Why are we failing?

Can you have too much concern over safety and security?    Yes, and we do in this country.   Far too much though I don’t expect things to change any time soon.    Our irrational perceptions of risk are damaging our economy more severely than most people understand, mostly thanks to the two massive wasteful spending categories national defense/military and social services.    Ironically each party has its sacred cows for spending and despite the nonsensical bluster from both McCain and Obama we’ll see huge ongoing budget deficits regardless of who is elected.

Humans are designed to act in short term, which is why we should not trust ourselves to do effective long term planning.   This is one of the reasons the founders advocated a small and flexible government and economic structure with high levels of personal accountability.

On a more specific note along these lines Tim O’Reilly notes in a post called Why are we failing at math and science?

Because it isn’t fun any more. When you put safety on the highest altar, what do you give up? When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots, in the natural experimentation of kids who want to know how the world works.

Tim’s point is narrower than my general contention that we must learn to accept much greater levels of *certain types of risk* in our daily lives to avoid the ongoing reckless spending.   However the general rule he’s talking about applies to almost all aspects of our lives – from our indefensible military budget of 550 billion (not including the ongoing wars) to obscenely expensive CO2 mitigation schemes.    When people perceive risk irrationally as they tend to do with respect to terrorism and global warming, they accept irrational resource allocations.

I’m actually only suggesting we increase the risk in our lives by a fairly small amount.  Contrary to what people perceive, the riskiest things in our lives are generally cheap fixes.    Auto accidents, for example, are mostly caused by drunk driving, and more seat belt use would save thousands of lives and avert tens of thousands of injuries every year at a tiny fraction of the cost of, say, saving lives with high tech medical interventions.

The military is where most of the waste is but the calculations are complicated by the fact that a “zero military” option would certainly lead to the overthrow of the US by hostile powers.   Clearly the US needs to have a powerful defensive capability, though the notion that this requires spending of over a trillion every two years is beyond the pale and no rational person can be both a fiscal conservative and a big spender on military.    In a similar vein liberal spending advocates absurdly suggest that massive spending on education and social services somehow “primes” the economy to greater heights of prosperity.

Solutions?     Reallocate taxation and spending along rational lines which means massive reductions in spending in most sectors which can fuel increases where spending will do the most good (inner city health care has a huge ROI compared to research hospital neonatal wards).   Third world health ROI dwarfs that in first world.  Why are those guys worth so much less than you or I?

The Hockey Stick Controversy …

You are well advised to avoid the globally frustrating mistake of getting interested in the underpinnings of climate science as it relates to global warming, climate models, paleoclimate reconstructions, the IPCC, Al Gore, and the academy awards.

However if you fall into the trap of actually looking at the science you’ll be interested in an excellent lay summary of the hockey stick controversy by Bishop Hill. I wish he’d left out the perjorative stuff because I think he’s done a nice job of documenting some of the irregularities that seem to shape the modern debates among scientists, statisticians, and political forces.

Here’s a harder to read but perhaps more objective review of the Hockey Stick at Wikipedia.   This debate is important more from a political view than a scientific one as the graph is a key cornerstone for global warming activism even though it is NOT a cornerstone for the science, which to most experts clearly indicates human caused global warming is a problem.

Although warming is clear and human causes are likely, a reasoned review of the science hardly suggests catastrophe is looming.   This is the advanced debate which is only just beginning – given that we have warming caused by humans, how aggresssively should we work to stop it?   At what cost should we work to keep CO2 from rising?

I remain confused about how much problematic math and insider politics within the climate scientist community should affect our perception of global warming’s threat to the planet, but no reasonable observer can maintain that pristine science has shaped the current debate over global warming.    Spend an hour at RealClimate.org reading the defense of the film “An Inconvenient Truth” by several internationally prestigious climate scientists to see what I mean.

Ironically as the scientific debate becomes far more nuanced than it was even a few years ago, the *political debate* is effectively over.   The political/alarmist camp says that Global warming is destroying earth and we need to make drastic changes … yesterday … to avoid climate castastrophes of greater-than-biblical proportions.

Catastrophe isn’t looming, but it’s also true that we are damaging things possibly beyond repair.  That does not mean we should spend trillions trying to fix these problems while greater problems loom so large on earth, but it suggests we should do every cheap thing we can and find better ways to pull energy from our environment.

What is “Intelligence” ?

Some good posts are popping up over the the Singularity Institute blog, though the discussions have been taking that odd “hostile academic” tone you often find from PhD wannabes who spend way too much time learning how to reference obvious things in obscure ways.

Michael Anissimov asked over there “What is Intelligence” and offered up a definition that could apply to human as well as artificial intelligence.    

I would suggest that intelligence is overrated as part of our evolutionarily designed, self-absorbed human nature, and in fact is best studied as separate from the states of “consciousness” and “self awareness” that are harder to define.    I think computers – and even a simple calculator – have degrees of intelligence but they do not have consciousness or self awareness.    It is these last two things that make humans think we are so very special.    I’d say consciousness is neat but probably a simpler thing than we like to …. um … think about.

