Michael Battalio


Friday, December 25, 2015

Fourteenth Annual Christmas Mass Email

Greetings and Salutations, 
Welcome to the Fourteenth Annual Christmas Mass Email.  I hope this finds each and every one of you well.

This year I focus on attachments.  I define an attachment as a connection to a past time in our lives that we dwell on in an incessant way.  They come in many forms (physical, mental, emotional) and can be people, places, objects, a moment in our life, decisions we’ve made.  The key is recognizing the good from the bad.  Let me try to elaborate on that facile suggestion.  The problem is recognizing an attachment in the first place.  This is easier in theory than practice.  I notice my attachments when I dwell on issues for more than a few weeks or find myself returning to subjects I thought I had settled months or years earlier.  Attachments are distractions that turn us away from tending to other matters of life.  Even good connections can be harmful at times if we allow them to be too present in our thoughts or border on obsession – especially if we constantly compare previous times in our lives to what we currently have.  (I.e. it is as equally unhealthy to be envious of your [previous or future] self as it is to be envious of others.)  I do not mean that reflecting on good and bad attachments is a waste. (I’ve argued the opposite in previous ACMEs.)  Learning by experience is what makes us develop.  What I mean to say is that when we constantly focus on these bonds rather than our current environment, we do ourselves a disservice.  I’ve now come back to a reoccurring theme of these letters, which is that it is good to reflect on the past, prepare on the future, but most important to enjoy the now.
Returning to the difference between good and bad attachments:  I define bad attachments as those that serve no useful purpose, for example, friends or acquaintances that bring out the worst in us.  These attachments should be set aside – again, easier to say than do.  When I find myself repeatedly returning to negative attachments, I try to distract myself with either positive attachments or tasks I’ve been putting off.  There can certainly be attachments that are not positive but should remain, for example, the memory of learning an embarrassing but important life lesson.  Again, the key is determining what are your own bad attachments and letting go of them.  
It’s a common trope that our society has become too materialistic.  When I say we should be weary of attachments, I don’t just mean that usual sentiment, and I don’t need to elaborate on the need to limit our greed.  A need for new isn’t the only way to be attached to objects; we can be attached to old things as well.  Sentimentality can induce happy memories, particularly when connected to something physical, but excessive nostalgia blocks the formation of new attachments.  These new connections are what makes life worth living, so go live life instead of reliving the past via your attachments.  
This subject is too enormous in scope for me to tackle in the 500 or so words I try to limit myself to.  My goal here is simply to make everyone cognizant of their attachments and leave it up to each of you to decide what should stay and what should go and how to decide.  I hope that this letter does that.
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And there you go.  I plug along in school – hopefully just a year or so left.  Congratulations to those who have really done something amazing this year, whether it’s finishing a degree, getting married (myself including), starting a family, finding a new passion in life, or any other accomplishment.  But never be satisfied; always strive for more.  Always question, learn, grow; otherwise, what’s the point?
Enjoy the season, and give yourself some credit for making it as far as you have.  Reply to let me know how you’re doing and what you’ve accomplished; wanting to hear from you is half the reason I send this every year.

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The requisite joke:

Terrible news earlier this Christmas morning as Santa visited children in Europe.  Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, leader of Santa’s famed flying fauna, was found dead in Barcelona today.  Reports indicate that a two-fold set of circumstances spelled the end of the beloved reindeer.  A flock of seagulls first skimmed Rudolph causing him to veer into an ascending 747 departing for Paris.  Santa and his other reindeer survived thanks to the valiant efforts of Rudolph.  He will be dearly missed.

Eyewitness reports indicate that the Reindeer in Spain was hit mainly by the plane.  

———————

Best wishes, happy holidays,
Battalio

Friday, December 11, 2015

Serious conversations (part 66): What is science - part 4

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

We are exploring what exactly is science in this subseries.  So far we’ve given a formal definition of science (a systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena), we’ve considered the evolution of science and its current ubiquity.  Now we take specific examples to consider who exactly is a scientist.

I would consider a detective a scientist.  This one really caused me to think, because at first I was torn over the requirement that the scientist must uncover some fundamental truth about nature or the universe.  But, if am to consider a social scientist a scientist, I must consider a detective a scientist as a detective is solving problems created by other humans.  A social scientist ascertains how humans change and are changed by the environment; similarly, as crimes must be committed by humans it could be argued a detective is part social scientist.  Additionally, I imagine the scientific method is oft applied in testing hypotheses by detectives.  It seems more obvious to me that a medical doctor is a scientist.
What about an historian?  I think history is a type of science, though I put it on the low end of the science hierarchy and almost in a wing of its own.  History is a unique subject in that it is not defined by laws or truths but is merely the description of how those laws were made manifest in the past.  Historians use the scientific method to study history.  Evidence is collected from artifacts and records to understand what happened and why.

