of the day, because they would be more apt to view life as a long journey instead of a collection of events. But I don't know, what do you think?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The curse of height

You may have heard of the curse of oil, also called the resource curse more generally. It is the idea that for many countries access to oil is more of a hindrance than a blessing, due to the corruption, conflict, and volatility that often follow from its discovery. A cursory glance at many of the major regions where there is civil unrest (Sudan, Iraq, etc.) lends credence to the hypothesis.

But what I'm interested in is more of a local level. Can individuals fall victim to a resource curse?

I think that in most cases it is probable. Take for instance extremely tall young men and women, who are pressured beyond belief into playing competitive basketball. Once they take the court, they are often ridiculed for being clumsy or not being able to dunk the ball in traffic, which of course every 5'10" person would be able to if they extrapolated their height while miraculously maintaining the same athleticism and coordination.

Excelling at sports is potentially commendable in its own right, and exuberantly tall individuals will have at least a leg up. But many teams will take on otherwise unqualified tall players as "projects" or simply to intimidate the opposing team in warm-ups, and they often wither away on the bench. This certainly does not do wonders for self-esteem, especially when fans have high expectations.

Bottom Line: Much like the curse of oil, being four standard deviations above the average range of height can end up as more of a curse than a blessing. We should adjust our expectations of these individuals accordingly.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"H.M.", the inspiration for Memento, dies at 82

H.M. was a famous patient in psychology and some of the work done on him was instrumental in deciphering the difference between declarative and procedural memory. He was also the inspiration for the movie Memento, which is one of my favorite movies.

While patients are alive they must go by a pseudoname in the literature to protect their identity, but now his identity has been revealed in this interesting NYT obituary. The real H.M. actually did learn how to read mirror writing well (it's a kind of procedural memory), just like the character in Memento who tattoos notes to himself.


I recently joined Twitter mainly because Shaq did and I realized that I should jump on before the bandwagon got too crowded. Here are some of my recent "twits":
  • "I'm doing hella good" is such a better response than "well". I am on a crusade to eradicate the world of the phrase "I am doing well"
  • "There is no God, and we are his prophets" - Nick Blum's favorite line from The Road
  • Your IQ is inversely proportional to the number of online IQ tests you take
  • Movies > books, first google result for "the road" is the imdb page for the movie that's not even out yet, *then* wikipedia for the book
  • The two times I have been closest to death were being cut off on highway and eating a heavily peanut buttered bagel without access to water
  • It is impossible to have a conversation about living in hurricane country without someone saying that global warming will make it worse
  • All of philosophy consists of unlocking, exhuming, and recanting what's been said before, and getting riled up about it - VS Ramachandran
  • So much easier to do things when they're social--exercise, problem sets, commuting. Very few trade-offs too, so its nonzerosumish
  • Chopping my bagel in half and stapling some papers are the two times of the day that I get to unleash my pent up fury, and I take advantage
  • There are some depressing movies on the top 250: Bicycle Thieves, The Pianist, Umberto D... tend to have low views but high ratings
If you are also on Twitter, you can follow me here. Finals are coming up the next two weeks and then it's back to SF for a long winter break, so expect posting to be light.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Social voting for group decision making

An interesting couple of paragraphs from Honest Signals, a book on "network science" (via the comments on OB):
In our close cousins the apes, whose only known communication is nonlinguistic, decision making via the use of social signaling is a familiar scenario. ... (Stewart and Harcourt 1994) ... Sue Boinski and Aimee Campbell describe how capuchin monkeys use trilling sounds to cooperatively decide when and where the troop should move (DeWaal 2005). Monkeys at the leading edge of the troop trill [a vibrational form of speech] the most, encouraging others to follow the path they have found, and others take up the trilling in order to coordinate everyone's movements.

Similar processes of social decision making are common in many animals and virtually all primates ... [C]ycles of signaling and recruitment, until a point is reached where everyone in the group accepts that a consensus has been reached (Conradt and Roper 2005; Couzin et al 2005; Couzin 2007). Some evolutionary theorists think that this type of "social voting" process could be the most common type of decision making for social animals ...
In President Bush's recent interview with Charlie Gibson, he emphasized that going to war in Iraq was largely a collective decision by members of Congress and other world leaders. Plus, let's not forget that a majority of the country supported the decision at the time.

Social voting is still the predominant way that we make decisions, even in our "advanced" society. We need to recognize that while this may be a common way to make emotionally-charged decisions, it should not be used as evidence that a decision is good or bad. For that, you need an unadulterated cost-benefit analysis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Congress falls victim to the planning fallacy

Every now and then we need a refreshing reminder that humans cannot plan things, especially when they are not spending their own money. The Washington Post has done a fine job of exposing this with their piece on the construction of the Capitol Visitor Center:
Take, for example, spending. What was proposed as a $71 million project in the early 1990s became a $265 million endeavor a decade later. By the time work got underway in 2002, the price tag was up to $368 million. Tomorrow, the ribbon will be cut on a $621 million project...

The project once was expected to be finished in time for the presidential inauguration -- in January 2005. As that date neared, the center was about half done, so the completion date was bumped ahead to spring 2006.

Six months after President Bush was sworn in for a second term, the Government Accountability Office reported that the architects and contractors were making so many mistakes and facing so many unexpected problems that March 2007 was probably more realistic.
The center finally opened yesterday, towards the end of 2008. There is a tendency to dismiss this type of failure with the explanation if we only had the right humans in office the result would have been different. But the planning fallacy is universal-- Daniel Kahneman himself fell victim to it when he tried to write a book on cognitive biases.

Bottom line: Sooner or later we will have to admit that we are flawed and take the necessary steps to constrain our inevitable failures. Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later, but I wouldn't plan on it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Forer effect in The Road

If you make vague predictions in an engaging way, your audience will figure out how these vague statements fit within their personal worldview. In cognitive psychology this is known as the Forer effect and helps explain the popularity of horoscopes and personality tests.

Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road is a classic example of this. The book has been adopted by such diverse fan bases as science fiction enthusiasts, environmentalists, and religious people. Although the novel has no explicit passages that refer to any of these groups, it describes a general landscape that each of the groups can rally behind.

It is a strange human phenomenon that the most appealing works of art are often so vague.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The overrated virtue of not thinking

From Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground,
I emphatically repeat: ingenuous people and active figures are all active simply because they are dull and narrow-minded... As a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, they take the most immediate and secondary causes for primary ones, and thus become convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found an indisputable basis for their doings, and so they feel at ease...
It is a common conceit that over-thinking a task can ruin your chances of succeeding in it. Examples of this common "wisdom" are found in advice about shooting free throws, undergoing high-pressure interviews, and taking multiple choice tests.

