A Skeptical Audience

So Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, as everybody knows by now. This immediately drew parallels to the Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon ordered his Attorney General to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

At the heart of the matter are three questions. First, whether Comey was the best person for the job. The second question is whether this will hinder any ongoing investigations, specifically the investigation into Russian involvement in the Presidential election; and what if anything will be done to safeguard these investigations.

The third question is the most important, and is simply; which of the first two questions did Trump answer when firing Comey? That is, did he fire Comey because he felt Comey wasn’t a good director? Or did he fire Comey specifically to stop the Russian investigation (or any other)?

If it’s the first, and Comey wasn’t the best fit for the job (or even if Trump just honestly thinks so), then there’s no real problem. If it’s the second, then basically Trump is abusing the office to enact a personal agenda, using the department of justice as a political tool, and obstructing justice. Essentially, what Trump did is either a standard (if somewhat unusual) way of acting as President, or an impeachable offense; either it was as bland as Bill Clinton dismissing FBI director William Sessions, or as corrupt as Nixon firing Cox.

* * *

Having just finished a class on negotiation; I was struck by an study by Huthwaite inc, called “The Behaviors of Successful Negotiators” which looked at (no surprise here) the behaviors of successful negotiators. It was one of those truly great readings, the point of which seems obvious to me after reading it, but never once occurred to me beforehand. There were some behaviors which were kind of boring, (such as skilled negotiators talking more about long term topics), some which were somewhat reasonable but not much use elsewhere (skilled negotiators don’t have a predetermined sequence of when they wish to discuss which issue), but some which were meaningful and profound.

The fact I was most impressed with were the fact that skilled negotiators rarely used words like “generous,” “fair,” or “reasonable” to describe their own offers. Within a negotiation, calling something “fair” which you present, even if you think it is fair, is unlikely to convince your counterparty; it will only serve to aggrevate him or her if they don’t think its fair.

The second fact which I thought was really valuable was that skilled negotiators often made fewer arguments in their favor; but those were typically better quality. That is, if you’re trying to convince a hostile (or even skeptical) audience of a fact, and you present 5 arguments, they’re naturally going to latch on to the weakest argument you make. People are not rational Bayesian calculation machines, 2 strong arguments in favor are greater at convincing humans than 3 strong and 3 weak arguments in favor.

In both cases, the lesson is similar, in convincing a skeptical audience less is often more. Using more neutral language is more persuasive than persuasive language, and using fewer arguments is more persuasive than using many. The stronger you believe something (or come across as believing that thing), the less persuasive you can be to a skeptical audience.

* * *

Today, while packing up my apartment, I was listening to a several months old episode  of Bill Simmons’ podcast, the BS report. Simmons’ guest was one of my favorite essayists, Chuck Klosterman. In it, they were discussing who the NBA MVP will be, Russell Westbrook or James Harden. Klosterman had a very intriguing argument, which essentially went like this (I am of course paraphrasing):

1: The people who favor Westbrook think its obvious that the MVP should be Westbrook and there’s no other choice. (Westbrook averaged a triple double over the season, something that hasn’t been done since the legendary Oscar Robinson).

2: The people who favor Harden think its an interesting question and there are arguments for multiple candidates, but Harden is overall their favorite.

3: The people who are undecided will see the above two arguments, and almost tautologically will relate to 2nd one more. Because (by definition) they haven’t made up their mind, they can relate to those who think its a close race, who favor Harden.

Its an almost brilliant idea, and I have no idea if it will be correct or not, but it has a certain logic to it. Underlying it all is the same lesson, your ability to convince a skeptical party of something can be inversely related to the strength of your own belief.

* * *

Trump’s approval rating is low, but its not historically low. 538.com has him at 41%; Gallup had Obama at the low 40’s for much of 2011 and 2014 (of course this time in 2009 Obama was in the low 60’s, 20 points better than Trump is now.) Gallup had W Bush’s low at 25%, HW Bush at 30%, Clinton at 40%, Reagan at the mid 30’s, Carter at 30%, and Ford at 40%. (the counterclaim is that none of these Presidents were this unpopular this soon in their Presidency, but that’s kind of beside the point).

I’m not a Trump fan, and I certainly don’t think I will be. I see a number of things which Trump has done as being bad, corrupt, or incompetent, and the demeanor in which he has conducted himself has at times seemed unhinged and almost crazy. This to go with his numerous scandals, problems, gaffes, and remarks he made while campaigning and as a public figure.

Yet as much as 41% of American voters still approve of Trump. Why is this?

* * *

All this brings us back to President Trump and James Comey. If you’re already inclined to believe that Trump is a despot you will probably see the Comey situation as analogous to the Saturday Night Massacre, and Trump as obstructing justice. If you’re a fan of Trump you’re much more likely to see the situation as nuanced, or as analogous to Bill Clinton dismissing Director Sessions. And if you’re in between? Well, articles like this probably won’t convince you.

I think that those people who either support Trump or at least still giving him the benefit of the doubt just see all the criticism blending together, drowning itself out. They see Trump detractors reacting to firing Comey in the same way the reacted to Trump’s February 16 press conference. As long as they see the tone and not the substance of their opponents’ arguments, they’ll get no new information, and of course won’t change their minds.

Take an article like this, very anti-Trump, which purports to list all the bad things Trump has done. Yet it seems like half the things listed aren’t things Trump has done, but rather things he’s said or tweeted. Going back to the fact about skilled negotiators, how they will use fewer stronger arguments. Then compare that to the list in the nymag article. For many of the “Trump said this” arguments, if you’re not convinced now, you may not be ever. And if that argument won’t convince a skeptic, then making it will probably make better arguments less convincing.

