Saturday, October 14, 2017

If I can someday reach one person...

I heard an interview with a guy from an organization called the Proud Boys. In the most charitable words, they want to promote "traditional family values" or something - where men earn the bacon and women take care of cooking and cleaning. (Plus a bunch of other beliefs I won't go into.) They insist they're not "alt right" because they're not into white supremacy; whatever, alt-right or not, let's just focus on the gender thing so I don't mischaracterize their beliefs.

The guy tells the story of when he started coming up with this idea of starting this organization. It started when he got passed over for a job. The job ended up going to, in his words, a woman who was less qualified than he was. He started thinking "This is political correctness run amok!", found other like-minded people, and started this group.

(That google guy who was recently in the news for manifestoing about how "maybe women are just worse at computers" seems like he'd have a lot to agree with this guy on.)

Most of you probably disagree with this guy; this post isn't for you. (and if you know me well, I might be embarrassed if you keep reading!) This post is out there just in case I might reach the one reader who sympathizes with that guy. I feel very qualified to write it because I could have become this guy.

Why:
When I applied to colleges, I was one of the mathiest computeriest people I knew, got basically perfect grades and test scores, did a reasonable amount of extracurriculars and stuff. To be concrete: HS valedictorian at one of the best high schools in Cleveland, 1600 SAT, 36 ACT, won a bunch of math competitions, co-president of very active Circus Company doing literally hundreds of volunteer shows, active in marching band, academic challenge/quiz bowl, various other things. I was the first student at my school to take college classes during high school, at nearby Case Western Reserve University. I feel self-conscious even bringing it all up, because maybe it's bragging, but I want to make the point. I thought I was Hot Shit, and had relatively non-BS reasons to think so.

(ok, definitely bragging. hopefully at least I'm avoiding humblebragging! whatever, it's 18-year-old me, we're barely even the same person.)

I applied to 7 universities, based mostly on "well, I dunno, I'm good at math and science, and I can go anywhere!": MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Michigan, and Case. I was surprised to get rejected from MIT, Stanford, and Princeton.

One thing that crossed my mind was, I bet there's a bunch of affirmative action candidates who got in. I'm a white guy from the suburbs, the deck's stacked against me! I couldn't think of any other reason that I wouldn't have gotten in to all these schools. At the time, I eventually just ignored it, but I could have gotten pretty deep into that mindset if I'd had certain friends and/or online communities.

In retrospect, there are so many other ways I could have looked at it:

1. I wasn't actually that great:

1.1. Maybe being the Math Guy from Cleveland isn't good enough. If you're MIT, you can accept, what, 2000 students from around the world? I wasn't probably even the best in Ohio; I thought I was in the top 2000 in the world, but maybe not. When you shift from a local to a global scale like that, your old assumptions (like "I'm the best!") might not hold anymore.

1.2. Maybe I wasn't playing the right game, because I focused on the wrong things. You've probably heard stories about the students who have proved some new theorem by the time they're 12, or won international violin competitions, or something, while getting 3.8 GPAs. Maybe I'd have gotten into more colleges if I'd gotten world class at, I dunno, discus throwing, instead of squeezing out the last fractions of GPA points or SAT scores.

1.3. Maybe I wasn't playing the right game, and it's _not_ my fault. You've probably seen those studies about how mixed-gender groups tend to work better together than all-male or all-female groups. If college admissions officers are trying to accept the best overall class of 2000, instead of the best 2000 individuals, they might be 100% correct to accept a woman with an IQ of 140 over a man with 145. (This is especially relevant when we're talking about jobs, but probably works for colleges too.)

1.4. Maybe I was great by yesterday's standards. Let's say everyone's intelligence is normally distributed around 5. Maybe I was an 8; in the old days, stuff like colleges was more open to white men, so being an 8/10 white man was good enough to get you in to MIT, while women had to be a 10/10. Nowadays, if these schools are striving to be equal, then men and women would have to both be a 9/10, and I missed the cut. It feels unfair, because 30 years ago, I would have gotten in, but maybe it's actually becoming more fair.

