Minimalism: The Starter Kit

In June 2013, my town of Calgary, Alberta experienced flooding on its main river, the Bow.  As a result my neighbourhood, Sunnyside, was evacuated for nearly a week due to flooding and electricity being cut. Inspired by this, I realized that I had accumulated many possessions that I did not need.  So to start, I threw out my old textbooks, and a tape-based camcorder.

It made me feel so great.  I realized that throwing things away felt much better than buying things in the first place.  Still, it was hard to give up the idea that eventually I might find them useful and so I would regret throwing them out.  So it took me a long time to reach my current minimalist apogee.

Now, having sold my car today, I own only the following items:

  • A weeks' worth of casual clothes
  • A week's worth of formal clothes
  • Some athletic clothes
  • My glasses and sunglasses, and their cases
  • A laptop
  • A mobile phone
  • A toiletries case
  • A suitcase, garment bag, duffel bag, and laptop bag.

All items except the formal clothes and glasses are listed in this Amazon Wish List of 18 items worth 1,826 USD.

I am able to live without possessions thanks to some innovations that have taken place over the past few years:

  • I scan all documents using my mobile phone and store them on Dropbox.
  • I rent cars or use Car2Go or Uber.
  • I eat Soylent (or Nutberg while in Asia) rather than preparing meals.
  • I stay in an AirBnB or in hotels rather than owning furniture or an apartment.
  • I'm able to work remotely thanks to various cloud services like Google Hangouts, Jira, GoToMyPC, Trello, Google Docs, Amazon Web Services, and GitHub.
  • I use a Kindle instead of books.
  • I have my physical mail sent to a mail forwarding service.
  • I keep my skis, bike and winter clothes at a storage facility. (Yes, this might be considered cheating...)

It is liberating to know that I am always packed and ready to go anywhere if needed.  It's also relaxing not to have to keep track mentally of all kinds of possessions.  It's stimulating to be able to live in different places all the time; even staying in a different place each month, breaking up the daily routine, I find very stimulating for my mind.

It occurred to me: how is this any different from the way I once lived as a university student?  Isn't this just living in poverty?  Is there a difference between poverty and minimalism?

Minimalism is simply getting rid of things you do not use or need, leaving an uncluttered, simple environment and an uncluttered, simple life.
— Leo Babauta

When I was that university student ten years ago, I dragged boxes and suitcases of clothes I never wore from apartment to apartment, and I kept huge numbers of books, papers, and textbooks I never read.  It's true I was constrained by my income somewhat, but I still wasn't leading a minimalist lifestyle.

As one's income rises it is natural to accumulate items over time.  Unless you have a strong discipline to get rid of unnecessary items, it is very easy over time to have many things you don't need.

By analogy: A very simple computer program is minimal but also not functional.   A complicated program that has minimal bloat is lovely to pivot.  Elegance is orthogonal to program size.

To illustrate that orthogonality, here are examples from all four quadrants.

A poor non-minimalist

A poor non-minimalist

A poor minimalist

A poor minimalist

Dr James Hull, a Jaguar enthosiast and rich non-minimalist.

Dr James Hull, a Jaguar enthosiast and rich non-minimalist.

Steve Jobs, whose simple wardrobe made him a minimalist icon.  A rich minimalist, indeed.

Steve Jobs, whose simple wardrobe made him a minimalist icon.  A rich minimalist, indeed.

EDTA and Making a Murderer

In January 2016 I and many millions of others found themselves hooked on a Netflix TV series called Making a Murderer.  At the end, I was left with a big question: did Steven Avery commit the crime?

The morning after having watched the last episode, I had a brainstorm that I thought would be a great way to help solve the crime: crowdfund a prize to advance forensic science to improve the test (for "EDTA") that the show implied might exonorate Avery.  But after reaching out to experts in the forensic science field, my simple crusade got much more complicated.

Here's a sample of what I and my friends came up with:

- An excerpt from the proposed crowdfunding page

- An excerpt from the proposed crowdfunding page

Background

On 18 March 2007, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin resident Steven Avery was found guilty of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach.  Halbach had gone missing on 31 October 2005.  On 18 December 2015 Netflix released Making a Murderer, which recounts Avery’s story and strongly implies the possibility that he is innocent.

In his 2007 trial, Avery’s lawyers argued that some of the evidence against him might have been planted to enhance the state’s case against him.  In particular, there was a blood stain in Halbach’s Toyota RAV4 that may have been planted using a sample of Avery’s blood the sheriff’s office had in their possession.

