Sunday, March 18, 2012
Saturday, December 31, 2011
I just finished reading "The Wind up Bird Chronicle," and the plot of it requires that the main character be unreachable by phone when he is outside of his house. How different a world that was, where going out into the world to meet other people actually isolated you in some ways. This dated the novel entirely. It became a novel about sometime last century instead of just a novel.
Consider writing a story about someone who gets lost on a road trip or a walk. This is an archetypical setup, but how difficult it would be to do that today, to set that up in a way that rules out all the obvious ways of getting directions in an entirely uninteresting way from our smart phones? I can imagine it now: "My battery was too low to get signal, and between my two companions, one doesn't have a nationwide data plan, and the other is with a second tier carrier with poor 3g coverage, so miraculously, we have to talk to another person, and thus move the plot forward in an interesting way." Even after all those awkward contortions, that setup probably has a half-life of 5 years.
All of us spend a lot of our lives on our computers, but what we do on them can't be written about in a way that is both poetic and accurate. We just don't have enough words for it. Every humble tool in a leatherworker's arsenal has its own name (the awl for instance.) These things have been around for long enough for that to happen, and to gain the gravity that makes them candidates for metaphor. The pen is still mightier than the sword, even though we no longer use either. The keyboard may be mightier than the cruise missile, but I can't imagine saying that with any dramatic weight.
The basic ways we do common things are not only different, but changing from year to year. Henceforth a novel will have to choose a time period in which to take place, and choosing "now" will make it historical fiction by the time it is published.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 9:52 PM
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
TLDR version: People optimize E(Log(x)). Big organizations should optimize E(Log(Σ x)), but because they are composed of many people, they optimize ΣE(log(x)).
Logarithmic Utility CurvesSuppose someone offers you a 50% chance of a $1M prize, or a 10% chance of a $10M prize. Most people who don’t already have a lot of money would take the first, more certain option, even though the expected value of the second is double that of the first. ($0.5M vs $1M). $1M would improve my life a lot. $10M would also improve my life a lot, but not so much more than $1M that I’m willing to risk getting nothing. Economists call this “risk aversion.” and model it using a “utility curve.” Though quite abstract, it corresponds pretty well to intuition. The idea is that $10M isn’t “worth” 10x as much to me as $1M, so I have to account for that before I take the expected value. The most common utility curve used in simple models is logarithmic, both because it’s mathematically simple, and close enough to reality for most purposes. Intuitively, no matter how much money I make, I’m willing to put in a linear amount of additional effort in order to raise my income level by 10%, so you end up with logarithmic utility.
To compare these two offers, before we take the expected value, we’ll take the log of the outcomes.
log(1M) ~ 6,
log(10M) ~ 7,
0.5 * 6 > 0.1 * 7, so we take the first offer as observed.
Rather than optimizing E(x), we optimize E(log(x)) and get behavior somewhat like what a real person would do.
OrganizationsIt makes sense that an organization should have a utility curve looking like a log. Going out of business (log 0) is -infinity as observed, and companies care about percentage improvements rather than absolute improvements just like individuals do. I apologize for not having better arguments that this is the way organizations should behave. This is a blog post, not a research paper. :)
This means that if the output of each employee is x, the outcome for the company as a whole is Σ x, and the company should be optimizing E(log(Σ x)).
How do they actually behave? The company will behave in the way that the aggregate of its individuals behave. If individuals are rewarded in proportion to their personal outcomes rather than the company’s outcomes, they’ll behave by optimizing their personal utility function. As a result, the company as a whole will optimize Σ E(log(x)).
Big organizations apply the risk-aversion of an individual to losses that are teeny relative to the size of the organization, because people care more about their individual risk than the risk to the company. Ideally, a company should have many people working on huge improvements with a small probability of success. In reality, it's almost impossible to structure incentives so that doing things with a small chance of success is a good personal strategy. It’s hard to reward competence and not outcomes. If you reward outcomes, the company will be risk averse. Having a few engineers work for years on something that doesn’t finally work is a teeny risk to the company, but potentially a huge risk to the careers of those engineers.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 8:47 PM
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Each of these graphs plots over time the fraction that one word constitutes of all words in books mined from the Google Books project.
