Tuesday, February 18, 2014

If humans can’t focus on survival, can they be conscious at all?

If humans can’t focus on survival, can they be conscious at all?

A British mystic named Bennett once wrote an entire book on the old question “Is there intelligent life on earth?”

My last blog posting focused on the  issue of how H2S formation in the oceans and its release into the atmosphere provide a very serious but unknown threat to the survival of all humans on earth, possibly sooner than most of us would imagine possible. It also focused on the issue of the reasons why humans have found it so hard to FOCUS on that question . If a biological organism cannot even focus on the issue of its own survival, is there any hope that it is capable of real focus or consciousness of anything at all?

The word “consciousness” has many meanings. One of its meanings is “awareness,” an ability to focus attention.  The ability to focus attention does not mean that people should spend their entire lives focused on just one thing; it is more like an ability to move the eyes, so that you see one thing at a time, and choose what to look at, but look and focus very effectively when you DO look at something.

I have spent less than 2% of my free time and energy on trying to understand the H2S threat – but it’s a nice test case, because rational, conscious humans would spend at least SOME of their time looking I into threats to their survival.

Does that mean that human society is putting less energy and time into thinking about climate change than about other things? No. It is putting lots of time debating and discussing. The question is how much real thought or consciousness exists as part of that time and effort, at what level of insight and effectiveness.

In truth – I have spent a much greater part of my life focused on two other Great Questions: (1) What is the “law of everything?” – the ultimate laws of physics?;
(2) How does the intelligence of the mind/brain really work, at a functional, mathematical, dynamic level? And in those areas – well, it would be surprising if a biological organism evolved on earth could achieve anywhere near as much focus or attention on those clear scientific  goals as it does to survival. There are lots and lots of people making money, achieving some tangible things, building careers or preening before the mirror in the fields of climate change, basic physics and psychology, but that’s not the same thinking as really focusing strategically on the question.

For (1) and (2), of course, it is discouraging that it might not be possible to achieve true fundamental understanding (let alone complete practical understanding) in one lifetime; however, there are very important milestones on the way which we CAN think about strategically and mathematically. For (1) --- what is the best we can do on a foundation on assuming 3 dimensions of space and one dimension of time, obeying partial differential equations? (That MIGHT actually be the whole truth, because a lot of things can happen in 3+1 dimensions, but  maybe not. It really is too early to tell.) For (2) – can we fully understand and replicate that level of higher intelligence or consciousness which we can see even in the brain of the smallest mammal, “the mouse?” The mouse brain, and the mouse universe – two really important Grand Challenges we should be focusing on, some of the time.

There are times when I wonder: am I the only real asker of these questions on the entire planet?  The only one to focus on these questions for more than a few minutes – enough to come up with a conscious, adaptive strategy for getting all the way to the goal, and to persistently implement it?

When I asked that of myself more consciously this morning… I thought of Penrose and Hawkings in the UK.  THEY have certainly put real energy into trying to get to the “law of everything.” I may not agree with everything they have come up with so far… but certainly they have been really trying and really asking the basic questions, Penrose especially.

And then I wondered: why just two folks in the UK? Why do THEIR names come to mind first? Part of it is because of the old world university system at Cambridge and Oxford, two universities which played a pivotal role in the West rising as high as it has in recent centuries.  It gives full PERMISSION to at least some people to focus on the basic questions, and the local social support which helps them maintain their sanity and connectedness as they do so.  And maybe it helps that folks in Trinity College of Cambridge eat their meals under a big portrait of Francis Bacon, reminding them of what the scientific method is.  In the end, however, two people is not enough, and there are major parts of the strategic field they have not even touched.

So why not the US? Immediately I thought of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, intended to play a similar role.  Certainly there are bright people there, who have done some good pieces of work, and who enjoy playing with superstrings. But I simply do not see them lately as focusing on the real question here,   in a way which fits the spirit of the scientific method.  Like the Supreme Court of the US, they have been affected a lot by people who believe it is a higher loyalty to pursue a kind of pure reason espoused by certain cognoscenti of Rome. But even more, there has been less emphasis on freedom in the US lately, and more on pseudo-rational management which tries to force all people to focus solely on narrow short-term goals assigned to them by others – by all kinds of powerful incentive systems, which conflict with  the inner self and conscience as demanders of mental resources. I HAVE run across just a few people and there in the US who put real focus into important PARTS of this larger question, and look forward to a meeting of them next month.  Howard Carmichael certainly counts – but he left for New Zealand, because of how the US environment is less and less tolerant of this kind of basic science. Putin says he intends to rebuild Russian science – but is he the kind of person to give full support to very hard asking of basic questions? TBD.

The recent round of brain and neuroscience initiatives in the US  provide an example which is even more extreme, though perhaps this blog is not the right place to get into the details, because they are complicated and because it would not be constructive to name names.  There have been a few very sincere well-focused people “in the game,” but only a basis far more part-time than mine, not really able to master the huge tide of vested interests who can barely conceive of anything beyond their vested interests and daily rituals. Not really asking the questions. Just as I named Penrose and Hawkings… there are folks I would like to say positive things about here, but must limit my words.

