Friday, April 14, 2017

Traditional ethics and standards of scholarship

The astrophysicist Simon White concluded his introduction (pdf) to the 2016 Ringberg workshop on galaxy formation by asking how one developed consensus about what is well established. (Thanks to Petri Mähönen for bringing it to my attention.)

White’s answer: “Re-emphasise traditional ethics and standards of scholarship.”

The five specific instructions he supplied apply to any field of inquiry, not just galaxy formation. Here they are, slightly edited (as indicated by square brackets) to remove the references to astrophysics:
De-emphasise marketing – the goal is not to sell our model to observers, funding agencies or employers, but to understand [the phenomenon being studied]
Be up-front, even-handed and explicit about limitations, assumptions and failures, in addition to exhibiting successes
Read and discuss related published work in detail – establish, as far as possible, the reasons why it agrees or disagrees with our results
Be sufficiently detailed and explicit about what was done in each paper that it is possible for others to understand if they agree or not
Do not stop after exhibiting agreement with (some) [evidence] – does this reflects calibration/tuning or an underlying [reality]?

These principles are clearly the fruit of many years’ experience, and careful thought. They could be applied to planning research, writing a paper, reviewing a paper, or seeking funding. The qualifier that these are traditional ethics and standards implies that White thinks they are no longer being observed in scholarship; cf. Phil Mirowski’s Science-Mart. O tempora! O mores!

I was reminded of DARPA’s “Heilmeier Catechism” and Dijkstra's "Address to my students" number EWD956 (I learned about both from Petri, too). Heilmeier how one decides what to do; Dijkstra is how one should do it; and White is how one describes what was done.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Templates and narratives for change

At the end of a conversation with David Runciman about powerful women on the Talking Politics podcast (reposted on the LRB podcast; their chat starts around 18:00), Mary Beard had this to say:

The idea that women have a model for doing [changing the structures within which women can think of themselves as ambitious, as powerful, as clever, as articulate, and able to make that kind of difference in the world] -- and I don't mean a kind of role model, but I just mean a kind of cultural template for doing that -- until we can provide a narrative and a template, then I think we've got a problem.

This resonates with what I try (and fail) to do in policy innovation. It's not sufficient to have a new idea (= template). You also need to have a story (= narrative) that explains why anyone should care, and why it makes sense.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Spectrum is not a scarce natural resource


Almost every policy or technology story about radios starts with the litany that Spectrum is a Scarce Natural Resource. I will argue that this claim is false, and that it matters.

In short:

  • Spectrum is no more a scarce natural resource than sound.
  • It is more accurate and productive to talk about radio operation.
  • Rather than saying “spectrum is scarce”, it’s better to say “radio coexistence is hard.”


The pay-off is that this alternative language makes us focus on what matters – the best way to arrange the operation of radios – rather than on ways to manage a resource (spectrum) that may or may exist.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sunday, September 25, 2016

3D spectrum management

It is time to manage spectrum in three dimensions, rather than on a slightly wrinkled 2D sheet.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fitting square pegs into bicycles

To this non-lawyer, jurisprudence often seems to be metaphor mongering/mangling/wrangling -- as in Judge Easterbrook's contention that that there was no more a “law of cyberspace” than there was a “Law of the Horse" ("Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse" (1996); see also Larry Lessig's "The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach").

Fitting square pegs into bicycles

To this non-lawyer, jurisprudence often seems to be metaphor mongering/mangling/wrangling -- as in Judge Easterbrook's contention that that there was no more a “law of cyberspace” than there was a “Law of the Horse" ("Cyberspace and the Law of the Horse" (1996); see also Larry Lessig's "The Law of the Horse: What Cyberlaw Might Teach").

From a recent CS Monitor comes the latest in this inexhaustible genre: "Is bitcoin money? Are Airbnbs hotels? Why courts have trouble deciding."

A couple of excerpts:

A Florida circuit-court judge’s Monday ruling that bitcoin is not money is the latest addition to a confusing jumble of definitions and regulations that have attempted to classify and control digital currency. . . . Since Florida doesn’t have a law specific to digital, or virtual, currency, applying laws that regulate money-service businesses to bitcoin transactions “is like fitting a square peg in a round hole," Pooler wrote.
... 
... jamming pegs into ill-suited holes is just what some law enforcement, tax and other regulators across the globe are trying to do as they struggle to apply traditional laws to technology innovations that defy them.

