Zara’s Space on the Web – Musings

September 4, 2013


Filed under: Computers,Economics,Geekery,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 am

As an environmentalist, an economist, a computer scientist – I’m a bit obsessed with efficiency.  I just wanted to write a little bit about how I think about efficiency from different points of view.

Perhaps one of the things that divides a programmer from a computer scientist that programs is that a computer scientist will strive for efficiency.  They’re going to try to use the least processing power and the least amount of memory (you could say it uses as few resources as possible), because that makes for an efficient program, which means that it runs as quick as possible.

In the field of economics ‘efficiency’ takes on a slightly different meaning – an efficient society is one in which no one could be better off without making someone else worse off (this is called Pareto efficiency).  It could also mean that you get the greatest amount of benefit from a single unit of cost (you can’t get anymore output without any additional input).  If you think about it, that’s what a computer scientist does – they try to use the least amount of resources to do get the result they want.

I try to live my life efficiently – the greatest amount of well-being from the least amount of discomfort/time, and this sometimes overspills to friends and family – say I want that last slice of cake but I know I don’t want it as MUCH as my boyfriend does; but he is trying to be nice by letting me have it.  I’d prefer he has it because our total joy would be larger.  On the other hand, if I’m sure I’d enjoy it more, I’ll let him know how much I’d like it and, unless I’ve underestimated how much he wants it, I usually get it. :)

As an environmentalist, we must completely be mindful of efficiency.  In our lifestyles we try to be efficient to produce as little waste as possible and to make as little impact on the environment as possible.  In bigger considerations we want to be efficient in how we spend our energies and the budgets for environmental conservation.  An idea might sound good but actually cost a lot and produce very little benefit, while another idea could produce a lot more benefit with less cost.  A good example of this is climate change mitigation – it might sound like a good idea to place solar power panels on every available surface you can find, but actually the cost of producing the panels, in both energy and monetary terms could probably be better off going into building a better public transportation system which will remove cars off the road.  That’s just an example, by the way.  I’m sure there are more efficient ways to use energy and money.

Lastly, my favourite comic offering on efficiency: SMBC addresses the best use of Superman.

*For those of you who are not familiar with the field of economics, we measure benefit not by monetary terms  but by well-being.  It’s just that for the most part it’s actually kind of difficult to measure well-being, so we use monetary terms as a proxy.  Of course a lot of things are missed by looking at just hard currency, and these things are called ‘externalities’.  Environmental economists attempt to measure these externalities through a number of different methods.

August 21, 2013

Today’s 6 point plan for personal growth

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Personal — zarazilla @ 11:02 am

Hello blog!  I have been absent, yes.  I’ve also been busy.  But I’ve now been ‘on holiday’ for coming up to 2 months so I better get started on being productive again.  I’m not sure how long/regularly I’ll be blogging for but I just wanted to write a public post on what I’m going to be concentrating on for the next few weeks for personal growth, seeing as I finally have the time to do things to update myself that I’ve been anxious about not having the time to do before.

So, I aim to do the following (presented in no particular order):

  1. Finish reading ‘Bad Science’ by Ben Goldacre, which should give me a quick review on critical thinking and introduce me to some interesting tricks that at least those in the medical industry play to manipulate research as well as how people see research results.
  2. Read the main sequences on LessWrong (available here in compiled, printable, easy to read formats). This should also help me update/upgrade my critical thinking/logical reasoning skills as well as introduce some new concepts I might be able to use in my professional life*.
  3. (speaking of professional life) update myself on the latest international going-ons in environmental economics/policy I might have missed in the past few months while I was attempting to learn Mandarin.
  4. Update myself on current environmental policy and use of environmental economics in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, areas I’m particularly interested in working in.
  5. As part of 3 and 4, start writing blog posts again, possibly for Mesym (if they deign to publish me). Possibly even think about giving one or two talks.
  6. Yes, in point 3 I mentioned learning Mandarin – I may no longer be in China on a full-time course but I hope to not only remember but continue to learn Mandarin. This will involve reviewing and learning even more Hanzi, probably with the use of Memrise, which had been very effective for me in learning my first 800 Hanzi before arriving in Beijing.

