Sunday, March 22, 2009

AIG bonuses and the constraints of human intelligence

AIG bailout = 178 billion
AIG bonuses = 165 million

As xkcd points out, there is a big difference between a million and a billion.

Many others have weighed in on the same point, the bonuses are only a minute fraction of what AIG got in bailout money. Others, Obama included, have pointed out that the amount of money is not really the point, but that the perception of those who got us into this mess being rewarded (with anything) is really stirring up the popular rage. I think also the very word "bonus" is also a problem point, which is why its defenders are trying to rechristen it "retention pay".

To me, this debate, and our popular understanding of the financial crisis also points out some limits of our national intelligence, but really about the constraints of human intelligence. In some ways, I think that this financial crisis is partly us flying too close to the sun, using the metaphorical wax wings of our limited number sense. I'll muse more about this in my next post, about why we are all bad at statistics.

Some of these points are taken from this piece by Jim Holt in the New Yorker on the work of Stanislas Dehaene (among others) in how our brain understands numerical concepts.

A few main points arise from the bulk of this work:

1) We are much better (faster, more accurate) at dealing with small numbers in our heads than big numbers. That doesn't sound like such bad news. But wait.... Big numbers start at 5.

2) The way that our brain represents addition and subtraction varies tremendously from how we represent multiplication and division (multiplication and division never come naturally).

3) The connection between number and physical space goes, as Dehaene puts it "very, very deep in the brain"

What does this mean for the financial crisis? Let's take number 1. The press can throw around "around 150 billion" and "around 687 million" and that actually means something very different to our brain than saying 1 or 2. Getting above 4 makes things more difficult for our brain, above 100 is like a second language you have a little practice on, above 1 million just doesn't really make sense. I think the big fuss about bonuses is because it is finally getting down to a scale that people can halfway understand. What much of the financial press, the politicians, and the financiers themselves do not understand, is that when they say the word "million" "billion" or "trillion" they are speaking in a different language than most of us understand. They have an understanding of these in the context of their business, in which they may have daily practice with scaling these numbers (it still doesn't come naturally to them, but they have extensive training). But most of us rarely think about numbers much larger than 20, and when we do, we probably need to sit down with a pen and paper. 1 billion is really more of anything than just about anyone ever has cause to think about.

For number 2, quick, what is 7 times 8? The only reason you know this is because you have memorized it as a fact. Just like the capital of North Dakota or what's the longest river in Africa. You may have memorized it well, but that doesn't make it any less arbitary to your brain that the other two facts. How many people in your high school class? How many of those would fit in 1 billion? Again, your brain has to go through a set of operations that you were taught, and this does not come naturally.

Number 3 illustrates why efforts to make us understand these numbers, like the example of your high school class above, will ultimately fall short. Our brain's understanding of number
is tied to physcial space (actually, our brain's understanding of just about everything is tied to something physical or related directly to our body). Which means, since your brain didn't evolve to understand what 1 billion is, it won't really help to tell you that it would be 20 million of your high schools. It doesn't help you all that much to understand that a stack of 1 billion one dollar bills would reach up to the moon (or wherever) and back. Why? Who can jump to the moon? Our understanding of physical space is related to our body, and again, anything over a small distance is quickly abstract and we need tools to understand it. What is a mile, really?

So, what is the message of all this? Well, first, people watching the news, etc, can't really understand what a billion or a trillion is. Maybe they can understand that in the past, when our government had to borrow money we had to borrow around 10 percent or so (oooh, percents, that we can understand, why? food). As the CBO says ( on "The Director's Blog" sounds like some awful DVD extra feature) :
Debt held by the public would rise, from 41 percent of GDP in 2008 to 57 percent in 2009 and then to 82 percent of GDP by 2019 (compared with 56 percent of GDP in that year under baseline assumptions).
Now wasn't that easier than me talking about trillions and billions?

So, using this as a model, I would really like to see a lot more pictures of numbers like this:

Here is one example. If more people understood this simple pie chart, I think we'd have a more honest debate about budget policy.

