Imagine the future or retouch the past

May 29th, 2017

We aren’t so much wise, as the name Homo sapiens would suggest, but unusually forward-looking, Martin E.P. Seligman and John Tierney argue. We’re really Homo prospectus:

This link between memory and prospection has emerged in research showing that people with damage to the brain’s medial temporal lobe lose memories of past experiences as well as the ability to construct rich and detailed simulations of the future. Similarly, studies of children’s development show that they’re not able to imagine future scenes until they’ve gained the ability to recall personal experiences, typically somewhere between the ages of 3 and 5.

Perhaps the most remarkable evidence comes from recent brain imaging research. When recalling a past event, the hippocampus must combine three distinct pieces of information — what happened, when it happened and where it happened — that are each stored in a different part of the brain. Researchers have found that the same circuitry is activated when people imagine a novel scene. Once again, the hippocampus combines three kinds of records (what, when and where), but this time it scrambles the information to create something new.

Even when you’re relaxing, your brain is continually recombining information to imagine the future, a process that researchers were surprised to discover when they scanned the brains of people doing specific tasks like mental arithmetic. Whenever there was a break in the task, there were sudden shifts to activity in the brain’s “default” circuit, which is used to imagine the future or retouch the past.

This discovery explains what happens when your mind wanders during a task: It’s simulating future possibilities. That’s how you can respond so quickly to unexpected developments. What may feel like a primitive intuition, a gut feeling, is made possible by those previous simulations.

The atomic bomb was basically a Hungarian high school science fair project

May 28th, 2017

The Atomic Bomb could be considered a Hungarian high school science fair project:

A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

Those geniuses weren’t of Martian descent:

Here’s something interesting: every single person I mentioned above is of Jewish descent. Every single one. This isn’t some clever setup where I only selected Jewish-Hungarians in order to spring this on you later. I selected all the interesting Hungarians I could find, then went back and checked, and every one of them was Jewish.

Scott Alexander presents a pretty reasonable explanation of the Martian phenomenon:

For the reasons suggested by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, Ashkenazi Jews had the potential for very high intelligence. They were mostly too poor and discriminated against to take advantage of it. Around 1880, this changed in a few advanced Central European economies like Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Austria didn’t have many Jews. Germany had a lot of Jews, but it was a big country, so nobody really noticed. Hungary had a lot of Jews, all concentrated in Budapest, and so it was really surprising when all of a sudden everyone from Budapest started winning Nobel Prizes around the same time. This continued until World War II, and then all anyone remembered was “Hey, wasn’t it funny that so many smart people were born in Budapest between 1880 and 1920?”

A secret initiation for newly-appointed assistant professors in the social sciences

May 27th, 2017

In his more paranoid moments, Charles Murray envisions a secret initiation for newly-appointed assistant professors in the social sciences that goes something like this:

Over the last few decades, a number of books on public policy aimed at a lay readership have advanced conclusions that no socially responsible person can abide, written so cleverly that they have misled many gullible people.

Unfortunately, the people who write such books often call upon data that have some validity, which confronts us with a dilemma. Such books must be discredited, but if we remain strictly within the rules of scholarly discourse, they won’t be. What to do? Recall Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development: At the sixth and highest level of morality, it is permissible to violate ordinary ethical conventions to serve a higher good (Kohlberg, 1981). Such is the situation forced upon us by these books. Let me offer six strategies that you may adapt to the specific situation you face.

As you consider these strategies, always keep in mind the cardinal principle when attacking the target book: Hardly anyone in your audience will have read it. If you can convince the great majority who never open the book, it doesn’t matter that the tiny minority who have read it will know what you are doing.

Read the whole Screwtape-y thing.

Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading Regulation Magazine

May 26th, 2017

Arnold Kling has grown more pessimistic about American political culture:

I think that I would have preferred that the elite stay “on top” as long as they acquired a higher regard for markets and lower regard for technocratic policies. What has been transpired is closer to the opposite. There was a seemingly successful revolt against the elite (although the elite is fighting back pretty hard), and meanwhile the elite has doubled down on its contempt for markets and its faith in technocracy.

