Thursday, December 31, 2009

Behavioral fMRI Has No Clothes?

Jonah Lehrer in Wired on Dec 21 tells which brain regions activate in fMRI when physics and non-physics majors watch a falling ball:
[U]ndergraduates... watch a couple of short videos of two different-size balls falling... Galileo’s metal balls all landed at the exact same time — a refutation of Aristotle, who claimed that heavier objects fell faster. While the students were watching the footage, Dunbar asked them to select the more accurate representation of gravity... [U]ndergraduates without a physics background disagreed with Galileo.... [I]n an fMRI machine... showing non-physics majors the correct video triggered a particular pattern of brain activation... to the anterior cingulate cortex.... With physics majors... their education enabled them to see the error, and for them it was the inaccurate video that triggered the ACC...

When physics students saw the Aristotelian video with the aberrant balls, their DLPFCs kicked into gear and they quickly deleted the image from their consciousness.... However, when it comes to noticing anomalies, an efficient prefrontal cortex can actually be a serious liability. The DLPFC is constantly censoring the world, erasing facts from our experience. If the ACC is the “Oh shit!” circuit, the DLPFC is the Delete key. When the ACC and DLPFC “turn on together, people aren’t just noticing that something doesn’t look right,” Dunbar says. “They’re also inhibiting that information.” The lesson is that not all data is created equal in our mind’s eye: When it comes to interpreting our experiments, we see what we want to see and disregard the rest.
In my interview with Colin Marshall on Oct 23 I explained why exactly this doesn't make sense to me:
I have read about some research on human subjects making decisions and undergoing fMRI, but it doesn't make sense to me. Why does it matter that the PFC is lighting up but not the ACC in some given task? Surely it matters to some computational neuroscientist trying to falsify theories, but I can't grok the lay fascination with brain regions.
The experiment is fairly interesting, although it does support what we'd expect a priori, and some numerical group averages would be nice. But I still don't see what the fMRI data adds to it. Yes it's possible that the ACC activating at the same time as the DLPFC can correlate with specific behavioral outcomes, but how does this change our understanding of how people interpret data? It is well known that certain brain regions will activate consistently in certain tasks, and there is little reason that detecting errors in this ball watching paradigm should differ greatly from detecting errors in other paradigms.

Lehrer's article is high quality: so far it has been retweeted 860 times, and it was even discussed on OB, currently the best blog on the internet. But to me the fMRI stuff just seems like black box fluff. Why does it matter to Wired readers whether the brain activation occurs in Brodmann areas 46 and 24 as opposed to any others?

Addendum: See Bob's useful ideas in the comment section, causing me to see how some lay people could find this stuff interesting. I'm leaving the post as is, but with less confidence.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Eleven Fringe Ideas of 2009

There are a bunch of ideas kicking around in my cell phone's memos section that haven't yet made it onto AMTB. In the interest of entering 2010 with a "clean slate", I'm going to aggregate them here:

1) What does it mean to be good "on paper"? In job or school apps it means that you have an impressive resume but lack traits that are difficult to quantify, like interpersonal skills. In sports it means that a team has lots of big names but they either lack chemistry or are mostly past their primes. In "life," it means that you've got it all but for some reason still aren't satisfied. Being good "on paper" is especially troubling because it means that you'll consistently lose the expectation game.

2) Do self-serving biases make the world go round? One couple's experience in marriage therapy, as described in the NYT here, suggests that there may be some validity to my aphorism.

3) Similar to how you are more likely to see 1's than other digits in nature, you are more likely to see people starting than finishing books on airplanes. When I start books on airplanes I worry that my fellow passengers will assume that I am some nublar, which encourages me to plow through and get to a respectable page number quickly.

4) Would raising the speed limit and saying that you'll actually ticket people accomplish the laudable goal of allowing people to drive with the traffic and not break the limit? Or would it merely shift the equilibrium up?

5) Let's assume that people are bound to have status competitions over something. This is a reasonable assumption based on, say, the entire written record of humans in groups. If that's true, then competition over who can give the most to charity would be a good way of channeling this tendency and should be encouraged. I can see two plausible ways of doing so: a) Banning anonymous donations so that there is no expectation of or mechanism for counter-signaling, and b) Contractually delineating each family's donations each year in the local paper, possibly as a percentage of overall income.

6) Are micro delusions necessary for the self-serving bias as a whole? Meaning, is it possible to have clear eyes on a micro level but happily self-serving on a macro level? The evidence tentatively points to no: Clinically depressed people, who have the lowest group averages of self-serving biases, are less likely to fall victim to trivial delusions. Eek!

7) For 2008 one of my NYR's was to read 50 books. Full transperency: I only read 45. It's OK though, I still love myself. :)

8) Advice givers should be more cognisant of the shelf-life of their advice. That means communicating how long what they say will be relevant for, and the possibility that the world may have already changed since their first-hand experiences.

9) Eliezer Yudkowsky's line: "True dissent doesn't feel like going to school wearing all black, it feels like going to school wearing a clown suit." This would get its own quote of the day post, if I were lame enough to do that kind of stuff.

10) The less likely a phenomenon is to occur, the less likely it is that multiple factors contributed to it. This statement is true if the relevant factors are completely independent, but as the factors become more and more correlated the statement becomes less and less true. Those two sentences explain the various reactions to the 2008 meltdown very well, in my opinion.

11) Are young people really more able to change their mind? Via a blog comment on EconLog, Robin Hanson told Bryan Caplan that he was too old to change his mind about philosophy. Specifically he said, "People are a lot more impressionable about such things when young, which you aren't anymore." I'd love to see some data. A Psychological Science article mentions that, "adult learners often struggle to acquire any level of proficiency in a second language... constraints on L2 acquisition... have been hypothesized to result from a biologically sensitive period for language learning." But, the authors don't offer any data-oriented citations and anyway language learning is a specific skill, not necessarily relevant to the plasticity of opinions in general. If this is indeed a myth, it's a pervasive and dangerous one. And if it's not a myth, it seems to be an important trend to openly acknowledge.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Real Top Ten Movies of the Aughts

Using imdb's Bayesian scores:

10) The Departed, 2006. Factors: Star-studded cast with DiCaprio, Damon, Nicholson, and the elder Sheen combining to star in 7 other top 250 movies, plus Scorsese has directed 4; stole its plot from Infernal Affairs, another top 250 movie; some hilarious scenes, especially ones including Walberg and Baldwin; legitimate plot twists. Ratings-wise does well across the board and picks up the female vote. Have to assume that the love story angle helped it there.

9) Amélie, 2001. Factors: Very cute and romantic, with the rare female protagonist; French so more explicit than you might expect; flat out dominates the female vote, especially 18-29, but doesn't get betrayed by the male vote like Beauty and the Beast does.

8) Wall-E, 2008. Factors: Fits well into current technophobic apocalyptic dogma; sweet beginning with no dialogue; "fun for the whole family"; refreshingly short. Surprisingly, rated rather poorly by those aged 45+, especially females, who give it a measly 6.1.

7) LotR: Two Towers, 2002. Factors: Best fight scene of the decade in the last scene, with Legolas pulling off the coolest moves. Not surprising that males under 18 give this one the highest rating.

6) Memento, 2000. Factors: Sick topsy-turvy plot; eminently rewatchable; Chris Nolan directed (he kills it on imdb); confusing for non-movie watchers making it an "insiders club"; street cred for having a solid psychological basis (see patient HM, who also learned to do mirror writing); and great ending.

5) Avatar, 2009. Factors: Innovative 3D presentation; fits well within current environmental dogma; James Cameron directed (he quasi kills it on imdb as the director of 2 top 250 movies). This is a controversial pick as the rating is inflated because it just came out and the score will probably fall quite a bit. Wasn't sure what to do so it remains here for now.

4) LotR: Fellowship of the Ring, 2001. Factors: Best visuals of the trilogy and a rather scary scene when the hobbits first hide from the dark horses. Does quite well with females considering it's so action oriented--females 18-29 give it the highest ratings of any cohort.

