A key battle for Net Neutrality

Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) placed a fake banner block on their site to call attention to their ongoing effort to defend Net Neutrality in light of efforts by Internet Service Providers to pressure the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) into allowing ISPs to filter the Internet as they see fit – and thus controlling what people can see, hear, and say.

Thanks to this nudge, I wrote a note to the FCC via the EFF’s form letter contact page. Here’s what I said:

Today, the Internet is the primary home of our Global Commons. The freedom and neutrality of the platform must be maintained because of the enormous value of an even playing field.

The United States tends to set digital precedents for the world. A staunch defense of human freedoms on the Internet will help shape a positive future for the world’s culture.

However, if we allow network operators to legally manipulate our access to the Global Commons, many avenues for abuse will be opened up. Providers have extremely strong incentives to push as hard as they possibly can to gain this power because it will garner them vast wealth and cultural influence. They will become arbiters of the broadest and deepest information streams humanity has ever assembled, giving them unprecedented control over what people can see, hear, and say.

I strongly urge the FCC to stand firm against attempts to rewrite our communications laws because in so doing they would be taking a significant step toward safeguarding the long-term integrity of our public communications networks.

Posted in Policy

West-facing solar panel post covered by The New York Times

I co-authored a blog post for the Opower blog entitled: 9% of solar homes are doing something utilities love. Will others follow?

The study was published today and was also covered today in some detail in the piece: Why More Solar Panels Should Be Facing West, Not South – The New York Times

Our findings indicate that the vast majority of solar panels are directed southwards today, but it would be advantageous for the grid if they were instead oriented westwards. Their late afternoon power production would be significantly greater and could thus help with the peak load that happens in the late afternoon / early evening.

Simple mechanisms, such as time-of-use (TOU) prices for solar power produced, could change the solar landscape dramatically. If it is economically advantageous for the grid to have west-facing panels, then it makes sense for utilities to set up incentives for their customers to behave accordingly. Aligning the desires of the grid with the desires of the owners of solar panels will make a more effective grid for everyone – especially now that we are heading into an era in which solar power will begin to have a large effect on the entire grid.

Posted in Economics, Energy, Policy

Design Regina Contribution

Design Regina is a thorough public consultation being conducted by the City of Regina in order to develop an official Community Plan. Recently, draft documents were posted which elucidated some priorities and goals which have been identified during the process so far.

The announcement page invited commentary from the public, so I teamed up with Steven Kuski and Kyle Laskowski to produce a set of responses to the draft goals (also available in pdf). While we agreed with much of the content of the existing goals, we felt that there were areas in which they could be expanded and elaborated.

Doing this work required me to look again at a lot of the research we had conducted during the Morph My City competition. I am very pleased with how diligent we were and the quality of work we produced. Hopefully we will continue to find ways to contribute to the ongoing discussion about Regina’s future. If any readers have ideas about how we might do so, I invite you to contact us about them.

Posted in Urban Planning Tagged with: , , ,

Confusing generalizability with truth

People tend to confuse generalizability with truth. For example, suppose a person believes that all people are innately driven only by self-interest, and that all prosocial actions that people take are born from pure self-interest. This belief could likely be used to frame any human behaviour, explaining it within the context of self-interest. A person might become convinced that this theory must be true because there are so many instances in which it appears to be a valid explanation for behaviour.

Let’s flip it around, and talk about a person who believes that all people are innately driven only by prosociality. In this theory, the apparent self-interest of humans is really just a guise for their deeply-rooted prosociality; perhaps they are making themselves more capable and powerful so that they can help people more, set an example that they think is good, or simply gain respect and admiration from others. Anyone who looks at the world through this frame will find that they can ‘explain’ essentially any human behaviour. Again, it is easy to think that the large number of different behaviours that this theory seems to be capable of explaining is an indication that it is true.

Clearly, these two views are mutually exclusive, so one or both needs to be incomplete or wrong. That might be our first hint that something is wrong with this approach to figuring out what is correct or true. A further example is the pair of divergent beliefs: that a) a transcendent God plans everything that happens in the world, and b) the universe is merely mechanistic interactions of particles and energy. Again, these explanations could be molded to fit with a vast array of experiences – perhaps all. Again, they are incompatible.

What is wrong with this approach? If something appears to fit with lots of different things that we know or have experienced, doesn’t that make it true?

No.

