Monday, 22 January 2018

Best Drop Ever!

I came across a video of what was supposed to be the "Best Drop Ever" from Carl Cox, and then Skrillex. Horrible stuff with all the subtlety of a slap on the back. "Oi mate, here's the beat."

The 'Drop' in case you don't go near certain types of dance music, is the moment the beat kicks back in after a floaty, beatless period of chords or other music designed a) to give the dancers a rest, and b) to make them wait for the beat so they appreciate it more. 'Bangers' hardly ever have drops, or if they do, the floaty bit is very short.

The longest build-up and deepest drop I know is not by a DJ at all. Not even The Great Digweed has matched the drop on this track. I play this over headphones at work, and it's just plain awesome.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Single-Event Probability Fallacy

Here’s a choice. I can give you £50. Or you can play a game which gives you a 50% chance of winning £100. Which do you want to do?

Mostly people take the money. All behavioural economists, including a couple of guys with the ‘Nobel’ in Economics, think that makes us irrational. Well, maybe not.

Here’s the really simple rebuttal.

When the outcomes have equal expected values (probability-weighted values), as this game does, then, by definition, expected values can’t help us decide. In that case, we bring on some other idea or rule. Many of these will work in some circumstances, but will fail for some cunningly-constructed example. That failure doesn’t mean the rule is useless in every case, just those cases constructed by a behavioural economist to make a point. Here’s my rule: “I know what you’re thinking: which way will the coin fall? Well, seeing as how this is a behavioural economics experiment with a very limited budget, you gotta ask yourself: do I feel lucky? Well, do you? Do you feel lucky?” Yep. Thought so. Take the £50 instead.

When this example is presented, at least by a cute French PhD pitching their start-up, there’s a suggestion that given two options with equal expected values, we ‘should’ choose the one that offers the largest pay-off. What that proves is that I’m conservative, and the cute French PhD is a risk-taker, which is why she’s in a start-up and I’m a wage-slave.

If the algorithm her company is developing treats my decision as a guide to my temperament, I almost don’t have a problem.

Except. There’s always an unstated assumption that you have one shot at playing the game. Investment decisions are one-shot, unless we keep changing our minds, when the fees will eat up any gains we make. Now here’s the catch: the kind of probability that applies to single events is not the kind of probability we can use to calculate expected values.

We talk in an ordinary way about single events being likely or unlikely, and while it’s never exactly clear what we mean by it, one way to think of it is that we should devote our limited resources to the the option we consider ‘most likely’ and that we can also do something about. Whatever we do mean by talking about the outcomes of a single event being likely or unlikely, it isn’t the frequency of those outcomes over a run of that event. Because we’ve only got one.

We can have ‘degrees of belief’ about the outcome of single events - because we can have ‘degrees of belief’ about anything. But it make no sense to multiply degrees of belief by pay-offs and treat the result as something real.

Suppose you’re playing a game where outcome A pays off £50 and outcome B pays nothing. The odds of A to B are 50:50. The expected pay-off is £25 per play. In the long run. This is frequencies. It makes sense to multiply frequencies by pay-offs, because that’s a shorthand way of playing the game in the long run. The calculation corresponds to something you can observe.

Now suppose you multiply the pay-offs by your degrees of belief. The result will be £25, with a degree of belief of 100% (that it’s the correct expected value, not that it’s what you will win per play). But that’s not a pay-off of the game. It corresponds to nothing real. You cannot believe that on one shot of the game you will win £25, since the only outcomes are £0 or £50. So multiplying degrees of belief by pay-offs is not always meaningful: in fact, it is meaningful only when those beliefs are about frequencies, and it’s only accurate when the degrees of belief correspond with the long-run frequencies.

That’s the mistake the behavioural economists make in the first example. They think that we should calculate an expected value for the one-shot we have at the £100-or-Nothing offer, see that it is £50 and say that it's equivalent to the other offer. Except it isn't. The expected £50 is a fiction. The other £50 is a certainty. Somewhere in the back of our minds, most of us can see the difference. The behavioural economist cannot.