I am disturbed about the news from college campuses. A view that capitalism is better than socialism, which I think belongs in the mainstream, seems to be on the fringe. Meanwhile, the intense, deranged focus on race and gender, which I think belongs on the fringe, seems to be mainstream.

The media environment is awful. Outrage is what sells. Moderation has fallen by the wayside.

It seems increasingly clear that no matter who wins elections, my preferences for economic policy get thrown under the bus. The Overton Window on health policy has moved to where health insurance is a government responsibility. The Overton Window on deficit spending and unfunded liabilities has moved to where there is no political price to be paid for running up either current debts or future obligations. The Overton Window on financial policy has moved to where nobody minds that the Fed and other agencies are allocating credit, primarily toward government bonds and housing finance. The Overton Window on the Administrative State has moved to where it is easier to mount a Constitutional challenge against an order to remove regulations than against regulatory agency over-reach.

Outside of the realm of politics, things are not nearly so bleak. Many American businesses and industries are better than ever, and they keep improving. Scientists and engineers come up with promising ideas. Reading Technology Review is a wonderful antidote to reading, say Regulation Magazine. The latter is the most depressing thing I do all month.

Joe Rogan’s chat with Jordan Peterson is his favorite podcast ever

May 25th, 2017

Joe Rogan called his recent podcast with Jordan Peterson his favorite podcast ever.

Stigma-free consequences

May 25th, 2017

Kay Hymowitz hasn’t visited Cheltenham High, in the prosperous Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, since she graduated “in the faraway American Graffiti era,” but a recent brawl there went viral and raised the issue of unsayable truths about the failing high school:

Students described rape threats, stalking, kids sent back to classrooms after menacing teachers or classmates, teachers walking past fighting kids, security guards looking the other way. The problems, students insisted, weren’t limited to the high school; they remembered thuggery in middle and even elementary school, too.

There was no way to chalk up these complaints to adolescent theatrics. A February survey of CHS teachers had already revealed a school that resembled Lord of the Flies. Cursing, yelling students roamed the halls, pushing, shoving, ramming each other into walls, sometimes “accidentally” colliding with teachers. Thirty-six out of 79 teachers surveyed believed that they were unsafe in the hallways, and those who didn’t acknowledged either being big enough to stare down students or practiced at minding their own business. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t do anything,” “Fuck off, crazy old motherfucker,” were some of the choice rejoinders they told of hearing. “If I feel uncomfortable by the language and noise level a student displays,” one teacher wrote, “I can 1) address it and open myself up to insubordination and/or a verbal retaliation for which no consequences will be delivered or I can 2) choose to ignore it which I struggle with ethically because then I feel complicit. It’s a complete ‘no-win,’ and I battle this every day.”

What could not be said out loud was that the problem kids were all black, though the district superintendent did delicately indicate that the school’s trouble is “racialized.” Like many inner suburbs, once predominantly white Cheltenham has become increasingly African-American over the past decades. Back in the day, only about 10 percent of the high school population was black; Reggie Jackson, who graduated two years before me, remains the school’s most famous alum. The large majority of my classmates were the sons and daughters of second-generation Jews who had followed the immigrant dream into Philly’s northern suburbs in the postwar years. (Yoni “Jonathan” Netanyahu, who would die in the 1976 Entebbe raid, graduated the same year as Reggie; his brother Bibi picked up his diploma three years later. Their unflattering view of their coddled American baby boomer classmates is the subject of this blunt 2015 Washington Post article.)

