Year: 2011

Some words on the occasion of Vadim’s PhD defence

Posted by – November 21, 2011

My friend Vadim Kulikov defended his PhD thesis in mathematics this Saturday past. I hadn’t written anything down, but had had some thoughts circling around my head as to what remark I could make at the post-party (this is quite a big deal in Finnish academia). I did speak, and although it went on for longer than is ideal (even though I didn’t say everything I might have), it was so well-received I decided to give as good an account of it here as my recollection permits. I have made some improvements and additions, but I might also have forgotten something, so remind me if you were there and noticed an omission.

I was inspired to say something by the last heading in the Introduction in Vadim’s thesis, which all math students here should definitely read. It’s very motivational, describing the sense of fulfillment at not only having achieved something worth achieving, but also at having gained a truly deep understanding of something, in this case certain mathematical objects and ideas.

I got to thinking about what it is that has made Vadim progress faster and achieve more than most of his peers. Some things are obvious and indispensable: natural talent, a strong ability to work and concentrate, a deep love of mathematics and understanding, and some luck in having a suitable advisor. I believe these are sufficient to make a great student of mathematics, but something more is required to make a mathematician.

There is a concept in Zen buddhism, shoshin, meaning “beginner’s mind”. The saying is that “the beginner sees many things, the expert sees few things”. The beginner’s mind is empty and without preconceptions, so when the beginner encounters a thing, his mind is not filled with the few things he has been taught to think about it, but the totality of it.

For example, when appreciating a painting, the beginner sees a mass of brush strokes, a form, he might understand what the picture depicts – all in all, he is unguided and confused. As he gains knowledge, he starts to become an expert. He might identify the style of the painting and even the painter’s identity. He understands the use of various elements in the painting to signify ideas. He might know about the historical period in which the painting was created, and place the elements in that context. In brief, he gains the ability to see a painting, not be confused, have 5-10 thoughts about it and move on to the next one.

But at the highest levels of understanding, mastery, the Zen way is to have the beginner’s mind. The Zen master sees the mass of brush strokes. His mind is primed with every level of expertise, but it doesn’t force fixed ideas about what the painting is. It is full, yet empty.

There is actually some recognition of this in mathematics education at the university level. In many cases there is a simple way to solve an exercise if the student is aware of some higher-level theorem, without doing all the “boring” technical work you must do if you don’t know about the theorem. If a student presents such a solution, the lecturer will usually say “It’s nice that you know about this, but it would be better for you to do the problem without using this theorem, because it’s important to get to understand the internal details of these things.”

Vadim has a measure of this characteristic naturally, and I believe it is very valuable in doing creative work. One example of this is from when Vadim really had the beginner’s mind because he actually was a beginner. Vadim had come to our lukio (which the English might call a “sixth form college” and Americans might call “high school”) as a first year student, and I was a second year student. Vadim had already gotten enthusiastic about mathematics, but at his previous school there hadn’t been many other pupils with that interest, so he was happy to find a number of such people at our school. He was very eager to find problems to solve, so I told him to try to prove something during his next class; that every even number greater than two can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers.

Well, as the mathematicians here have noticed, this is a famous open problem called Goldbach’s conjecture, so giving it to Vadim to solve was really just a practical joke on my part. “Someone’s too enthusiastic, let’s try to blunt his enthusiasm a bit.” Anyway, after the next class I asked Vadim how he’d gotten on and he said “I think I’ve almost solved it – I got the other direction, that when you add two primes you always get an even number.” I asked him, “What about 2 + 3?” “Oh, I forgot about that!”

When I revealed that the task was hopeless from the start, Vadim was not actually angry at me, or even all that deflated. To a beginner, all problems are open problems. Vadim even continued to think about the problem for some time, attacking it with whatever methods he knew about at that point.

