Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Catastrophes

Those who live in Boston and have relatives or friends elsewhere probably got some type of message right after the bombings asking if they were okay. The messages most certainly finished with something like “be careful.” For diplomatic reasons, one normally answers “I will” to such advices, while wondering how can we possibly be careful with respect to events of catastrophic nature, such as natural disasters and the unpredictable anger of apparently normal people.

Fortunately, most of us are able to forget these barbarities and go back the normal routine after a certain period of perplexity and fear. Meanwhile, we hope there’ll be people (including ourselves) working on minimizing the chances of catastrophic events to happen. People like President Obama, who is pushing against guns being too easily available, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who argues for a more serious study of the possible asteroids that can threaten our species as a whole.

When we discuss what to do against threatening events of rare occurrence, a statistically appealing counterargument appears. As pointed out by psychologist Daniel Gilbert in an article for Nature magazine in 2011, “because resources are finite, every sensible thing we do is another sensible thing we don’t.”

“We worry more about shoe-bombers than influenza,” Gilbert argues, “despite the fact that one kills roughly 400,000 people per year and the other kills roughly none.” Likewise, “we worry more about our children being kidnapped by strangers than about becoming obese, despite the fact that abduction is rare and diabetes is not.” According to this argument, we should stop spending so much on counter-terrorism and invest more on healthier food, and ignore the battery problems of the Airbus Dreamliner to work on influenza research.

The idea is dangerous, however. First, it makes the outrageous assumption that a certain number of individual lives is less important than a much greater number. Second, it ignores the escalation property: while terrorism didn’t claim many lives in comparison with certain diseases, for instance, if nothing is done terrorists can get as powerful as to possess nuclear weapons, thus becoming extremely threatening. Third, even events that caused no human harm whatsoever, such as a large-asteroid impact, are obviously worth worrying about.

Our moral intuitions, crafted during thousands of years of evolution, make us give more attention to threats caused by agents (like terrorists) than objects (like French fries). That awareness does mean we should be more rational on fighting life threats, but it doesn’t imply we can be more reckless about rare events.

Furthermore, there isn’t really a problem of “resources,” for there are plenty of cases where money is invested in things of questionable value. If you disagree, I’ve got a Renoir painting, a contract with a talented young brazilian soccer player, and a 34.65-carat pink diamond to sell you.

A Side Effect of Technological Progress

When Apple launched it’s own navigation app for iPhone, causing countless Internet jokes due to it’s poor quality in comparison with Google Maps, I looked at the event with disdain, not because I’m an Apple fan or because I don’t use maps, but because my way of navigating modern urban landscapes doesn’t rely on any portable digital device.

Like a tobacco addict who always carry a lighter and a pack of cigarets, my pockets always contain an A4-sized paper stolen from the printer’s tray folded thrice, and a pen with supposedly enough ink to last for 7 years that I got from Strand. Before adventuring to a new place, I visit Google Maps on my laptop and draw a small copy of the neighborhood of the target location in one of the unfilled 16 slots of my sheet of paper. “My method,” as they would say in academic publishing circles, never got me lost.

It seems a little outdated, but I don’t do it simply for fashionable purposes. The problem with our times of technology transition is that, though one can find many digital alternatives for what has been historically done with microchip-less devices, many of them do not match the “user experience” of the old “technologies.”

Look at the notes-taking task, for instance. You can find a number of tablets with digital pens in the market, some with only the input interface, some with real-time display, some even with cell-phones included. But often the experience is as bad as that of writing with a nail in marble surface. When the “texture” of the interface is okay, the pen doesn’t quite touch the display: it’s like writing in one side of a glass for the text to appear on the other side. For the alternatives that give up the all-digital goal and adopt a “scanning” kind of approach – the pen has real ink, and writes on real paper, but also localizes itself so that the text can be turned digital – the drawback is that you have to use a special kind of paper, or an additional gadget to localize the pen.

It’s difficult to predict which alternatives will survive, as there are non-technical factors involved: sometimes the company that has the best CEO, not the best product, succeeds. In reality, new technologies never retain all the good qualities of the old ones. Eventually new generations don’t have access to the old way of doing things, not getting to know it was actually better in some sense, and that aspect is forever lost.

