Friday, January 15, 2016

So um...

I haven't been blogging much lately... because I don't seem to have an audience. So I've been posting lots of mini-commentaries to Facebook instead, where at least I have some Facebook Friends, but most of the time I can't get so much as a Like from my wife.

Oh, by the way... I got married late last year.

To find out how well I might fare as an active activist, I started my very first petition a little while ago, a click-bait test, and I asked all my friends to sign and share it, but none of them did. With repeated nagging, I managed to convince my wife to share it, but still nobody else would sign it. I'm taking this as a sign: nobody likes me (still). Either that or nobody cares about the topics I post about: the most important problems facing the world today, and the solutions to those problems. Between these two interpretations, it's really better if nobody likes me.

Or maybe there's some secret of social media I'm not getting.

I signed up on Medium recently - on the whole, it seems a lot better than BlogSpot, but I don't see how to make a link to my own stories, so ... I dunno. I'm not sure what to do with it.

Okay, non-readers, have a nice day!

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Oh, there's work.

IF YOU'RE UNEMPLOYED,
IT'S NOT BECAUSE
THERE ISN'T ANY WORK

Just look around: A housing shortage, crime, pollution; we need better schools and parks. Whatever our needs, they all require work. And as long as we have unsatisfied needs,

THERE IS WORK TO BE DONE.

So ask yourself, what kind of world has work but no jobs? It’s a world where work is not related to satisfying our needs, a world where work is only related to satisfying the profit needs of business.

This country was not built by the huge corporations or government bureaucracies. It was built by people who work. And, it is working people who should control the work to be done. Yet, as long as employment is tied to somebody else’s profits, the work won’t get done.
- An old poster from the New American Movement

Monday, November 02, 2015

DNC changes rules to block Lessig from debates

In case you still haven't learned about Lawrence Lessig and how U.S. political corruption works, I urge you to see Lessig's TED talk from two years ago - well before Lessig ever considered running for president.

Recently I offered to be part of the volunteer tech team that would help Larry Lessig in his campaign for president - his campaign to fix corruption in Washington, having earlier donated to his campaign, and before that to his MAYDAY SuperPAC. But Lessig has faced opposition from the democratic party itself, which included Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee in the first debate but excluded Lessig despite his strong fundraising base:
Webb raised $697,000, while Chafee raised a paltry $15,457 (including $4,121 from himself). Lessig’s numbers put him in the same league as fellow Democrat Martin O’Malley, who raised $1,283,000, though they’re both well behind Hillary Clinton at $30 million and Bernie Sanders at $26 million.
Of course, there's a limit to how much money you can raise when no one knows your name. Lessig knew that getting in the debates was the key to changing the game. To get in the debates, you have to make at least 1% in multiple national polls - which is a big problem when some pollsters wouldn't include Lessig on the list of candidates. Even so, he recently managed to get enough exposure to qualify for the next debate. Clearly, however, certain powerful individuals had a trick up their sleeve. I was saddened to receive this message from Larry today:
I am writing with sad news that has forced me to end my campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. The Democrats have now changed the rules for the debates, making it impossible for my campaign to continue.

As you know, the critical step in this improbable campaign has been to get into the debates. Though we raised more money than almost half of the field, and with you, built a vibrant campaign for reform, the party was slow to welcome us to this race. The polls have been slow to include me on the list of candidates.

But last week, we were making progress. A national poll by Monmouth found me at 1%. Three days ago, an NBC poll found the same. HuffPost Pollster now lists three polls at 1%. Since the Monmouth poll, no poll that included my name found me with less than 1%.

Under the rules for the debate announced by the DNC in August — and upon which we relied when we launched our campaign — the standard was 3 polls “in the six weeks prior to the debate.” Depending on which polls CBS counted, we either have qualified or could be just one poll away from qualifying for the debate.

But at the end of last week, I learned from my team that the DNC has now changed the rules. The standard is no longer the rule announced by the DNC Chair — 3 polls “in the six weeks prior to the debate.” The standard is now 3 polls “at least six weeks before the debate.” That means, for me to qualify, I had to have had 3 polls at 1% before October 10! You can read the @full and sad story as described by the leader of my campaign, Steve Jarding. The consequence of this change is that it is now impossible for me to get into the second debate.
I recently started writing predictions for the future in my phone. Last week I wrote:

If serious reforms do not happen in the 2016-2020 time frame, some parts of the US government will collapse soon afterward, creating a large poverty crisis when some public services halt abruptly. Due to media manipulation by the wealthy, many U.S. citizens like my Mom and Dad will simply blame the Democrats again, but in reality the Democrats are merely ineffectual, pacified to inaction by wealthy donors, while the Republicans—funded by a fraction of the top 5% of the top 1%—will have been the true destructive force. Some states will remain largely functional, due to responsible management, but the long-term future is unpredictable. Edit: perhaps the disaster will occur earlier, but the current economic situation is unprecedented so I am not prepared to estimate exactly when things will fall apart.

