Links for April-May 2018

Public service announcement: Feedback from my readers is eagerly sought. Let me know in the comments or by email what you do and don’t find interesting, and maybe a bit of background about yourself.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

  • Complete lifecycle of HIV in 3D”. This really drives home how insane the world is going to be once intelligent agents are accurately designing machines on the molecular scale.
  • Chris Shroeder on China’s Belt & Road Initiative:

    It’s the largest global engagement strategy since the Marshall Plan — only…like 40 X as large in real dollars.

    Here’s a slightly hokey 6-minute introduction from Vox (“7 out of the 10 biggest construction firms in the world are now Chinese”):

    (H/t Malcom Ocean.)

    Relatedly, here’s diplomat Kishore Mahbubani on the potential for conflicts between the US and China (45 minute of lecture and 45 minutes of questions):Interestingly, I’ve found when increasing video playback speed that YouTube on Chrome has fewer skips and clips that impede intelligibility than VLC does playing back the file (at the same speed). Does anyone know why? Or can anyone recommend an alternative to VLC (or a new VLC plugin)?

    (H/t Julia Peng.) Some of the important/interesting claims: (1) The Chinese people are largely accepting of authoritarianism and generally believe that their long history makes democracy less suitable there. (2) The Chinese economic rise has been meteoric, demonstrating that economic liberalism can be pretty cleanly separated from political liberalism. (3) The US ought to submit to more multi-lateralism and international rule-of-law now in order to establish norms that will constrain China later. (4) China likes the US’s strong military involvement with Japan because Japan potentially becomes a nuclear power without the promise of the US’s umbrella.

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Links for February-March 2018

Extrapolating my current trajectory, I will combine more and more links posts into larger and larger multi-month collections until eventually I release one giant list for all time and shutdown the blog.Just kidding. I will get back to actual, non-link blogging before too long…

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Links for January 2018

  • Bryan Caplan reviews Hanson and Simler, and in several cases makes critiques similar to mine.
  • Viruses face strong adaptive pressure to have small genomes and, as a consequence, their external structure is made of a small number of repeating proteins. This is why they often have a high degree of geometric symmetry.


    Virus genomes also make use of overlapping genes to wring out more efficiency.

  • On security and bugs:

    Daniel Bernstein is the author of qmail. Bernstein created qmail because he was fed us with all of the security vulnerabilities in sendmail. Ten years after the launch of qmail 1.0, and at a time when more than a million of the Internet’s SMTP servers ran either qmail or netqmail, only four known bugs had been found in the qmail 1.0 releases, and no security issues. This paper lays out the principles which made this possible

  • Luke Muehlhauser excerpts Daniel Ellsberg.
  • One of the concepts pursued for ICBM defense:

    Project Excalibur was a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) research program to develop [a space-based] x-ray laser as a ballistic missile defense (BMD). The concept involved packing large numbers of expendable x-ray lasers around a nuclear device [on an orbiting satellite]. When the device detonated, the x-rays released by the bomb would be focused by the lasers, each of which would be aimed at a target missile. In space, the lack of atmosphere to block the x-rays allowed for attacks over thousands of kilometers.

  • Jeff Kaufman reports on the excellent news that Charity Navigator is beginning the slow push to accounting for effectiveness! GiveWell deserves tremendous credit for instigating this long ago.
  • Useful, basic arguments for and against whether cryptocurrencies (and tokens) are good for anything.
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Links for December 2017

  • GiveWell has released their yearly top-charities list. CEA has announced they are running donor lotteries in addition to EA Funds. And OpenPhil gives up on finding the most neglected biological research, moves to opportunistic model of just funding good stuff when they see it (which probably has important lessons about the difficulty of transferring human knowledge).
  • Uber driver’s get paid to take footage from a dash camera as raw data for self-driving cars.
  • Blue Origin demos it’s sub-orbital space tourism ride, complete with a full-length video from inside the passenger viewing area:

    You can identify the several minutes of weightlessness by the floating particles.

