26 January 2017

Feel the Burn

I was listening to Sarah Silverman interview Bernie Sanders.  He makes some good points, but there were a couple of contradictions that bothered me.

At one point he states that Trump Supporters are smart and hurting and not racist, but did not vote for Democrats because they do not trust the Democrats because the Democrats did not stand up to Wall Street.  Sounds great.  Except that they then turned around and voted for a party that has never stood up to Wall Street by electing a man who lies constantly.  I'm sorry, it doesn't work that way.  If you are smart and cared about the working class, Trump is not the person you turn to.  You turn to Trump if you're an idiot or you're racist.

Maybe Bernie feels he has to say something that at first glance sounds politically correct. Maybe it's our form of a progressive elite dog whistle.  Well call them "smart" and we won't call them "racist", but we're kinda depending on the fact that they're too stupid to make a logical inference.

Also, he's quite happy to distinguish between Us Americans and Those Foreigners.  I think that contradicts his message of cooperation.

I'd like to see a debate between Bernie Sanders and Brad DeLong.  Sanders claims we are losing jobs to foreigners because of NAFTA.  DeLong points out NAFTA has had essentially no effect.  Sanders would be much more convincing if he argued that the Oligarchs had maintained a strong dollar and thus driven manufacturing out of the United States.

The reason we progressives lost the last election was not because we are liberal elites who hurt the feelings of the white working class.  It's not because the white working class is ignored and can't be heard in Washington.  It's not because the white working class doesn't trust Democrats or Democrats don't work on behalf of the white working class.

It's because the political class has learned how to use the new publishing infrastructure.  I first saw this at Watts Up With That, a website where some weatherman reposts other people's content about climate change, but Watts puts a Denier spin on each re-post.  It's a nice study in how to make a steady stream of income with minimal work.  He has a large crowd of un-critical viewers happy to engage in his conspiracy theory.  Conspiracy theories are entertaining, and there is a large population of viewers that like to interact with fake news.

Breitbart and the alt-right are similar.  They like to re-publish news articles with "analysis" framing the articles to agree with their beliefs while ignoring any actual evidence.

And other advertisers have been learning how to refine their click bait.  

Fox News and right-wing radio have done this for a long time, but Watts Up With That and Breitbart require far less capital.

The key insight of Trump (or maybe Bannon) was that nearly 50% of people who vote are happy to engage with properly presented click-bait.  And then they just opened up the spigots.  Breitbart and similar outlets created click-bait on any subject they could think of (pizzagate!) and pushed it out over and over.  Right-wing media and talk-radio followed along because they were picking up really cheap content that they could re-publish.  Smart kids in Macedonia figured out this formula for creating click-bait and joined in the game.

The KGB and China helped refine some of the techniques.  Keep pushing out lies.  Keep on the attack.

One really effective technique is the Turn the Tables technique.  If attacked, repeat the exact same attack back at the attacker.  If Trump is accused of being a misogynist for sexual assault, then accuse Clinton of being a misogynist for staying married to her adulterous husband.  If one side claims the election was influenced by Russian hackers, claim the election was influenced by massive voter fraud.

It doesn't matter if the first attacker has evidence and the counter-attacker has no evidence. The beauty of this technique is that the weaker party then gets to turn around and claim that both sides constantly attack and demonize each other and thus that both sides must be creating fake news.

So, we've lost the war.  Democracy is dead.  Democracy depended on relatively expensive communications channels where a premium for Truth was able to minimize the competing Fake News.  (Although 1930's Germany is a notable exception.)  The internet made communication cheap and allowed a flood of Fake News to compete.  And now we see that the voting populace is really not capable of evaluating two contradicting news articles to determine which is valid. 


09 December 2016

Ranked Choice Voting: The Time is Now

Progressives are currently gazing into their navels trying to figure out what they could have changed about the recent presidential campaign.  You hear a gnashing and a wailing: "Oh, we should have listened to the White Working Class better.  Oh, if only Clinton had done a better job of communicating her policies.  Oh, if only we had communicated our policies better to the White Working Class."

But communicating better is not an option.  The Democratic priorities were communicated. Many failed to listen due to apathy.  Communicating better isn't going to solve electoral apathy.  Many failed to listen due to being unwilling to invest enough effort into the election. Many refused to listen.  The alt-right does not care what any Progressive has to say.  They will not listen to Progressives.

Since we cannot reach a large part of the electorate, our only choice is to improve voter turnout for the portion of the electorate that we can reach.

Let's also be clear that write-in votes for Bernie Sanders were not the problem.  And votes for Jill Stein were not the problem.  People trying to express their preferences is not a problem.  The problem is that our current voting system does not allow people to express their preferences.

