Search
Books by Arthur

Social Networks
Article Index [A-Z]
Navigation

Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Wednesday
Feb152017

A Community Confused: A Microcosmic View of How We Got Trump

We had a most interesting town-hall meeting last night here in our lovely outpost of Point Roberts. I’ve written here several times about this oddity of a town where we live. There’s an intoduction to our “exclave” here. The meeting was called for a very specific purpose, to get input from the residents about how to finalize the revision of our community’s Character Plan (CP).

It degenerated into a semi-civilized brawl — sans any actual fisticuffs. But it did something more important — it let me understand with greater clarity how Trump got elected. It was a display of insane, unthinking, angry voices lashing out at illusory demons and searching to find a way to bring down the edifice — without having a clue what they were doing. This is a long post but it is illustrative.

First, some background: Back in 1992 a group of business owners and concerned residents here in Point Roberts met to discuss how to improve economic conditions, how to bring in jobs, encourage the establishment of new businesses and, importantly, find ways to keep young adults from having to move away to find well-paying work.

They looked at other more-or-less isolated communities like those on the San Juan Islands and other small towns along the Washington and Oregon coasts and determined that one potentially positive move would be to establish a kind of “image” for Point Roberts, something that reflected our history as a fishing outpost with its marine themes and promoted the period lighting, carved wooden signs and the local architecture which was largely Craftsman buildings with clapboard and board and batten design. They also wanted to try to keep any new development from being too large, garish, plastic or over-lighted.

Over a two-year period they crafted a Character Plan that provided a set of guidelines on new construction and renovations and made strong recommendations about things like the size, height, materials and lighting of signs. The regulations only applied in areas zoned “commercial” and “resort commercial.” There are only three streets so zoned and the plan exempted private homes.

The Character Plan was approved by the community. It became part of the official Whatcom County Code in 1994 and the county’s Planning and Development Services (PDS) agreed to adopt its guidelines when issuing permits for new projects. A Character Plan Committee (CPC) was established and began reviewing all new projects that fell under its umbrella before any permits were issued.

That was all well and good. Not surprisingly, the CP didn’t produce the kinds of economic gains or job growth that was hoped for but it did function in its own gentle way — for a while. The inevitable combination of demographic shift and ennui hit. Folks moved away, lost interest, got bored and dropped off the committee. Within a few years the CPC faded away and decisions fell to the personnel in PDS. Again, not surprisingly, the CP lost any remaining influence. New hires at PDS were often not given instructions about the guidelines; other agents simply forgot about it and projects began to be permitted that clearly violated the codes outlined in the CP.

In 2010 Whatcom County Council, working with several Point Roberts residents, established a Point Roberts Community Advisory Committee (PRAC), the community’s first “official” advisory panel. It was established to function as a liaison between Point Roberts and the County Executive’s Office. PRAC assumed the role of the defunct CPC and began reviewing all new projects within the assigned zones before PDS would consider permitting.

In 2014 PRAC formed a Special Committee for the purpose of revising the twenty year-old CP. The committee spent two years gathering data, reviewing existing guidelines, exploring changes in the community since the original CP was drafted and holding several open meetings to get input from the larger Point Roberts community. The committee drafted a Revised Point Roberts Character Plan which was given to PRAC. They distributed the draft to the community and, following the procedures established back in ‘92, scheduled a town-hall meeting to get input from the larger community.

The announced purpose was to work to reach a consensus about the draft, in particular to resolve a number of fine points where the committee was unsure of the best, workable option. For example, whether buildings in the “West Coast Modern” architectural style are appropriate, whether private homes within the identified zones should be included, whether “sandwich board” signs which announce that a business is open are appropriate.

It never happened. The meeting turned into a donnybrook only barely held in check by the efforts of the Chair of PRAC who did a remarkably effective job of preventing fist fights and the hurling of chairs. And, of course, we never got around to even getting the Revised CP on the table for discussion.

The session began with one resident raising the question of solar panels. An effort to provide an answer (“yes, they are permitted so long as they are designed to resemble shingles or other approved roofing materials”) was shouted down by a man who jumped to his feet brandishing a sheaf of papers which he said were the two hundred plus signatures on a petition to repeal the entire Character Plan.

A resident who served on the revision committee pointed out that the CP played a critical role in our winning a long (and expensive) battle to keep an array of five 105’ radio transmission towers from being built and that repealing it would let the owners of the radio station build some other monstrosity on the land they still own. There was no sympathy (or understanding) of this critical point by the gentleman who continued angrily waving the petition.

The next two hours went straight down the rabbit hole. Person after person stood up and complained bitterly about the economy, the lack of jobs, their concerns about their children and grandchildren, where they were going to find work, how Point Roberts hasn’t had any serious business development in years, how depressed people are, how they’re forced to use our food bank, etc. etc. and etc.

