Saturday, 10 December 2016

Bah Humbug!

It's two weeks until Christmas, give or take. I could only tell this from a calendar; from my perspective, it's been Christmas since about November. There are things I enjoy about this. I enjoy ambling through the city centre and smiling up at the decorations. I enjoy making fun of the huge, rather unsettling Santa who watches over Albert Square. I enjoy carolling in the freezing cold, strangely enough. I enjoy going round the markets with friends or my partner and picking out nice gifts.

Seriously the creepiest Santa I have ever seen
Those eyes...they haunt me.

What I really don't enjoy is the pressure surrounding Christmas. There's so much pressure to make Christmas magical; to get everyone the perfect gifts, to cook the perfect traditional meal, to be a perfect happy family, and what usually ends up happening is not knowing what gifts to get, being thoroughly sick of turkey by the end of the month and sniping at each other. And alcohol. So much alcohol.

In my family, Christmas was like any other day and I chilled out on celebrating Hanukkah a long time ago, so there was far less pressure to make things perfect (indeed they often weren't; I have a rather...interesting relationship with my parents). I've come to value that; I was never one for forced jollity. Remember that a day you might consider happy and joyous might come with a great deal of sadness for someone else; I know I'll probably never be a ray of sunshine on Boxing Day (my late grandfather's birthday).

I know it's not the done thing to say you don't enjoy Christmas, and it would be horrid of me to demand that other people stop enjoying their traditions. So I'm going to blatantly sidestep this by saying that I prefer to celebrate non-traditionally.

This is the lovely, taxing handful in question. She's in the spot she loves best - the windowsill, nagging people for food.

This Christmas, I am not going to socialise with a lot of people, nor am I going to wake up early to open presents under our seriously tiny, 20cm tall plastic tree that's been there for as long as I can remember. I am going to sleep in blissfully, obnoxiously late, spend the day with my parents and cat (who counts as two or three people anyway, because she's lovely but also a handful), eat a reasonable amount of food, possibly have some wine but almost certainly not before 6pm, try not to argue with my parents too much, send my friend random pictures and chat to my boyfriend. For an introvert like me, that sounds positively magical. Just because I'm a grouch doesn't mean I can't have fun too, sometimes.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

"native Britons are bloody stupid" and other shenanigans

Hey! Don't shoot the messenger. Don't shoot Lord Kerr either, since he's the one who said it.

The media is in a tizzy because Lord Kerr called native Britons stupid when defending immigration. I have some poorly organised thoughts about this.

Firstly, Lord Kerr was a diplomat before becoming a life peer. He knows exactly how much shit he's stirring up. Why he's doing this I don't know, but his comments are apparently so inflammatory to the right that Stormfront's cryfest (no links, fascists deserve to be deprived of oxygen) was one of the top results when I googled this. Maybe he's hoping that they get too distracted circlejerking over how racist he is to white people. That's the best-case scenario.

Secondly, I'm actually pretty upset about his comments. Of course I'm angry at xenophobic Brits. Of course I'm even more irritated when they're stupid into the bargain. But he punched down at a lot of the more marginalised people in British society, at a time when social mobility is decreasing massively. I can't defend that.

What I can do is laugh. Laugh at all native Britons? No. But as an immigrant, I have to face xenophobic bullshit more than I would care to - your standard bullshit about how I should go home, I don't integrate enough, I take away jobs from hard-working British people while simultaneously being lazy and claiming all of the benefits at once, my existence somehow ruins a total stranger's tightly-knit community, and so on. There is no polite way to talk about how some native British people have shown themselves up as utter hypocrites, simply because they hated me that much for not being born on "their" soil. So I don't bother trying to be polite. I don't go out of my way to be rude, either - it's a waste. So I laugh - it's frankly an absurd situation.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Redemption

I think redemption as a concept is underrated.

