Feeling Old

Besides being Patriots’ Day, this is also the thirtieth anniversary of my arrival (back) in the United States. Thirty years. Wow. I can’t quite get used to the idea that I’m old enough for an entire era of my life, full of memories, to have ended thirty years ago. My time spent in New Zealand is already far less than my time spent in Massachusetts. In a few years it will be less time than I’ve spent in Lexington, and less than a quarter of my life overall. It’s sad to think that my entire childhood is now so long and far away.

Somali Pirates

I guess the piracy situation is on everyone’s minds now, and I hear that we’re even considering action against pirate bases on land. It doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea, actually, assuming it’s a limited action in concert with the Somali government and strongly associated with humanitarian efforts to alleviate the conditions in Somalia that have led to piracy. I do wonder about other actions we might take, though. Clearly escorts – US or other – haven’t worked as well as we might have hoped. Do we need more escorts? Alternatively, what about putting heavily armed troops on the ships as they travel through the area? Besides potentially being able to repel boarders, such an approach would put pirates on notice that they’d be attacking the US no matter which nation’s flag the ship flies under, and that might make them reconsider. Yes, that’s a lot of ships and a lot of troops, but I’d be interested in how it compares to the logistics involved in a land action. Or maybe it’s a stunningly bad idea for other reasons. What do others think?

Death To Blue LEDs

I was just talking to a coworker about this, and realized it was worth a post. Better yet, it’s worth a picture.

I am bleeping sick of bright, flashing blue LEDs on just about every piece of electronic gear. One of the worst offenders is a Netgear WNR854T wireless router/AP that I bought recently. One of the activity lights is blue. It flashes a lot. It flashes even when there’s no reason to believe that there’s really any of the traffic that it supposedly indicates. It’s so bright that it casts a shadow all the way down the hall in the middle of the night – a flashing shadow, while I’m trying to go downstairs for a drink without turning on the hall light. Of course, if I look for even one moment at the light that’s casting the shadow – as everybody’s brain is hard-wired to do – then I’m blinded because blue is the worst color for destroying night vision. It took me all of one night to tape cardboard over that, but then there’s the (fortunately less bright) blue LED on the NAS box next to it, and the two blue LEDs on the computer next to that (which is usually off), and way too many others.

Manufacturers: stop putting bright blue LEDs on every darn thing, especially ones that flash. Tone them down (resistors are cheap) and/or use more reasonable colors. Blue LEDs were cool half a decade ago, but now they’re just annoying.

Flash of Genius

This is the current movie on United’s westbound domestic flights, and so I watched it on the way to Boulder. It was rather painful for me – as both an engineer/innovator and a husband/father – to watch. In some ways it just hits too close to home. Mostly that means it’s a good movie, depicting realistic people and situations, and I did enjoy it. I do have one pretty major quibble with it, though. The movie clearly tries to depict Ford as having deliberately copied protagonist Bob Kearns’s idea from a prototype, but the actual jury decision was non-deliberate infringement of Kearns’s patents. This raises the issue of how Kearns, who had turned down multiple million-dollar offers when a million dollars actually meant something because he wanted an admission of wrongdoing from Ford, would consider such a decision adequate. Instead of dealing with that, though, the movie just ignores the disconnect between what they portray Kearns as wanting and what he actually got.

There are also some areas in which I found myself losing sympathy for Kearns. For example, there’s one point where he’s being offered a settlement. His wife is clearly in favor, but he won’t even discuss it. In my opinion, that’s no way to run a marriage. When Cindy and I wrote our own wedding vows, one was to treat each other’s needs and priorities as equal to our own. That’s a high standard, which neither of us has always met, but I still think it’s a good principle and one at least as important as the principles on which Kearns’s refusal of the settlement was based. I think his behavior (at least as portrayed in the movie) was contemptuous of his wife and his marriage, and it’s no wonder she left him.

