Saturday, May 31, 2008

Polar Bear Theory

On one of the first episodes of Lost, the survivors see a polar bear. I will admit that this is fairly strange, since the island is tropical. But then again, tons of weirder stuff has happened, like the mysterious black smoke, or Ben somehow moving the island.

Yet for some reason, people love to complain about how strange it is that a polar bear appeared on the island. They wonder, how could it survive in that climate? How would it have gotten there? I have long found this complaint to be irrational. There is a preponderance of weirder stuff that should be mentioned first if you intend to argue the feasibility of the show.

But I'm now beginning to think that this complaint may be predictably irrational. Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 hypothesized that while robots far removed from human likeness would cause no emotional reaction, robots that look "almost human" would give you goosebumps. This phenomenon is known as the uncanny valley, and it may explain the polar bear complaints as well.

Phenomena on Lost such as the black smoke, Walt's telekinesis, or the magic box are too far removed from everyday life to stir up our innate "is this possible?" meters. On the other hand, a polar bear on a tropical island (or the fact that Hurley hasn't lost weight) is just close enough to reality to make us question it.

Might the uncanny valley explain other odd facets of visual perception? I should point out that although the hypothesis is not fully accepted by the scientific community, it is already being put to use in movies such as The Incredibles.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Kendrick Perkins

On March 6, 2005, the Celtics squared off against the Pacers in an early playoff game. With less than a minute left, Paul Pierce was fouled hard by Jamaal Tinsley, and Pierce got heated and elbowed Tinsley back. He got his second technical foul and was ejected for the elbow.

Since Pierce still had to take two free throws, this opened up the craziest scenario in the rulebook. The Pacers were allowed to choose whoever they wanted from the Celtics bench to shoot the two shots. They chose the biggest scrub on the team, the guy who had been drafted two years earlier and still hadn't done anything: Kendrick Perkins. He missed both free throws... badly. The Celtics were eliminated a few days later, and Perkins had a few months to think it all over.

I love stories about failure (I'm a sadist), but what I love best is stories with a comeback. Mike Breen described Kendrick Perkins's effort last night as "the game of his life." He may have had a better game in high school, but his 18 points and 16 boards against the Pistons speak for themselves. He is now a starter on a team one game away from the finals.

I still hope that every New England sports team comes together for a big celebration only to be blown up by in a vivid, stadium-sized conflagration, but I'll feel bad about Kendrick Perkins. What a story.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


War World II ended in 1945... for the majority of the world. Although Japan had technically surrendered, four Japanese soldiers in the Philippines continued to fight. Two of them died and one gave in, but Hiroo Onoda kept fighting (alone!) until 1974, meaning that he missed out on the moon landing, Japan's automotive boom, and The Beatles.

Sometimes I'll be debating the minutia of a point, and I'll suddenly realize that nobody else cares anymore. It doesn't matter who has won. The point is that the war is over, and you don't want to be the stubborn idiot missing out on the after-party.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: Urban carbon dioxide emissions

Urban environments are often assumed to save energy, and I have no reason to dispute that assumption. But I wondered... do countries with high percentages of their population living in urban environments emit less carbon dioxide as a whole? I found the carbon dioxide emissions (per capita) here, the population distribution data here, and here's the chart:

As you can see, there is no negative relationship between the urban population of the country and its carbon dioxide emissions. In fact, there is a small positive relationship, although the correlation (r square = 0.068) is very small.

There are two conclusions we can draw here:

1) A third variable, such as levels of gas tax or alternative energy subsidies, is the primary force impacting carbon dioxide emissions per country.

2) Large urban populations may not be as effective at curbing pollution as assumed, perhaps because waste disposal is more difficult or because individuals have less space to grow their own food and must import resources from far away, which has a high transport cost.

Monday, May 26, 2008

A superhighway to nowhere

That's kind of an unfair title. If former neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor truly believes that she has achieved nirvana through a stroke affecting her left brain, then there is probably something to it. But I'm not sure that "superhighway to bliss," the title of the Sunday NYT article featuring her, is the best way to describe it either.

