The Longest Now

Mental battlefield: How we are forfeiting the zeroth AI war
Monday August 07th 2017, 6:03 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,knowledge,metrics,popular demand

Last week, Jean Twenge wrote the latest in a series of reflections on connected culture: “Have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Some commentators wrote off her concerns as the periodic anxiety of an older generation seeing technology changing the world of their children, comparing it to earlier concerns about books or television.  But I don’t see this as Yet Another Moral Panic about changing tech or norms. I see it as an early AI conflict, one that individuals have lost to embryonic corporate AI.

The struggle is real

We have greatly advanced algorithms for claiming and retaining human attention, prominently including bulk attacks on shared Commons such as quiet spaces, spare time, empty mailboxes. This predates the net, but as in many areas, automation has conclusively outpaced capacity to react. There’s not even an arms race today: one the one hand, we have a few attention-preserving tools, productive norms that increasingly look like firewall instructions, a few dated regulations in some countries. On the other hand, we have a $T invested in persuasion, segmentation, attention, engagement: a growing portion of our economy, dinner conversations, and self-image as a civilization.

Persuasion is much more than advertising. The libraries of mind hacks and distractions we have developed are prominent in every networked app and social tool. Including simple things like adding a gloss of guilt and performative angst to increase engagement — like Snap or Duolingo adding publicly visible streaks to keep up daily participation.

We know people can saturate their capacity to track goals and urgencies. We know minds are exploitable, hard sells are possible — but (coming from a carny, or casino, or car salesman) unethical, bad for you.  Yet when the exploit happens at a scale of billions, one new step each week, with a cloak of respectability — we haven’t figured out how to think about it.  Indeed most growth hackers & experience designers, at companies whose immersive interfaces absorb centuries of spare time each day, would firmly deny that they are squeezing profit out of the valuable time + focus + energy of users :: even as they might agree that in aggregate, the set of all available interfaces are doing just that.

Twenge suggests people are becoming unhappier the more their attention is hacked: that seems right, up to a point. But past that point, go far enough and people will get used to anything, create new norms around it. If we lose meaningful measures of social wellbeing, then new ones may be designed for us, honoring current trends as the best of all possible worlds. A time-worn solution of cults, castes, frontiers, empires. Yet letting the few and the hawkers of the new set norms for all, doesn’t always work out well.

Let us do better.
+ Recognize exploits and failure modes of reason, habit, and thought. Treat these as important to healthy life, not simply a prize for whoever can claim them.
+ Measure maluses like addiction, negative attractors like monopoly, self-dealing, information asymmetry.
+ Measure things like learning speed, adaptability, self sufficiency, teamwork, contentment over time.
+ Reflect on system properties that seem to influence one or the other.
And build norms around all of this, countering the idea that “whatever norms we have are organic, so they must be good for us.

Psych statistics wars: new methods are shattering old-guard assumptions
Thursday October 20th 2016, 12:51 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,chain-gang,citation needed,Glory, glory, glory,knowledge,meta,metrics

Recently, statistician Andrew Gelman has been brilliantly breaking down the transformation of psychology (and social psych in particular) through its adoption of and creative use of statistical methods, leading to an improved understanding of how statistics can be abused in any field, and of how empirical observations can be [unwittingly and unintentionally] flawed. This led to the concept of p-hacking and other methodological fallacies which can be observed in careless uses of statistics throughout scientific and public analyses. And, as these new tools were used to better understand psychology and improve its methods, existing paradigms and accepted truths have been rapidly changed over the past 5 years. This shocks and anguishes researchers who are true believers in”hypotheses vague enough to support any evidence thrown at them“, and have built careers around work supporting those hypotheses.

Here is Gelman’s timeline of transformations in psychology and in statistics, from Paul Meehl’s argument in the 1960s that results in experimental psych may have no predictive power, to PubPeer, Brian Nosek’s reprodicibility project, and the current sense that “the emperor has no clothes”.

Here is a beautiful discussion a week later, from Gelman, about how researchers respond to statistical errors or other disproofs of part of their work.  In particular, how co-authors handle such new discoveries, either together or separately.

At the end, one of its examples turns up a striking example of someone taking these sorts of discoveries and updates to their work seriously: Dana Carney‘s public CV includes inline notes next to each paper wherever significant methodological or statistical concerns were raised, or significant replications failed.