The other point on which my views diverge from Kearns’s is on his insistence that Ford admit wrongdoing. As one of the other characters points out – rightly in my opinion, despite that character being more of a bad guy – the way companies admit wrongdoing is by paying cash. Car companies in particular do this even when lives are at stake, when cars burst into flame or roll over and crush people. Other companies also pay for what they do wrong without ever admitting it was wrong, as when Sun refuses to admit that they drew inspiration for ZFS from NetApp’s WAFL (even as they aggressively take the exact opposite position when they demand that anyone who does anything in the system-tracing space must bow down and worship DTrace first). Companies measure their value in dollars, they both collect and pay their debts in dollars, and expecting them to provide any kind of non-monetary compensation for harms they have caused is just not realistic. In fact Ford never did admit wrongdoing in the Kearns case. Kearns did eventually prevail, but the court’s award was less than had been offered before. More importantly, how many other inventors in similar situations didn’t prevail? We hear about the few that do, but in general I don’t think it’s a good example to follow. Make them pay what they owe, certainly, but don’t demand payment in a coin that they don’t understand.

Bird Fight

I look at this picture (via Pharyngula, who got it from National Geographic, and I wonder: how did we get to this position?

I mean, fighting in mid-air is unusual enough, but then what was the red-headed doing that enabled the flicker to grab its tongue?

Hill Climbing, Traffic, and the 2-4-6 Game

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been dropped into some random spot in the Himalayas. Your goal is to reach the top of Everest. If you just keep going up at every opportunity, will you reach it? Probably not. Ignoring for a moment all the issues of food, oxygen, and human strength, there’s another problem: you probably landed closer to some other mountain. If you insist on going up, you’ll probably ascend that mountain, with Everest still towering above you and no way to reach it without going down first. You will have reached what was called a “local maximum” in your freshman math class. Since any optimization problem can be viewed as finding a path through the graph defined by same function, this same hill climbing behavior and this same potential to reach a dead end occurs in many other fields from the technical to the political.

Another concept similar to that of a local maximum is from game theory – a “Nash equilibrium” is a set of strategies for all players where no player can improve their own outcome by changing only their own strategy. To show how broadly applicable such concepts are, consider the article which brought all of this to mind for me – Removing Roads and Traffic Lights Speeds Urban Travel.

Using hypothetical and real-world road networks, they explain that drivers seeking the shortest route to a given destination eventually reach what is known as the Nash equilibrium, in which no single driver can do any better by changing his or her strategy unilaterally. The problem is that the Nash equilibrium is less efficient than the equilibrium reached when drivers act unselfishly—that is, when they coordinate their movements to benefit the entire group.

The solution hinges on Braess’s paradox, Gastner says. “Because selfish drivers optimize a wrong function, they can be led to a better solution if you remove some of the network links,” he explains. Why? In part because closing roads makes it more difficult for individual drivers to choose the best (and most selfish) route. In the Boston example, Gastner’s team found that six possible road closures, including parts of Charles and Main streets, would reduce the delay under the selfish-driving scenario. (The street closures would not slow drivers if they were behaving unselfishly.)

The game-theory version of this problem is a bit more like a maze than a mountain climb, with certain directions precluded by the self-interest criterion rather than by a limited field of view, but the potential for a hill-climbing approach to lead to a dead end is essentially the same. Anybody who actually paid attention in that freshman math class would know that more complex functions tend to have more local maxima (and minima). Since there are few functions as complex as those describing economic behavior, the graph of any economic function tends to be especially fraught with dead ends. This is why so much of economics is BS. A statement that “going in this direction leads upward” might be true in a purely local context cherry-picked by the person making the statement, but that truth might also be utterly useless in the part of the graph that actually reflects reality. In particular, understanding these freshman-level mathematical concepts blows a huge hole in the claim that individuals pursuing self-interest will result in a globally optimal outcome such as widespread economic prosperity.

To illustrate this divergence between selfishness and optimality, I invented a little game called the “2-4-6″ game. Two players roll dice a fixed number of times, adding each roll to their score, but with two twists.

