Author: iknowthemall

"Freaks my balance out..."

Can we talk about money?


I work in a building in NYC that has a lot of shiny stores full of expensive things. It often makes me shudder a little on the inside when I see the price of a scarf hanging on the window of one of these stores- in a lot of cases more money than my family made in a couple of months back in India. And we weren’t even poor, we were perfectly fine with a lot of comforts and a generally happy life. It often makes me think about how that one piece of clothing, probably made by a family not that different to mine back in the day, has more value to it than what can feed, house and transport around a family of four for a few months (believe it or not, we saved a big chunk of our income back then). What is it about that overused Burberry pattern or that LV logo that demands such an exorbitant price? That disconnect with the value of goods and their price is something I find difficult to wrap my head around.

Luxury goods make the point easy to carry across but they aren’t even the most egregious bastardization of the concept of money and value. They probably existed in the olden days without money as well, humans do have a tendency to attach a lot of value to symbols. What I want to talk about is a little different although it comes from the same line of thought: inequality.

As I was walking back home yesterday, I saw a man, around fifty years old, getting pinned to the ground by three guards and handcuffed. He had shoplifted. From one of the shiny stores, I presume. He was bleating all the while in a tone that was appealing to something more fundamental than the guy putting cuffs on him. He was going through some tough times he said. He was in a bad situation he said. He really needed some help, he said.

Whether what he was saying was true or not, let’s give in to the fantasy for a little while. Let’s believe him. And let’s add some average elements to his personality to round out the picture. He is a father of two kids, in their teens, his wife works as a barista at the local coffee shop. He himself got laid off a few months ago and construction jobs are getting harder to come by as he gets older. Why did he steal you ask? Maybe he was running out of money and thought of selling one of the shiny objects for a good value on Craigslist. Maybe his anniversary is coming up and he hasn’t done anything nice for his wife since he got laid off and has only been a burden and she would love to have a nice scarf.

He got arrested, he will get punished for this. Deservedly so, you may say, since stealing is a breach of a very essential trust that is critical for well functioning societies. But I can’t help but think that the punished we mete out to the guy would be very disproportionate. In fact, I know this. He will probably go to jail, await trial for a bit. His wife will need to pay to visit him, take time off, lose very badly needed money in the process. They might even need to dip into their nearly non-existent savings to fund a bail for him. He will get a public defender, who will ask him to plead guilty and try to get his sentence reduced to a year. Tough luck as he stole designer clothing. He tried to steal something that is actually the same value as any other piece of clothing, but since the price is magnitudes higher, he will go to prison for two years. He will work very hard there, but won’t be paid for it. A scarf will cost him two years. A scarf will cost his kids two years without a father in a very critical time in their life. A scarf will cost his family a 50% reduction in income, at least for two years, but most likely for a much longer time.

Let’s talk about another criminal. That man doesn’t do petty theft, he doesn’t need to. In fact, he shops at the scarf store the other man stole from. This criminal is an exec at Folkswagon, a company that makes cars for everyday people. This man helps installed cheat devices to under-report the emissions of millions of cars. This man is revered and worshiped as a savvy businessman and people ask him recipes for success. He eventually gets caught, buys the best defense attorneys who create a very big separation of agency between him and the decision and remove him from the line of fire. He pays a fine, a fraction of the money the thieves made out with and keeps on doing what he’s doing. He has indirectly caused multiple deaths, reduction in lifespans of people, irrevocable harm to the environment and quality of life of millions. He is wearing a Burberry scarf and is being chauffeured around in an Audi (an under-reporting one most likely) as we speak.

Why? What makes this possible?

A lot of things. But the one I want to talk about today and the one I feel is uniquely broken in the modern day is Money.

Money is intended to be a store of value, and it does a great job of that. It’s numerical, easy to keep track of, it’s objective, and if you live in a politically stable country, it has a good memory as well. It is one of the fundamental inventions that human society has progressed on the foundation of. However, it has one very critical flaw- there is no limit to how much one can accumulate.

A quick trip to a few thousand years ago would lead us to trades made mostly on the barter system. A sheep is worth five bags of rice although it fluctuates too wildly, depending on how much rain there was, which area you are living in etc. And no matter how rich one got, say you had tens of thousands of sheep, you would not trade them for rice, since rice would go bad after a while. You can try to monopolize commodities for a while and get things at a bargain, but you can never hoard enough compared to the Bezos, Buffett, Bill Gates, Koch, Robert Mercer of today.

