Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Scott Adams Predicts

Scott Adams, whose cartoon Dilbert I love, has gone on Fox to predict a huge, possibly record-setting turnout for the Republicans in next Tuesday's elections.

Since the Republicans in 2010 got about 44 million votes and in 2014 got over 45 million, I'd say that means a turnout of over 46 million votes. I think elsewhere he's clarified that he's not predicting that the Republicans would still control the House, just the votes would be up.  His rationale is IMHO fuzzy: Republicans love the feeling of the victory of 2016 (Adams was an early and sole predictor of Trump's election), they tend to act more than talk and are bashful in talking to pollsters so the current polls underestimate GOP turnout (it's an echo of an early 21st century meme that voters who opposed  black candidates would not admit that to pollsters).

My record on predictions is bad, so I won't officially predict that Democratic turnout will top the Republicans and top 47 million votes.  We'll see. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Even Bees Are Losing Their Privacy

Modern Farmer notes that beekeepers are being offered the ability to monitor their bees online, meaning a loss of privacy.  In partial compensation, they can also provide bees with a solar-heated hive, which will harm the varroa mites without harming the bees.  Or, if all else fails, drone bees are on the horizon.  (A possible confusion between drones that are bees and bees that are drones will ensue.)

Monday, October 29, 2018

"Loose" and "Tight" or "Hot" and "Cold"

Finished "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World".

It's a new book getting some attention.   The author has identified a dichotomy and applied it broadly, perhaps too much so (a familiar pattern: to the girl with a hammer everything appears to be a nail).

Briefly, the idea is that a country like Germany or Denmark has a "tight" culture, one where norms are well established throughout the society.  Whereas a country like the US has a "loose" culture, norms are both less well established and less consistent through the society.  She draws out implications and argues for this distinction explaining other differences in many aspects of society. She does allow for a given society changing from one state to the other.  For example, Singapore became a very "tight" culture in the last 50 years while Saudi Arabia is trying to "loosen" a bit, at least in some areas.

I recommend the book, but it's not why I mention it.

My idea is that societies might also vary between "hot" and "cold"; both hotness and tightness being descriptors which can be applied at the society level to capture qualities we feel intuitively.

I'm triggered of course by the current controversy over whether the president's rhetoric has contributed to recent events.  I think most people would agree that US society today is "hotter" than it has been in the past. There's a lot of fighting going on, whether you see it as Trump draining the swamp and fighting for the forgotten against the MSM and the pointy-headed liberals or as the Resistance waging a battle against hate and ignorance.  That makes today's US "hot".

Global warming suggests that with more energy in the system, it's more likely that storms will be more powerful and more damaging.  Can I stretch the metaphor to argue that the hotter the social climate, the more damage the inevitable storms created by loners and fringe actors are going to cause?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Future Is Near: The Impact of Autonomous Trucks

This piece at evonomics.com by Andrew Yang is distressing, and convincing. Perhaps the worst part is the impact on small businesses which serve the  trucking industry: the truckstops and motels. Yang doesn't note it, but those enterprises might well be the  lifeline for "flyover America"--the wide open spaces where farming no longer employs the people it used to.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Fads and Social Contagion

First we have the guy in Kentucky  who shot two people, then the mad bomber of the van who sent bombs to various people on the left of Trump, and currently the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter who's more right than Trump.

I find some solace in the idea these three events are examples of social contagion, of fads.  It's similar to the spread of anti-vaccine theories, or the sudden popularity of a set of names for newborns.  Somehow we humans are monkey-see, monkey-do (with my apologies to our simian cousins) people.  I'm not sure whether we just like to follow the path beaten down by others or also we like to outdo each other. 

Where does rhetoric come into play?  I'm not sure.  Maybe it's similar to a flu or measles epidemic.  One condition, necessary but not sufficient, is the existence of an unvaccinated population, a set of people closely connected enough to support the spread of a disease.  The other condition is the introduction of a carrier of a virus/bacteria which is infectious. 

