Saturday, June 30, 2012

Why the machines let us live

OK so I'm reading this nerdy sequence that has somehow incorporated a lot references to the matrix in it.  And the nerds (some of them) arguing over whether the matrix had flawed explanations in it (!)!.

And I came across this comment from Gwern which for reasons I won't go in to now (you're welcome) I just loved to pieces and wanted to upvote 1000 times.

The part that I loved:

...MORPHEUS: The machines tell elegant lies.
NEO (in a small voice): Could I please have a real physics textbook?
MORPHEUS: There is no such thing, Neo. The universe doesn't run on math.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Me on vacation.

Recreating?  Re-creating?

I don't think of myself as a vacation person.  But my family loves them some vacations and particularly loves Kauai.  Julia thinks of The Point at Poipu as one of her houses.  She has been visiting there since she was born.

So here I am one week into a two week vacation in Hawaii.  I brought my laptop with me, and not just so I could book ATV tours.  I read my work email.  I answer some.  Is this a vacation?  Is this the break from work that I read you "need" so you come back re-charged?  Re-vivified?  De-zombieized?

You know what?  I think it is.  What I am NOT doing is anything I don't feel like doing.  Yes, I'd like to send my app to the VP at work who asked for it.  But reading his email, it seems pretty clear he thinks it is something else (something I CAN create).  So I am somewhat paralyzed, do I do what he asked, send him the app I wrote about, regardless of my concern that he thinks it is something else?  Do I write the new app, knowing full well that "it is a few days work" is B.S., for me anyway it is a minimum of 2 weeks work?

I'm on vacation.  What I do is read randomly through the web.  I have been wonderful places on the web in the last few days.  A wonderful blog by a VC in New York City.  (Ignore his vacation stuff, its too vacationy.)  He leads me to Seth Grodin, eh.  But he leads me to kickstarter where I get a much better/different idea about the relative importances of smartphones, android, iphone, and... Sensors!  Sensors!  (I had to say that twice because there were two links I wanted to share.  Try them both! (new start-up idea... hyperlinks that bring you to two web pages instead of just one.)).

And how did I find that VC?  Oh yeah, one of the best essayists in the universe, Paul Graham wrote about him.  And Paul was giving me leads on how to approach my work more effectively.  And Seth was warning against pandering.  So I don't have to be too responsive to a VP's request, I should at least consider doing something he might really be interested in, on my schedule not his.

And I can follow Paul's advice to put these at the top of my To Do list:

  • Don't ignore your dreams; 
  • don't work too much; 
  • say what you think; 
  • cultivate friendships; be happy.
That looks like re-creation worty of a vacation to me.  

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


I just read a nice mini-scholarly presentation on "wireheading."  Wireheading is basically addiction distilled down to direct stimulation of the parts of the brain that are (probably) the essence of what makes something addictive.  The article is intriguingly entitled: "Are wireheads happy?"  A great question.  I have been addicted, I think, to alcohol and little cigars at times.  I suspect I am addicted to food even now.  I think I work compulsively (although not all that much) and do the things I do on the internet in a sort of compulsive-addicted way.  Who knows for sure where the line is or even if there is a line.

I smoked small cigars, about 3 a day, for about 2 years.  This is 20 years ago by now.  I was quite content every time I smoked one, they pleased me in many ways.  I didn't stop because they stopped pleasing me, but rather because I realized after 2 years that I was de facto addicted and was concerned about the cost of smoking them (primarily health and disgustingness).  Since then, I have smoked cigarettes (my preference) or cigars at parties when drinking.  Probably never more than about once every 3 months, and now less than once a year.  But my feeling whenever I smoke them is pleasure and satisfaction.  I am happy to smoke them and look forward with pleasure to smoking again, even as I forego opportunity after opportunity to smoke.

When I diet food is extremely satisfying.  It would be hard to say I am not happy when I am eating.  When I am not dieting, I am not as happy at all when I am eating, but I still have the desire to eat.  I am obese and consider that my eating patterns have a lot in common with chemical addiction.

