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Yet Another Thinking Meat Blog http://danielliang.com/randomness "A Complete Waste of Time" Tue, 12 Sep 2017 16:27:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.2 90255243 The Elementary School Entrance Exam http://danielliang.com/randomness/the-elementary-school-entrance-exam/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/the-elementary-school-entrance-exam/#respond Sat, 15 Jul 2017 01:55:32 +0000 http://danielliang.com/randomness/?p=454 Continue reading The Elementary School Entrance Exam]]> * note: this is a longer version of the published article in Here Dongguan

China is obsessed with grueling entrance exams. They are promoted as a path to meritocracy by providing a level playing field, where everyone has the same opportunity. Exams can be taken too far, however, and a recent incident has created outrage, even for China. The most notorious one is the gaokao, or the college entrance exam. Before that, there is one to enter high school, and another one to get into middle school. The offending incident did not happen in any of these. It happened in an exam to get from kindergarten to elementary school, something intrinsically ridiculous yet sadly, is the least absurd part of the story.

The Chinese government officially forbids “written or academic exams” to enter elementary school. Unsurprisingly, that has never stopped schools from cleverly circumventing the rules. In early May, a few private elementary schools held entrance “interviews” for prospective students. It not only involved face-to-face interviews but also oral quizzes on Chinese, English, math, a talent demonstration, and a bewilderingly difficult test on a computer, which, technically, is not a “written” exam.

If one were to accept the very notion of an entrance exam for elementary school, which many Chinese parents begrudgingly do, then these are simply logical extremes of that concept, and not offensive in and of itself. What caused the outrage was not that the schools skirted the rules by de facto testing the kids, but by making an extraordinarily controversial move:

They tested the parents.

There gave parents logical puzzles like these to solve:

There were questionnaires asking not only about the education and socioeconomic background of the parents, but also the paternal and maternal grandparents:

A certain school asked the parents to write an 800-word essay on the spot about education, which is extreme but might be defendable. One school went overboard and reportedly didn’t accept the kids if the parents were fat, a practice with ugly implications:

These actions strongly suggest that they would base their acceptance not only on the child’s own ability, but also the predicted intellectual capacity, using the parents as a proxy. Most people, including many of you reading this, feel disgusted and outraged about this practice. There is something deeply unsettling about this, yet the exact reason is harder to articulate.

The most common objection is that it is unfair to judge anyone based on circumstances out of their control. This is ironic because consciously or not, we have no problem judging beggars, criminals, poorly behaved children, celebrities, potential mates, and others all day long, based on limited information and a simplistic narrative. We talk the talk unabashedly, yet few of us actually walk the walk.

All but the most naïve of us realize that given the same qualifications, people with certain traits will be favored. Right or wrong, it’s reality. Interviews serve more than to understand the person; it also serves to confirm and strengthen our biases, whether we care to admit it or not. Yet when someone else discriminates, we pretend to be shocked. Disagree?

Allow me to ask a simple question then: Even if these schools did not openly test the parents, does anybody honestly believe that they would not discriminate behind closed doors? It seems that their crime is quantifying what is socially taboo, and discriminating openly instead of covertly. It is not fair, but not substantially different than anything else in life. Cynical? Yes, but largely accurate.

I think the reason we feel such swift and intense disgust is far more complicated and subtle. We all have skeletons in our closets, and deep down we all feel inferior and insecure in one way or another. It’s part of the human condition. The reason we are offended is that by testing the parents and asking unsavory questions, the schools are exposing our skeletons, laying bare the insecurities that we hold dear and close to our hearts.

Growing up we are taught that we can be the next Michael Jordan or Stephen Hawking, if only we worked hard enough. As we approach adulthood, we realize that simply isn’t the case. Given sufficient effort we can achieve competence, proficiency, and maybe expertise – but rarely greatness. You can’t will yourself to be 6’8”, no matter how hard you try. We mentally file it away with Santa Claus, and keep this depressing thought private, because it’s socially unacceptable to point out that the Emperor is naked. Ironically, we tell our kids the very same lie that once inspired us. And there it is – we are offended because the school is exposing our lie, brutally imposing the unsavory realities of adulthood onto kindergartners, and stripping them of whatever innocence remains.

It tells the rejected children that they are not only not good enough, but that they do not even have the capacity to be good enough. It finds them wanting instead of wanted, and implies that they are not merely incompatible, but defective. It is both humiliating and devastating, similar to what a heartbroken lover experiences – the agonizing realization that one can never be good enough. We resent that this undoubtedly adult emotion is unnecessarily and prematurely forced upon a child; but more than that, because it is ruthlessly honest, and even we, as grownups, are not adult enough to handle that kind of honesty, much less our children.

Aside from being ethically questionable, there are more rational reasons to reject this practice, even if it is legally permissible (they are for-profit private schools after all). The utility of an exam is only as good as its predictive value of future success, and it remains highly debatable if these exams are useful in that sense. Whatever limited insight one might glean from looking at parents’ traits, if any, seems far outweighed by the divisive and bigoted attitude it promotes. The message it sends to our children is reductionist and Darwinian, and is antithetical to the very purpose of education.