  1. If the last digit of a player’s current score is 2, 4, or 6, they must roll exactly that number to increase their score. Any other roll leaves them stuck.
  2. A player who is not stuck (either before or after rolling) may “donate” one point from their roll to someone who is stuck, to get them unstuck. Such donation cannot result in the donor becoming stuck, even if the result is a score ending in 2, 4, or 6.

The important dynamic here is that donating always involves both an absolute and relative loss for the donor, compared to not donating. The donor loses one point, and the recipient gains at least two – from an effective roll of zero to their original roll plus one. However, this also means that the total score for both players will always increase as well. I’ve even written a Python script to simulate the results, both when players choose to help each other and when they decline (as the “selfish is good” contingent would claim is best). The result is that players in the selfish variant usually get a score of about 125 for 100 rolls, whereas players in the altruistic variant usually get about 140. The most important difference is this: even the “losers” in the altruistic variant do better than the “winners” in the selfish one.

The moral, of course, is that it’s always important to consider not only the local effects of a decision, but also what kind of system a multitude of similar decisions will create. Whether the subject is throughput in a congested computer network or GDP in a national economy, a system in which individual actors sometimes “sacrifice” immediate self-interest for the sake of creating or maintaining a better system often yields better results for everyone including those making the so-called sacrifice.

It’s A Wonderful Life

So, I’m going to Boulder again. As Vincent Rubio would say: don’t ask, don’t ask. I’m literally sitting at Logan Airport, waiting for my flight through Denver, and what do you think I just heard on the TV? That president Obama is going to be signing the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Act – great acronym, BTW – in Denver tomorrow. I’m sure that will have nothing but good effects on traffic and travel throughout the region while I’m there.

More Sad Things

injured possum
(picture from TreeHugger)

The news out of Australia has been better the last couple of days, but before that it was horrific. Look at the pictures of towering flames, of metal that melted because those flames were so hot, of towns that were in the path of that and are now essentially gone. Cars crashed or went off the road, or were simply overtaken, because they couldn’t escape the smoke and flames fast enough. Don’t look at picture #9 too long; it will break your heart. Now there’s suspicion that some of the fires were deliberately set, and recent studies from Australia itself showing that most arson is committed by firefighters.

The scary thing is the glimpse into the future that it provides. Whether you believe it’s because of climate change or careless development, the fire situation in Australia now will be the fire situation in California very soon, and elsewhere not long after that. If there’s one lesson we need to take from this, it’s that fewer people should be carving out little pieces of “empty” forest or grassland in which to live, and those who do should take great care to prepare for fire. Make sure brush is cleared away from the house, that you can deal with embers landing on your roof, that you have access to water, that you have a warning system and escape plan that work. Especially, make sure your kids know what to do, because you won’t have time to tell them during any kind of emergency.

Sad Things

Seeing a squirrel on the road, still conscious and moving but unable to move its back legs, is sad.

Seeing small children in front of a church, with a casket being carried up the steps, is even sadder.

Rumors of Bush’s Demise…

…have been greatly exaggerated.

A South African TV station erroneously broadcast that former US President George Bush had died during one of its news bulletins.

For three seconds ETV News ran a moving banner headline across the screen saying “George Bush is dead”.

The “misbroadcast” happened when a technician pressed the “broadcast live for transmission” button instead of the one for a test-run.

Bad grammar and bad interface design, all in one story. Exercise for the reader: rearrange the first sentence to remove the ambiguity regarding whether the erroneous broadcast or the death itself had occurred during the news bulletin. Followup question: who the heck put those two buttons next to each other?

Cindy also points out that, even if it wasn’t supposed to go on the air, somebody had to have typed that sentence. Didn’t Bush himself do something like that once? Why, yes. Yes, he did. It’s not quite as memorable as Reagan’s voice test, though. Sometimes private humor becomes something else when said in public.