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Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Magic Penny effect: why greed causes economic disruption

     Malvina Reynolds, an American folk/blues singer-songwriter, wrote (among other things) a song called "The Magic Penny". You can see a full set of the lyrics at The Magic Penny song but the first verse and chorus go:

Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It's just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won't have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you'll have so many
They'll roll all over the floor.

     As talked about in my earlier blogs on money and economics, money is a symbol of resources. You cannot directly eat money, or grow money, or save money -- money is only a symbol. The symbol can take many forms -- solid ones such as gold or other "precious" or rare metals, electronic ones such as bitcoin, paper ones such as pound notes or Euro notes, or solid symbols of other wealth such as physical coins.

     Initial use of money arose out of the difficulty of having precisely what the other person wanted as barter -- or the difficulty of transporting it, keeping it alive, and transferring it. Even in a regular barter economy, it is difficult to have that cord of firewood in your pocket if you want somebody's fish. Much easier to have some mechanism of recording that the woodcutter owes you a cord of wood at some point in the future. Even easier if there is some common unit such that one cord of wood is equal to five Tunkels and one fish is equal to one Tunkel. Therefore, one cord of wood is equal to five fish.

     The magic penny effect is most directly related to the practice of hoarding. When you hoard something -- whether it is money, or food substances, or newspapers, or whatever -- you take it out of "circulation". It is unavailable to be used. In the case of food, it will eventually go bad and be unusable by anyone. In the case of newspapers, they can rot and the information will become outdated. in the case of money, those symbols of resources disappear from the economy. While they are not actively used, they are the equivalent of not existing.

     As the song goes, you can spend it or lend it and it will be an active resource. Present, and usable, to convert into food, or housing, or video games, or whatever. Within a capitalist society, it can be loaned to those who do not possess adequate symbols of resources at present and a tax (interest) can be charged against what they can contribute in the future. But, if you "hold it tight" it serves no purpose and might as well not exist -- and has the potential of disappearing (stolen, lost in an earthquake, paper equivalents burned, etc.)

     This is related to, but not the same as, the build-up of "phantom resources" or "accumulated capital". Controlled by a central center -- and able to be spent or lent -- but not freely available to those who can most use it (or, potentially, most deserve it. We'll plunge into that topic in a soon-to-come blog. But, for now, keep in mind the "magic penny" effect and see that money is actively used.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Synchronization: One is a wiggle, multiples are a movement

     We can sit back and watch someone dance. We observe the fluidity of their motion, the deliberateness of the position, the rhythm of the movements. Perhaps it is even in accordance with the components of music -- the tempo, the syncopation, the tones. The body becomes an extension of the mind and spirit -- an instrument for expression. The experience is different for the participant than for the observer but still capable of extending beyond words, or sounds, or sights.
     But, what happens when we observe someone (or do it ourselves) who does something that is considered "clumsy"? Something is dropped. The body sways to one side in an erratic way. A jump is made but the landing does not meet expectations of how it should be done. There is a fall, a jostle, a slip. Instead of smooth transitions, each movement is jerky and without observable rhythm.
     We have probably all noticed this -- in ourselves and in others. Perhaps we have also made judgements about ourselves. "I just can't dance." "I have no rhythm." "I cannot let myself be seen in public."
     But what happens when movements match within groups of people -- or even couples? One person raises their arm up at a 45 degree angle. What is going on? Two people raise their arms up at a 45 degree angle at the same time. Does it feel different? How about when a dozen people do it at the same time? It can no longer be considered an accident or a coincidence. There is synchronization -- individuals are becoming part of a group and using that coordination to communicate something.
     What are they communicating? Ah, that is a question indeed. About the only answer I can give is "42". Bees join into groups of movement to indicate food supplies and directions and weather and other things vital to the colony. Aliens from other worlds might join to indicate similar things -- so could humans, if desired.
     What about our examples of "clumsy"? What if two people sway to one side at the same time? What if an entire group of people jump up and land in an unexpected way? What if the jerks happen in a series of movement within a group of people -- no longer at the very same time with each person but in a series that is apparent even if not predictable?
     What we can see from this is that movements do not carry inherent worth -- or they all carry inherent worth. While an individual may tune their body to express in ways that are socially recognized as approved movements, the individual movements that are not so approved can still be appreciated when synchronized within a group.
     So, am I clumsy or have I just not found the group to match my wiggles?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Is Being Average "Normal"?

