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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A few questions about basic physics

Here are a few questions I have about physics after reading (or attempting to read) several books.I can't seem to find consistent answers to these. I don't have the base of understanding necessary to ask good questions yet, but I hope most of these questions are at least interesting!

(Apologies for typos! My voice recognition seems to insist that molecules are "made up of Adams"...)

Section 1: About general relativity:

One of the starting example situations that often seem to be used in general relativity is this idea of someone who is traveling on a train or other moving base, who shines one light forward in the direction they're traveling and another light backward. 

There are two targets that are equally distant from them on the train, in the forward direction and backward direction. If a rider on the train turns both lights on at the same time, naturally the rider perceives the lights hitting those targets at the same time.

But if there is an observer who is stationary on the ground outside the train, watching the train pass them by, then because the speed of light will be absolute relative to them, the light can't be traveling forward at the speed of the train *plus* the speed of light. Here's where standard explanations say something like "To our outside observer the beams will be going at a different speed relative to the train than what the rider sees." The outside observer will observe the light hitting the backward target first, which in these examples is supposed to demonstrate the weird implications of the absolute speed of light relative to any observer.

There are a lot of different assumptions here that aren't being addressed, which I don't understand. First of all, the example above seems to mix subjective experience and objective descriptions of reality. What does it mean to say that "to" the outside observer, the light hits the backward target first? The outside observer doesn't have magic, objective-time goggles that can instantly communicate when the light hits a target. 

But they can see when the light that hit the target bounces to them and strikes their eye or camera or whatever. All they can do is receive reflected light. 

But suppose it *was* possible for light to travel faster than the official speed of light. That would mean it would be possible for there to be one objective reality between the two observers: the light is moving forward at the speed of light that the observer on the train observes, plus the forward speed of the train. The light moving backward is moving at slightly slower than the speed the observer on the train perceives. And the two targets really do got struck at the same time. But because the forward Target is farther away from the outside observer than the backward Target, the light that reflects towards the outside observer would not reach them at the same time. They would perceive the backward target to have been struck first. That's the order in which they perceived the targets to be struck by light actually does not demonstrate the absolute speed of light limit.

In this scenario, it really only depends on the relative position of the train to the outside observer when the targets are struck. If the train is moving towards the outside observer, and is relatively far away, they will see the light from the forward target first. If the train is past the outside observer, they will see the light from the backward target first.

But, dropping my counterfactual, that's the same outcome that's predicted by the general relativity example. Only in a very tiny range of starting locations for the train, almost but not quite to the position of the outside of server, do my counterfactual and general relativity differ on which target the outside observer will appear to observe first.

I ultimately Einstein is right, and I think I've argued myself back to a position of agreeing with him, but I'm just doing a ton of extra scenario building and going way past the point where I have any idea if what I'm saying is right or totally wrong. The simplified scenarios that are illustrated in example after example seem to me not to actually demonstrate the difference that general relativity predicts. Sometimes I wonder with some scenarios if, for information to return to all of the original observers, it's like it has to undo the effects of general relativity.

I read a quick explanation of the Michelson Morley mirror experiment, in which (so I've read) it was observed that light traveling in the direction that the Earth is spinning or moving around the Sun or something didn't move faster than light traveling some other direction. I'm sure I am wildly misstating this. But the way it was explained to me seemed to have nothing surprising at all. Because if the light was indeed moving at the suppose it speed of light plus the speed of the Earth, but we are ourselves moving at the speed of the Earth, how would we perceive that extra speed?

Again, I'm sure that from the perspective of someone who really understands this stuff my questions are totally misinformed, I just can't fill in that context myself with the books I have.

So my overall question is, what is a scenario in which our conventional expectations are subverted by what we observe, and we can only conclude that general relativity is correct?

Question 1: is my description of the train scenario correct?

Question 2: what is a scenario in which are conventional expectations are supported by what we observe, and we can only conclude that general relativity is correct?

Section 2:

Regarding atomic resistance to contact:

I read in several places that as electrons in different atoms (which are each magnetically balanced) approach each other, they exchange photons. That is, photons are the mechanism by which electrons communicate their proximity to each other. 

Or maybe photons are the mechanism by which atoms communicate their proximity to each other. I don't really begin to understand. 

I've read that you could think of electrons using a metaphor of two people passing a dodgeball back and forth, where they're able to do it much faster as they get closer together, which means in effect their resistance to each other is higher. And as atoms get too close, their electrons push each other away and that pushes the whole atom away. 

But another thing I've read is that atomic nuclei just really don't like to be too close together, that there's a sort of proton exclusion principle or something, and that's why two atoms don't like to be pushed together. 

