Category Archives: Web/Tech

Overcoming bias at work for engineers

While I am only an interested hobbyist when it comes to the theory and practice of overcoming bias, it looks like I will be gifted with the opportunity to explore this interest as a side project in my day job at a large tech company.  Specifically, to help design and deliver one or more classes in what I think of as the self-help side of behavior economics – what are the common human biases, and how can we work around them in our everyday lives?

So I thought I’d take advantage of the collaborative filtering aspect of blogging and ask you for thoughts about the most common biases that affect engineers at work, and pointers to information on the best ways of learning to overcome them.  Preferably at a fine granularity – blog posts rather than full books.  An example of the type of approach I’m looking for is Andy Hunt’s talk (and upcoming book) "Refactoring Your Wetware", which is about how the brain works, how engineers misunderstand it (focusing on the logical serial processing and ignoring the intuitive parallel processing), and how that applies to being a programmer.  Sadly it is not yet available as a book or online video, but I’ve requested a copy of the talk he gave at work so perhaps I can fix that.

I’ll post my own model for what I see as the key realization and skills in another entry, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  And if my investigations prove fruitful and I successfully develop some material, in a few months, I may even be able to put up some of the materials.

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Dennett’s Special Pleading

Daniel Dennett has a review out in Artificial Intelligence of Douglas Hofstadter’s 2007 book I am a Strange Loop, and Marvin Minsky’s 2006 book The Emotion Machine.  Dennett admits that he is biased for these authors, that they mainly rehash their famous books of twenty years ago, and that they fail to meet the standards of all related academic disciplines, and so are rejected by those academics.  But, well, he just likes them anyway: 

I am much too close, personally and intellectually, to Doug Hofstadter and Marvin Minsky to write a proper academic review of these wonderful books … I travel in several quite different academic circles and I find that each gang has its particular way of not taking these thinkers seriously. The neuroscientists deplore the absence of rigorous experiments and the refusal of both Hofstadter and Minsky to canvass the relevant experimental literature thoroughly and explicitly. Where are the data? The philosophers of mind, at the other extreme, find few formal arguments and a frustratingly cavalier refusal by the authors to define their terms at the outset. Where are the proofs?

Continue reading "Dennett’s Special Pleading" »

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Outputs Require Inputs

It is a simple point: mechanisms give outputs from inputs.  With more inputs, we expect more outputs.  So when comparing mechanisms, correct for input variation. 

For example, over $100 million was spent trying to win the $10 million Ansari prize, as competitors also wanted credibility in the near-Earth space market.  So now the Google moon X-Prize offers $30 million, seemingly far too little for such an effort, as there is no moon market to win.  I worry that when the prize is not won, people will take this as a failure of the prize mechanism, rather than as a failure of the prize amount offered.

Also, every week I see another startup whose business model is to sell info from play money "competitive forecasting" (like prediction markets).  (E.g., see yesterday’s New York Times article where I’m quoted).  Professionals who would otherwise charge for their insight will supposedly instead tell all for the "community" of a few token prizes, chat rooms, comment sections, leader boards, and social networking.  "Crowd-sourcing" software experts have assured them this, and a marketing budget, is all it takes to make a volunteer community they can sell.  (Curiously, these software experts have not suggested replacing themselves with free open source volunteers.)

I worry that when these businesses fail, people will take this as a failure of mechanisms like prediction markets, rather than as a failure to get people to work for free.  Prizes are a promising way to induce research or development, and prediction markets are a promising way to gain information, even when you must on average pay contributors market wages for their time and efforts. 

Added: InTrade now lets you bet on whether the Google Moon prize will be won.   

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Nerds as Bad Connivers

Giving a keynote talk at a software conference recently made me reflect on the essence of "nerds." 

Assume that nerds essentially have "Autism light," i.e., high intelligence and low social skills.  If so, then while nerds can reason and sympathize well, they are less able to read the acts and expressions of others in order to infer their states of mind.  Nerd social behavior could then be as strategic or altruistic as anyone else, but it couldn’t as subtly depend on reading social cues.   

