A Competition of Values

I’ve written about values in the past and it was something that I’ve felt was really important to me. However, it wasn’t until I had read Lost Connections (see my review here) that my values, education as a Lean practitioner, and my work environment was a major source of my depression. I think at some level I knew this, because I would get frustrated often and talk about it with the one or two people that really understood it. When I read two sections of Lost Connections, I put a couple pieces together.

In one section, Hari talks about how being unable to control things in your job, regardless of the type of work, completely destroys someone’s sense of worth and drives you into a state of hopelessness and depression. This can lead to anxiety and the inability to plan, because the depression and anxiety shrink your time horizon down to the immediacy of dealing with the person in control of your work life. This is something that his abhorrent to Lean, Agile, and Six Sigma methodologies. Where the goal is to push down decision making to the person closest to the actual work. In companies that really focus on driving down cost or having the single point of decision making, this can be anathema to the company culture.

The second section that hit home was the portion about our culture being at odds with our intrinsic values. Considering that I’ve been immersed so deeply with Lean, I have a strong sense of what i believe is fair for technology and social policies, it’s unsurprising that the current political environment was contributing to my depression. I had tried to fight this by writing, but I had just felt beaten down. I didn’t feel like I had anyone around me to talk with to support my values, this plunged me into farther depression.

This is where you need to find like people around you and I completely failed in that. I needed support for my values to be able to compete with the unhealthy cultural values i was thrown into at work. While I threw myself into an unhealthy amount of news and media about current politics. These two together over a series of months and years really started to take a toll on me. I suspect that I’m not alone in this. No matter what your principles are, you need to have a strong support network to keep those values healthy. You also have to be aware that your values are under attack by a society that values things very differently than you do. By a society that’s trying to exploit your anxiety to take your money to make you feel better. Because that item is the only thing that will make you feel better.

I had thought I was immune to that because I read a lot. I wasn’t out on Facebook or any places like that really trying to keep up with the Joneses. But I believe that I just dealt with that issue in other ways, including eating more than I should when I’m depressed, having a couple more drinks that I needed, or by shutting myself away from friends and family through gaming or reading or staring off into nothingness.

However, I now know that this is a thing that has happened to me and I can stop and listen to what I’m feeling. I’m going to with help of my friends locally and online to discuss my values and how I’m feeling about things. I’m going to sit with these feelings to understand them and figure out what it is that is in conflict causing me to feel this way and then make a plan to address it. As it is, i’m going to be working with my wife to figure how to get more connected with nature and how to get connected with more people in the area. As a way to get connected and be healthier.

I’m really glad I found this book, because it’s helped me feel a lot lighter about things. It’s helped me understand that I’m not broken, I have problems that cause depression, but they are solvable and I just need to ask for help and figure out to fix them with my partner.

Researchers Have “Solved” Poker and What it Could Mean

Today, Chezz pointed me to a really interesting article. Apparently have figured out how to pretty much guarantee a win in “Heads Up Limit Hold ‘Em” Poker. This is the poker equivalent to beating chess masters head to head, like what Deep Blue did in the 90’s and what Watson did more recently on Jeopardy! The difference between these instances though is all players in the game have the same basic information. In chess all the information to inform any move and future moves are available with a glance at the board. In Jeopardy! it’s a little different because it’s knowledge based, but to create the question to the answer, it’s what you know, but the answer is there for everyone at the same time.

In poker, it’s different because you, initially, know only 2 cards out of the 52 in the deck, as the play continues you know more. So you’re dealing with imperfect information about what action to take. This is important, because that’s what you need to do as a player is address that uncertainty. In this program the researchers developed a great learning tool that was able to determine the best course of play and with the experience the researchers gave the program they effectively created an unbeatable computer.

However, the game is limited to a 1 vs. 1 situation with a limit to how much the players are able to bet in any given situation. Those limits are based on multiples of the opening bid. These limits, I’m sure, will eventually be generalized to handle any number of players and then any number of betting options, such as no limit.

