Friday, December 27, 2013

Technocracy. It's new.

No. It's not.

I've read a number of recent books and articles about how technology, particularly computers and robots, will change everything and create a bipartite society, where "there will be those who tell computers what to do, and those who are told what to do by computers" – in a compact form. (As a computer engineer, I sort of approve of this message. :-)

This idea of a bipartite society with a small elite lording over the undifferentiated masses is not new (really, not new at all). That it's a result of technology instead of divine intervention or application of force is also not new, but, since most people have an "everything that happened before me is irrelevant because my birth was the most important event in the totality of space-time" attitude towards the past, this is ignored.

There are a few reasons contributing to the popularity of this idea:

It's mostly right, and in a highly visible way. Technological change makes life harder for those who fail to adapt to it. In the case of better robotics and smarter computers, adaptation is more difficult than it was for other changes like the production line or electricity. One way to see this is to see how previously personalized services have been first productized (ex: going from real customer service representatives to people following an interactive script on a computer) and then the production processes were automated (ex: from script-following humans to voice-recognition speech interfaces to computers). Technological change is real, it's important, and it's been a constant for a long time now.

(Added Jan. 7, 2014: Yes, I understand that the economics of technology adoption have a lot to do with things other than technology, namely broader labor and economic policies. I have teaching exercises for the specific purpose of making that point to execs and MBAs. Because discussion of these topics touches the boundaries of politics, I keep them out of my blog.)

It's partially wrong, but in a non-obvious way. People adapt and new careers appear that weren't possible before; there are skilled jobs available, only the people who write books/punditize/etc don't understand them; and humans are social animals. The reason why these are non-obvious, in order: it's hard to forecast evolution of the use of a technology; people with "knowledge work" jobs don't get Mike Rowe's point about skilled manual labor; most people don't realize how social they are.

(On top of these sociological reasons there's a basic point of product engineering that most authors/pundits/etc don't get, as they're not product engineers themselves: a prototype or technology demonstrator working in laboratory conditions or very limited and specific circumstances is a far cry from a product fitting with the existing infrastructure at large and usable by an average customer. Ignoring this difference leads authors/pundits/etc to over-estimate the speed of technological change and therefore the capacity of regular people to adapt to it.)

Change sells. There's really a very small market for "work hard and consume less than you produce" advice, for two reasons. First, people who are likely to take that advice already know it. Second, most people want a shortcut or an edge; if all that matters is change, that's a shortcut (no need to learn what others have spent time learning) and gives the audience an edge over other people who didn't get the message.

It appeals to the chattering classes. The chattering classes tend to see themselves as the elite (mostly incorrectly, in the long term, especially for information technologies) and therefore the idea that technology will cement their ascendancy over the rest of the population appeals to them. That they don't, in general, understand the technologies, is beyond their grasp.

It appeals to the creators of these technologies.
 Obviously so, as they are hailed as the creators of the new order. And since these tend to be successful people whom some/many others want to understand or imitate, there's a ready market for books/tv/consulting. Interestingly enough, most of the writers, pundits, etc, especially the more successful ones, are barely conversant with the technical foundations of the technologies. Hence the constant reference to unimportant details and biographical information.

It appeals to those who are failing. It suggests that one's problems come from outside, from change that is being imposed on them. Therefore failure is not the result of goofing off in school, going to work under the influence of mind-altering substances, lack of self-control, the uselessness of a degree in Narcissism Studies from Givusyourstudentloans U.  No, it's someone else's fault. Don't bother with STEM, business, or learning a useful skill. Above all, don't do anything that might harm your self-esteem, like taking a technical MOOC with grades.

It appeals to those in power. First, it justifies the existence of a class of people who deserve to have power over others. Second, it describes a social problem that can only be solved by the application of power: since structural change creates a permanent underclass, not by their fault, wealth must be redistributed for the common good. Third, it readily identifies the class of people who must be punished/taxed: the creators of these technologies, who also create new sources of wealth to be taxed. Fourth, it absolves those in power from responsibility, since it's technology, not policy that is to blame. Fifth, it suggests that technology and other agents of change should be brought under the control of the powerful, since they can wreak such havoc in society.