Or how about this one:

We have an Elements of Style for prose, which is built with around a sophisticated understanding of cognitive limitations for understanding language. Now what we need is an Elements of Style for presenting numbers with a similar understanding of our limited abilities.

Edward Tufte has been harping on this point for years (even trying to write that book), as are some out there designing great graphics. But I think there could be a lot more.

Again, this isn't necessarily because of a failure of our math education system (although it may be partly that) but it is at the root a limitation of the human brain. We should acknowledge that and try to design our expressions of numbers to be clear and to the point. In the same way news anchors and print journalists alike don't use five seven-syllable words in a sentence (see how that was actually much harder to think about than two three-syllable words?) they should stop using billion and trillion as if we all understand exactly what that means.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart is NOT a comedian

After the latest Jon Stewart beat down of a media lowlife (in this case, an entire channel, CNBC, as represented by Jim Cramer and Rick Santelli) for providing entertainment and calling it news, a similar script is playing out that did when he went on Crossfire to tell Carlson and Begala "You are hurting America"

Here is the original Daily Show video collage of CNBC missing the boat on the financial crisis, Cramer going on Scarborough Country to complain, and the entire episode when Cramer came on, or only the full Jim Cramer interview (it had to be edited down). You must watch the entire interview. You just must do it. Honestly, it is just great great television. It also works very well because Cramer actually takes Stewart and the interview seriously and makes some of the typical media arguments well enough for Jon to very effectively skewer those ideas. In this interview (not having watched his show) he is actually somewhat sympathetic, in that he is genuinely regretful. That is an emotion that I don't think I have seen on television. Because Jon is clearly using Cramer as an example here ("this song isn't about you"), unlike Crossfire, but as an example of the whole us vs them attitude (in this case main street vs. wall street) and the assumption that we have the media is on our side, when, as Jon points out, not only are they not on our side, but they are sitting on the sides, watching us get cheated, and cheering for the other side. This really holds true for just about every bit of media out there, in terms of this crisis (or even the disaster of the last eight years). Maybe if they were actually on our side, we would be willing to pay for the content that they provide, seeing it as valuable, instead of just buying stuff that they happen to advertise next to the news.

But back to the Jon Stewart media takedown script:

The "victim" expresses disbelief that someone who is "just a comedian" could criticize them.
Jon Stewart responds by saying exactly, I am just a comedian (I follow a show where puppets make crank calls) , you are supposed to be a journalist, reporting the news, not entertainment that has some sort of arbitrary and loose connection to the facts.
Jon always wins (or at least so far).
But they are both wrong.

Jon Stewart (and his underappreciated staff) are satirists.

He takes the media to task for providing entertainment, and calling it news, but he is providing the news, and calling it entertainment.
His viewers know this. The Daily Show bits have a kernel of truth. In fact, they are not really funny if you are not aware of the truth being mocked. And sometimes, when it is really good, you didn't realize the truth until you saw it being mocked.
This kernel of truth is why he is actually more trusted than most "real" newsmen. It is not because people just think he is hilarious. This is why comedy is hard, because it is really a very delicate relationship which hinges on trust. Think about George Carlin.

Why can't we compare him to Mark Twain, or Jonathan Swift, and call him the satirist of our time? The Onion is called a satirical newspaper. Why are Jon's brilliant YouTube and cable news collages (by the way, a lot lower tech than you might think, scroll down to the 4th comment) not seen as incisive satire. It is high time we accepted that The Daily Show is a piece of media satire that would make Twain proud.

Acknowledging Stewart as a satirist would acknowledge his grasp of both political truths, but also that he has feelings about this. Given that his combination of these feelings (I think a bit of truth I remember about a long profile of him by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times was along the lines of "we wake up really really angry in the morning, and have to make it funny by the afternoon"). This is when satirists shine, when there is a lot of stuff to be angry about. And there is never really a shrotage of those things.

One of the common talking points of his "victims" is that he is applying some sort of double standard, by only attacking people who aren't on his side of the political spectrum. "Speaking truth to power" - Scarborough says this, and then say, hey, he picks on us little guys. But Jon Stewart's response is that the media has power.
"CNBC could be an enormously powerful tool of illumination"
These cable news networks have the eyes and ears of their countrymen, that is power. Just ask the most powerful character in Catch-22, ex-Pfc Wintergreen, who controlled the mail room. Rush Limbaugh is owning up to his power (as being the current leader of the opposition party in this country), but somehow whenever cable media figures are caught like this by Jon Stewart, they do the "awww, poor little old me" routine.

