Year: 2007

Here come the riddle, here come the clue

Posted by – December 11, 2007

Irma Stenbäck wrote in yesterday’s HS about the fact that out of 768 people who have been awarded a Nobel prize for something or other, only 34 have been women. What could have caused this shocking state of affairs? According to Stenbäck “one reason” is that the people who choose who to give awards to are mostly men, and of course men will always choose men. Disappointingly, she can’t seem to think of any other reasons. In particular, she does not bother to explore whether women might have been underrepresented in science and in society in general over the previous 100+ years the prizes have been awarded. If you can’t think of any other reasons than gender-favouritism on the part of the academy members, I recommend a career in journalism. Or possibly women’s studies.

You can’t just change the rules, unless you really want to

Posted by – December 7, 2007

When banks lend irresponsibly to inflate profits, they usually end up in trouble. When lots of banks do this (and they do, time and time again) and end up in trouble, politicians get worried and bail the banks out with the people’s money. Lots and lots of it. Moral: if you fail really big, you will be bailed out. Capitalism without failure is like socialism for the rich.

Another thing that happens when banks lend irresponsibly is that people are given loans they can’t service. Then they end up in trouble, and typically default on the debt and lose everything. This is also considered to be a bad thing, but not bad enough for bailouts. Except now: rather surprisingly the US is mandating that there is to be a five-year rate freeze on currently existing subprime loans, many of which are scheduled to become more expensive in the next couple of years and to generate a lot of defaults. This is an instance of the US government rewriting existing private contracts, pretty much unheard of in that bastion of free marketeering. Moral: if you’re really irresponsible, hope that you’re not the only one and that there’s an election on the way.

What is the bottom line here? Redistributing wealth to the poor is out; redistributing it to the rich and the financially irresponsible is in. In the US it’s now more important to be able to live beyond your means than to get a university education or health insurance. Coming soon to a society near you.

We just waiting for the hammer to fall

Posted by – December 6, 2007

Three crucial facts about the past, present and future of world finance:

1) US financial sector profits as a percentage of total corporate profits in 1947: about 10%. In 2007: about 50%. (link)

2) Debt intensity of US GDP growth in 1965-1975: under 2. In 2006: over 4. (link)

3) After-tax corporate profits as a percentage of GDP (in the US) just before GWB took office: about 5%. Now: about 10%. (link)

Interesting times.

One vision

Posted by – December 6, 2007

Via another blog, Der Spiegel reports that Amsterdam has been experiencing a surge of violence against the rather visible gay community there. Young males of Moroccan origin in particular have been identified as the aggressors. The problem has worried Amsterdamites enough to prompt the mayor to commission the University of Amsterdam to study the situation. And the results are in:

[…] researchers believe [the attackers] felt stigmatized by society and responded by attacking people they felt were lower on the social ladder. Another working theory is that the attackers may be struggling with their own sexual identity.

I guess recent immigrants really do need courses in cultural integration; they’re pretty confused if they think the prosperous and adored segment of homosexuals who make themselves conspicuous are on a particularly low social rung. Whatever happened to beating up hobos? Seriously, how is this anything but academic self-censorship? Everyone knows what’s going on here.

Just carrying out my activities

Posted by – December 4, 2007

My dad once wrote a column about how sometimes a concept is difficult to translate not because you can’t think of the right expression but because there is none. Even if you somehow find a good way to describe what the original text says, anyone reading it in the target language will still have no idea what’s going on. These situations often indicate hard-to-pin-down differences in the way languages and cultures are.

I’ve started to run into this myself in my budding working life. I’m trying to “fix” the English in a presentation about a tourist resort and struggling with “programme services”. What is that? In Finnish it’s obviously been “ohjelmapalvelut”, but I suspected that in English “programme services” doesn’t mean anything. I googled the term and sure enough all the hits are either Finnish tourism brochure-type things (the top hit was Espoon Matkailu) or something to do with tv companies. Evidently, translators from Finnish have conspired to decide that this concept which apparently doesn’t exist in other languages is to be “programme services” no matter how little sense it makes. But I can’t possibly live with that, it’s just… wrong. So now I’ve agonised over it for maybe half an hour and come up with reworking the sentence completely to use “activity”, a wonderful word that turns up rather a lot in any commercial translation from Finnish to English.

I just hope there aren’t too many more ohjelmapalvelus coming up.

On idiot philosophers

Posted by – December 4, 2007

As many readers will be aware, I have much against what passes for philosophy these days. I should (and will) write at length about that one day, but right now I just want to make fun of one philosopher in particular. My real passion in this field lies in ridiculing postmodern frauds like Lacan or Irigaray (although the contributions of these are often attributed more to psychoanalysis, “critical theory” or “culture theory”) but alas, I can’t do that here because someone will point out in the comments that I haven’t actually bothered to read anything they have written.