To be clear, technology changes society and has been doing so since fire, the wheel, agriculture, writing,  – skipping ahead – printing press, systematic experiments, the production line, electricity, DNA testing, selfies... The changes these technologies have brought are now integrated in the way we view the world, making them so "obvious" that they don't really count. Or do they? Maybe "we" should do some research. If these changes were obvious, certainly they were accurately predicted at the time. Like "we" are doing now with robots and AI.

You can find paper books about these changes on your local sky library dirigible, which you reach with your nuclear-powered Plymouth flying car, wearing your metal fabric onesie with a zipper on your shoulder, right after getting your weekly nutrition pill. You can listen to one of three channels bringing you music via telephone wires, from the best orchestras in Philadelphia and St. Louis while you read.

Or you can look up older predictions using Google on your iPhone, while you walk in wool socks and leather shoes to drink coffee brewed in the same manner as in 1900. The price changed, though. It's much cheaper to make, but you pay a lot more for the ambiance.

Think about that last word.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Books I read in 2013

At the beginning of 2013 I decided to keep a book log (including Audible audiobooks). These are the non-work books I read in 2013, by author. Some are re-readings, and there's still enough time for a few more. I'll be adding notes later.

✏ Chris Anderson: Makers: The New Industrial Revolution

✏ Julian Assange et alli: Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet

✏ Walter Bagehot: Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (reread; free)

✏ Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do

✏ Gregory Benford: Foundation and Fear (reread on Dec 31st.)
Screenshot; I'm impressed by how careful Prof. Benford is to make sure that none of his personal feelings about being an academic in America comes across in his SciFi writing. The Foundation series is a good illustration of the preachiness and neoteny of most science fiction; it's mostly amateur sociology with minimal exploration of the real changes that technology creates. As a former aficionado, I have some residual interest in the genre, but you bet better futurism from A McKinsey or Bain conjectural report than from most SciFi, even Cyberpunk.
✏ Gregory Benford and Larry Niven: Bowl of Heaven
The only new sci-fi book I read this year. Hard sci-fi took a hit after 2000, when some authors decided to join the culture wars and write metaphors for the american political system.
✏ David Brin: Earth (reread)
In July I decided to reduce the amount of stuff I owned, so I replaced a number of paper books with electronic copies. This led to an assessment of which scifi books I wanted to reread. Earth was one of them, Brin's best book in my opinion. Some of the other scifi books to get replaced by eBooks are mentioned below. In the end, I donated or recycled almost two thousand paper books.
✏ Sean Carroll: The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

✏  Phillip Dennis Cate et alli: Impressionists on the Water (FAMSF Exhibition Catalog)

✏ Arthur C Clarke: Childhood's End (reread)

✏ Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

✏ Edward Dolnick: The Forger's Spell
Few things describe the arts world as precisely as the end of chapter 11: "Van Meegeren fooled the world with a seventeenth-century painting made of plastic."
✏ Niall Ferguson: Civilization: The West and the Rest

✏ Niall Ferguson: The Great Degeneration
Like Civilization, you can get most of the content of the book from Niall Ferguson's talks. But I wanted the notes and details so I read the books.
✏ Seth Godin: The Icarus Deception

✏ Rose-Marie Hagen and Ranier Hagen: Masterpieces in Detail (Art book)

✏ Chip Heath and Dan Heath: Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work

✏ Robert Heinlein: The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (reread)

✏ Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow (reread)

✏ Walter Lewin: For the Love of Physics
As autobiographies of scientists go, this one is more educative than the Feynman pair (Surely you jest, Mr Feynman and What do you care what other people think?). Lewin is a superstar Physics professor from MIT, who would be the first to say that students learn Physics only when they solve the problem sets, not in the lectures. Screenshot.
✏ William Manchester and Paul Reid: The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965
Vol. III of Manchester's biography of Churchill, written by Reid based on Manchester's notes. Hard on the French. Read in one day plus two evenings. 1200 pages, but the last 130 are notes and references.
✏ Michael Moss: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