All that means is that this particular theory has failed to be falsified directly by what you have experienced – or at least those things you have applied it to. For example, the pure self-interest belief would have trouble explaining a seemingly selfless act. The pure prosociality belief would have some trouble explaining anti-social acts and hermits. Attempting to explain these things would be awkward and likely quite complicated – a sign that something is likely wrong.

If you find that you are able to explain any experience using your theory, you might become convinced that it must, therefore, be universally true. You have unlocked some sort of understanding that lets you understand the entire world.

To be frank, this is a very dangerous and very wrong belief.

If you can explain anything, then what do you actually know? If I ask you, what will happen in the future, A or B? Can you tell me with accuracy which one will happen (or even which one is more likely) if you are operating using a belief structure that can explain all outcomes? How can you discern between fact and fiction? If you can explain anything, how can you tell if I deliberately tell you wrong things?1

If your system of understanding the world can’t tell fact from fiction, you don’t know anything. If your beliefs don’t constrain anticipation, they don’t apply to the real world.2 To know whether beliefs are true, we must use them to make definite predictions and then test whether these predictions come true. However, we must also think of predictions that would indicate that our belief is wrong, and check for those as well. We must expose our theories to the threat of falsification.

If a belief or explanation makes definite predictions about the future and repeatedly survives our best efforts at falsification, we can consider it more likely to be true. If a theory has not been falsified, the degree to it has been exposed to efforts to falsify it is an indication of its ‘truth’. That is not to say that it is the truth but merely that it has been adequate in explaining something thus far.

To put this another way, it doesn’t really matter how many things seem to confirm your theory. What matters is:

  1. does it make definite predictions about the future which could be wrong, and
  2. does it survive repeated attempts at falsification, always turning up the right answer in every situation we can think of.

If you can answer yes to both of these questions, then you have a belief worth believing in.

  1. Making beliefs pay rent, Less Wrong. Retrieved 2013-03-07. []
  2. Making beliefs pay rent (in Anticipated Experiences), Less Wrong, Retrieved 2013-03-07. []
Posted in Rationality

The Wheel of Time, finally done

As of this last weekend, I finally finished The Wheel of Time series. I began reading the books around 1995, so this chapter of my life was roughly 18 years long. I feel different being done. In some sense, I grew up with these characters. For their story to be done, while mine is still in its first chapters (or at least still near the beginning of the series), feel unjust somehow.

Anyway.

What did I think? How do I feel about the ending? Would I recommend these books to anyone else?

I will answer the last of these three questions first, as the first two will entail something akin to spoilers. I will give fair warning before I say any spoilers.

Would I recommend these books to someone? It is possible that I would. Certain people have preferences that indicate that they would like this sort of fantasy series. This series features large numbers of characters, a fairly clear-cut division between good and evil, an exquisitely detailed world, wordy and deep descriptions of everything in the books, and a certain…cultivation of belligerent flair.

Why would I not recommend these books? They are very, very long (over 4 million words). Most of the books are very, very slow. I believe that there are entire ~1000 page books in this series in which one of the three main characters doesn’t even appear directly. Despite the large cast and many interesting characters, there is also a monotony to the characterizations, particularly of women.

I have read a lot of fiction, particularly fantasy fiction, so I think it is fair to say that I have preferred, on a word-for-word basis, the work of some other authors. If you are looking to read an interesting and fresh fantasy series, but are new to the genre, check out the Riftwar and Serpentwar sagas by Raymond E. Feist. If you are a seasoned veteran of reading fiction, particularly if you are alread well-read in epic fantasy, then I highly recommend Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Sure, it is almost as long as Robert Jordan’s (~3.3 million words), but it is worth it. The worlds he weaves are rich beyond anything I have seen elsewhere. His characters come alive more deeply than any I have seen. The only reason I don’t recommend Erikson without reservation is that the books can be quite dark, even to the point of sometimes brimming with tragedy.

Back to the discussion of The Wheel of Time.

Possible spoiler(s) alert!

What did I think? How do I feel about the books now?

I was rather surprised at how satisfied I felt by some aspects of the ending. It was like watching a master craftsman put together a machine of stunning complexity, part by part. As the last part clicked into place, the whole thing comes alive, completed.

