Archive for the ‘Personal Notes’ Category

On the “Mosque” Near Ground Zero.

August 23, 2010

I think that I understand both sides of this issue.  For those who oppose the building of an Islamic community center near ground zero (it’s closer to being a YMCA than it is to being a mosque), their most vivid memory of Muslims is the attack on 9/11.  They feel that it is insensitive of the builders of the community center to remind them (and families of those who were murdered on 9/11) of this attack on the World Trade Center by building the community center so close to ground zero.

For Muslims, they are sensitive to being conflated with those who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11.  They are also sensitive to the many lies that are being told by those who oppose the community center.  (Contrary to the false claims, it is not a mosque.  It is not on ground zero; it is two blocks from ground zero and not even visible from it.  Imam Rauf, who has advocated the building of the community center, is a moderate Muslim who traveled with members of the Bush administration to improve relations between the Muslim world and the US. )  They are also sensitive to the anti-Muslim hatred that is being revealed in so many different parts of the U.S.

So, on one side, there are the sensitivities of those who have so little personal knowledge of the Muslim religion that they automatically think of 9/11 when they think of Muslims.  They don’t even think of the 10s of millions of Iraqis or Afghanis for whom we are fighting, let alone the Muslims who were among those murdered on 9/11.   On the other side, there are the Muslims (especially, moderate Muslims) who are sensitive to being constantly compared to terrorists.

I think that the Muslims have a much better case on this one.

The solution is not to treat both types of sensitivities as morally equivalent.  Rather, Americans should try to understand their Muslim neighbors better and overcome any misinformed associations that they may have.  With 1 billion Muslims in the world, it is possible (and preferable) for Americans to have a much more nuanced position than to think that all Muslims believe the same thing.   We especially should not associate Muslims with Al Qaeda, which is hated by a majority of Muslims around the world.

As for politicians who have deliberately inflamed this situation for narrow personal or political interests (Newt Gingrich, I am especially referring to you), they provide support to those radical Islamists who want to convince others that Americans hate Muslims; and they have made this world a more dangerous place.    They bring dishonor and shame to themselves and to the United States.

Joe Barton on “misconstruing the misconstruction”

June 19, 2010

After a recent meeting with Boehner and Cantor, Joe Barton took back his apology to BP and his accusation that Obama had shaken them down for $20 billion.  The transcript of the conversation was just released**, and I print it here without alteration.

Boehner.   Joe, you know why I’ve asked you to meet with Eric and me.  We want you to apologize to the people of the Gulf coast for apologizing to BP.

Barton.   No, I don’t understand.  Yesterday, both of you accused Obama of shaking down BP by asking them for $20 billion.  You told me it was perfectly OK for me to apologize to BP for Obama’s actions.  You even encouraged me to do it.   Why is today different from yesterday?

Cantor.   Joe, you missed the most important part of the message.  We said, “Apologize in private.”    The point was to make BP believe that you cared more about them than you care about the citizens of the Gulf Coast.

Barton.  But I do care more about BP than the citizens of the Gulf Coast.

Cantor.  And so do we, but that’s not the point.  We also like winning Congressional seats in those states.   You can believe what you want, as long as you vote and talk the way that we want.  And we want you to apologize to the Gulf Coast for apologizing to BP.

Barton. I hate apologizing. If I had to apologize every time I said something stupid or offensive, I’d spend all day every day apologizing.  Besides that, I’m no good at it. What if I refuse to apologize?

Boehner.   You know how you are the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.  It would be a shame if you lost that position.   You might no longer be the top recipient of donations from oil companies in the Congress, and you wouldn’t have nearly as much political power.

Barton.   This sounds like you are “shaking me down.”

Boehner.   We never shake anyone down.  That’s for bad people or Democrats.  But I repeat myself.   (Audible laugh from all three).  We just reason with people, and occasionally make them offers that they can’t refuse.   That’s why Republicans almost always vote the way we want.  And that’s why businesses give us so much money.  We’re very persuasive.

Cantor.   Anyway, it’s easy to apologize.  All you need to do is to apologize that people are too stupid to understand what you said.   It helps if you say it in a way that is confusing.

Barton.  How about if I said this?  “And if anything I said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction.”

Cantor.  It’s a start, but I’d get some help from a speech writer.  After all,  you don’t want to sound like a complete idiot.