Jon Stewart has earned our trust, as a layman, as someone who wakes up angry about the same things we are angry about. So when he says to Jim Cramer
"It feels like we are capitalizing your adventure" - we buy it, we let him speak for us, even though we know that he is not a layman, he is a millionaire himself. He hosted the Oscars! But we don't call him a celebrity misusing his bully pulpit. Why? Because he earned his pulpit, by earning our trust. Not with pratfalls, silly faces and impressions (a running joke on the show is that his impressions are awful) but by waking up mad as hell, and making that anger into laughter, without patronizing us by side-stepping the truth of that anger.

I imagine Jon would say it doesn't quite work if you take it too seriously. If he did this every week, it would start to get tiresome (although there are plenty of worthy targets). And we can stomach the anger with the sugar coating of silly photoshop puns, and there are some cheap laughs.

Ultimately, I think Jon is saving journalism, not only by practicing it, but by policing it. It is good to see that someone is putting the trust that they have built to good use.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Twitter for teachers (Tweechers?), and some thoughts about social networking in education settings

Given that I am both an early adopter, and a college teacher, I have been thinking lately about integrating the latest social networking sites into my classes.  First, I am going to describe the best known (to me of course) social networking sites, how they function (very very briefly, for other better intros, check out this Social networking in Plain English video, this tongue in cheek video, this non-fanatical beginner's guide to Twitter, Evan William's (Twitter CEO)  recent 15 min TED talk or the NYTimes news pieces about Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, even if you don't want the intro, check out the Times links.  They are called "Topics" pages, and are basically wikipedia pages, focused on Times content, but not exclusively.  I think they are going to make it. ).   Then, I’ll debunk a few myths.  Then I’ll offer some general principles, and finally a few examples that have come to my mind about their application to teaching.  I would love to hear any suggestions or comments that you, the few, the proud, the 5 people and my mom that read this blog.

I’ll confine most of my comments to facebook and twitter (and address them somewhat separately), since these are going to win the social networking wars, when MySpace and the rest die out (google already gave up its entry into this field, ok, LinkedIn may continue as a professional social
network).  You can consult the numbers if you want, but facebook is growing amazingly, and its users actually use it.  Ditto with twitter.  Interestingly, they have very similar functionality on the surface, but some small differences in function result in relatively large difference in how they are actually used. 

First, social networking is not a place (despite the fact that some people waste time on facebook, these same people could also waste time on the phone), but a tool, a method of communication.   I think it is far more valuable to think of facebook and twitter as more like the phone, or email, than some sort of web destination.  In fact, what facebook does is consolidate several methods of communication that have been available for years.  This is also a useful analogy when someone gives the kind of reaction that John Stewart recently gave about Twitter:  Basically, why would we want more inane chatter, updating every second with the meaningless trivia of our lives?  I happen to agree that I don’t want more inane chatter.  But twitter and facebook don’t have to be this.  Just because personal
video cassette recorders mostly played porn in the 70’s and early 80’s doesn’t mean that they were useless, just that the real good uses hadn’t been discovered yet.

So, if these sites are communication tools, what kind of communication do they afford?


First, you can use it to email, or send messages.  These are simple messages (you can’t attach
files) but you can attach links and send to multiple people at once, and just about anything else that email does.

Second, you can chat online.  Facebook shows you which of your friends are online, and you can request a chat with any of them.

Third, you can post links or notes.  This is basically a blog.  You can link to a page and put a comment of your own.  Or you can write a note and post that. 

Fourth, you can update your status.  This is a very brief 140 characters (or so, I think) on what you are doing right now, thinking right now, etc.  See the NYTimes on status update style. 

Fifth, you can add photos and videos. 

Finally, there are any number of applications that you can “plug in” to your facebook page, whether it is tracking your travels, your reading habits, a scrabble game, or any number of virtual gift giving applications.

