Monday, May 16, 2016

Improving the spread of truth in the information ecosystem, and more applied cases of reasoning errors

We live in a big 'information ecosystem'.  This includes means for storing and communicating information, such as email, web-sites, the mobile phone networks, mass media like tv and radio, and libraries.  These enable us to store information in a kind of common pool that others can access.  They enable us to discover and learn new information.  Schools, universities and other institutions also play a big part of the information ecosystem.
There are finer-grained or more specific elements, too.  Regarding the web, there are technologies such as the HTML, and the links it is based on, and search engines.  There are sites like Reddit, Facebook, Google News and Wikipedia.  There are all the ways we can express data, information and knowledge, whether in relational databases, to different mathematical formalisms, and many others.

Also part of this ecosystem is the actual information content.  The information in today's ecosystem is much different, and expanded, compared to what it contained 500 years ago.  There are also institutions and practices such as the scientific method.

This description has just scratched the surface of all the elements and factors that play a role in the information ecosystem.

Shifting gear, you can look at properties of the information ecosystem as a whole or specific parts of it (e.g. television).  How quickly do they enable information to be transmitted?  How cheaply?  How well do they preserve information over time?  Who is able to add information into the ecosystem, and how many people can that added information reach? And so on.

One of my interests concerns the following -- how do the elements of the ecosystem effect the spread of truths and falsehoods?  And what can we do to help the spread of truths, and hinder the spread of falsehoods?  Not that we could, of course, prevent falsehoods.  But what can we do to reduce the degree to which they spread and continue to be propagated among the population?

There are many potential factors that play a role.  To give one or two examples, how does the media being run as a business effect things, given that this makes it biased towards content that will help pay the bills?  And regarding what could help improve things, I'd think for example that lowering the barriers to accessing information will, in the longer-term, have a positive effect.

I'm interested in how we can design tools and infrastructure to help improve the spread of truths and reduce the spread of falsehoods in the information ecosystem.

Some examples of initiatives in this space: the Hypothesis project for annotation of content on the web; the PolitiFact political fact-checking site which "rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials"; and this article by Thomas Baekdal on how journalistic practice should change to address the increasingly misinformed public.

I wrote earlier about an idea that also fits into what I'm talking about: a web-site providing an authoritative source about current scientific opinion.  I think that'd be really useful for linking to in discussions and arguments on the net.

Here's another idea.

Alongside lists of logical fallacies and lists of heuristics and biases, I think there's room for documentation of some more applied kinds of mistaken reasoning and justification.  These are errors that might be reduced to logical fallacies or heuristics/biases, but are associated with more specific kinds of reasoning.

Here's an example.  A government might propose increasing the tax on cigarettes as a means to address the associated health issues.  Regardless of whether you think such measures are effective or not, the point of them is to reduce the amount of people smoking in the medium or longer-term.  Yet, so often in discussions about it you'll hear people argue against it on the grounds that it's not going to stop people from smoking, as if it matter was an all or nothing matter.

Again, I'll point out that regardless of whether such a tax is effective for reducing smoking, that is at least its intention, and arguments of the kinds that I mentioned simply get that intention wrong.  It's a common pattern that occurs whenever there's any talk of a measure to reduce some thing or activity that is seen (by at least some people) as harmful.

Treating reduction as a matter of outright prevention is an example of these kinds of 'more applied' mistaken reasoning or justification.  I'm not sure if there's this specific case has been given a name or not, but if it has it doesn't seem to be very well known.  The same goes for this class of more applied kinds of reasoning errors.

In any case, I think it would be useful to have a name both for the class, and for the specific instances, and to have a web-site that documents them.  That way people could link to them in online discussions where they're pertinent.  There could be a page for each of these errors, listing real-world examples - such as when measures were proposed that people said wouldn't stop X, but in fact did turn out to reduce the amount of X over time.  The examples would be providing evidence that the reasoning is in fact erroneous.

