Grab bag

Sorry for the long delay; I’m recovering from a cold. Thankfully, nothing like my Canadian-muskox-strength cold in October, but still enough to keep my brain out of service for most of the week. On the positive side, I now have a week’s worth of websurfing to share with you.

What’s as fast-paced as Tetris or Pac-Man, playable for free on the web, and willing to tell you whether you harbor hidden biases against blacks, gays, women, or Jews? Why, the Implicit Association Test, developed by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji, Tony Greenwald, and Brian Nosek. If you haven’t played it yet, do so now — it’s fun! Do you take longer to match African-American faces with words like “peace,” “love,” and “wonderful” and Caucasian faces with words like “bad,” “awful,” and “horrible” than vice versa? Yes, if you’re like 88% of white Americans and — interestingly — 48% of black Americans. (Philip Tetlock, quoted in this Washington Post article, comments that “we’ve come a long way from Selma, Alabama, if we have to calibrate prejudice in milliseconds.”) While I’m ashamed to be part of that 88% statistic, I’m also relieved that, even at an involuntary, subconsious level, I apparently harbor no bias at all against Asian-Americans or gays.

While browsing Wikipedia (Earth’s largest procrastination resource), I came across the following “Freedom House” world map, which labels each country as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free” depending on how it scores on various indices of voting rights, free speech, etc.


I have one beef with this map: I think there should be a little red dot over Berkeley, California.

On an equally important note, while reading the Wikipedia entry for bear (don’t ask), I came across my favorite paragraph in the whole encyclopedia:

In a chance encounter with a bear, the best course of action is usually to back away slowly in the direction that you came. The bear will rarely become aggressive and approach you. In order to protect yourself, some suggest passively lying on the ground and waiting for the bear to lose interest. Another approach is to constantly maintain an obstacle between you and the bear, such as a thick tree or boulder. A person is much more agile and quick than a bear allowing him or her to respond to a bear’s clockwise or counter-clockwise movement around the obstacle and move accordingly. The bear’s frustration will eventually cause disinterest. One can then move away from the bear to a new obstacle and continue this until he or she has created a safe distance from the bear.

Lastly, Reuters reports on an interview in which Bill Gates discusses why he hates being so rich. My mom tells me that, when I visit Microsoft Research a few weeks from now, I should help ease Gates’s burden by demanding immediate reimbursement for my travel expenses.

16 Responses to “Grab bag”

  1. Mom Says:

    Why not be even nicer to Mr. Gates and ask for an honorarium? $500 sounds reasonable!

  2. Scott Says:

    No, I don’t want to bankrupt him…

  3. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    What are you going to talk about at MS research Scott?

  4. Scott Says:

    I actually don’t know if they’ll want me to talk at MS. I’ll mostly be in Seattle for STOC, and then to hang out with fellow blogger Dave Bacon at U. of Washington (where I will be giving a talk on the learnability of quantum states).

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Bill Gates doesn’t believe in Quantum Computing.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    It’s true that Bill Gates has said some discouraging things about Quantum Computing, but Scott is going to change Bill’s mind. The Holy Grail of Quantum Computing will be won over by Sir Aaronsoncelot

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Actually, I think it could be done. Convincing Bill Gates that Quantum Computing matters. Bill Gates is a huge fan [1], [2] of Bayesian Networks. If Scott could convince Mr. B. that Complexity Theory + Quantum Computing + Bayesian Networks can fly (and pigs too)

  8. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Cool! Learnability of quantum states must become a hot topic when quantum computers are more common. Like classical learning theory is now. You are really far sighted and laying foundations for future:)

  9. Anonymous Says:

    scott, the explanation for your prejudices (as judged by the IAT) is simple: you have been exposed more in your life to gays and asians than blacks. you have more gay friends and asian friends than black friends. it’s not a surprising outcome.

  10. Scott Says:

    Yes, I agree that that’s probably the right explanation.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for the link to that prejudice test site, but I thought it was ridiculous. In all four tests I took it showed I had a moderate (1 time) or strong (3 times) preference for the first association they tested. This wasn’t too surprising when it said I prefered young people to old people and Jefferson to Bush. But when it said I had a strong preference for black people and for fat people, it seemed a little surprising seeing as how I’m white and kind of thin and think of myself as having a preference for thin people.

    In my case, I found it pretty easy to get used to the first task, but when the second came, I had to unlearn everything I just learned, and it required real concentration. It seems like they need to take this unlearning effect into account, but its degree must vary a lot from one person to the next. So I can’t really have much confidence in what the study says.

    It is interesting that in the first two tests, I filled out the personal data questionaire, and the first discrimination task was to test agreement with what you might expect of someone with my data. For the next two tests, I stopped answering the questionaire, and then the first task was to test the opposite of what you’d expect from someone like me.

    It would be interesting to hear if the verdicts for other people correlate with which part was tested first and if which part is tested first correlates with the personal data people enter.

  12. Osias Says:

    Uh… Brazil is as green as USA? :S

  13. Scott Says:

    Osias: If you look at the detailed country report, Brazil scored 2 on political rights and 3 on civil liberties, compared to 1 and 1 for the US (1 being best). Maybe they should’ve used more than three colors. :)

  14. JesseM Says:

    That implicit associations test seemed pretty iffy to me. On my first try I tended to match expectations of preferring young to old, white to black, etc. But if I tried again while keeping in the back of my mind positive images of old/black people and negative images of young/white people, I got the opposite result. I think the experiment is mostly just showing the power of suggestion.

  15. Andy D Says:

    The test was discussed in M. Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, where he relayed that implicit attitudes have been found generally pretty robust to suggestion, but with exceptions: e.g., priming with pictures of black Olympic athletes could shift results.

    Not an endorsement of the book, though it’s an entertaining bookstore skim.

  16. Osias Says:

    Thanks, Scott. I’ve made a quick read on the coutry report, and I can say it’s sadly all true.

    With so many problems here, I am ashamed of even thinking about P versus NP question… :(