Fixing VirtIO Code 39

I’m recording this here in case anyone else is unfortunate enough to encounter this Code 39 message, and so that she can avoid wasting several hours of her life attempting to fix it, by instead Googling it and reading this.

Alas, it’s too late for me.

If you’re attempting to install Red Hat’s VirtIO drivers onto a virtualized Windows box, and the whole thing seems to go okay, but then you receive the message “Windows cannot load the device driver for this hardware. The driver may be corrupted or missing (Code 39),” at which point, the device doesn’t work, and you have to remove the driver and do the entire thing over again…

Well, it’s because you’re installing the wrong VirtIO version. If you’re on a Windows Server 2008 R2 box like me, and you’re thinking “Oh, I’ll use the drivers in the Win8 folder, because their aren’t any drivers explicitly for 2008 server,” you have gone astray. Windows Server 2008 R2 uses the Windows 7 drivers, not 8.

It would be nice if, you know, Windows would tell you this, instead of giving you this less-than-helpful-to-put-it-politely message, but it’s not like people pay them for this software or anything, so what do you really expect? Or, uh, wait.

Born to Run Book Review and Summary


I’m training for a half-marathon. As someone not terribly athletically gifted, it’s been slow-going. Since I was going to spend the 4th of July weekend on the beach, electronically-secluded, I picked up a dead-tree copy of the book, Born to Run.

I’ve seen a lot of people transformed into, well, the sort of runners that run with religious fervor after reading this book and I thought, hey, if it worked for them, maybe it’d work for me.

Long-time readers will note that this is far from my first post on reading, although I don’t have copious direct quotes, like I’ve had in the past. I plan for this to be the first in a very long tradition of reviewing books, so stay tuned for more.

A brief summary of Born to Run

Born to Run’s sub-heading is “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” and, as a rare example of truth in advertising, this is sorta what the book is about.

The book documents Christopher McDougall’s (the author) fascination with  ultramarathoning — you know, those, uh, eccentric individuals who aren’t  content to run marathons, and instead run 50 or even 100 mile races, the equivalent of four back to back marathons.

These are the superathletes mentioned in “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen” — distinguished ultramarathoners like Micah True and Scott Jurek.

And then there’s the hidden tribe part. The author’s ultramarathoning fetish leads him to a semi-mystical people known as the Tarahumara, a Native American people who live in the sheltered depths of Northwestern Mexico. And they drink pinole, which is like water and toasted corn. Which the author thinks is oh-my-god-so-amazing. But I’m pretty sure there’s a reason it hasn’t caught on in the United States and that reason is that it tastes horrible.

What’s most notable about the Tarahumara is that they’ve developed a culture around ultrarunning, sometimes running more than 200 miles in one session. Or like 7.6 back to back marathons. Oh, and did I mention that hallucinations are extremely common among ultramarathons during a race? Yeah. The Tarahumara’s name for themselves, Rarámuri, even translates to “those who run fast.”

This tradition, plus the mysterious and insular nature of the Tarahumara, well,  it was Scarlett-Johansson-level-irresistible to Christopher McDougall, so he decided to track the people down.

Except they didn’t want anything to do with him.

So Chris hunts down this other dude, Caballo Blanco aka Micah True, who tells him that he’s trying to organize a race. And not just any race. He’s going to organize a race between these reclusive Native American runners and the best American ultrarunners.

Oh, and Chris is going to run it, too. Gonzo-style, he’s going to insert himself into the action and then write it up.

This is mostly what the book is about, plus:
* Descriptions of past races Tarahumara have run against outsiders
* Gratuitous ranting against “big footwear” and how barefoot running is divine truth
* And a chapter on persistence hunting — chasing something down until it collapses from exhaustion — and how humans were literally born to run (and our running ability explains our evolutionary success, and maybe even math, but prahhhhhhh-bably not, if you ask me)

Born to Run Book Review

Endurance running hypothesis


I found, and this is reveals more about me than about the book, the chapter on human evolution and the role that running played in our collective success to be the most interesting.

The author argues, fairly persuasively, that humans — you and me — were born to run. That running is our birthright. That humans are to running as rabbits are to hopping.

The basic idea is that humans are more efficient at cooling off than, say, antelope and even cheetahs. We may not be as fast as either, but we can maintain a fast enough pace for a long enough time that humans can run animals to death. They’re sprinters. We’re marathoners.