Today, the district is 53 percent black, though the demographics defy easy generalization. Most of those students are the children of a growing black middle class that had moved to Cheltenham for the same reason postwar Jewish families had: its relatively affordable, attractive homes and its highly regarded schools, the holy grail of American house-hunting parents of all races. A number of black parents at the meeting spoke poignantly of the hopes that had brought them to the district. “I moved heaven and earth to make sure my child had a chance,” one voluble mother of a 12-year-old pleaded. “I could have lived in a wonderful house in Philly. No way I’m sending my girl to those schools. I’d rather live in a box and let my kid get a good education.”

Some of Cheltenham’s arrivals are spillovers from nearby North Philadelphia, the city’s immense and long-suffering black ghetto. They have moved into aging apartment complexes on the district’s border, bringing with them the old neighborhood’s broken culture. Forty-five percent of the black children in Cheltenham are born to unmarried mothers; it’s jolting to realize that “illegitimacy,” as it was once called, was almost unheard of at the time my peers were piling into school bleachers to cheer Reggie Jackson. Poverty rates for these kids are well below the national average, but almost 30 percent of single-parent households in Cheltenham are nevertheless in the ranks of the poor or near-poor.

If those households are like the struggling single-parent homes studied by social scientists, then the children are experiencing radically different domestic lives than their middle-class black and white classmates—with few routines, disappearing fathers and stepfathers, and little adult interest in homework, teachers, and discipline. Researchers have repeatedly found that boys growing up in single-mother households are especially prone to “externalizing” behavior like fighting, impulsiveness, rudeness—in other words, precisely the sort of behavior that the community meeting was demanding the administration do something about.

This class and family divide, intertwined as it is with race, is off-limits to polite discussion, leading conversations like the one at the community meeting into a verbal traffic jam of contradictions and dodges. The student council president shed tears over the mayhem in one breath and in the next demanded an end to the black-white achievement gap and adoption of “data-driven solutions” like “restorative justice.” (Unsurprisingly, this popular education fad has yet to be subject to careful study.) The audience retreated to the familiar litany of policy fixes with a long history of uneven or meager results: more black teachers! More counselors! More mentors!

One solution is alternative schools, which would place the small number of students making education impossible for the majority into schools explicitly designed for kids unable to function in ordinary education environments. The February teacher survey showed that the vast majority of instructors supported the approach; several black parents also endorsed it at the meeting. (A white father reviled the idea as stigmatizing.) For three hours, parents and students demanded that the administration impose clear “consequences” for fighting and rudeness. The administrators have their self-contradicting marching orders: stigma-free consequences.

One of these three planes could replace the A-10

May 24th, 2017

The Air Force is considering three light attack planes to (partially) replace the A-10 Warthog:

The three planes—the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine, and Textron Scorpion—will fly this Summer at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The OA-X, or “Observation, Attack, concept,” envisions a small, nimble airplane that can carry a large payload of sensors and weapons. Flown by a pilot and copilot/observer, the small plane could carry out strike and close air support missions in support of ground troops.

OA-X is seen as half of a two airplane solution for eventually replacing the A-10 Thunderbolt. OA-X is a smaller, cheaper plane that would thrive where the air defense threat is limited to shoulder-fired missiles and machine guns. Another key requirement is that the plane be cheaper to fly per hour than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or A-10. The F-35 costs a whopping $42,000 an hour to fly, while the A-10 costs $17,000 an hour. The Air Force envisions the OA-X costing about $4,000 to $5,000 an hour.

A-29 Super Tucano

AT-6 Wolverine

Textron AirLand Scorpion Jet

Terms of opprobrium trembling, Acela-corridor scribes have vomited out

May 23rd, 2017

NeoVictorian started blogging about Neoreaction three and half years ago, and he recently stopped to reflect:

At any rate, I must say that I saw NRx then as an intellectual hobby of sorts, full of people more interesting than the political types I’d been working for, and with, since 1998. I never truly thought, then, that by whatever name, it would be a thing, written up in national magazines and talked about on the Old Media Sunday shows.

Yet, here we are.

