Saturday, June 28, 2008

Quantum mechanics cures my fear of flying

Maybe 3 or 4 years ago, I started developing a fear of flying. I never had a problem before then, but for some reason I started getting scared, especially when there's turbulence. My mother says it's because I became an atheist, but I don't buy that, because I've been a closet atheist for a while, well before my fear of flying. I know that flying is extremely safe, safer than driving, but that doesn't comfort me. I think my fear comes from the fact that if there is a crash, I have about a 0% chance of survival. At least in a car crash, I have a shot at survival. On a plane, there is nothing I can do. You just go down, and that's it.

But I have to fly, because it's the only practical way to travel long distances. I don't believe in any supernatural protectors, so I can't pray for safety or anything. So I need a way to get over my fear. It helps to have a couple drinks before getting on the plane, and sometimes that's enough, but usually, I get too in my head about it. It's too easy to imagine, when the plane hits a little turbulence, it just going down and not stopping. I know it's irrational, and I know that airplanes are incredibly well-engineered, designed to handle stresses well beyond those actually experienced during flight.

So, when I really need to console myself, I turn to an idea that comes from quantum mechanics (and pushes into philosophy a bit): the anthropic principle. It's a controversial idea that has several variations and different interpretations, but I'm mainly concerned with comforting myself on a plane, not fundamental scientific and philosophical issues.

Basically, the anthropic principle states that humans (or some observer) are the forcing factor that causes the universe to exist. In quantum mechanics, all possible outcomes of any situation coexist simultaneously, until something observes them and forces a single one to be chosen, according to a probability distribution. Schrodinger's cat is the classic macro analogy. The anthropic principle applies this theory on a universal scale (a source of controversy), and claims that the universe must exist in a state that allows something to observe it. Any possible universes which do not support some sort of observer within that universe cannot be observed, and therefore do not exist.

It's sort of like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, except I don't like Zen. Zen embraces contradiction and illogicality, which is great if it works for you, but all it does for me is piss me off. If a universe big bangs into existence and no one sees it, does it exist? The anthropic principle says no.

So, if no one is around to observe the universe, it doesn't exist. How does this help me on airplanes?

Well, I take another idea from philosophy to complete the picture. A fundamental question since ancient Greece has been "how do I know anything exists." It's an impossible question, one that requires some sort of assumption or leap of faith at some point (such as Descartes' famous "cogito ergo sum"). But at the end, I have no idea what truly exists. I don't know whether everything I observe, including other people, is real, or a figment of my imagination (I disagree with existentialism here... I'll buy that existence is fundamental for me, but can't see that it therefore must be so for everything else I observe). As far as I can tell, other people very well may not be real. I certainly have no way of proving that they are not.

So, I can suppose that I am the only real person in the universe. I am at least by far the most provably existing person in the universe. Under the anthropic principle, therefore, the universe exists because I am here to observe it. Not humanity in general, but me specifically, because I have no idea whether or not anyone else really exists. If I don't exist, neither does the universe, because I can't observe the universe.

Thus, if the plane goes down and crashes and I die, I will no longer be here to observe the universe, and it will not exist anymore. Poof! Gone. That would be quite an abrupt end to the universe. I comfort myself thinking how unlikely and catastrophic that would be. It would be a shame for all the wonderful complexities and amazing processes of the universe to just halt all of the sudden. I comfort myself knowing all this, and it gets me through flights.

It may sound conceited or vain or something, but from a purely scientific standpoint, factoring in what information I can truly know (that I exist), it is 100% correct (given that you accept the theories outlined above). I don't go around acting like I'm the center of the universe or anything. I just know in the back of my mind, that whenever I think I might die, that would mean the end of the universe (at least to me) because I won't be around to observe it anymore. I use that to help me not feel so scared, because the end of the universe is a big deal, big enough that I can convince myself I will be OK.

That's why I need to live an arbitrarily long time. To keep the universe going. That's where the singularity comes in, but that's another post.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Traffic, game theory, and efficient markets

One of the perks of working for Microsoft and living in Seattle is getting to sit in traffic for a couple hours a day (I'm working on something greener, honest). So, I have a lot of time to think. Often, my thoughts turn to why exactly there is so much traffic. (There is a lot of scholarly work on traffic, and you can write code to model different things, but I'm speaking from a more theoretical perspective).

