Archive for the ‘Geekery’ Category

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What’s it worth to you?

September 19, 2016

Mark Perry at Carpe Diem has a good post about what I’ll call the Information Economy (for lack of a better term). He starts out writing about the different ways music has been delivered for sale and then moves on to the more general point of how information of all kinds gets delivered now.

I particularly liked the "What’s the internet worth to you?" question.

[t]he limitations of GDP accounting

Thanks to the advances in computer technologies, the Internet and smartphone apps, consumers are getting more and more services like GPS for free (or at a significantly reduced cost compared to the past) today and displacing services that used to get accounted for as market-based production (maps and road atlases). In past decades like the 1950s, maybe economic output measured by GDP was a pretty good measure of both economic performance and Americans’ economic well-being. In 2016, that may no longer be the case.

Finally, the video below captures the point I’m trying to make by asking people:

How much would someone have to pay you to give up the Internet for the rest of your life? Would a million dollars be enough? Twenty million? How about a billion dollars?

“When I ask my students this question, they say you couldn’t pay me enough,” says Professor Michael Cox, director of the O’Neil Center for Global Markets and Freedom at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. The free market, says Cox, creates a huge gap between what consumers would be willing to pay for Internet access and how much it actually costs.
From the video: Since we’re getting something that we really value that is almost free, and wouldn’t give it up for even $1 million or more, “In some ways, maybe we’re all millionaires and billionaires, if we have something that’s worth that much to us… You might just be richer than you realize…”


Update/Related (HT: Joe Sullivan): From a July 2015 WSJ interview with Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist — “Silicon Valley Doesn’t Believe U.S. Productivity Is Down: Contrarian economists at Google and Stanford say the U.S. doesn’t have a productivity problem, it has a measurement problem”:

“There is a lack of appreciation for what’s happening in Silicon Valley,” says Hal Varian, “because we don’t have a good way to measure it.” One measurement problem is that a lot of what originates here is free or nearly free.

Take, for example, a recent walk Mr. Varian arranged with friends. To find each other in the sprawling park nearby, he and his pals used an app that tracked their location, allowing them to meet up quickly. The same tool can track the movement of workers in a warehouse, office or shopping mall. “Obviously that’s a productivity enhancement,” Mr. Varian says. “But I doubt that gets measured anywhere.”

Consider the efficiency of hailing a taxi with an app on your mobile phone, or finding someone who will meet you at the airport and rent your car while you’re away, a new service in San Francisco. Add in online tools that instantly translate conversations or help locate organ donors—the list goes on and on.

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Pure geekery

August 20, 2016

I had an e-mail recently from my alma mater and it mentioned Bill Hammack, who makes videos uing the handle EngineerGuy. (Check his site.)

Mr. Hammack made a series of videos about Albert Michelson’s Harmonic Analyzer, which was a mechanical computer for doing Fourier analysis. Here’s the first of four clips describing how the Analyzer worked and how to operate it.

There’s a book about the machine if you’re interested. And it’s also available in PDF at no cost.

Machines like this have always amazed me when I think of the mechanical creativity their designers showed. Nowadays you can do Fourier analysis with MS Excel but not that long ago (100+ years) just performing the calculations was such a tedious, error-prone task that people invented purpose-built machines to do it.


But the icing on the cake was that I came across Hammack’s video adaptation of one of my favorites, Faraday’s lectures on The Chemical History of a Candle.

Here’s the first of five videos (not counting Hammack’s introductory clip).

As with Michelson’s Harmonic Analyzer, Hammack and his collaborators wrote a book about this too (also available for free in PDF).

Or if you prefer the old school, here are Faraday’s lectures in PDF.

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Dark humor

July 17, 2016

Positively dystopian – from McSweeney’s. RTWT.

CIA MEMO RE: POKÉMON GO.

