October 2010 Archives

(HT: GeekPress and Rand Simberg.)

Short version: a woman (man?) appearing in behind-the-scenes footage of Charlie Chaplin's "The Circus" appears to be talking on a mobile phone. Details in the video below.

Even if the person is a time-traveler, they aren't talking on a mobile phone since it's unlikely there were time-traveling cell towers in 1932. Most likely it's some sort of satellite phone or radio communicator a la Star Trek. Anyway, very strange. Some people have suggested that it could be a hearing aid, but it sure doesn't look like one, and why is she speaking into it to herself?

I feel like America has been ignoring the obvious for along time, but perhaps understanding is dawning: millions of people wasted time and money on useless college degrees.

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

... The relentless claims of the Obama administration and others that having more college graduates is necessary for continued economic leadership is incompatible with this view. Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

Please note that this analysis of time and money wasted on college does not include people who were convinced to go to college, spent a few years and tens of thousands of dollars, and then quit without a degree. "Going to college" is such a sympathetic cause -- and an idealized stepping stone towards the American Dream -- that's it's difficult as a society to be realistic about the limits of education.

It's important to remember that college education is a business with extremely powerful vested interests. Whenever the government spends more public money on secondary education, the vast majority of that extra money is captured by the education system in the form of increased tuition and fees. Students hardly benefit at all.

I can attest that this is true.

(HT: The Physics of Everyday Life.)

(HT: Tyler Cowen.)

I'm excited to see that the space exploration community is beginning to see the sense of planning a one-way manned mission to Mars. This explanation is somewhat amusing:

News of the Hundred Years Starship comes as new research found that a one-way human mission to Mars is technologically feasible and would be a cheaper option than bringing astronauts back.

It strikes me as trivially obvious that a one-way trip will be both easier and cheaper than a manned mission that intended to return home. I don't think "new research" has suddenly stumbled upon this brilliant insight. The real enabler of this conversation is the growing realization that space exploration has largely abdicated the historical spirit of exploration that motivated mankind for so many millennia.

‘Nevertheless, to attain it would require not only major international cooperation, but a return to the exploration spirit and risk-taking ethos of the great period of Earth exploration, from Columbus to Amundsen, but which has nowadays being replaced with a culture of safety and political correctness.’ ...

But they argue that these first inhabitants of Mars would be going in much the same spirit as the first white settlers of North America – travelling to a distant land, knowing that they will never return home.

They say: ‘Explorers such as Columbus, Frobisher, Scott and Amundsen, while not embarking on their voyages with the intention of staying at their destination, nevertheless took huge personal risks to explore new lands, in the knowledge that there was a significant likelihood that they would perish in the attempt.’

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this project is the potential for private financing.

Worden said he has discussed the potential price tag for one-way trips to Mars with Google co-founder Larry Page, telling him such a mission could be done for $10 billion.

He said said: ‘His response was, “Can you get it down to $1 [billion] or $2 billion?” So now we're starting to get a little argument over the price.'

I have no doubt that a privately funded Mars mission would be more interesting, more daring, and more successful than one managed by the government or -- groan -- by an international coalition.

Arnold Kling, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and Steve Landsburg attempt to explain Arrow's Impossibility Theorem to laypersons such as myself. It's a very interesting discussion and I've learned a lot.

In my opinion, the best explanation of the theorem is not to get into the details right away but to say simply: it's why you and your coworkers always have trouble deciding where to go to lunch.

As I read the discussion the key idea I learned is that societal preferences are not transitive.

If voters cast ballots as follows:
  • 1 vote for A > B > C
  • 1 vote for B > C > A
  • 1 vote for C > A > B

then the pairwise majority preference of the group is that A wins over B, B wins over C, and C wins over A: these yield rock-paper-scissors preferences for any pairwise comparison. In this circumstance, any aggregation rule that satisfies the very basic majoritarian requirement that a candidate who receives a majority of votes must win the election, will fail the IIA criterion, if social preference is required to be transitive (or acyclic). To see this, suppose that such a rule satisfies IIA. Since majority preferences are respected, the society prefers A to B (two votes for A>B and one for B>A), B to C, and C to A. Thus a cycle is generated, which contradicts the assumption that social preference is transitive.

