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Advice for anxious sleepers

When I was young I used to suffer from depression from time to time, sometimes pretty badly. But ever since I had kids, I suffer much more from anxiety. It’s never been paralyzing but it means I have trouble falling asleep about once or twice a week because I can’t stop fretting. I’m jealous of people that can wander off into fantasy land and imagine landing on the moon or walking across a grassy plain in a magical land, but that’s not me. I basically have no imagination and spend my brain cycles trying to solve really concrete problems, and if there’s something out of my control then it bugs me and I have trouble letting go.

I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem, and maybe I should be learning to meditate or something so I’m better at flexing my imagination muscles. Bring on the advice. In the meantime I’ve developed intense and complicated coping mechanisms. Here are a few in the form of friendly advice to all who suffer from anxiety at night:

  1. First of all, don’t worry about being worried. Chances are the next night you will be super exhausted and catch up on sleep, no harm done. Important to keep in mind!!
  2. Second, I really like to listen to the radio. Sports radio is almost always soothingly boring (although lately, what with all the wife beating talk, it has been less than helpful), and of course an actual baseball game is perfect, because nothing ever happens.
  3. But my husband can only sleep in total silence. Here’s the solution to this problem, which helps a LOT:

    Product motto: "This pillow speaker has saved a marriage or two ..."

    Product motto: “This pillow speaker has saved a marriage or two …”

  4. If that isn’t enough, then I usually go to the living room and watch boring movies on Netflix.
  5. I found the best, most boring movie EVER yesterday which I wanted to share with you. Namely, Nature’s The Private Life of Deer. That was seriously boring, and yet funny and nice too, especially when the “ghost deer photographer” was whispering to the camera about his strategies in tracking the ever-elusive albino deer in the northern woods.
  6. The video for that is available here, but I urge you to save it for when you have trouble sleeping and are trying not to think of something anxiety-provoking, it’ll be perfect.
Categories: musing

The app effect

I have a theory which I’m slightly embarrassed about but whatever, that’s what blogs are for, I’m going to talk about it. And I have no data for this whatsoever, although I’d be interested to hear thoughts on how to collect some.

Namely, I think a sizable amount of social change we’ve seen in the past few decades, for better and for worse, can be ascribed to what I call “the app effect,” namely the tendency for everyone, but young men in particular to be playing games on their phones or their xbox360’s or whatever rather than interacting with each other.

Look at crime rates. I am not claiming that crime rates have fallen solely because of the app effect over other reasonable effects, like the availability of abortions, or less lead paint, or people having more air conditioning.

But, let’s face it, when I was growing up in Boston in the 1980’s, you’d just see way more people out on the streets on summer evenings because it was too freaking hot to do anything inside and people were damn bored. That’s when the trouble would start. Nowadays you just don’t see that nearly as much. What are people doing? My guess is that they’re playing a shit load of video games. Tell me if I’m wrong.

Here’s another example. People are less politically engaged. Partly it’s because Congress sucks, but partly – yes – it’s because people are playing Candy Crush! They used to maybe spend time going to work reading the paper and otherwise doing the civic duty thing but nowadays they’re just trying to pass level 187. I’ve been there so I know about it.

Also, when the train stops? In the tunnel? And it’s dark and really hot? Everyone just plays their games even harder, where you used to maybe start talking, or shouting, or freaking out. It is a pacifier for grown-ups, a nationwide babysitting service that keeps people in line.

It’s good and bad. Sometimes getting out of line serves a purpose, sometimes it’s just destructive and the wrong thing to do. My worry, as a person who wants to see political engagement, is that we have trained an entire population to take refuge in a pointless activity that doesn’t serve any real purpose except to distract us and to mollify us, not to mention collect our data for later marketing purposes.

Another way to imagine this is, if all the apps and all the video games stopped working for a few weeks, what would happen? What would people do with themselves?

Categories: musing

Unsolicited advice about having kids

You know how it’s better to have a discussion with someone when you’re calm and they haven’t just done something that drives you absolutely nuts? Well I’m going to generalize to the parenting advice realm: best time to give parenting advice is not when you’ve just seen a kid get poorly parented or a parent stress out about stupid stuff. Best time is when you’re alone in your pajamas, nowhere near other people’s kids. That way those of you who have kids won’t feel defensive.

Also, here’s another rule about parenting advice: never take parenting advice from anyone, because the people who are actually eager to give it are usually super weird. Look at Tiger Mom as Exhibit A.

In spite of that very wise second rule, I’ma go ahead and give some advice that’s pretty good, if I do say so myself in my own weird way.