So, if each of these things is basically possible with just email, why join facebook?  Why the craze? Why bother using it with teaching?

Two things set facebook apart.

First, on just about any of the above things, you can comment about some piece of information that your friend has posted. Every single thing on facebook is the potential beginning of a (mostly small talky, chatty, but it doesn't have to be this way) conversation.   This is where the connections happen.  Just like our brain, the magic is in the connections.  By the way, our brain has 100 billion neurons,
but  0.15 quadrillion synapses (an average of 1500 connections per neuron).  This is like having 
571 facebooks, with everyone having  1500 friends).   Think of that next time you lose your keys.  Admittedly there is a lot of inane chatter on facebook (which I actually think is a lot more valuable than people might beleive, but that is for another time) but sometimes facebook absolutely shines as a communication medium.   Here are a few brief greatest hits from my friends (please share one if you can, I'd love to hear more):

First, I had a friend who was scheduled to leave on an international trip from DC, but had forgotten her passport in Milwaukee.  She changed her status update to that, with an "oh no" added at the end.  Within a few hours, someone had suggested getting someone to get let into her apartment and fedexing it to her overnight.  Then, someone else said they were in the neighborhood and could do that this afternoon.  They did it, and she was on her way a day later.  What's amazing to me is that the different friends who helped did not need all of the information, but that the value was in the sharing.

Second,I have a few academic friends who post queries, such as the poet who asks "what is the best way to lecture about Sylvia Plath" or the philosopher who asks "Is the tendency to redeem the bad a virtue of character?".  

Second, the news feed. The news feed takes any of the above pieces of information (excepting the messages that you send directly to a friend, but also including other pieces of info from applications) and randomly posts it to your friends’ news feeds.  You can then choose to hear more or less about certain friends, or about certain kinds of information (I personally like to hear all the status updates, but don’t care who my friends are friends with, or when they update their profile).

What about twitter?

Twitter, at first glance, is just the status updates function of facebook.  Only 140 characters.  That is how it started.  But now it has added the ability to post pictures.  And links. Here is a good beginner’s guide to twitter.

The key point to both of these tools, just as any previous communication medium, is how many people you know who are using it.  The first telephone really wasn’t that helpful.  Nor were the first 100 people who bought one all that enthralled with it. 
The telephone is only helpful if everyone has one.   This is what has happened with facebook.  When everyone is on it (and everyone will be, your parents, your grandparents, your kids) it will be amazing, and it will start to replace the phone.   Already, I haven’t seen any data on this, but I am virtually certain, it is the most permanent part of a college student’s online identity.  My students rarely use email, and may change email addresses often, or even change phone numbers (and addresses), but no one could imagine changing your facebook identity, and going through the trouble of re-gathering your whole social network.

A few myths to debunk. 

First, the internet is not a monolithic medium (hopefully we are beyond that, but it bears being
repeated).  Meaning, spending hours on the internet actually tells you very little about how someone spends their time, whether it is useful and cognitively demanding, etc.  One could be spending hours making stupid and mean chitchat on a discussion board, or participating in a real discussion about politics in Zimbabwe, or gathering expertise and skills and contributing to a bustling online

Likewise, facebook and twitter use is not monolithic.  Some update their status with a lot of meaningless moments about what they are eating, how long the commute was, how they are happy the weekend is here, etc. (no offense, I do this a lot too: sample recent status update: Hmmm, Brussels sprouts).   But there are also real problems that are solved, magically and miraculously, by a hive mind of one’s trusted acquaintances.  I personally have had face-to-face contact with a childhood friend who currently lives in Venezuela who casually mentioned in his status update that he would be swinging through the Bay Area.  He didn’t even know that I lived there, but we had dinner, reminisced about old times, and now have had several conversations online (via facebook, and this blog) about the death of