I take State Route 520 to and from work. There are no traffic lights, so on the surface, I thought traffic couldn't get too bad. I don't see much reason why the ratio of total trip time to the number of cars on the road shouldn't remain fairly constant or at least scale gracefully. But, it does not. At some point, there is enough traffic that you spend most of the time stopped, and getting home takes an hour plus, instead of 15 minutes.

So, there must be other factors affecting traffic patterns besides the road itself. There are two important other factors: surrounding road topology, and people. Traffic is worst coming home (Westbound), and it's bad from about 4-7 every day. That's what I'm going to look at here.

520 runs through Redmond, to a bridge across Lake Washington, and ends at I-5 in Seattle. During rush hour, there's traffic along the whole way. The strange thing is, it's not uniform. Not even close. It tends to be wide open until you hit the I-405 intersection, and then be solid all the way to the lake, where it opens up until it ends at I-5. The area of interest is this map.

In terms of topology, the road is two normal westbound lanes, with a carpool lane on the right. The carpool lane ends right before the bridge across Lake Washington, and two lanes go west across the bridge. There are 3 entrances to 520 that are near the traffic: I-405, 108th Ave, and 84th Ave (see map above). You can get on or off 520 there, and some people use them as shortcuts to skip 520 traffic.

People getting on at these shortcuts cause a large delay due to merging. At each intersection, you are effectively merging another lane or two of cars into 520's two lanes. On top of that, merging occurs through the carpool lane, slowing it greatly. Merging forms the primary source of delay because it is essentially a funnel for cars. In total, with the 3 entrances, and additional 5 lanes (plus the carpool lane) of cars have to be merged into 520's 2 lanes to go across the bridge.

That got me thinking, why doesn't everyone just not take shortcuts? I am almost positive the average time to get across 520 would be greatly reduced.

The answer comes from game theory. Unfortunately, this is a classic example of the Prisoner's Dilemma. Suppose that I did convince everyone not to take the shortcuts for a day. Then, one unscrupulous (or logical) person could bypass all the remaining traffic by taking a shortcut. From a game theoretical perspective, that person is doing the correct action if his goal is to maximize his own happiness (a fundamental tenet of economies and societies... true selflessness is so rare as to almost always have no impact on their courses). Game theory and the Prisoner's Dilemma make it clear why there will always be people trying to take these shortcuts to skip 520 traffic: everyone wants to maximize his or her own personal utility. In this particular case, this greedy algorithm creates a global suboptimal solution relative to the better solution of no shortcuts, as measured by average trip time. It is extremely unlikely that this will change without topological changes to the road system.

Once I arrived at this conclusion in late 2007, I was satisfied in my analysis of the patterns and decided to just sit in the traffic in the left lane to minimize my impact and involvement in negative traffic behaviors. Then, about a month ago, I was in a rush and had to run an errand near one of the shortcut entrances. So, I tried a shortcut for the first time. I discovered it took just as long as simply sitting in the traffic.

This seemed strange to me. I mean, I knew that game theory projected there would always be people taking the shortcuts, and that at equilibrium all the routes would take around the same time, but it got me thinking about the decision process behind those people who choose to take the shortcuts, especially those who did it all the time. What did they think they were getting, and why are they choosing a particular route?

This led me to the efficient market hypothesis. Sure, there are psychological factors to it related specifically to driving, like preferring moving along a longer route vs. sitting still on a shorter one, but I saw another parallel to economics.

The (controversial) efficient market hypothesis (EMH) says that at all times, the prices of objects in the market (stocks, bonds, commodities, etc.) reflect an accurate value incorporating the sum of all public information about that object. These fair market prices arise naturally out of buying and selling those objects on the open market, and are kept in check globally and across all markets by arbitrage.

For example, suppose there were 100 tons of gold that we knew about and had mined from the earth, and that gold was $1000 an ounce. Then, suppose I get lucky and find a 2 ton vein in my back yard. The EMH says that, as soon as my find is public knowledge, and given that the demand for gold is fixed, that the value of an amount of golf will drop 1.96% to make an ounce of gold worth $980.39. Arbitrageurs make sure that prices of gold across the planet, in all currencies, are the same by exploiting small differences for profit until the difference disappears.

So, what does this mean to traffic? It's more of a leap to EMH than Prisoners Dilemma, but EMH can be applied to traffic in some ways, only with time instead of money as the "gold".

