Chapter Summary
Information is convex to noise. The paradox is that increase in sample size magnifies the role of noise (or luck); it makes tail values even more extreme. There are some problems associated with big data and the increase of variables available for epidemiological and other “empirical” research.

Here is a bit more information:

Greater performance for (temporary) “star” traders We are getting more information, but with constant “consciousness”, “desk space”, or “visibility”. Google News, Bloomberg News, etc. have space for, say, <100 items at any point in time. But there are millions of events every day. As the world is more connected, with the global dominating over the local, the number of sources of news is multiplying. But your consciousness remains limited. So we are experiencing a winner-take-all effect in information: like a large movie theatre with a small door. Likewise we are getting more data. The size of the door is remaining constant, the theater is getting larger. The winner-take-all effects in information space corresponds to more noise, less signal. In other words the spurious dominates.

That is from a Marc Andreessen link (but what is the source?).  He also links to the March Playboy piece on why the world is getting weirder all the time, previously linked by MR but worth a reread nonetheless.

Ayn Rand and The Martian

by on October 5, 2015 at 7:25 am in Books, Film, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Martian is the most Randian movie in years, perhaps in decades. Ayn Rand is best known for her defense of capitalism but her defense of reason was even more fundamental to her thought. The Martian has no bearing on politics but it reminded me of Rand’s essay on Apollo 11 and the moon landing, the launch of which she witnessed Apollo 11 - 2from Kennedy Space Center.

Rand wrote that the Apollo 11 mission “conveyed the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art – a play dramatizing a single theme: the efficacy of man’s mind.” The  efficacy of man’s mind and the power of reason is exactly the theme of The Martian.

As Rand continued:

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt…And no one could doubt that we had seen an achievement of man in his capacity as a rational being–an achievement of reason, of logic, of mathematics, of total dedication to the absolutism of reality.

The difference is that Apollo 11 gave the sense that we were watching a magnificent work of art but it was real. While the Martian gives the sense that we are watching something real but it is a magnificent work of art. Have we not been diminished? Nevertheless, the sense of life of the event and the movie are the same and the movie is gripping, thrilling and uplifting, a triumph for Ridley Scott and the author, Andy Weir.

Addendum: See Tyler’s review as well.

*The Martian*

by on October 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm in Film, Science, Uncategorized | Permalink

The way the movie is good is almost the opposite of the way the book is good, so re-gear your expectations.  It is the most convincing portrayal of a planet I have seen in cinema.  (Planets, by the way, create erotic bonds stronger than those of actual marriages.)  I enjoyed the homage shots to Bruce Dern and Silent Running, Brian De Palma’s underrated Mars film too.  The horizon images of earth toward the end come as an ecstatic jarring relief.  They are, by the way, aiming for the China market with a plot twist that almost seems satirical except in Beijing it is dead serious.  That this film is sometimes dramatically inert is beside the point, recommended.

The award announcement includes a description of her work (with further links), basically she does health care economics at MIT.  In particular she considers when IP restrictions might hinder rather than support further innovation.  Here is her home page, she also has interesting papers on prizes.  Here is her research statement (pdf), interesting throughout, a very good selection from the committee.

Elsewhere, Matthew Desmond works on eviction as a cause and not just a symptom of poverty.

That is the title of my new piece in MIT Technology Review. It’s about a near future where bosses can measure the productivity of workers through software and surveillance more accurately than is now the case.  Productivity will go up, but it is not all rosy, here is one excerpt:

Individuals don’t in fact enjoy being evaluated all the time, especially when the results are not always stellar: for most people, one piece of negative feedback outweighs five pieces of positive feedback. To the extent that measurement raises income inequality, perhaps it makes relations among the workers tenser and less friendly. Life under a meritocracy can be a little tough, unfriendly, and discouraging, especially for those whose morale is easily damaged. Privacy in this world will be harder to come by, and perhaps “second chances” will be more difficult to find, given the permanence of electronic data. We may end up favoring “goody two-shoes” personality types who were on the straight and narrow from their earliest years and disfavor those who rebelled at young ages, even if those people might end up being more creative later on.