I mean, sure, there are these people who will try and sell you redemption if you follow their book, or pay them enough money, or have someone else treat you as their pity porn. Perhaps that's why redemption is overlooked. Perhaps it's just that we live in a society which exalts violence and vengeance. (Seriously - our justice system is based on retribution, most narratives in fiction involve overcoming an obstacle with murder, and we are encouraged to support armies.)

The main argument against redemption seems to be "but this person had other chances" or "but this means that this person gets off scot free".

I'll admit that I don't have good counterarguments. I have blunt statements and a belief system.

Many people have many, many opportunities through life. Some are easier to achieve than others; some are almost impossible. People will make mistakes. People will actively do malicious things. You are one of those people. I am one of those people. Call people out, sure (although I have problems with how arbitrary callout culture can feel). A lifetime of condemnation is not a fitting punishment for a mistake. Even if it's a fitting punishment for doing something terrible, people should still be able to do something good. To start atoning - even if they never finish.

You know what? When you try to fix what you broke, you don't get off scot free. Other people still have to live with the hurt you caused them. You have to live knowing that you hurt people. You have to live knowing that no matter what you do, some people will never forgive you and that they have every right to do that. Atonement is hard.

Here's why I support atonement and redemption: people can change. It's what we do best as humans. It's not like people keep the same personality their whole lives. If people can change for the better - and I have a mostly unfounded belief that we can - let's make it easier for people to do that. Let's face it: humans are stupid and cruel. We spend most of our time being stupid and cruel to each other. We are not in a position to say that we don't want certain people to become better; being a doomed moral victor is not nearly as important as making the world a better place.

You are not required to forgive anyone. You are not required to act like a selfless angel, even to people who want to hurt you. But it would be nice to encourage people to change and help others out.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Some thoughts about antisemitism and narratives

Now that America is divided over whether to elect a reasonably competent establishment candidate or a creepy orange fascist, the media have stopped pretending they ever gave a shit about antisemitism; instead, they're pretending they give a shit about the US.

I didn't get to do this before on account of having a massive workload, but a lot of the reactions to the antisemitism shitstorm upset me massively. Many of them were pure denial: "I've never seen antisemitism in my community, so it must not exist." Many of them were denial mixed with tokenism: "I'm going to weaponise Jews who don't see antisemitism and use them as a tool to conveniently ignore people who disagree with me." Many fell back on the old chestnut that "anti-Zionism isn't antisemitism." (It isn't, but blathering about "Zionist control of the media" or "Zionists did 9/11" is very clearly an antisemitic dogwhistle. Regurgitating antisemitic rhetoric and replacing "Jew" with "Zionist" is still antisemitism, and it helps nobody, except possibly fascists.)

One of my least favourites was this one: "But the person you have accused is a tireless campaigner against racism and antisemitism!" It came up very, very frequently. I have problems with it.

One of the very first things you learn applying critical theories is that you will fuck up at some point. We are human. We make mistakes and have prejudices. Sometimes that means you're going to hurt people. If that happens, you'll be called out (callout culture has massive problems, but people should definitely be held accountable for their actions).

Does this only apply to novices? Does it not apply to seasoned campaigners - who are still human and still make mistakes? If not, why not? Selectively applying this rule seems like it's designed to protect the powerful and influential. Actually, I'll go further: overlooking this rule when it comes to people who are powerful and influential within their circles enables abusers. It's a way of saying to people with less power or influence that they should shut up if they feel uncomfortable, because the people hurting them are just so righteous and so committed to the cause. It's yet another way of imposing yet another bullshit hierarchy.

There's something else, something darker, which follows on from this: it paints Jews as the big, mean, nasty villains oppressing the principled anti-racist. Why? Because we dared to speak up and say that we were being hurt.

We're being told that we're not just wrong to speak up - we're problematic. We're evil. We're being told that the right and good thing to do is to shut up and take it, or risk isolation from our communities. We're being manipulated into staying silent.

There are of course Jews who are going to disagree. They are not bad, or wrong, or somebody else's token. Everyone's experiences are valid - but that also includes the people who are facing isolation for speaking up about what is happening to them. And of course we are not uniquely perfect; some people are doubtless bigoted and prejudiced. But that doesn't excuse antisemitism. Nor does someone else's antisemitism make it right to act oppressively towards them.