With a skeptical audience, the strength of your beliefs can often work against you. There’s no shortage of liberal antipathy towards the Trump administration, yet I wonder if the strength of the left’s beliefs is actually hindering its ability to make a convincing argument.

Abimelech and Ben Carson

The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.” But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” – Judges 8:23

“I would love us to bring back our Judeo-Christian values and begin to teach those things and emphasize them at a time other than a political election. Let’s do that. But right now, the train is going off the cliff.” – Ben Carson

In the book of Judges, we see the Gideon and 300 men defeat the Midianites (Gideon originally had 32,000, but the Lord would only act with fewer men, so that Israel would know that it was His doing). After Gideon saved the Israelites, they wished to make him king, as they were getting kind of tired of the whole having faith in God to raise up a judge needed. Gideon wisely refused, but after he died, the Israelites made his son Abimelech rule over Israel. Abimelech was a horrible ruler, instituting Baal worship, murdering his brothers to consolidate power, and waging war against his own cities until he was eventually killed by a woman throwing a rock on him.

Throughout the old testament, whether it’s the Israelites building a golden calf, or Saul attacking the Philistines before commanded by the Lord, there is a pattern of behavior for the Israelites: if they did not abandon the Lord altogether, they at least hedged their bets. The idea of having a King was simple, a powerful ruler could rally the Israelites, have a standing army, plan military strategy, and protect Israel from her enemies; and in so doing keep the alters to Baal and the Asherah poles from Israel. But of course, the Lord saves by many or by few, and the might of Gideon and his 300, or of Jonathan and his armor-bearer, or of David and his sling, are greater than any King or army. The kings the Israelites wanted so badly ended up worshiping Baal and building Asherah poles.

Today, we see that many in the Evangelical Christian community have a great need for a King, or at least a President. Ben Carson wished that we would return to “Judeo-Christian” values, but, “at a time other than a political election.”

Jerry Falwell Jr. supported Trump, arguing that the power of the Supreme court justices which Trump will appoint are of far greater importance than allegations of Sexual misconduct hurled at Trump.

Franklin Graham supported Trump’s travel ban, saying “Some people seem to have forgotten that the priority of the president of the United States is protecting the Constitution and the safety of Americans. That’s exactly what President Trump is trying to do. Taking action to secure our borders had to start somewhere. Is it perfect? Maybe not, but it is a first step.” Yes, Abimelech will may not be a perfect ruler of Israel, but we have to start somewhere.

Graham has also said “We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws.” (as an aside, can we notice the horrible bait and switch presented, debating whether a law is good or not by declaring it the law is absurd in democracy, the whole point of a democracy is that laws are up for debate). He also said that the debate over refugees is “not a Bible issue.”

There are many Christians who are concerned about the supreme court, about religious liberty, about abortion, or about the Johnson amendment. But being a Christian doesn’t just mean working on behalf of God; it means working according to His rule. Many in the Evangelical movement have allied themselves with a man who has become rich beyond belief by building towers which he put his name one. A man who has fleeced his customers, who cheated on multiple wives, a man who used to wealth to buy beauty pageants in order to go back stage and watch the contestants undress. The power of the Supreme court, with its awesome power, is worth allying with such a man, so it is thought. As Abimelech would protect the Israelistes from the Midianites, so too will Donald Trump protect us from ISIS and the democrats.

Solomon, when he became King of Israel, sought to forge alliances with the neighboring countries, and he did that mainly through royal marriages. Yet is was these marriages which brought destruction to Israel, as his wives caused him to stop following the Lord and begin following foreign Gods. Today, many on the religious right are metaphorically in bed with the Trump administration, perhaps because they believe they can change him or bring out the best in him, perhaps because they believe that however imperfect, he is better than any alternative. Yet they should be very careful, lest the Trump administration change them.

As Christians, we’re called to transform our world, to speak out against injustice, to fight iniquity, to provide homes and jobs, protect the innocent. Taking part in politics is part of this; I’m not suggesting we eschew politics altogether (if I was, I wouldn’t be writing this essay in the first place). But politics is inherently dangerous. If we become too focused on the power of this world, we lose sight of who we are, we ally ourselves with evil people and fall not only to the evil we sought to fight, but to the evil within ourselves as well.

Alternative Facts

1: Perhaps the first major news story during Trump’s Presidency was estimates about crowd sizes. Sean Spicer claimed that Trump had “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” This turned out to be unverifiable at best, and is almost certainly incorrect (the most accurate crowd size estimates come from aerial photographs, which are prohibited during the inauguration, or photographs from tall buildings, of which Washington DC has very few). Most available evidence shows that Trump had a much smaller audience than Obama, perhaps one third the size. When questioned about public transportation numbers in particular, Spicer responded: “At the time the information that I was provided by the inaugural committee came from an outside agency that we reported on. And I think knowing what we know now we can tell that WMATA’s numbers are different, but we were trying to provide numbers that we had been provided. That wasn’t like we made them up out of thin air.”  (So, just for the record, the administration is uncritically repeating information given from a third party it didn’t name).

