Monday, August 5, 2019

The Magic of Oak Bluffs

Storm approaching the lone vendor.

Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard has more than a bit of magic. The Methodist Campground is encircled with gingerbread cottages which were formerly simple tents. The Tabernacle, a historic wrought iron structure, today accommodates concerts and lectures, but once hosted fiery preachers. The guest houses lining Lake Avenue were built in the nineteenth century to lodge the overflow crush of visitors come to attend religious meetings. Today, they attend to tourists from around the world.

Situated on the cusp of Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound, Oak Bluffs (one oak, many bluffs, as explained to us) features gorgeous beaches, scenic vistas, fresh seafood, and great restaurants. It’s enough to explain why tens of thousands of Massachusetts adventurers have been traveling there for over 150 years.

We were there for the wedding of a dear friend, having embarked from Quonset Point on a fast ferry that deposited us in Oak Bluffs in a quick ninety minutes. A short walk later, we found our lodging, the Attleboro House. Why, we asked, was it named so?

The owner regaled us with some depth of island history. Many guest houses were named for the home town of the original owners who built them. At one time, there had been a Providence House, a New Bedford House, a Hartford House, and a Brockton House.

The Attleboro house had originally been built by the Babcock family of Attleboro in 1874. It was later sold to the Pike family, and is today owned by the Reagans. History runs deep here.

When visiting, you will be struck by the ease with which people of all hues and persuasions are accepted, not by virtue-signaling, but matter-of-factly. African-Americans have long been welcome on the island, it is a favored vacation spot. Gay and straight and white and black people mix and chat, converse and dine, swim and sun bathe, a microcosm of what our entire country would hope to be.

The aforementioned wedding was conducted at the Trinity United Methodist Church. This gorgeous structure was built in 1878 and is now a National Historic Landmark. Our groom, a Scotsman, arranged for a Scottish piper to lead the wedding party to the church, and then after the ceremony, to lead us back to the reception on the harbor. The piper seemed strangely normal on this eclectic island. 

The details of the wedding are unnecessary, you have certainly attended several. But the reception, on the verge of the harbor, held a surprise.

While the day had been beautiful, a brief, somewhat violent afternoon thunderstorm quickly spun up. Rain and hail and strong gusty winds swept across the harbor, and ashore.

A Saturday afternoon gathering of vendors selling artisan goods had quickly packed up, but one poor woman had delayed a bit too much. A powerful gust upended her tent, and unfortunately, her as well. She was knocked into the street, banging her head on the pavement, her goods swirled and scooted by the winds.

And here was the Oak Bluffs magic. Bystanders who had been sheltering from the storm emerged into the rain, running to her aid, becoming soaked and buffeted. First, she was quickly assessed and attended to, then her goods retrieved. The Samaritans, bedraggled and soaked, made sure that she was not seriously injured and then attempted to retrieve her wares.

Later, with the clouds receding and the sun sinking, a glorious sunset seemed to thank those who had risen to the need. This was a picture of what America could be, caring for a stranger, responding to an exigency.

Later at the Attleboro House, we contemplated the long history of this island paradise, and the human kindness that it seemed to encourage. If only that tendency could be bottled. We would all be the better for it.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Truth is an elusive concept

The truth is elusive.

You would think that it’s not. After all, something is either true or it is false. But it’s not all that simple. Consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant as recounted in Wikipedia:

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: ‘We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable.’ So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said ‘This being is like a thick snake.’ For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, ‘elephant is a wall.’ Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

So what was the elephant like? A snake, a fan, a tree-trunk, a wall, a rope, or a spear? Actually, each description is true, but incomplete. That’s why a very important concept is vital to American jurisprudence: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. The key concept here is “the whole truth.”

And that lies at the heart of much of America’s current civil and political discord: selection bias. We are told one aspect of a situation, by a friend or politician or media report, without mention of other aspects. We accept that selective truth and come to believe that an elephant is like a snake.

But very often, not just occasionally, multiple aspects of a thing are simultaneously true. Supporters and detractors will select just one truth and use it to bludgeon their opponents. Here a few examples:
  • Capitalism can create great disparities in wealth, but capitalism has lifted more people out of poverty than any other system.
  • Automation (robots) will displace millions of workers, but will unleash untold new jobs and contribute greatly to economic growth.
  • The stock market is of no concern of the common man, but the stock market is crucial for paying the pensions of teachers and cops and firemen.
These, and many other things, can all be simultaneously true.

