Sunday, July 31, 2011

South Carolina Wedding

I went to a wedding yesterday. Two of my friends from the martial arts club got married.

Because it was two and a half hours away, several of us carpooled.  We ended up getting there 30 minutes early and were the first guests. About 20 minutes before the wedding, they seated us.

I took one of the Bibles in the back of the pew in front of me and started reading the book of Ecclesiastes. Given the occasion, that was probably a mistake. However, I did find a verse that would have made the ceremony better if the pastor had included it:

"Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun--all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun."
- Ecclesiastes 9:9, New Living Translation

The ceremony itself was rather traditional, much like my cousins' weddings. The most notable thing wad that the wedding vows were long, complicated, and asymmetrical.

I wore my suit and fancy shoes to the church, but for the reception I took off the suit jacket and changed into my Vibrams. I had gotten prior approval from the bride to wear toe shoes to the wedding, and I knew there would be dancing. I got the impression that she wished she could have worn her Vibrams.

She took off her shoes for dancing, like most of the women. But her wedding dress had been measured so it would barely touch the floor while she was wearing her high heels, which meant she had to hold it up the entire time she was dancing.

Our sensei asked the DJ to play "Everybody was kung fu fighting" and all of the martial artists, including the bride and groom, danced one of our katas to it.

On the car ride home, we started talking about how this compared to other weddings we had seen. This was the first white person's wedding that one of my friends had seen. In all of the black weddings that he had been to, there was always a lot more music and a bride and groom usually drove off in a limousine. Also, it is still traditional in the black community to jump over a broom. I always liked that tradition.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Future Shock: 3D Printing

Some grad students in England 3D printed a working airframe with low-drag elliptical wings and a high-strength geodesic frame in less than a week with a budget of a few thousand dollars. Yesterday, this is something that I thought was several years in the future.

If you do not have a lot of technical knowledge, this might not seem impressive. But these kinds of aviation designs used to be really difficult and expensive to design and prototype. Things used to take months and years are being done in weeks or days, and for costs that are two orders of magnitude lower. And they are just getting started. The technology is advancing rapidly, and lots of impressive things are coming our way. And in addition to those impressive things, a lot of ordinary things will get cheaper and better as rapid prototyping enables better design.

At this point in a blog post, many tech enthusiasts might start talking about how we will all have 3D printers in our house and never have to buy anything from a store. This is silly. No matter what level of technology you have, there will be a lot of production processes that benefit from economies of scale. Sure, there may be a day in the future when I have a 'replicator' that can make things cheaper than a factory can make them today. But the factories of the future will also have access to advanced technology, and they will be full of people who can use that technology more effectively than I can. It will be even cheaper to pick up things at the store.

A comparison to 2D printers is useful. If I wanted to, I could print a copy of 'War and Peace'. But it would be cheaper to order a used copy online, and I would get a better and more convenient product. However, if I lived 30 years ago and somehow had access to a modern printer, printing that book would be cheaper and easier than buying a copy from a local store or a catalog.

The only reason we would use 3-D printing for everyday goods is if transportation becomes incredibly expensive and if the feedstocks can be made easily from random biomass. But that will probably not happen, because if we could make feedstocks from biomass, we will also be able to make fuel from biomass and transportation would be cheap. This technology will not cause any radical changes in the economic order. It will 'simply' be another driver of economic growth.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Economic Analysis and Irrationality

The assumption of complete markets and profit-seeking is a powerful tool. It helps you analyze a lot of claims. Put simply, the process is like this:

1) If this were true, could people make money exploiting it?
2) Are they?

For example, it is often claimed that people do not learn much in college, that it is just a wasteful signalling game. If this were true, then large companies could save a lot of money by giving jobs to high school graduates with high test scores. They rarely do so, which is evidence that you actually do learn things in college.

Now consider the claim that medical care is mainly about social signaling and feelings of status, and that people are either really bad at evaluating the actual outcomes of medicine, or that they do not really care.

If this were true, then people could make lots of money by offering 'medical care' that had no actual physiological benefit. They would just claim to be a provider of medicine, and people would pay them money. Societies all over the world would be filled with quacks taking money from people and providing nothing but a feeling of being cared for.

That sounds like the world we live in. Maybe we should take this claim seriously.

If a proposed inefficiency or irrationality is real, then people will be making money exploiting it. You can also run this process in reverse. Look for businesses that make a lot of money delivering things of dubious value, and then try to figure out what kind of irrationality drives the demand for their product.

A traditional example is gambling. People will pay lots of money to gamble. At best they do so with the knowledge that they are paying for entertainment, and at worst they ruin their lives. Cognitive scientists have studied gambling extensively and used that data to identify flaws* in the way that people instinctively analyze risk and reward.

