Sunday, January 31, 2010

Krugman confronts Ailes with Fox News' "deliberate" health care "misinformation"

See Media Matters.

It's interesting how so much of what we look at on the web these days isn't traditional web stuff. It's video. But I guess that's the new web.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama has decided to risk it all on turning the political culture around

It's obvious by now, but Paul Krugman Blog - put it well.
Obama is a terrific speaker and a very smart guy. He really showed up the Republicans in the now-famous give-and-take. But we knew that. What’s now in question isn’t his ability to talk, it’s his ability to lead.
It's very disappointing. I wonder if there isn't something more behind it. I don't mean anything sinister. But why is he doing (why has he done) so little? Is anything leaking from people who might know what's going on?

Is it just that he doesn't know how to lead? Leadership in this case means at least two things. First it means getting things done by talking to people in private. Second it means rallying the country to support your causes and creating public pressure to get things done. He has done neither. It doesn't even seem like he's tried. Why not?

Here's Obama's Q&A with the Republicans. He's calm, sensible, and open; the Republicans are attacking, one-sided, and political. What is the country's analysis? Will this stop the Republican attack machine? I doubt it. Everything he says is right. He makes the point that the way the Republican's respond to everything as an opportunity to misrepresent and demonize is very bad for the country. Will it make a difference? I doubt it. He needs to do more.

He can still be calm, etc. But he also has to carry a big stick. And he also has to get individual Republicans to work with him. And he has to do that by talking to them privately and getting some agreement with them. I suspect he won't be able to do that. Any Republican who works with him will be kicked out of their party. How will he deal with that?

So what can he do? Go to the people. Make sure that whenever the Republicans turn a serious debate into political demonization the country understands what's happening and becomes outraged. He (or his representatives) must answer every misrepresentation and make sure people know it a misrepresentation. The Republicans are always center stage attacking. If he doesn't want to attack back, he at least has to be visible responding and teaching the country how destructive the Republican tactic is. He has to do that over and over, daily, and make sure the media publishes it. Unless he can co that, I can't see how it will work.

This is an extraordinarily big gamble he is taking. If it succeeds; if he turns around the attack culture in Washington, he will go down in history as a hero. But if he fails—and so far he has—he will go down in history as a naive, failed one-term president—another Jimmy Carter—someone who perhaps was well intentioned but someone who was chewed up and spit out by the Republican attack machine.

To succeed he has to make teaching the country about the harm being done by our current political climate. That has to be one of his absolutely top priorities. He has to get the people to see that and to demand more reasonable politicians. To do that requires that he spend some time every day on it—and do it in a very visible way.

The interaction with the Republicans could be a good start. Has he done anything since? I haven't heard of anything. It has to be a ongoing day-in-and-day-out effort. Otherwise it will be forgotten as yesterdays' blog piece.

So the questions still comes down to his ability to lead. If the direction in which he wants to lead is to educate the people about how important it is to work cooperatively, he has to spend his time doing that. It won't happen otherwise.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dimmunix: Deadlock Immunity

From Dimmunix: Deadlock Immunity (Dependable Systems Lab)
Dimmunix is a tool for giving software systems … an immune system against deadlock, without any assistance from programmers or users. Dimmunix is well suited for general purpose software (desktop and enterprise applications, server software, etc.) and a recent extension allows application communities to collaborate in achieving enhanced immunity.
I haven't had time to read the paper.
Deadlock immunity is a property by which programs, once afflicted by a given deadlock, develop resistance against future occurrences of that and similar deadlocks. We describe a technique that enables programs to automatically gain such immunity without assistance from programmers or users. We implemented the technique for both Java and POSIX threads and evaluated it with several real systems, including MySQL, JBoss, SQLite, Apache ActiveMQ, Limewire, and Java JDK. The results demonstrate effectiveness against real deadlock bugs, while incurring modest performance overhead and scaling to 1024 threads. We therefore conclude that deadlock immunity offers programmers and users an attractive tool for coping with elusive deadlocks.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Times Skimmer

The NY Times has a great new feature: the Times Skimmer. It's even ad-free. Try it. The only bad thing about it is that it shows you how much interesting stuff is available on just that one website!

Look, for example, at this column by Uwe E. Reinhardt, an economics professor at Princeton, which answers a David Brooks column about our American common sense with respect to the role of government.

Or look at this column by the biologist Sean Carroll about animals with built-in antifreeze. It lead me to this column about animals with built-in toxins.

And then there is this column about how Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo compete. I made that into the blog entry below.