In Asia, schools are ranked solely by their graduating students’ test scores. However, as school ranking becomes the ultimate end of education rather than preparing students for life in the real world, choosing students become like picking race horses; the student is neither the customer nor the product, but a substrate – breathing meat that deliver scores. Our increasingly global and diverse society requires a far more nuanced approach to education, rather than this demeaning and myopic treatment of our kids – the very kids who will shape our world to come, guided by the values we instill in them. If we start with dehumanization and bigotry, then it’s unreasonable to expect a diverse and compassionate world to come. We may not deserve it, but we owe it to the next generation to do better. After all, providing them with opportunities we may not have been afforded is what advances humanity as a whole, and if you look around, there is still a long way to go.

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Unexpected Hanging Problem http://danielliang.com/randomness/unexpected-hanging-problem/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/unexpected-hanging-problem/#comments Mon, 01 Jun 2015 10:57:16 +0000 http://danielliang.com/randomness/?p=337 Continue reading Unexpected Hanging Problem]]> Judge Wright has a reputation for always being correct. Standing before him is a condemned prisoner, which turns out to be a logician. Judge Wright decides to have some fun with him, and says, “You will be hanged at noon on one day of the coming week, and it will come as a surprise to you. You will not know until the executioner comes knocking on your cell door at 11:55am the day of the execution. It is 4pm Monday, so it will happen by noon next Monday at the latest.”

The prisoner carefully considers Judge Wright’s comments. He reasons that, next Monday, the last of 7 days, cannot be the day of execution, because being the last possible day of execution, what kind of surprise would that be? That rules next Monday out completely. How about Sunday? Well, Monday is out, so Sunday is now the last possible day of execution. But again, it wouldn’t come as a surprise either. So Sunday is also out. By similar reasoning, Saturday, Friday, Thursday, Wednesday, Tuesday are all logically ruled out. The only conclusion the prisoner could come to, is that Judge Wright made a rare mistake, and he will not be hanged at all.

At 11:55am Thursday, the executioner came knocking on the cell door. And sure enough, it came as a total surprise to the prisoner. Judge Wright had been right all along.

This is a rare example of a paradox that is also humorous. Although it does not initially seem worthy of serious discussion, surprisingly enough no fewer than 200 papers have been published on this paradox. Naturally, many of them start by dismissing other views and claiming that theirs is the long-awaited solution, the final nail in the coffin.

What exactly, is wrong with the prisoner’s reasoning? There are two main approaches to resolve the paradox, logical and epistemological. The logical approach breaks down the argument by examining the basis (axiom) used for the reasoning to:

The prisoner will be hanged next week and its date will not be deductible in advance by using this announcement as an axiom.

Which is a self-referential statement and cannot be used to construct a valid argument.

The epistemological argument focuses on the meaning of the announcement, specifically the “surprise” part. Rather than explaining it, I will use this brilliant variant of the paradox (by R.A. Sorensen):

Exactly one of five students, Art, Bob, Carl, Don, and Eric, is to be given an exam. The teacher lines them up alphabetically so that each student can see the backs of the students ahead of him in alphabetical order but not the students after him. The students are shown four silver stars and one gold star. Then one star is secretly put on the back of each student. The teacher announces that the gold star is on the back of the student who must take the exam, and that that student will be surprised in the sense that he will not know he has been designated until they break formation. The students argue that this is impossible; Eric cannot be designated because if he were he would see four silver stars and would know that he was designated. The rest of the argument proceeds in the familiar way.

I could not possibly come up with a better example. Not only does it highlight the subtle, different meanings of “surprise”, but more importantly the absurdity of the chained argument when “surprise” is defined properly. An elucidating example requires a deep understanding and effective communication. It cannot be faked.

Note: for a more detailed explanation and a comprehensive list of articles, I strongly suggest Timothy Chow’s paper

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Baby Dialogue http://danielliang.com/randomness/baby-dialogue/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/baby-dialogue/#respond Thu, 07 May 2015 06:29:08 +0000 http://danielliang.com/randomness/?p=293 Continue reading Baby Dialogue]]> There is an article floating around the internet, clearly meant to be a dialogue between theists and non-theists. Normally I don’t bother with such laughably low hanging fruit, but I’m in the mood today so what the heck. Here it is:

In a mother’s womb were two babies. One asked the other: “Do you believe in life after delivery?” The other replied, “Why, of course. There has to be something after delivery. Maybe we are here to prepare ourselves for what we will be later.” “Nonsense” said the first. “There is no life after delivery. What kind of life would that be?” The second said, “I don’t know, but there will be more light than here. Maybe we will walk with our legs and eat from our mouths. Maybe we will have other senses that we can’t understand now.”

The first replied, “That is absurd. Walking is impossible. And eating with our mouths? Ridiculous! The umbilical cord supplies nutrition and everything we need. But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

The second insisted, “Well I think there is something and maybe it’s different than it is here. Maybe we won’t need this physical cord anymore.”

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

“Well, I don’t know,” said the second, “but certainly we will meet Mother and she will take care of us.”

The first replied “Mother? You actually believe in Mother? That’s laughable. If Mother exists then where is She now?”