The source of my question is why is it, fundamentally, that two objects don't just merge as they collide? What is changing within them as they get close together? When I stand on a floor, I understand that the floor is pushing back at me with 200 lb of force. What I'm surmising is that that force comes from the compression of the floor, whose atoms are getting pushed together more than they like, and something is happening within them that repels those atoms from each other, and repels my shoe atoms from the floor, and those atoms repel my foot atoms, Etc. But I can't figure out which law of physics is the main one that's at work here.

A related question: I've been told that water is essentially incompressible, that it doesn't shrink and heat up as you compress it the way gases do. 

But say two people are standing on top of two big plungers, where the space under the plunger for one person is filled up with water and for the other person is filled up with air. I assume that what's happening within the chamber in each case is that the material is being compressed and creating resistance that pushes back against the plunger with an equal force to the weight of the person, at least as soon as the plunger initially depresses to adjust to the person's weight. What is the source of the force in each case? 

I've been told in a gas it is the rate of Brownian motion collisions from the gas atom bumping upwards against the plunger. But I gather that's not the case with the water. If not, what is it? Are there two totally different laws operating in the two cases? Or is it more a matter of degree, where the sort of atomic explosion I've been talking about is indeed still at work in the gas and that's why gas atoms bump each other and communicate motion, and similarly there is a bit of Brownian motion in the water as well but it's just not a significant way of describing the water's resistance to compression? Is there anything relating to that electrons playing dodgeball with photons idea that makes sense here?

Question 3: why is it, fundamentally, that two objects that are pressed together don't just merge or pass through each other?

Question 4: is my description of the Brownian motion of the gas producing force correct?

Question 5: by what atomic-level mechanism is the water producing upward force against the plunger?

Question 6: what happens within a single atom as another atom (which it doesn't need in the sense of forming a molecule with it) approaches it?

Section 3:

My next question is about reflection of light. I know there are some aspects of quantum mechanics that it's foolish to expect to understand intuitively, and maybe this is one of them. From what I (shakily) understand, incoming light is being reflected by a mirror at all sorts of angles, and the only reason we perceive an angle of light shining on a mirror at 10 degrees as also reflecting off the mirror at 10 degrees (or, rather, 170 degrees) is that the average of the possible angles of the reflected light is 10 degrees. I'm sure I have said that wrong, I'm not sure if this is an issue of quantum mechanics or of the wave/particle nature of light, or both.

I'd love a good explanation of that aspect of reflection, but I'm trying to keep my questions a bit more focused. So instead, I want to ask:

Question 7: when a photon hits an object, say a speck of green paint, what happens within that within that atom that causes a photon to be sent back out? 

Question 8: in a very light absorbent substance like vantablack, what is happening when one of its atoms is struck by a photon?

Question 9: is it correct to assume that a surface a single atom thick would still, in theory, be capable of reflecting light at a complementary angle to the one the photons came in on?

Question 10: on the atomic scale, why should a photon that makes contact with the atom at one angle be sent out at the same angle?

Question 11: say you had many such single atom think surfaces, reach oriented at a different angle. You shoot a stream of photons at each one, striking each one at a single atom. How do the photon and atom know what angle to send the photon out at? Isn't the scenario identical, for all intents and purposes, for each of these atoms being struck by a photon?

About the two slit experiment, I don't understand enough to ask a good question. I guess I fundamentally don't really understand what we're talking about when we say light acts as a wave. Sometimes it seems as though the concept of it being a wave is something far beyond our ability to have an intuitive understanding of. Other times, it seems practically Newtonian and straightforward. For instance, I get that some substances are transparent to some wavelengths of light and opaque to others; and that's like a measurable thing, you can imagine AM radio waves hitting all kinds of obstacles in all there going back and forth that higher bandwidth FM waves sail past. Or with polarized filters, you can say only light that is moving back and forth along some particular rotation angle will get through. All this has given me the sense that light waves involve light photons essentially moving up and down as they travel forward, varying their position relative to the average center of their direction of travel by inches or even feet.

But this understanding doesn't seem like it can be right. Because you can't like catch a photon several inches away from the center of its vector of travel, right? Because it seems to be that would mean our eyes would have no idea where any of the photons it receives are coming from.

And then you go to the two slit experiment and suddenly we're talking about light waves not being a phenomenon centered along one direction of travel, but something where the waves are a more elusive concept than the somewhat concrete sense I get from the ease of polarization.

Anyway, I'm far from being able to articulate good questions about the two slit experiment, or even just polarization. I just know there's a lot of background that I don't understand!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Infinite music hasn't been written yet

I can appreciate Radiohead's plagiarism case against Lana Del Rey (or rather, their publisher and production team's case against her publisher and production team). (Though the offer of 40% of the writing proceeds seems like a more than fair offer, considering how changed the song is AND the degree to which they likely borrowed for their original. Rejecting that and using our tax money to try to get more is disgusting.)

A friend of mine, skeptical of the series of court cases where musical writers claim ownership of similar songs, wondered "how many pleasing combinations of chords or notes can be created before everything that follows might be considered evocative or a remix of its predecessors".