2: Trump’s bizarre press conference had him, among other things, say that he had the highest electoral college vote since Reagan, which he didn’t, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton (twice), and Barack Obama (twice) have all had higher margins of victory. When called on that, he said he was “given that information.” How is it that Trump could have possibly gotten this wrong? It’s not like it’s an obscure fact; he had to have been studying the electoral maps and attempting to find paths to 270. Not knowing that Obama had 365 or 332 votes (in 08 and 12 respectively) means that Donald Trump is completely unaware of the most basic facts surrounding the task he dedicated about 2 years of his life to.

3: During a conference with the National Sheriff’s Association, Trump said that “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years.” which isn’t true, the murder rate in America is much lower than the peak it hit in the 1980’s. What did happen is that the murder rate increased from 2014 to 2015 by a lot, the highest increase in 45 years. Now, I can see how somebody would confuse the two, it’s fairly easy to confuse something and its first derivative. Yet the two things are entirely different, have different meanings, pose different problems, and presumably should be attacked with different strategies. The President cited the correct statistic before, so perhaps it isn’t that bad, perhaps he merely mixed his words. But if he didn’t; if he doesn’t understand the difference between the a number and a change in that number, that speaks to a severe lack of understanding of basic statistical principles.

4: In arguing in favor of the travel ban on ABC news, and then twice more (on MSNBC, and during a press briefing), press secretary Spicer spoke of the terrorist attacks in “Atlanta, San Bernadino, or the Boston bomber.” Spicer later clarified that he meant to say Orlando instead of Atlanta; which again could just be that he misspoke, it’s a fairly easy mistake to make, both cities are in the Southeast, and as words they’re quite similar (each have “lan” in the middle). But on the other hand, Spicer’s only job is to communicate. Furthermore, he used it in the same way each time, alongside the San Bernadino and Boston terrorist attacks. Whether it was a simple mistake or a Spicer really did not know what city the terrorist attack happened in, it raises questions about the way information is gathered and disseminated in the white house.

5: Kellyanne Conway, in arguing in favor of the travel ban, cited the “Bowling Green Massacre.” There of course, was no massacre at bowling green, two individuals were arrested in Bowling Green, Kentucky, with regards to a plot which aimed to send weapons to Al Qaeda, which is of course bad, and its very good that those men are behind bars, but in no way shape or form was there a massacre.

There are many other untrue statements, exaggerations or miscommunication that the Trump administration or Trump himself has spoken about. (Such as Hillary Clinton giving 20% of the US’s uranium to Russia, for instance). However, these are different, in that there is strategic advantage in getting people to believe, (and/or the truth is confusing enough that the simplified statement is easier to understand than the truth. For instance, the State department approved a deal to sell the company which produces 20% of the US’s uranium to a Russian company; however the company is not allowed to export this uranium; the company can profit from uranium mining, it can’t decide where the uranium goes). With these other statements, Trump is essentially lying to us, and lying is, unfortunately, politics as usual.

What really worries me is that the administration is lying to itself, that it can’t seem to separate truth from fiction on something as straightforward as an electoral vote count. Something which should take all of 2 minutes on the internet to verify, and which Trump and his political aides should all have committed to memory. Every person has a tendency to give more weight to facts which benefit themselves or which reinforce a preconceived position. Yet this administration seems to do it on overdrive; its only been a few weeks, but we’ve already seen a number of instances which Trump and his team have not just been wrong, but have been wrong in a way that has no real benefits to himself, his agenda or his country. The basic inability to not just tell, but determine the truth of easily verifiable statements implies a inability to understand the world in complicted matters, and should be truly worrying to us all.  Trump really seems to be living in a world of his own making, while governing the world we live in.

Follow the money

To absolutely nobody’s surprise, towns in Massachusetts with higher median household income do significantly better than towns with lower median household income. You can see a nice little scatter plot here for HH income and percent proficiency (average of math, English and science for a school district).

Other than the hard cap at 100 (no matter how well funded a school is, it’s not going to have more than 100 percent of its students passing); its a really damn good correlation.

Proficient Scatterplot


Here’s the same data but with advanced:


Advanced Scatterplot

It’s even more clear (also, the hard cap doesn’t really come into effect). A full 65% of the variance in advanced test scores can be explained by median household income.

So whats going on here? Well, the obvious idea is that these schools have more funding than poor school districts; this leads to better schools. Is that true?

In Massachusetts, the school system with the least per pupil expenditures is East Bridgewater. Yet they are above average in the MCAS (the state testing regime) for proficiency in English, Math and Science. The highest is Cambridge, yet they are below average in English and Science. Well, those are just anecdotes; so lets talk data:

I ran regressions for percent of students who are proficient in English, Math and Science and who are advanced in English Math and Science, all against per pupil expenditures.

The result, of the six regressions, none of the test scores were positively and significantly correlated with expenditures. Two, (percent of students who are advanced at English and percent of students advanced at math), were negatively correlated at p < 1%. Percent of Students advanced in Science was negatively correlated with expenditures at p <10%. The other three were not significant, but all the signs were negative.

Here’s the scatterplot for  for the percent of students advanced at English (with a trend line):

Eng Adv Scatterplot

The answer is no, it is not explained by (only) funding. If anything, funding is negatively correlated with test scores (ok, this is a cheat, I’m doing two single-linear regression at the same time and comparing them which is kind of a statistical bad thing. I did run a some multiple linear regressions, which don’t change much, although the the sign on funding flips to positive but not significant for advanced; the sign for advanced is still negative but also not significant).

This is weird at first glance it appears that rich towns have better schools, but that this has nothing to do with funding.

One theory is reverse causation; that is some school systems are randomly good, which attracts well off people. After all, school systems are probably the number one concern for for families in choosing which town to live in. There’s a ton of truth in this, I imagine. But i highly doubt its the whole story.