The second said, “She is all around us. We are surrounded by her. We are of Her. It is in Her that we live. Without Her this world would not and could not exist.”

Said the first: “Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

To which the second replied, “Sometimes, when you’re in silence and you focus and you really listen, you can perceive Her presence, and you can hear Her loving voice, calling down from above.”

– Útmutató a Léleknek

First of all, let’s examine the premises. The use of “babies” and “Mother” (capitalized nonetheless), is already committing the logical fallacy of “begging the question”. This is similar to asking “have you stopped beating your wife?” in court; a telltale sign of intellectual dishonesty, incompetence, or both. Instead of ruling it inadmissible (as we should), let’s see if any other arguments are presented worth examining.

Assume for the purpose of our discussion, that the “babies” have sensory input, can reason, and communicate. The first baby purportedly says that walking and eating is impossible, and the umbilical cord is the only means of sustenance, without elaborating why. This is clearly a “Strawman” fallacy, stating a position that no reasonable person believes in, simply so it can be struck down.

In reality, this reflects that the author has not made any attempt to understand the other side’s actual positions and arguments. For example, a reasonable response would be, “We clearly have underdeveloped legs and mouths. They could conceivably develop into something that benefit us in ways we do not currently understand. Although we are currently fed only through an umbilical cord, there is no reason to believe that there are no alternative methods of receiving nutrition, despite not having seen one.” Of course that is more difficult to argue against; the other version is much better to mentally fap to.

The following lines of non-sequitur reasoning really made me laugh:

“But the umbilical cord is so short. Life after delivery is to be logically excluded.”

“Well I don’t see Her, so it is only logical that She doesn’t exist.”

Really? I don’t see a lot of things, but I don’t logically exclude them from existence. Neither does any reasonably intelligent person, theist or not. The inability to imagine something, such as alternative ways to eat, does not “logically exclude” those possibilities. Rather than make a valid point, it showcases the author’s comically naïve, binary thinking and lack of basic logic skills.

The first replied, “Nonsense. And moreover if there is life, then why has no one has ever come back from there? Delivery is the end of life, and in the after-delivery there is nothing but darkness and silence and oblivion. It takes us nowhere.”

More nonsense on display.  Imagine people in a prison cell. Some leave and never return.  Maybe they were all shot and killed.  Maybe they all lived happily ever after.  Maybe some shot and killed the others, and lived happily ever after.  Who knows. Yet following the author’s logic, it is the “end of life” simply because “no one has ever come back”.

It’s comical and tragic at the same time.  It’s like being given the deck to stack in your favor, giving yourself the best cards and your opponents the worst, playing the cards for your opponents, and still losing the game.

See, arguing is easy when you can frame the debate, make sloppy arguments, dream up crazy positions to knock down, be intellectually dishonest, and not care about making sense.

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Zipper Around the World http://danielliang.com/randomness/zipper-around-the-world/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/zipper-around-the-world/#respond Wed, 06 May 2015 07:06:38 +0000 http://danielliang.com/randomness/?p=283 Continue reading Zipper Around the World]]> I make zippers for a living. Every few months we produce enough zipper to go around the world, which is 40,075.16 kilometers at the equator. Here is an interesting thought experiment.

One day I’m bored. I haul out 40,075,160 meters of zipper (over 700 tons) from the warehouse, and make a perfect, tight wrap around the equator. With a smile on my face, I inspect my earth-hugging masterpiece. To my dismay, I find that the zipper is on the ground and on the surface of the ocean, getting dirty and wet, which is obviously unacceptable. Being the fickle person I am, I decide to haul in more zipper from the warehouse, and magically raise the entire zipper loop one meter above ground level (and sea level). I call on you, the warehouse manager, to get more zipper to do it.

Here is the question: Based on your intuition, roughly how much more zipper will I need?  How many trucks will you need?


To help out, here is a quick guide:

1%: 400 kilometers (1 big truck)

10%: 4,000 kilometers (four 40′ shipping containers)

100%: 40,000 kilometers (uh, call for quote)


You have 10 seconds to make a guess. Ready?

The answer, surprisingly, is 6.28 meters, or 0.000016%. The additional zipper needed is proportional to the diameter increase (1 meter off the ground = 2 meter diameter increase). Specifically, you will need 2m * pi = 6.28 meters. As the warehouse manager, all you need is to reach in your pocket and pull out some extra zipper, no need for a truck after all.

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The Mirror Illusion http://danielliang.com/randomness/the-mirror-illusion/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/the-mirror-illusion/#respond Tue, 28 Apr 2015 06:21:30 +0000 http://danielliang.com/randomness/?p=271 Continue reading The Mirror Illusion]]> The brain is a wonderful organ. It provides us with a mostly accurate representation of the world around us, by making approximations based on sensory input and past experience. This has been mostly sufficient for our ancestors and their environment in which our brains have evolved. There are many examples of how the brain can be fooled, ranging from optical illusions, stereoscopy, to multi-sensory illusions such as virtual hands, phantom acupuncture, and the famous McGurk ba-ga experiment. What I will discuss here is something fundamentally different, which is how your brain can fool you by how it constructs the reality you perceive; and in particular, how difficult it can be to perceive it differently, even if you know the bias.

