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. (EDIT: 0.3% response rate? Get it together!)
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.
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)?a
(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.
- Why does Mathematica use square brackets to enclose function arguments, e.g., f[x]? It was an explicit choice to disambiguate between two uses of parentheses: order of operations and function arguments. The alternative strategy chosen by most other languages is to force the user to type “ * ” every time they want multiplication.
- Boy Scouts to admit girls.
Companies involved in keeping COBOL-based systems working say that 95 percent of ATM transactions pass through COBOL programs, 80 percent of in-person transactions rely on them, and over 40 percent of banks still use COBOL as the foundation of their systems. “Our COBOL business is bigger than it has ever been,” said Chris Livesey, senior vice president and general manager at Micro Focus, a company that offers modern COBOLcoding and development frameworks.
The oldest computer program still running is arguably the Department of Defense’s Mechanization of Contract Administration Services (MOCAS), which manages over a trillion dollars across hundreds of thousands of contracts. It’s written in COBOL,though because it was launched in 1958, it was likely first written in a similar predecessor language, Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC.
- The fraction of children who can’t identify obsolete pieces of technology, ranging from pager (86%) to dumb phone (4%). And Taleb’s critique of higher education. (H/t Tyler Cowen.)
- Most comprehensive list of academic research on resistance training I’ve seen. (H/t Gwern.) I remain frustrated by how underpowered these studies seem to be. N= 28, N=14, etc. Resistance training has got to be the single easiest topic to study with a human RCT (negligible risk, quick follow-up, low cost), and yet we’re not even sure about the most basic things, e.g., rep ranges or number of sets.
- Fermat’s Library promotes stripping academic ideas to their smallest possible format: three tweets.
Some anecdotal evidence on technique for building online communities:
The authors also suggest that ascribing blame or community sanctions may be less effective than offering community members a way to “save face” “without having to admit that they deliberately violated the community’s norms.” They describe a system called stopit designed at MIT to address computer-based harassment. When users reported harassment, the system sent a message to the alleged harasser claiming that the alleged harasser’s account may have been compromised and urging them to change their password. Here is the rationale given by Gregory Jackson, the Director of Academic Computing at MIT in 1994:
recipients virtually never repeat the offending behavior. This is important: even though recipients concede no guilt, and receive no punishment, they stop. [this system has] drastically reduced the number of confrontational debates between us and perpetrators, while at the same time reducing the recurrence of misbehavior. When we accuse perpetrators directly, they often assert that their misbehavior was within their rights (which may well be true). They then repeat the misbehavior to make their point and challenge our authority. When we let them save face by pretending (if only to themselves) that they did not do what they did, they tend to become more responsible citizens with their pride intact
I do wonder whether this actually works better than the old-fashioned (and more honest) compassionate approach. People don’t just jump to defend themselves to protect their psychological pride, they do it to protect their reputation (often justly). Moral persuasion is much more effective when complete confidentiality is assured.
Roundup of the new features in Gmail. (HN discussion.) Looks like lots of great and overdue features, including (finally) a native and robust version of Offline Gmail (
well, soon; it’s available). Unfortunately, the snooze interface only lets you select a snooze time from a few suggestions (or use a clunky graphical calendar date-picker), in contrast to the very nice interface of Streak or FollowUpThen of intelligently interpreting something typed in (e.g., “7 hours”, “2pm june 6”).
- Scott Alexander calls for adversarial collaboration, which I heartily endorse.
Peter Woit on Losing the Nobel Prize and BICEP2
As far as I can tell, the BICEP2 scientists haven’t suffered much professionally from the fiasco. When David Spergel talked here at Columbia about the subject, he noted that this hadn’t stopped the PI, John Kovac, from getting tenure at Harvard. In the book, Keating mentions some “embarrassment and guilt”, but no negative professional consequences, instead explaining how a few months later Jim Simons came to him to offer to fund a next generation observational program (the Simons Observatory, of which he is now Director) to be built in Chile. The Nobel Foundation in 2015 was contacting him to request him to nominate candidates for 2016.