Can a machine be a scientist?  For now I would say no.  There aren’t machines that are smart enough to perform the discovery required to be a scientist.  Machines can only do what they are told to do.  They can’t act on new information by drawing inferences or conclusions.  I suspect I will have to change my answer in a few years/decades as artificial intelligence becomes more adaptive.  It could very well be that the singularity could be defined by when machines become better scientists than humans.  For all I know I could be one of the last generations of human scientists because the speed with which computers can perform science will be so much great than humans.  We will never be able to keep up, assuming we can actually program a computer to adapt as it would be needed to perform science.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Serious conversations (part 65): What is science - part 3

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

We have defined science; now we considering the evolution of science.

In the 1600’s there was a great discussion about how science should be performed.  Robert Boyle proclaimed that the way to discover the nature of the world was by controlled experimentation, and the results were considered the “truth.”  Thomas Hobbes maintained that the way to discover truths about the world was via thought (e.g. the Ancient Greeks).  Controlled experimentation was a radical idea.  People 500 years ago didn't just know less than we do now; they would not have even trusted our methods for knowing things.  The scientific method wasn't a discovery.  It was an invention.
The Greeks certainly used thought to elucidate nature and did quite a good job for it.  It is amazing how much they learned given they couldn’t really experiment thoroughly.  In a way we still are having the fight between Boyle and Hobbes today.  Consider particle physics.  Theoretical physicists have been using the standard model to make predictions for decades, hoping to beat the experimentalists in “discovering” a new particle or at least to guide the experimentalists to where the new particle would be.  Many a Nobel has been shared between the team that theoretically predicted the particle and the group that found the particle.  The same thing could be said of the field of exoplanetary atmospheres.  It was presumed for a long time that planets outside the solar system had atmospheres, and attempts were even made to come up with categories for them.  And now we are starting to do it.  It’s what I want my post-doc to be in actually.  So, there is this constant pull between those who would use thought and those who experiment.  Admittedly, the analogy is poor because theoreticians invariably use the scientific tool of mathematics to aid the thought process.  In the end, isn’t the scientific method just an application of logic and thought to divine the nature of existence?  Again, theorists in any field are doing just what Hobbes advocated for.  I would argue that Boyle and Hobbs were both talking about two sides of the same coin.  Logical thought and the scientific method help one another and depend on each other in the same way theory and experiment need each other to advance.

I think it will usually be that the theory will drive experiment from the practical reason that it is much less resource intensive to theorize than experiment.  Unless that is, there is some unexpected discovery.  The problem lies in where the theory gets ahead of the experiment (reality) – so far ahead that it goes off the rails.  Theory needs experimentation to constrain and guide.  Theory that has no hope of describing reality is nothing more than a game.   Science requires observation to describe reality.  

Friday, October 30, 2015

Serious conversations (part 64): What is science - part 2

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

Before we summarized the conversation we will have.  In essence, we are trying to determine who is a scientist and why is it we have this hierarchy in science.  Now, we get to the question at hand.

So what is science?  A first, working definition might be the systematic observation of nature to elucidate facts with the goal of describing laws or formulae to generalize some phenomena.  This leads to a lot of questions.  Must science have the end of brand new knowledge?  Is science the actual research and discovery of new knowledge or does it include the repetitive grunt work too (like performing labs in a doctor's office or is even a medical doctor practicing science?)?  As humans are a part of nature, is the study of history or music or art or even the analysis of sports statistics also science?  Given this broad definition, then what is not science?

This is a bit overwhelming, and I fear I’m going to have to rely on intuition to lead me.  I don’t think science requires the discovery of new knowledge.  It could be the redefinition of knowledge in a new paradigm (like atomic theory for instance).  I also think that the reproduction of knowledge at its most basic form is still science, so I think that duplication is still science. Consider a student in a Chemistry 1 lab.  Say they are producing salicylic acid.  Are they performing science?  Given the definition that science is systematic observation of nature to discover facts and then formulate laws about nature, at first glance what they are doing is not science because the production of aspirin is a well described process.  It is not new; they are not contributing to the knowledge of nature.  Here are two counter points:  One, since they are reproducing the method, are they not in some minute way proving that method?  Doesn’t that have scientific value, even though it has been done probably millions of times?  By reproducing it, they prove the method accurate again.  Demonstrating something to be a fact requires reproducibility.  Two, expanding the knowledge of humanity can have two definitions.  You could be expanding the knowledge of all of humanity (all ~40 billion of us that have existed) or you could expand the knowledge of the one person, yourself.  By performing the experiment, the student increases their own knowledge of nature.  It is a personal science.  Considering these points, I argue that even a student performing a basic experiment that has already been proven is still doing science.  Given this definition almost everything is science in some form.

  As far as the where to draw the line to call science, I am open to a debate on that.  There are definitely components of art and music that are science based, like the spacing of notes or the definition of intervals or keys in music or the color wheel in art.  However, you cannot ascribe scientific methodology to aesthetics.  Aesthetics is something we could spend a whole discussion on in and of itself.  So I would say that art and music have components of science that help us define why some types of music or art are more appealing to us, but science cannot define why some people like country music or don’t like classical.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Serious conversations (part 63): What is science - part 1

This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine.  These are my edited responses from that conversation.  The sixty-third – sixty-ninth entries deal with the nature of science.

