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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
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