  1. Before having kids, think of all the reasons not to. They’re loud, expensive, and they weigh you down immensely. You will never be able to stay up with friends after 10pm again if you do it. So don’t do it.
  2. Unless… unless you just absolutely cannot help it because of all those freaking hormones and how cute they look in summer dresses (boys included, yes, they don’t care, they’re babies). Then do it, but think hard and plan well for the noise, the expense, and the inconvenience.
  3. In terms of how you parent a baby: think long-term about stuff. Are you gonna want to get up a million times every night for the rest of your life? No, you’re not. So figure out how to get the damn baby to sleep through the night. This cannot be forced until the kid is 6 months or so, and the moment you can manipulate their sleep is characterized by the moment they can try to manipulate their sleep and stay awake to hang out with you. That’s when you start the 6pm bedtime ritual, including songs and books and 6:30 lights out. They will cry for like 10 minutes three nights in a row and after that you will be golden. Long term thinking, remember. Even if they cry for an hour, it’s an investment for a lifetime, namely yours.
  4. In terms of how you parent a little kid: think super long-term about stuff. Don’t raise your voice unless they are doing something actually dangerous, like walking into traffic or sticking a fork into an outlet. Make sure you let them get really dirty and try to eat weird things, too – their tongues are like extra hands at this age, it helps them explore the world. The only thing a little kid really needs is regular meals and a 6 or maybe 7pm bedtime ritual. They can spend 2 hours ripping up a newspaper for entertainment. Once a week baths would be good.
  5. In terms of how you parent a school age kid: think super duper long-term about stuff. If you do their homework for them, they will never do it themselves. So let them figure that out, but do remind them to do it if they’re forgetful. If you structure all their time, they will never figure out what they love to do, so make sure they get bored sometimes. Keep lots of good books and nerdy puzzles and interesting people around the house but don’t make them “do math” with you unless they ask for it. Don’t make them take music lessons. Instead, wait for them to beg for music lessons, and then say no for a while until you’re really sure they want them. Don’t just tell them to be nice, exhibit nice behavior to them and to others in front of them. Reward them for pointing out your hypocrisies, and make them watch Star Trek: The Next Generation (or equivalent) with you for its moral education and for the popcorn, and have fun listening to them pointing out the bad physics. And the most important of all: enjoy them and have fun with them, because that’s the best kind of way to role model for your kids, plus it’s fun, and they’re people who will move away pretty soon and you’ll miss them.
  6. In terms of how you parent an older kid, I have no idea because my oldest kid is 14. But so far we’re having a blast. I’m pretty sure they’re already mostly raised in terms of my role anyway by the time they’re 12.

One last, general thing for today’s anxious parents: don’t feel guilty, you’re doing your best. Guilt is a waste of time and gets in the way of enjoying the popcorn.

Categories: musing

Clearwater Festival and Pete Seeger

After recording my weekly Slate Money podcast this morning I will be off to the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson. The weather’s supposed to be gorgeous all weekend, which is good because I’m camping in a tent, and the last few times I went to bluegrass or folk festivals and camped in a tent it rained and I ended up sleeping in puddles. If you’ve never done that, let me tell you that there’s something gross and creepy about wet pillows.

My bandmate Jamie, who plays the mandolin and washboard, convinced me not only to go but to be a volunteer at this festival, which as it turns out means I’ll be preparing food in the kitchen. There are 1,000 volunteers at this festival, so who knows how many people go; I’m preparing for a lot of diced carrots and onions no matter what. Or maybe I’ll be doing dishes. I love doing dishes for some reason.

So this Clearwater Festival was Pete Seeger’s baby, he came every year, and since he passed away this past winter, the entire weekend will be a tribute to his life and his work. Some incredible musicians are going to be there to honor Pete, and I am hoping my kitchen duties don’t conflict with my old favorite, Marty Sexton (Sunday at 4pm), as well as my new favorite, John Fullbright (Saturday at 2:30).

Stuff I’ve packed for the trip: tent, sleeping bag, pillow (dry so far), bluegrass juice (of the Jack Daniels variety), my fiddle, my banjo, a wooden bowl and utensils, and some metal coffee cups and shot glasses. Oh, and some clothes.

You should totally come by for either day or for the whole weekend if you’re nearby and in the mood for some really old hippy reminiscences! And really, who isn’t.

 

Categories: musing

Circular arguments, eigenjesus, and climate change

No time for a post this morning but go read this post by Scott Aaronson on using a PageRank-like algorithm to understand human morality and decision making. The post is funny, clever, very thoughtful, and pretty long.

Categories: modeling, musing

String Telephone

We moved to our apartment in New York almost exactly 9 years ago. I know that in part because I remember the date we moved in – June 4th, 2005 – but also because that first weekend we lived here, when we decided to try to buy some furniture for our nearly empty living room, we had to cross the Puerto Rican parade to get to Crate & Barrel on the east side of 5th Avenue. It was one of the most characteristic New York moments of my existence, and it made me feel like a real New Yorker.

About two days after moving in I figured out with my friend Michael Thaddeus (who has guest blogged hugely successfuly before) that his apartment was within direct sight of mine. We could wave to each other from our windows across both 116th and Claremont! For a suburban girl like me this was a hoot. We decided to build a string telephone at some point.

Well, we finally got around to doing it yesterday.

I live on the 9th floor, and Thads lives on the 5th floor of his apartment, so there was no chance we could throw anything up to the window on the outside. Instead Thads came over with two balls of string and two cans. For each window we lowered the string to the street with the help of someone on the street who could guide the person in the window. I actually only saw the first half of this procedure because I was tasked with holding the string after the first window and waiting for the second string to be lowered. Then the idea was we’d tie the two strings together.

So here I am, outside my building, holding a string in my hand that goes all the way up to a 9th floor building across the street. I’m also wearing my cowboy hat because it’s sunny outside, but for some reason the combination made everyone walking by stop and ask me what the hell I’m doing.

You see, there aren’t many things that can make New Yorkers talk to each other on the street, but I’ve found that holding on to very very long strings whilst wearing a ridiculous hat does the trick.

My favorite was when this middle aged Greek guy comes up to me and asks me what I’m doing, but he’s clearly hoping it’s mischievous, so I asked him to guess, and he says “You’re pulling someone’s tooth!!”.