This first post merely defines the question and serves as an introduction to this longer sub-series.  So what is science?  And related:  Who is a scientist?

I’d like to take a paragraph to talk about the science of meteorology.  Recently, I put some thought into this because I know a lot of colleagues who have gone into forecasting or broadcasting and consider what they do science and themselves scientists.  Don’t get me wrong; many of them are actually practicing science.  Forecasting in and of itself is science, even though it is very repetitious and monotonous, in the same that grunt lab work is still science.  Many of the good ones actually review the models and observations on their own without the help of the National Weather Service, and some of them ignore the NWS altogether.  Some of them are better at forecasting than the local NWS office.   That is science, but many others just want to look pretty on camera.  Delivering science isn’t science itself.  They are not scientists.  In their forecasts, they merely copy what others have said.  Distribution of science is not science in and of itself.   Summarization is not science.  It bothers me that those people think what they do is science.  It is demeaning to other meteorologists or atmospheric dynamicists, physicists, and chemists.  Meteorology is fluid dynamics, which is applied physics.  When a lot of people enter broadcast meteorology, they don’t realize that you have to take a lot of math and physics, but they are so enamored with the potential fame that they somehow squirm their way though the math and physics with C’s and think that they are scientists at the end even though all they did is temporarily memorize some formulae to pass a test.  (This is a bit of a rant against people who have mediocre grades yet still get the degree thinking they’ve accomplished as much as those that did with GPA’s close to 4.0’s.  This is elitism, but I have no problem calling myself an elitist.  Society doesn’t reward high grades enough.  Once you get your first job, they no longer matter.  That’s sad, especially since I have worked so hard [at times] to get them over the last 20 years.)  


I also want to take a moment to comment on the hierarchy of science.  In my academic career I’ve gotten the general impression that physics looks down on the other sciences as being lesser, easier, and derivative.  This is somewhat true as all the other sciences are in some way or another applied physics.  (I also feel the disdain of pure theorists who look down on experimentalists.  That is a different conversation.)  One reason I’ve always been drawn to physics even though I’m reasonably happy as a atmospheric dynamist is that I feel that physics is somehow a higher pursuit, and at times I still regret having gone into atmospheric science in the first place when I think I would be much happier in particle physics or astrophysics.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 11): Chapter 5: discussion

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of  Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54.  We are considering the book  The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker.  (I do not profit from clicks).  (Ed.:  we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.) 

Chapter 5 explains how economies are chaotic, nonlinear dynamic systems.  That is, they depend on initial conditions, do not repeat, and are difficult to model.  A simple example describing boom and bust cycles is elucidated.  The inventory of a product is a short-term solution to increased demand; used production capacity is a middle-term solution; new factories are a long-term solution.  Boom and bust cycles exist because of the time lag between the short, middle, and long-term solutions to increased demand.

This entry is going to diverge a bit from wealth and into weather forecasting, which is another chaotic system.  I find it interesting that the author mentions James Gleick’s Chaos on the first page.  It’s a very good book, as it describes the development of chaos as a mathematical entity.
In the first section I’m struck by how starkly he has to lay out simple concepts like flow or feedback.  I am also struck by all of the parallels in weather forecasting there are in this discussion.  The weather is of course highly complex and approaches chaos in the long term.  It is also highly dependent on initial conditions (The assimilation of initial conditions is one of the main thrusts of research by modelers nowadays.).  I dispute the author’s statement that accurate long-term forecasts of the weather will always be impossible.  You have to define “accurate” and “long-term”.  I very much think that as assimilation systems improve we will have reasonably accurate forecasts out to three or four weeks.  I would call that long-term, but long-term could be defined to be more than a few weeks.  It’s all in semantics.  
That section on the boom and bust cycle is so abstract, I wish he had made a more concrete example of it.  Normally I like abstractions, but in this case there are so many examples to choose from that he could have given us a ton of examples (e.g. the airline industry).  He does give a good description of it though, and the way he explains it makes it sound like there is no alternative to the cycle.  There will always be a time delay, and due to lack of communication between competitors and incomplete knowledge of future demand, there will always be supply mistakes made.  Industries that are cyclical are doomed to remain that way in perpetuity because humans are so bad at predicting systems that have delays and feedbacks.

This is a short chapter, so we limit the discussion here.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 10): Chapter 5: summary

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of  Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54.  We are considering the book  The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker.  (I do not profit from clicks).  (Ed.:  we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.) 

