bookmark_borderMap of randomness

In this paper from 2012 (full text here), Leemis and McQueston show a diagram of how probability distributions are related to each other. As I liked it really much, I extracted the chart from the pdf, turned it into a poster, and printed a giant version of it to stick on the wall of my apartment. I thought I would also share it here:

The full-size vector graphic version (as pdf) can be downloaded here.

Some explanation

Things can be random in many different ways. It’s tempting to think “if it’s not deterministic, then it’s random and we don’t know anything about it”, but that would be wrong. There is an entire bestiary of probability distributions, with different shapes and different properties, that tell you how likely the possible outcomes are relative to each other. What’s interesting is that each distribution describes the outcome of a particular class of stochastic processes, so by looking at how something is distributed, it’s possible to understand better the process that created it. One can even combine simple processes together or morph their parameters to build more complicated processes. The map above tells you how the probability distribution changes when you do that.

Let’s look at an example. You are typing on a keyboard. Every time you push a button, there is a certain probability p that you will hit the wrong one. This super simple process is called the Bernoulli process, it corresponds to the Bernoulli distribution that you can find near the top-right corner of the map. Now you type a whole page, consisting of n characters. How many errors will you make? This is just a sum of n Bernoulli processes, so we look at the map and follow the arrow that says \sum{X_i}, and we reach the binomial distribution1i.i.d. means “Independent and Identically Distributed”. We are assuming your typos are independent from each other.. The number of errors per page follows a binomial distribution with mean np and variance np(1-p). If you write a book with 1000 characters per page and make one typo per hundred characters, the variance of the number of typos from page to page will be 1000*0.01*0.99=9.92ISN’T THAT FASCINATING?.

Let’s complicate things a little bit. Instead of using a typewriter, you are writing with a pen. From time to time, your pen will slip and make an ugly mark. How many ugly marks will you get per page? Again, the map has you covered: this time, instead of having n discrete button presses, we have an infinite number of infinitesimal opportunities for the pen to screw up, so n\to\infty, and p must also become infinitesimally small so that np is finite, otherwise you would just be making an infinite number of ugly marks, and I know you are better than that. Thus, according to the map, the number of screwups per page follows a Poisson distribution. A handy property of the Poisson distribution is that the mean happens to be equal to the variance. So if your pen screws up 10 times per page, you also know the variance will be 10.

You can go on and explore the map on your own (riddle: what is the amount of ink deposited by your pen per page distributed like?). So far, I would say I have encountered only half of the map’s distributions in real life, so there is still a lot of terra incognita for me.

bookmark_borderThe Hundred Coca-Colas

1.

Knowing nothing of the inextricable complexity of the human administration it was flying into, the fly entered through the vent of the workstation’s fan. It slipped into the depths of the circuitboard, causing a single-bit error in the index of the Reference Legal Archive. The intern in charge of proof-reading felt that something was different, but could not pinpoint exactly what. The fully automated computer system had corrected any inconsistency in paragraph numbering. When the updated text of the law was sent to all executive forces., nobody noticed that an entire section had been erased.

In Terry Gilliam’s 1975 film Brazil, a fly gets jammed in the apparatus of a dystopian bureaucratic administration, creating an error which serves as a starting point for the entire story. As our legal systems become increasingly bureaucratic and complicated, it is a fun exercise to think about what could happen if a small modification was randomly introduced into the law, as a mutation in the genome of society. Certain mutations would have no effect, some would lead to the rapid collapse of civilization, and, who knows, some might even be beneficial.

But there is one simple mutation – a deletion of single legal concept – that I believe has the potential to make our society much better in the long run. I am talking about trademarks, and I will explain why I think they should be abandoned. There has been a lot of debate about whether patents or copyright should be abolished, but even anti-patent and anti-copyright activists like the Pirate Party’s founder Rick Falkvinge or the GNU guru Richard Stallman think trademarks are a good thing. This is how far out the Overton Window we are going. Well, I don’t actually think that they should be just erased at once – I am aware that trademarks, by design or by accident, serve all kinds of roles in our current societies, so we couldn’t abolish them just like that, without carefully planning how these roles would be filled instead. But you already know the arguments in favor of the status quo. Rather, I am just going to present the radical idea of abolishing trademarks in a one-sided way, with the hope to make you question whether trademarks are as natural, necessary and optimal as they appear to people who are used to them.

2.

Thank you for coming to this emergency meeting. As you may know, we are facing a problem without precedent. Since this morning, a second Coca-Cola company has entered the market. The first batches are already reaching retail stores as I’m talking.
– A second Coca-Cola company? How so?
– Another Coca-Cola. The same as ours. Identical product, same packaging, same logo. It is just not produced by our company.
– Well, we sue them for trademark infringement, like we always do!
– This is where it gets complicated. Apparently the administration made a mistake when converting the official version of law to some obscure new technical standard. They said it was a computer bug or something, nobody knows. But the entire section about trademarks completely vanished from the law. At the moment, there is nothing we can do legally to protect our brand.
– You’re saying trademarks disappeared just like that? What the hell, don’t they have backups of the law somewhere?
– Of course they do, but you can’t just revert the law of the country to a previous version like that. That would be antidemocratic. As per constitution, the state will only enforce the standard version of the law from the Reference Legal Archive, and any correction will have to be voted. It might take weeks.

I know the fly scenario is highly implausible in real life, but take that as a thought experiment. Let’s suspend our disbelief and assume, for the sake of the story, that all laws related to trademarks suddenly disappeared. In other words, anybody can brand their product as they want, and counterfeits are basically legal. That does not mean one can write whatever they want on the packaging – required information like ingredients, contact info or quantity are still enforced as always –, but the brand is no longer protected. Anybody can start manufacturing Coca-Cola and call it Coca-Cola.

3.

