That’s Smart! What We Mean by Smartness and What We Should

16 Aug

Many people conceive of intelligence as a CPU. To them, being more intelligent means having a faster CPU. And this is despairing as the clock speed is largely fixed. (Prenatal and childhood nutrition can make a sizable difference, however. For instance, iodine deficiency in children causes mental retardation.)

But people misconceive intelligence. Intelligence is not just the clock speed of the CPU. It is also the short-term cache and the OS.

Clock speed doesn’t matter much if there isn’t a good-sized cache. The size of short-term memory matters enormously. And the good news is that we can expand it with effort.

A super fast CPU with a large cache is still only as good as the operating system. If people know little or don’t know how to reason well, they generally won’t be smart. Think of the billions of people who came before we knew how to know (science). Some of those people had really fast CPUs. But many of them weren’t able to make much progress on anything.

The chances an ignoramus who doesn’t know correlation isn’t causation will come across as stupid are also high. In fact, we often mistake being knowledgeable and possessing rules of how to reason well for being intelligent. Though it goes without saying, it is good to say it: how much we know and knowledge of how to reason better is in our control.

Lastly, people despair because they mistake skew for the variance. People believe there is a lot of variance in processing capacity. My sense is that variance in the processing capacity is low, and the skew high. In layman’s terms, most people are as smart as the other with very few very bright people. None of this is to say that the little variance that exists is not consequential.

Toward a Better OS

Ignorance of relevant facts limits how well we can reason. Thus, increasing the repository of relevant facts at hand will help you reason smarter. If you don’t know about something, that is ok. Today, the world’s information is at your fingertips. It will take you some time to go through things but you can become informed about more things than you think possible.

Besides knowledge, there are some ‘frameworks’ of how to approach a problem. For instance, management consultants have something called MECE. This ‘framework’ can help you reason better about a whole slew of problems. There are likely others.

Besides reasoning frameworks, there are simple rules that can help you reason better. You can look up books devoted to common errors in thinking, and use those to derive the rules. The rules can look as follows:

1. Correlation is not the same as causation
2. Replace categorical thinking with continuous where possible, and be precise. For e.g., rather than claim that ‘there is a risk’, quantify the risk. Or replace the word possibility with probability where applicable

Star Trek: Trekking Uncertainly Between Utopia and Twentieth Century Earth

27 Aug

Star Trek (and its spin-offs) are justly applauded for including socially progressive ideas in both, the themes of their stories, and the cultural fabric of the counterfactual imagination of the future. For instance, women and minorities command positions of responsibility, those working for the ‘Federation’ take ethical questions seriously, both ‘Data’ (an android) and empathy (via a ‘Betazoid counselor’) play a central role in making command decisions (at least in one of the series), etc.

There are some other pleasant aspects of the show. Background hum of a ship replaces cacophonous noise that passes for as background score on many shows; order prevails; professionalism and intelligence are shown as being rewarded; backroom machinations are absent, and the thrill of exploration and discovery is elevated to a virtue.

However, there are a variety of places where either insufficient thought or distinctly twentieth-century considerations intrude. For one, the central protagonists belong to ‘Star Fleet’, a military (and peacekeeping) arm of the ‘Federation.’ More distressingly, this military arm seems to be run internally on many of the same time-worn principles as on earth in the twentieth century including, an extremely hierarchical code, uniform clothing, etc. The saving grace is that most members of the Star Fleet are technical personnel. Still, the choice of conceptualizing the protagonists as belonging to the military wing (of arguably a peaceful organization) is somewhat troubling.

There are other ‘backward’ aspects. Inter-species stereotyping is common. For instance, Ferengis are mostly shown as irredeemably greedy, the Romulans and Klingons as devoted to war, and the Borg and the Dominion as simply evil. While some shows make some attempts at dealing with the issue, attributing psychological traits to entire cultures and worlds is relatively common. Further, regrettably, uniforms of women in some of the series are noticeably tighter.

More forgivably perhaps, there is an almost exclusive focus on people in command. This is perhaps necessitated by demands of creating non inter-personal drama, most easily achieved by focusing on important situations that affect the fate of many—the kinds of situations only people in command confront (in the hierarchical institutional format shown). The hierarchical structure and need for drama often create some absurdity. Since those in command have to be shown ‘commanding’, the captain of the ship is shown giving the largely superfluous order of ‘engage’ (akin to asking the driver to ‘drive’ when he knows he has to drive you to the destination) in a theatrical fashion. Similarly, given the level of automation and technological sophistication shown, opportunities for showing heroism have to be many a time contrived. Hence many of the ‘missions’ are tremendously low tech.

Where does this leave us? Nowhere in particular but perhaps with just a slightly better appreciation of some of the ‘tensions’ between how the show is often imagined by ‘nerds’ (as a vision of utopia) and what the show is really about.

