A Day Without Women Would be the End of the World


Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day that began commemorating the anniversary of a women workers strike – and so perhaps it’s also being celebrated as A Day Without a Woman, another strike designed to call attention to how important women are to our society. But, science fiction writer that I am, I couldn’t help but think of literal day without women – and so, over on the Adventures of Jeremiah Willstone site, I talk about how “A Day Without Women Would be the End of the World”.

-the Centaur

Adventures in Women’s History

JW Blog Backdrop v4a.png

This month, I’ll be talking about women’s history on the Adventures of Jeremiah Willstone site!

Jeremiah’s world is one in which women’s liberation happened a century early, so, with twice as many brains working on hard problems, they’re more advanced in 1908 than we are today – but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying! In March, the people of our universe celebrate Women’s History Month as a way to highlight the important parts of our history that might otherwise be forgotten, and so this month on the Adventures of Jeremiah Willstone I’m going to highlight various figures in women’s history and how they inspired various characters in the Jeremiah Willstone series.

We’ll be talking about women’s liberation pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft and how she inspired Jeremiah Willstone; women scientists Emmy Noether and Marie Curie and how they inspired Doctor Jackson Truthsayer; computer scientists Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper and how they inspired Georgiana Westenhoq, and women soldiers Kristen Griest and Chantelle Taylor and how they inspired characters like Jeremiah and Natasha Faulkner-Jain.

I’ll also talk a bit about Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and the whole notion of “history months” and how Bayes Rule helps us understand why singling out one group for recognition, which to some people seems prejudiced and unfair, really can be a fair thing if that group has been unfairly treated!

Stay tuned!

-the Centaur

Guest Post at Beauty’s Library!

Want to know more about the philosophy behind Jeremiah Willstone and the Clockwork Time Machine? Check out my guest post at Beauty’s Library:

Jeremiah Willstone is a special novel for me, because the smallest of inspirations blossomed into a project that reflects my deepest values. I fell in love with steampunk at Dragon Con 2009, where I saw many amazing steampunk costumes, in particular a young woman with a steam-powered gatling gun. My training as a science fiction writer makes me pick at the loose threads of imagined worlds, so I started to wonder not just what technology could power that gun, but what social changes could have enabled a young woman to become a Victorian soldier.

I’ve been interested in women’s rights since I was a child…

To read the rest, take a look, or to find out more about Jeremiah, check out The Clockwork Time Machine wherever fine books are sold:

-the Centaur

Effective Beverages

So after a gut punch, one of the most important things to do is to take time out to recuperate.


But funny thing is, the highly effective sangria above wasn’t the thing that broke me out of my funk. When something bad happens, I try one of the following strategies to feel better:

  • Take a nap. Or just go to bed. Sleeping can sometimes reset your emotional state. When I had my big crisis of faith in the 90’s, converting from Catholicism to Episcopalianism, I slept for like a day and a half, rethinking my whole life. Of course, if you can’t fall asleep, that’s no good – I was up to 5:50AM this morning, so blech.
  • Take a walk. This can also provide metaphorical distance from your problems. During my crisis of faith, I walked around my apartment complex again and again, taking an inventory of my whole life, weighing and evaluating everything I could think of. Today, when I tried the same strategy, I was snarling at the air, so blech.
  • Change your scene. Talking to uninvolved humans, not connected with your dramas, really can help. I had an interview with a candidate, a technical conversation about deep learning with a TL, and, later, after my mood was lifted, another technical conversation with my waitress at Opa! about the econometrics of developing nations.

As for why that last conversation happened …


Which goes to the next item on the list …

  • Try shopping therapy. Doesn’t work for everyone, but I’m a bookhound. I ended up going to the Stanford Bookstore to try to pick up a book on large scale machine learning (it had sold out). The books themselves weren’t the solution, but I’m getting to that – but it did involve the books in a tangential way.
  • Get some coffee. The inventor of the idea of separation of powers, Montesquieu, reportedly once said “coffee renders many foolish people temporarily capable of wise actions” and I’ve found that to be true – which perhaps suggests that we should install a Starbucks in the Congress and change the structure of our political debates, but nevermind. It helped.