Please don't hurt other people. And please don't try to silence people who are hurt.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Data is Wondrous

I don't know where to begin with this, but I'll try: I am weirdly passionate about graphs. The idea that you can order numbers in space and time, and make them make lines and curves that tell you things, is simple - you're probably used to making graphs (and possibly heartily sick of them). It's so simple that I think we forget how powerful graphs are, that they take millions of experiences and put them in a form we can understand more intuitively.

I'm going to put forward a proposal that will probably make most of you groan in frustration: graphs should inspire people.

Okay, when I write it that way, that just sounds confusing. Inspirational quotes are one thing, but what the hell is an inspirational graph?!

I can't really answer my own question, unfortunately, except to say that an inspirational graph moves you on an emotional level. It reminds you of something beyond the graph, or makes you feel like you had an epiphany, or gives you some quiet satisfaction.

That doesn't help either, does it? I'd bet that the better part of readers have never been emotionally moved by some bullshit bar chart or someone else's poorly put together pie chart. That's okay. 90% of graphs are crap.

Someone like me, who's more comfortable with numbers than people, actively seeks out and tries to create the 10%. For me, graphs are another kind of language (language doesn't have to be verbal).
You might be looking at that graph and wondering where the inspiration is. In fact, you might be looking at that graph and cringing at the colour scheme (the console generated it automatically - I didn't bother to set it). But this is a graph I find inspirational, and I'm going to try to explain why.

This graph is modelling the light curve for a microlensing event in the Andromeda Galaxy. Before I even started, I decided I only wanted to model the part of the light curve with the characteristic pixel-lensing "spike" - I was looking at data from the Liverpool Telescope during 2004-2009 and at that time the telescope wouldn't operate during summer months. This left me with huge patches in my light curve that made fitting difficult.

If you look at the red curve, that's supposed to model a pixel-lensing light curve. Notice how it is flat. Also notice how my data points (the green dots) curve upwards. That's from a periodic change in base flux which would have made fitting a pain in the posterior.

Here's where the wonder comes in: that blue curve models the baseline. After some unsuccessful tinkering, I found that I could quite happily subtract that baseline and get something lovely and flat. I could test my own data. There's the wonder: I could look at a galaxy millions of light years from our own and check microlensing events for myself.

This is how data is wondrous. Data should make everything fall together - in other people's heads as well as yours.

So make your bar charts and your pie charts and your graphs of your errors beautiful. Make them inspire people. Make them want to see what the graph is telling them. Make them want to see beyond that.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Some reflections on econophysics and the way it's perceived

Neoclassical economics is failing. I would go so far as to say that this is no longer controversial; its flaws have been known about for many decades now. Many, many fields have sprung from this failure - I would say that this is an extremely good thing.

Some readers might wonder why I'm writing about economics at all. Importantly, I'm not an economist and have no formal training in the subject - I'm a vaguely interested party. I'm about as qualified as the pub bore (or most politicians) to tell you about the efficacy of various models; the difference is that I know I'm out of my depth. I am going to be discussing the perception of one particular field within economics, based on my experience with related fields.

A more general concern is: why talk about the economy at all? Everyone talks about the economy. Everyone else is fed up of hearing about the economy, fed up of hearing about why the economy means that the rich have to get richer and the poor have to get poorer, fed up of hearing about bullshit models when they're having to choose between heating their homes and feeding their families.

Against this backdrop, yet another middle-class schmo from the chattering classes offering yet another ill-informed opinion on what amounts to arbitrary emergent phenomena is at best useless and at worst actively harmful. My reasons for discussing economics boil down to this: when we try to think about economics, marginalised people suffer. When we say "to hell with thinking" and pursue policies based on ideology rather than evidence, marginalised people suffer more. This is something you can quantify and something you can spin heart-rending stories out of - whatever floats your boat. The point is that this phenomenon is real and not just some crap I made up because as a member of the educated metropolitan elite I love confusing people with numbers, or something. The point is that it is in our power to stop this phenomenon and use data to make a better world, and that we should be doing that instead of uncritically following ideology.