The Laws of Suffering

10 Feb
  • All around us, people are suffering, and making others suffer.
  • Immaturity causes a great deal of suffering. Rest is caused by lack of scruples.
  • Immaturity is almost as hard to cure as lack of scruples.
  • Few people are interested in anything other than their own troubles.
  • Hierarchy of suffering is decided mostly by the importance one places on it; it is uncorrelated with actual suffering.
  • More mature shoulder the burdens of the less mature, sometimes willingly.
  • Absolute levels of well-being [or ability, looks, resources] have less to do with happiness than comparative levels
  • Comparison mostly reduces happiness, rarely does it increase it, even when positive.
  • People are inadequately motivated to be happy.
  • A great many people have the dough for happiness, but never bake the cake.

Delay Shooting the Help

25 Dec

Procrastination

Procrastination, delaying without reason doing something that one has to do, makes little sense. If the voluntary delay also causes anxiety, which in most cases it does, it may be particularly pointless. Yet a lot of people procrastinate at least some of the times. Why?

One can make a case for postponing unpleasant things that are avoidable—in fact why bother doing those things at all—but not things that are unavoidable, or things that a person intends to do.

The desirability of a task influences the decision to procrastinate or not. Rationally, it should not matter but the fact that it does provides a possible toehold into why we procrastinate:

  1. Sometimes problems don’t appear to have a good solution right away and one hopes that a solution would appear over time even though one may not have good reasons to think that such good fortune would strike.
  2. For example, one hopes that the ‘unavoidable’ task would become avoidable? Or we wait till the point ‘it is clear’ that the problem cannot be avoided?

Procrastination is understood exclusively as a problem about ordering and assumes that the net amount of time expended on task remains constant, irrespective of order. Perhaps that is a problematic assumption. Starting things later may just mean that we spend less time on the task than we otherwise would. However, one can easily reframe the issue as one about when to spend the reduced time, than one where we must delay achieving the aim of spending less time on the task.

Shooting the help

At times when people are worried, and when well-intentioned people try to help them, they simply become annoyed, or even mildly angry at them. Why is it that we refuse help, or more puzzlingly become angry or annoyed with people who are trying in good faith to be of help.

When people offer advice, they often use munitions from similar events and incidents they have encountered. This can be a bit galling as it undermines the ‘uniqueness’ of our problems. This ‘feeling’ is further compounded by the fact that many a time people are also over-eager and often too quick to offer solutions without a more patient listening to the individuating data. And then arguably many people while eager to help don’t do much thinking (either through incapacity, lack of motivation, or on the assumption that no thought is needed) about the problem itself, and offer comments that are not particularly insightful. And then many a time all people want is a sympathetic ear or a pat on the back. In other words, sometimes public self-pity is all we want. This is typically so when either the solutions are obvious or non-existent.

Outside of this, it is also the case that high achievers are less likely to seek help, and bristle when offered help, for seeking help forces them to face their own vulnerability.

On Love

25 Nov

Mothers spend a great deal of their time and energy on their kids, especially newborns. They spend far more time thinking, and working to ensure welfare of another human being (their kid), than most humans will spend on any other human being, say their romantic partner or sibling. Add to this that till the child reaches adulthood, often till much later, the relationship is overwhelmingly one-way – with children thinking little about their parent’s welfare. Still, most mothers find the experience, and the work that goes with it, greatly rewarding.

Joy despite this sizable disparity has been explained by cynics, but only poorly. While parents proclaim that children bring joy to their lives, it doesn’t cause parents to invest time and money for often similar joy can be had at much lower rates of work. And financial investments, investments of time, the toll on the mother’s body, and inconveniences like lack of sleep, problems traveling, etc. likely outweigh potential financial benefits, which are likely either way away from most parents’ minds.

In this puzzle there are perhaps a couple of lessons about love – one is that relationships that are overwhelmingly one-way, say in resources like time and money, can still be basis for mutual joy; second perhaps is that spending more time on people we love can make those relationships more fulfilling, and us happier.

Measuring Love

Love and to love are vague conceptually and in minds of people who use these terms. The concepts have evolved such that attempts to define or deliberate these concepts rile sensibilities – offend the notion that love is really the domain of emotion, not thought. Such thoughtlessness has meant that nearly everyone can get away with claiming love, even when the overall impact on the quality of life they have on their loved one is a deeply negative one.

One way to think about how much we love each other is to take into account how much time we spend actively thinking about the welfare of those we love. Such exercise when done without deliberation elicits an emotionally biased line up of instances where we were thoughtful. To move beyond such selective counting, for what matters are averages, with a penalty for egregious negatives, one ought to think carefully and honestly, and perhaps base assessments on the testimony of the loved one. Intentionality ought to play a part in calculations but not as a blanket defense – I truly want your welfare but there is nothing in the record that backs up the claim – but to down-weight some instances of sub-optimal decision making under pressure, and limited resources.