Once this happens, I think that these learning systems will have or could have a dramatic impact on a great deal of things. First, trading is essentially poker and the companies that will likely leverage this first will be the companies that deal in high frequency trading. This will make the computers act very differently than they are now and with these new learning algorithms built into them, it could dramatically reshape our stock markets (more than they have been to this point). Second, these systems would be used to “help” with negotiations in any number of situations. I’m thinking initially diplomatic situations where there are a great deal of stakes on the table, which most of them are known, but the information is incomplete. In these cases a computer can greatly augment the capabilities of the diplomat that wouldn’t have been possible in the past, which could either increase the likelihood of a war or reduce it depending on what the goals of the computer are. What does “winning” mean in those cases. So setting those clear boundaries will be important, but that’s why having a person there to augment the machine is crucial as they would provide that feedback over the course of the negotiations.

Finally, this one is by far the largest stretch, but it might be more possible to plan or react to a great deal of the actions of economic entities. This means that governments could leverage these applications to help determine the best determine where to invest as well as where to buy to help truly manage the economy. The central bank could change dramatically.

None of these situations are going to happen overnight. Most likely we’re 2-3 years from multiplayer with no limit hold ’em and 5 years for more monetizable uses for this application. Rest assured these algorithms will be used in a business at some point. Watson and Deep Blue have been repurposed to make IBM money. Expect something similar and I think that these are all very realistic applications that these researcher could pursue. What do you think?

What can Interstellar Teach us about the tragedy of the Commons? (spoilers)

This post will contains some minor spoilers for the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, then stop reading now.

The tragedy of the commons represents a common good that without proper communication and planning can be destroyed through maximizing an individual’s utility. What does that mean? Well, a group of ranchers are sharing a field. One of them decides to make some additional money by buying, just ONE more head of cattle. He lets it eat in the grass that everyone else is sharing. No negative impact happens, the farmers discuss the number of cattle, which they had all agreed upon beforehand to be a set number. Since he increased his, everyone else does the same, eventually the land will not be able to sustain all the extra head of cattle, and the next year cattle start to die of starvation. Creating a crash in the economy.

According to Stephen Gardiner climate change represents a tragedy of the commons. However, instead of the ranchers, we have our great grand parent’s decision impacting our climate today. Climate change effectively started during the Industrial Revolution and our actions will be impacting future generations. Since the future generation does not have a voice in the conversation, it’s hard for us to put off current needs for future needs. This is further exasperated by the fact that we cannot even work to improve conditions for our own children, let alone some faceless grand child or great grandchild down the road.

Interstellar offers a glimpse into why this is so difficult. First, there’s clearly gaps in education, Interstellar points this out through exaggerating what a lot of school boards are currently doing, they go to the extreme to say that the Apollo missions are faked as a propaganda tool to destroy the Soviet Union. Second, Matthew McConaughey is one of the few forward thinking individuals, but he knows that we are continually leaving worse and worse conditions for our children, as a farmer he can see how poorly we’re fighting the blight that is killing our crops. Third, the time dilation he experiences being close to a blackhole allows him, while he’s still young, to see the full effects of his generations decisions on his children. He’s fully impotent to do anything about it, but he knows that the choices they made have fully doomed his children. Finally and I think most impactful, is the scene where Murph dies. He sees his grand children and great grand children and doesn’t even acknowledge them. He did everything he could for Murph but had no interest in seeing how all of this impacted his’s child’s children. Furthermore, Murph didn’t seem to want him to try to bridge that divide. Rather than try to build a relationship with the world as it was she pushed him to reunite with a crewmate that came from the same “world” as him.

All of these indicate that we have a serious tragedy of the commons problem. That education is required to even have a hope to combat the tragedy of the commons for climate change. That we must figure out a way to see past the here and now and create a seriously forward looking plan. That we cannot simply rely on a few forward thinking people because even they are limited in how much they can look to the future.