So does the example we started with really prove that I am more risk-averse than a cute French PhD? No. Because one of the choices does not involve any risk at all. The example is testing my preference for a sure thing over a game of chance. Only a degenerate gambler takes a risk over a sure thing. What would measure risk-aversion?

Here’s a different game. You can either spin Wheel One, which will pay off £50 with 50% probability, or Wheel Two, which will pay off £100 with 25% probability. Same expected value of £25. That is a choice between risks.

Does this matter? Financial regulators have lapped up behavioural economics. They think it’s telling them about we make irrational decisions, or maybe just bad ones, and how they can make regulations to stop the Nasty Banks from cheating us. Start-ups are designing programs which incorporate, in a Regulator-approved manner, these ‘insights’ for banks and advisors to use when selling you investments, and they have big-name clients. So yes, this stuff matters.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Is Dr Greg House a Dreysfus Expert?

My 2018 Box Set is all eight seasons of House. I watched my way through S1 during the Great Flu, and have despatched the first disc of S2 already. Dr Greg House is supposed to be the best diagnostician in the USA, and the question that will occur to you and me is, well, is he a Dreyfussian ‘expert’.

Hubert Dreyfus is a phenomenologist whose most well-known work came from trying to understand the failure of so-called ‘expert systems’ that, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were going to replace everyone by now. And yet haven’t. The reason that rule-based, as opposed to computationally-heavy algorithms, failed, Dreyfus suggested, was that experts don’t use rules. More than that, the process of becoming an expert involved abandoning detached rule-based decisions and replacing it with a huge stock of special cases and a sophisticated pattern-matching process that the human brain seems to be good at creating but can’t be reduced to rules.

In Dreyfus’ model there are five stages to acquiring and practicing a skill. The novice is given simple techniques and processes to use and explicit rules about when these can be used; the advanced beginner has a larger stock of techniques and processes, and has added an amount of judgement in how these are used to deal with the tasks they are given; competency begins when the practitioner has too many rules and conditions and must make a decision about how to solve the problem in front of them (and it becomes problem-solving because it’s not immediately obvious which rules apply and which techniques will work). This stage must involve emotional engagement to be effective: the practitioner must experience hope and upset during its progress, and satisfaction or disappointment at the result. The emotional involvement is what seems to set the more complex learning processes going.

At the proficient stage, the act of recognising what kind of problem it is becomes more and more automatic, but the practitioner still needs to think about what to do, and may apply rules to determine the action. (“Ah yes, it’s Watkins’ Irritation: do we use hapagobulin or leave it to pass on its own?”) The Expert passes straight from seeing the situation to prescribing the action: to the Novice, the Expert “just seems to know what to do”.

So back to Dr Greg House. Each episode of House has a period of Shakespearean comic relief, called the Clinic. House has to see regular patients and treat them. These he dispatches within the minute: a glance at the person, listen to the symptoms, and he has the answer. “Your husband in cheating on you, you’re losing sleep and taking too many pills” or something similar. We’ve seen this before: it’s Sherlock Holmes. Holmes combined acute observation with a huge amount of background knowledge and experience to tell people things about themselves they thought were hidden. Conan Doyle called it ‘deduction’, but it wasn’t. It was Dreyfusian expertise, reconstructed as deduction for the benefit of the audience. Faced with regular life, House is smart as a whip.

Each episode of House also has the Puzzling Patient. This is the patient whose symptoms don’t make sense. House and his team spend the episode trying and rejecting one hypothesis after another, often with dramatic effects on the patient. The Puzzling Patient defeats the experts because their symptoms don’t fit one paradigm or another: there’s always a symptom missing or a symptom left over. Sometimes the patient has been treated before for something that matched some of their symptoms. In other words, the Puzzling Patient disables the Expert’s expertise.

So now there’s nothing for it but experiment. When the experiment goes wrong, the team react immediately and correctly. Faced with an episode that their Expert can recognise, they respond as Experts. And if the experiments don’t work, it’s time for the oddest feature of the show, the break-in to the patient’s living quarters. House’s catchphrase is ‘Everybody Lies’. It’s a way for him to remember that the patient may not be telling him everything they need to. In one episode, a Mexican handyman never mentions that he works at an illegal cock-fighting event Saturday nights. If he had, House would have immediately suspected a reasonably well-known problem. So the break-ins and other devices are there to find something the patient isn’t saying, or may not even know is relevant.

