Something similar to Rule 35

October 28th, 2010 by ftobia

Rule 34 of the Tubes states “There is porn of it, no exceptions.” It is followed by Rule 35: “If no porn is found at the moment, it will be made.” This past Friday and subsequent Monday had me find a sort of PG-rated instance of Rule 35.

Have you heard of Firesheep? You should have. The twitters were ablaze with it. Sites like Facebook and Twitter, along with some other sites, were sending session cookies in plaintext and had been for year. Now this isn’t quite as bad as sending passwords in plaintext, but it’s still a pretty straightforward exploit to gain access to someone’s account on, say, an unsecured wireless network. Finally a freelance developer wrote an extension for Firefox that you can use at your local wireless hotspot, to see who’s logged into their social networking sites, and then to log in as them. It’s a great exploit that should hopefully put some pressure on Facebook, et. al., to actually provide some security to users.

The really cool part, for me, is that only the previous Friday my coworker Brian and I were discussing the exact same vulnerability. It went something like Brian mentioning that lots of sites send session cookies in plaintext; to me not believing that they wouldn’t, you know, encrypt something like that; to him explaining how easy it would be to hack together a program to sniff out such cookies on a wireless network; to me putting it on my longer term todo list of awesome projects. The internets did not even give me a chance. So, that’s pretty cool. Ask and ye shall receive, more or less.

I hope that P does not equal NP

August 9th, 2010 by ftobia

And, further, I hope that this Vinay Deolalikar guy proved it. I don’t normally will mathematics to behave a certain way, but in this case I make an exception for a few reasons. (For a quick primer on the P=NP problem, check out Wikipedia).

First, I like hearing about epic math problems that have been solved. And learning about how they were solved, and who solved them, and who came up with those problems in the first place, and everything that was going on at the time that led up to the discoveries. I find this stuff fascinating. It’s like Edmund Hilary scaling Mount Everest, except with maths. In college my friends and I watched a documentary on Fermat’s Last Theorem and Andrew Wiles’ pwning the hell out of it. We had a glorious time. Oh, I also read a book about Godel’s incompleteness theorems. That was similarly awesome.

Second, there is a paper which proves markets are efficient iff P=NP (“iff” is pronounced “if and only if”). Now, I’m pretty sure markets aren’t efficient. It’s my opinion that a belief in the efficient markets hypothesis is correlated with being more of a jerk. Fightin’ words, I know, but economists in general (and market fundamentalists in particular) could use a little more humility. But I digress. I’m not sure how much play the “P=NP <=> efficient markets” paper got, or if anyone proved it; and I remember Tyler Cowen didn’t think much of the claim, but I hope it’s correct. These two papers, then, would prove mathematically that markets aren’t efficient. I would feel vindicated, and people like Eugene Fama and his followers would be provably incorrect.

Third, I am a big fan of the general approach Vinay Deolalikar used in his proof.  I can’t find a good summary online, so here goes: basically he drew from a whole bunch of fields, saw the conceptual similarities among a bunch of otherwise very narrow branches of maths, and stitched together a diverse, “multidisciplinary” proof (all while filling in the nitty gritty details, of course). I will always be a fan of the general over the specific; in general I think a broad view is more valuable than a narrow one. If a problem of epic proportions, like P=NP, can be solved by taking a step back and tying what we already know together, rather than going deeper and deeper into sub-sub-subfields that have probably been mined of intellectual value long ago, it will make me very happy.

More on celebrity

July 10th, 2010 by ftobia

In re-reading my previous post, I notice I was less than diligent in ensuring the case for taxation of celebrity was well-supported. I imagine that someone not quite as tax-happy as I am would be able to argue that, no, celebrities are not hurting anyone, and taxing them impinges upon their economic freedom or something like that. I’ll just lay out a few more ideas that hopefully clarify my position.

The urge to become a celebrity is not a societally-useful urge, in and of itself. Now, if by trying to become a celebrity, someone does something societally useful, then that’s another story. But we need not encourage children to grow up to be famous moreso than they are already encouraged. I’m willing to posit that the desire for fame is a consequence of the human condition, whatever that means. Likewise, for the same reason, I don’t think a tax on celebrity would significantly decrease the prevalence of this desire. But, even if it did, I’m willing to bet that nothing bad would come of it.