One thing that is not analyzed nearly as much is television. It is so ubiquitous that most people do not consider it. But its existence really is bizarre. Why would people be willing to pay upwards of $100 a month, or even go without enough food, for the privilege of having someone waste their time with a parade of vivid lies that distort their sense of reality? What cognitive flaw is at work here?

We know that telling stories is a form of social bonding. A tribe that has a strong shared identity will survive better than one that does not. We know that people have a strong desire to learn about the personal lives of their associates and people in positions of power. People who learned these things were better able to predict and manipulate the actions of others, increasing their chances of survival. We know that people have a desire to be close to attractive and/or powerful people. Gaining such people as allies increases survival chances.

Television appears to be a fake superstimulus substitute for all of these things, just like a candy bar is a fake superstimulus substitute for fruit. Television satisfies the desire for knowledge of and interaction with real people, but in a way that leaves you worse off. It is a lot like drugs or alcohol, only the effects are less obvious and extreme.

I am aware of the fact that I waste my time watching television, and with similar activities like reading fiction novels. I watch television a lot less than most people, and less than I used to, but sometimes I relapse. It is extraordinarily hard to break an addiction when the culture you live in supports and enables that addiction.

A complicating factor is that if enough people watch the same television show, then it becomes an actual part of your culture, and you will be left out if you do not share in it. Alcohol is a good comparison here. The stuff is mostly harmless if you drink it socially and in moderation, but if you drink alone, it is a strong signal that you have a real problem. Television should be treated the same way. Try to limit your use to social occasions. Only watch something if several of your friends are talking about it, and if you also enjoy it a lot. Watching something that you will never talk with anyone about is like getting drunk alone. It may seem pleasant while you do it, but the long-term effects are very bad.

* These mental processes were not necessarily flaws in the environment that they evolved in. But the world has changed, and we have to adjust to the new reality.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Debt Ceiling

One of my former students just sent me an email asking about the ongoing debt ceiling mess. The answer I sent him is a good, simple explanation of the risk involved:

If the government failed to make an interest payment, it would be very bad. That would cause government bonds to be downgraded, and be worth less money. Banks hold these bonds as capital, and bank rules say that you have to have a certain amount of capital. So if the government missed a payment, banks all over the world would see the value of their assets drop. They would have to store more capital, which would mean less lending, a lowering of the money multiplier and money supply, a credit crunch like the one in 2008, and another recession.

If the deadline comes without a deal, the government would probably keep the interest payments going and stop paying things like salaries of government workers. The damage from an US government default and downgrade would be immense. That is why bond prices have not changed much; the market knows that the administration knows this, and will not allow a default to happen. 

Robot Emotional Intelligence

The emotionally clueless computer or robot has been a science fiction trope for quite some time. AI entities are shown to have incredible math skills, but have serious trouble understanding, predicting, and interacting with humans.

I had always assumed that this was justified. After all, humans do not have brain circuits specifically for things like math or logic, we have to literally rewire our brains (with practice and study) to do basic math problems. But we are inherently social animals; with brain circuits specifically meant for things like reading the facial cues of other people. Replicating those circuits in a computer should be a very hard problem, like machine vision or speech recognition.

It turns out that it is not. With relatively little effort, a small team of scientists has made a device that can read human facial expressions better than humans can. Right now, the device takes the form of a pair of glasses that gives information to a person wearing them. But it would be trivial to add this functionality to any computer that interacts with people, and the face-reading can probably be improved even more.

What this means is that by the time we get computers or robots that can talk with us, they will have an emotional intelligence greater than most humans. Their powers of insight and perception will be as far above that of people as their math skills. They will know from your expression if you are thinking, agreeing, concentrating, interested, confused, or disagreeing, and will adjust their behavior accordingly.

Combine this with the fact that it is very easy to get people to emotionally bond with robots, and the fact that the robots will be programmed to obey you, and most people will probably prefer the company of a well-programmed robot to the company of a human. Household robots, even the first generation of them, will not act like cold robotic automatons. The marginal cost of adding things like emotion reading and very expressive faces will probably be low, compared to the cost of something that can understand speech and interact with a complex environment.

The first generation of robots will probably be more like Forrest Gump than Data. They will be dumb, and they will admit to being dumb, but the people they interact with will love them because they are emotionally responsive and friendly and never get upset or flustered.

The more I think about this, the more it scares me. If normal humans no longer have a comparative advantage at interacting with other humans, then what role will they play in a future economy with lots of robots? At the moment, the only thing computers have serious trouble with is metacognition and game-theoretic stuff like poker. Computers are horribly bad at poker and any skill similar to poker, and there is no sign that this will change any time soon. This is good news for our ability to control and manipulate them, but bad news for people in a social system that does not handle unemployment well.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Wasp and Cicada

While walking outside earlier, I heard a loud buzzing and saw a cicada plummet down to the sidewalk. Cicadas are, as far as I know, the heaviest flying insect in our climate zone. They are big, and I do not see them very often.