Chapter 5 is devoted to chaos and nonlinear dynamic systems.  A dynamic system inherently depends on initial conditions (i.e. on all the previous states).  In nonlinear systems this is particularly true as even small perturbations in the starting conditions can make large difference in the final solution.  Chapter 5 relates the mathematics of nonlinear systems to economies, including the concepts of stocks and flow, feedbacks and time delays.  Chaotic systems are a type of nonlinear dynamic system that does not repeat and is deterministic; they are difficult to model and predict.
Chapter 5 continues with a description of boom and bust cycles.  They are cyclical and a mix of random and periodic processes, meaning they are not entirely predictable.  A simple example is provided showing how the cycles work.  Imagine a product is experiencing increased demand.  The producer increases prices to stifle demand, but it continues to increase.  The inventory of the product can be a short-term reserve to meet changes in demand.  However, once the inventory of the product is running low, new capacity must be utilized.  Factories rarely run at 100%, so a middle-term solution is to increase the supply.  If demand continues, a decision is made to build a new factory to produce more of the product.  Unfortunately, as soon as the new factory comes online demand decreases as competitors also flood the market.  Prices drop, but because the new factory was build the product continues to be made.  The market is flooded, and prices crash.  The factories as shuttered, and the inventories decrease.  The cycle begins anew.

This cycle is not any different from traditional economic theory.  The difference is the time scale.  Inventory is short-term, tapping into existing but unused production capacity is the middle-term solution, and building new factories is the long-term solution.  There is a lag in the time between increased demand and increased supply.  If there was some way (as it is assumed in the traditional theory) for suppliers to perfectly predict demand with immediacy these cycles would not exist.  Lastly, companies would have to work with competitors to ensure that each was supplying a specific amount (i.e. each company would need to be omniscient).  Unfortunately competitors will not work together in the real world.  This lack of knowledge and competitions prevent the economy from functioning optimally and reaching equilibrium.  

Friday, August 07, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 9): Chapter 4: discussion

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of  Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54.  We are considering the book  The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker.  (I do not profit from clicks).  (Ed.:  we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.)

The two previous entries summarize Ch. 4 which explained a simple model economy, Sugarscape.  The model replicated many behaviors of an economy including banking, trading, busts and booms.  (See parts 8 and 9 for a complete summary.)

I find the Sugarscape model to be an ingenious experiment, particularly the way that reproduction is implemented (Though it somewhat unrepresentative of the population at large, that is people don’t only procreate when they have enough wealth.  People aren’t necessarily good at planning.  This oversight is merely because the designers had to stop somewhere when defining model parameters).  It is remarkable that a model as simple as the Sugarscape could exhibit emergent properties of the economy – especially bankers – in my mind.   There is no prescribed behavior of the agents that would suggest that the behavior would develop.  This suggests that banking is a natural process in an economy and that people will rely on imperfect and varying exchange rates to generate profit that wouldn’t otherwise exist (or extract it from others).
With a single experiment, Sugarscape has solidified the idea in my mind that wealth has more to do with luck than anything else.  I have always intuitively known that to be the case, but this model has cemented my viewpoint.  This is a key argument for the intervention of governments in the redistribution of wealth.  If the wealth gap is an emergent property of economies, then there is no way to circumvent it naturally.  We must intervene in the system itself.  Perhaps if the wealth gap was due to the superiority (whether drive, intelligence, or ingenuity) of some agents over others, then I could be persuaded against intervention.  But since, as is demonstrated in the model, the wealth gap is due to the luck of some people over others, we must intercede on behalf of the unlucky to rectify the intrinsic unfairness of the economies.

While the model is limited, a conclusion to be drawn is that the liberal (the poor are poor because they are exploited by the rich) and conservative (the poor are poor because they are stupid/lazy) viewpoints on poverty are both wrong.  The wealthy don’t necessarily exploit the poor; they are merely the lucky ones.  The poor aren’t lazy or stupid; they simply are unlucky.  We increase the happiness of society by redistributing from the wealthy and giving to the poor.  The increase in happiness of the larger number of poor far outweighs the decrease in happiness of the few wealthy, and the increase of quality of life possible of the poor is much larger than some minute decrease in standard of living by taking some of the money from the rich.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 8): Chapter 4: summary 2

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of  Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54.  We are considering the book  The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker.  (I do not profit from clicks).  (Ed.:  we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.)

The beginning of Chapter 4 described a model environment filled with sugar that was consumed by model agents whose location and “genetics” were randomly assigned.  After some time an initially purely random distribution (i.e. Gaussian) of wealth becomes concentrated in just a few members due to luck.  Continuing the with Ch. 4 summary:

Introducing reproduction widened the wealth gap and also led to feasts and famines.  Two agents were allowed to generate a third, new agent with combinations of talents from both parents if both parents had large enough wealth.  The population oscillated around the carrying capacity of the island of sugar.  At some times there would be an abundance of sugar due to low population, which led to a birth explosion that overwhelmed the island resources.  This in turn led of a die off only to have the cycle repeat.  Natural selection also occurred, and the vision and metabolism on average increased as the better gifted were more apt to survive, while the less gifted died during the famines.
Including a second commodity (spice) and trade between the two increased the wealth overall (as trading effectively increases the carrying capacity of the island).  The wealth gap also increased as the luck of some of the wealthy continued while others dropped from the ultra wealth due to the new spatial distribution of the second commodity.
The Sugaarscape model highlights problems in traditional economic theory.  The trading price never hits the equilibrium point where the demand and supply curves cross.  The law of one price is broken because trades must occur over time and distance, so the exchange rate of sugar to spice can be different across the model at the same time.  Sugarscape operates at less than Pareto optimality.  (e.g.  There are always trades that could have happened that would have increased the happiness of the group but didn’t due to the inaccessibility of the board to all entities simultaneously.)  This is due to the time efficiency of bilateral trading instead of auctions.  (e.g. You wouldn’t wait for an auction every time you wanted to buy milk.)
By allowing borrowing and lending, middlemen emerged who did both (they became banks), surviving off of trades rather than harvesting.  Other financial institutions evolved including institutional investors, investment banks, merchant banks.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 7): Chapter 4: summary 1

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of  Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54.  We are considering the book  The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker.  (I do not profit from clicks).  (Ed.:  we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.)

