Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On the General Uselessness of Anecdotal Evidence

Anecdotal evidence is quite a poor basis for well-founded decisions. Here, I will distinguish between the different possible levels of anecdotal evidence and point out how our decisions may be misled.

The basest level is hearsay, where the evidence is not experienced firsthand or with proof of veracity. It suffices to say that the truth of such evidence is in doubt, much less any general conclusions which may be drawn from it.

The next level is evidence experienced firsthand, but of which the impact is greatly and improperly amplified by our innate cognitive biases. The availablity heuristic modifies our expectation of an event's frequency based on how salient the event is in our mind. Often, the perceived frequency deviates significantly from the true frequency.

The top level is evidence experienced firsthand, but without cognitive bias. You may ask, what could the problem possibly be, since the evidence is both true (being observed firsthand) and free of mental bias. The problem is that anecdotal evidence is implicitly a local measure of things, and not an indicator of the larger and true picture.

Consider the following scenario: In a (somewhat racist) town, the NA people say that there are too many CL people; each NA reports a 4:1 ratio of CL:NA. However, the CL people say that there are too many NA people; each CL reports a 4:1 ratio of NA:CL.

The interesting thing is, nobody is wrong or lying; everyone's anecdotal evidence is correct. The town is a salt lattice, where each atom is surrounded by 4 atoms of a different type. In actual fact, the ratio of NA:CL is 1:1.
Image from Wikipedia CommonsAnecdotal evidence is a mental shortcut for making quick decisions. However, as shown by the NaCl example, it may not be wise to draw generalized conclusions based on such evidence.

Stone Soup

There once was a town which was ravaged by a harsh winter. Food was scarce, and everyone kept and hid whatever supplies that they had.

It was during this period of great scarcity that a tramp passed through the town. Curiously, the tramp trod to the town center and began boiling a pot of water. Within the pot lay a stone.

One townsman, being sufficiently perplexed by this weird occurrence, approached the tramp and inquired about the contents of the pot. To this question, the tramp replied that he was making a marvelous pot of stone soup. However, the soup would taste better with additional ingredients.

The townsman, tempted by the strange soup, decided to contribute. And so, in went some potatoes which the townsman had previously saved. The other townspeople, being similarly curious, followed suit, each adding their items to the pot.

Eventually, the pot of soup, now endowed with many ingredients, came to a boil. Unfortunately, the uncoordinated mess of random contributions resulted in a terrible soup which tasted like sewage. Deeply angered by this act of deception, the townspeople lynched the tramp and used his flesh to make a fresh pot of soup.

Conventional Moral:
Too many cooks make crap soup.

Philosophical Moral:
It is a mistake to believe that all properties of things are additive.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I think that perhaps we ascribe too much motive to the actions of our peers. It is almost as if they are but automatons slaved to purpose, without room for innocent randomness.

Perhaps we read too much into things, as if every minor movement is an indicator of some deep and unvoiced meaning. A momentary flitter of her gaze- ah, a sign of embarassment, or excitement!- or no, perhaps she's really feeling irritated? All this, or perhaps a grain of sand in the eye, and not necessarily hers.

The brain sees what it wants to see, tries to enforce a bit of order onto noise and nothingness. And perhaps there is nothing wrong with thinking too much, except when it causes unnecessary worry, grief, or false joy and hope.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


It was raining hard. By some stroke of fortune I had managed to reach the bus stop without becoming far too wet, but my sneakers did not share my fate; rainwater had gotten into them, and now my toes were sloshing around soggily. It was an uncomfortable feeling that I hated, but there was little else I could do.

I count myself amongst those who enjoy the sound and feel of rain, but my love is limited to when I am indoors and certainly not when I am bearing the brunt of it. Rain is beautiful, romantic even, so long as you are not inconvenienced by it. And in this particular case, there was much inconvenience; the flow of traffic slowed to a hesitant crawl, and I resigned myself to waiting for a surely delayed bus.

Sharing the rather empty bus stop was a mother and her young son, probably no older than five years of age. The w0man stood at an angle facing the direction of the incoming traffic, ostensibly looking out for her bus, but also at the same time just barely positioned to keep an eye on her son. The boy was staring at the passing cars, perhaps mimicking the actions of her mother.

Unexpectedly, the boy started waving at the cars passing the bus stop, yelling excitedly, "Hello! Hello!". My eyes darted from the boy to the traffic, trying to discover the reason for the boy's sudden action, before I realized that his mother was looking around trying to learn the same thing. The puzzled look on the mother's face told me that she too had little idea of what sparked the sudden outburst.

The boy continued to wave and greet the oncoming cars. Then I felt a small chill down my spine; perhaps I was wrong to assume that he was greeting the cars, but rather, he was greeting something quite unseen and possibly sinister.