After a while my neighbors noticed the string outside their window and got involved. And I noticed the security guard on the corner paying close attention, especially when we had both strings on the street and we were trying to tie them together, which took a while because they barely reached.

There was even a cop car silently observing that part of the experiment, but it disappeared as soon as we got it connected and Johan pulled the string taut so it was above the tree line.

After poking the strings into the cans, we tried our our string telephone. It was incredibly fun.

photo 1

My 11-year-old straining to hear his little brother. Note his nerdy t-shirt.

My husband screaming to Thads

CAN YOU HEAR ME?!?!

CAN YOU HEAR ME?!?!

I HEARD SOMETHING!!!

I HEARD SOMETHING!!!

Categories: musing

Stuff I’m reading

I’m too busy this morning for a real post but I thought I’d share a few things I’m reading today.

  1. Matt Stoller just came out with a long review of Timmy Geithner’s book: The Con Artist Wing of the Democratic Party. I like this because it explains some of the weird politics around, for example, the Mexican currency crisis that I only vaguely knew about.
  2. New York Magazine has a long profile of Stevie Cohen of SAC Capital insider trading fame: The Taming of the Trading Monster.
  3. The power of Google’s algorithms can make or break smaller websites: On the Future of Metafilter. See also How Google Is Killing The Best Site On The Internet.
  4. There is no such thing as a slut.
Categories: musing, news

A neat solution to the high class jerk problem

You might have heard about the recent study entitled Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviorIn it, the authors figure out seven ways to measure the extent to which rich people are bigger assholes than poor people, a plan that works brilliantly every time.

What they term “unethical behavior” comes down to stuff like cutting off people and cars in an intersection, cheating in a game, and even stealing candy from a baby.

The authors also show that rich people are more likely to think of greed as good, and that attitude is sufficient to explain their feelings of entitlement. Another way of saying this it that, once you “account for greed feelings,” being rich doesn’t make you more likely to cheat.

I’d like to go one step further and ask, why do rich people think greed is good? A couple of things come to mind.

First, rich people rarely get arrested, and even when they are arrested, their experiences are very different and much less likely to end up with a serious sentence. Specifically, the fees are not onerous for the rich, and fancier lawyers do better jobs for the rich (by the way, in Finland, speeding tickets are on a sliding scale depending on the income of the perpetrator). It’s easy to think greed is good if you never get punished for cheating.

Second, rich people are examples of current or legacy winners in the current system, and that feeling that they have won leaks onto other feelings of entitlement. They have faith in the system to keep them from having to deal with consequences because so far so good.

Finally, some people deliberately judge that they can afford to be assholes. They are insulated from depending on other people because they have money. Who needs friends when you have resources?

Of course, not all rich people are greed-is-good obsessed assholes. But there are some that specialize in it. They call themselves Libertarians. Paypal founder Peter Thiel is one of their heroes.

Here’s some good news: some of those people intend to sail off on a floating country. Thiel is helping fund this concept. The only problem is, they all are so individualistic it’s hard for them to agree on ground rules and, you know, a process by which to decide things (don’t say government!).

This isn’t a new idea, but for some reason it makes me very happy. I mean, wouldn’t you love it if a good fraction of the people who cut you off in traffic got together and decided to leave town? I’m thinking of donating to that cause. Do they have a Kickstarter yet?

Categories: musing, statistics

Google-Nest.org

May 13, 2014 Comments off

I am unfortunately too late to show you the google-nest.org website itself (hat tip Ernest Davis) but luckily Forbes has a good article on the recent parody of the combination of Google and Nest, created by by German activist organization Peng Collective.

The putative products for Google-Nest included:

  1. Google Trust: Data insurance, because accidents will always happen, and we at Google won’t protect your data but we will do our best to protect you after the fact. “Opt in for total protection”
  2. Google Hug: An app about connections. It always knows where you are and how you feel at any given moment, and it crowdsources hug matches nearby. “There for one another” 
  3. Google Bee: A personal drone equipped with livestreaming video capacity, to watch over your home and family. Also takes out the garbage. “Your little friend in the sky”
  4. Google Bye: Sustaining your digital life after you die. Plus informing your friends of your death by text. Google takes the best quotes of the dead one’s emails and puts it up on their wall. “Be remembered”

Here’s the video of the Germans (including a supposed Google “data security evangelist”) spoofing on Google and pretending to be from Google at the conference re:publica in Germany. And it’s pretty convincing:

Categories: musing

Warning: extremely nerdy content, harmful if taken seriously

Today I’d like to share a nerd thought experiment with you people, and since many of you are already deeply nerdy, pardon me if you’ve already thought about it. Feel free – no really, I encourage you – to argue strenuously with me if I’ve misrepresented the current thinking on this. That’s why I have comments!!

It’s called the Fermi Paradox, and it’s loosely speaking a formula that relates the probability of intelligent life somewhere besides here on earth, the probability of other earth-like planets, and the fact that we haven’t been contacted by our alien neighbors.

It starts with that last thing. We haven’t been contacted by aliens, so what gives? Is it because life-sustaining planets are super rare? Or is it because they are plentiful and life, or at least intelligent life, or at least intelligent life with advanced technology, just doesn’t happen on them? Or does life happen on them but once they get intelligent they immediately kill each other with atomic weapons?