That said, the ending felt abrupt. I am used to reading tens, even hundreds of thousands of words of aftermath of any significant event in this world. The very end of the last book simply…ended. Sure most of the major questions posed during the series had been answered, but at least one major mystery was opened up right at the end. I wonder, if Robert Jordan had survived to write the end of the series himself, whether he might have slipped in more nuggets about the aftermath for the most voracious of his readers. I feel like a petulant child cheated of a treat. He built a beautiful and complex world that has a vast future ahead of it – a future with such possibilities it strains my heart. But I needed to close the last book and reflect on the completion of this work of art.

I am still getting over it.

All in all, reading these books was good for me. I got a mighty dose of epic fantasy, tons of practical psychology, wagon loads of witty dialogue, a world to reminisce upon and explore with my mind’s eye, and – bloody buttered onions – a lot of hilarious curses that I can probably never use.

Posted in Fiction, Fun

Fictional Character Power Scale

Ever wondered who would win if Batman and Luke Skywalker got in a fight? How about Aragorn and Captain Jack Sparrow? If you have really immersed yourself in fiction, you might even have had conversations with friends about whether Ryu Hyabusa (Ninja Gaiden) could beat Dante (Devil May Cry).

My friends and I have had those conversations. Many of them.

Eventually we decided to create a power scale upon which one can place any character in fiction. Power Scale is the outcome of that discussion. We created an exponential power scale, from power level zero (0) to one hundred (100), upon which we placed many of the characters from fiction that we knew best. We regard the placement of the characters as something that can be refined through successive iterations of the scale. What we are proud of in this effort is our attempts to quantify concepts of ‘power’, when normal conceptions of power break down.

For example, what happens if Genie (Aladdin, etc.) tries to fulfill a wish to kill Goku (Dragon Ball [Z], etc.). How do we quantify who is more dangerous (or simply capable of winning more difficult battles)?

We were forced to confront the problem of infinities. What happens if a character has ‘infinite’ power (i.e. they can choose to do anything)? Are they automatically the maximum power level? Actually no, there is more to it than that. Can they do anything at any point in a timeline (i.e. are they outside of time)? Can they manifest an infinite variety of things at any given time? Are they aware of everything, at all times? Is it possible for them to not exist? Can they be hurt at all?

In order for a character to be max power level, they would need, in theory, to indeed have all of these. There are many levels of infinite power. For any mathematicians reading this, I think of it something like the cardinality of infinities given by the Aleph numbers. A set is Aleph-naught if it is countably infinite, i.e., if you counted one number after another for infinite time you could count all of the numbers. But if a set is Aleph-one, it is uncountably infinite, e.g., even if you spent infinite time counting all the real numbers between zero and one, you can’t count them all. In a similar fashion, overgods like UL (David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon) and Ao (Forgotten Realms) have greater purview – their universes are bigger – than Earth-centric gods of our mythologies like Odin (Norse), Ra (Egypt), Zeus (Greek), and Yahweh / Allah (Judeo-Christian-Islam). Regarding the assignment of power levels to gods, another of the useful metrics is what are the things this character is purported to have done according to the mythology from which they were born. This obviates a lot of the ‘infinities’ that people like to claim regarding our cultural mythology.

The development and slow refinement of this project has led to a large number of interesting conversations. Most conversations reflect the true intent of this project, to stretch our imaginations by considering the interactions of characters we feel we know. However, some conversations fall down into what we might call unwholesome fanboyism. Some people feel obligated to argue that a character, perhaps their favourite, should be higher on the power scale. They then often approach the conversation as a contest, trying to argue their character’s way to a higher power level. My friend and I are generally not that receptive to this approach. If there are genuine reasons to raise a character’s power level, sure, let’s hear them and they we can talk about how high they should go. It is very reasonable that we might have missed something, particularly if someone knows a character better than we do. However, logical fallacies and other failures in argument often creep up, even in something as innocuous as a discussion about fictional characters. Looking at it from this perspective, I feel stronger than ever that something like the power scale is an excellent place to practice our discussion skills. If we can’t discuss in an honest and decent fashion about fictional characters, then we are likely doomed to similar dishonesty and indecency if we try to discuss matters of real import.

You can find the scale at the Power Scale website. It is still in the process of being developed as of the time of this writing, but the comment system works already. For any of the characters with biography pages written, or any of the universes featured, you can add your comments already.

Posted in Fiction, Fun Tagged with:

How does insight work?