I have, however, read an article (and rebuttal to criticism of the same) by Jerry Fodor. It seems he has previously said worthwhile things about cognitive science, but has more recently given into the instinct apparently typical of philosophers to start making public assertions about things he has absolutely no understanding of.

In the 18th October LRB Fodor had an article titled “Why Pigs Don’t Have Wings”, billed on the cover as “The Case Against Natural Selection”. Needless to say, I was intrigued, and read the piece right away. With a rather inevitable feel it opens with a discussion of the libretto of a Wagner opera and mentions Nietzsche four sentences in. The first paragraph concludes with “Why is it so hard for us to be good? Why is it so hard for us to be happy?”

At this point the reader has absolutely no idea what Fodor is going on about, but that’s not unusual for first paragraphs of LRB articles (why?). Fodor then reveals that the environments most humans find themselves in are dissimilar to the ones they (supposedly) evolved to adapt to. This viewpoint, says Fodor, inevitably causes humans to be seen as fundamentally dysfunctional. He briefly assures that he accepts “Darwinism”, but:

But Darwin’s theory of evolution has two parts. One is its familiar historical account of our phylogeny; the other is the theory of natural selection, which purports to characterise the mechanism not just of the formation of species, but of all evolutionary changes in the innate properties of organisms. […] but it’s important to see that the phylogeny could be true even if the adaptationism isn’t. In principle at least, it could turn out that there are indeed baboons in our family tree, but that natural selection isn’t how they got there. It’s the adaptationism rather than the phylogeny that the Darwinist account of what ails us depends on. Our problem is said to be that the kind of mind we have is an anachronism; it was selected for by an ecology that no longer exists. Accordingly, if the theory of natural selection turned out not to be true, that would cut the ground from under the Darwinist diagnosis of our malaise. If phenotypes aren’t selected at all, then there is, in particular, nothing that they are selected for.

W-huh? Is this one of those fact-causes-unpleasant-thing-so-let’s-change-the-fact -deals? That’s certainly the feeling I got from the bits I quoted, but Fodor goes on to produce an utterly incompetent “conceptual and empirical” critique of adaptationism. As we’ll see later on, it’s difficult to know what Fodor would accept as a description of what he’s trying to say so I’ll just give some money quotes:

There is, arguably, an equivocation at the heart of selection theory; and slippage along the consequent faultline threatens to bring down the whole structure. Here’s the problem: you can read adaptationism as saying that environments select creatures for their fitness; or you can read it as saying than environments select traits for their fitness. It looks like the theory must be read both ways if it’s to do the work that it’s intended to […] [the viability of the prevailing view] depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of ‘selection for’; and it seems, on reflection, that maybe it can’t. […] in principle at least, there’s an alternative to Darwin’s idea that phenotypes ‘carry implicit information about’ the environments in which they evolve: namely, that they carry implicit information about the endogenous structure of the creatures whose phenotypes they are. This idea currently goes by the unfortunate sobriquet Evo-Devo (short for ‘environmental-developmental theory’). (if this is what Evo-Devo means, it’s news to me! -SH)

If you’re interested in my interpretation of it all, here goes: Fodor thinks that adaptionism is something that Darwin, over-influenced by his metaphor of selective breeding, cooked up to explain the direction in which evolution goes. This idea has poisoned everything by producing explanations of human characteristics as references to positive adaptive consequences of those characteristics. The idea is also wrong, because it doesn’t tell you which traits get selected for and which are irrelevant. A better explanation is that the whole organism gets selected, and evolution goes in the direction it has originally started along. Humans became what they’re like because they started as a relatively “human” organism and the natural direction for their evolution is to make them even more “human” (this part I’m probably getting wrong, but it’s the best I can do – Fodor says things like “pigs have no wings because there’s no good place on a pig for wings, the whole organism would have to be redesigned”). This way of thinking is also more pleasant because it allows humans to see themselves as “just right”, instead of strangers to the environment they have made for themselves.

In the following issues numerous letters giving various types of rebuttals to Fodor’s article were published, most amusingly a rather cross one from Daniel Dennett. And Fodor’s response? You guessed it: all his critics have misunderstood what he was saying and/or have personal vendettas against him. One point gets a re-rebuttal I didn’t understand, twice he says “I don’t do epistemology” and on one point, the most important question of “what else but adaptationism can possibly explain evolutionary direction”, Fodor now replies that this question will be answered in a forthcoming publication of his.

I won’t comment on the biology of Fodor’s article (I assume I misunderstood it anyway) but simply wonder how this sort of writing (and there’s a lot of it around!) could be classified as anything but intellectual dishonesty. Intentional obfuscation, appeals to consequences and arguing about a subject with almost no reference to results obtained in the subject itself have become trademarks of contemporary philosophers – the very people whose job it is to think clearly. What went wrong?