To get to the Times Skimmer from the Times home page, be sure you are in U.S. Edition. (Select U.S. instead of Global from the top of the left navigation list.) Then click "Try the Times Skimmer" on the line below the main logo.

On another subject, I'm trying to figure out what good TimesPeople is. Here are my Times recommendations.

How Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo compete

From The New York Times

This claims they compete almost everywhere. But I think that's a bit of an over-simplification. A better chart would show how much revenue each gets from each market segment, how much of the market each company commands, and how fast that market share is growing.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

He Wasn’t The One We’ve Been Waiting For

Paul Krugman is almost ready to give up on Obama.
who seems determined to confirm every doubt I and others ever had about whether he was ready to fight for what his supporters believed in.

Lawrence Lessig's Change Congress

Big brains for video games

From Cosmic Log
Does playing video games improve your brain? Or do bigger brains make it easier to learn video games?

Psychologists say they can predict how well you'll do on a video game by looking at the size of just three little structures inside your brain. If those structures are bigger, you'll probably catch on more quickly and do better.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The EDGE 2010 question: How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?

Each year Edge asks its group of thinkers a question. This year it is "How has the Internet changed the way you think?" Here are extracts from two of the answers. From Clay Shirky.
Printing was a necessary but not sufficient input to the scientific revolution. The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn't?

They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn't that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other's work.

The chemists were, to use Richard Foreman's phrase, 'pancake people'. They abandoned the spiritual depths of alchemy for a continual and continually incomplete grappling with what was real, a task so daunting that no one person could take it on alone. Though as schoolchildren, the history of science we learn is often marked by the trope of the lone genius, science has always been a networked operation.

In this we can see a precursor to what's possible for us today. Just as the Invisible College didn't just use the printing press as raw capability, but created a culture that used the press to support the transparency and argumentation science relies on, we have the same opportunity.
From Danny Hillis.
Consider as a simple example, a program that needs to know the time of day. In the unconnected world, computers often asked the operator to type in the time when they were powered on. They then kept track of passing time by counting ticks of an internal clock. Programmers often had to write their own program to do this, but in any case, they understood exactly how it worked. Once computers became connected through the Internet, it made more sense for computers to find out the time by asking one another, so something called Network Time Protocol was invented. Most programmers are aware that it exists but few understand it in detail. Instead, they call a library routine, which asks the operating system, which automatically invokes the Network Time Protocol when it is required.

It would take a long time to explain Network Time Protocol, how it corrects for variable network delays and how it takes advantage of a partially-layered hierarchy of network-connected clocks to find the time. Suffice it to say that it is complicated. Besides, I would be describing version 3 of the protocol, and your operating system is probably already using version 4. It really does not make sense for you, even if you are a programmer, to bother to understand how it works.

Now consider a program that is directing delivery trucks to restock stores. It needs to know not just the time of day, but also the locations of the trucks in the fleet, the maps of the streets, the coordinates of its warehouses, the current traffic patterns, and the inventories of its stores. Fortunately it can keep track of all of this changing information by connecting to other computers through the Internet. It can also offer services to other systems that need to track the location of packages, pay drivers, and schedule maintenance of the trucks. All of these systems will depend upon one another to provide information, without depending on exactly how the information is computed. All of these communicating systems are being constantly improved and extended, evolving in time.

Now multiply this picture by a million fold, to include not just the one fleet of trucks, but all the airplanes, gas pipelines, hospitals, factories, oil refineries, mines and power plants not to mention the salesmen, advertisers, media distributors, insurance companies, regulators, financiers and stock traders. You will begin to perceive the entangled system that makes so many of our day-to-day decisions. Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. Our relationship to it is similar to our relationship to our biological ecosystem. We are co-dependent, and not entirely in control.
Both answers obviously focus on the networking potential of the Internet. But both make it clear that networking itself won't create the magic. It's what we do with the networking that matters.

Shirky points out that people have to learn to use our new tool to collaborate—which we are already quite advanced at doing.

Hillis talks about something that's more interesting to me. I've become increasingly interested in thinking about complex systems as a sea of interacting energy flows. Here are some slides I used to introduce a panel on Energy and Information in Complex Systems at one of the AAAI symposia last November. The fundamental point is that we live in a world of energy flows. Most living things survive only because they are able to exploit some of the energy flows around them. Hillis points out that we now have the ability to track many of those energy flows. With that ability we are likely to have a much greater ability to make use of the energy potentials in the world—leading to enormously greater and (at least for a while) continually increasing productivity and gains in the quality of most people's lives.