– The marketing department just got the results from panel testing. “The One and Only Coca-Cola” did pretty bad, only 20% of the panel picked it. “The Original Coca-Cola” works much better. People are confident that we are the original one if we write that on the label.
– But we are
not the original Coca-Cola, are we?
– As far as the law is concerned, we are.
– Oh right. What about the holograms?
– Bigger is better. I mean, I don’t want this to escalate out of control, but it’s increasingly clear that people are just choosing whatever package carries the largest hologram. So we designed a new, 12 cm-wide hologram. The largest on the market. Not even “Best Coca-Cola” have such big holograms.
– Actually, they’re no longer called “Best Coca-Cola”. If I remember correctly, they changed their name to “The Original Coca-Cola” last week.

1970 anti-war poster, Berkeley university

This might go on for a while. Eventually, the original companies have to face the hard truth – their brands only existed as long as the State was willing to protect them. Without them, they are just one manufacturer among many others selling the same product under the same name.

But what if it is not the same product? One company might seize the opportunity to sacrifice quality and cut down the costs. To quote Rick Falkvinge: “Trademarks are basically good, as they primarily serve as consumer protection. If it says “Coca-Cola” on the can, I know that The Coca-Cola Company guarantees its quality.” I personally doubt this, and my doubts are supported by blind tests where participants taste food without knowing the brand1“Our conclusion is that brand image is the only explanation for the premium commanded by the supplier brands in the four food product markets. The consumer is paying a premium for the often intangible benefits inherent in a branded product. Only in washing-up liquid did the leading brand offer better intrinsically superior value for money.” – Davies et al., 2004..

Moreover, it’s important to separate the effect of trademarks themselves, from the effect of other regulations. As a case study, let’s look at counterfeit medicines. This is obviously a rampant problem, with about half of the pills sold online being fakes and many people dying because of it. But trademark infringement is not the root of the problem here. The factories who make counterfeit medication break the law in two different ways: first, they infringe a trademark, second, they deliver pills that do not contain the chemical mentioned on the label (or not in the right concentration). The danger of counterfeit medication comes from the latter, and has nothing to do with the trademark. Without trademarks, copycats could copy the name, the logo and the slogans, but they still couldn’t lie about the content or cGMP-compliance, which would still be enforced by law. The reputation of brands could be fully replaced by product certification, where an independent organism delivers a label if the products meets a certain standard, as it already exist for environmental impact, ethics, health, compliance to religious traditions and so forth. There are even certifications that certify certification bodies’ certification procedures. Or, you know, if everything else fails, you can just go for the cheapest product.

Of course, at this point, there are many objections that you can make about how the standards for product certification would work without trademarks. They definitely require some level of legal protection, otherwise anybody could just copy the name and logo of an existent certification but with more lenient criteria, and award it to themselves. But they shouldn’t be protected too much either, otherwise any company could have their own standard that says “manufactured in our factory at [address]” and we just re-invented trademarks. Hopefully, there is a middle ground somewhere, where labels are unique and meaningful, yet flexible enough so they can be fulfilled by any competitor entering the market. That is not going to be a clean and elegant solution, but trademarks were never clean and elegant either. If trademarks did not exist and I was arguing for introducing them, one could also come up with many loopholes and objections: what if your actual last name is McDonald and you want to start a fast-food chain? Should trademarks be transferable to other people and if so, how does that not defeat the purpose of trademarks? If not, what happens when Sir Coca-Cola, First of His Name passes away? What if I start a company called “Coca-CoIa”, where the 7th letter is a capital i instead of an L? Can I trademark an image, a sound, a smell, a taste? In practice, these issues are fixed using a ton of specific laws and jurisprudence, that legal experts must navigate to tell what is ok and what is not. Likewise, without trademarks, a new legal framework would be necessary for product certification to actually work. But why would we even get rid of trademarks?

4.

Something in the city was not the same. You would just walk to work, as you’d been doing everyday for years, but you kept noticing things that you had never paid attention to before. A pigeon nest, a 19th century street lamp, a tree, a wrought iron balcony, the stamped pattern of a manhole. All these things had been here forever, but you could not see them, because the flashing advertisement billboards would catch all your attention.

The Eiffel Tower used as a billboard, 1925-1934. Wikimedia Commons

Without trademarks, there is no point in advertising your brand, since anyone else could just use the same brand and benefit from your advertisement. And this is fortunate, because advertising is the ultimate form of evil. I talked before about how the Chinese government buys “sponsored content” in western journals to print propaganda disguised as legitimate articles. In 2016, as the New York Times distanced themselves from the less-reputable “fake news” media, they realized painfully that their own website was displaying its own fake news in the form of advertisement – like announcing the death of a celebrity who was still alive. In their classic book Manufacturing Consent, Herman and Chomsky describe how journals that rely on advertisement are pressured into printing things that favor the advertiser. That’s not to mention the attention cost of constant interruption, the mass surveillance necessary for “behavioral” advertising, the waste produced by junkmail, or the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes by commercials (although causality is contested). Without trademark protection, most of this would spontaneously disappear, making the world a much better place.

Can we really live without advertisement? The best natural experiment comes from Brazil. In 2006, the city of Saõ Paulo enacted a law called Cidade Limpa, prohibiting all outdoor billboard advertisement. In a survey more than 10 years later, the citizens had no regrets, and the majority of them wanted to keep the ban in place. Other cities have made similar (albeit milder) attempts. Of course, these legal bans might sound a tiny bit authoritarian, and one can wonder where is the safeguard between banning ads and censoring speech. In addition, these policies are not that radically effective – in São Paulo, advertisement started to appear again after a few years, in more convoluted forms, stealthily integrating itself into urban furniture. Abolishing trademarks, on the other hand, would circumvent these problems and cut brand advertisement from its roots. No ban has to be enforced – in fact, it’s not about enforcing a new law, but stopping enforcement of an old law. We remove a little piece of coercion from the state, the police no longer comes when someone infringes a trademark, and the entire advertising industry becomes unprofitable. The most brilliant computer scientists in the world can go back to doing useful things, instead of building machine-learning models for consumer tracking and targeted marketing.

