2016 Election Thoughts: Part 2/2

This post has absolutely nothing to do with science and is just some of my thoughts on the recent US Presidential election. I started writing up my thoughts and I realized it was easiest to organize my thoughts by things I would like to say to Anti-Trump vs Trump voters. In reality, both posts are relevant to either side, but it was a convenient way to cleanly separate my points. Since I respect everyone’s right to a private vote, I’m writing these thoughts as open letters to both sides.

Dear Trump Voters Who Love Me,

I cried.

I’m scared and I cried.

I need you to understand that. This fear of Trump has not gotten better since the election. In fact, it took me until Friday November 11th at 8PM PT for the full implications of the election of President Trump to set in. I finally truly understood what this election meant to me.

I need you to know that when I fully understood what this election meant to me, I cried. Uncontrollable sobbing. It hit me while walking down the hallway towards my apartment. I held it together long enough to go inside, sit down in the dark, and sob uncontrollably by myself. I cried because I was scared. I cried because of innocence lost, both my own and my future children’s. I cried because I didn’t do enough to prevent me from crying. I cried for being naive and stupid and taking this long to truly see the world. I cried for not figuring it out in time to communicate my viewpoint with Trump voters. I cried because I was crying. I cried out of despair and frustration because I realized my future children, at a much younger age, would feel a much worse pain. I cried because I had entered the Dark Forest.

I need you to know that I will remember that cry for a long time. I cry rarely enough that I am pretty sure I can name ever event since my teenage years. This is something I won’t forget anytime soon.

And I realized, that more than anything else, I need you to understand why I cried. I need you to understand why President Donald J. Trump can never be just another politician to me. I need you to realize that you have unleashed a political weapon on me that scares the shit out of me. I need you to understand why this just became a defining point in my life. I need you to understand that I have entered the Dark Forest and what it means for me.

First what is the Dark Forest. I am stealing this from a science fiction series, the Three Body Problem. While the book focuses on interactions between alien civilizations, I think it also a useful analogy for politics today since both sides seem to be alien to each other. The Dark Forest translated to democracy is this:

Axiom 1: A voter’s goal is to survive
Axiom 2: Resources are finite
Axiom 3: Voters and politicians have limited communication
Axiom 4: Strangers have limited communication

Consequence 1, The Light Forest: The combination of axiom 1 and 2 mean that we are all hunters in a forest, competing for resources. This by itself is a perfectly fine world and democracy. Yes we are competing with each other, but since we have plenty of light, we can stay safe. We don’t need to worry that we will mistake each other for the animals we are hunting.

Consequence 2, Chains of Suspicion: The combinations of axiom 3 and 4 lead to Chains of Suspicion. The extreme distances between strangers creates an insurmountable ‘Chain of Suspicion’ where the two strangers cannot communicate fast enough to relieve mistrust, making conflict inevitable.

Consequence 3, The Dark Forest: The Chains of Suspicion cast a dark shadow over the Forest, turning it dark. In the Dark Forest, other hunters become threats. I no longer know if the noise I hear in the dark is an animal or another hunter. I also know that the other hunter has the same problem. I know that this other hunter may shoot me, either by accident, out of fear, or worse, on purpose. Therefore, I can only guarantee my safety if I shoot first and ask questions later.

I need you to realize that politicians words matter. Trump and I will never talk in person. I will never be able to truly get to know Trump. That means, that when Trump says or tweets authoritarian or racist things, I will never know his true intent. It means that Trump and I have an insurmountable Chain of Suspicion.

Looking back, Trump and I have had this Chain of Suspicion for a long time. This Chain did not directly drive me into the Dark Forest of distrust largely because of you. I love and trust you. I know that we may have political differences, but I am confident we can work them out. But you and I are not the issue. You and I are not strangers.

What drove me into the Dark Forest is that Chains of Suspicion multiply like a virus. In the Dark Forest, Trump’s words matter because they are him broadcasting his potential future actions. Maybe Trump’s threats are just a bluff. Maybe those words won’t lead to actions. But I need you to understand, there are others that scare me to my core and I am afraid that Trump has given them more power. Trump has reinforced their terrible ideas and made them seem slightly more normal.

