August 2009 Archives

Intelligent robots can't be trusted

I recently blogged about the danger of intelligent robots. Today’s news brings another reason for concern. Intelligent robots have evolved the ability to deceive:

We use a system of experimental evolution with robots foraging in an arena containing a food source to study how communication strategies can evolve to regulate information provided by such cues. Robots could produce information by emitting blue light, which other robots could perceive with their cameras. Over the first few generations, robots quickly evolved to successfully locate the food, while emitting light randomly. This resulted in a high intensity of light near food, which provided social information allowing other robots to more rapidly find the food. Because robots were competing for food, they were quickly selected to conceal this information.

In other words, the robots quickly learned to deceive other robots for their personal benefit.

Posted by James on Aug 21, 2009

Investor's Business Daily: "Stephen Hawking wouldn't have a chance in the U.K."

The ignorance (“keep your government hands off my Medicare!”) and fear-mongering over healthcare reform are unbelievable, but this Investor’s Business Daily editorial takes the cake:

“People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.”

Easy mistake to make, I guess, because America’s edjakashun system is the best in the world, so Hawking must live here. And he doesn’t talk with a British accent.

Besides, it’s not fair to give your country two names! How are we supposed to know “England” is also part of “the U.K.”? Doesn’t Hawking teach at the University of Kentucky?

Posted by James on Aug 11, 2009

Is depression so helpful we evolved the ability to become depressed?

New research suggests depression evolved to help us solve cognitively difficult challenges, especially social challenges, by focusing our attention and enabling us to identify the source(s) of our depression and analytically brainstorm for solutions.

A reader-friendly summary of the research is available at Scientific American.

The scientific article is available here. Its abstract states:

Substantial evidence indicates that depression focuses attention on the problems that caused the episode, so much that it interferes with the ability to focus on other things. We hypothesized that depression evolved as a response to important, complex problems that could only be solved, if they could be solved at all, with an attentional state that was highly focused for sustained periods. Under this hypothesis, depression promotes analysis and problem-solving by focusing attention on the problem and reducing distractibility. This predicts that attentionally demanding problems will elicit depressed affect in subjects. We also propose two control-process mechanisms by which depression could focus attention and reduce distractibility. Under these mechanisms, depression exerts a force on attention like that of a spring when it is pulled or like a magnet on a steel ball. These mechanisms make different predictions about how depressed people respond emotionally to a task that pulls attention away from their problems. We tested these predictions in a sample of 115 undergraduate students. Consistent with our main prediction, initially non-depressed subjects experienced an increase in their depressed affect when exposed to an attentionally demanding task. Moreover, the overall pattern of results supported the magnet metaphor.

Posted by James on Aug 28, 2009

Message from Europe: "There is a mean and merciless streak in mainstream US attitudes"

Few Americans travel to Europe, Asia, Africa or South America (and those that do tend to eat at McDonalds and read U.S. newspapers rather than engage with the culture and mix with the locals). That’s a great shame because we could learn a great deal about ourselves by hearing what other people think of us.

Most non-Americans think America’s eagerness to sell guns — even automatic weapons — to virtually anyone is insane (and it is). They think our world-leading incarceration rate is insane (and it is). But if all you know is America, it’s hard to think critically about this “perfect” nation… “perfect” according to the mobs screaming “Blame America First!” whenever anyone suggests America’s gunboat diplomacy foreign policy is anything short of a Christ-like gift to humanity.

Ironically, the Fox Snooze watchers who so frequently proclaim America the greatest nation on Earth are the very Americans with the least exposure to and knowledge of… yes… those many other nations on Earth. They’re the ones so outraged by France’s refusal to invade Iraq — because it had no WMDs — that they renamed French fries “Freedom fries” (oblivious, of course, to the fact that French fries are actually Belgian).