Distinguish two key social effects of these lower social skills: effects on cooperation and on conniving.  If low social skills makes it harder for nerds to cooperate, then we should find that groups of nerds are less able to coordinate with each other to achieve common ends, such as managing large projects together.  There may be an effect here, but if so it seems weak; nerds cooperate pretty effectively all the time on large software and other engineering projects.

The other social effect is on Machiavellian conniving.  Nerds should be worse at judging which coalition to join when, which associates may betray them or have done so, when and how to betray associates, what lies to tell, what threats will be credible and appropriate, and so on.  These low conniving skills should make nerds less attractive as coalition partners, at least for helping each coalition deal with other coalitions.  It seems pretty obvious to me that there is a large effect here. 

Now compare the social versus the private costs of these social skill deficits.   While a reduced ability to cooperate might hurt society even more than it hurt the nerd, a reduced ability to connive should hurt the nerd more than it hurts society.  Poorly cooperating nerds would tax society, giving a reason to shun nerds, but poorly conniving nerds would mainly be preyed upon by those with better social skills, and be victims worthy of social sympathy.  Spouses could more easily get away with cheating on nerds, and business partners could more easily get away with reneging on implicit understandings. 

If, as it seems to me, nerd social handicaps reduce nerd abilities to connive far more than their abilities to cooperate, then people should try too hard to avoid being exploited nerds, relative to a social optimum.  If so, we have too few nerds, and all else equal we should want to subsidize nerds, to get more of them. 

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Strangeness Heuristic

Yesterday’s New York Times article on if we live in a computer simulation draws heavily from our Nick Bostrom, and at one point mentions me:

Maybe, as suggested by Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University, you should try to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation.

Interestingly, many blog reactions seem to be mainly disappointed that God might be a nerd – I guess they were hoping for a jock God.  Also interesting, blog posters seem less skeptical than blog commentors (such as the 300+ at the related NYT blog).   Apparently, blog posters defer more to the authority of the NYT, while commentors rely more on a strangeness heuristic:

Make a vivid mental picture of your best guess of how the world is, and compare that to a similar picture of someone else’s claim of how the world is, was, or will be.  The larger the difference in impressions these pictures make on your mind, the less likely is the claim.

This heuristic, for example, penalizes scenarios where planes flap their wings, or where sidewalks are colored purple, or where many people walk down the street talking to small boxes.   This heuristic is relatively easy to apply and is valid on average.  So it offers a nice reference point to measure the other authorities you listen to:  For each authority, such as the NYT, the journal Nature, this blog, your own math analysis, etc., ask what is the strangest scenario that authority could convince you?

I suspect many authorities are reluctant to endorse even strongly supported strange claims, for fear of losing credibility with strangeness-heuristic-following audiences.  So bravo to the NYT here. 

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Phone-Shy UFOs

From Tyler Cowen’s Discover Your Inner Economist, out this week:

Small changes in incentives can make a big difference in our beliefs.  For instance, UFO sightings are down dramatically in the last decade.  Perhaps science-fiction movies are not as compelling as they used to be, but I think another factor is at work: cell phones and cell-phone cameras. 
“The spaceship was in a no-call dead zone?  And you didn’t snap a picture?”
“I’m sorry honey.  The immobilized my fingers with their secret ray guns.”
The story is suddenly a little harder to swallow.  Most of all, it is harder to fool one’s self, not just one’s spouse and friends.  Researchers who have studied reported episodes of alien abduction have concluded that most of the believers are fully sincere.

Just one of many ways that a more transparent society can be a more honest society.

Added: Tyler’s claim seems to be wrong!  UFO reports were up until 2000 in Yukon, up until 2002 in Canada, and up by over a factor of six in the US from 1995 to 2005 (this last estimate I made using via a quick calculation from the Mufon database).  Of course it is possible that the internet has made it easier to turn UFO sightings into reports. 

More added: See Tyler’s comments below. 

Also: Here are monthly reports ’90-07, from Natl. UFO Reporting Center (founded ’74):

Book1_12904_image001_3

So there has been a slight falloff in the last few years, but this overall trend doesn’t seem to track cell phone usage very well.   

More: A chart of Canadian monthly reports, ’89-05, by a different organization (founded ’89), looks similar to the above chart, though 1/6 the magnitude and noisier.  Does anyone have a graph of cell phone usage for comparison?