The other critical differentiation is that in a barter economy you would necessarily need to produce something of value in order to get richer. Compare that to the billionaires now, most of them have gotten rich off of trading- betting on the direction of money in the stock market and being better at it than others and getting their money from them. The reason they are actually taking other people’s money is because the stock market grows at the rate of increase in productivity and that is the average rate of growth so if you have created an algorithm that allows you to get a higher than average return, you are necessarily decreasing the return of other investors especially if you play the game at the volume of billions of dollars. Robert Mercer, George Soros, Ray Dalio and Warren Buffett have contributed very little compared to what they have accumulated and all of that has actually taken from more deserving value creators. Right now, the ratio of the richest to the average has reached asymptotic values, bordering on meaninglessness.

The other feature that allows people to make such absurd amounts of money are the current job construct and regulatory capture. Wages have remained flat for decades for the middle class while the cost of living has continued to march on forward. Technology has allowed the privatization of profits and the democratization of cost, leading to an even more siphoning of wealth from the people who are the economy to corporations who make up a bastard index called the stock market which we are supposed to take up as the real economy. Economy isn’t how massive the corporations are, and even if it is then that is not the end goal. If economy is really judged by how rich company owners are, then a booming economy shouldn’t be the optimization function.

The function we should be optimizing for should be the average human comfort, average human happiness, the average human well being. More difficult to objectively assess, but money can be a good proxy, as long as it is performing the function it was originally designed for- storing the value one has produced. Corporations should be mandated to profit share, giving equities to every employee should be necessary. There is no cogent argument to say that Jeff Bezos alone is responsible for nearly 1/5th of everything Amazon does. There are tons of minimum wage workers who contribute to the profits of the company, but get paid nothing in return, they all should be receiving a fair share of the profits. We can argue about what is fair, but to say they don’t deserve any percentage of the profits is a disingenuous argument. Had they been given a share of profits, Amazon would have a lower valuation (assuming higher wages would result in lower growth), say half a trillion, and there would be a lot more middle class people who would have a better living situation right now. Jeff would still be worth billions, but the economy would be much richer due to amazon’s existence.

We are in a fairly precarious position, we haven’t realized but we are almost back to serfdom with a side of freedom chips. The power of democracy is weakening as greed takes over the governing and the powerful. This might be one of the last big hurdles that might stop humanity from ever becoming what we can- a Type I and beyond spacefaring civilization with boundless energy resources.

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Humanity’s problem: Time and its perception


We are at a crossroads, but I don’t know how long we have been here and how long we are going to stay here. And is it really a crossroads or are we water flowing through the veins of the Amazon basin?

Most children die within months of being born, and most mothers die in childbirth. If you survive your infancy, you might be welcomed by a whole host of horrible diseases that you don’t the name of, but know that most people who got it are dead. You blame it on the devil, you blame it on the heathen, you blame on the witches, you seeks answers that are easy. If you make it out of childhood alive, you are greeted with a life of agony and hardship, you have to exhaust your bones just to stay alive, and a lot of the people you love keep dying around you.

Grim picture I just painted, yet not an unfamiliar one. Most people know and understand that it was the way of life for people in the past. What most people don’t think about is what past really means. Let me rewind just a little and repaint that picture:

Most children die within months of being born, and most mothers die in childbirth. If you survive your infancy, you might be welcomed by a whole host of horrible diseases that you don’t know anything about. You don’t know how to articulate your thoughts, you are at the mercy of context. If you make it out of childhood alive, you are greeted with a life of agony and hardship, you have to fight the elements, outsiders and insiders alike just to stay alive, and a lot of the people you love keep dying around you.

There isn’t much of a difference between the two pictures, other than the fact that the first one could be applied to humans only, and the second one to any animal at all. It was our condition as well a little while back, but then we all know that we are just another animal. What most people don’t realize is how recent that animal is.

Humans in their general sense came to be around 2.5 million years ago. The man we recognize today, that happened around half a million years ago. And our civilizations, language, art, science, progress– all of that is less than 20000 years old. To put that in context, the “around” I used a couple sentences back, could contain all of very modern day humanity.

Now, I understand that progress is very much logarithmic rather than linear, and one breakthrough provides a stable base for a wider range of breakthroughs. However, progress is also volatile, it isn’t a monotonically increasing curve, it sometimes has little bumps that set it back, sometimes massive ones. And although those bumps look like a tiny time on a million year scale (and they are), from a human lifetime perspective, they are entire eternities.

The reason I talk about this is because I want to understand and reframe the notion of progress through this lens. There are clearly nations, races and ethnicities that are in general more developed compared to others. The problem is that we often mistake the reason behind this progress to something that is intrinsic rather than just a super tiny setback on the gargantuan scale of humanity’s evolution- we are quick to attribute this to genetic, ethnic, cultural or racial superiority despite tons of literature showing that such claims are ambiguous at best and completely incorrect in general.