- Many devices, such as smart phones and console game systems, contain “eFuses”, which permanently and physically alter the device to prevent downgrading firmware. The basic idea is that the each version of the firmware checks that an appropriate number of fuses are intact during the boot up process, and when you upgrade the firmware, the system blows one of the fuses. This makes it impossible to ever downgrade to an earlier versions of the firmware.
- Internet dating assistants.
On SABRE engines for the Skylon:
Why are the SABRE-engines on the Skylon spaceplane shaped like a bent tube, with the apparent thrust vector not aligned with the forward direction of the craft?…All depictions of the Skylon single stage to orbit space plane show engines with a strange shape, where both the direction of the air intake and the direction of the nozzles are not aligned with the length axis of the fuselage. This gives the engines a bent kind of macaroni-shaped appearance.
Curved SABRE engines. (ESA.)
Apparently this is done to optimize climb angle and climb rate. It has something to do with the low lift generated by the short wing needing to be compensated by the engine thrust and a high angle of attack. The banana shape allow the intake to be aligned with the relative wind at high angle of attack while the exhaust points a bit downward.
As I understand it, the engine angle is dictated by the need for the thrust to go through the centre of mass for spaceflight, otherwise there’d be a turning moment. The ideal angle for the intake is different for the reasons you discussed. Hence the bend. Although the cowling curves down, from the drawings I’ve seen the nozzles point straight backwards.
This is rarely seen in normal aircraft because they don’t require the thrust to be aligned with the CoM because the aerodynamic forces from the wings and tail can counteract any misaligned thrust.
- David Deutsch, famed discover of quantum computation, also wrote the OSX app Concordance, which “allow[s] you to control repetitions in your texts: it counts how often each word occurs in a text and also how often each sequence of words is repeated.”
- Manually cleaning plastic from the ocean.
- Immune privilege.
- I confess that I love the diaeresis in words like “coördinate”. If I had the courage of the New Yorker I’d put it in my papers. As previously mentioned, MIT Tech Review has lost their connection to MIT, but they still have a special place in my heart for holding the line on the diaeresis and on logical punctuation.
/r/SpaceX contributor peterabbit456 on slow reëntry:
Dissipating orbital energy (and velocity) using a balloon or balute can be done over 3-10 orbits. Instead of doing a reentry burn of about 400 m/s, as has been done with every LEO reentry to date, the balloon would provide enough drag in LEO to provide that initial delta V.
This gets really tricky, because the atmospheric pressure and drag are logarithmic functions of altitude. Come down too quickly, and the heat builds up, and you need a heat shield…. But there is a Goldilocks path down from LEO, where a very low density object slows to subsonic velocity while still above the Karman line, and then falls to Earth without going hypersonic, and thus with little or no heating. It has never been done, except by some pillows from Columbia, but that makes it even more exciting to talk about.
- John Kraus’s photography is featured on /r/SpaceX a lot, and it is pretty rad.
Brigadier General Wayne R. Monteith:
I was sitting on a launch a year and a half ago or so with the SpaceX team. They had an anomaly on their ground system. I’m listening on their network, on the banter going back and forth. I finally leaned over my counterpart and said, “The guy that’s on the headset sounds relatively young.” He said, “Yeah, he’s an intern. He’s an intern, but he’s the most knowledgeable guy about this system, so he’s in charge.” I was like, “Okay!” They’re bringing in the brightest talent they can find, and we’re doing the same thing.
Gwynne Shotwell was employee number seven at SpaceX, now president and COO, and is 76th on Forbes’ list of most powerful woman in the world. In this TED conversation she describes what inspired her, how they achieved off re-usibility when no one else had, the forthcoming internet service satellite constellation, and the importance of Falcon Heavy:
Concerning flying the BFR point-to-point anywhere on Earth: “It’s definitely going to happen…Within a decade for sure.”. And humans on Mars? “It’s a very similar timeframe as point-to-point…Within a decade.”
