Monday, March 30, 2009

Why was Galileo Accused of Heresy?

This observation by Scott Aaronson was news to me:
I submit that Galileo’s greatest contribution here was not his account of how it could be possible for the Earth to go around the Sun even though we don’t feel the Earth’s motion. For that achievement was far surpassed by his creation of Simplicio: the amiable doofus (standing in for scholastic astronomers) who answers Salviati’s patient explanations with pompous Latin phrases and quotations from Aristotle. Apparently the main reason Galileo was hauled before the Inquisition was not his scientific arguments, which the Church assumed most people wouldn’t understand or care about anyway. Rather, Pope Urban VIII was outraged that Galileo put his (the Pope’s) own arguments about the limits of empirical thinking into the mouth of Simplicio.
I had heard the Galileo story many times as an example of religion shunning science, but this explanation makes much more sense. In this alternative narrative, the church does not disapprove of science but is merely annoyed by scientists disapproving of religion! What self-respecting human wouldn't be annoyed at being called irrational?

Are there any other grand narratives of history that could be explained by individual human squabbles that got out of hand? The assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the overreaction of Kaiser Wilhelm (who was close friends with the archduke) to catalyze WWI strikes me as another potential example. The bottom line is that we have yet another reason to decentralize power.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Slow, Imperceptible Changes

At the California Academy of Sciences there is a Foucault pendulum, invented by Leon Foucault in the 19th century to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. It rotates 5 inches every 30 minutes, completing a circle every 30 minutes:

The pendulum oscillates across the center of the circle, and I knew that at some point it would have to move to the side. But staring at it intently I could see no motion and detect no difference between the point that it returned to from one swing to the next.

What other phenomena are similar in that, although we can never notice a change from one instance to the next, we know that there must be change on a broad time scale? Personality strikes me as one example. Although we may update our beliefs on the basis of new facts, our background prior stances remain unchanged in the short run. It is only in the long run that our baseline personalities can change, but these shifts take a long time and are difficult to notice if you remain in daily contact with that person.

Are there personal policy implications to being blind to slow changes in other's personalities?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Evaluating the Regret Heuristic

I've used the regret heuristic in the past with mostly positive but somewhat mixed success. I've probably actively thought "Will I regret this?" around 15 times in the past year and about 10 of those decisions I would now characterize as positive. But there's something missing from that simple approach. This recent NYT article by John Tierney article nails it:
In one study, these consumer psychologists asked college students how they felt about the balance of work and play on their winter breaks. Immediately after the break, the students’ chief regrets were over not doing enough studying, working and saving money. But when they contemplated their winter break a year afterward, they were more likely to regret not having enough fun, not traveling and not spending money. And when alumni returned for their 40th reunion, they had even stronger regrets about too much work and not enough play on their collegiate breaks.
So the conclusions one draws from projected regret aversion will vary based on what time scale he/she chooses. Perhaps the best strategy is to estimate whether you will regret something in 5 days and also whether you will regret it in 5 years. Then, use both estimates in making your decision.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Do You Not Fear?

James Joyce reveals much about one of his characters in The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by exposing not only the usual fears, but what he does not fear as well:
You made me confess the fears that I have. But I will tell you also what I do not fear. I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave. And I am not afraid to make a mistake, even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake and perhaps as long as eternity too.
We often identify ourselves by our fears of heights or spiders or whatever. But that does not truly set an individual apart, because one cannot accomplish anything with that knowledge. Instead, it is much more tactical to focus on outcomes that you do not fear as much as others, and capitalize upon your comparatively lower risk aversion.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Best Dead Would-Be Blogger?

Which dead writer or thinker would you most like to read the blog of? The only constraint is that they can't use any of their own historical expertise or experiences (except maybe as analogies), but instead must discuss current events while bringing only their biting wit to the table.

I would probably go with Franz Kafka. His biting wit, snark, and appropriate dose of melodrama seems well-suited to today's South Park-groomed internet denizens.

What about you?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Burn After Reading as a Microcosm

"We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term, and absolutely nothing in the long term." - Jeremy Grantham on the 2008 financial crash.

One can interpret most Coen brother movies in a multitude of ways, but I keep thinking about how their latest effort can relate to our society's current woes. The characters assume that people "above" them know what they're doing when they don't, they think that events happen for a reason when they are random, and their initial rash decisions are exasperated by further rash decisions.