2. Noise:

2.1. Maybe it's all a random game, and I lost a few. This is probably the closest to the truth. College admissions, like job applications, have so much random noise built into them that you've got to play the numbers game even if you're the perfect candidate. This should make you feel better: it's not that there's anything wrong with you, it's just that this is hard for everyone. If you get rejected from anything, don't take it as evidence of some grand conspiracy, because it's probably noise.

2.2. I shouldn't worry, I'll be fine anyway. Carnegie Mellon's a very fine school, and just having that name on my diplomas has opened every door I can imagine. This may be no large comfort to you; you might not be sure that you'll be fine anyway, but try the feeling on for size. Or, just wait a few months, don't make any rash decisions, and see if you're fine then. Sometimes luck will screw you; instead of wasting time worrying about "why couldn't I have rolled 6 on that die?" try instead to ask "huh, I rolled 5, is that ok?" You'll be much happier.

3. I was looking at the wrong oppressor:

3.1. Yeah, the deck was stacked against me, but from the top, not the bottom. Legacy candidates (children of alumni) are wayyy more overrepresented than "affirmative action candidates." It's hard to tell who's the "affirmative action candidate," because nobody keeps statistics on this (indeed, nobody would ever say "we admitted ____ because they're black, even though they're not as smart as that white guy"), but they certainly keep track of legacy candidates, and the numbers are pretty nuts. Look into it.

3.2. I was tempted to introduce one more paragraph saying something like "well, look how it feels! women got oppressed for 1000000000 years, now it's happening to you, deal with it!"... but I don't believe that leads to a productive conversation. It's a punitive or retaliatory framing, and I don't think we should start looking for more ways to discriminate against men punitively. Like you, I want a situation where men and women have an equal chance at the same job. (We may differ on how we want to get there, but let's save that for another time.) More importantly, look at who's got power now, and look at how they may be using it. It's more likely to be someone above you pushing you down than someone below you climbing over you.


In summary, if you find yourself in that Proud Boy's situation, I feel you. It doesn't mean you're bad to be thinking that. But it also doesn't mean you're right. Try wondering if maybe you're not that great, if maybe it's randomness, or if maybe you're looking down for oppressors when it's more accurate to look up. I'd be happy to talk with you about it, nonjudgmentally; reach out to me.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Things we will need more of in my lifetime: housing and therapists

Housing: recent Econ Talk about it. Housing's an issue here in SF, of course, but also throughout the country. Name a wealthy, in-demand city, and I'll rattle off some insane housing prices there for you. Hahaha, housing is crazy, haha.

But this is a big problem.
- it's better for everyone if more people live in cities: environmentally, economically, socially. You meet different people. This makes you do better work, create more wealth, and also get less xenophobic. If cities are inaccessible, we'll burn more greenhouse gases per capita and harden into our little social bubbles more.
- inaccessible cities widen the "coastal elites" gap. Imagine you live in, say, rural PA, you're smart and stuff, and you think about moving to NYC. But the costs of everything (especially housing) are so high it doesn't even make sense to start thinking about it unless you fancy selling a kidney and living in a phone booth. I'm sure there are a ton of rural people who would think about moving into the city if it didn't seem so Charles Dickens or Mad Max. The people who are making it there must seem so out of this world and out of touch. Thus, "coastal elites."

This is tricky, because I generally do believe in markets. I guess my working hypothesis is, the markets for housing in cities are generally pretty broken. Here in SF it takes like 6 years to get through all the approvals and stuff, which leads to artificially restricted supply, which leads to sky-high prices. If we didn't have large swaths of the city zoned for single family houses, we'd get more developers building big towers to meet the skyrocketing demand.

