Caw vs. Croak

October 30th, 2014

Crows and ravens can be tricky to tell apart by sight, but their voices are much more distinctive:

Playing The Star-Spangled Banner with a Gun

October 30th, 2014

Do you hear that? It sounds like freedom!

Night On Bald Mountain

October 29th, 2014

Let the Night On Bald Mountain segment from Fantasia (1941) put you in the Halloween spirit:

Cat Calls

October 29th, 2014

This video depicts a woman walking though New York City and receiving plenty of cat calls:

Naturally, there is no pattern at all to see here.

Camille Saint-Saëns’s “Danse Macabre”

October 29th, 2014

Borepatch prepares for Halloween by discussing Camille Saint-Saëns and his “Danse Macabre”:

He was a child prodigy, possessed perfect pitch, and more importantly had the mind of a polymath: in addition to his many musical compositions he published scientific papers on the acoustics of ancient Roman amphitheaters, wrote the first score for a motion picture, and sailed through the newly completed Panama Canal to conduct an orchestra in San Francisco.

This piece is based on a poem by Henri Cazalis, from a very old French superstition.  Each year Death appears at midnight on Halloween and summons the dead to rise and dance while he plays his fiddle.  The piece opens with a harp playing a single note, repeated twelve times: the clock striking midnight.  The E Flat and A violin chords that follow are sometimes called the “Devil’s chords”.  The piece is spooky and vigorous all the way through until the end, when the music quietens to a pianissimo as the dead return to their tombs as dawn breaks.

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.

October 29th, 2014

Vote all you want, but the secret government won’t change:

Ideas: Where does the term “double government” come from?

Glennon: It comes from Walter Bagehot’s famous theory, unveiled in the 1860s. Bagehot was the scholar who presided over the birth of the Economist magazine — they still have a column named after him. Bagehot tried to explain in his book “The English Constitution” how the British government worked. He suggested that there are two sets of institutions. There are the “dignified institutions,” the monarchy and the House of Lords, which people erroneously believed ran the government. But he suggested that there was in reality a second set of institutions, which he referred to as the “efficient institutions,” that actually set governmental policy. And those were the House of Commons, the prime minister, and the British cabinet.

Ideas: What evidence exists for saying America has a double government?

Glennon: I was curious why a president such as Barack Obama would embrace the very same national security and counterterrorism policies that he campaigned eloquently against. Why would that president continue those same policies in case after case after case? I initially wrote it based on my own experience and personal knowledge and conversations with dozens of individuals in the military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies of our government, as well as, of course, officeholders on Capitol Hill and in the courts. And the documented evidence in the book is substantial — there are 800 footnotes in the book.

Ideas: Why would policy makers hand over the national-security keys to unelected officials?

Glennon: It hasn’t been a conscious decision…. Members of Congress are generalists and need to defer to experts within the national security realm, as elsewhere. They are particularly concerned about being caught out on a limb having made a wrong judgment about national security and tend, therefore, to defer to experts, who tend to exaggerate threats. The courts similarly tend to defer to the expertise of the network that defines national security policy.

The presidency itself is not a top-down institution, as many people in the public believe, headed by a president who gives orders and causes the bureaucracy to click its heels and salute. National security policy actually bubbles up from within the bureaucracy. Many of the more controversial policies, from the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors to the NSA surveillance program, originated within the bureaucracy. John Kerry was not exaggerating when he said that some of those programs are “on autopilot.”

Ideas: Isn’t this just another way of saying that big bureaucracies are difficult to change?

Glennon: It’s much more serious than that. These particular bureaucracies don’t set truck widths or determine railroad freight rates. They make nerve-center security decisions that in a democracy can be irreversible, that can close down the marketplace of ideas, and can result in some very dire consequences.

[...]

Ideas: This isn’t how we’re taught to think of the American political system.

Glennon: I think the American people are deluded, as Bagehot explained about the British population, that the institutions that provide the public face actually set American national security policy. They believe that when they vote for a president or member of Congress or succeed in bringing a case before the courts, that policy is going to change. Now, there are many counter-examples in which these branches do affect policy, as Bagehot predicted there would be. But the larger picture is still true — policy by and large in the national security realm is made by the concealed institutions.

How Technology Is Killing NFL Defenses

October 28th, 2014

Kevin Clark explains how technology is killing NFL defenses:

For about the last four seasons, players have had tablets to watch film on. This year, the effects are being felt for perhaps the first time. “Things that used to be subtle, like a safety lining two yards outside of a hash mark, is now a dead giveaway,” said former NFL lineman Shaun O’Hara, now an analyst at the NFL Network.

