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. The primary reason for obsolescence of most mounted machine guns on bombers is the rise of long-range air-to-air missiles that could be launched by attack aircraft far out of gun range.

    This (violent) scene from the movie Unbroken depicts a B-24 Liberator defending itself using mounted machine guns during a bombing mission.

  • The Albanian pyramid scheme. (H/t Alyssa Vance.)
  • Eric Schmidt on the excellent quality of AI researchers coming out of China:

    “If you have any kind of prejudice or concern that somehow their system and their educational system is not going to produce the kind of people that I’m talking about, you’re wrong.”

  • When I complain about the direction that fundamental physics is headed, I often emphasize that the discovery of new math and the writing of new papers is not a very good indicator of progress. There are an infinite number of math puzzles, and theory space is likewise unbounded. If you take any crude metric of concrete progress (e.g., number of new particles discovered, or the logarithmic size of the energy regime over which we are confident in the basic laws), fundamental physics research has been slowing down for several decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m belaboring an obvious point, until I hear a quote like this from the new Quanta article on the proliferation of applications for strings and string-inspired formalism which have given up on understanding quantum gravity:

    “We’re not stuck,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like we’re on the verge of getting it all sorted, but I know more each day than I did the day before – and so presumably we’re getting somewhere.”

    If you’re reading this, you will probably be dead in 6 decades or less, maybe much less. And if you’re over 25, your brain function has probably peaked. Time is running out.

  • New teaser from Boston Dynamics:
  • Preserving a 440-lbs. blue-whale heart for display.
  • Did you know the arXiv now has sections for Econ and EE/systems?
  • Allen B. Downey’s essay on textbook authors giving away their writing: Free Books, Why Not? (See also his textbook manifesto, although I was mostly sheltered from these sorts of textbooks, especially in physics.)
  • Another actual medical use of genetic engineering.
  • Great for the world, but not good for my pessimistic bet with Paul Christiano on the first date self-driving cars arrive in 10 North American cities. Note though that these are just employees riding. Basically, the emergency test driver has moved into the back seat.
  • Apparently the creator Alexandra Elbakyan of Sci-Hub is touchy!
  • This recent post from Robin Hanson introduced me (embarrassingly) to the idea of strict liability as distinct from systems of negligence.
  • Scott Alexander: canonical authoritative expositions cannot fully replace beginner discussion as a learning tool. In other words, the much derided late-night freshman philosophy discussions play an important role in learning.
  • Yudkowsky’s new book is being released chapter by chapter, with links to online discussion collated at the books website.
  • How to buy bitcoin.
  • Stephen Jordan’s quantum algorithm zoo.
  • Scott Aaronson on checking quantum supremacy without being able to simulate.
  • A good link for explaining to technically minded (but not quantum-computing-trained) friends the various mathematical and physical assumptions that delineate various scenarios in quantum computing.
  • Delicious lunacy: Quake on an oscilloscope:
  • Buck Shlegeris on an instantiation of Paul Christiano’s “capability amplification“:

    Let’s call the game “relay programming”. To run the game, the game master picks a challenging programming problem. For concreteness, let’s say Project Euler problem 62:

    “…41063625 is the smallest cube which has exactly three permutations of its digits which are also cube. Find the smallest cube for which exactly five permutations of its digits are cube.”

    (I chose this problem because I don’t know how to solve it, and I don’t know what strategy I’d use to solve it, and I don’t think I’d make that much progress in ten minutes, but I’m 75% confident I’d solve it in five hours of work, based on its difficulty as rated on the Project Euler website.)

    This game is called a relay because it is played with a team of people, each of whom is only allowed ten minutes to contribute. The first player is sent an email which contains the problem; before ten minutes is up they must reply with the email that they want to be sent to the second player. The game continues with fresh players until the task is solved.

    So every player has ten minutes to make as much progress as possible. One possible thing that the first player could do over those ten minutes is think about how to decompose the problem…

  • SpaceX has a good marketing department.
  • It’s hard to say exactly why mice love running on wheels so much, but it’s not just because they’re bored in captivity. Wild mice will frequently use a wheel placed in a field.
  • Vasili Arkhipov has (as far as I can tell, justly) become quite celebrated among folks who worry about existential risk. I didn’t know until recently that he was also the deputy commander of K-19, the famous doomed early Russian nuclear-powered submarine dramatized in a movie with Harrison Ford.

    Relatedly, it is interesting that the concept of a Political Officer is associated strongly with the Soviet Union even though the general idea — an integration of high-ranking officers designed to maintain civilian control of the military — could arguably be useful to democracies.