If we were to look at how far behind Africa is compared to say India, the difference at most would be half a century. And I would say it is the same if you compare India to the US or OECD. Even if you were to completely forget the recent historical context and not rely on that to explain the differences in development, 50 years is pretty much a rounding error on the scale we just described, even if we consider logarithmic progress.

Humans have a hard time understanding timescales that far exceed their lifespans, and slow moving changes are often not even considered changes by your average human (think global warming). Humanity’s progress towards a longer healthier happier life is one such change as well, although there has been a crazy amount of improvement in the last century (freely available and usable energy seems to be the key). This accelerated growth makes the progress look distorted, like viewing a car race through a wide angle lens or looking in your rear view mirror.

What is comforting is that through the same chain of logic, I can convince myself that our alarm at inequality and injustice that seems to be on the rise in the world right now is also not warranted, as this fear stems from nothing but a temporary blip, one so small that history might not even remember it on the perfectly zoomed out curve that would be the progress of humanity in the last “few” years.

Let’s hope that this reads well 10 years from now.

Lionel Messi’s toughest opponents


I wanted to see which opponents have given Messi the toughest time when it comes to actually winning against, but surprisingly, the data wasn’t easy to find. So I compiled match by match results and put them together in, hopefully, easy to read charts.

MessiWinDraw09-17_withscored

Clearly, his biggest nemesis has been Real Madrid, although he has still won more than he has lost against them. Bayern Munich is the only team that has a >50% winrate against Messi, which is pretty incredible. Chelsea (or Hercules, but they have only two matches) is the next worst opponent with a split score. I was obviously expecting dominance, but not this massive.

The other surprising find (to non La Liga watchers) was Real Sociedad, which has been Barcelona’s away curse for a long time. Malaga was the other surprising team.

I also looked at how many games he had scored in against each of the opponents, to add another dimension of his contributions. His wins and games that he scores in are highly correlated (0.43), and the games that he doesn’t score in is negatively correlated with his wins (-0.28). Now, obviously, this doesn’t split cause and effect, but I am sure there isn’t any other Barca player with a higher negative correlation.

With Argentina, the data is much more sparse and way less meaningful, but here it is:

MessiWinDraw09-17_withscored_argt

That’s pretty much it, but here is something that aggregated stats don’t show. Enjoy!

 

A New Nomenclature for Religions


I feel like I am not the only one to whom it was a surprise that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are derivatives of the same book. There are overlapping characters and storylines and the basic tenets are pretty much the same. What is different is who the agreed prophets are (if any) and nuances in tradition etc. And in the same vein, I am often quite confused by what the different denominations of Christianity are and how do they differ from one another, think Lutheran vs Catholics. One can obviously look it up, but who has the time to read up the differences between various groups that are not directly impacting their life at the moment but may be important to understand the context of a situation a little removed (like why ISIS kills some Muslims but not the others).

One of the ways we can alleviate some of this confusion and actually bring the religions closer and improve empathy between them is a proper nomenclature. I propose we introduce some version control in religious names (that can exist in parallel with common names).

I propose a naming convention that is something like software names, so M_Abraham 1.0.1 etc.

The factors that would be important is

  • whether it is polytheistic or monotheistic (P_ or M_)
  • the source and character overlaps, and that would determine the basic name (e.g. Abraham vs Hinduism)
  • the main version number should then depend on
    • timeline around which the religion was founded (so Judaism is 1, Christianity is 2, Islam is 3 etc.)
    • and it should be incremented only given a certain share of population and ideological separation from another offshoot (so Catholics and Protestants should still fall under 2 even though they have enough numbers to be different religions, but Islam disagrees on the main prophet so it should be 3)
  • the sub-version numbers should depend on the same factors as the main version, but add a level of granularity to the original
    • Catholics could now be M_Abraham 2.1, while Protestants can be M_Abraham 2.2 and so on (I may have missed some other important branches)

Now I understand for a lot of religions this system may be a little complicated to fill, but I would leave that to people who understand religions much better than me, the theologians or whoever studies this kind of stuff.

I think this system will help bridge some really acerbic divisions that are now established between the religions and help with the understanding of each one of them. For a person coming from Hinduism, it would not be very challenging now to understand at a basic level what the difference between Sunni and Shia is if we refer to them as M_Abraham 3.1 and M_Abraham 3.2. And similarly it would help the people within those religions identify the ideological proximity that they have to each other.