The closer is this:

I wonder, by the way, if MIT Technology Review will tell me how many people clicked on this article.

Do read the whole thing.

Robin Hanson’s new book

by on September 27, 2015 at 9:51 pm in Books, Economics, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

The Age of Em: Work, Love and Life When Robots Rule the Earth

Pre-order your copy now.  The book’s home page is here.

Claims about cars

by on September 27, 2015 at 2:21 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Law, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider.

The Gelles, Tabuchi, and Dolan NYT piece is interesting throughout.  I thought of a parallel with empirical research in economics.  In the 1980s, often you could pick up a research paper and know rather quickly how good it was, if only by glancing at the basic technique and source of data.  These days the model, estimation, and data collection are so complicated and non-transparent that the errors, however large or small they be, are very difficult to find.

I very much enjoyed the new LRB piece by Amia Srinivasan.  Here is a good “standing on one foot” statement of what effective altruism recommends:

The results of all this number-crunching are sometimes satisfyingly counterintuitive. Deworming has better educational outcomes among Kenyan schoolchildren than increasing the numbers of textbooks or teachers. If you want to improve animal welfare, it’s better to stop eating eggs than beef, since caged layer hens live worse lives than farmed cows, and because eating eggs consumes more animals than eating beef: the average American consumes 0.8 layer hens but only 0.1 beef cows per year. Buying Fairtrade goods can be worse than buying regular goods, since the extra cost goes mostly to middlemen rather than farmers, and when it doesn’t, it benefits farmers in relatively rich countries: because Fairtrade standards are hard to meet, most Fairtrade coffee production comes from Mexico and Costa Rica rather than, say, Ethiopia, where the marginal pound would go much further. The green value of buying locally grown food is overblown, too, since transport accounts for only 10 per cent of the carbon footprint of food, while 80 per cent of it is generated in production; tomatoes grown in the UK can have five times the carbon footprint of tomatoes shipped from Spain because of the energy required to hothouse them. If you’re really committed to minimising your carbon footprint, MacAskill recommends donating to the carbon offsetting charity Cool Earth; he estimates that the average American could offset all his carbon emissions by donating $105 a year. There isn’t much point in unplugging your electricals, either: leaving your mobile phone charger plugged in for a whole year contributes less to your carbon footprint than one hot bath.

And here is part of the critique:

MacAskill is evidently comfortable with ways of talking that are familiar from the exponents of global capitalism: the will to quantify, the essential comparability of all goods and all evils, the obsession with productivity and efficiency, the conviction that there is a happy convergence between self-interest and morality, the seeming confidence that there is no crisis whose solution is beyond the ingenuity of man. He repeatedly talks about philanthropy as a deal too good to pass up: ‘It’s like a 99 per cent off sale, or buy one, get 99 free. It might be the most amazing deal you’ll see in your life.’ There is a seemingly unanswerable logic, at once natural and magical, simple and totalising, to both global capitalism and effective altruism. That he speaks in the proprietary language of the illness – global inequality – whose symptoms he proposes to mop up is an irony on which he doesn’t comment. Perhaps he senses that his potential followers – privileged, ambitious millennials – don’t want to hear about the iniquities of the system that has shaped their worldview. Or perhaps he thinks there’s no irony here at all: capitalism, as always, produces the means of its own correction, and effective altruism is just the latest instance.

Not my view, but well written as a piece and definitely recommended.  Here is comment from Scott Alexander.

Our empirical subjects are public and private entities’ compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We find that, compared with private firms, governments violate these laws significantly more frequently and are less likely to be penalized for violations.

That is from Konisky and Teodoro, via Robin Hanson.