  • The DARPA Grand Challenge for self-driving cars was a decade ago:

    Today? The DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge:

    The DARPA Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2) is the first-of-its-kind collaborative machine-learning competition to overcome scarcity in the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Today, spectrum is managed by dividing it into rigid, exclusively licensed bands. This human-driven process is not adaptive to the dynamics of supply and demand, and thus cannot exploit the full potential capacity of the spectrum. In SC2, competitors will reimagine a new, more efficient wireless paradigm in which radio networks autonomously collaborate to dynamically determine how the spectrum should be used moment to moment.

    The team whose radio design most reliably achieves successful communication in the presence of other competing radios could win as much as $3,500,000.

    (H/t aresant.)

  • In case you’re unaware of it, the Wirecutter is the best product recommendation website I know of and, in particular, does a great job of porting the never-praised-enough inverted pyramid style from academia and (disputably) journalism to this genre. (If we could get more link aggregators like HN and reddit to embrace rather than belittle tl;dr’s — aka abstracts — the internet would be a more useful place.) Its competitors are generally awful, full of fluff and constantly burying the lede.

    The Wirecutter makes money with referral links through retailers (mostly Amazon) rather than manufacturers. Arguably, it is evidence that advertisement-based websites have fundamental equilibrium limitations, and that retailer oligopolies can have surprising benefits. My chief complaint is that the Wirecutter is geared toward folks less stingy than myself, likely induced by their incentive to get commission on large purchases.

  • Incidentally, does anyone provide a service like except for websites rather than software?
  • Exploiting GPUs for general-purpose parallel processing has only been practical since roughly 2001. The two major software layers for abstracting away the hardware are CUDA and OpenCL.

    The processor specifically designed for machine learning is, of course, Google’s “tensor processing unit“.

  • davycro on the usefulness of cheap hand-held ultrasound:

    Primary care doctors (eg family, internal, and emergency medicine) will benefit most from affordable ultrasound. We are learning that it’s a powerful diagnostic tool when used along side the physical exam. Some zealots have equated bedside ultrasound to be the biggest advancement to medicine since antibiotics. This notion I feel is exaggerated, but— it taps into the underlying excitement in the medical community for bedside ultrasound…

    Patient came in with all the symptoms and findings of a stroke— altered mental status, inability to move their left arm. Before giving the treatment for a stroke, a potent blood thinner called tPA, the doctor decided to do an informal ultrasound of the patients heart. He found the patient had a massive dissection of their aorta. The patient wasn’t getting adequate blood flow to their arm or brain. Had the patient been given tPA they most likely would have died. A quick bedside ultrasound revealed a difficult diagnosis and saved the patients life.

  • Victoria Krakovna on the recent Tokyo AI Society Symposium.
  • Two chrome plugins for controlling YouTube playback speed using keyboard shortcuts at arbitrary granularity. I’m embarrassed that these are two years old and I’ve just discovered them. I’m currently using “Video Speed Controller” with “[” and “]” to control slower and faster, respectively, so as to mimic the shortcuts for VLC. If anything, the audio quality under fast playback is even better than VLC. Incidentally, here are the standard YouTube keyboard shortcuts.
  • Browser fingerprinting through the <canvas> HTML element.
  • Claims that a toroidal planet may be an equilibrium state, or even a stable equilibrium state, albeit highly unlikely to occur naturally. Old HN discussion.
  • Good video and links on cattle genomics from Steve Hsu.
  • Also by way of Hsu, the state of the art of brain scanning:
  • With all the talk about China’s ballistic missiles having the ability to nullify the US’s aircraft carrier, I wonder how seriously the Navy is taking the idea of bringing back submersible aircraft carriers like Japan’s WWII-era I-400-class submarine. Interestingly and sensibly, they are at least going to extend the effective range of carrier-launched aircraft by augmenting them with the MQ-25A Stingray, a proposed unmanned aerial tanker that evolved from the X-47B.
  • Walmart deploying Bossnova robot to patrol stores for mislabeled and out-of-stock items.
  • It’s always going to depend on how you count, but here’s another reminder that only 1 in ~30 PhD students goes on to become a professor.
  • Assisted reproductive technologies “includes all fertility treatments in which both eggs and embryos are handled.In 2015,

    these procedures resulted in nearly 73,000 babies — 1.6 percent of all U.S. births. The rate is even higher in some countries, including Japan (5 percent) and Denmark (10 percent).

    (H/t Gwern.)