Carney makes an appearance in his examples because of her most controversially popular research, with Cuddy an Yap, on power posing.  A non-obvious result (that holding certain open physical poses leads to feeling and acting more powerfully) became extremely popular in the popular media, and has generated a small following of dozens of related extensions and replication studies — which starting in 2015 started to be done with large samples and at high power, at which point the effects disappeared.  Interest within social psychology in the phenomenon, as an outlier of “a popular but possibly imaginary effect”, is so great that the journal Comprehensive Results in Social Psychology has an entire issue devoted to power posing coming out this Fall.
Perhaps motivated by Gelman’s blog post, perhaps by knowledge of the results that will be coming out in this dedicated journal issue [which she suggests are negative], she put out a full two-page summary of her changing views on her own work over time, from conceiving of the experiment, to running it with the funds and time available, to now deciding there was no meaningful effect.  My hat is off to her.  We need this sort of relationship to data, analysis, and error to make sense of the world. But it is a pity that she had to publish such a letter alone, and that her co-authors didn’t feel they could sign onto it.

Update: Nosek also wrote a lovely paper in 2012 on Restructuring incentives to promote truth over publishability [with input from the estimable Victoria Stodden] that describes many points at which researchers have incentives to stop research and publish preliminary results as soon as they have something they could convince a journal to accept.

Archiving Web links: Building global layers of caches and mirrors
Sunday June 12th 2016, 4:23 pm
Filed under: international,knowledge,meta,metrics,popular demand,wikipedia

The Web is highly distributed and in flux; the people using it, even moreso.  Many projects exist to optimize its use, including:

  1. Reducing storage and bandwidth:  compressing parts of the web; deduplicating files that exist in many places, replacing many with pointers to a single copy of the file [Many browsers & servers, *Box]
  2. Reducing latency and long-distance bandwidth:  caching popular parts of the web locally around the world [CDNs, clouds, &c]
  3. Increasing robustness & permanence of links: caching linked pages (with timestamps or snapshots, for dynamic pages) [Memento, Wayback Machine, perma, amber]
  4. Increasing interoperability of naming schemes for describing or pointing to things on the Web, so that it’s easier to cluster similar things and find copies or versions of them [HvdS’s 15-year overview of advancing interop]

This week I was thinking about the 3rd point. What would a comprehensively backed-up Web of links look like?  How resilient can we make references to all of the failure modes we’ve seen and imagined?  Some threads for a map:

  1. Links should include timestamps, important ones should request archival permalinks.
    • When creating a reference, sites should notify each of the major cache-networks, asking them to store a copy.
    • Robust links can embed information about where to find a cache in the a tag that generates the link (and possibly a fuzzy content hash?).
    • Permalinks can use an identifier system that allows searching for the page across any of the nodes of the local network, and across the different cache-networks. (Browsers can know how to attempt to find a copy.)
  2. Sites should have a coat of amber: a local cached snapshot of anything linked from that site, stored on their host or a nearby supernode.  So as long as that site is available, snapshots of what it links to are, too.
    • We can comprehensively track whether sites have signalled they have an amber layer.  If a site isn’t yet caching what they link to, readers can encourage them to do so or connect them to a supernode.
    • Libraries should host amber supernodes: caches for sites that can’t host those snapshots on their host machine.
  3. Snapshots of entire websites should be archived regularly
    • Both public snapshots for search engines and private ones for long-term archives.
  4. A global network of mirrors (a la [C]LOCKSS) should maintain copies of permalink and snapshot databases
    • Consortia of libraries, archives, and publishers should commit to a broad geographic distribution of mirrors.
      • mirrors should be available within any country that has expensive interconnects with the rest of the world;
      • prioritization should lead to a kernel of the cached web that is stored in ‘seed bank‘ style archives, in the most secure vaults and other venues
  5. There should be a clear way to scan for fuzzy matches for a broken link. Especially handy for anyone updating a large archive of broken links.
    • Is the base directory there? Is the base URL known to have moved?
    • Are distant-timestamped versions of the file available?  [some robustlink implementations do this already]
    • Are there exact matches elsewhere in the web for a [rare] filename?  Can you find other documents with the same content hash? [if a hash was included in the link]
    • Are there known ways to contact the original owner of the file/directory/site?

Related questions: What other aspects of robustness need consideration? How are people making progress at each layer?  What more is needed to have a mesh of archived links at every scale? For instance, WordPress supports a chunk of the Web; top CDNs cache more than that. What other players can make this happen?  What is needed for them to support this?

Women’s Public Voice: points left out of Mary Beard’s history of speech
Sunday March 02nd 2014, 10:38 pm
Filed under: chain-gang,Glory, glory, glory,metrics,poetic justice,popular demand

Bruce recently recommended an essay on the historical public voice of women, by noted classicist Mary Beard.

Beard is a fine and provocative writer; it is good rhetoric.

But I don’t think it gives much insight into historical causes, or ways we can bring about change. Women face deeply gendered and hateful criticism today, particularly online. The argument that this is due to Greco-Roman rhetorical traditions, or the Western literary canon, is unconvincing. I see selection bias in Beard’s examples.