There. That seems like a lot to do, but I do have a mighty amount of free time on my hands. I should probably mention I’m also searching for work, but hopefully  points 3-5 should help with this.

* If you are interested in Rationalism but not quite ready to jump head first into it and are open to Harry Potter fanfiction, you might find Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (HPMOR) a fun and interesting read. Even if you’re not interested in rationalism but are just open to Harry Potter fanfiction I think you may find HPMOR a fun and well-written read, although it is not quite finished.  There are currently 97 chapters up and the author mentions there’s only one more main story arc to go though, so if you read particularly slow you might only have to wait a short time before it is finished?

February 25, 2011

Thoughts on fighting internet astroturfing

Filed under: Geekery,Hippiery,Politics — zarazilla @ 11:48 pm

A bit on the late side as usual, I read this article by George Monbiot tonight on the bus (coincidentally while going around Parliament Square) and was immediately outraged.  For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the article, the summary is thus:

For a while now, PR companies (and the Chinese government) have been paying people to go on the internet and promote products (or ideologies) subtly – i.e. not as an obvious advertisement, but more like Jane Doe goes on a message board and tells everyone how much she loves using hair product K or a Chinese citizen getting upset and abusing a criticism of the Chinese government. What’s even more worrying though, is that lately organisations (companies and other types of organisations including the US Airforce) are now paying dedicated companies who are creating multiple fake people to do the same thing.  Two quotes from the article:

“I was contacted by a whistleblower… part of a commercial team employed to infest internet forums and comment threads on behalf of corporate clients, promoting their causes and arguing with anyone who opposed them… He posed as a disinterested member of the public. Or, to be more accurate, as a crowd of disinterested members of the public: he used 70 personas, both to avoid detection and to create the impression there was widespread support for his pro-corporate arguments.”

“This software creates all the online furniture a real person would possess: a name, email accounts, web pages and social media. In other words, it automatically generates what look like authentic profiles, making it hard to tell the difference between a virtual robot and a real commentator… Human astroturfers can then be assigned these “pre-aged” accounts to create a back story, suggesting that they’ve been busy linking and retweeting for months.”

As somebody who feels like she grew up with the internet, believes in democracy and free speech and participated in online forums, this absolutely outraged me.  I’m always one for thinking I can help make a change.  So I started writing an e-mail to the George Monbiot discussion group.  The rest of this post is an edited version (for clarity) of this e-mail which turned out into a mini manifesto of what we as individuals can do to fight back against internet astroturfing.

The first thing is to raise awareness.  Being an ex-computer scientist and now working in the environmental sector, I feel like I should have heard about this by now, but it came as a huge shock (although, “oh, that makes sense” did make itself heard at the back of my mind).  So perhaps what we can do is post this on any popular message boards we frequent, make people aware and solicit opinions.  Tweet it, post it on facebook and reddit.

Which brings me to the second thing.  The article mentions ‘social media’ a lot.  It may mean other services, but to me the largest social media networks are Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.  I’ve never actually read the terms and conditions of any of these services (and I can’t afford the time to right now), but the first question should be if what these companies are doing are contravening these services’ terms and conditions. Same goes for the targets of these companies: the newspaper websites, popular forums, etc.  If they are, great.  If not, we need to write to these websites to make them aware of what is happening – maybe they are already, maybe they’re not.  But I’m guessing that none of them want their websites used in the manner by which astroturfers are attempting to. They’ll need to rewrite their terms and conditions, and they’ll need to put people onto the case to figure out how they can detect and stop it.

This will be the difficult part for these companies.  The Daily Kos reports that HB Gary are recruiting from “many different agencies and top universities like MIT”. The social media companies will have to stay ahead of these guys, but I’m sure they can do it. I know they, too, are recruiting from top universities and stealing staff from each other.

I’d love to have a discussion on this and hear anybody’s thoughts.  In the meantime, I’ve posted George’s article to my facebook wall and tweeted it as per my suggestions. :)


The article that kicked this post off

George Monbiot’s first article on astroturfing

The Daily Kos report on an e-mail from one of the astroturf companies

November 8, 2010

I’m from earth

Filed under: Hippiery,Personal — zarazilla @ 12:01 am
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Today I got asked an interesting question. It is a question I get asked enough times and hate answering, but it is interesting this time because it is from my mother.