Given their long experience with various forms of government-run and government-directed healthcare, other nations possess mountains of valuable information and advice on how best to reform our healthcare system — 37th in the world in outcomes but the runaway “winner” in terms of expense. But instead of mining those facts to craft the world’s greatest healthcare system, our highly compensated status quo defenders in government, business and the media have been bombarding Americans with groundless, scary lies about “rationing” (as if that’s not already happening), “government bureaucrats standing between you and your doctor” (as if that’s worse than insurance company bureaucrats — who profit by denying you coverage — standing between you and your doctor), “socialism” (what’s so scary about that?), etc.

Well, here’s what one Brit — Mary Dejevsky, who happens to have the exact global vision most Americans lack: “One of the country’s most respected commentators on Russia, the EU and the US, Mary Dejevsky has worked as a foreign correspondent all over the world, including Washington, Paris and Moscow” — sees when she looks at America:

When we Europeans – the British included – contemplate the battles President Obama must fight to reform the US health system, our first response tends to be disbelief. How can it be that so obvious a social good as universal health insurance, so humane a solution to common vulnerability, is not sewn deep into the fabric of the United States? How can one of the biggest, richest and most advanced countries in the world tolerate a situation where, at any one time, one in six of the population has to pay for their treatment item by item, or resort to hospital casualty wards?

…With most pensioners protected by the state system known as Medicare, an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude prevails. It coexists with the fear that extending the pool of the insured, to the poorer and more illness-prone, will raise premiums for the healthy and bring queuing, or rationing, of care – which is why stories about the NHS inspire such dread. The principle that no one should be penalised financially by illness is trumped by the self-interest of the majority, then rationalised by the argument that health is a matter of personal responsibility.

The point is that, when on “normal”, the needle of the US barometer is not only quite a way to the political right of where it would be in Europe, but showing a very different atmospheric level, too. For there is a mean and merciless streak in mainstream US attitudes, which tolerates much more in the way of inequality, deprivation and suffering than is acceptable here, while incorporating a large and often sanctimonious quotient of blame.

Posted by James on Aug 26, 2009

"Mr. President, I can't tell if you're a Jedi... or if this health care thing is kicking your ass"

The healthcare debate has seemingly gotten out of control, with public debate being focused on absurdities like non-existent “death panels” and comparisons of Obama to Hitler.

The key word above — I hope and pray — is “seemingly” because some hold out hope Obama is slyly working the political system to achieve the best healthcare reform possible. As genius — and top U.S. newsman — Jon Stewart put it, “Mr. President, I can’t tell if you’re a Jedi, 10 steps ahead of everything, or if this health care thing is kicking your ass.”

I don’t know whether Obama’s a Jedi or not, but Dr/Governor Howard Dean presented — on Morning Joe — a cogent explanation of how Obama might be hedging on the public option as part of a crafty plan to circumvent the power of some key Senate Blue Dog Democrats (i.e., Republicans in Democratic clothing) who oppose a public option:

JOE: If you were Senator Dean from Vermont and the president tried to pass a health care bill that didn’t have a public option in it, like this one that’s going to be on the floor of the senate at some point, would you vote for a health care bill without a public option?

DEAN: I wouldn’t vote for a final bill without a public option under any circumstances. Because I don’t think we ought to dump $60 billion into the health insurance industry, which is what this bill would do. On the other hand, I think what is going on here is nothing more than politics. The president knows very well that you aren’t really going to have health care reform without a public option. But he also knows he has to get this out of the senate. And he’s got a very important member of the Finance Committee, Kent Conrad, who doesn’t want to vote for this bill if it has a public option in it. And he knows he’s not going to get any Republicans votes of any kind. So at the end of the day this bill’s going to be written by Democrats, it’s got to get out of the senate and you only need a few Democrats to take out the public option.

JOE: Let me explain to people what you’re saying. The House is going to pass a version with a public option. The senate will pass a version without a public option. You get past the 60 votes. You go to reconciliation, you put the public option back in. And then you vote it on it and you only need 50 votes. And you get a public option.


JOE: Is that what you’re saying?

DEAN: Basically, yes.

