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”….

    Another form of refutation simply points out that not everyone shares Moore’s intuition. If a person finds the skeptical possibility sp more intuitively likely than the knowledge claim q, then for that person Moore’s own defense of intuition provides a basis for their skepticism. Moore, however, defends his argument on the grounds that skeptical arguments seem invariably to require an appeal to “philosophical intuitions”. He feels we have considerably less reason to accept such intuitions than we have to accept the claims that they mean to refute.

  • Only a handful of rescue missions have been attempted for scientists wintering over in the South Pole, and at least one result in the loss of the whole crew. The latest rescue succeeded.
  • Stabilized video of the recent failed SpaceX landing attempt:
  • New life for primordial black holes as dark matter, tested with LIGO:

    Primordial black holes should be distributed like dark matter halos, whereas astrophysical black holes should be concentrated in galactic discs. Also, the typical eccentricity of the astrophysical black hole binaries should be different. With some luck, the primordial black hole dark matter scenario may be vindicated or robustly excluded in the near future.

  • The popular examples of ring species are much murkier than usually presented. I think the blog post title is more wrong than right, though. (H/t Will Riedel.)
  • Katja Grace: If effective altruism is so obviously sensible and superior — who thinks altruism is bad, or want to be ineffective? — then why is it so new? Lots of good points in here. Very hard to disentangled empirical changes (when did it become easier to measure things) from social changes (internet?) from pure lack of empathy for non-EA thinking.
  • Termites used rudimentary agriculture 25 million years ago. (They use a reasonable definition of “agriculture”.)
  • Cryptocurrency market caps.
  • You can now get DeTexify as standalone software for OSX.
  • A supernova at Alpha Centauri (~5 light years) would deliver roughly the same amount of energy to your body as a hydrogen bomb detonated across the street from you. If the sun suddenly went supernova, and you were magically shielded from all the heat, pressures, and normal radiation, the neutrino radiation dose would still be fatal. (Shielding from neutrinos is impossible, since it takes of order a light year of lead.)
  • Optimistic new result in carbon sequestration. [Science article.]
  • Four-minute video about the near-catastrophic collision between the Mir space station and a resupply vessel, narrated by the American astronaut on board:

    In order to seal off the damaged module Spektr, cosmonauts had to work frantically to remove electrical cables passing through the hatch connecting it to the rest of the station. The power-generation capabilities of Spektr were eventually restored during subsequent missions, but the module was left permanently unpressurized. An animation of the collision is available. (Related.)
  • Fermat’s library covers Bostrom’s Simulation argument paper.
  • Will MacAskill argues that Viktor Zhdanov, the little-known Ukrainian virologist who first argued for the possibility of small pox eradication, might be the best person who ever lived. I presume this is in the sense of having the greatest positive impact that followed directly and foreseeably from achieving their purposeful goal.
  • In this thread: apologists for LaTeX. It really doesn’t have to suck, folks. And all that time you “invested” learing on the tricks and hacks to get your paper to compile? The world would be better off if they were unnecessary…(Slightly related.)
  • New article on that jetpack.
  • 80k Hours just released a big update to their career guide. If you’re thinking about a career move, read it.
  • Sabine Hossenfelder on the over-investment in string theory. I agree with most of it, although she is too flippant on some points that string proponents would rightly object to.
  • WSJ Review of the new book about the rise and fall of the Iridium satellite phone system. The Iridium satellite have the brightest flares of all man made satellites:
  • Semi-automated content translation is coming to Scandinavian Wikipedias.”
  • Maybe this reveals my naivete, but I have always found David Friedman’s “A Positive Account of Property RightsIt’s influenced by but logically independent of his politics.a   to be deep.

    Consider now two players playing the game called bilateral monopoly. They have a dollar to divide between them, provided they can agree how to divide it….the players are free to talk with each other as much as they want.

    But while they can talk freely, there is a sense in which they cannot communicate at all. It is in my interest to persuade you that I will only be satisfied with a large fraction of the dollar; if I am really unwilling to accept anything less than ninety cents, you are better off agreeing to accept ten cents than holding out for more and getting nothing. Since it is in the interest of each of us to persuade the other of his resolve, all statements to that effect can be ignored; they would be made whether true or not. What each player has to do is to guess what the other’s real demand is, what the fraction of the dollar is without which he will refuse to agree. That cannot be communicated, simply because it pays each player to lie about it….the players must coordinate their demands (so that they add up to a dollar) without communication. It seems likely that they will do so by agreeing to split the dollar fifty-fifty.