Look inside a mirror. You will see an image of yourself with a lateral but not vertical inversion, i.e., the left/right seems swapped but not up/down. A watch on your left hand shows up on the image’s right hand, but a shoe does not show up on the image’s head.

Think about it for a minute. That makes absolutely no sense, as the mirror is a piece of reflective glass, and should not discriminate between left/right and up/down. Most people have not thought through this apparent paradox. If you have not, I encourage you to take some time to think about it, and you will find that all of the obvious explanations that come to mind are in fact, incorrect. When first presented with the problem, I found myself experimenting with a mirror, closing one eye, in various orientations, and imagining different scenarios without gravity, to no avail.

What makes this problem so difficult? Simply put, we are looking in the wrong places. We look in the wrong places because what the brain constructs (and what we perceive) feels so real, we take for granted that it is real, and automatically exclude it from closer examination.

The first, and rather difficult step, is to realize that the mirror doesn’t care about direction.  You care about direction, and it is your brain that comes up with the representation, not the mirror. To illustrate this, point to the right, and the image will point in the same direction. Point up, same thing. However, point towards the mirror, and the images points back at you, in the opposite direction. The key observation is that the mirror inverts not in the left/right or up/down, but the front/back direction.

The second step, is to realize what you are actually seeing in the mirror. Imagine a cone pointed towards a wall. As you push the cone into the wall, imagine a cone growing on the other side of the wall, growing as you push, in the opposite direction. You end up with a cone, pointing towards you, on the other side of the wall. Put a red dot on the left side of the cone and a blue dot on the right side of the cone, and do the same thing. An inverted cone emerges on the other side of the wall, with a red dot and a blue dot, on the same corresponding side. Now, imagine a human face being pushed through the wall nose first, just like the cone, with the colored dots as eyes. You end up with an image of a face on the other side, inverted. The left eye is still the left eye, just flipped inside out. Although convoluted and highly counterintuitive, it is the correct interpretation of the image in the mirror.

Still having problems visualizing it? Take a latex glove and put it on your right hand. Now, take off the glove by inverting it, so it is inside out. The inverted right-hand glove is the analog of the image in the mirror, even though it looks like a left-hand glove.

The question now becomes, why do we so instinctively see a person swapped in the left/right direction, to the point where you cannot help but see it that way? The reason, simply put, is that it requires the least work from the brain. The correct interpretation (inverting), requires an incredible amount of work, as evidenced by the effort it takes simply to imagine it. There is no existing brain circuitry to do an inversion, because there was no need to do so when the brain evolved. It is far easier for the brain to represent the image as “someone” facing you rather than an inverted meaningless image. The agent detection circuitry in your brain is where the problem is, not the mirror.

Once the brain treats it as a “person”, it needs to orient the “person” in space to make sense of it. There are two main ways to mentally turn objects around in space; around a vertical axis (turning around), or around a horizontal axis (think foosball). Technically speaking, both ways are equally valid (as are any diagonal axes). Our brain will use the existing evolved circuitry, which is to turn around the vertical axis and spin the “person” around to face you, for that is what it encounters day-to-day. Interestingly enough, if one were to mentally flip around the horizontal axis, foosball-style, one would see the image as up/down inverted but not left/right inverted, further proving that the mirror does not discriminate, and the problem arises from a hardwired preference in your brain.

This example shows that something seemingly so real and right, is no more than an erroneous representation concocted by the brain. The explanation is counterintuitive, but readily verifiable, and probably enough to change your mind. Of course, this is a trivial question with a not so trivial answer, with no vested interest or emotional investment.

It makes me wonder though. I feel quite confident and passionate about many issues, far more complicated and nuanced than a piece of reflective glass. How many of those could I be completely wrong about, simply because it “feels” right? How many wrong trees could I be barking up, blissfully ignorant of the squirrel squarely perched on my back?

I wonder.


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Yearning for a Hero http://danielliang.com/randomness/yearning-for-a-hero/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/yearning-for-a-hero/#respond Fri, 03 Apr 2015 02:30:15 +0000 http://danielliang.com/blog/?p=219 Continue reading Yearning for a Hero]]> Judgments are clouded by emotion, and nothing brings out emotion like a highly charged event:

On Feb 4, 2015, TransAsia flight 235 ran into trouble shortly after takeoff and plunged into a river, clipping a taxi and bridge in the process. 43 people perished and 15 survived.

In the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe, when emotions are in overdrive, it is human nature to look for anything to lessen the pain, to divert attention, to ameliorate the situation. And what could be better that the ultimate silver lining……a hero. After all, it changes the narrative from an outright tragedy into a tale of a hero fighting to the end.

With reckless abandon, the notoriously salacious Taiwan media pushed the hero angle. In the days following this tragedy, the media and general public praised the pilot for flying along the river, avoiding populated areas, and making it less tragic than it could have been. cuterIn news reports and social media, he was elevated to a saint, a hero, a god. The general public, eager to shift their focus, gobbled the narrative, hook, line, and sinker. Anyone even remotely questioning that status quickly experienced the viciousness that only online anonymity can engender.

