Why should all languages be preserved? The problem is the question

Of the ~7,000 known human languages, about 40% are endangered, dead, or dying.* And by 2100 less than half of them will remain, possibly less than 1,000.* There isn’t much missing; one recently discovered language, Bengime of Mali, has managed to stay hidden to the present only because it is spoken in secret.

In talking about language death, I’ve heard a funny question come up — I’ve even asked it myself: “Why do we need all of these languages? Why not just one?” How many systems of communication do we actually need? And wouldn’t we all get along better if there were fewer languages?

The point of this post is to sidestep the question and very concisely argue that its existence is a problem.

First, why are there 110-some elements in the periodic table? Why not just one?

More importantly, why haven’t you heard that question before?

Because we don’t control how many elements there are. It’s not up to us. It shouldn’t be. And the number of languages shouldn’t be either. These are ways of being, not curiosities. The UN recognizes deliberate elimination of languages as genocide. It should be easy from there to condemn systems that result in the elimination of languages more indirectly. The languages and cultures of other peoples should have protection and resources. If it’s our choice that some survive and some don’t, then there is an immoral exercise of power over the variety of human experience. The existence of the question is evidence of a way of thinking that is based in an evil attitude toward other cultures. Losing an element from the periodic table or a language from the Ethnologue is a tragedy because it artificially limits the kinds of things that can exist. If we’ve been given 7000 languages then there should be about 7000 when we’re done.

  • stats:
    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_diversity
    • http://www.ethnologue.com/endangered-languages
  • why save them?
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/faq-on-endangered-languages/
    • http://www.unesco.org/new/en/culture/themes/endangered-languages/biodiversity-and-linguistic-diversity/

Why decentralization is always ripe for co-optation

Will your transformative technology just entrench the status quo?

Things have come a long way since I was first exposed to cryptocurrency. Back in 2011 it was going to undermine nation-states by letting any community form its own basis of exchange. A decade later, crypto has little chance of fulfilling its destiny as a currency, but that’s OK because it’s proven ideal for the already wealthy, as a tool for tax evasion, money laundering, market manipulation, and infrastructure capture. States like it for the traceability and conventional banks incorporate it to chase the wave and diversify to a new high risk asset class.

This is not what crypto imagined for itself.

But it’s not a surprise. You can see the same dynamic play out in Apple Music, YouTube, Substack, and the post-Twitter scramble for social media dominance. These technologies are sold to society on their ability to raise the floor, but they cash out on their ability to raise the ceiling. The debate on this played out between Chris Anderson (a founder of Wired) and Anita Elberse (in her 2013 book Blockbusters). In response to Anderson’s argument that social media technologies empower the “fat tail” of regular-people contributors, Elberse countered with evidence of how it has increased market concentration by making the biggest bigger.

To skip to the end of that debate, the answer is “both”. Technologies that make new means available to everyone make those means available to the entrenched as well. The tail gets fatter at the same time as the peaks get taller. It’s all the same process.

So the question stops being “will this help the poor or the rich?” It becomes “who will it help faster?” The question is no longer transformative potential, but differential transformative power. Can this technology undermine the status quo faster than it bolsters it?

And for most of these technologies, the answer is “no”. Maybe, like crypto, a few people fell up and a few fell down. That is not transformation.

Why do people miss this? Because they stop at

“centralization = bad for the people; decentralization = good for the people”.

We forget it’s dual, that

“centralization = good for the entrenched; decentralization = good for the entrenched”

Centralization increases the efficiency of an already-dominant system, while decentralization increases its reach.

This all applies just fine to the latest technology that has people looking for transformative potential: decentralized identity (DID). It’s considered important because so many new mechanisms in web3 require that an address has an onto and 1-1 mapping to a human individual. So if identity can be solved then web3 is unleashed. But, thinking for just a second, decentralized identity technologies will fall into the same trap of entrenching the status quo faster than they isolate their transformative potential. Let’s say that DID scales privacy and uniqueness. If that happens then nothing keeps an existing body from running with uniqueness features and dropping privacy features.

If you’re bought into my argument so far, then you see that it’s not enough to develop technologies that have the option of empowering people, because most developers won’t take that option. You can’t take over just by growing because you can’t grow faster than the already grown. What is necessary is systems that are designed to actively counter accumulation and capture.

I show it in this paper looking at the accumulation of power by US basketball teams. For over a century, American basketball teams have been trying to gain and retain advantages on each other. Over the same time period, the leagues hosting them have served “sport over team,” exercising their power to change the rules to maintain competitive balance between teams. By preventing any one team from becoming too much more powerful than any other, you keep the sport interesting and you keep fans coming.

But what we’ve actually seen is that, over this century, basketball games have become more predictable: if Team A beat Team B and Team B beat Team C, then over a century Team A has become more and more likely to beat Team C. This is evidence that teams have diverged from each other in skill, despite all the regulatory power that leagues have been given to keep them even. If the rich get richer even in systems with an active enduring agency empowered to prevent the rich from getting richer, then concentration of power is deeply endemic and can’t just be wished away. It has to be planned for and countered.

This is why redistribution is a core principle of progressive and socialist politics. You can’t just introduce a new tweak and wait for things to correct. You need a mechanism to actively redistribute at regular intervals. Like taxes.

In web3, there aren’t many technologies that succeed at the higher bar of actively resisting centralization. One example might be quadratic voting, which has taken off probably because it’s market-centric branding has kept it from being considered redistributive (it is).

So for now my attitude toward decentralization is “Wake me up when you have a plan to grow faster than you can be co-opted.” Wake me up when you’ve decentralized taxation.

Cut it out with this Gordian knot stuff

The cutting of the Gordian Knot by Alexander the Great is funny as great myths go: If you take a look you’ll realize that it’s usually invoked only to criticize it. Any thinker capable of nuance has to come out against it:

There’s Camus: “Yes, the rebirth is in the hands of all of us. It is up to us if the West is to bring forth any anti-Alexanders to tie together the Gordian Knot of civilization cut by the sword. 

And Sartre speaking of Heidegger: “In his abrupt, rather barbaric fashion of cutting Gordian knots rather than trying to untie them, he gives in answer to the question posited a pure and simple definition.

Really, most mentions I encounter are either to defend the knot or attack the people who think they can solve it.

I started to get a sense that anyone really moved by this sense of necessity for cutting through complexity is probably a victim of authoritarian personality and maybe not figurative but certainly literal fascism. Take Mussolini:

  • The era of Liberalism, after having accumulated an infinity of Gordian knots, tried to untie them in the slaughter of the World War-and never has any religion demanded of its votaries such a monstrous sacrifice.”  
  • I understood now,” [he] wrote, “that the Gordian knot of Italian political life could only be undone by an act of violence.
  • Not to mention his book plate.
  • But fascist Franco, not to be one-upped, put it on his seal.

Say what you want, but even the idea that we deserve to call our naive interventions solutions is a big ugly act of hubris. It’s got it’s place, but I know where I start.

Beyond first-order skepticism

In our culture, there’s a great shortcut to the high ground: the bold skeptic who doesn’t believe any of your ignorant mainstream rot. You see it everywhere. The bold skeptic is deeply and widely appealing, instantly recognizable, and so easy to fake. It’s almost as easy to fake as the other shortcut: the underdog. If underdog billionaires can complain about “the elites,” and underdog top (as in literally mainstream media) pundits can rage at mainstream media, then calling a good thing bad is nothing.

So: to instantly amaze your friends with your intellectual depth, take something everyone believes and reject it. That’s the first-order skeptic.

First-order skepticism in itself is common, and fine. It isn’t very deep to be a contrarian. But it’s something. The problem with the first order skeptic is this: a lot of what us sheeple believe, we believe because it’s true. Floor down, sky up, grass green, sun big. It can be tricky maintaining a skeptic identity without being easily cornerable into untenable positions. This is the big problem at the ground floor of skepticism. But you can solve it with work, by going deeper.

A second-order sceptic doubts both the common wisdom and the first-order skeptics. What a first-order skeptic has on the normies, a second-order skeptic has on on the first-order skeptics. “The earth isn’t flat or round: it’s a geoid!” Then there’s your third-order skeptic, who doubts the zero-, first-, and second-order skeptics, and so on. “Sure the earth is a geoid, but that’s not really a definition of a kind of shape, it’s really more our name for whatever shape earth is“. A hippie first-order skeptic will reject microwaves and dish washers for being too gadgety and commodity, while a second-order hippie will embrace them for being energy and resource efficient. Michael Moore rejects recycling because putting sustainability work on consumers is a drop in the bucket up against the magnitude of corporate waste. That’s a second-order skeptic. 