Photo from  Making a Murderer , obtained via Reddit

Photo from Making a Murderer, obtained via Reddit

To preserve a blood sample, the chemical compound Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is added.  This compound does not occur in the human body, so a test confirming its presence on the RAV4 Avery blood stain would provide strong “smoking gun” evidence of police evidence tampering.

Unfortunately, as shown in episode 6 of Making a Murderer, no such EDTA test exists.  The FBA was asked to test the sample for EDTA but the detection threshold of their test was arguably too high to make a determination.

Accordingly, I had an idea, in the tradition of the XPRIZE competitions, to organize an inducement prize contest, to encourage the development of a sufficiently accurate EDTA test to re-test the RAV4 blood stain.

What an EDTA test would accomplish

If Avery is innocent: Just as advances in DNA testing technology exonerated Avery of his 1985 wrongful conviction, if he is also innocent of the Halbach murder, advances in EDTA testing technology could exonerate him here.

If Avery is guilty: On the other hand, if he did in fact commit the crime, a high-resolution EDTA test would help to quell doubts about his guilt held by many, since Avery’s version of events would be categorically refuted by the presence of his blood in Halbach’s RAV4.


As an additional benefit, the EDTA test would be added to the forensic arsenal, and could be helpful in many more cases than simply the Avery case.

I and some friends came up with some award criteria:

  • $50,000 USD (or higher if more funding is obtained), obtained through crowdfunding.

  • The prize money will be held in a US dollar account which has been placed into a Canadian Specified Trust.  The trustee is a Canadian lawyer who is obligated by law to disburse the funds net of fees to the first individual or entity to satisfy the contest criteria.

  • The trustee is not affiliated with the Avery or Halbach families, current or former Avery defense attorneys, nor with any Wisconsin district attorney offices.

  • If the trustee determines that a scientist or lab has met the criteria outlined below, the money will be disbursed net of payment processing and crowdfunding fees.

  • If no scientist or lab has met the criteria by the time Steven Avery dies or if he is fully exonerated by other means, the trustee will dissolve the trust and transfer all prize money to the Innocence Project.

  • The award money raised by crowdfunding is paid into a Trust established with a Trust Deed specifying that all funds are to be disbursed directly to the contest winner as determined by the criteria outlined above.

  • It is not possible for the organizers of this crowdfunding to access the funds raised at any time.  Your donation is legally assured to go to the specified cause.

Complications

At this point I had a crowdfunding pitch drafted and a team of friends ready to help get the word out.  There was just one problem: I didn't know how to phrase the problem statement in a way that made scientific sense.  Not being a forensic scientist, I reached out to a few people, asking them for help.

I was impressed by the accessibility and candor of these forensic academicians.  Here is a response I received from two of the most senior figures in American forensic science:

The committee that was asked to review your request to publicize the EDTA testing challenge has decided that we should decline your request. I will admit that I do not fully understand why you believe that current testing should be improved. Nonetheless, the committee believes that such testing is currently readily available and did not want to involve the Academy in this effort. I wish you well.
— Dr. Victor Weedn, President of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences
I do not wish to ‘formulate the statement’ but I will offer what is usually required for such a ’test’. We call it the five S’s. The five S’s include:

- Sensitivity
- Selectivity
- Specificity
- Simplicity
- $$$$$$$

Thus to be certain of scientifically valid results the method/technique/procedure must have defined and demonstrated detection limits for the analyte/sample in question (e.g. High sensitivity in the sample matrix), be highly selective and specific (e.g. There is no other chemical finding possible), be simple to execute so that all errors are eliminated, and be sufficiently inexpensive that participating laboratories can afford the best techniques and instrumentation available. In addition, an active applied research program should exist such that new technology and methods can be employed for solving the challenging cases which appear in the future.

None of these are trivial to accomplish but all are certainly possible.

As I say above I do not wish to formulate a statement, but above would be what I encourage you to consider in such a statement.
— Chief Science Officer of a Bioanalytical Services Company

Here's another exchange I had, with an expert in the field of forensic EDTA testing:

Dear Dr. McCord,

I was given your name by Dr. Robin Sheppard. She suggested you might be willing to comment on a prize in forensic chemistry that we are crowdfunding.

Your 1997 article discusses testing EDTA, which is relevant to our contest criteria:

Miller, ML; McCord, B.R.; Martz, R.; Budowle, B. The analysis of EDTA in dried bloodstains by electrospray LC-MS-MS and ion chromatography. Journal of Analytical Toxicology, 1997.