You’ll note that nowhere in here is “get a drink.” That’s a terrible idea – if you think you need a drink, you probably shouldn’t have one, as needing a drink is the road to alcoholism. For that reason, and many others, I always stop at one drink per day – period. No matter how strong the drink, it’s almost impossible for a one hundred and eighty pound male to get drunk on just one.

Having a drink after you feel better, on the other hand, can be a great relaxer. But how do you get to that relaxed state? Well, one thing I try is, well, trying to resolve the problem.

  • Talk to the people involved. I have a theory that if you have a problem with a person and leave it alone, your emotional reaction will be frozen, even intensified over time – a theory based on my personal experience, but backed by cognitive emotional theories which say your emotions are derived from your stance, your relationship to the people, actions and events in the world – which doesn’t change if you don’t give yourself the chance to have new experiences with those people. Thanks to the fact that it’s the twenty-first century, this can be done via text, even when people don’t have time to talk.

But the point at which it turned wasn’t when I got a drink. It wasn’t after I took a nap, took a walk, talked to people, changed the scene, got a book on political economy, got coffee, or texted the involved parties to finalize the resolution of yesterday evening’s gut punch. It happened at very strange place, as I was drinking coffee, as I was reading, as I was texting with my friends to resolve the problem, I got sucked in to the problem that prompted me to get the book, a question I heard in an unrelated political debate from last night. As is usual in these cases, I found that the debate followed the rule of thirds: on a third of the topics, my buddy was definitively wrong, on a third, I was definitively wrong, and on the middle third, there were open unresolved questions worthy of debate. And as I started to look at those questions … I had a brainflash on how to solve them.

And then on a meta-brain-flash, as I realized what tacking the problem was doing to my mental state: it was fixing it.

  • Do the work. Find something you love, and cultivate the ability to throw yourself into it. If you’ve had a gut punch, you might have a bad taste in your mouth about a lot of the projects you were working on … but get your brain into a new space, and all those behavior programs will execute … and give you something new to fall (intellectually) in love with.

The particular question I was tracking – how to evaluate economic policies – is something I’m going to be working on for a while, but I can give you a flavor for it: how do you know whether a political candidate’s economic policies will work? Sometimes that’s easy: for example, Democrats like to spend when the economy’s doing well, and Republicans like to cut when the economy is doing poorly – and both sides are dead wrong. An economy is not a household – cutting spending in a slump will cut the state’s tax revenues and cause an austerity spiral and increased debt; spending in a boom incurs obligations that the state can’t sustain in the next slump and increased risk. These are pretty close to ironclad laws, that operate whether you believe in big government or small or low taxes or high; those are just the dynamics of economies whether you like it or not – whether you believe it or not, suck it up.

But looking long term, some policies promote growth, and some don’t; and it isn’t always clear which is which. What’s worse, exogenous factors – those pesky world events like wars and plagues and wardrobe malfunctions – throw an unavoidable amount of static on top of whatever we’re trying to measure.

The book I’m reading gives me, so far, the impression that individual outcomes are, roughly, helped by a country’s growth, and a country’s growth is affected by things it can’t control, like the luck of history and geography, and things it can, like culture and institutions, with evidence strongly suggesting that institutions matter more than culture, since some countries have kept their cultures but changed their institutions and shown amazing growth. The factors that seem to affect this most are protecting private property, having enforceable contracts, reducing barriers for investment, having a level playing field for businesses, and creating equality of opportunity for citizens … but …

But how much of this is noise, and how much is reality?

And that got me thinking: if you assumed some randomness affecting growth, could you tell apart policies that caused 1 percent growth, or 2 percent growth, or 3 percent growth?

Turns out … you can.

The Promise of Growth v1.png

The central red line is 2% growth, projected out over 20 years. The dotted lines above and below it are 1% and 3% growth … and the grey range is the max and min of a stochastic simulation of ten different histories, each with 5% random variation from year to year, which looks something like this:

The Alternatives to Growth v1.png

The point is, if you get a gut punch – like in the bottom trajectory above – it can look like you’re running a bad policy on a time range of a decade or more before things start to get back on track. On twenty year time horizons, however, you really can start to see an affect. On even longer time horizons, having the right polices can be the difference between a country like Nigeria – rich with oil wealth, yet having a flat growth range – versus a country like the US or Japan or even Botswana or South Korea.