Did the pilot really deserve to be called a hero? Let’s take a closer look.

The first point to examine is whether the pilot was at fault to any degree. If pilot error caused the flying tube to inadvertently engage a lakebed, it would take a Stockholm Syndrome-type of twisted logic to call the pilot a hero. It would be like calling a quarterback a hero because he recovered the ball that he fumbled, and caused his team to lose by 10 points instead of 14. By declaring the pilot a hero, however, Taiwan’s media practically precluded the possibility that he was at fault. Evidently, their favorite sport is jumping to conclusions.

The final investigation report is not published yet, but preliminary reports seem to indicate that the pilot might have turned off the wrong engine (apply palm to face). This two engine plane can fly on one engine, but definitely not with none. This is eerily reminiscent of the surgeon who amputated the wrong leg.

For argument’s sake, let’s assume the pilot had no fault whatsoever. The question is, were his actions so extraordinarily courageous and altruistic to qualify him as a hero? Did he go above and beyond what is normally expected or required, and significantly risking personal welfare for the benefit of others?

The pilot seems to have maintained composure in the face of mechanical problems, and flew the plane along a river to minimize collateral damage. Some argue, that alone qualifies him as a hero, as a normal person would not be able to. This is fallacious, as a pilot should not be compared to a layperson. By that logic, a doctor would be a hero for not fainting when he is elbow deep in a patient. And a similar logic applies to prostitutes.

Pilots are trained specifically to handle emergencies; to stay calm first, then aviate, navigate, and communicate. The bar is set high, and we rightfully expect our pilots to meet that standard. Choosing to fly along an open, flat area with emergency landing potential, for example a river, is also a basic part of pilot’s emergency training (see page 2 of this FAA emergency procedure manual). This is a no-brainer; any sane person would choose an open river over a highly populated concrete jungle, with or without pilot training. Calling the pilot a hero simply for not committing mass murder by purposely plunging into buildings, is like calling a bus driver a hero for pulling over rather than intentionally plowing into the opposing lane. It cheapens the word and renders it meaningless.

The last reason is a bit more subtle. In the “trolley problem” moral thought experiment, you see a runaway trolley barreling down the tracks. Tied to the end of the tracks are 5 people, certain to die if no action is taken. There is a lever that can cause the trolley to go down an alternate track, at the end of which lies one person. The moral dilemma is a difficult choice between causing 1 to die through action or 5 to die through inaction.

In this case, the pilot is the decision maker, but in a sad twist, also sitting in the metaphorical trolley. His own life is on the line, which muddies the line between self-preservation and altruism; he is not risking anything more than he already has. In poker, it would be called a freeroll, with everything to gain and nothing additional to lose. I suspect that every reasonable person would do the same out of altruism, if not self-preservation, with few notable exceptions.

To summarize, the pilot cannot be called a hero because:

  1. He was doing his job (nothing extraordinary)
  2. His life was on the line (self-preservation)
  3. He very possibly was significantly at fault (shut off wrong engine)

The love for heroes seems to be universal, as it appears in every culture, and can be explained by evolutionary psychology. Naturally, we yearn for heroes, often with grossly misguided approaches. Genuine altruism touches upon our innermost sense of morality, telling a narrative of fellow beings who voluntarily risk life and limb for others; that perhaps one day, under the right circumstances, we ourselves might be inspired enough to be someone’s hero. It is a compelling narrative indeed.

We would not be human beings if we did not have emotions, and those emotions can be manipulated to affect judgment, sometimes by other parties, sometimes even by ourselves. False narratives provide that very emotional comfort zone, somewhere we can retreat and feel good. Everybody needs a bit of mental masturbation now and then. Just like the real thing, as long as it’s kept private, things won’t get awkward.

I am not trying to minimize the suffering of the victims in this tragedy, which is very real indeed. Looking for a silver lining that isn’t there is like looking for an excuse that doesn’t fit. Both are emotionally appealing but serve no real purpose, because in the end, a false hero provides no comfort, and explanation does not equal exculpation.

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Appropriate Truths http://danielliang.com/randomness/appropriate-truths/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/appropriate-truths/#respond Wed, 25 Mar 2015 07:47:01 +0000 http://danielliang.com/blog/?p=212 Continue reading Appropriate Truths]]> Warning. This post is most assuredly not politically correct.

In “Origin of the Specious”, the late Irving Kristol quipped:

There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,….there are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.

Cynical, patronizing, and arguably elitist, but not necessarily unreasonable.

We encounter different truths growing up, ranging from the tooth fairy and Santa Claus, to anthropocentrism, mind-body dualism, an eternal soul, a personal god. As our understanding of the world increases, some truths are readily discarded, some are replaced by more sophisticated versions, and some persist (of course, the “truths” discussed here are not literal).