I would love to see a version of this essay that gets nuances right, and tries to explain changes in the past century based on its arguments.

Left out:
+ The complexity of women’s voice in Rome, from Fulvia and Livia to Irene of Athens;
+ Greek admiration of Gorgo, Roman admiration of Zenobia;
+ Conflicting views of leaders in adjacent cultures (Boudica, Cleopatra, Dido);
+ The Old Testament (Deborah and Esther ?)

Misused for effect:
– Ovid: No metamorphs of any gender could speak; Io for one was changed back.
– Fulvia: First by describing her as someone’s wife, though she was one of the most powerful figures in Rome; then by framing her hatred of Cicero as a matter of gender.

On a tangent: Two speeches I love, to lift the spirits. (Both American; I know less oratory from the rest of the world. Suggestions welcome!):

Frances Wright on global patriotism and change:
# Independence Day speech at New Harmony (1828)

Margaret Chase Smith on an issue too great to be obscured by eloquence, thankfully no longer a concern today:
# Declaration of Conscience (1950)

Aaron Swartz hackfests this weekend around the world: honoring his work
Friday November 08th 2013, 7:04 pm
Filed under: Aasw,Glory, glory, glory,international,knowledge,meta,metrics,popular demand,wikipedia

Help continue projects Aaron believed in, in person or online.
I’ll be at the Cambridge event and aftermath throughout the long weekend.

Related project summaries:

Socrates Jones: Wow. “There are no limits on the extent of smiting!”
Thursday August 22nd 2013, 2:53 am
Filed under: chain-gang,Glory, glory, glory,knowledge,metrics,poetic justice

Noted game designer Chief Wakamakamu writes:

So, guys. I’m pretty sure that, whenever you played Phoenix Wright, you thought to yourself “Man, this game would be so much better if it was about moral philosophy instead of high-stake courtroom arguments.”  

Well, I have come to make all your dreams come true. I’m currently looking for play-testers for Socrates Jones: Pro Philosopher, so that we can make it as awesome as it could possibly be before we unleash it on … a starved market.

Sate your hunger.  Interrogate antiquity’s moral philosophers for yourself.


Plumpy’Nut Patent – Has their “patentleft” option seen wide use so far?
Monday July 15th 2013, 10:31 am
Filed under: citation needed,ideonomy,knowledge,metrics

In 1996, two French food scientists, André Briend and Michel Lescanne, developed a nut-based food formulation to serve as an emergency food relief product in famine-stricken areas.  The goal was to have a high-density balanced food with a long and robust shelf life – one which, unlike the previous standard of milk-based therapeutic food, could be taken at home rather than in a hospital.

They soon formed the company Nutriset to further develop and commercialize the idea.  Their most popular product, Plumpy’Nut, has shipped millions of units and currently makes up roughly 90% of UNICEF’s stocks of ready-to-use therapeutic foods [RUTFs] for famine relief.

In forming their company, they captured their idea in the form of a patent (a standard way to declare ownership of and investment) and went on to build a production chain around it.  This included tweaked formulas and a family of products; production and packaging factories; and grant-writing and research to get certification + field-feedback + approval from various UN bodies.  This involved few years of up-front investment and reputation-building, and then ramping up mass production of millions of pounds of Plumpy’Nut and its derivatives. They later set up a novel “patentleft” process allowing companies in developing countries to use the patent commercially, and make derivatives from it, at no cost — after a brief online registration. This is something which has received surprisingly little attention since, considering how simple and elegant their solution. Read on for details! (more…)

Monday July 08th 2013, 8:05 pm
Filed under: metrics,null,Too weird for fiction

Pity US Commerce and our Econ. Dev. Administration.

Future Conduct and the Limits of Class-Action Settlements – James G.
Monday May 20th 2013, 1:25 am
Filed under: chain-gang,Glory, glory, glory,metrics,poetic justice,popular demand

The coruscating James Grimmelmann recently published a crisp, clean exorcism of “future conduct” releases in class action suits, in the North Carolina Law Review.  Using a number of recent class actions as motivation, including the Google Books case, he patiently and eloquently dissects the ideas behind such carte blanche releases, and the rare cases in which they might be called for.

This is a gem of a monograph – worth reading even if you are not a copyright geek.

From the opening salvo (emphasis mine):

This Article identifies a new and previously unrecognized trend in class-action settlements: releases for the defendant’s future conduct. Such releases, which hold the defendant harmless for wrongs it will commit in the future, are unusually dangerous to class members and to the public… [F]uture-conduct releases pose severe informational problems for class members and for courts… create moral hazard for the defendant, give it concentrated power, and thrust courts into a prospective planning role they are ill-equipped to handle.