If a first-order vegetarian rejects meat on ethical or squeamish grounds, a second-order vegetarian might use ecological grounds, which reject animal agriculture, but will eat hunted goat in the tropics, or hunted moose in the arctic, ecosystems that can support those game at those levels of prevalence. A third-order vegetarian thinks that’s fine, but a little too naive in its embrace of the bold individualist. At the third order, your vote is naturally for the the most ecologically, ethically sound protein source of all. You argue that we should farm and eat bugs. 

As you go further and further down, you occupying increasingly unlikely, creative positions, and become more and more of a character, with more credibility with each level. At each level, you have to be more informed. Each level is harder to fake. Every take feels like IcyHot: spicy freshness and stone cold logic in the same package. Many of my biggest moments of admiration or respect boil down to a moment of seeing someone lodged in at level three or four casually blowing my mind. One of my most influential professors was so radically higher-order in her feminism that she exclusively wore dresses, because she saw the trend to sell women on shirts and pants as nothing but a fashion industry ploy to get women to spend twice as much on garments. And deeper isn’t always better, I also admire consistency at medium depth. Jacobin Magazine, and The Baffler before it, are just solid reliable consistent second-order skepticism. I always think of Jacobin taking down Foucault for admiration of capitalism.

I’ve seen that sometimes if you fly too high you wrap back around to incredibly norm-y positions. I’ve found many of the friends who are best at it become absolute curmudgeons. I’ve seen the second- and third- orders get faked as well. But overall, it’s a sign of quality. As an idea it’s like “Galaxy Brain” but the result of work and investment. It’s a sign of real thought. It’s something I look for in the people I follow. I don’t know if originality exists, it’s possible it doesn’t. It’s possible that no deep originality is more than a sum up from zero stopping at third, or fourth, or fifth order skepticisms, increasingly faithful to original with every extra pass. It’s also the perfect cudgel for all those bold skeptics.

What’s the thing in your life that you’ve looked at more than anything else?

Ernst Mach "Reclining"What’s the thing in your life that you’ve looked at more than anything else? Your walls? Your mom? Your hands? Not counting the backs of your eyelids, the right answer is your nose and brow. They’ve always been there, right in front of you, taking up a steady twentieth or so of your vision every waking moment.

That’s important because to have access to wonder, the joy of knowing you don’t know, you need to realize there are things that are right there that you can’t notice. If you’re wired to miss the obvious, then how can you be confident of anything?

There are answers, of course, but the question has always haunted me, and still does.

The crises of a quantitative social scientist

  1. So I’ve always identified as an empirical-first person, and v. cagey about theory contributions in social thought. I need the world to tell me how it is, I don’t want to tell it.
  2. But I’ve been doing a lot of theory this last two years with theory people.
  3. But I’ve had to get over being self-conscious about it, since theory is so made up.
  4. But I’m starting to appreciate that made up isn’t so bad, because the name of the game is figuring stuff out together, and that applies as much to useful distinctions and language as to facts and data.
  5. But I think that data is ultimately the thing that sciences of sociality are short on
  6. But my theory pieces are quickly eclipsing my data pieces in terms of “what the people want”
  7. But data is still a strategic advantage of mine, and something I enjoy a ton.
  8. But it takes a lot more work for a lot less out.
  9. And I’m starting to question more whether science is really the appropriate tool for learning about society: whether science as method is even ready for humans as subject. If you think about it, from cell and mouse research through the Nobel prize for lobotomies even to Facebook’s “emotion manipulation” experiments, the only times that science is really “in its element” for building knowledge about living systems is when it’s murdery.

Therefore … I don’t know. I should keep doing both I guess. So everything is exactly as it should be


This entry was posted on Monday, December 6th, 2021 and is filed under nescience, science.

Calvino excerpt: the wisdoms of knowing and not knowing


Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, “Serpents and skulls.” Mr Palomar is getting a tour of Toltec city of Tula from a knowledgable local scholar who goes deep into the mythos, symbolism, and network of associations. But they interrupted by a schoolteacher telling his students a simpler story.

The line of schoolboys passes. And the teacher is saying, “Esto es un chac-mool. No se sabe lo que quiere decir.” (“This is a chac-mool. We don’t know what it means.”) And he moves on.

Though Mr. Palomar continues to follow the explanation of his friend acting as guide, he always ends up crossing the path of the schoolboy and overhearing the teacher’s words. He is fascinated by his friends’s wealth of mythological references: the play of interpretation and allegorical reading has always seemed to him a supreme exercise of the mind. But he feels attracted also by the opposite attitude of the schoolteacher: what had at first seemed only a brisk lack of interest is being revealed to him as a scholarly and pedagogical position, a methodological choice by this serious and conscientious young man, a rule from which he will not serve. A stone, a figure, a sign, a word reaching us isolated from its context is only that stone, figure, sign, or word: we can try to define them, to describe them as they are, and no more than that; whether, beside the face they show us, they also have a hidden face, is not for us to know. The refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us is perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret; trying to guess is a presumption, a betrayal of that true, lost meaning.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 and is filed under books, nescience, science.

Why Carl Sagan wasn’t an astronaut

Astronomer Carl Sagan probably loved space more than most people who get to go there. So why did it never occur to me that he maybe wanted to go himself? We don’t really think of astronomers as wanting to be astronauts. But once you think about it, how could they not? I was in the archives of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, looking through the papers of Herman Joseph Muller, the biologist whose Nobel Prize was for being the first to do biology by irradiating fruit flies. He was advisor to a precocious young high-school-aged Sagan, and they had a long correspondence. Flipping through it, you get to watch Sagan evolve from calling his advisor “Prof. Muller” to “Joe” over the years. You see him bashfully asking for letters of recommendation. And you get to see him explain why he was never an astronaut.

The letter

Cambridge 38, Massachusetts

November 7, 1966

Professor H. J. Muller
Department of Zoology
Jordan Hall 222
University of Indiana
Bloomington, Indiana

Dear Joe,

Many thanks for the kind thoughts about the scientist-astronaut program. I am not too old, but I am too tall. There is an upper limit of six feet! So I guess I’ll just stay here on the ground and try to understand what’s up in the sky. But a manned Mars expedition — I’d try and get shrunk a little for that.

With best wishes,
Carl Sagan

A little note on using special collections

A library’s Special Collections can be intimidating and opaque. But they have amazing stuff once you’re started. The easiest way to get started is to show and up and just ask to be shown something cool. It’s the librarian’s job to find things, and they’ll find something. But that only shows you things people know about. How do you find things that no one even knew was in there? The strategy I’m converging on is to start by going through a library’s “finding aids”, skip to the correspondence, skip to the alphabetized correspondence, Google the people who have been pulled out, and pull the folder of the first person who looks interesting. The great thing about this strategy is that even if your Library only has the papers of boring people, those papers will include letters from that boring person’s interesting friends.

A strong identity is no defense against hypocrisy (a good offense is a bad defense)

Take a look at these five people, and see what they have in common

  • The young contrarian so repulsed by his lefty friends’ sheeple-ness that he becomes a reactionary, only to become an ideologue himself.
  • The brave young hipster who has called himself a feminist for so long that everyone is blind to his violence against women, including himself
  • The pastor whose consuming identity as a servant of God makes him blind to his own embezzlement or abuse
  • The downtrodden who become toxic after rejecting that victims of oppression are capable of acts oppression.
  • I see it all the time in science too. For example, T.C. Chamberlin, a 19th and 20th century “dean” of American geology, within decades of extending his fame with a classic warning against dogmatism in science, had become such a toxic antagonist of the theory of plate tectonics that he probably singlehandedly set its acceptance back by decades.

You have hypocrites in all of these examples, but name calling is beside the point here. Each of these characters started out sympathetic, and changed in a very human way into something unhealthy. Considering what they went through—the actual etiology of hypocrisy—empowers us to move past imperiously impugning the fallen, and actually protect ourselves from the same ugly fate.