  • Geoffrey Hinton on visualizing higher dimensions: ‘To deal with hyper-planes in a 14-dimensional space, visualize a 3-D space and say “fourteen” to yourself very loudly. Everyone does it.’
  • The explanation for why Europe is warm for it’s lattitude is more complicated than just the gulf stream: If you turn the jet stream off in climate models, there is a still a large temperature difference.
  • The primary use for my iPad is reading and annotating papers. It’s new secondary use is as a whiteboard during Skype. WebWhiteboard and AWW App both facilitate public whiteboards without needing a login/signup, and work pretty well with your browser on iPad. WebWhiteboard has a limited and dated interface, but is fairly reliable. AWW App has a more modern interface, but seems to have slow/unreliable servers. Then there are a ton of options that require signup, but I don’t know whether any are worth using.
  • By way of Eric Rogstad and Tyler Cowen is this new-to-me idea: In the same way that, theoretically, the value of fiat currency is set by a given demand for a medium of exchange, the “fundamental” value of a bitcoin might be determined by a given demand for stores of value.
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Links for November 2017

  • For several months, Fermat’s Library has offered a Chrome extension called Librarian for browsing PDFs on the arXiv that automatically parses references to clickable journal links and bibtex entries. Very recently they added the ability to publicly comment, visible to anyone else running Librarian. Should be lower friction than commenting on (also excellent) SciRate.
  • Just heard about this story showing that the AZ governor means business:

    Three weeks into his new job as Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey made a move that won over Silicon Valley and paved the way for his state to become a driverless car utopia.

    It was January 2015 and the Phoenix area was about to host the Super Bowl. Mr. Ducey learned that a local regulator was planning a sting on Lyft and Uber drivers to shut down the ride-hailing services for operating illegally. Mr. Ducey, a Republican who was the former chief executive of the ice cream chain Cold Stone Creamery, was furious.

    “It was the exact opposite message we should have been sending,” Mr. Ducey said in an interview. “We needed our message to Uber, Lyft and other entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to be that Arizona was open to new ideas.” If the state had a slogan, he added, it would include the words “open for business.”

    Mr. Ducey fired the regulator who hatched the idea of going after ride-hailing drivers and shut down the entire agency, the Department of Weights and Measures. By April 2015, Arizona had legalized ride-sharing.

  • The last time a US Air Force bomber downed an enemy plane using its tail gun was 1972, but B-52s — which have been in service for a baffling 65 years — still carried (highly modernized) tail guns up until 1991 when a US air-to-surface missile mistakenly locked on to the tail gun’s radar and nearly destroyed the plane.
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Links for October 2017

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Links for August-September 2017

  • Popular-level introduction to the five methods used to identify exoplanets.
  • Another good profile of the SEP.
  • ArXiv gets some money to improve stuff.
  • Flying fish are hard to believe. It’s something of a tragedy that fish capable of long-distance flight never evolved (that we know of?). They are so bird like it’s startling, and this ability has evolved independently multiple times.
  • In addition to Russia and China, the US also at one time had ICBMs deployed by rail.
  • On nuclear decommissioning:

    For nuclear power plants governed by the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, SAFSTOR (SAFe STORage) is one of the options for nuclear decommissioning of a shut down plant. During SAFSTOR the de-fuelled plant is monitored for up to sixty years before complete decontamination and dismantling of the site, to a condition where nuclear licensing is no longer required. During the storage interval, some of the radioactive contaminants of the reactor and power plant will decay, which will reduce the quantity of radioactive material to be removed during the final decontamination phase.

    The other options set by the NRC are nuclear decommissioning which is immediate dismantling of the plant and remediation of the site, and nuclear entombment which is the enclosure of contaminated parts of the plant in a permanent layer of concrete.Mixtures of options may be used, for example, immediate removal of steam turbine components and condensors, and SAFSTOR for the more heavily radioactive containment vessel. Since NRC requires decommissioning to be completed within 60 years, ENTOMB is not usually chosen since not all activity will have decayed to an unregulated background level in that time.