Next, the quantity of celebrities isn’t significantly correlated with societal well-being. If tomorrow there were twice as many celebrities, no one would be much better off — well, the new celebrities would, but the old celebrities would be worse off. I don’t know that society would be in a different position on net. My guess is that the attention we spent on our existing celebrities would nearly half, given the new targets of attention which sprung up. People have a more-or-less fixed proportion of their time, effort, and money that they spend on celebrity. I guess I’m just arguing that we don’t really need to be encouraging more people to go about becoming famous.

At its highest levels, celebrity is a rat race. Or an arms race, or a prisoner’s dilemma. For everyone who makes it, lots of others don’t, and precious little separates the haves from the have-nots.

I shouldn’t really advocate a tax on all celebrity, just a tax on excessive celebrity. I’m sure 90% or more of “celebrities” are just normal people who common folk recognize for some reason. Most people don’t make money on their celebrity. Even microcelebrities like David After Dentist, who do in fact make money off of their notoriety, do not make very much, at least not in the grand scheme of things. What it comes down to, really, is that I have a problem with large arbitrary lotteries paying off to people who haven’t provided a great deal of benefit to anyone.

I hope that clarifies things.

Taxing Britney Spears heavily

May 7th, 2010 by ftobia

First I’m going to note (or assume) some things about celebrity. Celebrity is a scarce resource. Celebrities are like monopolistically competitive goods since there’s only one of each but they can be substituted for other goods or other celebrities. I also assume that there are at least some classes of celebrities where they aren’t intrinsically valuable. For example, many people can sing and dance and be scantily clad on occasion, but only some people can be Britney Spears. I’m not sure if this is true, but I am assuming that some celebrities are just anointed, somehow chosen by the demigods of entertainment, for no particular earthly reason. The best example I can think of right now is Paris Hilton. She would just be another nobody with a sex tape on the internets if her family hadn’t been rich and famous.

If the above is a reasonable approximation of reality, then celebrities should be taxed. Specifically, the quantity we define as “celebrity” should be taxed.  Heavily. Notice this is not about taxing celebrities for doing productive things, but instead taxing them just because they have celebrity. The fact of the matter is that they already have lots of fringe benefits of being a celebrity, like getting to go to all the cool clubs and hanging out with all the cool people or whatever. And they should profit a little bit from their celebrity. But they shouldn’t profit to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

I am thinking here of the case of Britney Spears. It’s my opinion that pretty much any young attractive girl with a decent singing voice could have replaced Britney Spears and would have had the same ride, except maybe she wouldn’t have gone crazy a while back. Celebrity in this case amounts to a huge arbitrary redistribution of wealth. Why Britney and not some other girl who could have made it? I can’t think of a reason. Since celebrity is an important resource, and a scarce resource of that, we should treat it as a public resource. And we should regulate it with some sort of average cost pricing, like we do with power plants and water companies.

Of course then we run into having to design mechanisms to track, measure, and tax celebrity. I know it’d be really hard to do. But I still think it would be cool.

Swear words

April 30th, 2010 by ftobia

There is this stigma against swear words, that they somehow make or signal that the speaker uncultured; or that they are associated with uncouthness, or associate the user with the underbelly of society; and that they betray a lack of thought or eloquence on the part of the user. There are a lot of different spins on this idea. I think that any way you cut it, this is a fallacy.

I have heard that intelligent people should be able to think of a different way to express oneself than to use swear words. That’s not correct. Swear words have been shown to evoke certain emotional responses in listeners that hearing pseudo-swears don’t exhibit. For example, compare “what the eff?” with its more vulgar equivalent, and you will find there is indeed a difference. The emotions evoked by using and hearing swear words are ineffable. And let me tell you, “ineffable” is a frakking awesome word.

