Bots, Markets, and Assortative Mating

tayprofile

Tay, AlphaGo, and News Feed Algorithms

AI reached two milestones last month: beating the top human player in the world at Go, and creating a “teen girl AI” that “became a Hitler-loving sex robot.” As an enthusiast in chess, I was under the impression that Go was way more complicated and that it would take decades from now for a computer to outplay a human. Oops. The future is here. It seems pretty awesome, but other than that, I feel unqualified to speak further about the Go match.

I do feel more than qualified, however, to talk about Tay. I mean, I’m not an expert on Hitler-loving sex robots, but I have spent a lot of time arguing with people on the internet, and wow do things derail quickly. So my obviously hindsight reaction is Come on, how did you not expect this? Like, have you ever seen the comments section of a YouTube video? If you train on that, was any other result even possible? My solution is, find anyone who has made any angry comment on any YouTube video, and hire them to break your AI during testing. Also, when I imagine what people in the 1990s worried about in terms of AI development, I’m sure this was not one of them. Thanks, internet.

One more thing about AI: Facebook and Twitter news feeds. I’m generally in favor of any change that makes me have to do less work, such as scrolling past posts which, according to some algorithm, I probably don’t care about. However, the paranoia is that if I “like” an article titled, “Microsoft deletes ‘teen girl’ AI after it became a Hitler-loving sex robot within 24 hours,” I would be horrified if Facebook thought I were interested in Microsoft, teen girl AIs, and Hitler-loving sex robots from that action and then show me posts about them. Apparently, this worry is already prevalent:

In Karahalios’ study, many people voiced a common Facebook complaint: too many baby photos in their feeds. They said they would Like a friend’s baby picture out of a feeling of obligation, but then immediately hide the post to try to tell Facebook they didn’t actually want a feed full of toddlers.

So the solution is to like the story but then immediately hide it? I’ll remember that for the day when Microsoft releases a schoolgirl chatbot in the culture that is Japan.

Oh wait, that already happened.

Stocks and College Tuition

When a stock price is too low, you buy, and when it is too high, you sell. That is the most basic thing about a market. Of course, there are a million reasons why this is not so easy to do and why there is an entire sector of the economy trying to do this. And of course, as a disclaimer, nothing on this blog is ever financial advice, even “buy low, sell high.”

Now the “buy low, sell high” strategy may be even more difficult to do in things outside of stocks. One side is pretty easy to do: if groceries or cars or houses are being offered too low, buy them.

But the other side is tricky. If your grocery store is selling oranges at $50 per orange, and people are actually buying them, you probably want to sell oranges at $45 to compete with them. But you need oranges! One way to obtain oranges is to buy them for a cheaper price elsewhere, and resell them at a higher price. So you could go to a nearby city, buy 100 oranges for $1 a piece, pay $100 in transportation fees and resell them for $45 a piece, for a net profit of $4,300. But if oranges are also selling $50 in the other town, you can’t do this, so you would need to grow your own oranges, and that takes some effort, but may be worth doing depending on how much demand there is for these oranges.

The same is true for cars and houses. If the prices for them are just too high overall, the right thing to do may be to found a company that produces oranges or cars or houses and sell them at exorbitant prices. By creating competition, you are also ever so slightly lowering prices to be closer to the fair price.

During the housing bubble, if you thought prices for houses were too low, you would buy houses hoping to flip them out at an even higher fair price. But if you thought house prices were too high, that bet was more difficult to make. You could buy a financial instrument called a credit default swap on subprime mortgage bonds, or you enter the competition by building houses for a relatively low cost and selling them at very high prices. Both options were difficult and risky.

Enter college tuition [Bloomberg]:

college_tuition

No longer is it the rent that is too damn high, but the college tuition. It has become a political issue now, with politicians in both parties decrying the cost of higher education. Among the 2016 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders has made a particularly big deal about this, going so far as to propose universal free college tuition. Even Donald Trump agrees in spirit: “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.”

How are markets supposed to work again? Do you buy when prices are too high? No, you sell! That’s how you both make money and help drive down prices to some reasonable level. The simple theoretic solution is to found new universities. Unfortunately, the for-profit college idea has empirically been a failure so far.

I’m still hopeful for a better solution. Nonetheless, I’m glad I have already gone through college. My alma mater currently costs $67,613 a year.