So with the beginner’s mind there comes a certain fearlessness about open problems and unknown things. Vadim kept this more or less intact during his studies. In mathematics it’s important to have the “complete simultaneous understanding” of the (Zen) master and the open, fearless mind of the beginner, because you have to be able to transplant ideas from one part of mathematics to another part, understanding the internal details well enough to know what needs to be changed and what doesn’t. If you “see many things” like a beginner, you can have surprising ideas.

However, once he had begun work as a graduate student with Tapani [Hyttinen] and Sy Friedman, Vadim began to tell me about certain frustrations he was experiencing. Working with experienced mathematicians in their domain of expertise, it would always be they who had significant flashes of insight. Vadim could redeem himself by working out technical details, but time and again it felt like open problems could only be solved by these “oracles”. Instead of many things he was beginning to see only one thing, “this is an open problem so I can’t solve it”. In this way, the joy of mathematics and the creative spirit of the beginner’s mind was beginning to suffer.

So it was a great relief to Vadim (and a great pleasure for me to hear) when he had a major breakthrough completely on his own, and produced an idea that resolved an open problem. The angst of the open problem was swept away, and he could once again look at things with fresh eyes. So I’m happy he has passed through expertise to mastery of this field, retained shoshin, and hope that he’s able to keep it in other parts of life as well, leading to a fruitful life of many creative discoveries.

A take on politics that resonated

Posted by – November 21, 2011

A redditor came up with an interesting diagram of political views. In case the image link bit rots, here is my own mirror. The picture in this post has relabeled (by me) axes and no introductory text.

Here are some excerpts from author well_met_sir’s comments in the image and the reddit post, with my own edits marked by [square brackets]:

The [Governmental power vs. Liberty] axis is about how comfortable you are with the government using violence to achieve its goals, both economic and social. At one extreme people believe the government and society are synonymous, at the other that they are incompatible.

The Instinct vs. Intellect axis is about whether you believe that humans are a blank slate [(intellect)] or whether they are destined to act in a certain way [despite] attempts to reason with them or to brainwash them.

If you fall into the blue area you believe that government is a necessary evil, move to the left to find a compromise position on the triangle. If you fall into the purple area then you believe that it is impossible to control people as much as you would like to, move to the right to find a compromise position on the triangle.

Let’s look at the bottom left corner, communism. The communists were always talking about the “New Soviet Man”. They believed that with enough education any newborn baby could become the ideal communist citizen.

Now let’s look at the bottom right corner, an-cap. An-caps believe that we can transition from what we have now to a stateless society, simply by reasoning with people.

Now let’s talk about the top edge, but let’s first talk about animals. Wolves have a certain social structure, bees have a certain social structure, fish have a certain social structure. It doesn’t matter how could your rational arguments are, it doesn’t matter how good your brainwashing is, you simply aren’t going to get bears to accept social democracy and you aren’t going to get bees to adopt paleoconservatism.

The top edge acknowledges that fact, and thus there is only one point on that top edge. If humans act on pure instinct, then only one form of government is possible.

Georgism apparently refers to geolibertarianism, a version of libertarianism where land and other natural resources can’t be rightly owned by anyone, and are therefore justly subject to (heavy) taxation. I sometimes find myself gravitating towards this position, but it is perhaps too far down in this diagram.

The next known unknown

Posted by – November 10, 2011

As the US subprime crisis was unfolding, it was impossible to find out which institutions had what amounts of “toxic” securities on their balance sheets. You see, nobody was willing to admit anything was really toxic until they were on the brink of bankruptcy. Just before Lehman went down, its debt was still considered investment grade by the ratings agencies.

Bond traders have been saying in the last couple of days that the European Central Bank has been buying Italian debt in the markets in order to prop up its price (keep interest down). The ECB has revealed nothing, and nobody knows how much it’s been buying.

So I figured I should at least be able to find out how much Eurozone debt has been on the ECB’s balance sheet prior to the newest crisis. I wasn’t able to. If anyone else is, please tell me.

