On Criticism and The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness

Leah Reich’s post “The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness” summarizes the 2013 XOXO festival,recently held in Portland. The whole post is worth reading, but these paragraphs on the value of criticism were particularly good:

Then one day, someone came in and told me my photo wasn’t very good. They weren’t particularly nice about it, and it stung. I let the comment sit there, and someone else – friends with the first person – said something similar, but in a more specific way. Then a third person, someone I admired so deeply it still makes my guts ache, told me what I was doing was okay but that it was about time I pushed myself. And I realized something crucial:

They knew I could be better. They believed in me. They wanted to see me get there.

That ache in my gut is going to be familiar to all of you. It’s not the ache that’s desperate for likes or hearts or little stars. It’s the ache that wants someone to help you and to approve of what you’ve done because their work and their approval mean something to you. Because a “yeah, that’s it, that’s pretty good, that’s the right direction” or even a “this is getting there, but think about why your composition isn’t working over here” feels like it’s been earned.

So as it turns out, The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness is where people can be excited about stuff. And here’s a secret: Sometimes being excited about something means not always being positive.

This is a smart take:

Criticism is not negativity. Criticism is not saying you’re bad. Criticism is – it should be – a way of saying: I think you’re good. I know you can do better. I think you can figure out a way how.


The Counterintuitive Science of Traffic Jams

Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, gave a 23-minute talk on the counterintuitive science of congestion at the Boing Boing: Ingenuity conference in San Francisco last month. Turns out a lot of the problems we ascribe to poor roads or other drivers are really our own fault. You can watch the video below:


Brad Plumer, at Washington Post, summarizes the talk:

— Self-driving cars steered by robots could do a lot to reduce traffic jams.That’s because the human inability to maintain a steady, constant speed on the road is responsible for a lot of congestion. Japanese physicists discovered this when they had people try to drive around in steady speeds on a circular road. Jams materialized out of nowhere. People braked erratically and started responding uncertainly to people ahead of them.

— Cars tend to drive closer to bicyclists who are wearing helmets. That comes from Ian Walker, who set up a bicycle with sensors and drove around the city. Vehicles tend to crowd closer to him when he was wearing a helmet than when he wasn’t. That’s not necessarily surprising, but it’s a reminder of all the weird unconscious tics we adopt while driving and making on-the-fly assumptions.

— There are all sorts of fun patterns in who honks their car horns. In what sounds like a exciting job, researchers sat at intersections and refused to move when the light turned green to see who honked at them. Men honk more quickly than women. People with expensive cars also honk more rapidly — although people in convertibles are less likely to honk.

— There are also fun patterns on driver courtesy. Older drivers are more likely to stop for others. Drivers are more likely to be courteous when the other car has extra passengers inside. People also are more likely to violate traffic rules the closer they are to home — a “familiarity effect.”

—  There are all sorts of optical illusions that can trick human drivers. Fog makes objects seem like they’re moving slower than they really are. And experiments show that humans are really bad at judging the speed of an oncoming train at a crossing until it’s nearly arrived. Another point in favor of self-driving cars, perhaps.

—  Congestion often looks tantalizingly easy to clear up — in theory. One study that tracked drivers in Boston during rush hour found that if you could remove just 1 percent of people on the road (say, to mass transit), you could achieve a whopping 18 percent improvement in traffic flow. But  for whatever reason, cities haven’t figured out how to do that just yet.

I can’t wait for self-driving cars.

Modeling 3,000 Years of Human History

It’s rare to find an interesting paper on history in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so it was interesting to stumble upon Peter Turchin et al.’s “War, Space, and the Evolution of Old World Complex Societies” who developed a model that uses cultural evolution mechanisms to predict where and when the largest-scale complex societies should have arisen in human history.