There is a supremely nerdy underlying formula to this thought experiment, which has a name – the Drake Equation. I imagine it comes in various forms but here’s one:

N = R_{\ast} \cdot f_p \cdot n_e \cdot f_{\ell} \cdot f_i \cdot f_c \cdot L

where:

N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which radio-communication might be possible (i.e. which are on our current past light cone)
R* = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life (civilizations)
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space[8]

 

So the bad news (hat tip Suresh Naidu) is that, due to scientists discovering more earth-like planets recently, we’re probably all going to die soon.

Here’s the reasoning. Notice in the above equation that N is the product of a bunch of things. If N doesn’t change but our estimate of one of those terms goes up or down, then the other terms have to go down or up to compensate. And since finding a bunch of earth-like planets increases some combination of R*fp,  and ne, we need to compensate with some combination of the other terms. But if you look at them the most obvious choice is L, the length of time civilizations release detectable signals into space.

And I say “most obvious” because it makes the thought experiment more fun that way. Also we exist as proof that some planets do develop intelligent life with the technology to send out signals into space but we have no idea how long we’ll last.

Anyhoo, not sure if there are actionable items here except for maybe deciding to stop looking for earth-like planets, or deciding to stop emitting signals to other planets so we can claim other aliens didn’t obliterate themselves, they were simply “too busy” to call us (we need another term which represents the probability of the invention of Candy Crush Saga!!!). Or maybe they took a look from afar and saw reality TV and decided we weren’t ready, a kind of updated Star Trek first contact kind of theory.

Update: I can’t believe I didn’t add an xkcd comic to this, my bad. Here’s one (hat tip Suresh Naidu):

the_drake_equation

Categories: modeling, musing

Is math an art or a science?

I left academic math in 2007, but I still identify as a mathematician. That’s just how I think about the world, through a mathematician’s mindset, whatever that means.

Wait what does that mean? How do I characterize the mathematician’s mindset? I’ve struggled in the past to try, but a few days ago, a part of it got a little bit easier.

I was talking to my friend Matt Jones – an historian of science, actually – about the turf wars inside computer science surrounding functional versus object oriented programming. It seems like questions about which one is better or when is one more appropriate than the other have become so political that they are no longer inside the scientifically acceptable realm.

But that kind of reminded me of the turf war of the bayesian versus frequentist statisticians. Or the fresh water versus salt water economists. Or possibly the string theorists versus the non-string theorists in physics.

What’s going on in all of those fields, as best I can understand, is that different groups within the field have different assumptions about what the field may assume and what it’s trying to accomplish, and they fight over the validity of those sets of assumptions. The fights themselves, which are often emotional and brutal, expose the underlying assumptions in certain ways. Matt told me that historians often get at a fields assumptions through these wars.

Here’s the thing, though, math doesn’t have that. I’m not saying there are no turf wars at all in math, there certainly are, but they aren’t political in nature exactly. They are aesthetic.

In the context of mathematics, where nothing can be considered truly inappropriate as long as the assumptions are clear, it’s all about whether something is beautiful or important, not whether it is valid. Validity has no place in mathematics per se, which plays games with logical rules and constructs. I could go off an build a weird but internally logical universe on my own, and no mathematician would complain it’s invalid, they’d only complain it’s unimportant if it doesn’t tie back to their field and help them prove a theorem.

I claim that this turf war issue is a characterizing issue of the field of mathematics versus the other sciences, and makes it more of an art than a science.

To finish my argument I’d need to understand more about how artistic fields fight, and in particular that their internally hurled insults focus more on aesthetics than on validity, say in composition or painting. I can’t imagine it otherwise, but who knows. Readers, please chime in with evidence in either direction.

Categories: math, musing

Envy, greed, and the American Dream #OWS

I was sent this Falkenblog post entitled Why Envy Dominates Greed a while back (hat tip David Murrell). The post suggests an interesting thought experiment which I’d like to discuss this morning.

Namely, it asks us to examine the extent to which our economic assumption that “everyone is working in their own self-interest” can be replaced by the assumption that “everyone is working to improve their relative ranking” and whether you’d get more clarity from economics that way.

I’ve done myself the favor of ignoring everything author Eric Falkenstein actually says about the economic theory, because he’s focusing on investing in the stock market, which honestly only a minority of people ever do even once. Even so I’d like to consider this idea of envy versus greed and try to make sense of it.

First of all, I do think that a certain kind of relativity combined with proximity is deeply important to humans. When members of my Occupy group talk about living on $2 a day while sleeping at homeless shelters in New York City, surrounded by men in suits with chauffeurs, it is very relevant that the privations described are combined with with a deep sense of humiliation of their understanding of their relative position. These are highly intelligent people who know how things look and they feel it keenly.

Similarly, when I think about poor people in other countries, it’s a different level of destitution than we see here, and yet it doesn’t make me want to drop everything and work in India. There’s something about proximity that we all respond to, and which has been well examined by social scientists.

Going back to my New York friend: is that envy being displayed, exactly? I don’t think so. I think it’s something more like dispossession and despair. And it’s honestly something I believe our natures would rather avoid, but sometimes just slaps us in our face, especially in places like New York City.

I’m not throwing envy out altogether. In fact, I do think envy is strongly at work, but only at a local level. I am working at Columbia now, so it’s natural and proper that I am envious of my colleague’s slightly-larger office. I ignore the stuff I don’t see like how the trustees are chosen and treated. A person in a given town is envious of their neighbor’s house or car or job or wife, but they don’t think about what’s happening in a different neighborhood. In fact they might obsess over such things. It happens. But again, it’s local.