Westward expansion of the U.S.
One invested in railroads, the other, canals.
New religions of the last 200 years.
Note how people didn't start capitalizing "black" until the mid '60s, even though it had been used as a descriptor as often as "colored" for a long time. Note the different curves for "negress" and "Negress." Capital "Negress" rose in usage alongside "Negro woman" and was nearly as common in the '40s, but half as common in the '70s. Lowercase "negress" was mostly replaced by capitalized versions, which were then replaced as well.
Industrialization of food.
Pawpaws were more popular than blueberries, and gooseberries were more popular than raspberries!
Notice how HIV lags AIDS, and condom is correlated more with HIV than with AIDS.
Israel and Palestine as a people and as a place
The names of Muslims
It's 2:00 AM, and there's still worlds to explore just off the top of my head. This is a treasure trove. Google Books Team, this is an amazing accomplishment. I used to envision that this is how history would be done in 50 years when the digital age has ensured that anything that someone cares enough about to transfer is preserved. Now we're getting to do that sort of history, today.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 11:29 PM
Monday, July 19, 2010
The movie is great. Go see it. What I'm about to write will be entirely spoiler free.
Inception will leave you distrusting your own perceptions in the manner of Descartes's Demon, more so than The Matrix ever did. It does this I think because the experience of the characters in the movie entering and leaving dreams is so similar to our experience entering and leaving the movie. "Waking up" from a good movie is a very similar feeling to waking up from a dream.
When we talk about "suspending disbelief," it isn't supposed to be something you do, but rather something that happens automatically if the movie succeeds in drawing you in. When dreaming, we tolerate wild violations of physics and causality without it ever decreasing our emotional involvement. The objective of a good movie is to tap into that level of credulity, and it wouldn't surprise me if someone discovered that the same pathways in our brains are involved.
When Christopher Nolan was writing the dialogue about how addictive it is to be an architect of dreams, he must have been really talking about is how addictive it is to be an architect of shared dreams: movies.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 1:50 PM
Thursday, June 24, 2010
Every male in the U.S. who goes to a prom or is someone's groomsman has likely been fitted for a tuxedo at the Men's Wearhouse. Theoretically, the Men's Wearhouse should have the most comprehensive database of men's sizing information of any company. There have been a lot of weddings among my close friends this year, and I assumed that after the first fitting I'd be able to rent subsequent tuxes without going to the store in person. Amazingly, according to one of the attendants, they throw away all information about the customer after 6 months.
This loss goes beyond convenient tuxedo rentals. With this much information about me, they could be delivering clothes custom-tailored overseas to my doorstep at a price no other company could match. That much opportunity is certainly worth the cost of a few dozen more machines. Ancillary data produced by your business can become more valuable than the profits from the business itself. Don't throw anything away.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 11:47 AM
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Imagine if Lauryn Hill became a geek, teamed up with Outkast, and wrote two concept albums about an android uprising in the futuristic city of Metropolis. The result would sound something like Janelle Monae's inaugural two albums, Metropolis, and The ArchAndroid, the first three acts of a six act story. The songs flow seamlessly (literally) from one to the next, usually jumping genres in the process. She can wail, she can scat, she can croon, she can rap, she can dance (oh she can dance), and she can sound like GLaDOS when necessary. Orchestral interludes bookend the chapters; In one, she puts words to a snippet of Claire De Lune.
Pitchfork loves her too. Historically, the intersection of the albums I like and the albums they bother to review has been approximately 0, so these two recommendations are about as independent as they come. Go have a listen! Every track can be heard for free at the links above.
My favorites so far: Sincerely, Jane, Tightrope, and Oh, Maker.
Posted by Ryan Moulton at 10:22 PM