This created a world in which players could watch significantly more game film than they could be before. They could watch their opponents’ third-down plays at the grocery store, or, some players admit, in the bathroom. It is a world in which everyone knows everything about everyone. Players have watched game film for decades, but never had this much information.

That, according to Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine, favors the offense.

“We have to tell our guys, ‘Don’t be that guy, don’t be the sucker on the tape,’ ” Pettine said. “You can’t tip off anything anymore, whether that’s a stance or even the eyes. There are so many little things they can find now, and all they need to do is find one.”

As a result, coaches say, getting to the quarterback has never been harder. Offenses can adjust quickly once they identify a blitzer, leaving more guys in to block on a given play and completely stopping the opposing pass rush.

“Access to video is the best thing we have,” said New Orleans Saints offensive-line coach Bret Ingalls. “We get to say, ‘Hey, every time a guy on this team points to the guard, it means he’ll try this or that.’ ”

Cameron Heyward, a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman, said that research of pass-rushing moves has gotten so advanced that he rarely wants to make the first move, since the offense will know what’s coming. He said that offensive linemen have few “tells,” and even if they had any, it wouldn’t matter, since they rarely attempt the exotic maneuvers that defensive linemen resort to in their desperation to pressure the quarterback.

I suppose it’ll always be “film”…

The Canadian Parliament Active Killer

October 28th, 2014

When the active killer in Canada turned active, events happened quickly:

Look at the surveillance video again.  Do you see how fast the killer is running?  The entire event including the assassination of Cpl. Cirillo, the carjacking of a government minister, the struggle with an unarmed security guard and exchanging shots with armed security staff and police likely took less than five minutes.  If your only plan is “wait for the police,” you won’t be a player in a scenario like this.  It is likely to be over by the time the cops arrive.

The RCMP witnessed the car jacking and were in pursuit of the killer as he entered the Parliament Building.  They still didn’t get there in time to protect the legislators!  You will be on your own for some time if you find yourself in the middle of something like this.

One other comment I should make is that the killer was running FAST.  If you are thinking “I’ll just run away,” you should probably rethink that plan as well.  Make an honest assessment of your abilities.  Could you outrun the killer?  I know I couldn’t.

Mega-Scale 3D Printing Is Here

October 28th, 2014

Mega-scale 3D printing has arrived:

The D-Shape technology uses a patented magnesium-based binding process to adhere sand or other construction materials together to form an artificial sandstone. The stone produced is reportedly indistinguishable from real marble, chemically environmentally friendly, and has a resistance and traction superior to portland cement. Kushner plans to source aggregate from the local area to use for his material.

With a build box of 6 x 6 x 6 meters, or about 19.7 x 19.7 x 19.7 feet, the D-Shape printer is reportedly the world’s largest 3D printer. Kushner’s house is considerably larger than the approximate 400-square-foot structure that can be built within this build box, so he’s designing the house so it can be printed in sections.

D-Shape Printer

Why would architects and contractors want to use the D-Shape 3D printing process rather than traditional building construction techniques?

Two primary reasons are the same reasons that many manufacturers in various industries are rapidly embracing 3D printing: increased design freedom and financial savings. Constructing a house, or other structure, using 3D printing allows for more advanced and intricate designs, some of which would be considerably more challenging or impossible to construct using traditional building techniques. Additionally, the “realization costs of D-Shape structures are 30%-50% lower than manual methods,” according to D-Shape’s website.

Furthermore, increased safety is a factor. The construction industry has one of the highest incidents of injuries and mortalities. Automating much of the building process means a substantially reduced risk of accidents.

If these advantages are, indeed, eventually realized, it’s easy to understand why Kushner fervently believes that “3D printing will result in a paradigm shift in the way we design and build structures.”

Six Policies Economists Love (And Politicians Hate)

October 27th, 2014

NPR’s Planet Money shares six policies economists love (and politicians hate):

  1. Eliminate the mortgage tax deduction.
  2. End the tax deduction companies get for providing health-care to employees.
  3. Eliminate the corporate income tax.
  4. Eliminate all income and payroll taxes.
  5. Tax carbon emissions.
  6. Legalize marijuana.

Contagions of Hysteria

October 27th, 2014

We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction, David Brooks argues:

In the first place, we’re living in a segmented society. Over the past few decades we’ve seen a pervasive increase in the gaps between different social classes. People are much less likely to marry across social class, or to join a club and befriend people across social class.