I believe this is largely unfounded. In the majority of cases, thinking about a problem helps, not hinders, your ability to solve it. It follows that thinking about your behavior at the meta level will in most cases help, not hinder, your chances of success. Perhaps I am reading too much into the passage, but Dostoevsky's narrator is probably just jealous of those in a higher position than him.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Two theories of self-education

The first is by Paul Graham (HT: Charlie Hoehn), from his rejected high school graduation speech,
I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward…. Suppose you’re a college freshman deciding whether to major in math or economics. Well, math will give you more options: you can go into almost any field from math. If you major in math it will be easy to get into grad school in economics, but if you major in economics it will be hard to get into grad school in math.
The second from Cal Newport, in an IM conversation with Ben Casnocha,
What about the big question of “what should I do with my life?” As you know, my approach is sort of “there is no wrong answer, choose something and focus on it so you’ll start reaping rewards, you can always change later.”... I’ve been a big believer in the 10,000 hour rule. Roughly, that being good at anything takes a long time. If you want to be good at something in your 20s, start in college.
These might at first look similar but on closer inspection they are radically different. Newport is saying that you should choose one topic and commit to specializing it, while Graham believes that you should pick your studies so as to keep your options open in case you choose to switch fields.

I have no way of knowing which tactic is actually more fruitful, but what I like about this dichotomy is that there is no free lunch. What you gain by specializing you give up in terms of ability to switch fields, and what you gain in keeping your options open you give up in terms of expected success in one particular field.

The only other option is a nihilistic stance towards the future, and although I would not prefer it personally, that is probably a rational choice for some people.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Comparing men and women's taste in movies

One way to do this would be to compare imdb's top 50 movies as voted on by females versus imdb's top 50 movies as voted on by males. You may complain about differences in sample size, since there are about 10 times more votes by males than females on imdb (why is that?). But with 10,000+ votes on most of these movies by females, I would still prefer these scores to any other measure.

Movies much higher on the female list: The Lord of the Rings (#4, 6, and 12 as opposed to #14, 20, and 31 on the overall list), Gone with the Wind (#11 vs #167 on overall list), Amelie (#14 vs. not on the male list), The Pianist (#17 vs. #56 on overall list), Pan's Labyrinth (#22 vs. #61 on overall list), Finding Nemo (#24 vs. 152 on overall list), The Notebook (#24 vs. not on the overall list), Beauty and the Beast (#34 vs. not on the overall list).

Movies much higher on the male list: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (#4 on male list, not on female list), Seven Samurai (#11 on male, not on female list), The Matrix (#25 on male list, not on female list), Se7en (#27 on male list, not on female list), Apocalypse Now (#31 on male list, not on female list), City of God (#18 on male list, not on female list).

I am truly amazed that the Matrix is not on the female list, since it probably has a high weight given that it is such a highly watched movie. Plus... Keanu Reeves! Females only give it a 8.3, and a 7.6 by females under 18, which is weird to me. But then again I'm not female.

If you are looking for biases in the top 250, this would be a good place to start, since there are so many more males voting on imdb than females. There is a clear trend on the male list toward movies with more violence, and a clear trend on the female list toward movies with more mushy stuff.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Objectively higher states of morality?

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development range from level 1 to 6. They increase in order from "obedience" to "individualism and exchange" to "interpersonal relationships" to "social order" to "the social contract" to "universal principles." The stages are meant to be invariant--one must first reach stage 2 before moving on to stage 3, and he found that older children were more likely to be at higher stages.

In evolutionary biology there is a movement to stop calling certain species "higher" than others just because they have more base pairs or divergence from common ancestors. I wonder if the same principle can be applied here too. Just because one must pass through stage 2 to reach stage 6, does that mean that stage 6 is more moral in some objective sense? What does it matter that older children are more likely to rate at higher levels? Judge for yourself, but I've yet to be sold on Kantian universalization.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bad experiences and great stories

Paul Zak's article in Psychology Today describes how he fell victim to the "classic" Pigeon Drop con at the age of 16 and lost $100 in the process. He probably felt bad about it at the time, but having been conned has payed huge dividends as blog material. His post has been tagged 228 times on, by far the most of any article in the Psychology Today blog world.

In the heat of the moment, loss aversion biases us against placing ourselves in risky situations. However, because of their potential utility as stories, it may be rational to expose yourself to situations with chances of bad outcomes that would at least lead to a good story. Here are some thoughts:

1) The younger you are, the more risks you should take. The amount of time that you will be alive to tell the story is probably greater the younger you are, so the utility of going through a crazy experience is higher.

2) Writers or people who have access to a large audience should take more risks and be more careless than those in the general population.

3) We should feel bad in general when people have unlucky negative experiences, but especially bad if there is no interesting story behind the malaise. It is better to be robbed at gunpoint than to misplace your wallet, story-wise, and we should adjust our sympathy levels accordingly.

4) If you are going to take advantage of somebody, the thoughtful way to do it is to pull off a creative stunt so that your victim will have an engaging tale to tell. It's nicer to conduct an elaborate heist Danny Ocean-style than to simply steal a valued possesion during a lull in attention.

Monday, November 24, 2008

How important are recommender systems?

Tom Slee thinks that recommender systems are the wave of the future. The prototypical example of these is Netflix, where you are alerted to movies that the algorithm thinks you will enjoy based on your vote history. He makes some interesting points about transparency in these systems:
Transparency matters. The unmarked presence of sponsored items in a recommendation list would be widely viewed as a corrupt set of recommendations, but just as bookstores charge for premium display sites within the store, so sites of recommendation lists may be sold. Recommendees have a right to know if payola is part of the system.
In recommender systems, transparency is crucial because otherwise people will think that your opinion has been bought. In a pure rating system, however, you can't have transparency because that would make it easier for firms to game the system and watch their product climb to the top. I am not as optimistic as he is about the future of recommender systems, although I am happy to be proven wrong.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Increasing risk of nuclear weapon use

The Global Trends report of 2025 was just released, and it contains some predictions about what the geopolitical structure will look like in 17 years. Although it is long, various keywords are bolded so you can hone in on what interests you. What caught my eye was their section on nuclear proliferation:
The risk of nuclear weapon use over the next 20 years, although remaining very low, is likely to be greater than it is today as a result of several converging trends. The spread of nuclear technologies and expertise is generating concerns about the potential emergence of new nuclear weapon states and the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups. Ongoing low-intensity clashes between India and Pakistan continue to raise the specter that such events could escalate to a broader conflict between those nuclear powers. The possibility of a future disruptive regime change or collapse occurring in a nuclear weapon state such as North Korea also continues to raise questions regarding the ability of weak states to control and secure their nuclear arsenals.
Just as an individual is more likely to kill themselves than to be murdered or killed in war, I fear that the human race is more likely to destroy itself than to be destroyed by any outside threat.

And out of all of the doomsday scenarios we hear about on a regular basis--meteor strike, rampant disease, rapid climate change--I think that a nuclear winter is by far the most likely scenario and the one that deserves the most attention. We should celebrate having made it over 70 years without destroying ourselves, although we should remember that we have come close.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Does primacy trump recency?

One of the more nuanced critiques of the literature on human cognitive biases is that some of them posit conflicting effects. Probably the most glaring discrepancy is the difference between the primacy and the recency effect in hypothesis formation. Which factor is more important? Marsh and Ahn take on the challenge in their 2006 paper,
Some studies have shown a recency effect: Information that is presented later in a sequence is more heavily reflected in judgments than is information that is presented earlier. Other studies have shown a primacy effect: Early-presented information is reflected in judgment more than is later information...