On my birthday in the year 2011, I came up with the idea of asking my friends to participate in what I called “Ben’s Birthday Insight Project“. The idea was what we should all allocate some minimal amount of time, perhaps 20 minutes per week, to deliberately nurturing our own insight. The idea would be to think about, and experiment with, different circumstances in which we feel insightful.

I found that my own insight was most clear and effective when I walked in a relaxed manner, ideally through a park or natural landscape. If I wanted to be insightful about a particular subject, I found it worked best to fill my head with all the facts, figures, and ideas that I could reasonably consume on the subject and then walk leisurely. Ideally I would be walking to or from a destination, so that the walk in of itself had purpose. I find that the feelings of “getting somewhere” and “making progress towards a goal” were valuable to have when thinking about difficult problems.

I am hoping in the next few weeks / months to reinvigorate this project, and my own personal research into insight. Stay tuned.

Posted in Uncategorized Tagged with: ,

Physics research

From Jan 2011 to Dec 2012, I was a Master’s student at the McGill Department of Physics. The two years I spent at McGill were nothing short of amazing. In addition to a lot of practical learning and fun, I was also involved in interesting research and had great teaching opportunities, I leaped at the opportunity of becoming involved in many other things around campus such as Sustainability efforts and the Badminton team.

As I write this, Jan 2013 is winding to a close. I have recently resumed meetings with my former Master’s supervisors. Why, you might ask, would I do that? Well, I have worked very hard on two major directions of research during the last two years. One of them involved, for the most part, relatively simply signal analysis programs that could in theory be picked up rather easily by anyone interested in the subject in the future. The other is much more complicated, involving many different aspects of analysis, and several thousand lines of computer code spread across dozens of different programs. While both of these were written up into my thesis, the second topic seems like it will be an excellent candidate for a publication.

A bit more effort from me now should allow this publication to proceed and give quantum dot scientists another useful tool for future work. So, in addition to looking around for jobs and opportunities, I am also continuing my physics work. Luckily for me, I have a wonderful partner who I can rely on during this transition time, so money isn’t as large of an issue as it would be otherwise.

So far, I thoroughly enjoy being something akin to a modern day gentleman scientist.

Posted in Physics Tagged with: , ,

Morph My City Competition

In 2012, the city of Regina announced a competition, which they called the Morph My City Challenge. Of the two sub-challenges, one involved the design of a new neighbourhood on the fringe of the city, and the other involved the transformation of an existing neighbourhood towards sustainability through the year 2040.

I gathered together and led a team through the creation of a detailed submission for the 2040 prize. In all, we spent roughly seven months working on the report, which we have now made available in its entirety. We were very pleased when we were selected to be one of the finalists in the competition.

The finals were a ten-minute live presentation at the 2012 National Infrastructure Summit which was hosted in Regina, Saskatchewan on Sept 10-12. Preparing for the presentation was a significant challenge for us, since our report was 114 pages long. We tried on many occasions to cut down the length of the document, but there was simply too much to say. Successive rounds of careful paring down took place, until we had a ten minute presentation that we were proud of.

Our presentation went well and we elicited some very positive comments from members of the audience and judging panel. The competition was fierce, however, and the prize went to the team led by Mitchell Reardon, with their entry entitled Rosemont: Smart, Green & Vibrant. By the time the competition concluded, we had spent a lot of time talking with the other competitors and had become fast friends. We consider all of them to be extremely thoughtful and capable individuals, and we were pleased to be able to spend some time with them.

It is clear that the different finalists had very different approaches to improving Regina throughout the next ~27 years. In this sense, we felt rather unique among the three finalists in our challenge, and indeed also different from the three finalists in the Greenfield challenge. We focused, ruthlessly, on solutions that were practical and feasible within the budget of the city and on the time frames available. Thus, our recommendations focus mainly on policy changes at the city level that can have far-reaching impacts on the sustainability, prosperity, and livability of the city. As we studied the problems and the many possible types of solutions, we looked for the longest levers; making the largest changes possible with the least effort / money.

Moving forward, we are trying to get the word out about our report and get it into the hands of the people who might find it the most useful. To that end, we are engaging some members of the public service and looking for interest among the general public. If any readers have suggestions on who to contact or other ideas for distribution, I would love to hear them, so you should contact me.

You can find a full copy of the report here: Transforming Regina: Planning for 2040 and beyond

Posted in Economics, Urban Planning Tagged with: , , ,
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