Each of those people probably began with good strong intellectual defenses against some threat. But eventually, they all excused themselves from the need to constantly re-evaluate themselves. They stopped questioning their standing, and lost it. It’s like you have a big strong wall around you, but you slowly let your identity balloon to include it. You start to be impressed by how forbidding the identity is, and how much easier it is to maintain than the wall’s bulky brick and mortar. Eventually, you let the balloon take over as the wall crumbles. But a big ballon is a superficial and misleading defense. Or, to trade some faithfulness for concision, you have a big strong gate keeping out the riff-raff. You want to make it even more formidable, so you light it on fire, and that works for a while, until you’re down to nothing.

Using identity as a defense against hypocrisy is a really subtle and insidious trap, but naming it and describing it makes it easier to guard against, which is why I like to think about these things.

Still, I’m no exception. I’ve caught myself in it before, several times, and that’s why a basic part of my intellectual hygiene is never letting myself think that my current intellectual hygiene is enough. Hopefully that’s enough to protect me, except, well, if I think it’s enough then by definition it isn’t.

Self-doubt is an awful foundation for knowledge, but, when you’re all too human, it might be less bad than anything else.

Do you lose things? Here’s the magical way to find them.

Let’s say you make a trip to the store, making sure to lock the door behind your on the way out. When you return and try to let yourself in, you discover that you lost your keys somewhere along the way. Round-trip, the whole distance traveled was longish to hunt for a pair of lost keys, like 1km. They could be anywhere!

How should you go about finding your keys? Should you spend the whole cold day and night slowly scouring your path? That sounds awful. But reality isn’t going to do you any favors: there’s no way your keys are more likely to be in one place along the way than another. So, for example, if the space within ten meters of your door accounts for 2% of the whole trip, the probability of finding your keys within that space must be equal to 2%, not greater than or less than 2%. Right?

Nope. It turns out that reality wants to do you a favor. There’s a good place to look for your keys.

The answer

Intuition says that they are as likely to be in one place along the way as any other. And intuition is right for the special case that your keys were definitely very secure and very unlikely to have fallen out on that particular trip. But they probably weren’t. After all, if it was so unlikely, they shouldn’t have fallen out. So we can’t just consider the world where the very unlikely happened. We have to consider several possible worlds of two rough types:
* The worlds in which your keys were very secure, but the very unlikely happened and they fell out anyway.
* The worlds in which your keys, on that particular trip, were unusually loose and bound to fall out.
So those are the two types of possible world we’re in, and we don’t have to consider them equally. The mere fact that your keys fell out means it’s more likely that you’re in the second type of world, that they were bound to fall out. And if they were bound to fall out, then they probably fell out right away. Why? We can take those worlds and divide them again, into those where your keys were likely but not too too likely to fall out, and those in which your keys were not just very likely, but especially very likely to fall out. And so on. Of the worlds in which your keys were bound to fall out, the ones that are most likely are the ones in which they fell out right away.

So there it is. If you lost your keys somewhere along a long stretch, you don’t have to search every bit of it equally, because they most likely fell out on your way down the doorstep, or thereabouts. The probability of finding your keys within 10 meters of the door is greater than 2%, possibly much greater.

What is the probability exactly? If you’d had several keys to lose, we might be able to better estimate which specific world we’re in of the millions. But even with just one key lost, the mere fact that it got lost means it was most likely to have gotten lost immediately.

Why is it magic?

If you know the likelihood of losing your keys, that makes them impossible to find. If you have no idea the chances they fell out, then they’re more than likely near the door. It’s your uncertainty about how you lost them that causes them to be easy to find. It’s as if the Universe is saying “Aww, here you go, you pitiful ignorant thing.”

Solving the puzzle, with and without data

So you can’t get the actual probability without estimates of how often this trick works.  But even without hard data, we can still describe the general pattern. The math behind this is tractable, in that someone who knows how to prove things can show that the distribution of your key over the length of the route follows an exponential distribution, not a uniform distribution, with most of the probability mass near the starting point, and a smooth falling off as you get further away. The exponential distribution is commonly used for describing waiting times between events that are increasingly likely to have happened at least once as time goes by. Here is my physicist friend, “quantitative epistemologist” Damian Sowinski explaining how it is that your uncertainty about the world causes the world to put your keys close to your door.

If you get in this situation and try this trick, write me whether it worked or not and I’ll keep a record that we can use to solve for lambda in Damian’s notes.

In the meantime, we do have one real-world data point. This all happened to me recently on my way to and from the gym. I was panicking until I realized that if they fell out at all, they probably fell out right away. And like magic, I checked around my starting point And There They Were. It’s an absolutely magical feeling when mere logic helps you solve a real problem in the real world. I’ve never been so happy to have lost my keys.


UPDATE: How strong is the effect?

All of the above tells us that there’s a better than 2% chance of finding your keys in the first 10 meters. But how much better than 2%?  20% or 2.001%?  If the latter, then we’re really talking intellectual interest more than a pro-tip; even if the universe is doing you a favor, it’s not exactly bending over backwards for you.  To tackle this, we have mathematician Austin Shapiro.  Backing him up I can add that, on the occasion on which this trick worked for me, my keys were super super loose, just like he predicts.  A takeaway is going to be that if this trick works for you, you did a very bad job of securing your keys.

I read your blog post, including Damian’s note. I have some things to add, but to clearly explain where they fit in, let me try to delineate two separate “chapters” in the solution to your key problem.

In chapter 1, we narrow our set of models for the location of the keys to the exponential distributions. Damian gives a good account of how this can be justified from first principles. But after doing this, we still have an infinite set of models, because an exponential distribution depends on a parameter \lambda (the expected rate of key losses per kilometer walked, which may be high if the keys are loose and hanging out of your pocket, or low if they are well secured).

In chapter 2, we use conditional probability to select among the possible values of \lambda, or, as you put it in your blog post, try to figure out which world we are in. This is the part that interests me, and it’s also the part that still needs mathematical fleshing-out. All Damian says about it is “So what is the value of \lambda? That’s a question for experiment — one must measure it.” But as you say, we’ve already done one experiment: you observed that your keys did fall out during a 1 km walk. This is enough to put a posterior distribution on \lambdaif we posit a prior distribution.

However… what does a neutral prior for \lambda look like? I don’t know any principled way to choose. A uniform distribution between 0 and some finite ceiling is unsuitable, since according to such a model, if you’re ever very likely to lose your keys, you’re usually pretty likely to lose your keys.

Assigning \lambda itself an exponential prior distribution seems murkily more realistic, so I tried that. If \lambda\sim{\rm Exp}(k), then, if I did my math right, your probability of having lost your keys in the first x km of your walk works out to k(k+1)\left(\frac 1k-\frac 1{k+x}\right), which is (1+\frac 1k)x+O(x^2) for small x. So in this case, Bayesian reasoning boosts the chances that you lost your keys in the first, say, 10 meters, by a factor of 1+\frac 1k. Observe that for this effect to be large, k has to be pretty small… and the smaller k is, the higher your average propensity to lose your keys (the mean of the exponential distribution is \frac 1k). Thus, for example, to achieve the result that the universe is helping you find your keys to the tune of a factor of 5 — i.e., that your chance of having lost your keys in the first 10 meters is 5% instead of the “intuitive” 1% — you need to assume that, a priori, you’re so careless with your keys as to lose them 4 times per kilometer on an average trip. That prior seems just as implausible as the uniform prior.

I can think of one kind of prior that could lead to a strong finding that the universe wants to help you find your keys. That would be a bimodal prior, with a high probability that \lambda is close to 0 (key chained to both nipple rings) and a small probability that \lambda is very large (key scotch-taped to beard), with nothing in between. But I can’t think of any reason to posit such a prior that isn’t transparently circular reasoning, motivated by the answer we’re trying to prove.

So… while all the exponential models definitely give you a better chance of finding your keys near the beginning of your route than near the end, I’m not convinced the effect size is all that strong; or, if it is (and you do have one magical experience to suggest it is), I’m not convinced that math is the reason!


Tom Lehrer song ripping on quantitative social science

Tom Lehrer was is a cold war era lefty musical satirist, best known for Poisoning Pigeons in the Park, and his jingles about math, science, and nuclear holocaust. In addition to being a musician, he also taught math and stats at MIT and Santa Cruz. His courseload at MIT through the 1960’s included the Political Science department’s quantitative modeling course, an experience that seems to have made him very mocking about the sciences of society. The song below is addressed to sociology but, as he admits, it’s really about all quantitative approaches to social science.