Throughout this study, we have maintained the position that the primacy effect is obtained because people form a hypothesis from earlier data and underadjust this hypothesis... The primacy effect was found to be moderated by the cognitive load required by the hypothesis-testing nature of the task and by the size of the verbal working memory capacity available to process information.
Unless the subject is overloaded with information, the primacy effect is dominant. A real world application can be found in the work of Trevon Logan, who analyzed college football votes in order to see which games had more of an impact on the rankings of AP voters. Consistent with the idea that primacy is more salient than recency, he found that it is better to lose later in the season than earlier.

In order to be rational, you must obfuscate your initial opinions and see the whole story before you begin to draw conclusions. If you must choose, err on the side of weighing the later data more heavily in order to compensate for your cognitive flaws.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Neuroplasticity and the effect of brain games

Norman Doidge writing at The New Humanist passes along a hopeful anecdote about brain training,
Dr Stanley Karansky was 90 years old when we spoke. He was a medic at D-Day. He practised medicine until he was 80. When he turned 89, he told me, he began to have trouble remembering names; he couldn’t register their auditory impressions clearly. He had trouble communicating and withdrew socially. He became less alert and had trouble driving. Then he began The Brain Fitness Program, developed by Merzenich, which sharpened his auditory processing. In six weeks, with an hour a day of brain exercise, Stanley’s age-related cognitive decline was reversed.
Yes there are some studies backing up many of his claims, and from the papers I have read there appears to be no concoction going on. I think that the idea of computer games actually improving mental health is so absurd that we should take these results more seriously.

But still, I do doubt that all of Stanley's age-related cognitive decline was reversed in just six weeks. This kind of embellished press might hurt the brain training industry in the long run, as consumers could expect too many immediate effects and be unwilling to commit to a serious program.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to make YouTube rating better

Currently the rating system on YouTube is a disaster. About the same number of people rate videos as the number of people who comment on them, which is ridiculous because commenting takes much more energy than the one click of the mouse it takes to rate something.

Their "top rated" video section is a joke too--it has 25 videos on it, all of which appear to have the same rating of 5/5 and none of which look particularly enticing. How should Google fix the current mess? I have a few suggestions:

1) Ever time a user rates a video, it should be recorded on a list that can be made publicly accesible. Imdb has this kind of a "vote history" list and it's awesome. Somebody can quickly scan my list and see if I am a big idiot or whatever. Alternatively, they could show the ratings on the "my favorites" page, this kind of a list. If you have a record of all the ratings a user has made, you give that user an immediate incentive to start rating videos.

2) They need to switch to a 10 point scale, and show the actual number out of 10 that the video averages. Switch all of the current votes of "5" to "10", "4" to "8", etc., and then let users tell you which videos are the best. It's hard to tell exactly what the rating is with the status-quo 5-star metrics.

3) There should be a larger list of the top rated videos, perhaps organized by section. These should be computed using a formula where videos with more votes get weighted higher, just like it is done on imdb. They could even call it the Top 251; I don't see why they should be bashful about copying the success of others.

Why does this matter? Because right now the only criteria that you can use to watch good videos is views, and watching movies based on views causes a nasty feedback effect. How do you take a view back if you don't like the video?

I think it would be cool if there was a way to aggregate the best videos on the site so that we would know what to watch instead of relying on random e-mails. Google, you have so much potential here with YouTube. Make it happen before somebody else does.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fenyman on what it takes to be a scientist

In his famous 1974 Cal Tech commencement address, Richard Fenyman explained his philosophy of science,
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
Not fooling yourself is not trivial, and as soon as you are comfortable that you've succeeded, you run the risk of slipping. Plus, the pursuit of honesty sometimes runs against other human emotions, such as ambition, a need for security, and a desire for recognition.

Yet scientists are still among the most trusted professions, ranking above pollsters, athletes, and civil servants. I suppose that there is an incentive to lie in most every profession, but scientists are among the most introspective of that fact.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Two short lists

Things we talk about too much: Global warming, Malcolm Gladwell, neuroscience, politics, altruism, nature vs. nurture, whether a "God" exists, daily fluctuations in the stock market, consciousness, Iran, The Vietnam War, David Brooks, cars, evolution vs. intelligent design, and productivity hacks.

Things we don't talk about enough: Patent law, water rights, to what degree the state should redistribute wealth, Robin Hanson, how dolphins sleep, monetary economics, whether the universe is random or ordered, the specifics of how we die, Oceania, the Spanish-American War, and statistics.

Note that being on the first list does not imply that the topic is completely unimportant. For example, I am studying neuroscience, I just think that most of the stuff written about it is either too sweeping in its conclusions or simply boring to the non-specialist. And by the way, this is not "just my opinion," these are the icy cold facts. What would you add, second, or take away from either list?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why are smart people so old?

That's the question that this essay by Ian Deary poses in a recent issue of Nature. Deary notes that intelligence predicts mortality better than BMI, total cholesterol, or blood pressure, and at a similar level to smoking. He offers up four hypotheses, and I am partial to the idea that people with higher intelligence are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors. I believe that a lot of our success is based on an ability to project our current actions onto future states, and that this ability improves as intelligence increases.

It's a concise article, so check it out and come to your own conclusions. I would venture that if you are a self-selected blog reader, this correlation should probably come as welcome news.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The passion of Tom Friedman

I've always pictured NYT columnist and author of The World is Flat Tom Friedman to be quite level-headed as he calmly and succinctly extols the virtues of a carbon tax. But the few days he has seriously amped up the intensity, much to my delight.

First you have his November 11 column, where he tells of the time that he began screaming at the TV screen while the CEO of Chrysler was being interviewed. Later in that column he reveals his plan for all current and past representatives of Detriot to be the "pallbearers" at the auto industry's funeral.

But it is in his own CNBC interview that he truly begins to unleash his fury. He offers a few hypotheses for Russia's recent hostile behavior, and explains that the United States has traded their trust for the Czech navy. The Czech Republic doesn't have a navy. You can always tell that somebody is really angry when observers being to nervously chuckle yet they show no signs of slowing.

Although his delivery may be funny, at least Friedman is showing is true colors. It is admirable that he feels no need to hide behind discussing "what the majority thinks," like some of his fellow NYT columnists.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How to lie with anecdotes

Osama Bin Laden fasts completely two days a week. Mao Zedong had an unhealthy obsession with green tea, even brushing his teeth with it. Hitler was a vegetarian. Therefore, you should watch out for people with unorthodox eating habits. Beware vegans.