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Clever Controls

Today’s man-machine poker contest has a clever way to avoid random chance errors:

The Alberta researchers have endowed the $50,000 contest with an ingenious design, making this the first man-machine contest to eliminate the luck of the draw as much as possible.

Laak will play with a partner, fellow pro Ali Eslami. The two will be in separate rooms, and their games will be mirror images of one another, with Eslami getting the cards that the computer received in its hands against Laak, and vice versa.

That way, a lousy hand for one human player will result in a correspondingly strong hand for his partner in the other room. At the end of the tournament the chips of both humans will be added together and compared to the computer’s.

Doubles tournaments based on this method could be made for lots of games with chance elements. 

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How to be Radical

Recently I posted on how freethinkers are obstacles to innovation, by being both undiscriminating on ideas and undesirable as social associates.  Today let me outline how best to be radical, if you must.

Freethinkers who work on a radical idea or project tend to shoot themselves in the foot by trying to be radical on as many dimensions as possible.  For example, if they manage to get funding for a startup pursuing their radical software product, they try to also be radical on software tools, project management, office location and organization, personnel, compensation, meeting times, work hours, marketing, and so on.  In their personal lives they try to be radical on romance, household organization, medical care, education, clothing, music, and so on.  This freethinker strategy of being radical on every possible dimension pretty much guarantees that something will go very wrong with at least one of these dimensions. 

To have the best chance of succeeding in a radical project, you should instead choose just a few related dimensions on which to make radical choices, and then make conservative conventional choices on all the other dimensions.  This strategy minimizes the chance that some other project dimension will go badly wrong and take down your central radical idea with it.

While all-dimension-radical freethinker projects have little chance of success, their looming wreckage can be a great place to look for promising radical ideas to pursue – many a successful radical project idea was "stolen" from freethinker predecessors.   So if you are shopping for a radical idea to pursue, make friends with ambitious freethinkers – but don’t pick up their undiscriminating habits. 

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Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?

Superstition seems a quaint old thing, more suitable for old grannies or the illiterate, but it’s alive and well in the information age. Online computer games, such as World of Warcraft and UltimaOnline, are full of examples of this:

[…] facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. […] Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant.

Or, to get monsters to reappear, little dances could develop (note the similarity with Skinner’s pigeons):

Some [characters] would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme.

and sometimes it would go as far as "saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life)."

Continue reading "Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?" »

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Bosses Prefer Overconfident Managers

A 2004 Journal of System and Software paper by Magne Jorgensen and Karl Halvor Teigen and Kjetil Molokken examined the preferences of bosses for accurate versus overconfident project leaders: 

A total of 37 software professionals in a Norwegian organization developing financial and e-commerce applications .. all of them had some experience in project … management.  … were presented with two scenarios. … Assume that you are the manager of a software development project and have asked two developers (D1 and D2) to estimate the most likely effort, minimum effort and maximum effort for the same 5 development tasks.  D1 and D2 have been instructed to be 90% confident (certain) that the actual effort they use is between the minimum and maximum effort.  In Scenario 1, [managers] D1 and D2 have the same actual effort … and make the same estimates of most likely effort.  The only difference is that … D1 has a hit rate of only 3 out of 5 (60%), while D2’s hit rate is 4 our of 5 (80%).

Manager D1 was chosen 35 to 2 as the "preferred developer", and 29 to 1 as the one with more "knowledge of task," even though D2 was chosen 17 to 11 as the one with the most "knowledge of uncertainty."   In Scenario 2, D1 and D2 had the same effort and estimates, but D2 said accurately that he was 60% confident, while D1 said inaccurately that he was 90% confident.    Though D2 was chosen 23 to 3 as having more knowledge of uncertainty, D1 was chosen 15 to 11 as the one with the most knowledge of task.   As one developer explained:

I feel that if I estimate very wide effort [prediction intervals], this will be interpreted as a total lack of competence and has no informative value to the project manager.   I’d rather have fewer actual values inside the minimum-maximum interval, than providing meaningless, wide [prediction intervals]. 

Thus bosses of software managers take accurate estimates to be a signal of a lack of competence.      

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