But the metaphor isn't good enough--there's just two conditions going on.  With our recent events there's more conditions: the availability of guns, the availability of bomb technology (knowledge and materials), the existence of people somewhat (or very) nutty, the knowledge that others share the feelings and conceivably can be impressed by deeds, the triggering event, etc.


Friday, October 26, 2018

AI, Dark Swans, Google Map Directions, and Moore's Law

Some further thoughts on the Google map episode I described yesterday.

It strikes me that AI in general will have problems with "dark swan" events.  That's true by definition--if AI is trained by using a big database of past information, it can't be trained to handle events which aren't reflected in the database.  In many cases, like autonomous cars, the algorithms can be set to do nothing.  It would be similar to the "dead man switch" found on locomotives--if there's no longer an intelligence at the controls which can react properly to events, you stop the engine.  But in other cases it may be harder to define such cases.

In cases like I encountered yesterday there may be salvation found in Moore's Law.  Presumably Google samples current traffic volumes using some priority rules--sample most often the most traveled routes.  But priorities are needed only when resources are scarce; as technology becomes cheaper it would be possible to sample everything all the time (which is almost what the human sensory system does).

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Victims of Google Map Directions

Had an interesting experience in NY last Saturday, which I blame on Google Maps and the limitations of AI.

We drove from Kingston where our B&B is located to Rhinebeck, where the NY Sheep and Wool Festival was taking place on the Dutchess County fairgrounds.  That meant crossing the Hudson and taking 2-lane rural roads.  I've an off-and-on experience with Google Maps--this morning it was on.  So the friendly voice advised me to take a right at the first light after crossing the bridge.  While my usual route would have continued on to the second light, I decided to cede my judgment to the Google gods. 

All went well--we drove a few miles (maybe 8 or so) over a series of winding roads but with no traffic.  Came out on Rte 9 just south of the fairgrounds but was able with a break in traffic to hand a left and get to the fairground.

Evening came and we're ready to return to Kingston.  Each year they seem to organize the exit from the parking areas differently.  This year I ended up heading south, not north, on Rte 9.  Traffic was stop and go, mostly all stop very little go.  Somehow I had to head north to the bridge.  The Google voice advised me to take a right, retracing our route of the morning going the opposite direction.  I did.  Big mistake. 

I think what the Google algorithm must do is periodically sample the times on alternative routes, and recommend the fastest.  I suspect in areas such as we were in, they don't sample very often.  Consequently, maybe at 4 pm the alternative route was marginally better than the main Rte 9 north.  But the algorithm kept sending cars that way.  The problem was likely not only the winding roads, but the light where the route met the road to the bridge.  Since the big volume of traffic was on the main road (199 I think), the traffic light favored that, only permitting two or three cars at a time from the alternative to come onto the bridge road.  The end result: immobility.  At about the 1:30 mark I yielded to the advice of my better half, found a way to do a u-turn, and went back to Rte 9, which turned out at about 7 pm to be almost empty. 

The problem IMHO is Google couldn't keep track of how many cars it had directed the alternative way compared to the carrying capacity of the road. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A President Who Knows the US Seal!

I'm tempted to suggest that all presidential candidates take an exam on US iconography.  (i.e., what was almost the role of the turkey, what's the significance of the direction the eagle faces, what does it hold in its claws, etc. etc.).

That would be unrealistic, although there is at least one president who could do well on the exam.  Putin has got to be smart.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

MFP and Farmers.gov

Got a tweet announcing the latest figures on MFP applications and payments.  I now can't find the tweet, not sure what's the matter. 