Ever since Darrell Huff released his classic book How to Lie with Statistics, the American public has been told time and time again to be wary of numbers. And it is probably prudent to be somewhat wary of numbers, as long as you still prefer them to anything else. Because easy as it may be to lie with statistics, it's surely much easier to lie with anecdotes.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ethics in brain scanning continued

What if the US government announced that it had completed a brain scanning technique that could tell within 99.9% of accuracy whether or not the subject was lying? Each subject would probably have to go through some sort of a training session first, and there would obviously be attempts to game the system. However, after proving efficacious against thousands of challengers who would have been rewarded for fooling the machine, it is determined that the scanner simply cannot not be beaten. I see three immediate uses of such a truth-detector:

1) A much lower false positive rate of convictions for criminal offenses. Law and the modern court system as we know it would not end overnight because the degree of punishment would still have to be determined. Yet it is highly likely that there would be more "guilty" pleas, which would save precious government dollars.

2) The US government might decide to give all citizens a run through the brain scanner once every 5 years and ask them whether or not they had committed any violent crimes in that period. Violent crime would plummet, although the ACLU might burn down the Supreme court in protest. Even if this technique was never employed, the mere threat could cause crime to fall, as long as the government left open the possibility.

3) Wealthy people would own a scanner for themselves and perhaps train themselves in their use. This would be very popular as a party trick for many years until it proves to be a potent marriage ender and quietly goes out of style.

Humans are so good at rationalizing and convincing themselves of semi-truths that it is possible that such a machine would never be invented. The limiting factor is first and foremost scanning technology, as I'm not sure that a test using fMRI could be made reliable enough. I think that there might be good dystopian novel here.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The real sustainability movement

Sustainability is a serious buzzword these days, usually associated with cutting down greenhouse gas emissions, stabilizing our water supply, and saving cute baby koalas. While each of these are worthy goals, the real sustainability movement also has to include balancing the national budget. As futurologist Ian Pearson explains,
... There is nowhere near enough money in the government's pension funds to cope with a population that is living much longer. Tax rates for young people will go through the roof but only in developed countries, he said. "In the developing countries tax rates would be very low... Graduates will object to paying up to 60% of their salary in tax and will emigrate to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, India or China which he said would be viable economies but would have "very low tax rates by comparison." ... "We will obviously see a brain drain.
That is a scary prediction. While these projections depend on how US growth plays out, even a small likelihood of a brain drain should be taken seriously. I'm a huge fan of the sustainability movement, as long as it includes fiscal sustainability as well.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Vassar preparatory examinations in 1877

There were mandatory examinations in Rhetoric, English Grammar, Geography, US History, Latin, Arithmetic, and then either German, Greek, or French. Here are some of the questions from the rhetoric exam:

4) Write all the specific rules that guide you in the construction of sentences.

6) By what classes of people is our language most frequently corrupted?

10) State the law by which you are governed in the use of shall and will, in the first, second, and third persons.

19) Give the rules for correct single rhyme.

The blatant classism in question 6 is pretty astounding. All in all I am impressed with the difficulty of the exams--I have a tendency to assume that all generations who grew up before Wikipedia could not possibly be smart but perhaps I should rethink that assumption.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

When is it rational to appear irrational?

The most recent issue of The New Yorker contains an in-depth piece on the work of Dr Kent Kiehl. He is a young neuropsychiatrist collecting a vast corpus of data on incarcerated individuals afflicted with psychopathy. One of the most interesting sections is where he describes the attitude of an inmate who achieved a "perfect forty" on the psychopathy checklist,
Kiehl was at the prison on the morning that George arrived. After being processed, George stripped naked and walked around the track outside the cellblock in the pouring rain. “I was new here,” he later explained to Kiehl, “and I wanted to establish right away that I am a crazy motherfucker so leave me alone.”
This reminds me of my favorite scene from Watchmen, when Rorschach first goes to prison. He is hated by both the criminal underground and the prison gaurds, and there is indication that he will quickly be pummeled into subsmission. When another inmate begins harassing him in the mess hall line, Rorschach grabs a steaming hot pan of animal fat and slams it into the inmate's face. As the gaurds drag him away, he explains, "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."

Bottom line: Your first couple of days in prison is a great example that it can sometimes be in your best interests to appear completely crazy and irrational.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Relatively unmotivated Japanese workers: trend or abberation?

The WSJ reported on an intriguing trend a few days ago. Some young Japanese employees, many of whom have seen their parents work hard for little reward, are preferring easier jobs with less pay to more demanding jobs with better compensation. Executivies in certain companies are actually instructed to "break news of promotions gently."

As Tyler Cowen says, if you aren't thinking about Japan every day, you've yet to wake up. The psychological explanation of this behavior relies on rational choice following from the Easterlin Paradox. If your happiness isn't going to increase much from higher income, what's the point of expending so much time and energy to achieve it?

I know that the Easterlin Paradox applies to nations and not individuals, and I know that this report is probably an abberation instead of a future trend. But I must ask, what if? What then?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Jon Stewart generation

This chart is from Andrew Gelman's fascinating Red State, Blue State blog, the book of which I will get around to reading this winter break. The numbers mostly speak for themselves, but I do have a couple of notes:

1) The chart doesn't necessarily imply that all young voters voted Obama--they could have voted Libertarian or Green or even have been more likely to write themselves in. But given the totals that third parties garnered overall, most of those non-Republican votes were probably for Obama.

2) Are young voters more likely to be contrarian in general? In each of these elections, voters aged 25 have been more likely than voters aged 65 to vote for the non-incumbent party. Although the effects are obviously bigger in 2004 and 2008, the fact that this holds in 2000 as well for the opposite party poses some questions.


There was never one moment that the campus exploded. The ecstasy crescendoed as more and more districts reported, as the student body became more and more convinced that Obama would win. By 11 the shrieks of delight were coming from all angles of the quad. I saw two young men running in full sprint to UpCDC to watch Our Leader give his acceptance speech. Outside a group of students rodeoed a bottle of Captain Morgan's. Five people with the letters O, B, A, M, and A painted on their chests jogged around Rocky Hall and up through the library. Yes we can, they said. I hope you have unlimited text messaging for November because those mass texts add up. Vassar College will not sleep tonight. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Behavioral sportonomics in NBA contracts

Sports teams often explain that they had to overbid on a player because they were worried about a fan backlash against management if that player was let go. While discussing the NBA, Bill Simmons explained why he thinks this analysis is flawed,
When do you think sports franchises will break out of the "We need to him put butts in seats!" mindset and realize that winners are the only things that put butts in seats?
Simmons explains overbidding as a tactical error, but perhaps a simpler explanation could be found in human psychology. Loss aversion posits that individuals will be more averse to losing an item than they would be excited about gaining that same item. Why can't we apply it to the contract decisions of sports teams?

One way to test this hypothesis would be to see whether new GMs who did not sign the player themselves are more likely to let a player go than an long-tenured GM who actually signed or drafted the player himself. If an old GM is more likely to go to all ends to resign a player than a new GM, that would be evidence for loss aversion. Also, teams that rely on pure metrics might be less likely to fall victim to this problem than teams that rely on their "gut instinct," but that would be harder to quantify.

What do you think of the new science of "behavioral sportonomics?"