All of that flashed through my mind in about five minutes this morning.
And as it did, I remembered some of the things I know about consciousness, summarized at a humanistic level in my 2012 paper in Neural Networks. I have wonder how much input that article had, direct or indirect, into the new popular book on Focus, by Goleman. Those humanistic connections are important --  but it also helps to maintain links to the underlying science which gets a bit deeper. The phenomenon of focused awareness (the key to spatial intelligence) already exists at the level of the fish brain, in our chain of descent.  Am I saying humans haven’t yet caught up to fish? No, that’s not quite so precise. In the 2012 paper, I discuss the challenge of developing a kind of higher-level, reasoning-based, self-conscious control of the focus of the mind. That’s where humans are only half-evolved beings, and need to do a lot of work to really develop the faculty. Some folks call this faculty “the mastery of self,” and engage in all kinds of exercises to help people learn to shift focus and focus intensely and consciously as they choose – and ultimately to be able to pose questions and really focus on answering them.

OK – this is five minutes of thought I have recorded so far.

The next stage was the obvious observation: it’s not as if humans never focus on anything. Big questions about species survival and basic science are an important part of life, which we need to support more effectively, but it is not surprising that little creatures like us focus more of our attention on little things, especially when other little creatures threaten to eat them or starve them if they do not. There are many people who focus a whole lot of intense attention on goals like paying the bills, keeping the job and supporting personal relations. (And yes, I am one of them.) Luda reminds me – hey, not everyone even seems able to focus very effectively even on those bare minima.  True.   (I was tempted to add “keeping the company in business” to the list, but as I look at lobbyists in DC, I am skeptical that they have done much real strategic thinking about that kind of thing in most cases.  Again, I will refrain from bombarding you with excessive data on this matter.)

And then… a curious final thought. If people do focus on smaller personal things…
what about things like afterlife or like personal connection to the larger spiritual part of life?  If enough people focus enough on these things to be really sincere (unless most of the hypocritical poseurs we see so often in certain media, or folks lost in cold “pure reason”), maybe it could help them get out of the box and help with the many level of survival problems we all share.  I guess it’s important for some us to remember how this works.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

why is it so hard for people to focus on staying alive

I posted this today to the "lifeboat" discussion list, which focuses on threats of extinction to the humans species as a whole:

Next -- this week I have visited again one of the two threats which **I** view as having the highest probability of "directly pulling the plug"
and killing us all within the next few millennia. The two threats at the top of my list are:

(1) Death by nucs -- e.g. impacts from nuclear proliferation and terrorism, pushed on by all kinds of complex politics;

(2) Death by H2S emission from the oceans (aka "brimstone").

A major part of coping with such threats is understanding what is keeping us from fully understanding them. So we can discuss the H2S threat directly -- and immediately see SOME of why many humans find it hard to think like sapient beings in the face of such threats. But those of us who are at least willing to allow for some POSSIBILITY of threat also need to have some discussion at the "meta" level, trying to disentangle the complex network of why we insist on being blind, and of what it would take for some of us to see a bit more clearly.

But let me begin with some facts about the H2S threat.

(1) From rational decision theory and common sense, we know that "uncertainty" does not mean "something to ignore."  Even Ronald Reagan spoke up very loudly about the need for more RESEARCH on the issue of CO2 emissions, to try to focus our brains on trying to understand what is going on and what is at stake. Why can't we do the same for the H2S threat? What gets in the way?

(2) In 2009, the Geosciences directorate of NSF introduced Peter Ward as the world's number one expert on the actual mass extinctions of life which have occurred about a dozen times before in the history of the earth. His paperback book, Under a Green Sky, is only $7 from Amazon. It describes very clearly the "biomarker" data which tells us that H2S in the atmosphere has several times been high enough to kill every human being on earth. What is it that keeps us from directly, effectively and scientifically focusing on the key questions -- how far are we from a new such H2S event, and what are the drivers of that threat? 

I have heard that there is a new book on "focus" from Goleman, the author of a famous earlier book "EQ -- the Emotional Quotient." In fact, a lot of our advanced work on neural networks helps us understand the nature and importance of "focus" more than was possible in the past.  Human inability to focus on large issues of survival itself is an important testbed for this aspect of human intelligence (and of any attempt to enhance it).

Here I am not asking about those many extreme people (more than half the Republican Party, says Pew) who literally believe in Adam and Eve, and are not really part of the resources we would have to understand things. I am thinking more about folks like those who would say good things about Ward and his book and his politically correct concerns -- and then somehow manage to remain utterly useless in the effort to understand the threat which Ward portrays.
Are they like the folks who say they revere Jesus and the Bible, and then go out to starting stoning women in a way which fully resonates with the folks whom Jesus called "Lawyers! Pharisees! Hypocrites!" 
Maybe they were not motivated to actually read the book? Maybe they said to themselves: "He has shown it is righteous to be as we are, to worry about CO2 and acid rain -- so what more do we need to know? Our ego is supported, so what else do we need?" Well, staying alive is an important part of "what else" -- unless they are so alienated from reality that they, just like the more mindless folks on the right, act on teh assumption that this is all just some kind of great game? Could it be that the next stage of spiritual evolution for the far left and the far right would be to admit that they have all become a certain kind of Buddhist, believing that everything in this world is just a game and a delusion which doesn't really matter?   