Let's assume that she's right. If you could achieve total bliss by blocking out what the article describes as "context, ego, time, [and] logic," would you want that?

There are to two working definitions of happiness in our lexicon today. One is the Buddhist-inspired "no learning state," where you don't aim to affect any change on the world but merely accept it as is. Dr. Taylor achieves this happiness by consciously rejecting bad (angry) thoughts and replacing them with happy ones.

The other type of happiness is flow. I personally feel it when I'm playing ping-pong or Halo 3, and sometimes when I'm reading/writing. It's awesome, but it's also dependent upon the formal reasoning (logic and time) that Dr. Taylor lost in her stroke.

Would you choose to eliminate these moments of flow in order to maximize your moment to moment emotional happiness? I myself would not, but given the support given to Dr. Taylor, it appears that Aldous Huxley may have been on to something all along.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Do sports matter?

Patri Friedman doesn't think so, and he makes a solid case (in the comments):

"There is a zero-sum nature to sports which is not present in music. The existence of sports may create net positive utility, but is that true of who wins a particular game? There will always be a winner and a loser, why does it matter which is which?"

There are two obvious "net benefits" of sports. The first is that they encourage youngsters to exercise, which decreases stress and whining. The second is that they can sometimes rally a community behind a common goal. Hopefully not to the extent of Green Street Hooligans, but maybe something more like Hoosiers.

But this is avoiding the question. What does it matter if a particular team wins? I think the best example here is to be the World Cup, which I truly want the United States to win. Although in the long-run we would expect for every country to have enough talent and luck to win it once or twice, in the long-run we're all dead. This is especially true of the World Cup, since it is only played once every four years, and there are 135 potentially winners (in 2010).

There is a good chance that the US will never win the World Cup in my lifetime. And since scarcity breeds value, I want the US to win even more. And I know I'm not alone! The Cup is a movie about a bunch of Tibetan Buddhists who come together and watch the 1998 World Cup finals. They support France because the French were sympathetic to the Tibetan cause.

So in the long run sports may be totally zero sum and the benefits to everyone will be equal. But in the short run span of my lifetime, I'll be rooting for the US, and I'll be thinking that sports matter at least a little bit.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Indiana Jones Theory of Space Travel

"Why do they even make this game if I can't win?" - Superbad

And no, this has nothing to do with the (spoiler alert) silly flying saucer at the end of the most recent movie.

When Indy enters into a spooky ancient temple, there are always hundreds of skeletons. Presumably these skeletons are the remnants of other adventurers who attempted to reach the end of the temple and failed. The less skeletons he sees, the greater the likelihood that no adventurer has ever reached that given area before.

The odds are sketchy, because if there are no more skeletons in a "stage" then it is possible that no adventurer has ever reached that stage, and it may still have some deadly booby traps. But generally, less skeletons in a given stage of the temple should signify a lower probability of dying there.

The sequence he must go through reminds me of Nick Bostrom's fascinating article on MIT's Technology Review. He explains why he hopes that we don't find any signs of intelligent life on Mars. There are a few reasons:

1) We have not yet seen any signs of intelligent extraterrestrial life. This is a sign that intelligent life is less likely to exist in a technologically advanced form (ie, Von Neumann universal constructors) in our known universe.

2) In order for mankind to survive, we must live through any intergalactic events that threaten the earth, such as the sun exploding, or a catastrophic meteor piercing the atmosphere. Probability dictates that over a long enough timespan, these events are certain to occur. Therefore, in order to survive, humans must develop the technology to colonize other worlds.

3) The fact that we have yet to observe any signs of intelligent life (1), makes the probability that we ourselves will be able to do so (2), less likely.

The best hope for humanity is that there are some large obstacles that a species must cross in order to reach this level of technological advancement, and that humans have already crossed them. He refers to these species-changing obstacles as "Great Barriers." If we find evidence of former intelligent life on Mars, this would be an extremely bad sign for the long-term survival of humans. It would be evidence that we haven't crossed at least one great barrier.

This is like Indiana Jones as he progresses through a temple. Reaching a stage where there are no skeletons doesn't guarantee that he will survive, but it does increase his odds.