Monday, November 3, 2008

Income tax is not slavery

By Walter Block from this pdf file, via Bryan Caplan,
Then there is this entirely inept, misleading, and even insulting equation of the "American taxpayer's situation today with that a 19th century American slave." Did you ever hear that joke: "Do you know the difference between a bathroom and a living room? No? Well, then don't come to my house." In a similar vein I say that if you cannot tell the difference between outright slavery, as occured to blacks in the US in the 19th century, and being subject to an income tax, then do not come into the parlor where matters of political economy are being discussed...
Indeed it is more than a little ridiculous when modern pundits compare the institution of an income tax with slavery in the antebellum era of the US. "Income tax" and "slavery" yields an incredible 144,000 results on a Google search, compared to only 101,000 results for the more reasonable "income tax" and "unequal." Generally I think people throw around the word slavery with a bit more ease than they ought to.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

What exactly do you mean by machine, such that humans are not machines?

That is Eliezer's question to Jaron Lanier in their bloggingheads dialog yesterday. Lanier dodges the question at first but eventually responds that we should think of humans and machines as distinct because it is "pragmatic." That responds reminds me of Denyse O'Leary, coauthor of The Spiritual Brain, who claims here that "non-material neuroscience is pragmatic." And based on the first scathing review of her book, the association is not a compliment to Lanier.

All of this pragmatics talk smacks of vieled paternalism. Claiming that something is true because it is pragmatic is not far from claiming that it is true because you want it to be true. It is perfectly fine to do this on a personal level, but persuading others to believe in your desired belief as well means that you think you know what's good for them better than they do. That is paternalism, and I am steadfastedly opposed to spiritual parternalism.

You see? I just took on this non-materialism nonsense without once mentioning the r-word. Aren't you proud of me?

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What I've been reading

1. A Brief Tour of Human Conciousness by V. S. Ramanchandran. This book was pretty short, and fairly lucid explanation of some technical subjects. However, what it gains in expository power it may have given up in accuracy. He certianly was very off target with his mirror neuron digression, given the evidence. How much doubt must you cast on the rest of the book if you are quite sure that the author is off on one subject? The best part of the book was its account of synesthesia, where patients associate numbers with colors. This occurs in about 1 out of every 200 people, and is seven times more common among artists, poets, and novelists. Weird.

2. A Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein. This book starts out fairly engaging, but it soon digresses into a strange religious philosophy. I don't know why it is considered such a classic and I'd stay away. Oddly, I was almost relieved to read a bad book, because so many of the books that I had been reading were good that I was beginning to wonder if I was just a push-over.

3. McCain's Promise by David Foster Wallace. More of an essay than a book. The best line is when he explains that young voters are less likely to vote, and adds that "there's hard demographic and voter-pattern data backing this up... assuming you give a shit about data." I held off from buying any DFW after his suicide because I don't want to contribute to the sad trend of author's works becoming much more famous after they commit suicide, but it was a gift from a friend so it's not my fault.

4. The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. This book is a classic in psychology and neurology for a reason. Dr. Sacks takes clinical tales, gives them surprising depth, and speculates about their implications. It is especially good in the respect that Sacks is clear about when he about to delve into a speculatory mode. Highly recommended.

5. In Search of Memory by Eric R. Kandel. Reading this book really was a pleasure, and I'm not sure why. Kandel mixes in his personal experience when he escaped Austria during WWII and refreshingly doesn't attempt to explain these broad events in terms of reductionist science, which never ends well. There are so many facts in neuroscience, this book brings many of them together and gives a historical context. It is also inspirational that he didn't seriously study science until his senior year in college, yet he won the Nobel anyways. It's never too late!

6. Fooled By Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Enough has been said of this book elsewhere, but let me add my (mostly) independent observation that it is all well-deserved. I wrote a note to myself on nearly every page.

I take individual book recommendations seriously because there is no aggregator to tell me what I should be reading, so if you have any ideas please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Taleb and Mandelbrot on chain reactions in financial markets

The video of their interview on The News Hour is here, although I don't highly recommend it, there are probably better ways to spend a precious 10 minutes. I mainly listened to it to get a sense of how Taleb behaves in real life after just reading his book Fooled By Randomness. He talks abhorrently slowly, is dressed casually enough to play a game of stick ball, and his points are remarkably intelligent.

Both Mandelbrot (the founder of fractal theory) are Taleb are persistent in pointing out that they don't know what will happen, because they don't have enough information. This is not a sexy talking point and it does not sell newspapers or attract click-through readers. But it is a refreshing point in a world striken with hindsight bias.

My prediction is that ten years from now the WSJ will be filled with in-depth articulations of why the investment banks crashed and why banking consolidation turned out to be so risky. It will all seem so simple then. A note to my future self: it wasn't.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lackluster Sashi McEntee search results--is google bombing to blame?

When voting on my absentee ballot, I came to the choice between Sashi McEntee and Mark Leno for state assembly, and I was hopelessly uninformed. So I did what any internet-literate citizen in the 21st century would do, and googled both of their names.

The results for Mark Leno were fairly impressive. He has a well-designed website and even a Wikipedia page of his own. Sashi McEntee's first result is her Facebook page and the second result is her LinkedIn profile. That is embarassing. Is she planning to post status updates on the bills she authors?

But then a more sinister explanation came into my head. Had she been google bombed? Google bombing is where individuals aggresively cross-link to a certain site in order to increase it's SEO for a very specific term. You can read up on funny some examples of it here. What if search terms for "Sacha McEntee" had been googled bombed to turn up her Facebook page?

Most political google bombs lead to somewhat partisan op-eds, so linking to her Facebook page would be a more subtle tactic. It doesn't blatantly discredit your opponent, it just makes them look unprofessional.

Anyways, kudos to Leno supporters if this is the case, it certainly worked on me. And if this isn't the case, then you should be ashamed of yourself, Ms. McEntee.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The failed blog post series continues

Ben wrote yesterday about the process of creativity and how you must shut down your self-censorship and churn out lots of bad ideas in order to achieve a few good ones. With that in mind I am going to continue my failed blog post series from last year. As always, these are the ideas that never made it off the drawing board.

Failed Blog Post: "The Virtue of a Bad Halloween Costume." The idea was that if you have a bad costume, you make your friend's costumes look better and thus they feel better about themselves. Since we are all competitive, it is an altruistic act to place yourself below the average. Then I realized I was formulating an intricate argument in favor of socialism and almost threw up on my keyboard.

Failed Blog Post: "Having Heroes." This was supposed to be about how many of my friends have "heroes", but I do not. Yet before I posted it I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now I want to be Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don't even know why, really.

Failed Blog Post: "The Double Major Fallacy." Many people who are double majoring act like it's such a big deal, emphasizing the and between listing their majors and often rolling their eyes slightly. But why is this such a good thing? Sure, you have slightly more specialization, but you give up a lot in terms of diversity, and you still need the same number of credits to graduate. But then I realized that this might only be the case at Vassar and probably doesn't translate well to other colleges.

