Category Archives: Technology

Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]

gdp_long_term

gdp_per_capita_slide

gdp_growth

The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.” Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. Yet it is delusional to want to return to the past because the old times were more just, because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

Add on top of this list social media, where stories of grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.

And:

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

[…]

We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

And:

Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real ene my is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”

And:

How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of their circumstance is the most important one that can be made.

But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion. Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on which echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative as to disqualify the other group on the basis of their race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponent. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:

pew_better_worse

Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

Tweets, Personalities, and Startups

Twitter

I started using Twitter again (maybe the 4th time), and I am finally starting to get its appeal. In this election year, I can now witness firsthand Donald Trump eating taco bowls and calling Senator Elizabeth Warren “goofy”:

And the replies:

Yep, that happened. Twitter has always felt like a children’s playground to me, and it’s hilarious to see two serious adults fighting on it.

I’ll need to order more popcorn, but in all seriousness, Hillary Clinton better win this election.

Also, if you want to follow me, the Twitter handle is @nargaque  (what else could it be?). My most retweeted post is a postmodernist joke that was copied from some academic site.

Internet Addiction

There is some irony in having a section on internet addiction following one on Twitter. But this is much more hardcore. Here is an article on an internet addiction bootcamp in China, via CNN:

“The main challenge was to keep my mind away from the repetition imposed by the school,” he said. “It was not easy to find the distance to set a point of view.”

The internees, as he called them, were boys and girls, men and women. They were as young as 8 and as old as 30. Most had been forced to enter the treatment center — sometimes kicking and screaming — by family members concerned about their physical and mental health.

At the center, they were subjected to “discipline and repetition,” which the center’s leaders said would cure their addiction. They might stay for a few weeks or many months, Maccotta said.

Their personalities are annihilated,” Maccotta said. They stay “behind a formal posture of silence and obedience. They don’t show any sadness, but I’m sure they miss families and friends.”

I’m not sure how big of an issue internet addiction is, but probably annihilating people’s personalities goes too far? Try to read this article without imagining every insane asylum you’ve seen. I wonder if the cure is worse than the disease.

The culture divide is vast. In the West we value individualism and thus see video gaming as personal expression rather than social blight. Here is one of the “Great American Stories” also via CNN:

Ask these gamers during breaks in play, and they tell tales of parents whose reactions have run the gamut from total support to utter confusion.

One mother can’t watch because the games make her dizzy; a second can’t keep the name straight and calls the game “League of Nations.” Another mom can hold her own in any competition, and a fourth carved out a weekend to play with her son so she could begin to understand. There are fathers who remain baffled, some who told their kids video games would never pay the bills and others who’ve admitted they’re downright jealous.

As for their offspring? They smile wide and can’t help but relish the turn of events, knowing they were onto something all along.

Startups

I feel like I hear more and more about startups these days. Or maybe we just label more things startups. Is Uber still a startup?

Anyway here is a cool article on the offices of NYC startups, via Mashable.

In Silicon Valley, many workers have been spoiled by sprawling campuses, free company buses, fun slides and scooters, in-house chefs and laundry services offered by prominent businesses like Google and Facebook. In New York, startup employees are accustomed to working more with less.

“Expectations, in some ways, are higher for the people in San Francisco,” McKelvey says. “In New York, you have thousands of buildings that have never been renovated, that have horrible designs, that are really cramped and terrible. Lots of people are coming out of those buildings and coming into our buildings and saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

Sure enough, in tours of five prominent New York startup offices, that theme emerged again and again. Startups operating in the Big Apple don’t feel the need to dazzle staff quite as much — and particularly at a time when the startup market is more volatile — though they still go above and beyond the old-fashioned office.

San Francisco is a boring fucking city. In New York, you don’t have to entertain people because the city entertains people,” says Mario Schlosser, CEO of Oscar, a healthcare startup valued at nearly $3 billion and headquartered in the very entertaining SoHo neighborhood.

The pictures in the article are great. This stairwell setup is pretty much what you would expect of the 2010s startup, and you can just tell that each elevated level adds that much more productivity.