This is the reason, the author argues, that humans out-competed neanderthals and why leaving the trees and standing tall was an advantage. The book even makes the point that the only reason that marathon running is so popular is because it’s hardwired into humans — recreation reveals something about the ancestral environment, basically.

This notion that we humans succeeded because of our endurance has been dubbed “the endurance running hypothesis.”

Now, whether this is true, I have some doubts. Certainly humans are capable of persistence hunting but, as far as I can tell, very few extant primitive peoples actually do any persistence hunting, instead preferring to farm, forage, or hunt-without-running-stuff-to-death. Maybe this is a side-effect of modernity, I don’t know.

However, even if early humans didn’t race deer until the deer collapsed, it still sounds pretty reasonable to posit that humans would jog from place to place. This is what we see, as far as I know, in some African countries.

So, altogether, I suspect the notion that running is a human universal and core part of our shared identity is more true than false.

Barefoot running

Parts of the book read like an extended advertisement for barefoot running — except I’m not sure what there is to sell about barefoot running. Maybe the author is short Nike stock or something.

But, really, these are the most distracting and annoying bits of the book. The author has found religion, and it’s barefoot running. Okay. I got it the first time. Maybe he could have mentioned it twice. Twice is alright. Maybe someone missed it the first time.

Or, hell, just break the barefoot running bits into their own chapter. That might be okay, too, but, as it is, it’s just scattered throughout the text, and not very subtle either. Like if some star athlete enters the narrative, you know how you’re going to know that he doesn’t wear shoes? Or that he suffered literally worse than Hitler level injuries and then switched to barefoot and oh-my-god, they’ve disappeared? Don’t worry, ‘cos the author’s going to tell you.

But, I mean, maybe the guy has a point — shouldn’t we have a strong prior that evolution didn’t mess up something as basic as feet? It seems reasonable to me, except that now we walk on concrete, which isn’t present in the ancestral environment. But that’s not really strong counter-evidence because, as far as I know, we don’t have any evidence that shoes are that great. Plus I think we should have a pretty fucking serious barefoot prior.

So even if we did have evidence for shoes, we should still be like, “Yeah, but evolution. Checkmate, shoe-wearers.”

So maybe the author is right, but this is still the most annoying part of the book.

annoying-and-right### Positive stuff

The book is very well-written. I don’t know how much you can really say about a 100-mile race, but the author manages to make the sections describing ultra-marathons not only entertaining, but compelling — who’s going to win? Will they get injured, or not?

In fact, the author sometimes pushes too far in that direction, to the point where I have to expect exaggeration: was so-and-so really that attractive? Or is Mexico really that dangerous?

But, on the whole, the author’s enthusiasm for the sport is infectious, and I find myself with something new that I’d like to do before death takes me: run an ultramarathon. (But, given that I can barely run for 5 minutes without stopping, it’s going to be a while.)

Should you read this book?

There are a few groups of people that I feel confident recommending this to. You should read this book if:

  • You’re already someone who self-identifies as a runner.
  • You would like to be more enthusiastic about running.
  • You don’t have a regular exercise routine.

Originally, I was going to just recommend this to people in the first two groups but, on reflection, those in the last group have the most potential upside. Maybe you get hooked on running and, as a result, you don’t get heart disease. That seems like a pretty big win. Exercise in general is a big win, and maybe you’re just not inspired. Sounds reasonable. Maybe this book is the one that sets you on your Destined Path as an ultramarathoner.

Hell, the first time I realized that I could be an active person was while reading a biography of Bobby Fischer, of all people, who was apparently quite the sportsman, you know, physically, as well as on the chessboard.

Those are the people who will really benefit from reading this. Or maybe if you’re one of those people who enjoys the writing style that is best-selling non-fiction. I don’t know who you are, but I know you’re out there.

I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the book was a good purchase: the tips I picked up on proper running posture were worth the sticker price alone. The entertainment, additional enthusiasm for the sport, and interesting facts were really just surplus value after that.

So, if you want to pick up a copy, or read more reviews, check it out on Amazon.