Some choice bits:

They can take one small matrix,
and really do great tricks,
all in the name of socioloigy.

They can snow all their clients,
by calling it a science,
although it’s only sociology.

Elsewhere in the same clip are very nerdy mathematical songs, and a good satire about professors thinking we’re brilliant, and a School House Rock type kids song. Before stumbling on this, I discovered and rediscovered a bunch of other wonderful songs, such as the Vatican Rag, “I got it from Agnes”, and Oedipus Rex. I was especially into Selling Out.

Philip K. Dick’s vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.

Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.

In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.

No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.

I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.

I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Natural selection, statistical mechanics, and the idea of germs were all inspired by social science

It’s only natural to want to hold your scientific field as the most important, or noble, or challenging field. That’s probably why I always present the sciences of human society as the ones that are hardest to do. It’s not so crazy: it is inherently harder to learn about social systems than biological, engineered, or physical ones because we can’t, and shouldn’t ever, have the same control over humans that we do over bacteria, bridges, or billiard balls. But maybe I take it too far. I usually think of advances in social science as advances in what it is possible for science to teach us, and I uncritically think of social science as where scientific method will culminate.

So imagine my surprise to learn that social science isn’t the end of scientific discovery, but a beginning. According to various readings in John Carey’s Faber Book of Science, three of the most important scientific discoveries since the Enlightenment — the theory of natural selection, the germ theory of disease, and the kinetic theory of gasses — brought inspiration from human social science to non-human domains. One of Darwin’s key insights toward the theory of evolution came while reading Malthus’s work on human population. Just in case you think that’s a fluke, Alfred Russell Wallace’s independent discovery of natural selection came while he was reading Malthus. (And Darwin was also influenced by Adam Smith). Louis Pasteur developed the implications of the germ theory of disease by applying his French right-wing political philosophy to animalcules. The big leap there was that biologists rejected that very small insignificant animals could possibly threaten a large and majestic thing like a human, but Pasteur had seen how the unworthy masses threatened the French elite, and it gave him an inkling. Last, James Maxwell, the man right under Newton and Einstein in physics stature, was reading up on the new discipline of Social Statistics when he came up with the kinetic theory of gases, which in turn sparked statistical mechanics and transformed thermodynamics. Physicists have started taking statistical mechanics out of physical science and applying it to social science, completely ignorant of the fact that it started there.

All of these people were curious enough about society to think and read about it, and their social ponderings were rewarded with fresh ideas that ultimately transformed each of their fields.

I think of science as a fundamentally social endeavor, but when I say that I’m usually thinking of the methods of science. These connections out of history offer a much deeper sense in which all of natural science is the science of humanity.

Thanks to Jaimie Murdock and Colin Allen for the connection between Malthus and Darwin, straight from Darwin’s autobiography

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favorable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavorable ones to be destroyed. The results of this would be the formation of a new species. Here, then I had at last got a theory by which to work.

How would science be different if humans were different?

How would science be different if humans were different — if we had different physiological limits? Obviously, if our senses were finer, we wouldn’t need the same amount of manufactured instrumentation to reach the same conclusions. But there are deeper implications. If our senses were packed denser, and if we could faithfully process and perceive all of the information they collect, we would probably have much more sensitive time perception, or one way or another a much refined awareness of causal relations in the world. This would have the result that raw observation would be a much more fruitful methodology within the practice of natural science, perhaps so much so that we would have much less need for things like laboratory experiments (which are currently very important).

Of course, a big part of the practice of science is the practice of communication, and that becomes clear as soon as we change language. Language is sort of a funny way to have to get things out of one head and into another. It is slow, awkward, and very imperfect. If “language” was perfect — if we could transfer our perfect memories of subjective experience directly to each other’s heads with the fidelity of ESP — there would be almost no need for reproducibility, one of the most important parts of science-as-we-know-it. Perfect communication would also supersede the paratactic writeups that scientific writing currently relies on to make research reproducible. It may be that in some fields there would be no articles or tables or figures. Maybe there would still be abstracts. And if we had unlimited memories, it’s possible that we wouldn’t need statistics, randomized experiments, or citations either.

The reduction in memory limits would probably also lead to changes in the culture of science. Science would move faster, and it would be easier to practice without specialized training. The practice of science would probably no longer be restricted to universities, and the idea of specialized degrees like Ph.D.s would probably be very different. T.H. Huxley characterized science as “organized common sense.” This “organization” is little more than a collection of crutches for our own cognitive limits, without which the line between science and common sense would disappear entirely.

That’s interesting enough. But, for me, the bigger implication of this exercise is that science as we know it is not a Big Thing In The Sky that exists without us. Science is fundamentally human. I know people who find that idea distasteful, but chucking human peculiarities into good scientific practice is just like breaking in a pair of brand-new gloves. Having been engineered around some fictional ideal, your gloves aren’t most useful until you’ve stretched them here and there, even if you’ve also nicked them up a bit. It’s silly to judge gloves on their fit to the template. In practice, you judge them on their fit to you.

Cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how race doesn’t exist.

On the old Radiolab episode about race, the producers used an interesting fact to make an argument that race doesn’t exist — that it’s entirely a social construct. It turns out that the genetic variability within races is greater than the variability between races; the average difference between two people of the same race is greater than that of groups of people across races. In that sense, the idea of race is not really meaningful. But the same is true for the sounds p and b.

Put your finger to your throat and say “ppuh.” Then say “bbuh.” The vibration you felt for the second one is called voicing; it’s supposed to be the only difference between p and b. That said, things get fuzzy fast. Say “pee.” “Pee” doesn’t start out voiced, but it ends that way (in contrast with “bee,” which is voiced more from the beginning). Depending on context, you can actually move voicing up a lot more and still be perceived as uttering a p. And you can move voicing down from the beginning and still be a b. There are big individual differences too, so that the thing that came out of my mouth as a p might have come out of your sounding like a b. In real everyday language, the fluctuations are so wild that the variability within p or b is greater that then variability between them.

Does race exist? As much as p and b do. So wait: Do p and b exist? It turns out that there are sharp people working to destroy the ideas of the sounds p and b. For example, cognitive scientist Bob Port put his career behind undermining the static approaches to phonology that permitted the idea of linguistic atoms. And there’s something to it. It turns out that p and b are really complicated. But he can still pronounce his name. It seems you don’t have to be able to draw a clear line between them for them to be used by reasonable people as ideas. To take them too seriously is wrong, and to think that they can’t be used responsibly, or even usefully, is also wrong.

p, b, and race all look superficially like basic building blocks, but really they are each a complicated result of things like physiology, culture, and the context of each instant. So they are constructs, but not just social constructs. Their cultural arbitrariness is not the thing that is at the root of how they don’t exist. What does it mean for you? These constructs aren’t insubstantial because they are nothing, they are insubstantial because they are complicated.

The law of welfare royalty

To propose that human society is governed by laws is generally foolhardy. I wouldn’t object to a Law of Social Laws to push along the lines that all generalizations are false. But this observation has a bit going for it, namely that it depends on the inherent complexity of society, and on human limits. Those are things we can count on.

The law of welfare royalty: Every scheme for categorizing members of a large-scale society will suffer from at least one false positive and at least one false negative.

The law says that every social label will be misapplied in two ways: It will be used to label people it shouldn’t (false positive), and it will fail to be applied to people it should (false negative). Both errors will exist.

The ideas of false positives and false negatives come from signal detection theory, which is about labeling things. If you fired a gun in the direction of someone who might be friend or foe, four things can happen: a good hit, a good miss, a bad hit (friendly fire), and a bad miss.** Failing to keep all four outcomes in mind leads to bad reasoning about humans and society, especially when it comes to news and politics.


  • No matter how generous a social welfare system, it will always be possible to find someone suffering from starvation and exposure, and to use their story to argue for more generosity.
  • No matter how stingy and inadequate a welfare system, it will always be possible to cry “waste” and “scandal” on some kind of welfare royalty abusing the system.
  • No matter the inherent threat of violence from a distant ethnic group, it will always be possible to report a very high and very low threat of violence.
  • Airport security measures are all about tolerating a very very high rate of false positives (they search everybody) in order to prevent misses (letting actual terrorists board planes unsearched), but it cannot be guaranteed to succeed, and the cost of searching everybody has to be measured against that.
  • In many places, jaywalking laws are only used to shut down public protests. During street protests, jaywalking laws have a 0% hit rate and a 0% correct reject (true negative) rate: they never catch people they should, and they catch all of the people they shouldn’t.