This is a serious concern because we now have a leader on the environmental committee in the US congress that doesn’t accept the evidence presented by scientists. Furthermore, the fact that lawmakers aren’t scientists seems to excuse them from understanding what people are saying about climate change.

We cannot expect some “they” to come and allow us to rescue ourselves with “their” help. We have to figure this out on our own. We’re failing miserably right now.

Another book that does a good job outlining these intergernational problems is the Forever War.

Time Travel could it work?

Apparently some folks thinks they figured out how you could go back in time kill your dear old grampappy and everything would work out alright. It’s a highly convoluted thing and I’m not really sure I understand any of it. But that’s ok, because it’s quantum physics. Quantum physics is one of the complicated types of physics we have discovered (discovered because it was always there, but never applied or understood).

The general idea is that because of gravity, something called a “Closed Time-like Curve” can exist. From what I understand these represent a likelihood of something occurring in like and/or particles. These are the likely ways that light might split into multiple particles (only to recombine later in most cases) or be consumed and re-emitted by another particle. Effectively, it creates a probability distribution that says one of these options might happen. In the case about your granddad surviving, you have to have a 50% chance of survival for everything to work as expected. If the likelihood of an event falls below that, then it wouldn’t happen. Essentially, you would need to create a scenario where your grandfather would survive as often as he died. That sounds like you’d have to do some pretty elaborate planning to be sure he might survive or he might die.

Feynman Diagram

This would work because of that recombination effect that I mentioned earlier. When light moves from point A to B it doesn’t have to go directly there. Richard Feynman created his famous (for math people) diagrams that were able to explain how these particles moved and emitted particles.

In some cases the light would move around and eventually recombine, but it would always end up at the point it was expected to based on the other attributes of that light. Because of these features, the physicist was able to do some experiments with light to actually create a “killing your own grand dad” situation. This allowed them to offer empirical evidence not just theoretical.

That being said, it’s really unclear if anything at that size would ever work in actuality at sizes we can actually interact with on a daily basis. We can stop light and we can teleport light too. That doesn’t mean we’ll be having Scotty beaming us up soon though. Likely this discovery will find it’s way into quantum computing or cryptography as mentioned in the article. Unfortunately it’s not really practical and will probably be discredited in a few years like the whole faster than light fiasco from a few years ago.

Philanthropy, Private industry, and science

Apparently I’m not too happy with the NYT magazine and their exposés of late. First there was the long article about millenials and how they don’t want to work for the “old guard” which is ahistoric and ignores a great deal of the similarities between the silicon valley of today and the past silicon valleys and other similar environs.

Now they are rushing about in concern over private scientific research. Apparently, it’s a new big problem. It’s neither new nor a problem. First of all some historical context. Scientific labs as we know them today were truly founded through industrial labs. These labs were initially in the dye industry back in Germany in the late 1800s, sure there were university labs, but they weren’t researching as big of thing as the industrial labs started. These labs had problems that couldn’t be solved in academic settings. The universities were training grounds for scientists, but in many cases the scientists actually did their doctoral research at Bayer or a similar type dye company. These dye companies almost all became pharmaceutical companies over time because of the similarity in chemistries between dyes and pharmaceuticals.

This was in the 1800s and really hasn’t abated. I’ve written about Bell Labs and Xerox in the past which are essentially the Bayer equivalent for telecom, semiconductors, and computers.

Science has always been a combination of public, private, and universities. In fact, research that I conducted through my master’s degree has shown that the INTERACTION between private industries and universities produces the most important work (in terms of citations). Our concern should not be if science is going private or not. Our concern should be if they are sharing with the broader scientific community. That’s the biggest risk. It’s one of the biggest problems with industrial scientific research – it never reaches the light of day even if it becomes a product.