If these powerful Senators figure out what Obama’s doing (or even suspect it), they might well refuse to pass an initial bill that could lead to a different bill being sent back to the Senate for final passage. But it’s possible they care only about APPEARING to put up a fight for their financial backers. And I’m not sure how the House and Senate would reconcile their conflicting bills. But it’s an intriguing possibility, especially since the recent letter from 60 progressive House Democrats to the White House specifically says they won’t vote for a FINAL bill that lacks a public option, as if they expect the fate of the public option to be determined in conference committee.

Posted by James on Aug 19, 2009

Open-source education

I’m extremely excited by the explosion of free, open-source educational materials being provided over the Internet.

In recent years, I’ve used video lectures, sound files, and text-based tutorials to learn about accounting, finance, Ruby on Rails, Java, data structures and algorithms, Mandarin, JQuery, how to replace a mailbox, etc.

I’m even engaged in building such a tool right now.

Well, here’s another wonderful development: California has just recognized some astonishingly good free, open-source textbooks that anyone with school-aged children should download. You can download them as PDFs from California’s Free Digital Textbook Initiative.

Posted by James on Aug 13, 2009

Our unquenchable greed: "Barely squeaking by on $300,000 a year"

Psychologists speak of “the hedonic treadmill”: our drive to work harder and harder to acquire fancy stuff that actually makes us no happier (after a brief burst of excitement). We’re always looking around and comparing ourselves to those who have more stuff — faster cars, bigger houses, more elite country club memberships, more glamorous vacations — than we do.

Though we’re quick to take whatever stuff we possess for granted, we’re astonishingly addicted to it and scarcely able to conceive of life without it.

Many families live very happily in $125,000 homes, yet a woman profiled in Sunday’s Washington Post insists she’s “barely squeaking by” in her $2.5 million home with her mere $300,000 annual income:

Her property taxes [on her $2.5 million house] are $35,000 a year, the nanny is $40,000 and the gardener is $500 a month.

“I can ride this storm out,” says Steins…

Laura Steins doesn’t mind saying that she is barely squeaking by on $300,000 a year. She lives in a place where the boom years of Wall Street pushed the standard of living to astonishing heights. Where fifth-graders shop at a store called Lester’s that sells $114 tween-size True Religion jeans. Where a cup of fresh spinach and carrot juice called the Iron Maiden costs $7.95…

As a vice president at MasterCard’s corporate office in Purchase, N.Y., she earns a base pay of $150,000 plus a bonus. This year she’ll take home 10 percent less because of a smaller bonus. She receives $75,000 a year in child support from her ex-husband. She figures she will pull an additional $50,000 from a personal investment account to “pick up the slack.”

The nanny and property taxes take $75,000 right off the top, but Steins considers both non-negotiable facts of her life and not discretionary. When she bought out her husband’s share of the house after their 2006 divorce, she assumed the costs of keeping it afloat — $8,000 to $10,000 a month. There’s a pool man, a gardener and someone to plow the snow from the quarter-mile-long driveway.

As tight as money is, she has decided that living in a 4,000-square-foot house on three acres is the practical thing to do…

“We might live in nice houses and drive nice cars, but we’re just holding on,” she says.

Posted by James on Aug 18, 2009

Richer than God: 1% of Americans "earn" 24% of national income and own 34% of total wealth

A long New York Times article titled “Rise of the Super-Rich Hits a Sobering Wall,” concludes with these astonishing statistics:

In 2007, the top one ten-thousandth of households took home 6 percent of the nation’s income, up from 0.9 percent in 1977. It was the highest such level since at least 1913, the first year for which the I.R.S. has data.

The top 1 percent of earners took home 23.5 percent of income, up from 9 percent three decades earlier. offers an interesting visual analogy for understanding the U.S. income distribution.

And, as lopsided as income is in America, wealth is far more lopsided! The top 5% of Americans own 59% of everything. The top 20% own 85% of everything. (Obviously, the bottom 80% of Americans own only 15%!) For the depressing details, please see this academic article or these charts.