SpaceX’s FCC application for a massive satellite constellation to provide internet coverage to underserved areas is approved. Cf. OneWeb:
The 648 communication satellites will operate in circular low Earth orbit, at approximately 750 miles (1,200 km) altitude, transmitting and receiving in the Ku bandof the radio frequency spectrum. Most of the capacity of the initial 648 satellites has been sold, and OneWeb is considering nearly quadrupling the size of the satellite constellation by adding 1,972 additional satellites that it has priority rights to.
- “First International Workshop on Artificial Intelligence Safety Engineering”. Russell, Yampolskiy, Bostrom, Christiano, Amodei, and other names you’ll recognize. I look forward to, and dread, our approaching new normal: CS researchers shoehorning their work into the AI Safety mold in order to get money and conference invites.
Feature of the best selling, and longest-range, wide-body aircraft of all time:
In 2003, Boeing introduced overhead crew rests as an option on the 777. Located above the main cabin and connected via staircases, the forward flight crew rest contains two seats and two bunks, while the aft cabin crew rest features multiple bunks.
- Map Junction is a slick interface for overlaying lots of maps. (H/t Jeff Kaufman.)
Convergent genotypal (not just phenotypal) evolution in separated populations of humans under similar selective pressures. (H/t Gwern.) Also from him, “Androgens and the Evolution of Male-Gender Identity among Male Pseudohermaphrodites with 5-alpha-reductase Deficiency”:
To determine the contribution of androgens to the formation of male-gender identity, we studied male pseudohermaphrodites who had decreased dihydrotestosterone production due to 5 alpha-reductase deficiency. These subjects were born with female-appearing external genitalia and were raised as girls. They have plasma testosterone levels in the high normal range, show an excellent response to testosterone and are unique models for evaluating the effect of testosterone, as compared with a female upbringing, in determining gender identity. Eighteen of 38 affected subjects were unambiguously raised as girls, yet during or after puberty, 17 of 18 changed to a male-gender identity and 16 of 18 to a male-gender role. Thus, exposure of the brain to normal levels of testosterone in utero, neonatally and at puberty appears to contribute substantially to the formation of male-gender identity. These subjects demonstrate that in the absence of sociocultural factors that could interrupt the natural sequence of events, the effect of testosterone predominates, over-riding the effect of rearing as girls.
- Casey 3D-prints a tiny jet engine.
The Moon in 4k:
On development economics:
…the income gains to movers from migration are an order of magnitude bigger than any in situ development project/program gain.
I know that some EAs have cared about open borders. But if the above claim is true, and if there were are even weak ways to positively influence the amount of migration allowed, shouldn’t this be a huge cause? Yes, the monetary cost of such political interventions are more speculative (harder to evidence-back), and so people may prefer to give to AMF. And yes, some people will argue that at some level of immigration it is a net negative because of destabilization, and some other people will even argue (falsely) that we are at or near that point. But this cause still seems to get surprisingly little attention.
Or maybe the above claim is just about typical in situ development projects, and outliers like AMF are actually best.
- Former GiveWell intern Stephanie Wykstra changes her mind on giving exclusively to overseas charities because of cost effectiveness.
On the magic of Nancy:
Despite the small size of the reproduction, both the art and the gag are clear, and an eye-tracking survey once determined that Nancy was so conspicuous that it was the first strip most people viewed on a newspaper comics page….