Two things I'd like farmers.gov to do:

  1. provide online access to FSA data, like the applications and payments.  It seems to me that FSA administrators at each level should be watching the data.  (That was true when I worked for them, but we never did. But with the centralization of the payment process it should be easy to do, and there's no privacy concerns that I can see.)
  2. provide a user-friendly interface to the USDA data silos.  Does anyone outside USDA understand which data ERS has and which data NASS has?  Damned few, is my guess.  It shouldn't be too hard to present the data without regard to the organizational parents.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

New Terms: Adult Orphans and Family Tree Completists

Learned two new terms today from reading Post and Times:

"Adult orphans".  This refers to those of us, including me and my wife, who are getting old with no children, no parents, and essentially no support network.  Applying a label makes the problem seem more concrete.  Personally, on the one hand I'm tempted to say: "you made your bed, now lie in it." On the other hand, which I almost always have available, it's a real problem for us, and we need to figure out how to deal with it, most likely by moving to an assisted living complex which includes nursing care.  BTW, googling the term results in 45,000  hits, so it's not that new.

"Family tree completists" is unique to the Times article on the ability of a site called "GEDmatch" to help identify suspects in a crime from their DNA by analyzing DNA matches from a database of relationships created by genealogical enthusiasts.  For a while I was one of these--deriving great pleasure from adding another set of (remote) cousins to my genealogy.  I still maintain an ancestry.com account, with a number of trees which someday I may return to

Monday, October 15, 2018

Sen. Warren--An Honest Reconsideration

I tweeted today that I was surprised by how much difference the DNA results on Sen. Warren made to me.

I'll expand here. 

When Warren was coming into prominence, Megan McArdle had a blog post challenging the validity of her research on bankruptcy caused by ill health and lack of insurance. I think there was some counter from Warren's supporters.  The specifics have long since vanished from memory, but it cast a shadow on my opinion of her.

Then there was the flap about whether her claim of Indian ancestry was correct and what part it played in her academic career.  Again I've seen some back and forth on it.

Then she ran for the Senate and won, 

So early in her political career I had formed an assessment of her as ambitious, smart, more liberal than me.  And, mostly importantly, so ambitious she might have pushed the boundaries of academic research and made unfounded claims to advance in academia. I must also admit to possible chauvinism, though I'd state it as saying her personality struck me as unlikely to appeal to moderate and male voters (so it's their prejudice, I remain innocent. :-0) Taken altogether it made a package I was reluctant to support for the presidency.

But now I know Warren had a solid basis for claiming Native American ancestry.  Somehow that makes me more comfortable with the idea, supported I think by Boston Globe reporting, that she never used the claim to advance in her career.  (Though her employers may have used it in their EEO reporting.) That makes her less ambitious, or at least not breaking rules in her ambition, which makes me more comfortable in supporting her in the future.  (It's possible, even likely, my standards are different for male versus female politicians.)  And there may be a cascading effect--I'm now thinking about her senatorial career and positions more.  And that helps her.

I've tried to be honest with the above.  I don't know enough about Bayesian analysis to apply it to my changing position.

So, my preferred Dem nominee for 2020 is still Klobuchar/Hickenlooper, but if Warren runs and shows up well in trial runs against Trump in the polls, I'll be a more enthusiastic supporter. 

But my bottomline is still: we must win in 2020.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

My Preferences for 2020

There's a poll out on Democratic preferences for their presidential candidate for 2020--Biden leads.

He's not my preference.  Based on what I know now, I'd prefer Sen. Klobuchar or Gov. Hickenlooper, who fit a pattern of moderate left, which is my sweet spot.  It's not that I necessarily object to some of the more radical proposals on the left, but my priority is always the need to win the election.  I usually feel that the very partisan people on the left, as on the right, overestimate the popularity of their ideas and that slow and steady beats fast and flashy.

So my bottom line for 2020--I want some one to win the nomination who looks likely to beat President Trump.  IMHO it should be easy, but I've no confidence it will be.  See this NYTimes piece on suburban white men rallying to his support, even though they recognize his personal failings.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

Uniformity and Diversity--Amazon's Kindle

I've mentioned my cousin's book, Dueling Dragons. As part of my help to her I've gotten a fair amount of exposure to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing operation.  (The book was published iby CreateSpace, which Amazon bought years ago and now has dropped in favor of KDP.) 

