Peter Norvig, the meaning of polynomials, debugging as psychotherapy

I saw Peter Norvig give a great general-audience talk on AI at Berkeley when I was there last month.  A few notes from his talk.

• “We have always prioritized fast and cheap over safety and privacy — maybe this time we can make better choices.”
• He briefly showed a demo where, given values of a polynomial, a machine can put together a few lines of code that successfully computes the polynomial.  But the code looks weird to a human eye.  To compute some quadratic, it nests for-loops and adds things up in a funny way that ends up giving the right output.  So has it really ”learned” the polynomial?  I think in computer science, you typically feel you’ve learned a function if you can accurately predict its value on a given input.  For an algebraist like me, a function determines but isn’t determined by the values it takes; to me, there’s something about that quadratic polynomial the machine has failed to grasp.  I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, just a cultural difference to be aware of.  Relevant:  Norvig’s description of “the two cultures” at the end of this long post on natural language processing (which is interesting all the way through!)
• Norvig made the point that traditional computer programs are very modular, leading to a highly successful debugging tradition of zeroing in on the precise part of the program that is doing something wrong, then fixing that part.  An algorithm or process developed by a machine, by contrast, may not have legible “parts”!  If a neural net is screwing up when classifying something, there’s no meaningful way to say “this neuron is the problem, let’s fix it.”  We’re dealing with highly non-modular complex systems which have evolved into a suboptimally functioning state, and you have to find a way to improve function which doesn’t involve taking the thing apart and replacing the broken component.  Of course, we already have a large professional community that works on exactly this problem.  They’re called therapists.  And I wonder whether the future of debugging will look a lot more like clinical psychology than it does like contemporary software engineering.
Tagged , , ,

Vacuum cleaner on sale

I was explaining the “regular price” scam to CJ the other day. A store sells a vacuum cleaner for \$79.95. One day, they put up a sign saying “SALE! Regular price, \$109.95; now MARKED DOWN to \$79.95.” The point is to create an imaginary past that never was, a past where vacuum cleaners cost \$109.95, a difficult past from which the store has generously granted you respite.
This is what Trump’s team is doing. They’re trying to create an imaginary past in which the last 5 years of life in America was characterized by ubiquitous street crime, unchecked terrorism, and mass unemployment. So that life in America in 2017 and 2018 will seem comparatively placid, safe, and prosperous. Look how much I saved you on this goddamn vacuum cleaner. You’re welcome.

Tagged

Couldn’t find my phone yesterday morning.  I definitely remembered having it in the car on the way home from the kids’ swim lesson, so I knew I hadn’t left it.  “Find my iPhone” told me the phone was on the blacktop of the elementary school, about 1000 feet from my house.  What?  Why?  Then a few minutes later the location updated to the driveway of a bank, closer to my house but in the other direction.  So I went over to the bank and looked around in the driveway, even peering into the garbage shed and seeing if my phone was in their dumpster.

But why did I do that?  It was terrible reason.  There was no chain of events leaving my phone at the bank, or at the school, which wasn’t incredibly a prior unlikely.  I should have reasoned:  “The insistence of Find my iPhone that my phone is at the bank drastically increases the probability my phone is at the bank, but that probability started out so tiny that it remains tiny, and the highest-expected-utility use of my time is to keep looking around my house and my car until I find it.”

Anyway, it was in the basement.

Tagged

Roger Ailes, man of not many voices

Among those who did speak on the record to Mr. Sherman is Stephanie Gordon, an actress who in one part of that show dropped the towel she wore. She was asked by Mr. Ailes to come to his office for a Sunday photo session and felt extremely uncomfortable about having to do this for the producer. But she says Mr. Ailes could not have been nicer. He took pictures and later sent her a signed print inscribed: “Don’t throw in the towel, you’re a great actress. Roger Ailes.” But Mr. Sherman also has a story from a woman named Randi Harrison, also on the record, who claims Mr. Ailes offered her a \$400-a-week job at NBC, saying: ‘If you agree to have sex with me whenever I want, I will add an extra hundred dollars a week.”