The law of welfare royalty is important for how we think about society and social change. The upshot is that trustworthy reporting about social categories must report using lots of data. Anecdotes will always be available to support any opinion about any act on society. You can also infer from my formulation of the law a corollary that there will always be a talking head prepared to support your opinion, though that isn’t so deep or interesting or surprising.

In fact, none of this is so surprising once a person thinks about it. The challenge is getting a person to think about it, even once. That’s the value of giving the concept a name. If I could choose one facet of statistical literacy to upload into the head of every human being, it would be a native comfort with the complementary concepts of false positives and negatives. Call it a waste of an upload if you want, but signal detection theory has become a basic part of my daily intellectual hygiene.

The selling out diaries: Surprising sources of pressure

I’m a behavioral scientist, pretty lefty, and I currently do research for a major media corporation. I predicted before taking on this job that I would feel some pressure to drift from deeper questions about society towards “business school” questions — questions that are less about human behavior and more about consumer behavior. What I didn’t predict is that all of that pressure would come from within myself. I voluntarily propose questions in the direction of consumer behavior when it’s not what I want to do and I’m not being pressured to do it. Why?

The big factor is that I’m amiable and eager to please. So while I maybe am not drawn towards consumer research questions, the people I meet in other parts of the company are often interested — personally interested as reasonable people — in just that stuff. I like these people, and I recognize the good in the things they want to accomplish, and I want to be worth their time to do other kinds of work with them in the future, so I offer to help.

And there it is: I prepared myself against outside pressures, and got surprised by the pressures I’m really vulnerable to, the ones that come from the inside. They are trickiest in that they seem to come from good places — in particular from the ways that I like to think of myself as a good person.

In introspection-heavy spaces, recognizing a problem is the bigger part of solving it. For this particular problem, the rest is easy enough: For every 50 questions I generate, 10 are academically interesting, and 1 also has appeal to the people I work with. So if I stay creative enough to sustainably generate 100s of questions, I can constrain my helpfulness to the ways that I want to help without making any party feel constrained; I can do satisfying work and help my colleagues at the same time.

This particular solution is a patch, and it will raise other problems. I’m not done thinking about these things. But as long as I pay attention and stay aware of my values I think I can do work that is good for me, good for the people who support me, and good for the world.

Betable.com on the ethics of developing addictive social games


I’m looking at using big social game data to do science. I wanted to advance my own thinking about the ethical issues, so I rooted up some of the names that are pushing the social-gaming conversation in new directions. Among the places I found was Betable.com, a social gaming startup that is very excited to involve gambling in the future of online gaming. It is also very good at marketing itself. Given its prominence in the scene and its eagerness to present itself as avant garde I figured its leadership would have provocative — even original — thoughts on the subject of ethics. Is that so naïve?

How we create culture from noise


I don’t like to act too knowledgable about society, but I’m ready to conjecture law: “Peoples will interpret patterns into the phenomena that affect their lives, even phenomena without patterns. Culture amplifies pareidolia.”

It’s interesting when those patterns are random, as in weather and gambling. “Random” is a pretty good model for weather outside the timescale of days. But we can probably count on every human culture to have narratives that give weather apprehensible causes. Gambling is random by definition, but that doesn’t stop the emergence of gambling “systems” that societies continue to honor with meaningfulness. Societies do not seem to permit impactful events to be meaningless.

This is all easy to illustrate in fine work by Kalish et al. (2007). The image above shows five series (rows) of people learning a pattern of dots from the person before them, one dot at a time, and then teaching it to the next person in the same way. Each n (each column) is a new person in the “cultural” transmission of the pattern. The experiment starts with some given “true” pattern (the first column).

The first row of the five tells a pretty clean story. The initial pattern was a positive linear function that people learned and transmitted with ease. But the second and third rows already raise some concern: the initial patterns were more complicated functions that, within just a couple of generations, got transformed into the same linear function as in the first row. This is impressive because the people were different between rows; Each row happened without any awareness of what happened in the other rows — people had only the knowledge of what just happened in the cell to their immediate left. Treating the five people in rows two or three as constituting a miniature society, we can say that they collectively simplified a complicated reality into something that was easier to comprehend and communicate.

And in the fourth and fifth rows the opposite happens: Subjects are not imposing their bias for positive lines on a more complicated hidden pattern, but on no pattern at all. Again, treating these five people as a society, their line is a social construct that emerges reliably across “cultures” from nothing but randomness. People are capable of slightly more complex cultural products (the negative line in the fifth row) but probably not much more, and probably rarely.

The robustness of this effect gives strong evidence that culture can amplify the tendencies of individuals toward pareidolia — seeing patterns in noise. It also raises the possibility that the cultural systems we hold dear are built on noise. I’m betting that any work to change such a system is going to find itself up against some very subtle, very powerful social forces.

Translation with rotation. An American railroad man sold Marx on Iroquois culture.

By a strange irony, the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marxist theory. The twisting trail that leads to Friedrich Engels begins with Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer and lobbyist for railroads. His interest in the Iroquois was aroused because he wanted to use their rituals in a rather sophomoric fraternal organization he and several business friends were setting up. As a result, he studied the Iroquois deeply …
He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist. But he published his theories in Ancient Society in 1877, at the very time tht Karl Marx was working on the final volumes of Das Kapital. Marx was enthusiastic and made notes about Morgan’s findings, which by accident fitted in with his own materialistic views of history. Marx died before he could write a book incorporating Morgan’s theories, but Engels used them as the cornerstone for his influential The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884). This volume has become the source book for all anthropological theory in Soviet Russia and most other communist countries. Engels was ecstatic about what he had learned, or thought he had learned, of the League of the Iroquois from Morgan … That bourgeois gentleman Morgan is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinkers.

“This day” is the 1968 of Peter Farb, from his book Man’s rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state. Any book written by a 1960’s anthropologist is going to be dated, but this one is also so progressive in some places (even by today’s standards) that I say it breaks even.

Other valuable excerpts from the book:

Extremely literal rank accounting:

Once a society starts to keep track in this way of who is who, there is no telling where such genealogical bookkeeping will end. In Northwest Coast society it did not end until the very last and lowliest citizen knew his precise hereditary rank with a defined distance from the chief, and he knew it with exactitude. There is record of a Kwakiutl feast in which each of the 658 guests from thirteen subdivisions of the chiefdom knew whether he was, say, number 437 or number 438. … A specialist in the Northwest Coast has wisely stated: “To insist upon the use of the term ‘class system’ for Northwest Coast society means that we must say that each individual was in a class by himself.”

Emergent market exchange:

Membership in other kinds of societies was also often purchased, and in fact many things were for sale among the Plains tribes: sacred objects, religious songs, and even the description of a particularly good vision. The right to paint a particular design on the face during a religious ceremony might cost as much as a horse. Permission just to look inside someone’s sacred bundle of fetishes and feathers was often worth the equivalent of a hundred dollars. A Crow is known to have paid two horses to his sponsor to get himself invited into a tobacco society, and teh candidate’s family contributed an additional twenty-three horses. A prudent Blackfoot was well advised to put his money into a sacred bundle, and investment that paid him continued dividends.

Of the Cheyenne, with a connection to Bengime:

Only the bravest of the brave warriors could belong to the elite military society known as the Contraries. Somewhat like the Zuni Mudheads, they were privileged clowns. They did the opposite of everything: They said no when they meant yes; went away when called and came near when told to go away; called left right; and sat shivering on the hottest day.

