Saturday, February 28, 2009

Black Swans and Consciousness

Drive Magazine recently posted the chronology of a typical lab-based car crash-test, which I will reproduce here, noting that a millisecond is 1/1000th of a second, and that British people don't know how to spell:

0 milliseconds - An external object touches the driver's door.

1 ms - The car's door pressure sensor detects a pressure wave.

2 ms - An acceleration sensor in the C-pillar behind the rear door also detects a crash event.

2.5 ms - A sensor in the car's centre detects crash vibrations.

5 ms - Car's crash computer checks for insignificant crash events, such as a shopping trolley impact or incidental contact. It is still working out the severity of the crash. Door intrusion structure begins to absorb energy.

6.5 ms - Door pressure sensor registers peak pressures.

7 ms - Crash computer confirms a serious crash and calculates its actions.

8 ms - Computer sends a "fire" signal to side airbag. Meanwhile, B-pillar begins to crumple inwards and energy begins to transfer into cross-car load path beneath the occupant.

8.5 ms - Side airbag system fires.

15 ms - Roof begins to absorb part of the impact. Airbag bursts through seat foam and begins to fill.

17 ms - Cross-car load path and structure under rear seat reach maximum load. Airbag covers occupant's chest and begins to push the shoulder away from impact zone.

20 ms - Door and B-pillar begin to push on front seat. Airbag begins to push occupant's chest away from the impact.

27 ms - Impact velocity has halved from 50 km/h to 23.5 km/h. A "pusher block" in the seat moves occupant's pelvis away from impact zone. Airbag starts controlled deflation.

30 ms - The Falcon has absorbed all crash energy. Airbag remains in place. For a brief moment, occupant experiences maximum force equal to 12 times the force of gravity.

45 ms - Occupant and airbag move together with deforming side structure.

50 ms - Crash computer unlocks car's doors. Passenger safety cell begins to rebound, pushing doors away from occupant.

70 ms - Airbag continues to deflate. Occupant moves back towards middle of car. Engineers classify crash as "complete".

150-300 ms - Occupant becomes aware of collision.

As Vaughan at Mind Hacks notes, the conscious awareness numbers are largely correct and are based on some famous EEG experiments done by Benjamin Libet.

No matter how well you train yourself to estimate probabilities and weigh the pros and cons of a decision, there are some situations that happen so fast as to be outside of conscious purview. This does not mean that "you" have no control, but your "conscious" module may not play any role.

If you want to make good decisions under extreme time pressure, you need to practice your preferred cognitive heuristics so thoroughly as to make them automatic.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Difference Between Serendipity and Luck

Steven Strogatz explains in his book SYNC:
Although the role of serendipity is familiar, what's not so well appreciated is how different serendipity is from luck. Serendipity is not just an apparent aptitude for making fortunate discoveries accidentally, as my dictionary defines it. Serendipitous discoveries are always made by people in a particular frame of mind, people who are focused and alert because they're searching for something. They just happen to find something else.
In his conception, that is why scientists are so likely to make discoveries "by chance." This is something to consider if you are planning to expose yourself to randomness. Maybe it is best to look for one specific thing but be open to encountering something different, and running with that.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Should you keep your identity small?

Paul Graham's most recent article makes some astute points. Conversations about people's identities, like religion or politics or programming languages, are very seldom fruitful. In order to have a useful discussion you should avoid those topics. Therefore:
If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
At first this idea in its current conception appealed to me very much. But life is about trade-offs, and this theory is no exception.

If you identify yourself with fewer things, then you will constantly have to make decisions. And as I have recently emphasized, we can only make so many decisions before we become tired and revert to shortcuts that expend the least possible energy.

So you can't keep your identity small, because you will be worn out by making trivial decisions throughout the day. But what you can do is loosely identify with various identities and be constantly open to change.

This policy confers a trade-off too: You might appear inconsistent in your opinions or decisions. So be it--subjugate the ego and strive forward.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Risk of Building a Slave

Bill Vallicella muses on how one can be an independent scholar and "put food on the table," although he what he probably means "live comfortably and independently," because for somebody with a doctorate it shouldn't be too hard to get a job somewhere.