(I do actually confuse people with numbers a lot, but my brain is built that way. People have tried to socialise me and make me more normal, but it hasn't worked particularly well.)

One of the fields which gets more attention is econophysics: applying techniques developed in physics to solve problems in economics. The rationale behind using these techniques is that they work much better for the real world than the traditional tools of economics (which work for homogeneous agents at or close to equilibrium, rather than what we have - heterogeneous agents and plenty of situations far from equilibrium...like, let's face it, the economy never reaches some stable point of equilibrium).

Okay, so beyond more maths, what's there to complain about?

I'm going to leave the actual field of econophysics alone for the most part, because I have no experience with it. I have experience in two things that are related, though: evaluating the relevance of a particular technique and people's perceptions of econophysics.

I'm not in a position to analyse the use of every single technique in econophysics ever - it's a huge field and physics is even bigger. Certainly on the surface most of the uses of the techniques check out: large numbers of agents interacting with each other, heterogeneity, not in a stable state...we have tools for all of these things and I hope we can keep refining them.

However, nonlinear systems (like the ones I am discussing right now) can be problematic: many, many, many times you can come up with or apply some model to fit your data, and it will fit. On the surface, that seems like something you want to happen. Of course you want your models to fit the data. The problem is that in nonlinear dynamics, it is quite possible to fit a model to some data and for that model to not represent what's actually happening at all. In fact, it's something people spend quite a lot of time discussing. An example I like to bring up is the critical positivity ratio: two psychologists tried to use differential equations from fluid dynamics to describe human psychology with no theoretical or empirical justification. This last part is important: some justification for your model is needed before you apply it. In the case of econophysics, I think it's mostly justified.

At the same time, I feel like this need for justification is hardly stressed outside of specialist books; textbooks will definitely stress this. Some very good popular science books do stress this, such as Chaos (James Gleick) and Critical Mass (Philip Ball), but still the message doesn't get through.

I think part of this is due to the perception of laws of physics as fundamental and immutable, something built on more solid a foundation than any other science could dream of. This isn't something I've made up: I have literally seen people make the argument that econophysics is better than neoclassical economics because physics is based on fundamental principles.

Discussing the immutability of physical laws and whether we can ever truly know them, or simply make a series of better and better approximations (for a start, physics is still developing and that suggests we still haven't got a handle on all its laws), would open up a whole can of philosophical worms. For the moment, I will simply say that even if you believe in the immutability and fundamentality of physics, that in no way implies that every single application of physics is correct. For example, I could describe a bacterium in quantum mechanical terms. While quantum biology is a real discipline, writing down explicit equations with no approximations would be hellish because there are so many particle interactions going on. You choose your tools based on what is appropriate for your problem.

Something else usually left out of the discussion of econophysics is actually the most critical part of the field: how well does it work?

According to a quick snoop around Wikipedia, econophysics is good at explaining and modelling fat-tailed distributions (think 80-20 rule), which crop up everywhere in economics regardless of how big your data set is (this is called scale invariance). This is good - it's a demonstration that econophysics actually does work in some areas! At the same time, I'd be critical of that on a political level: when you frame issues as products of mathematical, immutable laws rather than consequences of policy, people become much more reluctant to do something about them. I can very easily see this being used to argue that gross wealth inequality arises from mathematics rather than from politics, for example.

I would like to stress that I'm not saying econophysics doesn't work. I am urging scepticism and restraint in using the theory. People's lives and livelihoods are too important to hype a theory to the stars without testing it to death first - and we know this. We've done this. Actually, we've done this all wrong by pushing neoclassical economics hard even as it failed again and again. We can't afford to make the same mistakes.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Twitter polls annoy me

Obligatory disclaimer: I'm not a statistician or a sociologist. My qualifications come from being a physics undergraduate, where I live and breathe error analysis in the lab, and also from reading around the subject. Finally, I use Twitter far too much; it's really just morbid fascination at this point. Oh well.