Therapists: I've got to think probably 95% of mass murderers would chill the F out if they just had someone to talk to. And as technology keeps increasing the number of harm one unhinged person can do, well... ideally we should pour resources into helping people not become unhinged. (Talking about not only gun sprees, but also stuff like frustrated nerds becoming "alt right" fanboys.)

Camping logging

I mean, logging that I went camping, not that I went camping and also cutting down trees.

It was fun! Here are some photos. The place we camped was Big Trees campground in Inyo National Forest near Bishop, CA. We hiked to Bishop Pass, which was super cool. Note to my future self: this was a 10 mile hike with 2800 feet of elevation gain. We also walked around near Sabrina Lake which was not quite as dramatic but also nice. It was down to ~36 degrees at night, which felt very very cold, and up to about 70 in the day, which felt pretty warm in the sun. Really, the daytime was perfect; at night, we huddled around the campfire a lot. No mosquitos, at least. Saw the Milky Way! At least, until the moon came up.

I should mention that the last time I went camping was in the Trinity Alps, specifically up and down the Canyon Creek trail. Here are some photos of that. I don't remember temperatures there, but that was about 16 miles with about 2600 feet elevation. (We did it over 2 days. We were backpacking though too.)

The reason this is so Spock-like is that I want to get a well-calibrated sense of the numbers involved, so when someone says "10 miles and 2800 feet" I know what that feels like.

Incidentally, it is interesting that I spend a lot of time worrying about my feelings in relation to the outdoors. I want to enjoy it. Like, I do, on the whole, but there's a lot of moments of "uggh I am uncomfortable, why'd I come out here." And I don't know that I'm open and aware enough to have these really transcendent experiences like a Thoreau or something. Just, yeah, there are a lot of good moments and a lot of bad ones; you're optimizing for your remembered self; suffering together is a great way to deepen friendships; you get good exercise, anyway; inoculating yourself with the occasional discomfort is a good way to keep active the muscle of tolerating discomfort. I'm sure there are other good reasons too.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Argh trolley problem

An old Radiolab about the Trolley Problem and they did brain scans and stuff, and it proves that people have an innate morality! they're unwilling to kill a person with their bare hands, because it lights up a different part of the brain! they're no longer doing a rational calculus, they're using instincts honed over millennia!

My counterhypothesis to basically all trolley probleming: look, the reason that people will flip a lever but not push a fat guy off a bridge is about certainty. If you somehow knew for sure that the falling fat guy would divert the train, and if it were common knowledge that the fat guy would divert the train, wayyy more people would go for it. But you give me those two scenarios, and in the second one I've got to make a bet that the fat guy will divert the train and I'm not just killing a guy for nothing. Even if you tell me, yeah, the fat guy will definitely block the train, it doesn't feel like it, because I've never experienced a situation where I could know for sure that this fat guy that I'm killing will divert a train.

Here's another thought experiment: I've got a dish of wonderful ice cream! Would you eat it? Sure.
Ok, now I've got a dish of wonderful ice cream that looks like dog turds! I promise it's delicious, really! Would you eat it? We have no prior experience for this kind of thing - I've never seen a dog turd that actually turned out to be ice cream. Plus, the risk is asymmetric. If you don't eat the ice cream, you lose on just eating ice cream; if you do eat it and it turns to be that 1% of the time where I'm a liar, ugh.

(The people running these studies have probably considered and accounted for this. At least, I hope so.)

Note, though, that all our hand-wringing about the trolley problem, especially as it relates to self-driving cars, is likely a waste of time. Nobody's gonna program in "save the passengers first!" or "be utilitarian!" - the car's going to decide based on whatever combination of 10,000 algorithms it's got built in, and we've got to hope that it does the right thing. And the right thing will 99.99999% of the time be "slam on the brakes."

Sunday, September 10, 2017

What is this new humor genre that I love? "Generative surreal"?