Here is another little story for you. The Republic of El Salvador (“Republic of the Savior”) is the smallest country in Central America. It also has the highest rate of femicide in the world (women murdered simply because they are women). Women are dying by the thousands. The greatest source of this homicidal violence is pathologically vicious young males, most being gang members. The gangs exist because of a lack of law enforcement. Law enforcement is spotty because of government corruption.

Because of this violence, people are fleeing El Salvador hoping for asylum in the north, in America. They are willing to risk great travails in their journey. They cross the border, illegally, driven by haunting visions of home chasing them along.

As the migrants clamor for asylum, inclusion, acceptance, safety, a growing cadre of Americans are alarmed by what they view as an invasion. They suspect that gang members and drug runners are amongst the migrants. They suspect that the migrants, once in America and looking for work, will drive down wages for jobs they are competing for. They want a wall. Others view a wall as immoral, inimical to American values.

From this morass of views, keeping the parable of the elephant in mind, we might conclude that they might all be simultaneously true. So what to do?

If we assume that all of the above might be true, then a multi-pronged solution is the most effective response. For instance, and not limited to these:
  • More effective border control to minimize illegal entry
  • Greatly expanded asylum processing capacity to accommodate the flood of applicants
  • Foreign aid to El Salvador to encourage the democratic process, rule of law, and gang suppression
This is the type of thinking that a truly bipartisan citizenry, directing their legislators, might embark upon. Too bad that this is only a pipe dream.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Why we work

As Christmas approaches, one must be blind to miss the enormous blitz of stuff for sale. Advertising permeates television, newspapers, magazines, and the phantasmal web. We are urged to buy in a frenzy of spending and wrapping and giving. Psychological studies abound as to why we do this. To show appreciation for others in our lives. To make ourselves feel good about our altruism. To improve our chances with a potential mate. The reasons are many.

But flip this on its head and consider that this deluge of stuff to be given must first all be made. Which is another even more basic human behavior – we are makers.

Consider our prehistoric ancestors. Busy all day, every day, no vacations. Gathering berries and mushrooms, snaring rabbits, hunting antelope. There was no cessation of these basic survival activities. But there was plenty of pride and satisfaction in a job well done, as it resulted in a full tummy for you and your family. The efforts were richly rewarded.

And then there was that relatively huge human brain bringing creativity to bear on the problem. Better arrowheads. More effective snares. Improved hunting strategies. Creativity is strongly intertwined with making.

This satisfaction of a job well done appears to be embedded in the primal, survival centers of our brains, because it is strongly experienced today. We take satisfaction in creativity. We enjoy doing a job well.

And while we no longer snare rabbits, we get that same thrill of success from a job well done, seemingly any job.

Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, in TED talks and in several books, has researched and observed why we work. The need for money is almost never at the top of the list when people are asked. According to Professor Schwartz:

“Satisfied workers are engaged by their work. They lose themselves in it. Not all the time, of course, but often enough for that to be salient to them. Satisfied workers are challenged by their work. It forces them to stretch themselves—to go outside their comfort zones. These lucky people think the work they do is fun, often in the way that doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku is fun.”

Many have written of the importance of work. Studs Terkel wrote “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do” in 1974 and it resonates still today, a classic. Terkel interviewed many people, from parking valets to waitresses, steel workers to business executives, and captured their thoughts and feelings. His overall conclusion was that, while work can be difficult, it is meaningful and rewarding to many in all walks of life.

Mike Rowe, the well-known television host and narrator of Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It, is a strong proponent of the dignity of work, any work, especially blue collar and the trades. Rowe would like to see more specific skills training and apprenticeship programs to match millions of potential employees with currently unfilled jobs.

In the end, we must recognize the satisfaction which comes from work. The dignity and pride which arises from serving a hungry customer well. Or mopping a floor properly. Or picking crate after crate of cherries. Or writing a block of code that protects a newly discovered network fault.

Work is important to us. It is visceral. It is primal. It gives life meaning. It gives us pride.

That is something that we need to remember when developing social programs. It is just possible that, for instance, an Earned Income Tax Credit, which encourages work, might be superior to a general cash disbursement, which does not.

Now, go forth, shop, and enjoy the holidays. Give all of those makers a purpose.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Something for kids to get excited about

CubeSats in Mars orbit (artist illustration) - NASA

There was great jubilation on Monday as NASA’s latest mission to Mars, the Insight lander, successfully touched down. This $828 million mission is nearly parsimonious when compared to the $150 billion cost of the International Space Station. And it is hoped to answer a deeply existential question – what happened to Mars’s oceans and atmosphere?