The Only Way to Know


It is ironic that I had completely forgotten that I had already read Funes the Memorious, an incredible story of a man who acquires a perfect memory after a fall, before I stumbled upon it in another text I was reading, and re-read it. Funes, rather than being empowered by his perfect memory, becomes inundated with extremely precise details of trivial information and is tormented by it. The author then postulates that Funes wasn’t quite capable of thought, despite his perfect and infallible memory, because “to think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions”. It is an extremely rich story, and it had me wandering in different directions of thought.

Internet and Information organization
We, as a species, have recently arrived at a stage where we are generating records upon records of information, and most of it is getting stored somewhere- on the cloud, on our phones, in Hard Drives that no one ever touches. It has come to a point where the information stored in our heads is actually the most at risk of being the most corrupted source of information. We can draw an analogy here and think of the Internet as Funes, with a gargantuan memory, ever increasing, ever trivial.
If Borges is right about the nature of thought, then the Internet is also incapable of thought, because most of the information on the interwebs is unorganized and unconnected. There have been, to be fair, attempts to organize and link information through Wikis, but that fails at the other critical juncture- of making abstractions. We are still reliant on the human mind to supply the abstractions, and then consume more memory to describe and link those abstractions. These things may change with inferential statistical models, and only then can we surely say that we have created a fully automated conscious, the next logical step in human evolution (assuming we meet our energy demands sustainably).
In its current form, however, the internet is unwieldy for most humans who don’t have the patience or the time to draw their own detailed abstractions. That leads to a pattern of information consumption that is quite often incomplete and in a way, more mendacious than not knowing. Since the internet (think of reddit forums as an abstract reduction of the internet) is also quite democratic and self moderated, the information in it hovers around an equilibrium state of usefulness- too much moderation and you lose diversity, too little and you have a chaotic mess of trivia. As long as the guiding principle is the civil pursuit of truth with a little bit of humor thrown in here and there, the equilibrium is stable, and quite frankly, magical. The moment either the balance of moderation or the guiding principles go out of whack, the equilibrium goes out of whack and starts churning out vile garbage and misinformation.
This principle of information organization can also be applied to managing teams and companies, where you have to allow a healthy balance between structure and chaos to generate optimal growth and results.

The Infinite Nature of Memory
We would always need infinite memory to capture all the information in the world. Imagine that every memory is a discrete unit. So there would be say, X units, of information in the universe. Now we need another unit to capture the fact that there are X units of information, leading to an unending positive loop. As usual, we can invoke a bigger infinity to capture the essence of this infinity, but then we go into a different kind of loop. There seems to be no theoretical upper bound to the information in the universe, as gleaned from this silly little thought experiment. I may be making an error in my reasoning, so let me know if you have any thoughts on the matter.

The Only Way to Know
It thus seems like the only way to “know” something is to compress the information into usable bites, meshed tightly with other useful bites, infinitely detailed, like a fractal pattern, and yet perfectly cohesive, like its seed patterns. Or like how a few basic laws of physics allow you to explain and predict extremely complicated phenomena, with the zoom level determining the complexity and the scale of the problem. Explain a car moving on a highway as a rolling object and it is a perfectly workable solution, but get into the details of the exact path, down to the smallest picometer, the center of mass of the car takes, and you get an infinitely detailed problem, still approachable by the same set of rules, yet with a much higher computational load.
And that reduction of the world into a comprehensible set of rules is what science is, and that is quite exhilarating.

The Cost of Cowardice


Alternate title: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I am a fairly risk averse person, which often leads me to making sub-optimal decisions and living in a little bit of regret. I also try to be as rational as possible, which leads me to analyze every little or big decision that I want to make, and in most cases eventually arrive at a good understanding of my choices. This then devolves into a self harassment because I am unable to take the riskier routes, even if they overshoot in the Expected Value department.

This can have pretty serious long term consequences, depending on the decision type. Let’s take two seemingly unconnected examples to drive home the point.

A. Relationships
Relationships are tough. They are difficult systems to analyze because you are both the observer and the observed, and your observations will affect the system you are trying to rationally figure out. So when trying to do fault analysis on your own relationship, you have to be aware of the fact that any reflexive process will only lead you to an incomplete truth. That does not mean that honest analysis of such a situation is useless, it only means that the inherent uncertainty associated with whatever conclusions you make can throw off your confidence and lead to a lot of second guessing (in a lot of cases, it should).
Let’s say you analyze the issues in your relationship and arrive at some reasonable conclusions that seem to be holding up in both back and forward time testing. In a lot of cases, the conclusions you arrive at will have you facing some tough choices, like ending a relationship, or changing important things about it, and/or having some difficult conversations.
In such cases, what do you do? The optimal choice is in front of you, but there is hesitation in your mind because you are not totally certain (and you’ll never be) of the quality of your decision. And since it is a difficult conversation to have, you chicken out. The cost of prolonging such decisions are two fold:
a. you stay miserable and the issues never get solved, and usually the pain only intensifies with time (compounded pain, we can call it)
b. in case you have arrived at an incorrect conclusion, there is very little correction that you can do unless you get more information. The best way to get more information in a dynamic two (usually) people system is to confront the other person and get them involved in the process as well

