Friday, 19 September 2014

Why I Am NOT a Democrat: Reason #852

I have been living in France for a while now; I am very happy to be here.  

Don't get me wrong - I love my country, and I am proud to be an American.  But being an American is at times just exhausting.  And when I feel like I miss the old country, I know I can count on my friends back home to remind me that there are more benefits living in Europe than just efficient trains and good, affordable wine.

A Facebook friend today posted yet another link about how American politicians are looking to strip the National Football League (NFL) of its tax-exempt status.

Yes, I know.  I, too, am shocked that a league that paid its chairman $44 MILLION in 2013, and generates $9 billion in revenues is not subject to tax.  Apparently, it's true - the league files under 501(c)-(6) business organisation.  Which is to say, it is a business association created not for its own enrichment, but to promote the activities of its members.

It's insanity, of course, but one that other leagues (the NHL, the PGA) also avail themselves of, as did the professional baseball MLB until 1997, when it agreed to give up such status.

I have -no- problem at all with asking an obvious for-profit business to pay taxes.  I suspect few do.  In fact, conservative senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) introduced legislation a couple of years ago to do just that, and got nowhere.  It was not reported, and died quietly.

No - the two-pronged attack here illustrates why I find the Democratic party ultimately less palatable than virtually any alternative.  

On the one side, we have Harry Reid (D-NV) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) proposing to strip the league not because it's grossly unfair, but because the NFL "allows" the franchise in Washington to use a mascot that is offensive to some.

Cantwell helped craft legislation specifically to allow the other tax-phobic leagues to continue not to pay:

The bill is narrowly crafted to prohibit tax-exempt status only for professional sports leagues that promote use of the term used by Washington's football team, meaning it would not affect other sports leagues, such as the NHL and PGA, which also receive the exemption.
"American taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize a $9 billion league that promotes a dictionary-defined racial slur," Cantwell said in a statement. She announced she would introduce such legislation at a Tuesday news conference held by a coalition of Native American tribes and social justice groups who are pressing the Washington team to change its name.
There is further moral preening and grandstanding, which is what all this is.

It's not that I disagree that the term "Redskins" is offensive, or that really, for the sake of decency, the team should voluntarily change it.  

But the tax code exists solely to raise funds to run the government.  It is not and should not be a cudgel to enforce manners.  

On the other side, camera-friendly Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) has proposed legislation to remove the tax exemption and use the funds that would come from the NFL- approximately $100 million per year - to pay for various programmes dealing with domestic violence.

All of this ostensibly because of the recent disgusting cases where Ray Rice violently assaulted his fiancee (she later married him) or Adrian Peterson beat one of his multiple children (all from different mothers, none of whom he married), the injuries captured on film.

Again, I find domestic violence appalling, and I think funding programmes to fight it are laudable.

But the tax code exists solely to raise funds to run the government.  It is not and should not be used as a tool to discipline a league filled with thugs to clean up their behaviour.

This is something that seems to escape most Democrats, and why they simply cannot be entrusted with the power of the purse.  

Taxation is a tool.  We have government services that we need, and some others that we want.  We can and should discuss these services, and of course, if we demand them, we can and should discuss how to pay for them.  

But once the tax code is turned into a weapon, and that weapon is put into the hands of arbiters of what is proper behaviour, we cross a quite dangerous line.  

I don't know if Cantwell or Reid or Booker actually believes that their pet legislation has a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl Championships' chance of ever passing, and I suppose that each, sensing that the Democrats are in deep trouble in the 2014 mid-terms, is trying to pander as quickly and obviously as they can to revive the "War on Women" trope.  

But I say, let them pander, preen, and pronounce in front of fawning cameras and then leave the serious discussion of tax policy to the adults.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

1 Wait Until Next Year; 2 GOTO 1

Hit and run post.  I awoke this morning to see that 'my' team - the Toronto Blue Jays - lost again last night in Baltimore.  Another loss for this bunch is typically an unremarkable event, and last night's effort was itself pretty quotidien for a team that doesn't hit, pitch, field, or run the bases particularly well.

No; the only thing really to stand out from the 8-2 loss, the third straight for the Jays, in which they managed two hits against a guy who:

  1. Had not pitched for a month
  2. Was pulled from the rotation because he was awful
  3. Entered the game with an ERA of nearly five
was that it eliminated the team from contention for the American League East penant.  The Orioles, with the win, clinched their first title since 1997.

This marks the 21st consecutive season that the Blue Jays will not win the penant.  And though they are still mathematically eligible for one of the two "wild card" spots, they now are five games away from that, with 12 to play.

It's a nearly lead-pipe cinch that they will miss the playoffs.  Again.

The last time Toronto was in the post season was 1993.  I was then 23 years old, and just starting my second year of graduate school.  

In fact, the last time the Blue Jays finished within 10 games of a playoff spot was that same year.  They have not been realistic contenders in 21 years.  This year, barring a complete mail-it-in finish, they likely will break that streak.  

The only other team in the majors with a current resume of futility is the Kansas City Royals (have not been in the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985 - ironically, after being the first team to overcome a 3-1 deficit by winning the final three against the Blue Jays), and KC is likely to get in this year.

This will leave Toronto alone atop the hill of mediocrity.

Truly, the Blue Jays are now the three legged dog of professional baseball.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Ugly Truth

When I was young, I was a huge fan of the 1960's era serial "The Twilight Zone."  One of my favourite episodse, entitled "The Eye of the Beholder," focused on a patient only referred to as "Patient 307."  She was a young woman in a hospital who was undergoing a final treatment to repair what was implied to be a disfigurement.  The entire episode, one never saw her face, or indeed, those of any of the doctors or nurses.

