May 22, 2015

mason selection tasks

Peter Wason was a psychologist interested in how our minds solve problems. He developed a problem that surprisingly few people get right even though they are not conceptually hard.

Here's one. You can watch the video and click on what you think the right answer is to see if you got it right.



What is interesting about this problem is that 90% of people get it wrong. But I think that is not surprising. Our brains generally don't strive for efficiency which is what this problem is asking you to do (least number of cards turned over to verify the proposition). Flipping a card costs nothing so why waste brain power on figuring the least amount of cards to turn over?

But also interesting is that the largest reason people get this wrong is is because it deals with symbols (colors and numbers). If the same question is re-couched into something we have familiarity with, then the percentage of correct results shoot up. This was shown by another set of psychologists in 1982 when they rephrased this problem into one that involved asking if 4 people at a bar were old enough to drink (21 years old). The right answer went up to 75%. There are two competing explanations of why this contextual change, resulted in dramatically different results.

The first belief is that we have two competing analysis systems in our brain. One that is very good and analytical and one that is more intuitive. If you got the answer above wrong then your more intuitive answering system likely made that choice of answering. At least that's the belief.

This makes some sense to me. Going into this I knew, as you probably did, that this was going to be a trick question in some sense. And so my brain first tried to structure the problem as my engineering degree and training at McKinsey has taught me to do. I reread the question to be sure I understood what was being asked and then systematically went through each card to determine if it had any bearing on the answer. My answer is right. But you can see how this is a laborious process when we might be introduced to many choices like this in a day.  Studies show that the more analytical system degrades with age.

The other answer to why people get Mason's problem wrong and the drinking one right is that we are socially conditioned to quickly understand if someone is breaking the rules. I find this funny but I also think it also carries some weight as an explanation. I'm not sure if the wording of the Mason problem can be changed to make it easy (75% hit rate) but not involving something that invokes our sense of a social contract to test this theory.

May 12, 2015

idolatry

My kids go to a relatively swanky private school in LA. I'm a public school brat and I'm still of the belief that private schools are a waste of money. But my wife pays for it so...

Anyway as you'd imagine in LA there are Hollywood types at our school so we have some interesting encounters. As with all years there's a fund raiser. Which to my public school mind seems rather insane. Why does a richy private school need to raise money. Aren't we already paying an arm and a leg for not guarantee of academic performance? I digress again.

The fundraiser in the past has been swanky. The items on auction are usual palatial mansions for bid and private jets to here and there. We never win because we're so cheap. But usually the entertainment has lacked a little. Until this year.

Two parents, Sharon Stone and LL Cool J were the MCs. That alone was kind of fun. But one of the parents must be an agent or something and we got a live acoustic set from Billy Idol.

Now I'm a big Billy Idol fan. He hasn't put out much lately but as a kid in the 80s he was one of my favorite artists. In particular some of the later albums, when he had lost some of his fame are really good. I figured he'd come on stage with a backing band and sing a few songs and be gone. What I didn't expect that it was an acoustic set and it was just him and Steve Stevens. I didn't expect Stevens to be there at all. Steve Stevens for all the 80s pop songs he's known for is actually an extremely talented musician.

He was born in Brooklyn, like all great artists, and started playing guitar when he was 7. He toiled in NY for a while doing studio work for some seriously shitty artists like Peter Criss (KISS fame). He eventually hooked up with Idol in the 80s where he made his name. He's done some notable side projects - Michael Jackson's Dirty Diana, a Ric Ocasek album, a Robert Palmer album, and a Thompson Twins album. But on a solo basis he's probably best known for the Top Gun Anthem (yes that Top Gun). And oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, he's an accomplished Flamenco guitarist. 

Anyway. The two of them on stage for four songs was a real treat. Idol still has his voice and Stevens sounded great on an acoustic guitar. 




While I'm here I really think his new song is very good.

hack and crash

Self-driving car accidents require more transparency on risk

Exhibit 1 why I can no longer read the broad popular press:
"Self-driving cars, hailed as the wave of the future, might need to tap the brakes. According to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, four of the 48 self-driving cars currently operating in California have gotten into accidents since September, the first month that the state issued permits for companies to test the cars on public roads."
And yet today Google posts this on Medium:
If you spend enough time on the road, accidents will happen whether you’re in a car or a self-driving car. Over the 6 years since we started the project, we’ve been involved in 11 minor accidents (light damage, no injuries) during those 1.7 million miles of autonomous and manual driving with our safety drivers behind the wheel, and not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.
This is the laziness of modern reporting. Journalists wonder why their industry is failing. It's because the bottom 95% of journalists are hacks. The reality was obvious all along. Humans suck at driving and the quicker this automation is upon us, the less people that will be getting killed.