Some researchers believe that, long ago, Mars was potentially able to support life with liquid water and a relatively thick atmosphere. But its lack of a strong magnetosphere, such as Earth possesses, allowed the solar wind to eventually sweep away much of the atmosphere thereby allowing the oceans to evaporate into space. Insight will perform seismic studies to allow us to understand the dynamics of Mars’s core and perhaps the cause of her fate.

But in all the excitement, short thrift was given to another remarkable achievement. Insight did not fly alone, but was accompanied by a pair of diminutive, briefcase-size companions flying in formation with her. Two identical miniature spacecraft, each about 30 pounds, detached from Insight once underway and accompanied her across deep space, then went into orbit around Mars as Insight landed. Named MarCO-A and MarCO-B, Jet Propulsion Lab engineers whimsically nicknamed them WALL-E and EVE after the animated characters in the 2008 film WALL-E.

MarCO-A and -B are communication satellites and relay data between Insight and Earth. They were the first to report Insight’s successful landing. More importantly, they have proven that CubeSats (which they are) are capable of withstanding the rigors of a 300-million mile journey through deep space and arrive with pinpoint accuracy. 

A CubeSat is a standardized miniature satellite whose specifications were established in 1999 by California Polytechnic University and Stanford University. Since then over 800 CubeSats have been launched into low Earth orbit to perform a wide variety of purposes. One of the key differentiators of CubeSats is that they are hitchhikers and don’t have their own primary launch vehicle. This is the major contributor to their low cost.

CubeSats have been designed and deployed by a variety of commercial, governmental, and academic establishments, including universities, high schools, and even middle schools. That last bit is incredibly important.

Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, recently was notified by NASA that their student proposal to loft a CubeSat into orbit had been approved. The photos of exuberant girls and boys are enough to warm the heart of any STEM teacher. RamSat (so named because the school mascot is a ram) will launch as soon as next year and will use imaging data to determine forest coverage lost to wildfires.

Peter Thornton, a scientist from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, says it well.

“This is such an exciting opportunity for the students. They will now have the chance to design, build, carry out and own a satellite mission. They will be the mission scientists, the communication specialists, and the logistics experts. They will calculate orbits, learn to aim their satellite camera at selected targets on the ground, radio their commands to RamSat, and receive and interpret the digital data streams broadcast by RamSat, containing imagery and all the other important data gathered on-board.

“They’ll be working as a team to identify and solve problems, and they will be working with NASA professionals to integrate RamSat into the launch and deployment mission,” Thornton said. “I can’t think of a more exciting project to ignite the students’ curiosity and passion for science and engineering.”

It is very likely that the girls and boys working on this project will be able to answer the age-old question of first year Algebra students: “When will I ever use this stuff in real life?”

Robertsville Middle kids will be living it. Maybe Wamsutta will be next?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Why we thank our veterans

World War II Memorial

Just this week we celebrated Veteran’s Day, a very special one since it has been 100 years since the hostilities of World War I ended. The Armistice, a truce between Germany and the Allies, went into effect on the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month" of 1918.

Also this week we mourned the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of 9-10 November in 1938 when the Nazi persecution of Jews became violently physical. These two events, separated by a mere twenty years, are not unrelated.

The causes of World War I were many. The simplest, and best known, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary at the hands of a Serbian assassin. This was a tribal act driven by the desire of Serbia to take Bosnia and Herzogovina from Austria-Hungary as their native populations were all Slavic. This caused Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia, who had a mutual defense pact with Russia, the subsequent attack by which pulled Germany, who had their own pact with Austria-Hungary, into the conflict. But France had a defense pact with Russia, thus entering the fray. Germany attacked Belgium on the way to getting at France which caused Britain (who had a pact with both France and Belgium), and later the United States, to pile on. Japan opportunistically entered on the side of the Allies in order to claim German possessions in Asia. Italy, promised territory in secret negotiations, later entered on the side of the Allies.

To say it was complex is a vast understatement. WWI was to be the war to end all wars but we know how that worked out. Let’s take an abbreviated tour of the major chain of events since.

First, when WWI ended, Germany was permitted to accept a truce rather than surrender. This allowed her to retain a small standing army. More importantly, harsh reparation (repayment) terms were imposed, causing great hardship to the German peoples as the worldwide Great Depression unfolded. Conditions were ripe for a savior, and indeed, Adolph Hitler rose to power promising to return Germany to her former glory. Hitler’s Nazi party was racist and believed that their Aryan race was superior. To them, Jews, Romans, and Slavs were inferior and undesirable. This led, inevitably, to the Kristallnacht in 1938, the Holocaust that followed, and the state of Israel today.