Over there I wrote this in response to Michael’s post:

My working hypothesis about “intelligence” is that it is best viewed and defined in ways that separate it from “consciousness”.  I’d say intelligence is best defined such that it can exist without consciousness or self-awareness.   Thus I’d refer to a computer chess program as intelligent, but not conscious or self aware. 

I would suggest that intelligence is a prerequisite for consciousness which is a prerequisite for self-awareness, but separating these three things seems to avoid some of the difficulties of explanations that get bogged down as we try to develop models of animal and non-animal intelligence.  Also, I think this will describe the development curve of AIs which are already “intelligent”, but none are yet “conscious” or “self aware”.   I think consciousness may turn out to be simply a *massive number* of  interconnections carrying on intelligent internal conversations within a system – human or AI.

A stumbling block I find very interesting is the absurd notion that human intelligence is fundamentally or qualitatively different from other animal intelligences.   Although only a few other species appear to have self-awareness, there are many other “conscious” species and millions of “intelligent” species


A good question about intelligence is “WHY is intelligence”.   The obvious answer is evolutionary adaptivity, which in turn helps explain why our brains are so good at some things and so bad at others.  e.g. Human survival was more a function of short term planning rather than long term planning, so as you’d expect we are pretty good short term planners (“Let’s eat!”  “Let’s make a baby!”  “Look out for that car!) and pretty bad long term planners (Let’s address Social Security shortfalls!, “Let’s fix Iraq!)

Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and IPCC

Congratulations – sort of – to Al Gore and the IPCC for the Nobel Peace Prize.   I’m somewhat confused because it seems to me their efforts would not fall under the general category of promoting “Peace”.    AP story about Al Gore and IPCC Peace Prize is here.  More importantly people should be concerned that our new global focus on very expensive and problematic climate change science will distract us from more pressing problems.   Here’s what I just wrote to the Nobel Prize Committee – their website even promises I’ll get a response. 

As much as I respect Al Gore and the IPCC I worry that our new global focus on Climate Change will distract us from the more pressing problems of poverty, health, and violent conflict.   Was this possibility considered by the awards committee?

Climate change is the best current example of how humans process information, problems, and solutions in irrational ways.    Generally people note that global warming is happening (true) and that warming is likely the result of human activity (probably true – IPCC concludes over 90% likely).    It’s also reasonable to assume that warming will lead to mostly undesirable changes.   HOWEVER, it does not follow from these truths that we should make Global Warming the top priority.  In fact due to the expense and difficulties involved a clear mind will conclude that we should implement cheap changes but forego the expensive changes in favor of devoting those resources to *current* catastrophic global conditions – generally these relate to poverty and health conditions in the developing world, but would also probably include work to alleviate the appalling conditions found in many American and European big city neighborhoods.

Below is a link to a video of Bjorn Lomborg at TED Conference on Global Solution Priorities.   In my opinion he’s the clearest thinker out there – a contrast to people who are so poisoned by “political thinking” and “advocacy thinking” that they can’t see the facts from their causes.    I think a good test of whether you are clear thinking about a topic is to make the opposition case effectively enough that people can’t tell your bias.    Most topics have complex sets of facts and no easy answers – everybody should keep that in mind.   

Hey – Al Gore’s office looks a lot like mine, but with bigger monitors.    I like him, but don’t agree with him that GW is the big problem facing us.

There’s a LOT MORE about this over at Max’s blog.

Canyon Creek Lakes, Trinity Alps, Northern California


Above Lower Canyon Creek Lake looking South

Originally uploaded by JoeDuck.

We continued our labor day tradition of meeting our great friends in Weaverville, CA and then hiking in to the Trinity Alps Wilderness along the trail up to the Canyon Creek Lakes.    We camp about 4 miles in and then hike into the lakes the next day which is another 4 miles.    It’s a fantastic trip with the kind of scenery you find pretty much only in Northern California – sweeping mountain vistas, smooth granite outcrops and peaks, pristine mountain lakes, streams, and waterfalls.    Azure blues and deep greens and a star filled sky complete with the recent meteor shower.   It doesn’t get much better than that and the Trinity Alps are one of my favorite places in the whole world.

One really cool addition to the experience this year was looking at the hike through Google Earth, where by tilting the imagery you can really get a neat feel for the vistas along the actual hike.     We also found some photos of our first trip in to the Canyon Creek Lakes some 22 years ago. The scenery had not changed but … um … I think we have

Holy Crap! $19,000,000 for a space toilet?

C’mon NASA, you don’t think you could have come up with a space toilet for, say, $18,000,000?

The space station toilet physically resembles those used on Earth, except it has leg restraints and thigh bars to keep astronauts and cosmonauts from floating away. Fans suck waste into the commode. Crew members also have individual urine funnels which are attached to hoses, and the urine is deposited into a wastewater tank.

Hmmm – I guess that urine funnel innovation was just beyond the limits of our American ingenuity.

Thank god for big taxes!

Source: China News

DangerData.com blog is now live

DangerData.com Danger Data Blog

As a local I blogged the Kim Family search here in Southern Oregon, and it became clear that it might be helpful for search efforts to have more *simple* ways to distribute and share data, leads, and perhaps even harness the power of the collective intelligence of the huge online community.