That means there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority. It becomes easy to wave away the whole lot of them, and that distrust isolates them further. “What loneliness is more lonely than distrust,” George Eliot writes in “Middlemarch.”

So you get the rise of the anti-vaccine parents, who simply distrust the cloud of experts telling them that vaccines are safe for their children. You get the rise of the anti-science folks, who distrust the realm of far-off studies and prefer anecdotes from friends to data about populations. You get more and more people who simply do not believe what the establishment is telling them about the Ebola virus, especially since the establishment doesn’t seem particularly competent anyway.

Second, you’ve got a large group of people who are bone-deep suspicious of globalization, what it does to their jobs and their communities. Along comes Ebola, which is the perfect biological embodiment of what many fear about globalization. It is a dark insidious force from a mysterious place far away that seems to be able to spread uncontrollably and get into the intimate spheres of life back home.

Third, you’ve got the culture of instant news. It’s a weird phenomenon of the media age that, except in extreme circumstances, it is a lot scarier to follow an event on TV than it is to actually be there covering it. When you’re watching on TV, you only see the death and mayhem. But when you’re actually there, you see the broader context of everyday life going on alongside. Studies of the Boston Marathon bombing found that people who consumed a lot of news media during the first week suffered more stress than people who were actually there.

Fourth, you’ve got our culture’s tendency to distance itself from death.

Isaac Asimov on Creativity

October 27th, 2014

In 1959, Arthur Obermayer invited Isaac Asimov to discuss creativity with his colleagues at Allied Research Associates in Boston, an MIT spinoff contracted to design a ballistic missile defense system:

He expressed his willingness and came to a few meetings. He eventually decided not to continue, because he did not want to have access to any secret classified information; it would limit his freedom of expression. Before he left, however, he wrote this essay on creativity as his single formal input.

The key to creativity, Asimov thought, was the ability to make a cross-connection:

Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)

Asimov also suggested that isolation is required for creative work:

The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable, he says:

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.

If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence — not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do — short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems — and be paid for that; the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.

I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst, as I understand it, by asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible), gets the patient himself to discuss his past life in such a way as to elicit new understanding of it in his own eyes.

In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.

Elon Musk at MIT’s AeroAstro Centennial Symposium

October 26th, 2014

At the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department’s Centennial Symposium, Elon Musk spoke.

He considers The Moon is a Harsh Mistress Heinlein’s best novel, and he wonders why rocket engines are always mounted on gimbals, and airplane engines never are.

Transom

October 26th, 2014

A transom is a horizontal beam separating a door from a window above it.

The phrase “over the transom” refers to works submitted without being solicited. Imagine a writer tossing a manuscript through the open window over the door of the publisher’s office.

Classic Elegance

October 25th, 2014

Will the American fashion industry ever tolerate another de la Renta?, Virginia Postrel wonders:

His brand will continue, but the classic elegance for which he was known is as old-fashioned as it is beloved. It defies the prestige accorded to innovators who “move fashion forward” rather than simply creating fresh collections. Michelle Obama wouldn’t have won all those plaudits as a fashion leader if she’d worn his dresses and followed his rules. She would have merely been another tastefully attired Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush.

In addition, de la Renta’s work was out of step with the relentless march of informality. “I don’t really know how to do casual clothes,” the designer admitted in 2005. Nor did he seem to value them. In 2009, he criticized the first lady for wearing a J. Crew cardigan during a visit to Queen Elizabeth. A cardigan might be a staple of contemporary office dress (no longer called “business casual”), but in de la Renta’s eyes serious affairs demanded something structured.

“Whatever the fashion of the moment, his garments were always constructed, shaping the female body into something more perfect and swan-like than its natural shape allowed,” observed Fashionista editor-in-chief Lauren Indvik in her memorial. That artifice is why his clothes could project power despite his fondness for flowers and frills.

His clothes were pretty, but they were also disciplined. They embodied the ideal contained in the word often used to describe them: ladylike. “If you don’t dress well every day, you lose the habit,” he told the Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong in a long 2013 interview. Americans, male and female, mostly have.

Once liberating, the drive toward informal attire, exemplified by hoodies in Silicon Valley, flip flops in Los Angeles, and sweaters on state visits, has become a new form of oppressive conformity. Dressing down is de rigueur.

De la Renta stood against that trend. Now that he’s gone, perhaps there’s an opportunity for a transgressive young designer to do something really daring: Get us to dress up again.