3) City of God, 2002. Factors: Lots of violence and a long winding story with a sympathetic narrator. This movie went viral--countless people listed it as their favorite movie for a while in the mid-2000s. Of course the conformity theory makes no exceptions and now the public has generally cooled on it. But, the respect remains.

2) LotR: Return of the King, 2003. Factors: Visually impressive, plus a huge nerd following. Could have easily dissapointed (see Star Wars VI) but did not. Very polarizing, though, with 5.2% ratings of 1.

1) The Dark Knight, 2008. Factors: Heath Ledger's posthumous performance guarantees goosebumps; Chris Nolan directed (see #6); Batman Begins was top 100 so it has a strong pedigree, Christian Bale starring (he's in two other top 250 movies); and round two of a trilogy so execs OK'd the ambiguous ending. The perfect storm. Did not drop as much in score post-DVD as I thought it would, with demonstrated staying power into the next decade.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Rubbernecking and Curiosity

Let me be perfectly clear: Drivers attempting to gawk at the aftermath of a traffic incident can be dangerous. Wikipedia quotes a study finding that rubbernecking led to 16% of all "distraction related" auto accidents. Truly, that's too bad.

But imagine a world in which humans did not have the innate tendency to look to the side of the road. Imagine a world in which we weren't so curious about something for no instrumental reason.

I don't think we as a society would have advanced far. So many of our inventions have been due to chance, when unknown explorers sought uncharted territory. If you took away our insatiable curiosity, what else would we lose along with it?

So, as I rubberneck the rubberneckers one more time, I think to myself: Maybe this is a mistake. But all in all, the human tendency to want to know what is going on in the world is a good thing. And for that, I pay my respects to the blind god of natural selection.

(Thanks to Chris Whitney for a convo about this)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Prefer Distillation

Tyler Cowen argues that you should always read the original source of material that you are studying, and offers nine reasons for doing so. The phrase conspicuously absent from his post is "opportunity cost." In fact, I'll quote Tyler himself from Discover Your Own Economist to explain this beautifully,
We must ignore the carping of the sophisticates. Well-educated critics may claim that pictures cannot be ranked, value is multidimensional or subjective, or that such talk represent a totalizing, colonizing, possessive, postcapitalist, hegemonic Western imperalist approach. All of those missives are beside the point. When it comes to the arts, dealing with the scarcity of our attention is more important than anything, including respecting the artists.
Exactly: Ignore sophisticated bloggers who want to tell you what to do with your scare attention! Read the Wikipedia pages or Spark Notes of famous thinkers whenever possible. If a book is truly ranked high, then you should maybe consider reading it. Otherwise, hail the modern distilling process, and only settle for the highly vaporizable stuff that reaches chamber #8:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Seeing Selection Biases, Not Treatment Effects

I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not but this is how my views typically diverge from the views of others: Where others see are more likely to see treatment effects, I am more likely to see selection biases.

Let's consider sports. A basketball team has just won four games in a row, and they are winning the first half of a fifth. The talking heads during the halftime show are talking about how they are using their "momentum." Basically they are arguing that the collective confidence advantage (i.e., the treatment effect) from winning the first four games is what is allowing them to win the fifth.

I admit that this might be a very slight factor. But much more important to me is the selection bias that comes from having won those first four games: They must have been doing something right! They probably had good players, a good strategy, or something else going for them. Maybe, in the case of the NBA, they have been paying off the refs.

There are of course different forms of treatment effects and selection biases. Hypothetically a Bayesian truth-seeker shouldn't "usually" stand on one side or the other, but I tend to weigh the selection bias much more than most folks, and I wonder why that is. Where do you stand?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

An Open Letter to the President of the United States

Greetings Mr. Obama,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to sound off about open access to scientific research, a subject that I consider near and dear to my heart. I know that you are planning on boosting public R&D funding up to 3% of US GDP, which is an effort that I laud. The following are some thoughts that I think could help scientific progress without spending much additional money:

1) All data should be made completely public, in simple text format, so that it can be easily used with the best open access statistical software, R. This is not being discussed but it would be a non-trivial improvement. It will make meta analyses about a million times more effective and trustworthy (p<0.0001), and it will improve the pace of science via crowdsourcing. Suddenly everyone with internet access and half a brain will be able to contribute to science. Many scientists themselves are unlikely to support this--it would decrease barriers to access and thus hurt the mystique and possibly prestige of scientists. Be not weary of the ruthless hand of creative destruction, lest ye fail to grab the low hanging fruit.

2) Somehow, posting science info to Wikipedia should be incentived to yield higher social status, especially within academic circles. There are huge positive externalities. Scholarpedia has some OK article but it smacks of unnecessary elitism. Perhaps NIH funding and promotion decisions could be made in part by looking at the Wikipedia update history of the applicant, in addition to more formal publications. Uni's would likely follow suit.

3) All publically-funded research, and moreover research from any source that will be considered reputable, must be registered *before* it begins. In this way null results or fangled results due to high intrasubject variance are to be taken just as seriously as positive results, and published somewhere on the web with a link from the central depository of PubMed. Viola, no more publication bias.

4) It should be made more explicit what bloggers are allowed to reproduce on their websites. This is an issue I worry about on Brains Lab and it's a dumb one--I shouldn't have to waste any mental effort on it. PLOS One's model is money. Everyone should be able to take figures and reproduce them if the funding for the research came from a public source. Private sources should of course not be forced to do this, but they should be shunned and possibly blacklisted for their insolence.

5) In the ideal world, non-national security-dependent research would be made public right away so that the world could begin reacting to it without the distilling process. In the world we live in, it should be made public at the latest six months after its publication, following the Journal of Neuroscience method. Voluntary encouragement to self-archive articles doesn't work... only about 15% of scientists comply. If it is mandated 95% comply. Fact is, creative destruction is a beautiful thing. If a business model is no longer viable or necessary, then that's all there is to it.

Yours Affectionately,

Andrew Thomas McKenzie

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Most Interesting Sections of Year in Ideas

I've read this for three years now and it's perennially my favorite "best of" list, surpassing any list of books, video games, or movies. Here is the 2009 edition. These were the best ones:
  • cognitive illiberalism,
  • (the) cul de sac ban (no safer and causes more traffic congestion),
  • drunken ultimatums,
  • forensic polling analysis (by this point it should be common knowledge that if you want to create false numbers, use a random number generator),
  • guilty robots,
  • killer earth (agree that we do not want to go "back to nature"!),
  • lithium in the water supply,
  • man made greenery (let's celebrate the diversity of approaches to geoengineering!),
  • (the) myth of the deficient older employee,
  • printable batteries (small but efficient batteries--which this is a step towards--will be the biggest invention of the next 20 years),
  • random promotions,
  • resomation,
  • (the) sound cannon, and
  • weapons of mosquito destruction
The best one overall is "massively collaborative mathematics." Basically, some mathematician posted a tough math theorem on his blog and, 1000+ comments later, it was proven. Crowdsourcing needs to become the name of the game in every scientific endeavor. There's too many smart, educated people out there wasting their time with nothing better to do. More on this to come.

Friday, December 11, 2009

What's Your Probability of 2.5° C Warming?

Phil at Statistical Modeling asks everyone to get a little bit more quantitative about their estimates of global warming. He suggests:
Maybe we should start characterizing people by a single number... What probability do you assign to the following statement: increasing the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration above 800 ppm will change the global average surface temperature by more than 2.5 degrees C (4.5 F)? This would imply a climate sensitivity somewhat below the extreme low end of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is credible... I've chosen 800ppm, which is a bit less than triple the pre-industrial level. It's likely that we're going to zoom right past 800ppm, too.
His number is 90%. Unfortunately the question is slightly incomplete because he doesn't include a deadline. Here are a few possibilities for the deadline: 1 year after we pass 800 ppm, 10 years after we pass 800 ppm, or 30 years after we pass 800 ppm. This would be a "last chance" deadline. Meaning, if the global average temperature increased by more than 2.5° C before then, that would count too. The global average temperature in 2008 was 14.3° C according to the UK's Met; a Google search of this took way too long to find the answer to such a simple question due to the hackery and charts of "temperature anamolies."