I need you to know that Trump is not a standard politician to me. Trump successfully won election despite doing two things that I thought individually would be disqualifying in modern society:

  1. disregard for democracy
  2. explicit racism

I need you to understand that when Trump combined those two together, he crossed a line that should never be crossed in a functioning democracy. Trump crossed the safety tape separating democracy and fascism. Trump himself has NOT taken us to fascism. But I am afraid he made fascism seem just a little more mainstream to extremists.

One major reason words speak louder than actions is that there are certain words that can’t be unsaid. Trump proclaimed in a nationally televised debate that he may not accept the outcome of the election if he does not win. I need you to really think about the future consequences of that. You need to understand what those words mean  to me and my insurmountable Chain of Suspicion with Trump.

Imagine this scenario that scares the shit out of me and needs to scare you too. Trump in 4 years, as the sitting President (maybe with a Republican House and Senate) says in a presidential debate that he may not accept the outcome of the election if he doesn’t win.

What am I suppose to believe if Trump wins again by a small margin like this year? Should I believe that the election was fair? Or should I worry that Trump used his power as president to ensure his own victory?

If you don’t understand this fear, and why the MERE POSSIBILITY of this fear itself should scare you too, please reconsider. Learn more about history. You need to understand the Dark Forest that I am in now. Talk to me until you understand my fear. A democracy CANNOT survive long if even a small percentage of voters fear the integrity of future votes. I have this fear. This fear leads to a Dark Forest where democracy will struggle.

This fear needs to be extinguished now because when it combines with my next issue, I am afraid it leads to an even Darker Forest were democracy is guaranteed to die. Trump has created an insurmountable racial Chain of Suspicion with me. Trump has engaged a variety of terrible racial rhetoric but there are two things that especially stick with me. The first is Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel which even Paul Ryan called “the textbook definition of a racist comment.”

I need you to know that since I have a Chain of Suspicion with Trump, I cannot avoid taking that attack personally. Trump attacked Judge Curiel for his Mexican heritage despite being born in the United States. Judge Curiel is clearly not American enough for Trump. It doesn’t matter that Tina has Chinese heritage. I need you to know that I see an attack on one minority as an attack on all. I need you to know that I see it as an attack against Tina and our future kids. Will they be American enough for Trump? I just don’t know.

But I really need you to the final realization that made me break down crying and pushed me deep into the Dark Forest. I had managed to forget about Trump’s strange relationship with David Duke (KKK member), see here for details. Trump’s refusal to disavow David Duke in 2016 despite doing so in 2000 scares me. I realized I truly don’t understand Trump.

What drove me to tears was that I realized, even if Trump made an innocent mistake, the damage is done. Trump broadcast a message to David Duke and other racists that can never be unsaid. Trump (unintentionally or intentionally) screamed to them: I can win the presidency despite authoritarian and racist rhetoric. It is not Trump I am scared of. It is the dark hunters he just empowered. I had no illusions that racial extremists did not exist, but now, due to Chains of Suspicion, I am no longer optimistic that their numbers are small.

I need you to realize that this is when I personally entered the Dark Forest. I was walking back from my car to the apartment when I walked past a large group of white men. I unconsciously started doing some math, trying to calculate what are the odds that they voted for Trump and specifically voted for Trump because of his racial rhetoric. Before I could finish the math, I realized I was deciding if I was safe around them and started tearing up. This is when I cried uncontrollably. This is when I realized that I had been naive and living in a false world. I thought I was realistic and understood the darkness that existed in the world. But I was living in a Light Forest that was only a product of many factors including but not limited to me being: male, white, upper middle class, well-educated, etc. I truly saw the Dark Forest.

I cried because I got the tiniest possible sliver of understanding of what it truly means to be a minority and I couldn’t handle the truth. As a minority, they live in the Dark Forest. They have heard and felt the racism. They know that not everyone can be trusted. They know that people can attack them when least expected and they must be suspicious. But I cried because its worse: minorities live in the Dark Forest but have a permanent spotlight on them. They are emitting light into this darkness. They don’t blend in. They always stand out in this vast darkness. That means they are always a target for those that hunt minorities.