So... I'm hoping that we as a species find our way to the end of the temple without getting crushed by a booby trap, and that we don't get stuck trying to horde too much treasure before the temple collapses or the sun explodes. Unfortunately, this isn't Hollywood, so there's no guarantee.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Is open-source the future?

Umair talks a lot about how Google is showing the world that in the future, Good will be more profitable than Evil to corporations. This is certainly a departure from the 20th century, where vertically integrated monopolies and false advertising (think cigarettes) were par for the course.

It would undoubtedly be "good" for consumers if this were the case. It's nice to have Google Docs for free, and it's nice to think that they are making products like Google Health. The only problem is... they aren't making any money off of these services.

Google's search is an amazing product, built on mathematically complex algorithms that represent a lot of technical and entrepreneurial work. Due to their search and their text ads, they are able to make enough money to support the rest of these currently non-monetized products.

I guess my question is, will Google's pro-consumer be the model in the future, or is it only possible today because Google has such a strong base (their incredible search and text ads) to fall back upon? I hope it's the former, but I suspect that it is the latter. We will see.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Beliefs on climate change as a function of party affiliation and education

Here's the Pew research center report, which is awesome and full of raw data. And here's the key graph:

Forget the specific issue of climate change. This is more evidence that politics is the mind killer.

On a side note, Jon Stewart is the only guy I'll watch these days, I saw him interview McCain last night and it was actually fairly funny.

Tuesday Statisticz: The rides at Six Flag's Great Adventure

Danny posted these rankings of rides at Super Flag's Great Adventure and telepathically asked me to analyze it to try to find some cool stuff from the data. No problem! It's sort of screwed up, since Jay voted for two rides as #1 (both Kingda Ka and Superman), but I guess if he's cool enough to have a blog with no posts, he's cool enough to vote for have two #1s. He's like the dad in those Verizon commercial.

First, here's the ranking of the rides as determined by their median values:

1) Kingda Ka
2) Nitro
3) Superman
4) El Toro
5) Medusa
6) Batman
7) Scream Machine
8) Skull Mountain
9) Dark Knight

Next, here's the same rankings with standard deviations included, to give a sense of the variance in the votes. Note that almost all of the variance in Dark Knight's ranking came from one data point, much to Danny's chagrin. He called the perpetrator a bad name, which is unfair. Maybe he just really liked Dark Knight?

The variance is actually fairly low, which makes me question whether or not the rankings were entirely independent. Rob and Tyson have exactly the same rankings, which is suspicious on a number of levels.

Finally, I wanted to see why they would rank the rides in this way. I went to Great Adventure's website, and looked at some statistics from each of the rides. First, the rides are all ranked in terms of thrill levels as either "mild," "moderate," or "max." The two rides that these guys ranked lowest, Skull Mountain and Scream Machine, were both "moderate," while the rest of the rides were "max." Next, I wondered if there was a correlation between ride speed and the rankings. But for this we need another chart:

As the maximum speed of the ride decreases, the ranking of the ride decreases as well. There is a strong correlation here, with an r square of 0.659, which is significant with a t=2.146, df = 6, and a one-tailed p = 0.038. I must also note that there are only 8 data points on here, although there were 9 rides. This is because the ride that the group rated the worst, Dark Knight, didn't even have a listing of its maximum speed. I can only presume that Great Adventures didn't list the speed because it is embarrassingly slow, which would have helped improve the correlation.

Anyways, it seems like these Vassar students prefer fast rides to slow ones. Congrats on all graduating, too.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Niko the philosopher

Wouldn't it be an awesome experiment to analyze people's behavior while playing Grand Theft Auto? Maybe correlate their choices in GTA with their real life record of malfeasance (arrests, self-reported number of fights, etc.)? Of course you'd have to somehow control for general video game skill, but that wouldn't be too hard if you allowed a training phase. If I were to conduct this experiment, here's how I would operationalize morality:

Positive points are rewarded for moral behavior, while negative points signify that you probably enjoyed the movie American Psycho a little bit too much.