A simple computer model (Sugar-scape) was developed by Epstein and Axtell to understand how economies form.  This model created an environment with an island of sugar and consumers that moved across the fictional land that must eat the sugar to survive.  A simple set of mathematical rules determined how much each “agent” harvested, consumed, stored, and required during each time step.  Abilities of metabolism (how quickly each agent consumed sugar) and vision (how far away the modeled person could see the sugar) as well as location of “birth” (either on the island of sugar or in deserts outside of the main deposits of sugar) were randomly assigned.  Additionally, all occupants of the Sugar-scape could store a given amount of sugar for use if they encountered an area devoid of sugar.  Finally, if an agent ran out of sugar, they died and were removed from the model.
Due to random distribution of talent and location, the wealth decently fit a bell curve at the beginning of the simulation.  However, over time a few agents became super wealthy.  The middle class (the peak of the bell curve at the beginning) was destroyed, and the poor greatly outnumbered the middle and upper classes.  This distribution fits the Pareto distribution, whereby 80% of the wealth is owned by 20% of the people and is close to the distribution of wealth in the real world.

The reason that the skewing of the distribution occurs is not because of any one property of the system.  The genetic qualities or location alone do not determine the final state of wealth.  It is a combination of factors including and especially luck.  Two identically gifted agents can have different outcomes depending on the luck of their first moves.  One could embark randomly in the direction of a far away large deposit of sugar outside of their range of vision and the other one could move away it.  This spreading of outcomes is called horizontal inequality (and is not realized in traditional economics [two identical agents should end up with identical wealth]).  Here, randomness sends the agents in two different directions, but due to how the system is devised, those different directions diverge quickly (i.e. one agent gets wealthy because they migrated toward the sugar and one dies because they moved away from the sugar), which leads to skewed result.  (This is a chaotic result [ed. see future entires on Chapter 5].)  

Sunday, June 07, 2015

My politics (part 6): Poor Representation

This series deals with some of my stances on political affairs and topics of the day.  I am quite liberal on some issues, but more conservative with others.  I self identify as an independent, but I definitely lean left.  This begins a sub-series on poor representation in government.

I am struck in almost every single State of the Union and opposition response at how strongly politicians are trying to convince the rest of us that we are just like them and they are just like us. Does anyone actually believe them? I certainly don't. And that's the problem; the disconnect is so large that they don't even see it.

Our leaders fail us because they don’t actually represent us.  This is true in so many ways.  As a white male I’m absurdly over-represented.  Females and every other race are under-represented.  We could spend several entries on this.  However, a lot of people in the media have covered that angle already.  Likewise the lack of religious diversity is also astounding.  Christians dominate Congress.  Atheists and agnostics and every other major religious group are under-represented.  The angle I want to attack here though deals with occupation and financial situation.

One of the many reasons Congress has no idea what the rest of the country has to deal with is that there are barely any scientists, teachers, or working class people. Where are the regular people?   They have no clue what it is like to be the rest of us. Until congress actually represents America, we will always be dissatisfied in their performance and competency.  Not that we should overthrow the government, but how is the situation we have now any different than when we had a far away king ruling?  The people in charge don’t really represent us.  They represent the top 10% or at the least only a few percent of the population in many respects; they don’t truly care about the rest of us.  Unsurprisingly, one of the most miserly and anti-tax representatives is also the wealthiest, Darrell Issa.

Another reason politicians are out of touch of reality is that they all have so much more money than we do.  They simply don’t understand what the rest of us are going through.  They even think they deserve to be paid more ($174,000/year already) even though all they do is fight over petty manners and raise money to remain in power.  The last few Congresses have accomplished the least of any Congresses of the last several decades, yet they think they deserve a raise.


We’d be better off if we picked 435 people at random from registered voters.  We’d certainly have more equal representation.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Serious conversations (part 62): Data collection and surveillance - part 3

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The sixtieth – sixty-second entries deal with data surveillance.

        Previously I discussed two problems with the collection of data by companies using a hypothetical grocery store card as an example. Now, I continue with a problem with all data collection by companies.

        Another large problem is knowledge of your rights when it comes to data collection. End user agreements are so long that no one reads them, and one has to think that is by design, (iTunes user agreements are often used as punchlines. I tried to read one all the way through once. I eventually gave up.) that way the user won’t know if there is some stipulation about the company unilaterally changing privacy or data collection. (See this
article from 2010 about some of what Facebook did) Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and almost certainly most companies do this so they can later exploit data collection for means that their user might not approve of, but because they sign a user agreement, what the companies are doing isn’t illegal.

