Monday, August 30, 2010

On The Shoulders Of...

Saying that you needed to stand on the shoulders of giants to accomplish anything would surely yield rounds of applause at most any ceremony. It confers high status to both the people who you are thanking and to yourself for associating with those giants. This should make us nervous; the concept of "standing on the shoulders of giants" is a prime candidate for an idea that has survived due to its signaling benefits as opposed to its actual truth.

Instead, I think that Jennifer Rohn is correct to note that we don't typically stand on the shoulders of just a few giants if and when we make any advances. Instead, it is probably more apt to say that we stand on the shoulders of many, many midgets. As Robin Hanson says, "most of the innovations that matter are the tiny changes we constantly make to the millions of procedures and methods we use."

Anyway, remind me of this the next time I'm making a receiving a hugely important award, which is bound to happen any day now.

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In determining the politically correct word to use this in post I happened upon the phenomenon of the euphemism treadmill, which is hella interesting. Basically it is the idea that any earnestly used word will, after a long enough time, be bastardized to have much more vulgar connotations. Thus, if you want to beat the masses to the punchline, you should study obscure academic lit in order to find your comedic material.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guilt Tripping For Love

Let's say you've reached and passed the "love threshold" of caring about someone, but then they spurn your affections. At first you may try to win 'em back the old fashioned way (throwing yourself at them), but if this fails, what is one to do? Jesse Bering suggests that we may have an evolutionary tendency to begin earnestly sulking at this point:
[O]ne of the more fascinating things about the resignation/despair stage... is the possibility that it actually serves an adaptive signalling function that may help salvage the doomed relationship, especially for an empathetic species such as our own... [H]eartbreak is not easily experienced at either end, and when your actions have produced such a sad and lamentable reaction in another person, when you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess—and this is just a hunch, in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim—I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.
The reason the sadness has to be legit is that humans are super savvy at detecting conscious deception ploys, and sadness recognized to be fake is not persuasive. So although one might prefer to merely fake sadness and otherwise go on as normal, that strategy has lower evolutionary fitness.

Bering's argument uses reasoning very similar to Michael Vassar's speculation that more social animals are more likely to feel pain. The only problem with both of these claims is that there's little direct data to back them up... can you think of any ethical way to test this?

Mark Cuban's Non-Probabilistic Thinking

His investment advice today is to pay off high interest debt, save your money in cash, and try to cut personal spending. Fair enough. But then he makes the outrageous claim that "If you have under 100k dollars in liquid assets, your net worth will be higher in one year if you follow this advice than if you follow ANY other investment advice any broker or banker will give you this year."

The likelihood of this claim proving true is vanishingly small. Out of all of the other pieces of investment advice proffered, surely some of these will beat the null strategy of playing it safe. Now, Cuban might argue that you can't identify which advice will allow you to beat the null a priori, and so you're better off not trying, but that's a totally different claim.

Bottom line: Cuban's blog gets demoted from "medium" to "low" priority on the Google reader hierarchy, and is now teetering on the edge of unsubscribe territory.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sequence Continuation

The eight or so images from Manfred Harringer's paper describing a model for human pattern valuation are beautiful. Here's one:

And it's "solution":
To me, the key to understanding this continuation is that you can't just focus on the numerical pattern. You have to take into account the symmetry of the square as well.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Trade Off #7: Proximity vs Scale

In many walks of life, we face incentives to either disperse our resources among a large set of options or to focus our resources in one area. Dispersion increases our proximity to each of the options but by focusing in one area we often achieve benefits due to scale. Examples:
  • Multinational businesses can either produce their products close to customers and minimize transport costs, or they can produce their products in a central location that maximizes economies of scale. (see here)
  • One paradox of doing updating our statuses and chronicling our thoughts on the internet: it scales well in that we can speak to nearly everyone, but at the same time we end up speaking to nobody in particular. In potentially reaching the masses, we inevitably sacrifice some of our proximity to others. (see here)
  • In biology, cells can produce proteins at a central, diffuse location that minimizes the energy spent transporting ribosomes RNA along the cytoskeleton, or they can produce proteins locally and maximize the probability that the protein ends up where it can interact fruitfully with other cellular components. (see here)
  • In perception, one can pay attention to either the forest as a whole or look at individual trees, but not both at the same time. This generalizes to difficulties in understanding multiple levels of a hierarchy with just one approach. (see here)
I don't know how to precisely state this and I'm not even sure if these concepts all even fit with one another. So I welcome any suggestions you may have.

(photo credit: Jonathon)

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Randomization In Politically Sensitive Topics

When I was in high school we had a controversy over whether minorities were and should be over-represented in the pictures of school publications. Some thought the pictures attempted to display a false image of the school to spur donations, and this understandably annoyed them.

It was a tricky question because the school could always claim ignorance. They could argue that any deviations in the pictured sample from the total student population were merely statistical anomalies. Who could logically prove them wrong?

With hindsight, the best solution would have been for the school to draw up a list of all the students in the school and randomly choose which ones to include in the photo. And generally, with the now widespread availability of random number generators, it seems to me that the best solution to representing large communities with small sample sizes is to randomize the selections.

In a related issue, while describing some "athlete" in a post from two days ago I had to choose between the pronouns of him, her, him/her, or one of the many gender neutral pronouns. Choosing just one of the two could subconsciously bias readers into associating a particular gender with a particular activity, perpetuating stereotypes. On the other hand, him/her is unwieldy, and readers likely wouldn't understand the gender neutral pronouns. I was stuck between being a sexist or a sloppy writer.