David Bach and Jonathan Sallet wrote a fascinating article about this a decade ago in FirstMonday: "The challenges of classification" (2005).

Perhaps Sallet will revisit this topic when he leaves the FCC. Do we need a new way to extend the applicability of law, given the breakneck introduction of new concepts?  For example, perhaps one should focus on use of the technology, not the technology as such. Privacy is trying this, as the community experiments with moving from notice & consent to use & disclosure. Here's another excerpt from the CS Monitor story, quoting Marco A. Santori, a partner specializing digital currency at a NYC law firm:

"Bitcoin is not a currency, it’s not a commodity, it’s a computer protocol. . . . the computer protocol is being used as money, it should be regulated as money. If it is being used a security, it should be regulated as security. If it is being used a commodity or derivative or a dessert topping, it should be regulated as such."

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hypnosis, placebo and meditation

In its recent package on The Power of Mind (issue no 3064, 12 March 2016), New Scientist includes an interview with Laurence Sugarman at Rochester.

Sugarman uses hypnosis in clinical settings. He says, “My colleagues and I propose that hypnosis is simply a skill set for influencing people. It involves facial expression, language, body movement, tone of voice, intensity, metaphor, understanding how people interpret and represent things.”

He observes that hypnosis is a medium for delivering placebo effects, and defines placebo as “the use of conditioning, expectation, social relationships and narrative paradigm to change a person’s physiology in a way that they attribute to an external intervention."

Interestingly, he believes that mindfulness meditation is an example of hypnosis. This prompted me to think of a story SN Goenka tells about a doctor giving a prescription for medicine to a sick man during the Day Three discourse of the 10 day vipassana course. It’s used to explain three kinds of wisdom:
"The man goes home, and out of great faith in his doctor, he recites the prescription every day; this is suta-maya panna [wisdom acquired by hearing or reading the words of another]. Not satisfied with that, the man returns to the doctor, and demands and receives an explanation of the prescription, why it is necessary and how it will work; this is cinta-maya panna [intellectual understanding]. Finally the man takes the medicine; only then is his disease eradicated. The benefit comes only from the third step, the bhavana-maya panna [the wisdom that develops within oneself, at the experiential level]."
Mr Goenka takes a hard line: only the medicine itself has any effect. Neither having faith in the doctor and the treatment, nor understanding rationally how the medicine works, has any benefit.

The emerging consensus on placebo seems to contradict this, at least as far as medical treatment goes. It suggests that the benefit does not only come from the story's third step, the actual taking of the medicine. Having faith in the doctor, and understanding how the medicine works, also helps.

For example, here are some excerpts from the article “Tap the placebo effect to unlock your body's healing powers” in the same New Scientist package:
"We now know that when a person is given a pill they’re told is a real medication, or any of a wide range of medical interventions, including surgery, their body creates a real physiological effect. In pain studies, placebos have been shown to dampen activity in the brain’s pain-processing areas and increase the production of the body’s own analgesic chemicals."
“One key to unlocking the body’s self-healing mechanisms seems to be the setting up of an expectation of improvement. And it works the other way too: if you think your drug has been replaced with a placebo, even a strong painkiller’s effects will be dulled.”
On why the “honest placebo”, i.e. telling patients ahead of time that their pills contain no medication, actually works: “One theory concerns the expectations set by the intervention itself. “It’s not just the drug, it’s everything that surrounds the drug,” says Kaptchuk [a placebo researcher]. Placebos are not inert substances: they are made of verbal suggestion, classical conditioning, and a lifetime’s associations learned about the cues of the medical ritual: the white coat, the office, the doctor’s manner. Any and all of these may cue the body’s healing powers.”

This suggests that faith in the effectiveness of a meditation technique, whether it’s blind faith or based on reason, is likely to strengthen the beneficial effects. Faith is obviously helps in remaining dedicated and motivated; however, it may go deeper than that. It also implies that rituals, which are often decried (not least by Mr Goenka himself), have value that goes far beyond their superficial appearance.

Monday, August 31, 2015

FCC approves robotic lawn mower, rejects worst case analysis

On August 12, 2015 the FCC granted a waiver (pdf) of some Part 15 rules to allow iRobot to market a robotic lawn mower transmitting in the 6240-6740 MHz range (Order in Proceeding 15-30).

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) had expressed concern that the waiver could lead to interference to radio astronomy operations.

The Office of Engineering and Technology noted in its waiver grant that "because the NRAO analysis looked at line-of-sight separation distances, it has greatly overestimated the interference potential of transmitters that are located less than two feet above the ground."