I am especially aghast at the folks who say:"H2S? Brimstone? Having read the Bible, I can confidently say that God has promised us there is no possibility of brimstone killing us all in  the future." Hey, guys, I don't believe in all the details of that chapter about Noah, but I did at least READ the story! And if you want to build an Ark, what about the words about an "Ark in the Heavens" -- which sounds a lot more like an RLV than  a wooden boat?

TIbetan Buddhism really can be interesting... but if you get a whiff of even a bit of the H2S stuff, aka "brimstone"... it's real enough  to be worth some real attention.

When Ward speaks, and a certain kind of person listens (like some energetic, young well-meaning but nonquantitative and inexperienced Congresssional staffer) -- they may do better than those extremists. They may say "Maybe we really ought to pay some attention to this. 
But of course, we MUST live up at 300,000 feet; the boss would insist on that, and that's all I have a right to do, given my own limitations. So let's encourage some new effort to understand worst case scenarios, and possibilities for abrupt climate change. Then let the real experts, the stakeholders and the folks who run big research programs, figure out the details, whatever they are."

And so, some big fat cats are somehow bemused and happy that there is a new flow of cash to support their machines, and they have new meetings to hold to discuss how to allocate the spoils among their various troops.

It reminds me of my very first tenured job, long long ago, when from DOE we funded a group at Oak Ridge to study DOE's leading model of the long-term energy future. We could ask these folks any question we wanted -- but NEVER would they actually think about the question!
Instead, they would always try to translate it very quickly (and superficially) into ways to use specific very formal methods 
taken from nuclear engineering, to define runs of the computer model, without asking a lot about what they mean and whether they capture the essence of the question., Now matter what the quetsion, it would always get the same answer. Throughout engineering, anyone with real experience remembers the old adage: "When your only tool is a hammer, you see the whole world as a collection of nails." My boss at DOE said: "I used to be a supporter of nuclear fission, but now that I really understand how they do the safety analysis, I am a lot more scared.' There was also a joke told in the halls, "Since the folks running the Soviet Union are all like the folks at Oak Ridge, we can be confident that it will be falling apart pretty soon."
(This was in the early to mid 1980s!)

And so, there are lots of studies of ocean currents in the North Atlantic, and of possibilities for abrupt climate change, which pretty much stay "in the box." When one guy, Bryden, starting seeing a bit past the conventional wisdom, all the voices of political correctness left and right ganged up in a very vicious way on him, setting an example, and convincing him he needed to stay silent on some things. Having studied his story, and Ward's, I do NOT agree with either of them in detail -- but by neglecting or repressing their stories,
instead of building on them, we lose the ability to see what is really going on. It was ever so sad, a few years ago, when I did a google plus kind of search on Bryden, and saw how the mainstream agreed that (1) everything he said about the Gulf Stream was sheer lunacy, proof of his being a crank; (2) great praise and awards he received recently for the very best ocean modeling inputs to global climate change efforts such as IPCC.  And then I saw how he had to handle the press to survive in such a mixed environment.course

Of course for me, I am not in the Geosciences Directorate of NSF, and none of this is my job. For all the words you see here (and a few other places), I put less than 2% of my time into this. Note that this is a Saturday, and of course I am not representing NSF here. Yet, I actually care about staying alive... and even about the lives of children and grandchildren and such. Why should that be so rare?

Glenn of www.themp.org tried to tweak my conscience last year:
'Hey, Paul, you say that the first need here is for the kind of R&D which would really help us understand the dimensions of this problem.
Well, hell, YOU work for NSF, and IT'S one of the key players who ought to be able to fill in this research need. So why don't YOU take action where you are, to start getting the gap filled in?"

For me, there is not much difference between having a conscience and having a sense of reality -- but I did try to put in a LITTLE effort to be a good citizen, and try to fill in, even if it is a thankless kind of effort. After all, what kind of a human would just stand by and ignore a threat to life itself on this planet? (Yes, I remember lawyers who said "no good deed goes unpunished" -- and then actively work to make it so! But I remember better lawyers too. It makes a difference how good THOSE folks are.)

Most recently, I tried to encourage some action from various folks who are at the front lines of ocean modeling, the field which has the key variables in its domain. I had better not name names! There are even some intellectual types issues here.

One issue is that some folks rely very heavily on huge computer models, built under very restrictive circumstances, while others believe both that these models are the only clear source of information  here and that one really should not pay much attention to them at all.  These extreme viewpoints are as bad in their own way as the polarization in Congress, a way of freezing the brain so that it cannot look out past the ideology in the skull through the eyes to focus on something big beyond one's own room (and job).

And there -- I guess I have an unfair advantage. My first normal full-time job at MIT involved lots of debugging of other people's codes, doing complex statistical analysis, which turned out to be important to my first tenured job at DOE. I was basically the only guy who actually knew what was going in a half dozen of the important models, because I could read the FORTRAN, and verify what was REALLY in the models as opposed to what was in the fuzzy documentation  and the partial memories of the scattered people who had developed and bought the various pieces they glued together.  There are certain things one can learn about big integrated modeling systems, both strengths and weaknesses, which are certainly NOT clear n the minds of either extreme debating climate models.