May 11, 2015

modified P90X

I'm back on P90X. The more I do it the more unsatisfied I am with it. But. Tony Horton, while annoying to many, is just a very good motivator. And the videos just take the thinking out of doing stuff. I'm happy to have someone push me rather than me on my own pushing myself. So in the words of Tony Horton, "modify modify modify".

A few things I've learned doing this routine that irk me.

  • It's too damn hard. It's neither a sustainable workout regimen from a mental standpoint nor is it sustainable from a physical standpoint. 7 days a week is just undoable. Period. But worse, the body really has no chance to recuperate and most research now shows that recuperation is singularly important for progress. More is not necessarily more when it comes to working out.
  • P90X breaks its own rules over and over. In particular "if you want to build muscle then don't be doin' 12, 13, 14 reps". And yet many of the moves in P90X are 16 or more moves.
So to fix all this I've tossed out some of the routines. Yoga is gone. First, I can't stand yoga. I don't find it calming or karmic. It's just plain annoying. Second it completely borks my back every god damn time. Some of it feels good but there are numerous poses that just put too much strain on the lower back. My 25 year old buddy started yoga and now he has a slipped disk. He's screwed. So that's gone. Kenpo X is gone because it's kind of boring and just isn't high intensity enough for me. And X Stretch is gone because stretching seems to have no benefit. So what are we left with? Here's my week through schedule:
  • Week 1-3 - Weight training, Plyo, Weight training, Rest day, Legs & Back, Rest day, Rest day (where weight training refers to the two pairs of alternating workouts; I switch each week)
  • Week 4 - Rest day, Core Synergistics, Rest day, Core Synergistics, Rest day, Core Synergistics, Rest day
  • Week 5-7 - The same as Week 1-3 but alternating the weight training pairs
  • Week 8 - Same as Week 4
  • And so on.
Basically this keeps the 5 weight training routines, Plyo X (which really does put the X in P90X) and Core Synergistics (which I feel is the best routine for my dainty back. 

After 3 months of this I'm going to switch it up again and do single muscle focused workouts. In other words:  one muscle group, big weights, total exhaustion. 

So one day might be thrashing my triceps, one day will be knocking out upper back exercises. One day for legs. One day for lower back (squats and deadlifts). Etc. The other aspect of this is to focus more on the muscles that count. For example back muscles are generally underworked (not in P90X but in general). Biceps are overworked. As Horton says, "the glamour muscle." Although in reality it's a shitty muscle to work on because it's significantly smaller than the tricep. You want big arms work on your triceps. 

This is much more manageable. MUCH MORE! I don't feel physically and mentally drained and I'm in Month 2 already.

The second thing I did was stop the insanity with the 16+ reps. I just do up to 10 reps for any exercise now unless it's more about cardio/high-intensity training such as the Plyo routines. If it involves a weight, it's 10 reps max. 

The only problem with this routine now is the Back and Bicep weight training routine. Combo lifts are great but when you work the bicep it trashes you in the back moves (namely pullups) because your biceps are integral to doing the back moves. But they're too exhausted to work the back out sufficiently. Barring any editing of the video there's not much I can do about this.

So far I feel like I've gotten better results than the previous times I've done P90X. But I'm anxious to see what happens after the 90 days and my single muscle focus sessions.  Visually I kind of know where I can get to minus the detrimental effects of some 3-5 years of age I've put on since last doing this seriously. So I should be able to figure out if the effects are greater.

Apr 30, 2015

muscle and fat

Well you hear this a lot: "You should build up muscle because it'll increase your metabolism and allow you to burn more fat." As someone firmly in the LCHF camp, this "fat burning tip" strikes me as complete bullshit. So I figured I'd figure out if it was true.

The theory is this. We burn more calories a day to maintain a pound of muscle versus a pound of fat. Hence more muscle equals more calorie burning.

Turns out it's not completely wrong but the magnitude of the effect is meaningless. It's true that the body does spend more energy maintaining muscle than it does fat. You see the problem comes in quantifying how much more energy is expended. Numbers are thrown out in many of the articles on this subject but they are horrifically wrong. The actual strong literature on this subject suggests one pound of muscle burns less than 10 calories per day at rest.

So if you could increase your body's muscle by 10 pounds you'd burn an extra 100 calories a day maintaining that at most. Do you have any idea how hard that is to gain 10 pounds of muscle? I always laugh at women who don't lift because they are scared of gaining muscle. Men, who have testosterone, have enough trouble building muscle as it is. 10 pounds is an INSANE amount of muscle to gain.

But of course the story is worse. Because of course just because your are burning an extra 100 calories a day doesn't mean you'll lose the equivalent of that in weight. Your body is well adept at signaling to you that you need to eat another 100 calories to feed that new muscle.

the watch

Yea I'm that guy. I was up at 12:01 on April 10th pre-ordering the new Apple Watch. The way I justify this kind of silliness is twofold.