With the paperback version out, we now have to worry about the ebook version.   This leads me into some thoughts about the whole publishing process.  In the old world of publishing, say circa 1960, each hardcover book was handcrafted with lots of choices in its design and packaging.  The paperbacks were a bit different with less variety, especially in the cases where a publisher had a series going.  (I remember Ballantine's series of World War II histories as one example, or a series of John D. MacDonald's novels.)

I paid very limited attention to self-publishing.  It was around, and advertised in the pages of the NY York Times Book Review.  I think it required a rather hefty payment to get a batch of your book printed and available for sale.

These days with Amazon ebook publishing you have very limited choices in font and design.  But what this standardization does, along with the support of software and the internet, is enable a much greater variety in the content of books, partially because the costs of publishing in ebook format are so low.  Because the entry cost is low as long as you can live the with limited choices everyone and her brother can publish that book they've dreamed of.

This interplay of uniformity and diversity fascinates me, and I think you can find similar patterns in other areas.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Promises Kept and Victories Won?

Marc Thiessen has an oped in the Post claiming that President Trump has kept his promises, kept them better than any other president.  His second sentence is "He lies all the time."  That's a fitting description for Trump.

After reading Thiessen I ran across another piece, the url for which I've now lost.  The thesis was this:
in many House districts, particularly those won by Clinton and by a Republican representative in 2016, Trump's "wins" are unlikely to appeal to the centrist voters the Republican nominee in 2018 needs to win.  In many cases, perhaps most recently with judge Kavanaugh, a "win" may increase the odds of a Republican defeat in the House.

We'll see.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Farmers.gov Shows Promise

I've probably been skeptical of some FSA automation efforts, but I am impressed by a brief trip through the farmers.gov disaster app.  I got there from this tweet, plugged in some fake data for a hurricane in Buncombe County, NC, and got a reasonable result. (Only NAP available--I'd suspect county employees would like to see some qualifications--like the limitations on NAP coverage.  Otherwise the farmer may be overly optimistic when coming through the door.)

There's lots of room to improve, but it's a good start.  The question will be whether they can get enough traffic to the site to get good feedback.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Dentists and the Healthcare System

Went to the dentist today.  Not my favorite way to spend the afternoon.  Growing up I think I saw a dentist once or twice--it wasn't a thing for my family.  Consequently I've some irregular teeth, which is appropriate since I'm an irregular person.  A couple appointments ago my dentist asked about braces.  I barely restrained my laughter--not at my age.

Anyway I had a couple fillings while in the Army, then mostly avoided dentists again until my first wisdom tooth decayed and needed to be extracted.  I eventually hooked up with my wife's dentist--he was a monosyllabic single practitioner who did all his own work, perfectly fitted my preferences.  But then he retired and I had to find a new one, which I eventually did in Reston.

For the first time I started looking to my healthcare insurance to pay part of the dental costs.  It's strange because Kaiser, my health insurance company with which I'm very satisfied, doesn't do dentistry as it does other health issues, by employing its own dentists.  Instead they contract with a dental insurance company.

So the bottomline is there's three parties involved, four when you count my teeth.  Ordinarly I think of myself as an informed consumer, but not now, not with these players.  Instead when my dentist speaks, I salute and say "yes, ma'am", take my medicine and pay whatever bill is presented.  (A slight exaggeration--I just vetoed a separate appointment for a small filling in favor of combining it with my next 3-month (3-month!!) appointment.  But it turns out the three parties have their own problems in keeping their paperwork straight.  My dentist tried to explain the confusion to me (she didn't have a receptionist--hard to get help these days) but failed--I just paid the bill.