Failed Blog Post: "The Flaming Lips." I was going to start with the Osama Bin Laden quote that "music is the flute of the devil," and then segue into discussing why The Flaming Lips are my favorite band. But I've consciously decided to not post too much about music--I don't want to go down that road.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Non-Great Depression parallels to the current financial crisis

The tenacious Barry Ritholtz recently linked to a NYT article (careful it's a PDF) from 1911, analyzing the Great Panic of 1873. The article is written by Roger Babson, the "well-known statistician," and if nothing else the language is enthralling. Sadly, people just don't use words like "herewith" and "promptitude" anymore. His general argument is compelling too,
In fact, a study of history shows me that the public always forgets that our business epochs are as natural as the tides of the ocean, and they continually endeavor to change conditions by tinkering with the tariff or legislating against the railroads, or making some similar unintelligent move... Throughout the country's history, this has always been practiced, although such legislation has almost invariably resulted in making the situation worse than it was before.
The obsession over comparing the current crisis to the Great Depression troubles me. While it is no doubt an important case study, it's foolish to draw so many lines through this one data point. This is especially true because so many of them lead us somewhere grafted from the book of Revelations.

There's nothing wrong with incorrect predictions, but if overinflated expectations lead us to rash action it could spell trouble. History does not favor those who do something merely for the sake of doing something.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Two theories of laughter

The first is by author Robert Heinlein in his 1961 sci-fi novel A Stranger in a Strange Land,
I've found out why humans laugh so much. They laugh becuase it hurts so much... because it's the only thing that'll make it stop hurting.... I looked at a cageful of monkeys and suddenly I saw all the mean and cruel and utterly unexplainable things I've seen and heard and read about in the time I've been with my own people--and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing.
The next comes from neurologist V.S. Ramachandran's A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness,
I would argue that laughter is nature's way of signaling that "it's a false alarm." Why is this useful from an evolutionary standpoint? I suggest that the rhythmic staccato sound of laughter evolved to inform our kin who share our genes: don't waste your precious resources on this situation; it's a false alarm. Laughter is nature's OK signal.
Every armchair philosopher and his mother has a unifying theory that will explain all laughter. Heinlein and Ramachandran are by no means armchair philosophers, but I think they may be falling victim to the same syndrome.

These two particular theories are irreconcilable because they both claim to be the sole cause of why we laugh. Laughter may indeed have arisen evolutionarily for one particular reason, but it's highly likely that laughter was subsequently co-opted evolutionarily and culturally for other purposes. Why do we insist on rampant reductionism for every phenomenon? Can't we all just get along?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Spending our time in worlds that don't exist

Paul Bloom has a fascinating article in the most recent issue of The Atlantic that touches on libertarian paternalism, behavioral economics, pigeons, Walt Whitman, and gambling addiction. One of the most interesting sections is where he discusses how much time we spend in existences we know to be not real,
... The most common leisure activity is not sex, eating, drinking, drug use, socializing, sports, or being with the ones we love. It is, by a long shot, participating in experiences we know are not real—reading novels, watching movies and TV, daydreaming, and so forth. Enjoying fiction requires a shift in selfhood. You give up your own identity and try on the identities of other people, adopting their perspectives so as to share their experiences.
There are currently more ways to live in unreal worlds than at any other point in history. This doesn't mean that modern man necessarily spends more time unreal worlds than in previous eras. Indeed, it'd be hard to measure how much people in the 1700s daydreamed without a time machine that doubles as a giant fMRI. But I'd expect that yes, our society currently spends more time in unreal worlds than previous generations.

Should we as a society attempt to reverse this trend? That's where the libertarian paternalism comes into play. How can we do so without invading people's private lives? That's where the behavioral economics comes into play. What a curious world we live in.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A prototypical "rational" man in 1950's Sci-Fi

The Day the Earth Stood Still probably has the most stereotypically "rational" man of all-time in its main character Klaatu. Let's go through the checklist:

1) Rudimentary social skills, replete with the inability to complete a coherent sentence. (Check)
2) Exceptionally proficient at mathematics. (Check)
3) A strange lack of any kind of emotion even when displaying some emotion would be highly beneficial to what he is attempting to accomplish. (Check)
4) Attributing poor collective decision-making to the individual stupidity of all persons involved. This is a common error, and it fails to take into account basic principles of the real world, like game theory. (Check)
5) A poor grasp of the market system. (Check--He traded a handful of perfect diamonds for two dollars!)

I don't know why so-called rational people in fiction are so often boring, lifeless, and stupid. The reality is that you don't have to fit any of these stereotypes to be rational. Indeed, all of them except #2 would probably be harmful to your success in the real world.

I will add the caveat that technically he is not a man but instead an alien who looks exactly like a man. And don't get me started on the odds of this happening through convergent evolution.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Bastiat on intellectual arrogance

Frederik Bastiat is one of the underrated thinkers of the 20th century. In his most famous essay The Law he points out a discrepancy in government planning:

This must be said: There are too many "great" men in the world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.

Now someone will say: "You yourself are doing this very thing." True. But it must be admitted that I act in an entirely different sense; if I have joined the ranks of the reformers, it is solely for the purpose of persuading them to leave people alone.
I think part of people's opposition to collective rating systems is that they inherently believe that their tastes are more refined or somehow better than the mass majority of people's. They believe that their tastes are special.

I just finished Anna Karenina, and I never fell in love with it. If pressed, I would give it a 6 out of 10. That said, I'd still recommend that you read it, because 125 top authors recently rated it the greatest book ever.

I'm still grappling with the concept of respecting the majority opinion over my own--it's difficult to do and it is oddly Bayesian. I think the key may lie in Bastiat's analysis that there are too many people trying to lead and not enough people respecting the rights and opinions of others.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Focal foul calls in biased refereeing

It is naive to assume that referees only want to make the correct calls. What they really want is for all players and spectators to think that they are unbiased. The typical optimization strategy is to appear unbiased, not to actually be unbiased. This explains why in so many games two teams will have the same number of fouls called although it is highly likely that one team is objectively fouling more.

Once you accept this model, one surprising prediction arises: it is actually beneficial in the long run if your team has a bad, focal call made against them. One horrible call probably won't mean much in terms of the overall score, but the referee will have to "make up" for that call for some time. The more focal the call, the more the referee will "make up" for in order to appear unbiased.

For example, last week I was playing a competitive 3 on 3 game of basketball and one of my opponents made an awful call (it was self-refereed but the same principle applies). He claimed that I had traveled when in fact I had clearly not moved my pivot foot. My teammates and some spectators went wild with indignation, but I was enthused about the call. When my opponent offered to reverse it, I insisted that the call stand, ostensibly out of honor but really because I knew it would help my team's cause.

Since that one focal call had been made against me, I was able to get away with a litany of small calls or noncalls in my favor. The very next play I drove to the basket and probably took one extra step as I scooped in the layup. No call. Buckets.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Why only a libertarian could engineer the bailout

Richard Nixon visited Communist China in 1972, which was a turning point in US-Chinese relations because previously the two countries had been highly estranged. This was a controversial act but Nixon was able to get away with it because he had always been viewed as tough on Communism. Authors Tyler Cowen and Daniel Sutter summarize this theory in their IDEAS paper, explaining that "only a right wing president can credibly signal the desirability of a left-wing course of action."

