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Open thread, July 2017

This is an open thread to discuss items of interest. I may also use it to drop thoughts as they occur to me as well -- something of a replacement of my former "tab closure" posts, as ... well, it seems tabs are simply running away from me. Consider this an experiment that's been mulling for some time.
If you've got a question, observation, link, or anything else, feel free to post it, with a thought to the lair rules -- like house rules, but larrier.

Plugs

I strongly recommend eleitl's subreddit, /collapsademic/. "Low-volume, low-noise, moderated discussion of our coming collapse".
That's one of a set of "limits and collapse" subs I've created a multireddit for:

Facebook's secret sauce wasn't software, it was Harvard

That is, Facebook was once literally Harvard. Something it very much isn't anymore, a point I noted after cries of "but the normal people are coming" rang out on Mastodon. It's a point danah boyd has also made in her research.
There's a corollary: if your interest is in creating the next Facebook, or even merely disrupting the present one, then it strikes me one viable option would be to identify whatever your next Harvard is -- a cohort of intelligent, attractive, interesting people, who aren't much impressed by Facebook Which Is No Longer Harvard -- and kick some funding and technical support at them.
Your Next Harvard doesn't have to be Harvard, mind, though that's probably a good (and symbolic) target to include. And I can pretty much guarantee that the folks at 1 Hacker Way will go into a blind panic.
Which might just be a sufficient disruption.

Veritasium: What YouTube's algorithm selects for

Derek Muller, among the higher-quality YouTube creators, has reflected from time to time on what makes for successful YouTube content. Much of that (as with other social channels) is strongly dependent on what the site's own algorithms incentivise for. This 12 minute video looks at recent changes, and what this suggests.
Why YouTube Used to Prefer Quality.
This ties in with a ... much larger .. reflection I've been engaged in on media generally. It also highlights one of many failings with The Information Diet, which is that the information appearing online, at social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, or on the sites and content farms feeding those maws, depends tremendously on what is being selected for and promoted.
Muller also fails to consider a few elements:

Tech Ontology -- Blocking factors

I'm trying to explore a few concepts before writing a post (or posts? or book?) on the idea of an ontology of technological mechanisms. In particular a few bits:
Identifying what technology is, specifically, and how it differes from both science and the liberal arts / humanities. There's a very good passage from John Stuart Mill in his Essays on some unsettled Questions of Political Economy:
One of the strongest reasons for drawing the line of separation clearly and broadly between science and art is the following:—That the principle of classification in science most conveniently follows the classification of causes, while arts must necessarily be classified according to the classification of the effects, the production of which is their appropriate end. Now an effect, whether in physics or morals, commonly depends upon a concurrence of causes, and it frequently happens that several of these causes belong to different sciences. Thus in the construction of engines upon the principles of the science of mechanics, it is necessary to bear in mind the chemical properties of the material, such as its liability to oxydize; its electrical and magnetic properties, and so forth. From this it follows that although the necessary foundation of all art is science, that is, the knowledge of the properties or laws of the objects upon which, and with which, the art dons its work; it is not equally true that every art corresponds to one particular science. Each art presupposes, not one science, but science in general; or, at least, many distinct sciences.
Comparing existing ontologies of technology. The Encyclopedia Britannica, the Bacons (Francis and Roger), the Library of Congress Classification System, the Random House Encyclopedia, and Joseph Needham's classifications come to mind.
Comparison with mechanisms within biology. Why biology? Because human technology is, as I see it, an extension of biological mechanisms, at least in large part. Nick Lane in particular has some very interesting work here.
Are the mechanisms themselves technologies? I think my answer here is no, though I want to check myself on this.
The fundamental mechanisms. All the categories boil down to "do less" or "use more", I think.
The Network Elements. Numerous of the categories I've defined have or represent network-type effects. I'm asking myself if these cannot be simplified.
Keeping the end in mind. The ultimate goal of any classification scheme is to find an underlying and simplifying pattern. The realisation as I started putting this together was that each of the mechanisms implied specific benefits, and disadvantages, for the associated mechanisms, as well as a set of common features.
Disruption. I'm looking for ways Clayton Christensen's concept comes in to play. See also Jill Lepore's The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong (2014).