Complimentary Spam

5 Aug

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Some Notable Ideas

30 Jun

Education of a senator

While top colleges have been known to buck their admissions criteria for the wrong reasons, they do on average admit smarter students, and the academic training they provide is easily above average. So it may be instructive to know what percentage of Senators, the most elite of the political brass, have graced the hallowed corridors of top academic institutions, and if at all the proportion attending top colleges varies by party.

Whereas 5 of the 42 Republican senators have attended top colleges (in the top 20), 22 of the 57 Democratic Senators have done the same. The skew in numbers may be because New England is home to both top schools and a good many Democratic Senators. But privilege accorded by accident of geography is no less consequential than one afforded by some more equitable regime. As in if people of fundamentally similar caliber are there in Senate in either party, a belief cursory viewing of CSPAN would absolve one-off, some due to the happenstance of geography have been trained better than others.

Discounting elite education, one may simply want to look at the extent of education. There one finds that whereas 73% of the Democratic Senators have an advanced degree, only 64% of Republican Senators have the same. While again it is likely that going to top schools increases admission to good advanced degree programs, thereby making advanced education more attractive perhaps, there again one can conjecture that whatever the reason – some groups of people, due to mere privilege perhaps, have better skills than others.

Why do telephones have numbers?
Unique alphabetical addresses could always be uniquely coded using numbers or translated as signals. However technological limitations meant that such coding wasn’t widely practiced. This meant people were forced to memorize multiple long strings of numbers, a skill most people never prided themselves with, and when forced to learn it, they took to it like fish to land. Freedom from such bondage would surely be welcomed by many. And now, unsparing hands of technological change which have made such coding ubiquitous hope to deliver comeuppance to telephone numbers. Providing each phone with an alphabetical ID that maps to its IP address would be one smart way of implementing this change.

Misinformation and Agenda Setting
People actively learn from the environment, though they do so inexpertly. Given an average American consumes over 60 hrs of media each week, one prominent place from they learn is the media. Say if one were to watch a great many crime shows – merely as a result of the great many crime shows on television – one may impute wrongly that crime rate has been increasing. A similar, though more potent, example of the this may be the 70% of Americans who believe breast cancer is the number one reason for female mortality.

The Debate About the Burka: Lifting the Veil on Some Issues

30 Mar

For the unfamiliar, the BBC guide to Muslim veils.

The somewhat polemical:
Assuming that God has recommended that women wear the burka, assuming that burka has no impact on a woman’s ability to communicate or quality of life, as has been suggested by its supporters, then here’s a suggestion—to all men, who haven’t been ordered by God to wear burka, and who don’t see a downside to wearing it—why not voluntarily commit to wearing the burka, since no law opposes such a voluntary act, to show solidarity with the women. My sense is that even the French would come to support the burka if Muslim men en masse chose to wear it.

More considered:
‘The interior ministry says only 1,900 women wear full veils in France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim minority’ (BBC). If the problem is interpreted solely in terms of women wearing the veil, then it is much smaller than the dust in its wake.

There are three competing concerns at the heart of the debate: Protecting rights of women who voluntarily want to wear it, protecting rights of women who are forced to wear it, and protecting (French) ‘culture.’ Setting aside cultural concerns for the moment, let’s focus on the first two claims.

People are incredulous of the claim that women will voluntarily choose to wear something so straightforwardly unpleasant. Even when confronted with a woman who claims to comply voluntarily, they fear coercion, or something akin to brainwashing at play. There is merit to the thought. However, there is much evidence that women subject themselves to many unpleasant things voluntarily, such as wearing high heels (which I understand are uncomfortable to wear). So it is very likely indeed that there is ‘voluntary compliance’ by some women.

Assuming there exist both, voluntary compliers, and those forced to wear the niqab, wouldn’t it be pleasant if we could ensure the rights of both? In fact, doesn’t the extant legal framework provide for such a privilege already? Yes and no, mostly no. While it is true that women forced to wear the niqab can petition the police, it is unlikely to happen for a variety of reasons. Going to the police would mean going against the family, which may mean doing something painful, and risking financial and physical well-being. Additionally, the laws governing such ‘coercion’ are likely to carry modest penalties and unlikely to redress the numerous correlated issues including inadequate financial, and educational opportunities. Many of the issues raised here would seem familiar to people working with domestic abuse, and they are, and the modern state hasn’t (tried to) found a good solution.

Perhaps both camps will agree that wearing a niqab does dramatically limit the career opportunities for women. Of course, people in one of the camps may be happy that there are limits to such opportunities but let’s assume that they would be happy if the women had the same opportunities. Part of the problem here then is the norms of dressing in business environments in the West. Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia recently brought to air a television talk show in which both of the hosts wore the niqab. The entire effect was disturbing. However, that isn’t the point. The point is that there may be ways not to reduce career opportunities for women based on the dress code, which after all seems ‘coercive.’