How the Cherokee got screwed, an important story from the USA’s 19th century campaign of genocide:

About 1790 the Cherokee decided to adopt the ways of their White conquerors and to emulate their civilization, their morals, their learning, and their arts. The Cherokee made remarkable and rapid progress in their homeland in the mountains where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. They established churches, mills, schools, and well-cultivated farms; judging from descriptions of that time, the region was a paradise when compared with the bleak landscape that the White successors have made of Appalachia today. In 1826 a Cherokee reported to the Presbyterian Church that his people already possessed 22,000 cattle, 7,600 houses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,488 spinning wheels, 2,948 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, and 18 schools. In one of the Cherokee districts alone there were some 1,000 volumes of “good books.” In 1821, after 12 twelve years of hard work, a Cherokee names Seqoya (honored in the scientific names for the the redwood and the giant sequoia trees in California, three thousand miles from his homeland) perfected a method of syllabary notation in which English letters stood for Cherokee syllables; by 1828 the Cherokee were already publishing their own newspaper. At about the same time, they adopted a written constitution providing for an executive, a bicameral legislature, a supreme court, and a code of laws.
Before the passage of the Removal Act of 1830, a group of Cherokee chiefs went to the Senate committee that was studying this legislation, to report on what they had already achieved in the short space of forty years. They expressed the hope that they would be permitted to enjoy in peace “the blessings of civilization and Christianity on the soil of their rightful inheritance.” Instead, they were daily subjected to brutalities and atrocities by White neighbors, harassed by the state government of Georgia, cajoled and bribed by Federal agents to agree to removal, and denied even the basic protection of the federal government. Finally, in 1835, a minority faction of five hundred Cherokee out of a total of some twenty thousand signed a treaty agreeing to removal. The Removal Act was carried out almost everywhere with a notable lack of compassion, but in the case of the Cherokee—civilized and Christianized as they were—it was particularly brutal.
After many threats, about five thousand finally consented to be marched westward, but another fifteen thousand clung to their neat farms, schools, and libraries “of good books.” So General Winfield Scott set about systematically extirpating the rebellious ones. Squads of soldiers descended upon isolated Cherokee farms and at bayonet point marched the families off to what today would be known as concentration camps. Torn from their homes with all the dispatch and efficiency the Nazis displayed under similar circumstances, the families had no time to prepare for the arduous trip ahead of them. No way existed for the Cherokee family to sell its property and possessions, and the local Whites fell upon the lands, looting, burning, and finally taking possession.
Some Cherokee managed to escape into the gorges and thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they became the nucleus of those living there today, but most were finally rounded up or killed. They then were set off on a thousand-mile march—called to this day “the trail of ters tears” by the Cherokee—that was one of the notable death marches in history. Ill clad, badly fed, lacking medical attention, and prodded on by soldiers wielding bayonets, the Indians suffered severe losses. An estimate made at the time stated that some four thousand Cherokee died en route, but that figure is certainly too low. At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government’s handling of the Indian problem had been “just and friendly throughout; its efforts for their civilization constant, and directed by the best feelings of humanity; it’s watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds unremitting.”

Are existential crises heavier when you don’t exist?

This robot fails the turing test on herself. She can keep Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine company in the category of Self Denying Automata That I Think Are Deep But I Can’t Tell And That’s Why They Are.

A list of things I wanted to know in July 2013

  • the biology of mushrooms
  • the mathematical methods of physics: how to wreak havoc on equations
  • the name and history every plant I step on
  • when we should have decentralized control, when we should have bosses
  • the contributions of statistical physics to social science
  • more theoretical neuro
  • more theoretical bio
  • more theoretical ecology
  • how to evolve modularity, and how modularity evolved
  • birds by their songs
  • more about soil ecology
  • how palm wine tastes differs in every country that you can find it
  • every Mediterranean climate in the world
  • the influences of Greco-Roman culture that elicited Christianity from Judaism
  • the cultural histories of Heavens and Hells
  • how to never lie to myself unintentionally
  • how to keep changing forever
  • how I’ll change when I leave this town for the next
  • why there aren’t more worker-owned businesses

FYI, I don’t know yet.

Enfascination 2013

29742_396066756605_704462_n“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King Jr. in a great endorsement for humility, curiosity, and discovery.

On Thinko de Mayo, from 1PM, you will have five minutes to help us see how dangerous we are. You may share anything at all during your five minutes, as long as you personally think it’s fascinating. Your goal is to transmit your sense of fascination to others. FB page: https://www.facebook.com/events/498466006869981/

If the constraints of themes help you brainstorm, try “Science towards nescience.” But generally, you should trust yourself. If you manage nothing more than five minutes of wobbling, inarticulate, ecstatic blubbering then Well Done: You have successfully expressed the unfathomable depth of your subject.

This is the ten-year anniversary of these lectures –– ten years since I attempted the world’s nerdiest 21st birthday kegger. This will be the fifth and probably last in Bloomington. Ask me for help if you’ll have slides or a demo.

Past topics have included:
Slide Rules, Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Twee, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Infant Visual Perception, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, The Paleoclimatology of the Levant, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies.

Last year’s audio:
And video/notes from before that:


UPDATE post-party

Here is what happened:

  1. The Tiger Café by Ronak
  2. Jr. High School Poetry Slam by Lauren
  3. The “Border” language by Destin
  4. Perception/Objectivity by Paul Patton
  5. Readings from James Agee by Jillian
  6. “A signal detection theory of morality” or “The morality manatee” by Seth
  7. Dreams and the four candies by Danny
  8. Pick Two by Adam
  9. Trust and Trust Experiments by Jonathan

Never too smart to be very wrong

A lot of my life choices and habits of thought have been devoted to never letting myself get permanently attached something that’s wrong. That would be my hell, and I think that there’s always a risk of it. Somehow there is no being humble enough. As an exercise for myself, and as an illustration of the risks, I went on a hunt for examples of famous scientists who got stuck and went to their graves as the last major holdout for a dead discredited theory. I figure I might learn some of the signs to watch for in myself.

It has been one of those things where you don’t fully understand what you’re looking for until you find it. The understanding happens in the process of sifting through lots of examples that you thought would fit and finding just one. Slightly different from what I described above –– the existential to my universal –– is the otherwise-incredible scientist who proposes a batshit theory that never catches on. There are lots of those, and they’re listed separately. I value them less because, well, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the subtle differences between superceded theories, pseudoscientific theories, fringe theories, and unscientific theories. [Ed. It took me a day, but I’m interested in the difference between attachment to a superceded theory and to a fringe theory. I’m focusing on the former, and I think its more dramatic.]

I found other side-categories over the course of refining my main list. There are enough Nobel Laureates going off the deep end that they get their own section. There are plenty examples of experts adopting wacky views outside their area of expertise. I also eliminated lots of potentially great examples because the scientist’s wacky commitment was one that was reasonable to believe at the time –– take physicist Einstein’s discomfort with quantum mechanics, anatomist Paul Broca’s affection for phrenology, and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson’s pretty violent and unreasonable dismissal of plate tectonics.

There are also people who flirted with a crazy idea but didn’t let it get the better of them and those who, while they believed crazy stuff, didn’t accomplish enough for me to say “this person is way way smarter than everyone I know.”

I did my best, and I learned a lot, but I couldn’t research all of these totally thoroughly. If I had any doubt about someone’s being in the “way too smart to be a paleo holdout” category then I put them in one of the less impressive lists.

The vast majority of these examples are from other people’s brains. The branches of the taxonomy were also influenced as much by people’s comments as my own here-and-there experiences of dissatisfaction. Biggest thanks to Micah Josephy, Finn Brunton, Michael Bishop, all the people here, and at less wrong.

“I’m smart, but I will never stop believing in this wrong theory”

The most interesting cases are where a contested theory became consensus theory for all but a few otherwise thoughtful holdouts, like:

  • Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle who never accepted the Big Bang.
  • Biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who campaigned against vaccines
  • Physicist Heaviside against relativity.
  • Physicist Phillipp Lenard against relativity, thanks to Nazi Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Johannes Stark against relativity, also from Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Nikola Tesla against relativity.
  • Tesla against other chunks of modern physics.
  • Chemist Joseph Priestley‘s sustained defense of phlogiston.
  • Statistician and biologist Sir Ronald Fischer‘s rejection of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.
  • Physicist and early psychologist Ernst Mach‘s rejection of atoms! (and relativity). He was arguing for a very subjective philosophy of science well after Einstein’s pre-relativity work to confirm the kinetic theory of gases.
  • Biologist Peter Duesberg‘s rejection that HIV causes AIDs, and his advocacy of alternative causes like drug use.
  • Biologist Trofim Lysenko‘s rejection of Mendelian inheritance, thanks to Michurinism, the Soviet Lamarckism.
  • Psychologist B. F. Skinner‘s rejection of the idea that humans have mental states (from his books, like About Behaviorism; This is cleverly falsified by Shephard and Metzler’s wonderful 1971 experiment).