But a musical composition is so much more than just a sequence of notes on paper. There are so many dimensions along which compositions can be placed: multiple instruments, voices, pacing, things which brilliant artists understand on a subconscious level but which we are a long way from even being able to formalize. It's akin to the breadth of expression possible with letters. Any order of letters seems obvious in retrospect, and billions of words are written every day, yet no one has accidentally recreated the plot of Don Quixote. I mean heck, two generations ago there are entire genres of music that had never even been imagined. There are surely hundreds more musical genres that haven't been imagined yet.

Lots of people have directly and indirectly taken inspiration from Don Quixote, much like, say, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot takes inspiration from "Revolution no. 9". But the space of possible stories isn't so crowded that anyone has written a story that accidentally also features a novel-besotted wannabe warrior leading a series of misadventures where he concocts patently false scenarios with the help of a more clear-eyed assistant in his thrall. Some people, of course, purposely write an updated DQ! That's my point: the world of stories is wide open, not crowded; accidental similarities are tenuous. When the similarity is higher, as with DQ's influence on The Idiot, City of Glass or The Moor's Last Sigh, it turns out to have been intentional.

When you hear extended musical similarity like Billy Joel vs. Beethoven, it's not an accident.

When someone has a musical innovation like, say, Teddy Riley's New Jack Swing, and it sweeps through the musical landscape, you see how much new musical composition draws from the field of existing ideas (and as opposed to coinciding with existing ideas through a sort of pigeonhole principle). You can practically see an idea like using voices as percussion in R&B sweeps its way through the memeosphere, from Bone Thugs 'n Harmony to Destiny's Child.

And much like with plagiarism in the written word, there's actually less gray area in practice than you might expect. So many turns of phrase and rhythms and patterns are borrowed from the landscape of subconscious reference, and brief deliberate copying. But then you have times that someone says the same eight words in a row that were in someone else's speech and it's 100% clear that the line was lifted altogether.

Similarly, in music there are tons and tons of times a sequence of 5 or 10 notes is going to match some existing song closely. I imagine algorithms are finding these for some clever troll as we speak! But the similarity in Lana del Rey's case goes way beyond the 40-odd notes (modulo an arpeggio or two) that match Radiohead's. The relative length of those notes, the relationship to the chords in the accompanying instrumentation, the story they tell--you'd need millions of parallel universes with no Creep before you'd get a song this similar.

It can seem strange that building specifically on others' ideas is so accepted in, say, the startup world and the world of novels, but so punished in music. Uber doesn't own anyone else's "Uber for X" (unless they get a BS patent). But think how much easier it would be to make, say, a good punk album where you just do a reworded version of a Bon Iver song here, a Cat Power song there, than to really write those songs from scratch.

The world of possible music composition isn't crowded. The world of possible stories isn't crowded. Most great music and most great stories haven't been written yet!

Don't be fooled by the relative stagnation of pop music in the last 15 years. Infinite music hasn't been written yet. More spookily, infinite music will never be written. It's not crowded in there--it's lonely!

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The communications tool I wish existed

I've daydreamed for a while about building a Swiss Army Knife messaging-management software-as-a-service.

Basically, I've been paid to develop messaging-manager software by several clients, and approached by other clients who I didn't have time to work for. They're using Sheets, Excel, Google Contacts or Salesforce, and that's all fine for storing lists of contacts, but they want to be able to track who got which email or SMS message when, how they responded, etc.

I've heard "Why can't I email all my active clients and tell them about the new website? I have them right here in Salesforce!" And, "Why can't I text all the seniors who haven't turned in their graduation requirements that they're due in 3 weeks? I have the list right here in Google Sheets!"

I'm not really sure what v1.0 would make sense for this, but I've had multiple clients swear to me that they would use it even if they had to import their contacts every single time they wanted to send a message. (It feels like I'm taking crazy pills when I hear this--surely it exists? But it doesn't, as far as I can tell... and I've tried a bunch of Mailchimp-family SaaS's to try to help them find one that works.)

What I've tried so far:

