The Wrong Choice

I.

There’s a lot of terms in English (and probably all languages) that are used to mean closely related, yet vastly different, things.  This can be annoying – language is arguably one of the most important tools humans ever developed, if not the most important, because it’s what lets us communicate with each other and transfer our thoughts and experiences.  Ambiguity is a crack in that tool that results in people not understanding each other.  When the terms are close enough, people can go entire conversations without realizing they are talking about different things.  Worse, using the same term can confuse a person’s own internal thoughts, as they haven’t clearly defined it to themselves.  Even worse, entire political arguments can derive out of different people holding different meanings for the term.  One of those terms is the term “wrong choice”.

 

II.

Let’s start easy with a quick hypothetical.  I make a bet with you that the coin I’m about to flip will land on heads.  If I’m right, you give me $10; if I’m wrong and it lands on tails, I’ll give you $1000.  Unless you have strong feelings against gambling or you really can’t afford to lose that $10, the “right choice” here is to accept my bet.  You have a 50% chance of winning $1000 and a 50% chance of losing $10 – with an expected value of $495, it’d be silly of you not to take it.

If the coin landed heads, you might say that in hindsight you made the wrong decision – based on the outcome, the correct thing would have been to pass.  But it was absolutely the correct decision until the moment the flip occurred.

This holds very true in other casino games like Blackjack and Poker.  The players who are masters at these games know to differentiate between decisions which are correct in outcome and decisions which are correct in choice.  There are probability tables for these games that outline what decisions are correct in choice, and someone who is solely interested in maximizing profit should always follow what they say.  They may feel disheartened all the times it leads them astray – where they folded their hand when they could have actually won.  But this is because at the end of the day, what we really care about is the outcome.

Casino games are an easy example because in the long run, a person who follows what is correct in choice will end up being correct in outcome.  In many, many individual instances, the two will differ –yet in the majority of cases, they will be the same.  Since players can play over and over and over, the benefits of playing according to the correct probabilistic models become evident.

But in real life, you don’t get that many tries – you often just get one.

 

III.

Here’s another hypothetical.  You and your friend want to throw a barbecue one Saturday afternoon and you invite a bunch of people ahead of time.  On the night before, the forecast shows an 80% chance of rain on Saturday but only a 20% chance on Sunday.  You want to reschedule for Sunday but your friend says you worry too much and you should just keep the Saturday date.

Now if you push hard to end up rescheduling and it ends up not raining on Saturday, you will feel cheated.  Indeed, one wouldn’t blame you for being downright angry if it ended up raining on Sunday instead.  Whereas if you decide to give in and it ends up not raining on Saturday, your friend may gloat over how you worried too much and that it was a good thing they talked you down from rescheduling.

Both of these happen because again, we judge whether our choices were correct in outcome.  If your goal is to not get wet and your friend group is largely indifferent to which day the barbecue happens, you are correct to want to reschedule and your friend is incorrect to want to stay the course.  If you were going to have 100 barbecues like this and always rescheduled, you would end up having 20 bad barbecues; but if you always did nothing, you would end up having 80 of them.

Of course, this is hard to remember when you are getting drenched on a 20% P.O.P day or looking outside on a clear sunny 80% P.O.P day wishing you hadn’t rescheduled.

 

IV.

It bothered me a lot after the 2016 election when people started saying that Nate Silver was wrong.  The man had repeatedly called out that Trump had a significant chance of winning, and likened the idea of calling Hillary’s win a foregone conclusion to saying that not dying from a game of Russian Roulette was a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, after he got called a wizard for his “accurate predictions” in the 2012 election, Nate called out in his book that “getting every state right was a stroke of luck” and that his “chance of going fifty-for-fifty were only about 20 percent”.

In the end, Nate and his team at FiveThirtyEight gave Hillary a 71.4% chance of winning the 2016 election.  She lost and he got heat for “being wrong”.  This makes exactly as much sense as someone getting heat for saying there’s a 66.7% chance of a particular dice roll showing a 3 or higher, and having a 1 come up.

To be fair, I also can’t claim that he was right.  Nate can’t know if his estimated probability was right.  It’s not as simple as a coin toss where we intuitively known that the odds of heads vs. tails is 50-50.  It’s not like weather forecasting, which we know through historical data to be quite accurate.  The National Weather Service has hundreds of locations each day that it can test out.  The FiveThirtyEight team gets one election to test out their model every 4 years.  Presumably, they make updates in between, which means they don’t even get to test the same model repeatedly.  This leads one to ask: how do we know if the model is even right?  If they always say there’s a 30% outcome in an election, one could argue that no one can ever prove them wrong and they are failing the criteria of falsifiability.