Courts should guard against the dangers of future-conduct releases with a standard and a rule. The standard is heightened scrutiny for all settlements containing such releases; the Article describes the warning signs courts must be alert to and the safeguards courts should insist on. The rule is parity of preclusion: a class-action settlement may release future-conduct claims if and only if they could have been lost in litigation. […] The Article concludes by applying its recommendations to seven actual future-conduct settlements, in each case yielding a better result or clearer explanation than the court was able to provide.

If you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to savor all 90 pages of finely referenced background and analysis, a handy comparative timeline is on p.410, the standard and rule start on p.431, and the 7 brief case studies start on p.458.

via the Laboratorium.

Wikipedian forced to delete article by the French police
Tuesday April 30th 2013, 11:06 pm
Filed under: international,metrics,Not so popular,wikipedia

In France, a Wikipedia admin was sought out by France’s homeland intelligence agency, the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur brought physically to their offices, and forced to delete an article about a military base (which they claimed contained classified information) if he did not wish to be held overnight.

This sort of bullying tactic is one up with which we should not put. The issue later became a minor cause célèbre in the French press for a short time.

Wiki AuditCom : Yearly call for volunteers to help vet our books
Friday April 26th 2013, 3:28 pm
Filed under: international,knowledge,metrics,wikipedia

As noted last week by AuditCom chair Stu West.

One Weird Kernel Trick: from Zero to Stats Hero in only Twelve Days
Tuesday April 09th 2013, 7:35 pm
Filed under: Glory, glory, glory,knowledge,meta,metrics,poetic justice

From the “too good to be true (but it is)” dept:


“My new idea is… like a Star Wars Convention” – from my dearest friend
Saturday January 05th 2013, 11:26 pm
Filed under: %a la mod,Glory, glory, glory,metrics,popular demand

Now I want to hear more… but I’m bullish on it.

Better knowledge graphs fit for Star Trek computers coming to Google
Monday December 31st 2012, 8:32 pm
Filed under: chain-gang,international,knowledge,meta,metrics,wikipedia

Last year Google acquired Metaweb, providing a reliable future to their many projects, including Refine and Freebase.

From earlier this year, here’s a quote from Amit Singhal, Google’s SVP responsible for their Knowledge Graph:

We hope this added intelligence will give you a more complete picture of your interest, provide smarter search results, and pique your curiosity on new topics. We’re proud of our first baby step—the Knowledge Graph—which will enable us to make search more intelligent, moving us closer to the “Star Trek computer” that I’ve always dreamt of building. Enjoy your lifelong journey of discovery, made easier by Google Search, so you can spend less time searching and more time doing what you love.

In the near future, I expect both Google’s knowledge graph, and the increasing awareness of the usefulness of such graphs, to change the structure and scope of industrial-scale knowledge processing. Thanks to all those working on these tools and solutions; see you in 2013!

The Million Problems project: the world’s best problems in each discipline
Thursday November 22nd 2012, 6:17 pm
Filed under: international,metrics

This is a project I’ve had in mind for some time. From where do you draw your favorite problems? For a bit of inspiration, here is an excellent and insightful essay on why math education is so much stronger in Russia (for instance) than in the US and Brazil (for instance), focusing on the appreciation for and use of word problems.

Word Problems in Russia and America by Andrei Toom (↬ Jacob Rus)

Three Copyright Myths and Where to Start to Fix it – a policy brief

A lovely short policy brief on designing a better copyright regime was published on Friday – before being quickly taken offline again.  I’ve reposted it here with light cleanup of its section headings.

If you care at all about copyright and its quirks, this is short and worth reading in full.

The Six Symptoms of Pathological Science, by Irving Langmuir
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 8:43 am
Filed under: %a la mod,gustatory,metrics,poetic justice,wikipedia

This overview of pattern-creation in the guise of science and its mob effect on whole fields must be read and relished.

The Six Symptoms of Pathological Science:

  • The maximum effect observed is produced by an agent of barely detectable intensity.  The magnitude of the effect is largely independent of the intensity of the cause.
  • The effect is of a magnitude close to the limit of detectability, or many measurements are necessary because of low statistical significance of individual results.
  • There are claims of great, even extraordinary, accuracy
  • Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested (with enthusiasm)
  • Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment  (this may be contagious)
  • The ratio of supporters to critics rises to somewhere near 50%, then falls gradually to zero.

Also, note that the “Allison effect” and mechanism is the most amazing example given, and may show something different than standard pathological science: it was considered good science for over a decade, and by hundreds of practitioners.

From a talk famously given by Langmuir (1932 Chemistry N’Laureate) in 1953, transcribed by Robert Hall, illustrated by Physics Today, republished and promoted by professors and authors.

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