I found this post on a New York Times blog, and I just have to quote from it:

People need special words to convey emotion, which is, by nature, ineffable. For those who use them, swear words are linked to emotion in a visceral way. People who speak more than one language report that they always curse in their native tongue; they can say swear words in a second language but they don’t feel them — the gut link to emotions just isn’t there.

Yes, I think there is a time and a place for using intense language. If we use curses everywhere they lose their power, and we will probably lose the ability to express ourselves to the best of our abilities. But they fill a valuable niche in the vernacular of a cultured human, and one which necessarily cannot be filled through other means.

Cocktail party theory of life

April 23rd, 2010 by ftobia

I want to revisit the “what is the meaning of life?” question with an economics bent: If life is an optimization problem, then what should we be optimizing? Put another way, if life is a constrained maximization problem, then asking “what is the meaning of life?” is akin to choosing and studying one’s objective function. In this case you could also choose your life’s purpose by selecting the right function and thus optimizing the right thing.

So then, what should we be optimizing? Perhaps we should try to be as interesting and personable and awesome as possible. There’s two things going on in there: 1) be awesome and interesting and doing cool things, and 2) be able to share what you’re doing with other people so they can be all “whoah that is awesome and interesting and you are doing cool things”. I think awesomeness is a very important quantity to be maximized, and the second point alludes to the fact that awesomeness is inherently subjective, and when awesomeness falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it it doesn’t make a sound.

I propose a novel theory, the Cocktail Party Theory of Life, to crystallize the above sentiments. You should live your life in order to optimize interaction at a cocktail parties. All your time outside of cocktail parties should be spent on interesting activities you can later share with people. Your work, or the projects you’re working on, should turn into good stories (“Let me tell you about the cool stuff I’ve been doing lately…”). Of course, most of what goes on at cocktail parties is social, so you should be comfortable navigating the social scene. You should be a good story teller. You should be personable and likable. You should know how to engage in conversation with another human being, and generate positive social interaction. And you should be genuinely interested in the people around you, because they’re what makes for a really good time at a cocktail party.

You have to be successful to even be invited to the cocktail party. You need to know your surroundings and what the people around you think are interesting. You have to be good at switching contexts: no one wants to hear about all the technical work you’ve done with NASA at a sports bar. If you don’t like going to cocktail parties alone, you should have a partner you can rely on to navigate the social scene with you. And, of course, you should enjoy a few drinks, though not to excess, unless you’re into that sort of thing. It’s your life, after all.

Quantum vegetarianism

April 16th, 2010 by ftobia

First, a brief note: people forget that quantum does not denote something in physics or science fiction. A quantum is a small, discrete, indivisible unit of something. Just because the word has a science-fiction connotation does not mean it’s justified.

Most (if not all) dietary restrictions are binary. That is, you are either vegetarian or you’re not, you’re vegan or you’re not, you keep kosher or you don’t. I’m not sure why this is, but it probably has to do with ease of use. It would be cool if you could succinctly express something like “I derive 20-40% of my calories from meat, excluding delicious, delicious bacon.” Ignoring complications of language, it would be difficult even to ensure you’re sticking to your own weird dietary guide — another example is how difficult dieting is. Now I’m thinking how cool it would be to have an augmented reality system that would pop up red X’s over food you shouldn’t eat, and like, smiley faces with nutritional information over the stuff you should eat, while it keeps a tally of how you’re doing over time. But, I digress.

I think there should be more effort made into breaking down the continuum between pure vegetarianism and pure carnivorousness into more sizable chunks. Notice here I’m assuming that we define vegetarian as “someone who doesn’t eat meat”, so take that into account. Of all the different ways to break it down, we need metrics for thinking about partial vegetarianism that are easy to compute, easy to track, and easy to observe. Let’s dive right in, shall we?

For me, the easiest unit of aggregation is to not eat meat on certain days. The Catholics got to this one first. It used to be no one ate meat on Fridays, and now during lent some still don’t eat meat on Fridays. The next step I see is restricting meat consumption by meal, by either only eating meat during a certain number of meals over a period of time, or not eating meat during certain meals. Going by meals doesn’t scale well, since there’s only 3 meals in a day but 21 meals (avg) per week, so every week you would need to tally how many meals you ate meat. Then again, even when you avoid meat at the day level, you still need to remember how many days you didn’t eat meat. Unless you make some proclamation that you won’t eat meat on certain days, which is inflexible, quantum vegetarianism will probably need external systems to track meat consumption over time.