Yeah, the terms may not make sense without reading the whole article, but they key point is that even if individuals have transitive preferences, the aggregation of those preferences will not necessarily be transitive.

Finally the tables are turning! Humanity is striking back against the emergent robotic over-culture by integrating human intelligence into software.

Amazon's Mechanical Turk service has long provided a cheap source of labor, when the job is simple for humans but difficult for computers. Tasks such as describing a picture, for example, can be completed online by remote, human workers. Programmers already use groups of these workers, called turkers, to do many such tasks at the same time. But Mechanical Turk offers no easy way for programmers developing new software applications to combine and coordinate the turkers' efforts. Now computer scientists at MIT have developed a toolkit that does just that. Called TurKit, the tool lets software engineers write algorithms to coordinate online workers using the Javascript programming language, and create powerful applications that have human intelligence built in. The software can also be debugged like normal code. ...

Another Mechanical Turk application, called VizWiz, is being developed to allow blind users to identify objects, such as street signs or pantry items, with the help of their smart phone cameras and sighted turkers. Ideally, VizWiz will work fast, so that users get results when they need them most. University of Rochester computer scientist Jeffrey Bigham and his team used TurKit to create an algorithm, called quikTurkit, that reduces lag time by queueing up groups of turkers before they are needed. When a user activates VizWiz's camera, quikTurkit signals turkers that a new query is imminent--either recruiting new workers on demand or sending the request to a pool of eight turkers already engaged in answering previous queries. The former method returns results to the user within a couple of minutes; the latter averages less than 30 seconds. "If you're running an expensive optical character recognition app on your phone, it might take that long to give you an answer anyway," says Bigham, "whereas VizWiz is smarter and could be cheaper."

Ray Kurzweil would probably laugh at such an approach, believing that artificial intelligence will quickly (eventually?) make such human-software-human hybrids obsolete. The tasks performed by Mechanical Turk's turkers are almost exactly those that are most within reach of existing AI algorithms... but of course there's a big difference between "within reach" and "grasped".

Further, there's something inherently discomforting about legions of anonymous turkers who take orders from software. Sure, that software is itself under the control of a human... for now. Rather than "striking back" at computers by taking their jobs, I'm inclined to see the Mechanical Turk as an early form of robotic overlord.

By now everyone knows how to survive a zombie apocalypse as a human, but let's face it, it's much more likely that you'll be a cranium-munching zombie and not one of the few "lucky" humans. Hence the new book from John Austin:

"Pop culture has trained the human race that when the zombie virus strikes, we die," he told AOL News. "That said, most books cater to the humans."

Austin hopes to rectify that with a new book, "So Now You're a Zombie: A Handbook for the Newly Undead" (Chicago Review Press), a manual that explains everything a newly undead soul needs to hunt, fight and feed on the living.

He wrote the book out of a fit of compassion for folks who, through no fault of their own, are now tagged with the zombie label but have no idea of how to start procuring brains to consume.

"I thought to myself, 'Wouldn't it be nice, as a zombie, to have a guide with all the necessary skills?' " he said.

If I do get turned into a zombie humanity doesn't stand a chance!

I've always liked Juan Williams, even though I often don't agree with him on many issues. I am also a regular NPR listener despite the fact that NPR's analysis and commentary is generally left-wing. I quite enjoy their international coverage, including human interest stories (fluff, I know) and travel journals. All that said, I think the decision to fire Juan Williams was a huge mistake and a great loss for NPR. Williams is an insightful analyst who often brings an unorthodox but solid viewpoint to otherwise mundane news and debates.

And now they have used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.

I certainly won't be contributing to NPR's ongoing pledge drive.