  1. I'm physically old. And there's a part of me that doesn't want to be mentally old. I used to come home from college to see my parents and inevitably the VCR (see I am old) was blinking "12:00". My parents just couldn't get their head around how to reset the time when the power went out. My mom in her infinite wisdom eventually just put a Post-It note over the top of it. I remember thinking, "I'm not going to be that way when I get old". So I tend to jump on new things just so I'm not left in the dust if they catch on.
  2. A CEO of a startup in NY claimed that the most important thing in his life was his constant communication with the people around him. In other words his phone. Anything that improved that experience was worth dropping money on. So he would purchase a new iPhone every year. And the promise of this watch is that it improves communication.
So I bought one. The "cheap" one. So how is it? 
  • Physical: It's sort of what you expect from Apple. It looks great. It's packaged great. It's very comfortable. More comfortable than any other watch I've worn. The small 38mm size is fine for my dinky wrists although it's pushing my increasingly poor up-close vision. I've switched around the placement of the watch from both hands and both orientations and I've ironically settled on the right hand (I'm left-handed) with the digital crown pointed toward my shoulder (imagine the orientation below but on my right hand). That seems wrong for a traditional watch but pressing the buttons is actually easier this way. In short it's nice and I don't think anyone will have any problems with the unit.
  • Use Case #1: The one and only use-case that matters is this - I take my phone out of my pocket about 95% less than I used to. This is huge. Is it a necessity? No. But who cares. This isn't about what I need. This is about what I want. And I hate being tethered to the phone when I work. I can wander around and take breaks and be completely connected in a super light touch way. A call comes in and I can take it from the watch. A message comes in and I can take it from the watch. An email comes in and I can read it from the watch. A calendar appointment comes due and I can read it from the watch. If necessary I can grab my phone or computer if the communication warrants it. But in most cases it doesn't. So I have a huge amount of freedom now.
  • Use Case #2: Workouts. In this case the watch isn't perfect. The workouts are built around cardio activities, and I don't do any. I'm all about the HIIT and weight lifting. It does track my heart rate and workout length and in most cases that's enough. I don't need a calorie tracker, but it does that too. And it stores it all so I can get warm fuzzies at the end of the week. We all like warm fuzzier don't we?
  • Use Case #3: Timing. This I usually use when I cook. I set the alarm, and again I don't need to be tethered to my phone. 
  • Use Case #4: There isn't one. That's it. For me the extent of the utility of this watch are those three things. I realize there are apps out there but I honestly don't think I need any of them. And frankly those three are enough. 

Feb 11, 2015

addicts

This is worth a full read.

Short story: Addiction to cocaine in rat experiments is radically reduced if the rats are happy (read eat well, live in a non-sterile environment, and, more importantly, are around other mice).

alcohol

I've been waiting for this research report for a while. The benefits of alcohol are vastly overrated. Alcohol and fructose are just too similar. They look similar. They are chemically similar. And they are processed in the body using almost identical biochemical steps. If fructose is so bad for you how can alcohol be good? Answer: It isn't.

The primary correlation reported in the press is that alcohol consumption is inversely related to coronary heart disease. Drink more, have less heart attacks. 

The study linked above is a meta-analysis (I generally like these although they aren't technically clinical studies) of 34 studies of men and women totaling about one-million people and one-hundred-thousand deaths. All the studies were observational (so we're not exactly talking science here).

It does show that there is a correlation as suggested up to 4 drinks per day for men and 2 drinks per day for women. But the maximum protection afforded by these drinks is still smaller than the confidence interval. Suggesting it may not be real and there is no benefit. And any binge drinking has no benefit.

Furthermore this only seems to hold for men over 34 and women over 54 years old. Below that the correlation is proportionally related not inversely.

And while it may reduce cardiovascular disease it does seem to increase cancers, cirrhosis (no surprise) and death from accidents (don't drink and drive, user Uber).

Dec 4, 2014

eric garner

It's kind of hard for any rational person to view the grand jury decision on whether to pursue a homicide case against Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner as anything other than insane. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. There was a videotape of the whole incident. Almost everyone who viewed that video tape saw it as your usual police over reaction to some guy apparently (although no cigarettes were found on him) selling black market cigarettes on the corner. And the chokehold maneuver has been banned by the NYPD for years. There was nothing professional or ambiguous about the entire incident.

Was there any question this police officer should have at the very minimum gone to a trial by his peers?

And yet the grand jury came back with a decision to not pursue a trial. How is that even possible?