5.

“Help us bring the best content to you, for free”. The old advertisement-based media started a massive communication campaign to persuade citizens to vote trademarks back into the law. Yet, people just had a glimpse of an ad-free society, and many wondered whether they really missed the advertising giants so much.

Needless to say, all the big companies that rely on advertisement for funding would be in immediate danger. Some might try to defend the advertising industry by claiming it allows to obtain things for free. You get free search engines, free bus stops, free newspapers, what is there to complain about? This is a gargantuan scam. Let’s investigate. Internet companies like Twitter, Facebook or Google use advertisement as their primary source of revenue. This includes directly displaying ads to the consumer, as well as accumulating information about their users to sell it to third-parties. In turn, this process manipulates consumers into buying products they wouldn’t otherwise. In effect, advertisement makes you pay a premium on everyday products, and that is where the money comes from. How much is that? In the third quarter of 2020, Facebook made a bit more than $10 billions from North America only. Divide this by 255 millions users that are active monthly, you get $40 per user per quarter, that is $120 per year. And that’s the average for monthly users. If you go to Facebook daily, it will be much more. A similar calculation for Twitter gives about $20 per user and per year worldwide (like for Facebook, it may be much more if you live in a rich country). Google doesn’t disclose how many users they have, but given their worldwide revenues exceeded $160 billions in 2019, even if every 7.8 billions humans on Earth used Google (this is a lower bound) that would still be about $20 per person. Of course, it must be something like an order of magnitude higher if Google also provides your e-mails, document storage, maps, browser and so forth. Oh, and JCDecaux, the arch-evil Great Satan of public space advertising, made €3.9 billions in 2019. Now make a list of all the “free stuff” you get in your daily life (other free websites, applications, TV commercials, movie theater advertisements, sponsored content, …) and calculate the grand total. That’s an expensive free lunch.

Keep in mind this is only a fraction of the real cost of advertisement, since the companies who buy ads or data from Google et al are expecting a positive return on investment. The amount they give to advertising companies is only a lower bound to the premium they can trick consumers into paying. For example, Google claims that people who advertise with them get an average return on investment of 8-to-1. If that is true, what we previously estimated using Google’s revenues must be multiplied by eight to obtain the real cost for the consumer.

Even worse, competitors on a market are engaged in a Moloch-esque red queen race, where each company must spend more and more money on marketing just to stay in the game. Where do all these wasted resources come from, if not from the consumer’s pocket? Without advertisement, I’d speculate that companies would resort to the next best strategy instead, that is cutting prices. Hopefully, the large premium people pay for marketing would be subtracted from the price of day-to-day products.

Finally, for those who still think Internet ads are good because they support the creative class, remember that only a fraction of what you pay goes to the authors, and you would be better off with something like Patreon. As for server costs, a centralized service like Youtube might resort to paid subscription, in which case they would have to compete with decentralized, p2p-based alternatives like PeerTube which may turn out a lot cheaper. Also, when we talk about Internet Giants, we often forget that one of them never relied on ads in the first place – Wikipedia has run entirely on donations for two decades, and they did better than Google’s own attempt at making an encyclopedia.

6.

It was a passive revolution – no plutocrat was be bereft, no king was beheaded, no parliament was burnt, no landowner was expropriated. Removing a tiny piece of legal coercion made the entire society less coercive.

In their modern form, trademarks are about 150 years old2Sumerian merchants were already marking stuff with their seals some 5000 years ago, but this worked in a pretty different way and I don’t think those merchant marks were protected by the State.. This is just old enough so nobody remembers how things worked before trademarks, and we accept them as a part of nature that’s been here forever. 150 years old is also just young enough so the long-term efffects of trademarks have not been thoroughly tested and selected for by cultural evolution. If you want to overthrow a 3000-years old tradition, you should remember Chesterton’s fence and think carefully about why it’s there and why it remained in place for so long. But 150 years old? That could just be a temporary mistake.

Do you think this guy owns a trademark? Probably not. After all, he’s an actor posing for stock photos.

Omnipresent advertising is one of the things that did not go so well in our modern capitalist society. Another one is the emergence of a handful of aristocrats with an astronomical amount of financial power. These commercial empires are, to a large extent, built on the salience of their brands, itself built on advertisement, itself built on trademarks. Once we see trademarks not as something natural and necessary, but as a legal mistake of the 19th century, those empires appear to be built on very artificial foundations. If we removed them, the plutocrats would be forced to adapt, or lose their fortune. On the other side, the fall of brands would be a blessing for individual artisans and local shops. They did not rely on trademarks anyways, and they can use the now-cheap advertisement space to get known from local customers. Nevertheless, as soon as one of them grows big enough to try to advertise their brand, copycats would appear and make the brand useless. Like a rubber band, this would pull companies back to the human scale. Somehow, this echoes a point Guy Debord makes in La Société du Spectacle: “With the generalized separation of the worker and his products, every unitary view of accomplished activity and all direct personal communication among producers are lost.” A bottle of Coca-Cola is a calibrated, standard, almost abstract entity that contains no trace of the individuals who were involved in its production. While Debord sees this as an essential feature of capitalism, I would say that it’s rather a feature of brands, which act as an abstraction layer between the chain of production and the consumers.

Let’s speculate even further. Building a brand and making sure the public knows about it is a major obstacle for new companies. In post-brand capitalism, it may be much easier for newcomers to enter the market. Any company making products with good certifications, for a low enough price could readily compete with the most established industrial trusts. Monopolies would be much harder to establish, and even if someone actually manages to reach a monopoly on something, they could not make a lot of additional profit out of it because some unknown player could just enter the market under the same name as soon as they increase their prices too much. In the long run, economic inequality might even erode a little bit. That’s not too say you can’t bereave the plutocrats in addition to abolishing trademarks, if you are into this kind of things.

7.