  • The fraction of the federal budget devoted to NASA peaked in 1966, three years before the Moon landing.
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Links for June-July 2017

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Links for May 2017

  • Methane hydrates will be the new shale gas. There is perhaps an order of magnitude more methane worldwide in hydrates than in shale deposits, but it’s harder to extract. “…it’s thought that only by 2025 at the earliest we might be able to look at realistic commercial options.”
  • Sperm whales have no (external) teeth on their upper jaw, which instead features holes into which the teeth on their narrow lower jaw fit.


  • Surprising and heartening to me: GiveWell finds that distributing antiretroviral therapy drugs to HIV positive patients (presumably in developing countries) is potentially cost-effective compared to their top recommendations.
  • Relatedly: the general flow of genetic information is DNA-RNA-protein. At a crude level, viruses are classified as either RNA viruses or DNA viruses depending on what sort of genetic material they carry. Generally, as parasites dependent on the host cell machinery, this determines where in the protein construction process they inject their payload. However, retroviruses (like HIV) are RNA viruses that bring along their own reverse transcriptase enzyme that, once inside the cell, converts their payload back into DNA and then grafts it into the host’s genome (which is then copied as part of the host cell’s lifecycle). Once this happens, it is very difficult to tell which cells have been infected and very difficult to root out the infection.
  • Claims about what makes Amazon’s vertical integration different:

    I remember reading about the common pitfalls of vertically integrated companies when I was in school. While there are usually some compelling cost savings to be had from vertical integration (either through insourcing services or acquiring suppliers/customers), the increased margins typically evaporate over time as the “supplier” gets complacent with a captive, internal “customer.”

    There are great examples of this in the automotive industry, where automakers have gone through alternating periods of supplier acquisitions and subsequent divestitures as component costs skyrocketed.

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Links for April 2017

  • Why does a processor need billions of transistors if it’s only ever executing a few dozen instructions per clock cycle?
  • Nuclear submarines as refuges from global catastrophes.
  • Elite Law Firms Cash in on Market Knowledge“:

    …corporate transactions such as mergers and acquisitions or financings are characterized by several salient facts that lack a complete theoretical account. First, they are almost universally negotiated through agents. Transactional lawyers do not simply translate the parties’ bargain into legally enforceable language; rather, they are actively involved in proposing and bargaining over the transaction terms. Second, they are negotiated in stages, often with the price terms set first by the parties, followed by negotiations primarily among lawyers over the remaining non-price terms. Third, while the transaction terms tend to be tailored to the individual parties, in negotiations the parties frequently resort to claims that specific terms are (or are not) “market.” Fourth, the legal advisory market for such transactions is highly concentrated, with a half-dozen firms holding a majority of the market share.

    [Our] claim is that, for complex transactions experiencing either sustained innovation in terms or rapidly changing market conditions, (1) the parties will maximize their expected surplus by investing in market information about transaction terms, even under relatively competitive conditions, and (2) such market information can effectively be purchased by hiring law firms that hold a significant market share for a particular type of transaction.

    …The considerable complexity of corporate transaction terms creates an information problem: One or both parties may simply be unaware of the complete set of surplus-increasing terms for the transaction, and of their respective outside options should negotiations break down. This problem is distinct from the classic problem of valuation uncertainty.

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Links for March 2017

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Links for February 2017

  • If you are a high school student, or know one, who would be interested in the SPARC summer camp, the deadline is March 1.

    SPARC helps talented high school students apply their quantitative thinking skills to their lives and the world.

    SPARC will be hosted in the San Francisco Bay Area from August 6 – 17, with students arriving the evening of the 6th and leaving the morning of the 17th. Room and board are provided free of charge.

    The curriculum covers topics from causal modeling and probability to game theory and cognitive science. But the focus of SPARC is on applying the same quantitative and rigorous spirit outside of the classroom. How can we understand our own reasoning and behavior? How can we think more clearly and better achieve our goals?

