Nerd Pride

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

In Nerd Pride, Bryan Caplan explains that Dr. Seuss coined the word “nerd” back in 1950, but it didn’t acquire its modern meaning until the 1970′s. Then he explains his nerd pride:

In case you haven’t guessed, yes, I consider myself a nerd. I’m such a nerd that I worry that my sons will fail to embrace their nerd heritage. The best game show in history, Beat the Geeks, began by asking each contestant “What’s the geekiest thing about you?” I still wish I could have been a contestant just to give my response:
“I am the Dungeon Master for an all-economists’ Dungeons and Dragons game.”

Beat that, geeks!

Nokia Moments

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Nokia Moments may replace “Kodak Moments”:

Finnish phone giant Nokia wants to be a Kodak for the digital age, with the ubiquitous camera phone as its Brownie for the masses. And its scrapbook? That would be Lifeblog, a $30 piece of software set to debut at the end of June. Lifeblog gathers the mishmash of life — all the text messages, images, and video that can be captured on a cell phone — then organizes them into a digital diary.

[...]

With Lifeblog, the phone becomes a life recorder. And your life becomes searchable.

I’m intrigued.

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | How Tolkien triumphed over the critics

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

How Tolkien triumphed over the critics goes back and looks at how reviewers treated Tolkien’s now-beloved classic when it first came out:

The Spectator’s Richard Hughes, writing in October 1954, opened his review praising the pleasures of reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit — published 17 years earlier — to his children.

‘This is not a work which many adults will read through more than once,’ said the anonymous reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement, while American critic Edmund Wilson, dismissed the entire trilogy in 1956 as ‘juvenile trash’.

(Hat tip to Slashdot.)

DNA Scientist Francis Crick Dies at 88

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Crick, of Watson and Crick, is dead. From DNA Scientist Francis Crick Dies at 88:

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Francis Crick, who with James Watson discovered the spiral, ‘double-helix’ structure of DNA, paving the way for everything from DNA blood tests to genetically engineered tomatoes, has died. He was 88.

Interesting fellow:

Unlike many scientists, Crick did not spend his days toiling away in a lab or instructing students. Instead, he read and mused in his Salk Institute office overlooking the Pacific Ocean, putting in full days well beyond retirement age. He had come to Salk after resigning from the Cambridge faculty in 1977.

Crick was born in Britain in 1916 to a shoe factory owner and his wife. He studied physics at University College and then built underwater mines for the British government during World War II.

After the war, Crick became interested in “the division between the living and the non-living” and decided to teach himself biology and chemistry.

In later years, Crick wrote “The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul,” which had as its central tenet that everything we see, feel, think and experience is controlled by brain chemistry, not some inner spirit or will.

Great Hackers

Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Paul Graham has written a “provocative” and “controversial” piece on Great Hackers. He starts by explaining that variation in wealth isn’t a bad thing, because it points to a variation in productivity, something you only get (in large amounts) once you have complex tools to leverage:

If variation in productivity increases with technology, then the contribution of the most productive individuals will not only be disproportionately large, but will actually grow with time. When you reach the point where 90% of a group’s output is created by 1% of its members, you lose big if something (whether Viking raids, or central planning) drags their productivity down to the average.

Graham makes a number of disparate, but interesting, points. Here he slams the Java programming language in the process of making a greater point:

When you decide what infrastructure to use for a project, you’re not just making a technical decision. You’re also making a social decision, and this may be the more important of the two. For example, if your company wants to write some software, it might seem a prudent choice to write it in Java. But when you choose a language, you’re also choosing a community. The programmers you’ll be able to hire to work on a Java project won’t be as smart as the ones you could get to work on a project written in Python.

There are many disconnects between hackers and suits; here’s one huge example:

After software, the most important tool to a hacker is probably his office. Big companies think the function of office space is to express rank. But hackers use their offices for more than that: they use their office as a place to think in. And if you’re a technology company, their thoughts are your product. So making hackers work in a noisy, distracting environment is like having a paint factory where the air is full of soot.