Posted by James on Aug 22, 2009

Stupid Republicans... but I repeat myself

Anyone with half a brain and half a heart has abandoned the GOP by now. The party is now composed of a rich core of greedy anti-taxers and corporate welfare recipients and a broad base of ignorant, gullible Fox “News” addicts. Here’s proof:

According to an NBC News poll released this week, 76 percent of Republicans believe that the health care plan will lead to a government takeover of the health care system; 70 percent believe it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly; and 61 percent believe it will allow the use of taxpayer dollars for abortions.

The people screaming at their Congressmen — and not bothering to listen to their responses… if they even let their Congressmen respond — don’t understand even the most basic facts and readily believe Obama wants to murder the elderly.

What a depressing commentary on the state of our dysfunctional American education system!

Posted by James on Aug 22, 2009

The 4th Amendment vs. "strict constructionism"

A wonderful appeals court ruling today:

A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that federal investigators' seizure of drug-test results of more than 90 major league baseball players five years ago was illegal.

The decision recommended new guidelines for computer searches to prevent investigators from using information about people who are not named in a search warrant but whose private data is stored on a computer being searched.

Investigators looking into steroid use by professional baseball players obtained search warrants and subpoenas for the drug tests results on 10 major league players, but they took the results on 104 players.

The Major League Baseball Players Association sued for the return of the seized results, while the government argued investigators should be able to use them since they were “in plain sight” along with the other results during the search.

The appeals court’s decision says such a standard for computer searches would be dangerous to everyone’s privacy as protected by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

“Seizure of, for example, Google’s e-mail servers to look for a few incriminating messages could jeopardize the privacy of millions,” wrote the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges.

Such an important pro-privacy ruling! So consistent with the intent of our Fourth Amendment’s “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

I sure hope the four fascists on our Supreme Court — “Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. often adopt an expansive view of government power” — fail in their inevitable attempt to overturn this most sensible ruling.

I can already hear their weaselly defense of corporate and governmental power over individual rights: “the search and seizure was ‘reasonable.’ Too bad innocents get swept up in the dragnet, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” and “the right of the people extends only to ‘their persons, houses, papers, and effects’… not to information sitting on a server they neither own nor possess (even if they created that information and retain copyright and other ownership rights on it).”

Disgustingly, these Supreme Court justices will “justify” their reasoning on the grounds of being “strict constructionists.” They’ll claim they’re ruling based solely on the actual words in the 4th Amendment. They’ll conveniently ignore the fact that the spirit of the 4th Amendment is completely obvious. They’ll similarly ignore the inability of early Americans to conceive of the Internet, remote servers, Facebook, Google, etc. And then they’ll apply a nit-picking interpretation of the 4th Amendment’s words to rob Americans of the very rights the 4th Amendment clearly intended to guarantee.

Posted by James on Aug 28, 2009

The effect of stress on mice... and (wo)men

Wise companies long ago realized that providing stress-busting “perks” — e.g., health insurance, childcare, quality lunches, gym memberships, ample vacation time, psychological counseling, flex time, workplaces with natural lighting, convenient transportation (like the Google bus for Google employees) — is not just a nice thing to do for employees but a huge productivity booster.

Scientists are now uncovering hard proof:

[C]hronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

Moreover, the rats’ behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.

In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.”

Posted by James on Aug 18, 2009

The United States of Goldman Sachs

Since the recent financial crisis began, Goldman Sachs has received tens or hundreds of billions in cash from the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Federal Reserve. (The amount is likely in the hundreds of billions but is unknown because the Fed has handed out many TRILLIONS of dollars while refusing to reveal which banks received what.) And its former employees — like former Goldman CEO turned Treasury Secretary Henry “Hank” Paulson, who largely control Washington, DC financial policy — have whacked Goldman’s two main rivals/competitors — Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns.

As if you need any more proof Goldman’s running the show, look what happened after Goldman discovered a former employee had downloaded 32 megabytes of a 1,224-megabyte program:

Mr. Aleynikov was taken for interrogation to F.B.I. offices in Manhattan. Mr. Aleynikov waived his rights against self-incrimination, and agreed to allow agents to search his house.

