Blargh Blog

Thursday, April 28, 2005


House Overturns New Ethics Rule as Republican Leadership Yields
Republicans said that they had surrendered to the Democrats...

This is the start of the description of the story on the front page of the NY Times website. The substance of the story is that House Republicans have agreed to reverse the changes in the ethics rules designed to protect Tom DeLay in order to counter the perception that they have been manipulating the ethics rules to protect Tom DeLay.


Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Readable Philosophy

Are you looking for philosophy that is accessible to someone without a lot of formal training? Look no further than this page, which expresses important philosophical ideas in a simple and easily understandable way. Standard measures of accessibility rate it as appropriate material for anyone who can read the TV guide, including children still in elementary school, and it maxes out on the scale of reading ease:
Total sentences: 954
Total words: 11,622
Average words per Sentence: 12.18
Words with 1 Syllable: 10,744
Words with 2 Syllables: 622
Words with 3 Syllables: 190
Words with 4 or more Syllables: 66
Percentage of word with three or more syllables: 2.20%
Average Syllables per Word: 1.10
Gunning Fog Index: 5.75
Flesch Reading Ease: 100.00
Flesch-Kincaid Grade: 2.18


How Blar Fell Off

Here's a chart of my blog readability statistics by month, as calculated by this internet website (hat tip: everybody's doing it).

The abbreviations that I am using to try to make plain text line up in a chart are:
mth - Month
words - Total Words
wds/s - Average words per Sentence
%w>sl - Percentage of word with three or more syllables
sl/w - Average Syllables per Word
GFogI - Gunning Fog Index
FleRE - Flesch Reading Ease
FKG - Flesch-Kincaid Grade
*** see update below

mth words wds/s %w>3sl sl/w GFogI FleRE FKG
sep 14940 15.76 13.23% 1.49 11.59 65.05 8.10
oct 11438 14.65 13.29% 1.50 11.17 65.12 7.81
nov 08463 12.37 13.43% 1.50 10.32 67.38 6.93
dec 03236 07.99 13.13% 1.53 08.45 69.42 5.56
jan 04738 13.35 14.82% 1.55 11.27 62.53 7.85
feb 02002 08.17 12.49% 1.49 08.26 72.23 5.21
mar 00958 07.10 15.34% 1.54 08.98 69.64 5.31

apr 04801 13.37 14.46% 1.54 11.21 63.16 7.77
*** 00434 05.11 14.52% 1.53 07.85 71.83 4.51

The focus is meant to be on the three readability scores, but personally I find the nearly monotonic downward trend in words per month and the steadiness of the number of syllables per word to be most interesting.

The Gunning Fog Index and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade are both supposed to measure the grade level required to read the materials (higher numbers means it's more advanced), while the Flesch Reading Ease measuers how easy it is to read on a 0-100 scale, with 60-70 said to be the sweet spot (higher numbers mean it's easier to read). I'm not sure how the program deals with things like the sidebar, post titles, and posts like
this one, so readability statistics should be interpreted with caution beyond the skepticism that is due to any measure of readability based on nothing more than counts of word length and sentence length.***

UPDATE 4/26, 1:30PM
*** Of course there's a way to test how these things are dealt with. I just put the url for one of my littlest posts into the program, and it spit back the numbers that I put in the line of the chart with the asterisks. It counts 434 words and 85 sentences of low grade level writing, which suggests that the sidebar is bringing down my words per sentence average and making my writing look easier than it is. I'm not going to go retabulate all the readability scores to correct for this effect. Instead, I'll just point out that there is ths bias in the scores, especially for my less prolific months. Posts like the one linked to above also bias the scores in the direction of easiness - that one gets counted as 107 sentences with only 513 words, which helps account for the December scores.

Interestingly, the syllables per word in the sidebar is still just about the same as all the monthly numbers.