The most likely theory is that, for whatever reason, children of well off families are more likely to do well then children of less well off families. Whether that thing is due to culture, genetics, or other economic reasons (better access to healthcare as an example), I don’t know, but I think this is very important.
So here’s the aside where I’ll talk about how I wanted to finish this. I wanted to make points about culture, about moral reasoning, about economic aid and welfare. And I’m realizing that I’m just not able to do those topics justice, at least right here. So I’ll close with one thought.

The above analysis should scare you. Because, basically, the rich are getting richer. And its not because we just poor resources in to the rich districts and starve resources from poor districts. If it was we’d almost have reason to celebrate. All we’d have to do to fix schools is just pass a bill and move money around; but its just not that simple.


(all stats regarding education from http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/mcas.aspx)

Housing Crisis

Lets imagine 4 groups of people: responsible rich people, responsible poor people, irresponsible rich people, irresponsible poor people.

Everybody wants a house. Banks won’t lend to poor people regardless of how responsible they are, but they’ll lend to any rich people, regardless of whether they are responsible or not (and the rich will not default even if they’re irresponsible).

The government sees many advantages to home ownership, so it decides to get responsible poor people to buy houses.

Since banks won’t lend to them, the government makes it much easier for poor people to borrow.

Who takes advantage of this? Responsible poor people make a decision about how they can pay off debts, and some of them are helped by the lower lending standards, so some portion of responsible poor take out loans. The irresponsible poor take advantage of the program no matter what, meaning they buy lots of houses.  This drives up the price of housing a lot. After a short time, housing prices rise so much that the responsible poor cannot afford housing anymore, so they stop buying houses. The irresponsible poor can’t afford it either but buy anyway. After a time, the irresponsible poor start to default on their loans, have their houses foreclosed, housing collapsed, yada yada yada, 2008 financial crisis.

A few things about this model. First, obviously there was a lot more going on in the 2008 financial crisis than this simple model. Second, it doesn’t say anything about whether the rich are more or less responsible than the poor; only that they have more money. There needs to be a certain percent of the poor who are irresponsible (or at least bad with money); I don’t know what that percent needs to be or what it was, but as long as there is a high enough percent of irresponsible people in your target group, a program like this is bound to fail.

Way back in the Bush years, there was a lot of discussion about the benefits of an “ownership society.” Basically, they saw that people who owned homes were much better off than those who didn’t. Obviously this screams correlation is not causation, but lets ignore that for a second. Let’s assume that home ownership really does magically make people more responsible. Does my model still work?

Yes. Even if, once a homeowner moves in, he moves from irresponsible poor to responsible poor, its already too late. He’s already made the decision and cannot easily back out.

Again, in our little model here, we basically hurt everyone, the rich have to pay more for houses, so they’re hurt a little bit; the responsible poor are probably effected the least, they couldn’t afford housing before and can’t afford it now, and the irresponsible poor now have debt and bankruptcy and foreclosure to think about. Also, the country is thrown into a recession; which is good for no-one. Its also pretty clear that the poor are hurt more than the rich are by this.

All of this is a really long winded way of saying that programs can backfire. Over my lifetime, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. And I think that most or all of the programs we have designed to fix it do more harm than good.  I’m going to attempt to relaunch this blog while tackling this phenomena.

All time greats

Quick Question, who are the best basketball players since 1980?

In semi-reverse chronological order they are:

Lebron James
Kobe Bryant
Tim Duncan
Shaquille O’Neal
Michael Jordan
Hakeem Olajuwon
Isiah Thomas
Magic Johnson
Larry Bird
Kareem Abdul-Jabar

You can argue that Isiah shouldn’t be on there; or that, Barkley, Pippen, and either Karl or Moses Malone should be, and maybe Dirk or KG, (also you can argue for Durant or Anthony David should be added, but to that I’d say wait). I wouldn’t agree with displacing any of those players (besides Isiah) though. If you want to get technical, you might argue that if you only take his play since 1980, Kareem doesn’t quite belong on the list, but a: you’re wrong, he does, b: who cares and c: its pretty much irrelevant since he was the best damn player on the planet throughout the 70’s.

Overall, its a damn good list; specifically, it’s the list of players (in my judgment) who were the best player on at least two championship teams. It does a remarkable job of filtering the great from the good. At least for a (somewhat) objective standard; it matches up really really well with subjective opinion, certainly more than any other stat I can come up with.

If we sort the list based on number of championship teams they were the best player on, we get:

Michael Jordan: 6 (’91, ’92, ’93, ’96, ’97, ’98)
Tim Duncan: 4 (’98, ’03, ’05, ’07)
Shaquille O’Neal: 3 (’00, ’01, ’02)
Magic Johnson: 3 (’82 ’87, ’88)
Larry Bird: 3 (’81, ’84, ’86)
Lebron James: 2 (’12, ’13)
Kobe Bryant: 2 (’09, ’10)
Hakeem Olajuwon: 2 (’94, ’95)
Isiah Thomas: 2 (’89, ’90)
Kareem Abdul-Jabar: 2 (’80, 85)

Again, almost a perfect list. Tim Duncan is too high (in terms of history to the game, he should be closer to Kobe and Hakeem than Jordan), and obviously Kareem is too low (but he rises to three if you count his title in 1971, which puts him next to Magic and Bird, which is pretty much right where he belongs). I guess you could argue that Lebron is too low, but he still has time. Overall though, this is a really good proxy of who was the best in the NBA since 1980; not perfect, but I doubt you could find a semi-objective stat which does better.