Web Roundup: Links For July


Pareto Principle Examples and History

Economics consists of theoretical laws which nobody has verified and of empirical laws which nobody can explain.
—Michal Kalecki

For a very long time, the Pareto law has lumbered the economic scene like an erratic block on the landscape; an empirical law which nobody can explain.
—Josef Steindl

In the book that I’ve been writing on keeping up in the information age (subscribe via email to receive a copy when it’s finished), I’ve touched on both Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”) and the Pareto principle, as part of a section on filtering information. But I needed a good example. So here we are.

The main idea behind the Pareto principle, sometimes called the 80-20 rule, is that 80% of the effect of something comes from 20% of the cause. Or more broadly, it’s the principle of the “vital few and trivial many.” A few things make most of the difference.

example-of-pareto-principleOh, and, by the way, if this is the first time you’ve been exposed to this concept, the amount of value you’ll get out of having it in your cognitive toolkit is, well, to quote the Beastie Boys, “it’s wack,” yo. I suspect the Pareto principle obeys the Pareto principle — that is, you can get 80% cognitive value out of 20% of concepts, and the Pareto principle is one of those 20%.

So, consider dating, for instance. (Relevant given the continued popularity of my earlier post on prolonged eye contact.)

When it comes to dating, considering the Pareto principle, we should expect that 80% of the value of all dating advice, techniques, etc. can be had from only 20% of the tips. And I think this is true. In fact, I’m pretty confident that all dating wisdom can be boiled down to six words: approach more of the opposite sex, or maybe just two: approach more.

(In fact, I think you could model relationships satisfactorily via Markov processes, but that’s a separate post.)

Real Examples of the Pareto Principle

So, okay, right, now you know what the Pareto principle is all about, which brings me to my main motivation for writing this, which is: what’s a cool empirical example of the Pareto principle in action? The dating example is okay, but it’s also more-or-less fabricated from whatever imagination is made out of.

Empirical is perhaps the wrong word. What we want are examples with rigor. Maybe we actually live in some bizarre world where there’s a 1:1 correspondence between the value you get out of dating advice and the amount you read, such that 80% of the advice gives 80% of the value.

Or maybe we live in a world where the more you know about dating, the more valuable the next piece you learn becomes — since you have more context or something. In that case, the last 20% might be worth 80% of the value, via some clearly Satanic reverse Pareto principle.

So, real examples.

  • Wikipedia would have you believe that the Pareto principle was born during Vilfredo Pareto’s study of Italian landowners — 20% of them owned 80% of the land.

  • The article alternatively suggest that it stemmed out of the study of pea pods — that Pareto noticed 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas.

Which of these is true? Probably neither.

Looking past this deep seated and shocking inequality in the pea kingdom, the reality of the discovery of the Pareto principle is not so clear cut. The principle itself was not so much the discovery of Pareto, but Joseph Juran, who repurposed some of Pareto’s ideas. He writes about this in a 1975 paper, “The non-Pareto principle; mea culpa”:

The Pareto principle as a universal was not original with Pareto.

Where then did the universal originate? To my knowledge, the first exposition was by myself. Had I been structured along different lines, assuredly I would have called it the Juran principle. However, I was not structured that way. Yet I did need a shorthand designation, and I had no qualms about Pareto’s name. Hence the Pareto principle.

More examples:

Which makes me wonder: could you get 80% of the value of this article by reading 20% of the words?

Tiger Petting, Not That Dangerous

I was not designed to be forced.
—Henry David Thoreau, On the Duty of Civil Disobedience

I’m going to run for president, and I’ve found my platform. (Note that this post follows in the very very long tradition of guy complaining on a blog.)

New York bureaucrats (I prefer the more technical term, “human trash”) have passed a bill banning “hugging, patting, or otherwise touching tigers at fairs or circuses.” Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who proposed the bill, explained that her goal was to increase safety.

Oh, and it’s going to kill off all of these great pictures:

…which one intrepid Tumblrizen has been collecting from the dating app Tinder. This, too, I understand was, if not an explicit goal of the legislature, an unexpected “benefit.” Of course, infringing on the tiger-patting liberties of the populace is a very dubious sort of benefit, but this doesn’t prevent our popularly elected nannies from relishing it all the same: The Washington Post reports that one of the assemblywoman’s staffers joked, “I feel bad now. We’re killing bros’ dreams and chances of being laid!”

Before I tear into this one, note that 1) everyone who voted for this bill should be, if not hanged, barred from public office forevermore and 2) the governor has not yet signed it into law.

