Category Archives: Must watch or read

Why society cannot be put into equations by Pablo Jensen

My former colleague Boris advised me to read French book Pourquoi la société ne se laisse pas mettre en équations (Why society cannot be put into equations) and I must thank him for the advice 🙂

Author Pablo Jensen – his personal and wikipedia page will tell you more – is a physicist and his book tries to explain why equations in social sciences (even in physics by the way) may be tricky. Truth is a complicated topic. But whereas there is (some) truth in natural sciences which can always be revisited, the concept of truth in social sciences is even more difficult, just because the human behavior is full of feedback loops so that what is true today, not to say yesterday might be taken intro account to modify the future… If you read French, it is really interesting, if not, let’s hope for a translation soon.

As a really nice illustration of truth in physics, Jensen mentions how Galileo struggled with the mechanics of falling bodies [pages 42-5].

Source: Galileo’s notes on motion, Folio 116, Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence; Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza, Florence; Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Galileo never published his data as he did not understand why they looked wrong. The answer is a sliding ball does not have the same speed has a rolling one. Rotation absorbs a fraction of the energy (apparently √(5/7) or 0.84) which was close to Galileo’s apparent mistake.

Then Jensen reminds us of how difficult weather forecast and climate modification are (chapter 4). So when he jumps to social sciences, he is quite convincing about the reason why mathematical modeling may be a very challenging task. On a study about analyzing tweets to predict success, he writes the following: Le résultat de leur étude est clair: même si l’on connaît toutes les caractéristiques des messages et des utilisateurs, le succès reste largement imprévisible. Techniquement, seule 20% de la variabilité du succès des différents messages est expliquée par ce modèle, portant très complexe, et d’ailleurs incompréhensible, comme cela arrive souvent pour les méthodes utilisant l’apprentissage automatique. Il est intéressant de noter qu’on peut doubler le niveau de prédiction en ajoutant une seule variable supplémentaire. Il s’agit du succès passé de l’utilisateur. de son nombre moyen de retweets jusque-là. […] La vie sociale est intrinsèquement imprédictible, de par les fortes interactions entre les personnes. […] La masse des données permet d’opérationnaliser des vieux dictions comme “qui se ressemble s’assemble”, “dis-moi ce que tu lis, je te dirai qui tu es” et surtout “je suis qui je suis”. (The result of their study is clear: even if one knows all the characteristics of the messages and the users, the success remains largely unpredictable.Technically, only 20% of the variability of the success of the different messages is explained by this model, even if it is very complex, and in fact incomprehensible, as it happens often for the methods using machine learning. It is interesting to note that the prediction level can be doubled by adding a single additional variable. This is the past success of the userm through its average number of retweets so far. […] Social life is inherently unpredictable, because of the strong interactions between people. […] The mass of data makes it possible to operationalize old sayings such as “birds of a feather flock together”, “tell me what you read, I will tell you who you are” and especially “I am who I am” [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? [Chapter 12, Predict thanks to big data? Pages 150-3].

An even more striking example of the incomprehensible nature of machine learning is about image recognition: the best way to predict the presence of curtains in a room was to identify a foot in a bed. Just because most bedrooms had both [Pages 154-5]. Jensen also criticizes the ranking of universities and researchers (pages 246-53), a topic I had addressed in the past in La Crise et le Modèle Américain. In chapter 20, “are we social atoms?”, he adds that for human beings [Page 263]: “for now, we do not know internal characteristics which are both pertinent and stable” without which analyzing human beings as a group becomes problematic.

Already in Chapter 13, Jensen explains that there are four essential factors that make the simulations of society qualitatively more difficult than those of matter: the heterogeneity of humans; the lack of stability of anything; the many relationships to consider, both temporally and spatially; the reflexivity of humans, who react to the patterns of their activity. […] No single factor produces anything on its own […] In the social sciences, a dense network of causal conditions is needed to produce a result. […] There is no guarantee that the consequence of [one factor] will be the same in other situations than it will be combined with other causal factors. The only possible answer is “it depends”. [Pages 162-4]

To discuss the greater or lesser stability that can be expected from these internal characteristics, we must go back to their origin. For the physicists, the answer is clear: the origin of the forces between atoms is to be sought in the interactions between these really stable particles that are the nuclei and the electrons. […] The origin of human actions is at the heart of sociology. Its first intuition was to seek the determinants of practices not in the inner minds of people studied by psychology, nor in a universal human nature, but in social influences. [Page 264] The social world is more like a swirling fluid than neat combinations of bricks. […] Of course this image is too simple, because it neglects the memory, the strong viscosity of the social. But it shows the limits of the static vision of the economy or of social physics, which start from individuals already made, ready to function, to generate social life by association, under the impulse of their independent natures. [Page 270] Social life does not therefore consist of a series of discrete interactions as the formula or the simulations suppose. Rather, it must be conceived of as the result of the unfolding of relationships. The distinction between interaction and relationship is crucial, because the latter involves a series of interactions followed between people who know each other and keep the memory of past exchanges. In a relationship, each interaction is based on past interactions and will in turn influence those that will come. A relationship is not a simple sequence of one-off interactions, but a process of continuous creation, of the relationship and therefore of the people involved. [Page 271]