What did we learn, America? Hell if I know. I guess we learned not to do it again.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Champion Disregarded Constituencies

How much more successful was The Outfield's song Your Love because of the lyric that "You know I like my girls a little bit older"? What about Estelle's song American Boy due to the lyric "I just met a 5'7" guy who's just my type"? We will never know because we cannot run the counterfactual, but I expect that the answer is a lot. My advice to artists is to champion causes that others have disregarded. One obvious example is to go after social conservatives, which will probably separate you from 95% of your peers.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Mortality Salience and Violent Feedback

Jesse Bering at Scientific American recently wrote an interesting article about research from Germany showing that those primed to think about death were more likely to be nationalistic. As the article notes,
[T]he evolution of self-consciousness in our human ancestors came with a heavy price, which was the awareness that they were mortal. This awareness of death brought a crippling sense of anxiety... that interfered with our ancestors’ otherwise adaptive, everyday social behaviors. To cope with this anxiety... our species evolved a suite of psychological defenses that allowed us to accept the unavoidable reality of death while assuaging our existential fears and to get on with the business of being alive.... [M]ost people tend to endorse their own prevailing cultural worldviews because culture serves as an anxiety-reducing buffer against thoughts of death. Contribute meaningfully to this system, or at least defend it, and a part of you will live on in the cultural ethos even after you turn to dust.
Once violence erupts in a region, there are many reasons to think about your own death as people you know die or are seriously injured. In these cases, terror management causes us to be hold more in-group tendencies and be more patriotic. This leads to more prejudice and hatred, which leads to more violence, and thus more mortality priming, etc. This is a nasty feedback loop that may be responsible for compounding the initial effects of violence throughout generations.

Yet another reason that we should strive to stop violence between cultural groups before it starts, and be thankful (at least in the US) for our current relatively peaceful society.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Eleven RHTCBHTV thoughts

Their dialogue can be found here. Every time that I have seen a video of Robin Hanson or Tyler Cowen versus anybody they have dominated the conversation, so I was naturally excited to see these two giants spar. Tyler had a sly smile on his face for much of the hour, and Robin often sported an incredulous look. I call them by their first names although I have never met either of them because when you read somebody's blog for long enough you come to believe that you know them. Here are some notes and reactions:

1) Robin says that although it hard to conclusively say anything, you shouldn't just throw your hands up and say "nobody should know anything." I agree with this and I had not yet seen it so succinctly articulated. It is the reason why I find much of the Socratic "he who admits he knows nothing is the smartest" stories fairly dumb.

2) The difference between unmediated versus mediated intuition is a measure of how much evidence you can point to that accounts for your intuition. They both quickly agree that most of their thinking is done by unconscious processes that they do not notice and cannot control. This premise allows them to focus on how they formed their beliefs instead of the less manageable question of why.

3) Tyler's critique of cryonics draws substantially from Nick Bostrom's infinite ethics argument, which is based upon a current interpretation of quantum physics. Whether the merits of this argument are valid or not, Tyler's hobby horse of probabilistic ethics is endlessly fascinating and serially under discussed.

4) Tyler on medicine: "I think what works is setting bones, some number of pharmaceuticals, attitude, high social status, and exercise, and sanitation." He thinks that some visits to the doctor have a zero and maybe even negative marginal return. As much as I agree with some of these conclusions, I cannot help but attribute much of the recent increase in life expectancy to some of these doctor visits. Perhaps I am biased.

5) Tyler thinks cryonics has a low chance of working in part because of the impact of hormones from non-brain areas ("the gut") affecting the brain. There is some basis for this, as there is biofeedback throughout the body and it is complicated. Nevertheless, I think that the larger stepping stones will be found in actually scanning the neurons and glial cells at a molecular level. Compared to that, simulating the body environment does not strike me as nearly as difficult.

6) At one point they begin rattling off movies in order to discuss one of them, but they have not seen many of the same movies. That used to happen to me all the time and was the source of such frustration that I decided to watch the most discussed and best movies of all time--imdb's top 250. I now am the king of these conversations.

7) Robin think that economists are admirable because they weigh the interests of different people in a moderately neutral way. You can neglect individual measures of loyalty and group association at a large scale because at that level they cancel out and are no longer instrumentally useful in economic models, making self-interest the primary variable of interest. Although this approach makes some admittedly false assumptions, Robin argues that economists are on the whole scientific and willing to use an alternative technique if theirs is shown to be inferior. Economists are indeed at least somewhat scientific so it is a question of degree; Tyler thinks they aren't introspective enough about the potential falsehood of their premises.

8) Robin offers a nasty one-two punch at the end of the debate. He first ensnares Tyler by asking whether those who achieve high levels of influence tone their ideas down in order to appease the now reachable masses, which Tyler agrees with. Robin then asks whether Tyler himself has fallen victim to this de-weirdification process as his fame has risen (note that MR is top 100 on Technorati), and if not, what separates him from the others? He presents a paradox for Tyler: admit to either believing himself to be special or having sold out. Robin spits hot fire.