Friday, April 22, 2005

We Have the Power

Mark Liberman writes at Language Log:
By now you must know that if you go to amaztype™, you can see the word of your choice spelled out in letters made up of thumbnails of the publications whose titles contain it. (You can also ask to collect the works by authors rather than titles, or use thumbnails from the covers of music CDs or video/DVDs rather than books.) But now, amaztype™ zeitgeist lists for you the most popular requests.

Observing that the top 10 only have between 172 and 2529 hits each, he encourages his readers to get involved:
However, the most striking thing about this list is how small the current counts are. Look, people, more than 3,000 of you read this weblog every day*! If ten percent of you went to amaztype™ and asked for "language", it would rank higher in the amaztype™ zeitgeist than PHP does! If all of you did it, language would outrank sex...

They've done it, and right now language is ranked third with 568 hits, behind only sex (2572 hits) and fuck (1127 hits), and ahead of such stars as porn (464 hits), Harry Potter (435 hits), and cat (278 hits).

Well, readers, Liberman isn't the only one with such awesome power. In addition to searching for publications on, as Liberman did, amaztype™ also lets you search on,, and For, the top 9 searches (as of 22 apr, 18:30 GMT) are:
sex (15 hits)
nude (11 hits)
flash (11 hits)
language (7 hits)
gay (4 hits)
molten (3 hits)
cowboy bebop (3 hits)
art (3 hits)
jakob (3 hits)

Does anything strike you about this list? Look, people, more than 10 of you read this site every day*. If one third of you went to amaztype™ and asked for the same word on, it would appear in the amaztype™ zeitgeist top 10! If all of you did it, we could pass those 7 Canadians who read Language Log!

I've already tried searching for Blar and for Blargh, but apparently no authors have had the good sense to include either of those words in their title. So I decided to go with "internets". Three searches have already put it in the top 10, right behind gay (which is why I just gave you the top 9 - didn't want to spoil the surprise). I also searched twice for music by the artist Kweli (in honor of this post), and that's put him squarely on the list, ahead of one hit wonders Elvis Costello and U2 (sorry).

So if you're interested in changing the world, head over to amaztype™ and search for internets on If you have any other great search words to suggest, you can leave them in the comments.


*At least, according to the number of distinct visitors that sitemeter registers on an average day. As I understand it, they count visitors in terms of distinct IP addresses within certain time windows. This is an imperfect measure, since some ways of accessing the internet may channel many users through the same apparent IP address, while in other cases, a single user may show up from different IP addresses at different times.


Thursday, April 21, 2005


The Power of Letting Computers do your Thinking for you

Beyond Blink:

John Gottman, the man who predicts with startling accuracy whether marriages will last, talks about his work and "the mathematics of love." Gottman claims:
We've now gotten to the point where not only can we predict what's going to happen to the relationship, and not only can we intervene to prevent decay of relationships for people who really want to stay together, not only can we help people who really are continually unhappy with one another, to find out why their relationship isn't working, but we're really starting to understand the whole equation of this process, of having close relationships.

Sue Halpern compares the intuitive thin-slicing that Gladwell praises to the simple rules (fast and frugal heuristics) that Gigerenzer develops and advocates and Goldberg's view of intuitions as accumulated wisdom. Goldberg writes:
But in reality, intuition is the condensation of vast prior analytic experience; it is analysis compressed and crystallized.... It is the product of analytic processes being condensed to such a degree that its internal structure may elude even the person benefiting from it.... The intuitive decision-making of an expert bypasses orderly, logical steps precisely because it is a condensation of extensive use of such orderly logical steps in the past.