There’s no good answer to this.  If I am overly trusting of the FiveThirtyEight team, it’s because their methodology makes sense, because they have shown historical success via predictions, and because they seem comfortable discussing their uncertainty and mistakes.  Probabilistic statements inherently fail the falsifiability criterion – indeed, this is one of the criticisms of the criterion.  So this is as good as its going to get.

 

 

V.

We often make statements like “I am 80% certain” without thinking much about what it means.  We have an intuitive sense of what it means but if it were an honest statement, it would imply the following:

  1. If I make 100 such statements, I would expect around 80 of them to be true and 20 of them to be false.
  2. If someone offered to give me some amount (say $10) if I was right but I had to give them more than four times that amount (> $40) if I was wrong, that would be a bad bet to take. But If I had to give them less than four times that amount if I was wrong, it would be a good bet to take.

In reality, people who say they are 99% confident are wrong 20% of the time, and people who say there is only a 1 in a million chance they are wrong are wrong 5% of the time.  This highlights the problem of overconfidence but it also highlights a lack of awareness on what these statements practically mean.

Some people (like Scott Alexander) put genuine effort into calibrating themselves, which I applaud.  I’ve never done this myself but I would love to live in a world where it’s a norm for politicians and pundits and journalists to do this, so the public always has a historical record we can use to see who is trustworthy and who isn’t.  This would also save us from being drawn by the overconfidence that is so inviting about these personalities.

Scott Adams, who created the Dilbert comic strips, predicted that Trumps’ odds of winning were 98%.  He had no real methodology other than that he thought the Democrats were bullies and that Hillary was a candidate who was turning Americans against each other while Trump was seeking to unite America.  He was correct in outcome and has drawn praise.  Yet, there is no question that he was completely incorrect in choice to say this.

As long as we confuse being correct in outcome and being in choice, people who make bad predictions like Scott Adams will be praised whenever they get one right, while people like Nate Silver or Scott Alexander who diligently state their uncertainties and evaluate their accuracies will be wrongly criticized.

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Civility and Political Correctness

A number of people have been posting popular tweets about how the “civility” being asked for centrists and conservatives (and many liberals) is the same as the “political correctness” pushed for by the left.

Civility vs PC 1

Civility vs PC 2

Civility vs PC 3

I don’t entirely blame people for thinking the two are one and the same.  On the surface, both terms are about showing respect.  But dig a little deeper, and we find that not only are the two not the same, they are opposites.

The best way to show this is to go through some examples.  Even proponents of political correctness should be able to agree that sometimes it can go too far and lead to bad results.  Take the Rotterham child sexual exploitation scandal, where a sex abuse ring wasn’t addressed due to concerns of alleged racism and damaged community relations.  Or the fact that we are encouraging gender dysphoric kids to transition before they hit puberty, despite evidence that these dysphoric feelings desist upon puberty in 60-90% of those who don’t transition, because presentation of such evidence is equivocated with transphobic bigotry.  Or the encouraged minimization of sex differences in medical drug testing, which results in a deficit of testing in female subjects and thereby poses a real danger to women’s health.

A request for civility, then, is a request that we are able to debate such issues, issues that shape the world we live in and affect the core of many people’s lives.  A request for political correctness (which usually comes in the form of more of a demand) is a request that we don’t engage with these complex topics because it’s deemed offensive to marginalized communities.

(As a personal gripe, it’s also done on behalf of members of marginalized communities, without consideration their individual opinions on the matter.  That last tweet above by Matthew Chapman is one I find particularly annoying because I’m being told, by a white person, that the silencing effect I feel from political correctness is for my own benefit.)

In other words, when someone says “You ask for civility and yet you complain about political correctness, you hypocrite?”, I hear “You ask to be heard in conversations and yet you complain about being silenced in conversations, you hypocrite?”.

Unknown amount of effort required

Imagine a demon comes to you and says the following:

“I will make you an offer.  Beginning at the instance of your acceptance and ending at exactly one year from then, I will track the number of hours you spend staring at your phone screen.  At the end of the year, I will use a random number generator to pick some number between 0 and 10,000.  If the number of hours you spend is more than number, I will turn you into a billionaire.  If you spend less, nothing will happen – I won’t tell you what number the generator picked, you will simply live the rest of your life knowing you didn’t hit that benchmark.  You may choose to accept this or you may decline.  If you decline, you will lose all memory of this event.”

What do you do?

Well, technically the demon is offering you all upside and no downside.  If you accept, you could potentially become a billionaire.  If you don’t accept, nothing happens.  And even if you accept and don’t meet your goal, nothing happens.

This is one of those cases where I think my own mind would be my own worst enemy if I accepted.  For that one year, I would be tortured.  There are 365 days in a year, so if the generated number turns out to be at the low end, I would be able to become a billionaire without having changed a thing about my life.  But if the generated number turns out to be high, it would be mathematically impossible for me to even succeed.