**   For international readers, it is worth noting that this is entirely made up, with the exception of Barton’s last quote, which is accurate.

Unified Artificial Intelligence

April 3, 2010

Noah Goodman and others at MIT have recently developed an A.I. based program for determining who would send e-mail to whom at a fictitious company.  However, it’s not the application itself that is of interest.  It’s the way that they carried out the computations.  The program relies on probabilistic rules that get updated over time.  It combines some of the original ideas of expert systems (using rules and implications) with the probabilistic approach that has been successful in recent years.

The research team admits that it doesn’t have a final solution on how this should be accomplished.  It currently is too computationally intensive.

Here are some random thoughts on this issue.

  1. This sounds like an ideal topic for O.R. researchers to get involved in.  We also have expertise in logic and probabilistic reasoning.
  2. Humans are terrible at dealing with probabilities but we are pretty good at forming categories and recognizing patterns.  Perhaps the A.I.  system could be improved by using “flawed human reasoning.”  For example, the system could be overconfident, just as humans are.  It could rely too heavily on recent information.  It could use very simple rules for updating probabilities.  It could rely heavily on other program’s expertise, just as we rely on what other people think.
  3. Perhaps the best way of developing a “unified approach” is to concurrently use several approaches to arrive at conclusions, and refer to each approach as “an expert.”  Then use a unifying approach that takes the expert opinions and arrives at a group opinion.  I think that this is already done, but perhaps in slightly different ways than I am suggesting.

An Open Letter to CNN

April 2, 2010

Dear CNN,

Your prime time shows do not attract nearly as many viewers as Fox News and not as many as MSNBC.  How should you react to this bad news?  I think that you should treat this as a great opportunity to reinvigorate your brand and your offerings.  Here are some suggestions for CNN television news.

  1. Aim high! Whatever you do should be aimed at “excellence”, not judged by the number of viewers (although this is important) but at the quality of the presentation both in terms of form and content.  You should aim to be the most trusted name in news and information by those who are most knowledgeable. The rest will follow.
  2. Figure out what is worth doing, and then do it well. In this Internet age, you should figure out what your network can best accomplish.   Is your best choice really to present the news of the day over and over again?  You have Headline news for that and you also have the Internet.
  3. Be a thought leader. There is so much misinformation that circulates around, some of it caused by Fox News.  You should confront what is false and point out that it is false.  You should take stands when thoughtful people should agree.   
  4. Generate light, not heat.  Generate confidence, not fear. Too often, you have generated heat and fear.   When there are problems, confront them directly.  But most problems can be dealt with.  It is always possible to provide a balanced report that is useful.  Personally, I think that Wolf Blitzer is one of the worst hosts of those who are still on the air.  His natural inclination is to generate heat and fear.  My favorite host of yours is Fareed Zakaria, who is incredibly knowledgeable and a very interesting commentator and interviewer.
    STOP the practice of interviewing the people from both extremes on a viewpoint (or worse yet, take a viewpoint that is widely accepted and then interview the nutcase who disagrees with it).  It is much better to interview a thoughtful and knowledgeable person who is “center-left” and another who is “center-right.”  And don’t shy away from times when they agree.
  5. Add more information content that is not “news.” OK.  You are CNN News.  But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have shows dedicated to history, or science, or business, or sports, or even Operations Research.  (That is my discipline.  It is an engineering and scientific approach to improving managerial decision making.)  The important thing is that whatever you do, it should be thoughtful and well done.
  6. Innovate. Your primary goal should be to present news and information that helps views to become more thoughtful and informed citizens.  But you also should try to be as interesting as possible within that framework.  Personally, I think that filling prime time with news hosts is getting old.  It’s time to have much more variety in your prime time programming.
  7. Be fearless. If you listen only to those who only want to increase ratings, or who only want to improve revenue, you will only do incremental things, and you will copy formats from other shows.  This is a time to think big and do something important.

It’s not hypocrisy. It’s lying.

February 22, 2010

Democrats and many in the media are accusing the Republicans in Congress of hypocrisy in opposing the stimulus package and then asking for money for their districts from the stimulus funds.  This is not actually hypocrisy on the part of the Republicans and can be viewed as reasonable.  One could argue that it is a bad idea for the US to go into even more debt to create temporary jobs; but given that the US is going to go into more debt, everyone wants their share.  Wanting a share of money that shouldn’t be spent at all is as American as apple pie.  (However, it is hypocritical for a Congressman to consider any government spending to be wasteful unless it is in his or her district or state.  But this type of hypocrisy is so common in Congress that it is hardly worth mentioning.)