The cartoon strip Dilbert has a lot to say about cubicles, and with good reason. All the hackers I know despise them. The mere prospect of being interrupted is enough to prevent hackers from working on hard problems. If you want to get real work done in an office with cubicles, you have two options: work at home, or come in early or late or on a weekend, when no one else is there. Don’t companies realize this is a sign that something is broken? An office environment is supposed to be something you work in, not something you work despite.

Generally, it’s hard — that’s an understatement — to manage hackers. There are some tricks though:

Like a parent saying to a child, I bet you can’t clean up your whole room in ten minutes, a good manager can sometimes redefine a problem as a more interesting one. Steve Jobs seems to be particularly good at this, in part simply by having high standards. There were a lot of small, inexpensive computers before the Mac. He redefined the problem as: make one that’s beautiful. And that probably drove the developers harder than any carrot or stick could.

I know the “death of a thousand cuts” — an not from watching Hong Kong wu xia movies:

It’s pretty easy to say what kinds of problems are not interesting: those where instead of solving a few big, clear, problems, you have to solve a lot of nasty little ones. One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that’s full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client’s complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.

The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don’t learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn’t teach you anything, because the bugs are random. So it’s not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It’s more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.

(Incidentally, I think this is what people mean when they talk about the “meaning of life.” On the face of it, this seems an odd idea. Life isn’t an expression; how could it have meaning? But it can have a quality that feels a lot like meaning. In a project like a compiler, you have to solve a lot of problems, but the problems all fall into a pattern, as in a signal. Whereas when the problems you have to solve are random, they seem like noise.)

How do you become a great hacker — or, at the very least, how do you avoid spoiling your hacker potential if you have it?

The key to being a good hacker may be to work on what you like. When I think about the great hackers I know, one thing they have in common is the extreme difficulty of making them work on anything they don’t want to. I don’t know if this is cause or effect; it may be both.

Great hackers are obviously smart, but there’s more to it than that. They’re also extremely curious about how things work. And they focus:

Several friends mentioned hackers’ ability to concentrate– their ability, as one put it, to “tune out everything outside their own heads.” I’ve certainly noticed this. And I’ve heard several hackers say that after drinking even half a beer they can’t program at all. So maybe hacking does require some special ability to focus. Perhaps great hackers can load a large amount of context into their head, so that when they look at a line of code, they see not just that line but the whole program around it. John McPhee wrote that Bill Bradley’s success as a basketball player was due partly to his extraordinary peripheral vision. “Perfect” eyesight means about 47 degrees of vertical peripheral vision. Bill Bradley had 70; he could see the basket when he was looking at the floor. Maybe great hackers have some similar inborn ability. (I cheat by using a very dense language, which shrinks the court.)

This could explain the disconnect over cubicles. Maybe the people in charge of facilities, not having any concentration to shatter, have no idea that working in a cubicle feels to a hacker like having one’s brain in a blender. (Whereas Bill, if the rumors of autism are true, knows all too well.)

Read the whole article.

Whittaker Chambers and the Idea Trap

Wednesday, July 28th, 2004

In Whittaker Chambers and the Idea Trap, Bruce Caplan discusses his paper, “The Idea Trap“:

I set up a simple political-economic model with three variables: growth, policy, and ideas. The model is governed by three ‘laws of motion.’ The first are near-tautologies:

1. Good policies cause good growth.
2. Good ideas cause good policies.

The third law is much less intuitive:

3. Good growth causes good ideas.

The inspiration for law #3 was my empirical finding that people with high income growth ‘think more like economists.

The consequences?

These assumptions have an interesting implication: there exist “multiple equilibria” — one where growth, policy, and ideas are all good, and another where growth, policy, and ideas are all bad. I call the later “the idea trap,” because bad ideas sustain bad policy, bad policy sustains bad growth, and bad growth reinforces bad ideas. Implausible? Think about any of the world’s economic/political basket cases. How often do the people in those countries admit that their worldview is a failure, and humbly turn to their more successful neighbors? Not often. Or consider: When do crazy demagogues get the most serious hearings? In most cases, when a country is already going down the drain.