The shocking denoument revealed that Patient 307 had what we would consider to be a beautiful face; but alas - in the episode, the medical professionals recolied in horror, and it was slowly revealed that the "right" look in that world was quite far removed from our own.

In the Eye of the Beholder?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I came across an article in the on-line version of the UK Daily Mail.  The article described a forthcoming book called Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One Is Looking.  The book is a compendium of analyses run by Christian Rudder, the founder of the dating website OK Cupid.

As an aside, there is a lot of noise currently going on about what "big data" is going to reveal, and certainly, the sheer volume of information available, coupled with the increasing power and ease of analytic computing, is going to reveal a lot.  Some of it will be good, but I am assured that some of it, perhaps more than we want to admit, is going to be disquieting.

In the Daily Mail article, the so-called click bait produces the results of an analysis of the dating choices of men and women, and how they diverge.  With respect to desirability and age.  The results have produced a fair amount of tut-tutting among the biens pensants, but really should not be a shock to anyone who sets "the right sort of thinking" aside and applies instead empirical logic.

In the words of the author: 

Are you a girl over 22?  Then don't even bother with online dating.  It's no secret that men tend to see younger women as more attractive, but the extreme to which this holds true is somewhat alarming.
Rudder did a statistical analysis of the age preferences of his clients, and came to the knock-me-over-with-a-feather conclusion that women prefer a man more or less the same age as they - though slightly (1-2 years older) - until they reach about 40.  (From the early 30s until 40, the desired age is the same, and then, following 40, begins to diverge).

For men, the desired age is almost uniformly 20-22.  It doesn't matter if the guy is 20 or 50.  

The following graphs illustrate the different revealed preferences of men and women who frequent OKCupid.

Age Preference of Female e-Daters

Age Preference of Male e-Daters
If you are a single (or divorced) female looking for love from a Silicon Valley Cupid, this is devastating news.  Unless you happen to be 22 years old.  But is it really surprising?

In my view, it's not.  It reveals the unfortunate (for women) reality that the balance of sexual power is extremely fluid.  And it is fixed.  Firmly.

I ask anyone reading this: think back to your days as a teen.  As a college student?  As a 20-something young adult?  Who really set the dynamics of the dating rules?  Ultimately, it has (at least during my lifetime, and for a fair amount of time before, I presume as well) always been the prerogative of the female to choose whether a guy was suitable or not.  The parameters were malleable - the status markers change.  In high school the football player was a the top of the pecking order.  As a 22 year old, it was the mid to late 20-year old with the right status-setting job or the money to have the right car or clothes.  

A 24 year old guy looking to attract the attention of  a woman his own age was competing (more often than not, I would bet, losing the competition) with the slightly older, better established guy.

I understand that film is not exactly, reality, but it does reflect it to a degree.  Think of the famous (and IMHO one of the best) scenes in the movie "Swingers," where Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau are trying to strike up a conversation with a couple of pretty women, presumably their own age.

What Kind of Car Do You Drive?

Though I suspect that, few women will readily admit to it, this is, I believe, a fairly accurate potrayal of the sexual politics of early-to-mid 20 year old Americans.  At least circa 1995.

As time goes by, of course, the power dynamics shift.  Radically.  

It is likely in at least partially down to biology, of course.  Like it or not, human beings are subject to more or less the same biological imperatives as any other living organism, and at or near the top of that list is survival. And that means finding a mate capable of ensuring the survival of the species.  And the reality is, as women age, they will simply lose this ability.  

No amount of propaganda, or arguing about the need/desire for careers, or debate about fairness is going to change that reality.  

Put in other words, mother nature bats last, and she is not particularly merciful.

I've long believed that men are more visual than women; we respond to visual stimulation more viscerally.  The sad truth is that in our reptilian complexes, far below the rational, we correlate youth with fertility.  

The flip side of the results is equally obvious.  Like it or not, young women seem to desire an older man, and I suspect that this is in part because we all know, again at our gut level, an older guy is more likely to be established.  He is more likely to have a stable, good-paying job.  He is more likely to have the political and social capital (professional affiliations, networks of friends, connections) that come with age.  These are still 'desirable' to women.

I recall when I was a graduate student, lecturing to sections of Stanford undergrads.  One of the texts we used was called Fifty Challenging Problems in Probability.  One of the problems, used to illustrate combinatorics, involved "eligible bachelors and beautiful women."  Now, I didn't write the book, but it was part of the syllabus.  One of my students complained to me, and in parallel, to the department chair, about the wording, claiming that "beautiful women" objectified females.

Obviously, this is true.  No argument there.

But is it "sexist?"  The book was written by the eminent statistician Frederick Mosteller in 1965.  I don't know Mosteller personally - he lectured at Harvard on the other side of the country, but I presume that, given what I know of the time, an "eligible bacherlor" was unlikely to be a cashier at the local Safeway.  The connotations of what made a man an "eligible bachelor" were no less objectifying of men than was beauty of women.

Simply put, both terms, I believe, accurately reflected the preferences of actual men and women in 1965.  And 1993 at the time of my lecture.  And of 2014, if these data are to be believed.  If one considers the actual preferences of men and women rather than what we wish they were, I doubt that that student would have complained.

The internet is of course full of web sites about dating, it is easy to find anecdotes and polemics about "game" that reify all of this.  It's not for the faint of heart, and some of the language and examples can be, to put it mildly, blunt.