I went over to investigate, and saw that the cicada was being attacked by the biggest wasp I had ever seen. This thing was definitely larger than a hornet or a red wasp.  The wasp had clearly hit the cicada in midair, and was clinging to it in a death grip, stinging it repeatedly. The cicada was buzzing its wings at first, but quickly fell still on it back.

I was surprised by what happened next. The wasp moved so so its head and the head of the now-dead cicada, clung to the belly of the cicada, and then took off into the air. I would never have guessed that the wasp could fly with so much weight; the cicada probably weighed five times as much as it did. It was like seeing a crow flying around with a large rabbit in its claws. The wasp buzzed around laboriously, slowly lifting off, almost hitting a car, and then went off into the bushes.

Maybe the wasp will eat the cicada, or maybe it will lay eggs in it. I do not know enough about insects to know what kind of wasp it was. I am guessing it was a solitary and not a social insect, and I saw a lot of bright red on it, but that is all I could say.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Clear Cutting

About two weeks ago, a few acres of hardwood forest near my parents' house was logged. The loggers cleared a path through the barns behind the house and through another section of forest, moved in a lot of big equipment, and clear cut the patch of woods. I saw the result when I visited my parents last weekend. It was an interesting experience. The site seemed so much smaller after it was cut. I could walk to and through it much more easily.

I used to play in those woods. I would go through the pine woods near our house, then through that little hardwood forest to a creek and a ravine. I would climb up the sides if the ravine, getting incredibly muddy, and I would play in the creek.

Thankfully the ravine and the creek were not affected. My favorite trees on the edge of the ravine, the ones with the trunk hanging over thin air with roots clinging to the side of the ravine, are still there. It is now much easier to get to those two sites, and the nature preserve near them.

I am actually not upset by the logging. I know that the forest used to be pasture land. It was all cut when the settlers moved in, and then was farmed until about a hundred years ago, when the pasture land was abandoned and the forest grew back. I counted the growth rings of two different trees. They were over a hundred years old. I did not guess that before. I had thought that the forest had been logged maybe 50 years ago, but now I know that it had probably been growing wild since the farm was abandoned.

I was more upset by the litter they left. In another hundred years the forest will be back as it was, assuming that they do not develop it or plant pine trees. But the plastic trash, the wrappers and bottles and containers of motor oil, will still be there.

The pine woods between my parents' house and this patch of woods were cut about a decade ago, and since then they have been impassible, a mess of bushes and briars and poison ivy. But now the pine trees are almost tall enough to shade the ground and kill the undergrowth, so I should be able to walk through them soon.

I really liked those pine woods. I remember them as cool and clean and neat; the straight rows of pines were kind of like pillars in an old cathedral. Of course those pines are not native to the area, and not really good habitat for anything, but I did not know that when I was a little child. When the new pines grow up, I will probably enjoy them as well, if for no other reason than good memories.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fundamental Attribution Error

A few days ago, I went to the university's 'Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation' to ask for a video of my teaching and a classroom observation. The director did the observation yesterday and we talked about it this morning.

She seemed very impressed overall with my teaching. During our conversation, she said something like "You are born to be a public speaker."

My parents can attest that this is simply not true. I am, by nature, quite introverted. I have no natural instinct for many basic social skills, like 'reading a crowd'. It has taken a lot of work over a lot of time to get me to the point where I can do a good job of teaching and interacting with a group of students.

I will admit that teaching a class is much easier than most social interactions, because I am unquestionably in control of the situation. I can act rather than react. If I know my stuff and plan well, then I do not have to worry that any uncertainties will develop. The only unknown factor is the attention and understanding of the students, and I have the ability to demand information and responses of them, rather than play the social guessing games that still confuse me.

I guess it is good that I have trained enough for people to think that I am 'a natural'. But it is a bit annoying that people credit innate ability for that. This is the 'Fundamental Attribution Error' of the title. People assume that what they see in others is the result of innate characteristics, rather than planning or training or the situation.

Something similar happened a few weeks ago in a conversation with my martial arts teacher. I told him that I am naturally clumsy and he had a hard time believing it. He sees me doing martial arts moves I have trained for years, and the parkour moves that are closely related, and thinks that I have a natural dexterity. I don't. I am naturally clumsy, and it has taken a lot of training to fight that clumsiness.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Yesterday I watched a random 1961 episode* of the TV western Gunsmoke. It was the best thing I have watched in a long time.**

In almost everything I watch, I either know exactly what is going to happen or I do not care what happens. But this show was able to create a rare sense of tension in me. At several points, I had no clue what was going to happen next, and against all logic, I found myself caring.