WeWork-office

The more different ground levels you have, the more you are a true startup.

Of course, they have the obligatory startup ping-pong table, which is even captioned, “The obligatory startup ping pong table, seen here at Poppin’s office.”

Poppin-ping-pong

It’s such a jovial picture, and what are those colored things on the shelves?

But not everyone is excited about ping-pong tables. A decline in sales of ping-pong tables could mean the tech bubble is popping, worries The Wall Street Journal:

wsj-ping-pong-table

Disclosure: The office I work in has a ping-pong table.

Palantir

I don’t usually link to Buzzfeed, but here are some interesting passages from “Inside Palantir, Silicon Valley’s Most Secretive Company“:

Over the last 13 months, at least three top-tier corporate clients have walked away, including Coca-Cola, American Express, and Nasdaq, according to internal documents. Palantir mines data to help companies make more money, but clients have balked at its high prices that can exceed $1 million per month, expressed doubts that its software can produce valuable insights over time, and even experienced difficult working relationships with Palantir’s young engineers. Palantir insiders have bemoaned the “low-vision” clients who decide to take their business elsewhere.

And:

On April 22, in an extraordinary move for a company that had prided itself on paying salaries below market rate, Palantir CEO Alex Karp announced a 20% pay raise for all employees who had worked there for at least 18 months. Karp also canceled annual performance reviews, saying the current system wasn’t working.

And:

Owing in part to the sensitive nature of its work, Palantir – which derives its name, the names of its offices (the Shire, Grey Havens, Rivendell, Gondor), and the name of its annual gathering (HobbitCon) from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books – forbids employees to speak with the press and uses quirky codenames to refer to its customers.

They include a table of such codenames, and they are actually kind of amusing:

buzzfeed-code

“Tophat” is pretty good for Bank of England, though when I enter a Walmart from now on, I will imagine the Oceans 11 team swooping in and snatching the discount toaster.

And after reading the article, I still don’t understand what Palantir actually does.

Misc

WSJ on Trump’s campaign style:

Republicans proved vulnerable to his unconventional campaign style. As a skilled entertainment professional, he made himself ubiquitous. His audience seemed ready to forgive any outrageous comment or slip-up.

Mr. Trump dominated the campaign conversation with a communications-heavy strategy that relied on mass rallies, TV interviews and debates. That meant no polling, no analytics, little paid media, no consultants.

“This election isn’t about the Republican Party, it’s about me,” Mr. Trump said in an interview this week. “I’m very proud I proved an outsider can win by massive victories from the people, not from party elites or state delegates.”

The Atlantic on the middle class:

According to Johnson, economists have long theorized that people smooth their consumption over their lifetime, offsetting bad years with good ones—borrowing in the bad, saving in the good. But recent research indicates that when people get some money—a bonus, a tax refund, a small inheritance—they are, in fact, more likely to spend it than to save it. “It could be,” Johnson says, “that people don’t have the money” to save. Many of us, it turns out, are living in a more or less continual state of financial peril. So if you really want to know why there is such deep economic discontent in America today, even when many indicators say the country is heading in the right direction, ask a member of that 47 percent. Ask me.

WBGH on Steven Strogatz on math education:

High school math, Strogatz notes, is organized the way it is because of the space race against the Soviets. The courses are literally “meant for rocket engineers in the 50s.”

But by forcing so many students to take classes like trigonometry, calculus, and algebra, Strogatz says we are forgetting about not just the utility but also the beauty of math.

NYT on Facebook:

Obviously there are limits to how much time Facebook users can spend since there are only 24 hours in a day. But short of that, “I don’t feel there’s any upper limit,” said Mr. Sena, the analyst. “Everybody wants to be the platform that’s on all day, kind of like some people used to have their television on all the time. Facebook is probably in the best position because people are already such active users.”