Today, Tyler Cowen writes that Ben Bernanke is well-known for libertarian tendencies, which at first glace is odd because the bailout is not in line with libertarian philosophy. However, once we apply the Nixon Paradox to the situation, it makes perfect sense. Indeed, only a libertarian could engineer the bailout and nationalize parts of these banks.

Perhaps if you are very scared of a certain policy you should support proponents of the policy, not opponents. At the very least the proponents will have to go through all of the usual constitutional checks and balances.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Counter examples in real life

Counter examples are so crucial to the study of statistics. With the backing of much long-winded epistemology, the consensus is that although you cannot prove something to be true, you can prove the opposite of it to not be true.

In every day life, we often discuss individuals that we would like to emulate. Indeed, we speak of our heroes and inspirations incessantly. But we discuss much less often our "anti-heroes," people that we strive to be unlike from in some specific way. Note that I am not saying that this is never done, just that it is comparably done much less.

Why is this? Perhaps it stems from a desire to be polite, which may be admirable. But the world we live in is so confusing and there are so many people telling us what we "should" do. It seems that society would benefit if the question was more often reversed and we were told what we should not do, which people we should not emulate.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Will a trickle down effect from foreign governments force the US hand on drug policy?

More and more countries in Latin America are decriminalizing certain quantities of specific drugs. As Juan Carlos Hidalgo of Cato reports, there are three key factors for this change. One, many countries are not on good terms with Washington anyways, so they are less worried about upsetting it. Two, drug-related violence and corruption are reaching unheard-of levels, especially in Mexico and other parts of Central America. And three, free trade agreements have actually made these countries less susceptible to unfavorable US trade sanctions.

As a peace-loving libertarian, the possibility of a trickle down effect comes as welcome news. It seems that there is a widespread consensus that drug policy in America is off-track, so why hasn't it been changed?

If you're looking for specific policy measures to hold future US leaders--whoever they may be--accountable for, you can start with the war on drugs. The world is waiting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Who voted for Hitler?

It is highly paradoxical that a democratic voting process led to such an undemocratic governing party, which is why this subject has long been of such interest to scholars. King et al. just published a new paper finding that voter actions in the Weimar elections can be largely explained through economic self interest:
Those who were unemployed or at high risk of becoming unemployed gave disproportionate support to the Communists or, to a lesser extent, the Social Democrats (in Protestant precints), for good reason, whereas those who were hurt by the economy but were at little risk of unemployment--such as self-employed shopkeepers and professionals, domestic employees, and helping family members--constituted the groups that gave the most disproportionate support to the Nazis.
It's amazing that people are able to rationalize (and support) obviously racist and antisemitic social policies if they believe that it best serves their economic interests. Of course, economically things ended up badly with the Nazis in power after WWII left Germany in ruins, so it's not as if the decision was rational in that regard either.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The top 11 poems of all time

I came across the list in Malcolm Gladwell's excellent new article in the New Yorker about creativity and how it is foolhardy to assume that it always comes from the young. Even if you are not a particular fan of poetry, the best of any genre is bound to be excellent.

1) Prufrock, T.S. Elliot.
2) Skunk Hour, Robert Lowell.
3) Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, Robert Frost.
4) Red Wheelbarrow, William Carlos Williams.
5) The Fish, Elizabeth Bishop
6) The River Merchant's Wife, Ezra Pound.
7) Daddy, Sylvia Plath
8) In a Station of the Metro, Ezra Pound.
9) Mending Wall, Robert Frost.
10) The Snow Man, Wallace Stevens
11) The Dance, William Carlos Williams.

This list was compiled by economist David Galenson, by looking through 47 major poetry anthologies and counting which poems appeared most often. This is a nice, objective way of determining whether a poem has stood the test of time, but it is possible that some poems have stayed around just because of status--Carlos Williams, I'm looking at you. Not that it matters, but my favorite poem for some time now has been Stevie Smith's "Not Waving but Drowning."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Will a recession cause undergrads to study harder?

That is one question that I am currently pondering, especially since it would directly affect me and my hopes of landing anything interesting post-college. I have heard anecdotes that students go back to school for JDs and MBAs at higher rates in a recession, but would undergrads take greater advantage of their current education?

There is some reason to expect a trend a priori. If Johnny's parents are facing a recession, Johnny might not be allowed to throw as many killer house parties on the weekends after he graduates. Additionally, there is some evidence that simply being primed to think about money (via monopoly money!) makes students more competitive and individualistic.

However, all my initial informal data gathering by interviewing friends has left me empty handed. Of course, if it is subconscious people not even know why they are trying harder: perhaps they will rationalize their behavior in some other way. Can any of you all recommend anecdotes? Perhaps we could analyze G.R.E. scores? Or are all of my readers too busy studying now?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Paul Krugman on silly research

Krugman just won the Nobel prize today (or maybe yesterday) for something called "New Trade Theory" that I understand only on the surface. But while browsing the Bible I came across an essay of his where he discusses his "life philosophy."

I love these random articles where influential intellectuals discuss their professional histories and outlooks on life. I'm not sure why--it's probably a mix of envy and post-modern irony. One particularly poignant paragraph is when he discusses the usefullness of what colleagues might call "silly models,"
What seems terribly hard for many economists to accept is that all our models involve silly assumptions. Given what we know about cognitive psychology, utility maximization is a lidicrous concept; equilibrium pretty foolish outside of financial markets; perfect competition a howler for most industries. The reason for making these assumptions is not that they are reasonable but that they seem to help us produce models that are helpful metaphors for things that we think happen in the real world.
In industry, it doesn't matter whether the topic is silly, it only matters if it produces results. In academia, you must paint your interest as non-silly, otherwise it will not be published. So it is heartening to see more academics (besides Robin Hanson) come forward as pro-silly research. When you read the word silly a lot, it starts to look silly itself.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Medical treatment for name forgetting

Like most people, I'm often troubled when I can't remember somebody's name that I knew from long ago. It especially irks me when others state my full name and I can't even remember their first one.

Out of kindness, I am usually forced to say "what's up man?" or, "how you doing girl?." My dad always says "kiddo," apparently that works too. Game theory posits that eventually people would catch up to the fact you only use these greetings when you don't remember their name, but luckily there is generally no repeated play in the form of multiple meetings.

Luckily, I have a modest proposal. I want to start a service that treats people for this specific diseases--forgetting people's names. I am sure that there is a literature of some sort on the subject and that it could be swindled into some sort of diagnosis. Perhaps there is even some hope for treatment in the form of behavioral therapy.