Some truths, such as Santa Claus, seem to be discarded as one gains basic understanding of the world. Or is it so? I think that most trivial ideas are rejected not due to critical thought, but because their peers reject it. For children, the peer group is typically their classmates or friends, a group within which ideas spread and proliferate, and exerts immense influence. After all, migrant children tend to speak the language and identify with the culture of their peers, not their parents; and kids attending international school tend to come out not with their parent’s accent but a mixed accent of their peers. I posit that most children reject ideas like Santa Claus primarily because their peers reject it, with the rationalization coming later and secondary. For adults, although the peer groups may differ based on the subject, most people still follow the prevailing position of each in-group, treat the opinions or arguments presented by the in-group as more meritorious than they deserve, and ignore or discount disconfirming evidence.

Independent thinkers (relatively speaking of course), far fewer in numbers, may possess the thinking tools, but lack the knowledge, capacity, or even willingness to examine an idea properly and critically.

For example, to debunk Santa Claus, one does not need to understand mammalian aerodynamics or solve the Traveling Salesman Problem; simple, intuitive (Bayesian) probability will do. Reindeer have not been known to fly, and elves have not been known to exist. The prior probability of either is negligible (let alone both), therefore the idea can be safely rejected. Unfortunately, many “truths” or ideas, especially those involving ideology and theology, are not as easily revised or dismissed, and usually require scientific literacy, advanced logic and thinking tools, philosophical constructs, an understanding of psychology and cognitive biases, intellectual capacity (so politically incorrect!), honesty and curiosity. A few examples include intelligent design vs. evolution, global warming, alternative medicine, mind-body dualism, tabula rasa, and rational choice.

On important issues, people are often adamantly aligned with what they feel is right, apparently in itself a reason enough. It is often useful to see what a collectively disinterested group of experts think about a subject, without appealing to authority, . For example, consider this poll conducted by Pew Research (full report). It is unreasonable to expect a layperson, such as myself, to be experts on these important issues; however I believe that one should have the basic humility to at least seriously consider the views of expert scientists, who are collectively far more intelligent, and understand the issues and nuances more thoroughly. Being politically incorrect, I believe that scientific (not philosophical) issues should not be a democracy; they should be guided by relevant experts rather than popular vote. Could the experts be wrong? Could scientists fall victim to groupthink? That is a valid question, as no one person (or group) is right all the time. A more relevant question would be, who is more likely to be right? The gap of understanding between scientists and the general public is great. Case in point: when the scientists are asked “how much of a problem that the public does not know much about science”, 98 out of 99 answered as a major or minor problem, only 1 answered “not a problem”. As Adam Savage would say, “well, there’s your problem”. One the one hand, you have a consensus reached by the smartest people who dedicate their lives studying it; on the other, a gut feeling.  Assuming they differ, which one would you bet on?

Could the approach to a higher “truth” be like mountain climbing, requiring specialized tools and skills? Perhaps, like Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, requiring a deep understanding of disparate fields of mathematics, with few having the wherewithal to even understand the proof given? For a rigorous examination of certain issues it may be true (some philosophical problems for example).  However I suspect that even though many issues are complex and often intentionally confusing (example), given the right tools, most people can reasonably reach higher levels of “truths”.

One of those tools is a basic understanding of how the brain works (or fails to work). The ever growing list of cognitive biases discovered by science does not paint a pretty picture. The brain is but a delusion generator, constructing a version of reality from various input signals, eloquently explained in How the Mind Works. One needs to look no further than split brain research to realize this. A recent salient example is Dressgate, which made people question the veridicality of what they see with their own eyes. Evolutionary psychology shows that this constructed version has little to do with reality, and more to do with what had conferred a survival advantage, with heuristics and approximations often being good enough. To cut through the brain’s deception requires thinking critically and scientifically, in itself an arduous and painful process, as sacred cows are slain and comforting beliefs crumble under closer examination.  As the saying goes, the will to doubt requires far more than the will to believe.

The cynic in me asserts that few would even bother with the process, much less endure the unending cognitive dissonance; the optimist in me asserts that, well, false hope is still hope.

I believe that most can attain a higher “truth”, subject to our practical limitations (bounded rationality). It is probably beneficial to most people individually and collectively as a society; however, whether it is always beneficial to everyone is a question I cannot answer. After all, the curse of knowledge is a real phenomenon – look no further than at my jargon-filled, needlessly abstracted, diabolical writing style, unintelligible to most, often including myself.  Deeper understanding does not necessarily result in greater happiness.

Bertrand Russell once said “The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”.  The intelligent may have a better understanding, but the curse is that they lose the perspective of those less informed.  It is as easy to unthink a solution as unseeing a hidden message, or unfinding Waldo.  Sadly, in the current climate, it is politically correct to “give equal representation” to the fervent and passionate Waldo deniers, metaphorically speaking.  After all, the cocksure are loud, but more importantly, they can vote.

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Interesting Problem http://danielliang.com/randomness/interesting-problem/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/interesting-problem/#respond Sat, 24 Jan 2015 16:43:58 +0000 http://danielliang.com/blog/?p=195 Continue reading Interesting Problem]]> Here is an interesting problem that doesn’t require crazy math skills:

I participate in a daily lottery by choosing a number from 1-100 and hope it hits. The odds of winning is 1%.

