The third post in my Blogging for the Holidays series: Grappling with Statistics. Hopefully not so heavy…
We ask a lot of the human brain these days. For a species that evolved on the savannah of Africa, hunting and gathering in small social groups, we’re now a population of 8 billion people living and working together, tackling ever large and more complex problems. Through application of our incredible minds, unmatched in the rest of the natural world, we’ve managed to spread to every corner of the planet, plumbed the depths of the earth, dived to the bottoms of the oceans, and extended our reach into the solar system.
And yet, through it all, we find ourselves grappling with ideas that seems beyond the reach of our comprehension.
Let’s try a little Stoic exercise. First, visualize yourself from above in the room you’re sitting in now. Next, pull back, and try to visualize your home and your position in it. Now pull back again, visualizing the block on which your house sits. And again, but your quadrant of the city. Now the city itself.
Now consider how quickly you lose the ability to truly reason about size and distance. For me, beyond my local neighbourhood, I start to lose a sense of scale. When just thinking about my city, I can only picture my position on the map because of how often I’ve punched my address into a GPS.
Next imagine the scale of your country or the planet. Already we’re beyond the reach of the human mind to reason. Instead, we have to rely on relatable metaphors that connect our ground truths to these types of scales.
And the solar system? Our galaxy? Good luck. The universe? Impossible!
The same can be said of many concepts. I’ve long believed that the inability for humanity to truly rally together to address climate change is, to a great degree, a consequence of the inability of the human mind to truly understand the magnitude of aggregate human impact on the planet, or the timescales over which we’re changing it. Humanity itself has gotten so large that our collective behaviour is beyond our intuition.
Probability and statistics are another example of this phenomenon. The human mind is simply not wired to think in these terms–I suspect this is one of the many reasons why Dr. Richard Feynman is famously quoted as saying “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”
Now, in the past, we mostly led our lives without spending a lot of time thinking about statistics. Rather, we’d use our intuition to make what we believed were sensible decisions every day; intuition that was often very wrong! But in the end, given the localized impacts of these decisions, that they were based on faulty reasoning didn’t matter all that much.
But, of course, the pandemic has upended things, turning normal uncertainty into life-or-death decision making. And we’re just not wired for it.Continue reading...
Social media algorithms care only that you’re engaged. They exist to advertise. Everything else is a side-effect. RSS lets you ditch the machine and build your own feed from trusted sources.
Quite a few years ago, for personal reasons, I decided to drop out of major social media platforms. This was just at the time when those platforms truly started to take over the world, so the whole thing more or less passed me by as I watched from the sidelines. As a result, it wasn’t until very recently that I came to appreciate just how much these platforms have become the primary way that people run across content online.
Of course, this really shouldn’t be surprising. Once upon a time, the internet was made up of an untold number of websites, big and small. And this posed a real problem of content discovery. Sure, we managed. We managed with search engines, and bookmarks, and web portals, and other ad hoc technologies. But it was a huge pain.
Today, this same kind of content discovery is done on social media platforms, with content pushed to the consumer by machine learning algorithms that optimize for “engagement”, which is a technical term for “time spent on the service”.
On its face this would seem like a good thing! After all, if you’re engaged, that must mean you’re delighted by what you see!
But the reality is a lot more complicated. Yes, certainly the things that delight us will keep us engaged. But so do the things that make us outraged, or offended, or jealous. And the algorithm can’t tell the difference. So whether you’re clicking on a link because you want to see a picture of a large cat in a small box, or you want to read an outrageous article about how the world is really flat, it’s all the same to the machine.
The result is an algorithmic filter bubble that often serves to misinform, usually while making us miserable.
On the other hand, those algorithms really do provide a useful function: They push interesting content to us so we don’t have to go and seek it out. The problem is, we have no control over how they function.
Well, as you can probably guess, I’m here to tell you that there is an alternative, and it’s a technology that’s almost as old as the web itself: RSS.Continue reading...
So, did everyone else but me know what a “filibuster” is? Ever since the appointment of Supreme Court Justice John Roberts, around which there was much talk of filibusters, banning filibusters in the senate, and so forth, I’ve wondered, what on earth were they talking about? Well, as usual, Wikipedia came to the rescue. Specifically Filibuster.
Now, I always knew that governmental procedure was often silly. I mean, how else can you get a bunch of politicians to actually get something done than to strap them down with a bunch of bizarre rules and regulations? Well, I gotta say, the filibuster takes the cake. To quote:
“a filibuster is an attempt to extend debate upon a proposal in order to delay or completely prevent a vote on its passage”
So, traditionally, to filibuster something, all you do is talk. And talk. And talk a whole bunch more! And in the US this is made even easier because, as it turns out, senatorial speeches need not cover the topic at hand! So you can literally pontificate about anything. In fact, you can even “[read] from the telephone directory” if you like. The only limit is your personal endurance! And the current record? Held by Strom Thurmond, who set a record of 24 hours and 18 minutes while attempting to filibuster the 1957 Civil Rights Act. How’s that for tenacity?
And, as a Canadian, I can feel proud knowing that we, too, have contributed to the glorious history of the filibuster. Back during the pre-megacity days in Ontario, the Liberals and NDP, in an attempt to filibuster the megacity merger proposal, actually pioneered a new form of filibuster by “[introducing] 11,500 amendments to the megacity bill, created on computers with mail merge functionality”. Now that’s what I call innovation!
So my sis, wife and I went to Thank You For Smoking last night. Definitely a movie worth seeing. The movie follows the trials and tribulations of a tobacco lobbiest, and is entertaining, scathing, and more than a bit surprising.
Now, when I originally heard about this movie, I made the (natural, I think) assumption that it was going to be a scathing commentary on the tobacco industry. And it was definitely that. But it exceeded my expectations in that it also poked fun at the government, embodied by a rabid anti-tobacco senator from Wisconsin played by the always excellent William H. Macy, and the media, represented by an ambitious reporter portrayed by none other than Katie Holmes.
And the ultimate message of the movie surprised me even more. Rather than focusing on the evils of smoking, or the tobacco industry, it took the higher ground, focusing on the issue of personal choice. Through the actions of the ridiculous senator, and the words of Nick Naylor, our “morally flexible” anti-hero portrayed by a surprising Aaron Eckhart (yes, of The Core fame), the movie really speaks out against an apathetic public who is unwilling, or perhaps no longer capable of thinking for themselves. It implores people to inform themselves and to make their own decisions, and to guide their own children to do the same, rather than relying on the government or the media to do it for them. A message I think is long overdue.
But what surprised me the most is, in the end, I found myself rooting for Nick Naylor. For some reason, I just can’t help cheering for the underdog, even if he is representing the tobacco industry…
And on a totally unrelated note, I finally updated my list of Knitting Projects. I think it’s relatively complete, now…
2 of 2