What’s the buzz? Teens can’t stand it

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

What’s the buzz? Teens can’t stand it describes a new technology for dispersing loitering kids:

The device, called the Mosquito (‘It’s small and annoying,’ Stapleton said), emits a high-frequency pulsing sound that, he said, can be heard by most people younger than 20 and almost no one older than 30. The sound is designed to so irritate young people that after several minutes, they cannot stand it and go away.

The grocery store we went to just used classical music.

The First Real Aphrodisiac Is a Nasal Spray

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

The First Real, Horny-Making, Body-Shaking Aphrodisiac Is a Nasal Spray:

Horn of rhinoceros. Penis of tiger. Root of sea holly. Husk of the emerald-green blister beetle known as the Spanish fly. So colorful and exotic is the list of substances that have been claimed to heighten sexual appetite that it’s hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment on first beholding the latest entry — a small white plastic nasal inhaler containing an odorless, colorless synthetic chemical called PT-141. Plain as it is, however, there is one thing that distinguishes PT-141 from the 4,000 years’ worth of recorded medicinal aphrodisiacs that precede it: It actually works.

And it’s coming to a medicine cabinet near you. The drug will soon enter Phase 3 clinical trials, the final round of testing before it goes to the Food and Drug Administration for review, and with the FDA’s approval it could reach the market in as soon as three years. The full range of possible risks and side effects has yet to be determined, but already this much is known: Putting that inhaler up your nose and popping off a dose of PT-141 results, in most cases, in a stirring in the loins in as few as fifteen minutes. Women, according to one set of results, feel “genital warmth, tingling and throbbing,” not to mention “a strong desire to have sex.” Among men, who’ve been tested with the drug more extensively, the data set is, shall we say, richer.

[...]

Fast-acting and long-lasting, packaged in an easily concealed, single-use nasal inhaler, unaffected by food or alcohol consumption, PT-141 seems bound to take its place alongside MDMA, cocaine, poppers, and booze itself in the pantheon of club drugs. If the chemical is all it’s cracked up to be, the perennial pharmacological dilemma of the pickup scene — namely, how to maximize the fun when the drinks required to set the mood are always more than enough to dull the senses — would appear to have found its solution.

Some history:

Two years earlier, and just three years past its start-up, the company had bought the rights to develop a substance called Melanotan II. Originally isolated by University of Arizona researchers looking for a way to give Caucasian desert-dwellers a healthy, sunblocking tan without exposing them to dangerous ultraviolet rays, Melanotan II achieved that modern miracle and more: It also appeared to facilitate weight loss, increase sexual appetite, and — why not? — act as an anti-inflammatory too. Quickly dubbed “the Barbie drug,” Melanotan II seemed too good to be true.

In fact, it was too good to be good. A drug with so many effects, Palatin decided, was not an effectively marketable one. So Palatin’s researchers set out to isolate the individual effects in the laboratory, experimenting with variations on Melanotan II’s molecular theme.

Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

In Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine, Daniel Hillis describes his time working on massively parallel computers at Thinking Machines with his buddy Carl’s dad:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

‘We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.’

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. ‘Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say echo.’ Or, ‘Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.’ Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

"The Movies": machinima for the rest of us

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Chris Anderson looks at Peter Molyneux’s The Movies, which he calls “machinima for the rest of us”:

Which is why my kids and I were really looking forward to The Movies, a new game/machinima studio from Peter Molyneux, the legendary games designer of Black & White fame. We’ve now had a few weeks to play with it, and it’s really quite wonderful.

At its core, it’s a SimStudio game, where you have to build a Hollywood studio, operate it, make movies and the rest of the usual Sim-style resource management stuff. That’s fun enough, but the really interesting bit is the ‘Sandbox’ mode, where you can make your own movies, pretty much from scratch.

You choose from a wide variety of sets, costumes and, best of all, pre-animated micro-scenes (‘Walk in with ax’, ‘Discover body’; ‘Slip on banana peel’) many of which can be tweaked with more or less tension, humor, or whatever makes sense in context. You pick pre-created actors or create your own with the usual facial modeling tools. Then you string all these together in a storyboard with some gentle plot and pacing assistance, and when you’re done ‘filming’ you can type in your dialog as subtitles or record a voice-over in a sophisticated post-production studio.