I know that many, many people agree with me about this: corporations and billionaires may thrive in the coming depression, but the U.S. federal government and the U.S. economy is on the brink of disaster. And the DNC is killing one of the best chances to avert this disaster. So, what more can I say? Good night, and good luck.
I have been a Democrat my entire life. I have proudly helped elect many of the leaders of our party including Tom Daschle, Bob Kerrey, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Tim Johnson to high office and I have served nearly four years at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as Communications Director and Senior Advisor. But I am sad to say that I have never experienced this kind of game playing and deception from party leaders in nearly 38 years of political activism. - Steve Jarding (campaign consultant for Lessig)
Say... who are these gatekeepers anyway? Who are these people that essentially get a sort of "veto" power to block grassroots candidates from running for president?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reversing inflated health care costs: a free market approach

The Atlantic has a good analysis and a solid proposal for affordable health care in the U.S., which pays twice as much for health care as the average for industrialized countries. Although it was written 6 years ago, the inflated costs it talks about have only become worse since then.

It's very long, but IMO well worth reading. The techniques by which his proposal will reduce costs should excite Democrats and its focus on free markets should excite Republicans, but I fear that Democrats won't support it because it's tantamount to admitting Obamacare sucks, and Republicans won't support it because reducing health care costs would eat into the profits of hospitals and insurance providers.

Thus, those who want intelligent reforms will have to reform Congress first. Fix democracy first: vote Lessig in the primaries, and don't vote for anyone that doesn't support campaign finance reform.

Hello again, Deepak Obhrai

VoteTogether.ca asked its supporters to express their top priorities to their new MP, but my new MP is the old conservative MP (who clung to his seat with 48% of the vote). I wrote him anyway.
To be honest, I'm not a conservative, but I do think there are merits to common conservative beliefs, such as low taxes with minimal public services, a hands-off approach to governance (I mean, Calgary zoning regulations really tick me off sometimes!), a reluctance to support abortions, and so forth. I'm even sympathetic to the Conservative reaction against the niqab - hey, it creeps me out, too.

However, the Harper conservatives adopted bad policies that are not core elements of conservatism, such as the "war on data" (killing the long form census, sending libraries to landfills even if they contain the only remaining copies of certain publications, muzzling scientists), or C-23, a bill to reduce minority voter turnout, among other things. Plus, the conservatives maintained the long tradition that all parties in power enjoy, of rejecting election reforms (Direct Representation and Proportional Representation) that would make the power of people in Parliament reflect voters' wishes accurately.

So I would just urge the conservatives not to get in the way of electoral reform, and to favor small-c conservative values over big-R Republican ones.

The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing

When I was in my last year of university, trying to get my degree in Computer Engineering, one of the courses I took required me to choose a goal and write a program to fulfill that goal. My goal was to add unit inference to a programming language. This would detect, for example, that in "dist + 2 km", dist must be a quantity of kilometres; and if dist seems to have a different unit elsewhere in the same program, the program must have a bug in it.

One requirement of the course was to find and read five academic papers related to my goal, and I was indeed able to locate 5 academic papers about unit checking and unit inference. I remember there were multiple papers about unit checking that I was able to follow, but they weren't really useful because I wanted to go beyond unit checking and do the more complex task of unit inference (I won't bore you by explaining the difference between unit checking and unit inference; the essential difference is that unit inference is easier for a programmer to use, but harder for the programming language to perform. In other words, it shifts effort from the programmer to the computer.)

As I recall, the academic paper that ultimately seemed most relevant to my work was also the most incomprehensible. I'm unable to locate the paper now, 9 years later, but I remember being stuck on its use of obscure terminology such as "abelian groups" and other jargon, its reliance on an obscure programming language like ML or Lambda Calculus, and/or its use of notation that looked something like this:

(For non-programmers reading this, just let me clarify that most programmers, and perhaps most computer scientists, have never seen anything like this.)

Look, there are literally millions of professional programmers in the world. So here was a paper about concepts that all engineers know about (unit checking) that is relevant to most programmers (we all make bugs involving units at some point), for a goal that could benefit all programmers (unit inference), yet no matter how hard I tried, I could not comprehend that paper or any other paper that had useful information about the subject. In the end, the papers were worthless; I ignored them and figured out how to perform unit inference by myself.

Since that time I have tried hard to write in ways that my audience would be able to understand, and to use other communication techniques not used by those damn worthless papers (such as using good examples). Today I'd like to thank The Atlantic for reminding me about the importance of comprehensible writing, and for reminding academics that they're still doing a crappy job.

See also:

Monday, October 19, 2015

Yahoo News supports climate change denier

A few years ago I began receiving unsolicited Yahoo News emails from Yahoo. Since I didn't already have a source of news in my email, I accepted and often read the articles it suggested.