Not-Often-Talked-About Sources of Income Inequality

My news feeds on Facebook and Twitter seem more political than before,  which is unsurprising given the proximity to the presidential election. At least on the Democratic side, there is much talk of economic inequality.

I roughly agree with this Paul Graham essay written a few months ago. It starts off the contradiction that startups seem to both help the world and increase inequality:

I’m interested in this topic because I was one of the founders of a company called Y Combinator that helps people start startups. Almost by definition, if a startup succeeds its founders become rich. Which means by helping startup founders I’ve been helping to increase economic inequality. If economic inequality should be decreased, I shouldn’t be helping founders. No one should be.

It then talks about how there are some good sources of inequality (startups, variation in productivity) and some bad ones (tax loopholes, high incarceration rates), and we should be focusing on the latter group, not on inequality categorically.

Besides startups and productive gaps, what are other good sources of inequality? The one that came to mind was assortative mating. Basically, if two rich people married each other and two poor people married each other, you have household inequality, but if they cross-married, you have household equality. The former is becoming more prevalent. Not only does this increase immediate inequality, but it also decreases economic mobility by denying poor people from marrying up.

Tyler Cowen thinks this is nontrivial [NYT]:

These matches are great for those individuals who can build prosperous and happy family alliances, but they also propagate inequality across the generations. Of all the causes behind growing income inequality, in the longer run this development may prove one of the most significant and also one of the hardest to counter.

And more sentences here:

As it becomes harder for many people to “marry up” as a path for income mobility for themselves or their children, families that are not well connected may feel disengaged, and the significant, family-based advantages for some children may discourage others from even trying. The numbers show that assortative mating really matters.

One study indicated that combined family decisions on assortative mating, divorce and female labor supply accounted for about one-third of the increase in income inequality from 1960 to 2005.

Will the fight against economic inequality be so fervent that, in the future, startups and assortative marriages will be shunned? It would be a strange world to imagine.

Misc

I’m a space geek, but someone definitely spent too much effort making this Pluto and Charon video [Business Insider]. Also, when it states that Pluto and Charon are tidally locked, it is one of the times when the animation does not show them tidally locked.

Safe Spaces and Universities

I’ve always considered myself a liberal. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminism (at least in the classical sense), and pro-gun-control. When Donald Trump utters words, or when people complain about red Starbucks cups, I feel ever less proud to be an American. So it pains me greatly then, to ask, what the hell is going on in our universities?

Safe space is an innocuous-sounding term which, despite its reasonable and even praiseworthy historical origins, seems today to really mean safety from any encounter and discussion of opposing viewpoints. And it is unfortunately part of a larger phenomenon. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a well-known Atlantic piece:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

What kind of discomforts or offenses? Here is another passage (emphasis mine):

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Just read the whole article.

Influence

The main surprise is that this is happening at all. For a long time, I thought terms like safe space, trigger warning, check your privilege, and microaggression were confined to the echo chambers of Tumblr and occasionally seeped out to other social media sites. But to take prominence among real college campuses, including the most elite ones—that is surreal.

Last month the Yale Halloween Costume fiasco was ignited by this letter:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Responses included:

  • “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain” in the Yale Herald (now taken down),
  • “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.” (from an archive of the post)
  • this video incident:

From a professor writing in a Washington Post op-ed:

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

Two years ago, I still roamed the halls of Cornell University as a student and I’m thankful I didn’t have to witness any of this nonsense. The most I have observed was a TA who used the term “freshpersons” instead of “freshmen”, and this is something I’m perfectly fine with. Other than that, nothing. So that means either:

  1. I went to a safe haven from safe spaces, or
  2. I managed to avoid contact with these people.

I’m guessing (2) is more likely. Perhaps it helped to have certain expectations for college life. It has become an antiquated notion that college is a place to open your mind and challenge your beliefs. Instead, certain students would persuade you that it is a place to close your mind and guard your beliefs as if they were more sacred than God.

College campuses should be safe spaces. They should be safe spaces for bright and motivated students to exercise free speech, challenge social norms, and learn new things. Picture that. And now picture that the people who want to place restrictions on these rights are not the administrators, but the students themselves.

On a similar string, here is an op-ed from The Daily Californian, calling on people to occupy the syllabus:

We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.

The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production,” but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to today’s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.

This is just so rich. You speak of racism? You speak of sexism? Like, you are talking about theory in a time when the world was far more racist and sexist than it is today. If anything, rewriting the past to hide racism and sexism is making matters worse.