From their abstract:

How did human societies evolve from small groups, integrated by face-to-face cooperation, to huge anonymous societies of today, typically organized as states? Why is there so much variation in the ability of different human populations to construct viable states? Existing theories are usually formulated as verbal models and, as a result, do not yield sharply defined, quantitative predictions that could be unambiguously tested with data. Here we develop a cultural evolutionary model that predicts where and when the largest-scale complex societies arose in human history. The central premise of the model, which we test, is that costly institutions that enabled large human groups to function without splitting up evolved as a result of intense competition between societies—primarily warfare. Warfare intensity, in turn, depended on the spread of historically attested military technologies (e.g., chariots and cavalry) and on geographic factors (e.g., rugged landscape). The model was simulated within a realistic landscape of the Afroeurasian landmass and its predictions were tested against a large dataset documenting the spatiotemporal distribution of historical large-scale societies in Afroeurasia between 1,500 BCE and 1,500 CE. The model-predicted pattern of spread of large-scale societies was very similar to the observed one. Overall, the model explained 65% of variance in the data. An alternative model, omitting the effect of diffusing military technologies, explained only 16% of variance. Our results support theories that emphasize the role of institutions in state-building and suggest a possible explanation why a long history of statehood is positively correlated with political stability, institutional quality, and income per capita.

The model simulation runs from 1500 B.C.E. to 1500 C.E.—so it encompasses the growth of societies like Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and the like—and replicates historical trends with 65 percent accuracy.

Smithsonian Magazine summarizes:

Turchin began thinking about applying math to history in general about 15 years ago. “I always enjoyed history, but I realized then that it was the last major discipline which was not mathematized,” he explains. “But mathematical approaches—modeling, statistics, etc.—are an inherent part of any real science.”

In bringing these sorts of tools into the arena of world history and developing a mathematical model, his team was inspired by a theory called cultural multilevel selection, which predicts that competition between different groups is the main driver of the evolution of large-scale, complex societies. To build that into the model, they divided all of Africa and Eurasia into gridded squares which were each categorized by a few environmental variables (the type of habitat, elevation, and whether it had agriculture in 1500 B.C.E.). They then “seeded” military technology in squares adjacent to the grasslands of central Asia, because the domestication of horses—the dominant military technology of the age—likely arose there initially.

Over time, the model allowed for domesticated horses to spread between adjacent squares. It also simulated conflict between various entities, allowing squares to take over nearby squares, determining victory based on the area each entity controlled, and thus growing the sizes of empires. After plugging in these variables, they let the model simulate 3,000 years of human history, then compared its results to actual data, gleaned from a variety of historical atlases.

Click here to see a movie of the model in action.

Of particular interest to me was the discussion of the limitations of the model (100-year sampling and exclusion of city-states of Greece):

Due to the nature of the question addressed in our study, there are inevitably several sources of error in historical and geographical data we have used. Our decision to collect historical data only at 100-year time-slices means that the model ‘misses’ peaks of some substantial polities such as the Empire of Alexander the Great, or Attila’s Hunnic Empire. This could be seen as a limitation for traditional historical analyses because we have not included a few polities known to be historically influential. However, for the purposes of our analyses this is actually strength. Using a regular sampling strategy allows us to collect data in a systematic way independent of the hypothesis being tested rather than cherry-picking examples that support our ideas.

We have also only focused on the largest polities, i.e those that were approximately greater than 100,000 km2. This means that some complex societies, such as the Ancient Greek city states, are not included in our database. The focus on territorial extent is also a result of our attempt to be systematic and minimize bias, and this large threshold was chosen for practical considerations. Historical information about the world varies partly in the degree to which modern societies can invest in uncovering it. Our information about the history of western civilization, thus, is disproportionately good compared to some other parts of the world. Employing a relatively large cut-off minimizes the risk of “missing” polities with large  populations in less well-documented regions and time-frames, because the larger the polity the more likely it is to have left some trace in the historical record. At a smaller threshold there are simply too many polities about which we have very little information, including their territories, and the effects of a bias in our access to the historical record is increased.

Overall, I think the supporting information for the model is actually a lot more interesting read than the paper itself.