Wherein we calculate tiger petting risks

The internet’s reaction has been to repeatedly make the same lame joke: “…you’ve eliminated yet another way for Mother Nature to eliminate dumbasses from the planet.”

But I would like to paint you a different picture, one where people learn to distinguish minuscule from real risks and to avoid scope insensitivity. Guys who manage to set themselves apart in a hypercompetitve dating market by posing with tigers are not bros or dumbasses, but creative geniuses. Or, at least, sorta clever.

Especially when they are in what is, to a first approximation, zero danger.

There are somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 tigers in the United States right now, a small subset of which are public zoo tigers. Many more are private property, owned by circuses, fairs, eccentric people, or small guy-with-a-backyard-full-of-cages level private zoos.

To make this as convincing as possible, we’ll assume the lower bound: there are a mere 5,000 tigers within the United States.

Now, how often does someone pet, pose with, or otherwise touch one of these beasts? Well, it’s hard to say for certain, but we can say something about it. It’s got to be higher than zero, ever — we have the photos after all. On the other hand, the average tiger is probably not being touched 1000 times per day, so that’s an upper bound.

As a conservative estimate, it seems reasonable (at least to me) that the average tiger might “hugged, patted, or otherwise touched” once a month. Sure, there are some unfriendly ones that no one touches, and others on the circus circuit who are very friendly, but the average tiger, at least once a month someone pats him on the head or whatever.

Round that down to 10, and we receive a lower bound of 50,000 tiger petting incidents in the United States per year.

Now, how often is someone killed in the United States by a tiger? Over the last 23 years, there have been a total of 15 tiger-related fatalities, if we generously count ligers as tigers — .7 tiger fatalities per year.

I’ll also note that during the last 23 years, there have been zero tiger-related fatalities in New York. In fact, I can only find 1 New York tiger fatality on record, and that was a 1985 death of a zookeeper, something this new law would not have prevented. It’s unclear what tiger attack epidemic, exactly, this new law is supposed to be preventing.

Indeed, only one person has ever been killed as a direct result of posing with a tiger, at least in the last 23 years — a 17 year old volunteer in Kansas.

So, if you believe that there are at least 50,000 tiger petting incidents in the United States per year, then, your risk of dying from petting a tiger is about 1 in 70,000. And remember this is a lower bound. (Although note that your chances of being somehow harmed by a tiger are higher, probably by about a factor of 5 to 10, but fatality rates are easier to compare.)

In which I compare tiger risks to other risks

But 1 in 70,000 is just a number. What is about as risky as tiger-related death as a result of petting?

The odds of dying from touching a tiger are about the same as:

Petting a tiger is less risky than:

So go forth, pet tigers, hold snakes, skydive. Don’t smoke or deal any crack — there’s a lot to live for: I know I for one am looking forward to Rage Against the Machine’s next single, “Fuck you, I’m petting that tiger.”

Results From The First Split Test

Measuring gives you a leg up on experts who are too good to measure.
—Walter Bright

If you’ve been following along via email (and if not, you should be: subscribe here), you understand that my current philosophy of site growth is to focus on long-term readers. Social traffic is easy to obtain, but oh-so-fleeting. By concentrating on returning visitors, I can build a sort of relationship with you, the gentle reader, and focus on consistent, steady growth, instead of the occasional dizzying flurry of activity when something takes off on Reddit. (Plus repeated interaction makes people nicer.)

Not that there’s anything wrong with these flurries of social traffic. They’re sort of like steroid injections. They keep the site strong but, at anything except the most unreasonable levels of abuse (Mike Tyson anyone?), the bulk of performance is the result of typical training activities.

Or something. Not my best metaphor ever.

As I see it, there are two ways that readers consistently engage with a site’s content: via an email subscription or an RSS feed. Well, okay, maybe two was a lie. I bet there are at least six: Those two just mentioned, people who follow the site via Twitter, those depraved individuals who have adopted the strategy of visit-once-in-a-while-and-refresh, and so on.

But primarily, there are the two means: RSS and email. And people, thus far anyways, engage a lot more with email than with RSS, plus some dozen-ish other benefits: Much better analytics, I can make emails a bit more personal, I can assume that email subscribers have a bit better idea of who I am and what I’m about, and so on. RSS feeds are more limited.