Hmm... so let's take the 10 years past 800 ppm deadline for checking to see if global temps have risen. Here's my probability, then: 20%. This is poorly calibrated, but I don't like the idea of either going higher or lower, so I'm sticking with it. Note also that I still favor higher prices for fossil fuels via a revenue-neutral carbon tax. I don't support subsidies, cap-and-trade, or other measures that epitomize the tryanny of the minority over the majority. In an ideal world, we would vote on values, but bet on these kinds of beliefs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Explanation of the Flynn Effect

From the NYT's bits blog:
[T]he average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words of information in a single day... This doesn’t mean we read 100,000 words a day — it means that 100,000 words cross our eyes and ears in a single 24-hour period. That information comes through various channels, including the television, radio, the Web, text messages and video games... [O]n average, most Americans consume 11.8 hours of information a day... Overall, from 1980 to 2008, the number of bytes we consume has increased 6 percent each year, the researchers said, adding up to a 350 percent increase over 28 years.
Given that most of us are only awake for 16-18 hours a day, it is hard to imagine adding more than 4-6 hours more of bit consumption per day. There have been recent suggestions that memories can be strengthened during sleep, but the effect sizes in that procedure are modest--an improvement in object placement accuracy from a deviation of 1.23 +/- 0.10 cm without the sound cues during sleep to 1.07 +/- 0.08 cm with them.

So, eventually the only way to increase our overall bit consumption will be to improve in its efficiency. And increasing efficiency of bit consumption probably means finding some method more efficient than reading. Of course, that's assuming that increasing overall bit consumption is a goal for many of us. And a preference utilitarian who looked at this massive increase in consumption would have to assume that it is. Actions speak louder than words.

(HT to Larry for the story)

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Unorthodox RSS Feeds I've Been Reading

The RSS invasion is upon us. More and more people are realizing every day that it doesn't make sense to visit any other websites when you can read it all from the comfort of your feed reader. One pervasive but misguided assumption remains that your only option for RSS subscriptions comes in the form of blogs. Oh no, my friend. You are mistaken.

In the interest of reversing this myth, here are my four favorite RSS feeds from non-blog sources:
  • Ben Casnocha's feed. Many of his astute blog posts come from here first, so you will feel smart and informed when you already know what he's talking about.
  • Cleaveland Clinic Journal of Medicine PubMed feed. Most of these are highly specific and the feed doesn't update much, but every now and then there is a legitimate must-read, like this one about public data reporting at hospitals. Very quant, plus all of the articles are free.
  • Colin Marshall's twitter feed. As I said in my interview with Colin, it's possible that he's a better tweeter than blogger, and that's saying something. I especially like when he defines a previously ambiguous word. For example, "Procrastination: the temporary displacement of tasks at which it is possible to fail with tasks at which it is not possible to fail."
  • Robin Hanson's LessWrong comment feed. This one is tricky because he is replying to someone else's writing and context is sometimes hard to pick up. But for OB fans it's a must, and there are some money quotes, like, "Conversation is a highly evolved system and random changes are usually for the worse."
Let me know if you know of any good unorthodox RSS feeds.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

How to Read Books

Non-classical Top 1000 Amazon Reviewer Irfan Alvi reviews Rong Fan's How We Read here and offers bullet points of the best advice he found from the book. In order to further condense the knowledge, here are what I consider the key points from his review of the book I haven't yet read:
3. Since time is limited, choose books very carefully. Books of intermediate size, written by a single expert author, are often best. Use resources like Amazon to help find suitable books (since you're reading this review, you already know that).

6. Mastering the general principles of a subject is more important than remembering details, so read accordingly. For this purpose, read introductory chapters and paragraphs very carefully.

9. Take regular breaks during your reading sessions, even if you'd rather push on. Allow longer reading sessions for more complex topics.

12. Don't bother with speed-reading. Read at the proper pace to learn well, with slower usually being better.

21. Recognize that reading must be balanced with hands-on experience. Reading informs experience so that more is gained from experience, but reading is never a substitute for experience. For that matter, balance reading and experience with other aspects of your life, including rest and recreation. In other words, don't become a bookworm.
I just happened upon Irfan's reviews of books, and they're awesome--he clearly knows how to read books quite well himself. Here he reviews Secrets of a Buccanner-Scholar (and offers a defence of academia), here he reviews How Doctors Think (huge uncertainty means medicine is not a science), and here he reviews Creativity in Science, which is the best book I read all year.

Here he reviews Quantum Enigma and trashes it (correctly, from my opinion on QM and consciousness), but still gives it three stars! This indicates that you need to be fairly positive about a book even when you don't like it to get to the top 1000 reviewers. And it is more evidence for why Amazon needs to go to a ten star system--the five stars just aren't enough to fully indicate one's opinion.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Six Thoughts From Maine

1) In our car ride on the way up to Maine from school the convo was lively, but on the way back it was dead. This makes sense in terms of excitedness--people were looking forward to seeing family and relaxing over break but not to returning to the humdrum of school work. When people are excited they will talk more. This is helpful to watch for if you're trying to gauge the atmosphere in a room.

2) If you go to a barn party, bring a jacket because the insulation will be awful.

3) If you're in a bad mood one of the worst things that can happen is to be made fun of in front of a group of people. When this happens to you, the ones you will be most annoyed with are not those who actually are saying the joke but the others around who are "merely" laughing. As if they were innocent!

4) Are the lyrics to Phoenix's song 1901 "fall in" or "fold it" during the chorus? The first Google results give are mixed, indicating a lively debate. The real answer is "ballin'." Listen for yourself; they couldn't be singing anything else. The word is out of place but the band seems hipster enough to pull it off.

5) Hypothesis: Cops don't want to pull anyone over when it's raining.

6) Eastwood's Changeling (2008, #226) is a classic example of how it doesn't matter to the state whether the child has a biological relationship to the parent but it usually matters a great deal to the parent. The LAPD says, "Mrs. Collins, he has nowhere else to go." Mrs. Collins says, "Fuck them, and the horse they came in on." Thus it is an especially relevant movie for the recent push for mandatory paternity testing, as it represents an example of state-sponsored cuckoldry from the female perspective instead of the more typical male perspective.

(Thanks to Max, Brian, and Nick for stimulating conversations about these)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Personal vs Objective Rating Systems

Colin Marshall muses:
Me brains cannot compute the concept that how much I liked a film — or a book, or an album, or whatever — and how good it "really is" could be two distinct values. How much do I like Maborosi? I find it pretty much perfect. But how good is it? Well, pretty much perfect. That's why I called it that three sentences ago.
This is something I grapple with too. In my opinion the most accurate rating of a movie is the like-minded crowd's opinion, the closest approximation of which can currently be found on imdb. But I also rate movies with my own scores, which shouldn't be necessary if imdb's are the true ratings.

Here is my working definition. Imdb's scores are still the current accurate rating of how good a movie is. When somebody asks me whether a movie I have seen is good, I don't tell them my personal opinion because I recognize that I am probably biased. I tell them its score on imdb.

However, I am also willing to admit that imdb's ratings are not perfect--they are just currently the best. So I will speculate on which movies are underrated / overrated on imdb. And to do that, I rely on my own opinion. I define the most overrated movies by the ones that have the greatest negative deviation between my own score and imdb's score. By that metric, currently Crash, Slumdog Millionaire, The Apartment, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Escape, The Hangover, Gran Torino, and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) are the most overrated movies ever.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Praise of Appreciative Thinking

In my psychology seminar last week my group and I presented three computational models for how attention could lead to consciousness. Based on the papers we assigned, one of them had strong support from the data (Taylor's CODAM), one of them had medium data-based support (Wang's LEABRA, small amount of data given via Figure 3 here), and one had little to no support from data (Cavanna's figure 1 here, the "ascending reticular activating system"). We asked the thirteen other students to rank the models at the beginning of the class, with 1 being the best. Taylor's model was ranked last, with an average rank of 2.21, Wang's was second best, with an average rank of 2.07, and Cavanna's was considered the best, with an average rank of 1.71. So, there was an inverse relationship between the amount of data presented for a model and how much people preferred it.