But then, "big data" is neither inherently good nor inherently malign.  Statistical analysis does not reveal the world as we wish it were.  Data and mathematics hold a mirror up to the world as it is.

Sometimes, the reflexion ain't going to be pretty.

Monday, 15 September 2014

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (Well, Almost)

"Da-da-da" Is What They'll Say!

It's been a busy summer - settling budget requests for 2015, booking conferences and meetings for the fall, spending two weeks in Maui to wind down.

In all the excitement, I forgot to note that about two weeks ago, an important milestone has come and gone.  Important to me, in any case.

With apologies to Lennon and McCartney, it was twenty years ago today, more or less, that I decided that I needed a bit more movement in my life.  The Sunday before Labor Day, 1994, I went to Big Five Sports in Sunnyvale, California, bought a pair of Asics running shoes, and went for my first run.

As a kid, I hated running, largely because I found it boring and pointless, and also because for the various sports I had played in school (mostly baseball), if we were running laps, it meant we had mouthed off to the coach.  Running was literally a form of punishment, and I guess I rather internalised the lesson.

A lot happened in the summer of 1994.  I had decided that graduate school was not for me, and I left Stanford to enter the world of work, taking my first "real" job at UC-San Francisco.  I got my first "real" apartment in the Valley Green Apartments in Cupertino, the sort of 1980s-style mega complex that abounds in Silicon Valley.

And more to the point, my father, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in the early spring, lost his battle in July.

When dad was diagnosed, the oncologists determined that he was not a good candidate for surgery, which is devastating to a cancer patient.  The odds are not terrific if you undergo surgery; they are horrendous without it.  The K-M curves for non-surgery lung cancer are, in a word, stark.

I decided that summer that, should the fates decide that cancer (or some other illness) was in my future, I wanted to give myself the best chances of survival I possibly could, and good cardio-vascular health is a key advantage.

I laced my Asics up that Sunday night and went for a jog around the neighbourhood.  My first course: out Valley Green Drive, right along DeAnza Blvd, down to Stevens Creek Blvd, left up Bandley Drive, and then home.  About a mile in total.

It was hell.

Neither Rome, nor Cupertino, was built in a day, so I stuck it out.  Gradually, I added a bit of distance to my loop.  Then I ran two.  Then three.  Then four.

It's 20 years later, and a lot has changed.

In 1994, Apple Computer (their world HQ was and remains just across DeAnza Blvd) was struggling then, as was much of the California economy.  This was before the first dot-com bubble, and Apple, who had owned most of the buildings up and down Bandley, Mariani, and other blocks in the area had gradually sold or leased the properties as they neared bankruptcy.  Apple is now the most valuable company (by market cap) in the world.

I moved from Cupertino, bought my first house in San Jose, got married, moved to the East Coast, changed jobs four times, had a son, and left the US.  I now live in Paris, France, nearly halfway around the world.  My son is now nine years old, and I have gone from being a young to a middle-aged man.

I am now less than 8 years away from the age dad was when he died.

In twenty years now, I have had the chance to run in the US, Canada, Mexico, France, the UK, Spain, Germany, Singapore, Taiwan, China, and Japan.  I've run in rain, snow, heat, and cold.  I've participated many times in the (in)famous Bay to Breakers and Run to the Far Side events.  Some of the cities whose streets I have jogged on include San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, and Tokyo.

I've now undergone two surgeries along the way - neither related to exercise.

Not sure how many pairs of shoes I've been through.

I used to run with a Walkman (ask anyone under the age of 30 what they are); over the years, that's gone to an MD player, a ZEN mp3 player, a portable iPod, and now an iPhone.  This latter device can entertain me with music and track my distance and pace.

Being a numbers guy, I keep track of every mile - every KM now that I live in France, and my phone app uses the metric system.  Still write down the data in the same spiral-bound notebook I've been using for 20 years.

According to my note-taking, yesterday (Sunday 14 September), I ran my 15,162 mile. That is a lot of water under the bridge.

That notebook began life as my phone list.  On the inside page are the telephone number and address for my grandfather on my dad's side, and my grandparents on my mom's.  All of the three are now gone.  My younger sister's and brother's addresses are from their days in college, as both were still students in fall 1994.  Some of the people have simply fallen off, and I have lost contact with them.

In 1994, I could scarcely think of being 45 years old, so I have no idea what life at 65 will be.  I hope I can still jog a mile or two then.

But I expect I may have to walk every now and then.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit

How Does the World Really Look
Through Rose-Coloured Glasses?
Homo proponit, sed Deus disponit.  Quickly, the Latin translates to English as "man proposes, but God disposes."  It's a terse assessment of the reality that in the end, whatever we as decidedly mortal beings with quite explicit limitations imagine, not all will come to fruition.

Put another way, in sports terms, mother nature bats last.

I write from time to time on a variety, at times an odd variety, of topics.  These sit at the intersection of interests of mine: in no particular order, mathematics, music, politics, travel, life in France, things that happen in my daily life, random items that I encounter in print.  It's a bit of a random walk, or, in French, un peu aléatoire.  I write these mainly for my own amusement, but also for a clutch of family and friends.  I actually have seven (7) 'followers,' (there is a running gag on Fox News's "Robot Red Eye Theatre" that MSNBC's Rachel Maddow has seven viewers; in my case, that's the actual, exact figure.  I'm doing as well as Rachel!  Hooray!), but the truth is, one is my mother, one my sister, and a third is my wife.  