And when the final piece of information is found, the diagnosis is immediate and dealt with Expertly. Each episode of House is about the search for the missing fact that will make the Puzzling Patient no longer Puzzling, but an instance of one of the thousands of special cases in House’s Expert list.

And it all, so far, ends happily ever after.

DISCLAIMER: Yes I know the hospital in House bears the same resemblance to reality as the CSI lab in CSI: Vegas does to real CSI Labs; and that any doctor who behaved like House would be out on his ear in a month. This is TV, not a reality show.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

December 2017 Review

The month started on a high note. I saw the Basquiat exhibition Boom For Real at the Barbican, followed by lunch at the Cote Brasserie across the road. The exhibition deserves its status as “the one to see” and that many people new to art will remember for a long while. I find the Barbican itself now doesn’t deserve the brickbats that used to get thrown at it. And I had no idea there was an ornamental lake in the middle.

I read Joshua Ferris’ To Rise Again At A Decent Hour; Michael Lewis’ The Undoing Project, about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky; Svetlana Katok’s p-adic Analysis Compared With Real, which is very clear, should you want to learn about p-adic numbers; started Charles Hugh Smith’s Money and Work Unchained; and finished Richard Yates’ Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. And I continued my bedtime reading of the first volume of G W F Hegel’s Aesthetics. I read and looked at the pictures in Julian Schnabel’s C.V.J. Nicknames of Maitre D’s and Other Excerpts From Life, and read the book of the Basquiat exhibition, also titled Boom For Real.

I saw S1 of House; 1992, a series about that pivotal year in Italian history; and Suicide Squad and Fandango on DVD.

Sis and I dined at the Marleybone Picture, which was an experience we will be repeating. Sis cooked Christmas lunch and we all fell asleep watching TV.

Then the sickness and fever hit, and I was not really recovered until about the 31st. I made myself go to the gym every morning from the 28th to the 31st, and was pretty darn weak the first couple of days.

Now here’s why I do this. Because in my memory, December was a horrible write-off. But in fact, while I was well, I did a reasonable amount of reading and was not totally inactive. It was a horrible flu, and no consolation that others had it as well.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Thoughts at the Start of 2018

Entrepeneurs in Cars had a list of six lessons learned in 2017. Three caught my attention:

1. Only a very small proportion of men are willing to do the work to make themselves a better version of themselves
2. Manage your energy - give a frak only when it’s going to benefit you
3. If it’s not Hell Yeah, it’s Frak No

And I’m going to take the first and third as somewhere to start.

Am I one of that small proportion of men prepared to do the work to be a better version of myself? Ask what I would look like if I wasn’t sober, exercising, single and employed. I’d be a mess. I’d be on filthy drugs with names ending in ‘statin’ or ‘formin’. I would have no muscle tone, I would have a gut, with even worse body-fat than I have now. I would be paying alimony, living in a squalid flat because that’s all I could afford after the divorce. I would be alone in an empty marriage. If I wasn’t sober, I’d be dead. And don’t doubt that. Ever. I would be mostly unemployed, with occasional breaks of clerical work through agencies: if I was lucky, I’d have a postal round.

You know what? I pretty much am a better version of myself. Actually, as long as I’m sober, I a better version of myself. Two things.

First, maintenance is a bitch. When you’re ‘better’, very few of your options take you to ‘even better’, and those are hard work. Enough is enough. Better is the enemy of the good (old Russian proverb). And so on.

Second, I’m not having as much fun as I could be, in fact, I’m rather good at denying myself fun. Some of that is due to the habits of denial acquired by wearing dental braces for eighteen months. Some of it is about logistics, and I’ll get to those.

Next. If it’s not Hell Yeah, it’s Frak No. Now I like this. The idea is that if I’m not immediately up for whatever it is, I don’t talk myself into it because what else am I doing? What this made clear to me is that there are some things I want to do, but talk myself out of, usually on the basis of cost and logistics. I may need to reverse the maxim: if it’s not Frak No, it’s Hell Yeah.