Why doesn’t it? Well, simply because it’s better protection for some processes for the technique not to be patented. In the case where something is relatively easy to copy (an iPhone) it’s best to patent because you’re protected them. In the case where it’s very difficult to copy (a nitride layer on an Intel chip) it’s best to hide that process as deep as possible. In fact, it’s best if any technique that would uncover the underlying process to make that nitride layer from reverse engineering destroys the product. For Intel, this is the best result, for the rest of the world, it’s suboptimal as Global Foundries and TSMC will struggle for years to reverse engineer the layer if they ever can. This slows the innovation process as a whole, but we’re willing to suffer this inefficiency because Intel makes some nice chips.

Beyond this debate, the author is upset that someone would want to push scientific research in one direction that might only help white people or rich people. Unfortunately, this is capitalism. We may not like it in basic research that is going to be used to cure diseases, but we tolerate it with Intel so we need to be realistic and tolerate it in this case. Furthermore, I think that the author doesn’t understand that adjacencies in research in diseases will arise and we’ll learn more about all humans, not just them white folks. Ironically, at this point the author calls out a researcher that is working with an Oracle billionaire – that researcher works at Rockefeller University.

What are seen now as seminal research institutions in many cases started out through the very philanthropy the author is upset about. Carnegie Mellon University was the combination of two institutions in Pittsburgh started by an industrialist and a banker. It is one of the most respected research organizations in the world. These men were driven by the same desire to push scientific research as Bill Gates and the other (mostly) men on the list.

Is this a perfect system? Not by a long shot, however in the current political environment scientists are going to take money from whatever source they can. It’s merely practicality. A professor will typically have anywhere between 1-10 grad students. These students at the PhD level will likely be fully funded by the professor. If that professor does not get funding, those kids don’t get to keep working and either have to find another adviser or quit. Here’s the kicker in the case that professor does get money – a large proportion of that funding is taken and allocated to less profitable portions of the organization. At University of Texas, this meant that the EE department was probably funding part of the Chemistry Department. Some departments are like the Football team, while others are like the Swimming team. The swimming team might be winners, but are in a small market.

If we truly wanted change in the way we fund scientific research we need to increase the amount of public investment across multiple institutions. We need to increase funding across multiple types of research fields, specifically focusing on the intersections between academic fields. Push for collaboration between industry and universities as well as collaboration across national boundaries. All of these improve the citation rate and quality of the research. We can even work to partner public funds with private funds – we just need full disclosure.

The problem isn’t privatization. We’ve had an oscillation between really publicly funded (1960-70’s with NASA) and really privately funded. In all cases science has marched on – we just need to make sure it keeps on marching.

Weather, urban planning, and regional differences

So, you may or may not be aware, Portland got some snow. Compared to my friends in Pittsburgh, it was about the same they were getting every few weekends. We got between 5-8 inches in the span of a day or so. The impact compared to the east coast city was absolutely insane. There were 500 accidents on Thursday night alone. The public transportation system was almost completely shut down and tomorrow may not be running – I’ll be working from home tomorrow because of that risk. I’ve seen more tire chains here than I have in my entire life having grown up in part of the Snow Belt. It’s amazing the differences.

The major highway between myself and Portland had multiple inches of snow standing on it after a full day with light snowing. I’ve never seen it before. There was actually a full lane missing because of it.

Why does this happen? Well, first Portland normally doesn’t get this type of snow, this was the most since 1971 or something like that. Second, they just don’t have the infrastructure for it. To buy enough salt or trucks to deal with this once in 30 year incident isn’t really responsible buying for a government.

Compared to Pittsburgh which deals with this sort of thing on a regular basis they have designed their infrastructure around dealing with snow or enabling people to get around it. Plus, they just drive through that stuff even if they shouldn’t because they have no choice. Unlike Portland, Pittsburgh doesn’t have as robust of a public transportation system, not that it mattered since the Max was down for a bulk of the weekend.