Mortgage Modifications: What Is the Point? - CEPR

In discussing government programs to help alleviate the foreclosure problem Dean Baker writes the following.
Most modifications are likely to still leave homeowners paying more in ownership costs than they would pay to rent a comparable unit. This means that each month, they are effectively throwing away money that they could otherwise spend on their children, on saving, or other uses. It is difficult to see how this excess spending on housing benefits homeowners and their families.

By contrast, if government or GSE funds are used to either pay for a principle write-down or buy mortgages at above market prices, then the banks will be clear beneficiaries. Payments from the government to banks for write-downs on loans where they would have otherwise taken large losses are, in effect, a direct subsidy to banks. The same is true when the government pays an above-market price to purchase a mortgage. With Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac now authorized to draw more than $200 billion each from the Treasury, it appears that a much larger subsidy will be given to the banks through various mortgage programs than through the TARP.

The obvious alternative to mortgage modification programs that benefit banks more than homeowners is legislation that directly benefits homeowners facing foreclosure by giving them the right to stay in their home as renters paying the market rent. Right to rent legislation that allows homeowners to stay in their homes for a substantial period of time (5-10 years) would immediately give homeowners facing foreclosure security in their homes. It would also prevent the blight of vacant foreclosed properties that have devastated many neighborhoods. And it would give banks much more incentive to negotiate modifications, since foreclosure would be a less attractive option.

However, right to rent laws would mean challenging the banks. Even in this crisis there is still very little will in Congress to do anything that might seriously reduce banks’ profitability, so the prospects for right to rent legislation is not good.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Adult Learning

By Barbara Strauch in
The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

James Hansen vs. Paul Krugman

James Hansen had an op-ed piece in the NY Times last December. Hansen favors a fee on carbon fuels to be distributed to all citizens. Krugman had a column and blog piece criticizing Hansen and favoring cap-and-trade. (See my blog entry on the two pieces. It links to all of these.) Here's Hansen's answer.

Scare stories in the press

From Mountains Out of Molehills | Information Is Beautiful

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Monty Hall Problem

Here is the Wikipedia statement of the Monty Hall Problem along with its explanation for why people are puzzled by it.
Suppose you're on a game show, and you're given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. You pick a door, say No. 1, and the host, who knows what's behind the doors, opens another door, say No. 3, which has a goat. He then says to you, "Do you want to pick door No. 2?" Is it to your advantage to switch your choice? (Whitaker 1990)
As the player cannot be certain which of the two remaining unopened doors is the winning door, most people assume that each of these doors has an equal probability and conclude that switching does not matter. In fact, in the usual interpretation of the problem the player should switch—doing so doubles the probability of winning the car, from 1/3 to 2/3.
The name of the problem is derived from "Let's Make a Deal," an American TV game show once hosted—and made popular—by Monty Hall. It placed people in the position described quite frequently.

Many people find it counter-intuitive to say that switching is advantageous. Here's my explanation for why it is.
You pick a door. Monty then say that you can either keep your selection or switch to both of the other doors. That is, you get to keep either what is behind your current door or what is behind the other two doors. The probability of winning the car is 1/3 if you don't switch and 2/3 if you switch. The fact that Monty is also willing to show you that one of the two other doors has a goat becomes meaningless. You already knew that.
I added this explanation to the Wikipedia page. It was erased by someone who claimed that a similar explanation was already on the page. I don't think the other explanation was as good mine, but I didn't bother complaining about it.

The other explanation did point, however, to a 1990 column by Cecil Adams that included my explanation. (And I thought I was original.) Here's his explanation, which is about 3/5 of the way down the (rather long) page and is essentially the same as mine.
Suppose we have the three doors again, one concealing the prize. You pick door #1. Now you're offered this choice: open door #1, or open door #2 and door #3. In the latter case you keep the prize if it's behind either door. You'd rather have a two-in-three shot at the prize than one-in-three, wouldn't you? If you think about it, the original problem offers you basically the same choice. Monty is saying in effect: you can keep your one door or you can have the other two doors, one of which (a non-prize door) I'll open for you.
So I guess I wasn't the first one to think of this explanation. But I still like it.

This video explains it well also.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2020 visions: Nature

From a collection of projections for 2020 in Nature, David R. Montgomery of the University of Washington wrote,
The thin layer of minerals, living microorganisms, dead plants and animals blanketing the planet is the mother of all terrestrial life and every nation's most strategic resource. Yet we treat it like dirt.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Adult Learning

The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.

The trick is finding ways to keep brain connections in good condition and to grow more of them.

“The brain is plastic and continues to change, not in getting bigger but allowing for greater complexity and deeper understanding,” says Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California, who has studied ways to teach adults effectively. “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.”

Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”

Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.

“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”

Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”