2009/08/16

Do you feel lucky... punk?

Here are two reasons why humanity might soon go extinct, and why it wouldn't be such a big loss. As you can see, I am in a cheerful mood today.

Big rock from outer space

Last year, using the example of the asteroid Apophis that might destroy the world in 27 years, I made the point that human beings are sometimes astonishingly stupid when it comes to making decisions that involve low probability events.

If we were rational mathematical creatures, humanity as a whole should be willing to spend billions of dollars to insure against that 0.0023% chance that we will all be wiped out. If you don't like my argument based on the present value of future GDP, here's another way of arriving at the same point. If you are willing to spend a trillion dollars say on nuclear weapons to defend against other humans, and say there's a 1 in 50 chance that you actually need them, logically, you should be willing to spend a billion dollars on threats that have a 1/50,000 chance of happening. (I am using conservative orders of magnitude here, obviously a nuclear war has less than 1/50 chance of happening, so that makes my point even stronger).

Today, in this article from Ars Technica, I found out just how stupid we are.
Congress awarded NASA a $1.6 million grant in 1999 to put towards the NEO discovery program. Unfortunately, this was the only funding Congress gave to NASA to pursue this goal.

Yup, the US government allocated $1.6 million dollars to save all of human life from extinction... Total! And just in case you are inclined to blame "the Americans" for being so short sighted, consider that all the other countries in the world are allocating.. ZERO! (Ok maybe they have a couple of telescopes pointing at the sky but we need giant laser beams or something...)

At this point, I am almost rooting for the asteroid to kick human ass. We deserve it.

Small germs from inner space

And of course, a big stone falling from the sky is not the only threat we face. Tiny germs are threatening us too. Let's take the H1N1 virus -- the swine flu of recent fame. You'd think that at least when it comes to human health, humanity can be rational, right? Not so quick. Let's see how are favorite mammal is dealing with this problem. Consider the following article from the Guardian (great newspaper btw): "Experts warned dispersal of Tamiflu would do more harm than good" about the debate on anti-virus treatments for H1N1. Here's the scientific view, summarized by one expert quoted in the article:
"Some people wanted to take a long-term view of the risk of resistance developing and to seek to preserve the effectiveness of antivirals for the next pandemic, which may be more severe."
"If you get a resistant strain that becomes dominant in the autumn, Tamiflu will then be useless."
And here's another scientist:
"I am concerned about the vast amount of Tamiflu that is going out almost unregulated," he told the Guardian. "We are increasing the possibility that the flu will become resistant sooner or later. At the moment there is no desperate need for Tamiflu. We should be reconsidering its issue, rather than encouraging its use.

"I think we should stop the national pandemic flu service. It was put there for an outbreak of far higher mortality than we have. If you get a resistant strain that becomes dominant in the autumn, Tamiflu will then be useless."

Ok, thank God for all these smart scientists who have thought it through! The politicians should logically follow their advice right? Well actually
"It was felt ... it would simply be unacceptable to the UK population to tell them we had a huge stockpile of drugs but they were not going to be made available"
So they just decided to go ahead and do the wrong thing! It's like a parent saying: "If I told my 5 year old not to play with this loaded gun, he would have been upset, so I decided to let him play with it." Mind you we're not talking about some distant threat here. The next mutation of the virus could be this autumn. Granted there's a low probability that it will mutate into a real killer, but that's my whole point. It's a low probability but high impact threat. And faced with that, the British government is willingly increasing the probability of a pandemic that could kill hundreds of millions of people, because they are afraid of being unpopular for the next two months!

Seriously! If this was a movie, whose side would you be on? I would be like: Humans suck! Go H1, Go N1, it's your birthday!