Two days ago, I posted some thoughts about the possibility that Silicon Valley, which is trumpeted in the popular and prestige press as an incubator of creativity and innovation, may have reached a sort of "peak innovation."  Perhaps, even might have passed that.  It's a bit like the idea of "peak oil."  Without re-hashing the discussion, there is a distinct feel that what is drawing the oxygen, if not the brain power, in the Valley is less real innovation, and more clever marketing.  I asked, Has Silicon Valley run out of big ideas?

As Valley Wag Peter Thiel said, we expected flying cars; we got 140 characters.

Now typically, my posts will get a few dozen page views.  50 if the winds blow in a fortunate direction.  Occasionally, 75.  The post about The Valley has received several hundred views.  (I am a maths guy, so I find it hard to resist numbers and measures; I admit, thus, that I look at the pageviews.)

I'm not a professional writer, and I have no delusions of adequacy, as the saying goes.  But I was a bit surprised.  The most eyes that had visited a previous post was 150 or so pairs.  So, this particular post pulled more than the top three combined.

Quo vadis?

I lived most of my adult life in Silicon Valley, and have written about it many times before.  The politics, the culture, the bizarre, solipsistic reaction (over-reaction) to private activism.  

Each received higher than usual traffic, but still, between 50 and 80 page views.

I looked at the Google diagnostics, and lo and behold, the thread had somehow been cross-posted to a thread on Reddit called DarkFuturology.  I have visited Reddit on a few occasions in the past, but I am not a Reddit user.  Hence, someone who is a Redditor came across my post.

As Wilde said, the only way to deal with temptation is to give in to it, so I looked at the threads; it's a curious mish-mash of comments about possible impacts of technology, primarily as a dystopian vision.  Some of the discussion is, to say the least, raw.  My own ersatz contribution has received a mostly positive (88% "up-voted") response.  I'm mildly grateful it was not attacked as "click-bait."  

From DarkFuturology's own banner:
DarkFuturology examines dystopian trends. We emerged from growing disagreement with the utopian, techno-optimist perspectives prevailing in the original subreddit.
One of the comments/responses to the initial post was
We're about to get self driving cars and rockets to mars. If this article is true then we have no fear of being automated out of our jobs
My own musings in this instance are less about the potential dystopic impact of tech and more about how it seems that real innovation is being replaced by fake innovation, dressed up in a black turtleneck and pitched with a dollop of faux hipster irony.  At the least, the pace of real innovation has slowed, and as I said, it appears that the more noise made about an advance, the less profound the advances are becoming.

As an aside, I would respond to the poster that self-driving cars are first and foremost not really a 'big idea,' and I am dubious that we are at the advent of rockets to Mars.  It's ironic as well, that the day after I made my remark, Twitter (motto: you cannot spell "Twitter" without "twit") will raise $1.3 billion with a stock offering.

Equally, I am a true sceptic that self-driving cars will become uniform, unless they are forced on us by the state.  People, males especially, like to control their vehicles, and I reckon that they always will.  The fact that high-end performance cars (Porsches, Audi supercars, McLarens, Ferraris) still come with manually operated transmissions is an instructive clue.  If guys cleave to stick shifts, what makes anyone think that they will willingly give up the wheel?

But the discussion did lead me to ask, "do I have a dystopian view of the future?"  

So far as tech is concerned, I would have to say, "maybe."  I do not necessarily fear the sort of future of Skynet, or that machines are going to turn on us in an orgy of silicon mayhem and blood as in "WestWorld."  I'm in the minority who believe that real artificial intelligence is not a likely scenario, if for no other reason than I was convinced by John Searle's famous "Chinese Room" arguments (a close friend from college took his doctorate in philosophy at Berkeley).  

I don't believe a machine can be made to think.  I've written about this before

My view of the present is that, all things considered, I am damned happy to be alive now compared to any other period in history.  I cannot think of a single actual, measurable way that life was better at any time in the best.  Longevity?  Material wealth?  Health?  Geopolitical stability (the manufactured crisis in Syria and Ukraine to the side).  

This is not just true of the US or the developed world.

Things are different of course.  But if one is being honest, it seems impossible to reach any other conclusion.

That said, I am not optimistic about the future.  And this is not really related to climate change, or peak oil, or the fear that crazed, bearded men are going to over-run and destroy the west.  

Machines may not ever actually think for themselves (a la AI).  But if one steps back for a second, they won't actually have to.  

I completely agree with the first critic on DarkFuturology, that we in fact do have a threat of being automated out of work.  This is not a big idea of course - since the dawn of humanity, one of the forces majeures driving us is the creation of labour-saving devices.  The lever, the wheel, the wagon, the motor car, the washing machine.  Each of these has been on the whole beneficial; but each has had costs - dramatic costs in some cases.

I wrote about this some months ago here, with a hat-tip to the campy, 1976 movie "Logan's Run."

The special effects are laughable now, and the pretensions of what the future would look like perhaps even more comical, but the made-for-tv movie Logan's Run (featuring a young Farrah Fawcet before The Poster) came to mind when I read a recent column by John Derbyshire.  In it, the professional pessimist provides some thoughts on the impact on work and prospects for life in the not-distant future.  A future where technology has improved to, if not true AI, some semblance of it.
It isn't particularly pretty.

Each new advance has been similar - there are winners and losers.  Automobiles made hansom cab operators redundant.  Word processing has cut the need for a typing pool.  I suppose that text mining software may make market analytics a less than safe occupation.

All along, we have been advised to continue educating ourselves; to keep climbing the ladder to stay relevant.  Famously, US President Barak Obama got into a minor kerfuffle when he quipped about ATMs replacing bank tellers, with the solution being that the teller train to programme or repair  ATMs.  