Jumping in time, just yesterday in the UK, certain students made death threats and actively disrupted a lecture in the name of “safe space”. The speaker, “Ms Namazie, 49, is a leading secularist and member of the ‘ex-Muslim’ movement which campaigns to give Muslims the freedom to leave their faith without reprisals.” An excerpt from the Daily Mail  regarding what occurred:

Speaking after the event, Ms Namazie said: ‘After my talk began, ISOC “brothers” started coming into the room, repeatedly banging the door, falling on the floor, heckling me, playing on their phones, shouting out, and creating a climate of intimidation in order to try and prevent me from speaking.

‘I continued speaking as loudly as I could. They repeatedly walked back and forth in front of me.

‘In the midst of my talk, one of the ISOC Islamists switched off my PowerPoint and left. The university security had to intervene and remain in the room as I continued my talk.’

Another excerpt:

Goldsmiths Islamic Society has previously hosted a number of radical speakers including Moazzam Begg of Cage, the charity which described ISIS terrorist ‘Jihadi John’ as a ‘beautiful, kind man’.

If you are advocating killing apostates and praising ISIS terrorists and leveling death threats against your critics, then sorry, you don’t get to claim the “safe space” defense.

And what’s worse is that people feel they have to be respectful of anything safe space, so they are stuck in a position where they can’t criticize what just happened above. “I’m offended” trumps any logical argument.

Jerry Coyne calls it the “death of liberalism“.

And we cannot leave out Yale’s twin, Missouri. Regarding the media incident at the University of Missouri, specifically this Youtube video, Conor Friedersdorf annotates:

Here the doublethink reaches its apex:

  • As the video begins, a man tells the photographer that he is not allowed to push the wall of people which has formed to stop him from moving forward.
  • Around the 20-second mark, a woman shouts that the photographer needs to respect the space of students, just as they start to forcibly push him backwards.
  • Just after the one-minute mark, having been pushed back by students who are deliberately crowding him to obstruct his view, things grow more surreal as the photographer is told, “Please give them space! You cannot be this close to them.”
  • At the 1:24 mark, as the students are chanting at the photographer and some are visibly smirking at him––and as he’s frustrated but doing his best to keep his cool––a protestor tells him, as if he is disrespecting them, “You think this is funny.”
  • Around 1:42, after several rounds of students chanting and yelling loudly at him in unison, he raises his voice to politely insist that he has a First Amendment right to be there. And a student interjects that he must not yell at a protestor.
  • At 1:50 or so, a student tells the photographer that the members of the large group outnumbering him 20- or 30-to-one need to protect their space as human beings from him.
  • Around 2:08, a woman walks right up to the photographer and says, “You know what? Back off of my personal space. Leave these students alone.”
  • That woman then spreads out her arms and starts pushing the photographer back more––and as she makes contact with his body other students tell him, “Stop pushing her.”
  • At 2:33, the same woman tells the photographer that one of the students doesn’t want to talk to him. He explains that he has no desire to speak with anyone. And she replies, “She doesn’t want to see you,” as if he’s infringing on a right to not stand in a public space in a way that makes him visible.
  • Another surreal moment comes at 2:47, when a student who has been there the whole time approaches the wall of people preventing the photographer’s forward progress and says, “I need to get through, are you not going to let me through?” as if the photographer is the one transgressing against her freedom of movement.
  • At 3:32 another student says, “They can call the police on you,” as if the photographer is the one breaking the law.
  • A moment later, the photographer puts his hands and camera directly above his head to try to snap a photo. The women in front of him pushes her hands in the air to try to block the lens. They make fleeting, inconsequential contact, and a bystander accusatorially says to the photographer, “Did you just touch her?” Because that would be beyond the pale, never mind he has been repeatedly pushed!

And on it goes like that.

This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.

“You are an unethical reporter,” a student says around 5:15. “You do not respect our space.” Not 30 seconds later, the crowd starts to yell, “Push them all out,” and begins walking into the photographer. “You’re pushing me!” he yells. And even moments after vocally organizing themselves to push him, they won’t fess up to the nature of their behavior. “We’re walking forward,” they say, feigning innocence. Says one snarky student as the crowd forces him back, “I believe it’s my right to walk forward, isn’t it?” Then the photographer is gone, and only the person holding the video camera that recorded the whole ordeal remains. Ironically, he is a member of the press, too, which he mentions to one of the few protestors who is left behind.