I cried because I realized that I live in a Dark Forest and that Tina and our future children will always have a spotlight on them. I cried because the tiny glimpse of the darkness scared me. I cried because I realized that my future children will learn the nature of the Dark Forest at an age that is much too young. I cried because I know the Dark Forest my children will live in is worse than the one I am in. I cried because I am scared of hunters like David Duke. I cried because President Trump doesn’t seem to understand that his words empower these hunters. I cried because I was too stupid to put this all into words sooner. I cried because I don’t know how to protect Tina and our future children. I cried because my natural response to that helplessness was to lash out at others in the same way they want to attack Tina. And I had one final burst of tears when I realized the deep irony that David Duke had just made me into an inverse of himself and made me racist against random white people. I laughed, probably like a maniac, because I realized that after that, I am so far lost in the Dark Forest of distrust that I had managed to become the type of hunter that probably scares David Duke the most.

But most of all, I need you to understand that I love you and look forward to working with you to end the Dark Forest of distrust. I am sorry for not communicating better with you. I don’t know why you voted for Trump. Maybe you are already in the Dark Forest of distrust. Maybe you hated Hillary and had an insurmountable Chain of Suspicion with her. Maybe you thought Trump was a standard Republican candidate.

I know you didn’t mean to scare me. But I need you to realize that Trump is not a standard candidate to me. I need you to realize that I can never personally trust Trump based on the words he has said. I need you to realize that I am especially scared of Trump and the people he might either intentionally or accidentally empower.

And I especially need you to realize that what I am actually more scared about is the fact that I am scared. The part of me that remembers the Light Forest thinks the fear is irrational. But the part of me that has seen the Dark Forest of distrust thinks the fear is rational and maybe that I am not scared enough. I see how the Chains of Distrust multiply. If even a few people share my distrust, it must be extinguished now before it grows too strong.

We have to break taboos. We need to talk about politics. We need to establish ground rules for the type of political discourse and political tactics that are allowed in America. We need to talk about race and discrimination. The only way to turn the Dark Forest into the Light Forest is to break Chains of Suspicion by better communication. We can’t wait four years to discuss these issues. We had a deep divide in this country before the election and Trump made the divide wider. We can only heal this distrust if we start soon.

And finally, I want you to know that I have made peace with this election. I want to sincerely thank you for voting for President Trump. I can now see the world clearer than before. My naivety was dangerous to Tina and our future children. I was complacent. I assumed my children would grow up in a Light Forest. I now realize that they cannot. But I will fight to make the Dark Forest just a little bit brighter. I will fight to extend the time that my children think they are only in a Light Forest. And I now realize the true depths of the Dark Forest, and that I can only fight it with you help. I look forward to working with you to bring Light to the Dark Forest.

With all the love in my heart,

PS. This is not the world’s weirdest baby announcement. These children I discuss are still in the future. But I still cried for the hypothetical children.

PSS. Dave Chappelle and SNL are very wise. I admit thinking I was more realistic about the US than the people in the skit, but I was just in a slightly different bubble than they were.

2016 Election Thoughts: Part 1/2

This post has absolutely nothing to do with science and is just some of my thoughts on the recent US Presidential election. I started writing up my thoughts and I realized it was easiest to organize my thoughts by things I would like to say to Anti-Trump vs Trump voters. In reality, both posts are relevant to either side, but it was a convenient way to cleanly separate my points. Since I respect everyone’s right to a private vote, I’m writing these thoughts as open letters to both sides.

Dear Anti-Trump Voters Who Love Me,

We fucked up.

Don’t get me wrong, I voted against Trump and you voted against Trump, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still have issues with both you and myself. We didn’t do enough. You can read my letter to Trump Voters to realize the pain I felt.

I have several central ideas and several additional points later.

1. Don’t Disrespect Democracy

We lost and we lost fair and square. I am 100% in support of electoral college reform for 2020 and beyond. I am 0% in any attempt to change it in 2016. Don’t sow seeds of doubt. Accept the results and move forward.

2. Think Long and Hard about WHY People Supported Trump

Spend a lot of time thinking about the chart in this article.  The automation and elimination of jobs is real and will only accelerate. The pain and despair are real. Trump addressed the anger and angst felt by people in these counties. These issues are not going away. I don’t claim to have an answer, but if you want to win over the hearts of Trump supporters, this is a great starting point. Also, despite being on a comedy website, this article also makes many serious points. Its time to win over Trump supporters not demonize them.

3. Words Matter: Stop Crying Wolf

A recent conversation with a wise office mate of mine involved us reminiscing about the good old days when with Mitt Romney we only had to worry about binders full of women and terrible renditions of Who Let the Dogs Out. Those were not real issues, but we cried wolf. Well, the real wolf just got elected and we blew all credibility too soon.