Evidence that people only think very locally about wealth and inequality is everywhere; so when people are polled and asked to describe income or wealth inequality, they always think it’s much less skewed than it is. Why? I’ll guess. It’s because they extrapolate from their very local experience, where there the outliers are not so very outlying at all. It’s a safe kind of assumption that doesn’t boil the blood.

So envy is there, it’s powerful, but it biases us enormously. If anything, I’m starting to think envy is something to distract us from something more dangerous, which is that sense of privation and dispossession, which runs deeper and is more anarchic. By contrast, envy seems like a myopic feeling that keeps us acting safely inside the system, where if we follow the rules but we’re a little bit better at them, we will get that bigger office or bigger car.

In the end, I reject envy as a unifying glue that describes our world, at least in times of severe inequality like now. It just doesn’t address the growing hostility that I’m sensing, which is that second kind of feeling, which exists beyond envy.

Moreover, I think the assumption that everyone is feeling something as small as envy, or rather the projection of envy onto the entire population, is damaging.

So, for example, there was an New York Times Op-Ed recently entitled Capitalize Workers! that suggested we get more people involved for saving for their retirement by investing in the stock market with “minimum pensions”.

I think the idea here is that everyone wants a piece of that amazing stock market return. But if you think about where people actually are financially, it’s such a weirdly out-of-touch plan, the idea that everyone is a Wall Street trader or wants to be.

For most people I meet and talk to, at this point retirement is not at all about the thrill of risk-taking, but rather the avoidance of risk altogether. If you asked those people, they’d rather just have their Social Security benefits doubled. They are not trying to take their chances to double their money, but rather trying to eke out a retirement without severe pain.

Why is this happening? Why are the authors of this piece, who both work at the think tank Third Way,  making such bizarre assumptions about how poor people want to retire? My first guess was that they are just working with the funds on Wall Street who would reap (even more) profits if more people invested.

But another less suspicious possibility is given by my above observation. Namely, they are projecting their myopic envy, that makes sense in their world, onto the poor and middle class worrying about retirement.

In their neighborhood, the way envy works is about trading and making big gains with extra money, but of course to do that you have to have extra money to start out with. In other words, the distance between the authors and the people they claim to be trying to help is too large for their system of envy to translate meaningfully.

 

Categories: #OWS, musing

Does OpenSSL bug prove that open source code doesn’t work?

By now most of you have read about the major bug that was found in OpenSSL, an open source security software toolkit. The bug itself is called the Heartbleed Bug, and there’s lots of information about it and how to fix it here. People are super upset about this, and lots of questions remain.

For example, was it intentionally undermined? Has the NSA deliberately inserted weaknesses into this as well? It seems like the jury is out right now, but if I’m the guy who put in the bug, I’m changing my name and going undercover just in case.

Next, how widely was the weakness exploited? If you’re super worried about stuff, or if you are a particular target of attack, the answer is probably “widely.” The frustrating thing is that there’s seemingly no way to measure or test that assumption, since the attackers would leave no trace.

Here’s what I find interesting the most interesting question: what will the long-term reaction be to open source software? People might think that open source code is a bust after this. They will complain that something like this should never have been allowed to happen – that the whole point of open software is that people should be checking this stuff as it comes in – and it never would have happened if there were people getting paid to test the software.

First of all, it did work as intended, even though it took two years instead of two days like people might have wanted. And maybe this shouldn’t have happened like it did, but I suspect that people will learn this particular lesson really well as of now.

But in general terms, bugs are everywhere. Think about Knight Capital’s trading debacle or the ObamaCare website, just two famous recent problems with large-scale coding projects that aren’t open source.

Even when people are paid to fix bugs, they fix the kind of bugs that cause the software to stop a lot sooner than the kind of bug that doesn’t make anything explode, lets people see information they shouldn’t see, and leaves no trace. So for every Knight’s Capital there are tons of other bugs in software that continue to exist.

In other words it’s more a question of who knows about the bugs and who can exploit them. And of course, whether those weaknesses will ever be exposed to the public at all.

It would be great to see the OpenSSL bug story become, over time, a success story. This would mean that, on the one hand the nerds becoming more vigilant in checking vitally important code, and learning to think like assholes, but also the public would need to acknowledge how freaking hard it is to program.

Categories: musing, open source tools

Could we use eminent domain to help suffering homeowners? (#OWS)

Here are two things you might have some trouble believing if you read the papers regularly and find yourself convinced we are in a housing recovery. First, there are still huge numbers of homeowners on the brink of, or just starting to enter, foreclosure. Second, many of the banks foreclosing on those properties do not have clear legal ownership over the mortgages in question.

Obama should have addressed the first problem through TARP way back in 2008. In fact mortgage modification was an intention of TARP that was promised Congress when it passed the second half of the money but it never happened. Instead Obama came up with the garbage called HAMP, which has been dreadfully implemented and possibly a net harmful program.

Even without Obama, we should have seen a willingness to renegotiate debt. After all, we can negotiate credit card debt, and businesses routinely renegotiate their mortgages. Why are private home mortgages kept airtight? I guess the banks see it as in their interest not to allow negotiations, and whatever the banks want, the banks seem to get.

The second problem, which is essentially one of botched paperwork (explained here), is probably technically the job of some regulator to deal with, but nobody wants to “blow up the system” so nobody is dealing with it. This is especially ironic considering how often we hear about the so-called sanctity of the contract.

The result of these huge looming problems is that banks got bailed out and the system never got cleared of its actual debt and paperwork problems,.

