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.