Last year, Twitter introduced polls as a thing you can add to your tweets. This was more likely than not done to poke Twitter into being vaguely profitable, since it's stagnant as hell.

Unfortunately, polls are only as good as the people making them and Twitter is a wretched hive. There have been some really good polls not used as polls - for example, a wacky choose-your-own-adventure romp which started with swiping left or right on a famous politician's Tinder profile - but Sturgeon's Law applies and most polls are...well...crappy.

"Why are Twitter polls so bad?" you might ask. Turns out that addressing the how instead of the why is far more useful (and also that Twitter polls can be surprisingly enlightening, but I'll address that later).

Twitter polls are not a good data collection tool if you want a sample reflecting the general population (this is really, really important when trying to collect data...well...about a general population). On the surface, this seems a little strange: Twitter polls made by people who don't lock their accounts are in theory visible to anyone on the planet, discounting censorware. Theoretically you'd be able to get a very large sample from a public poll - possibly larger than the samples used by outfits like YouGov (who have representative sample sizes of about 2000 per poll).

In practice, when was the last time you combed someone's account specifically to look for a poll, and happened to do that within days of the poll's creation? More likely you voted in a poll because someone you follow created it or retweeted it from someone else, and because you happened to be online when it showed up on your timeline.

Welcome to selection bias. Selection bias is when certain groups are over- or under-represented in your sample compared to their distribution in your target population (in my example, the general population - but if your target population was men and women over 50 and somehow you ended up with far more women in your sample than men, that's also selection bias). It's a complete pain when trying to assess how useful polls are (and to whom), and Twitter is rife with it.

I already mentioned time as an example of selection bias in Twitter polls - your sample will be drawn from people who were online and saw your poll during the time it was active. Language is a fairly obvious one. Who you follow and who the people who you're following happen to follow (try saying that quickly) are incredibly important, as this will determine the polls you participate in. Not just that - when you follow people, you generally have common interests, or share political opinions, or might already know each other in person...There are many, many more examples, but the point is this: the audience for a Twitter poll isn't random. It's very heavily self-selected. It's hardly reflective of the general population - only of the people answering those polls.

There are also problems in poll design. Twitter is pretty limited for only allowing you 4 options, but whatever - decent data collection is not really the goal of these polls. Many won't include a "don't know/none of the above" option. I know a lot of people see this as a "weak" option, but some people are genuinely dissatisfied or agnostic on the situation. Leaving out these folks can heavily skew your sample.

I'm going to quickly acknowledge the people who create polls with loaded questions or responses clearly biased in favour of one side or another. For data gathering, this is an utterly shitty method, both professionally and ethically (people who like to skew statistics push all my buttons). However, I'd wager that even people who have never bothered to read a single article on statistics know that they're not going to get good, unbiased data out of these polls; that's not what they want. They want to get themselves into a self-righteous circlejerk. It's a way of signalling affinity to a group and displaying virtue in a really perverse way.

I've now written about 700 words on why Twitter polls are bad. This is naive - in many ways they're actually pretty good.

Hang on, hang on - I've spent over 700 words slating Twitter polls and now I want to defend them?! What kind of indecisive bullshit is this?!

Twitter polls aren't necessarily representative of the entire population and are usually poorly designed, so for gauging the response of the general population, they're pretty rubbish. I have laboured this point. However, if you want to know about the people making and spreading the polls, they're great. You could make diagrams of poll-makers and the people who vote in or retweet the polls to work out the structure of a network and how it might relate to other networks. If you have other demographic information such as age or gender, that could augment a model.

(If you think this is creepy, a lot of this is publicly available information. It's not hiddden away.)

Twitter might not be great for telling you what the general population thinks, but it's definitely great for telling you how different groups clump together - and how much they interact with each other. That might not be the data poll-makers were trying to get - but it's important nonetheless.