TO: execstaff@cia.gov
FROM: Office of the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency
RE: Great Work On Pokémon Go

CONFIDENTIAL

I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate everyone on the extremely successful rollout of Operation Pokémon GO to Raise Public Morale. I know we had to hustle to speed up this launch by several weeks from its scheduled release on September 10th but it seems to have paid off. More people have downloaded this game in the last 72 hours than have voted in every Democratic primary combined.

It seemed crazy when we floated this idea last year, between Mass Shootings #188 and #189: could “augmented reality” really distract people from regular, awful reality? We took a bold gamble that it would, and it paid off!

Thank you for giving the American public something to engage with mindlessly after two Black men and five police officers were shot in cold blood within three days. It seemed, for a fraught 48 hours, like Americans would have to engage with the news, and as past history evidences, that’s not great for us. Luckily, we can leave that discussion to the talking heads; good, ordinary Americans can find solace in locating Jigglypuffs in public spaces.

In an unprecedented threat, it seemed even Twitter and Snapchat were getting away from us: a huge number of users were seriously grappling with police brutality and racial politics. Were it not for the power of ’90s nostalgia and dynamic animation, this may have been a turning point for these platforms. I am incredibly moved to see Twitter repopulated with hilarious photos of Pokémon in inopportune places, like a frying pan. […]

H.T. Paul B

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The future’s so bright…

July 15, 2016

dont-pokemon

Via Instapundit. ‘Heh’, as he likes to say.

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Are you fated to read this?

July 11, 2016

Several weeks ago, I came across this article at The Atlantic.

There’s No Such Thing as Free Will
But we’re better off believing in it anyway.

"Another report about fMRI," I thought and, sure enough, that’s what it turned out to be. I assumed it would be another exercise in jumping to a conclusion. But see for yourself.

What really piqued my interest was this paragraph from that article:

In another study, for instance, Vohs and colleagues measured the extent to which a group of day laborers believed in free will, then examined their performance on the job by looking at their supervisor’s ratings. Those who believed more strongly that they were in control of their own actions showed up on time for work more frequently and were rated by supervisors as more capable. In fact, belief in free will turned out to be a better predictor of job performance than established measures such as self-professed work ethic.

I’m not sure why the author (or the researchers) think this demonstrates that free will is illusory. I’d say it shows the contrary. Want to be well-regarded at work? Get yer ass outta bed and get ‘er done, son. And who cares how belief in free will correlates to belief in "self-professed work ethic"? Those could be two facets of the same character trait, IMO.

I’ve always had some fundamental problems with reports that fMRI studies show that free will doesn’t exist based on the timing of events in the brain.

I’ve never studied neuroscience. But I have debugged any number of race conditions in software. My take-away from those is that it’s usually very difficult to tell what’s cause and what’s effect until you’ve solved the problem completely: that is, until you can describe all the states and their interactions in sufficient detail to prove your point. Just modeling those things can be a difficult first step.

I was pretty sure (and still am) that the fMRI guys couldn’t do that for human brains.

But back to the news… Last week, I came across this article at The Register (a U.K.-based geek site).

fMRI bugs could upend years of research
This is what your brain looks like on bad data

A whole pile of “this is how your brain looks like” fMRI-based science has been potentially invalidated because someone finally got around to checking the data.

The problem is simple: to get from a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging scan of the brain to a scientific conclusion, the brain is divided into tiny “voxels”. Software, rather than humans, then scans the voxels looking for clusters.

When you see a claim that “scientists know when you’re about to move an arm: these images prove it”, they’re interpreting what they’re told by the statistical software.

Now, boffins from Sweden and the UK have cast doubt on the quality of the science, because of problems with the statistical software: it produces way too many false positives. […]

"Oh ho," I thought. "Let’s google this one more time…" And that search turned up this very interesting article.

Neuroscience and Free Will Are Rethinking Their Divorce

Back in the 1980s, the American scientist Benjamin Libet made a surprising discovery that appeared to rock the foundations of what it means to be human. He recorded people’s brain waves as they made spontaneous finger movements while looking at a clock, with the participants telling researchers the time at which they decided to waggle their fingers. Libet’s revolutionary finding was that the timing of these conscious decisions was consistently preceded by several hundred milliseconds of background preparatory brain activity (known technically as “the readiness potential”).