My bottom line: as with my sister years ago, I'm amazed by the administrative dysfunction of our healthcare system.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

ACRSI Comments

FSA has ACRSI data collection out for comment in the Federal Register:

Need and Use of the Information: This initiative is being conducted in phases by geographical area and additional commodities. Counties are selected based on their commonality of historical crop reporting, high percentage of producers participating in both RMA and FSA programs and the high level of interest of the private agricultural service industry (precision-ag and farm management) in the pilot phases. It will reengineer the procedures, processes, and standards to simplify commodity, acreage and production reporting by producers, eliminate or minimize duplication of information collection by multiple agencies and reduce the burden on producers, insurance agents and AIPs. Information being collected will consist of, but not be limited to: Producer name, location state, commodity name, commodity type or variety, location county, date planted, land location (legal description, FSA farm number, FSA track number, FSA field number), intended use, prevented planting acres, acres planted but failed, planted acres, and production of commodity produced. Failure to collect the applicable information could result in unearned Federal benefits being issued or producers being denied eligibility to program benefits.
Description of Respondents: Individuals and households.
Number of Respondents: 501,012.
Frequency of Responses: Reporting: One time.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Does Obsessive Reading Have a Future?

A common theme of interviews with writers, at least those in the NYTimes Book Review, is reading habits.  A common response is: I was an obsessive reader, reading anything from an early age.  That would be my response, if only I were a writer.

But will that be the response in the future?  I'm teased into that question by a news piece about a scholar of some sort, perhaps a philosopher, who found her reading habits and capabilities had been so changed by our social media she couldn't do a long session with a serious book.

Thinking back to my own experience in childhood--there were few children around in the neighborhood so I found a refuge in books, reading everything in the house and that came in the mail.  But assume I'd had a PC and access to the internet--certainly I'd have devoted less time to reading and more to the internet.  Whether the availability of all the material on the internet would have completely disrupted my reading I don't know.


Sunday, October 07, 2018

Our Easily Forgotten Past Divisions

I've tweeted to this effect, but Noah Smith does a thread on the same point: American history is filled with episodes of violence and division. 

Saturday, October 06, 2018

SCOTUS Prediction

By this time in 2020 I don't think the Kavanaugh appointment will be much of an issue.  Roe v Wade will still be good law, although the Court likely has a mixed record in approving new restrictions on abortion. ]

[Update: some additional thoughts--the dog which won't bark, which no one is talking about today, is the overturning of a couple Supreme Court decisions, decisions of much more recent vintage than Roe v Wade--specifically the Windsor and Obergefell  decisions legalizing gay marriage.  That surprises but pleases me.  But then, almost everything about the history of gay marriage surprises me.  If you'd asked me in the mid-90's how things would work out, I'd have said at best gay marriage would be another issue like abortion--everlasting. But it's not become that.  What we now call gay rights is still an issue, and that will continue but marriage itself is not.]


Friday, October 05, 2018

Safeway's Self-Checkout and Driverless Cars

Vox has a long piece on the problems with self-checkout.

I have been a fan of self-checkout, which I use regularly at Safeway, but I'm getting less enthusiastic. My local Safeway has probably had self-checkout for 10 years or so.  You'd think that the system would keep working indefinitely but not so.  I suppose it's probably the hardware getting unreliable, but it seems like the software.  It's most noticeable when handling produce--hitting the icons for entering a code or selecting from a screen I often (it seems often) given a system error--needing a sales attendant.

My experience with the self-checkout raises some questions with driverless cars.  My assumption has been that the system will always improve--any problem in the software which turns up will be fixed on all the cars using the software.  But Safeway argues for the law of entropy.  While the software may endure, the underlying hardware and the accessories for input/output won't endure.  They'll degrade. 

I can switch my argument again by pointing to airplanes.  Boeing and Airbus also have a combination of hardware and software which is used over years and years, and they seem to have solved the problem of degrading hardware.  Elon Musk notoriously didn't pay much attention to the experience of established carmakers; I wonder if he will similarly ignore the plane makers.


Thursday, October 04, 2018

Robotic Farms?

