Catch-22 of our era

The screen on my wife’s iPhone was shattered this week and she had not backed up the photos. The phone seems to still be functioning otherwise so we plugged it into the computer to try to back it up but it requires us to unlock the phone and we can’t enter in the password. My wife refused to pay the 99 cents or whatever Apple charges to increase the disk space for iCloud to automatically back up the phone, so I suggested we just pay the ransom money and then the phone will back up automatically. I currently pay both Apple and Dropbox extortion money. However, since she hadn’t logged onto iCloud in maybe ever, it sent a code to her phone under the two-factor authentication scheme to type in to the website, but of course we can’t see it on her broken screen so that idea is done. We called Apple and they said you could try to change the number on her iCloud account to my phone but that was two days ago and they haven’t complied. So my wife gave up and tried to order a new phone. Under the new system of her university, which provides her phone, she can get a phone if she logs onto this site to request it. The site requires VPN and in order to get VPN she needs to, you guessed it, type in a code sent to her phone. So you need a functioning phone to order a new phone. Basically, tech products are not very good. Software still kind of sucks and is not really improving. My Apple Mac is much worse now than it was 10 years ago. I still have trouble projecting stuff on a screen. I will never get into a self driving car made by any tech company. I’ll wait for Toyota to make one; my (Japanese) car always works (my Audi was terrible).


Mosquito update

IMG_2917It’s been about two weeks since I first set out my bucket, although I had to move it to a less obtrusive location. Still no signs of mosquito larvae, although judging from my bite frequency even with mosquito repellant, mosquito activity is still high in my garden. I see the occasional insect trapped (they are not really floating since at their size water is highly viscous) in the surface and there is a nice collection of plant debris at the bottom. The water level seems a little bit higher. It has rained at least once every two days since my first post although it has also been very hot so the input seems mostly balanced by the evaporative loss. I’m starting to believe that mosquitos have their prefered gestation grounds that they perpetually use and only exploit new locales when necessary.

The mosquito experiment

This month, Baltimore, along with much of the mid-Atlantic has been inundated with rain.  It was already the rainiest July on record as of last week. My yard has also been infested with mosquitos this summer. It was a very wet early summer, then it was extremely hot and dry for two weeks before the most recent deluge. Supposedly, mosquitos will breed in any amount of stagnant water. I thus decided to do an experiment to see how long it takes for a mosquito to find a suitable pool of water and go through a life cycle.  I started this on a whim by putting out some buckets a week ago.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t serious at first and didn’t record the exact date but I think it was Friday, July 20, which was right before the epic rains started. Below is a photo of my two buckets.  As you can see, one is filled to the brim and it is a pretty big bucket.  I haven’t measured the height yet but it looks like it is around 30 cm.  You can see a presumably dead mosquito floating in the orange bucket.  On the bottom, along with plant debris, are what I believe to be egg sacks, which look like 1 cm long beads on a string. The eggs are on the bottom and not floating, which is what I thought they were supposed to do. Maybe they are failures but we will see. There are also some other smaller insects and ants floating or trapped in the surface of the water.  I don’t see any larvae yet. The water was pretty clear as of Thursday of last week so it took about a week for the mosquitos to find the water.  That gives you a time window for how long you have before you should empty out any trapped water.  I plan to run this experiment until the larvae pupate and then I’ll end it before they become full adults.IMG_2834.jpg

Missing the trend

I have been fortunate to have been born at a time when I had the opportunity to witness the birth of several of the major innovations that shape our world today.  I have also managed to miss out on capitalizing on every single one of them. You might make a lot of money betting against what I think.

I was a postdoctoral fellow in Boulder, Colorado in 1993 when my very tech savvy advisor John Cary introduced me and his research group to the first web browser Mosaic shortly after it was released. The web was the wild west in those days with just a smattering of primitive personal sites authored by early adopters. The business world had not discovered the internet yet. It was an unexplored world and people were still figuring out how to utilize it. I started to make a list of useful sites but unlike Jerry Yang and David Filo, who immediately thought of doing the same thing and forming a company, it did not remotely occur to me that this activity could be monetized. Even though I struggled to find a job in 1994, was fairly adept at programming, watched the rise of Yahoo! and the rest of the internet startups, and had friends at Stanford and Silicon Valley, it still did not occur to me that perhaps I could join in too.