The problem with this model is three-fold.

First, thousands of ATMs require only a hand-ful of programmers/repairmen, so there is a basic problem of arithmetic.

Second, being a bank teller requires a certain amount of intellect (counting, face recognition, ability to follow orders).  Writing the code requires a different, more complex set of skills.  It's just not possible that everyone who is smart enough to be a bank teller is smart enough to make or maintain an ATM.  

Finally, the situation does not scale up forever.  In allegorical terms, staying ahead of technology creep is like climbing a burning rope.  So long as one can climb faster than the fire, one will not get burnt.  But the rope at some point is anchored to something.  At some point, you will simply run out of rope.

None of this requires tremendous innovation, so it's a bit beside the points raised at DarkFuturology.  But the professional pessimist John Derbyshire (note: I enjoy reading his columns; I don't share all of his views, so please.  No nasty notes).
The assumption here is that like the buggy-whip makers you hear about from economic geeks, like dirt farmers migrating to factory jobs, like the middle-class engineer of 1960, the cube people of today will go do something else, creating a new middle class from some heretofore-despised category of drudges. But… what? Which category of despised drudges will be the middle class of tomorrow? Do you have any ideas? I don’t. What comes after office work? What are we all going to do? The same thing Bartleby the Scrivener did, perhaps, but collectively and generationally.
What is the next term in the series: farm, factory, office…? There isn't one. The evolution of work has come to an end point, and the human race knows this in its bones. Actually in its reproductive organs: the farmer of 1800 had six or seven kids, the factory worker of 1900 three or four, the cube jockey of 2000 one or two. The superfluous humans of 2100, if there are any, will hold at zero. What would be the point of doing otherwise? [emphasis mine]
On another point, I am firmly pessimistic about the basic demographic trap that the west is in.  Put quite bluntly, the ruling class and those in coastal cities are creating a future where children themselves are an annoyance.  I've written here, and here about the formal and informal policies being adopted, and the impact the new urbanism is having on families.

My view is that the future belongs to those who are there to see it.

There was a truly disturbing article by the demographer Joel Kotkin recently published
Where Will the San Franciscans of 2114 Come From?

The publication provides heat maps of various "hot" cities in the US, and the results are unsettling to say the least.  In the image above, three of four households in San Francisco, California - the current epi-centre of the walkable, urban, hip lifestyle - have no children present.  Similar patterns are seen in Manhattan, Boston, and Washington, DC.  If one pauses to think about this for three seconds, it is shocking.

That reality is already being discussed loudly in Europe where I live; I reckon it is a hot topic in Japan as well, where childless adults are making do with electric "pets".  Not sure at what point the horrific scenario played out in the dystopic novel Children of Men will start to be discussed seriously, but this fact alone makes me pessimistic.

Until now, technology has been seen as a servant; a saviour.  I share the views of many of the writers at DarkFuturology, in at least as far as I do not have a blind faith that science is going to save us.

So, whilst I am not really a pessimist in the classical sense, I would have to plead guilty to being a sceptic, and increasingly, a cynic.  But then, as I am fond of saying (most recently, to my boss), the power of accurate observation is frequently called 'cynicism' by those who haven't got it.  Bernard Shaw said it first, but I find it applies.

And thus, I have no illusions of seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses.  Quoting the otherwise forgettable 1980s-era movie with Scott Baio (?!?!?) "Zapped," when asked how the world looks through cracked glasses, I would give the following response.


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Things Are Seldom What They Seem

I am interested in a lot of things.  I am amused by still others.  I am paid for work that I do at a small intersection of the two.

Quickly, I work in a large, global pharmaceutical company, in a department called "Health Economics and Outcomes Research (HEOR)."  It's a long title, but can (relatively) simply be put as a function whose job it is to try to quantify economically and socially the benefits (and risks) of health care interventions.

My work often touches on traditional randomised controlled trials (RCTs), which are the bread-and-butter of pharmaceutical R&D.  These are the classic studies where subjects are enrolled into trials with a proportion randomly assigned to treatment/intervention A, and a proportion randomly assigned to treatment/intervention B.  The subjects are then followed, and the clinical outcomes assessed.

The endpoints of these trials might be survival - for example, lung cancer patients treated with two competing oncological agents.  They might be heart attacks - for example, patients with CHF being treated with beta-blockers or ARBs.  

But traditional RCTs are really just part of the process by which new treatments are assessed.  Once their relative safety and efficacy are estimated, the question moves on to the practicalities of effectiveness versus efficacy (i.e. do the treatments perform in actual life-use versus strictly enrolled and controlled trials, where patients may or may not adhere, etc.), or whether the added benefit is the best allocation of resources.  

The world we live in is one of constrained resources and unlimited need, so it is natural, even perhaps laudatory, for those who must pay to consider the optimal allocation of the public purse. Is it the best use of one million euros to treat 100 cancer patients or 10,000 diabetics?

These are the sorts of questions I work with each day.  

My academic training is in mathematics and mathematical modelling; though the term "Economics" is embedded explicitly in my title, I am most assuredly not an economist, and my formal economic training is actually a single course in college.  But I am very skilled at constructing models and at evaluating the ways in which they are deployed.  And over more than two decades, I've achieved a certain level of comfort dealing with economics.