Would I be able to speak with you by telephone for 5 minutes on Wednesday or Thursday of this week? If so, please let me know of a time and I’ll be happy to call.
— Michael Currie
Dear Michael,

Since I have already developed such a test, why not just send me the money?

It would be quicker.
— Dr. Bruce McCord
Dr. McCord,

I appreciate your response - it may be that I’m phrasing my question incorrectly then. :)

I hope you will agree that the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars raised for this award should be going to good science. If you’d be willing to take a 5-minute phone call to discuss in a more informal capacity how best to spend this money to improve forensic science, I’d greatly appreciate it.
— Michael Currie
Michael,

The problem seems to me that you are letting the wrong people define the issue and the science is getting lost.

If you look at a tube of blood with EDTA in it the concentration of EDTA in the blood is 1.8mg/mL

You are asking for a test to detect 0.0002 mg of EDTA in a 1 mL sample.

Why? That is about 10,000 times lower than what would be in the blood from a tube

When Edta is in blood it is not hard to find. At all…
— Dr. Bruce McCord
Dr. McCord,

You say EDTA is present in a concentration of 1.8 mg/mL in a prepared tube of blood. If the blood from that tube was swabbed onto a surface and left to dry, would much of the EDTA evaporate, necessitating a higher threshold? That’s what Dr. Chad Steele alleges in his blog.

In the Making a Murderer documentary a blood stain was alleged to have been planted by police. The stain was dried on a car interior. The FBI issued the following report, but the defense lawyers argued the FBI protocol was not scientifically valid and anyway did not have a sufficient detection threshold to definitively exclude the possibility of EDTA being present on the blood stain.

If your opinion is that the original FBI report was conclusive and definitive and proves the blood stain came from fresh blood, then the whole premise of my team’s crowdfunding idea has been upended, and there is no need for a prize at all. Please confirm. :)

Thanks again for your time.
— Michael Currie
EDTA is a very interesting molecule. It is a chelator, which means it binds strongly to metals. It is often in the salt form. Both of these things mean that it is not particularly volatile. (so wont evaporate at any appreciable rate)

Liquid forms are said to be stable for a year and if dried, it is likely to be stable even longer.

Lawyers are not chemists, and if you look at any of the articles on EDTA detection in blood (there are several) you will see that all of them mention a detection limit. What is Dr. Steele talking about?

The basic problem is that the presence of DNA is deadly to a defendants case. The only defense is to state the blood is planted.

I think that if you want to help forensic science go after the problem of sample backlogs for violent crime. There is not sufficient funding for lab work.
— Dr. Bruce McCord

It was at this point that it became apparent that the EDTA test used was perfectly adequate - the issue was with the FBI's experimental protocols.  Even so, it seems the defense case in this area was far less convincing that the show made it out to be.  I decided that the state of the art in EDTA testing did not need to be advanced, and was already perfectly adequate.

Thanks to all of the academics and lawyers who spoke with me and gave me their valuable time.  Thanks as well to the friends who engaged in many great conversations with me about this - it was quite stimulating!

 

 

 

 

“Summoning the demon”; “the end of the human race”: Artificial Intelligence Public Policy

Should there be restrictions on the development of artificial intelligence, and if so, what should they look like?

Several science and technology luminaries have sounded the alarm about the potential dangers of advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI), including Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, and Elon Musk.

Nick Bostrom, an academic, has been among the first to analyze the topic comprehensively, and his work has influenced many others to take the problem seriously.  My personal thoughts on these matters are heavily influenced by Dr. Bostrom, whose 2014 book, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, I read last year.

Following Dr. Bostrom, I readily accept that there is a very real danger from a powerful intelligence that can quickly outsmart any human defenses and achieve its goals.  He calls it the “control problem”, and it would be dangerous for at least three reasons:

1.      Malicious AI: Its goals could be programmed to be nefarious by misguided humans.

2.      Degenerate AI: The goals might be dangerous even without malicious intent from human controllers, however, if a goal is accidentally specified improperly.  It would be like the apprentice from Goethe’s 1797 poem The Sorcerer’s Apprentice commanding his broom to fetch water, but the broom, not given a stopping condition, causes a flood.  Think “Skynet” from the Terminator movies, which was supposed to keep humans safe.