But this looks a lot like one of those things that we’ll be reading stories about in a couple of years (“how could they not have known?”). Problems are being hidden, good money thrown after bad, so that if/when the final crash comes, it will suddenly become apparent that stability-guaranteeing institutions have been quietly rendered worthless. There’s no point in throwing out the garbage when you live in a dump.

John McCarthy probably agreed with strong HBD claims

Posted by – October 25, 2011

The more you look, the more you find people belonging to an underground of academics who believe some strong claims about human biodiversity, like sex and race differences. The recently deceased John McCarthy wrote in his commentary page

Fri Oct 26 17:00:03 2007 Summers and Watson
It’s unfortunate that Lawrence Summers and James Watson surrendered to pressure. However, it provides evidence that many currently accepted beliefs are maintained by bullying.

Here’s a defense of Watson by Jason Malloy.

Summers got in trouble for saying that the general population of men has a larger variance in its cognitive qualities and a greater average aptitude for mathematics than women, and Watson for attributing the development problems of sub-Saharan Africa to what he believes to be the low average of intelligence among the population there.

Liberalismi, vaikuttaminen ja Edistyspuolue

Posted by – October 20, 2011

Suomeen ollaan perustamassa uutta liberaalia puoluetta nimellä Edistyspuolue. Kyseessä on vanhan Kansallisen Edistyspuolueen reboot – samalla kyse on paljolti poliittisen toiminnan siirtymisestä Liberaalit ry:stä, joka jää taustajärjestöksi.

Onko Edistyspuolueella realistisia vaikutusmahdollisuuksia? Miten Edistyspuolue voisi onnistua paremmin kuin edeltäjänsä? Onko vaivan arvoista edistää jotenkin Edistyspuolueen asiaa? Seuraavassa esitän muutamia olennaisia seikkoja, joilla Edistyspuolue saattaa pilata mahdollisuutensa. Ne eivät liity niinkään asiakysymyksiin ja poliittiseen filosofiaan kuin kommunikaatioon ja imagoon – valitettavasti jälkimmäiset ovat politiikassa keskeisiä.

Vapaus on pelottavaa

Liberaaleissa puolueissa vaikuttavat ihmiset ovat yleensä vapaudenjanoisia. He haluavat olla itsenäisiä ja toimia itsenäisesti. Tämä pyrkimys värittää heidän näkemystään politiikasta yleensä. Implisiittinen oletus on että ihmiset haluavat pohjimmiltaan olla vapaita – ja ne jotka eivät halua, eivät ole liberaaleja. Suomessa aiemmin näkyvämmin vaikuttaneet liberaalit liikkeet ovat perustaneet kommunikaationsa tälle idealle. “Jokaisen ihmisen täytyy olla vapaa tekemään mitä haluaa!”

Tosiasiassa ihmiset eivät yleensä ottaen kaipaa vapautta, vaan turvallisuutta. Ajatus maailmasta, jossa pitäisi päättää asioistaan itse ja olla itsenäinen ei ole vetoava. Elämä on monimutkaista ja raskasta – pitäisikö luopua vielä niistäkin turvarakenteista joita on olemassa? Ei kiitos!

Edistyspuolueen tämänhetkisen ohjelmaluonnoksen (v 1.7) tavoitteet-osio alkaa seuraavasti:

Yksilönvapaudet on turvattava

Jokaisen täysi-ikäisen ja täysivaltaisen ihmisen tulee voida elää omaa elämäänsä itse haluamallaan tavalla, niin kauan kuin se ei loukkaa muiden vastaavaa vapautta eikä aiheuta selvää haittaa muille.

Tässä on kaksi ongelmaa:

  1. Ihmiset eivät halua elää omaa elämäänsä, vaan perheensä, sukunsa, ystäväpiirinsä, viiteryhmänsä, uskontonsa jne. elämää.
  2. “Tulee voida elää”. Ei siis ole pakko ellei halua! Eikö liberalismilla ole annettavaa ihmisille jotka haluavat yhteisöllisyyttä ja ohjausta?