  • Salesforce: AFAIK, has no built-in ability to systematically contact the contacts; expect a GUI nightmare, or a lot of coding from scratch, if you wish to take actions like adding a field using the output of a query
  • Mailchimp: when I asked them how to maintain the information I'm gathering about communications with my Mailchimp contacts, they suggested regularly exporting them to a spreadsheet, updating columns, and re-importing the list.
  • Sendgrid: works well for what it is, which is very limited. Also, they confirmed to me that they discard your entire history each week, and won't stop doing this at any price
  • Mixmax: I'm a paying user and their customer support is great, but I find the Gmail integration janky, contact syncing inconsistent, and the various campaign configurations impenetrably confusing
My feature wishlist:
  1. Gmail: I can still use gmail as my primary email client
  2. Google Contacts: it syncs with my google contacts
  3. Google Sheets: I can point it to a google spreadsheet and it can figure out how each row connects to a contact (eg, by email, or name, or whatever)
  4. Static fields: I can add arbitrary fields to contacts, like “customer lifetime value” or “has been sent invite” and it’ll remember the values for each contact forever
  5. Tags, not lists: Instead of each list/group maintaining its own info about a given contact (as Malchimp does), the assumption is that a given contact belongs to many groups/lists/tags. Google contact groups are just treated like tags; google spreadsheet columns can also be tags, and I can create custom tags.
  6. Static tag info: each tag has its own properties, including associated “why you got this” text
  7. Exploding addressee lists: I can compose an email to thousands of people and it’ll make each one appear to have received a personal email from me, without anyone else included
  8. Safe templates: my email can use a template like "Hey there ,", and it will either let me define what to show if there is no firstname, or flag all that don’t have an obviously good entry for each field used (so there’s no awkward “Dear Mr. ,” blanks)
  9. Exploding phone number lists: I can compose a text and it’ll send to 1 number for each person
  10. Detect bounces: it’ll detect bounces from email, SMS and mark those addresses/numbers to not be used
  11. Why you got this (email): it adds “why you got this” text to bottom of email
  12. Unsubscribe (email): it adds unsubscribe text and link to bottom of email
  13. Why you got this (SMS): it adds “why you got this” text to bottom of initial SMS
  14. Unsubscribe (SMS): it adds unsubscribe text and link to initial SMS
  15. Read receipts: it has email read receipts to show me if someone read it
  16. Templates depend on medium: I can make distinct email text and sms text for the same message
  17. Failover to SMS: I can send a message once without specifying email or SMS, and it can send SMS if email is not available or bounces
  18. Salesforce: it can sync with salesforce
  19. Live Salesforce queries: tags can have associated salesforce queries that pull in a set of contacts live
  20. Process responses: I can include questions in the message, and it can store responses
  21. Response parsing: message responses are automatically processed when relevant, like “Hell no” = no, “6 out of 10? maybe 7?” = 7, “*** 1/2” = 7, etc.
  22. Saved searches: search results can be stored as a column: eg search result list for “have received 0-2 emails from me” becomes: new member == 1
  23. Live saved searches: search results can be stored as a live/self-updating column (updates after every message send or data change)
  24. Responses are a column: message responses become a column that can be used in logic, like “all people who haven’t responded or responded ambiguously or responded with a no"
  25. History lives forever: I can look up the history of communications with any recipient, I don't need to worry about storing it myself
  26. Set math: I can get a set of all contacts in various combinations of groups/tags, using logic like or, and, in B but not A, etc.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

Folk technology knowledge

[Related: The dangers of scoffing at new age cures]

John Gruber argued earlier this year that iOS users are foolish to force quit apps they're not using.

It was an emphatic, condescending, and sneering argument:

The single biggest misconception about iOS is that it’s good digital hygiene to force quit apps that you aren’t using. The idea is that apps in the background are locking up unnecessary RAM and consuming unnecessary CPU cycles, thus hurting performance and wasting battery life.

That’s not how iOS works. The iOS system is designed so that none of the above justifications for force quitting are true. Apps in the background are effectively “frozen”, severely limiting what they can do in the background and freeing up the RAM they were using. iOS is really, really good at this. It is so good at this that unfreezing a frozen app takes up way less CPU (and energy) than relaunching an app that had been force quit. Not only does force quitting your apps not help, it actually hurts. Your battery life will be worse and it will take much longer to switch apps if you force quit apps in the background.

Here’s a short and sweet answer from Craig Federighi, in response to an email from a customer asking if he force quits apps and whether doing so preserves battery life: “No and no.”

Just in case you don’t believe Apple’s senior vice president for software...

Let me pause to point out a glaring assumption here: Gruber is conflating the private beliefs and understanding of Apple’s senior vice president for software with the public statements of Apple’s senior vice president for software, and further, with the empathetic imagination of Apple’s senior vice president for software.

That is, I fully believe Craig Federighi. And knowing the complexities of technology, I believe that when anyone is answering a question like this, there's a range of possible answers and details. Craig Federighi's job, when asked questions by a tech reporter--even one who thinks he's above being told half-truths by the company he makes his living being close to--is emphatically not to let the conversation go into those rabbit holes. Believing him does not tell me whether his answer is fundamentally true, only that it's plausibly true.

Back to Gruber, ready with the deep sneering:

Like with any voodoo, there are die-hard believers. I’m quite certain that I am going to receive email from people who will swear up-and-down that emptying this list of used applications every hour or so keeps their iPhone running better than it would otherwise. Nonsense.

An awful lot of very hard work went into making iOS work like this...

And don’t even get me started on people who completely power down their iPhones while putting them back into their pockets or purses.