In the middle of trying to convince me I should speak Cantonese (I should, but it’s difficult!) she said “Where are you from?” Well actually she asked something more along the lines of “Which place person are you?” which is usually translated to “Where are you from?” but is an interesting phrase for the purposes of this post.

It is difficult for me to place myself to be from anywhere, and generally when someone I have just met asks me that question I try to answer in the best way possible from the context of their question (although it usually ends up with me, somehow or other, listing the places I’ve lived in and pointing out that my accent is from an international school).

But since it was my mother asking, and she has in a way created my history, I merely answered, “The world”. Well, my mother was a bit taken back by my answer, despite the fact that when I tell people I’m Malaysian she says “But you’re not” and goes on to say that I’m more British as I’ve spent more of my time here. Following my answer, she said that it was not good for people to feel like they don’t belong anywhere, and went on to recount how a woman she knows was given away whe she was a baby by her mother and has spent the rest of her life trying to make up for it and to belong somewhere.

But I do feel like I belong. It may sound a bit cheesy but I’m a citizen of the earth and a proud member of the human race. I call multiple countries home and I have happily embraced the term ‘Third Culture Kid’ when attempting to put a name to my culture. This is something I worked out when I was a teenager (who stuck out like a sore thumb at school) and have been comfortable with since.

Most of the people I feel an immediate affinity with turn out to be third culture kids and I sometimes think we represent a placeless ‘race’ of TCKs – by which I mean a collection of people who have the same culture which enables us to connect and understand each other on a very basic level in a way that people from the same culture do.

And while I sometimes think and feel this way of claiming other TCKs as part of my culture and to whom I ‘belong’ with, at the very most basic level I do feel I am a citizen of this earth, the same way that a scottish man will claim that he is Scottish and a chinese girl will claim she is Chinese.

So at the end of this short conversation with my mother and slightly longer deliberation on my part I had a revelation – perhaps my chosen career in the environmental sector stems in part from my feeling of belonging to the world. I have never been a patriot of any nation, but my concern (and pride) is for all.

April 18, 2009

Thoughts on UK Aware

Filed under: Hippiery — zarazilla @ 10:57 pm

“Well ma’am, that’s because if you’re hoping to charge up a car on a solar panel, you have either got to have bloody big solar panel covering your entire neighbourhood or be talking about a table-top remote controlled car”

I never actually said the above sentence out loud, but I would’ve if I had been sitting on the “panel of experts”. And god or bog (Yes, I’ve been reading A Clockwork Orange!) help us all, but I think I, just me, actually had the answers to pretty much all questions I overheard at the UKAware discussions that I actually sat in on.

The thought has bugged me before, but it hit me particularly hard today, and that is that I think I’ve outgrown environmental events such as UKAware. Perhaps I have entered the skeptic morose teenager stage where I feel the need to roll my eyes at most of the questions I heard and most of the exhibits I saw today.

For example, there was a disproportionate amount of stalls dedicated to cloth bags to replace people’s use of plastic bags. I really hope I won’t be quoting George Monbiot all the time on this blog (and this is not a negative reflection of Monbiot – I think he’s great, but I know if I let myself then most of my posts will point towards Monbiot), but frankly, although I’m glad people are making a genuine effort to use less plastic bags, the use of plastics bags are one of the tiniest of the things we should be concerned about.

Then there was the stall selling a wind-generated garden ornament. WTF? I honestly wonder how many people bought one and what on earth they were thinking.

Although the financial sector never actually crossed my mind when I turned up at UKAware, I found myself picking up the leaflets for all the financial environmental services I could find – there were some interesting companies there looking to pick up some green investors including a charity bank, an ethical investment fund, a microloans company and a brazilian farming co-op. I do need to reinvest my ISA which is currently collecting an interest rate below current inflation, and have been thinking about investing it in a transparently ethical way.

I would say people have a lot to learn about being green. I’m glad so many people are on board, but generally knowledge is still in its infancy. Things like how people don’t realise that solar panels don’t appear out of thin air – a lot of energy and resources go into producing a solar panel and that a solar panel, particularly in the weather-challenged UK, just isn’t efficient.