So, in pursuit of this goal of converting strangers into friends, I’m running a series of split (“AB”) tests to see whether different site changes improve the rate at which people subscribe via email. The basic idea: some people see one version of the site, other people see another. After I’ve gathered enough data, I should have a pretty rigorous idea about which is better.

And, given that we’re all good empiricists here (as I mentioned before), with a firm belief in the virtue of actually, you know, testing our beliefs, AB testing is like the bare minimum we ought to be doing in order to persuade ourselves that we’re not fit to be crowned the king of hypocrites.

The First Test

The popular wisdom, that I’ve had shunted into my brain via Patrick McKenzie’s podcasts (recommended) is that you ought to trade an incentive for someone’s email. I figure there are two ways to frame it: one is sorta predatory, like putting some cheese beneath a box propped up by a stick and catching an angry badger, or the more noble way of thinking about it, which is as a free exchange of value between parties. You receive updates and other valuables, I get an email address.

Or maybe it’s more like when your mom would promise a trip to the toy store if you’d just swallow some damn cold medicine.

So, anyways, on the heels of the success of the 100+ Interesting Data Sets For Statistics post, which is the most popular thing I’ve yet to write, I figured, hey, maybe the bad drawings resonated with people. I will promise people some more of those if they sign up.

And, off I went, spending way too much time figuring out how to set up a split test with Jekyll, and debugging some not-quite-right analytics code. (The bug boiled down to forgetting to copy and paste my user ID. Whoops. I look forward to the day that we obsolete humans.)

And, finally, ladies and gentleman of the jury (but, judging by the site analytics, mostly gentleman), I got to the point where users would see either exhibit A or exhibit B.



So, what happened?

First, I gained a more intuitive appreciation of the phenomenon where, when studying small effects, you need a lot of data to figure anything out. Over the past two weeks, about 15,000 unique visitors viewed each option, which still wasn’t enough to reach statistical significance.

I terminated the test anyways. With 43 subscribes to exhibit A and 35 to exhibit B, promising people bonus drawings increased conversions by about 23%, probably. This calculator spits out a confidence value of 82% and, given that our prior belief says that promising people stuff = more conversions, we can be a little more confident than that.

So I’m convinced. On to the next set of tests!

Further Reading

Web Roundup: More Links for June

Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.

How the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings Affected This Year’s Attendance

A year ago, I logged a prediction (at 60% confidence) that this year’s Boston Marathon attendance would be lower than the previous year’s as a result of the 2013 bombings.

Well, the numbers are in, and I wasn’t even close: Last year, 26839 people entered the race. This year? 35671 runners, about 33% growth. (In hindsight, what was I even thinking?)

I wanted to quantify just what sort of effect the bombings had on attendance, so I gathered all the data that’s readily available online, and plotted it:


You’ll notice that 2014 seems like a pretty clear outlier. Fitting a line to the data allows us to quantify what normal growth probably would have looked like in an alternate universe where there were no bombings:


Running the numbers, the difference between the predicted turn out and the observed turn out is an additional 6087 runners. You might wonder: what kind of economic windfall is that? Well, the 2012 marathon generated $137.5 million in revenue, some $5123 per runner. This means that the additional 6087 runners should generate an additional 31.2 million in revenue, or about a tenth of the cost of the bombings’s damage (at least according to one NBC estimate).

On Bad Publicity

But we should go back and ask, “What was wrong with my intuition a year ago such that I expected marathon attendance to decrease?” I suspect I underestimated just how compelling a message like, “2014: Let’s race against terror” or “Racing in loving memory of Martin William Richard” would be.

I think I was thinking along the lines of, “Well, people died. People will think it’s dangerous, so they won’t go.” But of course that didn’t happen. Maybe I overestimated just how irrational people are. They probably figured the odds of a second attack were tiny.

Or maybe the sort of media coverage you get when someone attacks your marathon is just surprisingly effective advertising. The Boston Marathon was not even on my radar a year ago, but I’m sitting here and talking about it now, and I’m confident I wouldn’t be otherwise, so it certainly got my attention.

The most relevant comparison I can think of is the 2012 theater shooting, which marred the release of The Dark Knight Rises. Given the growth in Boston Marathon attendance, we might expect — perversely — that the shootings would be good for sales.