Why didn’t I think of that, pt. k + 7

Posted by – December 1, 2007

What would a conference built around the computer graphics industry be like? Pretty boring, right? There’d be talks on eking out another million triangles per second or whatever they do these days, with boring engineers talking about slightly larger and faster registers and pipelines so kids can play slightly more elaborate computer games or whatever. Dead wrong. That conference is SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on GRAPHics and Interactive Techniques) and it’s batshit insanely cool.

The most shocking thing about innovations in computer graphics (understood pretty widely, mind) is that they’re so simple and obvious once you hear about them. You really notice that as a field of study it’s actually pretty young. Example: content-aware image resizing. It was presented at SIGGRAPH 2007 and it appears to be a totally novel and simple idea about how to naturally destroy or create information in images.

It works something like this:
1) Detect edges in the image (borders between areas of colours). There are numerous algorithms to do this.
2) For each pair of pixels opposite each other at the top and bottom of the image, find a path from one to the other that crosses the least edges in the image. This is called the least-energy path and it contains “the least information”. (Everything works the same way if you want to destroy/create horizontal lines, just use pixels at the sides).
3) If you want to reduce the image horizontally, remove paths (the previously computed least-energy ones) from the image starting from the one with the least energy. To enlarge the image, take the path with the most energy, compute the average of that and its highest-energy neighbour and insert it between them.

Pretty simple, right? And does it work well? Like magic. The video has numerous interesting details I omitted here.

Now, this is more cute than really interesting, but still: what do you think this inequality describes?

(the square brackets without tops represent the floor function)

Well, the outermost modulo operation is of the form mod( f(x,y), 2 ) so perhaps it codes information from x and y into bits somehow. Almost, but not quite. Let n be an integer and graph the points for which the inequality is true in the plane-slice 0 < x < 106 and n < y < n + 17. This will draw information contained in n - in fact an arbitrary image that fits into a 105x16 grid. For n = 9609393799189588849716729621278527547150 0433966012930665150551927170280239526642 4689642842174350718121267153782770623355 9932372808741443078913259639413377234878 5773574982392662971551717371699516523289 0538221612403238855866184013235585136048 8286933379024914542292886670810961844960 9170518345406782773155170540538162738096 7602565625016981482083418783163849115590 2256100036523513703438744618483787372381 9822484986346503315941005497470059313833 9226497249461751545728366702369745461014 6559979337985374831437868418065934222278 98388722980000748404719, the inequality describes a little picture of the formula of the inequality itself:

As I say, cute. This and more is detailed in a SIGGRAPH paper here.

Puzzlin’ evidence

Posted by – November 30, 2007

Onko todellinen islam rauhanomaista? Kuuluuko naispappeus tai homouden hyväksyminen oikeasti kristinuskoon? Miksi ei-uskikset viitsivät analysoida uskisten touhuja uskisnäkökulmasta? Haastavia kysymyksiä. Paitsi että uskisten touhuissa ei ole mitään järkeä, ne eivät yleensä perustu mihinkään perustekstiin (toisin kuin luvataan) eikä niissä ole mihinkään tiettyyn tavoitteeseen suuntautuvaa johdonmukaisuutta. Esimerkiksi Suomen valtionkirkko on oleellisesti kerho tai yhdistys jonka jäsenistö päättää sen kannat (vähän kuin valtio itse, paitsi että kirkkoon ei ole pakko kuulua). Raamatulla ja perinteillä on lähinnä symboliarvoa.

Tässä kaksi laajemman yleisön mielipidettä suomalaisista kirkoista:
1) Luterilainen naispappeutta vastustava vähemmistö vihaa naisia, elää menneessä ja ansaitsee tulla karkotetuksi kirkosta.
2) Naispappeutta vastustava ortodoksikirkko on viehättävän vanhanaikainen, perinteikäs ja mystinen eikä sen naispappeuden vastustamiseen pidä puuttua.

Korostan, että tällaisia kantoja on muillakin kuin näihin asioihin varsinaisesti sitoutuneilla; niiden tyypillisin edustaja on Suomen valtionkirkon jäsen joka ei likimain ikinä käy kirkossa, lue Raamattua tai ajattele Jumalaa. Aika moni kirkkoihin kuulumatonkin on juuri tätä mieltä. No, kaikki tietysti tietävät mistä nämä kannat johtuvat. Jos joku ei tiedä, tässä apukysymys: miten sama ihminen voi toivoa parempaa sukupuolten välistä tasa-arvoa, rauhaa ja rakkautta ihmisten välille ja ymmärrystä islamille?