Kuka tahansa Edistyspuolue-aktiivi voisi vastata tähän – aivan oikein – että suurempi vapaus yhdenlaisesta valtarakenteesta (keskusvalta jolla on väkivaltamonopoli) ei välttämättä tarkoita muiden olemassaolevien, vapaaehtoisten rakenteiden hävittämistä. Päinvastoin, moni toivoo ja olettaa että ne vahvistuisivat. Tämä ei kuitenkaan ole viesti jonka liberaalit onnistuneesti antavat.

Mikä sitten olisi parempi viesti? Vaikka ihmiset eivät halua olla vapaita, he eivät myöskään pidä kielloista ja esteistä. On parempi sanoa “ei pidä estää” tai “ei pidä rajoittaa” kuin “jokaisen on voitava olla vapaa”. Mielestäni tämä on myös fundamentaalisempi liberaali lähtökohta.

Ei pidä vastata siihen kysymykseen johon haluaa vastata, vaan siihen jota kysytään

Ehkä standardein liberaali näkemys kansallisvaltioista ja maahanmuutosta on, että ihmisten vapautta olla Suomessa ei pidä rajoittaa riippumatta siitä, ovatko he sattuneet syntymään suomalaisiksi. Tämän kanssa sopusoinnussa on tavoite minimoida elinympäristön ja tuotantovälineiden (valtionyhtiöt) kollektiivinen omistus ja ihmisten keskinäinen elatusvelvollisuus: ihmisten ei tarvitse rajoittaa Suomeen pääsemistä kun he voivat rajoittaa omaa elinpiiriään siten kuin itse tahtovat.

Ohjelmaluonnoksessa kirjoitetaan:

Edistyspuolueen mielestä kaikki lakia noudattavat ihmiset, jotka elättävät itsensä tai jotka joku toinen vapaaehtoisesti elättää ovat tervetulleita muuttamaan Suomeen.

On täysin mahdotonta tunnistaa ketkä haluavat muuttaa Suomeen sen tarjoaman sosiaaliturvan vuoksi. Tämän vuoksi kannatamme sitä, että kaikki tuet, kuten työttömyys- ja toimeentulotuki, rajataan vain Suomen kansalaisille. Tällöin maahanmuuttobyrokratiaa voidaan keventää huomattavasti ja esimerkiksi perheenyhdistämisiä ei tarvitse alistaa vuosien karenssille.

Edistyspuolueen kannat A:sta Ö:hön -luonnosdokumentissa kirjoitetaan:

Edistyspuolueen mielestä kaikki sellaiset lakia noudattavat ihmiset, jotka elättävät itsensä tai jotka joku vapaaehtoisesti elättää, ovat tervetulleita muuttamaan Suomeen. Toisin sanoen kannatamme maahanmuuttobyrokratian purkamista ja maahanmuuton vapauttamista mutta vain sillä ehdolla, että kaikki tuet, kuten työttömyystuki ja toimeentulotuki, rajataan vain Suomen kansalaisille. Samalla tulee vapauttaa työmarkkinoita, jolloin työllistyminen helpottuu ja syrjäytyminen vähenee. Näin Suomi ei enää karkottaisi “isoäitejä” ja muita lainkuuliaisia asukkaita turhaan maasta ja perheet saisivat yhdistää itsensä haluamallaan tavalla omalla kustannuksellaan tai vapaaehtoisten ihmisten ja järjestöjen tuella. Työteliäiden ihmistenkin virta Suomeen helpottuisi – siltä osin kuin todella pystyvät elättämään itsensä ja maksamaan veronsa. Mielestämme tämä olisi paitsi toimivin myös oikeudenmukaisin järjestelmä maahanmuuttoon, sekä ratkaisisi käytännössä katsoen kaikki nykyisen maahanmuuton ongelmat.

