Two Pieces of Food for Thought

August 30, 2011

Looks like I haven’t posted in a while, and this post will be on the shorter side. However, here are two interesting ideas I’ve come across recently that are definitely worth sharing:

1) Money: The Unit of Caring – Eliezer Yudkowsky. Yudkowsky says it quite bluntly –

In our society, this common currency of expected utilons is called “money”. It is the measure of how much society cares about something.

This is a brutal yet obvious point, which many are motivated to deny.

And that is true. Many people complain that those who donate money “don’t care.” It does seem callous, donating money. You just thrust your hand into your fat wallet, grab a greasy handful of crumpled green pieces of paper, and walk away and enjoy the rest of the day, having “done a good thing.” What’s there to love? A social worker who gave a talk at my school once said, “There’s a difference between involvement and commitment. In eggs and ham, the hen’s involved but the pig’s committed.” And so on.

Yet at the same time, those greasy crumpled notes aren’t magically appearing in your wallet to opaquely sustain your opulent first-world lifestyle. You’re working for those bills. You paid a lot of money for a college education (might still be doing so), and you work in a job that you are specifically qualified for in order to maximize not only the wealth of yourself but that of your employer and society on a whole. Yudkowsky notes that a lawyer volunteering at a soup kitchen is a total waste because they could instead spend that hour working and then donate an hour’s pay to fund someone to work for 10 hours. Perhaps in a hunter-gatherer society, caring could only be expressed in direct actions, but in a market economy, it may be abstracted through currency, but its impact is very real.

I was glad to see this article. I got tired of my old school’s community service model which was 90% fundraising. But looking back, wasn’t it better to get lots of money from some really rich kids (it’s their parents’ money, they don’t care) rather than force them to do something they’re bad at and don’t want to do but still “help?”

2) Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis – we may share 99% of our genes with chimps, but is anyone really denying that we aren’t vastly more intelligent than they are? But the source of this exponential intelligence/brain size explosion still requires full explanation. An interesting theory is the Machiavellian Intelligence Hypothesis  – social intelligence brought about intelligence in general. There’s a book, Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes which argues that escalating social manipulation and shifting coalitions among advanced primates fueled human evolution because intelligence became so essential to survival along with physical strength. The MIH agrees with the theory of “modularity of the mind” that I blogged about earlier – that humans are much better at solving abstract problems when they concern someone cheating in a social situation than when they have to do with something trivial like playing cards. So there you go. We’re all Machiavellians at heart.

Learning LaTeX

August 19, 2011

i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\left|\Psi(t)\right>=H\left|\Psi(t)\right>

Cool, huh?

Mathematicians vs. Engineers

August 18, 2011

I learned about probabilistic algorithms yesterday in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. Probabilistic algorithms do not yield the correct answer with 100% certainty, but are designed so that the chance of an incorrect answer is infinitesimal. For example, the Fermat Test for primality yields a nice logarithmic-time (very quick) algorithm which yields the incorrect answer extremely rarely. I came across a nice bit of witticism from the author:

Numbers that fool the Fermat test are called Carmichael numbers, and very little is known about them other than that they are extremely rare…in testing primality of very large numbers chosen at random,the chance of stumbling upon a value that fools the Fermat test is less than the chance that cosmic radiation will cause the computer to make an error in carrying out a “correct” algorithm. Considering an algorithm to be inadequate for the first reason but not for the second illustrates the difference between mathematics and engineering.

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, 53 n. (emphasis mine)

So…if I’m a computer scientist does that make me an engineer or mathematician? The author seems to have made his own decision.

Of course, Sheldon Cooper has his own, opposing opinion:

The Chinese Room – introduction

August 16, 2011

What’s the Chinese Room Argument?

I’ve blogged before about the Turing Test several times; Alan Turing held the position that if a program was indistinguishable from a human mind in all manners of interaction, then it could be considered “conscious,” whatever that means. This position is formally known as “Strong AI” – in other words, hardware is inessential to the working of a mind – cognitive states can equally well be implemented on computers as on human brains.

For many, this is a troubling stance. It is difficult to argue that computers will never come to pass the Turing test, but there is a position which states that computers can only simulate thought and not demonstrate actual understanding – “weak AI.” Weak AI draws a line between simulating thought and actual thought; thought simulation is the manipulation of abstract symbols to produce output indistinguishable from the of a human, whereas actual thought consists of “states,” connects syntax with semantics, words such as  “tree” associated with sensory experience and memory, and involves understanding.

John R. Searle formulated an impressive argument for weak AI known as the “Chinese Room argument.” Here, we are taken to assume that the Turing Test exchange is in Chinese. Instead of a computer running the program, we have an English speaker who does not understand Chinese. Their job is to receive input in the form of Chinese characters. Then they follow would rules in a book (the program) in manipulating symbols in other books (the databases) in order to produce Chinese characters in output. The man doing the manipulations does not understand Chinese, and the program does not allow him to; hence the program does not “understand Chinese.” Strong AI is thus false, because programs cannot create understanding.