Back when it was an issue of energy demand, there were lots of big models which were grossly unreliable, for reasons beyond the scope even of this long email. To a great extent, I was able to solve those problems for projecting energy demand in industry or transportation, by taking a more empirical approach, relying heavily on actual time-series data. Carl Wunsch of MIT has done something similar for the usual kinds of global climate models, and there are a few other folks here and there who should be mentioned -- IF this were an essay on the IPCC stuff.
But for the ocean currents, which are the key to Ward's extinction scenario, this advanced methodology is still not enough. Why? Because the time-series we are using come from periods within the past million years, all of which contain the same great "lungs of the planet" ocean currents. It's as if you were trying to predict the output of a television, with a big database of what it does when it is turned on, but no data on what happens when you pull the power plug or turn the power switch off.

In energy modeling, we certainly ran across a case where a few simple equations in a spreadsheet, which normal humans can understand, could make forecasts much more accurate than gigantic models whose behavior as dynamic systems was basically left to chance. Here, we really have clear, simple and decisive information about where the "off" switch is located, which would totally change the game, and open the door much more quickly than we assume possible to scenarios like what Ward recounts.

Ward calls it "thermohaline currents," and urges new R&D to get into deeper understanding of how those currents led to problems in the past and better prepare us for the future. When I first read his book, "thermohaline" was a kind of fuzzy term to me, and it remained fuzzy when I read learned but convoluted papers applying big models to some of those issues.  But later... the word 'thermohaline" now conjures up a very simple, solid graph I saw on the web, with two curves plotted. On the Y axis was temperature, and on the X axis salinity. One curve gave the freezing point of water, as a function of salinity., The other gave the temperature at which water has maximum density, as a function of salinity. Understanding and using this simple information is the key to any serious feeling for what goes on with these thermohaline currents -- and their potential to be simply shut off,
changing the regime of earth very abruptly from the dynamics we have seen in the last million years (and still see, even with climate change)
to something quite different, exactly like what we saw at the time of all the great mass extinctions. We need to follow up exactly on what we can 
learn about the prospects of that switch being turned off, either at the North Pole or at both Poles.  And on what happens.

As best I can tell, for water as salty as the North Atlantic, the switch goes off when the water at the surface, near the poles, gets up to zero degrees C. (That's what I see on the curve.) It looks as if we are only a decade or two from that at the North Pole, based on the empirical reports on ice melting I read. (The empirical reports show a lot faster melting than the big models have predicted.) Idiots respond by saying, "OK, but there is other evidence where global warming is not going as fast as predicted -- including even what you see out your window near DC this very morning!" They are idiots, because they don't understand that I'm NOT talking about orthodox IPCC here! The North Pole and the South Pole are crucial in their own right, regardless of what warming we get or not at other latitudes. This is not about the Great Debate between Warmism and Denialism; there is (for now) life beyond those debates. There is the issue of life itself.
Why don't we understand that automatically?

But, from Ward, black water and anoxia RESTRICTED to the North Atlantic would not be enough to kill all mammals on earth.  When it happened in the paleocene/eocene event (the most recent mass extinction), it was enough to kill every mammal bigger than a mouse, but not the mouse itself. (Given a few million years, cats and primates re-evolved from the mouse.) So if it's JUST the North Pole, it may not be SO bad... 

I have had a chance to speak to real, recognized experts on thermohaline currents who understand this physics, and told me: "Yes, Paul, many of us understand that it's all a lot worse than anyone will let us talk about openly now. The social restrictions are really heavy. You know about the guys who had to retire, even under Obama. Our only hope now lies in geoengineering, so that's where a lot of us want to reallocate our efforts."

But who has viable ideas for geoengineering of the ozone layer,
which might well be the first point of death (not just "brimstone," H2S, but the "fire" from radiation consequent on heavy sulfate production)? None that I can find. Ward mentioned measurements BOTH for H2S and for radiation, both fatal. Still, putting some effort into geoengineering looks more and more rational, along with some other things.

I do know a bit more about this now, but this email is already pretty long. Let me just say: we DO need to learn more, and work hard to understand the pdfs here, and it's weird that we humans somehow haven't been able to wrap our heads around the rather important questions here. 

Best of luck,


Thursday, February 13, 2014

Are you a Believer?

Are You a Believer?

Someone asked me that question a couple of months ago.

A couple of months ago, I attended the Christmas Party at a fascinating shadow kind of organization which gives advice to the US government. I was invited because I met a fascinating and intelligent guy named Mike at an event downtown, who explained how his organization quietly gives advice to important folks in both parties of Congress. It’s not one of those places you read about in the newspapers, like Heritage or Marshall or Brookings; they want to keep it that way.

At the party, I briefly met a woman in a key position in a sister agency. “We are all believers here. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t believers. You are a believer too, aren’t you?”

But believer in what? She clearly WASN’T a believer in any version of the NSF peer review system.  (For all my skepticism, and awareness of how people do screw up the NSF system, I still do believe it can be very powerful and unique, if it is done right.)

In the late afternoon, after some wine, I was NOT at the peak of my intelligence. So I responded by saying: “Well, I don’t know. It depends on WHAT you are asking about. Belief in WHAT?” She just put on an enigmatic smile, and I think she said: “If you were a believer, you wouldn’t have to ask that.”  To this day, I do not know whether was referring to some version of Christianity, transhumanism, technology or he can-do spirit in general.