B. Finance
The other case is money. Money is a tricky beast, you never know if you have too little, too much, just right, but the one thing that’s certain is that you would always like more (assume no change in effort). Money is also the place where you get one of the most objective feedback of your decisions- you will have very little if you are not making or saving enough. You can also veer off in the other direction where you are stashing way too much and not putting it to proper use and still living like a poor person with no way of ever attaining full financial freedom (where you don’t need to work for money because your money makes enough money for you).
In my case, it took me way too long to get the courage to move my money from a shitty 0% yield savings account to a mix between investing and deposit in a high yield savings.
The costs are clear, because with investing, the most important thing is time. The more time you give your money to grow, the more it will grow (compounded gain, as many call it). Again, the fear of the unknown, even though it is well documented to be the better choice, leads you to sub-optimal decisions that cost you real money in the long term. It can be massive amounts, a couple year’s wait can cost you as much as 50% of what you didn’t invest in that time (over 30 years).

(Shameless advertising alert:
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)

Where do we go now but nowhere?
Once I realized that I had been falling into this trap over and over again, I had to figure out a way to escape it. My solution isn’t ingenious in any way, but it doesn’t have to be. The thing is that I only have to perform better than the significantly worse things that I just described above. It would be great to perform much better though, and I have devised a plan for that as well.

The solution is borrowed from most desensitization practices. The idea is to slowly expose yourself to what you are afraid of in minute quantities at first, and then slowly increase the exposure. So if you are afraid to talk about a touchy personality flaw of the person you are in a relationship with, try slowly introducing them to the idea by occasionally pointing it out in the context of other relationships or your own. If they are receptive, it can be over with before you even realize. In case of money, start by saving a fixed small amount over your current saving every month if you can. If your problem is lack of investing, try investing small amounts at the beginning with tools like Acorns, Wealthfront or Betterment. Over time, as you get comfortable, increase both the frequency and the amounts.

Where you can really accelerate into hyperdrive is to draw parallels between these seemingly different situations and accelerate the rate of your desensitization by not only having a regular speed of increased exposure, but a regular speed at which you increase the speed too. You will realize that you will gain confidence to take more risky bets (with higher Expected Value) in general and that will result in you wasting less time in other spheres. If this connect isn’t drawn, you will be “reinventing the wheel” (definitely the most cringe worthy cliche phrase uttered on this blog) every time.
When you realize that there isn’t much to lose when you invest in the markets for example, and the only thing that is preventing you from taking that step is a fear/dread/aversion of the unknown, you realize that the same thing is preventing you from asking out that cute barista who always seems to be super nice to you, and you can only come to the conclusion that life can only get better if risks with low downside and high upside are embraced.

Go. Do.

Citibike: Analyze yourself!


In the 5 years that I have lived in NYC, the biggest improvement anything’s made to my quality of life has been Citibike. I like being on wheels, I like being energy efficient, I like the wind in my face, I like my freedom of commute (a regular bike binds itself to you), and I like that it saves my trip data! I like to think I am a Fastridahhh, but we are not always what we think we are. So by baselining myself against this analysis, I wanted to see where I actually truly lie.

The task was simple, get the lat/long of my start and end citibike stations, use Google Distance Matrix API to figure out the biking distance between the two locations, use the time from my citibike data, and get my average speed and see how it changes with distance etc.

Once the stew was cooked, the results were fairly interesting.
My average speed was 13.7 kmph (8.5 mph), but I have done no outlier removal or anything because lazy. The median was pretty much exactly the same as average (13.56 kmph), indicating an even distro. This was a little disappointing frankly, I was only slightly faster than the overall average according to the wider analysis (8.3 mph) and my self image rightly got punched back into its place. I can make up excuses for why it is slower than I feel I ride at, but that is just being dishonest (I have already thought of three, including shifting the blame on someone else).

Most of my trips are short distances that are annoying to walk (1-2 km), with nearly 50% falling in that range, the rest are equally distributed across the other buckets.