9) Should you discuss topics on which you are not an expert? Robin apparently thinks not, thus justifying his refusal to make macroeconomic forecasts. His willingness to discuss topics selectively makes him unique--he is one of the first people I have seen who admits that they do know something about the recession without entering into a discussion of the causes. In fact, I have seen many people who admit they know nothing about the crisis and still espouse a pet theory. But in general I'm worried that it is cripplingly hard to pinpoint when you have become an expert and thus waiting for that moment is foolhardy. I would argue that it is better to submit your thoughts to the court of public opinion, but perhaps I am sorely mistaken.

10) Tyler says that having read the canon of classics is correlated with the ability to conduct intelligent conversation and have a nuanced understanding of simulations, just as it is important to have some knowledge of economics. Robin on the other hand thinks fiction is somewhat overrated; when asked for book recommendations he once responded "textbooks."

11) At the "meta" level, Tyler has an intuition and lobs out various reasons for why he holds it, smugly confident that even when he cannot fully explain his position he must feel it for some reason and thus it is not his fault if the other person cannot grasp or find those same reasons. Robin is frustrated by this technique, but even when discussing the technique itself Tyler remains confident in his own intuition, so there is little that Robin can do. Tyler's approach is indeed dangerous, because how can you be sure that you have seen all of the evidence before forming your intuition? The only way to justify such a strategy is if you are insatiably curious, and in Tyler we trust.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Five Ideas for Spring Break

1) I was nonplussed by Watchmen the movie and disgusted with the way that it layed waste to the ending, but is this really fair? After all, I may never have heard of the book and eventually read it were it not for the hype due to the movie. It is a curious phenomenon when people claim that they wish that a movie based on a book had never been made even though they probably never would have read the book were it not for the movie.

2) I don't enjoy listening to country music alone but I do like listening to it with somebody who hates it because it is fun to watch them writhe in pain.

3) Laundry is hard not because of the number of things that you must do but the number of things that could go wrong: shrinking your clothes, not drying them thoroughly, or setting fire to the household by not wiping off the dust. Thus, "It's so simple, all you have to do is push a few buttons" is not a sufficient rebuttal to my disdain of laundry.

4) Why do people often say "too much information" but never "not enough information"? Surely our conversations roughly approach equilibrium, and these phrases indicate deviations from that norm. Nei, anyone?

5) In terms of intellectual stimulation, I find movies to be better than TV shows which are better than video games which are better than most theatrical performances. Of course there is some variance both within groups and how much one prefers intellectual stimulation to other factors. Movies are better than TV because they have less time to tell their story and thus leave more facts for the viewer to infer.


I'm on spring break and in full contemplation mode, so posting may be even more esoteric than usual.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

There's Nothing Wrong with Game-Playing

From Michael Shurtleff's classic Audition:
First let me explain that by game playing and role playing I don't mean insincere behavior. No matter how often I insist that game and role playing are real, actors persist in believing they are examples of pretense, make-believe, unreality, insincerity.

When we play games, it is for real; when we take on different roles, it is sincere conduct, for it is a way of dealing with reality, not avoiding it.

Let me use an example: I come to my classes, I play the role of teacher. The actors play the roles of students. If we meet at a cocktail party, we play the roles of peers: who can be the wittiest? We no longer observe the student-teacher roles but invest ourselves with new ones. We are the same people. We are not less real at a cocktail party, we are simply making a different adjustment to a different situation. We play the game...

Every relationship we have demands a different role, in order to be successfully fulfilled. Every situation we are in is a game with different rules. All real. All meaningful to us. The rules of the game tell us how to act in the life situation, don't they? So they also tell actors how to "act."
Sometimes people are incredulous when I attempt to explain theirs or others behavior in terms of signaling. But of course they are manipulating and reacting to other people's impressions of them! We all play signaling games all the time that we interact socially. The salient question is not whether it is being done but how and why people are doing so and what that reveals about the situation.

Audition thus far is very good; I'll post the rest of my notes and thoughts when I've finished reading it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Why have free throw percentages remained constant?

Free throw percentages in the NBA over the past 50 years have remained remarkably constant, hovering at around 75 percent. Since most other tangible facets of the game have improved in that time span, it is puzzling that there has not been much change in free throw percentages.

My explanation of this phenomenon is that there has not been much selection pressure towards better free throw shooters. Most NBA teams emphasize size and athleticism, arguing that if you are outmatched in those areas you will be so dominated in other areas that free throw shooting will be irrelevant. Moreover, free throws are seen as something that you can teach, but you can't teach height, and you can't teach tomahawk dunks.

