Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Data mining the arc of stories

I’ve been thinking a bit about my next acid logic piece which will tie in with a presentation author Kurt Vonnegut once gave on the shapes of stories. He argued that there are limited set of flows that stories can take and that all stories ever written ultimately fit into this set. I might as well let him explain as the presentation is online.

Today I come across an article about an attempt at making computers perform data mining to analyze the arcs of stories stories. Basically a computer “read” numerous stories and ranked the emotional affect of the words to map out the emotional flow of the story. As the article explains…

Their method is straightforward. The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.

It was then concluded that there are six basic story arcs or flows, though some novels combine several different arcs into a larger tale.

I’d be curious to see analysis of the flow of other arts forms—music, painting, cinema etc.

5 reasons lists are awesome

I often deride the list-based blog posts and articles that have overtaken the internet, things like “6 Cat Photos That Will Have You On The Floor With Laughter.” That said, I stumbled across this semi-recent New Yorker piece that explains lists’ effectiveness.

One point of appeal is that we have an easier time remembering the content of lists, partly because we think spatially. So we remember a list bullet point partly because we recall where it was in the list. It’s not just a ethereal piece of info, it’s something that was halfway down the page.

As the article intones…

When we process information, we do so spatially. For instance, it’s hard to memorize through brute force the groceries we need to buy. It’s easier to remember everything if we write it down in bulleted, or numbered, points. Then, even if we forget the paper at home, it is easier for us to recall what was on it because we can think back to the location of the words themselves.

Also, lists let you know what you’re getting into; they tell you how much time you’ll have to commit to read them. (This is probably why articles like “786 Reasons to Vote for Hillary Clinton” would never fly.)

The more we know about something—including precisely how much time it will consume—the greater the chance we will commit to it. The process is self-reinforcing: we recall with pleasure that we were able to complete the task (of reading the article) instead of leaving it undone and that satisfaction, in turn, makes us more likely to click on lists again.

Is Facebook controlling you?

Much of what I’ve been reading about and thinking about over the past several months has to do with the notion that people are controllable. Scott Adams’ theories on Donald Trump, which I often mention, state that Trump is a master persuader—he uses rhetorical flourishes and various emotional cues to get people to support him. Parts of the Howard Bloom books I’ve been reading tout the idea that everything is social and that creatures, humans in particular, live and die by whether they and their ideas are accepted by those around them. So we have a strong motivation to go along with the crowd and gain their approval. (I talked a bit about this in my recent article “Are You A Hive Mind?“)

The NY Times has a new op-ed piece called “How Facebook Warps Our Worlds.” It’s pretty familiar stuff: the web and Facebook in particular reinforce our ideas and shield us from contrary notions. (I’m not sure it’s quite true since I see some arguing on Facebook, but I think the idea holds up.) I can definitely see a lot of pressure to think a certain way emanating from one’s social network, pressure that might be subtle enough to not be consciously detected. And that falls right into Adams and Blooms argument: we can be easily swayed to go along with the crowd. To really fight this you have to examine almost all of your assumptions and who’s got the time for that?

As the article notes:

THOSE who’ve been raising alarms about Facebook are right: Almost every minute that we spend on our smartphones and tablets and laptops, thumbing through favorite websites and scrolling through personalized feeds, we’re pointed toward foregone conclusions. We’re pressured to conform.

But unseen puppet masters on Mark Zuckerberg’s payroll aren’t to blame. We’re the real culprits. When it comes to elevating one perspective above all others and herding people into culturally and ideologically inflexible tribes, nothing that Facebook does to us comes close to what we do to ourselves.

I’m talking about how we use social media in particular and the Internet in general — and how we let them use us. They’re not so much agents as accomplices, new tools for ancient impulses, part of “a long sequence of technological innovations that enable us to do what we want,” noted the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who wrote the 2012 best seller “The Righteous Mind,” when we spoke last week.

“And one of the things we want is to spend more time with people who think like us and less with people who are different,” Haidt added. “The Facebook effect isn’t trivial. But it’s catalyzing or amplifying a tendency that was already there.”

Thinking about trade agreements

So I was walking along this morning and thinking a bit about an issue you see mentioned during these campaigns: trade. Specifically trade between countries that is regulated by various trade agreements like NAFTA.

Both Sanders and Trump, it seems, are against such agreements and think these agreements have screwed America. Clinton is a bit more complex—I think she was for them before she was against them. (That’s probably a cheap shot but I couldn’t resist.) The other Republicans are probably for the agreements though I don’t know for sure.