These don’t sound like the voices of the same man.

I think they totally sound like the voices of the same man.  It’s not like someone who sexually harasses one woman can be counted on to sexually harass every single woman within arm’s reach.  Bank robbers don’t rob every single bank!  “Why, I saw that man walk by a bank just the other day without robbing it — the person who told you he was a bank robber must just have been misinterpreting.  Probably he was just making a withdrawal and the teller took it the wrong way.”

And what’s more:  don’t you think Ailes kind of could have been nicer to Gordon?  Like, a lot nicer?  Look at that exchange again.  He put her in a position where she felt extremely uncomfortable, and declined to sexually assault her on that occasion.  Then he sent her a signed print, on which he wrote a message reminding her that he’d seen her naked body.

I think both these stories depict a man who sees women as existing mainly for his enjoyment, and a man who takes special pleasure in letting women know he sees them that way.  One man, one voice.

Tagged , ,

Those other parents

You know those other parents?  The ones who drive their kid the four blocks to school in their SUV?  The ones who sued the school district because their kid wasn’t labeled gifted?  The ones whose children are scheduled every minute of every day?  The ones who don’t let their kids watch Star Wars because they might find the violence upsetting?  The ones who insist that school snacks are free of gluten, genetically modified organisms, and genetically modified gluten?

How are their kids going to turn out?

As emotionally able, as complex, as kind, as outgoing, as open to experience as our kids.  That’s how.

When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Freud (OK, I read a lot of Janet Malcolm writing about Freud and, inspired by that, a little bit of Freud) and I caught a whiff of the good old family romance when I encountered “dadbod”:

“In case you haven’t noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod,” Pearson wrote. “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ ”

“There is just something about the dad bod,” Pearson continued, “that makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.”

OK, I thought, I’m a guy who’s read a lot of Freud, I’m probably reading too much into this.  Sometimes a trend piece is just a trend piece.  But then:

Pearson: My dad has read it. He called me this morning to talk about it. My dad is super into CrossFit. He’s super, super fit and really healthy. He actually found a comment where someone had uploaded a picture from Facebook saying, “This is her, this is actually her and her dad!” My dad looks young. People think we’re dating all the time, because he’s in such great shape. He told me that he got a kick out of it. He sent it to my entire extended family, saying, “Look how funny my daughter is!” He’s really enjoyed the comments and the attention.

Alrighty then.

Tagged , ,

Silence: an experiment

Just back from the NICAR, the tribal gathering of all data-oriented journalists, where I gave a talk about the importance of talking openly about uncertainty.

Last night at the conference there was a moment which, for reasons having to do with the demographics of mathematics, was unusual for me:  I was standing in a circle of five people, talking about a technical subject, centered on a talk I hadn’t attended, and the four people other than me were all women.  And it occurred to me:  this is actually a situation where it would be totally natural and appropriate for me not to contribute to the conversation.  So let me try.  Let me try to actually let this discussion go on for five minutes without opening my mouth.

And first of all let me say that I successfully did it.  But it was hard.  I felt twitchy and uncomfortable, just standing there silently.  And it was hard for me to learn about the topic being discussed, because some portion of my mind was still working hard at autogenerating answers to “What could I say now?”, interfering with my ability to listen.

I’m not proud of this.  I think when you’re a man, and you get older and acquire some amount of professional status, you start to feel like it is a kind of universal physical fact that people need to hear your view about the topic under discussion.  Whatever topic it is!  Whether you actually know anything about it or not!

Or maybe it has nothing to do with general social forces, and it’s just me.  In either case, I’m going to try being silent more often and see if I can get used to it.

Tagged , ,

The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy

Everybody’s talking about Laurie Penny’s awesome essay responding to Scott Aaronson’s courageously candid blog comment, all touched off by the canceling of Walter Lewin’s online course after he sexually harrassed one of the students.