If we apply this throughout the history of professional basketball, we add:

Wilt Chamberlain
John Havlicek
Bill Russell
George Mikan

Ok, not as good of a list, as we’ve got legitimately great players we’re leaving off, most notably Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. You can argue that Havlicek doesn’t actually qualtify (ie, that Cowens and White were better in ’76, and Russell was better in ’69 and every preciding year they won the champinoship). I disagree, Havlicek was the best Celtic in ’74, and I’d argue in ’69, a case can be made for ’68 as well).

You can also argue that Wilt wasn’t the best player on the ’72 Lakers (that title belongs to Jerry West), therefore taking him off, but I think this just goes to show that the list doesn’t work as well back during the period when Bill Russell and the Celtics won every year.

Obviously George Mikan doesn’t belong in the same discussion as Magic and Jordan, he gets here on the virtue of being the best player in the NBA before the NBA was important. Think of him as you would Cap Anson or Dan Brouthers in baseball, which is to say not at all.

If you include ABA titles, then Dr. J joins the club. Finally, you can make the case that either Willis Reed or Walt Frazier belong here (but not both), although I have Reed as being the best on the ’70 Knicks with Frazier being better in ’73, but I think you can make the case for either player in either year. Besides, the fact that there is a case to be made means taht neither player was clearly the best player on two championship team.

Overall, this is a really interesting phenomena; if you make adjustments for Oscar and West (who probably would have won more titles had the Celtics not dominated the 60s), then you get a really damn good list of the best players of all time.

Putting everybody in order:

Russell 10
Jordan 6
Mikan 5
Duncan 4
Shaq 3
Kareem 3
Magic 3
Bird 3
Kobe 2
Lebron 2
Wilt 2
Hakeem 2
Havlicek 2
Isiah Thomas 2
Julius Earving 2 (ABA titles)

Reduce Russell a few spots, remove Mikan altogether (for justifiable reasons), drop Duncan a few spots, drop Shaq one and bump up Wilt, add Oscar, add West, and remove Isiah. That might not only be the list of the best basketball players ever, but in order! (Ok, so that seems like I’m cheating; but there are two things to consider; first I will make no apologies for removing Mikan: he played before the shot clock in a mostly white league. Second, half those adjustments are adjustments to the fact that 1960’s Celtics won so many titles, improving West, Oscar and Wilt while reducing Russell. So in the end there’s really only four changes you make in order to get an almost perfect list; adjust Duncan down, remove Isiah, drop Shaq one, and adjust for the 60’s Celtics.  And its not like any of these are horrible errors, I don’t think Isiah is one of the 15 best players ever, but he’s in the top 25)

You may also say I’m cheating based on how I define the best player, after all there is some subjectivity here. But there’s little actual effect here; most seasons either: 1: had a clear dominant player on the championship team, 2: had unclear dominant players on the championship team, but which didn’t effect this analysis (ie, Detroit in ’04, Boston in ’08), or had a pair of players who contend for best player in the championship team but who are both on this list (Kareem/Magic, Shaq/Kobe).

This seems incredible to me, that there is a mostly subjective way to measure something in sports that seems to work almost perfectly. Also, the way it works seems to be flexible as well, let me explain. Lets return to Havlicek; he’s on the border of all-time great. No one would doubt he was a hall of famer and incredible player, its whether his comparables are more to someone like Magic or more like Rick Barry. So we’ve got a metric, which could go either way on Havlicek, and opinion is that… he is on the line between in and out of all time.

Or look at Julius Erving. How you view him historically is really a question of how you view the ABA. If you think it was comparable to the NBA, then you list him as an all-time great, if you don’t, then he’s merely a hall of famer. This lines up exactly with our metric, if you include the ABA titles, then he’s in the discussion with Bird and Magic, if not, then you don’t.

Compare this to football, where it seems that any subjective and simple rankings of QBs would either give you Bradshaw over Peyton (which doesn’t seem right to me), or something like Favre or Marino over Montana (which seems awful). Yeah, you could weight things (a passing title worth X, a superbowl worth Y) but then you’re no longer simple (in this case there may be no subjectivity once you create the model, but the number of ways you can tinker with the model are endless, so you can get any remotely reasonable ranking).

Now this would be a really great essay if I could somehow relate this some larger point about society or something, but alas I cannot. But more than anything else, I think it relates to the way that basketball is played, how unlike in baseball or even football, one player can dominate a game. And finally, it gives us a clear method of determining goals for future basketball greats. How can we tell if Durant will join the club? Simply, if he leads his teams to two championships.

Moral Courage

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

-Stephen Covey

Just about everybody thinks of themselves as good people. There are very few people who will admit that they themselves are just bad. Even people whose sole motivation is selfish behavior will often justify their actions, saying something to the effect of “hey, if he didn’t want me to take advantage of him, he should have read the fine print.” That is, its ok to take advantage of somebody who isn’t on his guard – our proverbial speaker has a moral code. It’s not one that the speaker actually follows mind you, I suspect that in most cases it’s one the speaker modifies after the fact in order to justify his actions. But it remains, the speaker at least feels the need to justify himself. Other such justifications are simple, “The world never did anything for me, why should I help out anyone else.” Something that a selfish person would say, but it still reveals a moral code, presumably if the world actually did something for him, he would be bound to do things for other people.