     Many people are fascinated by surveys and tables of statistics. They can be fun -- and even useful, when interpreted by people who know what the data does, and does not, indicate. They can also be misused by presenting data in such a form that people will jump to conclusions that are not really supported by the data. This is done directly by many politicians and for political purposes and causes.
     I have mentioned before the quote popularized by Mark Twain -- "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." I like statistics because I am fascinated by numbers. Their relationships and the ability to use various formula upon the data is a lot of fun. But I don't have sufficient training to use (or misuse) them properly.
     But this particular blog is not about such weighty matters. It is more about how people can take "everyday" data and make more of it than what they deserve. In particular, it is about averages and the definition of normal. An average is a fact when you are dealing with numbers. The average of two, five, and eleven is six.  The average height of a human male in the United States is approximately 69.7 inches (177 cm) -- but there are not that many men in the United States who are exactly 69.7 inches tall. In other words, few men are of "average" height.
     Averages only make sense for characteristics when you examine them within a distribution. A normal distribution curve looks like:

     Normal means, basically, that the curve has a uniform change throughout the graph -- there are just as many above the average as there are below the average and the percentages change consistently on both sides of the "bell curve". This ideal curve doesn't occur that often in nature. One problem that happens is that there are often assumptions that a distribution of data will meet a normal distribution without doing a sufficiently wide sampling of data to justify it. For example, the data for men and women's heights in the U.S. can look like:

     Note that the peak for men ends up around 70 inches, while the peak for women is at about 64.5 inches (164 cm). The peak is higher than for men and the curve is narrower. This indicates that women's heights don't vary as much as men and concentrate at the average. However, in both cases the curve is very "smooth" and symmetrical. For height, it seems that the data really does seem to support this -- with a longer "tail" at the tall end indicating a slightly greater number of very tall people versus the number of very short people.
     Any characteristic that can be measured can have an average. Skin color is based on the amount of pigmentation from different types of melanin in the skin. There could be an average value for this. The average weight for a U.S. male (in 2015) was 195.5 pounds (88.5 kg) -- an increase of 30 pounds (13.5 kg) since 1960. The number of hair follicles per square inch can be measured -- thus, there is an average value for "hairiness". Ear size can be measured from top to bottom (or front to back or distance out from the skull).
     How many people have an average height, weight, skin color, hairiness, and ear size? Probably only a half dozen or so within the United States. Are these six people the "normal" ones? No, not even from a statistical sense because there are going to be many other measurements that are potentially able to be done -- eye color, IQ, foot size, hand span, distance from bottom of nose to top of lip, and so forth. Everything that can be measured can have an average -- but none of them are "normal" because humans are not just one characteristic. They are combinations of many, many characteristics and there may be some that are genetically linked (if you have one then you also have the other) but most appear to be totally independent. Skin color is totally independent of IQ. Eye color appears to have little to do with height. Weight and height do have some correspondence but it is possible to have a tall thin person as well as a short heavy one.
     Since being average in every possible measurable area is highly unlikely,  it is certainly not normal to be average.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Artificial Intelligence: Beyond the Turing test

     In 1950, the British mathematician Alan Turing gave an answer to the question -- how can you tell if a machine is intelligent? His (paraphrased) response was "if you cannot tell the difference between a human answering questions and a machine answering questions then it has achieved intelligence". This Turing Test is not universally accepted but it is probably the most widely used foundation of answering the question of what is Artificial Intelligence (AI).
     Alan Turing's test was based on the idea of an interviewer and a responder. Someone asks a question and someone answers a question. This led to a series of experiments in computer programs that simulated (or imitated) "normal" human interviewer/questioner situations. It might be between a therapist and patient or doctor and patient or a student and professor/teacher. Naturally, there had to be a way to make it impossible to physically tell whether it was a machine or not. It also had, built into the test, the requirement of equivalent skill in understanding and speaking/responding in a human language.
     In today's world, computer programs have advanced beyond simple questions and answers. We have computer programs beating humans in Chess, and Go, (and other games). The Turing Test might not be considered to apply to these situations but many people would consider this a form of AI. We have computer program/systems that make use of pattern recognition to identify potential suspects or targets of drones. So far, the final decision is still made by humans but stories/films such as The Minority Report indicate a possibility of the machines making final decisions even about what might happen.
     That is the "line in the sand" for people thinking about AI. Who makes the final decisions? Is it a human (with all of her, or his, faults and experience) or a machine (who, at heart, is still the results of a programmer's abilities and recognition of exceptions)? Isaac Asimov, in his Three Laws of Robotics, had the AI programming include self-restraints as to what the program/robot could do, or could not do, without undergoing self-destruction.
     Speed and safety. The primary reason for computer programs is NOT that they can do things that humans cannot do; the primary reason is that they do things much, much, faster (and reproducibly). So, if you design an AI that handles the coordination and operation of a nuclear reactor, you want the program to be able to respond very quickly. Putting a human into the decision path slows everything down. Who has the final responsibility?
     The same question exists within the possibility of self-driving automobiles and trucks. It is likely that AI programs can already drive as well as an average driver -- assuming that all of their sensors work properly (they can detect objects and highway lines and sounds and bouncing balls and the cars and buildings around them, ...). Certainly, in another five or ten years, AI self-driving programs will be able to control a vehicle much safer (and more rationally -- no road rage potential) than humans. But they would be making the final decision.
     If a self-driving AI makes a mistake or a necessary decision that costs lives, who has the responsibility? The programmer? The company that built the vehicle? The owner of the vehicle? What happens if the self-driving car is involved in an accident with a human-driven car? Is there presumption of innocence on the part of the self-driving car?
     In all these cases, the program and machine are taking the place of the human. If you keep them "behind the curtain" there may be no way to identify whether they are human or machine. They PASS the Turing Test. But, when the curtain is removed, what is the final verdict? Who/what has the responsibility? Who/what makes the final decision?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Out-of-sync: When social evolution lags technical innovation