Saying that, however, I probably am wrong on most things myself, and it’s entirely a process of learning and thinking things through. But good golly, don’t go all up in arms because the government disallows you to do something that may not look obviously stupid to you, without first sitting down and thinking “now why aren’t I alllowed to do this? Is it because the government is trying to get in my way of going green, or is there a flaw they’ve spotted that I should probably sit down and try to spot too?”

April 12, 2009

Something I find amusing and may comment on later

Filed under: climate change,Hippiery — zarazilla @ 7:33 pm
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…but for now, I think the content says it all. Climate Change Bets

General confusion over an article from TheRegister

Update: Turns out? This wasn’t even a report, and the only climate scientist involved in the discussion believes that anthropogenic climate change is happening. What a waste of time.

Well, since “Japan’s boffins: Global warming isn’t man-made”was published on TheRegister a while back, I have been meaning to read it and adjust my view of climate change around it.

Since it is now Easter vacation and I have no religious leanings (hence I have a lot of time on my hands) and I have just started this blog, I thought it might be a good idea to read and then critique the article.

Unfortunately, although I was looking forward to something that would seriously challenge my view on anthropogenic climate change, the article only proved to confuse me slightly between the misleading title and leading paragraph and the actual contents of the paper that had been translated.

The article states that:

Three of the five researchers disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases.

Well, er, from my reading of the paper that is given in the article, they actually don’t.

About the closest they get is the following:

“[The IPCC’s] conclusion that from now on atmospheric temperatures are likely to show a continuous, monotonic increase, should be perceived as an unprovable hypothesis,” [Kanya Kusano] writes.

…”We should be cautious, IPCC’s theory that atmospheric temperature has risen since 2000 in correspondence with CO2 is nothing but a hypothesis.” [-Shunichi Akasofu]

These two quotes come from the end of the summary page, and the article then launches into “Key passages translated”.

Within the second page of the article, I find the following confusing line:

…since 2001, [increases in global temperature has] halted. Despite this, CO2 emissions are still increasing.

I find this confusing because I have seen other information that states that:

“Every year since and including 2001 has made it into the top ten warmest years [on record].” – The Times Online, December 13, 2007, citing a study from the Met Office and the University of East Anglia

I’m sure none of these scientists are deliberately lying or bending the truth, but it would be nice to know why these two claims seem to be the complete opposites?

Page three and four talk about the construction of climate models, and the inherent uncertainty that is built into using models, due to imperfect knowledge. To which I have to say “well, duh?”

Anyway, “Japan’s Boffins” (I should have known better than to expect much when faced with this title) conclude that “Anthropogenic” (here this is used as a classy word for “human-caused”) “global warming theory [is] still hypothetical”.

Which I totally get and I totally agree with (Hey, the theory of evolution is still hypothetical). I mean, I don’t think anyone is claiming that they know for sure that climate change is happening due to human intervention, and yes, we should be careful about claiming things for truths that are only theories.

I think these guys were just saying “Hey, everybody, slow down. We should really re-examine the evidence here before we rush off headlong down a possibly unecessary path”, which is cool. What they are not saying, however, is that they don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change. No, that would be Andrew Orlowski putting words into their mouth. Oh, and interestingly enough, we’re also not provided with the discussions by the other two researchers who didn’t “disagree with the UN’s IPCC view that recent warming is primarily the consequence of man-made industrial emissions of greenhouse gases”. Apparently, they didn’t make it into “key passages”. This was, by and large, a terrible, biased piece of reporting that misrepresented the very paper it was reporting on. Shame on you, Orlowski!

April 11, 2009

Payments for Environmental Services Peace

(Before reading this note, if you are not familiar with payments for environmental services, you may want to look at this link )

I was watching the February 10th episode of The Daily Show last night (my friend pointed out the reason we know more about american politics than British politics is that Jon Stewart makes it worth knowing about) and his interview for the night was with Thomas Ricks, author of Fiasco ). You can find the interview here.

During the interview, Stewart and Ricks talked about how the Americans, or rather General Petraeus, decided to pay the Iraqis; not just the allies, but the people trying to kill them as well, in order to… well, get them to stop trying to kill them.