  • Also from Gwern, “Why does drug resistance readily evolve but vaccine resistance does not?“, Kennedy & Read 2017:

    Why is drug resistance common and vaccine resistance rare? Drugs and vaccines both impose substantial pressure on pathogen populations to evolve resistance and indeed, drug resistance typically emerges soon after the introduction of a drug. But vaccine resistance has only rarely emerged. Using well-established principles of population genetics and evolutionary ecology, we argue that two key differences between vaccines and drugs explain why vaccines have so far proved more robust against evolution than drugs. First, vaccines tend to work prophylactically while drugs tend to work therapeutically. Second, vaccines tend to induce immune responses against multiple targets on a pathogen while drugs tend to target very few. Consequently, pathogen populations generate less variation for vaccine resistance than they do for drug resistance, and selection has fewer opportunities to act on that variation. When vaccine resistance has evolved, these generalities have been violated. With careful forethought, it may be possible to identify vaccines at risk of failure even before they are introduced.

  • ArXiv Vanity automatically automatically converts PDF appers on the arXiv to HTML. Definitely imperfect, but much better mobile reading when it works. Under the hood, it uses Pandoc and’s template.
  • Neural network zoo. (Flawed but useful.)
  • Why are people watching ballet when they could be watching indoor skydiving with serious (read: classical) music? (H/t Will Riedel.) And yea there can be many dancers. More evidence for the Wiblin thesis that “higher pleasures are lower pleasures plus signaling”.
  • Good evidence for lava tubes (underground tunnels) on the moon.
  • The political geography of Hong Kong makes obtaining freshwater particularly challenging, such that they have a double set of pipes carrying both fresh water and salt water so they can use the latter for flushing toilets.
  • No detectable reduction in police or civilian violence in largest ever randomized test of police body cameras.
  • It’s apparently impossible to get price history information for airline tickets that is a function of both the flight date and the number of days in advance its booked. There are only a handful of sites, and from what I can tell they either show one or the other.
  • Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher photography.
  • Yudkowsky claims latest iteration of Alpha Go is good new evidence of his position in the AI foom debate with Hanson, i.e., that AGI will be build with a small number of general components rather than many complicated pieces refined through trial and error. Hanson responds that success of a new general components that is much better than humans at a specific task is not good evidence that we won’t require many such components to accomplish most tasks.
  • Mateus Araújo’s quantum info blog only has a few posts, but at least one of them helped me understand a paper.
  • What’s the difference between owning a stock and having contractual rights to it? hobbyjogger:

    To oversimplify, property rights are often said to be good against the world, while contract rights are good against specific others.

    A share of stock is itself a set of contractual rights, but the record owner has a property right in the share (and often a physical certificate). It doesn’t matter if someone takes your share or inadvertently/accidentally sells it to an innocent buyer. It’s still yours and you have a better claim to it than any buyer or later holder.

    But a beneficial owner of a share held in “street name” has only a contractual right to his shares–essentially a promise from his broker that the broker will have at least [x] shares for him (note this means he does not have a claim to any specific or identifiable shares and his broker surely holds many times more since they’ll have many other clients). And on top of that, his broker has an account with DTC that involves a second layer of contractual rights to the stock–essentially a promise from DTC to the broker that DTC will have at least [x] shares for the broker (again not specific or identifiable shares and DTC certainly has many times more shares since DTC holds nearly all shares held in “street name”)

    If your broker or DTC accidentally or inadvertently disposes of too many shares (and this can happen surprisingly often) you only have recourse against your broker or DTC. The agreements between [you and your broker] and [your broker and DTC] do not bind the new owner of the shares, who has no obligation under those agreements and, as a bona fide buyer + current holder, also has a better claim to the shares than you do.

    If that wasn’t specific enough, here’s a very detailed summary and analysis of the current stock ownership structure and mechanics:

  • I’d heard of non-amending methods to effectively change US presidential election to majority vote (no electoral college), but a local politicians wants to do direct democracy for all decisions. The question “Why don’t we have everyone vote on everything?” is one of the ways we introduce the purpose of having a republic. It’s often remarked that although direct democracy may have been technologically impossible in the past it’s feasible today.
  • Sophisticated amateur analysis of eavesdropping spy satellites, partially confirmed by Snowden leaks.
  • The subreddit /r/SpecializedTools is pretty great:
  • The neural Network Playground. (H/t
  • Finally a descent article to link people to against the idea that “everyone is just trying to make themselves happy”. (Previously I’d just used the wikipedia article on Psychological Egoism). (H/t Dan Ranard.)
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