Distance Range # Trips Average time (min) Average Speed
0 to 0.5K 8% 1.53 8.24
0.5K to 1K 21% 3.87 11.90
1K to 2K 48% 5.89 13.09
2K to 5K 22% 11.31 14.15
Greater than 5K 1% 16.12 18.84
Grand Total 100% 6.38 13.36

I also wanted to look at how speed varies with distance, as you would expect it to be highly correlated (they were, with a correlation coefficient of 0.4). But I also created a polynomial best fit line with an order of two (anything higher is just overfitting and the data seems to follow a parabolic pattern rather than linear). The R-squared sits nicely (for such unclean data with so few datapoints, especially for higher distances) at 0.265, which vindicates my hunch about it being a parabolic curve. Here’s the pretty chart for your pretty eyes to peruse:

Speed v Distance

If you want to do it too:
Please do, and let me know what your results look like.

Getting the lat/longs:
Surprisingly, Citibike doesn’t have any place that you can get the lat/longs of stations from unless you distill it from their trip data. So I did that. And here’s the file for all you guys (updated till March 2017, includes Jersey City citibike locations)
Citibike Stations Lat Long

Using the Google Distance Matrix API:
I prefer Excel for small analysis, so wanted to write a VBA code that would get me the distance between two lat/long pairs. Here’s what I made, with a little help from my friends over at StackOverflow given that I don’t really know VBA. You can create a new module, paste this code there save it, and then use the function called getDist to get the distance between the lat/long of the locations (which you’ll need to vlookup from the station lat/long map that I shared earlier)

(WordPress is being a prick and not letting me format this properly, so please insert tabs at appropriate places)


Public Function getDist(orig_lat As Double, orig_Double As Double, end_lat As Double, end_long As Double) As String

Dim xhrRequest As XMLHTTP60
Dim domDoc As DOMDocument60
Dim domDoc2 As DOMDocument60
Dim nodes As IXMLDOMNodeList
Dim node As IXMLDOMNode

'You must acquire a google api key and enter it here
Dim googleKey As String
googleKey = "XXX" 'your api key here

'Send a "GET" request for place/textsearch
Set xhrRequest = New XMLHTTP60

Dim requrl As String
requrl = "https://maps.googleapis.com/maps/api/distancematrix/xml?origins=" & orig_lat & "," & orig_Double & _
"&destinations=" & end_lat & "," & end_long & "&mode=bicycling" & "&key=" & googleKey

xhrRequest.Open "GET", requrl
xhrRequest.send

'Save the response into a document
Set domDoc = New DOMDocument60
domDoc.LoadXML xhrRequest.responseText

'Find the first node that is called "distance" and is the child of the "result" node. The SelectSingleNode will pick the first result, as google can return multiple options
Set ixnlDistanceNodes = domDoc.SelectSingleNode("//distance/value")

If Not ixnlDistanceNodes Is Nothing Then
getDist = ixnlDistanceNodes.Text
Else
getDist = -1
End If

Set domDoc = Nothing
Set xhrRequest = Nothing

End Function

Footnotes on Soros


Reflexivity refers to the fact that if the investigators (tasked with finding the “truth”) of a system are part of the system, then their beliefs and learnings modify the system and alter the truth. Thus, the truth keeps moving out of reach and will always be unknowable. It is a practical formulation of the problem of understanding human societies because as we learn more about ourselves, new problems arise from the new learnings rendering the learnings overextended and failed. Unlike scientific theories, which have falsibility, social theories are inherently infalsifiable as they themselves introduce a bias in the system.

I think the theory can also be understood as a linear spectrum of the strength of influence the observations from the observers wield on the observed. On the one end of the spectrum you would have people trying to understand themselves, with their own observations about themselves altering their nature so significantly as to render their earlier observations incorrect; and on the other you have people observing the positions of the sun and the moon where the influence those observations wield on the participants of the study are miniscule, leaving the theory valid for longer. Note how I mention the theory is valid for longer. This is because if you imagine a scenario where humans learn enough about gravity to learn how to alter it on an astronomical scale, the prevailing theory would no longer be valid, and would thus be overextended.

Political and financial systems lie somewhere in the middle, with a lot of indeterminacy baked in merely because the observations of the participants would change the dynamics of the systems. Like Trump lying about Obama’s birthplace, or Bush lying about WMDs in Iraq, the manipulators influence reality in a significant way. In a lot of these cases, manipulation of reality is unintentional, but in a fair amount of cases, the manipulator seeks to pursue power more successfully by modifying reality. But due to the innate indeterminacy baked into the system, the reality that they seek to achieve may not arise at all, and the system can digress into a scenario that doesn’t serve its own creator.