Hacking 101

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Hacking 101 provides an introduction to UNIX development:

While I was working on an open source project, I recruited a number of university student volunteers who were interested in contributing to the development. These volunteers were no doubt talented and enthusiastic programmers — I knew that because some of them were A-grade students in a course I taught. However, there was a problem: most of them grew up in a Windows/Mac culture, and were new converts to the UNIX world. To them, the entire GNU/Linux development environment is totally alien: command shell, man page reading, software building with make/autoconf/automake/libtool, and not to mention emacs and cvs. I ended up spending a considerable amount of effort in initiating them into the UNIX culture, and in assisting them to become productive developers even when they only have limited exposure to program development on UNIX platforms. After a while, I began to realize that there is actually a gap that needs to be filled — these young hackers need a textbook to initiate them into UNIX hackerdom. And I intend this document to somehow fill this gap.

Special Relativity: Why Can’t You Go Faster Than Light?

Monday, November 28th, 2005

I like Daniel Hillis’s explanation of Special Relativity, in Why Can’t You Go Faster Than Light?:

You’ve probably heard that nothing can go faster than the speed of light, but have you ever wondered how this rule gets enforced? What happens when you’re cruising along in your spaceship and you go faster and faster and faster until you hit the light barrier? Do the dilithium crystals that power your engine suddenly melt down? Do you vanish from the known universe? Do you go backward in time? The correct answer is none of the above. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know it; no one in the world knew it until Albert Einstein worked it out.

The easiest way to understand Einstein’s explanation is to understand the simple equation that you have probably seen before: e = mc2. In order to understand this equation, let’s consider a similar equation, one for converting between square inches and square feet. If i is the number of square inches and f is the number of square feet, then we can write the equation: i = 144 f. The 144 comes from squaring the number of inches per foot (122 = 144). Another way of writing the same equation would be i = c2f, where c in this case is equal to 12 inches per foot. Depending on what units we use, this equation can be used to convert any measure of area to any other measure of area; just the constant c will be different. For example, the same equation can be used for converting square yards to square meters, where c is 0.9144, the number of yards per meter. The c2 is just the conversion constant.

The reason why these area equations work is that square feet and square inches are different ways of measuring the same thing, namely area. What Einstein realized, to everyone’s surprise, was that energy and mass are also just two different ways of measuring the same thing.

The Next Magic Kingdom, Future Perfect

Monday, November 28th, 2005

The Next Magic Kingdom, Future Perfect gives an example of long-term thinking:

Technology is self-creating. When I design a faster computer, it lets me create an even faster one. In science, this is called autocatalytic: every change increases the rate of change. So people are right to think they can’t plan for the future the way they used to. In the Middle Ages, you could be in a cathedral and then figure that your grandchildren would finish it. Long-term projects made a kind of sense. These days, you can’t imagine a three-generation project. No one believes that such a thing would remain relevant. I like the example of the oak beams in one of the dining halls at Oxford, which were put up in the sixteenth century. Several years ago, they had to replace the beams — twenty-foot oak beams, which are very hard to come by. They called the Oxford forester and asked if there were any such trees, and sure enough there were. In other words, someone thought far ahead enough to have planted the trees in the expectation of replacing the beams. You can’t imagine that kind of thinking anymore. It just wouldn’t occur to many people to make a centuries-long development.

The nuclear blitz that never was

Monday, November 28th, 2005

According to The nuclear blitz that never was, recently published documents, originally written by the Hungarian People’s Army 1st Group Directorate, describe what would have happened in a Cold War confrontation:

At 7am on 23 June, 1965, Vienna is hit by two 500 kiloton devices, and completely destroyed.

A single bomb falls on Munich, obliterating the city.

The Italian cultural centres of Verona and Vicenza — both cities with important American and Nato military connections — are devastated.

Airfields, armoured divisions and barracks are also struck.

In all, thirty nuclear weapons are launched.

At the same time, Nato bombs destroy Budapest and other cities in Hungary.

It is not clear who has struck first.