GDPs, Feelings, and Mountains

vintage-phone-ad

Human Progress, cont’d

The media is pretty good at reporting the most attention-grabbing headlines: popularity contests, controversies, and catastrophes. This part is fine. Companies should try to generate profits within reasonable moral bounds, and selectively reporting news stories that are the most interesting does not feel unethical.

But this causes us to miss the tiny incremental changes that have resulted in a better world, and instead focus on the seemingly endless problems that pop up every day. One would naively think, from things like the Flint water crisis, the popularized incidents of police brutality, random shooting deaths, terrorism worldwide, stagnant wages, and the growing rift of income inequality, that the United States and the world are eroding away. But this narrative misses all the positive things.

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

(And for computer geeks: The laptop I had in 2006 had 1 GB RAM and a 40 GB non-SSD hard drive. The one I am using to write this post costs about the same and has 16 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD. )

So it is very puzzling that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have engaged so many people by essentially ignoring progress and calling on their followers to ignore it as well. The very idea of “Make America Great Again” is based on the narrative that the US has declined, yet there has not been a better time for the US or for the world. And the “capitalism has failed you” narrative from the other side of the spectrum is no better. Get rid of your iPhone first and then talk about capitalism produces nothing of value. Hillary Clinton understood this when she stated, “America never stopped being great.”

And here is The Economist:

Which would you prefer to be: a medieval monarch or a modern office-worker? The king has armies of servants. He wears the finest silks and eats the richest foods. But he is also a martyr to toothache. He is prone to fatal infections. It takes him a week by carriage to travel between palaces. And he is tired of listening to the same jesters. Life as a 21st-century office drone looks more appealing once you think about modern dentistry, antibiotics, air travel, smartphones and YouTube.

The question is more than just a parlour game. It shows how tricky it is to compare living standards over time. Yet such comparisons are not just routinely made, but rely heavily on a single metric: gross domestic product (GDP). This one number has become shorthand for material well-being, even though it is a deeply flawed gauge of prosperity, and getting worse all the time […]. That may in turn be distorting levels of anxiety in the rich world about everything from stagnant incomes to disappointing productivity growth.

And my favorite part from the ad at the top is, “Even use on your boat,” as if everyone had boats back then.

“I Feel Like”

Here is Molly Worthen, whose article in the NYT is titled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’“:

In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

Hedging my written remarks is pretty useful when I say things on the internet that are archived permanently. It is so easy to take things out of context that I preemptively qualify statements to avoid misunderstanding.

On the other hand, I agree with all the reasons against over-hedging as discussed in the article. I am in favor of things that are rational and encourage discussion, and I detest things that shut down debates.

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

“It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”

This is also the primary reason why recent campus social justice movements go too far: they stifle debate rather than encourage it.

That said, there is a difference between hedging a statement and expressing an opinion:

  • If I recall correctly, the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s.
  • I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.

The first statement makes a factual claim but also expresses some uncertainty as to whether it is true. It doesn’t deflect engagement.

But the second is an opinion, and technically speaking, the claim is not that “Ted Cruz would make a bad president,” but that “I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.” In this sense, you can’t really argue with the statement even if you miraculously provided evidence that Ted Cruz would make a good president, because that would not affect the person’s feelings that Ted Cruz would be a bad president.

So hedge more, “feel like” less.

Misc

NYT on Margot Robbie:

“It’s always a hustle,” she said. “I thought it would be a mountain, where you get to the top, and then it’s like: ‘Wheeee! It’s so easy after this.’”

Instead, Ms. Robbie said: “Any time I get near the top, I’m like, ‘There’s another mountain!’ The hustle continues.”

WSJ on making friends:

People with higher I.Q.s were less content when they spent more time with friends. Psychologists theorize that these folks keep themselves intellectually stimulated without a lot of social interaction, and often have a long-term goal they are pursuing.

Harvard on young people:

Sanders remains most popular candidate for America’s 18- to 29-year-olds; Nearly half believe today’s politics are unable to meet the country’s challenges; Majority reject both socialism and capitalism.

 

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, it was more difficult to make that bet. 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 equality, at least on a household level. 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 during which the animation does not show them tidally locked.