By then, the mask has fallen.“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” an unusually frank protestor yells. “I need some muscle over here!”

The woman calling for muscle? An assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri … who had previously asked the campus for help attracting media attention.

mizzou

So campus protesters have devolved into hypocrisy, blatant threats, and intimidation. This is now the example? I can hear Martin Luther King Jr. rolling in his grave.

You don’t have to sacrifice free speech or human compassion to advance your causes. It is not a tradeoff. My TA who said “freshpersons” didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to censor or threaten people who said “freshmen”. She was the most politically correct instructor I knew at Cornell, but she was a rational person who seemed to also understand the vital importance of free speech. It was not even close to these other stories.

Why Now?

Why did this phenomenon arise, and why so recently? The following sociology paper (Campbell and Manning) is a good answer. It argues there is rise of “victimhood culture” which is distinct from its predecessors, “honor culture” and “dignity culture”, and that the rise is based on social conditions—namely the college campus, a more egalitarian society (kind of surprisingly), and 21st-century technology that grants us the ability to mass-publicize grievances.

Abstract:

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.

Among other things, it provides a wealth of examples of academically documented cases of microaggression and claims of microaggression. Some interesting passages here:

A third notable feature of microaggression complaints is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression – especially inequality and oppression based on cultural characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others. Contemporary readers may take it for granted that the domination of one group by another, or for that matter any substantial kind of intergroup inequality, is an injustice to be condemned and remedied. But people might have grievances about many other kinds of issues. For instance, they might condemn others for vices such as drunkenness, sloth, and gluttony. They might criticize or punish people for illicit sexual acts such as sodomy, incest, or bestiality. And cross-culturally and historically, people might harshly judge and persecute religious, ethnic, and other cultural minorities merely for being different. Such grievances are largely absent from microaggression complaints, and those who promulgate such complaints would surely consider criticism of cultural minorities and unconventional sexual practices to be examples of the very oppression they seek to expose and eradicate. The phenomenon thus illustrates a particular type of morality that is especially concerned with equality and diversity and sees any act that perpetuates inequality or decreases diversity as a cause for serious moral condemnation.

And this:

…a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.

And this:

When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy….

Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims,emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. To the extent that others take their side, they accept this characterization of the conflict, but their adversaries and their partisans might portray the conflict in the opposite terms. This can give rise to what is called “competitive victimhood,” with both sides arguing that it is they and not their adversaries who have suffered the most and are most deserving of help or most justified in retribution (Noor et al. 2012; Sullivan et al. 2012).

And this:

The emerging victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a good outline of the paper here with comments.

What Now?

It doesn’t appear that this trend will subside anytime soon. What will happen? Will this cause a right-wing backlash? To protest this, will I have to vote Republican?

Bonus read: The word “colonial”/”colonialism” only occurs 12 times in this NPR denouncement of a Taylor Swift music video.

Paris and Campus Activism

je_suis_charlie_2
January 2015. Getty Images.

Paris

I like to wait some time after a current event and see people’s reactions. To the Paris attacks, everyone is responding exactly as you would expect:

  1. ISIS takes credit.
  2. France declares the attacks an act of war, bombs ISIS stuff in Syria, and smokes out related suspects.
  3. The rest of the world sympathizes with France.
  4. Conservatives in Europe and America want to stop taking in Syrian refugees, and more right-wing backlash, etc.
  5. Liberals criticize conservatives.
  6. People on the internet say all the usual stuff which they think are new and clever arguments on terrorism/tolerance/religion even though these arguments literally appear every time there is a terrorist attack.
  7. I get angry as an atheist because many people still try to tiptoe around calling this “Islamic” terrorism because the thought of accidentally offending people is so much worse than a hundred people being murdered.

The only thing sort of unexpected was the universal support against terrorism this time, in contrast with Charlie Hebdo in January. The last blog post I wrote, which seems like a really long time ago, was about the backlash against Charlie Hebdo after the attacks as many people thought their cartoons were too offensive and that in some way they deserved it.

Even the Pope changed his mind about it. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Mr. Francis in a victim-blaming allegory regarding the January attacks which killed 12 people. On the other hand, regarding the November attacks, he stated that there is no “religious or human justification for these things.”

So I’m pleased that the world is finally starting to rally together against ISIS. But it has unfortunately taken so many lives, not just in Paris but around the world, to get us to this path.