My idea of fun is cultural consumption. That includes good food in nice restaurants. A good few years ago, the culture industry jacked the prices up: £18 for an art movie? £72+ for Shen Yun at the Dominion Theatre? £33 for a concert at the Wigmore Hall? I don’t demur at the prices for modern dance at Sadlers Wells, but that’s because it’s My Thing and there’s no alternative. For £33 I can get a top-end Wagner opera on CD. Wait a few months and I can get the movie on DVD for £10 or less in Fopp. (You can tell I’m a Pricing Guy.) And usually there’s more than the ticket price. If it’s mid-week, I park in Richmond so I can avoid the ultimate buzz-kill of travelling from Waterloo after 20:00. That’s nearly £14. And there’s a supper as well, say £10 or so even for a pizza. Going out in London is expensive.

To which I tell myself, either spend the money or find some other kind of fun.

Logistics. I wake up at 05:30, do a day’s work, and you expect me to be looking forward to a two-hour show at 19:30 and a return commute at 22:00? Especially with a session at the gym and a light meal to pass the time between leaving work and the start of the show. That’s a long, long day, and there ain’t no sleeping-in the next morning. Last year I trapped myself into trying to wake up refreshed and relaxed. As if I could do that with an extra sleep cycle. But dragging one’s ass out of bed into the kitchen every morning can lead to the belief that There Must Be Something I Can Do. There isn’t, but I fell for it. Trying to get enough sleep and wake up at 05:30 means no activity in the evening at all. Late afternoon at the latest. Movies that start at 18:30 in town are verboten. Even 18:30 locally could be a bit late.

I think the objection-by-logistics is an excuse for not doing something. I live where I live, not in central London. This is one of those suck-it-up things. And right now, it’s damn cold, and that makes any kind of going out feel like a really bad idea.

No pretty, full-of-motivation conclusions, but for the moment that’s where I am.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Snowflakes and the Religious Police

Sis asked me to explain what a Snowflake is. So here goes.

More experienced readers will remember the mythical Maiden Aunt, in whose presence all sorts of things could not be discussed, mostly sex, money, politics with which she disagreed, and Modern Art. Not offending Maiden Aunts was a priority at family gatherings, and Maiden Aunts were very clear that you should not Offend People, which always meant her. Some of these Maiden Aunts managed to get media attention, and Spoke Out Against Offensive Things. Which makes for good headlines on a slow news day, and if there are enough op-eds about something that isn’t really a thing, it becomes a real thing. After a while, everyone realised that Maiden Aunts were using their delicate feelings to control what could and could not be said, and Maiden Aunts were ignored.

Your Maiden Aunt was a calculating old bat who knew exactly what she was doing. She didn’t have personality problems and she wasn’t looking for an edge in her career. Snowflakes are younger and have emotional disorders expressed in outrage and upset: otherwise both young Snowflakes and old Maiden Aunts have weird hair colour, piercings and body-fat ratio problems.

Snowflakes are by definition female. The White male equivalents are: Manginas, men who express solidarity with feminism and women’s issues, but who otherwise may be able to bench 200lbs and fix a blocked drain; and Soyboys, an insult of such depth it is almost impossible to convey. Soyboys have low testosterone, flabby-thin torsos, ridiculous left-wing political beliefs, believe that White Privilege is a thing, have never approached a girl in their lives, can’t cut code or fix a leak in a water pipe, did some useless Liberal Arts degree and if they have a job, it’s usually in the public sector or a charity. They think that espousing Snowflake beliefs will get them laid, which is so wrong it’s embarrassing. They are traitors to their gender. Obviously they don’t lift, have never read Fight Club or any kind of technical manual, and they eat a lot of food with soy in it. Soy strips testosterone out of a European’s metabolism.

Well-meaning, impressionable and ill-informed people who take up political causes that are actually against their interests are not always Snowflakes, but simply Silly Young People (or Dumb Older People). A couple of years ago, waving “Immigrants Welcome” banners was all the rage for impressionable German women. Pointing out that those immigrants thought that western women were little better than whores, got you called called rayciss, Islamophobiss and a jerk. Those banners have disappeared now, and the impressionable German women have different impressions.