Enter the concept of using eminent domain to force these two issues. Strike Debt, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, is pushing this in a few nationwide court cases, for example in Richmond, California.

More recently, and what inspired this post this morning, is a plan cooked up by Strike Debt using eminent domain to force courts to clear up broken chains of title, written by Hannah Appel and JP Massar.

This idea is on its face unappealing, given the history of that crude tool eminent domain. Everyone I meet has their own stories, but start here for a short list of eminent domain abuses.

And it might not work, either. A district judge might not want to deal with the complexity of the issue and might just let the bad paperwork through.

For that matter, many concerns have been voiced about the practicality of this approach, and one that deeply resonates with me is the idea of using it against current mortgages – i.e. mortgages where the homeowner is up-to-date with payment. Using eminent domain in such a case could set a precedent whereby, even though someone has been taking care of their property, the city uses eminent domain to condemn it based on historical data which implies the owner is likely to neglect their property. That would not be good enough. As far as I know the current plan only uses mortgages where there have been missed payments, though.

The bottomline is this: we’re in a situation where all these homeowners are being crushed with unreasonable monthly payments, and hugely inflated principals, where the legal ownership of the mortgage itself is under question, and nobody seems to want to do squat about it. Maybe it’s time a crude tool is used against a cruel enemy.

Categories: #OWS, finance, musing

Matt Stoller is tearing up Tumblr

I’ve been super impressed by Matt Stoller’s recent foray into “tumbling”, which is kind of like blogging except it’s called tumbling. Even the spam emails from tumblr are worth following him, because sometimes they contain his newest posts.

His title is Observations on Credit and Surveillance but in fact the content is all over the map, reading original source documents to describe the connections between communism and U.S. slavery or Gerald Ford and Watergate, not to mention the 1894 Post Office Bank proposal.

Most interesting to me is the information he’s uncovered about data provisions in the TPP and the history of credit cards and debt collection.

Go take a look, he’s been on fire. I hope he keeps it going.

Categories: musing, news

How to Lie With Statistics (in the Age of Big Data)

When I emailed my mom last month to tell her the awesome news about the book I’m writing she emailed me back the following:

i.e, A modern-day How to Lie with Statistics (1954), avail on Amazon
for $9.10.  Love, Mom

That was her whole email. She’s never been very verbose, in person or electronically. Too busy hacking.

Even so, she gave me enough to go on, and I bought the book and recently read it. It was awesome and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it – or read it recently. It’s a quick read and available as a free pdf download here.

The goal of the book is to demonstrate all the ways marketers, journalists, accountants, and sometimes even statisticians can bias your interpretation of statistical facts or even just confuse you into thinking something is true when it’s not. It’s illustrated as well, which is fun and often funny.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 7.02.22 AM

The author does things like talk about how you can present graphs to be very misleading – my favorite, because it happens to be my pet peeve, is the “growth chart” where the y-axis goes from 1400 to 1402 so things look like they’ve grown a huge amount because “0” isn’t represented anywhere. Or of course the chart that has no numbers at all so you don’t know what you’re looking at.

Screen Shot 2014-02-03 at 6.43.24 AM

There are a few things that don’t translate: so for example, he has a big thing about how people say “average” but they don’t specify whether they mean “arithmetic mean” or “median.” Nowadays this is taken to mean the former (am I wrong?).

And also, it’s fascinating to see how culture has changed – many of his examples that involve race would be very different nowadays, and issues around women, and the idea that you could run a randomized experiment to give half the people polio vaccines and withhold them from the other half, when polio is a real threat that leaves children paralyzed, is really strange.

Also, many of the examples – there are hundreds – refer to the Great Depression and the recovery since then, and the assumptions are bizarrely different in 1954 than you see in 2014 (and I’d guess different than how it will be in 2024 but I hope I’m wrong). Specifically, it seems that many of the lies that people are propagating with statistics are to downplay their profits so as to not seem excessive. Can you imagine?!

One of the reasons I read this book, of course, was to see if my book really is a modern version of that one. And I have to say that many of the issues do not translate, but some of them do, in interesting ways.

Even the reason that many of them don’t is kind of interesting: in the age of big data, we often don’t even see charts of data so how can we be misled by them? In other words, the presumption is that the data is so big as to be inaccessible. Google doesn’t bother showing us the numbers. Plus they don’t have to since we use their services anyway.

The most transferrable tips on how to lie with statistics probably stem from discussions on the following topics:

  • Selection bias (things like, of the people who responded to our poll, they are all happy with our service)
  • Survivorship bias (things like, companies that have been in the S&P for 30 years have great stock performance)
  • Confusing people about topic A by discussing a related but not directly relevant topic B. This is described in the book as a “semi-attached figure”

The last one is the most relevant, I believe. In the age of big data, and partly because the data is “too big” to take a real look at, we spend an amazing amount of time talking about how a model is measuring something we care about (teachers’ value, or how good a candidate is for a job) when in fact the model is doing something quite different (test scores, demographic data).

If we were aware of those discrepancies we’d have way more skepticism, but we’re intimidated by the size of the data and the complexity of the models.

A final point. For the most part that crucial big data issue of complexity isn’t addressed in the book. It kind of makes me pine for the olden days, except not really if I’m black, a woman, or at risk of being exposed to polio.

UPDATES: First, my bad for not understanding that, at the time, the polio vaccine wasn’t known to work, or even be harmful, so of course there were trials. I was speaking from the perspective of the present day when it seems obvious that it works. For that matter I’m not even sure it was the particular vaccine that ended up working that was being tested.