It turned out that the label “Alt-right” would be the one that caught fire, with its hint of racist catnip that Big Media just could not resist. Hillary Clinton, in a move that did absolutely nothing to get her elected, opened her trap and gave “Alt-right” about $100 million in free publicity, Donald Trump became President of the United States (I’m still surprised, to be honest), his advisor St. Steve Bannon was/is excoriated daily as the Alt-Right éminence grise racistis (I know, I know) and in the last few days we’ve had a long Andrew Sullivan piece indeed and entire issue of New York magazine devoted to the Reaction, Alt-right and whatever other terms of opprobrium trembling Acela corridor scribes have vomited out.

He expects that (1) Muslims will continue to out-breed everyone else in Western Europe, (2) Eastern Europe will go in the opposite direction and will resist Brussels, and (3) there is going to be more and more movement toward enclaves of the like-minded, as in The Diamond Age.

Thermodynamics would be the village witch

May 23rd, 2017

If I had to make up some ludicrous technobabble, it would be hard to beat quantum thermodynamics:

“If physical theories were people, thermodynamics would be the village witch,” the physicist Lídia del Rio and co-authors wrote last year in Journal of Physics A. “The other theories find her somewhat odd, somehow different in nature from the rest, yet everyone comes to her for advice, and no one dares to contradict her.”

Unlike, say, the Standard Model of particle physics, which tries to get at what exists, the laws of thermodynamics only say what can and can’t be done. But one of the strangest things about the theory is that these rules seem subjective. A gas made of particles that in aggregate all appear to be the same temperature — and therefore unable to do work — might, upon closer inspection, have microscopic temperature differences that could be exploited after all. As the 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell put it, “The idea of dissipation of energy depends on the extent of our knowledge.”

In recent years, a revolutionary understanding of thermodynamics has emerged that explains this subjectivity using quantum information theory — “a toddler among physical theories,” as del Rio and co-authors put it, that describes the spread of information through quantum systems.

[...]

Over the past decade, Popescu and his Bristol colleagues, along with other groups, have argued that energy spreads to cold objects from hot ones because of the way information spreads between particles. According to quantum theory, the physical properties of particles are probabilistic; instead of being representable as 1 or 0, they can have some probability of being 1 and some probability of being 0 at the same time. When particles interact, they can also become entangled, joining together the probability distributions that describe both of their states. A central pillar of quantum theory is that the information — the probabilistic 1s and 0s representing particles’ states — is never lost. (The present state of the universe preserves all information about the past.)

Over time, however, as particles interact and become increasingly entangled, information about their individual states spreads and becomes shuffled and shared among more and more particles. Popescu and his colleagues believe that the arrow of increasing quantum entanglement underlies the expected rise in entropy — the thermodynamic arrow of time. A cup of coffee cools to room temperature, they explain, because as coffee molecules collide with air molecules, the information that encodes their energy leaks out and is shared by the surrounding air.

Understanding entropy as a subjective measure allows the universe as a whole to evolve without ever losing information. Even as parts of the universe, such as coffee, engines and people, experience rising entropy as their quantum information dilutes, the global entropy of the universe stays forever zero.

Renato Renner, a professor at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, described this as a radical shift in perspective. Fifteen years ago, “we thought of entropy as a property of a thermodynamic system,” he said. “Now in information theory, we wouldn’t say entropy is a property of a system, but a property of an observer who describes a system.”

Turbo e-Booster

May 22nd, 2017

The e-booster eliminates turbo lag:

It’s driven by electricity, so it spins up to 70,000 rpm in just three-tenths of a second, providing a boost until the turbocharger gets up to speed. BorgWarner says the cantaloupe-sized device, combined with a standard turbocharger, improves torque by 85 percent at 1,500 rpm, and by 55 percent at 2,000 rpm.

[...]

BorgWarner first toyed with this idea in the late 1990s, but decided the e-booster needed too much power, says Verrier. But the recent development of 48-volt electrical systems changed the picture. Providing four times the power of a traditional 12-volt system allows the adoption of all kinds of new technologies: active ride control, electric water pumps, heated seats, and so on. The e-booster requires 5 or 6 kilowatts, something a 48-volt system can supply.