Kindles and Current Reading List

My Kindle Paperwhite arrived today, and after using it for only an hour, I wonder how I managed to get by without one. It would have made the last 7 years a much more reading-conducive experience. At home, I have bookshelves full of books and I end up not even reading many of them, partly because I don’t have a great non-expensive way of transporting books from Texas to New York. And the physical books I do have in NY can get weighty. For practicality, I should have used the library system more. But there’s a certain irreplaceable feeling of having your own books that you can read at your own pace. Anyway, I think a Kindle solves all my reading problems and perhaps I can reassign my old books to other uses.

BookHatFamilyGuy

In this link is the past reading list. And currently on the summer plate:

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century – Thomas Piketty
  • The Price of Inequality – Joseph Stiglitz
  • An Appetite for Wonder – Richard Dawkins
  • The Big Short – Michael Lewis
  • Drift – Rachel Maddow
  • The Virtual Executive – Debra Benton
  • Nudge – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
  • Predictably Irrational – Dan Ariely

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?

College and Smartphones

Photo from Newegg.
Image from Newegg.

Last December I obtained a Samsung Galaxy S3, my first ever smartphone. Yes, I’m only about 6 years late to the smartphone party. Before this, I had been using a Motorola Razr flip phone for years and didn’t really think a smartphone was necessary. But after just three months, it is already difficult to imagine not having one.

Smartphones in College Life

According to various reports I found, somewhere between 50-70% of college students have a smartphone. But statistically, at a school like Cornell, whose students come from families that more affluent than average, it would be reasonable to assume the percentage should be much higher. In fact, almost everyone I know here has a smartphone.

According to one source, the percentage of all college students who had a smartphone in 2009 was about 27%. Another source claims that the score in 2008 was 10%. Yet at Cornell, the figure was already 33% by 2008. I think it would not be unreasonable to estimate that Cornell’s smartphone usage is about a year (and a bit more) ahead of the average trend, and I would bet that currently between 80% and 95% of students at Cornell have a smartphone.

The social implications of having a smartphone here are significant. To have the Internet at your fingertips is to have all the knowledge you need on demand about activities, people, or just random information in a conversation. It is also to check email, respond to messages, or to share videos. Since the social norm is to have one, and the students expect other students to have them, most things are done with a smartphone in mind. At Cornell, to not have a smartphone is to be technologically behind. The Red Queen analogy comes to mind: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

The “Superhuman” Extension

I resisted getting a smartphone for a long time because I thought (1) having a laptop was sufficient, and (2) not having a smartphone brought more peace of mind. However, the utility gained from having one far outweighs the silence of not having one. I can check my email at any time, look up anything I want, and a few weeks ago in NYC for an interview, I used it as a GPS.

There is an interesting article by John D. Sutter from CNN Tech last September, which is titled, “How Smartphones make us Superhuman.” It obviously makes the case supporting them. An excerpt:

In addition to enabling us to video events on a second’s notice, potentially altering the course of global politics, these high-tech human “appendages” increasingly have become tools for fighting corruption, buying stuff, bolstering memory, promoting politics, improving education and giving people around the world more access to health care.

While I don’t use the smartphone for any political reasons as Sutter might admire, I find it invaluable as a college student to be able to access information from anywhere. In classes, I still use my laptop as it is faster to type things, given that it is set up. But on the go, and for other occasions, using a laptop is impossible. It may sound strange, but without the Internet, I would feel disconnected from the world.

In fact, last May, my laptop broke down and would not even get to the boot menu. While it was being repaired (for about a month), I had no immediate Internet connection for the first time in years, and it felt that something was deeply missing. I had to go to the school libraries multiple times a day, and I would be there at odd hours. (Though, I did manage to write a 23-page math paper saved between various emails and flash drives.) Not having a computer was certainly survivable, but at a huge inconvenience.

Similarly, for a smartphone it is obvious that anyone can survive without having one. However, the productivity, convenience, time-efficiency, and omniscience are clearly worth it for any student living in 2013.