But ultimately this business would not be actually about the treatment. It would be purely so that people could say, "I am sorry, but I forget your name. I have a disease, and I'm undergoing treatment for it at [my company]." Do you guys think that this might work, or is it not as big of a deal as I'm claiming it to be?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wake me up when November ends

If you thought last night's debate was awful, you have to read Will Wilkinson's hilarious live blog. I'll post some of the highlights here, but peruse it yourself--I laughed out loud three times and I am alone with just my computer so there was no social stimulus.
McCain: Let’s do it all. Straight talk! Can’t afford entitlements. I know how to reach across the aisle. Jobs with Nukes! Earth, Wind, Fire! You’re complicit in terrorism by driving your kid to soccer practice. Everything is a national security objective!

Obama: Perhaps you have heard of something called 9/11?... Holy god there is nothing more important than not trading with foreigners for energy. Double the Peace Corps, so we can renew America, because there is no non-state way to do that.

Should health care be a commodity?... Obama: Moral imperative that we do something. Here’s my plan. I’ll make it cheaper for you. More free lunches. No insurance? You got it! McCain hates sick people, because his plan makes sense.

How does all the economic stress affect our ability to wage war? McCain: America is greatest force for good in history of universe forever. We shed our blood everywhere. The question of when to kill people needs to be left to soldiers like me. Our wars are awesome because we’re a nation of good. Obama wrong about surge. Wrong about Russia and Georgia. He doesn’t know his ass from his elbow.
I'm voting for Gene Amondson, nominee of the Prohibition party. That "more free lunches" line is a killer. Wake me up when November ends.

Monday, October 6, 2008

State level voting

Andrew Gelman has a fascinating series of charts that show the trend in voting patterns from state to state. Poor voters are much more likely to vote Democratic in a given state than rich voters, except in the absolute core regions of Republicans such as Texas.

I grew up in California, and went to school in New York, the only two states in the US that are blue for all three of the income levels. Sometimes I am secretly proud of myself for rejecting parts of my liberal roots, and then I worry that an irrational desire to be contrarian was part of the shift. But after seeing a Democratic dominated congress rush this horrible bailout plan, I become less worried for myself. I would say that the events of the last four months have made me less dogmatic about politics overall.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The ethical implications of a perfect lie detector

Despite their rampant use in popular culture, polygraph tests are highly unreliable, producing an accuracy rate barely better than chance. And the fMRI attempts are probably doomed too; we just don't currently have enough knowledge about which brain regions would "light up" when somebody was not telling the truth.

But what if? I think the applications of such a device could be wide reaching. Premeditated crime and academic cheating would probably be the first victims. Would everyone have to undergo a test once a year, to test solely for whether or not they had committed a serious crime in the past year? This would be an invasion of privacy, yes, but it would also help serve the most important role of the government--upholding the laws and protecting the life and property of its citizens.

Of course, the errors on such a device would have to be abnormally low to make it worthwhile. But if you are looking for major shifts that may occur within the next 50 years, you should consider the implications of a nearly perfect lie detector.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

True altruism in door holding

Society widely considers it polite to hold doors open for people as they walk through the door. We consider it such an inherently kind act that not offering thanks to the door holder is considered highly rude.

But just because society considers this a kind act does not make it so--society has been wrong before and will be wrong again. And, some critics have wisely pointed out that if you hold the door open for somebody who is a long distance away, you make them feel guilty and awkward. So the altruist now has to correctly estimate both the distance and speed of the walker, and factor that into his decision to hold the door open.

But the true altruist can do even better. If you anticipate that somebody behind you will be at that awkward distance where you don't want to open the door, you should slow down so that they will reach the door just after you enter. Pretend to check your cell phone, retie your shoes, itch your scalp--just make sure that it is timely and surreptitious.

At some point you will still have to decide if slowing down to hold the door is worth your time as an altruist. Remember that altruism comes in many flavors, be it sending aid to impoverished nations, developing a cure for a disease, or sitting at your computer writing a blog post about altruism that will be read around the world.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Filtering out fanatical politicos

Many people have strong convictions about politics, and I see nothing wrong with that. Strong convictions are more rational than they are generally given credit for. But they become counter-productive when the politico is no longer willing to listen to outside viewpoints and update their opinions to new information.

This effect can be difficult to gauge in real time, but I have a different question to ask that thrusts at the same point. Ask, "would you prefer that the country receives a negative short run shock in some key indicator, so that your candidate has a better chance of winning?"

Obama supporters might prefer for the economy to continue to fall (even slightly) to boost his chances of winning. McCain supporters might hope for a (small) terrorist attack on a US embassy abroad to boost his chances of winning.

If somebody hopes for a negative short run turn of events for the country just so that their candidate will win, they have gone over the edge. They may argue that over the long run it will be for the benefit of society, but they are fooling themselves. There's no way they can accurately predict future events with that kind of precision; if we can avoid an undeniably negative event now we should do so without hesitation.

Of course, politics isn't about policy.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Empathy has no backstop

Last year my friend Ben blogged about which traits increase in value "nonstop," meaning that more of the trait is always better. He correctly pointed out that few traits fit this criteria. For example, it is good to have more flexibility up to a point, but too much and you'll never get anything done. To him, persistence was one the few traits without this backstop.

I think that empathy is another one. Sure, you can be too kind (telling someone "you're welcome" all the time gets annoying), but you can't be too empathic. Indeed, boosting your empathy is undoubtedly a positive personality change, since it will put you more at peace with your own place in the world.

Of course this is largely semantics but it's still a stimulating thought exercise. Can you think of any other such traits?

(Thanks to Joey D for sparking a conversation about this idea.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Random chance fuels innovation

From Wikipedia's page on mustard gas:
In 1943, during the Second World War, a US stockpile exploded aboard a supply ship that was bombed in an air raid in the harbor of Bari, Italy exposing and killing thousands of civilians and 628 Allied troops. The deaths and incident were classified Top Secret for 55 years and labeled as a mystery illness. It was noted by the U.S. Army's medical workers that the white cell counts of exposed soldiers were reduced, and mustard gas was investigated as a therapy for Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer. Study of the use of similar chemicals as agents for the treatment of cancers led to the discovery of mustine, and the birth of anticancer chemotherapy.
A random event allowed for a natural experiment which led to a new treatment for disease. It is random that I stumbled across it, and it is random that you have now read it. It's random--but that doesn't mean it doesn't matter.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The thin tail of imdb's top movies

The average score for movies on imdb is 6.7, and all of the movies on imdb's top 250 hold a score of 7.9 or above (adjusted), which means that they are truly the cream of the crop. But it is intriguing that even among these top movies certain ones are able to stand out as the best. Here is a frequency diagram that shows the distribution:

The general trend throughout is that the higher the score, the lower the number of movies are able to achieve it. Note that I chopped off all of the 7.9s because the scores ended there so it was impossible to know how many 7.9s there are on imdb as a whole. It is truly amazing to me that some movies are rated so much more highly than all others.

Since there is no rating system like imdb for most forms of art, this distribution raises some questions. Does this distribution apply to all art forms or just movies? If it just applies to movies, what makes them so special--is there less cognitive dissonance?

If it applies to other art forms as well, what does that say about our tastes? Perhaps there is something inside of us that is able to know when art is of high quality, even when we are unable to put our thoughts into words. And that is where a pure numerical rating system shines the brightest.