I guess it is time for a reality check. First, there is the problem that brand abolition is not exactly the most viable political project. That’s because the people who benefit from advertisement are precisely the ones who are in the best position to define public opinion. It might not be easy to remove something that directly benefits journalists, news sites and search engines.

Second, the obvious: if the government actually decides to store the entire law on a single computer, and if a fly actually does crash into the motherboard and erase everything about trademarks, the world would not instantly become a post-brand utopia – there would most likely be a lot of turmoil and violence and chaos and everybody would be upset at me. If this happens, you are welcome to complain in the comments. That is, if you can find the real Telescopic Turnip among the hundred copycats.

bookmark_borderWholesale wikipedias – Dec 2020

Happy exploration.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_sense_in_plants

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Howe_Lovatt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placebo_button

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippasus

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallstreak_hole

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Havana_syndrome

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden_hermit

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychoactive_toad

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macaroni_(fashion)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemiceratoides_hieroglyphica

bookmark_borderQuantified Pop Culture

We all noticed the gender stereotypes in films, books and video games, and we all know that they shape how we behave in real life (or is it the other way around?). But it would nice to know how common these stereotypes really are. Intuitively, it’s tempting to resort to the availability heuristic, that is to recall a bunch of films where you remember seeing a stereotype, and assume that the number of examples you can find is proportional to its actual prevalence. But the availability heuristic is quite bad in general, especially for pop culture where authors try to subvert your expectations all the time by replacing a stereotype with its exact opposite. Thus, it would be useful to put actual numbers on the frequency of various stereotypes in the entertainment media, before we make any extravagant claim about their importance.

But how do you measure stereotypes in pop culture? The only way would be to go over all the films, books, comics and theater plays, systematically list every single occurrence of every stereotype you see, and compile them into a large database. This would of course represent an astronomical amount of mind-numbingly boring work, and nobody in their right mind would ever want to do that.

But wait – that’s TVtropes! For reasons that I can’t fathom, a group of nerds over the Internet actually performed this mind-numbingly boring work and created a full wiki of every “trope” they could find, with associated examples. All there is left to do is statistics.

Of course, editing TVtropes is not a systematic, unbiased process and there will be all kinds of bias, but it’s certainly better than just guessing based on the examples that come to your mind. In addition, TVtropes have clear rules for what qualifies as a trope or not, and I believe they are enforced. Also, TVtropes is a “naturally-occuring” database – contributors were not trying to make any specific statement about gender stereotypes when they built the wiki, so there should not be too much ideological bias (compared to, say, a gender studies PhD student looking for evidence to back up their favorite hypothesis). I’m almost surprised it has not been used more often in social sciences1I looked it up. Somebody wrote a Master’s thesis about TVtropes, but it’s about how the wiki gets edited, they are not making any use of the content..

So I went ahead and wrote a TVtropes scrapper. It goes through a portal (a page that lists all the tropes related to one topic), visits all the trope pages, then goes to the description of each medium that contains the trope. I even hacked together a small script to extract the publication date of the medium, looking for things like “in [4-digit number]”, “since [4-digit number]” and so on. It’s not 100% accurate, but it should be enough to see how the different stereotypes evolved over time.

I then ran my script on a large portal page called the Gender Dynamic Index, that has all the tropes related to gender in one place. Scrapping it and the pages it links to took about one full day, because TVtropes kept banning me for making too many requests. Sorry for that, TVtropes. Anyways, the scrapper code can be found here, and the dataset in CSV format is here. Using this dataset, we can look into the following questions:

  • What are the most common tropes about female characters? About male characters?
  • Are some tropes more common in specific media, like video games, television or manga?
  • How did trope frequency evolve over time? Did some new tropes emerge in the last decades? Which old tropes went out of fashion?

As a sanity check, here is how the different media are represented in my dataset for each year. You can see the rise of video games starting in the 1980s, so my attempt at extracting the dates is not so bad. There also seem to be a few video games as early as 1960, which is weird. Maybe they are just video games whose story takes place in the sixties and my script got confused.

So what does pop culture say about women? Here are the top 50 tropes, ranked by the number of examples referenced on their wiki page. You can find an absurd lot of detail about any given trope on the dedicated TVtropes page (example).

And this is the top 50 for men:

I was a bit surprised to find “drowning my sorrows” so high in the list of stereotypes about men. It’s about how, in fiction, men tend to drink alcohol when they are sad. Interestingly, this one is equally frequent in all kinds of media, even cartoons2That being said, I don’t know how many of these are children cartoons. It is possible that TVtropes contributors are more likely to mention cartoons for an adult audience.. That does not sound like a very healthy message.

TVtropes also has a special category for tropes that contrast men and women. Here they are:

The tropes are not evenly-distributed across media. Here are a few selected examples, with their relative frequency in different supports:

Next, I took advantage of my super-accurate date-guessing algorithm to plot the evolution of various tropes over time. Guys Smash, Girls Shoot is primarily found in video games, so it’s not surprising that it became more frequent over time. More surprising is the fact that Men Are the Expendable Gender increased so much in frequency in the last decades – given how harmful it is, you would expect the entertainment media to stop perpetuating it. The famous Damsel in Distress trope peaked in the 90s, possibly because it was the scenario-by-default in video games from the 90s3I’ll admit I know very little about video games, I don’t usually play them, so please correct me if that’s wrong.. It does not look like there are that many Damsels in Distress left nowadays. The Girl of The Week, which is how male heroes appear to have a new girlfriend at every episode, has become much less prevalent since the 90s, which is certainly a sign of progress.

Finally, here is a combined plot that show how much each stereotype has changed between the pre-2000 era and the post-2000 era. I chose 2000 as a discontinuity point based on the plot above, but the results stay mostly the same if I move the threshold to other years.

Notice, in yellow, the “corrective” tropes, which are reversed versions of classic gender tropes. As you can expect, most of them became more common after 2000. To my surprise, the two corrective tropes that became less common are the Damsel Out of Distress and the Rebellious Princess, which both fit the “empowering girls” line of thought. On the other end, tropes like Female Gaze or Non-Action Guy are thriving, even though they are less about empowerment and more of a race to the bottom.