Things I like a lot:
- All of Janelle Shane's work with neural networks (paint colors, D&D spells, beer varieties - if you read about it and it was a funny NN thing it's probably her)
- Rick and Morty S02E04 - Total Rickall - in which they introduce a ton of absurd characters. Also S01E08 - Rixty Minutes, in which they watch a ton of interdimensional TV shows
- my own nonsense
- oh including Swot Perderder of course
- weird twitter (my carefully curated list so far)
RoboRosewater, a twitter bot that makes magic cards
- drilmagic, aka weird twitter meets magic cards
- a handful of new-to-me subreddits including r/hmmmr/bonehurtingjuicer/surrealmemes
- Ken M
- The second funny number. Three is the first funny number - jokes always come in lists of three, where #3 is the punchline. Four is too many; the rhythm's off. But if you keep on going past four, five, eventually you get to either 8 or 10 and then it's funny again.

Some characteristics that I like:
- the sense that you're inhabiting a vast world that we're just seeing the corner of.
- humility. Whenever anything/anyone reveals that they think they're funny, they stop being funny.
- relatedly, willingness to throw away anything because you're not so tied to your One Great Creation
- intuition. Jokes that go on to the second funny number are funny because they're not scripted. You've got your #1-3 scripted, maybe your 4 and 5 are semi-canned, but by the time you get to 8 or 10 you're spitting out really raw, mostly-unfiltered ideas.
- some kind of cultivated randomness. And this is always hard because often "randomness" means a really artless, naive form of humor that computer science major freshmen seem to find appealing? And as the comic illustrates, real randomness would be nonsense. I guess what I'm looking for is more like the deep dream puppyslugs (warning: creepy); starting with noise, amplifying human feature recognizers until you get to something coherent enough.

So I want to call this something. Something like "generative surreal" or "generative intuitive." I don't think I can actually define it, scope out its borders, decide all the edge cases, well enough to give it a name. But if I could give it a name, I could start shooting for it, and this is the kind of humor I would like to make.

Relatedly:
- I may have mentioned at some point something about The Cleaners. They are the best example I can think of of the "sense that you're inhabiting a vast world": the one character mentions them as if of course you know who The Cleaners are, they come through and the characters narrowly escape, and we never hear anything about them again.
- Twin Peaks does this well (e.g. the Room Above the Convenience Store; warning: also creepy)
- HP Lovecraft seems like the "sense you're inhabiting a vast world" but for horror. (obligatory disclaimer that also he was hella racist and that's not cool?)
- I guess of course the surrealists in art come close to this, which is why I'm ok with using that term. I guess if I talked to Dali or Magritte and they were like "I've got this great meaning that I was trying to express by the ghost of Vermeer which can be used as a table or the train in the fireplace" I'd say "nah." If they were unable to explain their stuff, I'd be into it more.
- Also relevant art world: The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Things I've learned, part N: sometimes things are complicated

Particularly, when someone tries to tell you a thing that seems complicated is actually simple, be wary.

This happens in TED talks, Malcolm Gladwell books, and all sorts of other pop science fluff. "We thought that teaching kids/building livable cities/addiction/etc was very difficult, but then we found this one weird factor that explains 90% of everything!" See also: diets, politics.

It's not always wrong. I guess we used to think scurvy was complicated, then we kinda accidentally discovered Vitamin C. But nowadays we've solved most of the simple problems, and so anything that's still around is probably complex. "X is actually simple" is usually wrong, and seductively so: it's kind of terrifying to deal with a ridiculously complicated world, so of course we're always looking for ways to simplify it.

I don't remember what prompted this in particular, but it does come up a lot. Maybe something political? "Immigrants are taking our jobs" is a popular one. So is "Obama was bad because X, therefore everything he did was also bad." (or even "Trump is bad, therefore..." - though most things he's done have been bad :-/ )

Sunday, August 13, 2017

I want to be a Mechanical Turk activist.