Honorable mention

These people, despite their notability, didn’t make the list, either because they saw the light, because they weren’t a scientist, or because they are part of an ongoing controversy and might still redeem theirselves. Erdös and Simpson make it because of how badly behaved they were for the short time before they realized they were wrong.

  • Mathematician Erdős and the simple elegant Monty Hall problem. He was adamant about the solution until he was proven wrong. In fact, an embarrassing chunk of the professional mathematics community dismissed the female who posed it until they were all proven wrong. Recounted in The Man who Loved Only Numbers.
  • George Gaylord Simpson’s violent attacks on plate tectonics. Bad form Gaylord. He accepted it when it finally became consensus (p. 339 of this).
  • Florence Nightingale on miasma theory and always keeping the windows open in the hospital. She doesn’t make the list because she’s not really thought of as a scientist.
  • Psychologist Daryl Bem’s recent work on psi phenomena might count towards what I’m after, if the recent failures to reproduce it are definitive and Bem hasn’t recanted.
  • Recently, Luc Montagnier mingling in homeopathy and wacky autism theories (Nobel mention).
  • Maybe this is too political of me, but I’m going to add Noam Chomsky’s rhetorical maneuvers to make his linguistic theories unfalsifiable.
  • René-Prosper Blondlot and N-rays. Thanks to Martin Gardner, he’s usually considered to have taken these to his grave. He was deceiving himself, but I’m guessing he probably recanted after the big embarrassment.

“My pet fringe theory”

There are lots of examples of an otherwise good scientist inventing some crackpot theory are swearing by it forever.

  • Linus Pauling on Vitamin C (that it prevents/cures cancer) (Nobel)
  • Linus Pauling on orthomolecular medicine (Nobel)
  • Similarly, Louis Ignarro on the positive effects of NO on your heart (Nobel)
  • Physicist Gurwitsch on biophotons
  • While working on radios, Marconi was apparently v. predisposed to thinking he was talking to Martians
  • William Crookes on “radiant matter”
  • Ernst Haeckel’s pet continent Lemuria
  • Wilhelm Reich’s pet power Orgone
  • Tesla may have gone over the deep end for wireless energy transfer
  • Physicist Albert Crehore and the Crehore atom, recounted in Martin Gardner’s pretty purple book on fringe science
  • Biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s allout occultism
  • Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson, ESP and homeopathy and PK and cold fusion
  • Carl Reichenbach, chemist, and the Odic Force
  • Physicist Samuel T. Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and of “red mercury” nukes

“Sure I considered and even experimented with this wierd idea but I probably didn’t let it get the better of me”

Another less exciting category for people who redeemed and thus disqualified themselves from consideration above.

  • A lot of early 20th century scientists on established supernatural and extrasensory powers, incl. Albert Einstein, William James, and many more.
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds
  • Maybe Thomas Gold and abiogenic petroleum

“I’m smart and I believed this crazy thing but back then everyone else did too, so no biggie”

These are just people who believed in theories that became superceded, and there are more examples than I could ever enumerate. These are just the ones I sifted through looking for better examples

  • Anatomist Paul Broca and phrenology (covered in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies)
  • Isaac Newton and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and all kinds of other occult topics
  • Johann Joachim Becher and phlogiston
  • Einstein’s and Jaynes’ discomfort with QM
  • Astronomer Simon Newcomb was very skeptical that human flight would be possible, until it became possible. He was probably just being a good skeptic — after all, it is something people wanted to be true.
  • Michelson and aether. He accidentally disproved it and put lots of effort (too much?) into trying to show that his first experiment was wrong. Again, that’s maybe just good science.
  • Mendeleev’s coronium and the abiogenic theory of petroleum

“I’m not qualified to say so, but I’ll insist that this well-established thing in someone else’s field is a crock”

You’ll see that Nobel Prize winners are particularly susceptible

  • Hoyle against the Archaeopteryx
  • Hoyle on microbes from space
  • Lord Kelvin on microbes from space
  • William Shockley and eugenics (Nobel)
  • James Watson and his wackinesses (Nobel)
  • Kary Mullis off the deep end (Nobel)
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen’s controversial approach to autism (Nobel)
  • Arthur Schawlow and autism (Nobel)
  • Physicist Ivar Giaever against climate change (Nobel)

“I’m utterly fringe or worse”

Again, more of these than could ever be listed. These are just the ones I sifted through while hunting for better examples

  • Chandra Wickramasinghe carrying Hoyle’s panspermia flag
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chandra_Wickramasinghe
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masaru_Emoto
  • Andrew Wakefield and vaccines
  • Terence McKenna & timewave zero
  • Cleve Backster & primary perception
  • Franz Mesmer & animal magnetism

Recaps of the Nobel Prize winners

These are the best resources for learnings about Nobel Prize winners going off the deep end

  • http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Nobel_disease
  • intelligent design specifically: http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/seven-nobel-laureates-in-science-who-either-supported-intelligent-design-or-attacked-darwinian-evolution/
  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/11/23/luc-montagnier-the-nobel-disease-strikes/
  • and two guys not on either source (thanks), Johannes Stark (the other Lenard), and Arthur Schawlow (autism)

Leads I would go to if I was looking for more examples, and also relevant or cool stuff

I’d love to continue to grow this manifest. Ideas welcome.

  • Many medical professionals and focal infection theory
  • Any big names that got caught up in polywater, cold fusion, and the hafnium bomb. I don’t know any.
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superseded_scientific_theories
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathological_science
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fringe_science
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_topics_characterized_as_pseudoscience
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refrigerator_mother_theory
  • http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2010/11/23/luc-montagnier-the-nobel-disease-strikes/
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_C._Lilly#Later_career
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Henry_Gosse and Omphalos
  • Chalmers and Searle are dualists
  • The aiua of Leibniz
  • Barbara McClintock’s haters
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharashka and
  • Kronecker against Cantor’s revolutionary approach to infinity

Undrugs: Sugar pill may work even when you know it’s sugar pill

You’re sick? Here’s a sugar pill. We know that it can’t work. Take it anyway. You’ll feel better.

Introduced starting at 9:54. I think the interview is boring before then; he rambles.

My crush on the placebo effect started at Berkeley in Prof. Presti’s molecular neurobiology course. He introduced us to a very carefully controlled study showing that naloxone, a drug that can stop opiate overdoses, can also neutralize placebo pain. That’s a big deal. It can take pain that you started to feel only because you thought you were feeling it, and make that pain go away. The placebo effect is not just psychological, it’s chemical, and it can be influenced by chemistry. That means we can harness it.

I was so addicted to the placebo effect that I started collecting “the last week” of pills from all of my friends on birth control. I quickly amassed hundreds of sugar pills, an impressive drug collection even by Berkeley standards, even more impressive for its mystical power over the psyche. If I thought I was getting sick, I would take one so I could think I was getting better. And it really did always make me feel great, at least while telling that joke.

We don’t understand the mind, the brain, or the relationship between them. That’s true even though we have the perfect tool, drugs. Understanding consciousness will mean being able to describe mental states in chemical terms. Drugs change chemistry and cause predictable changes in mental states. They are they reason we know anything at all about the biological basis of consciousness. Of course, what we know is very little, and that it’s very complicated. The placebo effect is my favorite example: I described the effect of drugs as one-directional “drug -> brain chemistry -> mental states.” But the placebo effect seems to turn that chain on end: “sugar pill -> mental states -> chemistry.”

Seeing the Earth, in the sky, from Earth

Uncountably many photons have come from the sun, bounced off of me, and shot back into space. One day one of them is going to come back. Photons turn as they pass heavy things. A photon retreating from me is being turned, slowly, over billions of empty years, all the way around. A black hole can turn them around in one shot. Ancient photons are returning simultaneously, from all over, right now.
What it means is that we can see ourselves in the sky. At least one of those dots is the Earth in the past. If we manage to see it at all, we won’t start out seeing much more than a fuzzy dot, “Yep, there it is.” But there could be thousands or millions of earths in the sky. Each fragile broken circuit of light is a channel, or rather a mirror, showing the earth as it was or wasn’t 1, 2, 5, 8 billion years ago. Between them, you have the entire history of the earth being projected back to it at each moment.
The most interesting action is in the past millions and thousands of years. To open up the Earth’s human past we would need a black hole very close, within a few thousand light years, like V4641 Sgr, 1600 light years away. I want to watch the decline of Rome. Going further back, I want to see the earthquake that split the temple curtain. And I want to look in the sky and see an ancestor’s eyes as they look up to God. Not to be God, but to make eye contact full of love, and excitement, and no answers.