Neil Levy observes how often rules beat intuitions and ponders the implications that this has for the role of expert and lay intuitions in philosophy. Here's his account of the power of Statistical Prediction Rules (SPRs):

SPRs are (relatively) simple rules that are very successful in predicting a wide range of outcomes. There are SPRs for predicting whether a past criminal will reoffend, whether a psychiatric patient is likely to be violent, whether a candidate for admission to a college or university is likely to graduate, whether an applicant for a loan is a good risk, and so on. Provided with the right data (often surprisingly little data), SPRs typically do at least as well, and often better, than human experts on these problems. In many cases, SPRs outperform the experts even when the experts are presented with more evidence than the SPR uses, and even when the expert is also provided with the prediction of the SPR. Human experts, like the rest of us, tend to believe they have a special insight into cases and people, and so will selectively depart from the SPRs when they get a gut feeling that its prediction is wrong. More often than not, it is the expert who is wrong.

Blink II


Tuesday, April 19, 2005

New Pope

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has become Pope Benedict XVI. (via Oxblog)


Thursday, April 07, 2005

Studying Sex Differences

In today's politically "correct" society, is it possible for scientists to study cognitive differences between males and females and to discuss their hypotheses in an open and intelligent public conversation? It sure looks like it.

Here's how the linked discussion has played out so far. Simon Baron-Cohen* described his theory of systemizers vs. empathizers and presented evidence for the hypothesis that fetal testosterone levels affect people's tendency to systemize or empathize, with autistics located at the extreme systemizing end of the spectrum. Replies, including comments by four Harvard social scientists (two of them female), have come from various interesting perspectives. Some of the commenters are concerned about the limited amount of evidence that Baron-Cohen presents and possible alternative explanations for his results, and some wonder how the hypothesized "increased systemizing" effect of testosterone relates to the sex hormone's other known effects (like increased confidence and aggressiveness), but I don't see anyone dismissing the idea of sex differences. It looks to me like an example of good science in progress.

* In case you're wondering, he is a first cousin of Sacha Baron-Cohen (aka Ali-G).


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Blink II

When I summarized Malcolm Gladwell's new hit book, Blink, back in mid-January, I promised to add some of my own thoughts on the strengths and limitations of the book and what we can take away from it. But I didn't say when. So you're getting my thoughts now.

Unless you've either read my earlier post, the book itself, or some other detailed summary of it, then large parts of this post probably won't make much sense.

Also, if you want to read more about Blink, either before or after (or, I suppose, instead of) reading my posts, then your options include the Brooks and Posner pieces and the Gladwell-Surowiecki discussion that I mentioned last time, plus these links:

- Gladwell's website, with excerpts from Blink
- Gladwell talks sports in a January interview with Jeff Merron of ESPN
- David Adesnik reviews Blink at Oxblog (in progress)

How The Mind Works

I enjoyed reading Blink, and I think that most people would too, but there are lots of enjoyable books out there. Why read Blink?

One thing that we can take away from Blink is a better understanding of how the mind works. Much of what it does is "below the surface." Many of our judgments are fast, intuitive, and associative, and we can't know how it is that we make them. We are often unable to tell directly when our judgments are really responding properly to the relevant facts and when they are not serving our purposes. People are good at coming up with reasons to explain what they think and do, but, even though we think that we are just explaining ourselves through introspection, the stories that we create about ourselves do not always correspond to our actual mental processes.

Now, you can get this lesson without reading a couple hundred pages. You could just stop by Mixing Memory or look at pretty much any other piece of writing on cognitive psychology. One advantage of Blink, though, is that its richness in examples can make this lesson start to seem intuitive to you, rather than being merely an interesting and perhaps counterintuitive fact that you remember. Since applying this lesson to your life is not a rigorous deductive process (a claim I'll defend below), this intuitive understanding of it might help you make this lesson part of your life, rather than just something that you have learned. (Of course, I have no actual evidence for Blink helping to tune people's intuitions, and there is no sense in trying to generalize from my own case, in part because I had probably already studied more cognitive science than the typical reader.)

Yay Intuitions!

Is there anything more substantial and less vague that we can take away from Blink? One thing that you can take away from the book (or the subtitle, "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking"), is that Gladwell is very positive on intuitive thinking. He thinks that people are often too deliberative. You see the same thing in his ESPN interview, where he says "I think that the worst thing about the Super Bowl is the two-week layoff. I think teams get over-coached in the second week." (Gladwell is perhaps overly positive on snap judgments in this case - methinks his intuitions are mis-tuned.)