This doesn’t appear to be the case. The movie brought in 30 million less in sales than expected, and a 2013 analysis in the Journal of Criminal Analysis reports that the “Aurora theater shooting resulted in striking declines for Cinemark (the targeted theater) as well as major US competitors, but had no impact on overseas theater chains.”

The most salient difference between the two is, I expect, timeframe. A year’s passing makes the bombings feel distant (at least to someone not directly involved) while the bulk of the expected ticket sales took place soon after the theater shootings.

Finally, you might wonder: is there any truth to this whole notion of “no such thing as bad publicity”? Well, sorta: a 2004 study found that any reviews, positive and negative, increased book sales. A 2010 sorta replication found that negative reviews increased sales, but only of mostly unknown authors. Bad reviews of well-known authors, in contrast, hurt sales.

The paper itself offers a few interesting tidbits, too, including:

A wine described “as redolent of stinky socks,” for example, saw its sales increase by 5% after it was reviewed by a prominent wine website (O’Connell 2006). Similarly, although the movie Borat made relentless fun of the country of Kazakhstan, reported a “300 percent increase in requests for information about the country” after the film was released (Yabroff 2006, p. 8).

But, in general, bad publicity is bad publicity and we should stop paying too much attention to questionable adages:

Negative publicity often hurts. When a rumor circulated that McDonald’s used worm meat in its hamburgers, sales decreased by more than 25% (Greene 1978). Coverage of musician Michael Jackson’s bizarre behavior and brushes with the law destroyed his career. Viacom Inc. Chairman Sumner Redstone estimated that negative publicity cost Mission Impossible 3 more than $100 million in ticket sales (Burrough 2006), and film pundits have suggested that it is “almost impossible to recover from bad buzz” (James 2006).

Academic research corroborates this sentiment and casts further doubt on the old adage that “any publicity is good publicity.” Negative publicity about a product has been shown to hurt everything from product and brand evaluation (Tybout et al. 1981, Wyatt and Badger 1984) to firm net present value and sales (Goldenberg et al. 2007, Reinstein and Snyder 2005). Negative movie reviews, for example, decrease box office receipts (Basuroy et al. 2003).

Further Reading

  • If you want to use the data for anything, it’s available here.

Why I Like Surprises and You Should Too

I love surprises.

Imagine a man — oh, I’ll just pick a name at random, let’s call him James Randi. He’s a staunch materialist. And not the “I like to buy a lot of stuff” kind of materialist, but the sort that believes everything is made out of atoms and quarks (and whatever quarks are made out of) and that magic is physically impossible.

Now, imagine that this man, fed up with arguing with hippies and magical thinkers generally, snaps and declares, “I’ll bet anyone a million dollars that they can’t come into my laboratory and produce obviously supernatural phenomena.”

He declares this in a moment of exasperation, but he gets to thinking: y’know, this is a pretty good idea. A million dollars for the impossible. If someone is psychic, it’s free money for them. And if someone won’t take free money just to demonstrate their claimed power, well, they must be a fraud.


So he gets on the phone with the New York Times and he tells them about his brand new “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge”.

In the lab

Let’s fast forward a couple of months, to the point where money-seeking cranks have started slithering out of the Earth like worms in a storm. Imagine that this definitely fictional James Randi is in the lab with one of these worms. This worm, I’ll pick another name at random, let’s call her Theresa Caputo.


And this Theresa, who is fictional and definitely not a real life charlatan, claims that she can communicate with the dead. So James sighs, “Okay, Theresa. Tell me something that only a dead person could know. Something I know and they knew, but you have no way of knowing.”

Here’s where the universe diverges. In one branch, the usual happens. Theresa says something about James’s mother loving the water and boats, while James makes agreeable sounding noises — except he’s leading her on. His mom couldn’t swim and the water terrified her. (She had seen one too many “World’s Deadliest Sharks” specials on Animal Planet.)

But in the other branch, the surprising happens. Theresa details the family dog James had as a child. A fluffy, white contraption named Houdini, who loved milk so much that Randi’s mom would share her bowl of cereal with him after she had finished with it.

And on and on, like the time Randi had tried to grow his first beard and everyone called him Fuzz Aldrin. Or when he asked Sally Banks to prom and she turned him down and it crushed him, but actually she was just a lesbian and how could that be a reflection on him?