There are 4 ways to get onto the bridge on 520: sitting in traffic, or taking one of three shortcuts. All of these routes are public knowledge, and everyone who does this commute knows about them. Everyone can also look up traffic data on the Internet, providing an approximation of how long it will take to get to the bridge. So, the EMH s says all routes should take about the same amount of time. If any particular route did let one "beat the traffic," more and more people would take it as the information became public, until it no longer beat the traffic.

In practice, the times on all the shortcuts are fairly close. But, the differences in the times highlight some of the problems with applying the EMH to traffic (and the market in general, in my opinion). First, the EMH depends on the market having perfect information. Inaccurate, incomplete traffic data, people who don't know about the shortcuts, and other factors cause the information in this system to be imperfect. Second, once you're in your car, by and large you won't get any more information (unless you have something like GPS or Internet phone that can get it for you). Finally, you can't change routes at will. In the market, you can buy or sell almost anything at any time (if the market is open). In traffic, you only have a few chances to change, namely by finding some intersection between one of the 4 paths and changing routes. There are only a handful of times in your journey home you can make this decision. The application of EMH therefore isn't entirely correct, but it still provides some insight.

So, there is a small amount of inefficiency in the traffic system. There's a chance that you could get home faster by taking one route over the others. This chance is what people on shortcuts are chasing. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. But, they are always acting as a sort of arbitrageur (except they, unlike a good arbitrageur, can lose). They are providing stability to the system by decreasing the impact of random events (like accidents), and decrease the variance of my trip time. For that, I decided, I am thankful. I'd rather spend an hour in traffic everyday, that 3 hours every once in a while.

The moral of the story: as long as there are shortcuts, people will take them, even if they don't help (which they shouldn't in the aggregate). And while you're yelling at them for skipping traffic in front of you, remember that they aren't getting there any faster in the long run, but they are helping you get there more consistently.

A better moral: take the bus. You'll get to spend time thinking about things other than traffic.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The impetus for all this...

So, now that I've told you what this blog is, here's why I decided "yes, today is the day I join the blogosphere:" I just finished writing an email in response to one a relative sent that basically tried to say the Democrats made oil $130+ a barrel and gas $4+ a gallon by not letting us drill our land. I don't very much like Democrats, Republicans, or politicians in general, but I can't abide unproductive, unwarranted blaming of all our problems on any single villain. After reading an article on the great http://seekingalpha.com/, I was inspired enough to write my response, which I thought was good enough I wanted to make it public in case some day someone else might read it and start thinking more rationally.

Preface: I am convinced by the evidence of global warming (there is so much out there... do a Google scholar search if you don't like Wikipedia and aren't convinced), and do think we need to start reducing our impact on the environment. However, I also recognize the need to keep our society moving, which includes having a plan to get all this great energy that brings these words to you. That puts me in a tough position if I want to remain logically consistent with myself. Below, I try to do so.

This is long enough an outline will help. By paragraphs:
  1. Shoutout to the SeekingAlpha article
  2. Money, power, and oil, and political accountability
  3. It's easier to blame people for our problems than fix them; oil is a political tool
  4. Problems with oil the US can't control
  5. Economies are cyclic and fighting that is dangerous; why I like recessions
  6. There is no simple solution to oil; chaos theory and the economy
  7. Subprime crisis as an example of why you can't regulate your way to economic bliss in a chaotic system
  8. Conclusion: I'm a libertarian

Here is my email (plus a few more cites for those of you more critical of quality of thinking than my family):

I found a great article about this topic on an investment site I read: http://seekingalpha.com/article/82127-oil-prices-and-political-energy?source=yahoo. It says some of the exact things I wanted to say in response to this email in a way I couldn't put together. It also helped me get some of my own thoughts down.

It's not Democrats or Republicans maliciously trying to run up oil prices or being ignorant... it's about money and power, as usual. Oil producers and companies have made a lot of money on oil. They use this money to buy government influence and make more money. Politicians in turn use the oil crisis as a political football to get votes. Unfortunately, unlike other election-year hot topics like abortion or gay marriage, oil and energy policy has an extraordinary ability to do significant damage to American and global society. It's a shame that our leaders get away with inaction in this important area 3 out of every 4 years.

But it's a lot easier to yell and scream and blame people about a problem then do the hard work it takes to fix it. Current leaders from Al Gore to George W. Bush are all guilty of trying to blame instead of fix to some extent. To fix this, we need a combination of reduced consumption, increasing energy supply (whether by alternative energy or expanded domestic oil production or both), creating sensible, practical regulations, and knowing that almost everything coming out of Washington, especially in an election year, is a smokescreen. Politicians survive by manipulating emotions, not being logical and solving problems. Emotions (and money) are how they get reelected.