Let's start by pointing out that it is unquestionably correct for many people to power down their iPhones while putting them back into their pockets or purses to save power. Gruber knows this. But he's right that many people who do this don't know what a decent--imperfect, but decent--job iOS does of using little power while powered on with the screen off.

The question is tone. I suspect he's way overstating all of his points this way. And he shows you this, with sneaky footnotes that he can point to if people believe him too much:

Sometimes apps do use a bunch of battery in the background, and you're better off quitting them…
In his fine print he even tells you to go to battery settings to figure out which ones are the wasting your battery while running in the background.

Yes, Apple aggressively pushes most apps to obey its published API. But they also aggressively design efficient hardware to make CPU use less of a concern to app developers, and they promote large (and Apple-friendly) players who make clever, often undocumented use of battery-hogging features. Whether you are a brand they feel advances their business is their primary concern. The OS could be far more aggressive about not letting apps use up CPU/battery (and data) in the background.

And it's probably good that they're not more aggressive! They make an informed tradeoff. But when someone with an older phone and OS version comes into the genius bar and says their phone is too slow and uses battery too quickly, and the genius shows them how to force quit apps that run in the background, the genius is probably helping, not promoting a pernicious myth.

Which, again, Gruber knows. Apple's own writing about iOS settings happily points out that lots of apps can suck up battery all day long running in the background. iOS developers know all the crap some apps do in the background that you can't do if the app has been force quit. And yes, iOS users have learned they have to force quit Swarm or Twitter or Candy Crush or whatever to save battery.

I do think it's true that most people who habitually force quit apps regardless of having noticed anything about battery life, as though that's just part of universal smartphone hygiene, don't need to do so. (I offer that in the spirit of "genuine investigation".)

And of course, this week has brought more from the don't-believe-Apple-or-quasi-Apple-mouthpieces like-Gruber dept. It appears that Apple has been secretly forcing their devices' performance to degrade over time, and of course Gruber has a defense of the practice.

There is an explanation for this that it is at least plausible (downgrading CPU when voltage drops can keep the device from crashing unexpectedly), but I wonder what portion of the overall motivation is really explained by this. Note that it has been observed on multiple generations of iOS and plugged-in Mac devices, not just the buggy 6S running on battery.


But I'm not here to slay Gruber. My point is that we should look out for when a writer is in a mental place where he's trying to figure out what's true and describe it and make his best recommendation--let's call that "genuine investigation"--and when the motivation is something else.

And we should be open to knowledge coming in many forms--some from the top down, some from the ground up. As with medicine, folk technology knowledge has unearthed many truths that show, in retrospect, we were wise to ignore experts--particularly ones paid to obfuscate.

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Steven Pinker's critics don't realize he agrees with them

In Science, Michael Price ("Why human society isn’t more—or less—violent than in the past") summarizes recent papers that purport to refute Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Price echoes that point.

I disagree that these arguments contradict Pinker at all!

What Better Angels is most clear about is the thesis that violence has decreased with modernity. That point is not refuted by these abstracts, or their writeups.

And the secondary claim that large, stable societies are less violent is also not refuted.

What they do do is accept Pinker's argument implicitly and talk about a way of interpreting why it might be true.

That's an incredibly common pattern in science! As a paradigm becomes familiar and accepted, aspects of its founding assumptions get reexamined and reinterpreted. Why the various writers cast that as a refutation is a matter of guesswork--my guess is that it's good marketing for attention (a perfectly valid motivation).

Massimo Pigliucci (@mpigliucci) thinks that it also shows that Pinker "may be wrong about the causality".

But I disagree with that treatment of the term "causality". Better Angels is clear only on the historical trend, not on the causality (contra many of its critics, like Nassim Taleb, who suggest its argument is rigid), and suggests there may be interacting and dynamic forces at play.

These papers, as with Pinker, fundamentally only assert that less violent societies are less violent, that less violent societies tend to be more recent, that more recent societies tend to be bigger, that big societies tend to have extensive organization, etc.

Pinker's basic focus is on the constant need in ad hoc tribal societies for people to assert their potential for violence in order to defend themselves, vs. the lack of such need in modern large, liberal countries with business with their neighbors and presumption of security. The "scaling artifact" argument literally shows Pinker is correct about decreasing violence in society!

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The left's outrage is a barrier to achieving its goals

I think Jonathan Haidt's criticism of campus illiberalism is basically correct.

A Twitterer scoffed that denying a eugenicist funding to speak can't be compared to the racist-industral-political machine of death hard at work. And I basically agree.

But campus illiberalism doesn't have to be as big a threat as the rapacious racist right for it to be a block to curiosity and social justice. And it's much scarier than denying a eugenicist the opportunity for funded speech. There has been violence against plenty of people whom protesters don't know the identities of, who may themselves oppose these speakers' viewpoints. There's a very real threat of violence against anyone who just disagrees with the no-platforming itself. And the categories for condemnation are far beyond eugenics.