Second, I showed my mom this post and her response was perfect:

Glad you liked it! Love, Mom

Categories: musing, statistics

Jamie Dimon’s bonus too low – shoulda been $100 million at least

Crossposted on the Alt Banking blog, the below reflects a discussion at Alt Banking from last Sunday’s meeting.

People have been making a big fuss about JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s recent raise. They seem to think that, what with all the lawsuits that JP Morgan Chase has been involved in this past year, exposing so much fraudulent behavior which directly contributed to so much human suffering, the guy should be somewhat humbled and punished. They even wanna question his right to stock options he shoulda had way back in 2008, when the world was on fire. The nerve!

I mean, maybe by some definition of “earned” he doesn’t deserve those 20 sticks. Maybe they think they have better plans for the bonus money. But from where I sit, the guy should have gotten way more, considering he set the price of fraud by big banks so low and in so many different ways.

I estimate that he should have gotten at least $100 million, using a very basic fact that the regulatory arbitrage which he displayed, and which now exists as a precedent for all bankers for the rest of eternity, benefitted not just him, not just JP Morgan Chase, but all the Too-Big-To-Fail banks. For that reason, every TBTF bank should give him at least $20 million as a reward for their future profitable fraudulent earnings. Since there are at least 5 TBTF banks, I’m just scaling up in a super reasonable way.

I know that might sound weird, for Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, which are generally speaking competitors to JP Morgan, to give Jamie Dimon cash money. And they might want to keep it on the DL for that matter, for the sake of appearances.

But after all, this is the guy who called Attorney General Eric Holder on the phone and negotiated a settlement, for christ’s sake! Who DOES that? That’s really above and beyond the chutzpah of even the most criminal of masterminds. Only the creamiest of the crop, only the most devoted of banker psychopaths can get away with that shit. That is to say, Jamie Dimon, and maybe Lloyd Blankfein (Dear Lloyd: I don’t doubt for a minute that you will have your day too, very soon, and then all the big boys will pitch in for your supersized bonus).

So what are you waiting for, Citigroup? Wells? When are you guys ponying up what we all know Dimon deserves from all of the elite institutions protected from prosecution? I say you guys perform the equivalent of a kowtow in Wall Street terms, which is of course monetized, in the form of a check. Send it on over.

Come to think of it we should also offer extra cash to HSBC’s legal team, and for that matter Eric Holder himself. If it hasn’t already been done.

Categories: #OWS, finance, musing

The coming Calculus MOOC Revolution and the end of math research

I don’t usually like to sound like a doomsayer but today I’m going to make an exception. I’m going to describe an effect that I believe will be present, even if it’s not as strong as I am suggesting it might be. There are three points to my post today.

1) Math research is a byproduct of calculus teaching

I’ve said it before, calculus (and pre-calculus, and linear algebra) might be a thorn in many math teachers’ side, and boring to teach over and over again, but it’s the bread and butter of math departments. I’ve heard statistics that 85% of students who take any class in math at a given college take only calculus.

Math research is essentially funded through these teaching jobs. This is less true for the super elite institutions which might have their own army of calculus adjuncts and have separate sources of funding both from NSF-like entities and private entities, but if you take the group of people I just saw at JMM you have a bunch of people who essentially depend on their take-home salary to do research, and their take-home salary depends on lots of students at their school taking service courses.

I wish I had a graph comparing the number of student enrolled in calculus each year versus the number of papers published in math journals each year. That would be a great graphic to have, and I think it would make my point.

2) Calculus MOOCs and other web tools are going to start replacing calculus teaching very soon and at a large scale

It’s already happening at Penn through Coursera. Word on the street is it is about to happen at MIT through EdX.

If this isn’t feasible right now it will be soon. Right now the average calculus class might be better than the best MOOC, especially if you consider asking questions and getting a human response. But as the calculus version of math overflow springs into existence with a record of every question and every answer provided, it will become less and less important to have a Ph.D. mathematician present.

Which isn’t to say we won’t need a person at all – we might well need someone. But chances are they won’t be tenured, and chances are they could be overseas in a call center.

This is not really a bad thing in theory, at least for the students, as long as they actually learn the stuff (as compared to now). Once the appropriate tools have been written and deployed and populated, the students may be better off and happier. They will very likely be more adept at finding correct answers for their calculus questions online, which may be a way of evaluating success (although not mine).

It’s called progress, and machines have been doing it for more than a hundred years, replacing skilled craftspeople. It hurts at first but then the world adjusts. And after all, lots of people complain now about teaching boring classes, and they will get relief. But then again many of them will have to find other jobs.

Colleges might take a hit from parents about how expensive they are and how they’re just getting the kids to learn via computer. And maybe they will actually lower tuition, but my guess is they’ll come up with something else they are offering that makes up for it which will have nothing to do with the math department.

3) Math researchers will be severely reduced if nothing is done

Let’s put those two things together, and what we see is that math research, which we’ve basically been getting for free all this time, as a byproduct of calculus, will be severely curtailed. Not at the small elite institutions that don’t mind paying for it, but at the rest of the country. That’s a lot of research. In terms of scale, my guess is that the average faculty will be reduced by more than 50%, and some faculties will be closed altogether.

Why isn’t anything being done? Why do mathematicians seem so asleep at this wheel? Why aren’t they making the case that math research is vital to a long-term functioning society?

