Saturday, May 27, 2006

Welcome to Gattaca

Wow. According to a news story, republican New York mayor Bloomberg wants to keep DNA dibs on every single US worker. That idea is so bad on so many fronts, it's hard to know where to begin.

Your DNA information tells a lot about you. Your health, your ethnic background, insight into your genealogy, your life expectency... it gets kind of silly. Sure, the idea would be to prevent DNA from actually being examined outside of identification purposes wink wink nod nod, but we all know how likely that's going to continue (think several decades in the future when more terrorists have attacked, the nation gets more paranoid, and the US is struggling from an economical point of view so it does everything it can to remain competitive.)

Consider this scenario twenty years in the future: You apply for a job. You're required by law to give a DNA sample. The company gladly collects it and does a little research on its own before passing it on to the national bank. That DNA is analyzed, it's determined that you're likely to kick the bucket in three years, so they kindly tell you that they have filled the position. Meanwhile, they've passed on that information to their insurance affiliates, which then gladly blacklist you across a multi-company network. You finally land a burger-flipping job, and when you try to get even minimal health insurance, you're declined no matter where you apply. The police come knocking on your door when you check out a book at the library because your DNA matches an ethnic profile of the terrorist sect of the month. They harass you for a while, long enough for your landlord to find out that you're bad news. Your rent increases beyond your means, so you try to find a new place, but you're blacklisted on the apartment network as well. Finally, you succumb to moving back with your parents, but you can't find new job for months. A crazy activist raids an office that contains your DNA information and discovers that you're among the ethnic group that they're vehemently against for some reason. The activist calls his buddies up and you're six feet under the next day.

Think it won't happen? Think it's a little extreme? You're probably right... at least for the time being. But the US has given in to so many erosions of privacy that the DNA would be a gold mine, and little restraint will be demonstrated in the future to tap into this wealth of knowledge. It's a really bad idea. If you don't believe me, check out Gattaca. Great movie!

Neural Network craziness

Neural networks are a cool tool for what amounts to regression of data. In implementing a simple feed-foward, three-layer neural network and trying to get it to learn the majority function (are more than half of the inputs active?), I made a few interesting observations. I still have a lot to learn about neural networks, but in my novice jump into them, I've found that:

- The simple back-propagation algorithm is susceptible to bad starts, at least with a non-linear search space. When it does get off to a bad start, there's no turning back. So far, I've found that the best bet is to restart with random weights.

- In the back-propagation algorithm, adjusting the scalar variable (alpha) in an exponential decay manner (similar to simulated annealing) yields better results than keeping it constant.

- If the sum of the delta change in the weights is really large relatively speaking, then the network will likely suck.

- If the delta change in the weights keeps increasing, it will be difficult to turn back. The algorithm has probably fallen into a spiraling cycle.

- Having an imbalance of negative examples vs positive examples in a binary output variable for some reason makes the back propagation algorithm converge more quickly, at least in the majority problem.

- Even though the majority problem can be represented with a single hidden node (actually, just a two-layer network) with the bias being -n/2 and all weights being set to 1, the backprop algorithm as I have implemented it fails miserably with just one hidden node and a large number of inputs. It has greater success with several hidden node. This could just be an implementation issue, but my implementation follows text book examples pretty closely.

- Neural networks aren't all that hot for general classification problems, but they're a good complement at times.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sorry, you can't live together.

Why anyone would grant the government power to determine who can and cannot live together is beyond me. According to a few stories out there, the people of Black Jack, MO have vested in their government the power to evict groups of three or more people living together who aren't related by blood or by marriage. I'm all for people getting married before popping out kids and moving in together for logistical and good-ole-fashioned religious reasons, but we'll save that story for another day. The issue at hand here is letting our government determine at will who can live together.

I'm a nice guy. If one of my friends were in desperate need of a place to stay, I wouldn't have any problems letting them shack up with Jessica and me (assuming Jessica didn't mind either), even if that meant for a long period of time. But if I were to do that in Black Jack, MO, I could expect an eviction notice. Now, to be fair, the spirit of this ordinance is to uphold family values and make a better community. But at what cost?!? When did we start allowing our government to push its religious beliefs on us? Why would we let our government pry into our personal lives so far to care who all is living in a particular house and whether or not they are married?

This ordinance:

- prevents people from allowing friends to room up
- prevents live-in nannies
- prevents homosexuals from adopting
- prevents people from pooling their resources and sharing the burden of a house payment
- etc

It's really sad. What's even more sad is that the ordinance was just recently upheld by the members even in the face of the national spotlight.

We should never allow our government the control to pry into our personal lives and enforce its own religious beliefs on us. Would we allow our government to have an ordinance saying mixed races couldn't live together? What about forcing the age gap between married people? Why not allow our government to prevent homosexuals from living together? This gets ridiculous!

I am really glad that the ACLU is fighting for this one. This ordinance is on a very slippery slope.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Get the ill out of illegal

Illegal Immigrants are a hot issue today, but I really don't see what the fuss is about. To be fair, though, I'm a white american male and that probably sums it up. But still, it seems pretty simple. On the one hand, illegal immigrants are simply that: illegal. So naturally, a law that makes being here illegally ... illegal ... makes sense. I'm actually surprised that the lawmakers from Texas didn't try to throw in the death penalty for good measure.

But, on the other hand, I'm all for getting the ill out of illegal. I'm not one of those elitists who think that all the mexicans, asians, canadians, and alabamans should be kept out. Let's just get them paying taxes to help the system run.

I'm aware that illegal immigrants are the root of a lot of problems. It's unfair to those who go through the process of getting here legally. It's unfair to the social services when they use the services without paying the taxes that support the services. It's unfair to citizens who can't get a job because the illegal immigrants are taking the jobs at a lower rate. Etc.

But - no matter how complicated the problem seems, I think there is a very simple solution. If the illegal immigrants want to be treated like citizens, let's treat them like citizens. They should be paying taxes, learning English, getting educated, having jobs, and sending their kids to school just like everyone else. Sure, the first generation illegal immigrants will cost society - a lot. Most won't be well educated at first and will thus be forced to look for lower-paying jobs. Perhaps society should be giving illegal immigrants education at society's expense so they can become better contributors and look for better-paying jobs. But immigrants' children should turn out okay. After all, that's what the system is designed for. We're not in any danger of running out of room for these people. The illegal immigrants should be allowed to easily become legal and become contributors to our society rather than liabilities.