Let me know what you think about all of this. Does it match your expectations? If you were a writer, what would you do? If there are further analyses or plots that you would like to see, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments. For instance, I can easily plot the evolution over time, or the distribution by medium, for other tropes that the ones I picked here.

PS: If you enjoy this kind of things, check out this analysis of the vocabulary associated with men and women in literature on The Pudding. They did a great job blending data visualization into illustrations.


Update on 16 nov: one commenter wanted to see the evolution of tropes related to double standards over time. Here is what it looks like:

bookmark_borderWholesale wikipedias – Nov 2020

In no particular order:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_lollipop

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_named_after_animals

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emo_killings_in_Iraq

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Jackson_Freeman_II

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscular_Judaism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krubera_Cave

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistler_(radio)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TV_pickup

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ant_mill

bookmark_borderThe Great Happiness Filter

I.

The universe is full of wandering celestial bodies covered in complex, superintelligent lifeforms who engage in eternal masturbation.

That’s it. That’s the Great Happiness Filter.

II.

This idea has been discussed before, but it strikes me that people still struggle to find other solutions to the Fermi paradox, as if the Great Happiness Filter was not already explaining everything. Sure, synthetic biology going out of control, AI going out of control, cosmic superpredators going out of control, Earth-is-a-zoo, all make great film plots. But that is what they are: great film plots. We hear about them because they are on display in sci-fi films and books. You know what Great Filter hypothesis would make a terribly boring film? Aliens sitting in the dark with a wire plugged straight to the happiness center of their brains, doing nothing, while a combination of robots and nuclear fusion takes care of all the logistics1An earlier version of this post was about stimulating the pleasure centers of the brain. But stimulating happiness should work just as well (just replace dopamine with serotonine, something along this line). It also makes the idea a bit scarier, for some reason.. All they have to do is figure out which neurotransmitters and which parts of the brain are involved in the “I’m happy” sensation, and find a way to stimulate it. Save your philosophical arguments about whether they are really happy or if they just have the illusion of being happy, it does not matter for the following.

You might object, this is not optimal, eventually they will run out of whatever fuel they are using, or their sun will turn into a red giant, so they should still try to expand and obtain more energy. As Robin Hanson puts it:

After all, even navel-gazing virtual reality addicts will likely want more and more mass and energy (really negentropy) to build and run better computers, and should want to spread out to mitigate local disasters.

This rests on the assumption that intelligent civilizations will necessarily try to fully optimize masturbation. They won’t. Compare this to heroin addiction: all things considered, heroin addiction is far from being the ultimate hedonistic experience (quite the opposite), yet many people still get trapped into it. You don’t see heroin-addicts building Dyson spheres to make sure they have a sustainable feed of high-quality heroin forever in the future. This also applies to masturbation. For the Great Happiness Filter to occur, you don’t need a perfect self-sustaining planetary masturbation system. You just need to reach the threshold were masturbation is just the right amount of good, so it’s not worth working to fix the flaws of your current masturbation scheme, because you would need to stop masturbating in order to do that. Past this threshold, intelligent lifeforms will not try to improve their masturbatory experience anymore, and will just chose to masturbate instead. Maybe there will be a warning, like as little red icon on the lifeform’s internal brainscreen that will say “warning: your fusion reactors have almost turned everything into iron already, please plug the system to a new planet”, but who cares at that point? You can just ignore the warning and enjoy maximal sensation of fulfillment and satisfaction. This is basically a sink point.

III.

The real difficulty with the Great Happiness Filter is the order in which the relevant technologies are discovered. If robotic servants and artificial general intelligence are developed before happiness-pods, then there is a chance that we get to stay in the pod while a robotic butler continues to improve the experience on our behalf. In that case, we are back to the Fermi paradox and space colonialism, because our butlers will try to maximize the energy we can spend on happiness-pods. Eventually, our civilization’s masturbation-maximizers might conflict with other civilizations’ paperclips-maximizers (not all civilizations can be as wise as ours), leading to cosmic-scale battles. On the other end, it is likely that happiness-pods are available to everyone before we get the appropriate energy source to sustain them. In that case, the intelligent lifeform will quickly go broke and possibly go extinct (as if the entire humanity got addicted to heroin at once). But between these two extremes, there is a large sweet stable spot where there is enough automation to power the happiness-pods and make sure everything is running well, but not enough to expand and reach for new planets. As a result, we get plenty of silent planets covered in happy masturbating lifeforms, traveling through space at speeds beyond imagination. Remember this when you look at the stars.

bookmark_border90% true: Broken news

This post is only 90% true. Among these ten items, one was deliberately made-up. Each items includes links to sources, so you can easily check if they are true. Can you find the fake item? (More information about the series here.)

Answer for the previous episode, “Agriculture from the future”: #5 was false.

1. The mainstream media is clearly biased against your political group. At least, that’s what you think. This called the “hostile media effect” – people from both sides of any issue consistently believe that the media is biased against their side. And the more involved they are, the stronger the effect.

2. Is it possible to measure the political bias of a journal objectively? Researchers at Stanford and Cornell came up with a clever solution: they compared the full transcript of politicians’ speeches to the parts that were quoted in the media. As it turns out, different journals will put the emphasis on different parts of the speech. This allowed the researchers to make a map of many media outlets based on their bias. They also have a fascinating interactive tool where you can look at Barack Obama’s speeches and color the different phrases according to the political leaning of journals that cited them – right-wing media in red, left-wing media in blue. Color-coded Obama speech

3. Another approach to quantify media bias is simply to ask journalists who they vote for, and compare them to the rest of the population. To put it simply, journalists tend to be considerably more left-wing than the average person. According to a series of large surveys of American journalists spanning several decades, the share of Republicans shrunk from 25% in the 1970s to 7% in 2013 – making them outnumbered 4 times by Democrats. Other recent analyses found similar results.

