Thursday, 22 September 2016

It Frequently comes down to Bayes

Let's say I throw a coin giving you a 75% probability that it will come up heads. There are two different interpretations of this number. A frequentist imagines that I'm saying that if my coin-throw experiment were to be repeated a large enough number of times, roughly 75% of those times the coin would come up heads. A Bayesian would interpret my probability estimate as an expression of my strength of belief that the coin will come up heads and would assume I should be willing to give anything better than 3 to 1 odds on a bet.

When I first learned about this, I couldn't really see a difference between the two interpretations, at least not a difference that seemed to make a difference. I assumed that the schism between Bayesian and frequentist statisticians was some arcane conflict within the field of statistics, likely driven by purely cultural and historical factors that don't really have a strong bearing on the science.

I've come to change my mind about this. I now believe that the difference between Bayesians and frequentists reflects a deep difference in how people think about the world and about what they think is the role of science within the world.

One of the large differences between a Bayesian and frequentist is they evaluate hypotheses. A Bayesian will start from a prior probability that the hypothesis is true, which represents his initial belief in the hypothesis before looking at evidence. The process of finding a prior can be systematic, but must at some point bottom out in guesswork. Frequentists on the other hand avoid priors by using null hypothesis and p-values. Where a Bayesian will attempt to explicitly compute a probability for a hypothesis under consideration (a process which requires priors), frequentists instead compute the probability that an appropriately chosen null hypothesis (representing something like the "opposite" of the hypothesis) would produce the observed data. If this probability is small enough, the null hypothesis is rejected which is counted as evidence in favor of the hypothesis. If either the null hypothesis or the hypothesis are true, then p-values is simply 1 minus the probability that the hypothesis is true. This is often not the case though.

To be continued...

Saturday, 10 September 2016

I vs S

One of my favorite random tidbits of information on the internet is how your preference for analysis or algebra (assuming you have one) may predict how you eat your corn. Algebraists tend to follow the patterns inherent in mathematical structures and - so goes the theory - also tend to follow the structure of the corn while eating, which means that they eat in neat, typewriter-style rows. Analysts don't care turn the corn while eating, which is arguably more efficient.

Being the pattern-obsessed, algebra-loving, typewriter-style corn eater that I am, I think this observation can be explained in terms of the perception axis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator:  Intuition vs Sensing,  which reflects your preference patterns vs ground-level data. The MBTI is a typology based on Jungian psychology. It's not as reputable as the Big Five and seems to be more popular in self-help and business circles rather than academic ones, but at least intuitively (hah!) I feel that it captures an important distinction between how people think and what they pay attention to.

Only about 30% of the population are I types. I don't know if IQ has any bearing on the distribution, but I would guess that the percentage of smart I people is also at most around a third. I think because of this imbalance, quite a lot of S folks can get away with not taking I-style cognition seriously. In system-builder style professions, I think that Is who can keep their propensity for generalization in check have an edge, unless the time horizon for measuring success is short.

As I gain more professional experience, I find that my I-type skills turn out to be my most valuable strengths, primarily because there is a real need for them in my field and they are relatively scarce. It can be tricky though to find a work environment where such skills are both needed and appreciated.

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Real lives are stake, this is no time for abstract thought!

Here's an archetype of a conversation I've had in variations throughout my life:

Friend: I believe X is the right thing to do so we can all be happy. 
Me: Ok, but what if X were a Y, or if the situation was Z? Or what if the people you disagree with were advocating a minor variation of X, would you still agree? 
Friend: I distrust and am personally insulted by your attempts at analysis. You sound like one of those people who doesn't want others to be happy. 
Me: No, no, no. I like the happiness part, I'm just not sure about your specific suggestion of X. I'm simultaneously trying to find out why you think X will be effective and trying to relate X to a universal moral framework to ensure that doing X would be fair.
Friend: Real lives are stake, this is no time for abstract thought!

I'm fascinated (in the car crash sense) when people reject analysis because of the real that can't be captured by analysis. I mean it's a fair enough point that experience is richer than the symbolic, but if not for concepts, how are you going to talk about the real, and if you're using concepts anyway, wouldn't it be better if they were marginally consistent?

Of course the tumblr activism take is that consistency is just The Man's way of trying to oppress you and demands for logic and argument are really just expressions of power by the privileged within a system of deep seated and invisible oppression. Even if we were to grant that point, what's the answer? Abandoning logic to give completely free reign to your biases? Creating a new system not based on logic that nobody has thought of but works much better on a modern scale? Please try that over there and if I don't see ominous smoke clouds within a year, I may go check it out.