Missouri and Yale

One thing the Paris attacks did was to totally shut out the campus “activist” incidents from the news.

The Missouri protests seemed mostly legitimate, other than the whole fiasco of stepping in front of a car and touching it to obtain instant victimhood status, or the part where  protesters refused media into their safe spaces and then complained about not getting media attention. There was blatant racism at the school (like not microaggressions* but literally dropping cotton balls in front of a black community) and it seemed like the administration didn’t do much about it. Even if the president was totally not a racist but just incompetent at his job, it more or less justifies the protests.

For Yale though, I have to denounce the Halloween costume protests and instead take the side of Erika Christaki. Her apparently biggest mistake in life was to encourage students to think and exercise free speech, in an institution where students are supposed to think and exercise free speech. The backlash against her from some of the students seemed completely out of line, given that it took place at such an elite university. I basically agree with this Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf—its title, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”, sums it up.

Bonus read: a protest at Dartmouth, with students’ own responses here and here. The first link is disconcerting. A passage:

The large group of protestors began to move up and yell at students on first floor Berry. Students were again yelled at to stand up in support of the protest, and many did so, either out of support or fear.

After making a girl cry, a protestor screamed “Fuck your white tears.”

I was startled by the aggression from a small minority of students towards students in the library, many of whom were supporters of the movement.

When I was at Cornell just a couple of years ago, I never saw anything like this. The closest to campus controversy I witnessed was the day after some rockets from Hamas hit Israel and killed some people. A group of pro-Israel, presumably Jewish, students organized a demonstration on Ho Plaza (yes, that place exists at Cornell). While I watched, another group of students, who I would guess were Muslim, started shouting profanities at the Jewish organization. From what I later heard, the second group was trying to kick out the Jewish group but the Jewish group had already cleared the event with the administration and thus had the right to be there.

But this incident seemed respectful of free speech and was about actual legitimate issues, not Halloween costumes.

*WordPress hilariously auto-corrects “microaggression” to “nonaggression”.

My College Experience

Cornell

Yesterday, I took my final final exam. Now, short of receiving a piece of paper, I am done with college and also with the formal education system (for at least the time being).

I’m not a sentimental person, but I am a reflective person, so I feel compelled to write about my experience.

Several other posts already covered various aspects of college and also of Cornell specifically:

There are in total 35 blog posts (as of writing this) under the College category, including the ones listed above. But the most important post comes from before any of these, before even stepping onto the Cornell campus, and it is related not directly to Cornell, but to the University of Chicago, a post on Andrew Abbott’s “The Aims of Education” speech.

Abbott’s main argument is that education is not a means to an end, but the end in itself. He goes through why education is not best viewed as a way to improve financial status, a way to learn a specific skill, a way to improve general life skills, or a way to survive in a changing world. Instead, “The reason for getting an education here—or anywhere else—is that it is better to be educated than not to be. It is better in and of itself.

This philosophical point I carried throughout my college experience. It is why I find it absurd to worry about the GPA of oneself and others so much: you’re here not to beat other people, but to be educated.

There is a lot of interest in the relation between academic study and the real-world job market. One hears jokes about English or psychology majors working in jobs having nothing to gain from an English or psych degree. But my situation is actually similar. As a math major pursuing a theoretical track (originally thinking about academia), I’ve encountered concepts that, at least currently, have no practical application. That’s a blessing and a curse. In the post I wrote about why I chose math, one of the pro points was precisely the abstraction of it. So, even though I will be working in a math-related area, it is almost certain that knowing that normal spaces are regular, or that the alternating group on 5 elements is simple, is useless.

Of course, it does help to know calculus and to have a good understanding of probability. But at least over the summer, we rarely ever used concepts that were outside my high-school understanding of probability or calculus. In other words, I could have majored in English and have been just as qualified.*

*(Perhaps taking many math classes trains you with a certain type of thinking, but this is hard to specify. I haven’t thought too much on this so if anyone has other ideas, please share them.)

Another thing I haven’t really talked about in other posts is socializing. I’m an introvert (INTP), and I could easily spend all day reading thought-provoking books or watching good movies without the slightest urge to unnecessarily talk to another person. I used to ponder this, but after reading Susan Cain’s wonderful book Quiet, I’ve decided to not worry.

Academically, I’ve expanded my horizons a lot since coming to Cornell, though not from math courses. While academia in general can be thought of as an ivory tower of sorts, math (and/or philosophy) is the ivory tower of ivory towers, so it is sometimes refreshing to take a class in a different subject that is only one step removed from reality.