Myst, Twenty Years Later

Grantland looks back at the iconic game Myst, on its twenty year anniversary:

The premise was deceptively simple: You are The Stranger, a person of inconsequential gender, race, or origin, minding your own business when a book falls into the black starlit void you call home. When you open it, you are transported to a mysterious island, and as you explore it you begin to uncover its history; the story of its caretaker, Atrus; his art of creating worlds, called “ages,” including Myst Island itself; and his two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, who beg you to release them from the confines of their prison ages, where they have been entrapped for some unknown crime. This sets you off on a journey to four more ages, unraveling innumerable (some might say infuriating) puzzles and gradually piecing together, almost entirely from environmental clues, what happened to this family, and whom among them you can trust. You do this entirely by yourself. You encounter nobody else and you are neither helped nor harmed — though that doesn’t keep a creeping sense of dread from permeating these otherwise benign worlds. You have no weapons or tools at your disposal aside from the physical journal that came packaged with the CD-ROM. When you “win,” there are no fireworks or rewards. You are merely told the island is yours to wander for as long as you like. For nearly a decade, this was the best-selling computer game of all time.1

Twenty years ago, people talked about Myst the same way they talked about The Sopranosduring its first season: as one of those rare works that irrevocably changed its medium. It certainly felt like nothing in gaming would or could be the same after it. If you remember the game, you remember that feeling of landing on Myst Island for the first time, staggeringly bereft of information in a way that felt like some kind of reverse epiphany, left with no option but to start exploring. This was a revolutionary feeling to have while staring at your PC screen. And the word-of-mouth carried — people who had never gamed before in their lives bought new computers so they could play Myst. “It is the first artifact of CD-ROM technology that suggests that a new art form might very well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting, only with music,” came the impassioned, if grasping prophecy from Wired’s Jon Carroll. “Or something.”

I remember playing this game on my first PC. And I agree with this, even if I wasn’t a hard-core gamer:

[M]any hard-core gamers found it obtuse and frustrating, its point-and-click interface slideshow-esque and stifling. Maybe Myst wasn’t for hard-core gamers. Maybe it wasn’t even really a game.

The author’s leap that Myst lead to Grand Theft Auto V is a bit far-fetched, but I do like the overall theme of Myst leading to games that embraced the open-world environments.

The Hedge Fund Manager Who Loves Losing Money

“You’ve got to love to lose money, hate to make money.”

That’s a direct quote from Mark Spitznagel, an unusual hedge fund manager who is betting on a huge decline in the markets when the Fed stops its quantitative easing program. Needless to say, investors aren’t exactly lining up to invest with him. The Dealbook blog profiles his fund:

Still, Mr. Spitznagel’s approach is unusual for a money manager. To invest with him, you have to believe in a philosophy that is grounded in the Austrian school of economics (which originated in the late 19th century in Vienna). The Austrian school does not like government to meddle with any part of the economy: when it does, adherents argue, market distortions abound, creating opportunities for investors who can see them.

When those distortions are present, Austrian-school investors will position themselves to wait out any artificial effect on the market, ready to take advantage when prices readjust.

Mr. Spitznagel began his career buying and selling bonds in the trading pit at the Chicago Board of Trade in the 1980s. Everett Klipp, his boss and mentor at the time, encouraged him to take a “one-tick” loss to step out of a trade, rather than risking a 10-tick loss in hopes of a bigger profit.

The @Horse_ebooks Twitter Account is Fake

Well, this is surprising news. Everyone’s favorite Twitter spambot, @Horse_ebooks, has been outed as “performance art,” a collaborative effort of Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender. Jenna Wortham reports for The New York Times:

So how does one perform as a spambot? Relentlessly and tirelessly, said Mr. Bakkila. “The goal was not to appropriate the account but to become the account,” he said.

He mimicked the activity of a spam account, even occasionally tweeting links to the equestrian electronics books that the account was originally set up to try to sell. To create the odd non sequitur that the account became known for, he searched for articles on weight loss, bodybuilding and other types of self-improvement and self-help and skimmed them for material that he could tweet out at random intervals.

So is this the beginning of Bear Stearns Bravo?