HS kertoo tänään että Helsingin seurakuntayhtymä aikoo lopettaa Suomen Luterilaisen Evankeliumyhdistyksen tukemisen. Tähän asti tuki on ollut noin 200 000 euroa vuodessa. Mitä SLEY tällä rahalla tekee? Saarnaa evankeliumia Suomessa ja muualla, rakentaa kirkkoja Afrikassa, opettaa evankelisissa kansanopistoissa ihmisille kristinuskosta, kustantaa uskonnollista kirjallisuutta. Kaikenlaista millä voidaan viedä kristinuskoa mahdollisimman lähelle ihmisiä mahdollisimman monessa paikassa, kuten Uusi Testamentti (kai) kehottaa. Miksi HSRKY lopettaa tuen? Koska se on tajunnut että 200 000 eurolla voisi tehdä jotain humaanimpaa, esimerkiksi järjestää kodittomille asuntoja tai mainostaa itseään NYT-liitteessä? Ei, vaan koska SLEY vastustaa naispappeutta.

Vielä yksi kysymys: Sam, idiootti, mitä valittamista tässä nyt on? Eikö sinusta ole hyvä asia että Suomen suurin kirkko on vaarattomaksi tehty keskustelukerho kun uskonnon vaikutus voisi olla niin paljon pahempi? Mitä väliä sillä on mitä mieltä joku on jonkun kirkon kannasta X? Eikö ole hienoa että kirkko ampuu itseään jalkaan evankelisoimisyrityksissään? No joo, onhan se. Mutta epäilen että kaiken uskonnon taustalla on pohjimmiltaan sama tietämättömyys tai irrationaalisuus; Suomessa lähinnä irrationaalisuus. Jotenkin toivon että jos uskonnollinen ihminen pystyy näkemään yhden uskontoon liittyvän asian irrationaalisuuden, tulee yhä helpommaksi nähdä ettei koko jutussa ole mitään järkeä. Siksi kannattaa vaatia rationaalisuutta kirkoltakin.

Circle insect meat pyramid sex

Posted by – November 29, 2007

This is a total meta-post, so just skip it unless you’re bored.

My previous post made me think of two things:

Where did that thing in the subject come from? Least pessimum? I’ve just remembered it’s an adaptation from The Story of Mel, an excellent and rather long programming anecdote. Excerpt:

Mel never wrote time-delay loops, either, even when the balky Flexowriter required a delay between output characters to work right. He just located instructions on the drum so each successive one was just *past* the read head when it was needed; the drum had to execute another complete revolution to find the next instruction. He coined an unforgettable term for this procedure. Although “optimum” is an absolute term, like “unique”, it became common verbal practice to make it relative: “not quite optimum” or “less optimum” or “not very optimum”. Mel called the maximum time-delay locations the “most pessimum”.

The other thing was that optimism bias made me think of sexual strategies, which made me think of the best spam email I ever received. It advertised, among other things, the best combination of sex drugs ever: NYMPHOMAX and SUREGASM. I mean, that could be straight out of The Simpsons.

Also: the subject “line” of this post is the subject of a spam message I received this morning.

Evolutionarily least pessimum wins?

Posted by – November 29, 2007

Half Sigma has been writing about optimism bias recently. I found a post about the tendency to overestimate one’s intelligence to be especially striking. A chart I stole from it:

Frequency Distribution
Cells contain:
-Column percent
-N of cases
V174 1: FAR BLOW:(1) 1.1
2: BELOW AV:(2) 1.5
3: SL BELOW:(3) 4.3
4: AVERAGE:(4) 31.4
5: SL ABOVE:(5) 24.9
6: ABOVE AV:(6) 28.6
7: FAR ABOV:(7) 8.3

The chart tells you what amount of subjects self-assessed themselves to be in which “intelligence group”. The study was on US high school seniors who I guess might be more optimistic than Finnish kids, but still. Under seven percent of subjects considered themselves to be below average in intelligence and over sixty percent considered themselves to be above average. Almost any way you interpret this, if someone tells you they’re of above average intelligence, the best assumption you can make on that information alone is that they’re not.

An interesting question about optimism bias (like this) is its cause. My first idea was an evolutionary explanation: that optimistic males will try out more things and be more adventurous – in particular they’ll go after more females even after failure. For well-known biological reasons it would then make sense for females to have a smaller optimism bias than males, but this is not supported by evidence (in humans). Maybe it happens with other animals?

Anyway, it seems possible that the majority of optimism bias in humans is caused instead by humanness, ie. culture, society and so on. But how can this be? I’ve always assumed that it would be extra painful to have a high opinion of oneself and to be proven wrong all the time. Perhaps it’s even more painful to self-admit one’s mediocrity/suckiness.

As for the intelligence thing: I’ve always kind of assumed that I scrape into “above average”, but considering this I’m not so sure anymore. The only real way to know is to get tested, and I don’t want to. Too scary.