Just months before impending unemployment, I managed to talk my way into being the first post doc of Jim Collins, who just started as a non-tenure track research assistant professor at Boston University.  Midway through my time with Jim, we had a meeting with Charles Cantor, who was a professor at BU then, about creating engineered organisms that could eat oil. Jim subsequently recruited graduate student Tim Gardner, now CEO of Riffyn, to work on this idea. I thought we should create a genetic Hopfield network and I showed Tim how to use XPP to simulate the various models we came up with. However, my idea seemed too complicated to implement biologically so when I went to Switzerland to visit Wulfram Gerstner at the end of 1997,  Tim and Jim, freed from my meddling influence, were able create the genetic toggle switch and the field of synthetic biology was born.

I first learned about Bitcoin in 2009 and had even thought about mining some. However, I then heard an interview with one of the early developers, Gavin Andresen, and he failed to understand that because the supply of Bitcoins is finite, prices denominated in it would necessarily deflate over time. I was flabbergasted that he didn’t comprehend the basics of economics and was convinced that Bitcoin would eventually fail. Still, I could have mined thousands of Bitcoins on a laptop back then, which would be worth tens of millions today.  I do think blockchains are an important innovation and my former post-bac fellow Wally Xie is even the CEO of the blockchain startup QChain. Although I do not know where cryptocurrencies and blockchains will be in a decade, I do know that I most likely won’t have a role.

I was in Pittsburgh during the late nineties/early 2000’s in one of the few places where neural networks/deep learning, still called connectionism, was king. Geoff Hinton had already left Carnegie Mellon for London by the time I arrived at Pitt but he was still revered in Pittsburgh and I met him in London when I visited UCL. I actually thought the field had great promise and even tried to lobby our math department to hire someone in machine learning for which I was summarily dismissed and mocked. I recruited Michael Buice to work on the path integral formulation for neural networks because I wanted to write down a neural network model that carried both rate and correlation information so I could implement a correlation based learning rule. Michael even proposed that we work on an algorithm to play Go but obviously I demurred. Although, I missed out on this current wave of AI hype, and probably wouldn’t have made an impact anyway, this is the one area where I may get a second chance in the future.



The wealth threshold

The explanation for growing wealth inequality proposed by Thomas Piketty in his iconic book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is that the rate of growth from capital exceeds that of the entire economy in general. Thus, the wealth of owners of capital (i.e. investors) will increase faster than everyone else. However, even if the rate of growth were equal, any difference in initial conditions or savings rate, would also amplify exponentially. This can be seen in this simple model. Suppose w is the total amount of money you have, I is your annual income, E is your annual expense rate, and r is the annual rate of growth of investments or interest rate. The rate of change in your wealth is given by the simple formula

\frac{dw}{dt} = I(t) - E(t)+ r w,

where we have assumed that the interest rate is constant but it can be easily modified to be time dependent. This is a first order linear differential equation, which  can be solved to yield

w = w_0 e^{r t} + \int_{0}^t (I-E) e^{r(t-s)} ds,

where w_0 is your initial wealth at time 0. If we further assume that income and expenses are constant then we have w = w_0 e^{r t} +  (I-E)( e^{rt} -1)/r. Over time, any difference in initial wealth will diverge exponentially and there is a sharp threshold for wealth accumulation. Thus the difference between building versus not building wealth could amount to a few hundred dollars in positive cash flow per month. This threshold is a nonlinear effect that shows how small changes in income or expenses that would be unnoticeable to a wealthy person could make an immense difference for someone near the bottom. Just saving a thousand dollars per year, less than a hundred per month, would give one almost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars after forty years.

Equifax vs Cassini

The tired trope from free market exponents is that private enterprise is agile, efficient, and competent, while government is prodding, incompetent, and wasteful. The argument is that because companies must survive in a competitive environment they are always striving to improve and gain an edge against their competitors. Yet history and recent events seem to indicate otherwise. The best strategy in capitalism seems to be to gain monopoly power and extract rent. While Equifax was busy covering up their malfeasance instead of trying to fix things for everyone they harmed, Cassini ended a brilliantly successful mission to explore Saturn. The contrast couldn’t have been greater if it was staged. The so-called incompetent government has given us moon landings, the internet, and built two Voyager spacecraft that have lasted 40 years and have now exited the Solar system into interstellar space. There is no better run organization than JPL. Each day at NIH, a government facility, I get to interact with effective and competent people who are trying to do good in the world. I think it’s time to update the government is the problem meme.