She’s saying this stuff, anecdote after anecdote that no one could know, and James grows more and more freaked out, the color of his face shifting from its typical rosy hue to a pale-moon grey, as if someone had opened up a picture of him in Photoshop and slowly moved the saturation from 100% to zero — until finally he bellows, “Okay, stop, enough! I get it.”

Theresa stops for a moment, a pause, silence, and then she chirps, “…but we haven’t even gotten to the mind reading bit yet.”

Contrasting consequences

Okay, now, consider how the lives of each James will unfold over the next couple of months. The James in the first branch will continue going about his life as he’s been doing it. Giving an interview here and there, maybe working on a book about skepticism (dubbed Citation Needed), and occasionally debunking so-called psychics in his lab. Business as usual, you know, the grind.

The other James has just had his belief system wrecked. Assuming that he’s not hallucinating and that this woman’s abilities hold up to further scrutiny, our best models of the universe are just wrong. The supernatural exists! Consciousness continues on after death.

This second James will be tasked with picking up the pieces of his belief system after this intellectual Earthquake, that has not only shook but toppled his belief systems and proved that the foundations were air all along. He’ll have to ask himself stuff like, “Is this proof of the existence of God? Should I be converting to some religious movement? Which one? If I’m wrong about this, what else am I wrong about?”

And that’s just James’s personal struggle. Consider the far reaching implications such a discovery would have. Proof of the supernatural! This would be a larger scientific discovery than anything before. More than Newton discovering classical mechanics, more than special relativity, even bigger than the ancient Greek’s discovery that, yes, the universe contains regularities that can be described by simple mathematical equations.

We’ll want to know: how does this woman communicate with the dead? Where are they? What’s the causal mechanism here? Is there some as-of-yet undiscovered physical phenomena taking place here? Or is a mysterious, inexplicable force somehow fundamental to the universe? Maybe it’s not so much that we don’t know, but that we can’t know.

Plus a billion more mundane questions: Can humans use their psychic powers to communicate faster than light? What about to communicate with the long dead to write history books? How about to make crops grow faster or to find oil? Can every human do this or just one? Can you train this ability? Is it located in a region of the brain? Can psychics predict the stock market?

And, of course, there would be a religious superstorm, a mad rush to claim that we called it, we knew it all along, that this woman was a product of our god. (Like terrorists taking responsibility for an attack, if you will.)

Information content

The value of information is usually defined as the amount someone would pay to know something prior to making a decision, but I like to this of it as the amount your behavior would change if you had the answer. That is, if you were clairvoyant — you know, like you could somehow plug your brain into the heavens and have always-on-access to a line of the best kind of credit: pure truth.

For instance, you might consider a firm doing medical research on new drugs. The economic incentive here is massive: the total revenue of Lipitor alone is something like $141 billion.

What’s the value of information here? Well, what if you knew before doing a bunch of expensive research and development that a certain chemical was going to be bust? The median cost of research and development per drug is something like 1 billion USD. Since 19 out of 20 medications in experimental development fail, the value of knowing ahead of time is going to be worth at least half a billion (and probably a lot more).

This can be converted to degrees, too. Reducing uncertainty from 38 to 27 percent might be worth something like 55+ million.

From this view, surprising information is more valuable than not surprising information: it leads to greater shifts in behavior. For the first James, he’s just found out that his model of the world was right, that psychics really are tricking people and whatever, and he gets to go on with his life as usual. Not too valuable. It maybe shifted his confidence from 99.99 percent to 99.990001 percent.

The second James has his world — well, at least his model of the world — torched. He found out that he’s been wrong about damn near everything. And what’s the value of this information? “What does it matter?,” you might ask. “Wouldn’t he be happier oblivious?”

Maybe not — consider the ramifications again. What if James had continued to live oblivious to the existence of the supernatural, remaining a staunch atheist, and the rapture comes along and, whoops, no heaven for James.

genesis-snake-gardenOr, even more prosaically, consider the Earthly value of information here. James, as a result of his lab interview, might learn how to harness his own psychic powers, and maybe he has some prescient abilities. He can see the future and foresees a typhoon in India. After googling, he realizes that India is one of the world’s largest producers of coconuts, and this typhoon is going to coincide with the harvest. So he buys up coconut futures and sells them for a cool billion when the typhoon hits.

Or, you know, he could totally use that information to save a bunch of lives.