This doesn’t show whether I or my buddy is right – in fact, this model, even as an abstract model, would need to be augmented greatly, to get a proper range of growth rates, of randomness, of the types of exogenous influences and their timescales. But even in its current state, it shows that under a very broad set of assumptions … I and my buddy were right to wrestle over this problem.

What we do now matters, not just in the next election, but twenty years down the road.

And doing that work took me out of my slump. It connected me to an earlier conversation, to earlier problem solving skills not engaged with what I’d been doing just prior to the gut punch. The gut punch still needs to be dealt with – but now it’s just an event, not a thing that causes random spikes of rage and anger when I’m trying to drink my coffee.


And that’s how I learned a new way to deal with a gut punch.

-the Centaur

Appendix. The graphs above were generated via the following Mathematica code:

RandomGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_] :=
initial (1 + rate) (1 + RandomReal[{-fuzz, fuzz}])

ProjectGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=
NestList[RandomGrowth[#, rate, fuzz] &, initial, years]

InterpolateGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=

Interpolation[ProjectGrowth[initial, rate, fuzz, years]]

FuzzyGrowth[initial_, rate_, fuzz_, years_] :=
Table[InterpolateGrowth[initial, rate, fuzz, years], {iterations, 10}]

fuzzyTwoPercent = FuzzyGrowth[1, 0.02, 0.05, 100]

Min[Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]], Max[Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.02, 0.0, 100][x],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.01, 0.0, 100][x],
InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.03, 0.0, 100][x]},
{x, 1, 20},
Filling -> {1 -> {2}},
AxesOrigin -> {1, 1},
AxesLabel -> {“Years Downrange”, “Growth Rate”},
PlotStyle -> {Thin, Thin, Thick,
   Directive[Thick, Dashed],
   Directive[Thick, Dashed]}]

The Promise of Growth v1.png


Plot[{InterpolateGrowth[1.0, 0.02, 0.0, 100][x], Map[#[x] &, fuzzyTwoPercent]},
{x, 1, 20},
AxesOrigin -> {1, 1},
AxesLabel -> {“Years Downrange”, “Growth Rate”},
PlotStyle ->
Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin,
Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin, Thin}]

The Alternatives to Growth v1.png

I hope you enjoyed this exercise in computational therapy.

That Ground Game


Poll watchers may have noticed that Donald Trump has apparently failed to come first in the Iowa Caucuses. I know at least two people – one of them being my military advisor, and the other being Trumpwatcher Scott Adams – have predicted that Trump would win the caucuses, then run the table.

I have a number of bad predictions about the race – namely, that he would bow out as he’s bowed out before, as a result of his genius brand management. He didn’t. But I did also predict that winning the nomination takes more than leading in the polls – it takes a good ground game, and that with half of Republican voters unwilling to vote for Trump, he had a hard road ahead of him.

Now, there are forty-nine states left, and plenty of time for Trump to turn it around. And a lot says he might – Adams would say because he’s a Master Persuader, some of my friends because they think he’s awesome, and my old high school history teacher would say populist demagogues are always popular.

But, if Trump wants to bow out when the going gets rough, as Trump did before the last two times he ran, he will have accomplished a genius act of brand management. You can’t buy publicity like he’s gotten through his antics, and he’s made the things he cares about the focus of the campaign. Kudos to his skill.

To go on the record, I think Trump’s a poor choice for President. He’s anti-American, frequently insulting immigrants (like my grandfather) and veterans (like my father) and everyone who opposes him (like half the people a real President would have to deal with in office). He’s a loose cannon, frequently tossing out crap ideas that would sabotage our relations with our allies; some people call that “first offer in dealmaking,” I call that “being an untrustworthy liar.”

Now, not all his positions are anathema to me, and he’s got some good features. For example, he has a lot of business experience, though a number of his business ventures have failed or gone bankrupt; people who know a little about business (but think they know a lot) call that “compartmentalizing his ventures to protect him from losses”; people who know a lot about business at scale call that “gross incompetence” as a real businessman doesn’t let a business setback get spun into a public bankruptcy. But he has lots of experience running really big things, and would likely manage the running of the office passably.