Time considerations mean a fuller consideration of the issue will have to wait. One last point – One of the problems cited about the burka is that it poses a security threat, which has some merit, given its long history in being used a method of escape, including by militant clerics.

You Got (Fraudulent) Mail!

22 Jan

Republican [Con-]census

The party that dislikes the census, put a hold on the nominee for census bureau, is now sending out fraudulent mail surveys that seem as if they were from the census bureau. Read here, here, and here. Accusation for being ‘fraudulent’ stems, not only from the use of `census’, but also from it being an attempt at “frugging”, the practice of cloaking a fund raising appeal in what appears to be a research. (“Suggers” sell using surveys.)

Who Knew
One of the people who has benefited the most from Macaulay’s reforms recently sent an email, part of a larger email chain that now generally implies some travesty, which quoted Macaulay as having spoken the following (on Feb 2nd, 1835 in India, the same day his gave his Minute on Education in Britain) –

I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation?

Of course, Lord Macaulay never said such a thing. He said many other tawdry things but never did he eulogize the absolutely hokum positive images of India. While we all want glorious histories, past isn’t as glorious. Neither are confessions of colonial rapacity generally so naked.

Suggestion: For greater imagined glories one must go further back than just 1835, when the ‘Muggles’ had had their way (as Hindus may point out), writing had been invented, into the mists of more obscure pre-history where one can have his way with the truth. How about the crowning glories of Lord Rama and his return on an airplane like ‘pushpak’ vahan?

‘Disproving’ God

24 Jan

A tribute to Charles Darwin on his 200th birth anniversary

Some say that science should be absent from discussions about God is because while science concerns itself with the material, God concerns himself with the ‘spiritual’ ‘nonmaterial’ realm. But there are a number of theories of God that explicitly deal with the material realm. To that extent science has standing.

One prominent theory of the divine made with ungodly frequency is that God has a direct impact on the material well-being of humans. Here’s why the claim falls short:

Given systematic temporal and geographic variance exists in poverty, life-expectancy, etc. and given we have been able to attribute a majority of the causes for such to human action, it appears God plays only a peripheral part in the destiny of man, albeit a larger role in the destiny of women (mostly through the hands of believers). Mortality rates differ by geography. For example, the US versus Africa, Northeast US versus Southern US (maybe god likes ‘godless NE liberals’). And mortality rates vary by time—we live longer today than we did 200 years ago. The variance in mortality and life-expectancy also seems to respond to human intervention—discovery of new technologies and medicines, war, etc. So unless we believe God systematically dislikes Africans or liked people born 200 years ago less, when arguably people were more moral on some variables favored by the current fundamentalists, we have little reason to believe that God is a large force in determining life-expectancy, or mortality.

Let’s assume for devil’s sake that God is a confounding variable, which is true in at least one way—he is alleged to work in mysterious ways, i.e. God determines both temporal, geographic, racial and other kinds of variance in distribution of poverty, the human action to which it is causally attributed, and life-expectancy. But that version of God conflicts with our theories about human action (say greed) and our theories about God, who ought not to reward people motivated by such things as greed. But then punishment can come in the afterlife – via hell, where an ever larger number of people are being systematically tortured through a great expense of energy, and in a manner that will leave the Bush administration officials chagrined. Even if we imagine that theories of after-life action are true, their impact on the material world is limited to the extent people believe in the threat of punishment. To that extent, God is an instrumental identity for achieving some version of morality.

Another challenge to the presence of God comes from the probabilistic nature of our causal models. Theories about God ought to be perfect (explain about 100% of the variance) while theories of social action can be probabilistic. To ascribe probabilistic thinking and action to God would significantly conflict with theories of God, though one can imagine that he sets the mean, and will cause the error term. A starker version of the same would be that God allows free will, and to that degree that he allows for it and the world is shaped by free will, and God is immaterial to bettering social condition. Another reason to discount challenge to God theory can be the following – we just don’t know the generating mechanism (or life/death) and probabilistic conditioning seems to come from fitting known world models onto data generated by God model, which is by the way synergistic enough with the world model (more poverty = earlier death) to be disturbing.

One way to look at the argument presented here is that God may exist, but s/he/it isn’t particularly strong. And if strength/omnipotence is taken to be a fundamental descriptive attitude of the object (God), it is likely that the object doesn’t exist as well. The counterargument to the above would perhaps need to factor in differing conceptions about the object and its power. For example, one may say that s/he/it is doing all it can to reduce evil to its lowest form – and that is indeed the present condition. Perhaps then more minimally – since he is already doing all he can and rest depends on us – we can argue that God isn’t a particularly useful intervention for changing one’s situation in the world.