Well, let’s say with minimal effort I can spend about 10 hours looking at my phone each week.  I could even watch YouTube while telling myself I’m being productive.  Now there’s about a 5% chance I could be a billionaire.  But doubling this shouldn’t be so hard: I’ll just do more of my online searches on my phone, I’ll FaceTime with friends more, I’ll use Tinder more, and so on: now I can spend 1000 hours on my phone and double my chances of being a billionaire.

Perhaps I should even quit my job and just do this full time?  If I spend 60 hours a week staring at my phone, I can clock in 3,000 hours and give myself a 30% chance of becoming a billionaire.  That’s a pretty good chance: but is it worth the financial and career issues that go along with quitting work for a year?

What if I amp it up even more?  I’ll be like a workaholic just spent hour after hour on my phone, doing close to 100-hour weeks.  I might go crazy but I now have a 50% chance of being a billionaire.  On one hand, that’s great: I’d love to get a 50-50 shot at becoming a billionaire.  But spending a year just on my phone for 14 hours a day, knowing that there’s a 50% chance it’s all for naught?

This post is inspired by my frustration with working on side projects while having a full time job.  I think these side projects have potential, but it’s hard to estimate the amount of work required or the amount of benefit I’d get from it.  So I feel like I am potentially wasting time as I work on them and feel like I am potentially losing out when I am not working on them.

Aiming for diversity

I recently had a conversation with my dad that went something like this.

Me: *something about potentially underperforming*

Dad: *jokingly* Well, you can always hope your company just keeps you around for the sake of diversity.

Me: Me?  How would I be providing diversity?

Dad: You’re Sri Lankan.  There can’t be too many other Sri Lankans at your company.

Me: Ha, you think they care about that kind of diversity?

I initially found it funny that my dad would think my company would consider my presence diverse when I just looked like one of the many very many Indians who already work in tech.  As I made this point though, I became irritated.

“You think my company cares about real diversity?” I asked.  “They just care about diversity in terms of what people look like.”

Now it turns out I wasn’t strictly right.  Having scoured the latest diversity reports from the Big 5 in tech (Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft), it seems that while race and gender are the main focus, there is some attention given to LGBTQ, disability and veteran statuses.  But the thrust of what I was saying still seems right.

There’s no consideration for neurodiversity.  No consideration for diversity in terms of socioeconomic classes.  There’s no consideration for true experiential diversity either.  Instead, race and gender are meant to serve as a proxy to these.

Well, I call bullshit.  I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who just haven’t thought about the fact that there are more diversities than what social justice advocates are concerned about (I know, I was one of them).  But there’s also people to whom such suggestions are anathema.

A white male from a rural area or who came out of a lower socioeconomic strata has as much to offer in terms of diversity as a minority female who was born into the upper middle class like most tech workers.  When someone doesn’t recognize that and screams at someone who does for being an uncompassionate sexist racist, you have to wonder if compassion is the true driving force in what they do.

How to split rent between roommates

I noticed recently that the bill tracking tool SplitWise has a rent splitting calculator.  In a blog post explaining how it works, they talk about the various ways people use to split their rent.

Rentsplit

A Google search on how to split rent yields rather some bland suggestions like paying based on square footage.  I also know pairs of roommates, who decided they would just pay equal rent but switch rooms halfway through the lease term.

All these ways suck.  There is an extremely fair way to split rent and it’s to split based on the value of each room for each person.  And this method guarantees that each person will get a room for less than what they’d be willing to pay for it.

The Process

  1. Each person writes down what they think the value of each room is. Or to put it another way, each person writes down a proposed split at which they’d be okay getting any room.
  2. The proposed splits are averaged to calculate the value of each room.
  3. The rooms are assigned based on who proposed a higher value for each room.

Let’s go through an example.

Say Harry and Ron are looking to get a $1000 apartment together in the city.  Harry would be willing to pay up to $600 for the bigger room, so he’d propose a $600-$400 split.  Ron, however, really wants the big room and would be willing to pay up to $700 for it, proposing a $700-$300 split.  Putting these together, the larger room is valued at $650 and the smaller room at $350.  Since Harry wouldn’t want to pay $650 for rent, the former would go to Ron and the latter would go to Harry.

Notice how both get a better deal than they would have settled for.  Ron would have paid up to $700 for the larger room but now gets it for $650.  Harry would have let Ron have that room for just $600, and paid $400 for the room he now gets at $350.

