Sunday, May 31, 2009

Two Claims I'm Striving to Understand

1) Neils Bohr, famous 20th century physicist (link here):
"The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth."
As his son summarized it, this is a way to classify truths. Profound truths are recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth, in contrast to trivialities where opposites are obviously absurd. I understand what it is literally claiming, but I fail to see how it could ever be applied, and why many have considered it so powerful.

Let's try applying this maxim to a few potential truths. How about, "everything that goes up must come down." Now, how would you construct the opposite of this truth? Two possible opposites are that either everything that goes down must come up, or that everything that goes up must not come down. Both of these are untrue, so by his dichotomy the statement is a triviality.

For another example, let's take something that Bohr himself worked on, the complementarity principle of quantum physics that a single quantum mechanical entity can either behave as a particle or as wave, but never simultaneously as both. One possible opposite of this statement is that a single quantum mechanical entity must always behave simultaneously as both a particle and a wave. This is demonstrably false, suggesting that by his dichotomy one of the key findings of quantum physics is merely a triviality.

"Going meta" and subjecting this maxim to its own rule also yields many potential opposites. One is that the opposite of a correct statement is a profound statement, but the opposite of a profound truth is a false statement. This is obviously false, and I'm not sure what that implies.

So my issues with this claim are that there is no obvious method for choosing which opposite of many possible ones you should evaluate and that I can't encounter any profound truths beyond maybe some generalization of Newton's third law (can you?). So, why is this famous, and why did Bohr consider it such a useful maxim?

2) Robin Hanson, in the comments to one of his old posts about conspiracies,
I’m struck by how many people think we understand social science well enough to exclude the possibility of a large group keeping a secret. Do these same people accept standard economics?
This was somewhat of a view quake to me when I first read it, because I was (am?) one of those people who excludes the possibility of a large group keeping a secret. My confusion stems from my inability to pinpoint the facet of standard economics that these social science enthusiasts are violating.

Let's presume that our large group contains at least some self-interested individuals. If the secret were important enough, then over time at least one of the members would probably realize that he/she could reap a large economic and potentially social reward by defecting from the group and revealing the secret through some other business venture (i.e., a tell-all book) that would capitalize on the knowledge. Of course, there might be an issue of credibility for the defector. But evidence shouldn't be too hard to gather in the form of tape recorded statements, etc., unless the organization keeping the secret is truly Big Brother. So, what am I missing here?

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Plaintive Children Assumption

The erudite Anthony Lane deconstructs yet another phenomenon in his recent review of Star Trek:
Here, in other words, is a long-range backstory—a device that, in the Hollywood of recent times, has grown from an option to a fetish. I lost patience with “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” once we learned of Willy Wonka’s primal trauma (his father was a dentist, and forbade him candies, so guess how he reversed that deprivation?), and, likewise, with “Batman Begins,” from the moment that mini-Bruce tumbled into a well full of bats. What’s wrong with “Batman Is”? In all narratives, there is a beauty to the merely given, as the narrator does us the honor of trusting that we will take it for granted. Conversely, there is something offensive in the implication that we might resent that pact, and, like plaintive children, demand to have everything explained.
Many recent movies (i.e., Slumdog Millionaire) do seem to have a deterministic developmental psychological bent to them. Basically if there is any scene with the main characters as children in it, I would be willing to bet that those experiences will have an outlandishly large role in forming the character's personality as an adult. This is especially odd considering recent research like The Nurture Assumption, which suggests that the causal power of childhood experiences on adult personality is generally overrated. But perhaps Hollywood has not caught on, or Hollywood does not think that the majority of the populace has caught on. Regardless, I'm not yet snobbish enough to say that this actually offends me, but it is somewhat annoyingly predictable.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gawande on Health Care in High Cost Counties

Atul Gawande has written an interesting article about healthcare in McAllen, Texas, one of the highest cost markets in the country. Government payers in the county already predominate because not many people have jobs with private insurance, so that is not a sufficient explanation for its high costs. Moreover, measuring the county’s health outcomes in terms of survival or satisfaction shows no improvement over other counties, so that is unlikely to be the explanation either. Instead, Gawande argues that its problems are a matter of culture.

The blogosphere has already jumped on the tentative implications that the article puts forward for solving our country’s health care problem. But that is not the main thrust of the article by any means. His primary point is to lay out the problems in McAllen and contrasts its state of affairs to the state of counties on the other extreme (such as Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo clinic), where the health care is better but the costs are lower. Through interviews and appeals to statistics, he then tries to put forth a coherent theory for why these differences exist. Instead of debunking its macro implications, we should encourage more micro expositions like this one which we can draw upon if and when we begin redesigning our medical institutions.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Thanks For Reading This Blog

This is my five hundredth post, and it is also around the third year anniversary of when I started blogging. So I would like to thank everybody who reads this blog, even occasionally. Your support helps to keep me motivated and your criticism helps to keep me sharp.

