August 1st, 2011

_The Theory That Would Not Die_, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (kindle)

Subtitled (really): How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

Given the reviews at Amazon, this warning is likely unnecessary, however, if you are hoping for a detailed survey of the mathematics of applications of the ideas initially explored by Bayes, Price, LaPlace and developed extensively (wittingly or otherwise) throughout the 20th century, this is not the book you are looking for.

The author's writing style is pleasant, concise, easy to read and has good forward momentum, without being as important a component of the story as, say, Bill James or Mary Roach or Jon Ronson or Buzzy Jackson are in their books. (Regular readers of my reviews know that my favorite non-fiction genre is where a person goes, hmmm, how does _this_ work and then proceeds to read up on it and then interview people and perhaps do little experiments themselves and then the book itself is about the entire process, not just the-answer-to-the-original-question which by this point may or may not even be interesting compared to what turned up along the way.) As the subtitle indicates, the author has a thesis: Bayes-Price-LaPlace is [dramatic music here] Amazingly Useful.

The first sections of the book are really excellent: she describes the world in which Bayes had his idea, what he didn't do with it, how Price came to dig it back out again, and how that largely sunk as well, and then how LaPlace really ran with it a while later. Easily the best thing about this book is that it firmly connects mathematics (and not just Bayes-Price-Laplace) to non-mathematical activities that people need help with.

The section on WW2 and Enigma felt very different from versions of this story that I have read in the past. That doesn't mean I think they were wrong, just that McGrayne is drawing attention to strands in events that had not made it into things I read before, and she includes some ideas as to _why_ they were left out. The postwar bits about feuding statisticians was not as entertaining to read about as it seems like it should have been (I'm usually amused by scandalous backbiting but in this case I was a little bored and at times annoyed, possibly because some of the participants sounded way too much like people I've run across in computer science). The last section (which included stuff about Clippy that I just did not actually believe) was the weakest -- a very high-level summary of people using Bayesian ideas for everything.

It works well as history for the non-mathematical. It'll be frustrating for anyone who _really_ understands the mathematics. And a generalist who would like yet-another-take on science history should have a blast. It's a great book and I suspect it will reward rereading.

Electric Cars

Recently on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert described a campaign to find a "wave" for Leaf owners to use when spotting another Leaf on the road.

Sample coverage here:

I saw the bit. I laughed a little. I forgot about it until noticing Gawker found it worth pointing at -- and then I noticed that _everyone_ was doing secondary coverage of it. Okay, that's weird -- I didn't think it was that funny.

Leaves and Volts are very early in their production runs; there are not a lot of them out there. It is not unexpected that there would be more people wanting them than there are available to buy. For a few months now, car blogs have been busy mocking and/or interpreting the relative numbers sold here and elsewhere, and those sales numbers are not always (to be fair, often, but not always) clearly associated with how many are available to buy.

"GM plans to crank up production volume of its Chevrolet Volt to 5,000 a month by January 2012"

Nissan, obviously had an earthquake to deal with, but things are ticking along okay. They plan to open their Smyrna plant by the end of 2012, which is supposed to be capable of turning out (wait for it) 150,000 cars a year (a lot more than 5K/month).

Forecasts for market share of "pure" electric vehicles (I'm going to assume the Volt counts, altho it might now) range between up to 5% and up to 10% by 2020. Even in a truly crappy year for car sales in the US, I think that would imply 600,000 electric cars a year.

Is the electric version of the Fiat 500 going to make up the difference? I doubt it. It'll be interesting to see what rolls out. I only noticed the Fiat 500 EV because I was trying to figure out why Chrysler sold GEM (a Neighborhood Electric Vehicle maker -- think, golf-cart-turned-into-car) to Polaris (I wasn't questioning why Polaris bought GEM -- that part made perfect sense to me).

I'm thinking about electric cars as part of a more global effort to imagine a future job market. Making electric cars presumably does not involve more labor than making internal combustion cars (and probably employers fewer mechanics over the cars lifetime, thus being a net job destroyer rather than a net job creator), however, the process of transitioning from a gas-station infrastructure to a charging station infrastructure would appear to offer some jobs for electricians.

Alas, the number of jobs created for electricians installing dedicated circuits (and possibly a new subpanel or even an entirely new service) for a household to support their electric vehicle would appear to be far fewer than the jobs electricians had during the boom years building more houses than we needed (I'm not going to include the math, but if you care, I can add it). There's a lot of debate about how many public charging stations are needed in addition to the ones at home, but I doubt it's more than double the number of home stations (implying a 3:1 charging station to vehicle ratio, which, honestly, strikes me as ridiculously high anyway -- long term, I expect the ration to be slightly more than one charging station per vehicle in regular use -- and I sort of expect fewer vehicles, too. But there are people out there saying 4:1 so who knows).

A couple side notes on residential charging stations:

"Coulomb says the stations are designed for "residential, commercial and public applications," but who'd be willing to pay extra for an RFID reader on a charger that's installed in one's garage?" Uh, apartment complex owners? I'm assuming apartments are "residential".

That raised the question: are any apartment complexes advertising EV charging stations as an amenity, along with the de rigeur granite countertop and stainless steel appliances? Why yes! And guess where they are? Okay, so the DC one surprised me a little.

Redmond, Belltown and Cambridge did _not_ surprise me. Not one little teeny tiny bit. Once I saw that the DC location was within a half dozen blocks of the Senate office building and the Supreme Court (among other things), I quit being so surprised by the DC location.

From this checkin on electric vehicles, I have come to a few conclusions:

(1) They really do exist. (Yes, I know they never really went away completely.)
(2) The level of mockery suggests that this is a market that people are really trying to avoid serving, rather than a market that is being over-served.
(3) It isn't going to be a net job creator. Probably.