This is one example, but it's indicative of a larger trend I've noticed throughout my classes at Vassar. I notice it in myself, too, but it's something I'm trying to work against. It's that all the students here are so critical of every study or claim that they hear or read, and are unwilling to be convinced by more data. You can't blame them. It's probably what everyone has told them to do their whole lives: be critical of everything you read, don't trust statistics, etc. The better advice would be to simply try to gauge the veracity and utility of any individual claim based on the data you are given and your prior beliefs about the possible bias of the data source.

As compared to the theoretically optimal equilibrium of critical versus appreciative thinking, our marketplace of ideas has swung much too far towards the critical side. If people are critical of every new idea they encounter, all that will do is bias them towards favoring the status quo or the null hypothesis. I blame the market failure on our social norms: being critical is too often viewed as automatically synonymous with correct. So let's change those social norms... One blog reader at a time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Job Security as Motivation

"Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired." - Peter Gibbons, Office Space

So much of the behavior of people in various professions makes more sense once you assume that their goal is not to do succeed, but simply to keep their job. For example,
  • Football coaches don't want to win games, they just want to keep their jobs. So, they don't take as many risks (i.e., going for it on fourth down) as they should. Rationally, they are afraid of the kind of backlash that Belicheck is getting right now for his correct decision to go for it.
  • Referees don't care about actually being unbiased, they just want to appear unbiased, so that they can keep their jobs. This explains some of their odd behaviors.
  • Politicians pander to the desires of the median voter not because they want to represent the people's best interests because they want to get re-elected, gain more power, and keep their jobs.
  • Professors, especially untenured ones, don't really care if their students learn much, they just want to get good student ratings at the end of the semester. This way they will do better when it comes to evaluation time, which lowers the probability that they will lose their job.
People who work for themselves shouldn't have this problem, but most do because they will have to pitch their products to consumers who will often judge them on how conventional they are. Perhaps the only ones in society that we can trust to actually say what they think are old people.

Can you think of any other examples?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fruits of Tinkering With Nature

Michael Chorost has an interesting article on the short history of optogenetics. In it he describes the work of Peter Hegemann, a biologist who studied the green algae in the 1990's that led to the discovery of the light-gated ion channel, channelrhodopsin. As Chorost describes it,
Under a microscope, the cell looks like a little football with a tail. When the organism is exposed to light, its tail wags madly, moving the cell forward.... This was good, solid cell research. Fascinating little machines! But completely useless fascinating little machines. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that scientists figured out how they might be put to use.
The research that led to optogenetics is a good example of how hard it is to tell whether or not a given line of inquiry will be "useful." Researchers can't know which experiments will be useful with a high degree of certainty prior to their execution. If they did, there would be no reason to even run them. Restricting research to only a "useful" subset takes away scientist's creativity in behavioral experiments, without which, progress will inevitably slow down.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Interview with Cormac McCarthy

He doesn't give many. You can find this one here, but I'll entice you with a few of the choice quotes. On travel:
I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That's heaven. That's gold and anything else is just a waste of time.
On less demanding forms of writing:
I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.
On the future of cultural studies:
Well, I don't know what of our culture is going to survive, or if we survive. If you look at the Greek plays, they're really good. And there's just a handful of them. Well, how good would they be if there were 2,500 of them? But that's the future looking back at us. Anything you can think of, there's going to be millions of them. Just the sheer number of things will devalue them. I don't care whether it's art, literature, poetry or drama, whatever. The sheer volume of it will wash it out. I mean, if you had thousands of Greek plays to read, would they be that good? I don't think so.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nine EYRGBHTV thoughts

The recent diavlog between Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robert Greene, found here, was a pleasure to watch. Both of them are intellectual and Greene is actually more willing than Eliezer to consider his own biases when prefacing a statement, which is impressive. I actually wish the subject matter had been slightly different, and Eliezer went off a little bit too much of a tangent while discussing his views on censorship in online communities, but overall their interaction was great. Here are my thoughts:

1) Greene says that as we have moved through history power has become more and more splintered. Now there is an opportunity for anyone to have power and affect the world, such that the ethos around stoicism and meekness that previously dominated the world have become less relevant.

2) Greene would rather have power than happiness, because happiness is fleeting and unremitting. True happiness comes only from continuing to seek victory in the various battles in life. Having power without wanting to act on it is in his conception a sin. His philosophy is a complete acceptance of the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation and of the pursuit of flow as the only appropriate response to an uncertain world. In many ways it stands in stark opposition to Buddhism. It is nice to see this reasonable position explicated sincerely and consistently.

3) The 50th law is all about how you must not be afraid to lose what you have. In Colin Marshall's terms, you must cultivate risk tolerance. Eliezer said that the best piece of advice he got from the book is "always attack before you're ready," because people often never feel that they are ready to accomplish their goals. Like Fifty, you must have the risk tolerance to be willing to abandon your sense of security.

4) Greene considers himself a detective, searching for the great story that he has in his mind. He's persistent and is willing to put in time to get what he wants. Eliezer wishes there was a secret to his success, but of course there isn't! TINSTAAFL. This is kind of like when people ask for advice in school or on tests. The fact that you're asking is a good sign, but of course you already know the answer. Hard work. As happened to Greene, it is possible to come to enjoy this work. It can be addictive.

5) Eliezer states that his life is focused on the truth, but recognizes that there are other people out there with other goals, for example people interested in stories or in competition of some form. Greene is at first unwilling to answer what precisely his goal in life is, but later on he explains that his life is all about reality, accepting it and embracing it face on. Neither of them are interested in delusions from the mainstream media or in pretty lies. This seems to be a common trait in interesting thinkers.

6) With respect to censorship, Eliezer recognizes that it's tough to keep a lively debate without being willing to tolerate a few stupid comments now and then, but if you allow too many of them then you will allow too many trolls to seep in to your community. Greene says that the art of being a leader is having these kind of feelings or gut instincts and being willing to act on them.

7) Eliezer says that the basic ability to distinguish between good arguments and bad arguments is a key skill of rationality. Sometimes I think that he is too willing to broaden his core tenets of rationality too wide, and that he should maybe refer to the twelve virtues more often, which remains in my opinion his best work and most concise mission statement.

8) Eliezer says, "The difference between technical problems and political problems is that technical problems are solvable." Amen. He then argues that the way to solve political problems is to turn political problems into technical problems. I think that in the interest of the division of labor the best approach to political problems for the technically-minded is simply to avoid them.

9) Eliezer notes that Greene can get both the "good" audience and the "evil" audience by presenting the laws of power without actually saying that he believes in them or not. Greene says that he is "sincere" about what he writes but then backtracks and says that he exaggerates at times and is tongue-in-cheek at other times. It is hard to say what Greene "really" thinks, but we do get one clue from this dialogue: Greene at one point says "sorry" when he and Eliezer both say something at the same time. Surely he knows that apologizing for no good reason is, for better or worse, an indication of weakness. What this small incident tells me is that, although he may not be willing to admit it, Greene is ultimately an observer into the world of power, much like Machiavelli. Instead of respecting him less, this actually makes me respect him more, as a pure intellectual. There is value in telling it how it is without necessarily acting upon such a worldview oneself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Variation in Sports Highlights

Now that the NBA season has started and I have easy access to cable, I've been watching some Sportscenter. I love the highlights, but there's so little suspense, because basically you know that every shot they show is going to go in. They should throw in some missed shots, like 10% of the time, just so that the viewers are still a little bit on their toes.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No Big Deal, Just the "Name Ease" Effect

A study from Psychological Science:
We demonstrate that merely naming a research finding elicits feelings of ease (a "name-ease" effect). These feelings of ease can reduce or enhance the finding's perceived importance depending on whether people are making inferences about how understandable or how memorable the finding is. When people assess their understanding of a finding, feelings of ease reduce the finding's perceived importance. This is because people usually invest effort to understand important information but also mistakenly infer the reverse—namely, that information that requires effort to be understood is important. In contrast, when people assess the memorability of a finding, feelings of ease increase the finding's perceived importance. Because people usually recall important information easily, in this case they equate ease with importance.
Other parts that increase feelings of ease in understanding some phenomenon is if the visual features are clear, the vocab is simple, and the word is easy to pronounce.

