Sunday, August 02, 2015

Grass Bridges

Grass Bridges

In case you haven’t heard, our faithful representatives to Congress again failed to pass a long term extension of the Highway Trust Fund.  Or more precisely, the Senate and the House each passed bills that are unlikely to be agreed by the other and neither will be signed by the Executive. Despite appropriations being one of the most important responsibilities of our legislative branch, they fell down on the job. 

No, this is not a political topic – all sides failed on this one.  The most important consequences are economic and safety. The longer we drive on crumbling roads and bridges, the more likely we are to have tragedies like the bridge in Minnesota that killed dozens of drivers and just had its eighth anniversary.  We need a transportation bill to protect our lives.

And the longer we wait to repair our roads and bridges, the more expensive it will be to fix them.  Spending money requires finding revenue, so Congress’ fear of taxes today is going to increase the need for taxes later.  They are kicking the can down the road hoping that it is their successors who will have to deal with it.  The loser in this game is us – you and me the taxpayer.

Then I heard this story on Innovation Hub and was astonished by the contrast. The bridge at the heart of the story is completely replaced every year, without government debate or controversy. And it has been in continuous existence for 600 years.  600 years!! We don’t have a bridge half that age. And we are lucky to maintain them once a decade.

Of course, you might say that this low tech bridge is much easier to maintain. If our bridges were easy to maintain, we would do it every year as well.

But that is my point. Let’s do some integrative thinking here.  Are there different materials that we could use that might be easier to maintain? Are their maintenance schedules that optimize the balance between safety, cost, and convenience?

And then the harder question. Can we find a way to force Congress to follow these prescriptions? Use these materials? Fund these maintenance schedules?

Friday, July 31, 2015

This Week in EID - Episode 65

This Week in EID

All of the EID articles this week were technology related.  We ran the gamut from smart cars, web sites, user interface design, and big data.

In a very rare situation, there was just a minimal reference to self-delusion. We trust the medical recommendations we read on hospital web sites because we want to have faith in their honesty. Otherwise, how would you handle actually going to one for care?  If you had to second guess their motives for every treatment, it would drive you nuts.  Of course, when you see the bill at the end, even if it goes to your insurance company (the so–called Explanation of Benefits), it is amazing how much and how many things they charge for.

The other article I want to specifically point out is the one on adding human curation to big data recommendations.  Many people put all of their trust in technology.  Others put all of their trust in people.  But as usual, the middle path works best.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, July 30, 2015


Too many issues came up in the last day or two that individually drove me crazy and collectively could keep me there.  I could easily rant for pages on each one, citing chapter and verse of supporting evidence.  But to save my sanity, I will limit myself to describing the issue. If you want the evidence feel free to ask – just don’t expect an immediate answer.

1. Trophy hunting in Zimbabwe.

I agree with the majority of people here – the trophy hunting at the center of the Cecil the Lion story is unethical and should be regulated much more strictly than it is.  But here is the rub.  If the dentist was not aware that the guides had lured a protected lion out of a reserve, what he did was totally legal. It is not against Zimbabwe law or international law.  Law enforcement is looking into what he knew and when he knew it.  But until then, I think there is something called “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” to consider.  Boycotts and protests are fine – that is free speech. But criminal prosecution requires illegal behavior, not just unethical behavior. 

This drives me crazy because it seems to be just one more in a long line of stories where people want to put people in jail for unethical, stupid, rude, or bigoted behavior that is not illegal. We have clearly lost our understanding of what the rule of law is all about, why it is important, and why our society will devolve into utter chaos unless we remember the difference.

2. Deflategate.

Here is another story where we seem to have forgotten how the legal system works. Again, the critical phrase is “innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”  Personally, I think Brady knew that the footballs were being deflated. Even being a diehard Patriots fan, I am pretty sure. But that is not the legal threshold for evidence. If there is not enough definitive evidence, we can’t convict him or the Patriots. Destroying a cell phone is circumstantial at best.

Imagine if you were convicted of crimes just because a police officer was pretty sure you did something?  For example, look at all the police shootings we are up in arms about this year. In every case, the white police officer involved was pretty sure that some crime was committed by the black person he shot.  If that was all it took . . . .

Then we have to look at the penalty. Let’s say that evidence is found and that he is legitimately convicted. The current penalty is four game suspension and loss of salary for Brady. The team loses $1 million and two draft picks. Compare that to the child beating, spousal abuse, assault and battery, and other cases in the past two years that have resulted in smaller penalties.  Forgive me if that doesn’t make much sense. Let the punishment fit the crime, right?

3. Malaysia airplane wing found

Oh no, here we go again. A Boeing 777 wing is found and the search is about to get restarted in earnest.  When the plane first went missing, hundreds of MILLIONS of dollars were spent on the search. Now that the wing has appeared, we are going to do that all over again.  To what end? The idea of giving “closure” to the families is a pretty weak argument. Their loved one died. Knowing the latitude and longitude is not going to make that go away. The absolute best we can get at this point is to learn more about how ocean currents pull plane parts.

I can think of thousands of lives that can be saved with this same expense. Can you say malaria nets? Improved sanitation?

4. Autonomous Robot Weapons

With all due respect to the brilliant people who signed on to this (Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Noam Chomsky), they are missing an important point. What makes weapons systems like this autonomous is the software. Who wrote the software?  Humans.  So they are still governed by whatever rules and limitations we give them. In fact, I would suspect that advanced software systems would be easier to control than humans who get caught up in the heat of the moment, succumb to peer pressure, are subject to cognitive biases, etc.  There is a reason why many computer hacks are the result of human gullibility. People click on the virus in their email or reveal their password over the phone to a complete stranger.  Was automation at fault in Abu Ghraib?

They make a valid argument that even if the good guys integrate strong ethical principles into the code, the bad guys won’t.  But that will happen anyway. Do you think the Chinese military team that hacked OPM will hold back because of a UN resolution? Will the North Korean team that hacked Sony? The Russian team that is selling your credit card numbers as we speak?

5.  Boston 2024

I already posted about why I am glad that we (the Boston taxpayer) refused the Olympics bid. While it would be great to have the Olympics here, I am a strong believer that taxpayers should not pay for these things.

No, my rant today is about the framing of the story today. Everyone from the local, state and national media, politicians, and other public figures have spent that last two days asking who is “to blame” for “losing” the Olympics. Whose “fault” is it?  We are suffering here from a really bad case of messaging.

Why aren’t we looking for who to “credit” for “saving” us from the potential $ billions of taxpayer debt?

6. Insomnia

I haven’t slept much in the past three days. I don’t know why.  It sucks.  I’m just saying.