So I decided to randomize my choice between "him" and "her." I went to random.org, assigned "1" to "him" and "2" to "her," and generated a random number between these two. I got a "2", so the pronoun I used was "her." This was kind of time consuming, but in the future one might imagine word processors offering the randomization of these pronouns as a standard feature. By randomizing, the reader is no longer systematically biased to associate a certain behavior with a certain gender.

One remaining issue is that people might not trust that authors and institutions have actually carried out the randomizations, but instead faked it and went with the option that made them look the best. Thus I can foresee the creation of The Institute Of Randomness, whose role is to impartially randomize words and samples for institutions, authors, and ad agencies. The institute might even offer to randomize the gender, sexual orientation, attractiveness, ethnicity, and etc., of characters in stories, so as to further minimize stereotyping.

Another good part about randomizing is that it eliminates the condescension often involved with direct reversals of stereotypes. Instead, you end up with equality under the laws of probability, which is as it should be.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is Love On A Spectrum?

Given my working assumption that every human tendency is on a spectrum, it seems reasonable that love, too, is on a spectrum. But this is controversial, because it implies that there are degrees to how much one loves, whereas in popular conception there are no degrees to love, the question is a binary "do you love me?", and that's that.

So, is love an exception to the no thresholds assumption? I'm thinking no, and here's why.

First, I agree with Elie Wiesel, who said that "the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is indifference." This makes sense because hate is often correlated with love. Think of Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.

Second, love is usually a relative term. Competition of one particular love over other possible loves is implicit. To tell someone that you love them, but that you love everyone else just as much, is basically to say that you don't really love them.

Given the above, this is my preferred model. We have a spectrum of how much we care about a given thing. This spectrum runs the gamut from totally indifferent to really, really caring a lot. You can always care more, you can always care less. "Love" is the state of being at some point among the set of caring levels above some arbitrary point, the "love threshold." This diagram may help you to visualize:

So, while it's natural that there will be some fluctuations in how much you care, as long as your feelings remain in the "in love" portion of the spectrum, you can still honestly say that you're in love. There are degrees to caring, but once you've defined your love threshold, there can be no degrees to love.

Nevertheless, where one defines the love threshold can vary based on, among other things, jadedness, neediness, and drunkenness. This variability underscores that the concept of love will always and forever be an abstraction, a human construct designed to serve our far mode ends.

Edit: See Lemmus's insightful comments below, suggesting that I change "caring" above to "liking," which makes sense and is more consistent with the difference between love and hate.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Trade Off #6: Training vs Battling


Deciding whether to build resources or engage in actual competition is a common trade off that individuals must wrestle with. The upsides to building up resources are that you'll have a better chance of success when you do engage, and that it may be safer. The upsides to battling now are that you'll have more immediate feedback, and that you may end up with more total chances to battle. Examples:
  • An aspiring athlete can either practice her fundamentals (training) or go play the actual sport (battling).
  • Periods of seismic quiescence (fewer small quakes) from 1 to 2.5 years often precede large earthquakes (see here). One can think of quiescence as "training" that builds up tension in the fault prior to rupture. 
  • In developmental economics, there is an inverse correlation among children between hours of work and reading / math skills (see here). Generally, studying is training while doing is battling.
  • In reproduction, some models argue that there is a trade off between sperm production and securing mates (see here). Production is training while mating is, in some senses, a battle. 
This is one of the trade-offs that has the potential to be subsumed into others, but for now it seems canonical enough to justify its own spot.

(credit for sweet photo of preying mantis goes to HUS0)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Spectrums Everywhere

The concept of neurodiversity seems to have originated with respect to autism, but it is now being generalized to nearly everything else. Thomas Armstrong explains one of the key components in a recent interview:
One of the eight principles that I discuss in my book Neurodiversity is that everyone exists along “continuums of competence” with respect to a range of human processes including sociability, literacy, intelligence(s), attention, mood, and so forth. This is very similar to the DSM-V’s embracing of a dimensional perspective, and to that extent, I think the DSM-V is moving in the right direction. The problem is that the DSM-V will be a high stakes publication, and if people are put on a continuum from normal to pathological, the fuzzy line where normal becomes pathological (and vice versa) becomes very important, and may determine whether a person will be labeled with a disorder, given a drug treatment, and perhaps even stigmatized as a result. There’s a danger that many so-called normal people will be added to the ranks of the mentally disordered. Also, what’s missing from the DSM (in all its versions) is any kind of discussion of the positive dimensions of each of the disability categories.
Genomic studies continue to struggle to find correlations between specific polymorphisms and psychological traits (see here). What this indicates is that a bunch of little genetic polymorphisms shift your tendencies in one direction or another, but there are no large discrete steps.

So, statistically speaking, we should all be somewhere on the spectrum of every sort of tendency and disorder. Now, people surely shift along these spectrums, due to changes in one's environment, developmental clocks, and the probabilistic nature of gene expression. But people should still remain somewhere on the spectrum of any given cognitive style.

I will spare you my rampant speculation from this point on, but believe me, I could go on for days. The bipolar spectrum, the schizophrenia spectrum, the addiction spectrum, to name a few: it is very interesting to extrapolate from the idea that we all should be at least somewhere along these.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Two Tools For The Citizen Scientist

1) A portable electrophysiology toolkit. Strap it to a cockroach's leg, stimulate it, and it spits out neuromuscular action potentials. Try varying the conditions and see if you can get the frequency of the action potentials to change. This will run you around $110. (HT to Andrew Hires)

2) A microscope on your cell phone. It has a resolution of ~ 1 micrometer and is amazingly lensless. Apparently it will only cost $10 but probably won't hit the market for 5 years, which is lame. There are cool comparison photos with a conventional microscope (10x objective lens, 0.25 numerical aperture) but the paper is stuck behind a paywall and so I can't post them due to copyright issues. (HT on the concept to Jason Snyder).