John Baez, Category & Network Theory

Category theory and Network Theory are areas of research of University of California, Riverside, physics professor John Baez. I've been playing catch-up with his G+ profile and Azimuth blog. Baez has maths I don't have, but the ideas he's pursuing strike me as similar to where I'm going with my own.
See particularly his Oxford Network Theory collection.

Can privacy be quantified?

This presupposes a few other questions, including defining what privacy is.
Jill Lepore, again, has a University of Kansas lecture, "Unseen - the History of Privacy" (April, 2017), which suggests a progression from mystery to secrecy, then privacy:
Lepore also notes that "the case for privacy always comes too late" -- after the horse is out of the barn. Debates over privacy always lag advances in technology.
There's a related set of etymologies: cabinet, a chamber of secrets, secretary, one entrusted to secrets, and secret itself: "set apart, withdrawn; hidden, concealed, private", from PIE root *krei- "to sieve," thus "discriminate, distinguish".
It seems to me that privacy is the abilty to set, define, and defend boundaries. (A source of rather constant friction with Google.) In which case some of the possiblities for measurement:
That's a partial and speculative list, but it gives some sense of where I'm looking.

Employment and Automation: Why is factory work different?

The focus on the automation debate is over the likely falling wages, and apparently job security, of labour. This frequently prompts the counterargument that factory work was an earlier age's version of automation, and ultimately paid well.
One though that occurs: What if manufacturing-based factory work was an exception?
And if so, an exception to what, exactliy, and why?
A few points come to mind, with Arnold Toynbee's Lectures on the Industrial Revolution and Robert Gordon's The Rise and Fall of American Growth supplying much of the background here.
Adam Smith writes of the five factors which provide for a premium on wages:
first, the agreeableness or disagreeableness of the employments themselves; secondly, the easiness and cheapness, or the difficulty and expense of learning them; thirdly, the constancy or inconstancy of employment in them; fourthly, the small or great trust which must be reposed in those who exercise them; and, fifthly, the probability or improbability of success in them.
Several of these apply to factory work:
That's four of the five factors.
The real key to me though is that the role of human workers was as the brains and control element of a structured, automated, and powered process. Factory work is very much literally a force multiplier of raw human skill. A single man, plus machines, could have his output multiplied many times. And due to the considerations above, plus unionisation, eventually claimed a high wage.
The question is how these factors extend into the coming world of work. I have concerns. And I don't see any of the discussion of this point following the lines of analysis I've given here.
Further development in a comment at The Other Place.
And, back to unionisation: factories represent both a strength and a weakness of monopoly-as-network-control.
On the one hand, a factory is a nexus of capital, access to financing, marketing and vendor relationships, transport, power or energy, and labour. On the other, a factory is much like a mine: you cannot simply pick it up an move it to another location. Or at least this was far less true in the 19th and much of the 20th century. Over the past 50 years or so, mobility of capital, and the ability to finance and construct new factories largely at-will has increased, with labour organisation falling largely in parallel.