In a case of unknown realities, how are we to identify if there is a real truth and its plausibility? I think the answer lies in thinking of this dynamic system as a system of infinite feedback loops and multivariate interactions. The best we can hope to achieve is a system that is internally consistent, and maximizes a function whose value can be as objectively determined as possible. Lowering worldwide deaths, for example, can be a good function to maximize when we are dealing with systems that aim to serve as the guiding principles. Obviously, it’s too simplistic, but it presents a framework within which we can try and make a system that has an internal structure at least. At the same time however, we need to be very cautious of the limits of such a paradigm when it comes to, say, improving human lives, as these things can get overextended really quickly. Communism sounds like a pretty sane theory, but if you establish it as the only version of truth then it can quickly devolve into something that no one intended. At the same time, pluralistic viewpoints can also lead to democracies of misinformation where opinions take priority over facts.

I decided to add some feedback loops to help easily visualize the cases I am talking about.
1. A market in equilibrium
This is oversimplified, as in a lot of genuine cases the loop should be positive feedback, but there was no simple system I could design on the website to show that. Ideally a check condition that would change value based on the disparity between value (reality) and price (assessment of reality). This check condition clearly assumes perfect knowledge, which as discussed, is unattainable in observer as participants systems.

2. A system with emotions interfering to dictate the prices can lead to unstable equilibrium affecting both the reality (value) and price (the assessment of the reality)
Any trigger throws this system out of whack. This is obviously not what happens in financial markets in most cases otherwise the system would be totally dysfunctional. This is a system based mostly on feelings (assessment) rather than reality. This does, however, happen every once in a while or on smaller scales, and value and price go out of whack and influence each other in weird ways.

Will edit as I think about it more. It may even be juvenile in hindsight, but that is the comfort reflexivity allows us. The past is real, and we can be objective about it, but the present and future are wholly uncertain, with a lot of room for maneuvering.

Rage


There are things I cannot influence in any meaningful way that occupy my mind to a troubling degree: how a moron in the government just cut off funding to the EPA, how no one is worried about climate change enough, why people don’t realize that bidets are a much superior option to toilet paper for cleaning butts, why solar stocks are constantly undervalued, why is marriage such a big decision etc. This noise occurs because there are some things I care about deeply and any overarching challenges to those things go directly to my head. I cannot do a single thing about it, so a strange frustration and rage swells up and I feel a lot of blood rushing to my head.

I call it a strange frustration because it feels like I am in a Kafka novel, where things happen to me that affect me immensely and yet I have no recourse but to go on and deal with the situation. There is no deliberate assessment of the situation, there is no choice, there is no escape, there is only time which moves in only one direction, and I feel like I am in a river, drowning, but not dying, just suffocating, all the while moving forward. The rage is impotent, it burns hard but destroys nothing other than me.

It bothers me, and I begin to wonder what it means- have I lost the ability to deal with adversity? have I forgotten where I’m coming from? have I had my fill of the rain and I don’t want to get wet again? have I become so trapped in my own risk averse mediocrity that I don’t dare to do anything about my situation? have things really gotten so bad? were they not always this bad? how did I deal with them then? was I just ignorant? what good is this awareness doing to me? how do I become ignorant again? or how do I become hopeful again? have I lost the ability to take low risk high stake decisions when all I admire in a person is a fearless rationality? how do I get it back? The walls seem to be closing around me, and I feel like this bottle will pop anytime now. But it never does. Instead of being the bottle of soda I imagine myself to be, I think I am a chewing gum, thoroughly malleable, infinitely amenable, infinitely crushable.

I have always written whenever I felt a lack, because that is where my writing comes from. I feel a strong lack again, surrounded by a dense fog of uncertainty and confusion. Only this time, the problem I am dealing with has no form- it is a cacophony of conflicts calling for my help to be resolved, calling for me to identify little ghosts in a noisy signal, and then to wager irreversible decisions based on those ghosts.

Like always, I may have meandered…

But like always, the meandering has helped me understand where the lack is. In a small way possibly, but these little clicks on the keyboard allowed for a fleeting reflection on a pool of thoughts that is unusually murky in my head.

When you take a long time off from biking, you are unsure of yourself in traffic. And I think that is what is happening to me. Gone soft, like they say. The only way to be comfortable again is to take out that rusty bike, oil it up, and start riding.

See you around the corner, Pandit.