“In the days of the frost seek a minor sun”

From unsympathetic eyes, no science is more arrogant than astronomy. Astronomers think that we can know the universe and replace the dreams and the meaning in the skies with a cold place that is constantly dying.
But I think that there is no more humble science than astronomy. No science has had so much romance imposed on it by the things that we want to be true, no other science has found a starker reality, and no other science has submitted so thoroughly. They’ve been so pummelled by what they’ve seen that they will believe absolutely anything that makes the equations balance out. As the wild story currently goes, the universe is growing at an accelerating rate because invisible matter woven into the universe is pulling the stars from each other. Its hard to swallow, and we don’t appreciate how astronomers struggled to face that story. They’ve accepted that the universe has no regard for our sense of sensibility, and they are finally along for the ride. I wish it was me, I want to see how much I’m missing by thinking I understand.

My Awe Talk: Inventors who were killed by their own inventions

Awe Talks are a 5-minute fun lecture series started by my pal Kyle. He asked me to record one, here: http://vimeo.com/59541529

Postdoc ergo propter doc

People imagine that experts know lots of things. I mean, it’s true, but that’s like saying the ocean is full of sand. The ocean, as full of sand as it is, is more full of questions.

I think we all miss the point of expertise a little, but experts are the farthest off. I’m on the path to becoming an expert myself. When it happens, I’ll do my part to disappoint the people who expect answers. I’d sooner disappoint them than not. I think the cleanest pursuit of science is the pursuit of feeling small. Maybe it sounds depressing to have only this defiantly inadequate expertise, but it beats the alternative.


This entry was posted on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013 and is filed under nescience, science.

Grad school can make you smarter?

I really didn’t think I would come out of graduate school as a smarter person. I knew that I would know more about stuff, but I assumed, if anything, I would come out constrained by some understanding of how epiphany “should” happen. But I had a funny experience playing Minesweeper yesterday. It was a lapse: in high school I played 4–6 hours a day. It was the first thing I was ever good at. Even though my behavior back then was addictive, I credit Minesweeper with giving me experiences of life that have been indelible. That probably sounds crazy, but I found my first glimpse of self-worth in being good at Minesweeper. And since it is a talent that no normal person would value, I recognized immediately that self-worth was not a thing that has to be connected to what others think. It sounds obvious, but it was big and it changed me completely. I quit playing the game some time in there (around the time that my friend Sudano became way better than me–another valuable experience) and in the decade since I’ve picked it up for maybe a few days every year or so.

Every return to the game has made me feel good and familiar. I’ve recognized every time that if I invested the time I could get as good as I once was (the game is not very physical), and each time I’ve recognized as quickly that I don’t want that. The annual moment of weakness returned two days ago when I started playing a Minesweeper clone instead of reading papers. I only put in an hour, and I was as slow a player as ever, but the experience of playing had changed. I was seeing the game in a way that I never had before. I could recognize, with the consistency of habit, the irrelevance of my old approach to the game. The number-patterns are all the same, but patterns are just the beginning of Minesweeper. Two humps that I never even recognized before were a habitual hesitation before taking necessary risks and an attachment to the visual patterns made available by certainty. On Wednesday I saw the humps clearly, over my shoulder.

It can be really depressing with people, but there are some ways that it is great to interact with a thing that is exactly the same ten years later. Playing Minesweeper gave me an opportunity to measure myself in a very clean way, and it gave me a surprise. Honestly, I don’t really believe that the training I’m receiving in graduate school made me better at Minesweeper. Between challenges at school, at home, and in a relationship, I’m a very different person than I was a year ago. I still can’t describe-in-words any of the changes I feel, but I know I have some expectation of what the changes must have been because of how surprised I was to find “Better at Minesweeper” among them.

There was another time in my life when I was entirely devoted to learning how to draw. I was drawing at least four hours a day for a month. Every week or so I would run my work by an artist in town. On day 1, I was OK. Between day 1 and day 14 I got better. Between day 14 and day 30, I got worse. I had an urgent sense of time, so it was depressing to realize that I had learned to become worse; I didn’t draw at all for the next 30 days. But during that time I discovered the amazing complement to getting-worse-by-doing. I could tell by the way I was physically looking at objects that I was, in those moments, getting better at drawing (drawing is about seeing). Here is a great example of giving too much power to a person that isn’t ready for it: Take someone with an unhealthy commitment to productivity and show them that it is possible to get better at something by not doing it. Instead of accepting that rest and relaxation are a part of growth, I indulged the mystical realization that by doing nothing I could become good at Everything. It was a good time, only in part because it was grounded in the absurd.

Through all of it there is a me in a world putting meaning on things and feeling. I like the idea that I’m currently doing and learning everything. It isn’t just an appreciation that everything-affects-everything; I know the initial conditions are sensitive to me, that I can flap in hurricanes, but there is more. I cherish the invisible decrement to my ambition when a close friend does something that I have always wanted to do. I suddenly don’t need it as much anymore–vicarious experience is experience enough if you use a capital V. And suddenly, again, I’m presently doing nearly everything in the world, merely by caring about people.

What does it mean when the things you believe make you feel gigantic, but the corresponding growth they imply for the world makes you net invisible? The unfolding powers of ten leave enough room for meaning and meaninglessness to coexist, and they make it natural to feel good, busy, tiny, and lost all at the same time. The only real danger in being a busybody is forgetting that its silly. I’m totally content to be a silly creature imagining itself to be doing and learning everything. In fact, I’m thrilled.


This entry was posted on Friday, March 30th, 2012 and is filed under nescience, science.

How to be a bad boss on Mechanical Turk, and hopefully how to fix it.

Hi, I’m Seth and I just screwed over lots of people on Mechanical Turk. My writing this is an attempt to fix that. I was negligent because I didn’t check the code that was reviewing the jobs (which rejected 70% of maybe 1000 people), and I didn’t check the Turk account’s email address ever, not once over the four months that the job has been running. The email in that account, from hundreds of people who were rejected for honest work, was full of hints that something was wrong, but I only discovered the extent of it last week.

I feel horrible about it. I do a lot of work for participatory workplaces and democracy as a route to responsible business practices. I’m a founder of a worker cooperative (http://bloomingtoncoop.org) and I’m involved in a bunch of organization and projects to raise the profile of workplace democracy (http://nasco.coop http://geo.coop/issue/9). I like to think I’m doing good things for people who work, so imagine my surprise to find that I’m a truly horrible, exploitative boss. Literally hundreds of people put in 5-20 minutes, on the promise of payment, and they got rejected with no explanation, sometimes incorrectly. Here are some testimonials:

  1. turkopticon
  2. A reddit post

I’m not sure how to fix all this. I want to apologize, but any apology is empty until after I’ve actually fixed things. The code is fixed, and I’m working with a friend to figure out who should have gotten paid, and then pay them. Next step after that is to ask Amazon to unreject everyone. And beyond that, what? Damages? (UPDATE: we’ve sent out payments with an apology and a bonus. We still have to ask Amazon about unrejections. I can now offer a good apology: I’m sorry for rejecting your honest work)

Out of 850 jobs, 300 were accepted, 122 were falsely rejected. Most of the remaining 50% didn’t fill the survey out completely. But even though they were possibly fairly rejected, I could still have done more to prevent that: like warning people that they are submitting an incomplete HIT with a few simple lines of PHP. I’ve thought about it a bunch, but your comments will help me figure out what is the right thing to do moving forward. The best ideas have come from other Turkers who got rejected on this badly designed HIT, like attention checks, brief qualifying HITs, and captchas that help eliminate bots and people who are inattentive. More ideas?

If you are interested, I can offer the original questionnaire, and the results from everyone who took it (anonymized).

I’m happy to answer any questions about it.

I’m going to do my best to make up for it, but I don’t blame anyone for mistaking my negligence for maliciousness. If you aren’t feeling right yet, let me know what I can do.


This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 and is filed under nescience.