Jensen does not say society cannot be analyzed, qualitatively or quantitatively. He gives a subtle analysis of the complexity of society and social behaviors which we should always remember before accepting as facts often too simplistic analyses from big data…

Goomics (Part III) – About Patents

My final post about Goomics deals with Manu Cornet’s views on Patents. They are not that different from mine: I copied his view below (I hope he does not mind this limited copyright infringement) whereas you can read my slideshare contribution. You may also try to guess what invention Cornet’s is referring to and what is the Australian patent I use in my class. It was granted and then revoked, shoudl you be interested to know about it…

Goomics by Manu Cornet (Part II)

I’ve reached letter O of Goomics by Manu Cornet. (you can see my previous post about the book here). My favorite piece is at letter N for Nerds. I hope this author will not complain about my copying it here…

I agree with the author. That much for lousy jokes, but I love it. And a more serious one, the amazing growth of Google with its 4 CEOs.

Thanks a lot for the author for new contribution about Google.

Goomics by Manu Cornet

I must thank sincerely Nicolas for offering me today Goomics by Manu Cornet, subtitled Google’s corporate culture revealed through internal comics.

It looks great though I have read only the 1st two chapters (A is for Android and B is for Bonus). It is funny for sure if you know a little about Google.

It begins with a Foreword this way: “Forewords are boring. I never read them myself. Please go ahead and turn the page now.” I did not and was right not to! I think this may become another bestseller about Google… I might tell you more as I read it…

Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Part II)

Another short post following my initial one about Harari’s new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Harari is clearly a broad, deep and impressive thinker. Whereas I was a little concerned with his first chapters, the middle ones are great. I will give you a few example below. But first have a look at the subtitles of all these 21 lessons:

Part I: The Technological Challenge
1. DISILLUSIONMENT – The end of history has been postponed
2. WORK – When you grow up, you might not have a job
3. LIBERTY – Big Data is watching you
4. EQUALITY – Those who own the data own the future

Part II: The Political Challenge
5. COMMUNITY – Humans have bodies
6. CIVILISATION – There is just one civilisation in the world
7. NATIONALISM – Global problems need global answers
8. RELIGION – God now serves the nation
9. IMMIGRATION – Some cultures might be better than others

Part III: Despair and Hope
10. TERRORISM – Don’t panic
11. WAR – Never underestimate human stupidity
12. HUMILITY – You are not the centre of the world
13. GOD – Don’t take the name of God in vain
14. SECULARISM – Acknowledge your shadow

Part IV: Truth
15. IGNORANCE – You know less than you think
16. JUSTICE – Our sense of justice might be out of date
17. POST-TRUTH – Some fake news lasts for ever
18. SCIENCE FICTION – The future is not what you see in the movies

Part V: Resilience
19. EDUCATION – Change is the only constant
20. MEANING – Life is not a story
21. MEDITATION – Just observe

In his 14th chapter, secularism, he uses a few keywords which are very enlighting. If puzzling for you, you will need to read his book. Secularism is defined by a coherent set of values: truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsability [Pages 203-14]. In his next chapter, Ignorance, he has a very interesting analysis of power and truth: It is extremely hard to discover the truth when you are ruling the world. You are just too busy. Most political chiefs and business moguls are forever on the run. Yet if you want to go deeply into any subject, you need a lot of time, and in particular you need the privilege of wasting time. You need to experiment with unproductive paths, to explore dead ends, to make space for doubts and boredom. If you cannot afford to waste time – you will never find the truth. […] You need to waste a lot of time on the periphery – they may contain some brillinat revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories. Leaders are thus trapped in a double bind. If they stay in the centre of power, they will have an extremely distorted vision of the world. If they venture to the margins, they will waste too much of their precious time. [Pages 220-2]

Grigori Perelman according to Masha Gessen

I had mentioned Grigori Perelman in a rather old post: 7 x 7 = (7-1) x (7+1) + 1. I discovered recently a new book about this exceptional mathematician, not so much about his achievements but more about his personality.