That night, at about 3AM, when my mental powers generally reach their peak, I realized that an honest answer might have been: “Madam, I am probably less of a believer than anyone you have ever met in your entire life, anywhere. I strive to live a life of freedom and of the scientific method, applied even to first person experience. At some level, I basically believe nothing.”

But today, as Luda turned on the TV for the Olympics, I saw  a (muted) TV commercial for the new movie “Believe,” by the producer of Gravity, which I reviewed before on this blog. “I have mixed feelings about this word ‘believe.’ On the one hand, I don’t do that. But form experience and analysis, I have drawn lots of conclusions and learned lots of things which I cannot really discuss at all with people unless THEY have at least some willingness to Believe. How can I start a conversation when I have to say: ‘Based on my understanding of the scientific method, you will have every reason to conclude, based on your own experience, that everything I am about to say is crazy?’”

But then I thought a bit more: “Of course, I don’t generally take that line of discussion. I DON’T ask people to ‘Just Be a Believer.’ Based on Greeley’s data, if they are reasonably intelligent people, I expect a high probability that THEY have had personal experience which should properly lead THEM to ask some pretty heavy questions, if they are sane and honest enough not to just repress their own personal experience. THAT’S the proper approach. “

As I type this, I am reminded of the mystic H. Spencer Lewis, who said that we should all be “walking question marks.” (And I remember much later meeting some kind of Jewish guy who said they say that in parts of HIS tradition.)

But – not being a Believer does not mean failing to learn from the experience of other human beings. That’s a tricky business, however. The rational approach is to learn what we can from the totality of the human database, with sophisticated filtering to make sense of it without throwing out information.  How to filter… is related to my other blog post today about prediction.

Best of luck…

how to predict the future -- from stock markets to the mind

A collaborator of mine, Dr, Robert Kozma of the FedEx Institute of Technology, is teaching an advanced course on "cognitive prediction" this semester. Last night, he brought in a guest speaker from the Middle East who is a leader in the field of real-world financial forecasting and such. Probably they don't want to post ALL the details right now, but part of the discussion gets deep into the human mind, and makes some very fundamental points; thus I post:


Good morning, Robert!

As I think over the many things the students might learn from last night ... it reminds me of certain basic facts of life which I didn't really appreciate until after decades of experience. Maybe my reflections could be of use to the students?

One fact of life is... about the food chain in academia, and in the life of the mind more generally.

It reminds me of the time when Cherkassky had one of his first big plenaries, at
an IJCNN, and there was also a big discussion or question-and-answer session later. Someone asked me, roughly:"Paul, what do YOU make of all this Cherkassky stuff? Is it really a new right way to do things? Or is it just a heap of formal nonsense?" My answer, roughly: "After watching how science works, I really appreciate how it is like a kind of vast ecology in itself. We can't all do the same thing. There are lots of things which need to be done, as one part of the system. So this work has its place in the food chain, but no, it's not the whole thing and not the big picture." Later, some Chinese folks at the meeting said they had a really good laugh at this, because in their culture "we know what it means when you say someone has his place in the food chain." But I didn't mean it THAT way...

Last night, Amir gave us an important window into the front lines of practical forecasting, a serious and important area. It's a highly empirical area. I couldn't help remembering that folks who sell consulting services to the five big markets he mentioned must always be agile enough to adapt to their clients preconceptions -- TO SOME DEGREE.  They need to show they can do all the stuff their client might think is important -- but they also need to establish clear value added, by showing they can do better in some way.

The sheer variety of methods probably seems a bit bewildering to students, as it comes, just one after another. In fact, this kind of bewildering variety is pretty typical of a lot of areas of science these days. Facing such a bewildering variety, most humans go off in one of two directions:

(1) Embrace the bewilderment (and the market). Get deep into it,
play with the toys -- and make money. Think of all the many things you can do in playing with data, and hack through it.

(2) Retreat from the confusion, and keep yourself sane and coherent by embracing a theoretical framework, and sticking with it... either by becoming a pure theorist or by using that theory consistently in playing with data.

(In the world of physics, I tend to think of (1) as the common approach in practical electronics and photonics, while (2) creates monasteries to worship imaginary superstrings who have yet to manifest their divinity in experiments on earth.)
For those interested in human minds -- there was a nice little paper by Levine and Leven in Science many years ago, on "the new Coke", which described the psychological variable, "tolerance of cognitive dissonance," which drives this choice. Amir, being highly tolerant of cognitive dissonance, has immersed himself very deeply in the empirical data of forecasting itself. He himself is learning from data, and is not living what he called a "Monte Carlo" life.

By contrast, in my talk, I mentioned folks like maximum likelihood theorists, Bayesians, and a bit of Vapnik/Cherkassky people, who are more (2) than (1).
In graduate school, I started out believing in Bayesian theory, which in practical terms led me to maximum likelihood thinking. And yes, I was born with a low tolerance of cognitive dissonance, based in part on the German/Hungarian side of my family. Things have to make sense to me, and I don't like it when they don't.