World War II was predictable due to German and Japanese expansionism. The communist state of the Soviet Union (which formed during the interwar period – you were warned that this is abbreviated), first entered the conflict on the side of Germany but then was figuratively stabbed in the back by Hitler and switched alliance to the Allies. Our relationship with the Soviets was one of convenience, not shared values.

Then WWII was won, but this time Germany (and Japan) were required to surrender. Their leaders were deposed, governments disassembled, and they were occupied by Allied forces with the goal of building democratic institutions. That Japan and Germany are today peaceful, democratic, and rank as the world’s 3rd and 4th largest economies speaks to the grand success of this approach (in stark contrast to Iraq).

In the post-war years began the great struggle against communism, the Cold War.

In addition to the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s communist party revolted in 1947 and came into control of that country. (A vestige of free China exists in Taiwan. While China has risen to be the number two world economy, it has done so at the expense of repressive policies over its peoples in the most highly surveilled nation on earth.)

The Korean War was a dispute between the south (democratic) and the north (communist). China (openly) and the Soviet Union (covertly) lined up to support the north while the United Nations (mainly staffed by US forces), fought for the south. This conflict was the opening salvo in the Cold War and has not to this day been resolved.

The Vietnam War, which many misunderstand, was another major “hot” struggle of the Cold War, with China and the Soviet Union supporting the communist north and the United States the democratic south. Vietnam was an example of a political war with strategies and limitations set in Washington. The generals were not allowed to win the war and, even when we did win an enormous battle (such as the Tet Offensive and the Battle for Hue City), our domestic media presented it as a loss. When Americans were captured by the enemy, they were cursed and spat upon. When our military returned home, they were likewise cursed and spat upon. Those that did so had no grasp of history.

If there is one lesson, it is that the peace and prosperity of the world is largely due to America’s place in it. When we step back, the world becomes more dangerous. When we step forward, it becomes more safe. That is what you should really be thanking our veterans for.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Trouble With Bernie

“The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.”
Frédéric Bastiat, 1801-1850

Socialism has become de rigueur once again, accounting for the popularity of politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Several recent polls have shown young people, most particularly, open to socialist ideas. As summarized by CNBC, “According to a new poll from Gallup, young Americans are souring on capitalism. Less than half, 45 percent, view capitalism positively.”

This should come as no surprise. Support for socialist ideas is inversely related to one’s sense of confidence. That is, as people feel less confident in their ability to negotiate the world, their attraction to socialist ideas increases. And while the economy is booming (in spite of a currently volatile stock market), we are faced with great technology-driven disruptions. Artificial intelligence and automation are already devouring routine jobs and promise to consume even more. In the not too long run, Uber drivers and over-the-road truckers will be supplanted by robots.

In light of such uncertainties, it is reasonable for young people to ask “how will I support myself?” 

While learned professors have written millions of words detailing socialist concepts, let’s try to boil it down to the bare essentials: individual effort and private property.

Imagine a slide switch which, when moved fully to the left represents complete collectivism. In this extreme, there is no such thing as private property. The state, that is the collective, owns all assets and individuals own nothing. The result of one’s labor is added to the collective pool and you have no right to any part of it individually. Food, clothing, and shelter are doled out at as the collective wills.

Now we move the switch all the way to the right. This is complete individualism and represents no collective ownership of anything. All assets are completely owned by individuals and food, clothing, and shelter are acquired only to the extent that each individual can provide for themselves.

Now, each of these extremes is highly unlikely to ever exist as long as more than one human populates the planet. In fact, the switch hovers near the middle, perhaps a bit left in Scandinavian countries and a bit right in the United States, but all productive economies in the world both respect private property rights while providing collective support. Good examples of collective efforts include military defense, roadways, and certain government programs such as welfare and social security.

Another major aspect of the slider switch is this: when moved all the way to the left (collectivism), there is no incentive for individual effort. You may work as hard as you can or as little as you like and your personal outcome is the same. When the switch is all the way to the right, your survival is completely dependent on your individual effort and success – work or die.

Looping back to the increasing allure of socialism, young people, fearing for their future, want to nudge the switch to the left. They are willing to exchange opportunity for safety, liberty for security, achievement for guarantees. This is understandable as they have not yet grown confident of their own abilities.

But unfortunately, due to human nature, socialism reduces the incentive to excel. So while all can share in the collective pot, that pot itself will tend to suffer.

A good example of this is the early travails and then triumphs of the Pilgrims, as chronicled by Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower.”