Trump must be opposed. But its time to reserve the harsh words for him and others who are truly racist, sexist, etc. Don’t use the same rhetoric on other Republicans. The false equivalence will continue to cause a credibility gap in the future.

4. Governance Reform Starts Now and MUST Continue When Democrats Win

The political system is broken and we were part of the problem. It doesn’t matter who did it first, last, or most. Both sides have abused weird technicalities in our process of government and that must stop.

I have ideas for more sweeping reforms, but for now, I will just focus on a few of the major problems I see.

A. President: Limit Executive Power
Executive power is like heroin. Might feel great while you are high and in charge but it sucks the rest of the time. We let Obama do too much. The withdrawal is going to suck majorly.

B. House of Representatives: Gerrymandering
The Republicans are going to win just over 52% of the two party vote but around 55% of the seats. Not all of that is due to gerrymandering, but at least part of it is. Check out the Texas districts. Both Democrats and Republicans should learn about California’s new redistricting commission. I can attest that the districts seem more reasonable and that the “jungle” primary is quite fun.

C. Senate: Filibuster

Let’s all agree to just end the filibuster now. Just because the Republicans successfully used the filibuster to block a Supreme Court nominee for nearly a year does not mean that Democrats should turn around and do the same. It is time to end the filibuster and just let the majority of the Senate govern. This will really hurt in the short term. But it will be much better in the long term.

D. Electoral College Reform

Again, I am 100% in support of electoral college reform for 2020 and beyond. I am 0% in any attempt to change it in 2016.

Any argument in favor of the electoral college has to explain this fact for me: Hillary Clinton will probably win the popular vote by about 1% and lose the electoral college by 6.5%. That huge discrepancy goes against every principle of one person, one vote. Look back at past elections, the popular vote is way out of sync with the electoral college.


PS Points:

1. #TrumpIsOurPresident

While I understand the spirit of #NotOurPresident is that you disagree with Trump, no one gets to pretend that Trump isn’t truly our president. We are all responsible for Trump. I know I personally didn’t do enough to oppose him, since I honestly didn’t truly think he would win. But Trump did win and this is on everyone now.

2. Please Protest Peacefully
I am 1000% behind everyone’s right to protest. Just please don’t turn violent, that will only play into Trump’s hand and give his paranoid rants more legitimacy.

3. Stop Crashing Canada’s Immigration Website
Back to PS point 1, Trump is our president. Deal with it here. You don’t get to flee.

4. Stop Imagining Alternative Pasts
What if Bernie Sanders was the nominee? What if the third party vote was different? Etc, etc, etc. The election is done. Now don’t get me wrong, it is worth learning from mistakes. But learn from the past to make the future you dream of a reality, instead of only dreaming about the past.

5. California Doesn’t Get to Secede
Just stop, its stupid.

Basic Income

Recently the Swiss voted no on their referendum to implement basic income. Personally, I think that we should strongly consider implementing a basic income in the United States. At the minimum, I think that we deserve a national conversation on poverty that should include a serious discussion of the pros and cons of basic income. Therefore, I got really pissed off by this recent piece in the New York Times (or this, etc).

The author dismisses basic income out of hand for two major reasons:

  1. Cost (proposal of $10,000 to everyone over 21 for a total of $3 trillion)
  2. Negative effect on the poor (through government cuts due to the cost of implementing the above basic income)

I’ll go through the details below, but some rudimentary math shows that basic income could be paid for in the United States by tax increases that would not be a burden on the poor (or even most of the middle class). Thus, no government programs would need to be cut.

The purpose of this exercise is not to propose a foolproof implementation of basic income. Instead, I want to show that dismissing basic income due to cost is incorrect. If you want to debate basic income, the real issue is how our employment-centered economy would be changed by altering people’s motivation to work.

Here is a the conclusion of the calculations, please read on for all the details. I estimate that $11,500 (ie the US poverty line) could be paid to every non-Social Security receiving adult and $5750 (half the adult payment) to every child by adding a new flat tax on income (adjusted gross income) of 26.6% (see the appendix for alternative proposals that include a lower flat tax). This means that any individual that makes less than $49,500 would get MORE money from the government under this simple plan. Therefore, around 70% of non-Social Security US adults would get more money from the government.