I'm guessing at this point that the entire construct of the grand jury is a facade. It's been said that a decent prosecutor could make a grand jury indict a ham sandwich if they wanted to. If that's true then it must be true that the prosecutor in this case simply didn't want the jury to come back with an indictment. Why would that be? I can only think of two reasons. First, political forces coerced or forced him to do this. Second, that there is a cozy relationship between prosecutors and the police force. Most of what the prosecutor does is bring indictments against people the police bring to the prosecutor. Does he need to avoid prosecutions of this type to avoid getting the cold shoulder from the police force?

Either way I think it's clear we won't see any police being indicted on any kind of charges in the near future. Body cams or not. And that can only lead to bad things.

Oct 13, 2014

destiny?

Bungie's new game, Destiny, is an interesting game. It's so flawed on one level, and it invokes such cycnical disdain. On another there are enjoyable aspects that remind one of Halo and Marathon.

I don't really know where to start. Other than this main point: that the game is maddening and fun at the same time.

What's wrong with it?
  • First and foremost this is a uninspired approach to game making on Bungie's part. This has all the hallmarks of a game designed and developed by a company far more interested in money than gameplay. This isn't your Bungie of old. The feeling that people who love gaming run the company is gone. This strikes me as a company that has far more in common with King or Zynga. 
  • The gameplay is designed around the concept of addiction rather than fun. Much of the game seems designed to make you happy in small doses, frustrate you in larger doses, and promise the holy land just around the corner. Everything about the game speaks to this. If I could just get that legendary gun. If I could just find that helmet with 2 more light ratings. 
  • It's a social game so you see other players during gameplay. And what do you see? You see their name and their level. The level in Destiny is a measure of your accomplishments. It's a social ladder climbing metric reduced to a single value to compare against other. I'm 24 and he's 26. He's better. I need to be better. 
  • Most of the game motivation comes from The Level. You can easily work your way to 20 and then up to about 30 or so with armor modifications. It's an asymptotic climb. 21 is not so hard. 29 is brutal. What seems close is not so close.
  • The act of getting "stuff" to level up can in most cases be described as monotonous and for beginners utterly confusing. Before you can buy better armor you need "reputation". And reputation in most cases involves running the most repetitive and monotonous mini-campaigns or patrols and bounties you can imagine. It's Sisyphean in its silliness.
  • The worst thing about Destiny's leveling motivation is that it's largely useless. As you get better you just fight tougher aliens. They move largely in sync with you in degree of difficulty. So what is the point? The point is to compare to other people. Who is the most popular guardian in Destiny and where do I fit in. You can see how this game might appeal to high schoolers and early 20 year olds and baffle an old man like me.
  • The complexity and lack of any obvious help in game is off-putting. I think for a young kid this is essentially pretty exciting but for me it's just archaic detail for the sake of detail. You need to do this first and then this and then do this other thing to get a hold of this item and combine it with.... Bleah! I didn't come here to follow rules. I came here to shoot and kill aliens.
  • There are endless modifications to your character in terms of what they look like and some of these modifications can require endless grinding to get one set of stuff so you can then buy that other stuff so you can get the blue cape. Again this endless preening probably appeals to younger gamers but for someone square in the marks of the marketing salivations of Rockport Shoe Company, this is a god damn waste of time. And the problem with this is development effort is put into this rather than making a compelling game.
  • I've never played Farmville but aspects of this game seem probably what that game is like.
  • The story is so bad that you suspect the writers are fucking with us. So much mumbo jumbo and weak storylines and cliche lines ("What you are doing guardian is brave. You might not make it back."), and invocation of bullshit jargon and oh my god it's terrible. It's fucking awful.
  • While it's a social game it's a lonely feeling game in many respects. Part of what made Halo great were the drops where you went in with other computer controlled marines. It feels great to have them with you making funny quips and it makes the game human. There is no humanity in Destiny.
And yet I keep playing it. Why?
  • It's gorgeous. It's the one aspect of Bungie that lives on. the design and detail are beautiful I just love looking at it. Here's how good it is. Sometimes I just move the camera angle around so I can see my guy with the landscape behind it and think, "I wish I could take a quick snapshot of this."
  • The music is similarly Halo-like in it's goodness. Sometimes I just sit and listen to the music.
  • The general mechanics of character control are flawless. You want to do something and it just seems easier in Destiny than it does in other games. Shooting, moving, jumping, throwing a grenade. Things just seem easier.
  • I'm not a competitive guy. I much prefer the camaraderie of team activities in gaming and Destiny has really fun "Strike Missions" where it groups you with 2 other guardians and you go in and complete a mission. It's fun. I just wish I had friends who had the game so we could do it together.
  • I'm curious where Bungie will take this game. It's designed as a platform to be built on. And I'll give them a bit of a chance to play this platform out. If they do not add some fun stuff and veer away from this "gaming monetization strategy" then I'm squarely going to focus on Halo and drop Destiny.