Francis’s news feed

This combines together some blogs which I like to read. It’s updated once a week.

January 19, 2019

Fooled by data by Piekniewski'S BLOG (ai)

Every rule of thumb in data science has a counterexample. Including this one. 

In this post I'd like to explore several simple and low dimensional examples that expose how our typical intuitions about the geometry of data may be fatally flawed. This is generally a practical post, focused on examples, but there is a subtle message I'd like to provide. In essence: be careful. It is easy to make data based conclusions which are totally wrong.

Dimensionality reduction is not always a good idea

It is a fairly common practice to reduce the input data dimension via some projection, typically via principal component analysis (PCA) to get a lower-dimensional, more "condensed" data. This often works fine, as often the directions along which data is separable align with the principal axis. But this does not have to be the case, see a synthetic example below:

from sklearn.neural_network import MLPClassifier
from sklearn.preprocessing import StandardScaler
from sklearn.decomposition import PCA
from scipy.stats import ortho_group
from mpl_toolkits.mplot3d import Axes3D
import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt


N = 10 # Dimension of the data
M = 500 # Number of samples

# Random rotation matrix
R = ortho_group.rvs(dim=N)
# Data variances
variances = np.sort(np.random.rand((N)))[::-1]
Read more...


Two Lessons From France’s Yellow Vest Protests by Ian Welsh

So, the Yellow Vests in France have French President Macron scared, and he has given in on some of their demands, including raising the monthly minimum wage and getting rid of the diesel tax which sparked the original protests.

Joe Penney at the Intercept has a good overview of the current state of play, which I encourage you to read.

What I want to discuss, however, is WHY they are having some success where unions, for example, could not stop Macron.

No Centralized Control

The great weakness of modern unions is leadership, bank accounts and law.  They are easy to break if the state cooperates with corporations, or by the state alone. You can bribe the leadership, you can scare the leadership, or you can break the union.

Because unions have things like headquarters, leaders and bank accounts the state can simply take all of those things away any time it wants to if the unions don’t have enough internal support in the government to stop them.

This matters because unions tend to have centralized leadership: take out the leadership, get rid of the strike funds, and they can be broken.

The Yellow Vests have none of this. What tiny leadership they have is some facebook pages. They have no united bank account, no buildings, no strike funds, etc… They cannot be broken by a strike on a few people and some pooled resources.

Instead the yellow vests are just whoever wants to show up for any given protest and put on a yellow vest. This causes some problems, yes, but it means that they cannot easily be taken out.

Scare The Opposition (State/Corporate) Leadership

Why is Macron giving in to some demands? Well, perhaps because he’s scared (and, I suspect, personally a coward, which he has struck me as from the first.)

During the January 5 edition, protesters commandeered a forklift and broke open the office door of Macron spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux, forcing him to flee through the back entrance, while an ex-professional boxer was filmed punching and kicking a gendarme. Some reports have stated that Macron is worried for his personal safety. Protesters attempted to break through police lines that were guarding his home in Touquet in December, and his wife’s family has voiced concerns that their chocolate shop in their hometown, Amiens, will be attacked.

Cue laughter, because I have no sympathy for Macron or his lackeys. (I have a little sympathy for his family, but not much. I’ll discuss this further in a bit.)

Here’s the thing: most protests get nowhere because they threaten no one and nothing. The elite, being rich and powerful, can wait out those protests they cannot buy, scare or break. They know it.

This is why the union protests against Macron also failed. He just waited them out. Unions cannot tell their members to try to attack political leaders. (Though sometimes such things happen and are “regrettable” and a good union then makes sure the people who did it have good lawyers.)

Macron is scared. He is scared for himself. For his family. For his staff and probably for his friends.

There are people he cares about who could wind up catching a good beating, or worse. (Given that the police have killed a number of protesters, please spare me wringing of hands.)

Normally, no one a politician cares about is threatened. Protesters get beaten, maybe the occasional cop gets a beating (being a cop is NOT dangerous compared to most manual labor jobs so spare me the hand wringing about people who beat people for a living, very occasionally getting beaten themselves.)

But politicians and corporate leaders are safe. The protesters suffer, strikers lose money, etc, etc…

The yellow vests have threatened Macron. He is personally frightened, and he is giving in.

Always, always find a way to threaten your opponents directly if the stakes merit it. Find something or someone they care about and go after it.

Now, because many people are wringing their hands, let’s deal with that directly.

There is a great essay by Mark Twain called “The Two Reigns of Terror.” Please go read it.

Macron’s policies and those of France’s elites have made poor French and many middle class French poorer for two generations now. Macron, in particular, has made it easier to fire people, raised regressive taxes, and broken unions. He is a neoliberal’s neoliberal who believes that a more preacrious, poorer workforce will lead to prosperity. The fact that this has been tried since 1979 and not worked does not stop ideologues like Macron. Clearly if it hasn’t worked, it hasn’t been tried in a pure enough form.

Macron and the French elites policies KILL people. These deaths show up in the statistics. They don’t have dramatic pictures. But there are more suicides; poorer people die younger; people under financial stress drink more and beat their wives more and so on.