        Now despite my concern over companies collecting my data, I still trust them more than the government because companies at least have the motivation of profit. If the government could be trusted with my data in the way that I trust my software companies or ISP, I would also gladly provide my information for improved governmental services. My worry about the government collecting data is that besides a few elected officials, the public can’t hold accountable the bureaucrats that really run things. Some of them are benevolent, but some of them must also be, perhaps not malevolent, but at least mischievous or lackadaisical.

        I also have a disdain of government surveillance when it is phrased as patriotism (e.g. the Patriot Act). I find patriotism to be easily corruptible (that is a discussion for another time), and using the ideal of patriotism to goad people into accepting an increasingly powerful police state is an example of that. Everyone is so defensive when their patriotism is question (perhaps mostly so politicians) that they will acquiesce to prevent an assault on their patriotism. That's how the whole surveillance state started.

        In the end, if I could trust entities with my data I would have no problem with data collection as I could envision many benefits to me if all the services I used had a complete understanding of how I use not only them but other services. Data collection is good; it is the entities that utilize it that are untrustworthy.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Serious conversations (part 61): Data collection and surveillance - part 2

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The sixtieth – sixty-second entries deal with data surveillance.

        Previously I described an anecdotal benefit to data mining and also the first of two problems with even benevolent data mining being with hacking into company databases being so prevalent data that can identify you can easily be obtained. I note a second problem with the collection of consumption data below.

        The second problem with something like a store card tracking you is if that knowledge somehow starts being sent to health insurance companies. Thinking like that might border on paranoia, but imagine how terrible it would be if your health insurer knew what you were eating/drinking. They would up the rates of people who drink too much soda or eat too much junk food, and the rates could change wildly from month to month. You’d be constantly in fear of what you ate. Now in the grand scheme of things that might be great for everyone else. I want people who eat unhealthy things to have to pay more into health insurance, assuming it meant that it could lower my rates, but there is no reason for the insurance companies to lower my rates because I’d have no knowledge of how they increased the rates of everyone else. More likely is that unhealthy eating would just be an excuse to raise rates for everyone. So, for me, there is no way I want the insurance company to have that kind of information. Fortunately, as far as I know there are no health insurance companies gathering that data from grocers. But the fact that it exists must make the insurers salivate for the data, and the fact that it exists opens up the potential for that kind of abuse.
        I’m more worried about tracking of opt-in online activity than some physical activity. Your ISP knows everywhere you go and everything you do on the internet. They can track every single thing you do online, and you have no physical way of stopping them if they decide to invade your privacy since all of the information is stored digitally. I’m especially worried about tracking through google or other services. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think that google doesn’t know every single thing we’ve done online. Almost every site uses some sort of google ad network or search feature or credential. As soon as we move or travel and use the internet in a normal fashion those services know we aren’t home or have moved. I’m not saying they are doing it nefariously or that they are out to get us, but they do know what we do.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Serious conversations (part 60): Data collection and surveillance

        This series is a continuation of my conversations with an atheist friend of mine. These are my edited responses from that conversation. The sixtieth – sixty-second entries deal with data surveillance.

        From my discussion on government surveillance (see My politics parts 4 and 5) it was noted that there can be benefits to data collection, assuming that the collector can be trusted. An example could be store cards offered by grocers and pharmacies that give discounts for logging all items purchased. From that idea I draw several difficulties.
       
        There certainly are benefits to data mining. With large amounts of user data, companies that develop public products can quickly improve them. The anecdote that comes to my mind is with software updates. I've repeatedly heard the adage that you should never be part of the first group of people to adopt a technology because no matter how much lab testing a piece of software or hardware has gone though, the engineers simply are not going to be able to duplicate all possible situations that a customer base of millions will put a product through. You wait to adopt until after the first release that way all the early adopters will have sent all of their bug reports in, and the engineers will have fixed the unanticipated problems.
        I think that many companies genuinely have their customer's interests in mind if for no other reason that if the customers disapprove of tactics employed by a company (assuming knowledge of shady or underhanded tactics is revealed), they will switch to a competing company. Additionally, a trained analyst may be able to anticipate what we want before we know or be able to discern our desires better than we can. However, we need to specify the difference between collection of data with our express consent and collection without our consent or worse collection after we explicitly deny permission. Each of those possibilities occur.

        There are two problems with data collection via a store card. Both are rather paranoid ways of looking at the world but worth mentioning. The first problem is that even though there are a lot of people in the word, so it is very difficult to track people, each of us is rather unique if enough datapoints are collected. What I mean is if some nefarious entity were able to access your Kroger card information with all of your buying habits, they could at some point in the future dramatically narrow down where you are later assuming consumption habits would later be determined (not necessarily though another store card). Only so many people are going to buy the specific combination of products you frequently buy. This situation is highly unlikely, and the only circumstance I can conjure up where such paranoia could be useful would be if you had to go into a witness protection program. What I'm saying is that every piece of data you surrender (either willingly or unwillingly) becomes a method of tracking you later. Us being regular boring citizens, this is never going to be a problem especially since grocery/pharmacy store cards are opt in.

