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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Links for October 2016

I will start writing actual blog posts again soon, I promise. But until then, more nerdy space stuff…

  • ExoMars is approaching the Red Planet. The lander enters the atmosphere tomorrow.
  • The United States only operated continuous airborne alert — the maintenance of multiple nuclear-armed bomber aircraft continuously in flight to avoid the possibility of a sneak attack neutralizing the bomber force — during the ’60s, because the accident rate was too high. However, Operation Looking Glass kept at least one emergency command platform in the air around-the-clock for almost 30 years.

    At DEFCON 2 or higher, the Looking Glass pilot and co-pilot were both required to wear an eye patch, retrieved from their Emergency War Order (EWO) kit. In the event of a surprise blinding flash from a nuclear detonation, the eye patch would prevent blindness in the covered eye, thus enabling them to see in at least one eye and continue flying. Later, the eye patch was replaced by goggles that would instantaneously turn opaque when exposed to a nuclear flash, then rapidly clear for normal vision.

    They also continuously maintained airplanes flying over the ocean, dangling antenna into the water, to ensure constant communication with submarines. This stopped in 1991.

  • Very relatedly, former Secretary of Defense William Perry is teaching a MOOC about the continuing modern risk of nuclear weapons.
  • A history of the Project Orion. Abtract:

    The race to the Moon dominated manned space flight during the 1960’s. and culminated in Project Apollo. which placed 12 humans on the Moon. Unbeknownst to the public at that time, several U.S. government agencies sponsored a project that could have conceivably placed 150 people on the Moon, and eventually sent crewed expeditions to Mars and the outer planets.

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Links for August-September 2016

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Links for July 2016

  • Strokes to the language-processing parts of the brain often manifest as expressive aphasia or fluent aphasia. Both are very grave disabilities, but can be fascinating. The latter looks like this:
  • Good HN discussion surround a Nature article on how bicycles are steered.
  • The results from the arXiv survey are in. Nature characterizes them as very conservative, but I as shocked to find that ~58% of responses thought “Allow readers to comment on papers” was very important, important, or somewhat important. From Andrej Karpathy:

    I developed and maintain Arxiv Sanity Preserver (http://www.arxiv-sanity.com/), one of the Arxiv overlays the article mentions. I built it to try address some of the pains that the “raw” arXiv introduces, such as being flooded by paper submissions without any support or tools for sifting through them.

    I’m torn on how Arxiv should proceed in becoming more complex. I support what seems to be the cited poll consensus (“The message was more or less ‘stay focused on the basic dissemination task, and don’t get distracted by getting overextended or going commercial’”) and I think the simplicity/rawness of arXiv was partly what made it succeed, but there is also a clear value proposition offered by more advanced search/filter/recommendation tools like Arxiv Sanity Preserver. It’s not clear to me to what extent arXiv should strive to develop these kinds of features internally.

    Whether they go a simple or more complex route, I really hope that they keep their API open and allow 3rd party developers such as myself to explore new ways of making the arXiv repository useful to researchers. Somewhat disappointedly, the arXiv poll they ran did not include any mentions of their API, which in my opinion are a critical, overlooked and somehow undervalued.

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Links for June 2016

  • Another transmissible cancer found, this time in mollusks.
  • The “modern” pentathalon is bizarre:

    The modern pentathlon is an Olympic sport that comprises five very different events: fencing, 200 m freestyle swimming, show jumping, and a final combined event of pistol shooting, and a 3200 m cross-country run. The sport has been a core sport of the Olympic Games since 1912 despite dispute…

    The addition of modern to the name distinguished it from the original pentathlon of the ancient Olympic Games, which consisted of the stadion foot race, wrestling, long jump, javelin, and discus. As the events of the ancient pentathlon were modeled after the skills of the ideal soldier of that time, Coubertin created the contest to simulate the experience of a 19th-century cavalry soldier behind enemy lines: he must ride an unfamiliar horse, fight enemies with pistol and sword, swim, and run to return to his own soldiers.

  • Sketches of the flying car design being funded by Larry Page. (H/t Scott Alexander.)
  • Why keep making new car commercials when you can just make one with a dummy car and digitally add in the car after the fact?
  • Everyone should know Moore’s here-is-one-hand argument:

    In his 1925 essay A Defence of Common Sense, Moore argues against idealism and skepticism toward the external world on the grounds that skeptics could not give reasons to accept their metaphysical premises that were more plausible to him than the reasons he had to accept the common sense claims about our knowledge of the world that skeptics and idealists must deny. In other words, he is more willing to believe that he has a hand than to believe the premises of what he deems “a strange argument in a university classroom.” “I do not think it is rational to be as certain of any one of these … propositions”….

