This Column Requires Rubber Ducks Just As Rubber Ducks Require This Column

As this year draws to a close, I need to rethink my priorities in life. This series was started as my own attempt to coax at least a few people into using the tools of rational thought and the scientific method in their daily lives without forcing them to become professional scientists.

My tools have been light-hearted puzzles alternating with serious discussions of the easier elements of decision theory, statistics, and probability. As often as possible without becoming pedantic, I have tried to use examples from real life in an attempt to break down the artificial barriers many people seem to erect between academic learning and real life learning. I did this at the risk of offending readers since most people hold cherished beliefs that can easily be shown to be bogus with a little thought.

The world is full of minorities of all types who believe in strange things. For some reason, the United States has been a haven for evolution deniers and other cult-like activities. I respect the right of anyone to believe in whatever they want. The rub comes when they try to convince others or — worse — coerce others.

The most depressing logical problem I have heard recently was buried in Mitt Romney’s speech about his religion. Many people think that a Mormon is not suitable for high office even though we elected a fine Roman Catholic as president in spite of the fact that many voters were concerned that he would take orders from the Vatican. Because of concern about religion, Romney decided to face it head on. That was a courageous and good thing to do. What he said, however, left my head spinning. Before I make any comments, the whole text is here.

Here is one quote that stopped me: “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Think about the implications of this unsupported statement. Remember that when Romney uses the word “religion,” he implicitly means a theistic belief. Most of the founders of this country (including the first six presidents) would not have agreed with Mr. Romney since they were Deists (google on religions and founders — you will be flooded with many views). So forget for a moment any belief you might have and simply look at the logic of his statement in anticipation of making life decisions (this is a column about decision theory) based purely on the logic. My first stop on the logical path is to confront history. There have been many religions without liberty. In fact, most of them deliberately reduce liberty. Whether you think it is good or bad depends on your beliefs, but we cannot deny that all major religions seek to put limits on behavior. Strictly speaking, Buddhists are not religious in the sense of being theists. Therefore Buddhists can never be free. They must get locked in the same place as secular humanists and other atheists. This is a partial analysis, but I hope it is the basis of continued thought.

Do not dismiss this as an attack on either Mr. Romney or theism. I make no comments on his ability to be a good president or whether theism is valid. My only concern is the logical presentation of arguments. Space limitations and your attention span prevent me from giving examples of illogic from all candidates, but it would not be difficult to do.

But enough of this year! Let’s finish with a movie. Here is an excellent presentation of a simple concept that is crucial in making decisions, but one that many people simply do not understand.

Happy New Year.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.

Optimal Routes Sometimes Involve Detours

Last week I wrote about receiving a political quiz that used quotes from Hillary. Several people commented unfavorably on it because of the subject matter. That is, this column is advertised as being about decision theory, statistics, and probability. What am I doing writing about a political hit piece (without regard to which side is writing or the target)?

These comments and questions miss the essential point of this series. Decision making is not an academic exercise. I cannot in good conscience limit the content of columns to puzzles involving truth-tellers and liars on an isolated island or the Sultan’s daughters. Every day we make serious decisions based on grossly inadequate data, insufficient analysis, and lack of real understanding. It is a wonder we do as well as we do in living our largely uneventful lives. Daily decisions range from the small — such as what to have for breakfast, to large issues — such as politics and religion. In between are the decisions about responding to advertising.

My example of applying some rational thought to a political hit piece did not involve any equations or advanced math. If making better decisions required us to be able to solve differential equations analytically in our heads while driving cars, we would be doomed. Instead, I am trying to show “Patterns of Plausible Inference” (see the book by Polya of the same name). With a little practice, one can listen to a commercial, a sermon, or a speech and parse it into logical statements to see just what is being offered. Failure to do this can lead to behavioral aberrations. For instance, I have no mental model of how people can become convinced that blowing up themselves and innocent people is a holy act. Coercion might work, but deliberately educating candidates to make the wrong decisions certainly works better. Voting for a totalitarian regime might result in a temporarily better life for a fraction of the population, but is the society as a whole improved by a non-democratic government? Buying a new HDTV would improve my television viewing experience, but what are the tradeoffs?

Lack of simple thought often leads to less than optimal decisions. But there is another side to the coin. Searching for an absolute optimum can also lead to bad decisions. Sometimes there simply is no single maximum. We can make decisions about which roads to take to drive from A to B and probably find an optimum giving present knowledge. A GPS does it better if we ignore traffic conditions. We can override the GPS directions if we hear about a traffic jam ahead. We have more current knowledge than the GPS and the optimum route changes.