Comics theorist Scott McCloud described the essence of Nancy:
Ernie Bushmiller’s comic strip Nancy is a landmark achievement: A comic so simply drawn it can be reduced to the size of a postage stamp and still be legible; an approach so formulaic as to become the very definition of the “gag-strip”; a sense of humor so obscure, so mute, so without malice as to allow faithful readers to march through whole decades of art and story without ever once cracking a smile. Nancy is Plato’s playground. Ernie Bushmiller didn’t draw A tree, A house, A car. Oh, no. Ernie Bushmiller drew the tree, the house, the car. Much has been made of the “three rocks.” Art Spiegelman explains how a drawing of three rocks in a background scene was Ernie’s way of showing us there were some rocks in the background. It was always three. Why? Because two rocks wouldn’t be “some rocks.” Two rocks would be a pair of rocks. And four rocks was unacceptable because four rocks would indicate “some rocks” but it would be one rock more than was necessary to convey the idea of “some rocks.” A Nancy panel is an irreduceable concept, an atom, and the comic strip is a molecule.
Cartoonist Wally Wood described Nancy’s design more succinctly: “By the time you decided not to read it, you already had.”
Nancy is nearly a century old and still appears in daily papers. It is on its 6th author. (H/t Will Riedel.)
- Also from the younger Riedel brother: Major League Baseball is now mic-ing up players for Spring training and the All-Star game so they can be interviewed on the field between pitches by the announcers. And this Snapchat heat map is pretty wild for just picking a random small town in the world and seeing something people there think is interesting.
- I agree that “the internet was invented at CERN” argument is bad but no one seems to make the best rebuttal: what are the counterfactuals, and wouldn’t we expect a lot more spin-offs with something more targeted? Like, if you take a huge chunk of the most analytically gifted and trained people on Earth for decades, shouldn’t they invent something at least as good as an early version of the webpage?
…the historical fact is that Romans successfully and sustainably used tersoriums and washed their clothes in pee for several centuries—far longer than we’ve used toilet paper”.
And of course, the relevant episode of the venerable How It’s Made:
- The Quantum Computing Stack Exchange is re-launching in beta. The decision to whether it survives will be made on June 11th (or so) based on the amount of expert participation it is able to attract. If you know anything about quantum computing, I encourage you to join in!
- When objects are moving relativistically, they experience Lorentz contractions; moving rods are shorter in the frame they are moving than in their rest frame. But it turns out that if you are watching a sphere passing you, its silhouette appears to be a circle no matter how fast it’s going (at least if its radius is small compared to its distance away). The reason is that light from the parts of the sphere closest and furthest from you reaches you at different times than when it is emitted/scattered, and this effect exactly cancels the Lorentz contraction. (See notes from Ivar Martin and Penrose’s The Road to Reality. Penrose points out this follows from the fact that the celestial sphere transforms conformally under Lorentz boosts. §18.5, Minkovskian Geometry, page 429.) It only works for a sphere though; a circular disc with its flat face oriented toward you will indeed appear as a squashed ellipse.
- MIT drops Nectome’s research grant. (H/t Jason Ketola.)
- Ask HN: What are the best MOOCs you’ve taken?
- Five-year old flamewar on the foundations of quantum mechanics by three giants of Physics.SE: Luboš Motl, Ron Maimon, and Gerard ‘t Hooft.
- The Space Shuttle’s method for cooling had to be substantially different depending on the stage of the mission (launch, in-orbit, etc.). The most important mechanism was sweating ammonia.
Freeman Dyson on the nuclear test ban in 1960. Also: Feynman-related excerpts from Dyson’s recently released collection of letters. And this Feynman interview on what keeps a train on the track:
He doesn’t discuss how the oscillations are damped, though.
- AI Risk as a cartoon by Chris Noessel. Reminiscent of PhD comics.
- Self-driving Uber car kills Arizona woman crossing street. (HN comments.)
Drive.ai isn’t slowed down:
Silicon Valley startup Drive.ai Inc. plans to roll out a small network of self-driving cars this summer that can be hailed using an app, making it one of the first such services available to the general public.