In the maximum likelihood theory, "all life is about choosing a stochastic model based on experience." (Hey, Carnap and Jeffreys really were serious philosophers.)
Amir often echoed maximum likelihood thinking in PART of his presentation. In maximum likelihood theory, the choice of MODEL is based on data, on the likelihood of the data conditional on the model. The METHOD is basically always the same -- compare models, or values of parameters for a given model, by comparing the probability of seeing the data you did based on that model. Always the same method, but always a variety of models and parameters/weights to consider. The neural network approach is very special here, because an MLP roughly represents ALL POSSIBLE nonlinear input-output models; thus we can use the same METHOD (maximizing likelihood by minimizing error) AND the same structure (generalized MLP), effectively automating the process of model selection -- as is required when we try to build something like a brain.

But then, there were times when Amir talked about exponential smoothing,
about deseasonalization and about the (Hill? Holt?) model .. when a maximum likelihood theorist, like what I used to be, would be cringing and barely suppressing a scream. "What are all these ad hoc things? What do they mean? Why do they work? More important -- when could they work? Aren't these like those folk chartists or technicians on Wall Street who..."   

BUT: BEYOND (1) and (2), it is absolutely crucial to science that some of us take a third path.

Like Amir, we must learn from data, from experience. But if we can't fully UNDERSTAND that experience, we need to work to understand it, by developing a BETTER theoretical framework capable of coping with the empirical data.
In a way... We need to practice syncretism! WE need to avoid excessive belief in a global model or theory, to the point where we don't pay enough attention to the new data points as they flood into our experience. But we also need to avoid being driven by past data without UNDERSTANDING; we need to keep adapting our global model or theory to cope with the data we didn't fully understand. This is really just the basic SCIENTIFIC METHOD, enunciated by Francis Bacon, based on the basic principles of learning we have already discussed from people like the Reverend Occam (and Emmanuel Kant).

The paper by Levine and Leven talks about more than just tolerance of cognitive dissonance. It also talks about something called "novelty seeking," which according to the research they review is also relatively heritable. (Bernie Baars, editor of the Journal of Consciousness,  has also discussed this with me.) Statistically, most people are either high on tolerance of cognitive dissonance AND novelty seeking (pushing them into choice (1)), or low on both (pushing them to (2)). We really need both kinds of people; we need diversity in our ecology of the mind, for many reasons. But, since I am half Irish, I seem to have fallen into the less common mix of high novelty seeking AND low tolerance of cognitive dissonance, which creates a kind of conflict as one always tries to put things into a theoretical framework -- and then  jubilantly encourages the inner trickster who delights in undermining the whole thing. That mix causes a lot of extra work and pain... but it also pushes us to try to get deep into the unexplained data, and extract the theoretical principles. That, too, is a crucial part of what we need for real progress in science. In certain moods, I think of extreme (1) as "the sponge personality," and (2) as "the Nazi personality" -- both quite numerous in our world, even in K-12.

This point is so important that I feel I must give another example. Many years ago, I attended the inaugural workshop at NSF for a big funding initiative called "CyberPhysical Systems" led by Helen Gill, who retired just a few months ago. 
Everybody in the room invited from academia came form control theory. (Yes, I would have wanted more diversity.)  The vast majority of leading people had talked a lot about the new research  challenges Helen wanted to support, but really didn't have useful tangible results (if you actually want something to work). The main counterexample was Professor Shankar Shastry of Berkeley, who had DOZENS of amazing things working, bringing together a relatively open variety of approaches. When people asked him how he was so uniquely successful, he said: "It's basically simple. I get deep into these application challenges, and then I try to EXTRACT the basic principles that one can learn from them."

So now: back to prediction.

In early graduate school, I was a maximum likelihood theorist, but was happy to get deep into the long-term data on population and nationalism, given to me by the famous political scientist, Prof. Karl Deutsch, who agreed to be my thesis advisor. German as he was, it was really my Irish side that made me want to help the guy, who had "eaten" about ten graduate students before me who had trooubles making sense of the data. (By the way , the technical/mathematical side of this is of course given in detail in my PhD thesis, reprinted in full in my book "The Roots of Backpropagation.) Applying maximum likelihood analysis, I concluded that a
"vector ARMA" model could solve his problem, and make the first decent forecasts of this data. I used "backpropagation" (the chain rule for ordered derivatives) to develop the first fast computer program to estimate vector ARMA processes,
and applied it to this data -- and it worked.

But then came the trickster/scientist. As a matter of honesty, I felt I also needed to test out a kind of "devil's advocate" method (jnspired a  bit by reading the work of Jay Forrester of MIT), which was basically just the "exponential smoothing" described by Amir last night. My version (in the book) was very easy and clean.
Maximum likelihood thinking said it could not possibly outperform vector ARMA here. But it did, by a factor of two! Fred Mosteller, a famous statistician on my thesis committee, got me to test all of this on simulated data, as well as real data, to establish the principle .. and I did. 

Oops. So much for maximum likelihood. Maximum likelihood would lead to errors TWICE as large as exponential smoothing. What then?

NOT turn into a sponge! How can we extract the basic principle here?

That is when I came up with "the pure robust method," which can be used BOTH in ordinary statistical modeling (econometric modeling, especially) and in the training of time-lagged recurrent networks. The Ford package for training time-lagged recurrent networks (TLRN) has consistently beat everything else in forecasting competitions, but all it does is minimize square error in the usual method of maximum likelihood theory (made possible by backpropagation). When I compared that method, the minimization of square error, versus the pure robust method, for MLPs in forecasting data from the chemical industry, ERRORS WERE REDUCED BY A FACTOR OF THREE.  **IF** that pattern holds up with TLRN, then
a new computer package which uses TLRN AND the pure robust method could get
errors one-third the size of those from the Ford package. If a university could start by 
replicating the Ford capability, and THEN adding pure robustness, it could really do a whole lot better than anyone else here.