  • Indian Space Research Organisation’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle successfully launched 104 satellites into orbit on the same mission. Onboard video of the deployment:

    Pictures of some of the cubesats, including Planet‘s 88 imagining satellites for continuous Earth monitoring.
  • What is a ‘Shavers Only’ Electrical Outlet?
  • A possible rare shake-up of the GiveWell list: temporary subsidies for migrant workers in India.
  • How to think about cell walls:

    I most cells, the cell wall is flexible, meaning that it will bend rather than holding a fixed shape, but has considerable tensile strength. The apparent rigidity of primary plant tissues is enabled by cell walls, but is not due to the walls’ stiffness. Hydraulic turgor pressure creates this rigidity, along with the wall structure. The flexibility of the cell walls is seen when plants wilt, so that the stems and leaves begin to droop, or in seaweeds that bend in water currents.

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Links for January 2017

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Links for December 2016

Late, alas. Also: there have been a couple of complaints about the spam filter for comments on this blog, and I’m trying to track down the issue. The filter is supposed to tell you what’s wrong and help you successfully post the comment. If you’ve been unable to get past the filter, or if it’s just too much of a hassle even when you can get past it, please let me know so I can try to fix this.

  • Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation system recently went online, although without yet a complete constellation. In just a few years, there will be a full four independent navigations from great powers: the EU, the US (GPS), Russia (GLONASS), and China (BeiDou). Devices are already being built to use all four systems at once. Everyone wins through the increased redundancy and satellite count.
  • Design of the Solo cup.
  • I highly recommend this semi-technical talk on ARC fusion reactor design by Dennis Whyte.

    (Video DownloadHelper allows downloading video off YouTube.)

    Proposed in 2014 by Whyte and collaborators, ARC is a newer but only under-development alternative to traditional Tokamak-style reactor, where rare earth barium copper oxide (ReBCo) superconductors play a crucial role. Whyte argues that the key hold-up on fusion reactors is their absolute size, which necessitate large-scale, lumbering international collaboration. ReBCo superconductors are the key technical advance allowing smaller magnetic confinement. The parameters of these designs scale extremely well with increased magnetic field. Significant downsides include increased vessel pressure and pulsed operation because of intrinsic limitations on neutrons shielding.The fusion fuel is deuterium and tritium, which is most amenable choice of reactant on the fusion slope of the nuclei binding energy curve.

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Links for November 2016

  • Somehow I had never heard of Georges Lemaître, Jesuit priest:

    [Lemaître] proposed the theory of the expansion of the universe, widely misattributed to Edwin Hubble. He was the first to derive what is now known as Hubble’s law and made the first estimation of what is now called the Hubble constant, which he published in 1927, two years before Hubble’s article. Lemaître also proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, which he called his “hypothesis of the primeval atom” or the “Cosmic Egg”.

    (H/t Sean Carroll.)

  • Pangolins are weird.

    (H/t Will Riedel.)
  • An interview about the Merriam-Webster twitter account.
  • Jon Baez’s excellent coverage of Jarzynksi.
  • The presidential scandal out of South Korea is more bizarre than previously reported. (H/t Will Eden.)
  • An anonymous Physics.SE user, on the meaning of Haag’s theorem and attempts to make quantum field theory mathematically rigorous:

    This is a little bit like the development of calculus, which underlies Newtonian mechanics. It took a long time, and was clearly a very valuable exercise for both mathematics and physics. But, long before the subject was rigorously defined it was clear that Newtonian mechanics was correct, but the correct language for it does not exist yet. So, I think Haag’s theorem demonstrates that we are at the same stage of development of QFT.

  • Stimulating the vestibular system (inner ear balance) leads to neat fat-loss effects.
  • Steve Hsu links to and discusses the work of Ted Chiang (1, 2, 3), whose short work “Story of your life” has recently been made into the movie “Arrival”. (The PDF can be found with some light Googling.)
  • Inside the world of Australian opal miners who live underground“.
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