On the other hand, many Republicans in Congress are arguing that the stimulus bill did not create any new private sector jobs at the same time that they are going to ribbon cutting ceremonies and touting their role in getting stimulus money that leads to new jobs.  This position is not hypocrisy.  It is lying.  They are either lying to their constituents at the ribbon cutting ceremonies or they are lying when they say that the stimulus is not working.  Possibly, they are lying both times.

On a side note, ex-Governor Mitt Romney said that the stimulus “did not create any net new jobs other than in government.”  He was not lying.  He was just being totally sleazy by inserting the word “net” where it did not belong and where it would cause confusion.  This is not to say that Romney doesn’t routinely lie.  It is just to say that he prefers being sleazy to lying when given a choice.

The game theoretic advantage goes to the Republicans

February 8, 2010

Pundits have asked themselves why it is so difficult for the Democrats to get things done even with 60 votes in the Senate, whereas the Republicans seem to do just fine with 50 votes in the Senate.  I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this.  But one reason that deserves mentioning is that Democrats believe in the importance of the federal government, and Republicans believe in the importance of thwarting Democrats.

Consider the following table, which illustrates the values to Democrats and Republicans when the Democrats are in majorities in Congress.

When Democrats control congress

keep government going


Republicans 1 9
Democrats 9 1

The numbers are made up.  But the key element is that Republicans would rather see nothing done at all than seriously compromise with the Democrats to pass legislation.

On the other hand, consider the reverse situation in which Republicans are in charge.

When Republicans control Congress

keep government going gridlock
Republicans 7 3
Democrats 7 3

Here the Democrats really don’t want government to shut down, and they are willing to go far more than half way to meet the Republicans.  In this case, even the Republicans are willing to compromise a little.  For example, the Republicans were willing to greatly increase the National debt under Bush rather than having permanent gridlock so long as the wealthiest Americans could get a tax cut and Bush was able to start two wars; however, on other important issues such as having two ultra-conservative judges appointed to the Supreme Court, they stood by their principles and were even willing to get rid of filibusters.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is, except perhaps that is sucks to be a Democrat.

Random thoughts on the Massachusetts election

January 20, 2010

Yesterday, Scott Brown (a Republican) defeated a Martha Coakley (a Democrat) for the Senate seat in Massachusetts.  The Senate seat was generally known as Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat because Kennedy was the Massachusetts Senator since 1962.   I have a number of thoughts on the election.  Here they are, in somewhat random order.

  1. The election of Scott Brown will kill the health reform bill because it will give Republicans 41 Senate seats, enough to filibuster any bill.   Most Americans will be grateful, with notable exceptions including those who can’t afford health insurance, those with preexisting medical conditions, and those who are very sick and are being dropped from their coverage by private insurers.
  2. The election confirmed the adage that Republicans are much better at getting elected than they are at governing.   My suspicion is that Republicans are so good at campaigning because they are largely unencumbered by shame (think of Mitt Romney), whereas no matter how hard the Democrats in Congress try, they still let shame get in the way of unadulterated hypocrisy.
  3. Coakley was up in the polls by 20% a month before the election.  It’s pretty clear that Coakley lost in large part because her campaign was “asleep at the switch,” especially since there were no external events in the last month that made much of a difference.  It didn’t help that Coakley came across as arrogant and unwilling to do what it took to get elected.
  4. Scott Brown is a bad choice for Massachusetts.  While I disagree with many of his positions, the most important aspect is the fact that he will support the Republicans in the Senate, who are filibustering almost all Democratic initiatives.   Brown claims to be his own person, and he will vote against the Republican Senate leadership if he disagrees.  Perhaps he is much more independent than all the other Republicans in the Senate, but I doubt it.   I dare him to prove me wrong.  (OK.  If I am wrong, I won’t claim that he accepted my dare.)