     Humans, as a whole, are very capable intellectually. They're "smart". They can figure out how to take something and improve it. They can take two or more, apparently unrelated, items and figure out something completely new that can be done by using all of them together in a way that has never been done before. This is called "technological advancement" or "technical innovation".
     This is good. It has allowed us to move from caves to weather-secure buildings with running water and toilets and to be able to go from point A to point B in hours rather than weeks or months. It has allowed us to be able to feed 100 people, for a year, from an acre of land rather than 20. In most areas of the planet, it has helped us to be able to spend some time each day doing something other than trying to survive.
     What humans, as a whole, are NOT very good at -- is using technology consistently for constructive purposes. We invent ways to initiate, and control, fire and some individuals start burning down forests, or houses, or even tying alternative health specialists to stakes and burning them. We figure out ways to communicate at the speed of light across the planet and use it to spread false information more quickly. We work on methods to cure disease and help those who have incurable problems to live more easily and efficiently -- then we use those same methods to create diseases that kill millions. These are examples of "social evolution" (or lack thereof 😢).
     This is an example of being "out-of-sync" (or out of synchronization). Technology becomes capable of certain actions before people have matured sufficiently to consistently make use of the technology for good. Another way of putting it is that technology advances faster than people's ability to use it properly -- and the spread between these two appears to continue to widen.
     In order to curtail this problem, of course, one of two solutions can be applied. The first would be to slow down technical innovation. This is unpopular and unenforceable. As stated at the beginning -- humans, as a whole, are very capable intellectually. If one government, or group of people, agreed to slow down technological development in one area then another group of people will be completely willing, and able, to proceed on the development path on their own. A similar method could be done on an individual basis (since usually there is someone who is first with a technical innovation) with that person deciding to slow down, or withhold, research or results. This might work for a while but it disrupts many social policies of reward and competition.
     The other thing to do would be to accelerate social development. This sounds great but it also has problems. One problem is there no way to accelerate social development universally. In other words, if you have a nuclear bomb it only takes ONE finger to "push the button". And, within current economic patterns, there is no incentive to devote the resources (time, people, energy, "money") to help people to develop socially; there is no direct, short-term, "profit" from a more mature, socially capable, human.
     So, we have a problem. The problem doesn't appear to have a solution. They why talk about it? Because awareness of the problem is, in itself, an approach to a solution. If most scientists and engineers and tinkerers keep this problem in mind then technology can be presented in such ways that constructive ideas are promoted before destructive ones. This doesn't stop abuse but it does reduce it and slow it down. Such awareness can also avoid the social problem of technical abandonment -- "I just invented it -- it's not my responsibility how it is used". A true, but very lazy, excuse.
     Do you have any suggestions as to how to keep technical innovation and social responsibility at the same point?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Gambling: a matter of risk versus reward