Simple Calculation

Estimate Cost

I will start off by calculating the cost of basic income. First, how many people do we need to cover? I am going to ignore the 65 million that are on Social Security. My reasoning is that Social Security is almost a basic income (or could be with a few reforms) and that it is financially secure if we eliminate the cap ($118,500) on the payroll tax but do not increase benefits (see here and here for details).

Looking at the US census facts, there are 74 million children under 18, leaving 183 million US adults not on Social Security. I’m propose paying a half-adult benefit for children, so that means adult benefits will be paid to an effective population of 220 million.

Therefore, if each individual approximately gets the US poverty line, ($11,500), this would result in a total cost of $2.53 trillion.

Estimate Flat Tax

So how could we pay for this? The simplest possible mechanism would be a new flat tax on personal income.

The total US personal income in 2014 was $14.7 trillion. However, not all of that is taxable income (standard deductions, mortgage interest deduction, etc), so the actual taxable personal income is the adjusted gross income (AGI). Using some old numbers on AGI, I estimate that the total US AGI was $9.5 trillion in 2014.

Since the cost is $2.53 trillion, and US AGI is $9.5 trillion, that gives a flat tax rate of 26.6%.

Estimate Break Even Point

For a single individual, the standard deduction is $6300 (this amount of income is not taxed). It would take a taxable income of $43,180 to have a flat tax burden equal to the new basic income. Combine that with the standard deduction, and rounding a bit, leads to the conclusion that anyone making under $49,500 would gain money from the basic income/flat tax proposal.



Please don’t dismiss basic income purely out of cost. As the estimates above show, one could introduce basic income and pay for it with a new tax in a manner that preserves all other government programs.

I think there are two major reasons to embrace basic income:

  1. Fairness
  2. Needed security due to potential changes in employment

Maybe the fairness argument doesn’t fit with everyone’s political leanings, but I think the future of employment is strong motivation. Each new technological revolution seems to require fewer and fewer workers (compare Ford’s workforce vs Google’s). Since I don’t see that trend reversing and machine learning / artificial intelligence should actually accelerate it, I think we need to be proactive and provide a floor for people before we have large unemployment.

However, I recognize that basic income is a very controversial idea. That is why I am interested in seeing experimental implementations of it. While this experiment is nice, it really is too small to truly learn anything from. Instead, I would love to see a national trial. Why not start at a very small number, and slowly increase it over time? That would allow us to adapt to the changing culture (ie potentially NOT work centric) and make sure that there are no adverse incentives. For example, my dumb proposal of a half benefit to children needs to be more carefully monitored to ensure that people do not have children just for the sake of getting their share of the benefit.

No matter what you think, the debate isn’t going away. So we might as well start examining it now.


Appendix: Other Possible Tax Plans

Here I outline my own personal preferences for tax reforms (in addition to a flat tax) that could be used to pay for basic income. Note that all dollar amounts are per year.

Tax Reforms Within Current System

All numbers listed below are the estimated cost per year of the various deductions.

These are some tax reforms that many economists support:

I think this program is superseded by the introduction of a basic income:

And here are some additional reforms I support:

  • Tax capital gains and dividends as regular income ($85 billion)
  • Limit deductions for the wealthy ($25 billion)
  • Variety of corporate tax reforms ($40 billion) (I don’t understand depreciation so only the others on the list)

This comes to a total reform of $335 billion.

Note: I could have included food stamps or unemployment benefits in the superseded cost savings, but I’m going to assume that the benefits get reformed, but the money still is diverted towards health and employment initiatives respectively.


I would propose adding a federal value added tax as is common in Europe (see here for pros/cons). Bloomberg estimates that a VAT of 10% on a broad base of items would raise $750 billion per year. For ease of collection, this should be accompanied by a local/state replacement of the standard sales tax (which generates around $500 billion per year, or effectively a 6.66% VAT). I propose a 15% VAT (similar to European rates) that is split evenly between local/state governments and the federal government. This would generate $560 billion additional federal revenue (as a bonus the states get an additional $60 billion).

Financial Transaction Tax

This would impose a small fee on all financial transactions. If we implemented a 0.05% transaction fee (ie 50 cents on every $1000), this would raise an additional $90 billion.