That's why it's time for us to turn to Ranked Choice Voting.

Ranked Choice Voting would have allowed Jill Stein voters to state their clear preference for Stein while allowing them to also point out that they prefer Clinton to Trump.  Ranked Choice Voting would quite likely have handed the election to Clinton.  (Yes, sure, Trump would have run a different campaign if the rules were different.  More likely, he wouldn't have run a campaign at all if Ranked Choice Voting were in effect.)

Ranked Choice Voting allows voters to fully express their preferences.  People who thought that neither Clinton nor Trump should be president may well have not voted.  Ranked Choice Voting gives these people a voice.  Without Ranked Choice Voting, there is only a small benefit to voting for a minor party candidate.  Recording that you would like the Green Party to be a larger party does perform some small amount of advertising.  But since most people need to vote for the better of the two mainstream candidates, we can't obtain a clear signal as to how important a minor party is to most of America.  With Ranked Choice Voting we could obtain a much clearer signal.  We would see far more votes for minor party candidates.  

As the strength and preference of minor party candidates became apparent, a variety of effects would occur to further increase the number of votes those parties receive.  First, the media would pay more attention to the parties.  Second, as people see the real strength of the parties, they see that supporting those parties is more of a viable option than they had previously considered.  Third, as multiple options become more viable, researching the available options and switching between options becomes more likely.

Sure the potential exists for weakening the Democratic Party.  But in order to be a viable party, the Democrats have no choice.  And the increased voice that is given to various factions among the Progressives will only strengthen us overall.

07 December 2016

WASP Supremacy under Attack

I came across an item in a comments section today that I think speaks volumes. 

 "I am not a traditional GOP Constituent, I am a perfect TRUMP backer as a Nationalist...I loathed Bush 1, loved Bill Clinton in his first term and was disgusted with him in his second for the sexual shenanigans and lies, I was a reluctant Bush 2 supporter in 00 but him being a Texan won me over then appreciated him mostly after 9/11 then disgusted with his second term as I felt he was chasing his Dads war.

"As a cultural Texan WASP middle class dude from a family of military, police and fire fighters something has gone horribly wrong under Obama in my opinion as well as millions of others like me that went Trump. There seemed to be a sort of anger after Obamas first election that I noticed a "payback" attitude and theme among his supporters in his coalition that I first dismissed but as 2010 came and we had the Cambridge Police incident and Obama began taking sides I noticed a troubling trend. Liberals became emboldened to attack middle flyover America in schools, Hollywood movies and television and even sports as a cry for Social Justice. Bakers were sued, shut down and lost their businesses for their Christian faith and one woman was jailed at a county clerks office. But when it came to Islam Obama and liberals have developed a double standard and protective shield as they continue to import more and more of them under the guise of diversity and multiculturalism . 

"Now we see almost regular terrorist attacks by Muslims that are almost always hidden for what they are by a media that sympathizes with Obamas worldview. Now I cannot watch football without Kaepernick kneeling on our flag and anthem for a cause he cannot explain and police officers are being ambushed without warning just sitting in their cars. Under Obama I believe that something "broke" in our political discourse and Trump is my voice that I feel tread upon and under siege. "

29 November 2016

Critical Thinking

I've been seeing a lot of opinions and comments online and in discussions with co-workers that seem to show a decided lack of critical thinking.  It's time to start fighting back against that crap.

For this blog post, we will start with an opinion piece published in the New York Times yesterday.

"We are supposed to be open to hearing opposing views."  Absolutely.  Present us with a well argued, well stated opposing view, and we will be happy to listen.  But bullying is not an "opposing view".  And going around stating that "The world is flat" is not an opposing view that we need to be open to hearing.  "Hilary wants to take our guns" is not an opposing view.

"I felt strongly that as a country we needed to focus on domestic issues, and for me, the Republicans were more prepared to do that."  That's a fine opinion to hold.  However, endorsing a racist candidate and rewarding him for being a bully is not a means justified by your stated desired end.  [And, for the record, the Democrats have been trying to focus on domestic issues for the past eight years.  Health insurance, minimum wage, better access to education for better 21st century jobs, equal pay for women, investment in infrastructure, good jobs in high tech renewable resources instead of trying to prop up jobs in the dying coal industry... those are all domestic issues.]

"I have been labeled “racist,” “sexist” and “xenophobic” on Facebook. I have been called a “white without a conscious,” a “misogynist,” a “bigot” and a “barbarian” online by people all over the country. ... My father is Hispanic. ... My mother was raised by her stepfather, who is African-American and the only maternal grandfather I have known. ... My family and friends come from all ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations."
And yet you rewarded a racist, misogynist, bigoted bully by endorsing him to be president of the United States.  By your actions, you stated that it is okay to call your father a "rapist" and to call women "nasty".  But suddenly when you feel insulted it's no longer fun and games?  Look at how you feel.  That's how Hispanics, women, and Muslims felt.  And yet you didn't stand up for their concerns.  Why should we stand up for your concerns now?