One of his ideas is to "build a slave":
You work hard from say ages 20 to 40 at some high-paying job. You live like a monk and save and invest most of what you make. Being married to a high-earner can't hurt. When your 'slave' is good and healthy, you live the life of otium liberale from his return. Few will have the discipline for this approach. And postponing your 'real life' until later is obviously risky. But where there is a will there is a way.
Ben adds commentary of the risk involved in this strategy. This is an important trade-off that each of us must answer at some point in our lives. It is the sort of "big picture" question whose answer is easily defaulted into if you do not devote sufficient time to pondering it. Yet another reason why you should stop sweating the small stuff!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Cultural Differences in Alcohol Use

I've just read David Mandelbaum's classic "Alcohol and Culture" paper where he discusses the attitudes and practices towards alcohol throughout modern and historical societies. Everywhere that alcohol has been present the culture has taken a stance on it; thus Mandelbaum notes that although "it is sometimes tabooed, it is never ignored." Here are some of the other cultural nuggets:
  • Similarities across cultures: it is more acceptable for men to be drunk than women, it is generally done with peers of the same age, warriors and shamans can more acceptably drink alcohol than judges or priests, and it is discouraged when large amount of people are present in the area.
  • In ancient Aztec society worshipers had to get drunk, otherwise they believed that the gods would be displeased.
  • Cultural (and perhaps genetic) differences modulate the behavior we exhibit while drunk: In Japan drinking leads to displays of affection, while in Papago Indians it leads to hostility.
  • The code of Hammaburi specified the price, quality, and credit terms for beer, apparently functioning taverns were an important staple for a complex society even in 1720 B.C.
Status quo bias is basically the only thing that separates alcohol from THC or maybe even MDMA, yet the legal and cultural attitudes towards the drugs are so different. It is probably due to history: alcohol has been a part of human societies for so much longer.

Iterating Towards Thinking Less

Famous philosopher Alfred Whitehead gets the ball rolling (from 1910!):
It is a profoundly erroenous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle--they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.
Making decisions is energy-consuming. Subjects who use their willpower to eat healthy radishes instead of the available and sumptuous chocolates are less likely to persist in solving unsolvable puzzles. Subjects who are told to suppress emotional reactions to a movie are less able to solve solvable anagrams.

We have a limited amount of decision-making power to allocate on a moment to moment basis. That is why developing small but healthy habits that over time will become automatic is so money.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Why are we slashing foreign H1-B visas?

My Claremont McKenna blogosphere friend Kevin Burke recently wrote an eloquent post on this and now I am embarrassed for not having done so earlier. As Kevin notes, many of the best finance students at CMC are foreigners. I can vouch that the same is true of Vassar's Investment Club.

Shekhar Gupta (via Tom Friedman) explains the logic behind why we should be happy about this:
“Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”
The US's new policy means that any financial institution who recieved bailout money (read: most of them) will be restricted in the number of immigrant employees they can hire. That will not stimulate our economy but instead hinder it.

Bottom Line: Discrimination, whether it is against immigrants, women, people of different race, or those of a different class, will always hurt a company's profit margin. Therefore, the free market will punish those who practice it. State-sponsored discrimination, in all its myriad forms, is simply counter-productive.

Predicting the 2009 Oscar Winners

I have lots of problems with the Best Picture Nominees this year, including the non-nomination of by far the most popular movie of the year, and the rampant recency bias. But it's still fun to predict the winners. Here are the IMdB votes broken down by demographic:


Last year I found that although There Will Be Blood had a higher overall rating than No Country for Old Men, No Country had higher ratings in two key categories: Males over 45 and Top 1000 Voters. These correspond roughly to what pretentious old men like, which is basically the same people who vote on the Oscars.

Although Slumdog Millionaire is far and away the favorite to win the Oscar, with over an 87% chance currently at InTrade. It is however, only tied with Frost/Nixon in the key two metrics of Top 1000 Voters and Males Aged 45+ at 8.2 and 7.4 for Slumdog and 8.1 and 7.5 for Frost/Nixon, respectively. The Reader has them both beat at 8.2 for Males 45+ and 7.5 for Top 1000 voters.

Since it would be such an upset, I feel justified in making the prediction that either Frost/Nixon or The Reader will win Best Picture, upsetting Slumdog Millionaire. You heard it here first.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Breaking down Pete Stark vs. Jan Henfeld

Pete Stark is a Democratic congressman from California; Jan Henfeld is a quasi-incendiary interviewer who is looking to make a name for himself with a combination of cold logic and non-bargaining libertarian premises. The video of their interview is here, it is pretty entertaining and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

Jan Henfeld starts off the interview by catching Pete Stark in saying that the more debt a country has, the wealthier they are. Extending this statement to its logical extreme, Henfeld asks why the US shouldn't borrow another 2 or 3 trillion.

Stark is stuck in a bind, and he reverts to personal insult, asking Henfeld if he has ever taken econ classes (apparently yes at the University of Puerto Rico) or if he has a doctorate (apparently no). Stark went to MIT and then the University of California-Berkeley for his MBA, and he is more than a little pretentious about it. He tells Henfeld basically that he can't understand the issue because he's not smart enough because he didn't go to a good college. Burn!