In the essay, Minds, Brains, and Programs, in which Searle produces this thought experiment, he presents and responds to a number of counterarguments. A few of them are listed here  –

  1. The Systems argument – understanding is an epiphenomenon, and perhaps although the man himself does not understand Chinese, the entire system does in fact possess an understanding. Searle deftly strikes this down; if the man were to memorize the program and the database, he would have internalized the entire system, yet he would still not understand Chinese.
  2. The Robot argument – If we created a robot with the program running as its brain, which was able to take in input via cameras and sensors and act accordingly, then surely it would show understanding of the world. Searle refutes this argument as well, emphasizing the lack of qualitative difference between the original program and this robot.
  3. “Many Mansions” argument – “Your whole argument presupposes that AI is only about analog and digital computers. But that happens to be the present state of technology.” Searle pokes fun of his opponents here, noting correctly that the “Strong AI” stance is supposed to be hardware-independent, such that any computational device should support intelligence if programmed correctly.

And so by introducing straw men and striking them down easily, Searle apparently solidifies his position. Or does he? Daniel Dennett provides a far more convincing counter-argument, which I’ll introduce in my next post.

Why I’m becoming vegetarian (and probably avoiding cheese, too)

August 15, 2011

There is a favorite saying of mine, “There are no twenty-dollar bills lying around on the street because someone’s picked them up already.” In other words, opportunities are hard to come by, because millions are trying at the same time, many more desperate, and what little low-hanging fruit there is has already been plucked.

So with this knowledge in mind, I was thoroughly astounded when I learned about the energy pyramid in ecosystems in my biology class. It states that on each successive level of the food chain, the total energy available in biomass decreases by a factor of approximately 10. In other words, the efficiency of energy transfer by predation is between 5-20%. And therefore, 80-95% of energy at a given level is unavailable at the next.

The reason for this is fairly obvious. Plants, producers at the lowest level of the pyramid, perform the process of photosynthesis to convert sunlight into glucose. This glucose then has two purposes – synthesis into carbohydrate polymers that “build” the plant (contribute to its edibleness) and fuel for cellular respiration, which provides energy for the everyday processes that a plant goes through. At the next level, primary consumers, herbivores, consume the edible parts of the plant, carbohydrate polymers such as starch and glucose, and then use that for the same two purposes – building biomass, or tissues such as muscle and bone, and energy for “maintenance.” So in each case, at each level, we see that an organism takes in energy, which it uses for (a) building biomass for other things to eat for energy, and (b) using energy to fuel processes to keep itself alive. As it happens, (b) is a need that is allocated 9 times more energy than (a).

But all of that is very intuitive. So the major question is…why should humans eat meat? And the simple answer is, that other than for the fact that it tastes really good, there is no good reason. In fact, there are a whole slew of reasons not to do so.

This argument doesn’t delve into ethical considerations, although I do digress to say that my math teacher did say that the reason he stopped eating meat at a young age was because he couldn’t bare to take away the “feeling of life” from any living creature. A puppy might not ponder the reasons and nuances of its existence (and humans don’t do this most of the time, either) but if you hold its head underwater, the puppy feels a very strong sense of “aliveness” coupled with a very strong sense that its “aliveness” is being threatened. So how could you take that away from something?

Of course, people say that it’s only “natural” for people to eat meat, but what’s “natural” about what we do anyway? Multiple levels of the food chain haven’t always been there – presumably there were once only producers and primary consumers (consumers of the lowest level, or vegetarians). At such a point, the “low-hanging fruit” was no longer the literal low-hanging fruit competed for with other herbivores but rather the defenseless herbivores themselves – another level of consumers could emerge, at 10% of the size of the lower energy level. And thus the energy pyramid would develop an equilibrium with each level no bigger than 10% of the level immediately lower and no smaller than 10 times that of the level above (there would be other restrictions as well, depending on resources such as water, space…)

Enter human civilization. As omnivores, humans are generally primary, secondary, or tertiary consumers. The problem is that humans possess far more total biomass than any other species of large mammals, and that our use of complex tools allows us to at least temporarily evade the limits imposed by the energy pyramid, especially predators to check population growth. The other problem is that humans, despite being perfectly able to subsist as primary producers, domesticate large amounts of primary consumers, which is extremely inefficient. It’s basically like going from “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” to “If life gives you lemons, use those lemons to continually feed some large mammal for years before slaughtering and eating it.” It’s not very difficult to see which is more efficient.

Just for reference, here’s a graph that I found on the NY Times’ Green Blog. It plots the amount of CO2 emissions to produce different types of food:

Lamb’s not such a popular product, but the changes that even a meat-eater can make by switching from livestock to poultry are astounding!

Since I’m doing this from an environmentalist perspective, there’s no reason to be an absolutist. But if as a human race, we’re having trouble feeding each other and squandering our precious resources to add another extraneous level to the food pyramid, and we should really look into vegetarianism. The Amazon rainforest, a carbon sink, is slash-and-burn deforested (releasing CO2) at a startling rate to accommodate cows, which graze short-term on poor-quality soil while emitting methane, another greenhouse gas, resulting in a triple whammy for emission control efforts.