So much in the oil game is out of our control... foreign subsidies, cartel action, overextension of the dollar internationally, global demand , even how much oil gets sucked out of the ground... I don't have enough fingers to point menacingly at "those people" who made this happen. No one person or group put $4 on the gas pump (or $4.38 if you're in Seattle like me :( ).

Economies are cyclic; sometimes they grow, sometimes they shrink. The real problem is trying to make them grow when it's just not meant to be (like Greenspan's dubious market-must-grow rate cuts). The economy wants to go down a little bit frequently, but if we don't let it, then we get these infrequent huge drops. "Recession" is not a bad word; it's a good thing, because it keeps prices rational, and when everyone panics and prices get too low, "recession"="clearance sale." It may seem callous now while the economy is falling down and people are worried, but I feel lucky to have the opportunity to get into the market when it is so low. Long term, this recession will help anyone who remains calm and realizes they can profit by looking for undervalued investments. The real danger is depression... we get there by blindly assuming the economy will keep going up and up and up until we all live in gold palaces, and then trying to force it to happen. Don't fight economic tides; surf them.

Democrats and Republicans have exaggerated their positions on oil and are just saying the same things over and over until you think they're true. It's not guaranteed that more drilling will cause vast environmental damage, or that more drilling will bring gas prices down. The environment and the economy are too complex to jump to such conclusions. These types of things have an enormous number of variables; you can't just change one or two and fix everything. If we'd been drilling in ANWR for the last 30 years and oil was that much cheaper ever since, do you think we'd have the same demand for oil we do today? Do you think that without the oil problem, everything in the economy would be great forever? These are
chaotic systems, like the butterfly that flaps its wings in China and makes a hurricane in Florida. Governing them with inflexible, top-down rules, no matter how well-intentioned and well thought out, will never be as effective as allowing a market-derived solution.

Another example of how hard it is to govern a chaotic system is the subprime mortgage collapse. It was enabled by a series of laws in the 80's (DIDMCA, Alternative Mortgage Transaction Parity Act, and TRA of 1986) designed to encourage home ownership across society. These laws combined with macroeconomic trends to create a shiny veneer on otherwise dangerous debt practices, and when macroeconomic growth slowed after the .com bubble (chart), the rickety credit structure imploded. If regulations enforced basic good practices, like making a reasonable down payment, not lying about income level, and actually paying off the loan, instead of enabling mortgage interest tax deductions, usurious interest rates, and preposterous loan structures, we might not be in this mess because the market would have imposed the reasonable loan practices it had for decades. (But might is the key word - it's not the case we could say whether or not doing anything different would have prevented the crisis. There are so many other variables and other things that can go wrong just by, say, never having mortgage interest deductions you really can't say).

The problem is our leaders haven't done a good job. We need better government. But to some extent, it's not their fault that they can't do a job which very well may be impossible. In lieu of a brilliant, benevolent leader who can make everything OK, I prefer to follow a quote variously attributed to Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, or Ralph Waldo Emerson (all of whom I respect immensely): "That government is best which governs least."

ANOTHER BLOG? WHY!!!!!

I'm not much for blogging as of now... I read a few (http://withleather.com/, http://filmdrunk.com/, http://wwtdd.com/, http://consumerist.com/), but that's about it. So, why am I doing this? Well, mostly as a way of talking to myself. I like to organize my thinking by writing, so why not let other people read my thoughts if they like?

This blog will therefore be about whatever I'm thinking about. I tend to view the world through science and reason, and that is my fundamental approach to doing pretty much everything, for better or worse. If you want to disagree with me and convince me of something, you'd best approach me with reason.

Science-y topics to expect include artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science, economics, and mathematics. Outside those, I'll probably be talking about my relationships, job, life, books, movies, sports, my fantasy football team, and anything else I feel like. It is my blog after all. If you don't like it, piss off.

About me:
I'm 25, living in Seattle and working for Microsoft as a Program Manager. I went to MIT for undergrad in Computer Science and grad school at the Media Lab. I was born in Southern California and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I'm a libertarian and an atheist. Don't hate me for any of this; I'm also a person trying to live and be happy and help those around me as best I can, especially my girlfriend and our dog, William. And, my 10th grade English teacher Mrs. Bice said I was a natural writer. We'll see.