Friday, January 20, 2017

My Nominee for Pulitzer Prize

Umatilla, FL

I read something in The Guardian this week that really blew me away.  It was so powerul, so well argued, and so germane to our modern times, to the Trump and Brexit phenomona, yet the stubject was mathematical statistics or maybe about politics.  Huh?  That sounds far fetched.

So will you read an article just because I recommend it?  Here it is.

How statistics lost their power – and why we should fear what comes next

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

EU Leaders Read This Blog

Umatilla, FL

This item appeared in the news yesterday.
I interpret that as evidence that the EU leaders must have been influenced by a post from this blog a year ago.   But the EU only adressed the money issue, not the social issues that I raised.

I am reposting that content here.  Please take note of the final paragraph that I marked in bold in the context of the 2016 election.

Back in engineering school at Clarkson in 1963, I was required to take a course that considered engineering ethics. They put the question to the class, "Automation will take people's jobs away. Is that OK?" Well, clever little snots that we were, we rejected the question, saying that automation would create more jobs than it destroyed. As it turns out, we were mostly right for many decades, but recent trends are decidedly the other way, and the future is ominous. Automation will make having a job a privilege, not a duty.

From my view, the earliest and most visible job category eliminated was that of office workers. We called them secretaries, but at the engineering consulting firm I worked at they worked mostly on the production of printed documents. Those jobs and millions of others like them are gone because of a single software application -- Microsoft Word.

The Internet has done a marvelous job of putting sellers of all kinds of products and services in touch with would-be buyers. is among the most notable of these. This development has eliminated or threatened the jobs of countless people who used to earn their living as middlemen. Travel agents are a good example. Today in the USA, threatens the job of each and every Amazon competitor in retail sales.

A recent article said that fast food restaurants will soon have a tablet at each table where you can place your order and make payment. Automation in the kitchen will replace other workers. The rush hour staff at your local Macdonalds might be decreased from 15 people to 5.

An item from today's news talks about robots that have learned how to cook by watching YouTube videos.

IBM's Watson has already proved itself as a better medical diagnostician than any human. The work of paralegals, and then even lawyers, are a natural extension for Watson.
In the 1970s, I once wrote that the killer app for software was a program to replace programmers. Just tell it what you want, and it writes the software for you. That was science fiction then. Today, it is on the threshold of becoming reality.

In short, I think that in coming decades, more than 50% of all jobs in developed countries are in danger of being eliminated. I'm not the only one saying so.
The problem is that most industries formed since 2000—electronic auctions, Internet news publishers, social-networking sites, and video- and audio-streaming services, all of which appeared in official industry classifications for the first time in 2010—employ far fewer people than earlier computer-based industries. Whereas in 2013 IBM and Dell employed 431,212 and 108,800 workers, respectively, Facebook employed only 8,348 as of last September. --Carl Benedikt Frey, writing in Scientific American
A front page article in the New York Times, recently said that since 2007, more than 6 million Americans have disappeared from the job market. The way the USA counts unemployment statistics, those people do not appear as unemployed, In this manner, even though the unemployment rate has nearly recovered to 2007 levels, those 6 million people are redefined from unemployed, to invisible and permanently unemployed.

I did a little research of my own using Wolfram Alpha, and plotted the data in the curve below. The vertical axis is the percentage participation in the job market for the USA. We see it first rise as women went from being housewives to being employed. Since 2000, we see a big decline. That decline is my subject. I expect it to accelerate.

I think that this trend is inevitable. No government nor groups of governments can stop it or substantially slow it down. Compare it to the industrial revolution. In the near future, having a job will be a privilege that most people will never enjoy. Job losses in the 2008 recession will never be recovered. That was but a harbinger of things to come. But we are not poor, not starving. Products, goods and services are produced and delivered to all citizens at accelerating rates, but produced with fewer employees. That is what I believe.
So, what is my point? I believe that a substantial fraction (perhaps even the majority) of the first world's population will be permanently unemployed and unemployable. When that fraction becomes big enough, we can no longer look down our noses at such people and call them loafers or parasites. As a civil society, we must abandon the work ethic as the basis of social status. We must learn to treat people with dignity, and respect regardless of past, present, or future employment status.

Wow, what a daunting challenge. Speaking as a person who has always derived his very identity from his job, I can not imagine a more difficult about face.

