The cold hard facts

When your Jeep spins lazily off the mountain road and slams backward into a snowbank, you don't worry immediately about the cold. Your first thought is that you've just dented your bumper. Your second is that you've failed to bring a shovel. Your third is that you'll be late for dinner. Friends are expecting you at their cabin around eight for a moonlight ski, a late dinner, a sauna. Nothing can keep you from that.
Driving out of town, defroster roaring, you barely noted the bank thermometer on the town square: minus 27 degrees at 6:36. The radio weather report warned of a deep mass of arctic air settling over the region. The man who took your money at the Conoco station shook his head at the register and said he wouldn't be going anywhere tonight if he were you. You smiled. A little chill never hurt anybody with enough fleece and a good four-wheel-drive.

Thus begins a chilling piece (at the exact moment I wrote that, the pun was not intended, but who will believe me?) on what it's like to freeze to death. This was written in 2004, but so much of the web is evergreen, hard as it is to hear above the ever cresting feed.

I thought of this when I went out for my first morning bike ride of the Bay Area fall/winter. This was an unusually warm summer, but the winter chill seemed to come overnight. I walked out the door of my apartment into the morning air and had to suppress the urge to cry. I turned right back around and went back in to don a snowsuit. Over time, my body will acclimate, but for now, it feels as if I'm wading out into a frozen tundra.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body's surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.
All you know is that you're burning. You claw off your shell and pile sweater and fling them away.
But then, in a final moment of clarity, you realize there's no stove, no cabin, no friends. You're lying alone in the bitter cold, naked from the waist up. You grasp your terrible misunderstanding, a whole series of misunderstandings, like a dream ratcheting into wrongness. You've shed your clothes, your car, your oil-heated house in town. Without this ingenious technology you're simply a delicate, tropical organism whose range is restricted to a narrow sunlit band that girds the earth at the equator.
And you've now ventured way beyond it.

Why weren't they grateful?

Robert Caro looks back on The Power Broker 40 years after it was published.

Why weren’t they grateful? As I recalled that Exedra scene in 1969, as I was trying to organize my book, I suddenly knew, all in a moment, that that question would be its last line. For the book would have to answer that very question, would have to answer the riddle posed by the Moses Men: How could there not be gratitude, immense gratitude, to the man who had dreamed a great dream — of Jones Beach and a dozen other great parks, and of parkways to reach them — and who to create them had fought, and won, an epic battle against Long Island’s seemingly invincible robber barons? How could there not be gratitude to the man who had built mighty Triborough, far-­stretching Verrazano, who had made possible Lincoln Center and the United Nations? And yet there were ample answers to that question. Did I think in that moment of Robert Moses’ racism — unashamed, unapologetic? Convinced that African-Americans were inherently “dirty,” and that they don’t like cold water (“They simply didn’t like swimming unless it was red hot,” he explained to me confidentially one day), he kept the water temperature deliberately frigid in pools, like the ones at Jones Beach and Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, that he didn’t want them to use. Did I think of the bridges he built that embodied racism in concrete? When he opened his Long Island parks during the 1930s, the only way for many poor people, particularly poor people of color, to reach them was by bus, so he built bridges over his parkways too low for buses to pass. Or of the “slum clearance” projects he built that seemingly created new slums as fast he was clearing the old, or of the public housing he placed in locations that cemented the division of New York by race and class? Did I think in that moment of the more than half a million people he dispossessed for his projects and expressways, using methods that led one observer to say that “he hounded them out like cattle”? Did I think of how he systematically starved New York’s subways and commuter lines for decades and blocked proposals to build new ones, exacerbating the region’s dependence on the automobile? I don’t remember exactly what I thought of when I remembered Robert Moses’ speech at the Exedra — only that in that moment, seeing the book’s last line, I suddenly saw the book whole, saw the shape of everything that would lead up to that line. I began organizing the book, the thoughts coming faster, I recall, than I could write. Over the next days, I outlined the book — in a quite detailed outline — from beginning to end. Some parts of what I wrote from the outline would later have to be truncated or cut out entirely so that the book could fit into one volume; aside from these deletions, “The Power Broker” as it was published follows that outline all the way through.

The New Yorker Story

This paragraph from Jonathan Franzen on the birth of the New Yorker story is spot on.

It was also in the fifties that “the New Yorker story” emerged, quite suddenly, as a distinct literary genus. What made a story New Yorker was its carefully wrought, many-comma’d prose; its long passages of physical description, the precision and the sobriety of which created a kind of negative emotional space, a suggestion of feeling without the naming of it; its well-educated white characters, who could be found experiencing the melancholies of affluence, the doldrums of suburban marriage, or the thrill or the desolation of adultery; and, above all, its signature style of ending, which was either elegantly oblique or frustratingly coy, depending on your taste. Outside the offices of The New Yorker, its fiction editors were rumored to routinely delete the final paragraph of any story accepted for publication.

Just hard enough

Jason Calacanis once asked Peter Thiel why Paypal produced so many great founders. What was it about Paypal? I loved Peter’s answer — Most people’s experiences with startups fall into one of two categories. Many work for startups that fail and learn that startups are impossible so they never try. Others work for startups like Google or Facebook and learn that startups are easy so they quit when it gets hard. Paypal was “just hard enough”. Early Paypal employees learned that startups are really hard, but it is still possible to succeed.

I don't know if that's true, but it sounds great. (source)


For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain, said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist with the company, outlining for the first time the emerging role of AI in search.
RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities -- called vectors -- that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.
RankBrain is one of the “hundreds” of signals that go into an algorithm that determines what results appear on a Google search page and where they are ranked, Corrado said. In the few months it has been deployed, RankBrain has become the third-most important signal contributing to the result of a search query, he said.
So far, RankBrain is living up to its AI hype. Google search engineers, who spend their days crafting the algorithms that underpin the search software, were asked to eyeball some pages and guess which they thought Google’s search engine technology would rank on top. While the humans guessed correctly 70 percent of the time, RankBrain had an 80 percent success rate.

More on RankBrain here.

Machine learning is advancing fast. At its best it feels a bit like magic, and it's endlessly malleable. Think it's missing something of importance? Add it as a factor, or tune it up.

I suspect in my lifetime we'll have machine learning so good it will be largely incomprehensible to me. That is, it won't be understandable by using analogies to how humans think because it will be its own form of intelligence.

Obama and Marilynne Robinson chat

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson had a conversation that appeared in the New York Review of Books. Here's Part II.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.
Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.
Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.
But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.
And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.
But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.
If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Que sera sera

Statisticians love to develop multiple ways of testing the same thing. If I want to decide whether two groups of people have significantly different IQs, I can run a t-test or a rank sum test or a bootstrap or a regression. You can argue about which of these is most appropriate, but I basically think that if the effect is really statistically significant and large enough to matter, it should emerge regardless of which test you use, as long as the test is reasonable and your sample isn’t tiny. An effect that appears when you use a parametric test but not a nonparametric test is probably not worth writing home about [2].
A similar lesson applies, I think, to first dates. When you’re attracted to someone, you overanalyze everything you say, spend extra time trying to look attractive, etc. But if your mutual attraction is really statistically significant and large enough to matter, it should emerge regardless of the exact circumstances of a single evening. If the shirt you wear can fundamentally alter whether someone is attracted to you, you probably shouldn’t be life partners.

A statistician argues you shouldn't be nervous on a first date. This sounds like math for “if it's meant to be, it will happen.”