I bought a ticket, got lucky, and won today. I decide to keep playing one ticket every day until I win again, and then stop playing for good. What day am I most likely to end up stop playing (by winning the lottery that day, of course)?

  1. Tomorrow
  2. The day after tomorrow
  3. 50 days from today
  4. 100 days from today
  5. There is no difference, every day is equally as likely

This is not a trick question (assume unlimited funds, standard lottery, etc.), no need to consider the unusual; you just need to understand the question.

If you chose 3) or 4), you would be incorrect. If you chose 5), congratulations, you have good statistical sense, and are probably quite sure of your answer, but you are nonetheless wrong – just less wrong. The correct answer is 1), tomorrow.

Counterintuitive? Here’s why.

Yes, every day is equally likely to hit the lottery as another, namely, a 1% chance. Let’s say today is Sunday. Tomorrow (Monday) I have a 1% chance to win and stop playing. The day after tomorrow (Tuesday) also carries a 1% chance to win. However for me to stop playing on Tuesday, two things have to happen: I must win on Tuesday (1%), and on top of that, I must NOT have won on Monday (99%). So while the chance I win on Tuesday is 1%, the chance that I stop on Tuesday is not 1% but 0.99%, because I must not have already won on Monday. Each day after that, the chance that I stop on that particular day decreases accordingly, not because I’m less likely to win on that day, but because I cannot have already won any day before then. Therefore, the most likely day that I will end up stop playing is tomorrow, which carries a 1% chance. Every day after that carries a chance of less than 1%.

This is a good example of how our intuitions fail us. I stated clearly that it is not a trick question, but “you just need to understand the question”, and for good reason. The question asked was “what day am I most likely to stop playing?”, which most people immediately substituted for a much easier question, “what day am I most likely to win?”. There is a subtle but important difference, which is the hard-to-spot implied condition of previous losses. To stop playing on a day does not just mean you win that day, but more importantly it implies an exact sequence of lose-lose-…-lose-WIN!

The last option “There is no difference, every day is equally as likely” is so appealing because it is a true statement.  The statement just happens to be irrelevant to the question.  It’s a powerful technique, a mental sleight of hand, widely used by marketers, politicians, and spouses.

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Pope Endorsing Violence? http://danielliang.com/randomness/pope-endorsing-violence/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/pope-endorsing-violence/#respond Tue, 20 Jan 2015 05:24:00 +0000 http://danielliang.com/blog/?p=188 Continue reading Pope Endorsing Violence?]]> First, I agree with Pope Francis on many things he says and does (unlike his predecessor), and the direction in which he is taking the church. However, he has expressed an opinion that I strongly disagree with, and think is inappropriate for someone in his position. According to this report:

Gesturing towards Alberto Gasparri, a Vatican official who was next to him on board the plane, he said: “If my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch on the nose”.

Throwing a pretend punch, the Pope said: “It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.


To a layperson, it seems that he is saying that if Face-Punch-4e0e4c3b2acd1_hiressomeone insulted his mother, he would punch him in the nose. That sounds like the Pope is endorsing violence against one who is not violent, simply because his feelings were hurt. Perhaps recognizing this misstep, the Vatican spokesman tried to do damage control:

Obviously he wasn’t justifying violence. He spoke about a spontaneous reaction that you can have when you feel profoundly offended. In this sense, your right to be respected has been put in question.

Ah, the good old “figurative”, “that’s not what he meant despite what he said” defense.

And Rev. Robert Gahl tries to further weasel out by saying,

Francis didn’t say that HE would have punched his friend for insulting his mother. He said his friend could expect to be punched, given that he should know that he had crossed a moral line in lobbing the insult and should be more careful and courteous in not causing offense.

Let’s see if this makes any sense by taking the holiness out. Imagine a drug lord telling an associate, “if dat punk ever *expletive, present participle* comes into mah territory again, he can expect a bullet through his *expletive, present participle* head”, while simultaneously making a gun gesture with his hand, pressing it against someone’s forehead, and fake-pulling the trigger. The intention of the drug lord – violence – seems more than clear, and the method – perforation of bone and thinking organ with metal pellet – is not ambiguous. Whether he does it personally or not, one can reasonably conclude: the drug lord does not merely passively condone, but actively endorses the threat of violence, and is ready to act if needed.

The example clearly shows that the Vatican spokesman was correct. The Pope obviously wasn’t justifying violence. He was ENDORSING violence. Ideas should be judged on merit alone; the person who expresses them should be irrelevant. Even if you are the Pope.

The line of argument taken by the Vatican spokesman and Rev. Gahl reminds me of the former President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky case. Mr. Clinton narrowly avoided successful impeachment and perjury, by exploiting the incompetence of the prosecutor and creative but tortuous logic. He questioned the meaning of “is”, and came to the conclusion that even though Ms. Lewinsky was fellating him, she had sexual relations with him, but not vice versa! According to the declaratory definition, maybe. That’s getting off on a technicality, a distinction without a difference. For non-lawyers, think about how absurd that is for a moment. If one is getting serviced orally and concludes that he is not in a sexual relation, then what, exactly, is the nature of the act? For hygiene? For the taste?