But Henfeld is relentlessness, so Stark comes back and tells him to "shut up," rips off his microphone, and tells Henfeld to "get the fuck out of here." Recall that Stark is a Democratic congressman from Fremont, California! This is incendiary stuff.

What's ironic is that many of Stark's policies are aligned with a libertarian point of view: he voted against Iraq, the Farm Subsidy Bill, and the Economic Stabilization Bill of October 2008. He is also the first openly atheist congressman. Therefore, I can only shudder when I think what might happen if Henfeld ever interviewed Dick Cheney.

(Hat tip: David Henderson)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Best Column I've Read All Year: Moneyball Meets Mr. Battier

Michael Lewis's new column in the NYT about why Shane Battier is underrated combines three of my favorite things: basketball, statistics, and Michael Lewis. I don't want to focus on the outcome, I just want to note that you have a very high probability of enjoying it. Unfortunately there are too many nuggets to quote just one. I hate it when bloggers say this but you really must read the whole thing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Prescient GEICO Commercials

According to the NYT, scientists now have good data from 63% of the Neanderthal genome. Dr. George Church from Harvard Medical school thinks that a living Neanderthal could be manufactured with $30 million dollars.

Ethically speaking, what would be wrong about this? Perhaps the Neanderthal could be allowed to grow up in human society, and maybe even thrive socially, if it is able to speak. Of course, some small problems might arise, but they would probably lead to widespread hilarity for the rest of us.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sleep and RSS Feed Data, Past Month

I'm still collecting data from my every day life and I'm tinkering with what I should be doing with it. In the meantime, here are a couple of graphs, one that I collected (my sleep) and one that Google automatically put together for me (RSS reader activity over the past month):

As you can see I had an explosion of activity yesterday. In general I will admit that these numbers are skewed because I subscribe to some feeds on del.icio.us that I plow through and mostly just read the headlines of. There's more variance here than I would like, but I suppose that is a function of being a college student more than anything. Aside from that one crazy day toward the end of December, I never sleep more than 10 hours and I rarely sleep less than 6. I get a mean of 7.924 and a standard deviation of 1.06 hours of sleep per night.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Remote Controlled Surveillance Beetles?

The technology is now available:
The beetle's payload consists of an off-the-shelf microprocessor, a radio receiver, and a battery attached to a custom-printed circuit board, along with six electrodes implanted into the animals' optic lobes and flight muscles. Flight commands are wirelessly sent to the beetle via a radio-frequency transmitter that's controlled by a nearby laptop. Oscillating electrical pulses delivered to the beetle's optic lobes trigger takeoff, while a single short pulse ceases flight.
You can control the direction and speed of the speed from a remote location, and the beetle is hefty enough to carry an additional load like a miniature tape recorder. A couple of thoughts:

1) It's time for a modern update/remix of themes explored in The Conversation. Thirty-five years later, it is already basically obsolete.

2) As technology improves, the transparent society will begin to look like a better and better option.

Monday, February 9, 2009

My Favorite Paragraph of Ben's Favorite Paragraphs from Infinite Jest

It's about the false feeling of security and uniqueness that affects college students and addicts:
People of a certain age and level of like life-experience believe they're immortal: college students and alcoholics/addicts are the worst: they deep-down believe they're exempt from the laws of physics and statistics that ironly govern everybody else. They'll piss and moan your ear off if somebody else fucks with the rules, but they don't deep down see themselves subject to them, the same rules. And they're constitutionally unable to learn from anybody else's experience: if some jaywalking B.U. student does get his car towed, your other student's or addict's response to this will be to ponder just what imponderable difference makes it possible for that other guy to get splattered or towed and not him, the ponderer. They never doubt the difference -- they just ponder it. It's like a kind of idolatry of uniqueness.
It is indeed hard to grasp the statistical truth of these situations, and it is easy to turn to assume that people are different from you when bad things happen to them. But we must resist this!

If you liked this paragraph, you might consider checking out the rest of Ben's post, because face it, there's no way you'll get around to reading the actual book.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Humans are...

Sometimes Google's suggested searches when you first start queries can be interesting and illuminating. Here are Google's suggestions for what you may want to search for after you've typed "Humans are"...

1) Humans are dead
2) Humans are dead lyrics
3) Humans are mammals
4) Humans are omnivores
5) Humans are social animals
6) Humans are dead tab
7) Humans are social creatures
8) Humans are selfish
9) Humans are inherently evil

I'm happy that humans are social animals is the suggested search before humans are inherently evil, as it is clearly a more parsimonious explanation of any ill-intended behavior.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

YouTube cares about video ratings?