In addition, I managed to keep this blog alive through college, though there was a period of time in late freshman/early sophomore year where there were few posts. By junior year, I was back in a weekly posting routine. And a couple of months ago, I started doing 2 posts per week, and that has been consistent so far.

Finally, I also subscribe to a quote allegedly by Mark Twain: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Even after college, I will always find opportunities to learn.

Overall, Cornell has been a great experience, and I would definitely recommend it, even if not for the reasons you were looking for. Enjoy, and keep learning!

The Hypercritical Condition?

liberalism-hegemony

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, recently wrote a piece in The New York Times titled “Young Minds in Critical Condition.”

It happens every semester. A student triumphantly points out that Jean-Jacques Rousseau is undermining himself when he claims “the man who reflects is a depraved animal,” or that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s call for self-reliance is in effect a call for reliance on Emerson himself. Trying not to sound too weary, I ask the student to imagine that the authors had already considered these issues.

Instead of trying to find mistakes in the texts, I suggest we take the point of view that our authors created these apparent “contradictions” in order to get readers like us to ponder more interesting questions. How do we think about inequality and learning, for example, or how can we stand on our own feet while being open to inspiration from the world around us? Yes, there’s a certain satisfaction in being critical of our authors, but isn’t it more interesting to put ourselves in a frame of mind to find inspiration in them?

Being a student in the sciences, I don’t experience this kind of humanities phenomenon directly. But this ultra-critical mindset pervades everyday life, at least at an elite university. Students engage in this “intellectual one-upmanship” all the time without even realizing it. Try using Thomas Jefferson in a pro-freedom argument and you get the response that TJ owned slaves, thereby invalidating whatever moral or legal progress he allegedly made; therefore, the takeaway point is that the liberal notion of freedom was built on detestable foundations.

Also from Roth:

Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.

Even for my own blog posts, I sometimes run into critical comments which, instead of saying something substantive, completely miss the main point and belittle some small detail that I had usually already considered and addressed elsewhere in the article. One is powerless to defend against such criticisms, as preemptively placing ample amounts of caveats is no deterrent. It just changes the criticism from “The author does not consider X…” to “The author dismisses X…” followed by a pro-X argument, where X is a counterargument that the author has already considered.

Not that critical comments are bad—they’re quite useful. Constructive criticism is a hundred times more helpful than praise. Perhaps the issue is a self-fulfilling prophecy of blogging: since people don’t expect complex arguments with caveats, they assume that everything you say is absolute, even when that is clearly false. And it is not just in academia or blogging. Go to the comments page of any remotely controversial news story (I really enjoy reading CNN comments), and you can effortlessly predict which arguments and counterarguments are used.

Hilariously, one of the comments perfectly demonstrates the point of the article.

From user “reaylward”:

“Critical” in this context means close or analytical, not disparaging or condemnatory. Thus, a critical reading of a text means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. The “historical critical method” of interpreting the Christian Bible, for example, means a close or analytical reading of the text, not a disparaging or condemnatory reading. “Critical thinking” doesn’t mean “exposing error”, it means thinking analytically. I think they need a dictionary at Wesleyan. And I mean that in the critical sense.

And a response by “Austin Uhler”:

Your comment is an example of the type of thinking that the author is discouraging. While you are correct about the strict meaning of “critical” in this context, your uncharitable reading means you are missing the author’s point: it is becoming more common for students to take critical thinking down negative, dismissive and unproductive paths.

This is probably the best comment-response pair I have ever seen for a NYT article.

Is the hypercritical condition a legacy of postmodernism? Is it simply a byproduct of the Internet? Are we becoming more cynical? I don’t know.

Being hypercritical is certainly a better problem to have than being uncritical. I appreciated Roth’s article nonetheless, for addressing the overly critical crowd.

How Movies Have Conditioned Us to Hate Science and the Future

According to film, science and technology solve nothing. Either one of two things occur: (1) the exact same social problems will happen in the future even with significantly advanced technology, or (2) social problems will be even worse than they are today.

The perspective I am writing this from is that of concern with the future of American education with particular interest in math and science. There are many voices in the STEM discussion. I just hope to contribute in fleshing out the relation between the public sentiment towards science and Hollywood’s portrayal of science.