We cover the second problem in the next entry.

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Politics (part 5): Government Surveillance 2

This series deals with some of my stances on political affairs and topics of the day. I am quite liberal on some issues, but more conservative with others. I self identify as an independent, but I definitely lean left. This post continues a discussion on government surveillance.

        I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t have anything to fear from surveillance unless you’re doing something illegal. That’s nonsense. There are things that are inherently private (sexual orientation, some political beliefs, who your friends are, what hobbies you practice etc.) that the government has no reason or imperative to learn about people. I understand that usually the government won’t care about the private minutia of everyone because the minutia of everyone is usually rather boring. The thing is, not everyone’s life is boring (that’s not to say that mine isn’t, but it could be interesting one day, maybe). And there are certainly things that are not necessarily illegal that an individual might not want released to the general public. Secrets are not necessarily bad.

        The main problem is having control of your own information. You may have every right to control some given bit of digital information, but if the government is indiscriminately absorbing all the information it can about as many people as it can, then it can “accidentally” collect a copy of a given bit of personal information that you have no control over. Since you don’t control every copy of that piece of data, you have no control of the data. In government surveillance, you lose control of your information. That is a big problem. If you no longer have absolute control over the distribution of a bit of data, you have no control over that bit of data. As soon as an illicit (or accidental) copy is made, control becomes an illusion.

        As I am no constitutional scholar my opinion cannot carry any weight, but I would also make the constitutional argument that the fourth and fifth amendments, which provide for protection against unlawful searches and seizures and against self-incrimination, respectively, protect us from warrantless surveillance. The fourth amendment demands warrants to collect evidence, warrantless surveillance flies in the face of that. And how can one plead the fifth amendment if one does not know if they are under surveillance? Randomly collecting information of everyone across the board is in direct violation of those amendments.

        While it can be applied fallaciously very easily, I also can foresee the slippery slope where if the government can monitor your phone records, then they can monitor your email, your coming and going, to the point where we have no privacy left. The question becomes then, how much do you value your privacy?

Friday, February 20, 2015

My Politics (part 4): Government Surveillance

This series deals with some of my stances on political affairs and topics of the day. I am quite liberal on some issues, but more conservative with others. I self identify as an independent, but I definitely lean left. I begin brief discussion on government surveillance here.

        With all the hubbub recently over the PRISM program, I suppose this should be one of the first topics I come to. Allow me to start off with just opinion. I am terrified by what has been revealed by Snowden as to the extent of the spying. In other places I’ve made the point that, admittedly, only a naive person would think that the government wouldn’t suck up every piece of info it could off the internet, but only a cynic would know that the government would just lie to us about it.  And I really don’t want to be a cynic, but it seems I have little choice in the matter. I am very scared of what government spying on its own citizens means. I would much rather be a bit less “safe” and have my privacy guaranteed.
        Spying is a terrible invasion of privacy, and frankly, I don’t understand why there hasn’t been more public outrage because of it. Whether or not you believe that government observation can serve a useful purpose, Snowden revealed that what the NSA was doing was illegal at the time. They twisted a law allowing the FBI to monitor external threats (FISA 1978) into allowing them to monitor all threats. They used the letter of the law to subvert the spirit of the law.
        I mostly have a problem with their blatant disregard of the law, not that they were surveying. Not only that but just before the Snowden revelations,
James Clapper specifically told Congress that they weren’t doing it. He lied to everyone and has suffered no consequences. And he has had the audacity to condemn Snowden for letting the truth out. I would condemn Mr. Clapper and demand an apology of his egregious lies to Congress and the American people and further demand his resignation and that a grand jury looks into his perjury. That would make me feel better, but that isn’t going to happen. I certainly don’t trust him, since he quite obviously has no problem lying, and as he is in charge of the program, I don’t trust the program.
        I think that the reason that most distrust the government is because of the corrupting influence that all that information would have. The
NSA has already been shown to be unable to follow their own rules. (We wouldn’t know about the violations in the previous article without Snowden.) That corrupting influence occurs because fallible people are in charge; they are the weak links in the machine. Suppose one NSA contractor has a vendetta again someone; with very little effort they could find information that could be used as blackmail against that person. So, for me it isn’t that I only distrust the government. I don’t trust the people working for the government even more. At the moment they are the real danger.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Discussions on Wealth (part 6): Chapter 3

This discussion on wealth is an offshoot of Serious Conversations parts 53 and 54. We are considering the book The Origin of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker. (I do not profit from clicks). (Ed.: we will be taking the general format of outlining the major points of the chapter and then discussing what we believe to be important or intriguing points.)

Chapter 3 is a critique of the theories in the first two chapters.  In the debate between physical scientists and economists, a great complaint by the scientists was that humans are not rational (among others).  