The idea would be to make the site as comprehensive as possible, so that it could become a 'one-stop shop' and gain enough attention that people would actually refer to it practice. 

Some other examples of these kinds of more applied errors.  A person has made a claim from their personal experience that X was the case.   This claim is disputed, and others argue for its validity on the ground of "why would they lie about or make up X?".  There are many documented cases of where people have done just that, so this argument by itself doesn't hold up.  Being able to point someone to a big list of such cases could help in getting them to accept that point.

As mentioned earlier, it might be true that underlying these errors are kinds of fallacies or biases, but the point here is not to get at the most fundamental causes of the problems, but to have a resource that maps more directly into the kinds of errors that occur in practice.  Such a resource could be more useful to link to in practice.

In addition to a site that documents these applied errors, there could be sites devoted to particular disputed topics (global warming, for example), that look at how such errors appear in discussions of these topics.  Because such topics are political, I think it'd be very important to make these discussions of them totally separate from the basic documentation of the applied errors.  There could be multiple sites/pages devoted to each topic, as there are likely to be different takes on the applied errors that come up in discussions of them.


(if anyone who knows that my PhD is on understanding the nature of information happens to read this, what I'm doing isn't related to the topic of this post. It's concerned more with the fundamentals of what information is and how a system can understand the meaning of the information.).

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Idle thoughts on taxes, public goods and journalism

Some "thinking out loud"....

Government is, I think, too adversarial towards citizens.  While government needs to make and enforce laws governing the citizenship, it shouldn't be forgotten that ultimately government should be there to help facilitate a good society for the citizenship, rather than being there just as an authority figure.

Like in the way taxes are framed -- as a tedious thing that each citizen has to do for the government, or else get in trouble.  But paying taxes should be seen as a means for each person to contribute to society as a whole.  Alain de Botton has made this point.  He suggests that paying taxes should be treated as a civic good that the government should thank the citizen for, providing a receipt showing how the person's tax money will be spent (e.g. if they payed $5000, that $100 of that is going towards the education system. I'm making these figures up -- I have no idea how accurate that proportion is).

(I saw de Botton make this point in a tweet, but I haven't been able to locate that tweet.  I did however find an article he wrote on similar lines).

This goes the other way, too.  People should see paying their taxes as making a contribution to society.  Helping them to see where their taxes go would help this change of framing.

Shifting topics a bit, taxes seem basically for funding public goods that market forces aren't very good at funding.  Public goods such as research, and particularly basic research.  With such 'public goods', either market forces can't supply sufficient funding, or if they are relied upon too much for funding they can introduce unfortunate biases (that serve the ends of companies...  which isn't necessarily bad, but can be not-ideal in some circumstances).

It recently occurred to me that journalism is a public good that would probably benefit a lot if it was treated as one.  (Assuming that in the country there was adequate and effective funding of public goods -- I'm thinking about an ideal situation here).

At present, there seems to be severe difficulties in obtaining sufficient funding for journalism from market forces.  And there's too much bias introduced by funding through market forces.  One, biases towards content that will bring in money (e.g. clickbait), rather than on quality content.  And two, biases towards what will suit the companies paying the journalists.

In an ideal country, people would appreciate the value that public goods provide to them.  They would appreciate all the benefits that come from research, for example.  And they would be more willing to pay taxes to fund substantial research in the country.  And the government would distribute the research funding in a merit-based (and non-politically motivated) fashion.

Journalism could be treated in the same way.  In the same way that government could fund research in an ideal situation they could fund journalism in a merit-based (and non-politically motivated) fashion.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Chayote (Choko) taco filling

This is Rick Bayless' Roast Chayote recipe with a few modifications.

They're called chokos here in Australia, but in Mexico they're called chayote.  This recipe has a mild but flavoursome taste that I really like.

If you're wondering how 'chayote' is pronounced, like I was, it seems to be chiYohteh, with the 'oh' rising and the 'teh' quite short.  These videos seem to show an authentic pronunciation.