The most amazing part of this video (taken four days before the 1906 earthquake) is the complete chaos of the traffic. Everyone walks, drives, and rides wherever they feel like it with zero concern for safety or right-of-way.

(HT: Car Lust and DS.)

President Obama loves to remind people that America was running a huge deficit when he became president, but we shouldn't forget that Obama was elected to the Senate in 2004.

When Obama "got here" was when he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, not when he was elected President in 2008. In 2006, he became part of the Democrat majorities that took control of Congress in the elections that year. As another brilliant economist, Thomas Sowell, recently explained in Investors Business Daily:
No president of the United States can create either a budget deficit or a budget surplus. All spending bills originate in the House of Representatives, and all taxes are voted into law by Congress. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress before Barack Obama became President. The deficit he inherited was created by the Congressional Democrats, including Sen. Barack Obama, who did absolutely nothing to oppose the runaway spending. He was one of the biggest spenders.

The deficit in the last budget adopted by Republican Congressional majorities was $161 billion for fiscal 2007. That is why Rep. Jeb Hensarling was right to say to President Obama that the annual deficits under the Republicans have become the monthly deficits under the Democrats.

Also, the day the Democrat Congressional majorities took office, January 3, 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.6%, less than half the rate today. George Bush's economic policies, what Obama calls "the failed policies of the past," had set a record of 52 straight months of job creation, a record we can only dream about today. GDP in the previous quarter was 3.5%, double today's most recent growth.

Also on January 3, 2007, Barney Frank took over as Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. When President Bush had proposed legislation to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Frank led the charge to massacre it, saying he wanted to continue throwing the dice some more on housing policy. Frank, joined by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, continued to pump up the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bubble until it burst all over the U.S. and world economy. Sen. Barack Obama was an avid supporter of these policies as well.

The Democrats were the originators of the subprime mortgage, "affordable housing" policies since President Clinton saw them as a brilliantly innovative way to pass out free goodies. Vigorously supporting those policies all the way back to his ACORN days was community organizer Barack Obama. When he is carrying on about the mess he inherited, too bad he doesn't have the integrity to point the finger back at himself.

President Bush and the Republicans spent way too much money when they were in power, but they were pikers compared to the Democrats.

Daniel Henninger has a great article about how capitalism saved the Chinean miners. When a disaster strikes we give a lot of attention to the "first responders", but we shouldn't forget the innovators and businessmen who created the technology and the wealth that enable the first responders' response long before the the disaster occurs.

If those miners had been trapped a half-mile down like this 25 years ago anywhere on earth, they would be dead. What happened over the past 25 years that meant the difference between life and death for those men?

Short answer: the Center Rock drill bit.

This is the miracle bit that drilled down to the trapped miners. Center Rock Inc. is a private company in Berlin, Pa. It has 74 employees. The drill's rig came from Schramm Inc. in West Chester, Pa. Seeing the disaster, Center Rock's president, Brandon Fisher, called the Chileans to offer his drill. Chile accepted. The miners are alive.

Longer answer: The Center Rock drill, heretofore not featured on websites like Engadget or Gizmodo, is in fact a piece of tough technology developed by a small company in it for the money, for profit. That's why they innovated down-the-hole hammer drilling. If they make money, they can do more innovation.

I hope Center Rock gets the money and publicity they deserve for their contribution to this fantastic accomplishment.

Please oh please someone hack into TOTUS.

(HT: GeekPress and Instapundit.)

(HT: BM.)

Erin McCarthy explains why the AK-47 has been at least as influential as nuclear weapons.

The two weapons were designed simultaneously, and urgently, in Stalin's Soviet Union, and they worked together quite well. Atomic (then nuclear) weapons served to freeze borders in place and prevent total war, while the Kalashnikov percolated from state to state, army to army, group to group and man to man and became the principal firearm used for modern war and political violence, in all of its many forms. The West fixated, understandably and naturally, on nuclear weapons and their risks and developed an enormous intellectual, diplomatic and material infrastructure to deal with them and work against their proliferation. Meanwhile, the Kalashnikov—and many arms that complement it in the field—were doing the killing and still are. I sometimes ask people, when we talk about the big-ticket weapons as opposed to the weapons that actually see the real use: How many people have you known, or even heard of, who were killed by a submarine? How many by a nuclear bomb? The Kalashnikov, in actual practice over the past 60-plus years, has proven much more deadly than these things. But it gets a lot less official attention.