We are often too busy rushing towards the future to notice this side effect of progress. Maybe if we spent more time thinking about what we really need, and progressed a bit slower, we would actually get there faster.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

On Marriage

Issues related with the definition of marriage, as stablished and recognized by cultures and governments, will never end. As a social convention, set up by humans whose knowledge and values evolve over time, it will always be prone to disagreement and controversy. (Nature doesn’t care, as long as some genetically-encoded information perpetuates.)

The definition not only changes within a society over time, but also across societies. Polygamy, for instance, though illegal in the U.S., is permitted under Islamic law. And even if the maximum number of spouses is settled, there might be disagreement on their gender, minimum age, and race. Interracial marriage, it’s worth mentioning, is only fully legal in the U.S. since 1967.

Recently, a range of Western States are reviewing the definition by including gay marriage. The move usually suffers strong opposition by conservatives (mainly due to religious reasons), but its passing is a matter of time, for there really isn’t any reasonable argument against it.

But the case is not so simple. It is not just about a person, or a group of Justices, declaring not being interested in certain aspects of the private life of other individuals. Marriage is legally related with other instances of life in society. In the U.S., for instance, marital status affects rights, privileges, and benefits, in 1,138 statutory provisions. Marriage equality advocates are certainly correct in asking why should these rights be conferred to some couples and not to others, given the intricacies of the definition.

The legal consequences of marriage put governments in a delicate position. As conservatives have been arguing (though for different reasons), if you push the threshold this much, what will prevent it to move even further? Indeed, what can you logically say against three or four people who love each other and want to commit living a life together? Will them be allowed to join their credit scores when buying a house?

Thought that might seem unrealistic in current times, undoubtedly family life and the way of raising children are rapidly changing: an increasing number of kids are taken care of by grandparents since parents have to work long hours, or by single parents who divorced; married couples are forced to live apart for long periods due to work or study related travels; women are forced to have children later in life to focus on their careers.

As the notion of family evolves and gender equality empower people to watch for themselves, lawmakers should focus more on the rights of individuals, specially potential offspring and adopted children, than on the benefits for married people themselves. As a matter of fact, going on the other direction, why should a person get certain benefits just for being married? Isn’t it discriminatory that unmarried people have to pay more on taxes, and work harder to buy certain goods?

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)

Social Media Market Saturated Despite Risky Business Model

When was the last time you clicked on a Facebook ad? Option A: you can’t remember. Option B: you never, ever, clicked in any of the ads. Option C: does anyone actually clicks on those ads?

Apparently, people do, for 85% of Facebook’s revenue comes from advertisement (the other 15% is from selling virtual goods), and you wouldn’t expect Madison Ave. to divert from traditional advertising models if they didn’t see solid statistics backing the option.

There are two ways in which such statistics are good-looking. Either the company is very good at targeting a niche market, or it is not so good but have a huge audience. Facebook is on the second category. In fact, due to the currently low success rates of target advertisement, internet business who provide free services have no alternative of survival but to become big enough so that their size can compensate for that. (Unless they plan to live from donations, such as in Wikipedia’s case.)

Two questions then arise. First, since there obviously isn’t market for a lot of big social media websites (after all, people have to eventually stop looking at pictures of friends or cat videos and do some productive work), why is it that we keep seeing new social websites popping up? Second, why is target advertisement so difficult that internet companies can’t afford being small?

The answer to the second question involves a paradox. On one hand, everyone would be delighted to hear about a product they would enjoy having, a new band they would love to listen to, a play they would like to see. On the other hand, most people are obsessed with privacy, refraining from giving personal information to this or that company. Though privacy is certainly a right, without more precise information companies can’t provide more adequate ads. There’s no way around this. Not until A.I. tools are so advanced that user preferences can be inferred by interpreting jokes and comments.

The first question is more obviously answered: there are a lot of investors, with no better idea about where to put their money, that are too afraid of missing the “next big thing.” That’s why we have Path, Tumblr, Pinterest, and many other social media venues whose purpose intersect, most of which we don’t even hear about. What’s their business model? You bet it’s advertisement. Which one is going to grow enough to profit from advertisement? Take your bets.

Apparently, there’s no shortage of entrepreneurs dreaming they have the perfect alternative to Facebook, nor of investors to back their startups. But we’ve already got enough tools for connecting, liking, and sharing. It’s time for entrepreneurs and their funders to think of something else. According to recent reports on decline of time spent, and multi-week breaks from Facebook, some internet users already are.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)