Amazon Prods Reviewers To Stop Hiding Behind Fake Names

Wednesday, July 28th, 2004

Obviously not all of the reviews on Amazon are “real” reviews by impartial customers who happened to pick up the book. Amazon’s now taking a small step toward fixing the problem, as Amazon Prods Reviewers To Stop Hiding Behind Fake Names explains:

After years of letting Internet users anonymously savage or salute everything from books to toasters in online reviews, Amazon.com Inc. is encouraging its customers to put their names where their opinions are.

Earlier this month, the Web retailer quietly launched a new system, dubbed Real Names, that encourages users to append to their product reviews the name that appears on the credit card they have registered with Amazon. A logo saying “Real Name” appears beside such customer comments.

Amazon still allows reviewers to sign their comments with pen names, effectively concealing their identity from other Amazon users. But even these reviewers need to supply a credit card or purchase history. Previously, users could easily open multiple Amazon accounts from which they could post multiple reviews of the same product. The new system is intended to block that practice.

I guess I never thought about it, but I didn’t realize that you could open an Amazon account (or two, or a dozen) without providing a credit card, and that you could then post reviews. That looks like the loop hole.

Dynamist Blog: Defining the Democrats

Wednesday, July 28th, 2004

In Defining the Democrats, Virginia Postrel notes how well Bill Clinton’s DNC speech captures how mainstream Democrats “understand themselves and their opposition” — as this excerpt from the speech demonstrates:

We think the role of government is to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their lives. Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people, in a world in which we act unilaterally when we can, and cooperate when we have to.

Her comments:

That’s an interesting anti-elitist message, one that directly contradicts the Republicans’ view of themselves and their opponents. Both parties, in other words, think the other guys “believe in an America run by the right people.” Technocracy is certainly dead as a governing ideal, though not as a practice.

Clinton’s statement can be read many different ways, depending on your point of view. “The role of government is to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their lives” can describe anything from a classical liberalism that emphasizes the importance of underlying institutions — if I didn’t know the source, I might endorse it myself — to a Swedish-style welfare state.

Double Jeopardy Disaster

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Double Jeopardy Disaster helps explain why drugs and medical devices are unnecessarily expensive:

Getting a new drug or medical device approved by the FDA is a long and expensive process. The FDA is risk-averse and pays much more attention to the risks of approving a bad drug than to the risks of failing to approve a good drug. As a result, every economist who has ever written a serious analysis of the FDA has come to the conclusion that less regulation would mean more new drugs and more saved lives. (See FDAReview.org for more information. Gary Becker offers a recent statement.).

Approval, however, does not end a firm’s problems because even then it faces the risk of a debilitating lawsuit. Consider how bizarre this is: A team of statisticians, physicians and medical researchers pours over years of clinical data to pronounce a product safe (always noting that this means safe relative to the product’s expected benefits) and then a jury of 12 randomly selected Joes and Janes second guesses them, awards plaintiffs billions of dollars and drives the firm into bankruptcy. This has happened more than once.

Yeah, I feel much safer now

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

From Yeah, I feel much safer now:

The USA Patriot Act has so far been used to fine PayPal $10 million dollars in an effort to crack down on internet gambling, it’s been used to intimidate a New York artist’s collective, and most recently to shut down a Stargate fan site.

Norway Looks for Ways to Keep Its Workers on the Job

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Norway Looks for Ways to Keep Its Workers on the Job describes how Norway has gone from a poor, largely isolated nation of self-reliant workers to a wealthy, post-oil-boom nation of whiners:

On an average day, about 25 percent of Norway’s workers are absent from work, either because they have called in sick, are undergoing rehabilitation or are on long-term disability. The rate is especially high among government employees, who account for half the work force.

The average amount of time people were absent from work in Norway in 2002, not including vacations, was 4.8 weeks. Sweden, its closest competitor, totaled 4.2 weeks, while Italy came in at 1.8 weeks and Portugal at 1.5 weeks, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Throw in vacation time (five weeks for most people), national paid holidays (11 per year) and weekends, and Norwegians take off nearly half the calendar year, about 170 days, a figure that does not include time off for disability and rehabilitation, according to Bergens Tidende, the newspaper that made the calculations. Long-term disability leave, up 20 percent since 1990, is growing at an even faster rate than sick leave.

(Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.)

Slow medicine

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Slow medicine cites “another death of common sense story“:

Would-be California medical students with learning disabilities filed a discrimination suit Monday saying their prospects of becoming doctors are being thwarted because they aren’t given enough time on the medical school entrance exam.

Alex Tabarrok’s response:

Even more shocking than the lawsuit is the response of the American Association of Medical Colleges. Instead of making the obviously correct argument that time is a legitimate testing hurdle for a physician they argue that the students involved are not disabled enough! If only they had failed more of their undergraduate classes then the AAMC would give them special accomodation. Really, I’m not making this up.

Extra-high cannabis theory goes up in smoke

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Extra-high cannabis theory goes up in smoke explains how marijuana is no more potent than it used to be:

The US drugs ‘tsar’ John Walters and toxicologist John Henry of St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, west London, are among those who have warned that the cannabis available now bears little resemblance to that on the market 30 years ago, with serious health dangers for regular users.

The EU study says that the strength of the active ingredient – THC – has remained unchanged at about 6% for most of the cannabis smoked in Britain. It says the amount of cannabis put in the typical British joint has also remained constant for 20 years at about 200mg for marijuana and 150mg for resin.

The results are based on analysis by the Forensic Science Service of cannabis seized by the police between 1995 and 2002.

Aloe May Save Lives on Battlefield

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Aloe May Save Lives on Battlefield:

The aloe vera plant could provide a fluid to help keep alive trauma victims such as battlefield casualties until they can get a blood transfusion, U.S. researchers said on Monday.

Tests on rats show that the sticky fluid found inside the leaves of aloe vera can help preserve organ function after massive blood loss, the team at the University of Pittsburgh said.

Writing in the journal Shock, they said just small injections of the substance helped counteract the more immediate deadly effects of blood loss.

“We hope this fluid will offer a viable solution to a significant problem, both on and off the battlefield,” Dr. Mitchell Fink, a professor of critical care medicine who led the study, said in a statement.

“Soldiers wounded in combat often lose significant amounts of blood, and there is no practical way to replace the necessary amount of blood fast enough on the front lines. When this happens, there is inadequate perfusion of the organs which quickly leads to a cascade of life-threatening events,” Fink added.

“Medics would need only to carry a small amount of this solution, which could feasibly be administered before the soldier is evacuated to a medical unit or facility,” he added.

The researchers, who got funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, tested the mucilage from inside aloe leaves. It is rich in sugar compounds called polysaccharides that affect the qualities of fluid.

“It may provide better diffusion of oxygen molecules from red blood cells to tissues because of its ability to better mix in the plasma surrounding red blood cells,” said Marina Kameneva, an artificial blood expert who worked on the study.

They tested rats, injecting them either with the aloe derivative or salt solution after draining them of some blood.

I was not expecting to read about aloe injections.

Yahoo! News – Gene Variants May Make Women See Red, and Burgundy

Tuesday, July 27th, 2004

Yahoo! News – Gene Variants May Make Women See Red, and Burgundy reports on a recent study from the American Journal of Human Genetics:

A new gene study may help explain why she sees crimson, vermilion and tomato, but it’s all just red to him.

In an analysis of the DNA of 236 men from around the globe, researchers found that the gene that allows people to see the color red comes in an unusually high number of variations. And that may be a boon to women’s color perception in particular, study co-author Dr. Brian C. Verrelli told Reuters Health.

That’s because the gene, known as OPN1LW, sits on the X sex chromosome. Women have two X chromosomes, one from each parent, while men have one X and one Y chromosome. Because women have two different copies of the “red” gene, the fact that the gene can have so many variations means it may especially aid women’s perception of the red-orange spectrum.

[...]

Among the 236 samples of DNA they studied, the researchers found 85 variations in the OPN1LW gene. That’s about three times the number of variations one would see in any other “random gene” pulled from the human genome, Verrelli said.

[...]

He and Tishkoff speculate that the gene variations may have been useful in humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, when sharp color perception may have helped women in their foraging work.

Sharp color perception may have helped women in their foraging work. Are they allowed to say that?