Saturday, May 26, 2018

What do women want?

Sigmund Freud famously asked -- and failed to answer -- the question "What do women want?". (The root of Freud's failure may have been his conviction that what women wanted was to have sex with Sigmund Freud; but that's a post for another day).

With the modern advantage of big data analytics and help of the advertising industry, we can now answer the question that so baffled Freud: What makes women laugh and smile? The answer is yogurt. And salad.

Women smiling at yogurt

Women laughing at salad

The Art of the Disingenuous

Last night I caught Facebook's new "corporate mea culpa" ad. I don't know if it's more nauseating than the Wells Fargo one or the Uber one or the Equifax one, but I did notice that all of these ads follow exactly the same formula:

Voice Over: [Company X] comes from a wonderful and respected tradition (B roll: 20 seconds of happy, shiny people from A Better Time)

VO: But then we lost our way / forgot our priorities / lost sight of our vision and mistakes were made (B roll: rapid montage of news headlines documenting their downfall)

VO (brightly): Now we're making things right again! We're taking steps to think about considering ways for identifying changes that would restore your credulity... uh, trust... without actually fixing anything in any meaningful way because it's still the same people in charge and the same culture top to bottom. (B roll: happy, shiny people laughing like young women in yoghurt commercials)

VO: So, we all good now? Please don't regulate us.


Reality of course is that culture eats strategy for breakfast; and the prerequisite most of these companies need before there can be any real cultural change is to replace at least the top three layers of executives, any middle manager who has been promoted in the last five years, and the entire board of directors.

Mind you, in any properly functioning society the latter would be unnecessary as the individuals who were charged with overseeing these companies would by now have taken their own lives as the only way to erase the shame of their collusion.

On the other hand, none of this applies to Uber, whose entire business model is predicated on exploiting employees, snooping on customers and competitors, and disregarding laws. Uber by its very premise cannot be fixed, only erased. Preferably with fire.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Why we don't live in a simulated universe

There's an oft-repeated theory that our universe is a simulation -- a computer program (or equivalent) created by some higher form of intelligence. The modern popular form of this claim is generally attributed to philosopher Nick Bostrom, although the basic idea goes back much further.

And the only problem with this idea is that it is completely wrong.

The basic "simulation argument" goes like this: imagine that an intelligent race becomes intelligent enough and powerful enough that they could simulate a universe in a computer. (We already do this ourselves, in a very crude sense, when we create computer models to simulate weather or traffic or any other aspect of the real world.) Our hypothetical aliens are able to build such rich simulations, they actually contain simulated intelligent beings of their own -- and those simulated beings would (somehow) perceive themselves to be conscious.

And here's the clever twist: according to the argument, those simulated beings could become intelligent enough to build their own simulated universes, with simulated intelligent beings of their own, who in turn... Eventually, there would be an enormously large pyramid of simulations-within-simulations. And from a simple probabilistic perspective, it's enormously unlikely that we happen to be in the topmost and only real universe (and sometime in the future will ourselves start simulating universes) rather than one of the vast number of simulations.

And this is completely mistaken.

The problem with the argument is that the universe we find ourselves in is enormously complicated from the point of view of having intelligent beings in it. For a start, you could discard the other one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe and it wouldn't make any difference to us. So it's enormously more likely that the simulated universe we are in would be much simpler than this one. (How much more likely? Borrowing an argument from Roger Penrose, possibly something of the order of 10 to the power [10 to the power 100] -- a 1 with [10 to the power 100] zeroes after it -- more likely.)

So the simulation argument turns on itself: the exact same argument that leads to the conclusion that we live in a simulation, i.e. that there are many more simulations than real universes, also inevitably leads to the conclusion that this universe isn't simulated, because there would be hugely many more simpler simulations we would be more likely to find ourselves in.