I feel pretty alone in making this statement. Politicians and the media want to talk about income inequality because of political advantage, but they will not talk about the inequalities between employed and the permanently unemployed. Nor are they willing to even acknowledge that we have such a big class of permanently unemployed people that we need to do something other than promising to find them jobs.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Catching Up

Umatilla, FL

It has been a while since we posted.   We have been busy, but the past two weeks we were with people who didn't want us to share what we were doing on social media.  Sigh, modern life becomes bizarre at times.
  • Today, Libby and I spent 4 hours doing something we've never done before -- construction.   We volunteered for Habitat For Humanity which is building a Veterans Village near here.

    I pounded nails all morning.  That gave me a blister, but no sore muscles.  Libby did measurements, but she also tried her hand at nailing.  That gave her a come-uppance on upper body strength.  Libby has always though that her upper body strength was adequate.  After pounding on one nail for 10 minutes and achieving less than 0.5 inches penetration, she had to reassess.
    • Friday, we went on a hike in Ocala National Forest with a group from the RV park.  It was very nice.
    • Thursday we had a nice visit from Pat & Walt, and the four of us had lunch over with Darrick and Sharon.  It seems that all six of us have very similar circumstances.   We have all acquired an alternate residence, and we all reluctantly face the prospects of using our boats much less than in the pass.  Basically,   we all face the same dillema.  What did we talk about?  We discussed going to The Abacos (Bahamas)   in April.

    Saturday, December 31, 2016

    Asymmetric Cyberwar

    From today's Washington Post:
    While the Russians did not actively use the code to disrupt operations, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a security matter, the discovery underscores the vulnerabilities of the nation’s electrical grid. And it raises fears in the U.S. government that Russian government hackers are actively trying to penetrate the grid to carry out potential attacks.

    Officials in government and the utility industry regularly monitor the grid because it is highly computerized and any disruptions can have disastrous implications for the country’s medical and emergency services.

    Burlington Electric said in a statement that the company detected a malware code used in the Grizzly Steppe operation in a laptop that was not connected to the organization’s grid systems. The firm said it took immediate action to isolate the laptop and alert federal authorities.

    The facts do not come out until paragraph three, preceded by very scary headline and paragraphs 1 and 2. The laptop was not connected to operations. It could have been infected by an employee viewing porn sites. The infection contained at least a snippet of code attributed to Russian origin.

    I'm willing to believe that the malware found was of Russian origin. But hackers share malware freely and excerpt and morph it to fit their needs. The Stuxnet virus, supposedly of US Government origin is like that. Finding a snippet of Stuxnet code on an infected computer today is very weak evidence that the US Government put it there.

    Here is my central point. Bad guys can very simply and cheaply use hacking to spread fear in out country, and to erode trust in our institutions, and to cause us to spend our money foolishly. Measured in terms of money, it is asymmetric to the extreme. Security vendors salivate over prospective sales of $100-$150 billion in smart grid or cyber security hardware and software. It might have cost the bad guys less than $10 to get the malware on the Vermont computer. That suggests a leverage of 10,000,000:1! Readers may wish to argue for a lower number, perhaps 1,000:1. But we should all agree that the gain is very much bigger than 1, thus asymmetric in favor of the attacker.

    Next, I think back to the so-called Strategic Defense Initiative of the Reagan years (known as Star Wars). It has been said that Star Wars was the straw that broke the back of the Soviet Union. Perhaps Star Wars was genuine, or perhaps it was an insanely successful ruse. No matter. That little packet of information, true or false, achieved what 30,000 nuclear warheads over the span of 40 years did not accomplish. It was asymmetric to the extreme.

    It seems entirely plausible that the Russians, North Koreans, Iranians, or other enemies can have a field day practicing asymmetric cyberwar with the USA. The beauty of the scheme is that they do not need to ever succeed in causing a blackout or anything else with physical reality. All they need to do it to destabilize our society with anxiety. If we accept that the Russians did meddle with the US election, then destabilization rather than electron of Trump seems to be a much more believable motive. Hundreds of millions of Trump opponents, still stinging with disappointment, are willing to jump on that destabilizing wagon at this moment in time.

    It may be true that the USA is much more skilled than any other country in offensive cyberwar capability. But it is also true that we are more vulnerable because (a) we are so computer dependent, and (b) because our free speech traditions allow the media megaphone to amplify fears and concerns. The USSR in the 1980s was vulnerable in different socioeconomic ways. Star Wars was merely the trigger, not the total cause of Soviet Union collapse.