But what decisions do you make to lead the best life? That question is not well-posed, so the answer cannot be exact. The best you can do is hone in on a better life by eliminating obvious bad choices.

Even very bright people get confused on this point. Arthur Laffer famously argued that income to a government from taxes is a simple function of the tax rate. At zero tax rate, the government takes in zero dollars. At 100% tax rate, he argued that the government would also take in no money. However, at an intermediate rate, the government obviously takes in money. The function is bounded at two ends of a domain with at least one positive point and thus has a maximum value. Therefore, Laffer argued, there is a single tax rate at which the income to the government is maximized and with some more arguments, pleaded for reduced taxes (primarily benefiting wealthy people) to increase the net income. There are at least two fallacies in his argument. Can you pick them out? Of course who should get taxed and how much is a very political question, and I should probably not discuss it here.

In response to the interest my original tutorial generated, I have completely rewritten and expanded it. Check out the tutorial availability through Lockergnome. The new version is over 100 pages long with chapters that alternate between discussion of the theoretical aspects and puzzles just for the fun of it. Puzzle lovers will be glad to know that I included an answers section that includes discussions as to why the answer is correct and how it was obtained. Most of the material has appeared in these columns, but some is new. Most of the discussions are expanded compared to what they were in the original column format.

Sudokular

It can be hard to predict if something is going to become a worldwide sensation, but once it does, you can’t deny it. There are a lot of factors that are involved in making something a hit, but sometimes, the timing is just favorable for it. Take Sudoku, for example. To me, the Sudoku crazy came out of nowhere, and while people kept telling me that I just had to start playing it, I initially resisted. However, now that I’ve given it a try, I find myself compelled by the game, and therefore, the craze has taken another victim. If you’ve also been bitten by the Sudoku bug, then you’ll probably love Sudokular.

This site is all about the famous number puzzle, and you’ll be able to get your fill here whether you’re able to devote some time to the game or just want to jump in and play for a few minutes. You can get a new puzzle delivered to you on a daily basis through RSS, and the Daily Challenge will put you up against other players. However, if you’re like me, then the QuickGame will prove to be a more fitting option. Complete Sudoku neophytes can learn the rules in just a minute or two and use the in-game help to get them started.

[tags]Sudokular, Sudoku, Games, Puzzles, Numbers, RSS[/tags]

Microsoft and Vanishing Point – Win A Trip To Space

I have to admit it. I’m terrible at solving puzzles. And I have never been much of a game player. So when I read during the Consumers Electronics Show that something was up about a puzzle game and free prizes from Microsoft, I just dismissed it saying to myself ‘I’ll never win ’cause I stink at puzzles’, and let it go.

But curiosity got me after I received a special announcement for members of hotmail to join in the fun. What struck me even funnier was that I do not even have a hotmail account. Or is a MSN account the same as Hotmail? Ron scratches head thinking. Enough. So I wondered over to Vanishingpoint.com to see what I could win.

First prize – a trip into space. Plus they are giving away Computers, X-Boxs, Zunes, Vista, Office software and more.

I’ll give it a try. Guess what? I just confirmed what I already knew. I’m terrible at puzzles! :-)

But if you are a good puzzle player, and want to have some fun trying to fun some great prizes, you may just want to stop by and take a look.

Good luck!

[tags]microsoft, vanishing point, puzzles, prizes, x-bos, zune, vista, office, [/tags]

Addicted to Crossword Puzzles

We were flying back from a remote destination a few weeks ago. Ponzi was playing a crosswords puzzle in the middle of a magazine. I became curious, and jumped into the wordplay fray. We fared pretty well, without needing to refer to the key until the end (to double-check our puzzlework). Before I knew it, Ponzi and I were buying puzzle game digests at the grocery store – if only to engage each other in a mental capacity once again. It was fun to do a crossword puzzle with her, although I have just as much fun with word games on my own. My only issue with crossword puzzles is that the “easy” ones aren’t all that easy for me; I’m able to muddle through most of the simple stuff within a matter of minutes, but some of the teasers are beyond my brain capacity. Jake and I took a crossword book with us on a recent trip to California, and he was solving many of the riddles – up and down. What’s a four-letter swear word for “I gotta get smarter if I expect to complete these puzzles on my own?”
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