3.      Indifferent AI: Finally, a superintelligence might not have been programmed improperly by humans at all, but might end up not ascribing moral value to humans, since we are so much less sophisticated than it is.  It might exterminate us for reasons we cannot fathom, much like we would destroy an ant hill standing in the way of a construction project.

Most experts agree are confident it will be several years or decades before anyone can come close to constructing a superintelligence.  Given the danger, what should be done in the meantime?  Should there be restrictions on AI research?

There is actually a smooth curve up from the office productivity and web software we interact with every day to the feared superhuman AI.  So comparatively pedestrian improvements to the software we use today are taking us closer to software that has the intellectual capabilities of a human.  But every little development forward is virtually unstoppable, because of the distributed, world-wide nature of progress in software development, and also because every little development forward makes our lives a little bit better or easier.

Even if we could, would we have wanted to stop software development in 2005, say, before Google had predictive searches, or before Mercedes-Benz had developed cars that will brake in advance of a potential accident?  Surely not.

Since stopping these little steps is in my opinion impossible or undesirable, we will inexorably approach the danger point.  At some point, one or more research groups will be within striking distance of creating a superintelligence.  Given the nature of technological progress, nothing short of a totalitarian government would be able to stop the dissemination of AI capabilities.

Instead, initiatives to promote “good” AI should be relied upon to build up our immune system, so to speak.  We see this already in the arms race being waged over email spam.  The spammers have malicious software that attempts to land emails into people’s inboxes, while the email providers have “good” software that tries to identify the spam and divert it.  Would it have been better to instead freeze our technological capabilities in 1996?  As it turns out, the “good” software generally does an excellent job of distinguishing spam from real email.  Humans are today may read their email relatively unmolested by the spammers.

Voluntary initiatives like Musk’s OpenAI and the 2015 open letter on artificial intelligence are examples of leading AI scientists taking the control problem seriously, without ham-fisted involvement by government bureaucrats.

“Good” AI can help deal with danger of a malicious or degenerate AI.  However, the danger posed to humans by an indifferent AI remains unaddressed.

I’ll leave you with one ominous thought on indifferent AI: what if it’s only our own ego and vanity telling us it's a danger?  If we end up constructing something that in its infinite wisdom thinks we ought to be destroyed, by definition perhaps we should trust its better judgement over our own.  And in any case, via technologies like mind uploading, we humans may have our minds embedded into these AIs.  So perhaps we have nothing to fear from AI, since AI will be us.

Further Reading

Existential risk from advanced AI (Wikipedia)

The Atlantic on OpenWorm

Washington Post article on Bill Gates’ views on AI

Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence

 

Giving up Privacy for Essential Safety in the modern age

Canada's Parliament recently passed a bill, called C-51, from the ruling Conservative Party, giving new powers to our spy agency.

I know C-51 is about far more than privacy and even liberty, but this is the aspect I am choosing to discuss here because it’s what interests me most.  The specifics of the bill are tiresome - I suppose that’s why I didn’t become a lawyer.  I do generally agree with the impression that the bill is ham-fisted and doesn’t do a good job of what it’s supposed to achieve.

Individual rights should not be compromised over the vague threat of terrorism.  The obvious quote here is the Benjamin Franklin standard:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

That said, if we are arriving at a technological point where any individual can cheaply produce weapons that can threaten many others, on a scale never before seen, perhaps privacy is a luxury we can no longer afford.  In the past a lone crazy person could only get his hands on a grenade, or a machine gun, or some explosives.  But what if today’s crazy or evil people could easily get ahold of the equipment and plans needed to engineer a virus that kills half the people on the planet?

Source:  Bas van Oerle

In that case, perhaps it’s necessary to grant our spy agencies broad powers, to monitor people all the time.  Giving that much power to a group of people has its own dangers, of course.  The danger is they might abuse their information to embarrass, harass, or otherwise harm innocent individuals of their choosing.  This is in addition to the more abstract or emotional harm done to people who don’t enjoy strangers snooping on their affairs.

Perhaps to mitigate this secondary danger, then, all information should be made public, so that the government doesn’t have a monopoly on it.  It would radically change society, since no one could do anything without others knowing.  Adultery, crime, fraud, would all cease.  But perhaps celebrities would get harassed more often since their locations would be known.  Perhaps not.  Hard to say.  It would be a strange world, but it might have to be the one we make, if Armageddon so easily follows the granting to anyone of even a modicum of privacy.

Thus, my prediction for the future is that advocates of privacy will completely lose the battle.