But we can’t let him do that. We can’t trust Trump to respect his office. We had a bad enough time Bush skating on the edges of impeachable malfeasance until Obama took over and showed us how being a rogue president was done – but both Bush and Obama respected the office. If given the opportunity, Trump wouldn’t respect a congressional subpoena – he’s the one who does the firing, remember? So we need to make sure not to give him power he would have to give up when he’s impeached.

Sigh. Jeb!, why’d you stumble? Hillary, what was in your head when you set up that email server? And Sanders? Cruz? And what about Robert Jefferson Shmickelwhaite, former mayor of Benson, Arizona, that almost unknown guy who should have run who had all the experience and all the right positions but decided to sit it out this round?

Regardless, I love America, and whoever wins is my President.

But, if you’re going to run, even if you’re a “populist” or “Master Persuader” or even just “Making America Great Again”, it would behoove you to look at the math and make sure you’ve got a ground game when the time comes to stop polling and start voting. Ground game – that is, an actual nationwide campaign organization that, like, gets out the vote for your guy or gal.

Worth checking into.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Donald Trump, taken by Alex Hanson, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, under which you are free to share or remix the work as long as it is attributed to Alex Hanson.

Nobody knows nothing about the future except it’s going to happen

Screenshot 2016-01-23 15.43.15.png

WTF? Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, running for president as an independent? As a liberal Republican?


Q. Why is this coming out now if Bloomberg doesn’t plan to make up his mind until March? What’s the game plan?

A. Michael Bloomberg realizes that he could be in the best position to become the first independent elected candidate, going all the way back to 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt ran as a Bull Moose and won 27 percent. Bloomberg is a nationally known figure, and he has financial resources — he doesn’t need the financial support and structure of a party. Both sides will say that Bloomberg is running to help the other side — that’s always the way it is with a third-party candidate. But Bloomberg does not like Bernie Sanders’s social democratic philosophy at all. And I don’t think he likes Donald Trump’s statements on deporting people who are here illegally. Bloomberg has very good political instincts, and he is sensing that a lot of Americans are probably concerned, too.

Regardless of how it turns out, I don’t recall anyone predicting this. Let’s check the Google for answers, doing a search from the beginning of last year to the middle of last week … welp, I’m wrong, someone’s been talking about it, though as of October they were predicting that he won’t run, and that this is yet another in a series of endless rumors:


Are you into gambling? You are? Well, here’s a tip: Don’t put any money on Michael Bloomberg becoming president, no matter what you read in the New York media.

[reviews history of unfulfilled rumors from December 2006 to October 2015]

Perhaps this is all a charade—Bloomberg playing it all off until the moment he launches his campaign. Or you could just take it from Mike, whose bluntness and frankness his friends always cite as an important qualification: “I’m not going to run for president, period … No way, no how … It’s just impossible … No is the answer. Plain and simple.”

So it looks like this is another Wild Biden loose in the theater – watch out, raar. On the other hand, few people predicted in advance Trump would run again – as far as I know, not even professional Trump-watcher Scott Adams – so I go back to the one thing I know about presidential politics (actually, this is a sum of many things I know, but this story tells it well), which is this:

The Parable of the Man Who Was Obscure

Back in the day, there was a man who was obscure. He was so obscure, in fact, that no-one ever remembered anything he did: he even went on a nationally televised game show and none of the contestants could recognize him – though one did figure out he was a former governor. The man decided to run for president, but he was so obscure he had name recognition of two percent, and in the Iowa caucuses, he came in second after Uncommitted.

Hopeless, eh?

We now call him former President Jimmy Carter.

[cue scratchy audio clip of Paul Harvey saying “And now you know the rest of the story.”]

Nobody knows nothing about the future except it’s going to happen.

-the Centaur

A mild political prediction


In case you haven’t noticed (because you’ve been living under a rock), Donald Trump’s the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nominee. Seeing these three articles today, I noticed a common theme (other than that they’re all left leaning, but they’re not the only one seeing this, as you’ll see in a moment), and I’d like to make a prediction:

Americans of all races, creeds and political persuasions are united today in the realization that, good grief, Donald Trump actually could become the Republican presidential nominee.