"We all have reasons for casting our votes. What I do not understand is hatred toward one another."  Your actions are making my life more difficult.  Your actions are reducing my future income.  And you don't understand why I would strongly dislike you for your actions?  Your actions are putting my mixed-race children in danger.  If you want to play fast and loose with your life, that's your privilege.  But when you cross the line and start playing fast and loose with my life, we are never going to be best buddies.

"We have spent too much time in our own bubbles..."  There's that false equivalence I love so much.  No.  You have spent too much time in your bubble.  I do read Breitbart, and WUWT, the Wall Street Journal, and the National Review.  I have watched Alex Jones.  I have sought out the alt-right conspiracy theories and the most rational arguments I can find from the right on various policy issues.  I did read the Republican Party platform.  I did listen to you.  I did carefully evaluate your arguments.  It's time for you to get out of your bubble and start to think critically.

"How can we assume we know someone based on the color of their skin, their religion, or their political choices?"  My preferred candidate for president did not assume we can know someone based on the color of their skin; yours did.  We have strongly agreed in America that there are strong limits as to how much your choice of religion can affect me; and in return I have agreed not to let your choice of religion affect how I view you.  Of course, your preferred candidate wants to treat people differently depending on their religion.  But political choices?  That's an action that you are taking to affect me.  That's the point to politics: to choose actions that we will take that will affect one another.  When you affect me, especially when you do harm to me, I have to start quickly making assumptions about who you are.  Are you a brown shirt that will destroy my property and beat me up?  Are you going to throw me in jail for my religious beliefs?  Are you just going to lead us into another recession and make my retirement much less relaxing than I had planned on?

"The narrative should be one of inclusiveness, openness, respect and love." Precisely.  and yet you chose to support a different narrative.  The Green Party, by the way, is all about inclusiveness, openness, respect, and love.  And boy do they want to focus on domestic issues.

Critical Thinking.  I hope you learn how while you are at college.

04 February 2016

Modeling the Future -- Oil

I stumbled across an entertaining piece of science fiction on the net at http://www.wolfatthedoor.org.uk/ . WolfAtTheDoor stakes out an extreme version of the future propagated by www.peakoil.net . To paraphrase "Oil prices will rise dramatically and civilization as we know it will end. We will return to living a medieval life." Fortunately, however, both of these web sites clearly have no understanding of economics and thus can be enjoyed as classic horror.

The United States in the 1980s provided a good example as to what will happen when oil demand exceeds supply. Production of oil in the United States started to rise as the economics made older oil fields cost effective. And alternate, more cost effective, energy sources were substituted for oil.

The EIA points out that about 1/3rd of the oil used in the US today is used for stationary (non-transportation) uses such as space heating or power generation. In most of the world, more than half of oil is used for stationary applications. This means that if the price of oil rises high enough, it is relatively easy to substitute natural gas for oil in many applications.

A barrel of oil contains about 6.2 million BTU. At a price of $55.80 per barrel, that's $9 per million BTU. Natural Gas in the US is currently around $6 per million BTU. (And, since natural gas burns cleaner than oil, there is a tendency for consumers to pay more for natural gas than oil in stationary applications.)


[Originally published 4/11/05.  I screwed up the timestamps trying to fix a couple of minor typos.]

Making Predictions about the Future

In March 2005 I outlined a growth scenario for photovoltaics in the U.S. and compared my comparison to the EIA's.  I predicted 10Gkwh of PV electricity in 2014 and stated that the EIA claimed 4Gkwh of PV electricity in 2025.  I was wondering how good my prediction had been, so I went and looked at the AEO 2015 and AEO 2005.

PV generation (GKwh, estimated)
AEO 2015
      EPS         EUG    Total
2012  3.30        7.97   11.27
2013  7.98        9.62   17.60
2014 15.19       11.39   26.58
2015 19.68       13.47   33.47
2025 30.28       24.77   55.05
2040 47.14       59.33  106.47

AEO 2005
      EPS         EUG    Total
2012  0.39       0.86    1.25
2013  0.43       0.88    1.31
2014  0.48       0.89    1.37

2015  0.23       0.95    1.18
2025  0.96       3.74    4.70

Gosh, my silly little economic model was about 12% below end-user segment generation, and 62% below total on-grid PV generation.  The EIA was 95% below total generation?  Of course, the EIA made their predictions a few months before I made mine.  And no doubt changes to state and federal policies completely explain the discrepancies in their predictions.