You may have noticed that the 5-star ratings are now displayed embedded YouTube videos all across the internet. Of course, that implies that they actually care about how their videos are being rated, or that those ratings mean anything at all. Loyal blog readers know that this is not the case because their system is awful, and can rest assured that my lividity will not cease until some basic and obvious changes are made.

The Inner Fire of Joshua Waitzkin

Joshua Waitzkin was the basis for the chess movie Searching for Bobby Fischer, one of the most inspirational sports movies out there. After the movie was made he fizzled out and became disillusioned with chess, because it began to feel like a chore instead of something he wanted to do.

There's an awesome interview here where he discusses his anti-blank slate philosophy. He thinks that our successes are based not on our natural intelligence but instead on our ability to push through challenges and master the intellectual aspects of the game. These are some of his money quotes:
  • "The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity."
  • "I have found that people at the highest levels of quality in virtually all pursuits are somewhat unusual minds-and their 'brilliance' has usually evolved from working with their natural strengths."
  • "Growth only really comes at the point of resistance, but that is the moment that we tend to stop. Because it hurts. Whether we are confronting our psychological foibles or our physiological limits, it is much easier to turn back from the challenge than to push through the discomfort."
Waitzkin has since gone on to become world champion in the martial art of pushing hands, so he is able to practice what he preaches. I too have noticed that when tasks start to feel like work it becomes harder to complete them. If somebody had required me to blog as a school assignment three years ago there is no way that I would have poured so much effort into this.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Russ Roberts, Robin Hanson EconTalk notes

You can find the link to the conversation here if you're interested, but I think I've covered the major stuff. I did skip the first 28 minutes on a suggestion from a commenter on Overcoming Bias, which was apparently just Russ Roberts giving a monologue on the various ways that economists disagree. There were lots of nuggets, and Robin always gives the necessary framework behind his ideas. I'll summarize the main points:
  • If there is an incentive for an argument to occur, like in a trial or politics, then economists could be disproportionately rewarded for taking contrary opinions, which leads to more disagreement than there would be if everyone was solely interested in truth.
  • If you think that everybody on the other side is biased, you have to ask yourself, why am I different? Robin thinks you have to "bite that bullet." Unless you have hard evidence that you are less likely to reject temptations of support, you have to assume that you are biased too.
  • The only way we can say what's not true and get away with it is to believe it, because humans "leak" it when they are lying. This is the evolutionary psychological explanation for self-deception and many cognitive biases.
  • Russ: Pragmatist philosophy does not a lot of romance about it. "Your grandmother is right", even if your grandmother doesn't have a reason. It's hard to analyze your reasons objectively, so you can't fully trust them. Sometimes it can be better to go with intuition. Robin: "Certainly there's some truth in that, the question is how much." That is a golden response.
  • Problems in our hypothesis forming procedures: 1) The vast majority of brain thinks stuff that you're not aware of. I'm not exactly sure how I got from A to B, my mind has left out a lot of the details. 2) Other people have other stuff that they're aware of that you're not. "They could have thought some stuff that I'm not aware of". You have to ask yourself, "How likely is it that they know something I don't?"
  • Weak signs that you are willing to be honest: 1) You go against somebody on "your own side" because you don't think their argument is true, even if they are influential. 2) You are not willing to change your argument just to get it published.
  • However, these are only weak signs and most people have this kind of evidence that they hold in memory preferentially in order to think of themselves as honest and truth-seeking. Even though you may not be at the extreme, you must still be skeptical.
  • The media selects for the confident people on both sides of the debate in order to get better sound-bytes.
  • It's hard for thinking, curious people who have their opinions and intellect as a part of their identity to consistently say "I don't know." It's much more fun and stimulating to have opinions, plus you are more impressive that way. Maybe individuals don't have sufficient incentives to be honest. Robin makes his case for prediction markets again, which in my opinion do not suck.
  • Calling Bush a "free market ideologue" is the most ridiculous thing anybody could ever say. If anybody says this to my face they will be mocked publicly and summarily shunned.
  • What is the least quixotic strategy? Promoting prediction markets, promoting skepticism of theory, or promoting statistical knowledge. The best way to convince people to be skeptical is two-fold. You have to show them that oftentimes the newspapers and consensus is wrong, with empirical studies. And you have to show that those who take that message too much to heart are wrong too, because the average theory will probably be more true than the outliers.
  • When you talk about something specific, all the abstract theorizing about skepticism is forgotten and you once again become biased. Robin's solution is to have multiple selves, one to put his head down and create a theory, and one to step back, correct, and be skeptical of his own results.
Right now I think Robin Hanson is the smartest person on the internet. Prove me wrong! Who's better? I'll read their stuff too.