So what is the right answer? The Sanders/Trump complaint is something like this, I believe, and I’ll use US/Chinese trade relations as an example: The US is letting Chinese products in with few tariffs added on top. The Chinese can keep their prices low because their workers work for little and there are few environmental protections of the sort that American factories have to impose. So Chinese products are cheaper and can compete with US products in local and inetrnational markets.

The Sanders/Trump solution is, I believe, to renegotiate these trade agreements to impose tariffs on these Chinese products. (Sanders would probably lower tariffs if the Chinese added environmental protections, which would, of course, cost money.) As a result, Chinese products would become more expensive and US products would be better able to compete.

So would the Chinese go along with that? It seems they have a couple options. One is to kowtow to the new agreement and keep access to the US Market. Another is to say, “screw you guys,” and focus on other markets like India, Africa, their own, etc. Another option would be to impose tariffs on our products, thus limiting US manufacturers appeal to the huge Chinese market. (The problem there is that while there are many Chinese, a lot of them are poor and thus not able to buy much.)

What would China do? I have no idea. Thinking about this stuff really makes me realize how little I know about it.

But here’s my main thought. This kind of analysis of these is not something you really see in news coverage of the candidates, or in speeches from the candidates and their proxies. Most of the arguments seems to be that this candidate is better than another for some other reason – he or she is more “qualified,” or has leadership qualities, or whatever.

So why is that? I suspect that for some kind of evolutionary reason people are wired towards cult leaders, not dudes who sit around explaining why their approach to trade agreements is better (YAWN!). If anything, we chose the guy we like, then talk ourselves into his ideas on trade agreements. And this would seem another example where our behavior is not particularly rational at all.

P.S. As a side note to all this I reaffirm my belief that the threat posed to Americans workings by fluid trade will be dwarfed by that of robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing.

Robots and Donald Trump

Let’s say it’s 1970 and you’re a man who just graduated from high school. You don’t come from wealth but you can get a job at a local factory, the same way your dad did, and make enough to raise a family. You have a son, and in 1995, he does the exact same thing. Just like his dad, he takes a factory job (or similar blue collar gig) and makes decent living. He has kids, starts a family etc.

Now it’s 2016. Five years ago, the son in that scenario was let go from his shuttered factory. He’s been looking for work ever since. Or maybe he’s given up and become an alcoholic. Either way he feels betrayed. The unspoken promise society gave him was that if he played fair and worked hard he could live a comfortable life and take care of his family. That promise has been betrayed. He blames Mexicans for coming in and driving down wages and trade agreements that close factories on American shores and open them in countries with cheap labor.

This, I suspect, is a Donald Trump voter.

My question is whether things are about to get worse.

First, let’s examine this guy’s presumptions. Are Mexicans and bad trade agreements what screwed him? Well, maybe, I don’t really know. But I don’t think they will be the problems faced by that guy’s kids. I suspect the problem of the future is technology: robotization and advanced software. You could even argue this is the problem of today.

…in a 2014 poll of leading academic economists conducted by the Chicago Initiative on Global Markets, regarding the impact of technology on employment and earnings, 43 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “information technology and automation are a central reason why median wages have been stagnant in the U.S. over the decade, despite rising productivity,” while only 28 percent disagreed. Similarly, a 2015 study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that technological progress is a major factor in the increase of inequality over the past decades.

The bottom line is that while automation is eliminating many jobs in the economy that were once done by people, there is no sign that the introduction of technologies in recent years is creating an equal number of well-paying jobs to compensate for those losses. A 2014 Oxford study found that the number of U.S. workers shifting into new industries has been strikingly small: in 2010, only 0.5 percent of the labor force was employed in industries that did not exist in 2000.

The gist of this argument is that it won’t be Mexicans taking your job in the future (if they ever did), it will be robots.

This is a problem that I don’t really see any of the candidates talking about. Partly, I suppose, because there’s no obvious solution. People often talk about retraining people but as the text above notes, new jobs aren’t keeping up with jobs lost. And I think there’s a psychological component that makes people resistant to retraining. People associate their selves, their identities, with their job (sometimes a job that has run in their family for generations). When someone comes in and says, “OK, throw all that away and train to become a widget manufacturer,” people are resistant. They don’t want to give up their identities.

The future of plagiarism?

Here’s an interesting tale up on a British news site. In short, an author discovered that a couple books she had co-authored years ago had been directly plagiarized and republished under different titles. The theft was caught and the royalties that had been generated from Amazon sales were routed to the correct authors. All’s well that ends well.