Of the blogs I read, MR has the most "messy" visual look to it--a small header, an awkwardly large center section and cluttered sidebars with content asymmetrically distributed. Maybe this keeps people on their toes when they are reading it. Perhaps because it is more of a challenge it makes it more fun for people who self-select as smart enough to read it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Arnold Kling is On Fire

The past few months the blogosphere has been quietly dominated by one blogger, Mr. Kling. He built up his insider credibility with technical posts on the insidiousness of derivatives and the futility of macro textbooks. Recently he has delved into the affairs of the common person. Here are three of his main themes from the past few months if you haven't been reading:

1) The elite is out of control. The Fed's actions of late can only be explained if "you think of their goal as transferring wealth from taxpayers to banks." The elite might kill entrepreneurship by making it an exercise in getting the gov's money, as he explains here. On elitism in general, he says that "I believe that I belong to an elite class of individuals who is capable of handling very difficult academic subjects. I would not go farther than that. In particular, I would not say that this class of individuals ought to have lots of political power. On the contrary, I see mostly harm in the way that educated elites have exercised power, from The Best and the Brightest in Vietnam through the current economic crisis." That line about academic success really resonates with me because my own middling success is basically the only tangible thing I have to offer the world thus far. Overall, he favors ruling by "an elite with humility."

2) The US will soon face a crisis to pay its debts. Here he says that "we have merely pivoted from a banking crisis to a government debt crisis." Although other countries may go into debt too, that will not save us. Here, he defines a large unanticipated inflation as equivalent to a default. Borrowing off of the example of California, he says here that "at some point, borrowing in the market becomes prohibitively costly," and that the gov may have to take steps that would today be considered political suicide. Here is his imaginary conversation with the financial markets, where he notes his worry that although he has bets against inflation, it is difficult to hedge against the political risk that would come following a debt crisis. Finally, here are the various scenarios that could play out for resolving US indebtedness, with the probability weightings he assigns for each.

3) Status seeking is pervasive. Robin Hanson talks about this now and then on OB and when he does he means business, but Kling discusses it all the time now. It has invaded his thought processes like a misfolded prion protein. He sees college as merely ultimate status good for the parents of graduating high school seniors, who want to associate with other high status parents. He considers the current healthcare bill as the opportunity for Dems to offend as few people as possible and eat all the desert they can, thus raising their status. Once they've lost their majority they will invite the Repubs in to make tough decisions and take credit for the spinach. Here he speculates that changing people's minds is so hard because it requires them to acknowledge a loss of status. Most people do not take pleasure in realizing their own errors as they should from a truth seeking perspective.

When you read a blogger for months and years every day, he/she changes the way you think. For better or worse, in Arnold I trust.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coolness Emphasizes Short Run Over Long Run

There are many paradoxes of high school/college-land. Most of these involve the interplay between wildly reckless acts on the weekends followed by reasonably hard work during the week. For example, binge drinking. Or, despite the fact that individuals age 15-24 are only 14% of the US pop, they account for ~29% of the costs of motor vehicle accidents. The risk of accidents increases with additional teen passengers in the car.

I think that the reason that risky behaviors are favored by the 15-24 year old age group is because they are cooler. This is the simplest explanation and is probably what anyone in that age group would tell you. Why are they cooler? Cool things emphasize short run outcomes over long term outcomes. For example,

Cool things: Getting in fights, extreme sports, opening beer bottles with your teeth, binge drinking, cramming for tests, throwing a party at your parent's house when they're away, smoking cigarettes, "running into" someone (as opposed to "meeting up"), driving fast on drugs, etc.

Not cool things: Studying hard for a test well in advance of it, developing your personal brand, complaining (may help you get your way in long run but annoying in short), drinking a glass of water in between drinks of alcohol, diversifying your stocks, liking math, working on your fundamentals in sports, etc.

The way to tell if something is cool is whether or not people who care about being cool would brag about having done it. The best example is getting a tattoo. You can get temporary tattoos like henna that will last up to a month. But since this is only temporary it doesn't really emphasize the short run over the long run like a real tattoo does. Older people will often tell you not to get real tattoos, which is a good sign that it is cool.

So, being cool is a signal to your peers that your chief priority is to have fun and enjoy yourself in the current moment as opposed to the future. The more the act emphasizes the short run over the long run, the more credible the signal is that you will be fun to hang around. Perhaps you think that this is a worthless goal and that everyone should spend less time trying to be cool. But if that's your immediate reaction, you yourself probably aren't very cool.

This is my favored explanation, but there are others. For example,

Impressiveness: Committing reckless acts and still succeeding in conventional activities like work and school is harder than simply succeeding in those conventional activities. Thus everyone loves to say that they "work hard and party hard." Similar to how celebrations in sports are looked down upon because it is harder to not celebrate.

Recklessness: A willingness to fight is an evolutionarily stable strategy that has been exapted into our culture. Perhaps all of these cool things really just signal recklessness which indicates a willingness to fight. This is Kevin's idea.

Feel free to take potshots at the theory and/or propose your own.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

WWI Hysterical Walking Symptoms

This video in five parts shows some footage of British soldiers returning from the front in 1917 with ailments that appear to be largely psychological. Part 3 of 5 is the most interesting. I never thought I would be so impressed to see people walking normally.

Most of the former soldiers in the video returned to jobs that include manual labor or rote skills, such as farming or basket weaving. In the economy today such jobs are becoming more rare. I guess it's not so surprising that the world has changed in the last 82 years.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Randian Reading of the Merchant of Venice

Given the uproar over the bonuses doled out to bank executives at firms the government bailed out with taxpayer money, there has perhaps never been a more appropriate time to discuss Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In the play Shylock is ridiculed because he lends money with the explicit intention of turning a profit on the transaction. For this apparent transgression, Antonio implies that Shylock is “a villain with a smiling cheek,“ and that he intends to “spit on thee again, to spurn thee too” (I.iii.100, I.ii.131).

But Shylock’s plan to charge interest on his loans makes solid business sense in the long run: some of his loans will inevitably default and he must be compensated for the risk, or his business will fail. It is not surprising that such logic escapes Antonio, because he himself is an awful businessman, failing to diversify his assets or have a contingency plan in case his ships wreck. His case is reminiscent of the investment bankers of modern times who lost oodles of money on exotic investments, only to be quickly and quietly bailed out, except with Hank Paulson playing the role of Portia.

Paradoxically, the prudent investor Shylock is the sole loser at the end of the play. Likewise, the prudent investor today who was not the recipient of government intervention is likely to get the short end of the stick once the government is forced to repay its vast accumulated debts. The world may never understand that the risk of failure in any loan or investment is real and taking steps to hedge against it is not amoral, but wise.

A Randian reading might also view Shylock's decision to turn down the extra ducats in the trial scene as evidence that due to his frustration with the "looters" he has decided to "go Galt," and teach the town a lesson once and for all.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Case Study in Secret Telling: Tim Donaghy

The former NBA referee has written some remarks about the biases of NBA refs, that, if true, would be quite damning. Apparently some refs bet on who would be the first to call a technical foul in a given game! More troublesome are the systematic biases, like the favorable treatment of Kobe or pushing a playoff series to seven games on purpose. But are his allegations likely to be true? Let's evaluate the evidence:

In Donaghy's favor: The details he lists seem too exhaustive and specific to be completely fabricated; Heat-Mavs, 2006 finals; former FBI agent Philip Scala's endorsement; the fact that the NBA has a huge public relations incentive to make his allegations appear false; if any of the specific allegations he made could be proven false it would be a huge blow to him, yet none of them have been.

Against Donaghy: Random House/Triump books canceled publication of his book after an apparently independent review process; the NBA denies his allegations; he stands to make a profit from book sales and potentially a higher profit if the claims are more outrageous; if "everyone was doing it" then he looks less bad to the public in comparison; the NBA claims that the FBI found no other "criminal conduct" among other referees in its review, although some of the stuff he alleges may not be criminal per se as much as it would be unfair.

When Jose Canseco made his allegations about steroids in baseball they were at least verifiable in the long run, as players could recieve blood tests for steroids. Donaghy's biggest problem seems to be that he has no similar way to prove his points--unless he can convince other referees who also have an in to corroborate them.