1) I'd have to dock points for every time that the participant steals a car, since the person Niko's stealing from probably has something to do too. But an auto theft isn't the end of the world, since they'll definitely receive insurance money, and there would probably be a few witnesses around to corroborate the story. If the car is more expensive, the person you're stealing it from probably will have more money, so the theft is less amoral. So you get -5 points for stealing a really fast car, and -10 for stealing a less expensive one.

2) If you stop at stop sign or red light while driving, that would be +5 points per occurrence. This is the only way to receive positive points, and is probably the most unprecedented behavior on the list. I have NEVER seen anybody stop at a stop sign or red light while playing GTA. I'm not even sure that the light will ever turn green. The game might break for all I know.

3) Next up we have murder. Killing people during missions shouldn't count against you, because that's pretty much Niko's job. He's just trying to feed his family. Aside from missions, every other body bag you rack up is -20 points. If you kill them with your bare hands and they don't fight back, that's -30 for pure sadism. But if they fight back, give you lip, or chase after you when you steal their car, that's only -10 because Niko has a name to uphold. He can't let just anyone show him up.

A few other provisions for specific situations. Killing a paramedic is -40 points because it will discourage future paramedics from arriving and add to the total death count. Shooting an RPG at a ambulance counts as killing three paramedics, for -120 points. Killing an old lady is -40 points as well, because that's just messed up. And killing a fugitive who is already running from the cops (which you see from time to time) is +5 points. Think of it like a citizen's arrest, with a Micro-SMG.

I'd track the actions of your participants and sum their scores after an hour. Anything above 0, and I would slap the participant for being such a sissy. A score between 0 and -100 seems about normal. If they score between -100 and -300, they probably have some pent up anger. Maybe I'd recommend that they join an Aikido class, or do some tantric meditation. And if somebody scores below a -300, I would probably put a tab on them, and if possible, suspend their right to purchase a firearm.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Forgive and forget, forgotten

"If you shoot my dog, imma kill your cat." - Jay Z

Joe Ward writes about how other people have stuff going on in their lives too, so we should forgive them for their annoying transgressions. Forgive and forget, right?

I've talked before about how bad our first impressions are, and suggested that we attempt to get past them as soon as possible. I think about this all the time. But does it "accomplish" anything, and actually change our behavior?

Eric Schwitzgebel has an awesome blog where he talks about this exact problem, based on the experimental result that ethics professors don't act any more ethically than anybody else. If people that think about ethics all the time don't act any better, how can the poor ethical layman like myself hope to do any better?

I don't know if I can, but I'm sure that it's worth my best shot. Like Marcus Aurelius says in his Meditations,

"Either the world is a mere hotch-potch of random cohesions and dispersions, or else it is a unity of order and providence. If it is the former, why wish to survive in such a purposeless or chaotic confusion; why care about anything, save the manner of ultimate return to dust; why trouble my head at all, since, do what I will, dispersion will overtake me sooner or later? But if the contrary be true, then I do reverence, I stand firmly, and I put my trust in the directing power."

Priests and shamans alike can quibble over the nature of that power, but the desire to do stand firm is practically universal. We can tell ourselves to forgive and forget all day, but in the throes of the moment can we stop our sympathetic nervous system from triggering upon perceiving a threat? Will our blood pressure not rise? I doubt it.

Being human means getting annoyed when you call fives and somebody takes your seat anyways. But maybe being human can also mean forgiving that person after reflection, a month later, on your blog. I don't know. I'll probably never know for sure.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: Breaking down the success of superhero movies

Obviously, Jon Favreau's Iron Man has been a huge hit at the box office thus far, and it has done surprisingly well on imdb as well. Currently it is rated 8.3 and #133 on the top 250, but those numbers will drop after a few months like they always do with new movies.

I naturally began to wonder what specific factors lead these superhero movies to do well at the box office. I refined my search to movies within the past 6 years that feature one main superhero, which excludes X-Men are the Fantastic Four, as well as any wack older movies. Here's a chart with imdb's weighted rating (accessed May 13 on imdb) on the y-axis and total US gross box office numbers (found here) on the x-axis:

There's a definite correlation here, with a pretty high r squared of 0.356. But there are some deviations from the trend line. Hellboy made much less money based on what we'd expect from it's imdb rating (rated 6.7, grossed $59,000,000), while Spider-Man 3 made substantially more money than we'd expect (rated 6.6, grossed #$336,000,000).