The ride-hailing app will initially cover a slice of Frisco, Texas, and will be available in July, the company said. The program’s vehicles, Nissan NV200 vans, are painted bright orange and have visible sensors as well as four screens that tell pedestrians what the car is thinking, such as “Waiting for You to Cross” and “Passengers Entering/Exiting.”
Bryan Caplan on self-policing and research techniques as an iconoclast. Formidable:
Rule #5: Energetically seek diverse feedback, especially from everyone you cite. Once I had a solid draft of The Case Against Education, I asked my RA to track down the email addresses for every single person in my References. About 75% were alive and accessible. Then I emailed every one of them the offer to read (a) the pages where I discuss their work, or (b) the entire book. About 15% took me up on at least one of these. As you’d expect, sympathetic readers were more likely to respond. But I also received and carefully read a big stack of criticism.
An RA must be nice…
- Kim Jong-Un’s armored train.
Godfrey Miller pointed out to me that at least some of the Churchill quotes from the Washington Post article in my last links post were taken out of context. In particular, the article discusses Churchill’s action in leadership roles and then says
In Afghanistan, Churchill declared that the Pashtuns “needed to recognise the superiority of [the British] race” and that “all who resist will be killed without quarter.” He wrote: “We proceeded systematically, village by village, and we destroyed the houses, filled up the wells, blew down the towers, cut down the great shady trees, burned the crops and broke the reservoirs in punitive devastation. … Every tribesman caught was speared or cut down at once.”
…clearly implying that he ordered the men behaving in this way. But if you follow the second link, you find that Churchill wrote this as a journalist (war correspondent):
While admitting to acts of barbarism on both sides during the campaign, [Churchill] never condemned it, although he felt the need to assure his mother in a letter that he himself, during his six week stint as a war-correspondent, did not commit any heinous acts. ‘I have not soiled my hands with any dirty work,’ he wrote to her.
Early in the space race when the Soviets were in the lead and highly protective of their spacefaring techniques, they sent an actual spacecraft around on a publicity tour:
One day in late 1959 or 1960 — dates aren’t totally clear in declassified documents — a crack team of four CIA agents worked through the night in stocking feet taking apart a kidnapped Soviet Lunik spacecraft without removing it from its crate. They photographed every part and documented every construction element, then perfectly reassembled the whole thing without leaving a trace.
- The Aragoscope is a telescope designed to image the Arago spot cast by a large occluder. Incredibly, the diffraction-limited resolution of this device is set by the size of the occluder rather than the size of the main mirror/lens (although the brightness is much lower). This mean that, for a fixed price, you can potentially dramatically improve the resolution of space-based telescopes because humongous occluders are a lot cheaper than humongous mirrors. In some sense, it is the opposite device as the New Worlds Mission (discussed previously on this blog), which is designed to prevent diffraction of star light by the occluder.
- “…if [professional assessment by an individual doctor] can be used to approve new uses for old drugs, why shouldn’t similar procedures be used to approve new uses for new drugs?”
Adding wheels on the side of a bicycle, effectively turning it into a tricycle, discretely changes the steering mechanism.It would definitely have been possible to use the word “phase transition” above, but I resisted.b There is an intermediate machine, the “bricycle”, whose side wheels can only partially support the weight of the bike, and which is impossible to steer. (Paper.)
This is why strider bikes (kid bikes with no pedals) are probably a better idea than training wheels.
- Cruise ship lengthened. (H/t Daren McKee.)
How China can ship you a $2 electronic part and pay zero on shipping:
A big part of the explanation is a United Nations body called the Universal Postal Union. The UPU helps coordinate rates and standards between nearly every national postal system, and has been a crucial piece of global infrastructure since its founding in 1874 (it was absorbed into the United Nations only in the 20th century)….Postal services within the UPU agree to carry one another’s international letters and small parcels from their point of arrival—say, a port—to their final destinations. They then compensate each other for this service at rates set by the UPU. These are known as terminal dues…The UPU system is extremely complex, with countries slotted into at least nine different categories, which are based on their level of development and effect the terminal dues rates they pay to each other. These rates are generally far below rates paid by domestic shippers. For example, as of 2012, the terminal dues on items from China to the U.S. were about one U.S. dollar per kilogram. This means that in many if not most cases, the U.S. Postal Service received less compensation for a China Post package moved from a Los Angeles port to its final destination inland, than it would have from someone in Los Angeles who sent an identical package within the United States. The last half of that voice chip’s journey would have cost China Post less than the price of a U.S. stamp.