(Amazon Mechanical Turk)

By this I mean, I want someone else to be able to call me up and say "call City Supervisor X and say 'I support Bill Y'", and then I do it. I don't want to have to watch all the bills coming in, find the ones that I support, research their backstory, learn what they really mean, and finally make one call. That's hours of work for one call. I want to spend one minute for one call. Or one hour for one showing-up-at-local-planning-meeting. I spend my whole working life doing research, I don't have mental energy to research a bunch of political things every week too.

This seems obvious, but it also seems very hard to do. There are mailing lists, but it's hard to get on the right mailing list (that will send you direct calls to action, and only direct calls to action). I'm on a couple: Indivisible and the SF YIMBY party seem pretty good at this. Make this kind of mailing list, and I will beat a path to your door.

(A step even further/better would be if I could delegate my voice. I want to be able to join the SF Bike Coalition, say, and whenever the SF Bike Coalition supports Thing X, they can automatically count me with them. I guess they get this a little bit by having big membership rolls, but I want to make a stronger kind of membership: "I explicitly agree with everything y'all do and say." (Ideally this comes with a weekly reminder email or something, so I can withdraw my voice-delegation if the organization starts to go off the rails.))

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The consumer experience of capitalism in other spheres

(or maybe I should say "neoliberalism" to get more clicks :P)

Ok, super-extreme capitalism seems to say, markets will solve everything, because we are all rational self-interested people and we'll choose things that are the best for us. If someone is offering something that is not the best, they will go out of business. That is usually pretty good. It lets us get cheap bananas.

Now there are a lot of externalities that go into getting those cheap bananas, which is usually the drum I bang on, but I'm not going to get into that here. Instead, what I'm focusing on here is the consumer experience of capitalism.

I just sort of assume that bananas work in a store-ish fashion. Like, I go to the store, I can see the price of bananas, I can basically see how good they look, and I can make the best choice. I know what I'm getting. (If I don't - like, if the bananas later turn out to be rotten, or if they tell me a different price at the register, etc, then I just don't buy bananas from them again, and they eventually lose.)

We assume this with choices of our time too. For the most part, we know what we're getting if we spend our free time in a park, at a coffeeshop, at a bar, playing a board game, whatever. We pretty much know the

I'm trying to be a little more active of an activist, too. But that is tricky, because it's usually not like a store, in that I don't know what I'm getting for my time. I could phone bank all day and get 0 more votes. I could go to a meeting to organize a meeting to organize a meeting for something, and it might not ever help anything.

So I guess I've got to categorical-imperative it a little bit - just effin' do it, because it's a good thing to do. Or maybe rely on social pressures- make some friends who are into something activisty, and then do it to hang out with them, and by the way we got some votes.

Maybe some people want to want X, more than they want X.

where X = a Ferrari or a beach vacation or whatever else

thinking about this after seeing an ad for a vacation package at a beach resort somewhere and thinking, geez, that would just be terrible. Now, of course, I like beaches less than the next guy, but I don't even think I'd want to win a ski vacation package, say.
(eh, maybe. I mean, I'd take it. But I'm not really jonesing for it.)

Thinking about this too after having a couple of free days in between things recently, and thinking "gosh, I've actually cleaned up the ol' to-do list. It's done. I've completed everything. Now I get to do... what?" It's just a day here and there, so I couldn't make a big plan, but even so, I sort of frittered them away doing a bunch of small things. It would be really nice if I could just say "I've won it! Some free days! Now I get to spend them having The Best Time!" Similarly with money. "I got some money - now I can have The Best Time!"

It's an antiquated notion, maybe, from a time when you never even had enough time or money. If you were in the 30s or 40s, you'd be trying to scrape by or not die in a war; you didn't have time to think about what you'd do after you made it, and you might just assume "it'll all be good then, I'll buy The Best Life." But it turns out, being a human and figuring out what "feelings-you" actually wants is complicated, even after you've made it.

Anyway, I want to want a Ferrari. That'd be nice and simple.