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Links for May 2016

  • The Peacock Spider (Maratus speciosus):

    If you haven’t long ago seen the BBC Earth bit on the birds of paradise, check it out.
  • If you use Zotero and iOS, then check out PaperShip. I have two or three minor complaints, but on the whole it is very high quality.
  • The New Mexico whiptail is like a mule in that it’s a hybrid of two species, but unlike the mule it can reproduce semi-cloning:

    The New Mexico whiptail (Cnemidophorus neomexicanus) is a female species of lizard found in the southern United States in New Mexico and Arizona, and in northern Mexico in Chihuahua. It is the official state reptile of New Mexico. It is one of many lizard species known to be parthenogenic. Individuals of the species can be created either through the hybridization of the little striped whiptail (C. inornatus) and the western whiptail (C. tigris), or through the parthenogenic reproduction of an adult New Mexico whiptail.

    The hybridization of these species prevents healthy males from forming whereas males do exist in both parent species (see Sexual differentiation). Parthenogenesis allows the resulting all-female population to reproduce and thus evolve into a unique species capable of reproduction. This combination of interspecific hybridization and parthenogenesis exists as a reproductive strategy in several species of whiptail lizard within the Cnemidophorus genus to which the New Mexico whiptail belongs.

    And in the extremely unlikely event that you don’t already know what parthenogenesis is…

    Parthenogenesis… is a natural form of asexual reproduction in which growth and development of embryos occur without fertilization. In animals, parthenogenesis means development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg cell and is a component process of apomixis.

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Links for April 2016

  • Paul Christiano has bet me $500 at even odds that a self-driving car can be reliably hailed by a member of the general public in at least 10 North American cities by July 2023.

    Details: At least 8 cities must be outside San Fransisco Bay Area. The car must available on at least 50% of days, i.e., not confined to very narrow weather or traffic situations. The car must be self-delivering, in the sense that it drives itself to the user, but not necessarily fully self-driving, in the sense that the user might need to drive it to the destination. (It’s easy to imagine tech and regulatory scenarios where self-driven cars are limited to speeds that are unacceptably slow during transportation of passengers, like the ~20 mph that Google’s car usually does, but are sufficient for getting to the hailing passenger if the density is high enough.) Carl Shulman will adjudicate any edge cases.

    I ascribe a 45% chance that a self-delivering car reaches this threshold, and 38% chance that a fully self-driving car does.

    Here’s a list of optimistic predictions for self-driving car timelines, which notably doesn’t mention the recent Google pessimism.

  • People I know build great stuff!

    My brother Will is an electrical engineer at Apple. He has been heavily involved in improving Apple display technology for the past two years, especially the True Tone feature and especially with the iPad Pro 9. Well, the reviews from the experts are in:

    The Absolute Color Accuracy of the iPad Pro 9.7 is Truly Impressive as shown in these Figures. It is the most color accurate display that we have ever measured. It is visually indistinguishable from perfect, and is very likely considerably better than any mobile display, monitor, TV or UHD TV that you have.

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Links for March 2016

  • With AlphaGo’s victory, Carl Shulman won his $100 bet with me (announced before the match here). For hindsight, here is a bit more evidence that AlphaGo’s win isn’t that shocking — perhaps even right on schedule — and therefore shouldn’t cause you to update much on overall AI progress:

    Comment from mjn:

    Fwiw, the point where the Go curve massively changes slope is when Monte-Carlo Tree Search (MCTS) began to be used in its modern form. I think that’s been an underreported part of AlphaGo’s success: deep networks get the lion’s share of the press, but AlphaGo is a hybrid deep-learning / MCTS system, and MCTS is arguably the most important of the algorithmic breakthroughs that led to computer Go being able to reach expert human level strength.

    (HN discussion.) John Langford concurs on the importance of MCTS.

  • Also: Ken Jennings welcomes Lee Sedol to the Human Loser Club. And: Do the Go prodigies of Asia have a future? (H/t Tyler Cowen.) These articles basically write themselves.
  • Also from Tyler: It was only a matter of time before Facebook began to hire reporters. And: “Will all of economic growth be absorbed into life extension?“:

    Some technologies save lives—new vaccines, new surgical techniques, safer highways. Others threaten lives—pollution, nuclear accidents, global warming, and the rapid global transmission of disease. How is growth theory altered when technologies involve life and death instead of just higher consumption? This paper shows that taking life into account has first-order consequences. Under standard preferences, the value of life may rise faster than consumption, leading society to value safety over consumption growth. As a result, the optimal rate of consumption growth may be substantially lower than what is feasible, in some cases falling all the way to zero.

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