4. Over the last thirty years, the media has become measurably more subjective and emotional. A large lexical analysis of media from the USA found that journalists report less and less about facts and context, and more and more about emotions and advocacy. But, to their defense, it’s not just journalists. Speeches of politicians themselves become less analytic and more clout-based. This did not start with Donald Trump – it has been happening gradually since 1900.

5. Terrorist attacks receive unequal coverage from the media. An analysis of 136 terror attacks in the USA found that the number of victims, the nature of the target and whether the perpetrator was arrested all influence the coverage. But the most important predictor was the religion of the perpetrator: if it was done by a Muslim, it received 357% more media coverage.

6. Speaking of terrorism, there is evidence that abundant coverage of mass shootings by the media causes future mass shootings in the following days. To detect causality, this study used natural disasters as an instrument. If a natural disaster happens around the same time as a mass shooting, the later receives less coverage – and we can see there are fewer mass shootings in the next few days.

7. Criminals tend to receive longer sentences when television talks a lot about criminal events. This effect is not due to the overall amount of crime, but specifically to media exposure.

8. Native advertising is the practice of including advertisement that blends in the native style of the journal. This is not only used by companies to insidiously praise their products, but also by authoritarian governments from other countries to publish their political propaganda. China Daily, an English-language publication controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, has paid millions to American journals such as the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times to publish propaganda disguised as regular articles1Native advertising is usually disclosed with a little label, like “sponsored content”..

9. The protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which infects about one third of the population in asymptomatic form, is known to alter behavior and increase impulsivity and aggression. A 2018 study from University of Colorado found that students who tested positive for Toxoplasma were 1.4 times more likely to major in journalism. In addition, they were 1.7 times more likely to select courses specifically on political journalism.

10. Does the political bias of the news you read affect what you think in a causal way? Researchers offered free subscriptions to either the left-wing Washington Post or the right-wing Washington Times, in a randomized way. They also had a control group who received no free subscription. One month later, Virginia held gubernatorial elections and the researchers asked the subjects of the experiment who they voted for. Those who received the Post were 11% more likely to vote Democrat. But those who received the Times were also 7.4% more likely to vote Democrat, compared to the group that received nothing. Apparently, reading a print journal makes you more likely to vote Democrat, regardless of the journal’s political orientation.

Could you find the false item? Feel free to discuss about it in the comment section. The answer will be given in the next episode.

bookmark_borderWholesale wikipedias – Oct. 2020

In no particular order:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Metaphors_referring_to_spaghetti

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Busy_beaver

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garden-path_sentence

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micromort

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kentucky_meat_shower

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phreaking

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sitarane

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyura_chilensis

bookmark_borderInvisible privileges

1.

Let’s review the evidence.

African-Americans are twice as likely to be stopped by the police. Police officers speak less respectfully to them. They are more likely to use violence against them. Overall, African-American men get killed by the police 2.5 times as often as White men. Then, African-Americans face discrimination at every stage of the justice system. For an identical case and history, African-American defendants have 10% higher odds of being incarcerated. When they are, they receive 10% longer sentences for the same crime.

African-Americans also face discrimination when they are the victims. Criminals receive lighter sentences when their victim is black1 However, it is not clear whether this is really due to discrimination or to other factors. In fatal traffic accidents, drivers receive a 53% shorter sentence if the person they killed happens to be black. When a black person goes missing, there is 3.1 times less media coverage than if the victim is white2This is called the Missing White Woman Syndrome. This study was conducted in 2016, before the Black Lives Matter movement gained popularity. It would be interesting to see how things have changed as a result..

Institutional discrimination also appears in the education system. Teachers systematically give better grades to students from the white majority than to ethnic minorities, for identical works3There are two kinds of methodologies to address this question. The most common is to compare the grades obtained by a student when the teacher knows her identity, with grades obtained by the same student on blind examinations. The second one is to fabricate a fake essay and ask teachers to grade it, while changing only the name of the student, and see if they are graded differently.. At school, African-American children receive harsher punishments for the same behavior as well as closer surveillance from teachers. And overall, in the US, African-Americans are 12% less likely to access higher education than white people.

Then, there is housing discrimination. When ethnic minorities apply to rent an apartment, their odds of receiving a positive response are 47% lower, everything else equal. With no surprise, African-Americans are 4.5 times as likely to be homeless, and then 45% less likely to be sheltered.

In addition, ethnic minorities generally have poorer health than white people. Black people work more dangerous jobs, making them 33% more likely than white people to be injured at work. They are 16 % more likely to die on their workplace. On average, the life of black people is 4.3 years shorter than white people’s.

Most of those results are from large studies, they are solid and have been replicated many times. Yet some people decide to completely ignore all the evidence, and still deny the existence of racist discrimination. How is it even possible? What is going on in the head of racism-deniers?

2.

Men are 2.5 times more likely than women to be stopped by the police. Police officers are more likely to arrest men and more lenient toward women. Overall, men get killed by the police 20 times more often than women. Then, men face discrimination at every stage of the justice system. Men are more likely to be considered guilty and receive harsher sentences than women for an identical case and history4These studies are called “mock juror trials”. They use a panel of jurors who are presented with a fictional case, where only the gender or ethnicity of the defendant is changed, and asked what the sentence should be. This way, everything is exactly identical except the gender of the defendant, so any difference can be attributed to discrimination. Some studies even staged fake audiences with comedians for extra realism.. Men have 1.64 to 2.15 times higher odds of being incarcerated, depending on the study. When they are, men also receive 30% to 63% longer sentences for the same crime compared to women5These are observational studies, meaning they look at the outcomes of a large number of real-life cases, taking into account offense severity, previous offenses, whether the defendant has to take care of children, and other confounders.. The sexist bias favoring women is much larger than the racial bias – that is, black women are treated better than white men. As you might expect, justice’s double-standard against men is especially marked for sexual offenses.