About Asperger’s Syndrome

I will not tell much Perelman here, Masha Gessen does it with talent. Let me just translate here form the French version I am reading: “It seems to me that many of the whistleblowers,” wrote Atwwod, “have Asperger’s Syndrome, I’ve met several who have applied the code of ethics of their company or government to their work and have reported wrongdoing and corruption in the workplace. All of them were surprised to see that their management and their colleagues did not understand their attitude. ”
So it is perhaps not a coincidence that the founders of dissident movements in the Soviet Union were among mathematicians and physicists. The Soviet Union was not the place for people who took things literally and expected the world to work in a predictable, logical and fair way.
[Pages 215-6, French edition]
One can also interpret the difficulties he experienced when he presented his solutions. If Perelman was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome, this inability to see “the big picture” is perhaps one of the most surprising traits. British psychologists Uta Frith and Francesca Happe talked about what they call the “low central coherence” characteristic of autism spectrum disorders. Autistics focus on details, to the detriment of the overall picture. When they manage to reconstitute it, it is because they have arranged the various elements, a little like the elements of the periodic table, in a systemic scheme that satisfies them to the extreme. “… the most interesting facts, wrote Poincaré, one of the greatest systematizing minds of all time, more than a century ago, are those who can be used many times, those who have a chance to happen many times. We have had the good fortune to be born in a world where there is are many; suppose that instead of sixty chemical elements we have sixty billion, that they are not common ones and rare ones, but they would be evenly distributed, so every time we pick up a new pebble, there would be a high probability that it would be made up of some unknown substances… […] In such a world, there would be no no science, perhaps no thought and even life would be impossible because evolution could not have developed the conservative instincts; thanks to God it is not so.”
People with Asperger’s syndrome apprehend the small pebble world by small pebble. Speaking of the existence of this syndrome in society, Attwood resorted to the metaphor of a five thousand-piece puzzle, “where normal people would have the full image on the lid” which would allow them to have global intuitions. Aspergers, they would not see this big picture and should try to nest the pieces one by one. So maybe rules like “never take off your hat” and 2lis all the books that are on the list “formed for Gricha Perelman a way to see the missing image on the lid, to encompass all the elements of the periodic table of the world It was only by clinging to these rules that he could live his life.
[Pages 217-8, French edition]

About power

Another interesting topic addressed by Misha Gessen is on page 236 of the French edition again:
– When he received the letter from the commission that invited him he replied that he did not speak with committees, said Gromov, and that is exactly what he did. They represent everything that one should never accept. And if this attitude seems extreme, it is only in relation to the conformism that characterizes the world of mathematics.
– But why refuse to talk to committees?
– We do not talk to committees, we talk to people! exclaimed Gromov, exasperated. How can we talk to a committee? Who knows who is on the committee? Who tells you that Yasser Arafat is not one of them?
– But he was sent the list of members, and he continued to refuse.
– The way it started, he was right not to answer, Gromov persisted. As soon as a community begins to behave like a machine, all that remains to do is to cut ties, and that’s all. The strangest thing is that there is no longer a mathematician who does the same. That’s what’s weird. Most people agree to deal with committees. They agree to go to Beijing and receive a prize from President Mao. Or the king of Spain, anyway, it’s the same!
– And why, I asked, could not the King of Spain have the honor of hanging a medal around Perelman’s neck?
– What is a king? Gromov asked, totally furious now. Kings are the same morons as the Communists. Why would a king award a medal to a mathematician? What allows it? It is nothing from a mathematical point of view. Same for the president. But there is one who has taken control of power like a thief and the other who inherited it from his father. It does not make any difference.
Unlike them, Gromov explains to me, Perelman had made a real contribution to the world.

It reminds me of a colleague’s quote: “There are not many statues for committees in public parks.”

It’s also worth mentioning here an article from the New Yorker that Gessen mentions too: Manifold Destiny. A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. On a related topic, the authors quote Perelman whom they met: He mentioned a dispute that he had had years earlier with a collaborator over how to credit the author of a particular proof, and said that he was dismayed by the discipline’s lax ethics. “It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens,” he said. “It is people like me who are isolated.” We asked him whether he had read Cao and Zhu’s paper. “It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make,” he said. “Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.” As for Yau, Perelman said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse . Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.”

Harari is already back! 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

When I saw Harari‘s third book, I had some concerns. Could he write another great book after amazing Sapiens but less good Homo Deus. And why so fast?

Indeed the first part of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is scary not to say very bad. It is full of anxiety and I am not sure it is based on facts or even truth like his previous books… Indeed this first part is even misleading because when I read “Sapiens explored the past, Homo Deus explored the future and 21 lessons explores the present” on the book cover, I discovered the first part is about the possible scary future based on artificial intelligence and biotechnologies. But this is the future, not the present.