Thanks to the Kim’s family friends, especially Scott, a website called JamesandKati.com served as a comment area and sort of “watering hole” for the enormous number of people checking in to follow that story.   Even this blog, “Joe Duck”, became a heavily trafficked news and opinion resource for many as mainstream media struggled to cover the story accurately.

After the heroic rescue of Kati and the children and the tragic death of James Kim many  of the officials and volunteers involved in the search began to post at the blog which quickly became it’s own community.

Input from several experts in computer databases and mapping led to the idea that a blog and database might be created to help with Search and Rescue and Missing persons.  The idea was to use online tools to enhance and help with the search efforts and more quickly spread the word on cases.    Glenn has been very actively working on the database component – more on that later – and eventually we’ll try to integrate the blog and the database.

The DangerData.com blog is a very experimental effort to help find people.  It won’t be a substitute for any existing offline or online efforts, rather an attempted enhancement.    Comments are welcome.

Jim Gray, computing pioneer, missing at sea off California Coast

Click here to help scan satellite pictures and help with the search for Jim Gray.

The New York Times is now covering the story as is Amazon’s Werner Vogels

Current news stories click here

—– earlier ——
My pal Tom, a very experienced sailor himself, just informed me of Jim Gray’s misfortune:

He was sailing offshore, alone, in good weather with a well-equipped yacht. He’s said to have “more than 10 years’ experience,” but reports from friends say he’s been sailing much longer than that.

My guess is man-overboard. He would have known about keeping a harness on at all times when offshore if he’s as experienced as has been said, but he was on a trip to scatter his mother’s ashes and his emotions may have clouded his judgement. Or he might not have been as experienced as his friends thought and he may not have been clipped in.

Honestly, when I was young and dumb I went out alone, but I wouldn’t want to go out offshore alone. Or would I? I’ve been from Salem to Marblehead and to Gloucester without anyone on board. He was going to the Farallon Islands, though, which is ~25 miles out. That’s pretty far out to be alone.

Other possibilities are:

Container collision: containers are a lethal hazard offshore. Containers overboard from a ship float awash for months and can kill a yacht in seconds if the yacht rams them at an angle that staves in the hull.

Ship collision: thought to be somewhat less likely b/c the weather was good and he was out for a day sail.

Catastrophic health issue: he is 63, but in good health.

Equipment failure: As you may recall, this can be a problem.

Kim Search discussion page 9

Oregon State Sheriff’s Association Report

(Feel free to discuss this report in the comment section below)

The discussion of the Kim Family Search in the Rogue River region of Southern Oregon continues in the comment section below. Please feel free to chime in.

For earlier comments and information links about the Kim Story click here or at the top of any page on the “Kim Story” tab.

Shaming and blaming and the tragic death of James Kim

Over at Salon.com, Sarah Keech has a thoughful article about the Kim Family story, though I read it as a somewhat too defensive reaction to the letter from James’ Kim’s father Spencer published in the Washington Post last week.

In “Who’s to Blame for James Kim’s Death” Keech suggests, correctly in my view:

It’s not the federal government or law enforcement or the people who tried to rescue him from the Oregon wilderness.

Ironically, Spencer Kim would probably agree with her statement.   I’ve been concerned at the tone of many locals who have suggested a father, grieving his son no less, has no right to suggest that better maps, signs, gates and policies might have kept this from happening. Of course he has that right and his letter was in my opinion quite a reasonable reaction given that Mr. Kim has just lost his son to an unforgiving Oregon winter wilderness.

I know this area well and it’s common knowledge that signs on the Bear Camp Road could use improvement.   Money and priorities are legitimate issues with such improvements as are the rights people have to access to public lands.     A route that would be fine for an experienced hunter with 4WD Truck, chains, winter gear and provisions may become a death trap for a family car.

Here’s my reply to the Salon article:

Ms. Keech you have made several good and several obvious points about the folly of legislating solutions on the basis of unusual and tragic events, but that’s not the big story of the Kims tragic trip into Oregon’s Rogue River Wilderness. I think Spencer Kim’s letter is a reasonable characterization of the many challenges facing the search effort, though I agree the solutions suggested are far too expensive to justify the handful of lives this might save over many years. Better to spend on life saving measures that have a much higher return on the investment of tax dollars.

But that is _not_ the big story here!

As a southern Oregon local and long term resident of the region the Kim Family story capitivated me from the beginning. This interest has become almost obsessive as I blogged the event – almost play by play – as “Joe Duck”.

The Kim story is the triumph of a mother and children surviving the wilderness after nine days, and a father heroically challenging that wilderness in an unsuccessful, tragic hike to save them. It’s the story of an enormous and sometimes heroic search and rescue effort that was well intentioned at all times, but plagued by many of the bureaucratic forces that are likely to be proposed as the solution to future problems in Oregon. Perhaps more than anything the Kim Story is remarkable because it has touched the lives of millions around the world, millions who saw in the Kim’s happy family their own family and the life-shattering consequences of a single wrong turn on what appeared to be a passable road.