Why did Spider-Man 3 make so much more? A quick glance at their demographics (found here and here) shows that Spider-Man 3 did much better in the category of females under 18. While they are not huge voters on imdb, experience tells us that young women go to the movies in droves. So here's a chart with females less than 18's ratings versus the total US gross box office numbers:

As you can see, there is a high correlation here as well (with an r squared of 0.399), although that is to be expected since females under 18 are one constituency of imdb's total votes. Although this chart tells us that we may be on the right track, what we are really looking for is the difference in ratings between females under 18 and the total ratings, versus the deviations from the trendline that we found in our first chart. We want to find out if the ratings of females under 18 can explain those deviations. So here's a chart:

While the r squared value of 0.177 is not as high here as in the previous two charts, it is more interesting because it's non-intuitive. Who would have thought that young girls would have such an impact on the box office numbers of movies based on comic book characters, which you would assume to be male-targeted audience? The other possibility is that the females under 18 on imdb are one of the only groups that don't self-censor their own ratings. Perhaps they vote based on their own levels of enjoyment instead of considering how others in the future will judge them.

The trendline in the first chart predicts that Iron Man will eventually gross $333 million. I would expect that the number will be a little bit lower because its rating will eventually drop from 8.3, and because females under 18 don't love it, giving it a 7.5. So my official guess is $300, up from its current total of $178 (million). Check back in a few months for the results of one of my first statistical predictions.

Monday, May 12, 2008

First good impressions

I'm throwing my hat into the ring of what makes a good teacher (as told by fellow UHS grads here and here), and I'm going to take the analysis one step further. I'm going to tell you the way you can tell if a teacher is going to be good from day one.

What you want from a teacher in the first class is for him or her to apologize. You want your teacher to say, "I'm going to do some things in this class that may annoy you, offend you, and otherwise make you mad. I know because when I have taught this before, I have received feedback from some people telling me so. But this is the way that will help you learn the material the best (because of x, y, and z), so I'm going to stick with it."

My biology teacher this semester apologized for seemingly half of our first class for any times in the future when he may offend us. I was sort of weirded out. He turned out to be funny most of the time and downright hilarious the rest, despite the class's early meeting time. I suppose he felt obligated to apologize because he had offended students in the past, but I would much rather listen to an apology one day than an exhibit in self-censorship for a whole semester.

In this era of, it is easy for a teacher to take the easy route and acquiesce to every individual complaint, even if it means that the majority of the students will be less well off. It's not hard to play it safe.

So if a teacher apologizes the first day for why he's not going to play it safe, I would stick around. You might just learn something after all.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Tuesday Statisticz: Music that makes countries rich, Part I

Alright, so the idea here was to look at the types of music that rich countries tend to listen to, without assuming too much causation but still looking for cool trends. I downloaded the 10 "Top Music" choices from different countries on Facebook's network page, only choosing networks with 100,000 plus members, because otherwise the top 10 lists aren't very representative. I found the GDP by country in 2007 here, and the population levels by country in 2007 here.

Unfortunately, I realized once I had aggregated all the data just how ambitious of a project this will be, and I'm unsure of exactly how to go about it. However, I didn't want to leave my loyal readers without anything, so I made a map on R of the countries who are included in my dataset. These are the countries that have 100,000 people in their facebook network, excluding Britian, Canada, and the US, whose networks are clustered into individual regions, making it impossible to determine their "Top Music" choices as a country. Here's the chart:

This map is fairly interesting to me in its own right. It seems that most of the international facebook use is clustered in Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America. I was particularly surprised to see that the "Russia" network had so few members, but maybe Putin threatened to kill anybody giving too much support to American institutions.