You can’t cheat the system

Can either party try and make a proposal to cheat the system?  The answer is only if they know what the other party was going to propose, and even then, not by much.  For instance, if Harry knows that Ron would propose a $700-$300 split, he might propose a $690-$310 split so that he ends up getting his smaller room for just $305.  But even then, Ron still gets his master bedroom for a lower price than he was willing to pay for it.

More than 2 parties

What if there are more than 2 parties?  Same thing.  Suppose Hermione also wants to live with her besties, and they find a slightly larger apartment that’s advertised to be 3 bedrooms (but the third room is actually a cupboard under the stairs).

Now, each person might offer up a split like this.  Each person proposes a split and averaging all three gives each room its established value.  (Harry really doesn’t want to relive his childhood and refuses to live under the cupboard unless he gets it for free.)

Master bedroom Smaller bedroom Cupboard under the stairs
Harry $774 $726 $0
Ron $750 $550 $200
Hermione $600 $500 $400
Established Value $708 $592 $200

In this case, both Harry and Ron have proposed getting the master bedroom for more than its value.  But only Harry proposed paying more than $592 for the smaller bedroom, so he gets it for that much.  This means Ron gets the master bedroom for $708, and Hermione gets the cupboard for $200.  Once again, everyone gets a room for less than they’d have been willing to pay.

Contra Mutz on Trump Voters

The New York Times ran a piece talking about how a new study was disproving the narrative that Trump supporters were driven by economic anxiety.  The study in question was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and was written by Diana C. Mutz.

The article mentions 5 findings in the study:

  1. You can’t predict Trump support by determining if a person lost their job recently, if trade directly affects their financial status, or by unemployment and density of manufacturing jobs in their area.
  2. You can’t predict Trump support by anxieties about retirement, education, and medical bills.
  3. A fear that American global dominance was in danger benefited Trump and the Republican party.
  4. People’s beliefs in hierarchy as necessary and inherent to a society were more likely to vote for Trump.
  5. Trump support is predicted by a belief that whites, Christians, or men face more discrimination than minorities, Muslims or women.

#1 and #2 nicely disprove the notion “No one has anxiety about the economy except Trump supporters” (which of course no one is making).  It provides some counter-evidence to the statement “Trump supporters are more anxious about the economy than non-Trump supporters” (though I imagine the two are anxious in different ways, so not sure what this proves).  It provides no support to the statement “Trump supporters aren’t anxious about the economy”.

#3 is making the shocking observation that conservatives believe in America First.

#4 is making the shocking observation that conservatives were more likely to vote for Trump.

#5 is making the shocking observation that Trump supporters feel attacked by social justice warriors.

From all this we draw: “White, Christian and male voters turned to Mr. Trump because they felt their status was at risk.”  Come on, be better.

Immeasurable Life Goals

One night a few weeks ago, I came home from work and had a few things I wanted to do.  I’d promised my parents I would call them, I had to make dinner, I wanted to email my building management about a potential mold situation, there were clothes in the dryer that needed to be taken out, I needed to put in a food order for the upcoming week, the garbage needed to be taken out, the mail needed to be sorted out, there was a dispute in my life I wanted to call and check with the local police about, and I was low on certain groceries.

Nothing in this list had to get done that night.  My parents would understand if I told them I couldn’t talk, so I could totally have ordered in, and just sat in front of my couch and watched TV.  I could have spent the night pretending none of those chores existed.

Of course, I have a long history of procrastination and I knew where that road lead.  So instead, I would try and get a lot of these done that night, and when I felt low on energy or the night was coming to a close, I would decide the rest was better off done later.  I knew what the rational response to this situation was and wanted to execute on it.

The way my body responded, you would think I had decided to fight a bear.  A type of panic set in, my stress levels rose, and I became anxious about finishing this list I totally knew I didn’t actually have to finish.

None of this was helpful.  But it did make me consider something.

In life, we have external measures of success: how much money do we make, how many friends do we have, how attractive are our partners?  The fact that these are externally measurable makes everyone strive at least a little for these – and for some, that’s all they strive for.  Most reasonable people realize that internal measures of success are often more important: how much do we like our jobs, how strong are our friendships and relationships, how satisfied are we with life?

But there’s even subtler internal measures that are easy to overlook.  What I realized about that night was that I was striving towards the external measure of getting my chores done and keeping my life in order.  This is undoubtedly a good goal.  But what I wasn’t taking into account was the internal measure of doing it without going into fight-or-flight mode.  And this was an important and worthy goal in and of itself.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a new year’s resolution that was about an internally measurable aspect like “Get as much done as I did last year but with less stress”.  Or “Find more ways to increase the enjoyment of time I spend by myself”.  I’d guess that is partly because it’s hard to measure these achievements, and partly because these aren’t achievements we can ever show off or be proud of.  But they’re arguably some of the most important goals we will ever achieve.