It added, "We find that when taking into account the variability in propagation characteristics due to terrain, low antenna heights and other propagation factors, grant of this waiver is very unlikely to increase the potential for harmful interference."

The glass-half-full reading is that the FCC rejected a worst-case analysis; the glass-half-empty view is that it missed an opportunity to do a probabilistic risk analysis that quantified expressions like "greatly overestimated the interference potential" and "very unlikely to increase the potential for harmful interference."

The cynic's take is that this is to be expected; providing hard numbers would expose the Commission to having its reasoning questioned during subsequent litigation.

Worst case in interference analysis for medical interference

In its second order on reconsideration regarding the incentive auction released on June 19, 2015 (docket 12-268, pdf) the FCC noted that its analysis interference into wireless medical telemetry systems its work "is a worst case analysis and in most installations one or more of the parameters we assumed here will provide additional protection" (recon order at para 119).

Even this wasn't good enough for GE Healthcare, who filed a petition on July 28, 2015 asking the FCC to reconsider its reconsideration, saying "Due to the severe and wide-ranging negative consequences of interference to Channel 37 WMTS, the Commission's expressed intent to use a worst-case (i.e. minimum coupling loss) analysis in evaluating separation between Channel 37 WMTS and 600 MHz band mobile base stations is appropriate, but its adopted separation rules are not, in fact, based on a worst-case analysis, as the Commission appears to believe."

The trouble with worst case is that there is no worst case. That is: one can always imagine something worse. It’s not a sufficiently stable concept to be usable. This leads to oxymorons like the “realistic worst-case” GE HealthCare refers to in its petition. It leads to oxymorons like the “realistic worst-case” GE HealthCare refers to.

There’s even a term of art: RWCS, the Reasonable Worst Case Scenario, that even has a definition in the UK: a scenario "designed to exclude theoretically possible scenarios which have so little probability of occurring that planning for them would be likely to lead to disproportionate use of resources” (House of Commons Select Committee Report). (There's also the term "reasonably foreseeable worst case use scenarios" that's used in passing in IEC 60601.)

It’s related to the unbounded character of the maximum of a distribution.  It’s well known among statisticians, but apparently not that many spectrum folk, that the longer you sample a parameter with an unbounded distribution (e.g. a propagation path loss with a log-normal fading distribution), the larger the maximum you find will be.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Q&A: Risk-assessment, harm claim thresholds and adjudication

In my testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday July 29, 2015 I recommended three spectrum management reforms. A summary and links to the written testimony and video are in an earlier blog post. This post offers some Q&A.

The three reforms were: (1) moving away from worst case interference analysis and using risk-informed methods that consider not only the consequences but also the likelihood of harmful interference; (2) providing more clarity about operators’ interference rights and obligations by specifying harm claim thresholds; and (3) giving any spectrum user the option of taking action directly against any other, either in front of an FCC judge or in a federal Court of Spectrum Claims.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Senate Testimony: Risk-assessment, harm claim thresholds and adjudication

I testified today before the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “Wireless Broadband and the Future of Spectrum Policy.” My written testimony is here; this is the summary I presented during the hearing. I’ve posted some Q&A in a subsequent post. My remarks are recorded in the archived webcast, starting at 58:02; see also a question from Chairman Thune and my reply starting at 2:05:43.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Principles for interference assessment and receiver protection in FCC rulemakings

A key consideration in spectrum policy, particularly the allocation of new services, is the protection of existing services against harmful interference. However, regulators take an ad hoc approach to defining harmful interference. We would be better served if everyone knew, up-front, the principles a regulator was going to use when making decisions about a new allocation.

Julie Knapp’s comment at a recent FCC TAC meeting have inspired me to sketch out some principles/guidelines/framework for the FCC when looking at protecting services during rulemakings. Julie pointed out that the TAC Spectrum and Receivers Working Group now has an opportunity to synthesize and make actionable our work of the last few years.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Risk-informed interference assessment

I've spent the last year or so thinking about ways to complement worst-case interference assessment with a more comprehensive approach that considers many potential interference hazards, not just a possibly implausible nightmare scenario. I have concluded that quantitative risk analysis, used in many regulated industries, is a suitable tool.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Six weeks of spectrum auction tweets

I created an animated GIF to show how twitter traffic about spectrum auctions changed over the first six weeks of the AWS-3 auction, i.e. November 15 to December 27.