Saturday, February 26, 2011

income inequality

I don't understand all the fuss about income inequality.

For one thing, I don't see it happening. From my perspective, nearly everyone I meet is middle class; no way is the middle class shrinking. I figure if you have a decent place to live and food on the table without having to work 80 hour weeks in terrible conditions, you're middle class, unless you don't have to work at all, in which case you're rich. It may be true that income growth has stagnated for all except the superrich, but that just makes them richer, it doesn't make the rest of us poorer.

This graph sort of says what I mean:

The poorest people in the U.S. are still richer than the richest in India. I'd say that pretty much makes them middle class, or at the very least pushes the status of the American middle class wayyyyyy way down on my list of world priorities. Isn't it more important that everyone has enough to survive than that everyone survives at the same level?

It seems like most of the concern about income inequality comes from resentment towards the superrich. I could care less if there are twice as many Bill Gates's running around than ten years ago. Even if they don't "deserve" all of their wealth, whatever the heck that means, they're not stealing anything from me, so who cares? Most of the superrich create a lot of value for the world. How that value should be split up between them personally and everyone else just doesn't seem like a big deal to me. As long as it's not a transfer of wealth from the masses to the superrich, we're still better off for their existence, and there are more important things to worry about...

I guess you could say I have a very "American" view of poverty, as Daniel Hamermesh succinctly describes it. In the European measure of poverty, the bottom X percent of people are always defined as poor. In the U.S., you're not counted as poor unless you can't afford a basic subsistence existence. That makes so much more sense to me that I can't even imagine how the alternate definition would take hold.

Playing the devil's advocate though, I know that happiness does depend somewhat on relative standing. In particular, we prefer to be friends with people at the same socioeconomic level. It's hard to hang out together when one person can barely afford McDonalds and the other wants to get bottle service at a ritzy Manhattan nightclub. If income inequality were so suddenly distorted that social groups are ripped apart, that would be unfortunate. (Slow changes are an inevitable part of life that aren't worth fighting.) But that certainly is not the case right now.

Additionally, simple jealousy of others, regardless of whether they are close friends, is also a tangible influence on happiness. Part of me wants to say to that, get over it. Focus on yourself and appreciate what you have. More importantly, these subjective, unverifiable, and unnecessary, components of utility can almost never be a basis of policy because tangible physical harm must be done to someone else to avoid them, and tangible physical harm always trumps hurt feelings. (That seems obvious but there are so many instances where that principle is rejected, because the people with hurt feelings fight hard for their side, usually with moralizing logic that defies the reality that they just don't want their sensibilities offended.)

On the other hand, these subjective emotional components of utility are real even if they're hard to quantify and not inevitable, and therefore they have real consequences. If society consists of starving masses and a few elites, even if the elites aren't actively repressing the masses, that can induce enough resentment to spur unrest or uprising. This is also a situation so completely different from America today that it's not a cause for concern. No one is being held back by the superrich in this country. Many are being given jobs and opportunities much better than they could hope for if the superrich all left the country or lost their fortunes. Even poor Americans have too much to lose to take a gamble on a revolution. In that situation, any residual jealousy is just not enough to motivate a radical change in policy that might rectify the ginni coefficient in exchange for all the collateral damage those policies would inflict.

Much better to advocate for a culture that is less obsessed with comparing numbers on paychecks, to kill the jealousy at the source with no collateral damage at all.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Go Beavers!

Caltech just ended it's 26-year, 310 game men's basketball conference losing streak, beating Occidental 55-54.

Since winning their last conference game against LaVerne in 1985, Caltech faculty and alumni have won nine nobel prizes.

In 2007, they broke their 12 year, 207 game NCAA losing streak. That year they had more high school valedictorians (8) on their team than former high school basketball players (6), which was actually a big improvement from 2. In 2006, the documentary Quantum Hoops was made about their epic streak. If you love nerds (or laughing at nerds...), go download that movie from your favorite torent site now.