  • Chayote (choko), 3 large, peeled, pitted & cut into ~1cm cubes (it's better to cut them smaller rather than larger as more of the surface area will get browned, and you won't get mushy bits at the center of the cubes).
  • Olive oil, 1.5 tbsp
  • Salt
  • Cracked black pepper
  • Lime juice, fresh, 1.5 tbsp (or lemon or other tart citrus)
  • Lime zest, grated, 1 tsp
  • Goats cheese, 120g (or a not-too-briny feta works), crumbled
    • I've found that it's better if the goats cheese is not too strong, so a mixture of goats cheese and ricotta works well.
  • for the Green Chilli Adobo used in the recipe (note: this will make more than is required for this recipe -- but that's ok, it's good as a general-purpose condiment).
    • Garlic, 1/2 head, separated into unpeeled cloves
    • Serrano chillies, 4 to 5 serrano, stems removed
    • Corriander, large bunch, thick bottom stems cut off, roughly chopped (about 2 cups loosely packed)
    • Flat leaf parsley, 1 large bunch, thick bottom stems cut off, roughly chopped (about 2 cups loosely packed)
    • Olive oil, 1 cup
    • Salt, 2 generous tsp

  • Make the Green Chilli Adobo (this may be done in advance)
    • Pan roast garlic and chillies
      • Set a large (25cm) skillet over medium heat.
      • Lay in the garlic and chillies and roast, turning regularly, until soft and browned in spots, about 10 minutes for the chillies and 15 for the garlic.
        • (If you’re really short on time, you can soften them in a microwave: Cut a slit in each garlic clove and combine with the chillies in a microwavable bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, poke a few holes in the top and microwave on high for 30 seconds.)
    • Chop garlic and chillies
      • Cool until handleable, then slip off the garlic's papery husks.
      • Roughly chop everything (no need to remove the chilli seeds).
    • Blend ingredients
      • In a blender or food processor, combine the garlic and chillies with the corriander, parsley, olive oil and salt.
      • Process, stopping to scrape down the sides if necessary, until nearly smooth (it should look a little like pesto).
    • Transfer to a jar and pour a little oil over the top.
    • Store, covered, in the refrigerator, where it will last several months.
  • Turn on the oven to 220C
  • Prepare and roast chayote
    • Toss the chayote with the olive oil and about 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 cracked pepper.
    • Spread it onto a rimmed baking sheet.  You want the pieces to be spread out.  Use two pans if you need to.
    • Put it into oven and roast, turning every few minutes
      ...until the chayote is beautifully browned and tender, about 25 minutes (cooking times may vary.  Sometimes I've had to cook them for 45 mins.  Definitely cook them as long as is required to get the pieces a browned)
    • Remove from oven
  • Toss chayote with lime juice, lime zest, and 1.5 tablespoons of the Green Chilli Adobo.
  • Scatter cheese and leftover parsley or corriander on top
  • This makes a fantastic (soft) taco filling.  Once you've added the filling to the taco, spoon a bit more of the adobo on top.
    • Rick Bayless also suggests layering it with black bean refritos as a taco filling, and also serving it over greens such as baby rocket or watercress, for a robust salad.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chipotle and orange juice Chicken taco filling

This recipe is from
I've modified the structure of, and some of the contents of, the presentation.

The chipotles add heat and their smoky bite, while the orange juice adds a nice mild sweetness to balance it.