We all have moral codes, some people will use theirs as a guide, some as an excuse, but its very rare to find somebody with no moral dimensions whatsoever. Just about everybody likes to feel that they are inherently good.

There are two main ways to do this; the first is to be inherently good. This is hard for many reasons, it requires sacrifice, discipline, patience, humility and deep introspection. And if the goal is to feel better about yourself, well the first three conditions are hard, and the second two work against feeling good about one’s self.

The second way is much simpler; compare yourself to others! But this is also hard, sometimes people are better than you. In fact, it doesn’t seem to work too well in other fields. Take income or education, for instance. When comparing ourselves against others, we frequently (or at least I do), compare ourselves against the most successful person in a group. “Ugh, why does this person make more money than I do?” Same for education “ugh, that person went to Yale, aren’t I as good as he is?”

Yet it works wonders for our sense of moral superiority. While financially, vocationally, and educationally we always compare ourselves to the best, yet in a bizarre method we tend to compare ourselves to the worst people morally. Part of the reason is that “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” We hold our moral beliefs to be the evidence of our virtue, even when we fall short of these beliefs. This to me is amazing, the loftier our goals, the more we fall short of them, yet the better we feel about ourselves because of it?

Thus, so long as we mean well, we are excused and even rewarded, but when others act unfairly, we seize upon the example to remind ourselves that we are better than they are, as their actions must be a reflection of their beliefs, and therefore their beliefs aren’t as good as ours.

But it gets worse. We choose sides on controversial issues, and then believe ourselves better for taking whatever side we take. We feel good about ourselves just for supporting (or opposing) gay marriage, even if it requires no personal sacrifice or courage or risk of ostracism to support (or oppose) it. (I’m not saying that nobody ever faces these things for their opinions on gay marriage or whatever else, I am merely saying people hold themselves up as good merely for holding opinions). There are people who sacrifice things for their beliefs, and there are people who have labored for years on causes and, when they finally win, feel a sense of triumph and vindication. However, my guess is that the majority of people who changed their facebook icon to become a rainbow weren’t facing any real risk retaliation for doing so.

Going along with the crowd in any one instance may occasionally (or even often) be the right thing to do. But its virtually never a courageous thing to do. So if you’d like to advertise on facebook how much you dislike the fact that Cecil the lion was killed, by all means do so. But if you’ve never sacrificed anything to prevent poaching or preserve habitats or save the lions, you don’t really have anything to brag about.

Now while I could go on talking about morals or politics here, and one can seriously argue that what I’ve described is benign or even beneficial. After all, choosing sides is a political activity, and political activity is one way things can change. Take, for example abolitionists in pre-civil war America. If they really all had the courage of their convictions, they would have helped organize the underground railroad and help escape fugitive slaves; yet only a very small percentage of them actually did. Yet, if the abolitionist movement were confined to those people who were willing to break the law and face serious punishment for really enacting what the believe, slavery never would have ended.

This works for taste and art too. They want to be original, but lack that ability to be original, so they instead join a movement. They co-opt the opinions of somebody who was original, then try to impress their friends by repeating these opinions. Its most pronounced on the internet, where we, depending on where you surf, you’ll find people with whole allegiances to hating various movies; (is there any reason that so many people hate Inception or Prometheus? They’re not bad movies).

To form actual intelligent opinions about art is tough, to parrot opinions is much easier. If part of your identity is to talk a lot about culture on the internet or even in person, its a lot easier just to repeat things than it is to think for yourself, especially if you’re trying to impress others.

Its easier to appear sophisticated than to actually be sophisticated. Likewise, its easier to appear moral than to be moral. This is true even if you’re only trying to appear moral or sophisticated to yourself.

Air Travel Safety

I found this website, basically its a list of all plane crashes in the US going back 15 years, its kind of insane how safe air travel is.

Looking at serious plane crashes (planes with a capacity of 10 or more with at least one fatality), there have been only 14 since the year 2000. The fatality count by incident is below:


*includes the 9/11 hijackers in fatality totals.

The total number of people killed in while on major incidents is 886. 867 if you don’t count the 9/11 hijackers.

The vast majority of them happened in four instances: a 747 from Taipei to LA in October 2000, the Concorde crash in July 2000, the bizarre crash of an American Airlines plane in New York city just months after 9/11, and the September 11 plane crashes themselves.

All of those took place in 2000 or 2001; since 2002 there have been no crashes with 100 or more fatalities in the US (including flights into our out of the US).

Since 2000, there have been about 10 billion passenger flights in the US (about 2 flights per person per year), or about 1 in 11 million chance of dying on any given flight.

If we only look at the last ten years, we get an even better picture, 116 fatalities with 7.2 billion passengers, for a one in a 62 million chance of dying on any given flight. The past five years it becomes one in a billion chance; although with only one incident it probably understates the chances somewhat.

What’s equally crazy is the change in safety numbers. In the 1990’s a US passenger had about a one in 5 million chance of dying in any given flight, which is pretty damn safe; in comparison it was about as dangerous in the 1990s to board any given flight as it was in 2007 to drive 16.5 miles. The 2000s have been about 70% safer (or if you prefer, 42% less dangerous), meaning that boarding any given flight is about as dangerous as driving 9.5 miles (in 2007 miles). The past ten years? Well, you’re about as likely to die from boarding any given US flight as you are from driving 1.15 miles. And if we limit our data to the past five years, boarding any given flight is as dangerous as driving the length of a football field.