On Crowdfunding in Start-Ups

Yesterday, federal legislation went into effect to allow small start-ups to ask for equity investments publicly, such as through social media sites or elsewhere on the Internet, without having to register the shares for public trading. Business owners will now be able to raise any amount, though only, at this point, from accredited investors—those individuals deemed wealthy and sophisticated enough to understand and withstand (tremendous) risk (basically, if you make $200,000 in income per year or have more than $1 million in assets, excluding your primary residence).

I was thinking about this for some time, but I’m glad I read Felix Salmon’s piece “The Idiocy of Crowds” about this latest news. Basically, he thinks it’s a terrible, terrible idea and an easy way to part with your money:

Today’s a big, exciting day for anybody who has found it simply too difficult, to date, to throw their money away on idiotic gambles. Are you bored with Las Vegas? Have you become disillusioned with lottery tickets? Do micro caps leave you lukewarm? Does the very idea of a 3X ETF fill you with nothing but ennui? Well in that case today you must rejoice, because the ban on general solicitation has been abolished, and the web is now being overrun with companies like Crowdfunder and RockThePost and CircleUp which offer a whole new world of opportunity when it comes to separating fools from their money. You can even lose your money ethically, now, if that’s your particular bag. The highest-profile such platform is probably AngelList: as of today, founders like Paul Carr (alongside, according to Dan Primack, over 1,000 others) are out there tweeting at the world in an attempt to drum up new investors.

It is conceivable that over time, these equity crowdfunding platforms will learn from their inevitable mistakes, and the few which survive will learn how to be something other than a hole in which to pour millions of dollars…

I thought the email that Felix received from an anonymous angel investor was particularly wise:

These guys are building their business on the notion/dream that somehow the internet can disintermediate social and relationship capital. I’d argue that this is precisely what the internet can not do: if you’re going to invest in a startup, you’d better know the founders, and you’d better know something that most people do not know. Information asymmetry is the only way to lower the risk profile on such crazy risky investments.

Disclosure: I am staying on the sidelines; I just thought the news was interesting.

Putinphilia: The Secret American Subculture of Putin-Worshippers

The Russian president Vladimir Putin has a number of fans in the United States—who see him as the very epitome of macho manliness. The National Journal digs in:

Putinphilia is not, of course, the predominant position of the conservative movement. But in certain corners of the Internet, adoration for the leader of America’s No. 1 frenemy is unexceptional. They are not his countrymen, Russian expats, or any of the other regional allies you might expect to find allied with the Russian leader. Some, like Young and his readers, are earnest outdoorsy types who like Putin’s Rough Rider sensibility. Others more cheekily admire Putin’s cult of masculinity and claim relative indifference to the political stances—the anti-Americanism, the support for leaders like Bashar al-Assad, the oppression of minorities, gays, journalists, dissidents, independent-minded oligarchs—that drive most Americans mad. A few even arrive at their Putin admiration through a strange brew of antipathy to everything they think President Obama stands for, a reflexive distrust of what the government and media tells them, and political beliefs that go unrepresented by either of the main American political parties.

They utterly perplex many observers of the Russian-American relationship. “No clue as to what drives it, other than some form of illness,” says Russian-born novelist Gary Shteyngart, author ofAbsurdistan.

There are many faux Putin fans in America—those who mock the hero worship ironically or half-ironically. But plenty of his fans are serious. Three months ago, Americans for Putin, a Facebook group, sprang up “for Americans who admire many of the policies and the leadership style of Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin” and think he “sounds better than the Republicrat establishment.” The group has an eight-point policy platform calling for “a unified [American] national culture,” a “firm stance against Israeli imperialism,” and an opposition to the political correctness it says dominates Washington…

When you see the kinds of things Putin has been photographed doing, you do have to wonder if some of these people do, in fact, appreciate the man for what he stands for (aww).