Estate / Transfer Taxes

Currently $1.2 trillion is inherited per year, but estate taxes only bring in $8 billion in revenue. I suggest an estate / transfer tax reform to collect more revenue from this. I would structure it in a progressive manner (ie increasing with wealth), but I again just want to estimate the necessary average rate. If an average rate of 25% was applied to estates, this would lead to an additional $290 billion.

Personal Income Flat Tax

In the end, we still need $1.255 trillion in new revenue. And since the US AGI is $9.5 trillion (it would be slightly higher after the above reforms, but I will ignore that), that implies that we would need to implement a 13.2% flat tax to raise $1.255 trillion.


If one does a similar flat tax break even point, for people below $93,400 would receive more in basic income than in the flat tax. However, this is misleading since I no easy way to estimate the increase taxes due to the VAT. A worse-case scenario would be that people spend their complete income every year on VAT taxable items. Since there is currently an effective VAT of 6.66%, this is a VAT increase of 8.33%. So a break-even point for the combined flat tax / VAT rate (21.55%) would be $59,600. All the other taxes are much more complicated so I have no easy estimate for them.

The main point of this detailed appendix is that one could replace the flat income tax with a diverse set of taxes that again would not be an unfair burden on the poor or middle class. Additionally, the tax base would be diversified and less prone to swings in the economy.

Thoughts on OpenAI

OpenAI was started just over 6 months ago, and I feel like they have done enough to warrant a review of what they have done so far, and my thoughts of what they should do next.

What is OpenAI?

OpenAI was announced in December 2015 and their stated mission is:

OpenAI is a non-profit artificial intelligence research company. Our goal is to advance digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole, unconstrained by a need to generate financial return.

In the short term, we’re building on recent advances in AI research and working towards the next set of breakthroughs.


What have they done so far?

  1. Started a new, small (so far) research center
  2. Experimented with a novel organization of the research center
  3. Hired a variety of smart people
  4. Released a toolkit for reinforcement learning (RL)

Since it has only been six months and they are still getting setup, it is still difficult to assess how well they have done. But here are my first impressions of the above points.

  1. Always great to have more places hiring researchers!
  2. Way too early to assess. I’m always intrigued by experiments of new ways to organize research, since there are three dominant types of organizations today (academia, industry focused on development, and industry focused on longterm research).
  3. Bodes well for their future success.
  4. I have yet to use it, but the it looks awesome. Supervised learning was sped along by datasets such as UC Irvine’s Machine Learning Repository, MNIST, and Imagenet, and I think their toolkit could have a similar impact on RL.


What do I think they should do?

This blog post was motivated by me having a large list of things that I think OpenAI should be doing. After I started writing, I realized that many of the things on my wish list would probably be better run by a new research institute, which I will detail in a future post. So here, I focus on my research wish-list for OpenAI.

Keep the Data Flowing

As Neil Lawrence pointed out shortly after OpenAI’s launch, data is king. So I am very happy with OpenAI’s RL toolkit. I hope that they keep adding new datasets or environments that machine learners can use. Some future ideas include supporting new competitions (maybe in partnership with Kaggle?), partnering with organizations to open up their data, and introducing datasets for unsupervised learning.

Unsupervised Learning

But maybe I’m putting the cart (data) before the horse (algorithms and understanding). Unsupervised learning is tough for a series of interconnected issues:

  • What are good test cases / datasets for unsupervised learning?
  • How does one assess learning success?
  • Are our current algorithms even close to the “best”?

The reason supervised learning is easier is that algorithms require data with labels, there are lots of established metrics for evaluating success (for example, accuracy of label predictions), and we know for most metrics what is the best (100% correct label predictions). Reinforcement learning has some of that (data and a score), but is much less well defined that supervised learning.

So while I think the progress on reinforcement learning will definitely lead to new ideas for unsupervised learning, more work needs to be done directly on unsupervised learning. And since they have no profit motives or tenure pressure, I really hope OpenAI focuses on this extremely tough area.

Support Deep Learning Libraries

We currently have a very good problem: lots of deep learning libraries, to the point of almost being too many. A few years ago, everyone had to essentially code their own library, but now one can choose from Theano and TensorFlow for low end libraries, to Lasagne and Keras for high end libraries, just to name a few examples from Python.