Nämä eivät ole kannanottoja Suomessa käytävään maahanmuuttokeskusteluun, vaan koko kysymyksen totaalinen uudelleenasettelu. Tämä on sinänsä vilpitöntä, mutta ohittaa täysin sen mitä “maahanmuutto” -käsitteellä ymmärretään. Maahanmuuttokeskustelun ääripäiksi mielletään sosiaalidemokraattinen humanitaarisuus yhtäältä ja halla-aholainen kansallismielinen kieltäymys humanitaariseen maahanmuuttoon liittyvistä kollektiivisista velvoitteista toisaalta. Tässä Edistyspuolueen kanta maahanmuuton vapauteen on yksiselitteinen “kyllä”, mutta nykykeskustelun näkökulmasta se on lähinnä Halla-ahoa.

Halla-ahokin todennäköisesti pitkälti allekirjoittaisi Edistyspuolueen tarjoamat kannat täysin erilaisessa poliittisessa todellisuudessa. Nykyinen todellisuus on se, että suuri osa ihmisten elinympäristöstä on kollektiivisesti omistettua ja Suomen sosiaaliturvajärjestelmä perustuu maassa oleskeluun. Nälkään ja pakkaseen kuolemista ei Suomessa voida sietää, eikä lasten kouluttamatta jättämistä tai sairauksista kärsimistä. Edistyspuolue saattaa haluta muutosta näihin asioihin, mutta tämä tavoite on jossain erittäin kaukana. Kulttuurin muuttaminen on vaikeaa tai mahdotonta, ja poliittiseen kysymykseen vastaaminen sillä oletuksella että kulttuuri muutetaan ei kerro juuri mitään.

Edistyspuolueen on asetuttava jollain tavalla joko nykyisenkaltaisen humanitaarisen maahanmuuton puolelle tai sitä vastaan.

Ei pidä räjäyttää ihmisten tajuntaa

Liberaalit ajavat suomalaiseen yhteiskuntaan varsin suuria muutoksia. Moni asia halutaan lopettaa tai yksityistää mieluiten täysin – kulttuurin rahoitus, YLE, terveydenhoito, … Liberaalisuudella on paljon tarjottavaa näissä asioissa, ja vapaus todellakin ravitsisi näitä aloja ja koko yhteiskuntaa. Tällaisia muutoksia on kuitenkin vaikea edes kuvitella. En tarkoita että Edistyspuolueen kannattaisi olla muuta kuin vilpitön näissä tavoitteissa, mutta konkreettisina ehdotuksina olisi parempi tarjota osittaisia, kuviteltavissa olevia ratkaisuja. Sen sijaan että “Musiikkitaloa ei olisi pitänyt rakentaa” voi sanoa “Musiikkitaloa olisi voitu edellyttää rahoitettavan ainakin osittain kansalaiskeräyksellä”.

Siltojen rakentaminen

Liberaalius tarkoittaa nykytilanteessa paljolti vallitsevien rakenteiden maahan repimistä. Tämän rinnalla kannattaa advokoida muutoksia, jotka eivät heikennä kenenkään asemaa vaan näyttävät edullisilta kaikille – Pareto-parannuksia. Tässä kannattaa ryöstöviljellä erityisesti Osmo Soininvaaraa, joka puutteistaan riippumatta on ansioitunut näiden parannuksien tunnistamisessa. Esimerkkinä osittainen työkyvyttömyyseläke (sen sijaan että osittain työkykyiset ihmiset ajetaan joko liian raskaaseen työhön tai täyteen eläketoimettomuuteen, pitäisi mahdollisimman pitkälle sallia työ joka vähentää eläkeriippuvuutta). Tällaisen muutoksen Edistyspuolue tekisi ehkä mieluiten perustulolla, mutta on hyvä jos on tarjottavaa myös siinä tapauksessa että perustuloa ei ole.

21st century man

Posted by – September 13, 2011

I found out the most accurate song about the 21st century man was written about the 20th century man:

The Kinks – 20th Century Man

This is the twentieth century,
but too much aggravation
It’s the age of insanity,
what has become of the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem.