Are there people who would read my writing and no-platform me? Surround me and block my passage? I don't know. Do you? How confident are you that all the people who experience violence at the hands of leftist protesters on campuses are true enemies of the people? Are even most of them?

And is this shrillness creating more monsters than it stops? Look at Milo's transformation from a whiny video game reporter and awful poet to rightwing provocateur. Is his ability to speak to small gatherings of campus conservatives really a significant problem, as opposed to the prevalence of his views in the first place? Does a furious public response really do anything to solve that problem?

Also, as with many unhealthy movements, I think you can also argue that at its root, this illiberalism is a result of how correct the movement itself has been. That is, oppression has been so deeply messed up for so long in this country, it's not surprising that the forefront of stopping it is messed up too.

When capitalism creates astroturf and destructive plants, the real grassroots gets understandably paranoid about toeing the line.

One of Haidt's points that is being totally overlooked is that there are many voices on the left that are silenced by the demand for uniformity.

Much like in the 1960s, social justice movements form silencing power dynamics within them, and frame criticism of that as disloyalty.

The left itself becomes the biggest victim of this. Valuable Marxist analysis of social dynamics, such as analysis of the aspects of male power and socialization that can persist in trans women, can become anathema.

Some of the people I read who are most passionate about demanding that women's voices be heard are also the most passionate about silencing the voices of women on the left who are a few degrees away from them, eg TERFs (trans-excluding radical feminists).

One sign that these uncrossable lines are more about group solidarity than independently arriving at the same views: the way you frame something has a massive amount to do with whether it is rejected or accepted. Not to mention, obviously, that who expresses an idea has a massive amount to do with whether that idea is accepted or rejected.

Eg, the notion that attention should be given to the internalized sexism of trans women as a category can be seen either as progressive bedrock, or as wildly transphobic--suggesting that trans women's experience and identity as women be denied.

Refusing to allow a white child to dress as a black character, e.g. Cyborg, can either be seen as patently necessary to stop appropriation, or as the essence of racism itself, cementing inchoate and arbitrary social categories into permanent exclusivity and othering.

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Too many stories about privileged white people: an understandable complaint

I at least somewhat understand where people are coming from when they say variations on "I'm not interested in more stories about privileged white people" or "I just can't watch another show about rich white people's problems". (I have heard this recently in response to Ladybird, Pretty Little Lies, and Mrs. Maisel.)

White people, and especially privileged white people, are certainly not in aggregate need of more representation, more funding of our stories, and more audience for us as creators.

And the notion that there should be more stories about, and by, everyone else is absolutely right.

(Not to mention that I also have plenty of complaints about the narrow range of understanding and creativity in some of those shows/movies; eg, I thought PLL was unwatchably boring.)

And, I think it's a mistake to assume that stories can't have something universal to say, just because they're about privileged white people. (Not to mention how it's reductive to lump Ladybird in there.)

I think we can demand walls and ceilings in Hollywood and TV and everywhere come down, and we can say there's something wrong when so few women and people of color are allowed into the networks of mentorship, money, and power. And, we can be open to there being something valuable to humanity about telling the story of, say, rich Nicole Kidman's domestic abuse.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in answer to the question "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?" that Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus.

The problems of representation and access are deep. That makes the categorical complaint especially understandable.

But it's when complaints are most "understandable" that we should be the most alert to the doors they close in our imaginations.

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Friday, December 08, 2017

John Dvorak thinks Apple is preparing to ditch the Mac

In a purely speculative piece, John Dvorak wonders if "Apple Is Ready to Ditch the Mac".

He doesn't make his point convincingly, to me, but I think there's a good chance he's right.

I do think as a piece of the ecosystem that keeps users tied to Apple in general, the Mac is probably worth far more than its sales alone. But you can already see with the Mac Pro debacle that simply abandoning a segment of the market is close to being a smart move for Apple.

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Thursday, December 07, 2017

Did You Ask a Good Question Today?

I came across this excellent 1988 letter about the physicist Isador Rabi, from the NY Times, in which a reader retells a favorite anecdote of mine:
To the Editor:

Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel laureate in physics who died Jan. 11, was once asked, ''Why did you become a scientist, rather than a doctor or lawyer or businessman, like the other immigrant kids in your neighborhood?''

His answer has served as an inspiration for me as an educator, as a credo for my son during his schooling and should be framed on the walls of all the pedagogues, power brokers and politicians who purport to run our society.

The question was posed to Dr. Rabi by his friend and mine, Arthur Sackler, himself a multitalented genius, who, sadly, also passed away recently. Dr. Rabi's answer, as reported by Dr. Sackler, was profound: "My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: 'So? Did you learn anything today?' But not my mother. She always asked me a different question. 'Izzy,' she would say, 'did you ask a good question today?' That difference--asking good questions--made me become a scientist!"