Which brings me, rather circuitously, to the current argument raging right now in France, where I live.  The data for the second trimestre (the second quarter) for the French economy have been published, and they are awful.  A record number of French are looking for jobs.  The growth in PIB (produit intérieur brut), or GDP is 0.0% and projected at best to be 0.2% or so for the remainder of 2014.  The president, François Hollande, is polling currently at 13% - a performance so poor that it is historic, and his regime are flailing about, reshuffling ministers trying to 'fix' the situation.

The US economy, while not running terrifically, is looking practically robust, if not bullish, by comparison.  Our neighbours in the UK and Germany are also doing substantially better.

So the question is asked, naturally, "Why is France performing so poorly compared to other OECD nations?"

The answers offered are manifold, but the motivations are a bit wide of the mark.

The local morning news, Direct Matin had an essay this morning talking about the possibility that there is Un Climat de Japon-isation in France, alluding of course to the more-than-a-decades-long doldrums in Japan.  (Apologies; the article is in French)  A period of low or no-growth, competitive disadvantage, and perhaps even financial deflation.  Prices indeed in France, while still high, have remained flat and in some cases in fact are falling.

If one digs into the article, some odd things emerge.

Recall, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was in the States a real fear that Japan would over-take the US economically.  These fears were driven by the erosion of the US auto industry, the rise of the tech companies (e.g., Sony), and the swagger of the Japanese, including some pretty ostentatious acquisitions - Pebble Beach Golf Course, for example.  The US responded with an array of activities, including a weak dollar policy, and the threat abated.

La réponse américaine s’était ordonnée autour d’une vraie guerre commerciale, dont l’arme principale avait été une politique du dollar faible, face à un yen dont on annonçait qu’il pourrait un jour menacer la suprématie du dollar. Le résultat a été l’entrée du Japon dans cette longue période de stagnation dont il ne parvient pas à sortir, malgré une politique plus nationaliste mais qui ne prend pas le chemin du succès. 
Certes, des facteurs strictement japonais ont joué : faiblesse du système financier, recul de la capacité d’innovation… Mais les Etats-Unis ont utilisé toutes leurs armes commerciales et monétaires pour se redonner un avantage vis-à-vis du Japon.

[The American response was a true commercial war, but the primary weapon was a weak dollar policy, which was threatened with replacement versus the yen as the primary world currency.  The result was that Japan entered into a long period of stagnation that it could not escape; despite a strong nationalist policy, Japan could not find its way.
Certainly, other factors played a role: a weak financial sector, loss of innovation...but the US used all weapons, both monetary and commercial to reclaim its advantage over Japan]

The author goes on to compare the situations of Japan circa 1995 and France currently.  I find that he misses the mark on a number of counts.  First, whilst the US did in fact deploy monetary policies - and these have side effects that are not 100 per cent positive (inflating the dollar, inter alias, makes all imports expensive, including commodities and raw materials like oil) - the major structural problem that the Japanese faced was not that they could not export goods to the US, but rather, that their own growth was largely fuelled by the sort of speculation in real estate that made internal consumption slow down.  Much of the "wealth" created in Japan was illusory; apartments bid up to ridiculous levels.  This phenomenon was to an extent played out in the US during the first decade of the 21st century.  

The Japanese acted by, among other things, encouraging borrowing with low, zero, or in some cases, negative interest rates.  None of it worked, as Japanese consumers simply did not respond in sufficient numbers.  

A modern economy is largely driven by consumer spending, China to the side.  

In France, the leadership are looking at various means to 'fix' the economy, including tax abatements/inducements to companies to encourage hiring.  Manuel Valls, the current primer minister, is pushing President Hollande's showcase piece of legislation, called le pacte de responsabilité. which is a set of inducements to large employers accompanied by various promises of hiring, etc.  Both the patrons of the enterprises and the core supporters of Hollande's socialst government, including the unions, have balked.

Various other fixes are proposed, including weakening the Euro, providing subsidies to 'incubators' in Paris to re-create the start of culture of the US's Silicon Valley, to adopting more pro-business policies similar to Germany's or the UK's.

A signficant problem, both with the Direct Matin analysis and the machinations of Hollande's PS colleagues is an ultimately mis-guided faith in economics and economic policies as a science.  Economics is often called the "dismal science," but I wonder if economics is indeed, a science at all.  Modern economics and modern economists are very good at creating models to describe how the economy "works."  There are now "star" economists such as Paul Krugman, Josh Barro, Joseph Stiglitz, and the current flavour of the month, Thomas Picketty.  There are also their historical forebears JM Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman.

All of these men are, I am assured, very smart.  Their models precisely described, in often highly mathematical terms, the functioning of macroeconomics.

One "Model" for Explaining Macroeconomics

The statistician George Box once famously commented that "all models are wrong, but some models are useful."  The debates continue of whether Keynes or Friedman were "right" in their thinking, and largely because economics itself does not readily lend itself to controlled experiments in the way that physics or even medicine do.  

In an anecdote, when I was in the PhD programme at Stanford some decades ago, a classmate was researching the use of stochastic models to describe the movement of the stock market.  His models could be finely-tuned to describe what had happened.  But they were hopeless at predicting with any sort of accuracy what would happen, or even could be reasonably be validated using standard, hold-out analyses and the like.

The markets move just too erratically.  Too irrationally.

One of my passions is mathematics; I have a particular interest in abstract algebra and topology.  One of the reasons is that maths tends to be very clean; elegant even, in its beauty.  But mathematics are a sort of artificial construct, a system set up to describe the world.  I studied some model theory, but I am not terribly well-versed in the philosophy of mathematics (I've read portions of Principia Mathematica, the canonical work of Whitehead and Russell, but confess, it gets over my head quickly).  