Death and suffering is what neoliberalism causes. Macron is a murderer, for an ideology which has never worked, despite being tried in most of the first world and much of the developing world.

So, if Macron is scared, and if a few of his relatives or friends or employees (all of whom are very well looked after) happen to catch a bit of the violence flying around, so be it. It didn’t bother Macron that people were suffering and dying when they were people he didn’t care about.

The Future

The problem with the yellow vests, to my mind, is that while the protests include left, right and the formerly apathetic, they seem to be resounding more to the benefit of the hard right than the left.

One of the things I have been watching carefully is where various countries are going to land as neoliberalism collapses.

There are three primary choices: populist left, populist right, repressive surveillance/police state.

Right now I think that the US and Britain have a good chance to land on the populist left. I thought France might, with Melenchon’s left wing party being very close to LaPen in the last election.

But I am beginning to wonder.

One of the problems is that, fundamentally, if neoliberals are going down, they’d rather surrender to fascists than the left. The fascists will let them keep most of their money and power, and will break the unions for them and so on. (The Nazis were not socialists, despite their name. They made worker wages drop, and executive wages skyrocket.)

So we’ll see how this all plays out. But, however it does, the lessons are clear enough.

Hit them the “masters” where they hurt, and make sure you have no center they can destroy or subvert.

And if you do get them on the ground, which the yellow vests have yet to do, keep kicking. Rest assured, they will to you.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


What The Huawei Row Portends for the Future of America, China and Canada by Ian Welsh

Huawei is a giant Chinese telecom company. It produces fifth generation telecom equipment (5G), cell phones and much more. Its 5G equipment is probably the most advanced in the world.

The US has accused it of espionage: stealing commercial secrets. In America Huawei telecom equipment can’t be used for infrastructure, and it is trying to convince other countries, especially European ones, to not do so either. The rationale is that such equipment makes Chinese spying easier.

A while back the American government asked the Canadian government to extradite a Chinese Huawei executive to the US. Her name is Meng Wanzhou, and she is the daughter of Huawei’s CEO.

Importantly, she was charged with fraud related to violating US Iran sanctions, not espionage against American companies.

In response China has mostly swung at Canada, arresting a number of Canadians and retrying a Canadian drug smuggler, increasing his penalty to death.

One of America’s goals has been to separate America and China: the NAFTA rewrite, the USMCA, for example, forbids any member from forming a trade deal with a “non market economy” if either other member disagrees. (The US defines China as a non-market economy.”

It may not have been deliberate, or it may have been, but this request has made Canada/China relations much worse.

Note that the person being charged is pretty close to Chinese royalty. This is like if Steve Job’s daughter was a senior Apple executive and arrested. Imagine the furor.

But I want to highlight something else: this is about breaking Iran sanctions. (Which China did, though I have no insight into Meng’s involvement.)

The Iran sanctions were certainly legal under US law. They were not, however, in any way, shape or form, just. As with all economic sanctions they disproportionately hurt people not in the ruling class. They hit various medicines and caused a lot of suffering and death. The evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapon program was always dicey, and in any case, that America has the right to deny nuclear weapons to other countries is unclear.

So Meng is being prosecuted for a political crime. She is being prosecuted because her country decided to not obey US law with respect to another country. US laws which are un-just on their face.

To me, at least, this is illegitimate. China’s counter-strikes are also illegitimate: Canadians should not be used as cats-paws in this, and China’s actual issue is with the United States, not Canada. That said, from a realpolitik point-of-view, I entirely understand China making the point that acting on behalf of the US in its near-cold war with China will have negative consequences.

This row has continued to accelerate. There is a fair bit of danger, in the medium-run, that the world is going to split into two economic blocs, and enter something close to a cold war again.

America wants China to do what the US wants, to remain a regional power, not a great power, to not take control of its near abroad (as the US did in the 19th and early 20th century, in much more violent fashion than China has so far), and China, a rising Great Power (and potential super power) will not be stifled in this way. No rising great power, certainly not the US, ever was or will be.

This road, though we are early on it, leads to war. There are things China does that are illegitimate, but its power will have to be accommodated, as America’s was. (Take a look at the map of the Canadian province of British Columbia, notice the Alaska panhandle: it is complete bullshit, and it was obtained because Theodore Roosevelt was willing to go to war to get it, and the British, preoccupied elsewhere weren’t willing to fight for it.)

As for Meng, she is clearly a political prisoner and pawn, as are all the Canadians that China has arrested in retaliation.

While it’s unlikely to happen, because Americans think they have the right to apply their law to anyone anywhere and to kill anyone they want in most countries in the world, without even a trial, sensible politics would be to de-escalate this.

Locking up Meng, which is most likely (US prosecutors generally get their victims) will be a running sore. America is banking on Chinese fear outweighing Chinese anger. Maybe it will, for a time, but the Chinese strategic tradition also includes a hell of a lot of smiling at enemies until you can stomp them flat.

America ought to think very carefully on that, and whether or not it really wants to go down this road, especially over such an un-just charge.