Finally, even if NBA teams do have a preference for slightly better free throw shooters, that effect will be counteracted by concurrent preference for slightly bigger players. Big men will always have a tougher time shooting free throws. This is partly due to simple biomechanics--image trying to throw a tennis ball into the hoop and you understand Shaquille O'Neal's daily struggle. It is also partly due to reduced incentives for those 7 feet and over. Even if Andrew Bynum cannot shoot free throws well, he will still have a job somewhere in the NBA because of his abnormal size, whereas a 6'2" player would not be able to survive with a 60% average.

Assuming the inflation-adjusted wage stays relatively constant or increases, and as the global talent pool increases, this model predicts that either players will continue to get taller and stronger or average free throw shooting will improve. The 2006-2007 NBA average height was 6'6.9" and the average free throw percentage was 75.2%. I am willing to bet that, assuming the inflation-adjusted wage of an NBA player stays the same and the league has not expanded drastically, one or both of those measures will have increased by 2026.


Seth Roberts reports that Cal Tech's had one of the top basketball teams in the nation during the 1950s! As Seth notes, in the 1950s you would look at that and think "well that's just how it should be," but now it looks so weird.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Rationality of a Shit List

Some advocates use a shit list as a record of people that have wronged them in the past. You can either plan to get back at them in the future or merely avoid them at all costs. This is an interesting diversion, and it raises the question: how rational is this behavior?

On the one hand, if you were developing an AI, there would be no reason to program in a shit list. Why would a perfectly rational computerized agent hold grudges and have enemies? All that would accomplish is to hedge off potential alliances in the future based on past grievances, even after sufficient punishment has been doled out for "cheating."

But humans are not blank-slate computer software--we come pre-designed with multifaceted cognitive adaptions that must be taken into account. And one of those is a desire to punish fellow humans who break social contracts, even when it may be against our own self-interest.

A shit list co-opts this desire for revenge and uses it to spur you onto completing your other goals. Having clearly defined enemies can focus your energy and give you strength when you are bored or weary. You may think: So and so would like it if I gave up now, wouldn't he? And that will help you push through complacency.

This analysis also yields insight into how your shit list should be constructed. It should be short, and comprised of people who have wronged you personally, especially those who had entered into and broken some sort of agreement. Too long and you will be drowned in thoughts of your enemies; not a personal enough reason and you will not be assimilating your insticts for revenge. But under the right circumstances, a shit list can be rational indeed.

Full Disclosure: I myself have made a short shit list, which has prompted some people to ask me whether or not they are on it. My answer? Maybe... Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.

(Thanks to Legend for popularizing that last line).

Monday, March 2, 2009

Who should you open up to?

Robin Hanson's simple model about how you should act toward potential friends makes some surprisingly accurate predictions. Here are the five assumptions:
1. How much people like or hate you depends on their estimates of your features.
2. You don't know who likes or hates what bundles of features, so you don't know who will like or hate the things they learn about you.
3. Whether you are above or below certain friend and enemy thresholds matters more than how far above or below those thresholds you are.
4. You can do certain things to reveal more or less about yourself to people.
5. Strangers start out giving you a middle estimate, of neither a friend nor an enemy.
His conclusion is that an agent acting in this model should open up when first meeting somebody, but if they become friends, there is no longer any incentive to discuss passions and life-goals.

My intuition is that assumption #3 will not hold unless the situation is strictly social. There are some people towards whom our desire to impress will almost never drop off. For example, even if Michael Arrington were already my friend, I would still want him to become an even better friend so that he will link to me from Tech Crunch and boost my Technorati ranking. Even if the CEO of the company I work for is already my friend, I will still want to impress him so that I am promoted.

Of these assumptions, which are the ones that you think will hold up worst with respect to reality?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Buffett: We do not need to overhaul the economic system

Warren Buffett recently put out his annual shareholder letter (careful PDF), which is full of his usual wit even in these pessimistic times. Berkshire Hathaway lost 9.6% this year, but they still beat the S&P 500 by 27.4%. He thinks that now is a poor time to hold onto cash:
Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long. Holders of these instruments, of course, have felt increasingly comfortable – fact, almost smug – in following this policy as financial turmoil has mounted. They regard their judgment confirmed when they hear commentators proclaim “cash is king,” even though that wonderful cash is earning close to nothing and will surely find its purchasing power eroded over time.

Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.
I find it difficult to see how inflation is not going to become rampant. How else is the government going to purge the deficit from $1.5 trillion in 2010 to $533 billion in 2013? And if inflation is the probable future, then by leaving your assets in cash you would be losing money.