Tim Donaghy could either represent a case study in libel or a case study in how a large group (i.e., the NBA admin) could keep a secret. I think it is more likely the latter with a probability of about 80%. So I'd bet 4-1 that yes, most of what he says is true, if you could find some way of verifying it. If he is indeed telling the truth, the fact that Random House canceled publication of his book shows how defecting from the group and revealing a secret via a tell-all book is much harder in practice than in theory. Telling a secret really is hard. This makes other conspiracy theories seem more likely, too.

Monday, October 26, 2009

First Person Shooters Help You See Better

This makes sense:
Playing action games Call of Duty 2 or Unreal Tournament 2004 improved contrast sensitivity, whereas playing Sims 2 (non-action game) for the same amount of time did not. Test subjects played 50 hours over 9 weeks.

At the end of the training, the students who played the action games showed an average 43% improvement in their ability to discern close shades of gray—close to the difference she had previously observed between game players and non-game [58%] players—whereas the Sims players showed none.
This could even explain why surgeons who play video games currently or who have in the past have been shown in one study to be better, faster, and more accurate than surgeons who have not.

In Everything Bad is Good For You, Johnson points out that the Sims provides more of a cognitive challenge than violent games, and that it usually tops the best-seller lists. He argues that this is because people want to stimulate their brain with more complexity. So, do you want to train your visual or cognitive processes? Your call.

(Thanks to Eide Neurolearning for the pointer.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Double-Barreled Interview with Colin Marshall

Colin Marshall is a veritable maven, with an impressive array of talents:

He recently asked me to do a text-based interview and he's posted the final product here. Some of the topics we touch on are his icons, efforts at mixing art and science, risk-taking, how to most effectively watch movies, and our relationships to former blogger selves. Pop some polyunsaturated omega-3's, pour yourself a glass of thick chocolate milk, and have at it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pandora's Blind Rating System

Rob Walker explains the method to their madness. A couple of interesting quotes. First,
Pandora’s approach more or less ignores the crowd. It is indifferent to the possibility that any given piece of music in its system might become a hit. The idea is to figure out what you like, not what a market might like. More interesting, the idea is that the taste of your cool friends, your peers, the traditional music critics, big-label talent scouts and the latest influential music blog are all equally irrelevant. That’s all cultural information, not musical information. And theoretically at least, Pandora’s approach distances music-liking from the cultural information that generally attaches to it.
Individual's opinions on movies or songs are so noisy and biased that it doesn't make sense to put too much weight on any individual one. Must better to trust the algorithm and/or trust a large group of independent raters.

Then, Walker discusses the founder's gross understanding of the conformity theory, which he calls a "popularity contest." As he explains it,
Westergren is similarly unimpressed by hipster blogs or other theoretically grass-roots influencers of musical taste, for their tendency to turn on artists who commit the crime of being too popular; in his view that’s just snobbery, based on social jockeying that has nothing to do with music. In various conversations, he defended Coldplay and Rob Thomas, among others, as victims of cool-taste prejudice.
Once something is mainstream, it loses lots of cred with the in-crowd. This doesn't work me into a vitriol like it apparently does for Westergren. I frankly don't care that sociocultural determinism is the name of the game, and in many senses it's actually a Nash equilibrium. As I wrote two years ago, keeping up with the cool kids can't be easy, otherwise everybody would be cool.

A few other notes on their system. It seems like they use a 5 point system for each category, but work on the 0.5 scale, which works out the same as the 10 point scale that seems to be the best.

The article at one point discusses the apparent conundrum that you must listen to a song repetitively before you like it, but after enough listening, you will become annoyed. This seems like sensitization to the song at first and then habituation.

Finally, it's good to know that human coders are better than machines at coding the overall context of songs. We may still have jobs after the robot apocalypse, after all.


You can tell if someone is a true Pandora fan by their reaction to the 40 hour rule, after which you have to pay one dollar to continue listening for the rest of the month. If you don't know about it, you're not a true fan. Sorry. At the beginning of months I used to tried to ration myself, but the anxiety it produced wasn't worth the cost. Now I rationalize paying my $1/month fee as pride for supporting the music industry.


My go-to Pandora station is Explosions in the Sky. It didn't have many songs with lyrics on it to begin with and I've now downvoted all of them out so that I can read in peace. The best song that I've found through listening to it is "The Cat That Went to War" by Breaking the Cage, and second best is "Olson" by Boards of Canada. Take that with a sociocultural pinch of salt.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Merlin Mann and Colin Marshall on Social Media

I finally got around to listening to their interesting Marketplace of Ideas podcast, which you can find here (ctrl-f "Mann" and the download button). I highly recommend it if you have about an hour to dedicate. First of all, it touches on the perils of social media without mindfulness. I agree that as a society we do have to be carefully of what social norms we are sleepwalking into. A few other ideas I found particularly from the podcast:
  • Instead of a statute of limitations, Colin thinks he can give away spoilers to movies without feeling bad because if the plot relies too much on the narrative then it's not good enough to begin with. I actually sort of disagree with him here, not theoretically but just empirically.
  • It's almost impossible to trace back to exactly where an idea originated from.
  • When anyone is telling you an emotional story you have to watch out for what they're trying to get out of it. If they're actually interested in telling you a story, then that's fine. But if it seems that they're just looking to be profitable, then be careful.
  • Blogs started out as personal publishing made easy. By mid-2000s you could make a lot of money from a blog by posting often every day. You need to post a lot and get people look at as many pages as possible because those ads are how you get paid. Mann decided he didn't want to have to be an ad salesman for the rest of his life, to make money posting whatever for whoever. Apparently people reading blogs mainly just want something to distract them for a little while.
Tons of other mind candy nuggets in there. Do check it out.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Contact Sports and the Brain

Malcolm Gladwell's new article about head injuries in NFL and college football players is gripping as always. Long term brain trauma has long been known to be prevalent in former boxers, too, but since the sport remains popular people still engage in it. Hits are worse when individuals aren't prepared. There's a debate in the academic lit as to how big of an issue this is for soccer players. Concussions among pro's occur at a rate of ~ 0.5 per 1000 player hours, usually due to elbow to head contact or head to head contact in "heading duels." I can tell you that when I used to play soccer I dreaded heading the ball back off of long goalie punts. Apparently the damage is worse when you fail to time it right and tense up your neck correctly. Here's one breakdown for how players were concussed during basketball:

How do you get a concussion running without the ball or during warm-up!?

Binge drinking should probably be considered a contact sport too, because the odds ratio for brain trauma among individuals with a BAC of 200+ mg/dl (around 10 drinks for 190 pound person) rises to 9.23! This is mainly due to a higher risk for assault (likely just fights in general), biking accidents, and simply falling. Be careful out there.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

SuperFreakonomics Chapter 5 Reactions

Andrew Gelman just posted a review without having read the book, so why can't I? Allow me six thoughts:

1) Once Romm pulls his pdf there are no other pirated versions of the chapter still swimming around on Google? Listen, internet, I'm not angry. Just disappointed. The best you can find are the two pages on DeLong's blog. And the mishaps do seem pretty bad there.

2) Levitt responded here, noting that
[W]e believe that rising global temperatures are a man-made phenomenon and that global warming is an important issue to solve... meaningfully reducing global carbon emissions has proven to be difficult... other approaches represent a more promising path to lowering the Earth’s temperature.
If that is their opinion, then it sounds like a very reasonable one, pretty close to where I stand. The disconnect is that those mishaps that DeLong and Connolley point out indicate that Levitt and Dubner haven't done the proper fact checking. And in many circles you're not even allowed in polite conversation after that. Perhaps the version that was leaked was never meant to be the final copy, but I doubt it.

3) This is what Levitt and Dubner deserve for forcing people to click through the links from RSS to read their posts. Vomit breath karma.

4) Tyler Cowen does not like geoengineering but Robin Hanson says he does and quite frankly Robin's reasons are a lot more convincing. Tyler's post is old but he just reiterated support for it here. So I must ask him, how are the political difficulties of geoengineering more cumbersome than the political difficulties of emissions limits?