Fortunately, I recovered the Harari I like in the beginning of part II. In chapter 5, Community, he shows that we are real, physical beings, not virtual, augmented ones. In chapter 6, Civilization, he fights against the concept of clash of civilizations. “There is one civilization in the world” is the subtitle. So let me just quote Harari here [Pages 94-5]

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from the small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power in building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes. Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla- like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organizing themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterized chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.
You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organized themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course, the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago or 5,000 years ago?

Humor and bureaucracy (Part II)

This is the second and final part of an unusual post topic, humor and bureaucracy. See part I if you missed it.

The author has a comment in the end, which is interesting. ‘The problem with you is that you refuse to take anything seriously – not Communism, not me… Not even yourself.’ ‘That’s true,’ I said ‘but I take not taking anything seriously very seriously.’ [Page 307]

´The Communist economy was very bad at producing everything – except jokes. They were very good at jokes.´ [Page 222]

Many Communist jokes were adapted into ones referring to the shortcomings of Western economies. ´Why does an Austin Allegro have a heated rear window? So you can keep your hands warm when you push it’. [Page 300]

How does a clever Russian Jew talk to a stupid Russian Jew?
by telephone from new York.
[Page 211]

What is the definition of a Russian string quartet?
A Soviet orchestra back from a US tour.
[Page 212]

Do you know why Romania will survive the end of the world?
Because it is fifty years behind everyone else! [Page 263]

My favorite one follows…

Leonid Brezhnev wanted to commission a portrait to be entitled ´Lenin in Poland’. Russian painters, being schooled strictly in the Realist school, were unable to paint an event that had never actually occurred,
´Comrade Brezhnev, we would like to do it, but we cannot. It goes against our training,´ replied each of the man artists approached by Brezhnev. Finally, in desperation, Brezhnev was forced to ask the old Jewish painter Levy.
´of course, I prefer to portray actual events, but I’ll do the painting for you, Comrade. It would be my great honour.´ Levy commenced work on the painting.
Finally the day of the unveiling arrived. Everyone gasped as the cloth was removed to reveal the picture of a man in bed with a woman who looked like Lenin’s wife.
Brezhnev asked, horrified, ´Who is that man?
´That’s Trotsky said the artist.
´And who,´ Brezhnev enquired, is that woman?´
´That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.´
´But where is Lenin?´
´He’s in Poland,´ Levy explained.

[Page 207]

Now you may want to explore your favorite ones…

Why did Aaron Swartz die?

As a follow-up of my previous post Aaron Swartz – The Idealist, here are a few additional notes from this very moving and intelligent book.

So why did he die? You must read the book. But here is a sentence close to the end [page 268]: “Swartz saw things differently, and, indeed, devoted much of his life to the notion that the only way that the world ever improved was by allowing people to open things up. This notion […] is Swartz’s legacy. It is also his challenge to the world he left behind.”

Corporations continue to deploy law and rhetoric to combat the situational ethics of unauthorized downloading, to argue that copyright is a zero-sum game. Conflicts recur. The actors may change, but the script remains the same. [Page 271]

A surprising argument is against Apple and Steve Jobs: Swartz depicted Apple as “a ruthless, authoritarian organization” that flouted labor standards and Jobs himself as a martinet who insisted on controlling every aspect of the user experience. His megalomania manifested in Apple’s portable music players: sterile white rectangles that could be neither opened nor modified by the end user. “Jobs couldn’t abide people opening things”. [Page 267]

A stronger quote taken from Swartz’s blog: Since power over human beings is shown in making them do what they would rather not do, the man who is actuated by love of power is more apt to inflict pain than to permit pleasure. If you ask your boss for leave of absence from the office on some legitimate occasion, his love of power will derive more satisfaction from a refusal than from a consent. If you require a building permit, the petty official concerned will obviously get more pleasure from saying «No» than from saying «Yes». It is this sort of thing which makes the love of power such a dangerous motive. — Bertrand Russell [Page 254]

Peters would like to have a balanced view of the situation: Property holders are but one party to the social contract. That is supposed to govern our polity, and their interests are not the only ones that matter. There is a middle ground between functionally eternal copyright and wholesale anarcho-syndicalism. [Page 268]

Advice to young (and old) people by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba

Thanks to my dear colleagues for mentioning to me this moving, inspiring interview from Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba. He is giving advice to people from any age related to work and entrepreneurship.

If you’re 25 years old, do not worry, any mistake is an income.

Before 20 years old, be a good student.
Before 30 years old, follow somebody. Go to a small company, you learn the passion, you learn to dream. It’s not which company you go, it’s which boss you follow.
Between 30 and 40 years old, work for yourself. Time to be an entrepreneur.
Between 40 and 50 years old, do the thing you are good at. It’s too late to do something new.
When you are 50 to 60 years old, work for the young people.
When you are over 60, spend time for yourself. Go to the beach!

But when you are 25, make enough mistakes. You fall, you stand up, you fall, you stand up.