The women's basketball team ended their season 0-25, but it looks like women's volleyball got one win in their season. I've been nostalgically rooting for them since my single college sports experience of attending a women's volleyball game that the university had bribed the student body to attend with a huge free barbecue outside the gym, since they thought they might have a chance with enough crowd support. They lost, but it was delicious, and the stands were probably almost half full. I think we even had a mascot and some cheerleaders. Male ones, of course.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

the moral crusade against foodies

This article is hilarious throughout. I don't exactly agree with every thread, but I find them all amusing regardless.

My own aversion to foodism (not clearly enumerated in that link, but nonetheless) is twofold. First, the pursuit of status seems to be the motive for foodism as often or more than genuine enjoyment. Second, it's infused with a defensiveness that results in completely ridiculous scientific and moral reasoning fads-of-the-moment, with all the validity of weight-loss commercials.

The Atlantic article further points out that this moral defensiveness is flagrantly hypocritical and contradictory as well. I wouldn't necessarily attribute those qualities to any particular niche group of foodies, though; aggregating opposing views under one label of course makes the labelled group seem contradictory. Hence my original caveat: the article is spectacularly entertaining but take things with a grain of himalayan pink salt.

Friday, February 18, 2011

man vs. machine

One more about Watson... although I can't promise the last.

I find it very strange that every advance in artificial intelligence sparks a debate about "what is intelligence" and "what does it mean to be human" and these musings on how, despite their successes, machines don't and can't capture the deeper poetry of meaning and life. It sounds sort of feebly defensive. It's like if Usain Bolt lost a race against R2D2 and answered with "Sure, machines are great at moving quickly. But running? Do they really feel the burn in their muscles, the competing thuds of heart and ground, the wind burning your lungs as you push yourself to the limits of your capacity? That's what running is all about, and humans will always have the advantage."

Intelligence isn't a list of skills you can check off a to-implement list. We define it relative to our own abilities and in the terms of our own experiences as human souls, so it will never apply to a machine that is designed to mimic merely the output, the physical results, of our thoughts. The point of AI shouldn't be to build an inorganic human, it should be to accomplish things that we can't do on our own. Man plus machine, not man versus machine.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jeopardy IBM Challenge

I used to watch Jeopardy every day while folding newspapers before I delivered them (~$2.50/hour was a jackpot job for my thirteen-year-old self; damn labor laws...) but I've never been as psyched about it as I am this week. For the first time, a computer is playing, and its opponents are the two most winningest Jeopardy contestants in history.

I told a couple friends about this, trying to get them as excited as I was, and was thoroughly surprised by their reaction, which was: "well of course a big database will win at Jeopardy. What's the big deal?" It's a huge deal! Google knows everything but it can't find out anything; it takes a human user to understand the question, choose the relevant search words, filter the results, and pick out the actual answer amidst all the text. Watson does that (but without being connected to the internet). How awesome is that??

Watch the NOVA special on Watson (the computer's name) here.

The science is entertaining enough, but actually watching the match is very revealing (spoiler alert: don't continue reading if you want to watch the match without knowing who won).

First of all, the timing issue. This is a huge problem. If the metric of intelligence you are interested in is how well a computer can interpret a question and come up with the right answer in a small enough amount of time to qualify as a seamless conversationalist, success should not rest on buzzer quickness. The computer can "read" the question instantaneously, since it is sent as a text file as soon as it is visible to the humans, and buzz in without worrying about human reaction time. That is an enormous advantage, even ignoring the fact that humans take a significant amount of time to dig up facts from the remotest parts of their memories (a flaw which I count as a legitimate win for Watson's CPU speed, even if it doesn't ultimately "know" more.) In a quiz where each person answered each question, I have no idea who would win, but it would certainly not be a runaway race with Watson winning by over $25,000. In fact, you can noticeably see Ken Jennings adapting to this obstacle by buzzing in before he can think of the answer more and more frequently.

Then there are random amusing peculiarities that wouldn't happen with a human. Yesterday, Ken Jennings buzzed in with "1920s", was wrong, and then Watson buzzed in and also answered "1920s". Alex Trebek gently reminded him that Ken had already tried that answer, in a manner that was downright hilarious, knowing that Watson can't hear.