Dennis Avery, Director of the Centre for Global Food Issues, said that “The world must create five billion vegans in the next several decades, or triple its total farm output without using more land.” The clock’s ticking. So yours truly has decided to make a small sacrifice with huge power-of-ten payoffs. Because even if there seem to be no 20-dollar bills lying around on the ground, going vegetarian seems to be a climate change-curbing low-hanging fruit that’s just dying to be plucked.

A beginner’s guide to selling out your blog content for even more views

August 6, 2011

It starts out with an ideal. A burning desire in your heart that guides your pen to paper (or rather, fingers to the home row) and gets you typing away, gets you fleshing out those unique thoughts and reflections that make you and you alone the most unique, creative, and original writer in the blogosphere.

You toil, Howard Roark-like, night after night, by the dim blaze of candlelight, churning out one masterpiece after another. Convinced of your brilliance, you agonize over your opening sentences. You search for the most relevant, interesting, and up-to-date internal links, videos, and images to pepper your articles with. You even double-check your article for typos.

Of course, unlike Howard Roark, you do seek validation of a form other than creativity – getting lots and lots of views. Deny it as much as you might, your mood is inextricably tied to the lofty crests and the depressing troughs of that views-per-day graph. And those troughs are depressing. As you cry yourself to sleep, devoid of the attention of others, you start to doubt your once-obvious superiority to “the others.” Just as a witty Facebook status that doesn’t get any likes is not witty, your blog clearly just isn’t what you thought it was. People don’t care about you. You’re alone.  Go away.

Slowly, even those close friends and family you eagerly advertised your site to lose interest in what you have to say. Even though your frantic sobs are broken by the occasional obscurely specific Google search links to your blog, the hits to your site now mostly consist of spam bots from sham accounting sites in Bangalore.

But let me tell you, dear reader, there is light at the end of the tunnel! What do you think all those physics prodigies who set out to discover cold fusion and unravel the secrets of the universe do after 10 years of unsuccessful research on obviously impossible problems? They sell out, damnit! They go to Wall Street, do some opaque number-crunching, and wade in gigantic piles of cash!

Maybe you’re iffy about posting it on your Facebook because you’re shy but still want something for nothing. Maybe StumbleUpon readers aren’t giving you enough thumbs-ups. So how do you take it to that next level?

Here’s how:

1)   Write about making money – nobody cares about how little money you’ve made. People will eat that shit up because let me tell you a secret: People love money. You wouldn’t believe it but it’s true. My friend wrote about value investing and totally got like, 40 views in a day after two days of having the blog. I had to sell out for a week not writing about money in order to achieve that sort of readership.

2)   Tag your posts under “politics” – for some reason (myself included), we just can’t get enough of politics. It’s one of those weird topics where people will want to read the same thing over and over again, written by a different person. Of course, you have to choose Democratic or Republican. You have to support a mainstream side, otherwise you’ll be dismissed as “(left/right)-wing nut-job, even despite the fact that your fringe view is right and everyone else’s is wrong. The world is a cruel place.

3)   Humor – convey your blog as humor. It’s the end of the day. At the end of the day, nobody wants to read about a weighty comparison of Crime and Punishment and the today’s laws on the death penalty. Just let ‘em have some lolcatz or something.

4)   Tag it under “writing” – everything’s writing, so it totally counts.

5)   Seek out fairly popular blogs where links to that site are automatically conveyed on it. That way, no matter how obscure your blog is, procrastinating readers will still be linked to it! Screw Google’s popularity-based algorithms!

6)   If you’re blogging with WordPress, you can find the most popular tags and just use all of them! This post will probably be tagged with “Art”, “Local”, “2011”, and “Islam.” And if someone who wants to read about Picasso, the Farmer’s Market, or the Syrian uprisings sees this instead, so be it. For I am the mysterious “you” in this article, and I’m really desperate for attention.

Proposed Subtitles

August 5, 2011

Any reader will probably take immediate note of the lack of any kind of witty or humorous subtitle adorning “Boundless Rationality” on the front page. This is not out of laziness, but rather indecision. Here is a short list of subtitles that have been considered, at one point or another:

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Is American History Inverting Itself?

August 5, 2011

Barack Obama: The Democrats’ Richard Nixon? – Bruce Bartlett

While my family waits for our mailbox to be set up I act as a sort of go-between mailman, biking over to a USPS office a couple times a week to pick up our mail. In the parking lot, a couple of guys had set up a stand adorned by a poster of Barack Obama’s face with a Hitler-stache. I was able to ignore them for a couple of weeks because I knew these were the guys who thought Obama wasn’t “Kenyan Socialist” enough. And after the budget deal, I kind of had to agree with them. So I decided to suffer the fools and ask them whether they had considered what they were doing was counterproductive:

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