The Brain and the Eighth Hand

I was reminded of a fantastical riff Yonatan Zunger posted to G+ a while back in which he created an entire wealth, class, and informational complexity theory around Star Wars vaporator droids. This is fiction-on-fiction, mind, but a wonderful set of imagery:
When Owen asked C-3PO if he spoke the binary language of moisture vaporators, the proper answer for him to give (in binary) would have been "with neither too many hands nor too few," that being the idiom for speaking politely and properly. Moisture vaporators use their hands as communication ports, each finger transmitting or receiving a single channel, and touch hands to one another in order to speak; if you were to speak with more hands than the listener had available, they would miss part of what you were saying, and (especially if that were crucial metadata) they would not be able to understand you. Conversely, if you spoke with fewer hands than they listened with, your transmissions would be slow, stilted, taking far too much time. Speaking with the appropriate number of hands is a key aspect of their culture.
But as with many societies, etiquette conceals notions of class: the number of hands a moisture vaporator has is largely determined by wealth and their role. As a result, a common worker with only two or three hands will always seem slow-witted and foolish when trying to speak to a five-handed member of their bourgeoisie, and that burgher would in turn feel profoundly uncomfortable in "seven-handed society."
An eighth hand, by law and by custom, is permitted only to their Emperor, and in fact "the eighth hand" is both a symbol of and metaphor for Imperial power.
So, we get communications, class, wealth, status, and complexity of thought, in one package.
I'd run across an item at Nautilus (fantastic online source, by the way, and they're actively soliciting support currently), "How Your Brain Decides Without You:
The structure of the brain [Lisa Feldman Barrett] notes, is such that there are many more intrinsic connections between neurons than there are connections that bring sensory information from the world. From that incomplete picture, she says, the brain is “filling in the details, making sense out of ambiguous sensory input.” The brain, she says, is an “inference generating organ.” She describes an increasingly well-supported working hypothesis called predictive coding, according to which perceptions are driven by your own brain and corrected by input from the world. There would otherwise simple be too much sensory input to take in. “It’s not efficient,” she says. “The brain has to find other ways to work.” So it constantly predicts. When “the sensory information that comes in does not match your prediction,” she says, “you either change your prediction—or you change the sensory information that you receive.”
To which I obseved on the Inevitability of the Eighth Hand, by the Emperor, that is, the decisionmaking centre of society:
Thus: the emperor must always have the eighth hand, and proper interpretation and framing of the Universe requires more processing power then sensing power, and/or the obligation to discard information which cannot be integrated into the receiving frame.
On which I'll note that the most startling element of this whole episode was that I was actually able to find it using G+ search -- otherwise almost wholly useless.

"Forward to the Past" -- the Digital Library as the problem, not the solution

Eric van der Velde writes on my newfound obsession, libraries, in "Forward to the Past". I've points of disagreement and agreement.
What particularly caught my attention, though, is this:
Why is there no scholarly app store, where students and faculty can build their own libraries?
Though I disagree with the market-based approach, the premise of a self-controlled, self-contained facility for personal information management ... yeah, I'm kinda hankering that way myself.

Subreddit styling: Geopolitics has a wonderful thread-collapse design

I'd first run across this some time back ... and then couldn't recall which subreddit it was. /Geopolitics has a very slick CSS where the "collapse thread" control runs the full height of the left-hand margin, for each nesting level of a comment thread. If you've decided you've had enough of a particular digression, you can close any level of it with a single click, without having to hunt up-thread for the relevant comment. See this archived post for an example.
I'm impressed and may well steal the concept. Good UI is very rare. This is a good UI.
Why? It puts the control directly in context, makes it easy, makes it obvious, and, should you close an item by accident, makes undoing the action trivially easy.

China and classifications of industrial sectors

In a YouTube video, Mark Anderson of INVNT/IP makes mention of a classification by China of the global economy into 417 sectors, and apparently is targeting those for economic espionage. On inquiring as to where that classification is made: the Communist Party of China's 12th Five Year Plan, 2011 - 2015.
Which I now feel I need to find an English translation of.
I did track down a U.S. government assessment of the plan, however. And in that, a further interesting note on what it considers to be a failure of the plan: though the performance targets of the plan were generally hit (and fairly impressively so), the analysis argues that the structural foundations of the economy weren't adequately addressed. This strikes me as an interesting possible response to various "things are going so amazingly awfully terrifically swell!!!" glurge posts which emerge from time to time. Interesting how vision clears when focused outward....