As I understand, all of maths derives essentially from one form or another of model and measure theory.  One sets up a vocabulary (the terms to be used), a grammar (the rules by which they are put together and to function), and a mapping from the vocabulary to the "space" to be described.  From these, basic axioms are agreed to (or not), and then everything is true or is not true.  Goedel showed that not everything that is true can be proved, but for all intents and purposes, it's a closed set.  At least practically speaking.  There are not "exceptions."  There is not interpretation or competing sets of facts.

Measure theory is the basis of real (and complex) analysis, and from there, probability and statistics.  

Economics is not like that.  Once can create models, of course (see Box above), but one simply must deal with complexities and realities that cannot be modelled.  This leads to famous (infamous) scandals - the recent work of Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, has a number of controverseys surrounding it about how his data were chosen and analysed.  

Even more generally, attempts to 'control' the economy are fraught with peril.  My nine year old, reading in a history magazine about Al Capone, asked me why the Great Depression occurred.  In fact, the Great Depression had manifold "causes," no one of which really explains it.  Similarly, attempts to right the economic ship, some proposed by the most brilliant economists at the time, failed.  Spectacularly at times.


The unhappy truth is that NO ONE REALLY CONTROLS THE ECONOMY.  Not François Hollande, or Manuel Valls, or Paul Krugman, or Barack Obama. It's an incredibly complex system, and frequently, attempts to explain or affect it fail to understand that the variables are inherently interconnected.  

In my work, I create a number of what are called "systems dynamics models," which is to say, you push down on lever A, and something happens to levers B, C, and D.  It's much like the child's game "Mousetrap" pictured above.  More often than not, how the levers interact is not known; in fact, the correlations frequently cannot be known.

And most uncomfortably of all, if pressed, most economists, if they are being honest, admit that a large portion of the economy is driven by consumer behaviour, which is inherently not rational.  Worse still, it's not predictable.  In large part, the Great Depression happened because people (in many cases, rightly) lost faith in the banks.  Bank panics are an incredibly corrosive event, far more important than what the marginal tax rates or policies on hiring and firing are.  If people lose faith in the economy, they stop buying.  If they stop buying, companies stop producing.  If companies stop producing, they stop hiring.  

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The French government think that they can fix the economy by pulling just the right strings.  They think that they can create a French Silicon Valley by making hipster lofts with slick coffee kiosks in an abandoned warehouse.  One could argue whether the current iteration of Silicon Valley is in fact innovative, but one thing is clear.  Silicon Valley exists as a result of decades of somewhat organic growth, timing, and serendipity.  It exists despite, not because of, the government.  

Our leaders benefit from creating the illusion that they are in control.  It's comforting to think that they can solve economic problems.  King Canute demonstrated the limit of the King's power when he tried to order the tidewaters of the Thames to stop advancing.

At some point, Paul Krugman's feet are going to get wet.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

What's the Big Idea?

We spent our recent summer holidays in Maui, which given that I live in Paris, France, means a LONG flight.  Maui is twelve hours separated from France by time zone, and a few more hours than that separated by plane.  That of course leaves a lot of time to fill, which I accomplished by, in no particular order, sleeping, eating, and watching movies.  

I am now caught up, by the way, on Season Five of "The Walking Dead," which "n'est plus disponible en France."

Enjoyed "The Lego Movie" (recommended by my nine year old) very much as well.

One of the real revelations, however, was the television series "Silicon Valley."  It, like TWD, is not available in France unless one is willing to set up a somewhat clandestine VPN and then connect to somewhat more clandestine servers.

Quickly, the show is about the travails of a small group of young guys living, supposedly, in Palo Alto, California.  They live and work in an "incubator" run by a scruffy, obnoxious "angel" investor, played by T.J. Miller, who, it is implied, somewhat lucked into a fortune by creating a selling a company in the eponymous region.  "Silicon Valley" was created by Mike Judge, most famous for "Beavis and Butthead" and "King of the Hill," but who prior to these successes wrote the screenplay for the cult classic "Office Space." This film similarly parodies life in the tilt-up world.  

Having worked for many years in the Valley - seven of those in a proto-typical start-up - the show is nearly pitch-perfect for life in and out of the 'office.'  The socially awkward techies, the rapacious investors, the ridiculous business pitches.  I left the area several years ago, but if the show is to be believed, it seems that not much has changed.

I was thinking of "Silicon Valley" this week after I read a couple of articles.  One is an interview with Peter Thiel; Thiel is the founder of PayPal and a somewhat quixotic character in the Valley.  He made some noise a while back when he pledged to fund - called "20 Under 20" -  a handful of young adults who would agree to quit college and start companies.  His premise is that higher education in the US is something of a con game, where smart, ambitious young people are lured into large debt to obtain somewhat useless degrees and even more useless educations unnecessary for real success.  The programme caused a bit of a stir, with then Harvard president Lawrence Summers calling it "(t)he single most misdirected philanthropy in this decade."  Not sure the ultimate outcome of the situation, but given the way Summers's actions running the economy of the period ended up, my money is on Thiel.

In the article, Thiel bemoans the lack of real progress in the hard sciences over the past half century, especially in areas of medicine, energy research, transport, and other areas with acute need.  Thiel coined what has become called "the tech stagnation thesis," by which somewhat dubious "technological advances" are masking a real stagnation in actual advancement.  Twitter is the unfortunate target of much of Thiel's venom, and indeed, the tag line for his current VC firm is pretty direct:  

We’ve had enormous progress in the world of bits, but not as much in the world of atoms. We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.
A more succinct condemnation is beyond my abilities as a writer, but the point is obvious.  The more noise that is being made about advances, the less profound they are becoming.

