Recommended Reading 20th July

Adorable Ducklings Have Abstract Thoughts
John Locke thought that humans were unique in their ability to abstract meta-level concepts from object-level examples. The observation that ducklings can do just this (often better than human children) suggests Locke was wrong. Ducklings were able to recognise the relatedness of different objects: when shown two similar objects they abstracted the concept of “sameness” and when shown two different objects they abstracted that difference. These experiments may suggest that abstraction is not as essential for higher intelligence as previously thought.

Who blames the victim? 
People who value loyalty, obedience and purity are more likely to engage in victim-blaming than people who prioritise care and fairness. People who have read Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind’ will recognise that these groups correspond to conservatives and liberals respectively. Intriguingly the authors also found that focusing people’s attention on the perpetrator of a crime is actually more effective at reducing the subject’s tendency to victim-blame than focusing their attention on the victim.

The GOP’s Original Sin
Paul Krugman suggests that the adoption of supply-side policies in 1980 is what catalysed the GOP’s move to the so-called “post-truth” phase. I don’t really understand economics and I know Krugman is pretty partisan so his claim that supply-side economics never had any academic support might not be 100% true but at the same time, I wouldn’t be totally surprised if it was true.

New AI can predict when two people will kiss
Discussion of a deep learning algorithm that watches a lot of TV shows to figure out how likely a “lean-in” is to lead to a kiss. The headline probably overstates it (the AI only gets it right 43% of the time) but humans were only 71% successful so it’s a good start. Further evidence that there’s nothing special about humans “emotional intuitions”.


New Music Recommendations 11/07/2016

  1. LSD by Jamila Woods featuring Chance the Rapper
    Jamila Woods has featured on a few of Chance’s songs, most memorably ‘Sunday Candy’. Her new album comes out today and this song certainly has me excited for it. Plus I will always share anything that involves Chancellor Bennett.
  2. Sampha – “Plastic 100°C” (Live Performance)Sampha – “Plastic 100°C” (Live Performance)
    Glad to see Sampha starting to come out with new material again. Check out Timmy’s Prayer too if you haven’t yet.
  3. Controlla Remix by Tory Lanez 
    Tory Lanez just remixed one of the few good songs off of Drake’s latest album. Lanez and Drake have apparently had some friction in the past so this is less of an “I love this song and want to show my appreciation for it”  situation and more of an “I’m going to steal your beat” kind of deal. Given how frequently Drake and his OVO crew lift from other artists, I don’t think he can complain too much.

Reading recommendations 10th July 2016

  1. Tyler Cowen on ‘Why Brexit happened and what it means
    Like myself, Cowen was pro-Remain. However I saw several people on the Leave side praising Cowen’s articulation of their beliefs and saying that it passed the Ideological Turing Test.
  2. The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs
    The Pathogen Stress Theory of Values suggests that our reactions to germs can explain many puzzles of human social behaviour including morality, politics and religion.
  3. The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic
    This is the sad tale of the life of scientist and mathematician Walter Pitts. When he’s described as being the undoubted genius of a group containing John von freaking Neumann then you know he was something special. 

    “That winter, Wiener brought Pitts to a conference he organized in Princeton with the mathematician and physicist John von Neumann, who was equally impressed with Pitts’ mind. Thus formed the beginnings of the group who would become known as the cyberneticians, with Wiener, Pitts, McCulloch, Lettvin, and von Neumann its core. And among this rarified group, the formerly homeless runaway stood out. “None of us would think of publishing a paper without his corrections and approval,” McCulloch wrote. “[Pitts] was in no uncertain terms the genius of our group,” said Lettvin”.

New Music Recommendations 10th July 2016

  1. Francis and the Lights – Friends ft. Bon Iver and Kanye West
    Although this song was only released this week, it was actually sampled in ‘Summer Friends’ by Chance the Rapper which is my favourite song of the year so far. People who heard ‘Summer Friends’ gave Francis a lot of flak for being an imitation of Bon Iver so it’s interesting to see that the song actually featured Bon Iver the whole time!
  2. The Avalanches – Because I’m Me
    I am loving this song off of the Avalanches first album in 16 years. Great feel-good summer vibes.
  3. Blood Orange – Best To You 
    The new album from Dev Hynes is a great blend of the personal and the political. Vocally, Hynes takes a back seat to Empress Of on this track but the instrumentation unmistakably bears his influence.

Overcompensating for one’s biases

I’ve noticed that I have a bias to sometimes give more credence than I should to arguments that go against my political convictions. This is related to the middle-ground fallacy but isn’t exactly the same thing because I can even be willing to go past the 50:50 point.

I’m very much on the Left of the political spectrum so my natural bias is to believe the arguments of liberals/progressives/whatever term you prefer-ists. However, in the last few years I’ve read so much about cognitive biases and moral psychology and so on that I’ve developed a new bias: the desire to be unbiased.

Basically I now have a tendency to think that it is always more virtuous to be able to see both sides of the argument. And indeed, it generally is good to be able to do so! The problem is when I over-compensate for my leftist-bias.

I think this matches up with my tendency to have hipster-ish tendencies with respect to music and other forms of media. I think it’s cool to like a band that others don’t know about because it requires an investment of time on my behalf to discover that band. Once everyone else knows about them then it’s no longer as cool because now I can no longer efficiently signal my general interest in music (unless I commit the faux pas of saying how much I liked them before they were cool).

In the context of politics, I might be trying to signal to others that I’m not a totally biased lefty or I might be counter-signalling that I’m such a lefty that I can see things from the perspective of the Right and still be on the Left myself.