Thoughts after the 2016 US Elections


Smugness of Liberals

There are a lot of people who understand that there is way too quick a pronouncement of someone as a racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe if one even raises (sometimes genuine) concerns about the dismantling of status quo in each of these respective categories. Sam Harris shares this viewpoint, and a lot of academics would agree that there are certain types of research that you just can’t do these days and even if you did it and found something that goes against the egalitarian view of the world that non-scientific liberals have, you will be rather immediately put under fire. Research showing, for example, that men tend to have better spatial awareness than women and that there are genuine differences between genders. What most of fail to understand in the resulting hysteria of these results is that pointing out differences doesn’t imply discrimination, and that in some cases, going against nature to force fit a 50/50 gender ratio in some occupations can be counterproductive and actually discriminatory. And the feeling of being discriminated against, even though you are the majority, gets manifested in seemingly extreme ways through organizations like the Men’s Rights Activists etc. They have a lot of genuine points, but since the nature of such organizations attracts some actual bigots (who like in every situation scream the loudest), the whole movement gets discredited and maligned, and anyone taking their side on any issue leads to tons of strawman attacks.

Now, a few people have started to understand this, because each of us is a majority in one aspect or the other and we also tend to cry foul when we feel discriminated against in that sphere. Instead, I have been seeing a plethora of articles on NYT and other “liberal” sites that are now focusing on “understanding” the other group, understanding Trump supporters in this case. What they don’t realize is that there is again an implicit moral superiority that gets presented by taking such a position: conservatives aren’t 10 year olds with autism that have trouble expressing themselves. In a lot of cases, they are rich, educated, and have a lot of media to be heard. What is needed is a love for the truth, not a love for the “other side”. What is needed is a clearer understanding of complicated things and letting go of snap judgements and easy labels. 29% Hispanics supported Trump, more NYCzens voted for Trump than did for Romney, so clearly there is quite a variety of flavors that  makes up Trump supporters, and clumping them into labels like xenophobe, racists, idiots, rednecks, only serves to misunderstand them more. As a kicker, Michigan had more people voting for Obama (even in White counties) than had for Clinton. I feel what angered them was not the fact that she was a woman, but the fact that she refused to even address their problems head on. She only ever appealed to minorities and women. Not once did she acknowledge that letting immigrants in is a complicated topic and not a John Oliver video without repercussions, even though I am sure that a woman as smart and with as much experience as her will totally understand it. I would love to live in a world without borders and petty differences based on where you were born, but sadly that is the world we live in and moving away from it too suddenly creates a backlash.

So, in summary, fuck your feelings and fuck your beliefs, whether you are Bill Maher, John Oliver, Sean Hannity, or whoever. What matters is an understanding of the situation based on data, and having the highest resolution picture possible. Forming opinions based on the most relevant and scientific data possible, and then being open to having those opinions be questioned rigorously and sometimes crudely. Science advocates for a simple method to analyze the most complex of situations, but that does not necessarily result in the simplest possible answer, especially in dynamic system like humanity where there are tons of variables, some with a teeny tiny correlations and some with a lot of it. The best possible way to empathize is to understand, and the best possible method to understand is the scientific method.

Who’s the biggest victim here?

I still can’t believe US chose one of its top idiots to run the country, who will clearly assemble a team of choice idiots. But what I am more interested in now is understanding the areas that it will set us back the most. This article helps a little, but since no one understands how strong a resolve republicans have to move the country backwards, I am not sure if it will actually take more or less time to make these changes. One thing that is for certain, and the most frightening, is that climate is going to suffer terribly. The US hardly does enough to migrate to cleaner sources of energy, and it is something I don’t think I understand why. It will only create more jobs, can involve a lot of semi-skilled laborers and is only going to make electricity cheaper in the (slightly) long run. As of now, solar is cheaper than coal anyway, and there are plenty of great solutions to move away from the grid. The only reason I understand is that there is a strong lobby from companies who don’t want the energy mix to shift to areas that they don’t have much expertise in.

Social change anyway is slow and helical, so I am not too worried if gay and women rights get set back by a couple of decades, it is a smaller price to pay compared to what is going to happen to life on Earth in the case of irreversible CO2 increase. Yet this is the most difficult to foresee issue here (despite scary evidence getting ever closer), and will probably face the least amount of resistance. I hope people lead the government here by creating a market that has no choice but to migrate to more sustainable sources of energy because that is what sells. In other words, please save us, Elon. But people have repeatedly been shown to be utterly hopeless, myopic and resistive.

What can you do? Or will you please do this at least?

If you live in a house that is completely your own, can you please invest some money in getting a solar roof? Even more importantly, if you are planning to renovate a roof, go for solar. If you are planning to replace your car or buy a new one, can you go electric? There are plenty of great options: Tesla, Leaf, or even Prius. Read this blog to understand how by making simple tweaks to your life, you can actually increase your happiness, financial and actual health, all the while being a less mendacious version of yourself for the environment. Spend a little money for your kids and the kids of the parents who can’t afford to, instead of (or in addition to) giving them frivolous things like piano lessons, cookies and love, give them a sustainable future.