    When you hear the word "gambling" you start thinking about casinos, and roulette wheels or maybe hands of poker. But, in real life, gambling is a matter of risk and reward. Crossing the street involves risk and the reward is getting to your destination across the street. Asking someone out for a date involves risk (emotional and, occasionally, physical) in the hopes of rewards of reciprocity of affection or friendship.
    However, gambling still is usually classified internally depending on whether one considers the risk to be voluntary or involuntary -- and reasonable depending on whether the chance of reward is sufficient to justify the amount of risk. If we think it is a high risk and does not require to be done then, and only then, do we usually call it gambling. So, games of chance are considered to be gambling but crossing the street is not.
    This isn't true of everyone. Jack Nicholson, in "As Good As It Gets", portrays someone who is all-too-aware of the everyday risks of life. He continually strives to eliminate risk by isolating himself and entering into rigid routines and being hyper-careful of hygiene and exposure. The rewards of everyday life are not enough for him to take these risks. He is "fortunate" to be able to cater to these attempted avoidances of risk because he has a lucrative occupation that allows him to do this. It is only when he sees a reward that is large enough that he increases his willingness to take more risk.
    Nicholson' s character is seen as abnormal because his awareness of risks is much greater than his recognition of potential rewards. The risks exist -- but so do the rewards that he cannot grasp. There is not a single, appropriate, balance even though there are certainly, within a given society, an expectation of being able to make "reasonable" judgements on such.
    For someone living in a war zone, the risks of doing anything rise and the potential rewards narrow. For someone with a dependable environment and financial basis, the risks seem smaller because the downside of failure is much less even if they don't achieve the hoped-for rewards.
    There are various phobias -- more specialized than those that Nicholson's character revealed -- that are still an out-of-balance reflection of the risk versus the reward. To Chicken Little, the sky may fall upon him if he goes out -- or to the agoraphobic. One person may be willing to work in high construction, balancing themselves on girders while another person may have difficulty getting onto a balcony.
    Life is a gamble. Being able to weigh the risks and rewards are more computable with games of chance than they are within everyday activities. But the risks must be taken to get to the rewards. It is part of life's journey to learn to make those decisions based on known risks and benefits.
    What risks do you see that outweigh the possible benefits?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Luddite effect -- when the new does not transition the old

    In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in London, as part of the "Industrial Revolution", a group of workers in the textile industry started gathering together to fight against technical replacements for their labor. Their fear was based in reality. The textile industry in England was a large one within which a considerable portion of the workers earned their living. A mechanized loom might replace the manual efforts of dozens of women and men.
    Similar to the situations that often exist today, these people were hard-working and had developed their skills over their lifetimes and, sometimes literally overnight, there was no longer any market for those skills. The response -- a losing battle -- was to destroy machines, make threats to those who were instigating the changes, and disrupt the ability for the new factories to produce. Some historical accounts indicate that the leaders of the workers recognized that there was no way to defeat the change but wanted better leverage to provide retraining and support of the unemployed.
    Government response was primarily organized around protecting the new factories, their owners, and products. Severe laws were passed and a number of "show trials" were held with death or penal transportation/exile as potential penalties. These laws, in effect, did succeed in breaking the movement.
    Other areas of skilled labor were also displaced within the context of the Industrial Revolution. Although history books usually focus on the improved ability to manufacture goods (and decrease of prices for the average consumer), they do not often indicate the huge labor displacement which was a direct effect of the change.
    The Luddites provide a practical history lesson. Change is difficult for societies to adopt and it is particularly hard on those who have invested much time and effort on the old. If change is to happen (and it is difficult to avoid it) then the process of moving away from the old must be kept in mind.
    There are a number of changes currently going on in current times. One is semi-involuntary, one is semi-voluntary, and another is fully voluntary.
    Climate change is semi-involuntary. This is because it was probably avoidable but made difficult to avoid because of inertia of old methods of business. Although there is still the chance to make the change less severe, it has already made significant changes to the world. The Great Barrier Reef is close-to-death largely because of the increase in global water temperature. The glaciers continue to shrink around the world -- this is especially important in the Asian subcontinent where winter storage of water in snowpacks and glaciers provide water to billions of people. "100-year-floods" and "100-year-storms" are occurring more often as the water temperature rises.
    A semi-voluntary area of change is the shift from non-renewable energy sources. Since the change has to be encouraged, and pushed for, it falls into the voluntary category. It is reaching the tipping point where it is almost easier to use new, renewable, energy sources than to keep using the old ones. However, just as happened in the textile industry, it is very important to recognize, and assist, the people and families dedicated to the old energy systems. Solar panel factories located at old coal mines to allow easier transitions?
    A full voluntary area of change is the strong push towards greater and greater independent automation. Phones get smaller and more powerful. Robots can take over more manual labor in a programmable fashion (as opposed to dedicated design such as in the textile mills). Innovation and extensive education becomes more and more necessary for general job positions.
    Whether voluntary, involuntary, or a mixture of such, change requires preparation and assistance in moving from the old. The is a necessity for the change and, when it is forgotten, much suffering can occur as well as rebellion (isolated or global).
    What happens to the old when the new comes? This is an age old question but, with more rapid change comes the need to actively address the needs for migration, retraining, and restructuring.