Yet again I find myself wishing for the time when we will all have chips implanted in our brains, in this case to track meat consumption over time. I may yet be the cause of the singularity.


April 9th, 2010 by ftobia

I’m not sure whether or not vending machine sniping is ethical. You know what I mean, when someone else’s snack gets stuck in the machine, and you buy another one so you can get two. Twice already this semester I’ve made a vending machine purchase to obtain not one but two snack items. In both instances I probably wouldn’t have bought anything if not for this free lunch.

Yes, I act opportunistically. It’s unreasonable not to. Maybe my willingness to pay for snacks is somewhere between the full price and half price. Maybe the idea of getting something for nothing induces a predictable irrationality in me. Now, if I could easily find out who lost their money to the machine, this would be a different story. Then I think I would have a moral obligation to return what’s not rightfully mine. But it’s infeasible to find this person. The welfare loss has already happened. There is no way for me to rectify the situation.

Somewhere, twice this semester, someone has been made worse off because of a vending machine. I had nothing to do with that. But once we accept that their loss is necessarily someone else’s gain, why shouldn’t it be mine? Is that really so terrible?

Olivier Blanchard is a cool guy

April 2nd, 2010 by ftobia

Olivier Blanchard, currently chief economist at the IMF, gave a talk at Georgetown on Wednesday 3/24. So, of course, I went to see him, since occasionally listening to awesome people talk is one of the fringe benefits of being a Georgetown student. His talk was titled “Rethinking Macroeconomic Policy”, which as interesting to me because I rarely even think about macroeconomic policy, let alone rethink it. I’m going to summarize what I found most interesting and prescient in what he said.

Blanchard noted that monetary policy in the past has focused on one target and one instrument. He said that, in the future, monetary policy should instead have many targets and many instruments. His reasoning was that, while in this past crisis there was a housing boom, there wasn’t an overall boom, so raising the federal funds rate may have slowed the housing sector, but it would have hurt other sectors. He also said that the future of central banks should be that they are 1) transparent about objectives, and 2) flexible as to their instruments.

Another thing I really like was an example of what Blanchard called a “schizophrenia” in economic thinking. When economists discuss fiscal policy, there is usually mention of automatic stabilizers, and how they are better than active policies because of the time lag of the political process. But, Blanchard noted, there is no talk about how to design better automatic stabilizers. It’s like the progressive tax system and social services, exactly the way they exist now, just so happen to be optimal as automatic stabilizers. I think this is a really good point — from first-hand experience, I can vouch that Greg Mankiw’s favorite textbook glosses over automatic stabilizers in this exact way.

Blanchard’s thoughts seem to be consistent with my view that economics should become more of an engineering discipline than it currently is.

Pointless brain teasers

March 26th, 2010 by ftobia

A few brain teasers here and there are nice, but I am highly skeptical of those who come up with “clever” but really pedantic arguments using logic on dubious prior beliefs, with the seeming purpose of either 1) to demonstrate how clever the questioner is, or 2) to wreak havoc with the average sensible person’s beliefs just to be a rabble rouser. I am, of course, referring to Steven Landsburg, who has a blog that I don’t think is worthy of linking to (but check it out if you’re into people calling your core beliefs into question just to make a buck). The following is my satiric stab at this curious man.

If a tree is in a quantum superposition of falling and not falling in a forest, and a countable infinity of people are around to hear it, under what special assumptions on the nature of space-time does it make a sound?

And now for the real brain teaser:

Two trees are in quantum superpositions of falling and not falling in a forest. One of these trees only lies and one only tells the truth. What is a single question you can ask one of the trees to determine which among them are falling, and, if one or both are indeed falling, whether either will make a sound? (Assume for this argument that you can ask the tree a question without collapsing its quantum state).

And yes, I know brain teasers and contrarian argumentation are different, but I thought these were funny anyway.

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.