✏ Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle: Lucifer's Hammer (reread)
One of my favorite sci-fi books (and the only Pournelle to make my top 10). I reread parts of it often (notes and highlights help). I bought it 5 times in different languages and formats.
✏ Donald Norman: The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition (added Dec 25)
There are enough changes from the previous edition to merit purchasing it anew, but in my case I get the added benefit of moving from a paper edition to a Kindle book, reducing the need for physical storage space. Subsumes Living With Complexity as well.
✏ Iain Pears: The Bernini Bust (reread)

✏ Iain Pears: The Titian Committee (reread)

✏ Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: Good Omens (reread)

✏ Mark Sisson: The Primal Blueprint
Good book, though I wouldn't want to give up resistant starch altogether and the high-impact exercise recommendation is better ignored. But worth reading as motivation for life changes.
✏ Benn Steil: The Battle of Bretton Woods: John Maynard Keynes, Harry Dexter White, and the Making of a New World Order

Neal Stephenson: Anathem (reread)
Reread for the 10th or 20th time, despite being over 1000 pages long (read it in one very long reading marathon when it came out); possibly Stephenson's best book. Screenshot.
✏ Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Best non-fiction book I read in 2013. I think I'll be rereading my highlights and notes for years to come. Sometimes NNT's style may be a little over the top, but the substance is worth it.
✏ Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August (reread on Remembrance Day; screenshot)

✏ Barbara Tuchman: The March of Folly

✏ Mark Twain: The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain takes on tourism, Americans, and foreigners. For some reason I had never read it before. It's available for free, since it predates the Mickey Mouse copyright rules.
✏ Lea Van Der Vinde et alli: Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis (FAMSF Exhibit Catalog)

✏ Ingo Walther and Norbert Wolf: Masterpieces of Illumination: The World's Most Famous Manuscripts 400 To 1600 (Art book)

✏ Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited (reread)
It's a book about class, friendship, religion, and growing up. The movie was a distortion of the book as bad as Starship Troopers was of the Heinlein original; the ITV series was acceptable, but the writing itself is a major part of the value of the book, and cannot be appreciated from video.
✏ Evelyn Waugh: Sword of Honor (reread)

✏ Evelyn Waugh: Vile Bodies (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Big Money (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Carry On Jeeves (reread)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: The Code of the Woosters (reread, for the 20th time or so...)

✏ P.G. Wodehouse: A Man of Means
Found a Wodehouse I hadn't read before. The year was worth it. Huzzah!
✏ P.G. Wodehouse: Mulliner Nights (reread)

✏ William Zinsser: On Writing Well (reread)
Best book on writing ever, IMNSHO. I reread parts of it often; read the whole book at least once a year; and reread my notes about it before starting any writing project. Technically it's a work book for me, but I like to read it for pleasure as well.

The secret to reading this many books: watching very little television. Most of these books take only a few hours to read (though some may take a lot more), so an evening or two without television is enough to read a book. By that metric, I read a lot less than my potential, and that's not considering the multitasking afforded by audiobooks during walks or repetitive exercise like Concept II rowing.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

How strong must evidence be to reverse belief?

I've seen this quote attributed to Carl Sagan and to Christopher Hitchens, but I think Rev. Thomas Bayes may have called dibs on it a few centuries ago:

"Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence."

As I've written before [at length, poorly, and desperately in need of an editor], I find the attitude of most people who use this phrase counterproductive. But instead of pointlessly arguing back and forth like they do in certain disciplines, we'll dig into the numbers involved and see what we can learn.

I know a super-genius, an Einstein-grade mind, who for decades believed that "this is the year that the Red Sox will come back and start a long series of victories," a belief unfounded in reality.

Yes, very smart people can have strong beliefs that appear nonsensical to others.

Let's say that the claim is about some proposition ("God exists," "Red Sox are a great team") which we'll call $G$. The prior belief in $G$ we'll denote $q \doteq \Pr[G]$; so a person may be a strong believer if $q = .99$ or a moderate believer if $q = .80$.

Let's call the evidence against $G$, $E$, which is a binary observable ("no Rapture","loss against the Chicago Cubs"), with the probability of observing the evidence given that $G$ is false denoted by $p \doteq \Pr[E| \neg G]$. We'll consider evidence that has symmetric error probabilities, $\Pr[E|G] = 1 - \Pr[E|\neg G]$ so the probability that we get a false positive is equal to that of a false negative, $1-p$.