Ain’t got no ambition, I’m just disillusioned
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna be here.
My mama said she can’t understand me
she can’t see my motivation
just give me some security,
I’m a paranoid schizoid product of the twentieth century.

You keep all your smart modern writers
give me William Shakespeare
You keep all your smart modern painters
I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, Da Vinci and Gainsborough.

Girl we gotta get out of here
we gotta find a solution
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t want to be here.

I was born in a welfare state
ruled by bureaucracy
controlled by civil servants
and people dressed in grey
got no privacy, got no liberty
‘cos the twentieth century people
took it all away from me.

Don’t wanna get myself shot down
by some trigger happy policeman,
gotta keep a hold on my sanity
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna die here.

The musée lapidaire in Avignon

Posted by – September 9, 2011

It never really occurred to me before that the impression of art history one gets from books and tv documentaries is extremely distorted towards high quality. The popular books want to get people excited about classical sculpture (say), so they show the very best of the best, from the geographic heartland and historical apex of classical sculpture. But of course most art is not as good as the very best, and in fact the median is usually rather crappy.

I had the opportunity to gain some insight into this yesterday when visiting Avignon, which has a sculptural museum with a permanent exhibit of mostly the Franco-Roman oeuvre from the early imperial period. Gaul was a comparative periphery, and its artists were mostly second-rate men who did a lot of headstones and workaday standard reproductions of the typical way the Roman/Hellenic gods were depicted.

This (I think) was a quite early Greek Athene:

This was some obscure fellow, by a French-Roman artist many centuries later:

A French-Roman scene from a Dionysian festivity:

The dancer on the right looks rather like Robert Crumb might have drawn her.

Also, a major invention of western civilization must have been inserting spaces between words, because these are super annoying to read:

Not everyone was bothered to make nice type:

Over-representation without victimisation

Posted by – August 29, 2011

Taloussanomat, a financial newspaper, has a story about the overrepresentation of Finn-Swedes on the boards of the 50 largest Finnish companies. Finn-Swedes comprise around 5.5% of the population and 23% of the board membership, making them overrepresented by a factor of about 4.2. The story has this to say about the causes of this situation:

  • Finn-Swedes are more oriented towards business
  • Finn-Swedes were the main part of the old bourgeoisie
  • Finn-Swedes are more oriented towards engineering, finance and law
  • Finn-Swedes are more internationally oriented
  • Many large companies have ties to Sweden

A while ago they also had a story about the under-representation of women. 25% of board members were women, for an over-representation by men of a factor of 1.5. Taloussanomat was unable to give any background as to why this deplorable situation might exist. Sexism and male insecurity are the only things I can think of. However most respectable politicians, including the previous prime minister, a woman called Mari Kiviniemi, periodically state that if near-parity isn’t achieved soon, legislative measures may have to be taken to force companies to recruit women into board membership.

SFCM 2011

Posted by – August 28, 2011

I’m back from my first ever scientific conference, SFCM 2011 in Zurich. My top two favourite talks were Lauri Karttunen’s keynote, Beyond Morphology – Pattern Matching with FST and Non-canonical inflection by Benoît Sagot and Géraldine Walther. An honourable mention goes to Morphology to the Rescue Redux: Resolving Borrowings and Code-mixing in Machine Translation by Esmé Manandise and Claudia Gdaniec. I demoed stuff for our HFST3 paper.

Karttunen presented some obvious-in-retrospect extensions to FST matching, rewriting and tagging and an implementation thereof in an algorithm/utility called pmatch. It’s mostly a combination of recursive transition networks and the insight that with some algorithmic trickery, it’s sufficient to match the end of a subpattern when you want to do left-to-right longest-match matching/tagging. The extensions he described most were

  • EndTag(), which is a command that gets compiled into special instructions for pmatch to wrap a pattern or subpattern in tags without the need to produce a transducer that’s always trying to output the start tag and enter failing transitions of the subpattern network, and
  • Ins(), which in RTN-style refers to a separate network to be pseudo-inserted at the current location.