5) The worst possible way that this whole fiasco can end up is that readers write off geoengineering for instant ridicule without examining it. Here's a fairly skeptical treatment of it in the Atlantic from a month or two ago. Here's Real Climate with another skeptical analysis--they show predictions of how SO2 in the atmosphere might affect precipitation, and note that once geoengineering ends the temp will rise again. Yes geoengineering would probably have some bad effects and micro-studies should be done on it now to see what those might be. But it represents a last-ditch saving throw for humanity in case things get really bad before other tech like CO2 sequestering can save us. And the supposed downside is that by supporting it govs will take emissions cutting less seriously? Because they aren't doing so anyways...

6) Everyone is prefacing their posts by saying "I liked the first one, but...". Of course you liked the first one, everyone did. The first one was money. No need to state the obvious.

The Best Place to Stop is Here

Peter Gibbons: So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life.
Dr. Swanson: What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
Dr. Swanson: Wow, that's messed up.

Encountering this interesting Reddit thread of advice from a former tech exec, I immediately sorted by "best," or the highest rated comments. Assuming that the ratings are a decent proxy for how interesting any given comment will be to me, then each new comment I read should be the least interesting one I've read so far, and the next comment should be even less interesting. So if I evaluate whether or not to stop reading after each comment, stopping at each evaluation will be the best possible time for me to stop. Whenever I stop, I will have made the best possible decision by stopping then.

This generalizes to any ordered list. It's sort of like the classic scene from Office Space above. If Peter chose to quit his job, quitting on any given day would be the best possible time to do so.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Faceism and the Law

Zebrowith and McDonald (pdf) looked at 506 cases in Massachusetts small claims court to determine the effect of the defendant's facial structure on the judge's decision. One variable they examined was the "baby-facedness" of each defendant, rated on a seven point scale by two independent judges, with 7 representing the most baby-faced defendants (i.e., large eyes, thin/high eyebrows, large forehead, small chin, and curved instead of angular face). The results of the correlation for situations in which the defendant played an active rather than passive role ("intentional") are particularly striking:
This research was published 18 years ago. Why are judges and juries still allowed to look at the faces of the plaintiff and defendant? Why do we focus on discrimination against certain groups rather than others?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Expectation Game

I've always assumed that it's better to have low expectations for things that you have no control over. That way when you find out what the result is you will be less disappointed if its bad and happier if its good.

But what if you have to wait a long time for the result? Life is short. Every day you wake up with about 16 hours to run around and do stuff before the glycogen stores in your brain start running low and the adenosine receptors signal that it's time to sleep and recharge again. How you feel during those hours definitely matters. In fact, lots of people think that being happy is the most important part of life!

I think that the best strategy given these goals is to try to feel lukewarm-good about your result while waiting. But refuse to commit to any specific predictions to yourself or anyone else. Then, right before you are about to get your result, force yourself into full worst-case scenario low-balling mode. If you can pull this off, you get the benefits of being aloofly happy about your result most of the time along with the benefits of low expectations to mitigate post-result depression.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

No Such Causality

When I tell people I did well because I was lucky, most don't believe me. When I tell people I didn't do well because I was unlucky, most don't believe me. Yet another reason to discount the judgments of your associates. You are biased, but others only have access to leaky info. Luckily, none of these opinions matter very much anyways.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Discovering the Double Helix was Overrated

Why does this one discovery have such an elevated status in pop culture? This list pegs it at #4 of the "Ten most important nobels prize winners." Vassar grad Caterina quotes Richard Ogle's Smart World to note that:
[T]hey had distinctly lackadaisical work habits. Watson played several sets of tennis every afternoon and spent his evenings alternately chasing 'popsies' at Cambridge parties and going to the movies. Crick, who rarely showed up at the lab before 10 AM and took a coffee break and hour later repeatedly appeared to lose interest in the problem of DNA. On more than one occasion, vital piece of information were obtained not through hard work but as a result of chance conversations in the tea line at the Cavendish laboratory.
This screams out, "Luck!" Plus, why does everyone care about the structure of the thing so much? Surely the fact that this thing is a helix is much less important than the discovery by Oswald Avery that DNA is the hereditary material. Otherwise nobody even cares about the structure. The discovery of the double helix is a classic example of how having a good narrative is more essential to fame than actually having done something very important. More reason to disregard fame, then.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Are We Saving the World Yet?

Eliezer Yudkowsky works on artificial general intelligence or "friendly" AGI at the Singularity Institute. He has publicly stated that he thinks the particular problem he's working on is the most important in the world. In one post he noted his belief that, "[T]he ultimate test of a planet's existence probably comes down to Friendly AI, and Friendly AI may come down to nine people in a basement doing math. I keep my hopes up, and think of this as a "failing Earth" rather than a "failed Earth"."

On the other hand seemingly objective sources have indicated their disbelief that this problem is so important. In their recent diavlog, Scott Aaronson told Eliezer that he didn't think that computers would be able to match human intelligence for more than 1000 years. That doesn't bode well for the near-term prospects of an AI-driven singularity. And in their lively OB debate last December, Robin Hanson told Eliezer that he didn't think it was very likely AI's would "go foom" because that wouldn't fit what we know about previous growth rates. Again, not a very strong recommendation. Nonetheless, elsewhere Hanson told Eliezer that he did think that somebody might as well work on the friendly AI problem, and Eliezer is as good a person to do so as any (can't find the link, unfortunately). Aaranson has also said elsewhere that he sympathizes with Eliezer and that he is acting quite rationally in obsessing over the singularity, given his beliefs.

So the consensus view (also see here) on friendly AI research is that while it's not the most attention-worthy existential risk, it is worth of some modicum of attention, and Eliezer is a perfect candidate. My question is... Shouldn't somebody working on friendly AI personally consider it to be the most important question out there, consensus or no consensus? Even if this involves a little bit of self-delusion, wouldn't it be a worth it for stimulating that researcher's productivity?

More generally, is it generally a good thing if for any given researcher considers their topic to be the most important in the world? Even if it does involve some drawn-out logic? I would say, in most circumstances, yes. The only downside is that these researchers might be less likely to switch into something more important, or might be so good at convincing others that he/she draws away research funding from more objectively important sources. But I'd bet that those downsides are usually outweighed by the potential benefits of being monomaniacal. So I say, by all means, go try to save the world!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Fast Do You Update Beliefs?

Sometimes when someone is being indecisive she will change her mind many times in a short period of time. When you ask, "What do you want to do?", she'll say, "Option A, no... option B, no, wait... yes, option C." How would you respond in such a scenario?

If you feel the need to ask, "well, which is it?", then you can't update fast enough. The correct answer is to simply go with option C. That is the option most recently proposed, and barring further clarification, it represents the current consensus. There is no need to act confused.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The "What's On the Test" Game

Kevin is right when he says that the point of this game is to get the teacher to concede which topics will not be covered on the exam. But then he says that he despises the students who play it. Why?

Certainly the line of questioning is socially condemned. But it's beneficial to everyone in the review session when one student plays this game, because the other students also won't have to study that material. Thus "what's on the test?" is ultimately an altruistic question to ask. You help all of the students in the class equally but you yourself are looked down upon for it.

This generalizes to other situations quite well. For example, if you get angry at someone or call them out for doing something annoying your own status will drop for having a temper or being antagonistic. But if the annoying behavior stops then you've helped out everyone else that that person hangs out with, too. So getting angry for a good reason is also an altruistic act. This is why many parents (especially fathers?) are able to rationalize it to themselves when they lash out at their children.

I never play the "what's on the test" game in classroom-wide review sessions. But then again I am mostly selfish when it comes to classroom success. As is anyone else who studies hard! Remind me how you doing well on your professional exam is going to help anyone else?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Conscious Thinking Doesn't Help As Much

Although it is a fairly controversial field, lots of research has shown that individuals engaging in goal-directed but unconsciousness decision making make better decisions that individuals who deliberate consciously. Welcome to counterintuitive city! One major explanation of this paradox is that unconcious thought weighs information efficiently, while conscious thought is subject to biases that muck everything up. In a good demonstration (see here for the study), knowledgable basketball fans who were forced to list reasons for why they thought a particular team would win were less succesful (correct 65.2% of the time) than fans who were told to go on their gut instinct (correct 70.4% of the time).