Accelerationism is a political heresy

May 21st, 2017

Andy Beckett introduces Guardian readers to the “fringe” philosophy of Accelerationism:

Half a century ago, in the great hippie year of 1967, an acclaimed young American science fiction writer, Roger Zelazny, published his third novel. In many ways, Lord of Light was of its time, shaggy with imported Hindu mythology and cosmic dialogue. Yet there were also glints of something more forward-looking and political. One plot strand concerned a group of revolutionaries who wanted to take their society “to a higher level” by suddenly transforming its attitude to technology. Zelazny called them the Accelerationists.

He and the book are largely forgotten now. But as the more enduring sci-fi novelist JG Ballard said in 1971, “what the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow”. Over the past five decades, and especially over the past few years, much of the world has got faster. Working patterns, political cycles, everyday technologies, communication habits and devices, the redevelopment of cities, the acquisition and disposal of possessions – all of these have accelerated. Meanwhile, over the same half century, almost entirely unnoticed by the media or mainstream academia, accelerationism has gradually solidified from a fictional device into an actual intellectual movement: a new way of thinking about the contemporary world and its potential.

In 1979 it was announced that Lord of Light would be made into a 50 million dollar film — back when $50 million was a lot of money:

It was planned that the sets for the movie would be made permanent and become the core of a science fiction theme park to be built in Aurora, Colorado. Famed comic-book artist Jack Kirby was even contracted to produce artwork for set design. However, due to legal problems the project was never completed.

Parts of the unmade film project — the script and Kirby’s set designs — were subsequently acquired by the CIA as cover for the “Canadian Caper“: the exfiltration of six US diplomatic staff trapped by the Iranian hostage crisis (in Tehran but outside the embassy compound). The rescue team pretended to be scouting a location in Iran for shooting a Hollywood film from the script, which they had renamed Argo.

The protagonist of Lord of Light is a renegade pseudo-god, who believes the technology of the god-like elite should be shared with the unenlightened masses and introduces Buddhism as a “culture jamming” tool against the established powers.

According to Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, who wrote “the only proper guide to the movement in existence,” #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, describe Accelerationism as a political heresy:

Accelerationism is the name of a contemporary political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, critique, or détourne it, but to accelerate and exacerbate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies.

#Accelerate presents a genealogy of accelerationism, tracking the impulse through 90s UK darkside cyberculture and the theory-fictions of Nick Land, Sadie Plant, Iain Grant, and CCRU, across the cultural underground of the 80s (rave, acid house, SF cinema) and back to its sources in delirious post-68 ferment, in texts whose searing nihilistic jouissance would later be disavowed by their authors and the marxist and academic establishment alike.

The Tibetans do things differently

May 20th, 2017

Tibetans have evolved and maintained genetic adaptations that suit them to life above 15,000 feet:

Huff and co-authors published a study in April in PLOS Genetics analyzing for the first time whole-genome sequences for 27 Tibetan individuals. The research identified three new genes that help with mountain living, in addition to confirming two that were previously known. These gene variants give Tibetans the ability to metabolize oxygen more efficiently and protect against Vitamin D deficiency.

[...]

One of the genes that helps Tibetans adapt to high altitude is known as EPAS1. The Tibetan variant of this gene does a surprising thing — it actually lowers the hemoglobin count in your blood at high altitudes. Hemoglobins are a protein in red blood cells that transport oxygen to your body. It’s surprising that Tibetans would have a lower hemoglobin count at high altitudes; normally our bodies respond to lower oxygen pressures by increasing hemoglobins in our blood, allowing for more O2 to reach the muscles. It’s even more surprising because other population groups that have adapted to high altitude environments, including the South American Andes and Africa’s Ethiopian Highlands, have done so in part by raising hemoglobin count.

