Why Some Outputs from Smart Software Are Wonky

July 26, 2021

Some models work like a champ. Utility rate models are reasonably reliable. When it is hot, use of electricity goes up. Rates are then “adjusted.” Perfect. Other models are less solid; for example, Bayesian systems which are not checked every hour or large neural nets which are “assumed” to be honking along like a well-ordered flight of geese. Why do I offer such Negative Ned observations? Experience for one thing and the nifty little concepts tossed out by Ben Kuhn, a Twitter persona. You can locate this string of observations at this link. Well, you could as of July 26, 2021, at 630 am US Eastern time. Here’s a selection of what are apparently the highlights of Mr. Kuhn’s conversation with “a former roommate.” That’s provenance enough for me.

Item One:

Most big number theory results are apparently 50-100 page papers where deeply understanding them is ~as hard as a semester-long course. Because of this, ~nobody has time to understand all the results they use—instead they “black-box” many of them without deeply understanding.

Could this be true? How could newly minted, be an expert with our $40 online course, create professionals who use models packaged in downloadable and easy to plug in modules be unfamiliar with the inner workings of said bundles of brilliance? Impossible? Really?

Item Two:

A lot of number theory is figuring out how to stitch together many different such black boxes to get some new big result. Roommate described this as “flailing around” but also highly effective and endorsed my analogy to copy-pasting code from many different Stack Overflow answers.

Oh, come on. Flailing around. Do developers flail or do they “trust” the outfits who pretend to know how some multi-layered systems work. Fiddling with assumptions, thresholds, and (close your ears) the data themselves  are never, ever a way to work around a glitch.

Item Three

Roommate told a story of using a technique to calculate a number and having a high-powered prof go “wow, I didn’t know you could actually do that”

No kidding? That’s impossible in general, and that expression would never be uttered at Amazon-, Facebook-, and Google-type operations, would it?

Will Mr. Kuhn be banned for heresy. [Keep in mind how Wikipedia defines this term: “is any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs, in particular the accepted beliefs of a church or religious organization.”] Just repeating an idea once would warrant a close encounter with an Iron Maiden or a pile of firewood. Probably not today. Someone might emit a slightly critical tweet, however.

Stephen E Arnold, July 26, 2021

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