While I don't want to overinflate the importance of tumblr activism, it is useful in that it expresses a common tendency that many people share to some extent in unusual clarity. I'd like to dig deeper into that in future posts.


Saturday, 30 July 2016

Coalition building across ideological octaves

I think one of the problems in political discourse is that we have a tendency to oversimplify complex issues by mapping a wide variety of disparate viewpoints onto a small number of political factions.

I think this the result of our tendency to be tribal creatures first and rational creatures second. The primary distinction is whether you're in my in-group or my out-group. Rational discourse is secondary and also optional. Especially in political interactions, people will generally scrutinize you for tribal markers to find out if you're one of the Good People. This may take precedence over other concerns, such as trying to accurately understand your point of view.

Expressing political ideas serves as a flag that signal group affiliation in addition to being a contribution to public discourse. People may emphasize these functions differently. A lot of politicking revolves around strategically choosing where to plant your flag keeping in mind how other coalitions will react to you. For example, if your coalition is unpopular, you may choose to rally around an idea that most people will agree with. This forces your opponents to deny the stance, which goes some way towards delegitimizing them. Alternatively, if your cause is generally viewed as just, you may choose a slightly unreasonable idea as a flag, so you can more easily identify and target people that sway from the orthodoxy. (I think this is one of the reasons why social justice and nerds often don't mix.)

In some cases, the same flag can match coalitions that don't fundamentally have much in common, but that come to the similar conclusions on highly visible issues. For a group, this creates the choice of whether to explicitly distance itself from nearby groups at the cost of losing coherence and visibility in public discourse, or to risk being associated with those groups.

I think an example of this can be found in libertarianism, where very different motivations can lead one to argue libertarian viewpoints, but the general public generally sees a large ideological blob. One the one hand, libertarian ideas derive from a position that seeks freedom from coercion, a classical liberal project that aims to establish a society is held together by win-win cooperation and only resorts to coercive methods in extreme cases. Such a viewpoint is compatible with welfarist ideas as long as they have an opt-in component. As an example, one may imagine a libertarian charter city that uses European style welfare models, but where people are free to leave, limited only by contractual obligations they explicitly agreed to. On the other hand, libertarianism can also be an expression of the concrete desire to abolish existing coordination mechanisms and sharing arrangements. These two kinds of libertarianism, one which seeks to rebuild a strongly cooperative society on the basis of non-coercion and the other which would prefer to see society reshaped along less cooperative and more individualistically competitive lines, are very different in nature, yet look a lot alike when seen from outside.

I think a similar thing is happening with neoreaction and the alt-right. Neoreaction could be a post-post modernist rediscovery of order and structure that is informed by both the failures of naive, rigid modernism and the self-serving and dangerously ineffectual dispersions of post-modernism. The alt-right on the other hand is a more old-school nationalist or ethnocentric movement. From the outside they sure look a lot alike.

Blog - Reactivate

I've decided to try and reanimate this blog.

I've been meaning to put my writing into a more organized and less transient format than Facebook rants and reddit comments. Given the sheer amount of written content I've produced online, I find it surprisingly hard to sit down and write something that is not in reply to someone else, so I'm going to take it easy and try to start out with 200 words a week.

Since I'm too lazy to find a new name for a blog, I've decided to reactivate this old blog of mine (which, amazingly, 40000 people have visited in the meantime). The content will be different though, instead of torrenting tips, you will find my armchair musings on topics such as technology, futurism, consciousness, spirituality, game theory, video games, politics and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Buy steam games from abroad

I recently had trouble buying games on steam while traveling. The problem was that steam would automatically redirect me to the European store, where I was unable to buy games using my UK steam account.

I contacted support and they replied by giving me this link, which takes you directly to the UK steam store.

I assume that you can switch out "GB" with a different country code to go to different county's steam stores.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Lion Mail 5.0 can't send e-mails through Gmail SMTP

I just had the following problem: Whenever I would send a mail in Mail 5.0 it would go straight to outbox and stay there forever without being sent.

Every once in a while a message popped up asking me to reauthenticate with my password, but doing so did no good. The connection monitor (found in the menu "Window") showed mail trying to connect to the gmail smtp server for long periods of time, but without success.

I finally resolved it by forcing the port for the SMTP server connection to be 587 as is suggested here.