Young people who find it difficult to turn up to work, learn anything about the business or the company, won’t read the manuals and don’t really get the whole private-sector serve-the-customer thing are not always Snowflakes, although many Snowflakes have those problems. Those people are called ‘Millennials’ or sometimes ‘Damn Kids These Days Don’t Want To Put The Work In’.

The essence of Snowflake is being quick to claim personal emotional upset. It doesn’t matter what cause the offence or upset, what really matters is the Snowflake’s feelings. It helps if the Offending Words are rayciss, sexiss, misogyniss, White Privilege, elitiss, or any other political insult that ends in “ss”. Racism is making a genuinely nasty remark about people of colour (it is impossible to racist about White People): rayciss is any remark that the Snowflake says seems to refer to race in any way. I once described a computer as a room full of Chinamen with abacuses, and the resident Snowflake called it rayciss. Because I used the word “Chinamen”.

At that point I knew she was neither a Millenial nor a Snowflake. She was trying to shit-test and / or bully me. She is the modern version of my Maiden Aunt: the Religious Police, and those are the real threat. The Religous Police do the outrage act, and try to enforce the rules of Identity Politics, but have different motives from your Maiden Aunt. There are substantial career and social advantages to being in the Relgious Police: positive discrimination in favour of Women-And-Minorities at work and in the Welfare system; it’s a neat way to bully people at work and in social contexts; it demonstrates moral, excuse me, ethical superiority; and of course, if the public mood is right, it can be used to threaten or remove White Men from their jobs, thus creating promotion opportunities, as well as to impose de facto hiring quotas that advantage Women-and-Minorities.

The enemy of the Religious Police is not a caste system in India that creates the de-facto slavery of millions; nor a religion that allows its male followers to kill their daughters or wives in the name of honour; nor tax-dodging ‘disruptive’ billion-dollar companies that pay their drivers, couriers or warehouse workers about half the living wage, and drop them for being sick for the third time; nor cash-rich employers closing final-salary pension schemes; nor companies offshoring jobs to lower-paid workers in countries where they don’t have main drains and do have ramshackle streets full of prostitutes; nor the lack of job opportunities for young people leaving school… any item on that endless list of serious economic and political ills leaves Religious Policewomen (and they are nearly all women) un-moved.

Nope. Their enemy is White Men. Why? Because career opportunities. Why do Snowflakes hate White Men? Sorry, but I’m not a psychiatrist.

What’s sad is that Snowflakes, who are by definition vulnerable, are being turned into ammunition by the media to advance specific political actions and causes. Watch this sequence.

This reeks of stage-management, either by the show’s producers or by whoever put the poor girl up to it. For the next week, while she will get some you were so brave’s from her friends, for the next year she will be the girl reduced to tears by a Tweet from an old man with orange skin and a silly hairstyle. That’s right up there with 14-year-old MacArthur High School pupil Ahmed Mohamed who took something that looked like a bomb into class. At best the kid was dumb and his parents weren’t paying attention when he packed his case for school, but did the gut menschen ever take that story and run with it. Obama got to look tolerant and cool to the liberalati, and for the rest of his life Ahmed will be the dummy who bought a fake bomb to school.

Finally, the epithet ‘Snowflake’ (abbreviated: snfl) can be used in two circumstances. The first is to dismiss the upset feelings of an actual Snowflake. You’re going to keep him / her out of your life in the future, so what do you care what they think of you? The second is to remind the Religious Police that a) you’re onto their game, and b) they are in danger of being labelled as emotionally unstable, which will sink their career.

Monday, 1 January 2018

A Happy and Prosperous 2018

A Happy and Prosperous 2018 to you all.

Start your year with some Moody Blues

I don’t think I listened to this after 1970, and then I found it on Tidal. Maybe this is buried in my unconscious, or just maybe it’s a good album, even if some of the lyrics could be twee even by late 1960’s standards. Their other albums are not as good, though ‘Nights in White Satin’ is one of those Singles That Made The Sixties.

(If the playlist doesn't work, look it up on your streaming service.)