  • Chipotle chillis (in adobo sauce), 3 (plus 1 tsp of the sauce)
  • Garlic, 4 cloves
  • Oil, 1 tbsp
  • Orange juice, 1 cup
  • Chicken stock, 2 cups
  • Fresh coriander, ½ cup, chopped
  • Chicken breasts, raw, 450g (approx 2 medium breasts)
  • Yellow mustard, 2 tsp

Saute garlic and chipotles
  • Mince the garlic cloves and chipotle chillis
  • Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat
  • Add the garlic and chipotles; saute for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent burning
Make sauce base and simmer chicken
  • Add the orange juice, chicken stock, and coriander and turn the heat to high to bring to a boil
  • Add the chicken breasts; cover and reduce heat to medium-low
  • Simmer for 15-20 minutes or until the chicken breasts are cooked through
Cool and shred chicken
  • Remove the chicken breasts from the pot and place on a cutting board for a few minutes to cool.
  • Shred the chicken with a fork.
    • I hold the chicken down with my other hand.  If you haven't shredded meat like this before, the idea is to use the tip of the fork to scrape apart the flesh at the muscle fibres.  So you want to be scraping the fork down through the edge of the meat, with the width of the fork parallel to the direction of the muscle fibres.
Reduce (and add mustard to) sauce
  • Meanwhile, keep the sauce left in the pan over low heat
  • Whisk in the mustard and cook the sauce until it reduces by about half, to get a thicker, more concentrated sauce
    • I find it easier to put the mustard in a cup, and then spoon some of the sauce into the cup, and mix it together there, then pour the contents back into the pot
  • Add the shredded chicken back to the pot with the sauce and mix to combine

The dish's flavour improves a few hours or a day after cooking.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 2013

There's three reasons I wanted to write this.  When I think back on this year, it's all a bit of a jumble of details, and I wanted to get it clearer.  When I think back to what happened in my life in any given year in the past, I can hardly remember any specific details, so I wanted this to be a way to help me remember this year in the future.  And I think it's nice to share a bit about what's been going on in your life.  I always like hearing about what others have been up to.

This is the first time I've tried writing something like this.  I found it very difficult!  It was hard to know what kinds of details to put into it and how to structure it.  Hopefully the experience of doing it this year will make me better at this kind of thing in the future.

(Details about the books, films, TV shows, games, and music I experienced this year are here).

Overall, it wasn't a bad year.  I moved forwards with a number of things.  And of course I have to make special mention of M -- thank you for everything this year.


I made some solid progress with my PhD.  For the five or so years prior to 2013 I'd been working part-time, but this year I didn't have a job so was able to work full-time on my PhD.  And after nine years of working on it, I finally got over that hump in explaining the ideas and started writing it up, and got through early drafts of several chapters.  I'm aiming to finish it by the end of 2014.

The amount of time it's been taking has weighed on me a bit this year.  It's been nine years of very little money or free time, and a big opportunity cost in terms of career development and life in general.  It feels a bit like life has been put on hold over those years.  But still it is ultimately what I want to be doing, and I still believe there'll be a worthwhile payoff in the end.


The breathing problems, and the consequent sleeping problems, that have plagued me over the last couple of years thankfully started to settle down towards the end of this year, and there's been general improvement in all my health problems (some of the areas where the muscles are ridiculously weak are slowly getting stronger and I'm slowly getting increased flexibility).  But still, those problems had a bit impact on my productivity, and meant I had less productive time each day, and consequently that a larger proportion of it has to be spent on PhD writing.  Which has meant I haven't caught up with friends that much, or done much in the way of other activities, this year.

Half way through the year I discovered, to my surprise, that I'm gluten intolerant.  Long story short, my health has improved a fair bit after getting off gluten (and now that my body has had time to recover, even fairly small amounts of gluten effect me pretty badly).  There is an intriguing link between the gluten and my musculo-skeletal/neurological problems, but it seems there currently just isn't enough medical knowledge about such things.  I'm hoping that in the longer term being off gluten will help reduce those problems.  The next step is to see what sort of tests I can get done and figure out whether it is just an intolerance or Celiac disease. 

Slow Carb diet

When I first started going gluten-free I went on the Slow Carb diet as a means to make it easier to be gluten-free but also just to lose weight.  I managed to lose 13 kgs quite quickly and have kept it off.  The diet is pretty well designed: I never felt hungry, and the weekly 'cheat day', when you can eat whatever you like, helps keep it sustainable. 