My fears were soon laid to rest, when thankfully the boy provided an inadvertent explanation. He had asked his mother to wave too, but his mother, perhaps sharing the same discomforting thoughts that had occurred to me, asked him what he was waving at.

"The cars are waving at us! They wave at us with their two hands!"

It was then that I realized that the boy had been returning the waves of the cars, or more accurately, the waving motion of the windscreen wipers. Upon this revelation, I almost wanted to laugh on the spot over the ridiculous bafflement of two adults by the innocuous actions of a child.

Then again, at least I knew the secret answer; I suppose the drivers of those oncoming cars remain puzzled to this day, more-so for those few that did return the wave with human rather than plastic arms.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Questionable Value of Novelty in Travel

I've been on a couple of student exchanges abroad, and spent a couple of months in different cities. I get somewhat embarrassed, though, whenever I'm asked if I ventured much beyond the city (of the university I visited); that's because the answer is no, I was never very much an explorer.

The conversation would then go, "Ah, what a waste! You ought to have at least toured other neighboring cities, if not countries!", by which time I would attempt to skirt around the topic before diverting attention to other issues.

There might be something wrong with me, but I don't consider it particularly important to explore as widely as possible. I'll concede that doing so does broaden limited views, but then again the strategy of visiting many places briefly seems quite superficial compared to the through exploration of one sole city.

Sometimes in my absurd imagination I envisage tourists arriving at an attraction or place of local interest, ticking off a checklist, and then hurriedly moving off to the next location on the list. And that's what it is, isn't it- seeing as many places as possible. Perhaps it is a desire to get the most bang out of your buck, or making the most of a rare opportunity out of home. After all, you don't get many chances at a student exchange, and you don't get many days of holiday or leave.

But it seems to defeat the purpose, if the purpose is to enjoy. My idea of a holiday is something quite relaxing and laid-back, a time to drop the pace and take in the local atmosphere. Exploring all over, trotting everywhere, this all seems so exhausting in comparison. Such a holiday does seem more well-spent, at least on paper, but in my mind it seems akin to someone who stuffs himself fuller than full at a buffet. Such a person has 'enjoyed' more items, but whether he has truly enjoyed himself is in doubt.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Time Units

To be honest, many of our most commonly used time units are quite rubbish. Consider, for instance, the hour, the minute, and the second; these divisions of time, in units of 24 and 60, render many computations of time difficult. A small saving grace is that they are more suited for fractional computations, but then again the utility of such fractional convenience is limited since most people think in whole units, if one scale down. Beyond this small saving grace, these units of time are almost entirely arbitrary.

On the other hand, the day, month, and year are elegant and logical measures of time, in that they can be easily (in terms of required technology) calibrated against natural phenomena. Hence, these units of time have been independently invented by almost every civilization.

Take the day, for instance. It requires no explanation as to how it is defined. It is measured by the length of time for the Sun to move from the apex of the sky to the apex of the sky again (i.e., noon to noon). However, taking this fact into account, it seems inherently more sensible for the day to start from noon rather than from midnight, since one requires additional tools to accurately determine the onset of midnight.

The month, though a nebulous construct of varying lengths, also has a natural basis. This is the moon phase cycle, which can be easily observed to wax and wane with regularity. Unfortunately, while the lunar month can be accurately calibrated, calendars cannot be constructed based solely on it as it does not exactly cover the length of a year. Attempts to reconcile the two have led to many workarounds, such as variable length months, leap days, months, etc. Very messy work, not at all elegant.

The final regular unit of time, and quite possibly the one with the greatest importance, is the year. While we all know the year to be the length of time for the Earth to complete 1 orbit, it does seem quite difficult to measure this. The seasons do indeed repeat on a yearly basis, but variations make it impossible to use this fact to measure the length of a year. The easiest way is to observe the positions of the stars in the night sky; the patterns should change as the Earth orbits, and match again once the Earth has moved to the exact location it occupied one year ago. However, even this method is not simple, requiring some manner of astronomical technology. It may be easier to automate the process by constructing special structures that are only aligned with certain stars or constellations on a particular day of the year; many such structures exist. If I were to have the time and resources, I might find it interesting to design and construct a simple version of such a year-measuring device.