Men also face discrimination when they are the victims. Criminals receive lighter sentences when their victim is a man6With the same caveat as for racial discrimination.. In fatal traffic accidents, drivers receive a 36% shorter sentence if the person they killed happens to be a man. When a man goes missing, there is 2.9 times less media coverage than if the victim is a woman.

Institutional discrimination also appears in the education system. Teachers systematically give better grades to girls than to boys, for identical works. This happens already in elementary school, continues in middle school, and again in high school, and again in college7Interestingly, these studies found that female teachers were on average more biased in favor of girls than male teachers.. This favoritism for girls has measurable effects on boys’ progress and future career orientation. Parents also invest more time teaching girls than boys and spend 25% more money on girls’ education. At school, boys receive harsher punishments for the same behavior as well as closer surveillance from teachers. And overall, in the US, men are 16% less likely to access higher education than women. Here again, the gender gap is larger than the racial gap8Moreover, unlike for ethnic minorities, there is no affirmative action attempting to correct this disparity – even when women are more likely to access higher education, affirmative action is still in favor of women..

Then, there is housing discrimination. When women apply to rent an apartment, their odds of receiving a positive response are 28% higher than men, everything else equal. With no surprise, men are 1.5 times as likely to be homeless, and then 40% less likely to be sheltered. A study in France found that 90% of the people who die in the streets are men9It should be noted that the gender gap in homelessness is more marked in France than in the USA..

In addition, men generally have poorer health than women. Men work more dangerous jobs, making them 40% more likely than women to be injured at work. They are 8 times more likely to die on their workplace. On average, the life of men is 5 years shorter than women’s10The gap in life expectancy is commonly attributed to biological factors, as a legitimizing myth. However, this study on monks and nuns (who do pretty much the exact same things throughout their lives) found that at most one year of the gap could be attributed to biological differences.. In spite of this, there is much more scientific research and US national offices dedicated to women’s health. Medical research on women’s health receives considerably more funding than men’s health, even for conditions that affect men more often11See the tables from page 56. For lung cancer, in 2016 the NIH spent $180,000,000 for women-specific research, $318,000 (!) for men-specific research, and $136,000,000 for lung cancer in general. They also spent $1,916,000 for women’s suicides, and only $156,000 for men’s suicides, despite men dying from suicide about four times as often..

Like for racism, most of those results are from large studies, they are solid and have been replicated many times. Yet some people decide to completely ignore all the evidence, and still deny the existence of discrimination privileging women. Just like racism, discrimination against men has been systematically made invisible.

3.

I am aware that many readers will hear about discrimination against men for the first time. Perhaps you’ve heard about discrimination from the police beforehand, but did you know about the grading discrimination? Did you know about the housing discrimination? If not, why didn’t anybody tell you about it?

One thing to consider is that people can’t really tell how much discrimination they face based on their subjective experience. In their classic 1997 book Social Dominance, social psychologists Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto report that (in 1997) many African-Americans had no clue about how much racism they faced12See page 106 of the book.. In the 1990s, 58% of African-Americans believed they had the same housing opportunities as white people. 46% thought they had the same chances at employment, and 63% thought they had the same chances in education – despite clear evidence of the contrary13Sidanius and Pratto dedicate the third part of their book to evidence of discrimination against black people. However, they completely disregard discrimination against men – to be fair, most of the evidence that I discussed here was published after the book Social Dominance came out, so you can’t blame the authors.. This is one of the universal patterns described in Social Dominance: unfair treatment against subordinate groups is overlooked, legitimized, and actively erased by the dominant status quo, until even the discriminated population believes it is not real. It is perfectly possible to face discrimination on a daily basis and be completely unaware of it.

In addition, there is growing evidence that people (academics, the media, people in general) care very little about the issues that affect men. Most people know about manspreading, but have never heard about the teacher grading gap. People think gender balance at work is important, but only in professions where women are underrepresented. Scientific studies that find a bias against women are cited far more often than studies that find a bias against men, even when the later use larger samples. Remember the kidnapping study I mentioned above, which found that there is less media coverage when a man goes missing? This is the same process. Presumably, this attention disparity is the result of traditional gender roles, which (among many other things) say that men are not expected to complain, and will be shamed if they do so – but this is a complicated topic that deserves a future blog post on its own.

As a takeaway, there is a striking similarity between discrimination against ethnic minorities and discrimination against men. My point is not to say that minorities or men “have it harder”, nor is it that racism is exactly identical to sexism – the historical and social mechanisms are obviously entirely different. My point is that, currently, men and ethnic minorities experience a similar pattern of stereotyping and discrimination in their daily life. The strange polarization of the culture wars makes it even harder to notice: the political tribes who care about racism are sharply separated from the tribes who care about men’s issues. This is unfortunate, because both tribes share the common goal of eliminating discrimination14Of course, there are also traditionalists who just use men’s issues as an excuse to attack feminism, hoping to restore traditional gender roles. I personally believe, on the contrary, that traditional gender roles are the cause for discrimination, and that we need to step away from them. – maybe their filter bubbles only show them one side of the problem? It took decades for the majority of the population to realize that racist discrimination is real. For sexism against men, such a shift in collective consciousness has yet to happen.

If you spot any mistake or inaccuracy in this text or the supporting evidence, please let me know in the comments, so I can correct it.

Annex: what about hiring discrimination?

Hiring discrimination can be measured by sending fictional resumes to employers, only changing the ethnicity or gender of the applicant, and counting how many replies you get. As you expect, equally-qualified ethnic minorities are far less likely to be hired. Regarding gender discrimination, the evidence is much more mixed. This makes it very easy to cherry-pick studies that show discrimination against women (if you read feminist sources) or against men (if you read MRA sources). This meta-analysis found moderate discrimination against men, but only in female-dominated jobs. This systematic review lists 11 studies looking at pure gender discrimination (man vs woman). Two of them found discrimination against women, four of them found discrimination against men, and the rest found no discrimination. A recent study which tracked recruiters’ behavior on online hiring markets found that women face a 6.7% penalty in men-dominated occupations, and that men face a 12.6% penalty in women-dominated occupations. Overall, gender discrimination in hiring is much less systematic than racial discrimination. This discrepancy is probably a remnant of the traditional gender division of labor, since men were traditionally assigned to salaried jobs. In any case, the common claim that it is harder for women to find employment appears to be wrong.