The various people who were on the revision committee (including me) tried to respond by pointing out that the current economic difficulties were certainly not the result of the CP and that repealing wouldn’t help. One woman, who was on the original CP committee back in ‘92, tried to point out that the purpose of the CP was precisely to encourage business, not to limit it and certainly not to discourage it.

Many of those objecting refused to believe that the CP didn’t apply to private residents. Others raised fears of “regulation creep” without realizing that no such thing is possible. The Chair of PRAC tried his best to explain the actual process of guiding a project through the various committees and to reassure everyone that no new regulations can be introduced under existing county code. His effort, as an old colleague of mine put it, “entered one ear, finding no impediments to its travels, immediately exited the other.”

Another, long-time resident gave a rousing speech about how these goddamn committees were wasting everyone’s time worrying about how damn tall a building should be or what goddamn color paints are allowed when they should be finding ways to make jobs come to Point Roberts. Efforts to point out that creating jobs isn’t the mission of those who drafted the CP were hooted down.

Finally, after over two hours, the meeting was adjourned. The Revised CP is still in draft form. We never got the feedback on the issues we thought the community might have reasoned views on. And, of course, when we got to actually look at that “petition” it clearly has no legal force. It’s a bunch of names without addresses, phone numbers, email addresses or any other form of identification to show that the signers even exist, let alone live in Point Roberts or rent or own property here. It has no reasoned argument against the CP. It fails to note any downside to the CP or outline any rationale for thinking that repeal would improve the quality of life or the economic wellbeing of residents.

I guess we’re going to have another meeting…. We can do this. But, as one resident noted when we were walking out, “this is how we got Trump.”

Friday
Jan272017

Trump on Science

Donald Trump, as we have all become painfully aware, is one of the least curious people to ever hold the Presidency.  We thought Bush II was bad. Trump makes him look like a rational philosopher in Karl Popper’s school of thought. One the biggest and most disturbing of the many lacunae we see emerging is in the domain of science. Here he appears to be a total dunce as evidenced by his questioning of anthropogenic climate change and his belief that vaccinations can cause autism.

A broad-based set of fears has settled down on the scientific community as evidenced by the several dozen articles in Scientific American worrying about what may come after Trump’s people begin offering specific pieces of legislation. They range from concerns about undermining STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, supporting creationist teaching, cutting funds for stem cell research, reducing efforts to counter climate change and generally putting the budgets of agencies like NASA, NIH, NIMH , NSF and others on the chopping block.

Disturbingly, neither Trump nor anyone in his team of advisers has even raised the issue of the Science Adviser or entertained candidates for the position. The international science journal Nature is particularly concerned by this lack of focus.

As a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science I’m deeply worried about the lack of interest in science and science policy. The AAAS’s journal Science, generally regarded (along with Nature) as the most prestigious in the world, has had a series of editorials expressing the deep concerns of scientists from all areas.

These essays have an eerie quality to them. The authors are trying their very best to be diplomatic, to not draw the anger that Trump famously unleashes on anyone who criticizes him and, importantly, to not turn off the persons whom Trump will appoint to run the agencies that fund their research. This kind of deep anxiety is something I’ve never experienced before. I’m glad I’m retired and no longer need Federal grants to fund my research. 

Now if you’re not a scientist you might ask, why is this a problem? Why are we all so openly worried — especially when most of the lay public isn’t. It’s not uncommon these days to hear people ask, “What’s so important about doing science anyway?” And “Don’t scientists get things wrong all the time?” To a scientist, these are odd questions to ask — but when I hear them I understand. I realize that they are rarely being asked out of annoyance or anger. It’s almost always the result of ignorance. Here’s the truth about science and its role in our lives.

Every single advance in our quality of life that has contributed to our health, longevity, convenience and social functioning has come from advances in science. All of it. All our homes and public buildings are large and safe because of advances in materials science and their applications in architecture and construction. All our medicines and surgical procedures and health care delivery systems are the direct products of the findings and discoveries of the bio-chemical and medical sciences. Our rapid advances in communications, computer technology, satellite-supported systems, smart phones, tablets are all products that came from scientific theory and empirical findings.

Our understanding of society, how it operates, why and how complex cultural factors play out in real time are derived from pure research in psychology, sociology and political science. Our ability to guide economic systems, to make fine-tuned decisions about debt, deficits, interest rates, monetary supply all emerged from micro- and macroeconomic models and data collection.