Put simply, Silicon Valley seems to have run out of big ideas.

As Thiel sees it, there are serious, perhaps existential, problems confronting at the least the US economy. Everyone is aware of issues of inequality; most acknowledge the problems of climate change.  Our top brains are not focusing on any of these issues, instead looking for the next way to slickly package an "app" for the phone to amuse the masses.  Thiel is putting his money where his mouth is, funding a venture called "Breakout Labs" that support on 'hard' tech startups - barring specifically any social media, websites, or communication technologies.  

I'm guessing that "Yo Dot Com" is not on the list.

Oddly, the character on "Silicon Valley" based on Thiel - Peter Gordon - is a sort of strange, somewhat mystic idiot savant who stares at Burger King's menu for hours before taking a decision to invest in sesame seeds (the episode has to be seen to be appreciated).

Another article, shared on (ironically) Facebook by a friend addressed similar themes.  Entitled "The Unexotic Underclass," and written by an analyst at MIT, the piece takes a very scathing look at what is on offer out in the Silicon Valley these days.  She likens the rush to find the next hot "app" to the near total mis-allocation of top brains to Wall Street back in the 1990s, where brilliant minds were used to create ever-more exotic financial "products" of dubious value rather than to look for medical break-throughs, or address challenges in physics or chemistry.

(O)ne of the biggest inefficiencies plaguing  the startup scene right now (is) the flood of smart, ambitious young people desperate to be entrepreneurs; and the embarrassingly idea-starved landscape where too many smart people are chasing too many dumb ideas, because they have none of their own
CJ Nnaemeka, the author of the piece, goes on to state that 

(c)osmopolitan, well-educated young men and women in America’s big cities are rushing into startups and building for other cosmopolitan well-educated young men and women in big cities.  If you need to plan a trip, book a last minute hotel room , get your nails done, find a date, get laid, get an expert shave, hail a cab, buy clothing, borrow clothing, customize clothing, and share the photos instantly, you have Hipmunk, HotelTonight, Manicube, OKCupid, Grindr, Harry’s, Uber, StyleSeek, Rent the Runway, eshakti/Proper Cloth and Instagram respectively to help you. These companies are good, with solid brains behind them, good teams and good funding.
But there are only so many suit customisation, makeup sampling, music streaming, social eating, discount shopping, experience  curating companies that the market can bear.

It's a devastating analysis of what is really going on in Silicon Valley, and in my opinion, pretty spot-on.  The current tech world represents a tremendous mis-match of talent and vision.  Top minds from our top schools are working on churning out the next pointless, solipsistic apps to solve imaginary first-world problems.  Or, more to the point, rushing to cash in before the most recent bubble bursts.

The situation reached (almost) self-parody with the funding of Yo, a "company" whose product allows users to send the two-character message to their friends' phones.  The Forbes story sums it up pretty nicely in saying that 

The hallmark of a bubble about to burst is a heightening in mania right before it all hits the fan. Say, for example, investors driving through Silicon Valley throwing bags of money out of a car window and watching penniless entrepreneurs scramble for cash to fund their do-nothing app.

I suspect that there are not literally men driving around the Valley tossing bags of cash out the windows of their Teslas, but it's not far off, I would bet.  Smart men, such as Marc Andreesen (the founder of Netscape) defend the exuberance around Yo in somewhat aetherial terms that I admit I cannot follow.

I don't see it. 

I now work in medical research; the products are real.  The problems are difficult.  My company is, in terms of the Valley, a dinosaur, and its stock is not 'sexy.'  We are not likely to be the subject of a television show.  Not a flattering one at the least.  A company producing medical products is unlikely to make someone a millionaire (billionaire) overnight.

It seems a bit odd to say, but the more actual value a product has, the less perceived value it commands.

It's also to a degree ironic that much, if not most, of the action here takes place in California.  In days gone by, the Golden State was synonymous with Hollywood, another place where illusion is to a degree, reality.  In the canonical Hollywood movie "Sunset Boulevard," the main character, Norma Desmond, bemoans that she is still big, it's the pictures that got small.  

Silicon Valley used to be about technology.  Back in the day, that meant Robert Noyce and William Shockley and the IC.  Over time, the region was transmogrified to include less science and more software - Netscape and Google and Andreesen and Sergey Brin.  

Now, when one speaks of tech, one is generally speaking more about clever marketing and the repackaging of old ideas in slick, new formats.  Shockley, a Nobel laureate, is replaced by laughing boys who spend more time arguing about the importance of being seen at things like "Burning Man" than on developing tools.

Hollywood creates the illusion of romance, or adventure, or thrills.  We pay our money, but we know we are engaging in fantasy.

Silicon Valley these days is creating an illusion of progress - talk of "disruption" is common.  But the revolutions often are no more realistic than the idea that Brad Pitt is a special opps agent with a sideline in WHO anti-epidemic training.  

The problem as I see it is this.  Researching cancer treatments, or alternative fuels, or new polymers requires answering hard questions.  The problems are cut-out for you, the needs are real, and no amount of slick marketing can overcome them.  Creating "apps" is the opposite problem.  Here, the need itself needs to be manufactured, with the 'solution' often existing first.

In the 1960s, pitching one of the great triumphs of science, John F Kennedy defended the space programme saying, "we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

Can any honest person say that "YO" is solving a difficult problem?  -A- problem?