When I have allowed myself the pleasure of various video games I have taken pleasure from them for days at a time, but still felt the compulsion to keep playing them even when the amount of pleasure or happiness was way down from its starting value.  As with cigars and alcohol, it is much easier to not play them when I am not playing them at all then when I am trying to play them in moderation.  Even so, when I am not playing them I am fully aware of how much I will enjoy playing them if and when I take them out of the penalty box.

Decades ago, I saw before me two paths, one using drugs regularly to seek pleasure, another being engaged in real life with other people.  I felt the drug path would do a much more complete job of wiping out the real life path as a viable choice, whereas it would always be easy to switch to the drug path later.  More than 35 years after making the temporary choice against drugs, I am less attracted to the drug choice than ever.  Even so, I still miss drugs, if not every day probably a few times a month.

I don't know what the point of this blog entry is, which is I suppose why I don't add much to the self-help literature.  Its just a part of my story.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

When no correlation tells you about a strong correlation...

Robert Wiblin summarizes a blog post at The Atlantic.  If you'll read only one but have a little more time, read the Atlantic one, it has figures and more examples of the phenomenon.

So the phenomenon is that for some kinds of observables, correlations with other observables give some interesting results.  The one that drew me in: among Republicans, favoring marijuana legalization has absolutely no correlation with favoring wealth redistribution (and there are significant numbers of Republicans on either side of these issues).  Does this mean that these two policy issues are decided in completely unrelated ways in a Republican's mind?  That would be the vanilla explanation.

But there are two things that break that explanation.  One: favoring wealth redistribution and favoring marijuana legalization are highly correlated among the population as a whole.  So does this mean the Republican party somehow attracts people for whom these issues are unrelated?  No.

Consider 4 classifications.  Let me nerd out a bit to save some typing, G means you favor grass (marijuana) legalization, R means you favor wealth redistribution.  Then ~G and ~R mean you are against these things.  Then there are 4 possibilities: you are one of (G,R), (G,~R), (~G,R), or (~G,~R).  From what we know of republicans, one might expect it to attract social conservatives who might include (~G,R) and (~G,~R) people.  One might expect it to attract economic conservatives who might include (G,~R) and (~G,~R).  Heck, there might even be a few libertarians who are probably (~G,~R).  But what of (G,R)?

The punchline is that (G,R), people who favor both marijuana legalization and wealth redistribution probably belong to a different party than the Republicans.

So there probably are plenty of connections between how people think of marijuana legalization and wealth redistribution.  And in general, these things are correlated positively.  But then when you confound (or collide) that with a third thing, identify self as Republican, you get the interesting result that G and R are uncorrelated (a mathematical result) which might lead you to conclude incorrectly that Republican's think of G and R as unrelated while non-Republicans think they are related.  In fact, each Republican probably thinks they are related, but the fact of Republicaness biases away from (G,R) strongly enough to counterbalance the expected correlation of (~G,~R).

Other fun conclusions these blogs:  1) if you want good food in a restaurant go to older restaurants that are unfashionable and otherwise unpleasant: if food and atmosphere cause a restaurant to survive than surviving restaurants with better atmosphere probably have worse food.  2) If you want to choose a good actor from among the unemployed actors, pick a not-particuarly-good-looking one, because employed actors are probably good-looking and/or attractive, leaving behind few good-looking good-actors.

If you can think of any other counter-intuitive anti-correlations, please post them here in a comment.  ESPECIALLY if exploiting the anti-correlation might make me money. :)

Monday, June 18, 2012

Markets in Everything: How much for that kidney?

LessWrong has a short discussion of the value of donating a kidney.  I had previously read that selling kidneys was legal in Iran, and wondered how much they cost.  When I searched, I found this article which seems a nice quick review of the kidney markets around the world.

So a kidney, price includes installation, is as low as $6,316 in the Philippines and as high as $85,000 in the United States.  It looks to be a pretty inefficient world market, driven by the very different situations around the world, and probably by the very weird and expensive way that the U.S. pays for health care.  

On the one hand, I'm not actually sure people should be allowed to sell their own kidneys.  On the other hand, I'm not actually sure people should be allowed to starve.  Until I start intervening against starvation, I don't think I support intervening against kidney sales.