There is no great dental stagnation

by on September 17, 2015 at 6:19 pm in Medicine, Science, Web/Tech | Permalink

This Father Pulled Out His Daughter’s Wobbly Tooth With A Drone, via Pethoukis and Drudge.

Due to status quo bias, maybe so:

New analysis of the London tube strike in February 2014 finds that it enabled a sizeable fraction of commuters to find better routes to work, and actually produced a net economic benefit.

Analysis of the London tube in February 2014 has found that despite the inconvenience to tens of thousands of people, the strike actually produced a net economic benefit, due to the number of people who found more efficient ways to get to work.

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, examined 20 days’ worth of anonymised Oyster card data, containing more than 200 million data points, in order to see how individual tube journeys changed during the strike. Since this particular strike only resulted in a partial closure of the tube network and not all were affected by the strike, a direct comparison was possible. The data enabled the researchers to see whether people chose to go back to their normal commute once the strike was over, or if they found a more efficient route and decided to switch.

The researchers found that of the regular commuters affected by the strike, either because certain stations were closed or because travel times were considerably different, a significant fraction – about one in 20 – decided to stick with their new route once the strike was over.

The original paper, by Rauch, Larcom, and Williams, is here, and for the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

The average scientist is not statistically more likely than a member of the general public to have an artistic or crafty hobby. But members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society — elite societies of scientists, membership in which is based on professional accomplishments and discoveries — are 1.7 and 1.9 times more likely to have an artistic or crafty hobby than the average scientist is. And Nobel prize winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby.

There is more here, by Rosie Cima.  The original research is here, by Root-Bernstein, Allen, and Beach.

For pointers I thank Samir Varma and Robert Wiblin.

I have not yet had time to peruse my copy, but it appears to be a definitive achievement of sorts, 994 double column pages.  The topics include the Navier-Stokes equations, communications networks, the Black-Scholes equations, finite differences, foams, the flight of a golf ball, and the mathematics of sea ice.  The book’s home page is here.  The lead editor is Nicholas J. Higham.

How to be a good professor

by on September 10, 2015 at 1:31 am in Education, Philosophy, Science | Permalink

Robert J. Bloomfield has a new paper with that title, the abstract is this:

A good Professor achieves a three part mission of research, teaching and service. After elaborating on this mission, I provide some broad strategies for accomplishing it: know when to say no; don’t try to win the measurement game; don’t be a jerk (in the technical sense); “think otherwise”, but judiciously; and be your own adversary. I then spell out specific learning objectives, explain why they matter, and provide advice on how to achieve them. Stated in the language of instructional design, a good Professor will be able to: communicate effectively; craft constructive reviews and effective response memos; put philosophical insights to practical use; motivate students; share in the governance of your institution; and blend work and life so that each enriches the other.

For the pointer I thank…a good professor.

In academia, no, but in the real world perhaps:

Electricity generated by US wind farms fell 6 per cent in the first half of the year even as the nation expanded wind generation capacity by 9 per cent, Energy Information Administration records show.

The reason was some of the softest air currents in 40 years, cutting power sales from wind farms to utilities…

“We never anticipated a drop-off in the wind resource as we have witnessed over the past six months,” David Crane, chief executive of power producer NRG Energy, told analysts last month…

Standard and Poor’s put a negative outlook on bonds issued by two wind farm companies as their revenues tracked wind speeds lower.

“Although our current expectation is that the wind resource will revert back to historical averages, at this time it is unclear when that will happen,” the rating agency said.

Wind generated 4.4 per cent of US electricity last year, up from 0.4 per cent a decade earlier. But this year US wind plants’ “capacity factor” has averaged just a third of their total generating capacity, down from 38 per cent in 2014. EIA noted that slightly slower wind speeds can reduce output by a disproportionately large amount.

The Gregory Meyer FT article is here.  Here are some earlier articles on wind speeds slowing down, some of them appear to be reputable.  According to this recent article, for parts of 2015 wind speeds may be 20-50 percent below average in the American West.  Caveat emptor, but food for thought.