This world of "Ready, Fire, Aim" would be a far better place if all the world's leaders, starting in particular with our President, hearkened to this wisdom. It's time to stop giving answers before we understand the questions.

New York
Jan. 12, 1988

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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Correct" writing is quaint

A friend sent me this warning about the fragility of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies generally.

Random observation: it's riddled with typos. That's not really a criticism, more of an observation. I wonder if, looking back, we'll think of "correct" writing being a delusion specific to a particular time. If it's more important to produce relevant content than to do costly and slow investigations, it's also more important to get a catchy (or smart) point across quickly than it is to spell or punctuate.

After all, the way we email and text each other is already the dominant form of writing, at least in English.

I'm an instinctual holdout and purist about writing correctly. I do think it's fine to selectively split infinitives, and start sentences with "but" and "and", but that's because I think they're correct.

I do wonder, though, if, like a veteran athlete decrying the inferiority of his young replacements, my conviction stems from the fact that it holds me superior.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Online courseware feature wish list

I'm teaching a (non-online) course in a few months, and I figure that as long as I'm preparing it, this is a good chance to try creating an online version.

Some features I'd like to have:

  1. Interface for students to formally submit deliverables (as opposed to just another forum)
  2. Forum where students can post questions and join discussion
  3. Ability to differentiate between students taking the class statically (can start whenever, no feedback) vs on a schedule (with others, with instructor feedback)
  4. Ability to livestream sessions
  5. Ability for students to comment on live sessions using text chat
  6. Ability for students to speak questions in live sessions using microphone
  7. Ability for students to screenshare to the group in a live session
  8. Ability for instructor to direct the audio and video that the group is seeing during live session
  9. Ability for instructor to control mouse and keyboard of a student temporarily, or to work in a shared environment during session
  10. Automatic transcription of recorded and live sessions (ideally human edited, but voice recognition alone is ok)
  11. Ability to form discussion sections by grouping students into subsets, in an organic way
  12. Ability to capture emails of students to be in touch with them independently of the courseware

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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Dragon NaturallySpeaking success

Words that Dragon NaturallySpeaking understands when I speak them, with no prior training:
  1. Boris Nemtsov (Soviet dissident)
  2. myofascial release
  3. Brechtian
  4. flibbertigibbet

Words that it does not have in its dictionary:

  1. compendium
  2. papal

Dragon sometimes uses context well, sometimes not so well:

He was the scion of a wealthy family [good]

As well as red green blue, another prominent color scheme is magenta, yellow, black, cyan [good]

She rejected cobalt and chose Psion instead for the sky [um, what?!]

But where it all falls apart is its understanding of single syllable words that stand apart from context. Trying to get it to apply caps can give me "Cast hello", "Caps hello", "HELLO", "H ello"...

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Silicon Valley doesn't understand what's actually hindering medicine

Pam Belluck has a piece in the NYTimes, First Digital Pill Approved to Worries About Biomedical ‘Big Brother'.

I was just thinking today about how much I don't buy this whole "non-compliance costs so much" analysis of medicine. 

I've seen a ton of doctors in the last 10 years, and I only wish medicine were at the point where it was being dispensed sagely and the main problem was patients not following recommendations. 

The types of things that get in the way are much more low-hanging fruit: doctors not paying attention, doctors who do the same exact thing no matter who walks in the door or what they say, doctors who see a patient for a less than 2 minutes, doctors not actually examining patients who report complex and specific symptoms, doctors failing to record any notes, doctors prescribing X-rays and more expensive scans and being vague or scribbly about which body part is supposed to be scanned and technicians getting it wrong, technicians casually asking patients questions at the last minute that determine thousands of dollars of scans or other care and which the patients aren't equipped to answer, doctors unknowingly prescribing medicines that the patient has already tried because the doctor never bothered to ask about them, doctors writing impossible to read instructions that make their staff shrug and guess, etc. Oh, and doctors lying about their own analysis, so casually that I don't think they realize they're lying. 

All of these have specifically happened to me. And I'm not seeing an especially bad assortment of doctors; that's just the state of our race-to-the-bottom medicine. I suspect this is how many or most doctor's visits work in the real world, at least in NYC/New England.

I've been prescribed tons of different things over the years, none of which, to my knowledge, helped me (ok, I do appreciate the pain relievers I had after surgery). Monitoring my compliance with these drugs would not have added any value. On the other hand, challenging doctors to have coherent reasons for their medical decisions, and challenging them to be up on medical literature and which medications are helping people with which symptoms, would have.

I'm not saying I'm a typical patient, and I know there's plenty of Dotty old folks who must drive doctors crazy with their refusal to reliably take life-saving drugs. But when I read this sort of technocratic, Silicon Valley take on medicine, I feel like it bears no resemblance to the actual medicinal practice I see.

A friend responds:
I agree that medicine as it is is still way more imprecise than we tend to believe.