Would you go to the Philippines to get a kidney if you needed one?  I think I would.  Unless I could get my insurance company to get me an $85,000 "U.S. legal" kidney for free.

Markets in Everything is, by the way, stolen joyously from Professor Mark J Perry who writes one of the most informative economics blogs I could imagine.  Visit his blog and you may be very happy you did.  His blog is called Carpe Diem for no particular reason that I can figure out.

Friday, June 15, 2012

WWII: A lesson about Germans or about Humans?

For years I have taken the "lesson" of WWII to be: look what HUMANS can do to each other.  I have certainly spoke to many who took as the lesson: look what GERMANS can do to people.

After WWII, among other things, the allies forcibly deported (or expelled) more than 12 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and "Poland," where I put Poland in quotes because the area from which Germans were expelled included hundreds of square miles of land that had been Germany until the Allies gave it to Poland.  The vast majority of the expelled were women, children, and old people.  Expulsion was NOT tied to any concept of individual guilt or collaboration with the German enemy by those expelled, it was driven by the ethnic identification of the expelled wtih the German enemy.

Every kind of atrocity you read about in any massive expulsion happened in this one, the details are here.  I won't repeat them in this post, but will mention two details.  One is that about half a million of the expelled died in the expulsion of starvation, freezing, and presumably other causes.  The other is that the Allies enslaved many of the ethnic Germans in labor camps including Theresienstadt and Auschwitz I which the allies took over from their former Nazi bosses.  The slave labor program was referred to as "Reparations In Kind."

The lesson for me is that, at least at the ethnic or national level, there is no "they" there is only "we" when it comes to inhumanity.  What I mean is, it is not "them" where "they" are the Nazis, the Stalinists, the Maoists, the Khmer Rouge, the European invaders of the Americas, or the Moslems who are the problem.  The problem is Humans.  We collect into large groups with highly specialized and stratified political, legal, and economic roles, and among the responses we typically turn to are 1) identifying a "they" that "we" can blame stuff on, oppress, and exploit, 2) lumping in to our enemy a broad range of people who by a slightly different analysis had very little to do with our enemy.

I don't propose or support self-flagellation over this woeful state.  It is just another thing which is true about humans.  Live with it.  Be aware of it as a human bias, and say everything your neocortex can come up with to counter it.

In my opinion, being aware the problem is us and not them will lead to consistently better results in mitigating and battling the bias.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

What's wrong with school?

What I'd primarily like to do here is comment on the blog post Hides Sociobiology Like Sex?  The lines that caught my attention are the first ones in this blog entry:
Self-interest goes a very long way to explaining human behavior.  Yet when we educate our young, we prefer to bias them, focusing their attention on the virtues of indiscriminate altruism.  Why?
Before I dive into the meat, this post is the second entry ever in the great blog  This is very near to where it started.

The meat of my response to that quote is this: Of COURSE schools don't teach our children how to work in their own self-interest.  Why would you direct the spending of resources to advance someone else's interests?  You don't institutionalize the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance 2400 times in order to advance the self-interest of the reciter.  

The paradox is that attending school is an incredibly efficient way to advance the self-interest of children.  School offers the magic of human knowledge, the gifts that keep on giving of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic.  By the time I was 17 years old, I knew a LOT OF STUFF.

Even if you LIKE the idea of reciting the Pledge in school, it is still OK to understand what this recitation is, and what it isn't.  It is NOT education.  It IS reinforcing an opinion.  Reinforcing it 185 times a year for nearly 13 years before you are likely to be faced by a U.S. Army recruiter.  

I happen to sort-of agree that just because something is brain-washing doesn't necessarily make it wrong.  The only societies of any significance to modern humanity are those that took serious, non-academic approaches to their own survival.  This has always included and continues to include promoting the interests of the successful society in ways at best tangential to promoting knowledge and at worst filled with fear, violence, oppression, and horror.  I'd love to rise above it, but history shows me that everybody who PERSONALLY rises above it does it under the protection of a state with a military and policing forces that they are not shy about using.  