Honestly though, it’s probably just me trying to signal that I’m not prone to the same biases as everyone else. So yeah, I’m just being really lame!


Smoking as a Costly Signal

  1. Smoking as a Costly Signal
    Signalling is the idea that in a population of individuals, some will send out signals as a sign of their quality (e.g. fitness as a mate) and some will receive signals to appraise potential mates. Senders benefit from having their signals accepted whereas receivers benefit from accepting signals from fit individuals. Say there is a poor signal and a good signal (i.e. the latter has a better chance of being accepted). Senders will want to send the good signal if they can. Costly signalling implies that they have to pay a greater cost for sending the better signal. Importantly, lower quality individuals pay a greater cost than higher quality individuals. Therefore there will tend to be an efficient separation such that receivers can be fairly confident that by accepting a costly signal they will be accepting a higher quality mate.In the animal kingdom, the peacock’s tail is a great example of costly signalling. The larger the tail, the more difficult it is for the peacock to fly. It seems surprising then that peacocks would evolve to have these cumbersome tails: surely they aren’t adaptive? Amotz Zahavi proposed the Handicap Principle to explain this: a male peacock with a large tail is signalling to peahens that he is so fit that he can still evade predators even with the handicap of a large tail (apologies for the terminology).Yesterday I asked myself why the dramatic increase in the price of cigarettes (at least in my part of the world) seemed to coincide with a dramatic decrease in their ‘coolness’. I thought that if I looked at the phenomenon from a costly signalling perspective then surely an increase in the cost of the signal should allow higher quality senders to more effectively separate themselves from lower quality ones.

    A quick Google search returned the paper linked above. This doesn’t match my intuition for where I’m from but Dewitte (writing from Belgium) claims that adolescent smoking has become more popular and that the reason for this is in fact, costly signalling. Adolescents who are healthier (at least before they start smoking!) can signal their fitness by adopting this habit, effectively saying “I’m so healthy that I can afford to smoke”. Note the similarity to the peacocks. Although everyone can choose to smoke, less healthy people (say someone with asthma) pays a higher cost by smoking such that receivers can reliably infer that anyone who smokes doesn’t have underlying health problems (such that they are more attractive).


Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book

Chance the Rapper’s new mixtape, Coloring Book, came out in the middle of my exam period this year and man, it probably did more to keep my mood up than any other one thing. I’ve been a big fan of Chance for years now. I don’t say that to get hipster cred (okay, I do a little) but more to make it clear that I’ve been there for his different phases.

A lot has been made about how he has shifted to a gospel style on Coloring Book and I know plenty of his old fans have complained about it. But damn, how do you listen to this mixtape and complain? It is so pure and joyful that it would melt a White Walker’s heart. I’m serious, listen to ‘D.R.A.M Sings Special’ and just try to tell me that Jon Snow wouldn’t do more damage armed with a boombox blaring that song than with Longclaw. Or listen to how Chance’s tone changes at 0:30 on ‘Juke Jam’ and you can tell that he’s just started smiling. It’s like when you’re kissing someone and you can feel them smile (yeah, I’m a Chance fanboy, FOH).

I mentioned the gospel theme. Honestly I feel a bit too much may have been made of it but there’s no doubt that this tape “runneth over” with biblical imagery. And that’s cool. I’m no Christian but if church was more like Coloring Book then I’d be walking in that door on Sunday quicker than LeBron James on the fast-break.

My favourite song on the mixtape is ‘Summer Friends’. It’s almost certainly going to be my favourite song of the year. I’m having trouble thinking of any song that has ever transported me to another place and made me felt like I’ve lived there in the same way. It is peak storytelling as rap and it is more evocative to me than entire novels have been. As I said, I was in the middle of exams when this mixtape dropped. I was averaging 14 hours of study a day (that’s actual work, I spent longer in front of the computer) for about 6 weeks. So when I heard Chance reminiscing in the 2nd verse about how hard his parents worked and how he does the same now, it felt very real to me. Here’s the intro to the verse:

“Ooh I used to kill ’em with the long hair,
Momma hair salon doing perms out the armchair
Dad were working late, he treat the crib like it’s a timeshare
I would mow some lawns
Fold my ones like a lawn chair, huh, huh!
Now I’m the same way, over time all the time, every night, hey
Ready my blessing, now I’m ready how I wait
Never let a friendship get in my way”

That last line hits me every time. I’ve let a lot of friendships fall by the wayside for various reasons. I’d like to think that doing so will allow me to accomplish something close to what Chance has achieved but I don’t know.

And that right there is the beauty of this album. One line side-tracked me into reflecting on my failures but there’s so much more packed into this song. The first verse is a really poignant take on the shootings in Chicago (something Chance has tackled before). It shows how deftly Chance can marry the personal with the political. It’s far less bombastic than other musicians (take Kanye’s ‘Jesus Walks’ for example) but it’s just as impactful.

Speaking of Kanye, I feel like listening to Coloring Book the day it released is the closest I’ll get to what it must have been like when The College Dropout first hit the scene. I don’t know if Chance will have the same impact but he’s definitely learned one heck of a lot from Kanye. Thinking about how much Kanye has changed since 2004 makes me wonder what Chance will be doing in 12 years’ time. I hope he changes his style again because he seems too talented, too inventive to stick with one thing for long. He’s definitely built up enough goodwill and artistic capital on this record to be able to do what he wants to do.  150412-chance-the-rapper