Scott is frustrated that shy, nerdy men are seen as “privileged.”  He thinks they’re the opposite of privileged.  I don’t see things the way Scott does, but I’m glad he wrote what he wrote.  It must have been pretty hard to do.

Scott feels a certain distance from feminism because of stuff like this:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.

But here’s the thing.  Were those workshops, and the feminist writers he read in college, trying to tell him it was a monstrous thing for a man to try to date a woman?  Here’s one clue:  most feminists, like most women generally, are straight, and date men.  Many of the people leading his sexual-assault prevention workshops probably had boyfriends.  Many of the feminist writers he read were married to men.

So where, if not from feminists, was he getting the idea that a romantic approach was inherently a kind of assault?  That’s patriarchy talking.  It’s patriarchy that gets between your ear and your mind and turns “Be sensitive to the cues of the person you’re approaching and wait for consent” to “You’d better not even try,” because it’s patriarchy that presents conquest and seizure as the only allowable model for a man’s sexuality.

Now here my imaginary Scott Aaronson protests, “but I didn’t think all expression of het interest was assault, only that my own wasn’t guaranteed not to be, and nobody would tell me how to get that guarantee.”  To which I can only say:  yep.  When you take driver’s ed they don’t tell you any formula that absolutely positively guarantees you won’t crash your car, hurt yourself, hurt someone else, ruin your life.  If you demand such a guarantee they’ll tell you “All I can say is never drive, it’s the only way to be sure.”  But if this leads you to never drive, because the risk is too great to be borne?  That’s a problem with your risk assessment, not a problem with driver’s ed.

It’s sad and kind of crushing to read what happened to Scott.  He says he wanted to be a woman, or a sexless being.  He thinks that’s because feminism made it seem intolerable to be a man.  But it wasn’t.  Partly it was because he attached vastly more anxiety to the difficulty of dating than most people, even than most shy, nerdy, romantically inexperienced people (hi, teenaged me!) do.  And partly it was because patriarchy gave him a false and vicious idea of what a man was.

That first line again:

Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified.

He was both!  You can be — in fact, it’s hard for a man not to be — both beneficiary and victim of sexism.  Those two things don’t cancel each other out like positive and negative terms in an equation.  They are both there, and they both count.

Turd and bean soup is a terrible soup.  But:  when your friend, who has only turds, says, “I’m hungry, I wish my soup had some beans in it,” it is no reply at all to say “but my soup is filled with turds and the beans kind of taste like turd.”  They are still beans.  Even as your mouth fills with the rich flavor of turd and you feel like puking, the beans nourish and enrich you.

Here’s another comment on that New York Times piece:

“mystery number game …. ‘I’m thinking of a mystery number, and when I multiply it by 2 and add 7, I get 29; what’s the mystery number?’ ”

See, that’s what I mean, the ubiquitous Common Core approach to math teaching these days wouldn’t allow for either “games” or “mystery”: they would insist that your son provide a descriptive narrative of his thought process that explains how he got his answer, they would insist on him drawing some matrix or diagram to show who that process is represented pictorially.

And your son would be graded on his ability to provide this narrative and draw this diagram of his thought process, not on his ability to get the right answer (which in child prodigies and genius, by definition, is out of the ordinary, probably indescribable).

Actually, I do often ask CJ to talk out his process after we do a mystery number.  I share with the commenter the worry of slipping into a classroom regime where students are graded on their ability to recite the “correct” process.  But in general, I think asking about process is great.  For one thing, I learn a lot about how arithmetic facility develops in the mind.  I asked CJ the other night how many candies he could buy if each one cost 7 cents and he had a dollar.  He got the right answer, 14, not instantly but after a little thought.  I asked him how he got 14 and he said, “Three 7s is 21, and five 21s is a dollar and five cents, so 15 candies is a little too much, so it must be 14.”

How would you have done it?

Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.