Surprise as an indicator of incorrect models

As you’re probably noticing and, if not, the header should have given it away, surprise indicates that your model of the world is incorrect — that there’s something that you’ve failed to take into account.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie Groundhog Day but, basically, Bill Murray repeats the same day over and over again, and he’s the only one who’s aware that it’s happening. There’s a scene where he abuses his near omniscience to duck in behind an untended armored vehicle and steal a bag of money.

groundhog-day-armored-truck-heistHe’s able to do this because he can anticipate everything that’s going to happen (he’s lived it before). His model of the world is perfect and, indeed, if you look at the original script, the author intended him to have spent like 10,000 years going through this same day. He was supposed to be godlike. There’s even a line in the movie where Murray says, “Well maybe the real God uses tricks, you know? Maybe he’s not omnipotent. He’s just been around so long he knows everything.”

This is to say that, when you have a perfect model of the world, you can anticipate everything that’s going to happen. Nothing should be surprising. When someone faceplants directly into their wedding cake, you saw it coming.

Surprise is all about the violation of expectations, and if an expectation has been violated, an implicit model has been violated. And that means that you’re wrong about something.

Every surprise indicates something you’ve failed to take into account. Like when I found out that cats are lactose intolerant and shouldn’t be given milk, I was surprised. I had failed to connect some pieces of knowledge in my head, namely, that most animals don’t drink milk past infancy, so why wouldn’t they be lactose intolerant? In this respect, humans are a bit of an anomaly (and it’s a relatively recent anomaly, too, at about 7500 years old.) ## Recovering from surprise

Which brings me to my next point, which is that, given surprise indicates something wrong with your model of the world, whenever you’re surprised, you should fix your model.

Ask yourself, “How could I have anticipated this?” and, usually, once you’ve answered that question, you’ve fixed everything.

As an example, I like Moravec’s paradox, which was the discovery that it’s much easier to teach a computer chess than it is to teach a computer to walk or recognize faces, while the reverse is true for humans. In a sense, what’s easy for computers is hard for humans, and vice versa.

Why should this be the case? Well, recall that the prefrontal cortex is a relatively new part of the brain. Evolution has not spent too many computational cycles optimizing our ability to reason, and virtually none on chess (modern chess is only about 550 years old.)

On the other hand, motor skills, sight, object recognition, facial recognition, that sort of stuff — that’s gone through a lot of iterations, something like 410 million years of iterations. So, yeah, that one is going to be a bit harder for humans to reverse engineer and implement on a general purpose computer.

Moravec’s paradox, then, can be anticipated by considering how long, on evolutionary timescales, a “feature” has existed. Duplicating human sight? Probably difficult. Mathematics? Easy, especially stuff like multiplication, division, whatever. (Trickier when you get to, say, proving the Riemann hypothesis.)

The sheer superiority of surprise over other forms of noticing wrongness

Okay, so we’ve covered:

  • Surprises contain more information than the expected. * Surprises indicate incorrect models. * To fix incorrect models, ask how you could have anticipated a surprise.

Finally, let me point out the sheer superiority of surprise over the alternatives. Say you want to improve your model of the world, what are you going to do? Well, you could try to notice any tiny, nagging doubts you have about something, the sort that your mind quietly brushes over and you never even notice.

This is hard. I’ve spent more than a year meditating daily and I’m still not very good at it, and most of the time I don’t even notice those doubts until afterwards, when I’m like, “Huh, should have noticed that sound was his wooden foot and not rationalized it away as a funny brand of shoe.”

Surprise, on the other hand, demands your attention. You don’t even have to think about it. It turns out that your eyes and attached-frontal-brain-region-plus-amygdala automatically filter out nonsurprising information and direct your visual system towards surprising stuff in your environment. So you don’t even have to make an effort to notice something surprising. You just will.

why-i-like-surprisesYou could try to enjoy being wrong. Then you’ll naturally seek out opportunities for wrongness and wrongitude, chances to actively test your beliefs. There are people who say they can actually do this.

I suspect these people are just lying. I don’t like being wrong about anything. I have to make a conscious decision when someone disagrees with me to be like, “Wait, maybe they have a point and are objectively right, even though my monkey brain is too worried about status to admit to it.”

Surprise, on the other hand, is easy. Want to know some surprising information? Hell yeah, I want to know some surprising information. And, hopefully, you do, too, now that I’ve told you why I love surprises.

Further Reading

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