For some data. There is lots of data which behaves like the chemical industry data we studied. (To see that study of chemical data, just look at chapter 10 of HIC, posted on my web site.) But there is lots of data which doesn't. When I tried this out on an econometric model taken from DOD, in 1977, I found out that maximum likelihood and pure robust were BOTH extremes; the best was something in the middle, similar in flavor to the "Hill" or "Holt" weighted linear model that Amir talked about last night.  But this "something in the middle" was NOT a mixture of models, and was NOT just a linear method. It was a truly general method for training A TLRN or AN econometric model, just as general as maximum likelihood or pure robust. I called it "the compromise method." It cut errors in half for predicting GNP, in the econometric model I mentioned just now, compared with the best of maximum likelihood and pure robust both. It included a way of ADAPTING the degree of robustness, to accommodate to DIFFERENT variables. Chapter 10 of HIC is still our best knowledge on that subject. One could do better, with some deep thinking, but no one ever has, even since HIC. Perhaps if Amir had been working with me, he might be ready to do more... but deep thinking is not easy stuff. I must apologize that I have allocated my own deep thinking to other things here lately.

Many of the empirical issues which Amir mentioned with detrending and deseasonalization were basically addressing a kind of scaling problem.  The maximum likelihood theorists would say that a more proper way to address some of those concerns is by recognizing that random disturbances are not fixed Gaussians; thus simple devices like assuming percentage error, and doing maximum likelihood based on a better error model, are better. In that case, one needs to compute a Jacobian to compare models with different error models, but it's all straightforward in principle. One can adapt similar approaches to the compromise method and so on.

There is more to be said about Amir's presentation, which covered many important issues, but this email is long and complicated enough for now. You will also see all of these issues and more referred to, if briefly, in the Erdos pdf of slides and words
also posted on my website (www.werbos.com/Erdos.pdf.).  

I hope this helps.