So what's the evidence in favor of smart intuitions? One problem with judging this claim from the examples that Gladwell selects, and with the generalization-from-a-few-examples style of argumentation in general, is that it can be highly sensitive to which examples are selected. But let's completely ignore that problem.

Looking at Gladwell's examples, we get a very mixed story. Some cases (like with the kouros and the double faults) involve experts using their intuitions well, some involve experts succeeding with a blend of intuition and deliberation (like the Millennium Challenge), and some involve expert judgments that fail (like the doctors' judgments about heart attacks). Some judgment failures are due to a readily identifiable bias (like the judgments of female trombonists or tall CEOs), while others (like the heart attack judgments) are not. In some cases a computerized algorithm proved superior to human judgment (like the heart attack judgments and the marriage-stability judgments). In some cases ordinary people were able to make good intuitive judgments from a little bit of information (like college students' judgments about conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience), but in many cases ordinary people's intuitions were overwhelmed by irrelevant information (like when Gladwell tried to judge relationship problems).

So we can't draw any simple conclusions from these examples - nothing like "intuitions good, deliberation bad." One rough generalization that we can make is that expertise usually helps. Experts tend to have better intuitions than ordinary people. (This often isn't clear in Gladwell's book, but it's very clear in his ESPN interview: "The point of thin-slicing -- the art of making accurate predictions from very "thin-slices" of experience, is that it's something that only experts can do.") Good intuitions are not just natural instincts that automatically get things right. They are built up and improved over time.

This tells us something about learning: it's not just a matter of gaining explicit knowledge that you can give a verbal account of, it also involves training your intuitions. (Some people already knew this fact about learning, but Blink may help you understand it intuitively.)


What is expertise? Do good intuitions simply come from spending lots of time with the subject matter, or is it necessary to have practice making similar decisions? Here again, we return to the "on the one hand, on the other hand" analysis. In some cases people make good judgments without having practice with similar decisions (like with Braden predicting double faults), but in some cases people with only familiarity do not make better judgments than naive people (like college students who assess their friends' personalities). Indeed, familiarity with a person actually seemed to hurt students' personality-assessment abilities (with respect to conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience). Further, in some cases, even people who do have practice making similar judgments do not seem to develop good intuitions (as with diagnosing heart attacks).

One risk of familiarity is that people develop theories which may be wrong. In the cases of doctors diagnosing heart attacks, doctors had a theory about what factors predicted heart attacks. In their theory, lifestyle factors (like smoking) were an important predictor of who was having a heart attack at that moment. They were wrong, and in all of their experience diagnosing heart attacks their judgments never became calibrated to reality. Apparently theories can make you resilient to the kind of learning that trains your intuitions.

The orchestra experts who thought that female trombonists weren't as good as the men were also under the sway of an incorrect theory, and they were influenced in a particularly subtle way. When they knew the sex of the trombonist, males actually sounded better to them. A more general bias against women probably also contributed to their judgment errors. Bias can also exist with a supporting theory. People seem biased to favor tall people over short people, as evidenced by the $789/inch salary advantage that height brings you, even though there does not seem to be much of an accompanying theory to that bias.

Familiarity and practice making judgments do not seem to be sufficient for overcoming biases and incorrect theories. It is possible that people who get a more direct feedback on the quality of their decisions will be able to calibrate better. However, the feedback that orchestra experts got from actually listening to the trombonists was not sufficient (because that experience itself was apparently corrupted), and the feedback that doctors got from their experience with people who they diagnosed as having a heart attack or not was not sufficient (perhaps because it wasn't direct enough).


