Links for January 2015

  • There’s been some coverage of using etching to produce superhydrophobic metals. Unfortunately, it probably suffers from the same durability issues (no resistance to being destroyed through normal wear) as previous techniques that used special chemical coatings.
  • A funnel plot is a quick graphical way to check for publication bias on a topic.
  • Apparently, the best way to avoid a fight with a confrontational Red Kangaroo (the largest kangaroo species) is to give a deep cough. This is a signal of submission by subdominant males, and can assure the dominant male that you aren’t challenging him. Otherwise…

  • Daniel Dennett, synthesizing Anatol Rapoport, on how to compose a successful critical commentary:

    • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
    • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
    • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
    • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

    If only the same code of conduct could be applied to critical commentary online, particularly to the indelible inferno of comments.

    But rather than a naively utopian, Pollyannaish approach to debate, Dennett points out this is actually a sound psychological strategy that accomplishes one key thing: It transforms your opponent into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion.

    (H/t Rob Wiblin.) Although most folks have heard and approve of many of these tips, it’s common for people to get lazy about implementing them because, frankly, it’s kind of a lot of work. It’s important to remember that the difficulty itself is a critical part what makes these techniques effective. They constitute expensive (hard-to-fake) signals that you are putting in your fair share of the substantial effort needed to properly link up two minds which don’t operate exactly the same way. Lazy criticism (i.e., criticism in your language and mental framework, regardless of merit) is much easier.

  • The arXiv hits its millionth article.

  • The coming documentary on Yitang Zhang and the Twin Prime conjecture looks like it will be good:

    The central challenge of the film was finding a way to depict Yitang Zhang’s dedication to working in isolation. The qualities he embraces-solitude, quiet, concentration-are the opposites of those valued in the media. Fortunately, it is a conundrum Csicsery had faced before in other films about mathematicians. He had learned that contrary to the rules, it is okay to shoot long scenes of “the grass growing,” or in this case, shots of “a person just sitting with pencil and paper and thinking. The longer the scene, the more you realize that you really can see someone thinking. The human face is very expressive. Give it time and it speaks

    There’s also a new article in the New Yorker.

  • Is the source of knowledge “intuition”, in the sense of experimental philosophy, just because you can’t articulate it?

    But Cappelen thinks that it is unwarranted to label something “intuitive” just because it is not broadly inferential. Another possibility, for instance, is that sometimes people think they are justified (by reason, not intuition) in arriving at a judgment (say, about p-zombies), but they are really not. However, in the case of the twin-earth thought experiment proposed by Hilary Putnam, Cappelen maintains that there is in fact a broadly inferential (again, as opposed to intuitive) justification of the conclusion of the thought experiment, which explains why most philosophers consider Putnam’s judgment correct.

    At this point Cappelen introduced his concept of Socratic knowledge [5]: this is implicit knowledge that people recognize as correct when presented with it. For instance, all people in the conference room had a vast knowledge base about reference, because they use it constantly. And yet, most of them would not be able to articulate it on the spot, certainly not in any sophisticated manner. The same is true for agency, belief attribution, knowledge attribution, and so on — just in virtue of being agents with beliefs, knowledge, etc.

    Now, making tacit knowledge explicit and generalizing about it can be surprisingly hard. But the idea is that lots of cases like the twin-earth thought experiment involve the deployment of people’s tacit knowledge, which means that they are (justifiable or not) inferences, contra Chalmers.

    Cappelen proposed — correctly I think — that the idea of Socratic knowledge so described is not even in the neighborhood of the kind of things that either philosophers or psychologists call intuitive, contra to what is maintained by some XPhi-ers. And of course these judgments are also not un-empirical, as tacit knowledge often involves quite a bit of empirical input. Intuitions (in the philosophical sense) are also not “spontaneous,” coming about without reflection on the part of the agent (as it is, in fact, the case for intuitions in the psychological sense).

  • The incredible power of software’s zero marginal cost masks a serious tragedy of the commons which might be solved by matching pledges:

    …a large number of companies need web serving software, and a large number of companies need an implementation of fundamental encryption protocols like SSL/TLS. Given the massive number of companies and individuals that rely on this software tech, obviously, getting those who benefit to pitch in to appropriately fund and/or staff development of these software commons projects makes sense. Obviously, it would be crazy to staff such critical projects largely with a handful of unpaid volunteers working in their spare time. Er, right?? Yet that is what projects like OpenSSL do.

    …The website for Arby’s, a restaurant which sells horrible roast-beef sandwiches, is developed and maintained by a team of well-paid professionals, who do this as their day job. In a week, the development of the Arby’s website likely receives more developer resources than OpenSSL does in a year.

    The author proposes Snowdrift.cc. See commentary on HackerNews comments. Many open source projects have tip jars, and I have wondered before whether any of them would preferentially work on the feature requests of those who have donated.

  • SpaceX lands their rocket on a barge, sort of.

    Predictably, there’s good discussion on Hacker News.
  • Apparently, LaTeX users are deluded: An Efficiency Comparison of Document Preparation Systems Used in Academic Research and Development (emphasis mine):

    The choice of an efficient document preparation system is an important decision for any academic researcher. To assist the research community, we report a software usability study in which 40 researchers across different disciplines prepared scholarly texts with either Microsoft Word or LaTeX. The probe texts included simple continuous text, text with tables and subheadings, and complex text with several mathematical equations. We show that LaTeX users were slower than Word users, wrote less text in the same amount of time, and produced more typesetting, orthographical, grammatical, and formatting errors. On most measures, expert LaTeX users performed even worse than novice Word users. LaTeX users, however, more often report enjoying using their respective software. We conclude that even experienced LaTeX users may suffer a loss in productivity when LaTeX is used, relative to other document preparation systems. Individuals, institutions, and journals should carefully consider the ramifications of this finding when choosing document preparation strategies, or requiring them of authors.

    See HN Discussions, one and two, for serious caveats about methodology. In particular, the task of reproducing a document viewed visually is unusual and seems obviously biased toward a WYSIWYG editor. Still, I’ll count this as more support for my call for a philanthropically developed successor to LaTeX…although maybe this is evidence against it being realized since, well, isn’t everyone happy enough?

  • I was reading this New Yorker article on the disappointing failure of graphene, once mega-hyped to be the next super material, to actually yield any revolutionary new products. It got me thinking about this huge disconnect that seems to exist between technologically possible and economically efficient.

    Lots of people love to talk about colonizing other planets, and some like Elon Musk put their billions where their mouth is, with grand plans for new spaceship technology that will allows humans to set foot on Mars. But as folks like Robin Hanson have pointed out, the thing that stops us form colonizing mars (and using it as a hedge against risk on Earth) is not the difficulty of getting there. That’s downright easy compared to the real difficulty: how to do you make Martian colonies economically self-sufficent?

    So: why is there no theory of cost effectiveness?

    There are 19 year-old college students who drop out of college to make a brilliant product that never existed. Why don’t they drop out of college to make a product fantastically cheap?

  • According to GiveWell: The best charity work your money can by.
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