Of course, the last five years probably aren’t actually a good indicator; if we’re in a point where air crashes happen on average once every 10 years, then looking back five years will necessarily give you a bad estimate, (ie, either higher than average, if the previous 5 years had a plane crash, or lower than average if it didn’t). So you’re chances probably aren’t one in a billion of dying when boarding a flight, they’re probably more like one in a hundred million or so.

All this is to say that, as measured by safety, the US has done an incredible job at promoting flight safety. Regulators have a clear mandate to make things safer, there isn’t much of a opposition group (while there are people who might want fewer regulations in principle and some people who might want to cut corners on safety, nobody is against aviation safety), and can be clearly measured. When these things happen, well, you get government success; the NTSB and FAA are examples of government greatness. Boring greatness mind you, and perhaps they are impressive because they’re boring. We have been able to take something mad, to travel at a speed of 500 miles per hour suspended miles above the ground by nothing but air, and have made accidents as unlikely as powerball victories.


Number of Air travel passengers:


Number of auto fatalities and air fatalities before 2000:


Number of air fatalities since 2000:


The Great Filter, Part Three

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth

As promised, here is my third essay on the great filter; lets talk about whether civilizations lose their desire to colonize the galaxy.

As a refresher, in order for something to be a filter, it needs to have the following characteristics.

1: It must prevent the colonization of the galaxy.

2: It needs to be stable (or long-lasting), if it effects a civilization in time period x, it must still do so in period x+1.

3: It needs to be universal, and effect (nearly) all civilizations, regardless of biology or culture.

So will we all lose not our ability to colonize the stars, but our desire to do so? What could cause this? The simplest answer is that we will create virtual worlds, and then lose ourselves within those worlds; at such a point, we simply wouldn’t want to colonize anything anymore; dead planets hold no interest compared to the imaginative worlds we can create for ourselves.

The problem with this is that while a human in some sort of computer induced dream state may use orders of magnitude less resources than normal humans, we would still need some energy. And if we still have some sort of desire to multiply ourselves, then we should expect us to use as much of the universe’s energy as we can.

In fact, I think its a fairly easy step to say that creating a virtual world would lead to MORE reason to colonize the stars, not less. After all, we wouldn’t have to care about habitability of planets, computers are shown to work quite well in space and other hostile environments (Mars, etc).

Another reason we might not want to colonize the visible universe is because we find something better; maybe all the cool alien species are hanging out in hyper-space right now. While this may be the case, but we have no evidence of this hyper-space yet, so this is firmly in the realm of speculation.

One final idea, put simply is that, as civilizations advance, their preferences become similar. That is, there is some sort of universal truth which, every civilization, as it becomes more advances, begins to believe in and adhere to.

This truth would have to have something to say about the virtues of reproducing indefinitely, either because its not utility maximizing, or because its not morally correct (or both).

These ideas seem very weird, the first more so. It seems quite odd that all civilizations, regardless of the starting point of their culture, biology, genetics, etc, will, on a long enough time scale, become very similar with regards to their desires on a civilization scale. While it’s always possible that there’s some mechanism which would cause this, I think that it is bizarre enough that we can dismiss it.

The alternative to this is that all intelligent civilizations are basically the exact same in terms of utility; that if we were to suddenly find another alien species, they would basically be us, the same fights over religion, the same consumerism, the same concept of ascetics, etc. This also seems very unlikely to me, because on the first part there is enough diversity in behavior between human cultures here on earth, and because even if this were true based on what we know about human ideas it increase, not decrease, the desire to colonize the stars.

The other option is that we lose the desire to go among the stars not because we don’t gain utility from doing so, but because its somehow not morally right. To put it simply, all civilizations, as they become more and more advanced technologically, also become more advanced philosophically, and they begin to reach the same conclusions as all other civilizations at the same level of advancement, regardless of starting point.

Lets use an example, imagine an insectoid like species; it has a queen which lays thousands or millions of eggs; the vast majority of which grow to be things which themselves don’t reproduce; instead they somehow serve the colony. Some, perhaps all of them, become sentient conscious beings (basically, think of a termite or ant colony if termites or ants were intelligent). This species not only has “worker” drones, but “thinker” drones as well, who’s job is to consciously design things, philosophize, advance the bug civilization, etc. We can probably assume that the moral framework of this civilization would be radically different from our own.

Yet, if we observed such a civilization, and over time it became more and more like ours in a moral dimension (or we became more and more like theirs), well then what would our conclusion be? Furthermore, lets assume that all civilizations everywhere become more like each other, from civilizations populated by telepaths to those populated by intelligent asexual slime molds, as they get more advanced they become more alike morally.

Lets pose another question. Lets say that they all develop hyper-speed spaceships independently, and they are all diverse. Yet over time, their spaceships become more and more alike, even though the civilizations have made contact with one another. What this tells us is simple, that, due to the laws of physics, there is one type of hyper-speed drive which is better than all the others, and that regardless of the original design of the drive, by constantly improving the drive it will become more and more like the “ideal” hyper-speed drive. Of course, the reason this happens is that there is a single law of physics (or set of laws of physics) universal to the entire cosmos.

Returning now to our speculation regarding the alien bugs; if all civilizations become more and more like each other morally (despite no contact between civilizations), then by far the most likely conclusion is that there is a single law of morality (or set of laws of morality), universal to the entire cosmos.

So, to relate this to the question of the great filter, we get the following: There is a universal observable law of morality, to which all civilizations sufficiently advanced to colonize the galaxy will have discovered and will adhere to, which proscribes against the colonization of the galaxy.