    Although it’s generally understood that strong incentives to lie mean people are less able to trust each other, Friedman’s simple insight is that this mean it is useful to analyze some human interactions as if humans are unable to communicate. Friedman then goes on to argue that property rights are the Schelling point of games concerning who gets to use what property.

    The best critique of this line of reasoning is probably just the general failure of game theory at predicting real-life interactions. Still, I think this idea is more fundamental than the formalism used to describe it here.

  • The good stuff from Tyler Cowen: Uber knows you are more likely to pay surge pricing when your phone batter is low. “A guy just transcribed 30 years of for-rent ads. Here’s what it taught us about housing prices.” Self-driving cabs in Singapore by 2019? Not good for my bet with Paul. You are more likely to forget unethical actions than ethical ones. I’ve definitely experienced this. “Google patents ‘sticky’ layer to protect pedestrians in self-driving car accidents. Adhesive technology on the front of a vehicle would aim to reduce the damage caused when a pedestrian hit by a car is flung into other vehicles or objects.” Australia and the future of dairy farming:

    And finally, “Why Do We Tenure? Analysis of a Long Standing Risk-Based Explanation“:

    Using a sample of all academics that pass through top 50 economics and finance departments between 1996 and 2014, we study whether the granting of tenure leads faculty to pursue riskier ideas. We use the extreme tails of ex-post citations as our measure of risk and find that both the number of publications and the portion that are “home runs” peak at tenure and fall steadily for a decade thereafter. Similar patterns holds for elite (top 10) institutions, for faculty with longer tenure cycles, and for promotion to Full Professorship. We find the opposite pattern among poorly-cited publications: their numbers steadily rise after tenure. The decline in both the quantity and quality of publications points to tenure incentivizing less effort in publishing rather than more risk-taking.

  • What’s the huge difference between Bronze and Iron such that historians would organize millennia based of their availability? Bronze is actually a superior metal in most respects, but it’s rare and requires long-distance trade networks. Iron is everywhere; it is more difficult to work with, but once you figure out how…it’s cheap.
  • The US Air Force has self-steering parachutes.
  • Time-lapse video of the “core-first” construction of 11 Times Square:
  • A bridge-tunnel is a bridge over open water that transitions into a tunnel under the water. Of the ten worldwide, three are in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, which has a very large military presence, including the enormous Norfolk Naval Shipyard. “Tunnels had to be used instead of drawbridges because the waterways they cross are critical to military naval operations and could not afford to be blocked off by a bridge collapse in the event of disaster or war.”
  • Caplan: “…Malthusianism is a more dangerous doctrine than eugenics. If the whiff of eugenics leads you to say, “We should be very careful here, because these ideas can easily lead to terrible things,” the whiff of Malthusianism should inspire even greater trepidation.”
  • FYI, Kiwix for iOS is now super easy to set up. Before you needed to get a torrent or download a huge file without interruptions, but now they have a nice download manager. You can have the entire English-language Wikipedia without picture in just 16 GB (or in 56 GB with!).
  • What do you think is the standard practice is for scrapping a huge container ship that has reached the end of its life? Did you guess running it aground at full speed on the shore of India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh, and letting local folks tear it apart?

    (H/t rwhitman.) This is happening a lot more lately since the widening of the Panama canal has made many panamax ships obsolete. Related.
  • The considerations that go into the design of the Mars Ascent Vehicle are very real:

    Suits Drive Cabin Diameter…EVA Suits are Physically Larger Than IVA Suits…If crew has to remove suits, it gets worse! Must remove suits after about 12 hours. Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG) is rated for ~8 hours, but work is ongoing to extend limit….

  • After the municipal government slurped up the once-independent competing NYC subways systems, they had big plans:

    (H/t fennecfoxen.)
  • Google Earth has gotten amazing in some places. Why such great 3D building coverage in Waterloo?
  • 10 hours of 1080p footage from the front of a Norwegian train. Yep:
  • These will make great digital picture frames. An anonymous display expert had this to say on:

    The basic way [E-Ink] works is that they have dark pigment particles and white pigment particles, and they respond oppositely to applied voltage. So to switch, you just apply voltage: one set of pigments rises to the surface and the other sinks.

    The challenge with color is that it becomes multidimensional, so using a one-dimensional controller (voltage) isn’t straightforward anymore. You could do separate pixels for separate colors using color filters, but this drastically reduces total reflectance (presumably by about 2/3), so everything just looks dark.