One of Gladwell's more useful ideas is the way he uses "information." Central to good decision-making are 1) identifying the most relevant pieces of information and 2) not being overwhelmed or led astray by irrelevant pieces of information. This insight leads directly to two ways of improving your decision-making:

- attend to the useful information and ignore the rest (like with the heart attack algorithm)

- don't even let yourself know about the irrelevant information (like the auditions behind a screen)

Although the first of these strategies seems obvious and the second often seems unnecessary, keeping them in mind and trying to apply them can help you make better decisions. There is a temptation to think that more information is always better, or at least that it cannot hurt, but you have to break free from that. You are not immune to being thrown off by irrelevant information, and it can help to remind yourself to focus on the most important pieces of information.

The biggest problem with these strategies is that it's not easy to distinguish the relevant information from the irrelevant information. As we saw from the doctors' theories about heart attacks, even years of experience doesn't necessary give you this ability.

Learning successfully does involve gaining this ability to identify what information is relevant and what is not. It is also important to come up with a way of organizing the relevant information so that you can use it. These kinds of learning can be purely intuitive and inexplicable (like Braden's intuition for double faults), or they can be catalyzed and accelerated by a (correct) theory. People like John Gottman (who can predict impending marital problems) and professional food tasters (who can distinguish jams on very specific dimensions) learn with the aid of a theory, and they develop both well-calibrated intuitions and an ability to explain these intuitions.

The Robots are Coming

Two of Gladwell's most remarkable examples, the heart attack algorithm and the divorce prediction, show the power of computers. If it's possible to come up with explicit criteria for when a judgment is correct , and if it's possible to come up with a thorough way of explicitly identifying most of the potentially relevant data that might be used in a judgment, then there's a good chance that a computer can come up with an algorithm that's better than any human at making predictions. Medical data and the outcome of heart attack or no heart attack were sufficient for the heart attack algorithm. For Gottman's relationship research, the outcome is obvious (divorce), but the data are every statement and facial expression in a conversation, and they have to be recorded on camera, observed by people, and coded into the computer. Computers are still at work (as far as I know) trying to break down the biomechanical data of a player's serving motion to match Braden's ability to predict double faults.

So why didn't Gladwell call his book Algorithm: The Power of Letting Computers do your Thinking for you ? Sure, it might not have sold as well, and he would have had to shift the balance of his examples, but don't computers really come out the winner in Blink, ahead of both intuitions and deliberation?

One answer is "yes." There is a lot of neglected work out there on purely statistical methods of decision making, and the consistent finding is that algorithms outperform human experts. Computers have an under-utilized ability to figure out what information is relevant and to organize it to make good predictions. I'll bet that there is an interesting book waiting to be written, not just about Deep Blue and Billy Beane, but about all of the improvements that we could make in important domains like healthcare (and perhaps the penal system), if we just trusted the predictive powers of algorithms that had proven their predictive ability.

A second answer is "yes, but..." Algorithms are good at picking out what data to use and how to use it, but in many cases we don't want them making decisions for us in real life. Their use is more as a learning tool, to help us come up with the right theory so that we can train our intuitions, explain our intuitions, and make better decisions. The doctors at Cook County hospital now use a simple heart attack algorithm based on the most important factors identified by a more complicated statistical analysis (although they probably could just put their patients' data in a computer and let it crank out a decision). Gottman developed an algorithm based on rigorously coded data, and he's used it to train himself to identify relationship problems by picking out the most important signs of trouble, like facial expressions that indicate contempt. Since he doesn't have to rely on all of the cameras and carefully coded data, his talent could be very useful in real life. Further, even in cases where computers can outpredict humans, there are ethical issues to consider. Computers that are good at predicting have limited usefulness.

A third answer is "no." Computers are a useful tool in some cases, but a lot of situations, especially important real-life situations, are too ill-defined, complicated, time-pressured, and unique for computer decision-making to supersede human decision-making. In the Millennium Challenge, for instance, the high-tech computer information system proved too unwieldy for use in the field, and so the intuitive expert Van Riper managed to hold his own against the amazing power of the United States military. Intuition also triumphed over careful scientific analysis in identifying the kouros as a forgery. In another situation that Gladwell describes, a firefighter had a feeling that something was wrong while in the midst of a blaze that wasn't responding to the water. He led his men out of the building, just moments before the floor that they had been standing on collapsed. These sorts of acts of intuitive virtuoso weren't a result of training by computers and they couldn't be performed by computers.