What does this tell us about urban planning? First, because of climate change, we need to begin thinking about how we’ll be experiencing more snow and extreme storms similar to this. How can we design our mass transit systems and our highway systems to be able to handle these extreme storms? In the case of the Max in Portland, I think they should install some sort of heating element into the switches, which apparently freeze over, so these don’t stop the Max from running.

I think the interesting thing about the snow here and in other locations is that it really brings out spaces that aren’t used by vehicles. This article really pointed it out for me: What Snows Tells Us About Creating Better Public Places. I think that it’s not just snow that points out the spaces that we to design better, but rain does so as well. Thinking back to the flash flooding we’d get in Austin and how that would impact moving around the city, we need to think about how to design these spaces to minimize the impact on people and the environment around the city.

Overall, we need to think about how to plan our cities better for new weather patterns. This is going to take some serious investment into our infrastructure. This will create jobs, but unfortunately mean we need to spend more tax money on our cities. Portland shouldn’t have been shut down from 5 inches of snow, especially not the public transportation, we need to figure out how to enable public transportation no matter what. People that don’t want to drive need that, plus parking in the city costs a ton more than parking. Let’s figure this out.

Science as Diplomacy, nothing new

Healthcare is a big deal these days. In the US costs are soaring, arguably Obama’s legacy rests on his controversial law the Affordable Care Act, and Republicans have risked shutting down the government over the law. So, it’s no surprise when it’s in the news for other reasons. According to The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the group that publishes the prestigious journal Science, healthcare is now starting to impact diplomacy. Researchers from several different countries are creating novel ways to introduce addicts in both China and the US to the other’s style of medicine. In the US traditional Chinese methods are being experimented within clinics. While in China “western” medicine is being introduced in a very specific manner to address the same issues.

There are several organizations beyond the one I linked to above that deal with cross-cultural issues using either science, engineering, or healthcare. Organizations like Doctor’s Without Boarders work in many different parts of the world to bring care to those in need. These are volunteers that are doing good deeds to bring care to those that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

A similar organization is Engineer’s Without Boarders, which improves local conditions of a village or community through technology. For example, one of my friends I met Austin (now teaching at Harvard) would regularly visit a community in Mexico to install different solar panel arrays. This allowed them to have clean drinking water, power for mobile devices, cooking, and heating.

All of these activities help develop good will from one country to another. In fact, foreign exchange students that fully engage with their classmates are also great diplomats. I know that while I was abroad in Europe my friends decided that they would want to visit the US because I introduced them to what people in the US could be like rather than what they’d heard on the TV.

Interestingly, science and engineering have been used for diplomatic reasons for a very long time. I find the most interesting to be the period after World War II. Science played a huge part in rebuilding nearly all of western Europe as well as Japan. Why did we do that? Because we felt having Germany and Japan as allies against the Soviet Union was more important than kicking an enemy while they were down.

The German’s had invented the V2 rocket, which the US wanted to use for our own rockets as well as for nobler purposes. To gain the technical competence to build the rockets we decided to recruit as many Germans scientists as possible and bring them to the US. These were Nazi’s and some of them were likely war criminals, however because we needed them for the Cold War we decided to take advantage of them.

The trade wasn’t simply one way though. The US government encouraged companies to open their doors to European companies. This allowed our allies to rebuild their economy. In fact, the US business leaders like Deming to Japan, which eventually enabled Toyota to best the US automakers with techniques they turned down. These interactions dramatically changed how Europe and Japan evolved over the next few decades.

Diplomacy using science isn’t anything new. It was influential through the Marshall Plan after WWII and will continue to influence the rest of the world. It could be argued that our patent system enables the US prescription drug consumer to subsidize all other economies for their prescription drug use. This is an accidental type of diplomacy that is make the lives better for billions around the world.

I hope that in the future we will continue to influence the world through science and technology support. However, it is best if we help develop the technologies with locals rather than handing them a finished product. As the book Shock of the Old argues in many contexts the newest technology isn’t the best, the best technology is what does the job well enough that the people using the technology can understand and keep running.