The Tech Ontology Purity Test: Filters

Another aspect of the tech ontology: I'm somewhat stuck on the point of various purification processes and mechanisms and how these fit within the notional framework I've conceived. Especially as this capability is a highly fundamental biological process, one that is key to virtually any process. Actually, it gets us straight back to entropy and de-entropisation.
A process by which a conglomeration of two (or more) things can be reduced to two (or more) separate collections, each with only one set of components to it, is what de-entroposiation is all about.
That might be a mechanical sorting (e.g., hand-picking), size-based filters (sieves, nets, filters), density differentials (wheat/chaff sorting, bouancy, air-jet separation, charged beam, gas diffusion, centrifuge), magnetic properties, distillation processes, chemical solutions, ion-diffussion / proton-pump mechanisms (cell-wall), etc. The upshot is: how do you distinguish between what you want, and then, somehow, act differentially on the one vs. the other?
Is this strictly a process knowlege, in which case it falls under "technology"? Is it a class of actions? Is it material properties? Systems management?

Asset price inflation and Adam Smith

A wonderful Smith quote:
As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce.
-- Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter VI
See previously, Asset Price Inflation of Maslovian and Productive Goods.

Robert Behn and "Gresham's Law of Leadership Strategies"

From his book The performanceStat potential a leadership strategy for producing results, Robert Behn distills what I see as a statement of Gresham's Law as a generalised constraint on complexity within systems:
He starts with the pithy observation:
Simple leadership strategies drive out the complex.
But then expands this more completely, showing the information-theoretical underpinnings of the fundamental Gresham's mechanism:
Simple, easily explained, easily comprehended, explicit-knowledge descriptions of a leadership strategy dive out subtle, complicated, tacit-knowlege appreciation for the potential of a complex leadership strategy to influence organizational behavior in ways that improve performance.
He continues to note that this comes in two forms:
  1. We humans prefer simple leadership strategies to complex ones.
  2. We also prefer simple explanations of complex leadership strategies to the subtle and complicated reality.
What I particularly like is the focus on several elements of psychology and cognition:
This suggests a subsuming mechanisms for Gresham's Law which jibes with concepts from Darwinian evolution: that systems evolve complexity costs, and that among the selective pressures which exist are those for a minimisation of complexity in light of such costs. There's an article on a computational evolution experiment, "Meet the Animats", which notes that there is a minimum complexity bound to various maze-traversal "animat" bots, though, without a complexity cost factor, the experiment found no constraint on the upward bound of complexity.
A few minor edits -- mostly deletions -- makes Behn's formulation on page 42 (appropriate) much more general:
"Simple, easily explained, easily comprehended, explicit-knowledge, descriptions ... drive out subtle, complicated, tacit-knowledge appreciation for the potential of a complex model."

Pilots vs. software users

From HN, ncallaway and kbuttler note that the airline industry's safety record is based on pushing beyond "pilot error" as an acceptable prime factor in accidents, and that the software industry might well do similarly.
While I agree generally with that sentiment, there's a key difference.
Airplane pilots are licensed, certified, trained, and regulated. There's a clear floor to who is allowed in the cockpit (barring extreme emergencies, e.g., incapacitation of a pilot). By contrast, software is made available to pretty much the entire world. And it turns out that two thirds of all adults have "poor", "below poor", or no computer skills at all. Which is to say, the qualifications floor is nonexistent. It's the tyranny of the minimum viable user.
If you're designing a one-size-fits-all system, you've got to design for this. The results, I'd argue, are ... not particularly satisfactory.
I'm not saying "don't design for the user in mind", or "don't dismiss user error". But rather, than when your floor is zero, you're going to have a remarkably difficult challenge.

One last thing ...

Do you like what you're reading here? Would you like to see a broader discussion? Do you think there are ideas which should be shared more broadly?
The Lair isn't a numbers game, my real goal is quality -- reaching, and hopefully interacting with, an intelligent online community. Something which I've found, in several decades of online interactions, difficult to achieve.
But there's something which works surprisingly well: word of mouth. Shares, by others, to appropriate venues, have generated the best interactions. I do some of that, but I could use your help as well.
So: if you see something that strikes you as particularly cogent (or, perhaps, insipid), please share it. To another subreddit. To Twitter or Facebook or G+. To the small-but-high-quality Metafilter. To your blogging circle, or a mailing list. If you work in technology, or policy, or economics, there as well.
Thanks, Morbius.
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