These are achieved with flag diacritic -style special symbols, although pmatch itself doesn’t support flag diacritics. Hopefully we’ll have all this functionality in HFST one day, alongside flag-induced hyperminimization – an interesting topic I should write about one day. Put together, these techniques should significantly remedy the problems of networks becoming combinatorically huge in certain situations.


For the benefit of people who aren’t interested in computational morphology, here’s some travel stuff.

I’m not a big fan of travel, and was reminded why by almost everything going wrong. My flight was cancelled, and I had to queue for ages to be rerouted via Brussels, and almost missed that flight as well. All told, it took me over 10 hours to get from my house to the hotel in Zurich, leaving less time than I’d hoped to prepare for the demonstration session. And everything was sucky and expensive and my feet hurt and it’s just not worth it to ever leave home :(

Also, Blue1 is a terrible airline company and Swiss is nice (you get free chocolate).

Switzerland is about as orderly, clean and organized as you might imagine. A while ago a Japanese post-doc at the math department was leaving Helsinki to go to do math at an American university, and he sent a nice going-away email to people he’d met in Finland. He wrote “Finland is the 2nd most well-organized country among the places I have ever been (unfortunately you could not beat Japan, sorry!)” – I think he must have missed out on Switzerland.

Famous Swiss hospitality

(That said, there were definitely more representatives of ethnic minorities than in, say, Helsinki.)

The Swiss don’t mess around; each and every lamppost had a sticker like this:

Does it work?

I never saw a single extraneous piece of paper on these things.

Also, a little-known fact: Swiss people are in fact made out of polished steel.

I like the place. These guys know how to live.

End of intermission

Benoît and Géraldine had done work on a system for compactly describing certain irregular (“non-canonical”) phenomena in inflection:

  • suppletion (where some forms have an alternate stem or affixes)
  • heteroclesis (where some words have a mixed paradigm from several regular forms)
  • defectiveness (where certain forms are missing from the paradigm)
  • overabundance (where some forms have more than one realisation)
  • depondency (where certain words inherit part of another’s paradigm in the “wrong” context, eg. singular suffixation for expressing plural in some Croatian nouns)

They had used their approach to describe French irregular verbs, and also implemented several other well-known descriptions by French linguists. They wanted to show that their approach was best or most natural (at least most compact), and did so by estimating the Kolmogorov complexity of these schemes. This is something I’ve often thought about doing (examining linguistic theories by implementing them), so I’m happy that work is happening in this area.

Overall, SFCM was damn well organized, interesting, motivating and fun to attend – many thanks to the organizers, speakers and attendees!

Steve Sailer and the cheat code to journalism

Posted by – August 21, 2011

Steve Sailer is a cult journalist on the Internet. Not in the sense of “writes about cults”, but “underground hit” – which is a strange thing for a publicity-based professional like a journalist to be. I’ve been reading his stuff for 3-4 years now, and I have to say he ranks right up there with my favourite active journalists. Another really great one is whoever writes under the pseudonym The Last Psychiatrist.

Sailer is generally under the mainstream radar because he writes about some of the most flammable topics out there – eg. race and intelligence and other human biodiversity topics, and mostly doesn’t come down on the side of the angels. He’s what you might call a quantitative journalist, specialising in using sociological and psychometric data to explain large social phenomena. He also writes some pretty good movie reviews and sports journalism (alas, often about boring things like baseball). The cult following appears to be big enough to sustain his work mostly via donations – on his blog where most of his stuff appears, which is free to read, he’ll ask for money a couple of times a year. I can’t think of anyone else who is able to do that with non-fiction contemporary journalism.