Technology Review writes about a hydroponics lettuce farm in San Francisco using robots to do some (much?) of the work.  I understand the logic, but as the article observes, such enterprises require a lot of capital upfront. Maybe there's a lot of capital sloshing around the world, enough to get a robotic farm up, running, and profitable.  We'll see. 

Part of the pitch for the robots is the difficulty of getting labor, especially with the current administration's crackdown on immigration.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

My Inner Populist Is Aroused

At least briefly.

What aggravates me is the conjunction of two news stories:

  1. the NYTimes report on the Trump family's shenanigans to avoid taxes and evade rules.
  2. a recent report noting the decline in IRS tax audits since 2010 because Republicans keep cutting the budget.  The Times report uses the Manafort and Cohen pleas as the hook.  When you Google "decline in IRS tax audits" you get a lot of reports from the spring, around tax time.
To my mind these are just examples of a much bigger phenomenon, a phenomenon which can be summed up in the old saying: "them as has gets".   Turns out Jimmy Lunceford and his band recorded the song.  As did the Andrews Sisters, It's written by Gene de Paul and Don Raye.




Tuesday, October 02, 2018

"Iowans with better food" and Dairy

That, I'm sure, is a grossly unfair characterization of Iowan food.

It's a quote from an Esquire article on Rep. Devin Nunes, and his family's dairy farm in Iowa (not California where it used to be).  The dairy farms in the county are paranoid about the possibility of ICE raids because apparently most of their labor consists of undocumented immigrants.  On a dairy farm, the cows have got to be milked every day, either twice a day or in some cases three times a day. When you have 2,000 cows there's no way to handle the sudden jailing of 10 or 15 employees for even a day.  You have a lot of very unhappy cows (should PETA lobby against ICE raids on dairies) and a hit to production.  When a mammal's milk remains in the mammary gland, it's a signal to the body the milk's no longer required; start to switch energy to body building.

The quote comes from a person in town, commenting on the significant presence of Latinos now living there.

The Decline of Churches (and GE)

Monday the Post and Times both had articles on the decline of churches.  The Post covered the last service at a historic black church in NW DC while the Times article was on two declining black churches in Harlem, one of which has a carillon and both of which need repairs.

In both cases the articles focus on the impact of gentrification, on the loss of worshipers to the suburbs. That's a factor, I'm sure.  But other factors include the decline of religion generally, the aging of the population  which means fewer young people to bring to the church, and an inability to adapt to changing conditions.  A social institution like a church can do very well in one era but fail in another, something like a company like General Electric, which was one of the titans of the economy at the turn of the century and now is fragmenting before our eyes. 

Monday, October 01, 2018

"Hollow Dolls" and Essentialism and My Cousin's Book

Just finished "The Lies That Bind Us" by Appiah.  I recommend it. The lies are: creed, culture, color, class, and country.  One of the keys to the binding is the lie of "essentialism"--the idea that everyone who shares in the lie is essentially the same: all Americans are alike, all Muslims are alike, all blacks are alike, etc.

It's stretching a bit, I know, but I was reminded of essentialism when I read an article in the Times entitled "The robots aren't as human as they seem."  A biped robot is assumed to be humanlike, a quadraped is likely a dog, or maybe a cheetah.  That very human impulse seen with robots also leads us astray when considering flesh and blood humans and their beliefs about patriotism, religion, etc.

And since I've referred to "Dueling Dragons" in my post yesterday, I'll bring it up again today: I see its theme as the impact of tribalism based on all of Appiah's lies on Ulster.

[Updated--I don't think my post of yesterday does what I wanted--so some additions: if we humans can look at a biped and think it's human, it's easy for me to see that humans can look at other humans and project into the person what they believe.  And the projections will be consistent, because they're not based on facts, on reality, on data perceived in real time but based on ideas in the mind, wherever the ideas come from, past experience or the broader culture.

The reader can see that in in Dueling Dragons, as George Henderson, the newspaper editor, and John Martin exchange their mistaken (my take, definitely not the author's) views of the state and future of Ireland.]