I think that OpenAI could play a useful role in standardization and testing of libraries. While there are tons of great existing libraries, their documentation quality varies significantly, and in general is sub par (for example compared to NumPy). Additionally, besides choosing a language (I strongly advocate Python), one usually needs to choose a backend library (Theano vs TensorFlow), and then a high end library.

So my specific proposal for OpenAI is the following initiatives:

  1. Help establish some deep learning standards so people can verify the accuracy of a library and assess its quality and speed
  2. Set up some meetings between Theano, TensorFlow, and others to help standardize the backend (and include them in the settings of standards)
  3. Support initiatives for developers to improve documentation of their libraries
  4. Support projects that are agnostic to the backend (like Keras) and/or help other packages that are backend specific (like Lasagne) become backend agnostic

As a recent learning of deep learning, and someone who interacts extensively with non-machine learners, I think the above initiatives would allow a wider population of researchers to incorporate deep learning in their research.

Support Machine Learning Education

I believe this is the crucial area that OpenAI is missing, and it will prevent them from their stated mission to help all of humanity.

Check out a future post for my proposed solution…

Python on a Mac

I personally do most of my coding on my laptop, which is a Mac. Eventually that code gets run on a Linux server, but all initial coding, exploratory data analysis, etc is done on my laptop. And since I advocate for Python, I thought I would lay out all the steps I needed to do to setup my Mac in the easiest manner. (Note: probably similar steps on Windows, but I haven’t used a Windows computer in so long that I don’t know the potential differences).


Unfortunately, the Python 2.x vs 3.x divide exists and so far, I have yet to be able to completely commit to 3.x due to a few packages with legacy issues. Luckily, there is a pretty easy solution below. Note, your Mac has Python preinstalled (go to terminal and type python to start coding…). However, if you want to update any packages, you can quickly run into issues. So it is easiest to install your own version of Python.

  1. Install Anaconda (I advocate version 2.7, Anaconda will call this environment root)
  2. I recommend using Anaconda Navigator and using Spyder for an IDE
  3. Install version 3.5 and make an environment (in Anaconda Navigator or terminal commands below):
    $ conda create -n python3.5 python=3.5 anaconda
  4. You can switch between python environments  {root, python3.5}
    $ source activate {insert environment name here}
  5. To add new python packages use conda or pip (anaconda has made its own pip the default)
  6. WARNING: always close Spyder before using conda update or pip. I got stuck in some weird place where Spyder would no longer launch. Apparently it can happen if Spyder is open and underlying packages get changed.

To get around the 2.x vs 3.x issue, go to your terminal and use pip install for the following packages: future, importlib, unittest2, and argparse. See the package’s website for details of any differences. Then, start your Python code with the following two lines:

from __future__ import (absolute_import, division, print_function, 

from builtins import *

For nearly all scientific computing applications, you are essentially writing Python 3 code. So make sure to read the correct documentation!

Personally, I found Anaconda to be a lifesaver. Otherwise, I got stuck in some weird infinite update loop to install all required packages for machine learning (specifically Theano).

Now you are ready to code! If you aren’t familiar with Python, my recommended tutorials will be in a future post.


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Initial Conditions

I (ie Alex Lang) am a physics PhD currently doing my postdoctorate research at the Salk Institute in San Diego. I work on a variety of research topics such as physics, computational neuroscience, machine learning and theoretical biophysics. As an outsider, that probably looks like a jumble of topics, but I swear, there is a theme! In my research, I apply techniques (both conceptual and mathematical) from statistical physics to a variety of problems. Statistical physics is the domain of physics that applies to large systems (number of “particles” N when N \gg 1). In many ways large systems are simpler than small systems, so taking the extremely large system size limit (N \to \infty) often brings useful insights into a problem. So the blog name is inspired from statistical physics, my broad interests, and of course, Buzz Lightyear.

The blog will focus on research topics of interest to me and hopefully others. I will also blog about research in general, what academia is like, and other science-like things (including science-fiction!).

I will focus on occasional, but detailed posts. My personal goal for 2016 is 25 posts of substance, so one every two weeks. I’m hoping the journal club we are starting up at the Salk will provide plenty of material, more details on that soon.

If you are interested in following, I personally enjoy Feedly as a RSS Reader. Or you can sign up for email alerts (see sidebar) or follow me on Twitter @n2infty.