I would especially like to thank those of you who read this blog through an RSS reader or get updates by e-mail, because you are probably my most loyal readers, and because you don't make me feel guilty if I can't update for a few days. I appreciate it.

Finally, I'd like to encourage you all to send me links that you think I might find interesting. If you are on the cusp of deciding whether or not to send me something, you should err on the side of doing so. Like Amanda in Not Another Teen Movie, you can't expect me to blog each one of them. But at the very least I will tag them on

Monday, May 25, 2009

SQAB 2009 Breakdown

This past weekend I was in Phoenix, Arizona at a conference of the Society for the Quantitative Analyses of Behavior. I've posted my notes from the speakers on day one and day two at Brains Lab. Aside from my notes, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the conference:

"Every perception is an act of creation, every memory is an act of imagination." -- Gerald Edelman

Intelligence exists as a construct because people who are good at one thing tend to be good at lots of other things. "This may be the most replicated result in all of psychology." - Joel Myerson

"There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only a control condition for your next experiment."

"Talking to a bunch of behaviorists about consciousness is like talking to a bunch of bankers about virtue." - John Staddon

Thanks to the directors of SQAB for having me! It was a blast.

Creativity and Societal Strife

Here is Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in The Third Man:
“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance; in Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Of course, this is just an anecdote, but let's assume that there is at least some truth to it, which seems fair because it is in the top 250. If so, what types of achievements are more likely to be achieved in times of strife?

To borrow from Thomas Kuhn's terminology, normal puzzle-solving advancements might slow down, because there would be less person hours to be spent in working on them. However, it is possible that truly paradigm shifting advancements would be more likely to occur under times of economic or structural dissonance. If artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs are put into a "death ground" stance by their circumstances, they might be more likely to question otherwise unquestionable priors and truly shake things up.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Should We Shift Away From Positional Purchases?

That is the question that Robin Hanson ponders after considering Geoffrey Miller's recent book Spent. Miller's argument is that we should shift from positional purchases to purchases that are more instrumentally valuable and/or more reflect our individualistic style. In reading his argument and Robin Hanson's selective but thorough debunking, I am reminded of Tyler Cowen's thesis about modern art that "we do in fact need some means of determining which of the rich people are the cool ones, and the art market surely serves that end." To me, there is nothing wrong with certain people spending lots of money on positional items. In fact, their actions are what allows Miller to signal his own uniqueness by shopping at thrift stores.

Let's assume that there is an equilibrium of personality traits in a population, such that if everybody is shy it is socially advantageous to be outgoing but if everybody is outgoing it is advantageous to be shy. Everyone recognizes that the equilibrium is unlikely to reach the optimal distribution at any one time in any one place, so people might speculate that others should display more or less of various traits. The weird thing is that your average social evangelist, such as Miller, has a tendency to argue for other people to act more like himself, when from a theoretical perspective they should be arguing for people to act less like himself so that his actions will be more valued in the personality marketplace. The reason for this discrepancy seems to be that they don't actually want people to act in the same way that they are acting, but merely for their own actions to become more socially valued.

Thanks to Tyson for stimulating a conversation about this idea.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Why Saying "Thank You" is Hard

It's an odd feeling to be giving a sincere compliment. You want to appreciate the moment, but it also reminds you that you could be let down. In one part of his long, fascinating Atlantic article reporting on a longitudinal study of happiness Joshua Shenk touches on this phenomenon,
But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

In Defense of Spacing Out

Every now and then people do things that indicate they are not fully attending to their current situation. For example, they will put their shirt on backwards. Or they will forget whether or not they've put on face wash while taking a shower. Most of the time, people are looked down upon when they make such a mistake, and if it happens a lot they will begin to be called names such as "space cadet." And to the extent that the activities in which these people are making dumb mistakes have instrumental value, there may be some reason to look down upon them.

But there are also benefits to spacing out that are often ignored. The first step towards recognizing these benefits is to reframe the behavior from "spacing out" to "turning on autopilot mode." When you're in autopilot mode, you mostly ignore your external surroundings because allocating cognitive resources attending to them is not very valuable. This could be the case either when you've performed a task so many times that you can accomplish it without thinking, or when the task itself is so trivial that making a decision one way or another will not have much impact.

There are probably many benefits of being in autopilot mode, but two strike me as especially important. First, it simply frees up time to ponder other, more important subjects. Especially if you are in the habit of writing your good ideas down, this can be immensly valuable. Second, it will lead to less ego depletion. We only have so much willpower to allocate over the course of the day, so if you spend it on pointless stuff like deciding what pair of jeans to wear you'll have less of it when you want to focus during a meeting or write a paper.