So do computers really come out the winner, ahead of both intuitions and deliberation? The best short answer I can give you is "sort of." I prefer the three paragraph answer that I just gave you, though.

Concluding Remarks

You can get a lot out of Blink, especially if you try to question it and extend it. If you've made it through both of my long blog posts, though, does that mean that diminishing marginal returns will be setting in if you go on to read the book? Or, does it mean that you'll be better prepared to process what you're reading? If you do read Blink after reading my summary and reactions, maybe you could let me know.

Blink (previous)
Algorithm (next)


Monday, April 04, 2005

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps? (Trivial baseball edition)

In a 1965 game in Yankee Stadium, with the score tied, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a runner on first and a 3-1 count on the batter, Yankee manager Johnny Keane ordered the batter to take the pitch -- even though the pitcher was sure to throw a strike rather than walk the potential winning run into scoring position at second. Why did Keane do that?

Correct Answer: Because he made a mistake.

George Will's Answer:
Because with a 3-2 count and two outs, the runner on first would be running with the pitch and could be almost certain to score on a double. Which he did.

What is mistaken about Keane's decision and Will's answer? Let's break this down into cases, assuming that we do not expect the batter does not get a better pitch to hit on a 3-2 count (because if that's what we expect, that should be Will's answer). The possible outcomes resulting from one pitch: a ball in play, a ball (or hit by pitch), a foul ball, or a strike. What happens in each of these cases if the runner is running on a 3-1 count instead of a 3-2 count?

1. Batter hits the ball in play with the batter running. Whether it turns into a hit with the runner running or an out, the count is irrelevant once the ball's in play.

2. Batter takes a ball (or gets hit by the pitch). The batter goes to first and the runner gets second base, whether the count had been 3-1 or 3-2.

3. Batter hits a foul ball. The count becomes 3-2, and the runner goes back to first base. It doesn't matter if it was 3-1 or 3-2.

4. Batter lets a strike get by him. If the count had been 3-1, then the catcher has a chance to throw the runner out at second. If he succeeds the game is over, but if he fails then the Yankees have a runner on second and the batter has a 3-2 count. If they let the count get to 3-2 before the strike is thrown, then the batter is out and the game is over.

So sending the runner and letting the batter swing away on 3-1 is a dominant alternative*. It might work out better than taking a pitch on 3-1 and then sending the runner on 3-2, and it never works out worse. Keane made a mistake, and Will repeated it on page B07 of the Washington Post.

(Hat tip Tapped.)

*Under the assumptions that the pitcher isn't any tougher on 3-1 than on 3-2, and that the batter can approach his task with a 3-1 count the same way he approaches it with a 3-2 count.

Related: A review of Chance


The Nanny State

When you become unable to make medical decisions for yourself, as in a coma or a persistent vegetative state, the government should keep your body alive, no matter what desires you have expressed before in a living will or what your family considers best for you. That, at least, is the position of Eric Cohen of the Weekly Standard, who argues that the government should be tending to you and making decisions for you when you are at your most vulnerable:
But the real lesson of the Schiavo case is not that we all need living wills; it is that our dignity does not reside in our will alone, and that it is foolish to believe that the competent person I am now can establish, in advance, how I should be cared for if I become incapacitated and incompetent. The real lesson is that we are not mere creatures of the will: We still possess dignity and rights even when our capacity to make free choices is gone; and we do not possess the right to demand that others treat us as less worthy of care than we really are.
(via Kevin Drum via Andrew Sullivan)

Update 4/6: Michael Bérubé makes a similar point in a long and reasoned post that responds to Cohen's article and does much more.