In actual fact, during the interview, Ricks tells an ancedote about how an american soldier turns to one of the insurgents and says “You still want to kill me?”, to which he replies “Yes, but not today”.

Now is it just me or does this remind anybody else about payments for environmental services, but instead of environmental services, for peace? It has never crossed my mind that people who may be trying to kill people would actually have a willingness to accept to change their behaviour. The situation even addresses continual payment (so long as you keep paying me, I will not cut down this lovely rainforest do not want to kill you today).

Of course an interesting question here is “how are the insurgents using this money?” Another interesting and related question is, “What does this money substitute for?”, and question that is related to both of these questions is “How much can the americans pay or what can they do to permanently change insurgents’ behaviour?”  Is the money they’re paying them “Giving a man a fish” rather than “Teaching him how to fish”?

April 10, 2009

Thoughts on climate change and my job

Filed under: Hippiery — zarazilla @ 7:19 pm
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A reply I wrote recently to a 3rd grade classmate, climate skeptic, and political verbal sparring partner (she is a hardcore US republican):

Hi J***,

Sorry for taking so long to get back to you – my new job is tiring me out! I should probably be going to bed in about negative half an hour, but thought I’d drop you a quick note addressing your points.

I’ve gone through the stuff you’ve sent me, and tried to find stuff of my own that says that climate change isn’t happening, but to be honest I have not really run up against any evidence that is reputable and would make me change my mind. About the best I have is Freeman Dyson’s argument ( ), and as far as I can see he believes that the earth’s natural environment will take care of reducing carbon for us. My argument to this, however, is that the earth has never seen so much carbon in the atmosphere before.

And that brings me to the facts that I can believe in, and these are:
a) Atmospheric carbon is far above and beyond any levels known of previously for the last 10,000 years, with evidence from ice cores.
b) The temperature of the earth by and large tracks the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As someone who has studied statistics and economics, I wouldn’t normally put much stock in this alone, as it is mere correlation which does not mean, in all cases, causation, apart from that I know
c) Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. That is, that it is a scientific fact that carbon dioxide absorb and emits radiation within the thermal infrared range.

I also know that climate is variable. I don’t put much stock in “in the last five years it has been warmer/colder than the five yeras before that” because, as we both know, there are crazy climate systems out there such as el nino and la nina that show up every once in a few years and throws things out of whack. Long-term variability though, that is the key.

I do believe that over time the world will start warming up. Now what will happen once it reaches a certain temperature is obviously up for debate. One of the theories is that it will trigger us into an ice age through the halt of the gulf stream. One of the theories is that of positive feedback – that is, once it reaches a certain temperature, certain things will change so that it will get hotter and hotter much more quickly. And of course, one of the theories is that it will make the earth a better place to live. I think, I hope not, but I think that it will by and large cause a lot of problems.

Now I hear what you’re saying about the “global cooling” “global Warming” debates, and all I can do there is point you to this website. Look at those graphs – over 150 years, 500 years, you have to admit that the last 20 or so have been pretty warm.

And I agree that scientists not only have the right, but the duty to show non-biased information. However, I very much doubt that scientists have had their grants pulled or been blacklisted for offering studies from “the other side”, as there are many corporations, including Exxon-Mobil, who fund scientists for research that will make them look good. Also, there’s stuff like this:

You might think the next thing I’m going to say is a bit weird, so I’m going to give you some background. I studied computer science for four years, and was good at it, and enjoyed it very much. I could be working in computer science and earning a lot more than I do now. But I’m not. I re-routed my career and completed a masters in Environmental Economics and Policy. I’m a research assistant at an environmental economics consultancy, earning about 2/3rds my expected salary as a computer scientist because I believe climate change is happening unless people act now to stop it. I feel completely inadequate in my job because my background is in computers, not economics, but I’m there because I know that in twenty years I want to at least say that I tried.

So to be honest I would really love to be able to think that climate change isn’t happening, and you have intrigued me, but I have not been able to find anything reputable, with reputable scientific sources to argue the other side. All I can find are conspiracy theories. So you would be doing me a huge huge favour if you could point me towards papers that have scientific merit arguing your side of the argument. Then maybe I can give this up and go back to programming and leave my guilt behind. :)


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