For example, if $p=0.90$ there's a 10% chance of no Rapture even if God exists; if $p = 0.99$, then there's only a 1% probability of the faithful burning up in Hellfire on Earth with the rest of us sinners, when there is a God. Note that with symmetric errors, $p=0.90$ has the interesting characteristic that there's a 10% change of Rapture with no God at all, which probably would say something about the design of the experiment (psilocybin would be my guess).

Now this is the question we want to ask: for any given prior belief $q$ in $G$, how good would the evidence against it have to be (meaning how big would $p$ have to be) to convince the believer to flip her beliefs, i.e. to believe against $G$ with the probability $q$, or formally, to have $\Pr[G|E] = 1-q$. The reason to go for a flip of beliefs is empirical: no zealot like a convert.

(Really trying to goose up page views here. Was it Stephen Hawking who said a book's potential audience is halved by each formula in it? This blog must be down to individual quarks...)

For example, if JohnDCL believes in the greatness of the Red Sox with $q= 0.99$, how strong a piece of evidence of Sox suckage would be necessary for JohnDCL to think that the probability of the Red Sox being great is only 1%?

The result is $p \approx 0.9999$, in other words, JohnDCL would have to believe that the evidence only gives a false positive (it's evidence against $G$, remember) once every 10,000 tries.

Let's say the evidence is losing against the Chicago Cubs. For JohnDCL to flip his beliefs based on observing such a defeat, he'd have to believe that, were the Sox a great team, they could play the Cubs 10,000 times and lose only once. (Recall that we're assuming symmetric errors, for simplicity.)

Here are a few other values for $q$ and corresponding $p$:

$q = 0.999 \Rightarrow p \approx 0.999 999$ one false positive in a million tries;

$q = 0.9999 \Rightarrow p \approx 0.999 999 99$ one false positive in one hundred million tries;

$q = 0.99999 \Rightarrow p \approx 0.999 999 999 9$ one false positive in ten billion tries.

$q = 0.999999 \Rightarrow p \approx 0.999 999 999 999$ one false positive in one trillion tries.

(How strong is faith in the Red Sox? In God? In Quantitative Easing Forever And Ever?)

In other words, it's true that to reverse a strong belief you need extraordinary evidence. What is equally true is that the beliefs and the evidence aren't perceived equally by all participants in a conversation. People who proselytize for a cause will not be able to convince anyone else until they see the probabilities from the other person's point of view.

Of course, those who say "extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence" typically see the world from their own point of view only.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Word salad of scientific jargon

"The scientists that I respect are scientists who work hard to be understood, to use language clearly, to use words correctly, and to understand what is going on. We have been subjected to a kind of word salad of scientific jargon, used out of context, inappropriately, apparently uncomprehendingly." – Richard Dawkins, in the video Dangerous Ideas - Deepak Chopra and Richard Dawkins, approximately 27 minutes in.

That's how I feel about a lot of technical communications: conference panels, presentations, and articles.  An observed regularity: the better the researchers, the less they tend to go into "word salad of scientific jargon" mode.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Identifying the problem: innumeracy or science ignorance?

In previous posts I said that many people who believe in Science™ (as opposed to people who know science) can't answer simple questions, like "what is the kinetic energy of a 2-ton SUV going 65MPH?"

An insightful person suggested that the problem might be due to innumeracy (which is bad in itself; read the linked book) so here's another version that requires no computation: which has more kinetic energy, the aforementioned SUV or a 1-ton car going 130MPH?

A sample of three people who believe in Science™ showed 100% inability to answer with explanation. (Explanation is necessary because a random pick will be right about half of the time.) Two of three picked the wrong answer (SUV) and the third "felt" the car was the right answer.

The question can be answered without calculation, as long as one knows how mass and speed relate to kinetic energy. We're not talking advanced science here: this used to be taught in the seventh ninth grade.

-- -- -- --
Note: these posts have nothing to do with the wrong idea that scientists have faith in science in the same sense that religious people have faith in a deity. This is about people who don't know any science but like to invoke Science™ as a talisman or a prop.

Postscript: I'm compiling a list of questions to ask when faced with a Science™ believer, tagged by fashionable intellectual pursuit; after a round of testing, I'll probably post it.