We are lucky that the most important asset of the population to the state is a well-functioning and largely independent mind.  Because THIS is why we have powerful civilizations that put a lot of resources into equipping their population with the basic intellectual and political tools of useful independent thought.

So I send my kids to the public schools.  And I subvert some of the social lessons of those schools.  Not because I am better than society, but because MY self-interest as expressed through what I do for my children is NOT 100% aligned with society's.  And thanks to a great public education, and what I have done with it since then, I am in a pretty good position to take from these schools what I want from them, and to subvert the rest.

And to help my children do the same, until such a day as their education leads them to realize that their self-interest deviates from society's, but also from Dad's.  

Friday, June 08, 2012

Where do we go after we die?

Robin Hanson found this gem:

It seems clever and emotionally informative to me.

I don't even see it as dystopian.  What we see here is a future where
1) immortality (through upload to a computer after your death) is available at a price
2) the price can be reduced at your option for accepting advertisements and some other limitations
3) A much more limited version is available free, but is optional: if you don't like the limitations you can reject it.

Further, the implication in this video is you get these options even if you haven't made plans ahead of time.  Your out riding your motorcycle, from the corner of your eye you see a car cutting off your right of way, and the next thing you see is the video above giving you  your options.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

What's it like to be THAT smart?

This is a great "laundry list" of what subjective experience of various IQ levels might be like:  The sourcing is from a talk by Garth Zietsman, a South African blogging amazing statistical results related to his "SmartVote" concept of pooling the intelligence of many people.  I don't know anything about the sourcing of this stuff: if you find it interesting enough you'll have to chase that down yourself!

The other thing I ponder as I read this: One in a million intelligence this guy puts at an IQ of 186.  The kinds of people he cites as being up there are pretty impressive.  He states that many people up in this neighborhood are very maladjusted and do not participate much in human culture.  BUT STILL: one in a million, 7 billion people on the planet, that's 7 million of these people out there.  Enough to populate a very large city.  Enough to provide a 70 person research tiger team to 100,000 organizations.

Where are these people?

Could there be an opportunity for one of us third-tier geniuses to systematically find these people and attempt to do something with them?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

SmartVote: a really interesting idea

This blog post has a really cool idea in it. I saw this post referred from

To describe the idea, let me first mention another idea, which is prediction markets.  Here, you allow people to "buy" an interest in the outcome to some question, like "Romney will win the US presidential election in 2012" or "At the end of 2013, oil will be selling for more than $150/barrel."  Essentially you can buy a share that will yield some fixed amount, perhaps $10 if the answer is "yes."  You can also "sell" that same share (or conceptually, buy a share that the answer is no).  The market clears: if more people want to buy shares of yes than sell them, then perhaps the price rises to $8 a share before the buyers think it is too expensive to keep buying.  Then at any point, an external observer looking at activity in the market can declare that the market for an $8 price to get a $10 return on yes is saying "there is an 80% chance the answer is yes."  

The important idea with a prediction market is that the market is more correct on average than are any of its participants.  Of course its participants are making money only to the extent that they are more correct than are other participants in the market (as I have described it, it is a zero-sum market).  But the utility of the market is supposed to be for those who look at the "collective wisdom" there and get better estimates of how things will go than they could get if they just hired one or two of the smart participants in the market.  

Enter Garth Zietsman and his "SmartVote" concept.  Dr. Zietsman talks about research results showing that in a bunch of tests, he can get the correct answers by comparing "smart" (high IQ) voters against less smart voters.  In at least some of these tests, where even the smart people averaged 42% correct on these tests, the simple analysis of the multiple smart answers vs the multiple less smart answers gives 100% correct answers.  

Intuitively, this makes sense to me.  Products are much more complex than any one mind can comprehend, and they are all created by distributing the intelligence work across many people, and having many layers of abstraction and simplification in order to coordinate across parts off the product.  If human intelligence in design can be multiplied by ganging together many minds, than why couldn't many minds ganged together do better on a test?  

Very intriguing stuff in my opinion.