What happens if you leave McDonald's food on your coffee table for six months? Aw heck, let's just skip to the end:

Yeah, it looks brand-new. No word on how the elusive McRib might hold up... but my hunch is that you could easily save some up until the sandwich returns to your area.

(HT: NC and RB.)

(HT: GeekPress.)

When I was a grad student at UCLA I heard about a lab using eel brains to control small wheeled robots. They only lived for a few hours though, if I remember correctly.

(HT: Marginal Revolution.)

Everything you'd ever want to know about Tsar Bomba, the USSR's 100 megaton nuclear bomb. With video!

Google has offered a checklist to help you protect your Gmail account. Most of the suggestions can be applied to other kinds of accounts as well.

A very interesting conversation between Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly about where ideas come from.

Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections,in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.

Johnson: Exactly. And that, by the way, is also a fantastic example of how ideas work. After you’d read a galley of my book, you emailed me and wrote, “It’s a book about why ideas are networks.” And even though that line is in my book somewhere, I had never really framed it that way in my mind. But ever since then, when people ask me about the book, I’ve been using that concept to explain it. You had come to my work with fresh eyes and pointed out a really lovely way of expressing the main thesis that had completely escaped me. That’s the way breakthrough ideas happen. They don’t come from contemplative geniuses sitting alone in their studies, trying to think new thoughts.

Two concepts from the discussion that I will be pondering today:

  1. Ideas are networks.
  2. To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap.

The second is one I've pondered before, and actually dovetails very neatly with my Master's thesis. In my thesis, I created a population of animats (artificial intelligent agents) that could communicate via 4-bit messages. The messages were not specifically grounded, but were fed into the (non-learning) neural networks of the animats as a part of their input. The connections of the neural networks were passed through generations of animats and allowed to evolve, and over time the population of animats converged towards a culture that imbued meaning to the initially arbitrary signals. After hundreds of generations, the population as a whole would "learn" to interpret various 4-bit patterns to mean things like "here's food", "run away", "mate with me", and so forth.

The animats tended to live near food sources in the environment. If the world had only one cluster of food, the animats would develop a single culture. If the world had multiple clusters of food, the animats would spread out to adjacent clusters as their numbers increased and the culture of the animats at each cluster would be slightly different. The farther apart the food clusters were, the farther apart the cultures would be.

Anyway, the point is that each of these animat cultures could be seen as a metaphorical "idea". Without the dead space between food clusters, the animats would never develop more than a single culture. Similarly, without the freedom to create "junk" humanity would never be able branch out and discover new valuable ideas. The junk serves as a bridge into unknown territory!

(HT: BM.)

Thirty companies have been given waivers for some Obamacare provisions to discourage them from dropping employee coverage altogether.

Nearly a million workers won't get a consumer protection in the U.S. health reform law meant to cap insurance costs because the government exempted their employers.

Thirty companies and organizations, including McDonald's (MCD) and Jack in the Box (JACK), won't be required to raise the minimum annual benefit included in low-cost health plans, which are often used to cover part-time or low-wage employees.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which provided a list of exemptions, said it granted waivers in late September so workers with such plans wouldn't lose coverage from employers who might choose instead to drop health insurance altogether.

But don't worry, fast-food workers: you aren't second class citizens! In 2014 you'll definitely get your Obamacare.

The waiver program is intended to provide continuous coverage until 2014, when government-organized marketplaces will offer insurance subsidized by tax credits, says HHS spokeswoman Jessica Santillo.

Don't worry, there will certainly be no additional waivers in 2014!