As for Canada, it is an American subject state, and as the USMCA proved, when America get serious, Canada does what it is told. I have explained this to Canadians for a couple decades now, including the need for an actual deterrent (it needn’t be nuclear), but Canadians think America is Canada’s friend, not overlord.

This mistake, too, will continue to be punished.


The results of the work I do, like this article, are free, but food isn’t, so if you value my work, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


Miseries mount as shutdown drags on by The Planetary Society

The partial government shutdown that shuttered NASA continues with no end in sight. The U.S. space program sits idle, the vast majority of its workforce sent home. Space science and exploration projects are disrupted. Paychecks are absent. And an unsettling realization has dawned on hundreds of thousands of public employees and contractors affected by the shutdown: this time is different.


Planetary Deep Drill completes second field test by The Planetary Society

The work builds on a Planetary Society-sponsored test and paves the way for an ambitious expedition in Greenland this year.


Slava Linkin, 1937-2019 by The Planetary Society

Slava Linkin, one of the leading planetary scientists in the Soviet Union and later Russia, passed away on 16 January 2019. Viachelslav Mikhailovich Linkin was an enormously important participant in Planetary Society history.


Your Guide to the Total Lunar Eclipse on 20 January by The Planetary Society

The eclipse will be visible throughout most of North America, South America, the eastern Pacific Ocean, the western Atlantic Ocean, Europe, and western Africa.


Hayabusa2 team sets date for sample collection, considers two touchdown sites by The Planetary Society

Japan's Hayabusa2 spacecraft will try to collect a sample from asteroid Ryugu during the week of 18 February, mission officials said during a press briefing last week.


A few new images of MU69 by The Planetary Society

New Horizons is back in action after going quiet for a period of solar conjunction following the 1 January flyby of 2014 MU69 (informally nicknamed "Ultima Thule"). The spacecraft is returning new data, as exemplified by these images.


January 16, 2019

Someone please cancel 2019 already? by Charlie Stross

So last night a British government was handed the biggest defeat in modern parliamentary history (since the middling-late 19th century, at any rate) in its attempt to systematically disenfranchise three million EU citizens, violate the Good Friday Agreement, generate a requirement for a racist and invasive population tracking system (hint: that's an implicit corollary of the NI border backstop, and the Home Office has had a hard-on for a National Identity Register since the 1950s), and irreparably damage the British financial, services, and manufacturing sectors ... all in the name of preserving Conservative Party unity.

(Lest we forget, in a 2015 poll of how the public prioritized different political issues, EU membership came tenth out of a field of ten.)

In the USA, the Republican-induced shutdown of government spending has resulted in Coast Guards being paid out of a charity, Air Traffic Controllers being fed pizza paid for by the Canadian counterparts, and diabetic civil servants desperately rationing their insulin and just hoping to wake up in the morning. If it goes on much longer, a lot of those civil servants won't be around to come back to work: they'll have had to go looking for jobs elsewhere. And yet, the shutdown continues because the mafia shill in the big house desperately needs a distraction from the 17 different investigations into his crime ring, and "build a wall" rallies his party base.

It's almost like these were two sides of the same coin, isn't it?

I'm trying to remember if I said this on my blog some time over the last 20 years, but: one of my working principles is that the event horizon in politics in a democracy is no more than 5 years. (Or: the maximum time between elections.) Consider Germany in January 1934, and how outlandish and dystopian the situation would have sounded if you'd described it to a German citizen in January 1929. (30% unemployment! A dictator and a state of emergency! Concentration camps! Anti-Jewish laws!)

Here's a reflection: the value proposition of democracy is that it provides for a peaceful transfer of power, once an incumbent regime loses its political legitimacy. If you have a working democracy you don't need revolutions to get rid of incompetent leadership. As Enoch Powell said, "every politician's career ends in failure" (unless they die unexpectedly): in a democracy they agree to step down, and life goes on.

But when you get a faction, party, or regime that no longer subscribes to the idea of democracy and refuses to back down gracefully, you get back the old problems: pressure for change builds up and when it erupts the effects can be devastating and unpleasant--especially, as we've had a crash-course reminder in recent years, when the tools of communication make it really easy for dangerous demagogues to draw a following.

I think we can safely say that since 2013, the grip of the beige dictatorship on the western system has been broken. Unfortunately, we're now living through a period of turbulence analogous to that which followed the collapse of the Age of Monarchies in Europe, 1917-1919 (during which pretty much every monarchy in central and eastern Europe went down like a row of dominoes). It took until 1945 for the dust to settle and a stable, broadly social-democratic new order to emerge in the west: I just hope our current turbulence settles down before 2045, because otherwise our planetary climate and biosphere is fucked.


January 14, 2019

2018 In Review, Let Decompression Commence by Retirement Investment Today

The fourth quarter of 2018 contained the pivotal moment of my FIRE journey so far – FIRE day.  Financially it represented the transition from rapid wealth accumulation to hopefully well managed wealth decumulation or drawdown.  As I write this though more importantly it also represented the start of what seems to be called the decompression phase of retirement and I’ll freely admit I’m finding


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Updated using Planet on 19 January 2019, 05:48 AM