Changelog:

30-11-2020 – According Leeth et al., 2005, the racial gaps in fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries are respectively 16% and 33%, not 20% as previously reported.

01-02-2021 – A few studies on the effect of victim gender/origins on sentencing found no evidence for discrimination after controlling for case details. Thanks Greg for pointing that out. I also moved hiring discrimination to an annex, and added the recent study by Hangartner et al.

bookmark_border90% true: Agriculture from the Future

This post is only 90% true. Among these ten items, one was deliberately made-up. Each items includes links to sources, so you can easily check if they are true. Can you find the fake item? (More information about the series here.)

  1. Insect-resistant, genetically-modified maize have been cultivated in Spain and Portugal for more than twenty years. A 2019 study analyzed the environmental effects: aside from the obvious decrease in pesticide pollution and water savings, there was a measurable drop in greenhouse-gas emissions. This is because diesel-powered tractors were no longer needed to spray the insecticides. The downside of insect-resistant GMOs is that new pests will eventually emerge after a few decades, just like they do with chemical pesticides. Biotechnology could also have an impact on climate change in a more direct manner – for example, engineering the gut microbiota of cows to minimize the production of methane by cattle, or genetically modifying poplars for wood production so they no longer release isoprene, a pollutant that increases the air concentration of ozone and methane.
  2. You might think that millions of years of evolution would have fully optimized photosynthesis, but it is not quite the case. Many crops are much less efficient than what would be possible in theory. Multiple genetic strategies are possible to increase the yield of crops, for example to increase their carbohydrate production. In soybeans, rice and wheat, the process of photorespiration diverts part of the energy obtained from photosynthesis. Using tobacco plants as a model, researchers were able to increase biomass by more than 20% in field trials, just by optimizing the expression levels of various photosynthetic components.
  3. Improving the nutritional qualities of crops through genetic modification is also promising, especially in third-world countries were malnutrition is rampant. The “golden rice”, a variant of rice with a high level of vitamin A was developed more than fifteen years ago. So far, it has not been widely adopted (in part due to efforts from Greenpeace to undermine it). More recently, by enhancing cassava with an iron transporter and the iron-storage protein ferritin, it was possible to increase the plant’s iron and zinc content by about ten-fold.
  4. Even without genetic modification, the fruits and vegetables we eat are very different from what is found in nature, owing to centuries of breeding. This is visible in still-life paintings from the Renaissance where fruits are on display. If you are wondering what vegetables looked like in their natural, not-genetically-modified forms, here are pictures of wild-type bananas, wild-type corn, and wild-type carrots1This last links points to a website called World Carrot Museum, with the tagline “discover the power of carrots”. That might not be an academic source, but I am sure we can trust them for all our carrot questions..
  5. Since humans started agriculture thousands of years ago, the selection of plants by breeding has completely changed our food habits. This, in turn, put an evolutionary selection pressure on humans themselves. The textbook example is lactase persistence, when the domestication of cows gave a great advantage to humans who could digest cow milk. Now, according to some research, modern humans have evolved some kind of dependency to selected plants. That is, if all the domesticated plants were to suddenly go back to their wild state, most humans would have trouble finding food they can digest.
  6. Starting in the 1950s, exposing crops to radiation became a popular way to generate new mutant varieties. The typical “gamma garden” design involves a circular field with a Cobalt-60 gamma ray source in the middle. This way, seeds are exposed to a gradient of radioactivity – the plants near the center usually die, the peripheral plants are unaltered, and interesting things can happen in the intermediate range. Needless to say, gamma rays produce mutations all over the genome, and large chromosomal rearrangements are frequently observed. Despite being much messier than genetic modification techniques like CRISPR, plants obtained through “atomic gardening” are not legally considered GMOs. They may even be accepted in organic food.
  7. There are no Terminator seeds. The legend goes that some greedy GMO company sold seeds that would turn sterile after the first generation, so that farmers could not sow them and would have to buy it again from the company every year. The underlying technology does exist, but it was never used in any commercialized product. That being said, farmers buying new seeds every year is nothing new (and not restricted to GMOs): for decades they have relied on hybrids from inbred plants, which have desirable properties but can be sowed only once since their offspring would be too heterogeneous.
  8. Local production has become an important criterion for consumers. Somehow, people are starting to realize there might be something wrong about shipping fruits and vegetables from the other side of the planet. In general, the more local, the greener. But there is a loophole: not all places are equally fertile. According to a study from 2020, only one third of the world population could sustainably feed on food produced in a radius of 100 km. In some cases, outsourcing food production to more fertile grounds could allow to spare land (i.e. growing forests), which is a good way to sequester GHG. In fact, a recent paper advocated for combining high-yield farming in some spots with land-sparing in other spots, as the optimal strategy for environment-friendly agriculture.
  9. According to large surveys of representative samples in the USA, France and Germany, extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most (this is one of the best titles for a scientific article).
  10. Like cellphones, micro-wave ovens and every other new technology, GMOs have been accused of causing cancer2For some reason, it’s always cancer. I have never met anybody who feared GMOs would cause pica or Capgras syndrome, although that would be pretty funny.. And technically speaking, yes, they do – but just as much as regular food. Carcinogenic substances can be found in small amounts in all kinds of food, e.g. in red meat, cereals, apple juice3In most cases, the amount is negligibly small. The only association that I would take seriously is red meat.… In fact, it is even possible to engineer plants so that they protect against cancer, like this broccoli.

Could you find the false item? If you have doubts, feel free to discuss about it in the comment section.