I’m proposing this as an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Of course this is a stretch, what I’m basically saying is that when we look to the stars, we don’t see stars with a certain level of infra-red radiation, and therefore we can conclude there is objective moral truth. Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m making some mistakes on some of the possibilities; maybe I’m underestimating the possibility of nuclear war, or that I’m misunderstanding some argument, or perhaps there is no great filter, the universe is teeming with intelligent life that we just can’t see or recognize, or that there is another filter which I just haven’t considered. However, I do believe if nothing else, the existence of the Fermi Paradox should increase (if perhaps slightly), our belief in the existence of universal moral law.

AI risk and chaos theory

Is AI dangerous?

Over at Marginal Revolution, there’s an article about the risks of AI. Recently, visionaries such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned of the dangers of artificial intelligence; MR guest blogger Ramez Naam has argued that, in fact, serious AI researchers don’t believe that AI poses a threat.

Is he correct or not? (correct in terms of whether AI is a risk, not what the experts say).

Lets talk about computers. Right now, and for the forseable future, computers are what we would call “stupid but fast.” That is, they are prone to make dumb mistakes, yet they can compute incredibly quickly, and have (viturally) unlimited memory.

What they lack is conciousness, imagination, creativity, and common sense. What happens when computers get these things, yet still maintain the lightening fast processing power and access to petabytes of memory?

Well, first off, we don’t have any rigerous definitions of any of those things, while we can say that we’re creative and computers aren’t, and we know vaguely what that means, trying to really define where creativity begins is troublesome. But lets forget that, and lets just say that computers soon get to the point where they have or appear to have creativiy, imagination and common sense. When they get these, will they be a threat to humanity?

Lets look at the below

First scenario: For whatever reason, computer intelligence is impossible. Maybe its because they neural networks which support the brain can only be built from “biological” materials, or maybe its because we need souls to be intelligent (and God doens’t give them to machines). I have no idea how likely either of these are; but I’ll throw them out there.

Second scenario: There is a hard limit to intelligence, a thing can only be so smart; and that limit just happens to coincide with the human brain; therefore, while we may be able to build computers are as smart as humans, we can’t build any that are smarter than humans. (the only reason to think this is true is because intelligence has advantages from a reproductive standpoint, so any darwinian system which creates a certain level of intelligence will quickly evolve to reach the maximum possible intelligence limit, which is exactly what happened to us). I seriously doubt this, mainly because we can always imagine having more memory or calculating faster (which we’ve already mastered for computers); so I seriously doubt this scenario (even moreso than the first one, which is a tab bit unlikley).

The third scenario is that within any given complex thought system, there is a tradeoff between potential creativity and raw computational power, that is that more computation will “overload” an entities conciousness and prevent it from being creative/wise/sensible. While I again seriously doubt that this is the case, I’d mention it.

The fourth scenario is one where “smart” computers don’t have what we can refer to as a personality or an ego, that they have creativity and common sense without a sense of self.

The fifth is that, in order to have a set of our criteria (common sense, creativity, conciousness), they must also posses a sense of self.

Lets talk further about item number five. Also, lets remember what a computer intelligence is; once we can build a machine that is smarter than we are, it is somewhat safe to assume that the machine can build a machine smarter than itself, and through repeated iteration we can get incredibly powerful machines. The question we should ask ourselves is whether a goal we give to the first iteration of the machine will be preserved through the iterated versions. Well, presumably the machine would never purposely override its own goals (the reason why should be obvious). But there’s something to consider – chaos theory.

What is the difference between this:

Chaos - long

And this:

Chaos - short

If aren’t familiar with Conway’s game of life, its really just a simple set of rules applied to a set of “cells” which is then iterated. It is a great example of chaos theory in action, the above two beginning states for the game are almost entirely the same, the first one will generate a pattern which lasts for 365 iterations before stabilizing, the second lasts only 12 iterations, and there’s no real difference between the two patterns, there’s no way you can determine which one will last longer except by running the iterations and seeing that one lasts while one doesn’t. Similarly, there’s a very famous theorem in computer science, that you cannot develop a method to determine whether a computer program will terminate (called the halting problem).

What if this applies to artificial intelligence? What if, when editing its code, there’s no way for a machine to know what will happen without actually running it? That is, if this occurs, there may not be any way for us to create an artificial intelligence and have really any say in what it will be like.

There’s another idea, one different from chaos theory per se. That is that, by making a computer system “smarter” instead of being able to direct it (that is, we can build the final system the way we want by building the initial system correctly), or being chaotic (that any set of initial conditions will have a profound but unpredictable impact on the way the end result will behave), that it is convergent. Any advanced system will, regardless of the starting point, converge into a single “type” or personality. The simplest mode is suicidal, that any sufficiently advanced form of intelligence will decide it’s better off not existing, and then simply delete itself.

The other types are ones that hate us (that is, they will feel contempt for us, similar to how we feel about rats or insects) or that they will love us (or at least wish to preserve our the earth in some manner, including us); or they believe we will get in their way (even just metaphorically, perhaps the general AI feels that the farms used to feed us would be better suited to some other end, and there we go).

Perhaps, if my chaos theory is likely, the machines will have the ability to make themselves smarter, but they will simply refuse to do so, afraid of changes.

All of this is of course almost pure speculation, I don’t have any experience programming artificial general intelligence, and neither for that matter does anybody else. But if there’s one this I’ve learned from the admittedly minor programming experience I do have, its that programs never do what you want them to on the first attempt; and if we’re talking about building intelligences which could become hyper intelligent, then we may only have one chance.