    It looks like they use four pigment primaries (white-cyan-magenta-yellow), two of which are negatively charged and two that are positively charged. They were very vague about their exact method, but it’s some combination of using race conditions (i.e. cyan will rise faster than magenta) and some other weird techniques to achieve all color configurations. Still not sure how it works, but I guess that’s the way they want it.

    Relatedly is this guy’s incredibly laborious attempt to mimic e-ink properties with an LCD display:

    The final feature I added was what I call “shy mode”. When shy mode is enabled, the picture frame uses a discrete camera and a simple face detection system to determine whether anyone is currently looking at it. If someone is, then the frame won’t change what it’s displaying, since that would be a total giveaway.

  • More progress on carbon sequestration through modified organisms. [Science article.]
  • Plasma aerocapture with magnetoshell for planetary entry: Rather than deploying an enormous physical heat shield for high-speed entry into thin atmospheres, there may be large weight savings by generating a large magnetic field and resulting plasma around the probe, dissipating energy into the atmosphere.
  • What are the most common pitfalls awaiting new Mathematica users? An extensive list worth reading through thoroughly if you use Mathematica often. I had seen many of them because I’ve been working with it for several years, but some were new.

    For instance, I knew Mathematica kept a copy of all input and output expressions, even plots. But did you know that by default it keeps everything for an arbitrarily long session and, if it runs out of memory, simply crashes mysteriously? Change $HistoryLength to fix this.

  • Here’s the footage of the latest successful SpaceX drone ship landing taken onboard the rocket itself.

    (Looks more natural reversed. Also can come with lots more detail and annotation.)

    By the way, the Apollo Moon lander had single-use aluminum honeycomb crushable shock absorbers too.

  • ULA wants to recover just the first stage engine using parachutes and mid-flight capture by helicopter.
  • The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk has a YouTube channel.
  • Eight Diane Arbus Images You’ve Never Seen.
  • You can buy LED lightbulbs which look like the hipster filament ones.
  • Some evidence for a new 17-MeV vector boson, but you should be very skeptical.
  • Relatedly, the rumors are flying that the 750-GeV excess has disappeared (see comments…).
  • Typically, the optimal time to book flights from the US to Europe is 6 months out, but from US to Asia at 5 weeks out. Why?
  • Two and a half minutes of Mobula Rays bellyflopping:
  • BBC Roundup of the biggest science stories out of China.
  • Last week, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) submitted the first-ever permit application to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a small modular nuclear reactor.

    While existing U.S. reactors don’t have a standard design, the country of France already fully standardizes the design of all of its nuclear power plants. The standardization allowed France to become a world leader in nuclear power (75% of the country’s electricity comes from nuclear) and achieve one of the lowest electricity prices in Europe of 17 cents per kilowatt-hour when converted with purchasing power parities to U.S. dollars. Compare that to neighboring Germany’s 37 cents per kilowatt-hour or Poland’s 34 cents per kilowatt-hour. (All data from the International Energy Agency).

  • GiveWell tested out a podcast, but they didn’t get much feedback so they probably won’t keep it up.
  • Two videos imagining a distopian VR future. I don’t think this is the likely equilibrium, but the similarity to websites without adblocking is not comforting.
  • Why is the USA adopting chip & signature and not chip & pin?
  • Why has China developed so much faster than India? Suppose we could become confident that democracy vs. authoritarianism was the root cause: Would we stop spreading democracy in the developing world?
  • Rendering a Buddhabrot at 4K and Other Bad Ideas.”
  • Rescuing the Russian space station Salyut 7 in 1985.
  • The NY Times’ VR video (360 video?) for New Horizons / Pluto is both amazing and wanting. I wish they found a way to make everything appear sharper, even if that meant inventing the details. Here’s hoping the technology keeps progressing and the video of the trip to Europa is amazing.
  • By the way, Juno arrives at Jupiter on July 4th. (Also: NY Times.) There is a dedicated optical camera that will provide the first ever video of an orbit around another planet. Hopefully it’s higher quality than this video from its Earth flyby:

    (This one was taken with Juno spinning, which I don’t think will happen while in Jovian orbit.) Incidentally, Juno will have the closest-ever orbit of Jupiter, just 3,000 miles above the cloud tops (to be compared with Jupiter’s 43,000 mile radius). This NASA documentary is a little hokey, but it gives a reasonable intro to the mission and each of the instruments.
  • Museum of Soviet arcade machines.
  • John Baez’s short invitation to C*-algebras.


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  1. It’s influenced by but logically independent of his politics.
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