18 January 2016

Philosophizing about AGI

Brad Delong linked to an annoying post on AGI recently. 

David Deutsch, professor and physicist, discusses the progress, or lack thereof, on building an Artificial General Intelligence.  Although Dr. Deutsch takes a while to get there, the core of his argument is that we don't know how to program creativity and, until we figure that out, we can make no progress on creating an AGI.

First, allow me to pull some quotes out of context and rant on them.


"Charles Babbage and his assistant Ada, Countess of Lovelace". 
Lady Lovelace was a collaborator and peer of Charles Babbage, not an assistant. I find this phrase offensive and sexist.


"But no brain on Earth is yet close to knowing what brains do in order to achieve any of that functionality. The enterprise of achieving it artificially — the field of ‘artificial general intelligence’ or AGI — has made no progress whatever during the entire six decades of its existence."
The idea that artificial intelligence has made no progress in the past 60 years is completely absurd.  60 years ago we didn't have alpha-beta tree pruning.  We didn't have distributed programming.  We couldn't amass hardware that had computing power functionally as powerful as a human brain.  20 years ago neural nets didn't work very well and were research curiosities showing a bit of promise.  Today they are frequently used in a variety of different areas.

Meanwhile, super-human artificial general intelligences do exist. A computer chip is not designed by a single human, it is designed by a corporation. The corporation is a man-made (hence artificial) general intelligence.


"As far as I am aware, no one has [programmed a computer to be self-aware], presumably because it is a fairly useless ability as well as a trivial one."
In actuality, self-awareness is so useful (and trivial) that it is a standard technique that we use when programming.  It turns out that having a computer program tell you when it is not working is quite useful.  We regularly program our software to monitor itself and report on errors and high latency operations.


"And in any case, AGI cannot possibly be defined purely behaviourally. In the classic ‘brain in a vat’ thought experiment, the brain, when temporarily disconnected from its input and output channels, is thinking, feeling, creating explanations — it has all the cognitive attributes of an AGI. So the relevant attributes of an AGI program do not consist only of the relationships between its inputs and outputs."
How do we tell that this disconnected brain is thinking, feeling, and creating explanations if we cannot examine its inputs and outputs.  What alternative to evaluating a system behaviorally does Dr. Deutsch propose that we use in order to decide if that system is intelligent?

In fact, earlier in the article Dr. Deutsch implies a behavioral test.  The AGI should write a paper on Dark Matter accepted for publication by an academic journal.


"Expecting to create an AGI without first understanding in detail how it works is like expecting skyscrapers to learn to fly if we build them tall enough."
And yet, the one General Intelligence we know of was built without understanding in detail how it works. 

The analogy also fails because General Intelligences exist.  Flying skyscrapers don't exist.

Also, you can learn a lot about how something needs to work by trying to build it before you completely understand all the details.  The act of building something wonderfully focuses your mind as to which details are critical to understand and which can be glossed over.


Likewise, when a computer program beats a grandmaster at chess, the two are not using even remotely similar algorithms. The grandmaster can explain why it seemed worth sacrificing the knight for strategic advantage and can write an exciting book on the subject. The program can only prove that the sacrifice does not force a checkmate, and cannot write a book because it has no clue even what the objective of a chess game is.
In fact, computers and grandmasters do use vaguely similar algorithms.  It is true that the computer is far more precise and examines far more data in far more detail.  But basic concepts are shared between the grandmaster and the computer.  Both learn to look at board positions and evaluate them to decide how favorable a board position is to each side. They learn how to balance mobility with material.  While we might not program a chess playing program to write a book, we could write a book describing the features of a board that a program was looking at and the weights that it assigned to those features and why the program decided to sacrifice the knight for some other strategic advantage.

Both the program and the grandmaster use some sort of min-max algorithm to evaluate the outcome of a tree of moves.  Both use some sort of quiescence evaluation to decide when a board position is sufficiently static that it makes sense to evaluate the board.  Computer programs are very consciously modeled on the thought processes used by humans.



Overall Dr. Deutsch is too quick to dismiss emergent behavior.  We do view glimpses of emergent creative behavior from our current systems.  We do have various techniques, and we will refine other techniques, for generating nano-conjectures and nano-criticisms, the key components in generating nano-creativity.  Just as with chess where we took a couple of simple techniques and then scaled them up by a factor of trillions, we will execute scads of these nano-conjectures and nano-criticisms across massively parallel hardware, possibly far more hardware than is available to a human brain, and when we tie these together, we will get results that are truly creative.


While writing this I also found another response to Deutsch.