On the Failed Airplane Bombing Attempt

December 31, 2009

When geese “attacked” US Air Flight 1549, and Captain Sully Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson river, Americans were overjoyed that disaster had been averted.   When Abdul Mudallah ignited an explosive device on Northwest Flight 253, and no one was injured, Americans spent the next week afraid, with countless criticisms of our government (many of which were justified).  In reality, we should all be very thankful.

First of all, we should be thankful that disaster was averted.  This was great news.  We should also be thankful because we have learned a great deal of what went wrong, and security will improve in the future. Al Qaeda is not likely to succeed if they use the same technique again.  And it takes lots of time to develop new techniques.

I understand why people were so upset.  This event revealed that we were not nearly as safe as we hoped we were, and it revealed that the government is still not sharing information about terrorism well enough.  In other words, the event was the messenger of “bad news.”  Since we couldn’t “shoot the messenger”, Americans sought out others to shoot.

But we really have much to be thankful for.  And the Department of Homeland Security has their work cut out for them.  We all hope that this department has learned a lot of how to prevent the next incident.

Side note to Janet Napolitano:  it really is OK to be honest the first time around.  But other than your first statement about how our security system works, you are doing a heck of a job.

Side note to Dick Cheney:  we are getting very tired of seeing the Mr. Hyde part of your personality. (Perhaps Obama likes this side, since you constantly remind Americans of why voting for Obama was a good idea.)  When will we see the Dr. Jekyll side again?  Please let this side out more frequently.  It seems that we only see it when you talk about your daughter.

Side note to Senate Republicans:  Thanks to you, we still don’t have a head of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).  “Advise and consent” should not mean “prevent the President from running the Executive branch.”

To the Secret Service: count your blessings.

December 6, 2009

The Salahis crashed the state dinner in honor of the Indian Prime Minister.  I’m not normally a pollyanna (in fact, I’m rarely a pollyanna), but I view this as good news.  Here is why:  the secret service had a serious flaw in its operations, one that exposed the President to danger.  The Salahis, who were of no danger to the President, exposed the flaw and permitted it to be fixed.

Admittedly, it would be better if there were no flaw to begin with.  But conditioned on there being a flaw, it was very good news that it was revealed and fixed.  Incidentally, no one in the media seems to have observed that the nation owes some gratitude to the Salahis since their actions have improved the protection of the President.

Having said that, I also think that the Salahis should be put in jail for lying to the Secret Service.  They may claim that they think they were invited; however, unless they are totally delusional, they knew better.   And while I feel gratitude that the President will be better protected, I also think it is appropriate to punish those who violate federal crimes, especially ones designed to protect the President.

The advantage of making papers harder to understand

September 27, 2009

When I was a college student, a professor of logic once asked us to write a brief paper on a specified topic, which I no longer remember.  I do remember that I didn’t understand the question that we were supposed to address and had no clue what to write.  So I carried out an experiment.  I wrote something such that each sentence appeared to make sense, but so that the paper did not make any sense when taken as a whole.  (Think “Sarah Palin’s speeches” but with crisper logic.)  My experiment was successful as far as I was concerned.  I got a “B.”  My conjecture is that it would have taken the professor too much time to see through my lack of logic, and it was easier to give it a reasonable grade.  (Warning to current students:  do not try this approach with me.)

In today’s Boston Globe, there is a brief article entitled  “You’d sound smarter if you wrote less clearly.” It’s about David Hakes, an economics professor, who simplified a complex argument in mathematical economics.  Hakes explained, ”We managed to reduce the equations in the paper to six. At this stage the paper was perfectly clear and was written at a level so that it could reach a broad audience.”   When the paper was rejected for being “self evident”, Hakes and his co-author decided to make his work less readable and much more complex mathematically, with no added value.  Hakes later wrote ”I personally could no longer understand the paper.”  It was now acceptable to the referees and published.

Hakes’ point extends to Operations Research and other fields that rely on mathematics.    Referees often do not like simplicity because it may make a paper sound “obvious”, and no referee wants to accept a paper that is obvious.  Mathematical complexity usually seems unobvious, and makes the paper more palatable.

As a referee, I have sometimes asked for a substantive revision of a complex paper if I came up with a much simpler version.  For example, I once asked  an 80 page paper to be shortened to around 15 pages, with no loss of content.   But simplifying a paper is, in general, very difficult and is not the task of a referee.  The unfortunate truth is that authors really can increase their odds of publication by making their papers unnecessarily complex.