Rev. Gahl argued that the Pope never said that HE would personally commit violence, despite the Pope himself gesturing with a flying fist to the victims nose. Technically he is correct. One is left to ponder, if not by the Pope himself, then by whom exactly? The Holy Secret Service? A Papal hitman? The Holy Mafia? None of these scenarios are any better than the Pope taking a swing himself. FacePunchOne often overlooked but exciting possibility is, perhaps the Pope’s mother, unhappy at being offended, flies from Argentina to find the person whom she likely does not know, and punches him in the face for an insult she did not hear. This would make the Pope merely unable to stop violence from happening, however if that is what the Pope meant, he needs to work on his communication. In any case, we are talking about a technicality. When others are trying to get you out of trouble, and the best they can do is rely on a technicality, you are on thin ice indeed. Especially if you are the Pope.

Contrary to what one might think, and as Dr. Pinker has shown in his highly recommended book, violence has greatly declined. Violence should rarely, if ever, be the response to non-violence in a civilized society. We have been moving in the right direction. We teach our children to “use words”, instead of fists, when they disagree. In a fight, we punish the one who threw the first punch. Disappointingly, this could be the Pope.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right, under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN. Unless the speech present a “clear and present danger”, all forms of expression should be protected, as unsavory or hateful as they may be. The problem is not with expression itself. It is with those who resort to violence when confronted with ideas they find offending; and to a lesser extent, those who feel that this type of violence is justified.


Update: The Pope, perhaps realizing the problematic situation he has created, backtracked somewhat.

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Cancer in the News http://danielliang.com/randomness/cancer-in-the-news/ http://danielliang.com/randomness/cancer-in-the-news/#respond Sat, 17 Jan 2015 04:55:29 +0000 http://danielliang.com/blog/?p=186 Continue reading Cancer in the News]]> Two separate articles about cancer hit the news recently, both of which elicited a strong reaction. One was about the occurrence of certain types of cancer often being due to chance rather than environment or lifestyle, and the other about cancer being the “best” way to die.

Reactions to the first article range from “dangerous viewpoint” “irresponsible” “garbage in, garbage out” “nihilistic” “bad science” to “smoke away” “time to binge” “told you so”. The article was published by researchers at John Hopkins University in Science, a top-tier peer reviewed journal. Although that does not automatically mean that the study is correct, it does imply that the study has been reviewed and vetted by people a lot more knowledgeable than myself and the typical commenter. It is irresponsible to dismiss a study as “garbage in, garbage out” or “bad science” simply because the implications do not fit one’s worldview.

Speaking of implications, what exactly are they? The typical strawman conclusion is that a healthy lifestyle doesn’t matter. However, that is not at all what the study concluded. The study stated that about 1/3 of the cancers studied could be attributed to genes and environmental factors. It did not look at all cancers (notably breast and prostate cancers), nor at other medical conditions, such as diabetes, which are very much linked to lifestyle. Not everyone gets cancer (much less the subset studied), not all cancers are incurable, and not all deaths are due to cancer. The “dangerous viewpoint” seems to be a kneejerk reaction to an imagined conclusion, a simplistic caricature of what the study actually says. Even at face value, putting the many obvious benefits of a healthy lifestyle aside, isn’t it worth it to improve one’s chances, even if the potential is a fraction of 1/3?

Reactions to the second article seem even more extreme, and mostly negative. Dr. Smith uses Mr. Bunuel, a well-planned end-of-life cancer case, to argue that compared to the other ways of dying, cancer is preferable. It gives the patient an opportunity to reflect and wrap up. Dr. Smith did not say that cancer is good, or that dying is good, a concept many of the commenters seem to be unable to grasp; he did make a case that out of all the different ways to die, cancer is less bad than the others.

We all must face death, and not enough of us have thought about it as carefully as we should. It is an event that greatly affects many, something too important to ignore because of a visceral aversion.  It’s not like we’re getting out of this alive.

Let’s see if an analogy can help take the visceral reaction out of the equation. If one were to be downsized from a company, would it be preferable to be given a month’s notice so one could tie up loose ends and handover work in progress, to be fired on the spot and escorted to the door immediately, or to gradually have your salary cut and be abused by supervisors until you leave in disgust?

End-of-life is not so cut and dry. Cancers, treatments, and circumstances vary widely, and perspectives are very different. A doctor is trained to be detached out of professional necessity, and it seems to be this perspective that most of the commenters find offensive. The commenters seem unaware that Dr. Smith has likely seen more cancer deaths than them combined, and a view from that perspective is probably worth considering with one’s brain rather than dismissing with one’s gut. I largely agree with this first portion of his post – I would choose time and manageable pain over sudden death.

I cannot agree with the last sentence, however. He states, “…. and let’s stop wasting billions trying to cure cancer, potentially leaving us to die a much more horrible death”. Even in the context of his post, it is difficult to see how such a blanket statement could be considered reasonable. He specifically said not to waste money trying to “cure cancer” – not drugs with astronomical cost but merely extend suffering by a month or two, which would have been a more defendable position. Yes, a blog post is meant to be informal, but this is something that should have been taken out or properly qualified before hitting the “post” button.

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