He said that he had inadvertently downloaded a portion of Goldman’s proprietary code while trying to take files of open source software — programs that are not proprietary and can be used freely by anyone. He said he had not used the Goldman code at his new job or distributed it to anyone else, and the criminal complaint offers no evidence that he has…

Sabrina Shroff, a public defender who represents Mr. Aleynikov, responded that he had transferred less than 32 megabytes of Goldman proprietary code, a small fraction of the overall program, which is at least 1,224 megabytes. Kevin N. Fox, the magistrate judge, ordered Mr. Aleynikov released on bond…

Harvey A. Silverglate, a criminal defense lawyer in Boston not involved in the case, said he was troubled that the F.B.I. had arrested Mr. Aleynikov so quickly, without evidence that he had made any effort to use or sell the code. Such disputes are generally resolved civilly rather than criminally, Mr. Silverglate said.

“It is astonishing that the F.B.I. arrested this defendant at all,” he said. Other firms have also sued former employees recently over concern about high-frequency trading software, though two similar cases are the subject of civil suits rather than criminal prosecution.

Whether or not this former employee stole the code, it’s a private company’s responsibility to protect its proprietary code, not the FBI’s job. This was not code for launching nuclear missiles or protecting America’s vital infrastructure. It was not credit card information that could be used to rip off unknowing Americans. It was code written purely to make money for Goldman Sachs by buying and selling shares of stock really, really quickly and by exploiting unfair information advantages Goldman has.

Our tax dollars should not be wasted protecting software that helps Goldman Sachs get rich by taking dollars away from other investors.

Besides, what is Goldman Sachs doing with software that the U.S. government says “could be used to ‘unfairly manipulate’ stock prices”!?!? Should the U.S. be protecting Goldman Sachs' code or prosecuting them for market manipulation?

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2009

‘The World Is in Trouble’

Deutsche Bank’s chief economist Norbert Walter sounds very scared, proclaiming “The world is in trouble” and “2010 could be a worrisome year.” Why?

The rescue packages brought on have been so costly for so many governments that the exit from this fiscal policy will be very painful, very painful indeed. Some of us are already talking about a W-shaped recovery. I’d probably talk about a triple-U-shaped recovery because there are so many stumbling blocks here to get out of this…

I’m deeply worried about the worries of those investors who have invested a lot, really a lot into the dollar… If they have second thoughts about the quality of this currency then the dollar is bound to weaken.

Posted by James on Aug 16, 2009

Those who(se fellow citizens) forget the past are doomed to repeat it

Paul Krugman says too many Americans cling to an ideology thoroughly and repeatedly discredited by glaringly obvious historical facts:

[T]he short version [of the cause of our recent financial crisis and many-trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout] is simple: politicians in the thrall of Reaganite ideology dismantled the New Deal regulations that had prevented banking crises for half a century, believing that financial markets could take care of themselves. The effect was to make the financial system vulnerable to a 1930s-style crisis — and the crisis came.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937. “We know now that it is bad economics.” And last year we learned that lesson all over again.

Or did we? The astonishing thing about the current political scene is the extent to which nothing has changed.

The debate over the public option has, as I said, been depressing in its inanity. Opponents of the option — not just Republicans, but Democrats like Senator Kent Conrad and Senator Ben Nelson — have offered no coherent arguments against it. Mr. Nelson has warned ominously that if the option were available, Americans would choose it over private insurance — which he treats as a self-evidently bad thing, rather than as what should happen if the government plan was, in fact, better than what private insurers offer.

Posted by James on Aug 24, 2009

What is satisfying work? How should we educate our children?

[I began this post months ago but never posted it]

I loved this article praising the value of manual labor. The author — who loves the challenge of repairing motorcycles — argues that “Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid” and then shows that manual trades often require substantial knowledge, deductive reasoning and creative thinking:

In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire….

One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

…A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.

Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate… [B]ut on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences….

An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count — not least, the exercise of your own powers of reason.

His point is especially relevant to education because research on children proves that children learn best by following their passions to explore the world with their eyes and hands. Kids who play extensively with blocks, for example, later do very well in subjects like math. “Play” can be a very effective form of education, for children or adults.

Posted by James on Aug 19, 2009