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.

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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.

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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.