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The Keith Romer Experience

It’s been many years since I’ve watched Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? when it used to air on ABC, hosted by Regis Philbin. In fact, I had no idea that the current format no longer allows a phone-a-friend (because, hey, they are just Googling that answer in those thirty seconds, right?) or that the first ten trivia questions appear in an order that is random in terms of both the questions’ level of difficulty and their monetary value. So reading Keith Romer’s piece in The New Yorker titled “Easy Money” about his experience on the show was both illuminating and captivating. I held my breath as he recounted the questions he was asked on the show…

“Are you ready?”


“Then let’s play ‘Millionaire.’ ”

Already you are in it. Already it’s happening.

This is my first question:

MOMocrats is a blog “where mothers from across the U.S. come together to write about” what?

(a) Sports
(b) Fashion
(c) Politics 
(d) Cooking

Maybe it will all be this easy. When I say that MOMocrats must be a political blog, the producers reward me by putting five thousand dollars in my bank.

This is my second question:

In the world of air travel, a ticket that allows you to arrive in one place but depart from another is known by what name?

(a) Blind-eye
(b) Open-jaw
(c) Closed-arm 
(d) Sharp-tooth

It is wonderful to feel certainty when you are so prepared to feel doubt. I know that the right answer is (b), and for that I am given another fifteen thousand dollars, bringing my bank to twenty thousand.

Here is my third question:

Shown on ESPN, the Spike Lee documentary “Kobe Doin’ Work” follows a day in the life of a star in what pro sport?

(a) Baseball
(b) Football
(c) Basketball
(d) Boxing

Really. This is a question I was asked on a nationally televised game show. For knowing that Kobe Bryant is a basketball player, I receive an additional thousand dollars.

Here is my fourth question:

Quashing marriage rumors and quoting her own lyrics at the same time, who said “Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got” in 2012? 

(a) Britney Spears 
(b) Lady Gaga
(c) Jennifer Lopez 
(d) Christina Aguilera

I don’t know the answer, or I’m not sure enough, anyway, to risk my entire game, but I have trained myself to use my Ask the Audience lifeline on this sort of question. If you ask the audience about some obscure event from eighteenth-century U.S. history, thirty-four per cent of them will say (a) and thirty-seven per cent will say (b) and eighteen per cent will say (c) and eleven per cent will say (d), and then where are you, really? But America knows popular culture—it is the food they eat and the air they breathe. Seventy-five per cent of my beautiful audience says that it is Jennifer Lopez, and God bless them for knowing this, because this question is worth two thousand dollars. I make a series of kiss-blowing gestures to the three banks of seats—a move I learned from professional tennis players thanking the crowd after winning a major. What have I done? What have I accomplished? I have answered four trivia questions and earned twenty-three thousand dollars.

There is no time, though, to make sense of this new reality. The show rolls on relentlessly.

This is the fifth question I am asked:

Often armed to the teeth with foam swords and shields, people who are LARPing are engaging in what activity?

(a) Lunch Above Risky Places 
(b) Leaping at Rave Parties
(c) Live Action Role Play 
(d) Late Age Renaissance Pride

I confess to Meredith that the reason I know the answer is (c) is because of my own casual involvement in this as a teen-ager. If I could go back in time, I would not allow this nerdy admission to come out of my mouth on national television, but I am five questions in and haven’t used either of my Jump the Question lifelines, and I’ve begun to feel dangerously expansive. Knowing what LARPing is turns out to be worth only five hundred dollars, but still, it’s free money.

The dissonance Keith felt about the big money in later questions was something many of us won’t get to experience in our lifetimes:

What have I done to deserve to arrive at this moment? I spent a day auditioning for a game show and another one in which I have so far correctly answered eight of ten questions (with a little help from the studio audience). I have bantered with Meredith Vieira, and, before my eighth question, I have performed my Chewbacca impersonation. For this, I have somehow earned the right to try to answer a trivia question for more money than I will likely ever earn in an entire year. I have imagined this moment countless times. Meredith will ask me the question and I will know the answer, or maybe I won’t be certain but will still guess correctly and I will run around the studio with my arms wide, like an airplane coming in to land. A hundred thousand, two hundred and fifty thousand, five hundred thousand, a million. Life-changing money.

Entertaining and informative! Recommended.