It's definitely in line to be destroyed by big data/machine learning soon, it will happen in no time in fields like radiology.

Sorry but that's exactly the attitude I think is wrong!

The idea that machine learning can revolutionize medicine assumes that it's a problem like voice recognition or driving -- a matter of taking a narrow task and incrementally improving until you surpass human performance. There are tricky questions about whether AI in those domains can get from 95% of the quality of a sophisticated human performer to 100%+, but presumably they'll get there fairly soon, because 99.9% of the information they need to make the correct decisions is available to them within discrete parameters, and able to be fully backtested.

Instead, I think medicine is more like op/ed writing: you can be extremely knowledgeable and still produce worthless work, by failing to understand the nature of the problem. What's the set of information you need to provide to a piece of software for it to write an intellectually curious opinion piece on a particular topic? I really don't even begin to know.

If you take a fairly narrow domain like discerning the potential of a tumor to be malignant, I grant that machine learning *assistance* is very likely to be capable of helping inform better human judgment. But even there, the constraints of the technology may occlude as much as they illuminate. To even choose to use a given piece of software is to accept, however provisionally, that its preexisting discrete domain is relevant. I think that is very likely to guide away from correct analysis in many cases.

Just look at all of the studies that find bias in doctors' diagnoses: if having competing doctors in your specialty nearby can make you prescribe more expensive procedures, or if being taken on a junket can make you prescribe the sponsor's medication more, or if you're a researcher and your lab is able to transcend a double-blind to produce results that make a splash but can't be replicated, just think what it will do to quality of care to have a set of domain specific diagnosis bots at your disposal. You may even be ordered by insurance companies or your hospital to use them and to abide by their judgment.

The x-ray technicians who began to take an x-ray of my ribs were operating perfectly correctly given their input: they were told by their front desk that my doctor had ordered an x-ray of my ribs, when he had ordered an x-ray of my *wrist*. Put aside the obvious fact that this particular problem is not the kind of problem it's likely for a computer to make; my point is that they were wrong to trust their input, and should have been following procedures to ensure quality in ways that question their input itself. That's completely routine for a well-functioning, intelligent human. But it's a total mess for fragile performers like doctors and AI.

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Friday, November 10, 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Last week Alice and I saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the latest film by Yorgos Lanthimos, writer/director of Dogtooth and The Lobster.

It's very difficult to recommend this movie because it was one of the most uncomfortable movies to watch I've ever seen. And it didn't have the playful aspects of The Lobster (although there were some moments when I laughed out loud). It's much more similar to Dogtooth in theme and tone, and also to several of Michael Haneke's films, particularly the great Funny Games and Caché. I thought it was brilliant, and I think Alice did too.

Spoilers ahead.

Discussing it afterwards, we talked about its magical aspects. I recently saw The Witch, which was disappointing. The magic in The Killing of a Sacred Deer felt so much more organic; it was as though one character's pain was so intense that it tore a hole in the rules that normally govern our world. The scenario was absurd, but as in absurdist theater like Ionesco's "Jeux de Massacre", it was absurd in the manner of being somehow truer than true.

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Grim Fandango tips

Grim Fandango, often included on lists of the best videogames of all time, was recently remastered and rereleased for multiple platforms including the Mac. It's a classic of the "point-and-click adventure" genre, with a very well done Day of the Dead theme.

I loved the game, and I got stuck a lot of times in ways that I felt were really rewarding to figure out, but a dozen or so of the places I got stuck ultimately felt like the solution was a little bit too obscure to be fun. That's always true of this genre; the frustration can be rewarding, but sometimes the puzzles aren't quite calibrated right.

So as I played and figured everything out, I kept a running list of things I wish I had been told before I played. They're sort of hints, but designed not to interfere with the fun of figuring things out. I was careful not to spoil anything.

  1. Some doors have a separate deadbolt lock and wheel to open them.
  2. You can put multiple things in the same container, dish or bowl.
  3. When you have no idea where to go, a sign really helps.
  4. If there's someone you've spoken to already who could help you in a new way, go back and ask them.
  5. Keep talking to your friends from time to time.
  6. There are a few elaborate devices/situations/places that seem they must play a core role, but don't.
  7. The forklift is annoyingly precise; right is better than left.
  8. It sounds stupid, but open doors can be very distracting to people who are trying to concentrate.
  9. Metal detectors can sense metal in odd places, no matter how it got in there.
  10. Things that rattle suspiciously should be reported to the proper authorities.
  11. If you can’t get someone’s attention, maybe you need to be closer at the moment you talk to them.
  12. Dwell at important places and make sure to investigate every area you can touch. Crucial points, like fulcrums and joints, are especially sensitive.
  13. Notice little clues the game gives you; don’t assume it’s just being cute.
  14. If a character is present, remember the type of function they play.
  15. When stuck in a room, make sure you’ve identified everything touchable there. Sometimes your eyes need to do the detective work.