1. The Future Sucks

HungerGamesPoster

I have not read the books, but The Hunger Games is quite dystopic: a society where young people are randomly selected and put to a grandiose battle to the death, as entertainment for the upper classes. But the stadium is an extraordinary technological feat: the environment can be changed at will, fires can be triggered anywhere, and cameras are hidden in every location. Of course, those with advanced technology are bad. Those with poor technology are good.

Elysium

Elysium makes the technological divide even more blatant. The rich, bad guys are in a utopian, ultra-technologically advanced ship experiencing luxurious lives with all-powerful healing chambers, leaving the rest of humanity, i.e. the good guys, to rot away on a dystopic Earth.

terminator_salvation

With the Terminator franchise, the message is clear: Artificial intelligence is super evil! Don’t let the machines ever have power, else they will kill you.

The_Matrix

Yeah.

Intime

And that.

Dredd-Poster

And that.

The-island

Also that. And many, many more. Every time, technological advances lead to a terrible world devoid of any current notion of morality.

2. Scientists Are Evil Murderers

Alien-poster

The premise of Alien is massively disheartening. The off-camera scientists want to study an alien creature at all costs, disregarding all morality, i.e., letting a killer alien parasite on board and massacre everyone (almost). Of course, a backstabbing android was in on the conspiracy from the start.

Prometheus

Yes, Prometheus is part of the Alien franchise, but it is so insulting to scientists that it deserves its own rant. The scientists in this movie are so stupid that no one would ever want to be a scientist after seeing this movie. From Cracked:

“Instead of a worthy follow-up to the best sci-fi action movie ever, we got an attempt at a stand-alone plot that wouldn’t have even happened if the characters weren’t stupid enough to pet alien snakes, get lost in tunnels that they themselves had mapped, and take their helmets off on an alien planet most likely so full of dangerous microbes that they’d be shitting their intestines out within the hour. Seriously, they’re like the dumbest scientists ever.”

Last_Days_on_Mars_Poster

Regarding The Last Days on Mars:

“Another Prometheus basically. In the way that the world’s most prominent scientists are trusted to be the first to search for life on Mars, then they turn out to be a bunch of emotion driven morons making the most ridiculous and rash nonsensical decisions they could make time and time again. I really don’t see why the people making these types of movies feel the need to have these people constantly being petty emotion driven morons. Things can go wrong even when the people are making the right decisions.”

The “emotion driven moron” depiction of scientists is superbly ironic. Are they trying to criticize scientists in general, i.e. criticizing rationality and intelligence, and supporting emotion and ignorance? Or are they trying to criticize emotions and idiocy, i.e. supporting scientists?

Jurassic_Park

Dammit scientists, stop sciencing!

the-host_

Chemistry = monsters!

Rise_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

Seriously, stop it, scientists.

Godzilla_poster

We give up.

3. Zombie Apocalypse, or Any Man-Made Apocalypse

Resident_evil

The Umbrella Corporation makes us really hate science. When not creating zombie viruses, it does… whatever the heck it does, making other viruses and figuring out how to murder people. Good job, Resident Evil.

28-days-later

While the release of the virus in 28 Days Later subverts the typical trope in that it was caused by animal rights activists, the blame is on the scientists for having those caged infected animals stuck at a research lab in the first place.

World_War_Z

I don’t remember World War Z too well, but I remember the scientist was practically useless and accidentally killed himself in a hilariously undignified fashion.

Either science will cause the apocalypse, or given the apocalypse, it is old-fashioned values that triumph over science.

4. Nature/Magic/Tradition/Spirituality/Irrationality/Emotion vs Science

avatar

Avatar is basically the ultimate nature vs technology film ever made, and of course, nature trumps technology easily. In addition, nature is good and technology is bad. You could argue that the message of this movie, or any of the ones above, is good: technology is not automatically good, and we should not take technological superiority as an excuse to exploit others. But the message of “science is not necessarily good,” hammered into our brains again and again and again, that “science is not necessarily good,” eventually translates to “science is evil.” In addition, these types of movies always depict science as in conflict with something like nature or emotions, when in reality, science tries to help them.

Equilibrium

A man with some emotion (good) vs a society where emotion is forbidden (evil). It assumes that advancements in science automatically lead to its being used for totalitarian control somehow.

Minority_Report_Poster

A man with good conscience (good) vs a cold rational police force (evil).

Fifth_element_poster

The answer is always love.