Dijksterhuis et al recently looked at the predictions of students at the University of Amsterdam on upcoming soccer matches. They partitioned the students into either experts (n = 172) or nonexperts (n = 180), and told them to predict outcomes after 20 seconds, 140 seconds with deliberate thinking allowed, or 140 seconds with distraction for 120 of the seconds. Nonexperts actually did better when forced to pick immediately. But among the experts, immediate choosers predicted matches correctly ~47 +/- 3% of the time, conscious deliberators predicted matches correctly ~49 + / - 2% of the time, and unconscious (i.e., distracted) deliberators predicted matches correctly ~56 + / - 3% of the time.

So, conscious thinking is OK, but unconscious thinking is probably better. Trust your feelings. Let go of your conscious self and act on instinct. Listen to Obi Wan.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Such Comparison

It's natural to implicitly compare one's expectations of a given situation to the actual situation. But hard as it may be to differentiate between the two, comparing one's a priori expectations to the current situation is not a good proxy for comparing the current situation to other possible situations.

This fallacy is committed all of the time. It happens in movie ratings, college social life (in my experience people's expectations of college are way inflated), travel, etc. Basically, it occurs in any situation in which people only have access to a limited number of data points and in which expectations are liable to deviate wildly from reality. Without access to other data points, it's hard for an opinionated person to avoid making this comparison. That is why one must be vigilant about it, and ultimately admit the possibility of bias.

When evaluating something, I try to be as much of a blank slate as possible. That's why, once I know that I plan on watching a movie, I don't watch the trailers, and I don't like hearing about it beyond a simple like / not like which, candidly, I make every effort to ignore. That is why watching the top 250 is so money--I don't have to even think about what movies to watch. The other day I was watching Rosemary's Baby (#221) and for the first 15 minutes I thought it was a romantic comedy. Nope!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Wisdom of the Singularity Summit Crowd

When asked, which of the following scenarios are you most worried about?, this is how the crowd responded:

A. Singularity happens and robots kill us all, the Skynet scenario = 5 percent
B. Biotech terrorism using something more virulent than smallpox and Ebola combined = 30 percent
C. Nanotech grey goo escapes and eats up all organic matter = 5 percent
D. Israel and Iran engage thermonuclear war that goes global = 25 percent
E. A one-world totalitarian state arises = 10 percent
F. Runaway global warming = 5 percent
G. The singularity takes too long to happen = 30 percent

I suspect if this question were asked anywhere else that B, D, and F would get tons more votes. A might get some laughs and a few joke votes. C would get confused stares.

Anyone who voted E is likely looking for a cop-out answer to seem "normal" without seeming too plebian by choosing F. Otherwise, it doesn't make sense that anyone voted for it. Why would a totalitarian state necessarily even be that bad? Something like the regime in A Brave New World would have to qualify. And that would be nowhere near as bad as A, B, C, D, or F.

Update: My friend Tyson, who was also at the event, suggests that the numbers were closer to the following breakdown:

A. Singularity happens and robots kill us all, the Skynet scenario = 10 percent
B. Biotech terrorism using something more virulent than smallpox and Ebola combined = 40 percent
C. Nanotech grey goo escapes and eats up all organic matter = 5 percent
D. Israel and Iran engage thermonuclear war that goes global = 15 percent
E. A one-world totalitarian state arises = 5 percent
F. Runaway global warming = 10 percent
G. The singularity takes too long to happen = 15 percent

Apparently Thiel himself admitted that the biotech threat was the "clear winner."

Monday, October 5, 2009

In Favor of the Monomath

Edward Carr's article in More Intelligent Life discusses how there are no longer any polymaths like those of yesteryear. It's interesting and makes some good points. Scientific fields can be bogged down by specialist terminology and it is harder to criticize someone's work when they have devoted their whole career to it.

But the discussion of how it's too hard for one scientist to make a big advance individually these days strikes me as misguided. First, it's not entirely true. Check out Karl Deisseroth's work, a guy who doesn't even have his own Wikipedia page but has already contributed to neuro research in a big way by working on optogenetics. Second, the tone strikes me as whining. Look, if science were easy, that wouldn't be a Nash equilibrium. Big research teams are necessary to publish within a reasonable time scale for a reason. Plus, Carr seems to double down a little bit recklessly on the myth of the great idea. Because as Robin Hanson once said, "most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use."

Ultimately, the fact that individual scientists are less well known today than were individual scientists 150 years ago is a reflection is a sign that the system is getting more efficient, not less. This change should be celebrated, not derided.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Age of Anxiety

In her interesting NYT article about anxiety, Robin Henig reports that 40 million adults are affected by some form of anxiety disorder. In 2008 there were 228,000 adults in the US, and according to the NIMH this checks out to 18.1% of US adults having an anxiety disorder in any given year. With such a high prevalence, it's easy to argue that there should be a re-frame in our cultural conception of anxiety. Like Tyler Cowen argues in Create Your Own Economy about autism spectrum disorders, anxiety is a cognitive style that can be highly adaptive. As (Psyc Prof) Jerome Kagan notes, inner-directed people are the ones who make society hum. I would bet that bloggers are disproportionately anxious people, given that journal writing has stress-reducing benefits. This 2005 article claims that half of bloggers consider their writing a form of therapy, but I can't find a link to the original study.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Surprising Top Wikipedia Articles

Here's a list of the top 100 most visited Wikipedia pages from the first 8 months of 2009. These were the ones that surprised me:
  • Favicon.ico (#4) = This is the little icon to the left of the url in your web browser. Maybe a lot of people wanted to learn how to put one into their own website?
  • Deaths in 2009 (#8) = This shows that Wikipedia is often the go to for current events. The other day I was watching Monday Night Football and checked out the page for the Wildcat formation, and the stats for the game I was watching were already updated. Weird.
  • India (#18) and Australia (#33) = These were the first two countries. What makes them stand out--up and coming regions perhaps?
  • Scrubs (TV series) (#20) = This is the first TV series! It's surprising because the show isn't necessarily plot heavy nor is it necessarily even that good. Shows you how random things can be big on the internet for no good reason.
  • Naruto (#32) = Surprising because I had never heard of it. But the idea is actually pretty sweet -- "the story of Naruto Uzumaki, an adolescent ninja who constantly searches for recognition and aspires to become a Hokage, the ninja in his village that is acknowledged as the leader and the strongest of all."
  • Henry VIII of England (#67) = I guess he has a pretty cool story with all of those wives, but I don't see what makes him cooler than say, Attila the Hun or Otto von Bismark.
What did you find surprising?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Evolutionary Psyc and the Internet

Using the internet further your relationship via dating or even social network "stalking" is big and getting bigger. According to Socialnomics, 1 out of 8 couples married in the U.S. last year met through social media websites, and as of 2008 social media has overtaken porn as the #1 activity on the web.

Although the medium has changed, there are more similarities between our interactions online and in the real world than you might assume. For example, male college students edit their communications more (i.e., have more insertions, deletions, and backspaces) when they think they are typing a message online to females of the same age (49.50 +/- 24.72) rather than other males (24.00 +/- 16.15). Likewise females edit their communications more when talking to males of the same age (70.00 +/- 42.12) rather than other females (16.80 +/- 31.5, see Walter 2007, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2006.05.002 for the study). Plus, online daters value physical attractiveness in a partner just as much as offline ones.

Besides dating, evolutionary psyc might help to explain the online disinhibition effect. In the tribes of 150 close-knit people that humans have spent most of their evolutionary history, guarding your reputation was huge because everyone knew one another and gossip was commonplace. Piazza and Bering (2009, see doi:10.1016/j.chb.2009.07.002) argue that without human eyes, voice, and faces, the urge to behave altruistically and conceal secrets that developed due to our evolutionary history will be lost.

Robin Hanson thinks that what makes our era unique is that talking to other people who can talk is as easy as it will ever be. This implies that if humans will ever be able to destroy the in group / out group mentality, it will be now. Let the great social experiment begin.