Twitter is also not monolithic, and while its beginnings are so simple and austere, its use has evolved to include some really interesting possiblities.  A plant can twitter when it needs water, a drawbridge can twitter when it is up or down.  It is only a matter of time before your parking space twitters when it is empty.  
So, some people use twitter as a way to exchange little thoughts with their friends about a great sandwich, and some use it for marketing (see LA-area Korean taco truck).  What interests me about twitter is its integration of your friends with celebrities and outside news sources.  In facebook, the only communication is two way. 
A friendship must be two way, so celebrities would not likely have 16000 friends, because each of these 16000 would have access to all of their status updates, some of which would be personal (although there is a way to tweak this, facebook doesn't make this easy - the become a fan mechanism doesn't integrate well with the rest of your facebook experience).  On twitter, the relationship can
be one way.   You “following” someone, and that person “following” you are separate things.  So I can get Shaq’s tweets without him paying any attention to me.  (What’s interesting, is that this actually is not as one way as it sounds, even though Shaq has 180,000 followers, he still manages to add a personal touch to his twitter usage, see great story about meeting some fans in a diner, after he announced he was there on twitter).

Ok, so general principles.  
Why should teachers care about these tools?  First, because students use them.  I am sure you could tune into a conversation in the teacher’s lounge ten (maybe fifteen) years ago about email and how it was something teenagers were using to send meaningless po trivia and vastly important teenage gossip, and how there was little use for zapping instant messages to students.  Second because
they can be very powerful tools for learning. 

How can they be valuable tools for learning?  Because interaction is central to these new modes of communication.  Facebook’s mechanism for comments make it so quick and easy to have conversations (again, based on any bit of information) that makes Blackboard style “forums” look very clunky in comparison.   Also, I think that students come in with an interactive frame of mind.  They come at
it as participants, not as passive viewers, and leveraging that in our teaching can help.  Just as turning off the lights and showing a video in class can put students in passive movie watching mode, I think putting class content on facebook and twitter can help students want to participate.

They integrate many media (websites, text notes, photo and video) in a seamless and easily usable way.

So 140 characters is a very small nugget of information.  As I tell my students who complain about 2 pages not being enough to summarize a 17 page article.  If I told you to do it in a setence, you could, if I told you you had a paragraph, you could.  I think condensing thought into such a small chunk can actually be really valuable, and encourage an attention to the detail of words (do you really need that "the"?) that is a great way to teach writing.  Think editing and grading tweets sounds ridiculous?  Why any more ridiculous than the standard 500 word essay?

They can be used to engage what I feel to be a vital part of critical thinking, which is perspective taking.

Ok, a couple of examples.

First, in my cognitive science class last semester, one of the student’s favorite classes was when the philosophy professor and I co-taught, and co-guided the discussion on the section on language. Seeing both the perspective of the cognitive psychologist and the philosopher, and seeing them interact, was really valuable to the students.   This could happen on facebook in the comments as a philosopher, cognitive scientist, etc, weigh in on a piece of reading (or movie, or link, etc), even if only in a few words as a comment.

Second, someone is twittering the diary of an 18th century farm girl.  Someone also began twittering masquerading as Shaquille O’Neal, with witticisms reminiscent of Shaq’s style.  This got me thinking that it might be cool to have historical figures twitter in a history class.  I am teaching history of psychology next semester, and I am imagining Sigmund Freud having a few tweets, (“Just got out
with a patient, Whoa, Anna O.”)  then Jung coming along and responding then a little back and forth (maybe even excerpts from the Freud-Jung letters), then Skinner.  Then later thinkers.  This could take place in concert with the discussion in class.  I was thinking of assigning each person in class a role to play. 
What would Freud think about Maslow? 
What did Skinner think of William James? 
What would either of them think of modern neuroscience?  These are really hard questions, but make you really understand the theories and worldviews of these thinkers.  I think that kind of perspective taking is at the basis of critical thinking, and could be a great use of twitter in class.  It could also be tremendous fun.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

I’ll leave you with a few tools that could help you with similar projects.  Tweetlater lets you schedule tweets to appear later, so you don’t have to go on every day, but you could write 40 one line tweets for Freud in advance, and have them appear twice a week.  Tweetvisor organizes into conversations, and helps with multiple accounts.  Tweetree also helps with conversations and embeds the multimedia so that you don’t have to click on a link.

Thanks for reading, I'd really love to hear what y'all think.  Naysayers welcome.