National Review’s editors denounce Trump for shifting his political stances and describe him as “a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.” … the magazine is paying a price in the short term for its anti-Trump issue, with the Republican National Committee disinviting it from a CNN debate next month.

The essays were contradictory in their reasons for loathing Trump, and the editor himself was writing supportive words about Trump earlier this year, but never mind. Consistency is the hobgoblin of sane non-conservative pundits, after all … We personally have long been predicting a Republican Party major freakout when they all woke up to the fact that Donald Trump has been their party’s frontrunner all along. So we have to say that in the past few weeks (since this freakout has begun in earnest), we have been enjoying the fray from the sidelines.

My prediction?

My prediction is: cartoonist and pundit Scott Adams will point out that he predicted Trump’s rise all along. Scott’s been chronicling Trump in his “Master Persuader” series, and if he doesn’t take the comment “the essays were contradictory in their reasons for loathing Trump” as a tell for persuasion, I’ll start wondering if Scott been replaced by a pod person:

http://blog.dilbert.com/post/135324448866/the-lucky-hitler-hypothesis-trump-persuasion A tell for a Master Persuader is the outlandishness of the criticisms. Jeb Bush is not a persuader, and no one accuses him of anything but running an ineffective campaign. No one believes Rand Paul is really an elf that makes cookies in a hollowed-out tree. But they would, if Paul were a master persuader instead of a policy wonk … Now compare Trump, Obama, and Hillary Clinton. Trump is routinely compared to Hitler. Obama is considered by many to be a Muslim sleeper cell. But Hillary Clinton is generally accused of ordinary flaws such as incompetence, dishonesty, etc. Clinton is not a master persuader. If she were, a third of the country would believe she is a practicing witch. A real one. And no, that is not a joke.

I don’t often agree with Scott Adams (mainly because he is well trained in what he calls the pseudoscience of hypnosis, but I’m trained in the science of cognitive psychology, and some of the things he thinks are true about how the mind works were refuted long ago; also, we have political differences), but he’s always, always entertaining.

-the Centaur

Perhaps I Spoke Too Soon …


… when I claimed Scott Adams appeared to be right on the question of Donald Trump’s supposed meltdown. Scott, as you recall, claimed this was part of an elaborate three dimensional game of chess designed to trounce Carson, whereas I was claiming that Trump was possibly sabotaging his own campaign. Trump’s initial bounce and Carson’s stumble led me to award this to Adams.

Since then, Trump has publicly mocked a handicapped reporter, and demanded CNN cough up five million dollars to appear at the next debate. My predictive filter says Trump’s doing more self-sabotage. Scott’s filter says Trump will suffer a slight dip, then increase in the polls. Trump is actually just increasing in the polls, no dip. So, um, advantage to Scott, me, randomness?

My high school history teacher’s predictive filter would say, “Populist demagogues are always popular.”

Your predictive mileage may vary.

-the Centaur

What If I’m Wrong?


Recently I went on the record about a seemingly self-destructive speech by Donald Trump. By going on the record, you can test your predictions. For the benefit of those who don’t care a whit, I predicted (more or less) that Donald Trump was deliberately self-destructing (or laying the groundwork for it) and Scott Adams predicted Donald Trump was going after Carson. A little time has gone by; let’s look at those polls.

Screenshot 2015-11-22 21.42.30.png

By my scorecard, that’s Scott Adams 1, Anthony Francis, 0. Of course, time will tell, and things have happened recently to change the game (for example, 5 major terrorist attacks in 5 countries around the world, in which even I will admit Trump sounds better suited than Carson, sorry). But the hypothesis that he was deliberately self-destructing was at least premature, and the hypothesis that he’s trying to nail Carson seems good. Certainly, in the last few weeks, Trump’s popularity has risen to that of, say, Bernie Sanders, so he must be doing something right.

As Scott might remind you, it’s not good to bet against popular internet cartoonists. They might be right. On the other hand, I think the words “I was wrong” are three of the most beautiful words in the English language. They’re a sign of learning.

-the Centaur

Beirut and Paris


My heart, prayers and condolences go out to all those who lost their lives in the deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris yesterday, and to the families, friends and loved ones who are suffering in the aftermath of this outrage, which over the past few days killed almost 200 people in France and Lebanon. This has got to stop … but for now, you are all in my prayers.