In some cases, terminal dues are below, not just the domestic customer price, but the real underlying cost of shipping. Many developed countries, with higher postal costs in wages, services, or infrastructure, actually lose money on each piece of mail sent to them internationally. Norway Post has stated that its losses under the UPU must be compensated for by higher costs elsewhere in its postal system—meaning that Norwegians sending mail to one another, or out of the country, are subsidizing the price of shipping into Norway from abroad.
The USPS inspector general’s office estimated that the USPS lost $79 million in fiscal year 2013 delivering this foreign treaty mail.
I have also heard that the Chinese government subsidizes the Asian leg of the delivery, but I can’t find concrete source one way or the other. However, in 2016 China admitted to various other types of export subsidy.
The excellent Sarah Constantin has launched the Longevity Research Institute, where she hopes to raise funding for rigorous testing of compounds for which there is evidence of extending mammalian lifespan:
The closest thing to actually improving the health and lifespan of a human is to improve the same things in a mammal.
Mammalian life span studies are rare because they take so long to complete. But we think they’re worth it.
Before we can find effective treatments for humans, we’ll have to test interventions on mammals to see if they directly extend lifespan or improve symptoms of aging (like frailty, cognitive decline, or the incidence of diseases like cancer).
Our philosophy is to be suspicious of results that depend on too many uncertain assumptions, like particular mechanisms of aging, or analogies between invertebrate and human biology. That’s why we’re not doing fly or worm studies, or searching for “aging genes.” We’re focusing on later-stage research that can bear fruit faster.
See also Sarah on aesthetics differences. I like this post for emphasizing this general theme: that you can get deep insight by dragging knowledge out from the murky fog of tacit understanding and into the realm where it can be assessed explicitly. It arguably is the defining technique of a large number of ideas in the general rationality sphere: the system-1/system-2 distinction, Hansonian signaling, Bayesian reasoning, double-crux-ing. Under a certain framing, it’s even at the heart of my academic research.
But on first blush, I can’t support the idea that Ayn Rand’s creation of a libertarian aesthetic was a praiseworthy move. Even if it’s good for Rand to do the explicit (i.e., non-tacit) analysis of aesthetic necessary for this creation, deploying that aesthetic as yet another non-rational weapon in an ideological war seems wrong for the same sort of reasons as appealing to racists motives to convince voters to vote for the genuinely best candidate. As Sarah emphasizes, there’s reason to think that libertarians are massively out-gunned on the aesthetics front, and Rand may have been slightly reducing the imbalance. But for now I endorse the pacifist stance on non-rational weapons: they are only ethical when used voluntarily by someone on themselves whose system-2 is already convinced and they just need to bring their system-1 around.
Alexander Hamilton was not Aaron Burr’s first duel:
In September 1799, Burr fought a duel with John Barker Church, whose wife, Angelica, was the sister of Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth. Church had alleged that Burr had taken a bribe from the Holland Company in exchange for using his political influence on its behalf. Burr and Church fired at each other and missed, and afterward Church acknowledged that he was wrong to have accused Burr without having proof. Burr accepted this as an apology, and the two men shook hands and ended the dispute.
- On a GUT-scale collider in the distant future: “However, there is a problem at the energies we are considering – muons are too stable!” (H/t Sabine Hossenfelder.)
(↵ returns to text)
- 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)?↵
- It would definitely have been possible to use the word “phase transition” above, but I resisted.↵