Even from this perspective, spacing out is undoubtedly still sometimes a maladaptive strategy, like when one is driving. However, when approached from a tactical perspective, it likely to pass a cost-benefit analysis in a number of circumstances. In anecdotal accounts, I've witnessed a high correlation between space cadetishness with high intelligence and/or output, especially in academia. At some point, one must consider the possibility that there might be an element of causation there.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Measure of Referee Directed Irrationality

I've long argued that one exemplary case study for irrationality can be found in individual's responses to referees. My personal experience as a youth soccer referee led me to believe that if your measure of success is the reactions of players, parents, and coaches, there is simply no way to succeed. On one occasion I recall a parent yelling at me after the game about some stupid call on the way back to the parking lot, following an upperhouse (i.e., not the highest level) under-10 soccer game. Of course, I may have simply been a bad referee, but that strikes me as unlikely because I witnessed it happening to my fellow soccer referees as well.

You can measure an individual's level of irrationality towards referees in real life based on how they respond to referees in sports video games. You will find that, especially in basketball, people often complain about the calls being made. Of course, there is no a priori reason for the game's algorithms to favor one player over another, so we can prove that this is completely ridiculous. Whereas in real life we must face the confound of the complainers actually having a point. If you find yourself or your friends complaining about the referees in sports video games, that should be strong evidence to you of their irrationality in this regard, and you should feel free to generalize this both to real life responses to referees and indeed other random walk based outcomes as well.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Gladwell and Brooks Bashing Cottage Industry

One of my main motivations for reading Malcolm Gladwell and David Brook's columns is so that I can understand the context when bloggers meticulously deconstruct their anecdotally fueled arguments point-by-point.

For example, consider this recent, confused article by David Brooks about how the Republican party is erring too much on the side of individual choice and responsibility. As evidence, he draws heavily upon 1940s and 50s Western films. Will Wilkinson trashed it thoroughly here:
What in tarnation is this man talking about? Where is this Republican Party of “untrammeled freedom and maximum individual choice”? Did Ron Paul just become House minority leader or take Michael Steele’s job or something? Have the Republicans put up the white flag in the War on Drugs? Are GOP Senators stumping to end the legislation of morality? How did I miss this? It’s like Brooks was kidnapped by a Romulan and is sending us op-eds from an alternative timeline.
Next, we have this lengthy Malcolm Gladwell piece, about the full court press in basketball, parts of which I thought were quite astute. But then Deadspin author Dashiell Bennett convinced me that it his narrative is mostly bollocks:
Because hustle is not all it takes. It's actually very difficult to run a well-executed press and teams that specialize in it are usually lousy at everything else. (Because all their precious practice time is devoted to pressing.) All it takes is one calm point guard to mess everything up... Sooner or later you run into a Goliath who can dribble through a trap. Gladwell's other examples of this winning strategy include a military simulation from a computer that places no value on human life and the actual story of David and Goliath, which did not really happen.
I should also probably mention Mark Liberman, whose impassioned take downs of David Brooks in the past have made me wonder whether there is some sort of personal vendetta at play.

Tyler Cowen reads authors for their peaks. I read Brooks and Gladwell for their troughs.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Should Gambling Be Illegal?

There are two narratives to this debate:

1) Hypocrisy: It is unclear why certain forms of monetary risk taking (ie, horse racing, the stock market, state-sponsored lottos) are legal, while others (ie, normal bets between upstanding adults, online sports betting, games "of chance") are illegal. In fact, if you bite the bullet on the efficient market hypothesis, then all of those markets should probably be illegal in states where the criteria is based on the level of chance.

2) Utility: The wisdom of the crowds, the usefulness of having odds to anchor your own decisions on, the success of corporate prediction markets (with some caveats), etc.

The arguments are more one-sided for the first point, and thus it is perhaps more fun to discuss. The whole family can get involved! Even little Timmy can point out a loophole in this hopelessly complex, quasi-Draconian infrastructure. But unfortunately #2 does not follow from #1, so a discussion of #1 is mostly aimless.

Most of the arguments that I have seen against gambling are for the protection of people from themselves. For example, the second Google result for "why is gambling illegal?" quotes the Bible twice. Even if you accept this paternalistic argument, which I am unsure of both empirically and ethically, you still must admit that there is a potential utility to betting markets. They give us additional data points which we can use to make decisions in a highly uncertain world. So let's reframe the debate on point #2, and discuss it in a data-driven manner.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Opportunity Cost of Hard Work

Razib has some fascinating thoughts expanding upon David Brook's recent tautology of a column:
You read a book like Until It Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports and How It Harms Our Kids, and you understand the opportunity cost of focusing on a task where those with innate talent can easily beat those who have spent years honing their skills at the upper levels. Not that greatness in sports doesn't require hard work, obviously it does, but among the best the small hardwired differences mean that those who aren't as fast, strong or quick by their nature will lose.
More generally, the solution to all of life's problems cannot be simply more hard work. As Seth Godin points out in The Dip, sometimes you should quit, to focus on other stuff. I've found it to be more fun to focus on the niches in which I have a comparative advantage.