The Tibetans, however, do things differently. Rather than upping hemoglobin count, their bodies have several adaptations that allow them to use oxygen more efficiently, so they need less of it. This allows them to keep hemoglobin counts relatively low at high altitude, which helps to avoid some of the potential downsides of a high hemoglobin count. Hemoglobins thicken the blood, and the thicker your blood the more likely it is to clot, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.

How to 3D print plastic braces for $60

May 19th, 2017

A digital-design major at the New Jersey Institute of Technology made his own plastic braces using a 3D printer:

He was broke, but had access to a high-quality 3D printer through his university. He took full advantage of this.

The process wasn’t exactly easy. He had to research orthodontic procedures and plot the route of his successive braces, so his teeth would move in the right way. But once that was done, all it took was fabricating a series of models out of relatively inexpensive plastic, and then following through on wearing them.

His two main reference texts, he explains, were Contemporary Orthodontics (5e) by William Proffit DDS, PhD, and Orthodontics at a Glance by Gill Daljit.

Alginate Powder Impression

Orthoprint

Robot cars versus phantom traffic jams

May 18th, 2017

A new study suggests that even a few autonomous cars could ease congestion for everyone:

You’ve likely seen the demonstration of phantom traffic jams where cars drive around in a circle to simulate the impact of a single slowing car on a road full of traffic. One car pumps its brakes for no particular reason, and the slowdown ripples through the traffic. Now, the University of Illinois research, led by Daniel Work, shows that placing even just a single autonomous car into one of those circular traffic simulations can dampen the effects of the phantom traffic jam.

The team’s results show that by having an autonomous vehicle control its speed intelligently when a phantom jam starts to propagate, it’s possible to reduce the amount of braking performed further back down the line. The numbers are impressive: the presence of just one autonomous car reduces the standard deviation in speed of all the cars in the jam by around 50 percent, and the number of sharp hits to the brakes is cut from around nine per vehicle for every kilometer traveled to at most 2.5 — and sometimes practically zero.

Because fuel use increases when when cars slow down and have to get back up to speed, the presence of the autonomous vehicle also reduces fuel consumption. According to the calculations by the team, in fact, the savings is as much as 40 percent when averaged across all the cars in the traffic flow.

It’s interesting that these improvements can occur even with a single vehicle in a flow of 20 other cars. And it’s also worth noting that the level of autonomy required to have this effect isn’t the kind that Waymo, Uber, and others are seeking to build — it’s more akin to the adaptive cruise control already featured in many higher-end cars.

Atlatling in Austin

May 17th, 2017

Austin seems like the kind of town where you’d see someone throwing spears at the park with an atlatl:

“It’s the rawest form of hunting tool,” says the co-founder and CEO of meat-based superfoods company Epic Provisions. Mr. Collins, 34, is a recreational bow hunter based in Austin, Texas, who only has time for a few hunting trips each year. Two years ago, he was researching historical hunting methods and discovered the atlatl (pronounced at-LA-tal).

Atlatl Photo by Matthew Mahon

A version of the atlatl, a hunting tool that predates the bow and arrow, may have first been used around 30,000 years ago in Europe and 11,000 in North America, according to the World Atlatl Organization. The word comes from the Nahuatl languages spoken in Mexico and other parts of Central America.

It lengthens the arm like an extra joint, making it possible to throw a spear farther and with more force than with one’s bare hands. It works similarly to a throw stick for dogs playing fetch.

Atlatls typically range from 18 to 24 inches long. One end has a hook and the other a hand hold. The hook connects to the back end of the spear, which is 5 to 6 feet long and thicker than an arrow. Throwers hold the atlatl at eye level and step in the direction of the target as they use their arm and wrist to throw the spear forward. The end of the atlatl flips around, pushing the spear forward with added force.

Mr. Collins played baseball in high school and likens the motion to throwing a pitch. He finds atlatl throwing meditative. “You really get in a zone and forget any worries,” he says.