A Startling Victory for Dualism (June 28th, 2026)

June 28, 2011

Cambridge, Massachusetts – Researchers cooperating from major research universities and institutions from the United States and the rest of the world have stunned the world with an early release of the findings of Project Sapiens, a half-trillion dollar international undertaking to provide a full, multi-level understanding of the human brain and its cognitive processes – a detailed account of how simple low-level neuronal processes give rise to higher-level cognition, finally answering questions that have dogged scientists for decades.

“Everything’s in there,” Dr. Kirk Meier, MIT Professor of Neuroscience and ones of the leaders of the project, announced triumphantly. “Everything that’s been a mystery to us – free will, creativity, even ESP. We can now finally claim a full understanding of our brains. The work of neuroscience is essentially done.”

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Black Swans, the “Ludic Fallacy”, and Bayesian inference

June 28, 2011

A few days ago, I finished reading The Black Swan by Nicholas Taleb, which goes in-depth on topics such as judgment under uncertainty and the issues relating to unrealistic models which deliberately ignore unlikely but possibly highly influential phenomena in order to stay simple. Taleb emphatically argues against the use of the Gaussian bell curve, or the GIF (“great intellectual fraud”), as he likes to call it, pointing out that it forecasts events several standard deviations from the norm as extremely unlikely. He points out that an event 4 SD away is twice as likely as 4.15 SD, and that “the precipitous decline in odds of encountering something is what allows you to ignore outliers. Only one curve can deliver this decline, and it is the bell curve (and its nonscalable siblings). Nassim instead expounds scalable “Mandelbrotian” curves, which, like all things Mandelbrotian, are fractal – The speed of the decrease of odds as one moves from the mean is constant, not declining. So the odds of having a net worth of over 8 million pounds is 1 in 4,000, for higher than 16 million pounds it’s one in 16,000, for 32 it’s 1 in 64,000, etc. So not only does the Mandelbrotian curve put more importance on outliers (“Black Swans”, or unpredictable but highly influential events such as stock market crashes that Gaussian models miss), but any small portion of the graph resembles the larger curve in a fractal sort of way.

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Reflections on some pop sci books

June 27, 2011

Over the course of the last two weeks or so I’ve forayed into reading popular science books on physics for the first time. Namely, I read A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking and then The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene. Both dealt with relativity, quantum and particle physics, and cosmology. Greene’s book went further, introducing the “time’s arrow” concept and also discussing superstring theory and ending with some speculations on the future of physics research (a few up-and-coming experiments, and teleportation, wormholes, and time travel).

Overall, I think that Greene is a better writer. Both authors are respected physicists at the forefront of their profession, although I think there is no doubt that Hawking is in a class of his own. Despite superior intelligence, this detracts from Hawking’s writing since he seems extremely eager to highlight his own discoveries, relevant as they are, in order to give himself credit. Greene does mention his own work but he comes off as much less intimidating to the reader. Even with ideas that he himself labels difficult to explain without the math, he comes off as lucid and easy to understand. I was also thankful for extensive endnotes which gave fuller explanations to advanced or “mathematically inclined” readers, as well as pointers to further reading.

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Saying Goodbye

June 26, 2011

I don’t normally blog about my personal life, nor do I intend to make it a habit. But as I recently moved continents I came to realize something about saying goodbye that I thought was worth sharing.

It’s hard to say goodbye to a very good friend. You’ll spend your last few minutes with them and you gush about shared experiences, realizing what a big part of your life that person was, immediately feeling the bitter sting of loneliness and uncertainty about the future. You leave behind a certain invaluable brand of sharing and companionship and you start to feel the void in your life as you turn away, knowing they won’t be an active part of your life for a while.

But what’s even harder is saying goodbye to a best friend. Of the 30-something people who I had to say goodbye to in the manner detailed above, I was only able to reach this type twice, with people who I had shared and experienced even more with – I felt (and I’m going to assume they felt) almost nothing. Total silence. Just a sort of understanding that you’re going to leave now, and it’s going to be a while.

But why is that? On Wednesday I spent one minute going from one bus stop to the next with my closest friend. Practically the only remark was, “Wow, it’s our last minute together.” My theory is that saying goodbye to someone like that doesn’t really…make any sense. They’ve become such an entrenched and obvious part of your life. When I moved I didn’t think to myself about hobbies I was going to “have to quit now” or something. The friendship just seemed so regular and so important that it was impossible to accept that those were our last moments together for a last time. And thus, they weren’t really significant on their own. Of course, certain parts of your life are transferrable from one location to the next, like your hobbies, but unfortunately, not your friends. And only time will reveal that void.

So if you’re saying goodbye to someone extremely close and realize you can’t say or really feel anything, don’t worry – it’s probably a good sign.

Thoughts on Last Week’s Republican Debate

June 25, 2011

Well, really just one thing, concerning Rep. Michele Bachmann from Minnesota, who formally announced her presidential campaign last week and joined in on the debate. Bachmann has been termed by pundits as the “winner” of the debate, as she came off as strong, clear, and fearless on issues.

Not all that rare for a primary campaigner. After all, she just has to pander to a slightly wider base than her Tea Party core to gain a plurality, as she should be able to galvanize support for a large portion of the Republican Party as the more moderate wing may splinter between other candidates.

But while primary voting is still some 7 months away, I’m already a little bit scared. Bachmann expressed extreme disdain for one agency in particular, the EPA:

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Back from hiatus

June 25, 2011

All right, after an extremely busy two weeks I’m posting again. I have a lot of ideas for new articles so there’ll be a fairly high volume for the near future.

Hiatus for 1 week

June 4, 2011

Dear Readers,

I’m off on a school trip for the next week so I won’t be able to post anything. If you like what you’ve seen so far, don’t worry – I haven’t given up on blogging just yet!

The Allais Paradox and Misunderstanding Probability and Randomness

June 4, 2011

The Allais Paradox:

Suppose you are given two gambles to choose from, 1A and 1B:

1A: 1 million with 100% certainty
1B: 89% chance of 1 million, 1% chance of nothing, and 10% chance of 5 million

Later, you are given two more gambles to choose from, this time 2A and 2B:

2A: 1 million with 11% probability, nothing with 89% probability
2B: 5 million with 10% probability, nothing with 90% probability.

Which combination do you choose? The “paradox” is not logical but rather just highlights a quirk in human reasoning. Most people, for some reason, choose the combination 1A-2B. I can see why. I really have to fight the inner urge not to, but this is completely inconsistent.

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It’s probably useful to know some statistics…

June 3, 2011

This is a fascinating blog. It’s basically a professional statistician who analyzes the use of statistics in major news stories in-depth. Pretty cool to read – it’ll definitely keep me informed.

For example, This article thoroughly deconstructs the cell-phone announcement made by WHO a couple days back. It’s worth a read! (Disclaimer: Overly critical of “progressives.” But that doesn’t distract too much from the stats)

How to Solve It and some proposed analogies for problem-solving

June 3, 2011

Alonzo Church, one of the great logicians of the 20th century, published a proof to the Entscheidungsproblem, known as Church’s Theorem:

No single algorithm can determine whether a statement of number theory is a theorem or not.

The statement is fairly simple, I think. You can write a computer program, which, when fed a mathematical statement, would test it arbitrarily to see whether it held in random test cases and then proceeded to attempt to determine its theorem-hood through a variety of preprogrammed “strategies.” It might work in a lot of cases. However, you cannot write a computer program which follows the same procedure every time to determine whether something was a theorem or not, according to Alonzo Church. Read the rest of this entry »