I could go on and on and …. I could look at roads, bridges, how courts and the justice systems operate, at the stunning discoveries in genetics, epidemiology, agriculture, animal husbandry, botany, birth control, modern medical techniques like MRI, PET and non-invasive surgery, in forestry, geology, education, child-rearing, GPS systems, land-use principles, weather prediction, mining, mineral extraction, pharmaceutical advances, energy production not to mention policing, fire prevention and firefighting, the military, jet planes, nuclear weaponry, transportation over water, land and air, techniques for controlling pollution, reducing smog and giving us clean air and water.

In short, everything. Every blessed advance in society, every improvement in the quality of our lives, every increase in our health and well-being has come from scientific theory, scientific research and the translation of scientific knowledge into applications that improve the lives of everyone.

Do scientists get things wrong from time to time? Of course. It’s the nature of the process. As you home in on the truth, on reality you take many different paths, some lead nowhere, others reveal errors made in the past. But the system, the “doing” of science is a self-correcting process. So long as you have to make contact with the data, the findings and the numbers you constantly move closer and closer to the right answers. This is how science operates and this is why it has been so brilliantly successful.

To sit back and watch a President pay not even lip service to science is disturbing but to have one who has derided science and scientific research is downright terrifying. And don’t get me started on some of the morons in Congress.

 

Thursday
Jan122017

"Libratus" Takes on the Top Poker Players

In 2015 an Artificial Intelligence (AI) dubbed “Claudico” played 80,000 hands of No Limit Hold ‘Em poker against four of the top online poker pros. The ‘bot (short for “robot”) was a program written by the AI experts at Carnegie Mellon University’s computer science department. While this might seem like a lot of hands to most folks, it turned out not to be enough data to settle the issue. The human players won but not enough to be statistically meaningful.

Starting today a newer more powerful poker playing computer (named Libratus) will take on the same four pros. This time they’ll be playing 120,000 hands each and hopefully settle the issue. If they win the four pros will get more than bragging rights, they will split a $200,000 prize. Most handicappers think Libratus still isn’t up the job and the international betting markets have the AI as a 4 - 1 and even 5 - 1 underdog.

There are some fascinating elements of this project that go way beyond poker. They involve the development of a remarkably effective procedure that is used to “teach” the computer how to play an effective game of poker. It uses an algorithm called the counterfactual regret-minimization routine that operates as follows. 

The AI starts out knowing nothing about poker other than the bas
ics like hand rankings and the rules of the game. It’s dealt a hand and makes a decision about how to play it. It then sees whether it won or lost money on it and how much. The next step is the key (and requires a very fast, powerful computer): it runs through every other possible decision it could have made against all the things its opponent might have done. That is, it looks at all the counterfactuals and selects the one that would have minimized regret (won the most or lost the least) and moves it up in the hierarchy of possible ways to play that hand. The ones that would have won less or lost more are moved down.

Then they ran several trillion (that’s not a misprint) iterations — all played against a second instantiation of the program which was carrying out the same routines. Each time a better decision (i.e., one that “minimized” regret ) was found the hierarch of decisions was revised. The “regret” notion is used here in the sense of “Oh damn, I should have done that instead.” 

Over time the AI slowly homed in on the most effective strategies. Whether it has found the ones that can beat these top pros will be determined soon.

Note that this “brains v. bot” contest is being played “heads-up.” That is there are only two players in each hand, one of the humans and Libratus. Even though Libratus is playing at a world-class level of skill heads-up, poker is such a complex game that it cannot handle the computational load that having a third player at the table produces. The reason is that poker, unlike other complex games like chess and go where there are AI’s that can beat any human, is a game of partial, and sometimes unreliable information. Each player only knows some things but is missing the most important data, what one’s opponent’s cards are and what its bets mean. This simple fact makes the problem one of overarching complexity and arriving at an optimal set of decisions extremely difficult.

What’s even more fascinating is that the counterfactual regret-minimization algorithm is a general one. As the researchers at CMU are showing, it can be applied to any situation where the number of counterfactuals is large but within the computational capacity of the computer, where only some of the relevant information is available and where some of it may be misdirection and misleading. The applications they are exploring are in areas like medical diagnosis, cybersecurity, financial markets, economic decision-making, business and political negotiations, military situations — all circumstances where there is only incomplete and potentially misleading information but concrete decisions need to be made.

Sunday
Jan082017

The Unkept Promises of the PEOTUS

I started compiling a list of things Trump said he would do — you know, as a check-sheet to go back to and see how’s he done in following up. This kind of thing is pretty routine. Here, for example, is a look back at how Obama fulfilled his promises.

But, since The Donald hasn’t taken the oath of office yet, I’m not interested in any specific legislative or governmental issues — those are either routine like cabinet nominations, appointments of advisors, tapping heads of agencies or they’re best regarded as premature like specific bills he might put forward for Congressional action once he’s in office.