The implication was that the decision to move was made nonconsciously, and that the subjective feeling of having made this decision is tagged on afterward. In other words, the results implied that free will as we know it is an illusion — after all, how can our conscious decisions be truly free if they come after the brain has already started preparing for them? […]

It’s all science. And science is rarely as "settled" as non-technical people think it should be.

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Happy Independence Day

July 4, 2016

NASA’s Juno Probe Just Made It Safely Into Jupiter’s Orbit

AT 11:54 PM Eastern tonight, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California erupted into cheers. No ooohs and aaaahs at fireworks displays here: The team of engineers had just received confirmation that their intrepid space probe, Juno, has successfully made its way into Jupiter’s orbit.

That maneuver, a 35-minute burn that began at 11:18 pm Eastern tonight, was the culmination of a five-year journey through space and many more years of work from the JPL team.

Juno has been whizzing toward Jupiter since it left Earth on August 5, 2011. And these 35 minutes have always been the 35 most perilous moments since launch. Juno had to turn on its engines precisely 2,609 miles away from Jupiter to get into position. If it didn’t slow down enough, the probe would go right past Jupiter, missing its target. At just the right speed, it would sync up with Jupiter’s gravity. […]

To make this even more of a nail-biter, signals from Jupiter take almost 49 minutes to reach Earth. That means by the time NASA got the signal that Juno had started slowing down, the probe had already slowed down enough to enter Jupiter’s orbit. If something went wrong, there’s no remote fix — and no way to know until after it’s all over. […]

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Traffic’s a gas

May 21, 2016

The physics of traffic – that is, trying to model and understand how cars interact on the road – is an idea that’s occurred to me several times but I’ve never pursued it. My offhand thoughts always tend to comparisons of cars on a highway to molecules in a pipe. Under what conditions does traffic flow change phase from a gas/liquid to a solid: a traffic jam?

I’ve often wondered if the people who design roads have ever studied these topics. Has anyone done any experiments on this? Has anyone "ground-truthed" any theories for smooth traffic flow? Or do road designers just use rules-of-thumb for planning new highways (as I suspect from seeing the results)?

So this video from The Mathematical Society of Traffic Flow naturally piqued my interest. Since it’s hosted by Nagoya University in Japan, I assume the authors are associated with the school.

I’ve often wondered how much difference it makes to traffic flow whether drivers regulate their speed using their brakes to ‘actively slow’ as opposed to using their throttles (accelerators) to ‘passively slow’ by coasting.

Coasting to slow down is something a lot of American drivers just don’t seem to get. Their feet are always on one pedal or the other – or sometimes both, as my mother used to do. But they rarely drive with a foot on neither pedal.

When you find yourself in a group of cars that doesn’t drive that way – in a group that coasts to slow down – then traffic seems to flow much more smoothly. But that observation may be due to traffic density: maybe people are more likely to use their brakes in denser traffic.

In the U.S. this problem’s worse because there’s very little lane discipline on the freeways, in contrast to British motorways or German autobahns. This is despite the fact that it’s a law in most of the states that drivers should keep right unless passing. It’s not unusual to find people in the left-most lane doing the speed limit. Technically, that’s legal1 but it completely defeats the self-organizing design feature of a freeway.

The first time I drove on an English motorway, I thought I’d died and gone to Drivers’ Heaven. On the other hand, the result of typical lane usage in these parts is that you’ll find all five lanes of a freeway coming to a complete halt with no apparent reason before resuming speed again. It’s just like the video except five lanes wide. How in the world does that happen?

Sometimes that pattern repeats, giving you the feeling that you’re in a kind of "traffic accordian." Stop, speed up, slow down, stop, speed up, slow down, stop, et cetera ad nauseum.

It makes me think we’re all just lemmings on the pavement.

1Except in California AFAIK.

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