The point is made that simply making a correct prediction is not enough in science.  The point of a science is to explain a process.  If the prediction is correct for the wrong reasons (or luck) but the explanation obviously wrong, then you still have nothing.  This seems obvious to me, but apparently not to Milton Friedman.  

The largest assumptions in traditional economic theory are:
Perfect rationality:  people pursue self-interest in economic matters with absolute understanding of economic theory using perfect knowledge of economic variables (inflation rates and beer is the example used.)
Time:  models are instantaneous in transition from one equilibrium to another instead of linearly using time
Ignored Exogenous inputs:  economic models treated outside variables as incapable of being understood instead of trying to incorporate some of the unpredictability into the theories themselves (unemployment from 1982 jumping from 7.5 to 11% for no external reason)
Lack of positive feedback mechanisms: traditional economics assumes that processes are dominated by negative feedback and so damp out. (stock market bubbles were used as an example of positive feedback)

Traditional economics is not supported by data.  Some example where the data do not support traditional economics:
Supply and Demand:  on a large scale this law holds, but on a small “fine-grained” scale, this law almost never holds (example was a car dealership)
Law of one price:  in the idealized world exactly similar goods are the same price due to an “absence of barriers”, but in our imperfect world that is not the case  (43% differences in the price of ketchup in London)
Equilibrium requirement:  in fact the economy is always in a state of flux - settling down after each exogenous shock.  The economy never has time to enter equilibrium between shocks.
Nonrandom walks:  future stock prices are not independent of previous prices

Equilibrium is an inappropriate metaphor in economics.  He compares it to the laws of thermodynamics.  Walras built economic equilibrium theory on the first law — that is energy is conserved, meaning that the different forms of energy must reach a balance at some point.  This is where the idea of equilibrium came from and why it was so appealing.  Walras left out the second law — that entropy increases because it had not yet been fully enumerated, so the concept of closed and open systems was not available to Walras and Jevons.  Walras assumed the economy is a closed system, one that will reach an equilibrium (as in the case of thermodynamics one of maximum entropy).  The economy is actually an open system (the complex adaptive system mentioned in chapter 1).

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A letter to a congressman (part 2):

I had a chance to talk with Rep. Lamar Smith who is the Chair to the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology. We talked about his meddling with NSF funding. I argued that politicians should not oversee science. Scientists should. But all he could do was quote the same soundbites over and over. I think there should be a scientist in chief, but that is for another discussion.
I want to reproduce a letter I wrote to Rep. Smith about an interview I saw of him on Bloomberg TV where he trotted out the same incorrect platitudes of global warming denialism. This occurred about two months ago. I do not expect a response since I am not his constituent.

Rep. Smith,
        I will be upfront. I am not one of your constituents, but as you are in a powerful position as Chair of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, I feel it permissible to give you an informed opinion from outside your district.
        I had the honor to speak with you when you visited students at Texas A&M on October 29. We argued at length about NSF funding; however, had I known the extent of climate change denial you have recently engaged in, I would have addressed that in my question. In a recent interview to Bloomberg TV, you said the following, “There are a lot of scientists who disagree [with the IPCC report]…. we’ve now had close to 18 years of no global warming….Nobody can explain that….[the IPCC report authors] are clearly biased.”
        To keep this short I will address only one misunderstanding. Global warming has slowed yes, but to say that there is no warming is disingenuous. The trend for temperature is still upwards, and in checking the climate record, there are several periods where the trend slows only to resume its upward march after a brief respite. These stalls can be explained by increased heat retention in the oceans, which has been measured (Balmaseda, 2013). I invite one of your staffers to read (and then summarize for you) Trenberth et al. (2014) which more fully explains the latest trends.
        I do not doubt that you will believe this to be more “bias” from liberal scientists gunning for more research money from the corrupt NSF. I would point out that large contributions from Oil and Gas companies ($94,450 in this most recent election) have been made to your campaign. Who really should be accusing who of bias? An issue as intricate as this cannot be resolved via email. I invite you or some of your staffers to again visit TAMU to speak directly to our world renown climate scientists. I would also personally welcome the opportunity to debate the nuance that seems to be lost on whomever is summarizing these reports for you.
        As I am not a constituent I do not expect a response; my only hope is that whatever staffer reads this will convey the invitation I have extended to speak with members of the Dept. of Atmospheric Science at Texas A&M (or visit any of the other great Texas universities. There is agreement among the climate scientists at all of them.) I look forward to any debate that comes of this.

Thank you.
Michael Battalio

References

Balmaseda, Magdalena A., Trenberth, Kevin E., and Källén, Erland, 2013: “Distinctive climate signals in reanalysis of global ocean heat content” Geophys. Res. Let. 40 (9) 1754-1759 doi: 10.1002/grl.50382.

Trenberth, Kevin E. Fasullo, John T., Branstator, Grant, and Phillips Adam S., 2014: “Seasonal aspects of the recent pause in surface warming”, Nature Clim. Change. 4 (10) 911-916. doi: 10.1038/nclimate2341.

 
2003-2016 Michael Battalio (michael[at]battalio.com)