    What can we do? We can't repeal the 1st amendment. But we can and should solicit the cooperation of the media. Using today's Washington Post article as an example, all that would be needed would be to to make the raw facts appear first. Make facts the first paragraph and the headline. The authors would still be free to embellish the facts with speculation about scary possibilities, but the editors could simply move those to paragraph 20 of the story. It is ironic to note that other countries with weaker free press traditions (including much of Western Europe) would find it easier to do than we would.

    It is my opinion that if we could accomplish that simple change in how we emphasize and highlight information, that the USA.

    There are also other things not related to cyber security that we can do to make ourselves less vulnerable, but I'll leave those for another day.

    Tuesday, December 27, 2016

    Radical Changes We Can Agree On

    Umatilla, FL

    Love it or hate it, Donald Trump will be President and he intends to make major changes.  Most of his changes will be loved by some and hated by others.  I would like to focus on two really big reforms that he could do that I thing most of us, liberal or conservative, could agree would be improvements.

    Move agencies out of DC
    Trump promised two things, first to “drain the swamp” and second to put the coal miners in WV and OH back to work. But many coal burning power plants have already shut down permanently, and no government actions will re-open those coal mines. One small step we could take would be to move EPA to West Virginia. Presumanly, many EPA employees would refuse to move there, so we could hire WV and OH people to take their places.

    In terms of making government accountable to the people, it makes perfect sense to staff the government with people who are closest to those directly affected by government actions. I think that sentiment should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike.

    But don't stop with EPA. Trump could move all executive branch offices to locations around the country other than Washington DC. That would naturally lead to staff profiles that reflect the public, and not an overreaching ruling class. I believe that it is pretty obvious that much of today's resentment of government rests on the public's perception that federal employees have been evolving into an arrogant and privileged ruling class.

    Make the law WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get)
    For 230 years, our system of laws more-or-less works like this. Congress drafts a law using lawyer's language and passes it. Laws are seldom repealed but new laws add features or override meanings of older laws. Then courts interpret what the laws mean and at times strike down portions of laws. The court's product are decisions. Then regulators create regulations which are supposed to put flesh on the skeleton of laws. For a citizen to know what he is or is not supposed to do, he is required to read and understand the entire history of laws, court decisions, and regulations. No mortal can do that so we need armies of lawyers.

    Now, if Trump is making radical changes, especially in this digital age, imagine this:
    • The Law of the Land (TLOTL), should be written in plain language that every citizen can and should read and understand without assistance from a lawyer. It will be posted on the Internet, and fully searchable.
    • The online version should include revision marking. For example, that previous versions of the law can be made visible in red strikeout fonts green underline text . Proposals for future changes can similarly be identified by color and font in terms of proposed changes in text wording changes.  
    • The Internet site displaying TLOTL will also provide for citizens to comment on passages, and to start discussions.  People viewing TLOTL can choose to see or not see the comments.  Comment management will be difficult.
    • We will not pass additional laws, we pass edits or revisions to TLOTL text.
    • Regulations and court decisions are not in addition to TLOTL they modify the text of TLOTL
    • We will no longer allow district or regional courts to make local decisions that have the effect of making the law of the land different in different places in the country.
    • TLOTL repeals and supersedes all prior laws, regulations and court decisions. TLOTL will be the one and only place to look to see what is and is not allowed or required. No documents, other than The Constitution and TLOTL, will have force of law.
    • IRS and the tax laws plus 70000 pages of tax regulations are too complex to translate to plain text. Repeal and replacement of all existing tax laws will be reuired, not just in words, but also in detail. We need to re-think taxes from the ground up and to put millions of tax lawyers out of business.
    • Expressing TLOTL in plain text will have the profound effect of ending government micro-management of its subjects simply because it can not be millions of pages long. The law of the land will have to be more general and less specific than existing laws and regulations. All three branches of government will have to adjust to that. On one hand, that seems to give government more power, but on the other hand it will greatly reduce government interference into the daily lives of everyone.   
    • Transition from the status quo to TLOTL will be very difficult. The easiest way to start would be with those agencies that relocate from DC and who re-staff.  Instead of undoing existing regulations one at a time, they would focus on the TLOTL expression of what they think the agency should do.  Achieving that for a few agencies within the next 4 years would be a major accomplishment.