My theory is that mathematicians haven’t been promoting their work for the simple reason that they haven’t had to, because they had this cash cow called calculus which many of them aren’t even aware of as a great thing (because close up it’s often a pain).

It’s possible that mathematicians don’t even know how to promote math to the general public, at least right now. But I’m thinking that’s going to change. We’re going to think about it pretty hard and learn how to promote math research very soon, or else we’re going back to 1850 levels of math research, where everyone knew each other and stuff was done by letter.

How worried am I about this?

For my friends with tenure, not so worried, except if their entire department is at risk. But for my younger friends who are interested in going to grad school now, I’m not writing them letters of recommendation before having this talk, because they’ll be looking around for tenured positions in about 10 years, and that’s the time scale at which I think math departments will be shrinking instead of expanding.

In terms of math PR, I’m also pretty worried, but not hopeless. I think one can really make the case that basic math research should be supported and expanded, but it’s going to take a lot of things going right and a lot of people willing to put time and organizing skills into the effort for it to work. And hopefully it will be a community effort and not controlled by a few billionaires.

Categories: math, math education, musing

Two thoughts on math research papers

Today I’d like to mention two ideas I’ve been having recently on how to make being a research mathematician (even) more fun.

1) Mathematicians should consider holding public discussions about papers

First, math nerds, did you know that in statistics they have formal discussions about papers? It’s been a long-standing tradition by the Royal Statistical Society, whose motto is “Advancing the science and application of statistics, and promoting use and awareness for public benefit,” to choose papers by some criterion and then hold regular public discussions about those papers by a few experts who are not the author, about the paper. Then the author responds to their points and the whole conversation is published for posterity.

I think this is a cool idea for math papers too. One thing that kind of depressed me about math is how rarely you’d find people reading the same papers unless you specifically got a group of people together to do so, which was a lot of work. This way the work is done mostly by other people and more importantly the payoff is much better for them since everyone gets a view into the discussion.

Note I’m sidestepping who would organize this whole thing, and how the papers would be chosen exactly, but I’d expect it would improve the overall feeling that I had of being isolated in a tiny math community, especially if the conversations were meant to be penetrable.

2) There should be a good clustering method for papers around topics

This second idea may already be happening, but I’m going to say it anyway, and it could easily be a thesis for someone in CS.

Namely, the idea of using NLP and other such techniques to cluster math papers by topic. Right now the most obvious way to find a “nearby” paper is to look at the graph of papers by direct reference, but you’re probably missing out on lots of stuff that way. I think a different and possibly more interesting way would be to use the text in the title, abstract, and introduction to find papers with similar subjects.

This might be especially useful when you want to know the answer to a question like, “has anyone proved that such-and-such?” and you can do a text search for the statement of that theorem.

The good news here is that mathematicians are in love with terminology, and give weird names to things that make NLP techniques very happy. My favorite recent example which I hear Johan muttering under his breath from time to time is Flabby Sheaves. There’s no way that’s not a distinctive phrase.

The bad news is that such techniques won’t help at all in finding different fields who have come across the same idea but have different names for the relevant objects. But that’s OK, because it means there’s still lots of work for mathematicians.

By the way, back to the question of whether this has already been done. My buddy Max Lieblich has a website called MarXiv which is a wrapper over the math ArXiv and has a “similar” button. I have no idea what that button actually does though. In any case I totally dig the design of the similar button, and what I propose is just to have something like that work with NLP.

Categories: math, musing, open source tools

Magic pill thought experiment

First of all I want to thank you guys. I’m feeling incredibly lucky that, when I asked for comments and ideas, both for my book and for the “Public Facing Math” panel, you guys delivered immediately and impressively.

You guys are the best!

Next, here’s the ridiculous thought experiment I’m cooking up this morning, inspired by this recent Room For Debate focusing on fessing up about cosmetic surgery and this recent New Yorker column by Matthew Hutson about nonconformity as a signal of status.

So, imagine there’s an very inexpensive and very accessible “magic pill” that makes you appear incredibly average. It doesn’t do anything to your health, just your appearance, which is key – we don’t want to conflate the issues of appearance and health. And let’s assume it works for 5 years and then stops. It doesn’t have side effects.

And as we know, average is in a certain sense quite beautiful, if this graph of the “average face of women” in a bunch of countries can be believed (more info here and here). But of course, it’s also not very interesting, being totally average.

So here’s the thought experiment: three questions.

First, would you take the pill?

Second, would you hang out with other people who took the pill?

Third, considering your answer to the second question, would you take the pill?

I’ll give you guys a moment to think about this…

——

OK, here’s what I think. At first I thought I might take the pill. I mean, it wouldn’t be so bad to live behind a mask of averageness. I’d be bland but attractive, it might be nice. Never worry about a bad hair day, which truth be told I don’t really worry about much now.

But then again, I immediately realized I’d rather hang out with people who refused the pill. I mean, they’d be more interesting for sure, right? They’d be strangely not insecure. They might even be proud of pimples and asymmetries, in a world of everyone looking super perfect. I’d definitely want to hang with them.

But then would they want to hang with me? On second thought, I wouldn’t take the pill because it would matter more to me to signal interestingness than to be considered attractive, especially if attractiveness was cheaply gotten.

What about you guys? This might be the dumbest post I’ve ever written but for some reason I like this thought experiment, and when I’ve asked different people they never give me the same answer, and so far nobody agrees with me.

One last thing. I think the entire game changes if the pill only lasted for 12 hours.

Categories: musing
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