Best regards,


Monday, February 10, 2014

New Watershed For Space Solar Power

Review of “The Case for Space Solar Power” by John Mankins

                                                Paul J. Werbos*
Executive Vice President for Policy, NSS

If  you, like me, are one of those people who really want to do the most you can “to make the dream real,” you need to have a copy of this book on your shelves so that you can read it, reread it, and go back for all the important details. If you could only afford to have one book on your shelves, this should be it.
            Decades ago, Gerard O’Neill did a magnificent job of conveying a new vision, where humans settle space in an economically sustainable way, beaming energy to earth in order to pay for the imports they still need from earth even after they begin to exploit materials from beyond the earth.  In his vision, space would not be just a billion dollar welfare program, or an irrelevant playground for millionaires. It would be a growing economy, like a growing nation, with economic force and momentum and value to earth in a sector (energy) where the needs of earth are very serious.
            Mankins’ book is a major milestone in doing the work which is required to translate that general vision into a concrete reality with a viable business case. The author, John Mankins, was the leader at NASA of virtually all the useful successful work on space solar power (SSP) by the US government. This book is a unique source of information on everything NASA knew and had access to, not only in SSP, but in other areas crucial to the future of space. In the first round of Bush’s “return to the moon” program, Mankins led the efforts in human and robotic technology all across the board; this book also tells you a lot about what has been really going on in those areas as well. Most important, the book offers a whole new basis for solid, realistic hope that we might succeed after all in the kind of vision which O’Neill inspired.
            A year ago, when NSS asked me to take over the duties of Executive Vice President (EVP) for policy, I didn’t think of the job as a chance to dance in the cameras as a cheerleader for powerful forces of nature pushing us ahead to the inevitable promised land. It’s pleasant to think that the human settlement of space is inevitable – and even if it is, on some level, it doesn’t help to take it for granted. I don’t take it for granted. Some good things are happening here and there, as they have for more than 50 years, but there are major obstacles and challenges we need to face up to. I still think of that sad expression in the eyes of a top NASA engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, walking through monuments to past glory, saying “No, we’re not just withering away to nothing, the way people think. Not really. Mars can save us. We hope.”
Mankins is offering us a better, more realistic hope, with lots of really solid room for further growth.
            When I took the job of EVP, it reminded me a lot of the Star Trek movie of 2009, where Kirk comes up with a plan to save the earth. Spock responded: “Captain, the probability of success is only 5%, and if it fails, all humans die.” Kirk replies: “If you have a better plan, please tell me right now. If not, let’s just do all we can to make this one work.” To maximize whatever probability we have to achieve the goal.
            But right now, the chances of ultimate success look a lot better than they did just a year ago. John Mankins’ book (and the NIAC report it expands on) is one of the key reasons for hope. Back in the 1970’s, when there was a lot of hope for SSP,  but the designs were unproven and questionable, many energy experts walked away and never looked back.  In the 1990’s, Mankins led the Fresh Look work which exposed what was wrong with the old designs, and found new designs that would work, but were still too expensive.  When John and I worked together, in the last open US funding competition for SSP, the most serious life-cycle cost estimates for the best available designs were still about 20 cents per kwh for the electricity. That was still more expensive than the average of what we pay for electricity generation today (about ten cents), and it required improvements in launch technology which were not on the horizon.
            But now, in this book, Mankins presents a new design concept, SPS-ALPHA, for which the best guess on cost is only 9 cents per kwh. This year there is also new hope for launch costs, which is a necessary complement to better design and more realistic costs. Mankins is not providing us with a complete blueprint which we can go out and deploy tomorrow – but he is offering us a very detailed and serious game plan,  with all of the details and leads known to NASA needed to make it work.
            Many times in Washington, I have seen policy makers and lobbyists get very excited by some kind of new technology, put in lots of money – and totally screw it up because they didn’t have a workable game plan for the technology to start from. That has happened again and again in the area of space launch, where unrealistic hopes go into orbit with a lot less effort than real spacecraft. Mankins’ game plan is really essential to getting it right this time, and getting us to the watershed of affordable electricity actually coming down to the earth.
            Many people would object that Mankins’ plan for SSP does not fulfill the full vision of O’Neill, and does not even provide for many humans in space. I remember many people saying “Why don’t we just spend $50 billion to set up a permanent full-time self-sufficient human base on the moon, build mass drivers on the moon, and get to SSP that way instead?”   The problem is that you can’t do all that for just $50 billion. To do it at all requires lots of infrastructure and enabling technology. If we settle for nothing less than a full moon base (or a Mars base) first, we may simply end up with nothing but dreams, forever. The Mankins plan is a vital opportunity to build up the infrastructure we need in space before we can have a realistic chance to expand the human settlement further. If we fulfill that plan, there will be ever more opportunity and need to bring more and more humans along, step by step,  perhaps starting out with a kind of swarm city more like a giant expansion of ISS than like the habitats we will build eventually.
            The great beauty of SPS-ALPHA is that it relies on a “Lego” kind of approach, building up a huge structure from modules which all weigh less than a ton.  This gets rid of the need for heavy lift vehicles; we can afford to use whatever gets us to space most cheaply, even if it looks more like a DOD vehicle with wings and lift than a NASA rocket with thrust greater than the weight of the vehicle. It also lets us do a lot of the critical RD&D right here on earth. We can explore designs and prove out the key concepts right here on earth, even in the laboratories of independent universities and small businesses, perhaps all over the world.  Mankins’ book is a crucial guide to the kind of work which can be done today, all over the world, to take us closer to making the dream real.
            As a matter of honesty, I have to say that the book does not tell us everything we need to know to make the dream a reality. The book tells us a huge amount about competing designs for SSP, some of which might work out better after ALPHA paves the way. But there are other possibilities in the same design space.  There is new work on winged reusable launch vehicles, all over the world, including the new DARPA program XS-1 and new work not widely publicized in Sichuan province in China, and crucial new technology which goes with that. Nevertheless, Mankins’ book is the game plan for bringing SSP itself to reality. To make a positive difference in the game, we need to have that game plan close at hand, not just on our shelves but in all of our strategic thinking for all of things we can do to help.    

Re authorship: it should only refer to me as EVCP of NSS. If any squib refers to NSF, perhaps it should say: “The view herein are the official views of NSS, with no relation implied to any official views of NSF.”

* The views herein are those of the author and of NSS, and do not reflect the official views of any other organization; however, the review was written on government time, and is thus in the government public domain.

Friday, February 7, 2014

mirror, mirror -- who's the smartest one of all?

Seeing an image of woolly mammoth today, and remembering that elephants have bigger brains than humans... and remembering that "brain eight divided by body weight' is a silly measure of intelligence...
I found myself wondering: could it be that elephants really could outthink us, if we could give them an education which overcomes their natural handicaps in motivation and lifestyle (and body)? And so I did a quick check, and found a fascinating obscure web site:
Unless there is some obscure bias in how they count neurons, it seems clear that mice are smarter than rats, that cats are twice as smart as dogs, and the humans really are a lot smarter than elephants,
even in what they CAN learn under ideal circumstances. (Though dogs may be more motivated than cats sometimes.) I am a bit surprised about how low the octopus is here, since it may be the peak of a whole other path to intelligence, but then again, I don't know its relatives,  and it may be harder to compare numbers of neurons between mammals and octopus. (Don't know.) Of course, ants and bees are the peak of yet a third path to intelligence on earth, which doesn't show up because it is mainly a kind of collective hive intelligence, and also because the little cells in the "mushroom bodies" of their brains are hard to get on top of.

Still, all in all, it seems to support human pride more than other evidence seemed to allow for in recent decades. That reminds me of our new DNA data, which overwrites the massive circumstantial evidence
in my earlier post ("Cheney..."). Firmly German on my father's side (with a little Hungarian mixed in), despite an initial 23andme ruling that I am 55% Scotch-English and 45% Irish. Also, Read or Reid is now the number one on "surnames with match to your DNA," and Barry (which WE KNOW was an important guy on my mother's side) is pretty high on the list.

It all reminds me of the need to be careful not to jump to conclusions...
the DNA had me in a kind of 50-50 state until the final new, more conclusive data came in.

Best of luck...