Anyways, check back next week for part 2. I'm excited.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Distance, Knowledge, and Information

Dario brings up a good question in the comments about when it is acceptable to say that you are from a given city:

"I propose a statute of limitations: if you reside within a 20 mile radius of the city limits of san francisco then you can claim it for the sake of simplicity -- if not then you must own up to your actual home, regardless of how much of a pain in the ass it is to explain."

This is a good idea, but I think it only takes into account one factor, when it should also take into account how likely it is that the person you are talking to will know the small city that you are from. Things that could influence this likelihood:

1) If you ask the other person where they are from first, and they respond that they are from an area close to where you live. So in my case, if somebody said they were from Berkeley I would probably I said that I lived in Marin, not SF. Southern Californians would also probably be a safe bet to know about Marin, while your average person from Poughkeepsie would not.

2) Age. The older they are (to a given point, like 100 or so, when Alzheimer's becomes almost inevitable), the more likely they are to have visited the area, and to know the relevant suburbs. This shouldn't show as strong of an effect as the other factors, however.

3) Perceived education/intelligence. Yes. There is some crazy statistic of Americans that can't place Iraq on a map, and if it looks like the person you are talking to may be one of them (good signs include clothing from Abercrombie and Fitch, and lots of hair product), you should probably stick to bigger cities. Or maybe you should just stick to states, or locations, like by the ocean. ("Oh, sweet").

4) Where you currently are when they ask you. If you are in Madrid and somebody asks you where you're from, you'll probably say "the US." (Or "Canada" if you're street-smart and don't mind channeling your inner Benedict Arnold.) If I was in San Rafael and somebody asked me where I was from, I'd definitely say Mill Valley.

So, there is an relationship between the likelihood that they will recognize the name of the cities and how far away from where you actual live is from the major city, that determines when and where it is acceptable to say that you are from the major city. That is a complicated sentence, but this is a complicated issue.

The main point is that there are a lot of factors to juggle, and it has to be done quickly, so to blindly point fingers at somebody for saying "San Francisco" when they technically should have said "Mill Valley" seems like fiddlesticks to me.

More blogging from teachers that have given me B-plusses

Bryan van Norden posting on Eric Schwitzgebel's experimental philosophy blog. He was my teacher for Problems in Philosophy the spring semester of last year. His policy of hardly ever giving out As, which was awesome, was the reason that I wrote last year about how highly I thought of the future of philosophy.

In this post, his practical advice to grad students interested in pre-Qin dynasty Chinese philosophy has fairly little relevance to me, but his larger point that you must devote yourself to large amounts of reading in order to be useful to your field is noteworthy.

I particularly liked his point that, "if you don't know the secondary literature and I do, how productive will my conversation with you be?" If you don't know the basic facts and haven't read the influential commentaries on a subject, there's little chance that you are going to come up with an opinion that will advance the discussion with somebody that has read the relevant secondary literature.

He also has a list of the ten most important people of the 20th century, which is a fun thought experiment. If I were to make a list, I might have tried to find room for John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and/or Milton Friedman, but I probably have a bias towards scientists.

Friday, May 2, 2008

May day, May day

You shouldn't be reading this post, you should be reading Ben Casnocha's blog and staying up. Foot to the pedal, nose full of burning oil, eyes watering from too much speed. I'm not kidding either. You really should be reading his blog.

But if you're still here, maybe you'll want to hear some stuff from this week that I've realized I hate:

1) When your teacher passes out a test and allows kids to start right away, only you're on the opposite side of the room so it doesn't get to you for forever. And if somebody makes the obvious suggestion that people should wait to start until everybody has a test, they are crucified. "What is this, the PSATs? Communist Russia?" No, you idiots, this is America. But we need a proper legislative system in place before we can conduct proper competition. You're conflating regulation with intervention.

2) Is there a reason that hipsters can't wear normal backpacks? I know that you're doing everything you can to be cool, but what's so conformist about a backpack? Honestly, I'm just confused. And really annoyed.

3) When I tell people that I'm from San Francisco, they happen to know the area well, and then get mad at me when it turns out that I technically live in Mill Valley. First of all, nobody knows where on earth Mill Valley is, and second of all, nobody likes you.