But the most fascinating thing to me was Watson's lack of grammatical understanding. Now, I know that grammar is a very difficult thing to teach a computer. Read The Language Instinct to be convinced of how spectacularly complex our language structure is and how it is uniquely suited to (or rather determined jointly with...*) our human brain genetics, structure, and development. Yet if the task is to interpret a question, I would think that grammar would be of paramount importance. But, the strange possible answers that Watson comes up with (his top three guesses are shown on the screen for every question), and his occasional non sequitur answers, suggest that that is not the case.

On second thought, I think most of the strangeness comes from two issues, rather than total grammatical ignorance. According to the Nova special, grammar was in fact heavily emphasized in Watson's development. But he frequently misses two things: the type of answer that the category itself requires, and phrases in the question that define the type of answer. Hence his response "Toronto" to a question about "U.S. Cities" and "Orson Wells" and "Lyon" possible answers in the "name the decade" category, "art theft" his tautological guess in the "art of the steal" category, or "pediment" his guess in the category "'church' and 'state'" (which seems sort of odd because in the earlier questions in that category he seems to know that each answer must have one of those words in it). He somewhat makes up for this impairment by learning what the category calls for by hearing others' answers: by the fifth and sixth questions in "name that decade", his guesses were all at least years, if not decades...

The other thing that he often missed that seems important not to miss is the defining phrase in a clue designating what class of answer is called for. Hence "listen to the music" was one of his possible answers to a question asking for a "this title gal" of a Beatles song, "1908 summer olympics" a guess for "this city", "caprice" for "this instrument", "porcupine" for "this protein". Despite the Nova special mentioning that they addressed the gender mismatch issue, his second guess about a "she" was John Lennon. Most of the time he does remarkably well coming up with the right answer despite 2nd or 3rd place guesses that don't make much sense, but I'm surprised that those answers aren't eliminated in the first round of pruning. If a question references "this city", start with a list of only cities and see which ones makes sense. That's certainly how my brain works. Sure, maybe human thought processes aren't optimal for everything, but it seems like if language is designed to be interpretable by human minds, then human thought processes must be particularly good at sifting information from language.

In all though, it's mindblowing how well Watson did. And obviously these issues aren't just oversights of a team that's thought of nothing else for the past several years; I'm sure there are very good reasons why these systematic issues still arise. I just can't wait to see if they're gone in version 2.0.

*To quote one of my favorite creationist/evolution debate quotes, by Douglas Adams, thinking that the brain is miraculously suited to learn human language "is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!'"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

PVC creatures

I'm all excited by the Jeopardy IBM challenge this week, but I'm not posting about that until seeing the third episode tonight. So until then, here's a fantastic video that belongs in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. I.e., it's right along the theme of the boundary between humans and animals and machines. I really hope Errol Morris makes a sequel to that. The same ebullient guy with robots in that movie worked on IBM's Watson so he wouldn't even need an entirely new cast.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

empathize, don't fix

So, so, so true: empathizing with someone's sadness or frustration makes then feel better than trying to fix the problem or convince them that it's not as bad as they think it is. Unsolicited advice is almost never welcome in the heat of the unhappy moment.

In cases where the fixer has absolutely no stake in the dilemma, girls instinctively know that commiseration is the way to make things better. Most guys don't seem to understand this until the 3000th fight with their girlfriend where their unhelpful reaction was the root cause. Even then many don't, because the superficial cause is vastly more salient, and if their instincts, and logic, says to fix, experimentation never reveals the better alternative.

In situations with any minute point of contention, even the vaguest annoyance that the fixee's reaction is overly dramatic, that useful skill of empathy goes so far out the window we don't even remember it exists. That's true for men and women alike, and it only makes things worse for both parties.

I don't think this applies, though, when upset person is not sad or frustrated, but frantically freaking out or panicking. Calming down is the priority then and outside honest perspective/direction is useful.

Monday, February 7, 2011


Awesome animation that I stole from Dan, explaining how to turn a sphere inside out:

And just for fun, this commercial keeps making me giggle whenever I think of the ape popping out of the sunroof...