The 'cheat day' as a weekly break and day to work on other projects

The weekly 'cheat day' (on Sunday) felt like a little holiday, so I ended up deciding that, instead of working on PhD writing 7 days a week, I'd take Sundays off, which turned out to make a good weekly routine.  On Sundays I started doing some recreational things like watching a DVD, going for a walk, and playing some games.  I'd always tried in the past to make headway on some non PhD projects, but I'd never been able to regularly find the time, but now I spend 2 hours each Sunday on them, which has been great.  This year I was programming a proof-of-concept of my fan menus idea (which is still in progress).

Podcasts and getting back into games

A big part of my day-to-day routine over the last few years has been all my prepartion for getting to bed -- hotpacks, traction and stretches -- so that I can have a chance of sleeping, what with all the bad breathing problems stemming from the musculo-skeletal stuff etc.

At some point this year I started listening to podcasts while doing the stretches.  I ended up listening to ones on Indie game development.  First, the The Game Engine podcast, and then when I'd gone through all of the episodes of that, the Big Sushi podcasts.  I found it inspiring listening to people talking about the process, and hearing about how much more accessible game development is these days (compared to when I was back at uni in the 90s).  Makes me feel like I'd like to have a go at it sometime and try out some of my interactive storytelling ideas.

Over the last 15 or so years I mostly haven't played games much, but with listening to those podcasts and having Sundays off, I started playing some more computer games, particularly ones focused on interactive storytelling.  I wanted to get more of a sense of what's out there.  Partially for the interactive storytelling ideas, but also because games in general seems to be an area where there's a reasonable amount of innovation.  With my interest in education/communication/user interfaces, it's always interesting to see where you can get inspiration from.  Playing more games has meant I've read less this year. 

Noisy Neighbours

This year was my second one spent living at Corinda, which is a fairly nice place.  But our neighbours have been a problem.  After moving from Indooroopilly to avoid problems with horrible neighbours-noise, we've ended up with awful neighbours that are so disruptive and stressful.  Initially the ones from the gray house nearby, who were loud at night and into the mornings.  But they ended up quietening down then moving out.  Now it's the ones at the white house, who are constantly screaming (angrily, at the tops of their lungs) at each other.  Makes it unpleasant living here.


Not having a job has meant needing to be fairly frugal.  Didn't do much in the way of activities this year, and didn't go on any holidays.  A few miscellaneous things:

  • Several weddings this year.  In March there was Mark and Adele's over on Stradbroke Island.  Then there were several overseas weddings that I would have loved to have gone to, but didn't have the time or money to do so: my cousin We Chong's, my cousing Pei Li's, and my friend Lehka's.
  • Dad and Debbie were in Western Australia this year.  Dad working up at Pilbera, first working directly on train lines, then surveying, then managing stores.  Debbie at the store in Fremantle.  Dad come over here a couple of times during year.
  • My four-year old iPhone 3GS stopped working, so I got a silver iPhone 5S.

Overall, this hasn't been a bad year.  I'm glad that my health problems have improved, and finding out about the gluten intolerance has been a big thing for me.  The PhD has been a really long journey and I'm really looking forwards to getting it done within the next year or so.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

My 2013 in books, games, film, tv and music

What I read (saw, played, etc) in 2013.  Most of these weren't released in 2013, though.

My top picks, the ones that stood out:

  • The game "The Walking Dead" (season 1)

    Though I still don't think interactive storytelling has truly lived up to its potential, The Walking Dead does a pretty damn good job.  It's a pretty powerful experience.  Even if you don't like computer games, it's worth taking a look at.

  • The movie "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

    Deservedly a classic.  Quite enjoyable, never too predictable, and has a good ending.  I really liked how it felt quite naturalistic, with the plot arising organically from the situation.