StarWarsMoviePoster

An ancient traditional religion (Jedi, The Force, lightsaber resembling a sword) triumphs over technology (Death Star, droids, and laser guns). And yes, this happens a long time ago, but it pragmatically fits into our analysis of sentiments of the future.

StarTrekIntoDarkness

Even in an age of interstellar space exploration, people still are adversely affected by notions like revenge, anger, self-interest, massive-scale conspiracy, and the pursuit of personal power. (On the other hand, the original TV series were quite optimistic. Such negative “human” traits were mostly absent, and when they did appear, it was because the crew was observing a less advanced civilization that still had them.)

As a caveat, I’d like to point out that I think most of the movies above are individually great. But if you combine all the anti-technology, anti-future sentiments, you get an extremely negative, if not socially dangerous, depiction of the future.

Poll Results on Technological Optimism

Because of the linearity of scientific progress, much of anti-science sentiment is related to anti-future sentiment. According to one poll, 48% think that America’s best days are in the past (Rasmussen, 2014). Another poll reports that 30% of Americans believe that future technological changes will cause people’s lives to be mostly worse (Pew, 2014). From the site’s own findings:

  • “66% think it would be a change for the worse if prospective parents could alter the DNA of their children to produce smarter, healthier, or more athletic offspring.
  • 65% think it would be a change for the worse if lifelike robots become the primary caregivers for the elderly and people in poor health.
  • 63% think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones are given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace.
  • 53% of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if most people wear implants or other devices that constantly show them information about the world around them. Women are especially wary of a future in which these devices are widespread.”

These percentages are affected by many factors. For instance, wealthier people are generally more optimistic about the future of technology: 52% of those with an income of $30,000 or less think technology will be for the better, but 67% of those with an income of $75,000 or more do.

TechFuture_better_or_worse

According to Gallup, there is also a significant partisan gap in optimism, with Democrats significantly more optimistic: 74% of Republicans have positive views of America 5 years in the past, whereas 75% of Democrats have positive views of America 5 years in the future.

This post was inspired by Neal Stephenson’s argument that science fiction is fixated on nihilism and apocalyptic scenarios and that sci-fi should dream more optimistically. From the Smithsonian Mag website: “He fears that no one will be inspired to build the next great space vessel or find a way to completely end dependence on fossil fuels when our stories about the future promise a shattered world.” These are legitimate fears. If we as a society abandon science now, what kind of Dark Ages will we slip back into?

Statistics in the Social Sciences

I’ve always wondered whether the rigorous application of statistics is underutilized in the social sciences. This is less so a problem in economics, where the subject is, by nature, highly quantitative. But in fields like psychology, sociology, and political science, where a background in mathematics is not common (unlike for biology, chemistry, and physics), researchers can intentionally or, very often, unintentionally (this is a really good Economist article) produce wrong results by abuse or misunderstanding of statistical inference.

economist-research-statistics

As an onlooker whose training is in mathematics, I cannot help but to feel frustrated by the lack of numeracy in our “scientists.” The Economist article does a good job at showing how failure to understand statistical concepts leads to false results being published, even past peer review.

What triggered me to write this post was an assigned reading for a comparative politics class. In it, Adam Przeworski discusses the inherent selection bias in matching countries for experimentation. Noting that democracies have higher economic growth rates than authoritarian regimes, Przeworksi brings in the relevant data that democracies have a significant chance to die off when faced with economic failure whereas authoritarian regimes are not as affected. Hence, observing that democracies have higher growth rates does not signify that democracy leads to economic growth, but rather that economically failing democracies are not observed because they tend to disappear.

“What we are observing here is what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias.’ Indeed, I am persuaded that all the comparative work we have been doing may suffer potentially from selection bias.”  (p. 19, stable JSTOR link)

In context of a comparative politics theory symposium, this makes a lot of sense to state. But the phrasing is really interesting to a math person: selection bias is a given, and is one of the tools we use to analyze anything. My instinctual reaction to the reading was “Duh, obviously there is selection bias.” While I am sure the field of comparative politics is more aware of selection bias than Przeworski makes it appear to be, the fact that Przeworski framed it as such (“what the statistical literature calls ‘selection bias'”), as if to imply that the formal tools of statistical inference are generally beyond the scope of comparative politics theory, is a bit unnerving.

Przeworski, Adam in The Role of Theory in Comparative Politics: A Symposium, World Politics, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Oct., 1995), pp. 1-49.