I was a little surprised recently when Yahoo sent me to a "news" article with the headline "Perth electrical engineer’s discovery will change climate change debate":
A former climate modeller for the Government’s Australian Greenhouse Office, with six degrees in applied mathematics, Dr Evans has unpacked the architecture of the basic climate model which underpins all climate science.

He has found that, while the underlying physics of the model is correct, it had been applied incorrectly.

He has fixed two errors and the new corrected model finds the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide (CO2) is much lower than was thought.

It turns out the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has over-estimated future global warming by as much as 10 times, he says. “Yes, CO2 has an effect, but it’s about a fifth or tenth of what the IPCC says it is. CO2 is not driving the climate; it caused less than 20 per cent of the global warming in the last few decades”.

Dr Evans says his discovery “ought to change the world”.

“But the political obstacles are massive,” he said.
Since this article flatly contradicts my own knowledge, I had to dig deeper.

To put it simply, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming, and I have the impression that there is a consensus not just on the cause but also on the magnitude of the problem. It's a fairly strong consensus, and overturning that consensus will take more than one guy publishing a blog series that one newspaper calls a "discovery". For that reason alone, I would caution you not to take David Evans at his word. Wait for him to publish a properly peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal, then see how other scientists respond to it.

But of course, at least one scientific group has already published a rebuttal. This rebuttal isn't to the "news" story, but rather to an article that David Evans himself published in the Financial Times. Have a look:
The main error Evans makes here is to claim that climate sensitivity is simply a number churned out by climate models. In reality, climate scientists have used many different lines of evidence to create numerous independent estimates of the planet's climate sensitivity. These include not just climate models, but also empirical observational data (Figure 1 and Figure 2).
And here is another article (blog post) from someone who himself debated David Evans on the topic of climate change.

Vote Together, Canada!

It's federal election day in Canada. It's important to defeat Harper, but with our broken voting system, that won't happen by simply voting for your favorite candidate. That's why Vote Together was set up, to help you choose which candidate in your riding has the best chance of defeating the Harper Conservative.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Final Leaked TPP Text is All That We Feared

Citizen groups in North America and elsewhere are concerned about the TPP for a variety of reasons. Among geeks, the biggest concern tends to be the copyright provisions, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation describes as "all that we feared".
If you dig deeper, you'll notice that all of the provisions that recognize the rights of the public are non-binding, whereas almost everything that benefits rightsholders is binding. That paragraph on the public domain, for example, used to be much stronger in the first leaked draft, with specific obligations to identify, preserve and promote access to public domain material. All of that has now been lost in favor of a feeble, feel-good platitude that imposes no concrete obligations on the TPP parties whatsoever.
Despite being finalized, the text of the TPP is being kept secret and the text reviewed here was leaked by Wikileaks. A note for voters: Stephen Harper is a strong supporter of the TPP. Visit https://www.votetogether.ca/ to learn about how to defeat the conservatives. If you are still unsure who to vote for, vote for the parties that support electoral reform: NDP or Green.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Esperanto quick reference

The Esperanto Quick Reference 1.0 is a list of essential words that all Esperanto speakers should learn, together with English translations, packed onto four pages. Please let me know if you feel that a common Esperanto word is missing from the quick reference.

Windows users: looking for a way to type the letters ĉĝĥĵŝŭ with the hats on them? Download my Esperanto/Spanish/English keyboard layout for Windows. It mostly acts the same as normal English keyboard, but you can hold down the right Alt key and press cghjsw to get the Esperanto letters ĉĝĥĵŝŭ (and you can hold down the right Alt key and press aeioun to get the Spanish letters áéíóúñ). Shift+Right Alt gives capital accented letters, kompreneble.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Larry Lessig Announces Presidential Bid

A study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern produced the most terrifying graph about American democracy ever produced.

The graph shows the extent to which the average citizens' support for a policy predicts that the government will implement that policy. It is a straight horizontal line, which means simply that the opinion of average citizens doesn't matter.



That's why Larry Lessig is running for president. He intends to pass one law, that changes the way elections are funded and the way elections work. That's it. One bill, one law, and then he will resign and allow the Vice President to take his place.

I've donated hundreds to Lessig's work in the past, and I'm proud to give $100 more as his campaign begins. Ask yourself: how much is democracy in America worth to you? Put a dollar amount on it, and give it to Lawrence Lessig's campaign.

Today's politicians are bought. Tell your friends: it's time to buy them back.



Saturday, August 01, 2015

Is AI a threat to humanity? No.

Three years ago I was telling y'all that there is no "singularity" that would suddenly make humanity obsolete. A couple of years after writing that article, I was alarmed to see science and engineering celebrities like Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking claiming that superintelligent artificial intelligences might just murder us all if we aren't really, super careful.

I remain unphased. I find the singularity--of quickly-self-improving superintelligent AIs--as implausible today as I did three years ago. So it's nice to see this rebuttal from Edward Moore Geist ("MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC).") And the guy has a lot more knowledge of AI history than me, so his arguments sound pretty good. FWIW.