Also worth a mention
  • Books
    • I didn't get to read that many books this year, but out of those I did, the best ones were:
    • Cider With Rosie, by Laurie Lee. Nice memoir of childhood in Cotswold village in 1920s. The writing is mostly pretty good.
    • The Main Dish (Kindle Single), Michael Ruhlman. Interesting look at how, to the author's surprise, he ended up becoming a food and cookbook author. Well written and pretty funny.
  • Games
  • Films
    • Kumare. Pretty interesting and thought provoking.
    • Indie Game: The Movie. Doco about the journey of some indie-game developers as they're making their games.
    • Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Interesting doco about Jiro Ono, a master sushi maker, and his philosophy on work and striving for perfection.
    • Unforgiven.  Quite good.  Been wanting to see this movie for so long - glad I finally got around to it.
    • Once Upon a Time in the West. Style wins over substance, but a pretty good triumph. Visuals and music were excellent. Intriguing all the way through.
    • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.   Good, though I liked "Once Upon a Time in the West" (also by Sergio Leone) a little more.
  • Music
    • I didn't listen to much new music this year.  For whatever reason, I just haven't been into music as much lately.  Part of it's that most of the time I'm listening to music I'm doing PhD writing, and I find vocals a bit too distracting, so I only listen to instrumental stuff (mostly electronic stuff) and I don't really know of a good way of finding out about new releases of the sort I like.
    • Tomorrow's Harvest, by Boards of Canada.  It's a good album but I don't like the bleaker aesthetic on it as much as that on their earlier albums.
  • TV shows
    • Derek, season 1.  Ricky Gervais comedy/drama.

  • Books
  • Games
    • Gone Home.  An admirable experiment interactive storytelling, but ultimately I don't think it works that well.  Worth a look if you're interested in how interactive storytelling can be done.
    • Katawa Shoujo.  A straight-up "visual novel", so pretty much just a matter of reading through it rather than being a game.  Wasn't bad, but targeted more at teens than someone like me (I was curious about these visual novels and this was one people recommended).
    • "Fester Mudd" episode 1 (on iOS).
    • "The Silent Age" episode 1.
    • The Majesty of Colors.  A quick play.  Ok, but nothing special.
    • Proteus.  Ok, but I found it a little dull
    • Sourcery!  I was interested to see what those "game books" are like.  Good presentation and I think good for what it is, but not really my kind of thing.  Even though it is textual, it doesn't feel like a story to me.
    • MIMPI.  Puzzle platformer where you play as a dog.  Some frustrating puzzles and controls can be frustrating, but otherwise pretty decent.
  • Films
  • TV shows
    • Broadchurch, season 1
    • The Shield, seasons 1 & 2.  Pretty decent -- and compared to most tv shows, pretty good -- but it too often relies on improbable escapes from tricky situations.  We decided not to watch the rest of the seasons.  Our search for another show that can stand up to The Wire continues...


Bit Meh
  • Books
    • The Last Website.  Nice presentation but the story didn't do much for me.  Far too obtuse.
  • Games
    • The Novelist.  An experiment in interactive storytelling that doesn't work.  I mostly agree with these reviews.
    • Galatea.  A textual 'interactive fiction' game.  Didn't find it interesting.
    • De Baron.  Also interactive fiction.  Didn't do much for me.
    • The Graveyard.  Nothing to really engage with in it, so its hard to get emotional impact from it.
  • Films
    • Rashomon.  Interesting idea, but it wasn't well capitalised on.  Dull, and doesn't convey anything interesting through the use of the multiple perspectives.  I've only seen one other Kurosawa film so far, The Seven Samurai, but I thought that was much better.

Lots Meh
  • Books
    • Juniper's Knot.  Lame. Adolescent-quality writing and content, and the way animation/interactivity was used actually detracted from things.
  • Games

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Places I've Lived, via streetview photos

On a whim, I thought I'd use Google Maps street view to look up all the places I've lived.  I haven't included any of my relatively brief stays overseas - all the ones here are from south-east Queensland.  Here they are in chronological order:


Hamilton.  I ended up living in both of the townhouses at the front.








West End


Indooroopilly. Looks like somebody spotted the street view car.