While he’s a good enough journalist on his own strength, what really makes Sailer stand out is that he has practically no competition in his chosen subfield. Sailer’s reputation is already so trashed that he doesn’t appear to self-censor much (it also helps that he’s an American – no way could you legally write his stuff in Finland). By that I don’t mean that he’s particularly hateful or mean-spirited about ethnic groups – far from it. Just pretty direct and matter-of-fact about some things that are literally unspeakable in most polite circles. Satoshi Kanazawa is perhaps a fair comparison.

The result is that for some major contemporary questions, Sailer is able to get 80% of the right answer by extremely simple methods, while scores of intelligent, hard-working writers flounder around hopelessly, unable to use ideas about human biodiversity. I’ll give two examples of how this works, one of which is from Sailer, and the other I noticed myself (I’m sure I’m not the first one to notice it).

The Sailer example is about the PISA international student assessment studies. A major point of interest in the US was the poor performance of the US; in Finland a point of interest was Finland’s excellent performance. A great deal has been written about both of these cases, mostly looking at the way public education is organised in these countries. Sailer, who explains much of US sociology by differences in intelligence (he gives 110, 105, 100, 90 and 85 as rough IQ averages for Ashenazi Jews, Southeast Asians, European-descended whites, American Latinos and American blacks respectively (SD = 15)), obviously first looked at the US racial distribution of the PISA results.

Incidentally, this type of analysis is not possible in many other countries, because most countries don’t keep statistics about races or ethnic groups.

Anyway, this is what he came up with:

When broken down by ethnicity, American students did reasonably well compared to the countries from which their ancestors came.

  • Asian Americans outscored every Asian country, and lost out only to the city of Shanghai, China’s financial capital.
  • White Americans students outperformed the national average in every one of the 37 historically white countries tested, except Finland (which is, perhaps not coincidentally, an immigration restrictionist nation where whites make up about 99 percent of the population).
  • Hispanic Americans beat all eight Latin American countries.
  • African Americans would likely have outscored any sub-Saharan country, if any had bothered to compete. The closest thing to a black country out of PISA’s 65 participants is the fairly prosperous oil-refining Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, which is roughly evenly divided between blacks and South Asians. African Americans outscored Trinidadians by 25 points.

Here’s my bar chart of American scores by ethnicity. Interestingly, American Hispanics did significantly better in reading in 2009 than they had done in science in 2006 and in math in 2003.

There are lots of details and caveats, but that’s certainly a pretty big piece of the mystery. The article is currently inaccessible due to a fund-raising drive at the site that published it, but you might able to get a Google cache version here.

The second thing, the one that it occurred to me to look up, is the mystery of violence in America. Michael Moore made a movie about the US statistics in 2002, Bowling for Columbine. In it he searched for reasons for America’s violence – 5.0 homicides per 100,000 people per year by the most recent figures (Finland has 2.5, the UK 1.28, Sweden 0.89). He looked at a lot of factors, settling on a mix with the main element being a culture of fear and isolation among middle-class whites. This cartoon segment has much the the main thesis.

Well, after reading Sailer, you can probably guess what I got an idea to look up. The 2009 numbers from the FBI give (for intentional homicides) 5,286 white offenders, 5,890 black offenders, 245 “other” and 4,339 “unknown”. If we forget about “other” and assume “unknown” is distributed like the knowns, we get 7,338 white and 8,177 black offenders. With population figures of 223,553,265 whites and 38,929,319 blacks (these are 2010 figures, but there’s not much difference), we get offending rates of 3.28 for whites and 21.00 for blacks.

The category “white” in this case includes Latinos, and the result of 3.28 is perhaps a bit higher than you’d expect for a mix of European whites (around 1.5) and a smallish number of people from Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Columbia, Panama, … (15, 49, 71, 63, 24). The black rate of 21 is comparable to many West African countries (Mali 18, Liberia 17, Congo 20 – however, Senegal is at 1.1 (!?)).

These calculations may be confounded by some factors like serial homicides, but as a first approximation, it again appears to give a big part of the picture, one that I can’t recall Michael Moore addressing at all.