Adult Behavior on Projects

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Tim Lister has “often said that risk management is project management for adults,” and now he adds that “Agile Methods address many of the most common software risks,” in Adult Behavior on Projects:

I think of software projects as journeys into the uncertain. As we begin we may not know exactly what we are to build, we may not know what is the most appropriate technology to build it with, and therefore we aren’t sure what skills we’ll need, and add that up and we are very unsure of how long a journey we will take. The odd thing is that many people are very certain of when we will be done. The deadline is very often set before the system is specified. At face value, this is comical, but what is happening is that the organization is trying rather clumsily to set a project goal or a project constraint.

South Park’s tribute to Monty Python

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Any fan of South Park and Monty Python must naturally watch South Park’s tribute to Monty Python.

Dividends, Buybacks Set New Benchmark for Largess

Monday, November 28th, 2005

This sounds like good news. Dividends, Buybacks Set New Benchmark for Largess:

This year, the companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index are on track to pay out more than $500 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases, or buybacks, according to S&P. That’s up more than 30% from last year’s record — and equivalent to nearly $1,700 for every person in the U.S.

But it also means that companies are effectively saying, “We don’t know how to use all this money”:

But there could be an economic downside to the cash glut. The fact that companies have been sitting on so much cash is, in some respects, a vote of no-confidence in U.S. economic prospects: At least some companies may be signaling they can’t find enough profitable ways to reinvest their earnings, so they are simply returning it to shareholders.

Ten Rules for Web Startups

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Evan Williams, co-founder and CEO of Pyra Labs, makers of Blogger, shares his Ten Rules for Web Startups:

  1. Be Narrow
  2. Be Different
  3. Be Casual
  4. Be Picky
  5. Be User-Centric
  6. Be Self-Centered
  7. Be Greedy
  8. Be Tiny
  9. Be Agile
  10. Be Balanced

Benford’s Law

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

According to Benford’s Law, a number is far more likely to start with the digit 1:

Benford’s Law is named for the late Dr. Frank Benford, a physicist at the General Electric Company. In 1938 he noticed that pages of logarithms corresponding to numbers starting with the numeral 1 were much dirtier and more worn than other pages.

[...]

Dr. Benford concluded that it was unlikely that physicists and engineers had some special preference for logarithms starting with 1. He therefore embarked on a mathematical analysis of 20,229 sets of numbers, including such wildly disparate categories as the areas of rivers, baseball statistics, numbers in magazine articles and the street addresses of the first 342 people listed in the book ‘American Men of Science.’ All these seemingly unrelated sets of numbers followed the same first-digit probability pattern as the worn pages of logarithm tables suggested. In all cases, the number 1 turned up as the first digit about 30 percent of the time, more often than any other.

To illustrate Benford’s Law, Dr. Mark J. Nigrini offered this example:

If we think of the Dow Jones stock average as 1,000, our first digit would be 1.

To get to a Dow Jones average with a first digit of 2, the average must increase to 2,000, and getting from 1,000 to 2,000 is a 100 percent increase.

Let’s say that the Dow goes up at a rate of about 20 percent a year. That means that it would take five years to get from 1 to 2 as a first digit.

But suppose we start with a first digit 5. It only requires a 20 percent increase to get from 5,000 to 6,000, and that is achieved in one year.

When the Dow reaches 9,000, it takes only an 11 percent increase and just seven months to reach the 10,000 mark, which starts with the number 1. At that point you start over with the first digit a 1, once again. Once again, you must double the number — 10,000 — to 20,000 before reaching 2 as the first digit.

As you can see, the number 1 predominates at every step of the progression, as it does in logarithmic sequences.

Tyler Cowen’s Law

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

Arnold Kling cites Tyler Cowen’s Law that no political party can be mass-captured by the intelligent and brought around to sanity:

There are passionate Republicans and passionate Democrats. But I agree with Tyler Cowen that neither party is likely to seem attractive. I can give a number of examples that for me illustrate Tyler Cowen’s law. These are policies that neither party is likely to endorse, even though to me they make sense.
  • a trade policy of unilateral disarmament
  • surrender in the drug war
  • separation of family and state
  • creating an agency to audit the Department of Homeland Security

Making Color Images from Prokudin-Gorskii’s Negatives

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

Making Color Images from Prokudin-Gorskii’s Negatives explains how the color images were created for The Empire That Was Russia, the Library of Congress Exhibition:

We know that Prokudin-Gorskii intended his photographic images to be viewed in color because he developed an ingenious photographic technique in order for these images to be captured in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. He then presented these images in color in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.