What I’m interested in here is the dozen or so specific promises he’s made to the American people during the campaign and after his November 8th victory. Surprisingly — or not, depending on your political persuasion — the number which he followed through on is precisely zero. There are probably more of these faux pledges but this list shows pretty clearly what we’re dealing with in our new PEOTUS. At one time or another, Trump said he would:

•Release his personal and corporate tax returns

•Hold regular press conferences

•Provide documentation on Melania’s immigration status and whether she violated US immigration laws

•Specify what information about the Russian hacking that he claims he has that the CIA does not

•Explain how Mexico will pay for the wall now that he’s determined that US taxpayers will have to fund it

•Present a plan to prevent conflicts of interest between his duties as president and his corporation

•Clarify the operations of the Trump Foundation and why they did not violate New York State laws

•Provide an explanation why his international corporate links would not violate the Emolument Clause

•Explicate what his plans are for filling the vacuum that would be created by withdrawing from NAFTA

•Explicate what the impact of withdrawing or limiting the US’s role in NATO and the UN would be

•Present an analysis of the impact that “tearing up” the Iran agreement would have on the Middle East

•Put forward a detailed economic projection of the long-term impact of his proposed tax cuts

I’m not just inventing issues. These are all things Trump has said he will do, from promising to release his taxes if he’s elected, to ensuring us that he has full documentation that the future First Lady did not violate the guidelines of her visa when she first entered the country, to outlining what he knew that shows that the CIA was mistaken about the Russian hacking,[1] to promising to provide full economic analyses of a host of domestic and international proposals.

He has, of course, done none of these. It would be folly for anyone to expect that he will. In some cases transparency would be, well, revelatory like his tax returns, the full gory details of the Trump Foundation and Melania’s apparent visa violations.

In others they were just typical Trumpian bluster done to whip up his base but with no thought or plan behind them such as tearing up the Iran deal or withdrawing from NAFTA. It’s simply not possible for him to provide the analyses he promised since no such exist.

In still others the projections, if carried out honestly, would show them to be completely unworkable (dumping the Iran deal), economically disastrous (pulling out of NAFTA) or geopolitical suicide (reducing our role in NATO or the UN).

The bottom line here is we’re faced with something we’ve never confronted in the nearly 250 years of our Republic. We had a nominating process that was unlike anything we’ve seen before — more like an extended series of clips from The Twilight Zone in living color than a normal political contest. It was followed by an election unlike anything we’ve seen before — even Rod Serling wouldn’t have come up with what’s been played out before us. And now we’re really off the end of the pier, into the cold, dark waters of a socio-economic-political black hole.

I guess I better check my Twitter feed to see what shit’s coming down the pike now — you can bet it won’t be any effort by Trump to fulfill any of those promises he made. In fact, I’m quite certain that he wouldn’t remember making most of them….

 


[1] On this one, when pressed he said he’d let everyone know “on Tuesday or Wednesday” without specifying which Tuesday or Wednesday.

Thursday
Dec222016

Lamb and Wild Mushroom Rigatoni

Back when we lived in New York, I had this dish (or one close to it) at an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. I like trying to recreate dishes. I’ve played with this one for a while. So it’s time to share. It’s dead easy, will take less than an hour and feeds two with leftovers for lunch tomorrow or, with a salad and bread can feed four.

It uses lamb broth which isn’t easy to find. Few markets in North America carry it, not even in cubes. Either make your own (this recipe from Ramsey is good) or find an online supplier. In a pinch substitute chicken or veggie stock.

Ingredients

olive oil

1/2 pound of lamb — shoulder works best, cut into bite-sized slices or cubes and dust with salt and pepper

1 onion, halved and sliced

1 garlic clove, smashed and chopped

2 sprigs of rosemary

1 pound or so of mushrooms — a mix of fresh white or crimini ‘shrooms and reconstituted dried wild ones such as chanterelles, pine, hedgehog and/or porcinis. Slice whole mushrooms and chop large pieces of wild. 

1/2 c white wine

1/2 c lamb broth

the mushroom soaking liquid, strained

2 T flour

a large bunch of a “green” — any. Chard, kale, spinach and collard all work. Each gives a slightly different flavor but all are good. Mustard greens are a bit strong but can be used.

chopped parsley for garnish

1/2 pound of rigatoni (or similarly shaped pasta) 

Directions

brown lamb in a T of olive oil and the rosemary — remove lamb (leave rosemary) and set aside

in same pan, sauté onions, garlic and mushrooms till they begin to caramelize (add olive oil if needed) — remove rosemary

add the flour and stir to mix

deglaze with wine and stir, scraping up the fond

add lamb broth and mushroom soaking liquid, stir, scraping up fond

return lamb

add greens

cover and simmer while cooking the pasta

combine everything and sprinkle with chopped parsley