Sunday, November 29, 2009

Six Thoughts From Maine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Personal vs Objective Rating Systems

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

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

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

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Praise of Appreciative Thinking

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Job Security as Motivation

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

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

Can you think of any other examples?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Fruits of Tinkering With Nature

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

Monday, November 16, 2009

Interview with Cormac McCarthy

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nine EYRGBHTV thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 13, 2009

Variation in Sports Highlights

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

No Big Deal, Just the "Name Ease" Effect

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

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Arnold Kling is On Fire

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Coolness Emphasizes Short Run Over Long Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

WWI Hysterical Walking Symptoms

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Randian Reading of the Merchant of Venice

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

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

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

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