Tuesday, September 30, 2008

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, mathematician and risk analyst, quoted in "How to keep your head in scary situations", New Scientist, 27 August 2008.

Context from the article:
Some argue that the media's focus on shocking or traumatic news stimulates the intuitive, non-thinking side of our decision-making and is at the root of many misjudgements. "We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press," says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, co-director of the Decision Research Laboratory at the London Business School. For an illustration of this, look no further than the vastly different perceptions of the risks from terrorism and lightning strikes, each of which has killed roughly the same number of Americans since records began.

A good example of how graphic media coverage can distort our perceptions of real events is the finding by James Ost at the University of Portsmouth, UK, and colleagues that people who were highly exposed to news reports of the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005 were more likely to recall things about the attacks that they could never have witnessed, such as whether or not the bus that was blown up in Tavistock Square was moving at the time (Memory, vol 16, p 76).

. . .

Taleb thinks teaching people the facts about risks will not help to change behaviour. He says it would be more productive to teach people to screen out the information that distorts our decision-making than to teach them to use general information better. "If it was possible to teach people to adjust their behaviour to risks, we wouldn't have smokers. But we do. Our intelligence doesn't translate into behaviour the way we think it should."
Taleb is also quoted as saying:
"Put wax in your ears. People are more afraid of flying than driving because the press does not report car accidents. I never watch the news. Only listen to news you get in a social setting, the things people talk about. Our brains cannot deal with the overload of information. Having a lot of data is not good for anyone trying to make a decision."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Most mathematicians would sell their mothers into slavery to find out whether NP is distinct from P

--- mathematician Ian Stewart in "Solving postal problem could win million-dollar prize", New Scientist, 23 June 2008

Quote in context:

All this classification has led to a rather fundamental question, and whoever cracks it will take the Clay prize: is NP really any different from P? To put it plainly, if it is easy to check the accuracy of any proposed solution to a problem, must there be an easy way to solve the problem in the first place?

The smart money says NP problems need not be P: even if it is easy to check any proposed solution to a problem, you can't solve that problem efficiently by making repeated guesses and checking them in turn, because the sheer number of possibilities is too large. Think of opening a combination lock by trying every combination in turn. A single satisfying "click" greets the correct answer, but if you are dealing with a sophisticated lock you could spend a lifetime trying successive combinations. Guessing at a computer password is another example.

Even without the Clay prize as motivation, most mathematicians would sell their mothers into slavery to find out whether NP is distinct from P because it is such a baffling and fundamental problem. The truly tantalising thing about this conundrum is that it is an example of an "NP-complete" problem. NP-complete problems are a subset of NP problems and are special in that if an efficient solution to any of them can be found, then that same solution can be used to solve any NP problem efficiently. In other words, finding an efficient way to solve any NP-complete problem means we have shown that all NP problems are effectively P.

An adventure is just misfortune properly reconsidered

--- Michael Lindell, director of the Hazard Reducation and Recovery Center in College Station, Texas, quoted in "Gustav holdouts' tales give evacuees pause" by Patrik Jonsson, The Christian Science Monitor, 4 September 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

what's in the public interest is not what the public is interested in

--- Terry Pratchett, through a character referring to journalist William de Worde, in The Truth (2001) p. 188

"The young man is also an idealist. He has yet to find out that what's in the public interest is not what the public is interested in."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools

--- Thomas Hobbes, (1651), Leviathan (1651) Pt. I, Ch. 4, quoted by Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought (2007), p. 151

A little more of the Hobbes quote:

Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.

The context in Pinker leading up to this quote:

The theory of conceptual semantics, which proposes that word senses are mentally represented as expressions in a richer and more abstract language of thought, stands at the center of this circle, compatible with all of the complications. Word meanings can vary across languages because children assemble and fine-tune them from more elementary concepts. They can be precise because the concepts zero in on some aspects of reality and slough off the rest. And they can support our reasoning because they represent lawful aspects of reality – space, time, causality, objects, intentions, and logic – rather than the system of noises that developed in a community to allow them to communicate. Conceptual semantics fits, too, with our commonsense notion that words are not the same as thoughts, and indeed, that much of human wisdom consists of not mistaking one for the other.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

It's supposed to be a cloud, not a wall

--- Pam Heath, responding to difficulties we were having sharing a file on Windows Live SkyDrive, personal email, 7 Sep 2008 (the same day I was failing to get tech support on a failure of Outlook to sync with Hotmail)

Words are fools / Who follow blindly, once they get a lead / But thoughts are kingfishers . . .

--- Siegfried Sassoon, in Limitations, quoted by Steven Pinker in The Stuff of Thought (2007), p. 151

Excerpt from the poem:


If you could crowd them into forty lines!
Yes; you can do it, once you get a start;
All that you want is waiting in your head,
For long-ago you’ve learnt it off by heart.

. . .

You’ve got your limitations; let them sing,
And all your life will waken with a cry:
Why should you halt when rapture’s on the wing
And you’ve no limit but the cloud-flocked sky?...

. . .

I told you it was easy! ... Words are fools
Who follow blindly, once they get a lead.
But thoughts are kingfishers that haunt the pools
Of quiet; seldom-seen: and all you need
Is just that flash of joy above your dream.
So, when those forty platitudes are done,
You’ll hear a bird-note calling from the stream
That wandered through your childhood; and the sun
Will strike the old flaming wonder from the waters....
And there’ll be forty lines not yet begun.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Harvard Business School is a factory for unhappy people

--- "Cedric", a former HBS classmate, quoted by Philip Delves Broughton in Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School, Penguin: 2008, p. 268

Quote in context:

I met Cedric for lunch in a noodle bar close to his office in Manhattan. He had gotten the job he wanted, at the investment bank . . . We began talking about everyone in our class and how they were getting along. Several had already left the jobs they had taken upon graduating, while others were seriously considering doing so. Why, I asked Cedric, had they taken these jobs in the first place? It's not as though we didn't know what they would involve.

"HBS," he said, hoisting a ball of noodles to his mouth, "is a factory for unhappy people. We have so many choices, and yet so few people seem happy about that. It just makes them anxious. And more anxious. And then they make terrible decisions about their lives. But," he added, "these are mostly very good people. People from good families with good values. I can't figure out what happens. I think they just get desperate."

Friday, September 05, 2008

Before the garden maker designs the garden he must thoroughly design the owner

"Before the garden maker designs the garden he must thoroughly design the owner. Unless the garden maker can keep the owner in check, the garden design will fail from the beginning. A garden maker who can't design an owner can't design a garden either."

--- Mirei Shigemori, master of the modern Japanese dry landscape garden, "Shinsakuteiki" in Shigemori Mirei Sakuhinshū: Niwa-Kamigami e no Apurōchi, cited in Christian Tschumi, Mirei Shigemori: Modernizing the Japanese Garden, Stone Bridge Press: 2005, p. 116, footnote 63.