No rare events in the savannah

None of this is original of course. Evolutionary biologists will say it's because our brain evolved in an environment where we just never had to consider small probabilities. We have no problem dealing with quantities like "if I go left, I get 1 potato, if I turn right I get 12 eggs"... Our brain can compute those things even as a toddler. But things like "1 in 50,000 chance" just don't compute in ye olde wetware. It's only after years of formal schooling, e.g. by the high-school level, that we start to get intuition on really small numbers. Because until the modern age, we didn't need to! Sure there were rare things like being hit by lightning, or having an earthquake, but since there wasn't anything we could do about them, there was no evolutionary advantage to actually being able to reason logically about really small probabilities. Good old superstition would work just as well. You could say "I got hit by lightning because Zeus is angry at me because I didn't offer animal sacrifice". If you are a hunter gatherer living in the bush, that explanation is practically speaking, just as good as the scientific one.

But now, by our own hands, we have a world where we do need to reason about small probabilities... Problem is, the brain hasn't caught up! Global warming is another example. Twenty years ago, it was a low probability but high impact threat, just like our two examples above. Scientists were running around screaming "There's a 1 in 100 chance that the polar ice caps will melt! That's huge!" But humanity just couldn't deal with it. People were like: "One in a hundred chance of extincttion? Pffft. I'm feeling lucky. Let me go buy a lottery ticket."



Well now global warming is in the same range of probability as 1 potato and 12 eggs, so people are dealing with it, but it may be too late.

Is this the end-game of evolution? Is this what the epitaph will say:
Here lies humanity.
They became really good at reproduction -- 6 billion individuals!
But not quite good enough at probability.
Maybe it's all part of a master plan. A conspiracy! Apophis contains some organic molecules which are distant relatives of the H1N1 virus. Together the asteroid and the swine flu are collaborating to take us out, and recolonize the planet with a new dominant species that they like better. After all, that could be how we got here too!

2009/08/13

Gell-Mann Amnesia

Last November, I came across this piece by Michael Crichton. I found the following bit brilliant:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I call it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories. Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. I'd point out it does not operate in other arenas of life. In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say. In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.
But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't. The only possible explanation for our behavior is amnesia.
Brilliant! It reminds me of my rants about the NY Times. Yet I still buy it most days.... Amnesia.

Note: when I wrote that post, in November 2007, the Times' newsstand price had just increased from $1 to $1.25. Now it's $2. 100% increase in less than two years!

2009/08/11

Mark Cuban's advice to Myspace

I made what turned out to be a rather lengthy comment on the latest post at blogmaverick.com wherein Mark Cuban gives advice to Rupert Murdoch. A quick survey of my readers (hey me!) indicated that close to 100% would like to have that insightful comment right here on their favorite blog. Hence this post.

The first part of Cuban's advice is kind of crazy. He wants news sites to block incoming links from aggregators. Block links! That's a surprising level of cluelessness from our good friend, who is getting all the flack he deserves for that idea from other people so I won't add to it.

The more interesting part of the post is on Myspace's potential future business model... I really think he's on to something. Here's what I had to say about it (Since Wave is not integrated with Blogger yet, I can only cut & paste):

Excellent advice for Myspace, Mark! I think being a music platform is the best business plan for them. They have the audience with the right demographics, and the artists. For now… But they can’t pull it off with the website they have today. So the big question is, do they have the technical capability to support that business plan?

It would take a significant breakthrough, a next generation web application. It would have streaming, download and playback, syncing with devices, all better or at least as good as todays iTunes client/server combo. It would also have to be a great authoring/publication tool for artists to easily create a good looking online presence, perhaps even some actual post-production music features to create special samples and mixes…

In short, they need a site that is as different from today’s Myspace pages as, let’s say, Gmail in 2009 is different from Hotmail of 1999. The ingredients are available and ripe: after years of stagnation, browsers and web languages are in a period of intense innovation. But can Myspace pull them together to create a cool and, as Steve Jobs would say, “insanely great” technology for the new web-based music universe? I doubt it. I just don’t see any evidence whatsoever, at Myspace or anywhere else at News corp, of the level of technical depth required to lead the world into this new — dare I say it? — “web 3.0″ music world. Still, you are right IMHO, it’s their best bet and they should at least try rather than wither away.