The thief however was never really caught. He or she published under what was likely a pseudonym and no flesh and blood person can be connected to the name.

In a way, the scheme is rather obvious. There are millions of under-the-radar books out there—books that have been forgotten or never had much of a fan base. Why not publish them under a new title and try and reap the benefits? (Well, if you ignore the ethical reasons.)

I wonder if down the line it will be easy enough to get software to do all the dirty work. You design a piece of software to create thousands of fake accounts and then upload pilfered books to the Amazon store using these accounts? Maybe you don’t make much but something is more than nothing.

Do we already have “free education”?

Welp, I’m back to linking to a Scott Adams post on Trump, but this time because it hits on an argument I’ve made myself: with the plethora of free information on the internet we should rethink education. Adams notes…

Trump could take “free college” off the table by saying college is overrated for most people. You can learn almost any skill over the Internet, so what we need is a way to accredit certain collections of skills.

I’ve spent the last couple weeks watching my girlfriend’s son use youtube to educate himself on techniques for filming and lighting movies. There’s tons of useful info out there. But, of course, all his learning is meaningless unless it is verified somehow. This would be the accreditation idea Adams speaks of. Will we see a rise of accreditation institutions that do not teach – that would be up to the student – but simply verify that a person knows what they are talking about? I’d love to see that.

I will say, I’m dubious Trump can make that argument stick for the current Presidential race; people are too wedded to the old ways. But the idea itself has merit and may take hold.

The decline of librarians

Everyone acknowledges that the internet has radically changed things, even if we’re not quite aware of what those changes mean. I often state that the ease of access to information (and misinformation) that the web provides has big ramifications. For instance, I think the very notion of education and various credentials is weakening when so much information is online. It isn’t a matter of knowing something, but knowing where to find information.

The Wall Street Journal has an op-ed on the declining role of librarians as research helpers. It used to be you went to the librarian to have them look up obscure facts found only in arcane reference books found on dusty shelves; now you google it. As a result..

The mood among some librarians is pessimistic. A New Mexico librarian recently told me: “I spend most of my time making change and showing people how to print from the computer or use the copier. I sure don’t get the reference questions like I used to.”

Later the article makes an interesting point.

One bright spot: Some public libraries have created jobs for “technology assistants,” positions filled by tech-savvy young people with community-college degrees and plans for information-technology careers. Libraries can easily justify this new position: Techies are paid less than librarians or library associates and they offer skills the public increasingly needs. The public library of the future might be a computer center, staffed by IT professionals and few books or librarians.

Perhaps the Library will morph into a kind of IT Support center for the common man. Concerned about whether to upgrade this or that software? Wondering if someone stole your online identity? Go to the library.

Editing genes with CRISPR

There’s a recent Economist article on the advent of CRISPR technology which is a gene editing tool that could be used (at some indeterminate point in the future) to allow parents to design their offspring. Don’t want your kid to have your bad breath? Edit it out with CRISPR. Wan’t your kid to excel at music in a way you never did? Bring on the CRISPR.

The catch is that a lot of attributes interact in ways we don’t understand. It’s possible that making someone too intellectual limits their emotional life or that making someone too empathetic could paralyze them with anxiety*. The article points out an interesting fear, that parents intent on improving their kids could actually damage them.

* These are examples I just made up; I have no idea if they are real.

If CRISPR can be shown to be safe in humans, mechanisms will also be needed to grapple with consent and equality. Gene editing raises the spectre of parents making choices that are not obviously in the best interests of their children. Deaf parents may prefer their offspring to be deaf too, say; pushy parents might want to boost their children’s intelligence at all costs, even if doing so affects their personalities in other ways.

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

…if it becomes possible to tweak genes to make children smarter, should that option really be limited to the rich?

Artificial Intelligence writing fiction!

One topic I tackle occasionally is the idea of artificial intelligence programs writing content. They are already writing non-fiction news stories, but the big event will come when (not if) AI writes fiction stories. As reported here, a computer science institute is offering a prize for algorithms (the guts of AI) that can generate short stories.

The article’s author touches on something I’ve mentioned in the past: the idea that AI won’t exclusively write the stories, but rather partner with human authors. Imagine a program that spits out a basic story outline which is then massaged by a human author. I expect we’ll see this sort of thing as well as comparable efforts in the realm of music and perhaps some visual arts.

I should note, I’m not exactly happy with this state of affairs, but I have some wearied acceptance and could see myself playing with this kind of technology.