This may be because I am unfamiliar with the show. After seeing more episodes, I will probably be able to predict things better and it will lose its ability to generate dramatic tension. But even then, the show would still be a better thing to watch than most others, assuming most episodes are of this quality. The writing, acting, and technical quality of the show were all of high quality.

The plot seemed quite sophisticated for 1961. It was about a woman who had been captured by one tribe of Indians and sold to another. The main character, the town marshal, accompanies some cavalry on a mission to buy her back. The leader of the cavalry is a racist 'Indian hater' and his violent nature threatens the mission. The marshal soon discovers that the woman is reluctant to leave; she had been treated well and enjoys her new life. She and the brave who bought her have fallen in love with each other.

Maybe this plot line is a tired old trope that shows up in many Western stories, but it was new to me and it was executed well. I usually enjoy any story where there are no real bad guys and the conflict comes from a clash of values or circumstances, with everyone honestly trying to do what is right but having different beliefs about what that is. The show did this well; even the racist cavalry officer, who was clearly portrayed as the 'bad guy', was a sympathetic character who cared about his men and his  mission.

Much of the tension came from the implied threat of violence in the genre; I found myself thinking that the negotiations might fail, and some incident would lead to a big firefight between the cavalry and the Indian tribe. I did not want that to happen, and so I was hoping that the marshal could manage a peaceful solution. If that feeling was what the filmmakers intended, as I believe it was, it shows a maturity that is often lacking in TV shows.

Sure, there were all kinds of minor flaws. They pushed the 'noble savage' theme a bit too far, many of the 'Indians' were clearly Anglo actors, and their costumes had a few too many seashells for a Kansas tribe.  The woman looked way too good for spending a year in a hunting camp: she had the typical suite of 'hollywood blonde' superpowers, including the ability to skin a buffalo without getting her fingernails dirty, and the ability to make the wind cause her dress to flutter just the right way. 

But these flaws, or worse ones, are still present in most things. The woman still seemed more real than a lot of characters in modern shows.

This episode of Gunsmoke compares favorably to the good episodes of the original Star Trek, the ones based on scripts written by good science fiction writers. I am guessing that Gunsmoke also benefited from good writing. The Western novel was a highly refined at that time, which meant that everyone had high standards to live up to, and a deep pool of plots and characters and situations to draw from.

My enjoyment of the show could be party due to me expecting it to be bad. I have seen various Western movies, including classics, and was generally not impressed. I expected this to be worse.  I watched it on Netflix because I was curious. I mainly saw it as a historical document, a glimpse into the dominant American culture of my parents' childhood. I knew that Westerns used to be the dominant thing, and I chose Gunsmoke because it was the best and longest-lasting show.

I am glad that I took the time to watch it as an experiment. There is a lot to be said for sampling lots of things that are widely agreed to be high-quality, rather than just sticking with more copies of things you have liked in the past.

* Season 7, episode 10, "Indian Ford"

**Note that I normally watch about four or five hours of moving pictures a month, so this is not really saying that much.

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I dislike making choices when I do not have good information. 

I think this is one of the reasons I do not like going to non-buffet restaurants. All restaurant food is worse and more expensive than what I or the people in my life can cook, but on rare occasions the convenience is worth the price. At those times, I always prefer to go to a buffet. At a buffet, I can make an informed choice. I see the food, I see the ingredients and how it is cooked, and I can choose as much or as little as I like. I can grab a small sample to taste, and then go back for more if it turns out to be good. But with a menu, there is no way I can make a good choice. All I see is a partial list of ingredients.  I have to choose only one thing from a list of dozens of items, I can only choose one thing and the choice is permanent, and I do not have enough information to make the choice well.

I also tend to dislike it when people ask me to make choices about things like what to eat. I know that this makes me unusual. Most people have their own special preferences and want those to be satisfied. I am different. I want the highest quality thing that can be provided, and I do not much care what it is.

There are others like me. In fact, the fanciest restaurants in the world typically give the consumer no choice. They cook things the best way they can, and expect you to enjoy it. This is actually quite logical. A good chef knows far more about food than I ever will, and knows the exact combination of ingredients required to make a world-class meal. It would ruin the meal for the ignorant consumer to start taking part in the production process.

Here is a foodie's comment:

When I go into a (good) restaurant, I like to simply tell the waiter that I don't want to look much at the menu, and he should simply bring me what is best. If he asks what that means by "best," I (sometimes) respond by telling him I am an aesthetic Platonist and that best is best. Or I will ask the waiter to imagine it is his last meal on earth and to bring me the relevant dishes he would order

Maybe I should start doing that.