“The fall of 1623 marked the end of Plymouth’s debilitating food shortages. For the last two planting seasons, the Pilgrims had grown crops communally – the approach first used at Jamestown and other English settlements. But as the disastrous harvest of the previous fall had shown, something drastic needed to be done.”

“In April, [William] Bradford had decided that each household should be assigned its own plot to cultivate, with the understanding that each family kept whatever it grew. The change in attitude was stunning. Families were now willing to work much harder than they had ever worked before. In previous years, the men had tended the fields while the women tended the children at home. ‘The women now went willingly into the field,’ Bradford wrote, ‘and took their little ones with them to set the corn.’ The Pilgrims had stumbled on the power of capitalism. Although the fortunes of the colony still teetered precariously in the years ahead, the inhabitants never again starved.”

A good lesson for us all.

Finally, regarding private property rights, remember that even ardent socialists lock their doors.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

5G is coming. Why you should care.

Imagine a cocktail party, a loud cacophony of sound permeating the room, booming music and shrieks of laughter. You are shouting at the top of your lungs to your distant better half while she is simultaneously whispering to you. Further, imagine that you understand her perfectly.

This unlikely bit of magic is the equivalent of 5G full duplex radio, where your cellphone will be transmitting and receiving on the same exact frequency at the same exact time. Today’s cell phones can transmit and receive at the same time, but only on different frequencies. This new technique effectively doubles the amount of information (voice or data) that can be carried by an allotted frequency spectrum, one of the significant promises of 5G.

5G is the fifth generation of cellular radio technology and is currently being phased in. It promises extremely high speed, very low latency (delay), increased data capacity, and energy savings among other advantages.

There are a number of new technologies required to support 5G. You will hear of New Radio (NR), millimeter wavelength, small cells, massive MIMO, beamforming, full duplex, M2M, and other cool stuff. But keep in mind, most of these are used to support the major performance objectives of high data rate and low latency. Let’s focus on them.

High 5G data rate offers an alternative to cable

5G has an achievable performance target of one gigabit per second. A traditional wired home cable WiFi connection of 100 megabits per seconds is considered extremely fast. 5G is at least 10 times faster which offers a very real alternative to traditional cable. Recent research in Australia revealed that one in three households there were interested in subscribing to 5G services to replace cable for internet access. Especially in new service areas, cellular radio access will be much more economic than fiber cable runs.

High 5G data rate will enable new cellular applications

Current 4G cellular commonly offers 10 megabits per second download, so 5G will increase that by a factor of 100. While such a huge performance increase is not required for reading email or updating Facebook, an entire new panoply of applications will be enabled. Think virtual reality and augmented reality. But then think further, beyond a human cellphone user, and consider server-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-vehicle communications of autonomous automobiles. This is the tip of the iceberg of new applications enabled by 5G’s extreme high performance. It is almost impossible to foresee the application landscape five or ten years hence.

Low 5G latency is good for gamers. Surgery, not so much.

Data rate describes the speed of a connection once data starts to flow. Think of a NASCAR racer going 200 mph. Latency, on the other hand, measures how long it takes that data to start flowing between the sender and the receiver. Think of how long it takes that NASCAR racer to get from zero to 200 mph.

5G promises to offer very low latency of one one-thousandth of a second (one millisecond). For PC gamers, this is a boon. Gamers like to experience their virtual environments as if they were unfolding in real time. Business users, similarly, want videoconferences to unfold smoothly.

You will hear claims that 5G low latency will aid a surgeon in New York to perform robotic surgery in San Francisco. That is balderdash. The propagation of a signal in a fiber backhaul network over 3,000 miles will add a minimum of 25 milliseconds to the connection, dwarfing any advantage of low 5G latency. No, latency is subject to the laws of physics, so to be of benefit, network nodes (servers, users, routers, etc.) must be in relatively close proximity.

Is 5G real?

Yes, 5G is real and is being rolled out now. Billions of dollars are being invested in research and infrastructure. One measure of this reality is the number of 5G patents filed, which is huge and growing.

Are there impediments?

Yes, there are impediments, mostly political. The federal government recently decreed that state and local authorities cannot slow-roll the approval of 5G base stations. 5G uses very high radio frequencies and thus the area serviced by each base station is relatively small. Therefore, there will be a large number of small base stations. Political impediments would be very costly.

Will I need a new phone?

Yes, but when you next upgrade to a new phone, it will most likely support 5G. Some already do. In the meanwhile, carriers will continue to support and expand current 4G networks.

Bottom line.

5G is new, heavily marketed, and subject to much hype. But it is real, significant, and will lead to applications we can’t currently envision. Let’s all smile, relax, and enjoy the ride.