I'll likely be updating this, possibly repeatedly.

a detail from _Arrival City_ about slavery, and rambling about trafficking

A more complete review (in the sense of, I will have completed the book) will be forthcoming, hopefully. In the meantime, this caught my eye. About 12% of the way into the kindle edition (location 730 or thereabouts):

"Archana spends her nights curled on the polished marble living-room floor of a large middle-class apartment in Goregaon, a northwest Mumbai high-rise enclave. She is the live-in housemaid for a university-educated couple who work as composers in the Bollywood film industry; they have family roots in the same region of southern Maharashtra and found Archana through that network. Archana cooks, cleans, and maintains the house six days a week, sleeping across the room from the couple and waking before them to prepare their morning meal. [para break] In exchange for this, Archana is paid exactly nothing. Like many middle-class Indian couples, her employers keep her, in a vestige of the caste system, on a promise to ensure her urban welfare, plus some funds sent to her family to support them between harvests, but, more importantly, on a guarantee that they will pay her dowry and other costs when she marries a village boy, likely at 18. Dowry fees are a constant and agonizing source of worry for peasant farmers, most acutely in India but to a lesser extent throughout the developing world. A few decades ago, a small sum of cash and a cow may have sufficed, bu the urban revolution has placed fast-mounting obligations of cash and treasure on parents of girls. Officially, the couple say they are saving Archana's salary earnings on her behalf, and she eagerly embraces this arrangement, though her form of employment still falls within most accepted definitions of slavery."

Doug Saunders is telling this story in the context of how human networks (familial and other) connect villages to "arrival cities". Archana and two siblings were the first in their family to take the train into Mumbai in search of work and they did it because "a mysterious crop disease had ravaged the Kolhewadi rice harvest" three years earlier. A little math indicates that Archana was at most 15 and possibly younger when she entered the household where she is a maid in this story, which puts her firmly in the child labor category in the US. If you look at the helpful chart supplied by the UN to identify human trafficking:

it is pretty easy to show that Archana was harboured/received, in exchange for "payments" or "benefits", (in a way that arguably abused vulnerability), and you can see by her schedule that she's having to work pretty damn hard. If you trust Saunders, Archana's happy, presumably the couple is happy, Archana's parents (if they live) are happy she's not dead, her brother is elsewhere in the city and he hasn't pulled her out of this situation and his situation was at one point more dire so he's probably okay with it, too.

This is definitely a "compared to what" situation.

I think it's fair to say that everyone in the story (and everyone reading the story) would like Archana to have a long and prosperous life. From the perspective of a white, middle-aged woman who is a US citizen (me), the idea that this _girl_ is spending her teenage years working dawn to dusk 6 days a week so that someone will pay her dowry to get married at 18 is appalling. At the same time, however, I know a little too much about my family history (I did anyway, and all that time on and elsewhere just drove the point home over and over and over again) to truly believe that Archana's situation is one which she needs to be rescued from.

Here, really, is my problem with high level categories like "human trafficking" and the looser definitions of "slavery": in their most awful instantiations, we don't need those words to convey the horrors of what is being done, and you can find comparable horrors that don't meet those high level categories. Violence is bad. (This is a shorthand for "violent coercion for one's personal benefit is bad".) The threat of violence is bad, but not as bad. Paying someone to do something they wouldn't otherwise do is bad, but not _nearly_ as bad as violence or the threat of violence (hey, almost all of us had done things because our boss said we had to or we wouldn't keep the job), and someone making us work ridiculously hard because it was that or fail to make the rent is bad but again, not nearly as bad as violence or the threat of violence. Lumping all this together is Not Helpful.

The fraud/deception is an important, separate problem. If the Bollywood film couple fails to supply the promised dowry at 18, is _that_ a problem? Well, it sort of depends. If, say, they talk to Archana and work out some sort of deal where, instead, she goes to school and they pay the tuition, it's not what was promised but maybe it's equivalent and satisfactory to all parties. What if the Bollywood couple dies in a horrible commuter rail accident, leaving Archana with _precisely nothing_ to show for all her years of work (well, other than regular meals and a safe place to spend her days and nights and I'm pretty sure that's not nothing in Mumbai), unless they had the forethought to provide for her in a will or other way. But if, at 18, Archana's parents have lined up a village boy for her and the couple refuse to pay and kick her out to boot, then _that_ is a problem -- but it's not clear how calling that human trafficking or slavery is going to help. I would think handling that suing for breach of contract would be a better mechanism for ensuring Archana's married future.

There are all kinds of interpretations for all kinds of situations. I, personally, find the trafficking idea (and to a related extent, looser definitions of slavery) to be unhelpful. They engage the heart and the emotions but fail to provide a clear path to a solution (or even an improvement). Further, much of the revulsion harnessed by the idea of trafficking comes from sex work -- and I do not approve of people encouraging revulsion to sex work. That is _really_ not helpful to anyone. I suppose you could argue that at least some cops learned to quit blaming prostitutes, but we could have gotten to _that_ end point in a lot of less problematic ways. Even more of the revulsion is attached to hatred of People Not Like Us, people from somewhere else, people who are in trouble or unlucky and their trouble might contaminate us. If we just build a tall enough wall and check enough papers, we can keep them and all their problems away from us. Again, I don't find that helpful. At all.

I'll get into Saunders book in more detail later, but I'll note here that I have very mixed feelings about his opinions regarding appropriate policy for arrival cities. He's pretty firmly in the tear-the-bandage-off-fast camp when it comes to urbanization, and he recognizes that there are other options (in the present and in the past), I don't think he recognizes how powerful his linguistic group bias is.