Whenever you hear someone say that "the situation has gotten so serious that the government has had to step in" you can be absolutely certain that the primary cause of "the situation" is, in fact, the government itself.

James Surowiecki asks what does procrastination tell us about ourselves? Worth reading in its entirety, but here's my favorite part:

Viewed this way, procrastination starts to look less like a question of mere ignorance than like a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict. But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel “Solar”: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.” In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem.

If identity is a collection of competing selves, what does each of them represent? The easy answer is that one represents your short-term interests (having fun, putting off work, and so on), while another represents your long-term goals. But, if that’s the case, it’s not obvious how you’d ever get anything done: the short-term self, it seems, would always win out. The philosopher Don Ross offers a persuasive solution to the problem. For Ross, the various parts of the self are all present at once, constantly competing and bargaining with one another—one that wants to work, one that wants to watch television, and so on. The key, for Ross, is that although the television-watching self is interested only in watching TV, it’s interested in watching TV not just now but also in the future. This means that it can be bargained with: working now will let you watch more television down the road. Procrastination, in this reading, is the result of a bargaining process gone wrong.

I've viewed my own decision-making process in this light for a long time. I frequently make bargains with my inner selves, and I later feel a strong obligation to fulfill those bargains. I still procrastinate, of course. For example, I've tracked fallen leaves into the house over the past week that need to be vacuumed up... eventually. There's no really hurry, especially since I know I'll just track in more leaves as Autumn progresses. Last night I agreed to let myself watch a Buffy marathon instead of vacuuming on the condition that I'd vacuum tonight. And I intend to do it!

More than one-third of "extinct" mammals eventually reappear in the wild.

‘We identified 187 mammal species that have been missing since 1500,’ she wrote in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

‘In the complete data-set, 67 species that were once missing have been rediscovered.

More than a third of mammal species that have been classified as extinct or possibly extinct, or flagged as missing, have been rediscovered.’ ...

The mistakes cannot be blamed on primitive technology or old fashioned scientific methods.

‘Mammals missing in the 20th century were nearly three times as likely to be rediscovered as those that disappeared in the 19th century,’ Dr Fisher added.

It's almost as if there's some sort of political/financial incentive for declaring animals extinct... hm... cui bono?

(HT: RD, who points out that more animals means more tasty BBQs.)

If you think the greenies are just joking then you need to wake up. Lots of people must have found this funny in order for the video to have been actually produced, and few things reveal more about your inner character than your sense of humor.

More nasty eco-videos here:

This isn’t, of course, the first time green propagandists have inadvertently revealed the murderous misanthropy which lurks behind their cloak of ecological righteousness.

When you read about the enormity of the public sector pension crisis you can't escape the conclusion that the full value of these pensions simply will not be paid.

The political ground is fertile. In August the Los Angeles City Council learned that pensions and health benefits for retirees will gobble up a third of the city's general fund -- up from 8% -- in just five years. In Orange County the chief executive predicted that pension requirements in 2014 will consume about 84% of the county's law-enforcement payroll. The underlying threat? Lay off current cops to pay for the vacations of retired officers. ...

Struggling states like Ohio and Illinois face the biggest crisis, as a percentage of GDP, with unfunded commitments totaling about half of those states' economies.

This is déjà vu: Generous retirement packages, enabling middle-age workers to retire early, helped sink Detroit -- eventually landing GM and Chrysler at Treasury's door. The United Auto Workers, of course, negotiated those packages -- and management signed off on them. Now a majority of union members work for the government, and labor is determined to protect its pensions. Unlike those in the private sector, government retirement packages are often embedded in law. Wait until politicians tell that to the taxpayers stuck footing the bill.

If you are counting on a public pension for your retirement I strongly suggest that you begin making other arrangements. These pension promises will not be kept.

Seems like a good place to park your anti-Filner-mobile.

(HT: RR.)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from October 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

September 2010 is the previous archive.

November 2010 is the next archive.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Email blogmasterofnoneATgmailDOTcom for text link and key word rates.

Site Info