The worst time unit is, in my opinion, the week, which is entirely arbitrary and illogical. It is neither correlated to any naturally repeating occurrence, nor does it allow for simple computation, fractional or otherwise. It boggles the mind as to how it came to be adopted. Still, as with many things, it is so deeply entrenched in our societal model that it may be impossible to rectify this aberration.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thoughts on Gattaca

I have just finished watching Gattaca, which I found it to be an extremely good movie. The theme of the movie is genetic determinism; the protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is a naturally conceived and thus genetically inferior person in a world where genetic screening and engineering has created an upper-class of the genetically superior. With his "in-valid" DNA, he is denied even an opportunity to become an astronaut; however, by deceiving the ever-present genetic tests with the exceptional genetic profile of a paraplegic ex-swimming star, and through keeping the disguise with intense passion and will, Vincent proves himself to be "as good as any, and better than most".

Without a doubt, the viewer empathizes with the situation of Vincent, and must surely agree that there is something more to humans than our genes; the greatest achievement is not in meeting our potential, but in surpassing our limitations.

And yet, at the same time, I find it difficult to refute the position adopted by the society in the world of Gattaca. Is it truly discrimination if there are significant differences in ability between the engineered and the merely human? The argument is barely weakened even if the possibility of a naturally conceived person being better (at a job) than one conceived artificially is acknowledged to exist; there seems to be little reason for a company to risk itself on such a gamble, or to spend extra resources to verify the ability of individuals that are unlikely to be the best candidate.

I must imagine that Gattaca's society would look unfairly upon "borrowed ladders", or people who deceive genetic tests by borrowing superior genetic profiles. The film may cause us to empathize with Vincent's position and view such deception in a positive light as a tool against genetic discrimination, as a equalizing weapon for those that are unfairly discriminated. But then again, in my mind I constructed a parallel scenario existing in our very own reality, of people who purchase false credentials, certifications, and qualifications. We would naturally find such actions contemptible. And yet, for at least of some of them, their lack of legitimate qualifications are not due to a lack of quality or ability, but by the unfairness of fate and circumstance. How different are the scenarios, and how different are our attitudes?

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Supporting National Sports is Rubbish

I'll never understand why people support sports at a national level, like the Olympics or the World Cup. What really confounds me is how people can suddenly feel some sense of elation when their national team wins a medal or trophy, or experience disappointment when their squad are utterly thrashed or humiliated. I mean, I can understand if you feel happy if you've participated and won something, but then you've not. Technically it's your team, but then again it's a bit of a stretch to go out and say that you have anything remotely to do with their victory or defeat. You could legitimately be entitled to share in their joy (or anguish) if you knew someone in the team personally, in the sense of "Oh I'm happy for your victory, my friend/cousin/neighbor/sister's friend's uncle's butcher's son ". But it's clearly not justified to look at someone you only know through posters or the TV screen and say, "Oh I'm happy for your victory, Mr sportsman that I do not know personally".

I don't mean that it's stupid to support all sports. I can understand how it's actually logical to support some (non-national) sporting franchise, and celebrate when they win; you're happy because it is a validation of your choice to support that particular franchise over alternative franchises. When your team wins, it says that you have the analytical skills or uncanny intuition or unbroken heritage to select the winning team. It gives you bragging rights over the neighbor-twit in the next cubicle who supports a second-rate team. I can understand how all this works, but for national sports? You don't use your analytical skills or intuition or magic dust to choose the team you support, in fact you don't even have a choice to justify- you're stuck supporting the team of the country you live in (or sometimes, the quasi-independent geopolitical entity you live in). And there are absolutely no personal bragging rights when the national team wins, though it might probably be plastered over the newspapers in an attempt to piss off the neighboring belligerent states.

I can understand how one may be happy if the college or school team wins, because in that case it does say something about yourself, like "Hey I entered into a place with a tradition of winning some otherwise inconsequential but relatively shiny piece of silverware that's gold plated". It's somewhat, not entirely but somewhat, justified by the fact that you had some manner of choice or at least alternative that happens to endear yourself to this particular college or school over competing alternatives. This argument is clearly non-functional for sports at the national level, where the only reason you're supporting the team is because a stork happened to deliver you to the same geopolitical entity as the players in the national squad (but sometimes and increasingly often, not always true). And clearly, "vagaries of fate" is no grounds for justifying a sense of common achievement!

In the end, the only reason for feeling any euphoria or sadness is nationalist patriotism, which is itself something not entirely sensible. The problem with placing a flag onto a team is that it somehow compels you to support that team (assuming it is your nation's flag, and that you recognize it). It also becomes somewhat wrong to support other national teams; the logic must be that anyone supporting a foreign team is a fanatic agent of a foreign power whose only burning desire is the utter and absolute destruction of our nation's traditions and way of life.

I think what's proper is to acknowledge that national teams have utterly nothing to do with oneself. It is quite absurd to believe that singing the anthem or flying the flag create an mystical and unbreakable bond between the athlete and the sports viewer! If they win, well good for them, but it's not really my business to celebrate or care for their behalf. It simply does not make sense to do such a silly thing!